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Confronting the shadow

When I was 20, I had a series of nightmares. In the first nightmare, I was in a car with some friends heading to a music festival. We heard on the radio that a lunatic had escaped from a local asylum. The traffic started to slow on the motorway, and we realised this was because people were leaving their cars and running away in terror. The whole motorway was deadlocked with abandoned cars.

My friends also ran away but for some reason I kept going forward. The motorway turned into a foggy country lane at night. Lots of dry ice. Very spooky. A figure stumbled out of the fog. It was a tramp figure in an overcoat, clutching his side as if he was wounded. I realised with horror that this was the escaped lunatic, and that in his hand he was holding a gun.

I turned to try and run away, just as the escaped lunatic raised the gun and aimed it at me. BANG! I woke up.

In a second nightmare from that period, I was walking through a zoo, when I realised that the fences of the animal cages had fallen down, and the animals were loose in the zoo and coming to get me. As a horde of snakes, tigers and crocodiles came for me, I flew out of their jaws and into the air. I could fly! I joyfully floated through the air for a bit, safely out of reach of the wild animals, but then it felt like my ‘rocket fuel’ started to run out, and I sank back to the ground, into the awaiting jaws of a crocodile.

In a third nightmare, I was at a party, and I looked in the mirror. I looked terrible – like a ghost, pale, haggard, destroyed. I then realised that my body was covered with tattoos, and that the tattoos prophesied that I was, literally, a marked man, that there was a price on my head. I was a scapegoat, a Jonah. I must die. Just at that moment, a gang of armed men burst into the party, looking to gun me down. I managed to escape by hiding, and ran out into the streets. The gang pursued me, down some dark alleys. I ducked into a building, and jumped down some stairs – the distance between each step got bigger and bigger. Finally I fell down into a hallway several metres below. I landed, and something fell and smashed next to me. It was a mannequin.

In the final nightmare in the series, I was sitting in the passenger seat of a lorry, hurtling down the motorway. I looked to my left, and there was a tramp, filthy and laughing away as he drove the lorry. He seemed drunk. We careered off the motorway and half-way off a cliff. Just before the lorry fell off the cliff, I managed to pull myself and the tramp free of the wreckage.

Big dreams

What sense could I make of these dreams? At the time, I didn’t know, although they stuck in my mind and have stayed there ever since – they were unusually vivid, numinous and unsettling, unlike most of my dreams. Carl Jung referred to such dreams as ‘big dreams’ – a survey I did last month found that people reported having such unusually memorable and vivid dreams only rarely in their life, usually at times of transition or crisis, and that they found such dreams helpful and useful in adapting to that change. I also think these dreams were giving me useful information about a psychological crisis I was in, although I didn’t entirely recognize their message.

The nightmares occurred when I was suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, brought on by a couple of bad trips on LSD I’d had when I was 17-18.  Those experiences made me feel my psyche was seriously wounded, but I was too frightened and ashamed to talk to anyone about it. So I buried the experiences. The bad times seemed to pass for a few months, until my first year at university, when my emotional life went hay-wire. I suffered panic attacks, mood swings, feelings of dissociation or unreality, paranoia, and long periods of depression. I didn’t recognise myself anymore, that I had turned into someone else – a weak, insecure, wounded person. I hated that person, and did everything I could to escape him. I couldn’t accept or deal with the wounded parts of me. This was the situation I was in when the nightmares came, and it seems to me now that they accurately described to me my psychic situation and how to deal with it.

Confronting the shadow

I eventually came to understand the nightmares with the help of a concept of Carl Jung’s – the shadow. Jung thought that adults in a civilized society have to learn to play a role. He wrote: ‘We have a certain idea of how a civilized or educated or moral person should live’. Playing the role of a civilized person requires us to wear a mask, or what Jung called a persona, behind which we hide those aspects of our psyche which other people might judge as ugly, shameful, primitive, weak, sinful, or ridiculous. Constructing and maintaining this mask takes a huge amount of psychic energy. Jung wrote: ‘The construction of a collectively suitable persona means a formidable concession to the external world, a genuine self-sacrifice.’ We do it because, as Adam Smith noted, the most powerful human drive is the desire for public approval, and the fear of public shaming or ridicule.

