The Role and Value of Dreams in a Post-Apocalyptic Future
by Paco Mitchell

“In the last analysis, the essential thing is the life of the individual. This alone makes history, here alone do the great transformations take place, and the whole future, the whole history of the world, ultimately springs as a gigantic summation from this hidden source in individuals.”[1]

—       C.G. Jung

We are living in an age widely regarded as “apocalyptic,” though many of us steadfastly try to keep the lid on our share of apocalyptic awareness. But, in the end, it is better to lift the lid and peer into the cauldron. Every therapist understands this, and every patient should as well. And the most direct way of seeing into the living darkness that surrounds us is through our dreams.

My approach to depth psychology has been conditioned by one particular passage from Jung, the first example of his writing I had ever seen. When I first read this quote, in 1972, the words burned into my imagination like tongues of flame:

Anyone who wants to know the human psyche will learn next to nothing from experimental psychology. He would be better advised to abandon exact science, put away his scholar’s gown, bid farewell to his study, and wander with human heart through the world. There, in the horrors of prisons, lunatic asylums and hospitals, in drab suburban pubs, in brothels and gambling-hells, in the salons of the elegant, the Stock Exchanges, socialist meetings, churches, revivalist gatherings and ecstatic sects, through love and hate, through the experience of passion in every form in his own body, he would reap richer stores of knowledge than text-books a foot thick could give him, and he will know how to doctor the sick with a real knowledge of the human soul.[2]

In this same spirit I offer this essay, the title of which derives from one particular dream that, in a surprising way, qualifies for the designation “apocalyptic.” It forced itself on my attention thirty-three years ago. Before presenting the dream, however, I would like to sketch a few elements of the historical context of that time.

In 1980, the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union was in full force. Ronald Reagan was about to take office and, once he did, he would assume the duties of Commander-in-Chief, including decisive command over a U.S. arsenal of more than 23,000 nuclear warheads—tough-guy steroids of unimaginable potency. His Soviet adversary, Leonid Brezhnev, had more than 32,000 warheads at his disposal, a nine-thousand nuclear-bomb advantage. The tone of discourse between the two superpowers was blatantly antagonistic, and people were understandably uneasy.

Around the world, testing of nuclear weapons had become routine. Several nations were blowing the bowels out of coral reefs, cactus-strewn deserts and remote expanses of tundra. Radioactive fallout in the form of Strontium-90 rode the jet stream around the globe, showing up in mothers’ milk and babies’ teeth.

Against this turbulent background, I attended several inaugural conferences featuring archetypal psychologist James Hillman and sponsored by the Human Relations Institute—early precursor to Pacifica Graduate Institute. There we sat at Casa de María in Montecito, south of Santa Barbara, amidst the aching beauty of orange trees, oaks and bougainvillea, beneath the Mediterranean arches and tile roofs of the conference center, discussing with Hillman his work on returning soul to the world, the thought of the heart, alchemy, ceilings, walking, industrial food and other topics reflecting his off-beat perspective. Despite the lush surroundings and richness of the conversations, the unspoken, apocalyptic context of nuclear war haunted the proceedings. It was not something people often talked about, but it hung heavy in the air.

One evening, several other participants and I went out for dinner, and the discussion veered toward our fantasies of what we all spontaneously called “the post-apocalyptic future.” Everyone present voiced unanimous concerns that the politicians would finally lose their heads, push the buttons and send a host of ICBMs—Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles—flying back and forth across the oceans. The next morning I awoke with this dream:

Hillman and I are walking along a spit of land, across the bay from a bustling shipping port. We are engaged in a long conversation, at the end of which James says to me: “If you want to see the post-apocalyptic future, look at downtown Tokyo today.”

 This dream struck me with unusual force because it completely jarred my thinking about the unsettling prospects we had all been imagining as “yet to come.” As a result of this dream, I would henceforth understand “the post-apocalyptic future” as something that was already taking place—not anticipatory fantasy, but present perception. Furthermore, we participants had all been imagining “the apocalypse” primarily in terms of bombs, whereas the dream offered the seemingly prosaic image of a bustling and successful modern city as an example of the post-apocalyptic future.

That such authoritative words should issue from the mouth of the Hillman dream-figure came as no surprise, since in reality I admired the mind and writings of the actual Hillman. But I was not inclined to force personal interpretations upon the dream—lurking idealized projections, for example. What really interested me about the dream—and still does—was the non-personal message of global import implicit in the punch line. This simple dream was a news-dispatch worth a dozen Presidential press conferences, fit for broadcast far beyond my personal dream journal.

