Working with Dreams: Depth Psychology Techniques of Carl Gustav Jung and James Hillman

Working with Dreams: Depth Psychology Techniques of Carl Gustav Jung and James Hillman

Dream work is ancient, it’s long tradition evidenced in the temples of Asclepius in Greece where individuals went to be healed through their dreams. Dreams have been an important aspect of many spiritual traditions, and even Freud considered the study of dreams to be his most important work. There are many methods of dream analysis. When working with dreams, it can be helpful to intentionally assess them from various aspects, including mythical, archetypal, alchemical, and collective, and to pay attention to which resonate most strongly emotionally and elicit even a physical response in order to begin to understand what insights are being gifted through your unconscious.

In The Dream and the Underworld, archetypal psychologist and post-Jungian James Hillman prefers to allow the dream and dream symbols to remain what they are, and not to analyze and interpret them but to simply interact with them and see what comes about. However, Hillman’s method of seeing focuses far more on an artistic view than from a therapeutic or results-oriented standpoint. As such, when it comes to dreams and symbols, he stays with the process and activity itself instead of seeking an outcome or solution. He values the description over interpretation, the animating and making a thing come alive rather than suffocating it with a contrived explanation from outside the dream. He thrives on visiting the dream in its own realm of power, the underworld, and in honoring it by allowing it to be its own entity there instead of trying to make it come alive in our ordinary world of thinking.

Hillman’s goal, as was Jung’s, is to get ever closer to the characters and activity in the dream realm, but as opposed to Jung who then turned to amplification in order to find meaning and interpretation at the level of the waking ego, Hillman chooses not to bring the dream element back into waking life and force it to match up with symbols or meanings we already hold. In fact, Hillman claims that to bring the dream out of the underworld actually betrays the dream. Hillman advocates finding wordplays, asking questions of the objects themselves, and then allowing them to live out their own soul-like existence without comparison or contrast to external references. He chides us in our desire to analyze, our wish to know, and speaks of “letting our desire die away into its images (p. 201).

I find Hillman’s technique enjoyable and rewarding as an activity, like reading a good book or watching a movie with a plot and characters that take place in front of your eyes. It is mentally stimulating, interesting, creative, and even insightful on its own terms. However, as a thinking/intuitive type, analysis and interpretation come as naturally as breathing to me, and I simply can’t conceive of doing dream work without some aspect of interpretation. If I truly believe that the unconscious is trying to communicate through dreams, and that there is a message in store that can help lead to my individuation, I must also adopt some of Jung’s (and many others) methods, in order to draw some conclusions. Otherwise, I simply recognize events or aspects of my life much later and don’t benefit from the learning aspect of my dreams as Jung purported.

Jung stresses the value of compensation in dreams, describing it as a means of “balancing and comparing different data or points of view so as to produce an adjustment or a rectification” (1960, p. 75). Robert Sardello (1995) sums up Hillman’s approach as metaphorical as contrasted to Jung’s approach, which is symbolic. However, he reminds us, “dreams are not metaphors for something else, but a different reality, a metaphorical reality” (p. 110). Robert Hoss (2005) claims compensation appears “in order to reveal misconceptions and inappropriate myths that have bound us in conflict, to provide an alternative path or reversal in our thinking about the dream, and to lead us in the direction of transformation and release” (p. 115).

Though Jung believed virtually every dream was compensatory, Hillman dismisses the compensation theory because, according to him, dreams are made partial, one-sided and imbalanced and therefore require the dreamer to turn to the dayworld aspects of ego to find the missing elements in order to find meaning (1979).

Jung asserts, “A dream…is a product of the total psyche. Hence, we may expect to find in dreams everything that has ever been of significance in the life of humanity” (1960, p. 65). Here, Jung refers to the archetypal quality of dreams, the idea that universal patterns, which are the building blocks of the collective unconscious, also make up our dreams. Robert Johnson insists “we incarnate the archetypes with our physical lives” (p. 62) and that we must research mythology and seek to understand the characteristics of the archetype, once identified, in order to understand its role in our lives. The archetypal aspect must be connected to a personal perspective or it is pointless, Johnson goes on, because “every symbol in your dream has a special, individual connotation that belongs to you alone…even when a symbol has a collective or universal meaning, it still has a personal coloration for you and can be fully explained only from within you” (p. 63).

Regardless of which dream method you adopt, there is usually not one “right” translation. Dreams hold knowledge and insight for us on many levels—often at the same time. If you’re interested in dreams, be sure to check out a free upcoming teleseminar on dreams by Jungian analyst Dr. Michael Conforti, whose methods adhere closely to Jung’s and who has been working with dreams for more than three decades. Details for the archived teleseminar can be found here –and don’t hesitate to look for depth practitioners on DepthPsychologyList.com who offer dreamwork as well.

Some References

Hillman, J. (1979). The dream and the underworld. New York: Harper & Row.

Hoss, R. J. (2005). Dream language: Self-understanding through image and color. Ashland, OR: Innersource.net.

Johnson, R. A. (1986). Inner work: Using dreams & active imagination for personal growth. San Francisco: HarperCollins.

Jung, C. G. (1960). Dreams (R. F. C. Hull, Trans.). New York: Routledge.

Sardello, R. (1995). Love and the soul: Creating a future for earth. New York: HarperCollins.

About Bonnie Bright


Bonnie Bright, Ph.D., earned M.A. degrees at Sonoma State University and at Pacifica Graduate Institute, where she also received her Ph.D. She is the founder of Depth Psychology Alliance™, an online community for everyone interested in Jungian and depth psychologies, and of DepthPsychologyList.com, a free database of Jungian and depth psychology-oriented practitioners. She is also the creator and Executive Editor of Depth Insights™, a semi-annual scholarly journal, and regularly produces audio and video interviews on depth psychological topics. Bonnie has completed 2-year certifications in Archetypal Pattern Analysis via the Assisi Institute; in Indigenous African Spiritual Technologies with West African elder Malidoma Somé; and she has trained extensively in Holotropic Breathwork™ and the Enneagram.

One comment

  1. Machiel Klerk says:

    nice article Bonnie, I love reading about dreams!