by permission of The Ned Leavitt Agency
from Sacred Stories: A Celebration of the Power to
Transform and Heal by Charles and Anne Simpkinson,
copyright © 1993 by Edith Sullwold
Sullwold, Ph.D., was a Jungian therapist who taught and
supervised therapists in the United States, Europe, and
Africa. Former director of the Children's Center at the
C.G. Jung Institute of Los Angeles, and of Turning
Point, a group for children with serious illnesses.
Sullwold was best known for her work with the creative
use of the imagination in therapy with children,
adolescents, and adults.
Sullwold had also worked both personally and
professionally with dreams for nearly thirty years.
Whereas some might see dreams as merely chemical and/or
electrical brain activity, Sullwold strongly believed
that dreams are stories from one's psyche that carry a
profound wisdom. Dreams, she explained, are like someone
knocking on the door: "They are saying, 'I have
something to tell you."' Because the stories our dreams
tell us are not always easily captured in rational
thought, Sullwold encouraged the use of creative,
frequently nonverbal means such as clay, paint,
movement, and music to explore them. In the following
pages, Sullwold elaborates on the concept of dreams as
important personal stories and offers specific
suggestions for creating a relationship with them that
will deepen and enrich the dreamer's life.
My view of dreams as stories comes from my own work with
dreams over the last thirty years. During the time of my
analysis and training, I spent some time in Zurich,
where I heard many stories about Carl Jung. The
following is one I particularly like because it confirms
that dreams are ultimately a mystery.
It is said that a favorite student of Jung's went to
visit him when he was in his eighties and living in a
little tower on Lake Zurich. They went for a walk, and
Jung began to tell him a dream. Jung would tell anybody
his dreams: friends, students, the farmers who lived
next door. He said that often their comments would give
him some new insight that he couldn't reach himself;
sometimes, people would say things that felt so wrong
that he got a hint of what might be right. This student,
as he was walking, listened to the dream very carefully.
In great awe as the students, of course, would have
been of Jung he said, "Oh, Dr. Jung, it must be so
marvelous, having worked on dreams for so long and being
the age you are, to be able to understand your own
dreams." And Jung said angrily, "No, no! Don't you
understand that your dream always remains a mystery,
particularly to yourself?"
You see, you never know exactly what your dreams mean.
You can't codify them into ordinary knowledge, but they
have a kind of energy that brings tremendous vitality
and, often, clarifying in-sight to your life. Our
consciousness is limited. One function of a dream is to
tell you something that is beyond consciousness. If you
try to understand dreams with your ordinary, conscious
mind, you'll never get those pieces which lie outside
your awareness. This is why it is good to tell someone
else your dream and to dance around the dream that is,
to find out something about it from all sides. One way
to work with dreams is to work with associations. For
example, if you have a dream about someone, does it
remind you of somebody else, and what is that person
like? Association is one way to dance around so that you
get some sense of familiarity.
Another way is to look at what is symbolic in the dream.
If you dream of a frog, is it a frog prince or an
ordinary frog? A third way is to see the dream as a
story, because dreams are inner dramas. I remember
working with someone who brought in a stack of
type-written dreams and said, "These are my dreams." I
thought, "Those aren't dreams. Those are like synopses
of operas written down on a piece of paper; they are not
A dream is an event that captures the body, the
imagination, and the soul. That is, the senses record
the experience in sound and sight, often accompanied by
subtle movement of the body; the imagination provides
the images, symbols, and story; and the psyche or soul
activates the energy to produce the dream. A dream is
also a dramatic event. The Greeks understood drama
profoundly, so much so that the theater was central in
all their major healing temples. They put on plays with
exaggerated life situations that could reflect, in a
more subtle way, the lives of the spectators. Everything
in Greek theater was bigger than life. If you look at
many of your dreams, they contain impossible happenings.
But if you reflect back on them, perhaps they give you
some insight into subtle aspects of your life that you
are overlooking. To see them as drama, to see them as
story, can be another way to begin to capture more of
their significance in your life.
For example, you might look at your dreams in relation
to aspects of a story, as you might look at a novel or
short story. Where does it take place? Is the place
familiar or unfamiliar? What is your feeling about the
place? What about the characters? Who are they? They may
not all be human; they may be images, animals, or some
significant objects. And again, are they familiar or
known to you, or are they unknown?
