The Role of Dream Narratives in Midlife Spiritual Development: A Jungian Perspective

Narrative Medicine, Volume 2; Issue 1

Dreaming holds great fascination for many people who are on the spiritual journey. There are even dream study groups, list-serves dedicated to dream work, and other venues for journaling dreams or keeping dream diaries. Indeed, it would be difficult to determine the exact number of popular and scholarly books and articles written on the subject of dreams, or even on dreams and spirituality. Dream research has also made its way into contemporary neuropsychology. Though researchers still debate whether dreams mean anything at all, some studies suggest that one role of dreams is to foster positive adaptation. Here, I will offer a Jungian perspective on one particular question of clinical relevance: What is the role of dream narratives in midlife spiritual development?

Behind this question is found a mind-body connection that comes to bear whether or not the physiological underpinnings of dreaming can be fully identified. Thus, I offer a review of some of the theoretical, empirical, and historically relevant literature on the role of dream narratives with regard to midlife spiritual development from a Jungian perspective. I will also critically evaluate issues raised by this review that may be suitable for further systematic inquiry.

Midlife, as used here, denotes what Jung considered the second half of life, from a psychospiritual standpoint. That is, as the famed Jungian analyst Jean Shinoda Bolen put it in her memoir, “Midlife is a time and a state of the psyche.”1p187 As such, it is not confined to a certain age, but is rather more a stage of life. She further wrote:

“Each of us arrives here sometime during the middle years of adulthood and stays … as if at a crossroads, before we can go on … . At midlife, we sense that time is passing; we know that this is around the halfway mark and that the rest of life will go by quickly now. We are confronted with the fact that we are aging; we do not have the same body we once had, and much else about us has also changed. A discrepancy may exist between what we have and what we wanted or expected of life ...”1p187-8

Additionally, I will use the term spiritual development not so much in terms of a relationship to God in an anthropomorphic sense but rather as that which leads to spiritual understanding as Jung conceived of it heuristically, in that whereas spirituality might be inborn, spiritual understanding must be cultivated.2

Literature Review
1. Dream Narratives 
In dream narratives, Jungians often focus on images and their symbology. The linkage of images and symbols with a transformation toward wholeness is of interest in the Jungian view of spiritual development. Spiritual dreams are seen as arising in “connection with the archetype of the Self, the archetype through which we derive a sense of meaning and affiliation with something greater than our small selves.” 1p17 In this sense, one may take on a more universal perception of the web of connectedness. “The dream appears with the possibility of new or renewed life. The soul is awakening.” Bolen noted. 1p17

Thus through the spiritual dream narrative one may touch the very ground of being and receive guidance. Such functions are then very practical applications of spiritual dream narratives. Moreover, the role of dream narratives in spirituality can be examined through case studies and hermeneutics, as Jung himself showed.2 Dreams in part are spiritual events, such that their roles include offering healing and wholeness, and unleashing energy that lets the dreamer relate to the depths of the self.

2. Midlife Spiritual Development
The act of freeing oneself can mark midlife spiritual development and extend into one’s older years. Indeed, midlife can hold many rites of passage toward conscious individuation, perhaps the primary psychospiritual journey of human existence. Midlife stands in distinction to youth, which is often associated more with physical and intellectual burgeoning. During a movement from youth to midlife, one can differentiate from the crowd, and nudges from the unconscious can feel sharp. Such descriptions fit with Bolen’s theme of being at a crossroads.1

They also compare favorably with the cultivation of spiritual understanding described in the Introduction. Regarding psychospirituality, Bolen observed that the midlife passage is a liminal state wherein “the invisible spiritual world and visible reality come together; here intuitive possibility is on the threshold of tangible manifestation.”2p8 People may want to live their dreams, since living in expected ways no longer satisfies the soul—subjectively—such that previous lifestyles cannot be sustained. Bolen specified that “when the former fabric of life comes apart at the seams and old patterns unravel, dreams and synchronicities often become more important and numerous.”2p106Divorce was included among such instances, a common correlate of a midlife crisis, and a crucial time when people might enter therapy.