But why Tokyo? For one thing, Tokyo in those days was entering its accelerated phase of economic go-go years, in a sort of parallel to the 1980s de-regulation mania in the U.S. Thus, I took Tokyo, in part, as a reflection from across the Pacific of our own values, an unconscious view of the shadow of the West. After all, in the post-WWII occupation period, Japan having been bombed into submission, it was we who recreated them in our own image, bestowing upon the Japanese our value-systems of economics, government and life-style in the perennial fashion of conquerors everywhere. My dream clothed that historical reality in apocalyptic garb, thus commenting as much upon our own economic value system as upon any geo-political nuclear conflicts. In a strange way, the dream echoed visionary historian Theodore Roszak’s summary of the global civilizational crisis:

The Last Days were announced to St. John by a voice like the sound of many waters. But the voice that comes in our day summoning us to play out the dark myth of the reckoning is our meager own, making casual conversation about the varieties of annihilation . . . the thermo-nuclear Armageddon, the death of the seas, the vanishing atmosphere, the massacre of the innocents, the universal famine to come . . . Such horrors should be the stuff of nightmare . . . They aren’t. They are the news of the day . . . We have not stumbled into the arms of Gog and Magog; we have progressed there.[3]

In other words, our present value system, our very Weltanshauung, has saddled us with all the trouble we can handle.

My dream portrayed “downtown Tokyo today”—with its hyper-density of population, its hyper-intense activity and hyper-excessive everything—as an epitome of the apocalyptic state which, according to the dream, we have already reached. And judging from current world-population projections, technological and ecological trends, there is more of the same to come. Whenever I read an enthusiastic article about how technological advances in food production—GMO seeds, ever-more-clever pesticides, genetically-engineered salmon, etc.—will enable us to feed many additional billions of people, on top of what we already have, I think of the dream of post-apocalyptic Tokyo, and I feel no comfort.

*         *         *

My brief Hillman dream is one of several I have recorded that can be read in the context of the “post-apocalyptic future.” In various ways, those dreams are all revelatory and transpersonal. Many are quite dramatic, as we would expect, and it would certainly be worthwhile to treat them in another essay, or series of essays. For the time being I just want to crack the door open on the question of apocalyptic expectations. Dreams can help us process those expectations by updating the old Biblical fantasies and interpretations, and supplying new words and images with which to imagine our way into the future.

In his great but underrated book Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Sky,[4] Jung puts our position into perspective:

The present world situation is calculated as never before to arouse expectations of a redeeming, supernatural event. If these expectations have not dared to show themselves in the open, this is simply because no one is deeply rooted enough in the tradition of earlier centuries to consider an intervention from heaven as a matter of course. We have indeed strayed far from the metaphysical certainties of the Middle Ages, but not so far that our historical and psychological background is empty of all metaphysical hope. Consciously, however, rationalistic enlightenment predominates, and this abhors all leanings towards the “occult.”

Although Jung’s book was devoted to an examination of UFO reports as symptoms of a modern myth in the process of forming, the larger syndrome of a myth-in-progress includes more than just flying saucer sightings, reports of abductions, or first-person accounts of being “probed” by aliens. The fact is that revelatory (apocalyptic) images are most likely flooding the dream-field as we speak, enriching our personalities and lives like silt from the rising waters of the Nile. The aggregation of these dream images and the life-experiences associated with them, will contribute over time to the formation of the new myth. Whatever metaphor we choose—a birth, an approaching dawn, an awakening—the features and full dimensions of this emerging phenomenon are scarcely discernible as yet. However, this should not deter us from keeping our eyes open, or lending our shoulders to the wheel.

Most specialized readers in depth psychology will know that apokalypsis in Greek means “uncovering,” in the sense of the revelation of something hidden. Implicit in the tradition of the word is that what is hidden, and is in the process of being revealed, can be thought of as dynamic events taking place in the realm of the collective unconscious—in traditional language, “heaven.” Truly apocalyptic dreams will always reveal something about events on archetypal levels, no matter “where” they are depicted as happening.