One way of working with the characters in a dream or a
sequence of dreams is to think about them as main
characters and extras. If you look at your life, you can
remember those people who have been absolutely
essential. There are those who have passed through you
may remember two or three out of your kindergarten class
and the rest you wouldn't recognize any more. They're
the backdrop. But essential characters have vitality and
meaning in your life. If you dropped any of them out,
your life would be quite different. So look at your
dream and see those characters, objects, or images that
have the same kind of essential quality in relationship
Some years ago in Switzerland I saw the opera Aida. I
had seen it once in Italy in a huge outdoor field; to
the great enthusiasm of the Italian music lovers, they
brought in elephants. In Switzerland, there were no
elephants, just gold. Not only was the stage set gold,
but all of the characters wore gold, all of them. And
into this dazzling gold setting came Aida, dark and
dressed in a bright blue dress. Her character so
contrasted with the backdrop of the others that the
audience was struck by her image. Very often in a dream,
a character, image, or symbol will catch you that way.
Those are the ones that you know are essential, are
worth working on and perhaps befriending in a very deep
way for the rest of your life.
Another thing to ask would be, what is the issue? What
is the core of this drama? Is it a question, or perhaps
a crisis, or some state of confusion? What is the juice
of the drama? What motivates the story?
Then, just as you would look at a story, ask yourself
what is happening in the dream? How does the action
develop? Look also at the ending, the resolution. Does
the dream resolve itself? Is the question that has been
asked answered? Or is the question still alive? Is the
question one that needs to be asked continually?
If you look at your dreams and get used to living with
them, you will see that they have a sequence. We are,
after all, continuous beings, but sometimes dreams don't
feel like that. A dream may have content that seems to
have nothing to do with the dreams that preceded or
followed it. Very often, however, a dream sequence will
state the same issue or the same question in many
different ways. The psyche is very kind. If you don't
get something one way, it will show it to you another
way, then another, and yet another. Very often a
question is not answered, but each time it's asked it
becomes more vivid and more alive to you, and perhaps
Most important is to ask about the meaning of a
particular dream in your life. Why did you have it? What
is it teaching you? Is it bringing new knowledge that
expands your awareness of yourself? Something that gives
the reason behind the dream? Is there a question it is
asking about your life?
In a King Arthur legend there was an old king who was
very ill and could only be healed when a knight asked
the right question. Asking the right question in that
story was essential to the old king's healing. You might
look at that mythic story as a metaphor for dream work.
The old king who rules the old kingdom would represent
your old standpoint, your old way of being in the world.
Asking the right question of your dream can wake you up
to what you haven't paid attention to, to what is new,
what is fresh, and what is being brought into your life
that you haven't quite lived before. Asking the right
question is essential to understanding your dreams.
Finally, it is important to integrate your dream stories
and the information you get from them into your life.
Otherwise, the dream is just a disconnected drama, which
is not the psyche's intent. The psyche's intention is to
heal. It tries to give you
information that will allow you to live your life more
fully and with more awareness.
For example, my husband had a dream in which an artist
friend of ours whose work has been shown in many
galleries had composed an opera. In the dream, my
husband found himself on stage, singing a solo. Shortly
after he had this dream, my husband was asked to display
and talk about the paintings he had done for the
preceding fifty years. Although his paintings, inspired
by the inner world of images and dreams, had always been
done only for his own reflection, the dream made it
clear to him that this work was now to be "on stage,"
exposing to an audience his part in the opera of life.
He accepted this invitation to "sing a solo."
In this example, the integration of the dream into the
dreamer's waking life came quickly. Sometimes such
integration may not come for years. If you read Jung's
autobiography, you will see that some striking dreams he
had when he was small as young as five were still
working in him in his old age. You might have powerful
dreams that stay with you, and only later can you say,
"Oh, that's what that is about." It doesn't mean the
dream hasn't affected you in that period of time, but
perhaps the confirmation in your life doesn't come clear
until some time later. As you get older and have much
more of a story to look back on, more of your life
begins to make sense. "Oh, that's why that happened!"
"Oh, that's why I made that choice!" There's a weaving
together that begins to give your life both inner and
outer some cohesive meaning.
I'll give you an example from my own dream life. At the
time I had this dream, I was working with Mary
Whitehouse, who was one of the founders of the dance
therapy movement and a close friend. It was a very
important time in my life. Until that period, I thought
the only reason to have a body was to hold my head up.