Along these lines, renowned Jungian analysts John Beebe, Joseph Cambray, and Thomas Kirsch noted, “Because they could ‘pick up’ on the signs that someone was starting to individuate, Jungian analysts began to attract as patients people in midlife or beyond.”3p238

3. Jungian Perspectives
Whereas the above sensitivity to midlife issues is one area where Jungians stand out, a narrative style of dream work is another. Yet there is a more fundamental aspect of Jungian perspectives that is also outstanding—the difference from the Freudian emphasis on sexual drives, which was one of the famed causes of the split between Freud and Jung.

Generally, Jung took a more holistic approach to the psyche as informed by his study of religion, anthropology, mythology, alchemy, and indigenous cultures, in addition to his study of dream narratives, complexes, and personality types. He studied visions, fantasies, and other experiences, depending on culture. All of these forms of gnosis or knowing were brought to bear on the process of individuation.

Beebe et al corroborated the fact that Jung “had a lifelong interest in dreams and their meanings, for it was here that the deep layers of the unconscious most readily expressed themselves to an individual mind.”3p215 It is perhaps for this reason Jung argued that “dreams have some special and … significant function of their own.”2p11 With his profound respect for the wisdom of the unconscious, he also noted, “Very often dreams have a definite, evidently purposeful structure, indicating an underlying idea or intention—though, as a rule, the latter is not immediately comprehensible.”2p12 Whereas the difficulty in understanding the intent of a dream may be one barrier to taking dream narratives seriously, Jung argued a related but more basic point: “dreamers tend to ignore and even deny the message of their dreams. Consciousness naturally resists anything unconscious and unknown.”2p17

Exploring dream narratives rather than resisting them seemed worthwhile for Jung, since he asserted that the source of one’s dream life “is the soil from which most symbols originally grow.”2p27 Thus, he concluded that dreams are “messages from the unconscious” and that they are of “greater importance than most people realize.”2p33 Moreover he determined that the “general function of dreams is to try to restore our psychological balance by producing dream material that re-establishes, in a subtle way, the total psychic equilibrium.” This is what Jung called the “complementary (or compensatory) role of dreams in our psychic make-up.”2p34

One kind of compensation that Jung explored relates specifically to development. Beebe et al wrote that such compensation “occurs through what Jung calls the dream’s ‘prospective’ function. Here, a dream presents symbolic potential to the dreamer’s ego,”3p218 a role of dream narratives that would seem crucial in a midlife crisis since it “represents a potential way forward out of the situation that presently has the dreamer stuck.”3p218 Often a way forward is spiritual. Prospective dreams may be few, but Jung studied their very nature, which he found to be a spiritual one.3Thus, dream narratives challenge dreamers to refine, deepen, and expand their grasp of the sacred.

Yet Jungians also recognize the difficulties inherent in dream interpretation and are cautious about the danger. As Beebe et al observed:

“Interpretation is most difficult when directed toward dream figures that are significant individuals in the dreamer’s waking life. Then the Jungian analyst feels compelled to ask, does this image refer to the real individual portrayed, or to an aspect of the dreamer’s psyche? So many dreams have a dual quality in this regard that Jungian dream interpretation becomes a hazardous art, with the potential for misunderstandings.”3p219

Jung himself noted this trickster characteristic of dreams when he compared them to the Delphic story of a king who was about to go into battle and looked to the oracle to determine whether he would have victory. The oracle told of a large kingdom being destroyed and the warrior took this as a sure sign of his impending success: little did he know that the large kingdom to be vanquished was his own!2 Such a teaching story leads one to wonder: Is it the dream that is the trickster, or our own egotistical interpretations? Following a hermeneutic analysis, the evidence will be examined to help determine an outcome.

Hermeneutic Analysis
The hermeneutic method of analysis involves interpretation of the literature. Kvale observed in his book on qualitative research that the “purpose of hermeneutical interpretation is to obtain a valid and common understanding of the meaning of a text.”4p46 The text here was considered as the Jungian perspective in itself. As Kvale noted, “The hermeneutic discipline is an attempt to reflect upon the mode of understanding in the humanities, such as by interpretations in literature and historical research, as well as in theology … .”4p47 The field of this particular study was the realm of midlife spiritual development.

