Do the Contents of the Unconscious Want to Be Exposed in Dreams?

A few years ago I was working with a woman who didn’t understand why I was so interested in her dreams. As a way of justifying myself I said: “I’m interested in dreams because our unconscious uses them to communicate with us.” She countered with: “Well, I just let my unconscious be unconscious. What if it doesn’t want to be probed? What if it just wants to be left unconscious?”

We had a good debate going on this topic for a while, and eventually she did oblige me by telling me a few dreams (very interesting ones as it turned out). But she held her ground in the debate; she was not at all convinced that it was a good idea to try to haul your dreams up into consciousness in the morning. Her position was hard for me to consider openly and dispassionately; it challenged one of my most cherished beliefs– that the unconscious wants to communicate with the ego consciousness. I began to mentally prepare a set of persuasive arguments I could bring forward at our next meeting.

Then, sure enough, I had a dream which caused me to question my own position. I called it “The Angry Seals”:

“I’m on a working holiday retreat, renting a house near the beach in Malibu, California. I have just arrived and I’m eager to get down to the beach and explore it. I head down to the beach with my dog. When we get there I find that it’s not really a beach, but has large concrete steps going down into the water. The water is a beautiful turquoise color, very inviting. When my dog goes down to stick his paw in the water a man standing nearby gives him a very disapproving look; I wonder–are dogs not allowed here? Then a seal stands up in the water about twenty feet away from us. He’s holding a large rock. Then he throws it in our direction! I call my dog over to me, to keep him away from the water’s edge. Then a second seal, bigger than the first, stands up and faces us, holding an even bigger rock. He throws it right at us, almost hitting us! I leash my dog and back away…this seems very serious…I don’t want to mess with these seals…”

Upon waking I felt that the dream was saying something about the point I had been arguing with my client. It would appear that the seals (inhabitants of the ocean/the unconscious) had some resistance to me and my dog exploring the water’s edge (the area of contact between conscious and unconscious). Did they not want us to be poking around in the water? The dream had the very familiar pattern (which I believe is both archetypal and psychodynamic) of an escalation of intensity through a series of three encounters–first the disapproving bystander, then the first angry seal, then the second seal, who was bigger, angrier, and more accurate with his rock throwing!

For me there was no denying that this dream came in support of my client’s argument–it appears to be saying that the unconscious wants to defend itself from certain unwanted intrusions. The seals were very clear in their communication: “Get away from the water’s edge!”

I really had to take a long hard look at this one. Here I was shifting my health care practice more and more in the direction of dreamwork… and I get a dream like this! Over the years I had become very fond of shoreline dreams; a beach or a shoreline has appeared as a dream setting in many of my client’s dreams and my own, where it so often served as a metaphor for the liminal area that straddles both consciousness and unconsciousness and sets a stage for the many phenomena that happen there, including dream recall.

But, before this angry seal dream, my own shoreline dreams had usually been inviting and mysterious. I had usually felt that I could explore the ocean, venture in deeper and deeper if I wanted; it was only my own fear and stuckness that would stop me. But now two native ocean dwellers were stopping me, seemingly acting as guardians of the deep. My client’s words were echoing through the dream image: “What if the unconscious just wants to be left unconscious?” I began to feel like a commercial whaler that was guilty of over-fishing the oceans, pulling out contents that would be better left alone and unharrassed. I decided that I had to accept this as an ego check dream, a dream that offers compensation and mirroring to an imbalanced or lopsided ego position. My ego position was that of course the unconscious wants to be explored by the conscious mind, it wants to communicate and it does a lot of this communication through dreams; therefore encouraging people to develop their dream recall abilities and work with their dreams is clearly a good thing. Now I receive a dream which appears to challenge this position. I decided to look at some of the possible implications…

Could this mean that I was being too aggressive or invasive my approach to dreams? Was there some way in which I was not being respectful of the natural integrity of the unconscious? Was I being too “California” in my approach to dreams, since the dream was set in Malibu (for me “California” could mean the mindset of anybody-can-take-a-workshop-and-be-a-spiritual-expert). Could it be reminding me that here are there some people who should not do dreamwork (perhaps this particular client was one of these)? Or that there are some circumstances in which dreamwork could be harmful or contra-indicated?

Interesting mullings, but for me the next step would be to seek a more direct experiential encounter with a key element of the dream to get more clarity on the dream message. In this case I would either want to be one of the angry seals and try to experience the problem for its’ perspective, or do a Jacques Cousteau –venture respectfully and cautiously into the water to meet the seals on their own terms and in their own habitat. It occurred to me that it might be the presence of my dog that was upsetting the seals. This particular dog was a mixed breed that included some border collie, so it definitely had the instinct to chase, to herd, and to nip at the heels. This could perhaps represent an over-zealous attitude of wanting to “herd” dreams and dreamers towards my desired goal of extracting meaningful messages from them (something that could have been of fair criticism of my work at the time, hopefully less so now).

I decided to try the following visualization as a response to the dream: I leash my dog and take him back to the beach house. Then I walk back to the waterfront alone and stand at the edge. The disapproving man is no longer there. I wait for a while. The seals do not appear. I take this to mean that they are not so strongly opposed to my presence when I approach without the dog. I venture down the concrete steps and into the water, slowly, one step at a time. Still the seals do not appear. I swim into the water, staying close to shore at first but submerging my head to scan around for the seals. I see them in the distance, lots of them. I focus on one of them (I think he is the big one from the dream). He approaches me. He has a big seal frown on his face. He seems a bit irritable, but not hostile or aggressive. We come face to face under the water. I tell him that I am aware that this is his world and I am a visitor. I explain that I have great respect (even reverence) for the creatures of the deep. He grunts: “Just make sure you keep the dog away.” I promise that I will. He turns away. As he brushes by me I can feel the immense power in his body. I return to the land.

Since this time I have tried to keep the energy of the sheep herding dog out of my dreamwork as much as possible. This has often been difficult for me because I have a great fascination for dreams, it’s often hard for me to keep things in the passionate-but-not-over-zealous range. I still get impatient with people who can’t muster up the energy to remember and record a dream properly. But then I remind myself of the angry seals ready to hurl their rocks at me. I consider that perhaps my client’s seeming laziness may be a way of protecting his or her unconscious from being over-fished. I have more respect for the naturally occurring defenses and avoidances of the unconscious. I’m more subtle in the way I ask for dream material and I have been well rewarded by receiving more and more of it.

I still believe that the unconscious wants to communicate through dreams a lot of the time. As long as you remember – seals are not sheep.

Christopher Sowton

  • Tallulah Lyons Reply

    Thank you. This post is so helpful to me right now. I have a good friend who is resisting and avoiding health messages that are coming from her dreams and from symptoms. I have been wanting her to plow in – but with the advice of your post, I’ll try to ease off and make sure I leave the sheep dog at home.

  • Melinda Reply

    Hi Chris

    This is such an excellent and informative post. I appreciate your courage to honestly examine your teaching ‘nature’. I am curious also about your perspective regarding this line :’Or that there are some circumstances in which dreamwork could be harmful or contra-indicated?


  • Jenny Phung Reply

    Hi Christopher,

    Thanks for sharing your story. I have been curious about my dreams and what they are saying to me lately. Great insights!

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