Why No “Cookbook” Approach? Jung on Dream-work

Why No “Cookbook” Approach?

Jung on Dream-work


Dream analysis … is less a technique than a dialectical process between two personalities.                                                                                                                         Jung (1961)[1]


There is no therapeutic technique or doctrine that is generally applicable, since every case that comes for treatment is an individual in a specific condition….

                                                                                                Jung (1961)[2]


The interpretation of dreams and symbols depends largely on the individual disposition of the dreamer. Symbols have not one meaning only but several, … The correct interpretation depends on the context, i.e. the associations connected with the image, and on the actual condition of the dreamer’s mind.                                                                                                                         Jung (1961)[3]


The importance of the individual factor, and of the individual’s psychology in general, is undoubtedly underestimated in modern psychiatry,…                                                 Jung (1907)[4]


            In the previous essay on this blog site[5] I noted how Jung rejected any type of “cookbook” approach to working with dreams and the unconscious. In this essay I am elaborating on this, in response to a student’s question of “why?” She had a favorite reference book on the meaning of dreams and their symbols, and she wondered why Jung would look askance at her using such a helpful tool. Before setting out Jung’s ideas, I will define what the “cookbook” approach means and some of the problems with it. Then I will describe Jung’s methods for working with a dream[6] and the deeper implications of his approach.


What is the “cookbook” approach to working with dreams?


            The “cookbook” approach that Jung and his followers find problematic is what you find encouraged in “encyclopedias of dream symbols,”[7] compendia offering “10,000 dreams interpreted,”[8] and “illustrated guides to dreams”[9]—copious texts offering suggestions about what a specific object, animal or feature in a dream might mean. Let’s take an example.

            Say you dreamt of a flowerpot. Using the cookbook approach, your first step in trying to figure out the meaning of your dream would be to turn to the “cookbook,” i.e. the reference work. You would look up “flowerpot,” and find that it means “domesticity and cultivating nature,” or a “substitute for nature,” or (taking a Freudian perspective) a “symbol for women.”[10]

            Next, you’d reflect on these meanings, trying to fit your dream into the suggestions in the reference work. Maybe one of them would spark a thought or insight. This sometimes happens, but just as often nothing comes to mind, and in such cases, you’d likely be tempted to conclude that the dream was meaningless, or that you just have no head for dream analysis.


The problems with the “cookbook” approach


            Jung had several problems with this way of working with dreams. First is its impersonal, theoretical nature. “Flowerpot” may equal “domesticity” or “cultivating nature” in a collective sense, but focusing on this collective association skips over the range of potential meanings it has for you, the individual. Perhaps you were hit over the head with a flowerpot as a little kid. You’d be likely to have some very different associations to “flowerpot” with this personal history. An emphasis on theory, relying on what a book says in preference to considering your own meanings, often risks losing the true meaning and value of the dream for you. This is one reason why Jung regarded theory as the “very devil.”[11]

            Another problem is due to our tendency to externalize our locus of authority. “I read this in a book,” we’ll say, looking to that external source to justify a belief, or to determine the meaning or significance of something. When we interpret “flowerpot” as “domesticity,” we are substituting the authority of the author or compiler of the reference work for our own insights—as if that person knew more about us, our history, our dream and its context than we do! Jung would remind us that we are the authors of our lives, and must not turn over this responsibility to anyone else, not even to a Jungian analyst.[12]

            The externalization of our authority relates closely to a third problem: disempowerment. When we immediately turn to others—books or persons—for the answers to dream meanings—we disempower ourselves. The source of dreams is the psyche. Your dreams come fromyour psyche. The content of the dream is from your own inner source of wisdom. As you recognize this and honor your inner wisdom, you strengthen your connection to it and build your trust in it. When we put books and other externals secondary to our own work with a dream, we build our confidence that we can make sense of the psyche’s language.[13]

            None of this is to suggest that we should never consult books or reference works. They have their place. They can be useful. But we should never start with them. Jung had a better way to work with dreams.              


