In my first dream session with my first dream practitioner (who would eventually become my teacher, my colleague and then someone I had to step away from), I brought a single, terrifying dream.
The dream is long, but the heart of the dream is this: I am a six-year-old child with my siblings and my mother and we are dragged to a prisoner/concentration camp that looks like camps from WWII.
In the middle of the dream, which involved great details about how we were brought to the camp, what the camp looked like and how we lived there, was a moment I almost did not write down:
I wander away from my family and find a little tiny store the size of a closet. Inside, the little store bursts with reds, blues, golds, greens, yellow – a sharp contrast to the grey of the rest of the dream. Like stepping into Oz. It is, unbelievably, a candy store. Behind the little counter is a woman, her skin a dark copper, her smile warm. She immediately starts to tell me about different candy bars, pointing at each one, repeating herself in a sequence. I realize she is telling me, in code, how to escape the camp.
When we worked with the dream in that first session, my teacher focused on this moment and the issue of getting out of the camp. He told me that I was living as if I was imprisoned and that this woman, whom he called an Anima figure, was here to set me free. All I had to do, he told me, was say yes to her. She was, he said, offering freedom.
It was striking to me. I was, indeed, living as if I was imprisoned in many ways. Even though I had never been incarcerated, even though no one in my family had been incarcerated, even though I have no known ancestors who were incarcerated in any concentration camp or prisoner of war camp.
If anything, from the outside, I had led a free life. I had had the freedom to go to college, to have choices on how to live my life. By that moment, I had left my hometown and lived in London and San Francisco, had spent nearly two years traveling Europe and the U.S. When I stepped into that first session, I was writing poetry and living at the Vermont Studio Center, a retreat center for artists and writers in rural Vermont.
I remember weeping during the session and after. I remember how true it felt. How real – some innocent part of myself, something that maybe I had had when I was 6-years-old, was lost, imprisoned. And how normal it all felt to me.
But, all these years later, what is most striking to me now? The lack of questioning about the basics presented in the dream.
My teacher did not ask many questions about the contents of the dream that first session. As a student, a few years later, I learned about asking questions – the “associative” process – and how it is the cornerstone of exploring dreams. I also learned about assumptions – assumptions about things in dreams. In this first dream, he assumed that the woman in the candy store was archetypal because of her dark skin. He taught me that when a white person has a dream with a Black person in it, the Black person is usually an archetype.
In that first session, he did not do what he taught – he did not ask me about my associations around her, he did not ask me about my experiences with race, racism, Black women. He did not ask about my history or my family’s history. He did not ask if I had had any relatives how had been imprisoned in any war. He did not ask about my roots in this country, specifically around race. She was Black in the dream, I am white. She, he assumed, must be a guide come to help me. She, he assumed, must hold some kind of primal energy I needed.
The Jung in my Head, In All Our Heads, Hanging Over Our Heads
I have started this exploration of systemic racism in my tradition of dreaming with Jung not only because his work most influenced the work with dreams as I learned and was trained. Jung’s theories and practices of dreaming, his theories and writings of the human psyche have deeply influenced all modern psychology and imaginative thinking in general. Jung has been and continues to be lauded as bringing insight into the human condition and bringing spirituality/religion into psychology. He brought us terms like collective unconscious, introvert and extrovert, he brought the dream into the realm of rational possibilities, he brought a different way of looking at soul.
On a personal level, I have thought of Jung and his work with dreams as a kind of great-grandfather of dreaming in my dream lineage. I trained as an archetypal dreamworker, a small offshoot of Jungian and Freudian thought and methods. I also read and studied Jung in my training as a poet.
All of these theories and ideas were part of my first session, in the background. I did not know it then. I was just struck by the singular felt truth of the dream.
I did feel struck, literally struck as if I had been hit by a train in that first session, and seen as I had never been seen before. Something old begging for remembrance, something old still being lived.
Dreams gave, have given and are still giving me a language for what has felt beyond the reach of language.
It is why I wanted to train, to learn about archetypal dreamwork. My intention, at first, was not to become a practitioner but to simply learn about the conversation of dreams, dreamer and the world. Dreams, the dreamer and the journey we all take. Dreams and imagination. I wanted to be at that table. It felt like a table shared by poets.