Being an adult in polite society means playing a role, putting on a mask, and trying to hide those aspects of the psyche which you fear society might shame or ridicule.

Unfortunately, the rest of our psyche does not appreciate this construction of a persona or false self. Jung writes: ‘Under no circumstance with the unconscious tolerate the shifting of the centre of gravity…A man cannot get rid of himself in favour of an artificial personality without punishment’. The repressed parts of us – the shadow –  resents the ego’s repression of it, and it tries to return, in the form of ‘bad moods, affects, phobias, compulsive ideas, back-slidings, vices’. The shadow is a ‘kind of hostile brother’, an ‘adversary’, a ‘stranger’, bitterly opposed to our persona with all its fake posturing and social ambitions. It behaves like a devil, ‘and seems to delight in playing impish tricks’. If the gap between the persona and the shadow grows too big, if a person is playing a role which is simply too fake, then the energy to maintain this division becomes exhausting, and the person may have a breakdown. The shadow becomes daemonic – filled with resentful and vengeful energy, hating the ego’s false life and plotting to destroy it, even if it means destroying the individual’s social life…or ending the person’s life entirely.

The individual needs to find a truce between her ego and her shadow, she needs to find a way of reintegrating the shadow back into the psyche, rather than having it as a menacing adversary lurking at the window. Because the shadow is not entirely evil – it may be less civilized, more primitive, more emotional, but it’s also a source of power, healing and vitality.  Jung wrote that the shadow is not just ‘slime from the depths…this ‘slime’ contains not merely incompatible and rejected remnants of everyday life, or inconvenient and objectionable animal tendencies, but also germs of new life, and vital possibilities for the future’. The persona, by contrast, is a fake construction, without soul, without life.

Jung thought the shadow often appears in dreams as a ‘primitive’, a ‘savage’, a wild man, ape or other wild beast, or a monster. In my dreams, it appeared as a tramp, a lunatic escaped from an asylum, a bunch of wild animals escaped from a zoo. These figures in my nightmares represented the traumatized, dissociated parts of my psyche which I had tried to lock up and hide away from view, to protect my persona as a strong, healthy, powerful and attractive person. The shadow was the opposite of that – weak, broken, mentally ill, unattractive, ostracized. When the shadow burst out into my dream-life, I perceived it as a mortal threat, because my ego had become so identified with the false self of my persona. Yet gradually, my dreams tried to tell me that this shadow was a part of me, that I needed to try and take pity on it, to stand by it, even if it meant the sacrifice of my social persona. In that final dream, the lorry goes through a barrier and crashes over a cliff, and I manage to pull the tramp to safety. My dreams were wiser than my conscious ego – they were telling me how to reconnect the dissociated parts of my psyche. Unfortunately, I didn’t heed the warning, and about a year later, the final dream came true – I crashed through a barrier on the side of a mountain, and almost killed myself. Luckily, I survived, and had a near-death experience, which felt like an ecstatic reconciliation of the warring parts of my psyche.

I had to let go of my social persona, let go of control, and learn to accept and have compassion for all the parts of me, even the ugly and wounded parts. I could have learned that from my dreams, if I’d paid more attention.

