The first thing I’d like to clarify in wrapping these posts up is that, in providing the background of my example dreams in a way that others will be able to follow, I’ve probably made the interpretation process appear more analytical than it is in practice. When you sit down to consider a dream of your own, you’ll already know all the background information, and so it will feel more like following hunches than reasoning. If you haven’t reached a point where it does, it probably means you’re still missing something important.
Association turns up all kinds of things: facts, figures, hopes, fears, song lyrics, quotations, memories of the recent or distant past. Somewhere among the shifting contents of your mind are those that can help you understand your dream. In a way, all of it can because all of it is connected. If you know your own mind well, you’re already more than halfway there because you have the big picture in front of you, and you know that the dream fits into it somewhere—you’re the one who dreamed it, after all. It’s just a matter of figuring out where.
But association isn’t a skill that has to be learned: it’s just what the mind does, if you let it. The only thing you can do wrong is second-guess yourself. The thought you dismiss as ridiculous the moment it occurs may very well be the one that would have led you where you want to go.
As useful as it is in some cases, though, there are others where association lets you down, and they tend to be the most fascinating ones—the ones that are farthest from everyday thoughts and everyday life. If this is the case, the failure will quickly become apparent. Instead, you might try treating it like a great work of art. Analysis often fails there, too; all you can do is appreciate. Let it work on you, rather than the other way around.
So much for the practical side of the matter. However, I’ve left any number of theoretical questions hanging. For instance, when does association work? When it does work, why?
The most likely answer, given what we’ve seen, is that it works when the original dream was formed through association—i.e., the brain in neutral. This is because the process can also work backwards, and thus we can follow the same paths the dreaming mind took in the opposite direction. Like Freud posited, the process is not free of intentionality, although the intentions may be more diverse than he thought possible.
All three of the dreams I examined appeared heterogeneous and disconnected on the surface, with semi-familiar or totally unspecified locations, a mix of familiar and unfamiliar people, with an occasional animal thrown in. Some improbable things happened, but nothing that was physically impossible. Nothing numinous or violent or profound— on first inspection, at least— and not even anything striking. In short, they are average dreams, and we can assume for the moment that they can also pass for representative—not of all dreams, but for other average dreams that don’t fit a recognized type, which is the largest group of them. (Keeping in mind that averages and types are relative, and vary among cultures.)
All three dreams responded well to the method I used—convergent association—which was, of course, why I chose to use them as demonstrations. And a method for finding the unity behind multiplicity is clearly only useful when there’s multiplicity.
Associations to the first dream led to recent memories and a present concern of purely personal importance. The second dream led to what you might call a back-burner concern—something not pertinent to the immediate present, but of personal importance, and relevant at a cultural level as well. The third led to a mythic image—and, again, to a present concern, which in this case can only be described as a fundamental human concern.
It is interesting that the last dream did not seem significantly less aimless in form than the others when it led to content that is more ordinarily associated with big dreams. For one thing, it implies that content alone can’t decide the dream’s appearance.
Even more interesting: the long detour of the last dream itself may be be pointing up the inadequacy of the expression, the failure of the surface to reflect the essence. The fact that the first one begins with aimless wandering may also reflect the kind of thought process that went into forming it.
All three dreams had something else in common: they incorporated philosophical ideas—in all cases neither on the surface nor at the bottom, but somewhere in the middle. The dreams are not about these ideas, but they seem to be playing an organizational role – or maybe not quite organizational enough. One gets the feeling that the role they are playing here is one that something else could have played just as well—or perhaps they could have been bypassed altogether, resulting in a different type of dream whose significance was apparent on the surface.
We can easily imagine a situation where this is the case: metaphors. In waking life, these often serve in place of abstract, conceptual material, and they get the point across much more quickly and directly. They can also illuminate areas of life that would otherwise elude language altogether; when we speak about our own mental processes, for instance, we can only speak in metaphors.
This suggests that knowing your own mind well might result in dreaming in an associative fashion less often, and so not having to use a method such as this one as much. Mind-wandering is only necessary if you don’t a map of where to go. Once you do have the lay of the land down, you could start thinking in terms of large, structural features, and drawing on similarities to where you’ve already been—which, again, suggests that metaphors might come into greater prominence. (Although, being more ubiquitous than you might think, they may have been there from the beginning without your being aware of it.)
But as Hume wrote, resemblance is itself a variety of association, and so one doesn’t have to posit a distinct kind of mental process at work to explain metaphors in dreams. They’re just a special instance of it.
In the end, we seem to have bridged the gap between Freud and Jung after all—or, rather, half-confirmed Freud while finding no fault with anything Jung said, which amounts to the same thing since Jung left his end of the bridge extended. When a dream was formed through association, it requires a kind of decoding to understand. And, as in code-breaking, the simplest way to understand it is to examine the “device” that was responsible for the encoding—your own mind. The more you explore it, the more reasons you find to suspect that it is, even at its most confusing, pseudorandom.
And what about freedom? What sort of freedom is possible when everything in the mind is linked and interdependent? Is this a question it’s possible to answer through examining dreams? Or through dreaming?
These are questions too big to try to answer here. But there is at least one way in which examining dreams is of practical importance, even if the philosophical question remains unanswered. In a government, one of the safeguards of freedom is transparency. If freedom is possible in the metaphysical sense, it could only be for someone who is transparent to himself.