I wanted to see, to know, what was behind the curtain. I wanted to know what was on that train that had hit me so hard.
Jung’s “Collective Unconscious” and The Roots of The Idea of the Ideal
Jung “created” the “idea” of archetypes in dreaming as part of his theory of the different parts of the psyche. He named three main parts – the ego (waking consciousness), the personal unconscious and the collective unconscious. Archetypes, in his creation mode, reside in the collective unconscious.
He created the idea of the collective unconscious to explain things that arise in us, either in dreams or in waking life, that he labeled unexplainable by personal experience. He famously wrote:
First, fantasies (including dreams) of a personal character, which go back unquestionably to personal experiences, things forgotten or repressed, and can thus be completely explained by individual anamnesis. Second, fantasies (including dreams) of an impersonal character, which cannot be reduced to experiences in the individual’s past, and thus cannot be explained as something individually acquired. These fantasy-images undoubtedly have their closest analogues in mythological types. … These cases are so numerous that we are obliged to assume the existence of a collective psychic substratum. I have called this the collective unconscious. (“The Psychology of the Child Archetype,” CW 9i, par. 262.)
Here are some other quotes from Jung about the collective unconscious:
The collective unconscious contains the whole spiritual heritage of mankind’s evolution, born anew in the brain structure of every individual. (“The Structure of the Pysche,” CW 8, par. 342.)
The collective unconscious … appears to consist of mythological motifs or primordial images, for which reason the myths of all nations are its real exponents. (CW 8, par. 325.)
The form of the world into which he is born is already inborn in him, as a virtual image. (“Two Essays in Analytical Psychology,” CW 7, par. 700.)
Jung parsed what he called the psyche into sections and then worked within each section. The collective unconscious is what we come in with – his argument that we are not tabula rasa but that we already have an imprint or a blueprint when we are born.
What is compelling about this theory is that there is, of course, truth in it. We know now, through a great deal of research around epigenetics (which explores the biological transmission of trauma amongst other things) that, in fact, many things are passed from one generation to the next in ways we still do not entirely understand. We know that the stories told and retold by our ancestors have a place in our bodies, have a place in our psyches even before they are retold to us. Even if they are never told to us.
A truth. Some truth.
It is tricky, the idea of truth. Especially in dreaming, especially in the human experience, especially in history. Especially everywhere. For when a truth is found that resonates like a bell ringing in the body, we often look at what is surrounding that truth and assume that it is all also true. Or we look to the sayer of that one truth as if everything she/he/they say is truth. Or, we begin to develop beliefs, theories, structures based on a single truth.
In my first session, it did not occur to me to ask about the camp, about why my mother was in the camp, about why candy, about why this particular woman, about my age in the dream. I was so struck with the singular truth of how I had been living in some way imprisoned, that I was struck dumb. I did not know to ask about the rest. I wonder if my teacher and even people like Jung knew how to ask, were scared to ask or even wanted to ask other questions. Other kinds of questions. The ones that take us beyond the obvious.
Back to Jung and his collective unconscious. In this collective unconscious, Jung worked with ideas of type and archetypes. Archetype, the word itself, comes from the Greek word arkhetypos which means “first imprint” in one translation or “original form” in another. The idea of first forms or perfect forms is woven through many writings of Greek philosophers, whom we still study. For example, Plato, in his many of his writings, most famously, The Republic, puts forth his theory of forms. Simply put (remember, I am not a scholar of philosophy), the theory of forms, according to Plato, is that there is a perfect form for everything, or a true esseence, that is timeless and absolute. That what we have in the material world are mere imitations or shadows.
For example, there are many forms of “bed” in the world, but there is only one form of bedness that is inherent in all beds. The following is from The Republic, Book X where the character Socrates is “in dialog” with (slaying, basically) a student Glaucon (who happens to be Plato’s older brother) about beds and bedness. We join the discussion with Socrates speaking:
Well then, here are three beds: one existing in nature, which is made by God, as I think that we may say–for no one else can be the maker?
There is another which is the work of the carpenter?
And the work of the painter is a third?
Beds, then, are of three kinds, and there are three artists who superintend them:
God, the maker of the bed, and the painter?