The persona and the shadow (in this case, the scary hobo from David Lynch's Mulholland Drive - a figure who intrudes from a nightmare into waking reality)
The persona and the shadow (in this case, the scary hobo from David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive – a figure who intrudes from a nightmare into waking reality)

Dream Practices

How, practically, do we pay attention to our dreams? How can we heed their messages? You can go to see a therapist, though most cognitive behavioural therapists do not incorporate dream analysis into their therapy, and Freudian and Jungian therapists sometimes have rather rigid interpretative frameworks. Alternatively, you can do-it-yourself. Roughly 30% of the respondents to my dream survey said they kept a dream-journal by the side of the bed, so they could write down their dreams upon waking. This practice makes it more likely you’ll recall your dreams in the future, which in turn makes it more likely you’ll heed any useful messages they send.

Over 80% of respondents also said they’d had lucid dreams – ie dreams in which you realize you’re dreaming but stay in the dream-world. Scientists thought lucid dreams were a New Age fantasy, until two scientists (working separately) proved that they were real in the late 1970s and early 1980s. They were Keith Hearne, a British parapsychologist, and Stephen LaBerge, a scientist at Stanford University. Both of them managed to get participants to communicate when they were lucid dreaming, using eye movements rehearsed beforehand. Since then, thousands of people have learned how to lucid dream, often using ‘dream yoga’ techniques developed a millennium ago by Tibetan Buddhists.

One leading British practitioner of Buddhist lucid dreaming is Charlie Morley, a former break-dancer. Like me, Charlie managed to give himself post-traumatic stress through a bad LSD trip when he was 17. For several months, he was plagued by nightmares, in which he was pursued by a malevolent bald dwarf. However, unlike me, Charlie managed to use dream-yoga techniques to recognize the dwarf as his shadow, and to welcome it with compassion. He writes: ‘Suddenly the dwarf’s face changed and then the entire dreamscape changed int a 17-year-old’s vision of paradise – in this case a beach full of bikini-clad girls and people skateboarding and drinking cocktails in the sun. That was the last time I ever had that nightmare. Four months of post-traumatic stress cured by one lucid dream.’ Lucid dreaming is now recognized as an effective remedy for curing chronic nightmares. People also use it to heal emotional and even physical disorders (Charlie thinks he managed to heal an ear infection through lucid dreaming), and to practice or rehearse ideas, attitudes or actions.

It’s worth saying, at this point, that you can also confront and integrate the shadow using conscious, rational techniques. After all, both the persona and the shadow are constituted by deeply-held cognitive beliefs. The persona is constituted by beliefs such as ‘I must appear strong, popular and attractive to other people’, while the shadow is constituted by beliefs like ‘I mustn’t appear weak, broken, wild, mad or out-of-control to other people, otherwise they will reject me.’ You can work to uncover and challenge those automatic beliefs using your rationality, as people do using Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. But you can also work to transform these beliefs using other forms of consciousness – dreams, trance-states, imagination, body-consciousness. The are rational and non-rational approaches to healing and flourishing, and we can work with all of them. Why would one only work with one level of the psyche?

As well as dream practice, we can also confront and integrate our shadows through cultic or religious practices like contemplation, psychedelic experiences, or ecstatic dancing – Aristotle thought the Dionysiac and Corybantic dance cults give people catharsis, helping them ‘purge’ their neurosis and shake off the tension that arises from the gap between our masks and our shadows. He also thought that theatre can help us achieve catharsis. In really good theatre (or literature, or cinema) we are confronted by our shadows, as in a sort of lucid dream, and helped to accept them and integrate them. We’ll look at some examples of this in next week’s post.

The Big Dream survey

Over 500 people filled in my survey about their dreams. The results suggest people have ‘big dreams’ which they find insightful and adaptive, but such dreams are rare, and usually in times of crisis. Big dreams sometimes involve a visit from a deceased loved one.

et-moon-560Colin Ludlow was a successful TV writer in his 50s, when he went into hospital to have a tumour removed from his bowel. After the operation, he contracted pneumonia and MSRA. He spent the next month in intensive care, close to death. During that time, he had a series of very vivid dreams. He never used to recall his dreams, but he can still remember these dreams today, and felt compelled to write a book about them, Twenty Four Dreams Before Dying.