Archetypes of the collective unconscious are sometimes discussed as if they were static phenomena, fixed categories of experience such as the Magician, the Wise Old Woman, the Trickster, and so forth; or they are treated as if their reality lay in bloodless conceptual formulas such as “an inherited pattern of thought.” Such definitions are handy teaching devices, to be sure, even indispensible, and Jung himself employed them over and over in his tireless efforts to explain what he meant by “archetypes.” But he would be the first to agree that conceptual language falls short of conveying the living experience of the actual dynamism of archetypal energies constellated at the level of real life. Even if an archetype maintains a striking consistency in its manifestations over millennia, the images in which it appears, and the energies it exudes, still operate in both dreams and the world in the most impressive and dynamic ways. Jung once observed that “An encounter with archetypal energy is a bare-knuckled event.” We might add to his statement this caveat: Crowds are less equipped to grapple creatively with an outbreak of archetypal energy than individuals are. Jung had many things to say about the sapping of individuality by immersion in crowds, e.g., “The bigger the crowd, the more negligible the individual.” With a world population of seven billion and counting, this effect becomes problematic for all of us.

I should emphasize that the collective unconscious—the source of all apocalyptic images—is not just a vault or repository for the “deposits” of collective experience. Those contents change and evolve, producing movements of the epistemological ground beneath our feet, as when tectonic plates slide and grind past one another upon a sea of magma. Sometimes, as in an earthquake, the plates jerk loose to assume drastically new configurations. In other words, even at archetypal levels of the psyche, changes sometimes occur violently and suddenly. Because of this dynamic quality of archetypal “bedrock,” the venerated images and understandings of tradition, of necessity, have to be periodically re-defined and re-interpreted, hence the danger in the certainties of fanatic fundamentalisms of any kind. Jung expressed the psychological imperative of this evolving dynamism of the archetypal psyche in eloquent terms:

In order to find valid answers to these questions a complete spiritual renewal is needed. And this cannot be given gratis, each man must strive to achieve it for himself. Neither can old formulas which once had a value be brought into force again. The eternal truths cannot be transmitted mechanically; in every epoch they must be born anew from the human psyche. [Emphasis added.][5]

When Jung says, “born anew from the human psyche,” he is referring above all to the individual human psyche as birthplace. Human collectives, such as nation-states, political parties or even church congregations, may show symptoms of archetypal shifts in the form of disturbed emotions or moods, but that is not the same thing as re-birth, strictly speaking. In fact, it is often more like a possession or seizure. The great modern example of this type of collective possession is what happened with the Germans under Hitler. Even in the U.S., when Ronald Reagan was swept into power in the 1980 elections, many journalists commented on the “mood of the nation.” I too noticed that mood, and I find that it, or something very similar, still persists in our politics today, a sobering fact indeed. The escalation of un-reflected emotionality in crowds can be dangerous, and should serve as a spur to critical self-reflection, since those emotions are so often are contaminated with shadowed complexes. Such emotions require differentiation, which is not a strong suit in large masses of people.

But why can’t the mood of a crowd serve as womb for the re-birth of the sacred images? In my view, it is partly because those new images are always exquisitely custom-fitted to the individual psyches that receive them, but also because such images impose an ethical burden that crowds are ill-equipped to bear. For ethics, we must refer to the individual soul, which has to rise to the occasion in order to meet the Other face-to-face, as it were. Whether in the form of dreams, visions or creative fantasies, the brunt of the newly-delivered divine image is first carried by the individual. Only later can archetypal contents be assimilated by groups, which is why political movements are not the first place to look for the healing formula.

In this context, it may be worth noting that in traditional Biblical iconography, when Mary first hears the angel’s Annunciation of the divine life she is carrying, she is usually depicted as sitting alone, in a cloister, perhaps with a book in her hand. Some form of cloistered consciousness, apart from the hubbub of the crowd, is necessary to hear the angel’s whisper.[6] John of Patmos, madly scribbling his revelation, may be an example of such an individual; or Moses on Sinai; or Jesus in the desert; or Mohammed on the mountain.

But it would be an enormous mistake to think that only cultural avatars like these great, legendary figures can serve as the birthplace for new images of the divine. As Meister Eckhart put it, “What good is it to me if the son of God was born to Mary 1400 years ago but is not born in my person and in my culture and in my time?”[7] What was true for Meister Eckhart is true for us today, hence the importance of dreams and imagination in the individual.