Yes, there are three of them.
(Plato, The Republic, p. 459. )
[One of the things I do love about Plato is how he puts all of these theories into other people’s mouths, through dialogs, at the same time showing how to use “logic” and getting “agreement” with one you are dialoging with in ways to win your argument. Brings everything into question, in some many ways. Total pleasure to read on one hand. Also totally upsetting. Upsetting because this kind of logic has been used, is and will continue to be used in the formation of my culture and its roots in racism and misogyny. It is a great device for gaslighting. But I digress.]
This little snippet of dialog is, for Plato fans, the beginnings of the dialog about the merits of being a maker and being an imitator and, among other things, giving value to each. Socrates, by the way, is working his way to the argument that poets should be banned from the “perfect” society. [Ironically? Or not ironically? But again, I digress.]
This kind of argument and way of arguing is woven through much of Plato’s works. The idea of the ideal. The first and best and most truest form. Of a bed, a person, a society, an ideal.
How deeply these ideas of “form” are rooted in Greek thought, philosophy. How deeply rooted these kinds of thoughts, back then, were about the separation between what was “essence” and “ideal” and what was not.
And how these ideas naturally were brought to be related to people, as well. Greeks, of course, used labor by enslaved people directly in everything. And, of course, those enslaved were considered less then the ideal – which for Greeks meant male and Greek. Because of the idea of the ideal, the best form from which all else is imitation or echo.
Which brings me back to the ideal of the archetype figure, as Jung used that term. Back to the woman offering freedom in my dream. (Note: Here, I speak to Jung’s idea of archetypes as figures, which is only one aspect of his theories of what is archetypal. He also wrote of archetypal experiences and symbols.)
Psychologically … the archetype as an image of instinct is a spiritual goal toward which the whole nature of man strives; it is the sea to which all rivers wend their way, the prize which the hero wrests from the fight with the dragon. (“On the Nature of Psyche,” CW 8, par. 415.)
The archetypal representations (images and idea) mediated to us by the unconscious should not be confused with the archetypes as such. They are very varied structures which all point back to one essentially “irrepresentable” basic form. The latter is characterized by certain formal elements and by certain fundamental meanings, although these can be grasped only approximately. The archetype as such is a psychoid factor that belongs, as it were, to the invisible, ultraviolet end of the psychic spectrum. It does not appear, in itself, to be capable of reaching consciousness. (CW 8, par. 417.)
The “one essentially ‘irrepresentable’ basic form.” Jung places himself into the historical conversation of Western philosophers and philosophies. He brings forward that even in the images, experiences, figures in our dreams, the idea of the ideal is still core, still something to strive toward. Something to fight dragons for.
The idea of the ideal.
The Danger of The Ideal
Let’s circle back to my dream for a moment because the danger of idea of the ideal is implicit there. Implicit and begging, I now see, to be seen. In my dream, I am a child in a concentration camp. The rest of the dream around the moment in the candy shop is very much rooted in the historical concentration and forced labor camps of WWII and Nazi Germany. In the dream, I do not believe I am Jewish (I was raised catholic in waking life), but instead the camp feels made for political prisoners.
The camps created for Jewish people, for LGBTQ people, for political dissenters of the Nazi state were created because of the idea of the ideal. The ideal human of the Nazi state being people of aryan features/descent, people who were not LGBTQ, people who were not outsiders like dissenters or gypsies. The solution to obtaining the ideal was mass genocide.
Let’s circle back to my country, now. The idea of the ideal has been used in arguments for the entire history of this country to justify keeping power within the racist structure of whiteness. White supremacy is based on the idea of the ideal that people with white skin have supremacy over people of color. Under the cultivation of this idea of the ideal in the U.S. (some of the cultivation being very Platonic in its argumentation), my country developed cornerstone ideas of race and racism that justified brutally enslaving people, mass torture and murder of enslaved people, genocide of Indigenous people.
Those cornerstones have continued in direct, overt, violent ways – from Jim Crow laws, segregation, redlining to mass incarceration, continued police brutality against Black people – and in ways woven into the fabric of daily, interpersonal relationships – microaggressions, white fragility, denial of history, denial to even look at history, keeping Black people from positions of power and influence in business, in the arts, in politics.