The 24 dreams were quite cinematic, slightly flowery and romantic (several of the dreams involve medieval knights or World War II heroes), and often centre around a voyage (in one, he rides a tricycle to heaven), a great undertaking, a battle. In the last dreams in the series, the battle is won and he returns home, across the sea, to the land of the living. He’s not sure what to make of the dreams, but feels they helped him to face death, and that he’s less afraid of death, more open to the possibility of an afterlife, as a result. They helped prepare him for the journey, like a pre-flight safety video.

I went to the launch of Colin’s book, and was struck by his story. Personally, I rarely remember my dreams, or find them particularly significant, except for one period of my life, when I was traumatized and my psyche was quite dissociated (ie there were traumatic memories I struggled to integrate). I had a series of dreams in which I was pursued by a terrifying tramp-figure, who was trying to kill me. In the final dream, I was in a lorry with the tramp driving, and we crashed through the side of a barrier on a cliff. I manage to pull the tramp to safety just before the lorry crashes over. I feel those dreams helped me through a crisis, by helping me recognize and accept the dissociated parts of me, which is what I take the tramp to symbolize. I also think the dreams were prophetic – a few months later, I crashed through a barrier on a cliff, while skiing, and had a near-death experience which helped to heal me of PTSD.

At Colin’s book launch, I asked the neuroscientist Chris Frith (a friend of Colin’s) whether neuroscience presently believed there is any meaning to our dreams. He said no. In fact, this is not quite true. While the old, rigid psychoanalytic interpretation of dreams is not widely accepted anymore, there are several ‘dream labs’ in universities, who have arrived at various conclusions as to why we and other animals dream. They’re now considered a form of ‘threat rehearsal‘, and also a way of solving problems and consolidating memories – when I was taking my finals, I dreamt my essay plans were assault courses over which I had to clamber.

Big Dreams

I’m still curious about the phenomenon of ‘big dreams’. Carl Jung came up with the phrase. He wrote: ‘Unlike ordinary dreams, such a dream is highly impressive, numinous, and its imagery frequently makes use of motifs analagous to or even identical with mythology.’ And a big dream may not be just about you, it could be a ‘collective mythological dream’ for your tribe.

The ‘big dream’ fits with what was known in ancient culture as ephiphany dreams, in which a god or dead person visits you and tells you some important information. Epiphany dreams were rare, and the examples passed down to us usually occur to famous leaders, with gods telling them to invade a country or establish a city. But there was a democratic culture of epiohany dreams too – you could spend the night in a dream-cave to get advice from the god Aesculapius. Galen, the great medic, says he became a doctor after Aesculapius appeared to him and also to his father in a dream.

Sebastiano Ricci’s Dream of Aesculapius (1710)

However, the ancients and medieval Christians thought that most dreams were ‘mundane’, ie caused by the body and basically meaningless, and some could come from the ivory gate of false dreams. In any case, they were not considered easy to interpret, so dream interpretation manuals were always popular, like the Atharva Veda, which is full of such pearls of wisdom as ‘If, in a dream a flat-nosed, dark, naked monk urinates, there will be rain.’

Survey results

I thought it would be interesting to ask you about your dreams. I wanted to test the hypothesis (1) that there are ‘big dreams’, ie dreams that seem unusually vivid, significant, and insightful, (2) that such dreams are rare, and (3) that they particularly occur in times of crisis and transition – like Colin in intensive care, or me struggling with PTSD, when the psyche has a lot of work to do to adapt. I would suggest that in times of crisis, particularly confrontation with death, our subconscious ‘wakes up’ and communication with the dream-world becomes more vivid.

I made a SurveyMonkey survey and sent it out via my newsletter, Facebook and Twitter, and to the members of the London Philosophy Club. I received 508 responses – thank you! Obviously there are methodological problems with this survey – the pool of respondents are probably mainly middle-class British and Americans in their 30s-70s. However, the results are still interesting.

