Sue Mehrtens is the author of this and all the other blog essays on this site. The opinions expressed in these essays are her own and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of other Jungian Center faculty or Board members. Honesty, as well as professional courtesy, require that you give proper attribution to the author if you post this essay elsewhere.
Jung on So-called “Lucid” Dreaming
“What are dreams? Dreams are products of unconscious psychic activity occurring during sleep. In this condition the mind is to a large extent withdrawn from our voluntary control. With the small portion of consciousness that remains to us in the dream state we apperceive what is going on, but we are no longer in a position to guide the course of psychic events according to our wish and purpose; hence we are also robbed of the possibility of deceiving ourselves. The dream is a spontaneous process resulting from the independent activity of the unconscious, and is as far removed from our conscious control as, shall we say, the physiological activity of digestion. Therefore, we have in it an absolutely objective process from the nature of which we can draw objective conclusions about the situation as it really is.”
“A dream is a psychic product originating in the sleeping state without conscious motivation…. We do not feel as if we were producing the dreams, it is rather as if the dreams came to us. They are not subject to our control but obey their own laws. They are obviously autonomous psychic complexes which form themselves out of their own material. We do not know the source of their motives, and we therefore say that dreams come from the unconscious. In saying this, we assume that there are independent psychic complexes which elude our conscious control and come and go according to their own laws.”
“For dreams are always about a particular problem of the individual about which he has a wrong conscious judgment. The dreams are the reaction to our conscious attitude in the same way that the body reacts when we overeat or do not eat enough or when we ill-treat it in some other way. Dreams are the natural reaction of the self-regulating psychic system. …”
“The ego stands to the self as the moved to the mover, or as object to subject, because the determining factors which radiate out from the Self surround the ego on all sides and are therefore supraordinate to it.”
“… so-called lucid dreams, in which the dream-ego presumably knows that it is dreaming and has some control over the content of the dream [is] (a state that I have not, however, seen convincingly demonstrated).
James Hall (1983)
This essay arose from a recent experience when some students at the Jungian Center expressed interest in working with lucid dreams. I demurred, sharing James Hall’s skepticism about the phenomenon. Hall was a Jungian analyst, and like most Jungians, he doubted the value of such dreams, given our human tendency to ego inflation. The above quotes from Jung indicate his opinion of the idea that we can and should try to control dreams. In this essay, I will review Jung’s concerns about this in detail.
Jung’s Definition of “Dream”
Jung is explicit in his definition of the “dream.” In numerous places he describes the dream as: “a psychic product originating in the sleeping state without conscious motivation….” and “a spontaneous process resulting from the independent activity of the unconscious.” Dreams “are products of unconscious psychic activity occurring during sleep.” “They are not subject to our control but obey their own laws. They are obviously autonomous psychic complexes which form themselves out of their own material… which elude our conscious control and come and go according to their own laws.” As “the reaction to our conscious attitude,” many dreams are compensatory, reflecting the self-regulating effort of the psyche to rectify an imbalance in conscious life. Jung was very clear that we should not try to control our dreams, whether or not we are aware that we are dreaming.
The Proper Role of the Ego
Jung was equally explicit in his attitude about the proper role of the ego: “The ego stands to the self as the moved to the mover, or as object to subject, because the determining factors which radiate out from the Self surround the ego on all sides and are therefore supraordinate to it.”
Jung used a military analogy to describe the ego’s role: We might think of it as similar to “the army commander” who has some resources at his disposal, but operates depending on “the well-nigh incalculable influences emanating from general headquarters,” the “general” being the Self, our inner divine wisdom ranking far above the ego in terms of knowledge and overview of our lives.
Jung warned us about how “the ego loves to think itself the whole man and therefore has the greatest difficulty in avoiding the danger of inflation.” We find it very “unwelcome” when the ego confronts the Self. In such instances, we are made aware of the ego’s tendency to “god-almightiness,” that is, “an inflation of consciousness which [Jung feared] can only be mitigated by the most terrible catastrophe to civilization, another deluge let loose by the gods upon inhospitable humanity.” Which brings us to the third section of this essay.
Why We Should Not Try to Control Our Dreams
Hubris–our arrogant arrogation of the psyche’s activities to our own desires–could wipe out humanity. Jung was well aware of this, as the quote above makes clear. He watched with horror the movies of the atomic bomb blasts and the ruins they made of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He recoiled as people waxed on about the wonders of modern technology:
“The power of science and technics… is so enormous and indisputable that there is little point in reckoning up all that can be done and all that has been invented. One shudders at the stupendous possibilities. Quite another question begins to loom up: Who is applying this technical skill? in whose hands does this power lie?… Our technical skill has grown to be so dangerous that the most urgent question today is not what more can be done in this line, but how the man who is entrusted with the control of this skill should be constituted, or how to alter the mind of Western man so that he would renounce his terrible skill. It is infinitely more important to strip him of the illusion of his power than to strengthen him still further in the mistaken idea that he can do everything he wills….”