This responsibility of individuals is all the more enhanced by the charged and peculiar circumstances of the present historical moment. Despite Christian teachings, which imply that all the revelations ever needed are safely contained within the Bible, the fact is that apocalyptic, revelatory impulses from the collective unconscious are just as necessary, and just as valid, today as they were two thousand years ago, when the classical world of antiquity was breaking down. Now, when we lay our heads on our pillows at night, each of us participates in a kind of dream-lottery, to determine who and how many will wake up to find the mantle of John of Patmos on their shoulders, inscribing their own versions of apokalypsis onto the parchments of their dream journals—fragments of the new, soon-to-be-assembled Book of Revelation.

There is an underlying tone of urgency in everything I have said above. The archetypal shift we are undergoing, in the transition from one age to another, would be agonizing enough under the “normal” conditions that have attached to transitional ages in the past: the shift from Paleolithic to Neolithic with the onset of agriculture, for example; the advent of writing and recorded history; the collapse of Greece under Roman domination; the onset of the Christian era two thousand years ago; or the millennial expectations of the end-of-the-world that had Europe in an uproar in the eleventh century A.D.

But a new and supercharged, game-changing element has now entered the picture, on a scale of potential severity we have never had to deal with before. I am referring to the climate crisis and anthropogenic global warming (AGW), and all the consequences that proceed from that.

My response to this atmosphere of “apocalyptic” crisis and the accelerated levels of climate change is to emphasize the importance of visionary dreams as sources of guidance and wisdom through the present and coming turmoil. Recently I had a brief dream that put this feeling of urgency into context.

The dream showed a basic graph, plotting two variables against an X-axis and Y-axis, representing the increase in global population and the flow of time. The whole graph had the shape of a square filled with a large X, the variable lines criss-crossing in the center. The ascending line ran upward on a straight diagonal, showing the increase in global population from one billion to eight billion. The descending line, also straight and diagonal, represented the span of time—as best I could judge in the dream—from 1830 to 2030. There was a twist, however, in that the descending time-line represented the time remaining for human beings to devise a new and viable form of existence. The dream-graph clearly stated that by the time our total population reaches eight billion in about 2030, the amount of time remaining to come up with new forms of existence will have expired. What that portends is anyone’s guess.

I do not take this dream literally, but neither do I dismiss it. It is telling us something. And it resonates in two ways with the Hillman dream I described before: (1) it portrays something “post-apocalyptic” that is currently in progress; and (2) it does not show frantic humans scurrying about under attack from aliens, but simply offers a business-as-usual artifact—the graph—which could have come from a report of divisional sales figures at some corporate headquarters. In other words, the dream-graph was mathematically impersonal and devoid of pathos, as if simply saying: This is a fact; this is happening.

In my opinion, the dream calls for a sober recognition of the situation we are in. It also calls for a sober application of whatever images of renewal come to us from the creative depths of the visionary, dreaming psyche. And by “application” I mean taking our dreams seriously and finding ways to respond to them ethically.

Note that the graph dream is neutral, offering no guarantee as to outcome. That is up to us. Whether we feel the burden of it consciously or not, we are living in an age that places an unusual ethical demand on each of us. The challenge is to temper our one-sided consciousness with a balance that can only come from the other side of the scale.

[1] Jung, C. G., Civilization in Transition, CW10: 315

[2] Jung, C. G., The Psychology of the Unconscious, CW7: 409

[3] Roszak, Theodore, Where the Wasteland Ends, p. ix.

[4] Jung, C. G., Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Sky, (Princeton: Bollingen Series, Princeton University Press, 1978),   par. 623.

[5] Jung, C. G. 1970. After the Catastrophe. In Civilization in Transition. Bollingen Series XX: The Collected Words of C. G. Jung, vol. 18. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

[6] I am indebted, for this insight, to Thomas Moore, who gave a wonderful presentation at the 1989 conference “A Gathering of Angels,” sponsored by the Dallas Institute for Humanities and Culture. All presentations were later published in The Angels, Robert Sardello, ed. (Dallas: The Dallas Institute Publications, 1994.) See Moore’s paper, “Annunciation,” on p. 11.


Paco Mitchell  has  studied dreams and depth psychology since 1972. During that time he has practiced as a Jungian Therapist, operated his own art bronze foundry as a sculptor, and performed as a flamenco guitarist. He holds advanced degrees in Romance Languages from Stanford University, and Counseling Psychology from the University of Oregon.