The analytical process used in this article conforms to Gadamer’s conception of hermeneutics, in that it entails a “fundamental questioning of the meaning of being … .”4p47 Along these lines, the present researcher followed certain methods and applied their implications to the subject matter. A primary method was a centering on “the hermeneutical circle and canons of interpretation.”4p47 As Kvale wrote:

“The interpretation of meaning is characterized by a hermeneutical circle. The understanding of a text takes place through a process in which the meaning of the separate parts is determined by the global meaning of the text, as it is anticipated. The closer determination of the meaning of the separate parts may eventually change the originally anticipated meaning of the totality, which again influences the meaning of the separate parts, and so on. In principle, such a hermeneutical explication of the text is an infinite process, while it ends in practice when one has reached a sensible meaning, a valid unitary meaning, free of inner contradictions.”4p47

The method was then applied to the specific question of the role of dream narratives within the contexts mentioned above, examining specific material pertinent to the subject as a whole. Jung’s work exemplified this approach. Beebe et al wrote:

“The Jungian who interprets a dream considers it crucial to know the conscious situation of the dreamer and the habitual attitude the dreamer has been taking toward that situation. Then one turns to the dream to discover the attitude the unconscious is bringing to the same situation.“From this perspective, interpretation of a dream requires that one take both sides of the psyche, conscious and unconscious, into account.”3p217

Notice how congruently this also relates to Jung’s notion of the role of dreams as complementary/compensatory. The parts and the whole mirror, balance, and complete each other. Similarly based on such an interplay between microcosm and macrocosm, the practice of hermeneutical interpretation, in terms of its basic canons, is one that

“… involves the continuous back and forth process between the parts and the whole that follows from the hermeneutical circle. Starting with an often vague and intuitive understanding of the text as a whole, its different parts are interpreted, and out of these interpretations the parts are again related to the totality, and so on. In the hermeneutical tradition this circularity is not viewed as a ‘vicious circle,’ but rather as a circulus fructuosis, or spiral, which implies the possibility of a continuously deepened understanding of meaning.”4p48

Here again, note the relationship between fructuosis and fructifying or fruitful. Circumambulation, as Jung called such spiraling, is a productive journey toward a central meaning. Bolen noted that:

“[the circular] pattern of entering, getting to the center, and coming out is … a map of the psychological process: shedding, finding, and integrating … . We find what really matters to us and can reach the core or center of meaning in ourselves, which is the center of the labyrinth, and then we have the task of integrating this into what we do with our lives when we emerge.”1p163

It is both a centripetal and centrifugal pattern. In fact, Kvale wrote, “The problem is not to get away from the circularity in the explication of meanings, but to get into the circle in the right way.”4p48What Kvale meant here is that in analyzing a text the researcher commonly examines it for a general understanding, revisits it for a clearer perspective on themes and specific vocabulary, and returns to the full text for a more complete meaning, repeating this process until a text is comprehended in depth. In understanding the Jungian perspective, the present researcher has followed just such a process in not only this study but also regarding several themes within its context.

From a Jungian viewpoint, dreams and life situations continually inform one another, such that insights and wisdom are revealed throughout the maturation of someone on a path of conscious individuation. As Beebe et al noted:

“A basic principle of Jungian dream interpretation … is that the meaning a dream is capable of bringing to a dreamer will change as the psychology of the individual unfolds in the course of analysis and development. Most Jungian analysts seek to preserve this healthy core of mystery to the dream, which they think has a certain energy that moves the psyche to develop over time.”3p219

This process can be likened also to the idea of focusing evermore toward the center of a mandala, which Jung recognized as a symbol of the Self in its wholeness. In a sense then, one role of dream narratives in spiritual development could be to present to the dreamer the mandala of the self viewed from various sides. Here too the concentric nature of the process is emphasized. How fitting hermeneutics then is for an analysis of the Jungian perspective on midlife spiritual development.