All of this is woven in Jung, too. In his research and building of his own philosophy and theories, Jung worked with the idea that, in his words, the “European” man was a much more “complicated” man than “non-European” man. And that, in fact, the “non-European” man was more closely aligned with what he called the archaic or primitive man.
In 1988, Farhad Dalal, a psychotherapist in the UK, wrote an article called “Jung, A Racist.” (Dalal, Farhad. (1988). “Jung, A racist.” British Journal of Psychotherapy, v. 4, Issue 3, pp. 263-279.) In his article, Dalal explores racism inherent in Jung’s theories around what he called “primitive man”, for Jung, in his formation of his theory of primitive man, equates the primitive man with Black people. As Dalal writes:
He [Jung] explicitly equates:
1) The modern black with the prehistoric human
2) The modern black conscious with the white unconscious
3) The modern black adult with the white child
It is this that constitutes the racist core of Jungian Psychology on which all else is based. The equations are where he begins; these are the ideas and beliefs that he accepts without question. (p. 263)
The prehistoric human does not think as such:
The instinctive sensuousness of the primitive has its counterpart in the spontaneity of his psychic processes: his mental products, his thoughts, just appear to him as it were. It is not he who makes them or thinks them – he is not capable of that – they make themselves, they happen to him, they even confront him as hallucinations. (Jung, C.G., Collected Works, Vol. 6, p. 152)
In summary then the prehistoric human is not conscious of self as opposed to Other, has no individuality; his/her relationship to the world is collective. In the psyche there is no differentiation; the four functions have not separated out with the consequence that thought and feeling are tied to sensation. There is no will or volition; thoughts and feelings just happen.
On what does Jung base this theory? In his own words:
Powell says ‘The confusion of confusions is that universal habit of savagery – the confusion of the objective with the subjective’. Spencer and Gillan observe: ‘What a savage experiences during a dream is just as real to him as what he sees when he is awake.’ What I myself have seen of the psychology of the negro completely endorses these findings. (Jung, C.G., Collected Works, Vol. 6, p. 30)
Let us clarify this point as it will occur again and again: Jung is using the modern African as evidence for his theory on the prehistoric human, and thus stating that the modern African is primitive, is prehistoric. … To him it is a self-evident truth, the a priori postulate on which all else is based. (pp. 263-264)
The idea of the ideal, the ideal of the “European man” as layered, more cultured, more advanced and that the Black man is primitive and “a savage”. All of this as part of his cornerstone of working with archetypal figures and ideas.
In 2018, thirty years after Dalal’s presentation/paper, a group of Jungians wrote an open letter published in the same journal called “Open Letter From a Group of Jungians on the Question of Jung’s Writings on and Theories about ‘Africans.’” (The Authors. (2018). “Open Letter” British Journal of Psychotherapy, v. 34, Issue 3, pp. 673-678.)
The letter, which was signed by many prominent Jungians, stated:
Via detailed scholarship, Dalal sets out what Jung wrote about persons of African and South Asian Indian heritage, as well as other populations of colour, and Indigenous peoples. Before and since the paper, Jung’s views have caused considerable disquiet and often anger within the communities concerned. There has also been disquiet and anger about Jung’s views in clinical, academic and cultural circles generally.
Analytical psychologists and other Jungians have known about the implications of Jung’s ideas for decades; there are signatories to this Letter who have campaigned for recognition of the problems. But there has been a failure to address them responsibly, seriously and in public.
We share the concern that Jung’s colonial and racist ideas – sometimes explicit and sometimes implied – have led to inner harm (for example, internalized inferiority and self-abnegation) and outer harm (such as interpersonal and social consequences) for the groups, communities and individuals mentioned in the previous paragraph. Moreover, in the opinion of the signatories to this letter, these ideas have also led to aspects of de facto institutional and structural racism being present in Jungian organizations.
The intellectual and cultural environment of late nineteenth and early twentieth century psychology promoted many colonial and racist attitudes. Jung’s largely uncritical embrace of these attitudes led him to conclude that he was justified in constructing a hierarchy in which people of African heritage were alleged to ‘lack a layer’ of ‘mind’ that white Europeans possessed, and thus were ‘primitive’ in their emotional and psychological functioning. In addition, he also failed to listen to warnings from within his circle that his views were problematic. (pp. 673-674.)