Jung’s approach to dream-work


            Jung understood dreams as operating on three levels: the objective level (in which the dream is related to events in outer life), the subjective level (in which all the parts of the dream are regarded as parts of the dreamer), and the archetypal level (in which aspects of the dream are seen in a wider, historical or collective context).[14] Since it tends to be the most accessible, most Jungians begin to interpret a dream beginning with the objective level.

            A key question I use to get into the objective level with my dream students is: “Do you see any day residue?” By “day residue” Jungians mean echoes or elements from recent outer-life experiences or events that show up in the dream.[15] For example, suppose you saw a monster movie the night before the dream, and the dream has a monster in it. Or you had a fight with your friend several days before the dream, and here she is, in the dream. By identifying any “day residue” we begin to relate the dream to our personal outer life. In the example above, if you had been working with flower pots around the time of the dream, the appearance of a flower pot in your dream would be an example of day residue.

            Working with dreams on the objective level can help us see how the psyche is ruminating and wrestling with the circumstances within which we live. Sometimes, by relating the dream to outer life, we gain insights or solutions to current problems. Certainly, in my experience, I have come to be both impressed and comforted in recognizing how supportive my psyche is and how much it seeks to help me navigate through life by sending me dreams that contain day residue.

            Less familiar is the second level of interpretation: what the dream means on the subjective level. This level is where we encounter our “inner city,” the subject of the previous blog essay. On this deeper, more personal level, we meet shadow sides of ourselves, our animal/instinctual nature, our “contrasexual” inner partner and other parts of ourselves that generally are not familiar. Continuing with the flower pot example, we would take the object as being a part of ourselves, asking questions like “How might I be a flower pot now?” “In what way might I think of myself as some sort of nurturing container at this time?” On the subjective level we assume that all the parts of the dream are parts of us,[16] so we would want to explore how “flower-pot-ness” could be part of us. In my experience, this second level has often provided me with surprising insights and discoveries about myself, my relationships, how I have been thinking about myself or my reality, or about where my life was headed. Because it is subjective, i.e. deeply personal, there is no way that any guidebook or reference work could provide answers on this level.

            The third level of Jung’s dream interpretation method considers archetypes.[17] These numinous symbols are not found in every dream: they usually show up in “big” dreams, dreams with mythic qualities or intense feeling tone—as if to alert us to the importance of the dream. These are the dreams we will remember over decades of time, the dreams that mark a major turning point in our lives, or that foretell of big changes coming.[18] Because archetypes are innate psychic structures rooted in the collective unconscious, they show up in the world’s myths, legends and fairy tales, and we often can gain insights into this level of the dream by turning to mythology and other sources.[19] For most people in our culture (who aren’t deeply versed in mythology and symbology) reference works can be very helpful when working to understand a dream on this level.

            But even on the archetypal level Jung would not have us begin with reference books. Take up the objective and subjective levels, turning within, looking to intuitive insights, waiting on the psyche for guidance and direction, allowing the dream to speak through images, synchronicities and other non-rational ways. Own your own power to achieve a sense of the dream’s meaning. Only then should “cookbooks” be consulted.


Jung’s wider concern


            Besides empowerment and internalizing a locus of authority, Jung stressed individuals’ turning within to figure out their dreams so as to support their individuation. When we look without, when we turn to “cookbooks” to tell us what our dreams mean, we can easily fall prey to collective, mass attitudes. Our uniqueness, our particular personality, risks being lowered to the low level of the masses[20] when we employ collective techniques like “cookbooks.”

            Jung’s constant focus was on the individual:

“… the only reality is the individual,…”[21]

“As any change must begin somewhere, it is the single individual who will undergo it and carry it through. The change must begin with one individual;…”[22]

“… in reality only a change in the attitude of the individual can bring about a renewal in the spirit of the nations. Everything begins with the individual…”[23]

“… it is always a question of treating one single individual only…”[24]

and he recognized that this stress he put on the individual was not something commonly found in our society, or even in his profession of psychiatry: “The importance of the individual factor, and of the individual’s psychology in general, is undoubtedly underestimated in modern psychiatry,…”.[25] Jung wrote this in 1907, well before the insurance industry took over dictating how many minutes the doctor could take with each patient. His words are truer now than they were 106 years ago!