Rather than view with awe the amazing gizmos the techies created, Jung focused on the humans who were (and are now) driving these developments–how they all labored (and labor still) under “the illusion of power… that [they] can do everything [they] will…”. Global warming, species extinction, millions of people addicted to their cell phones–these are just a few of the results of our ego’s drive for power and control.
But these are not the only reasons we should not try to control our dreams. Jung knew that “our modern consciousness is still on a relatively low level,” so we “do not know the source of their [our dreams’] motives,” nor why the psyche produced this figure or symbol, why that activity showed up in the dream rather than another. Because we are unconscious, we are not “in a position to guide the course of psychic events according to our wish and purpose.”
Rather than lamenting this inability, Jung was thankful for it, because our impotence in the psychic realm robs us “of the possibility of deceiving ourselves.” From his many decades of working with his patients, Jung was well-aware of our ability to kid ourselves subjectively and to see only what we want to see.
Scientist that he was, Jung prized objectivity, and he regarded dreaming as “an absolutely objective process from the nature of which we can draw objective conclusions about the situation as it really is.” Dreams don’t lie and they act as a vital corrective to the problems we have in life “about which [we have] a wrong conscious judgment.”
By sending us dreams, the psyche will present us with a truth as real as a stomach ache or ulcer: As “a spontaneous process resulting from the independent activity of the unconscious, [the dream] is as far removed from our conscious control as, shall we say, the physiological activity of digestion.”
Jung was a psychiatrist, i.e. a medical doctor, so he was aware of how our physical system must be maintained within certain parameters, e.g. the BUNs, stats and lytes that the ER doctor will ask for to assess the condition of an emergency patient. Jung’s six decades of practice as a physician of the soul led him to recognize a psychic parallel to our bodies’ physiological activity, and this “self-regulating psychic system” is displayed via dreams: “The dreams are the reaction to our conscious attitude in the same way that the body reacts when we overeat or do not eat enough or when we ill-treat it in some other way.” As much as the ER doctor will need to know about blood and body, the wise dreamer will need to have the psyche’s message about an imbalance or irregularity in our psychic condition.
Who among us can consciously control our digestion? our blood composition? the healing of a cut? A great deal of our life processes go on without our ego’s control. Jung knew the same must be true for our inner life, so he would never condone attempts to control our dream life. He leaves those who seek to control their dreams with a warning:
“An inflated consciousness is always egocentric and conscious of nothing but its own presence. It is incapable of learning from the past, incapable of understanding contemporary event, and incapable of drawing right conclusions about the future. It is hypnotized by itself and therefore cannot be argued with. It inevitably dooms itself to calamities that must strike it dead.”
There might be times that we become aware in a dream that we are dreaming, but succumbing to the temptation to seize control of the dream poses grave threats to our long-term well-being.
Hall, James (1983), Jungian Dream Interpretation. Toronto: Inner City Press.
Jung, C.G. (1961), “Freud and Psychoanalysis,” Collected Works, 4. 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.
________ (1969), “Psychology and Religion: West and East,” CW 11. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
________ (1953), “Psychology and Alchemy,” CW 12. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
________ (1963), “Mysterium Coniunctionis,” CW 14. 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.
Twenge, Jean (2017), iGen. New York: Atria/Simon & Schuster.
Turkle, Sherry (2015), Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age. New York: Penguin Press.
Wallace-Wells, David (2019), The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming. New York: Crown Publishing.
 Collected Works, 17 ¶113. Hereafter Collected Works will be abbreviated CW.
 CW 8 ¶580.
 CW 18 ¶248. Italics in the original.
 CW 11 ¶391.
 Hall (1983), 91.
 CW 10 ¶721.
 CW 8 ¶580. My italics.
 CW 17 ¶113. My italics.
 CW 17 ¶113.
 CW 8 ¶580. My italics.
 CW 18 ¶248. My italics.
 CW 4 ¶391.
 CW 8 ¶692.
 CW 10 ¶721.
 CW 12 ¶563.
 Ibid., ¶562.
 CW 11 ¶869.
 Ibid., ¶870.
 For more on these consequences of our hubris, cf. Wallace-Wells (2019), Twenge (2017) and Turkle (2015).
 CW 11 ¶442.
 CW 8 ¶580.
 CW17 ¶113.
 CW 18 ¶248.
 CW 17 ¶113.
 BUNs is shorthand for the ratio in the blood of urea and nitrogen, a measure of the functioning of the kidneys; stats are the key figures of health, e.g. temperature, blood pressure etc., and “lytes” is shorthand for the balance of electrolytes in the system, another key marker of the body’s condition.
 CW 18 ¶248.
 CW 12 ¶563.