The open letter continues with this comment:
We doubt that any contemporary clinicians and academics in the Jungian and post-Jungian community would endorse these ideas now, but the absence of an open distancing from Jung on these questions has allowed for some implicit biases in Jung’s work to remain perpetuated: unexamined and unchallenged. (p. 674.)
i need to say this again – Thirty years.
Also, it is alarming to me, this last statement. The gesture of “this isn’t happening now” is part of how exploration into racism (and other -isms) is acknowleged but then not encouraged in either the field or in each of us individually. (Platonic in its logic.) That was then, it suggests, but it does not happen now. Which is how racism is spoken about in this country still.
This kind of “logic” takes some of the singular truths of Jung and his theories and makes them a singular truth. For example, I found this writing on Pacifica Graduate Institute’s website. Pacifica has graduate programs for many things, including depth psychology and dreamwork and Jung and Archetypal Studies. It is a great school, with many great scholars. I even presented at Pacifica about dreams and myths at a mythology conference. Here’s a quote from Craig Chalquist, a respected scholar and associate provost of the institute:
A remarkable thing about Jung’s work is that so little of it is out of date. Much of the last century’s behaviorally oriented research involving mice, pigeons, and calculators is of no use anymore, if it ever was. But Jung cast light on so many hidden essentials of human nature that, if anything, his work grows more relevant as time goes on…
Chalquist, Craig, PhD. “Who was Carl Jung and Why Should we Study his Work?”, Pacifica Graduate Institute, Pacifica Post, October 17, 2016, www.pacificapost.com/who-was-carl-jung-and-why-should-we-study-him-and-his-work. Accessed July 12, 2020.
A singular truth about one person and their theories: the assumption that so little of Jung’s work “is out of date.” (Note: I do not know if Pacifica explores these issues in their classes about Jung and his theories, perhaps they do. Having statements like this, however, gestures away from the problems inherent in Jung. And does not begin the more layered and difficult conversations needed.)
Of course, I do not doubt that there are contemporary clinicians and academics who do endorse these kinds of ideas at the core of Jung’s theories – if not consciously, then most certainly unconsciously. That there are not just “some” implicit biases. Remember, the open letter to the British Psychoanalytical Society came thirty years after Dalal’s article.
This kind of statement and statements that are coming out now about racism are coming after years of scholarship, history, articles, letters, movies, books in many fields – it has been, to some extent, explored. In Jungian circles, I think especially of Jungian Analyst and Scholar Fanny Brewster whose books include African Americans and Jungian Psychology: Leaving the Shadows (Routledge, 2017) and The Racial Complex: A Jungian Perspective on Culture and Race (Routledge, 2019). But these explorations are often behind representations of Jung – like Chalquist.
The Assumption of “Truth” of the Idea of the Ideal
I started studying archetypal dreamwork in 1998, a full ten years after Dalal presented and wrote his piece, and never explored nor was mentored to explore these parts of Jung or these kinds of conversations. Not in my training as a dreamworker and not in my training as a poet. The readings I was given and encouraged to read were selected writings, parts that selectively omitted Jung’s racism as well as his possible anti-Semitism and questionable views about women.
When my teacher worked my first dream with a Black woman and asked me no questions about her, about my history, about who I was as a white woman in relationship to Black women, he made assumptions about the figure in my dream, whom he deemed as “Other” because she was Black and I am white. Assumptions deeply imbedded in his Jungian background. Embedded in centuries of philosophies generated by ruling cultures. Embedded in centuries of racist assumptions of this country.
When I accepted his assumptions, when I accepted the racist idea of the Black woman as “Other” without speaking about the personal, I did the same. It was not just in my teacher, not just in Jung and his teachings, but in me and my body, too. And they had already been embedded in my body long before I sat in that first dream session.
I did the same because that kind of racism, bias and story has been and is still woven in my body.
And it is only now, Twenty-two years later, that I am even beginning to delve into those racist assumptions and into the invitation of the dream to confront these dangerous assumptions.