            To Jung “dream analysis… is less a technique than a dialectical process between two personalities.”[26] Working with dreams is, at its very root, a deeply personal thing: a confrontation between you (ego mind) and your soul (psyche), between head and heart, I and Self (inner divine core). Dream-work is the process of learning the language of your soul, and this language, while having certain components in common with other people, is unique to you. Jung interpreted his work as a psychiatrist as being to learn the language of his patient, each case a “new experience,” each person presenting with dreams that spoke their own personal language.[27] No therapeutic technique or doctrine would work in every case, just as no book or reference work will tell you what your dream means. Such externals are impersonal, in an area of life that is intensely personal.




            Setting the “cookbooks” aside, turning within to mine our inner wisdom calls for more effort and asks us to summon inner resources we may not initially believe we have. My student was not happy to be told to wrestle with herself to sense her dreams’ meanings before she turned to her favorite interpretive guide. She ruefully said, “It’s going to take a lot more time and energy to do this. I’ll have to think for myself now.” Yes, and therein lies the potential that dream-work offers to us for our growth and for development of greater trust in the wisdom of our psyche.




Hall, James A. (1983), Jungian Dream Interpretation: A Handbook of Theory and Practice. Toronto: Inner City Books.

Hannah, Barbara (1976), Jung: His Life and Work. New York: G.P. Putnam.

Jacobi, Jolande (1968), The Psychology of C.G. Jung. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Jung, C.G. (1960), “The Psychogenesis of Mental Disease,” Collected Works, 3. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1960), ”The Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche,” CW 8. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1970), “Civilization in Transition,” CW 10. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1954), “The Practice of Psychotherapy,” CW 16, 2nd ed. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1954), “The Development of Personality,” CW 17. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1976), ”The Symbolic Life,” CW 18. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Mallon, Brenda (2000), The Illustrated Guide to Dreams. New York: Sterling Publishing.

Mattoon, Mary Ann (1984), Understanding Dreams. Dallas TX: Spring Publishing.

Miller, Gustavus (1996), 10,000 Dreams Interpreted. Boston: Element Publishing.

Vollmar, Klaus (1997), The Little Giant Encyclopedia of Dream Symbols. New York: Sterling Publishing.


[1] Collected Works, 18, ¶492. Hereafter Collected Works will be abbreviated CW.

[2] Ibid., ¶515.

[3] Ibid., ¶520.

[4] CW 3, ¶72.

[5] See the essay “Our Inner City,” archived on this blog site.

[6] To be really faithful to Jung, I would have to qualify this: Jung really had no “methods:” He responded to each of his patients differently and told his students he had no standard method; Hannah (1976), 202.

[7] E.g. Vollman (1997).

[8] E.g. Miller (1996).

[9] E.g. Mallon (2000).

[10] Vollmar (1997), 192-193.

[11] CW 17, p. 7.

[12] CW 16, ¶227; CW 10, ¶462. For more on internalizing a locus of authority, see the three-part essay “Components of Individuation,” archived on this blog site.

[13] CW 18, ¶518.

[14] Hall (1983), 112-115; cf. Jacobi (1968), 91-92.

[15] Jacobi (1968), 70. What I call “day residue” Jacobi calls “vestiges of the day.”

[16] CW 8, ¶509.

[17] Hall (1983), 113-115.

[18] CW 17, ¶208; cf. Mattoon (1984), 66-67.

[19] Mattoon (1984), 69-71.

[20] CW 18, ¶1386.

[21] Ibid., ¶496.

[22] Ibid., ¶599.

[23] CW 10, ¶459.

[24] Ibid., ¶582.

[25] CW 3, ¶72.

[26] CW 18, ¶492.

[27] Ibid., ¶518.

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