Another canon of hermeneutical interpretation includes the “autonomy of the text, that the text should be understood on the basis of it own frame of reference, by explicating what the text itself states about a theme,” such that “what matters is to deepen and extend the autonomous meaning … .”4p49 For this reason, the present researcher has focused on what Jung and Jungians have had to say about the Jungian perspective, getting an inside view.

Additionally, “hermeneutical explication of a text concerns knowledge about the theme” contained, so that the researcher is “sensitive to nuances of meanings expressed and the different contexts into which the meanings may enter.”4p49 Using this principle, focus was further narrowed on material regarding midlife spirituality and dream narratives that accompany it. As Beebe et al noted, the Jungian perspective is very much oriented to understanding a dream narrative “in its own context. Furthermore, Jungians find it useful to look for common patterns in dreams over time, as one can readily identify an archetypal motif if one examines the dreams of a single dreamer in a series.”3p216 Again, the Jungian approach matches well with hermeneutics.

Also as befitting this methodology, Beebe’s team decried:

“the mistaken assumption that Jungians believe dream images have fixed meanings, which can be looked up in books on mythology and then communicated, dogmatically, to the dreamer .... The essence of Jungian practice has always been that the dreamer becomes individually related to the dream image in a meaningful way.”3p216-7

Fixed interpretation would be antithetical to the philosophy of an individualized encounter that is entered into with a sacred attitude.

However, “an interpretation of a text is not presuppositionless”; rather, the researcher makes such biases transparent.4p49 In the current case, the present researcher does have a Jungian orientation and a personal experience of dream narratives having played a role in midlife spiritual development, thus leading to interest in the subject and motivation to study it.

Still another principle of hermeneutics is that “every interpretation involves innovation andcreativity,” such that the interpretation “goes beyond the immediately given and enriches the understanding by bringing forth new differentiations and interrelations in the text, extending its meaning.”4p50 Jung attended to the narratives of the unconscious this way as well.

Moreover, according to Kvale, another important “canon is that an interpretation of meaning ends when one has reached … an inner unity of the text free of logical contradictions”4p48 Supporting this principle is “the testing of part interpretations against the global meaning of the text and possibly also against other texts by the same author.”4p48 Toward these ends, a text by Jung is used as well as texts by current Jungian authors, to help arrive at a shared and unified understanding of the role of dream narratives in midlife spiritual development. In fact, I am building here from my previous, unpublished work.

Results and Conclusions
Recalling that the purpose here was to address and explore the role of dream narratives in midlife spiritual development from a Jungian perspective, the means to achieve that purpose involved hermeneutics and a literature review regarding dream narratives, midlife spiritual development, and Jungian perspectives.

In distilling the information, it was noted that dreaming holds great fascination for many on the spiritual journey. Dream narratives connect ordinary awareness with the unconscious and with spirituality itself, especially at crucial times. Their role is also to carry the dreamer to further stages of conscious development in such a way that the dreamer can act on the new awareness through the narrative. An additional role of dream narratives is to funnel insight and energy into waking life.

I observed that there is also clinical evidence of patients’ drive toward wholeness in their dream symbolism, and that this inner alchemy manifests prominently in midlife psychospiritual development. Such development makes possible self-renewal. The mystery and numinosity of spiritual dream narratives provide a subjective experience of healing. Spiritual dream narratives can mark milestones in individuation. Such dream stories touch on archetypal and personal issues that affect clinical practice in terms of the need for validation, the potential release from pathology, the autonomy of the healing process, developmental implications, and psychological benefit. In this sense, the role of such dream narratives is a transformative one.

Furthermore, Jung’s work showed it is possible to differentiate spiritual dream narratives from other dream narratives throughout various cultures.2 Indeed their role in healing, wholeness, and energetic relatedness to the inner depths of the self was corroborated throughout his work, as was their role in bringing insight to waking life. Jung’s lifework with regard to dream narratives and their significance has been supported by research of current clinical literature. His understanding of midlife psychospirituality as a matter of self-integration has been evidenced as well. Jung understood and accounted for the fact that many deny a function of dreams. He was also able to explain how dreams can play a prospective role, in terms of potential that may be lived out.

