The Function of Dreams: The Ego and The Self

As we continue with our exploration into dreams, imagine the psyche (soul) as the ocean, with the tip of the wave representing the individual ego.1 Using this analogy, further imagine that though each wave may perceive itself to be separate and individual, it is in reality part of the ocean or the great psychic depths which constitutes the collective unconscious. Extending this metaphor further imagine that when we dream it is as if a pipeline is put down into the psychic depths and the contents of the unconscious are experienced in pure form. The dreams arising from the shallow waters relate to the personal unconscious, namely, the  repressed or suppressed material from everyday life, while the dreams that come from the depths are archetypal or “big dreams”. Corbett (1996)

Big dreams may fill us with awe and may stir the soul with a particular feeling which goes to the very root of our being–a feeling which Rudolf Otto (1923) called the mysterium tremendum  et fascinans, (tremendous mystery that fascinates). These experiences Otto called “numinous” which means awestruck of God. Numinous dreams and experiences were so important to C.G. Jung that in a letter written in August 1945 he states,

The main interest of my work is not concerned with the treatment of neurosis but rather with the approach to the numinous. But the fact is that the approach to the numinous is the real therapy and insomuch as you attain to the numinous experiences you are released from the curse of pathology. (Jung, 1973, p. 377).

Jung believed that the purpose of dreams is to further individuation–that is the individual’s quest to be authentically him or herself. By this process, he believed we move towards greater wholeness or completion, though this end state is never fully reached. Our dreams are integral to the process because through dream work we begin to create an axis between the ego and the greater psyche which Jung called the Self with a capital S.2  An Axis is a structure that extends between two wheels so that when one moves the other also moves.  An axis between the ego and the Self implies that the ego relates to the Self as the moved to the mover. This is because the ego is only a small  part of the psyche whereas the Self is the totality of the psyche.  As the ego increasingly relates to the Self, and as more unconscious material is brought into ego consciousness the individual becomes more whole and the ego more balanced and harmonious.

Dreams compensate the conscious attitude and restore psychological balance, and just as we need a proper diet, exercise and adequate sleep to maintain our physical harmony, so we need dreams to provide psychological harmony. By paying attention to our dreams and integrating the insights learned through them we make different choices than we would have based solely on our conscious attitude and beliefs about what we should do.

Dreams, therefore, make a difference, not only by compensating   our conscious attitude, but also by offering a course correction for our lives. Even a small course correction may have a profound effect later on down the road.

1The ego is the flexible executive decision maker that operates on rational thought. Though it is the center of consciousness it is not the total personality because it does not include those features that are unknown or unconscious. The relation of the Self to the ego is compared to that of “the mover to the moved”. Samuels, Shorter, Plaut, (1988) p. 60

2The Self is an archetypal image of our fullest potential and the unity of the personality as a whole. The Self is not only the center but the circumference which embraces both conscious and unconscious; it is the center of this totality  as the ego is the center of the conscious mind. (Jung CW (Collected Works) 12,para. 444)