Firstly, it’s clear that people do have dreams which they find significant and insightful (79.5% do), and that such dreams are rare – 27.8% have had less than 10 such dreams in their life, 18% said they’d had such dreams more than 10 but less than 100 times, and only 17% say they have such dreams very often.


Secondly, as I hoped, such dreams particularly seem to occur at ‘crisis / transition / deep change’:


And thirdly, 62% of people felt that these ‘big dreams’ had helped them adapt to that crisis:

Chart_Q3_151218What were the contents of these significant ‘big dreams’? Well, some of the replies suggest the sort of collective mythological content which Jung predicted (one lady dreamt she was a male martyr being impaled on a tree while vikings rode round her on bisons, which is…kind of mythological). A few of the ‘big dreams’ were about collective political situations – responding to the Paris attacks, for example. But not many. Most of the ‘big dreams’ people reported were about personal relationships, sometimes indicating subconscious feelings and bringing the insight that the relationship is not a goer:

Once in a relationship I was dissatisfied with, I had a dream it was the wedding day, I was at the end of the aisle with my dad about to walk down it, turned to him and said “I just can’t do it dad” and ran out of the church! Ended relationship soon after!

I would very often dream of my partner who had in the dreams the face of one of my male friends who has a more suited personality for me. It was like I couldn’t even be happy with my boyfriend in my dreams! I knew It had to stop… I broke up and immediately I felt a shift in my life and regained my joy and confidence.

Dreams about stressful work relationships and work crises were also quite common:

I was having issues at work with two people, I dreamt I was locked in a cell and they were throwing poo at me. Summed up the situation and scared me if I’m honest

Rather than the alchemical or mythological symbols Jung predicted, dreams seem to be pragmatic in their symbolism – they’ll use whatever metaphor or symbol seems to fit the situation.

In my dream I was operating on my boyfriend, taking his organs out one by one (like in operation game) and studying them to see what they told me about him. this was painful for him. when I woke up I realised this was what I was doing to him by asking questions I felt I needed the answer to (about previous relationships). I realised this was hurting him & that it wouldn’t tell me anything. this realisation enabled me to let go of this need – and helped save our relationship (for a while).

Dreams also seem to help people become aware of (and potentially change) their relationship to themselves. They will often use the metaphor of exploring a big house:

“I was in my house, and came across a door that led into a part of the house, with more rooms, that I hadn’t known was there. It was when my marriage was breaking down, and I was facing life as a single parent. I had the dream three or four times, and when I woke, it was with a sense of awareness that there were new places in my life to discover and live in, and where I would be safe and at home.”
“At times when I feel insecure, I often dream about my house being broken into. This is a recurring dream. Having done lots of research down the years, I understand that the house is symbolic, in that it represents the ‘mansion of the soul’ and or a play on words as has been my experience, where the question could be – ‘Is your house in order?'”

Another recurring metaphor is water / swimming pools / drowning / facing a storm or tsunami / crossing a river:

I dreamt I was trying to swim across the river Mersey with my friends with all my clothes on, so this made it difficult, my friends were helping he along. It was around the time I was going through an acrimonious divorce. I knew that everything would eventually turn out “all right” as my friends gave me support in my dreams and in real life.

Dreams, death and bereavement

One of the most common types of ‘big dreams’ people remembered involved meeting loved ones who have passed away –  43% of respondents said they’d met a deceased loved one in a dream, of which two thirds think this was their memory, and one third believed this was the actual loved one’s spirit visiting them:


These spirit visitations helped people adapt to the crisis of bereavement

my father had died and I vividly met him in a dream where I felt that he was acknowledging me as a person and showing his acceptance and deep love for me 🙂

Or to adapt to an upcoming bereavement:

When my toddler nephew was dying, I had a dream of him as an infant, and there was a group of relatives / ancesters standing along a river some on one side and me and others one the other side of this very nerrow river maybe stream. On my side of the river we passed infant Mike down the row of relatives till he came to me I then gave Mikey to an ancester on the other side of this river with the understanding he was “with us now, and we will take care of him.” I woke up and I heard a disembodied voice saying “he is no longer of this earth and will be at peace now.” I knew then he wasn’t going to make it through his cancer treatment and would die. He died one or two days later.