It was identified how dream narratives can deepen throughout a series, in the quest for midlife spiritual development. Meanwhile though, it was determined that the process does not reach a definite conclusion. Each individual’s dream narratives produce unique patterns even within archetypal motifs, such that no dream dictionary can substitute for a personal psychospiritual understanding. For Jung, such understanding was reflective and hermeneutic.

I have used Jungian and hermeneutic texts as interpreted from a Jungian perspective, to derive a unified understanding of the role of dream narratives in midlife spiritual development. That role can be described in terms of its parts, or as a whole, in noting that dream narratives offer a wellspring for spiritual development, that they reveal what is sacred to the individual, or even that they may be seen as expressing messages from the gods/goddesses, depending on one’s cosmogony.

Simultaneously, it has been noted how tentatively these roles have been embraced historically, given the distrust of dreams, the difficulties of dream interpretation, and the danger of misunderstandings because of the dual quality of dream characters possibly symbolizing real people/relationships and/or aspects of the dreamer/the dreamer’s relationship to the Self.

1. Critical Evaluation of the Issues
The primary issue in this discussion was to determine the role of dream narratives in midlife spiritual development from a Jungian viewpoint. Second, it is important to note if any such role is a helpful or unhelpful one, overall. Third, if it is helpful, how can this role be used to greatest effect?

As further distilled from the Results and Conclusions section it can be determined that, from a Jungian perspective, the most basic role of dream narratives in midlife spiritual development is to connect ordinary awareness with the unconscious and with subjective spirituality and thus to foster positive adaptation in the form of marking milestones in the process of individuation.

To determine if this role is helpful, it is useful to test it against a general view of healthy spirituality. The creative approach of narrative dream work and the use of the subjective in practice jibe well with a Jungian notion of spiritual development as well as to the process of individuation. Narrative dream work and healthy spirituality focus on creativity as well as maturity. They each also emphasize the theme of insight.

Both healthy spirituality and the Jungian perspective on dream narratives and spiritual understanding are based on experience rather than dogma. Rewards of narrative dream work parallel those developed by following spiritual experiences, marking a path toward wholeness. The element of autonomy in healthy spirituality correlates with the Jungian notion of the autonomy of the healing process. A healthy refusal to deny one’s emotions fits well with the refusal to deny the message of the dream narrative. Respect for the individual parallels the importance of individuation as a spiritual process. Increasing awareness and understanding is another theme in common, as is the idea of openness.

Since the findings of the present study work well with the concept of healthy spirituality the next query to ask is, how can the stated role of dream narratives be used to greatest effect in terms of midlife spiritual development? In short, the evidence showed that Jungians amplify dream narratives through symbology. The symbol provides the meaning, and the dreamer then determines whether and how to live it out.

2. Suggestions for Further Systematic Inquiry
Given that dream narratives do play a subjective role in midlife spiritual development, it could prove helpful to study whether narratives of daydreams can be used to amplify spiritual development. Additionally, it would be interesting to study the differences between the role of dream narratives in youth and in midlife, especially with respect to spirituality. Such projects could be fruitful and enlightening.

Following on the above, it is also of interest to study in depth the role of dream narratives in spiritual emergence processes, or psychospiritual crises.


  1. Bolen JS. Crossing to Avalon: A woman’s midlife pilgrimage. New York: HarperCollins Publishers; 1994.
  2. Jung CG. Approaching the unconscious. In: Jung CG (editor). Man and his symbols. New York: Dell Publishing Company; 1964. p 1-94.
  3. Beebe J, Cambray J, Kirsch T. What Freudians can learn from Jung. Psychoanalytic Psychology [serial on the Internet] 2001 Mar [cited February 9, 2009]; 18(2): 213-242. Available from: PsycARTICLES:
  4. Kvale S. InterViews: An introduction to qualitative research interviewing. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications; 1996. p 46-51.

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