Or sometimes the visit was simply an ancestor spirit offering support in a later crisis:

my late dad giving me a hug & telling me everything would be alright because i’m strong. This was a very bad time as i had just been diagnosed with ms. the dream was very vivid – i could see, hear & sense my dad very clearly & it left me feeling calm & comforted.

The anthropologist Edward Burnett Tylor thought that dreams were the origin of religion and belief in the soul – because it feels like the soul leaves the body (33% of you say you’ve had an out of body experience while dreaming), meets the dead, and receives messages from some other dimension. People are more secular in their interpretation of dreams today, but interestingly, 47% of respondents still believed that some dreams come from God or a higher spirit:


I also asked people if they’d ever had ‘prophetic dreams’, ie dreams about events which subsequently happened. I only thought of this question after the initial release of the survey, so the data pool is smaller (138 people), but the results are still interesting – 38.2% said they’d experienced prophetic dreams, also often about relationships:

“Soon after a new man came into my life I had a series of vivid dreams with a common theme: he was driving to pick me up and I noticed someone sitting in the rear of the car; we were in his flat and he wouldn’t listen when I said I thought someone was in the kitchen…reader, he was married and playing away from home. My dreams quite often warn me of things that I don’t want to admit consciously”

“I kept on dreaming my partner was cheating (he was)”

“Dreamt would be broken into over Christmas. Was so vivid could see their faces. Put extra locks on front door. Got robbed anyway.”

“I dreamed my late father told me I was pregnant. I took a test the following day and I was!”

“I have twice dreamt the result of a sports event, taking place the following day. One was a 5-4 win in a football penalty shootout and the other a Six Nations game. Both were correct and I won money on the second one!”

Before you jump out of bed and accuse your partner of infidelity or put £100 on Manchester City, remember the warning of the ancients – it may be a false dream from the gate of ivory!

Lucid dreaming experiences were common among respondents:


And clearly we’re not embarrassed to discuss our dreams with others:


Around 30% of respondents said they had some sort of ‘dream practice’ – usually trying to remember their dreams in the morning, often writing them down in a journal, and sometimes discussing them with a therapist. One person with tinnitus says she uses her dreams to manage her physical condition, while another said they can tell from their dreams when their iron level is getting too low!

What about sex? Well, Freud would say all your dreams are about sex (Jung would say they’re all about alchemy). That doesn’t seem to be the case. But there’s some transgressive sex in there – 50% of you who describe yourself as either heterosexual or homosexual said you’d dreamt of a sex experience contrary to your usual preference, which makes me wonder if we’re all bisexual or trisexual in our subconscious self. We’re not that faithful in our dreams either – according to the Montreal dream lab, women only dream of having sex with their partner 25% of the time, the rest of the time it’s sex with someone else; with men, only one sixth of their sex dreams involve their partner.


So, to return to my initial hypothesis, it does seem that people have ‘big dreams’ which strike them as unusually significant and insightful. Such dreams are not common for most people. They usually happen in moments of crisis and transition. They are pragmatic in their use of metaphor and symbol, using symbols that fit your situation, although there are symbols and metaphors that reoccur quite often. People find them relatively transparent in their meaning. They seem to help people adapt to the crisis. They particularly give people insights into relationships – to oneself, to loved ones, to people at work. And they quite often involve a visit from a dead loved one, which helps people adapt to loss and bereavement. Hooray for dreams!

Here, by the by, is a New York Times article looking at how dream-labs are now studying such ‘big dreams’, particularly dreams of visits by dead loved ones.