Working with my body was a very moving and profound
experience for me. It brought out creativity that had
not been alive before.
IN THE DREAM, I went to my lesson with Mary. There were
two other students there. Mary took us all down to an
open area at the bottom of a hill to dance. When we got
to the bottom, we sat on benches and watched some
monkeys that were separated by a fence from people who
sat in the seats. We watched them, especially a green
one on the left who was wrapping his arms around himself
and twirling. My husband was sitting next to me. We
began to talk to the monkey and were surprised when he
began to talk to us.
Now, LET'S LOOK at the dream aspects I referred to
before. The setting consisted of being with a very dear
friend of mine who helped to reconnect me to my body and
for whose work I had tremendous respect. That was
familiar. However, I had always danced alone with her,
not publicly. In this setting, there were two other
women dancers and we were in a public arena. The
unfamiliarity was that there was something of a
performance about the work that had not been there
before. It might be that some insight I would have in
this unfamiliar setting would be applicable not only to
me but also to a larger collective.
When we actually got to the arena, it turned out that it
wasn't the dancers who performed but the monkeys. We
were thus not an active part of the drama but passively
watching unfamiliar figures who were perhaps there to
teach us something. The monkeys were behind a fence in
this dream, a fence that perhaps indicated the barrier
between the familiar and the unfamiliarthe consciously
known and the new material from the unconscious.
The greatest surprise, of course, came in the character
of the monkey who talked. He was clearly the spokesman
for the unknown, the one with the new lesson. He was the
predominant character in this dream, the "Aida" of the
drama. My husband's presence there was very important
because he believes that animals know exactly what you
say to them and can communicate, so he appeared in the
dream as someone who really understood that it was
Beginning with my husband's understanding and led by my
own curiosity about what the monkey said, and wondering
why a monkey should come into my dream-story, I decided
to ask the monkey himself. I began by writing a dialogue
between us, a written conversation of the sort that Jung
describes as "active imagination."
What is it that you have to say?
To play, to twirl, to spin, this is the way.
But play? Isn't it work that's needed?
To really play would be work for you. It is
letting go in the head, letting the inside
spin you outside, letting the center take
over and tumble you. Just let the outer
extremities follow. Just do it, let go.
But, monkey, I have two other questions. Why
do you have no neck? And what are you doing
in the tree?
No neck. Of course that would interest you.
I have none because I am still so much in
nature, and there hasn't been a split
between my head and my body. You see, I
don't need to turn my head around so much to
locate myself. Look at me now in the tree
holding on with arms and legs and tail. I
can see very well from this spot in the
tree, of course, and the moon is in my favor
of communication with the monkey about how to be in
the body; how to play, to move, to be more free had
been very much inspired by my work with Mary Whitehouse.
But the monkey reinforced the sense of the absolute
animal naturalness of this connection with physical
agility and form. He was the exaggeration of this point
of view, the kind of exaggeration the Greeks played with
in their dramas. And the
message was collective, because I was not am not
alone in disconnecting my natural relationship to the
body from my mind and soul. It is still a collective
issue. But the monkey also gave me a lesson not only
about my physical body but about my spirit, which needed
to move more from the inside out, a hint of which was in
his statement about the moon. I still had curiosity
about that statement, but sometimes it is good to let
some aspects of the dream remain a mystery until they
want to show themselves.
I wanted to record the visual image of the dream-monkey,
so I drew him as he had appeared in my dream, in a tree
against the moon. A week later, I made another drawing
because I wanted to see him again. In this drawing, the
monkey was sitting on a rock near a pond reading a book.
This drawing turned into a story that I wrote down. The
monkey had gone into the pond and, under some rocks,
found a box of old manuscripts. Some of them were very
wet and rotten. But he brought the manuscripts back up
and began to read to me from them. This is part of what
I'll take up the second sheet now. It's
yellow and wrinkled, as though someone
wanted to throw it away but changed his
mind. It says, Beware of the sun, behold the
moon. Behold the moon in the darkness. This
darkness brings light. Pure light is too
bright and flattens the image. The moon
gives depth and dimension to life.
What meaning does this have?
I think you understand most of this, at
least on the surface. The dark is the
unconscious, the moon is the feminine which
lights it. Being incompletely lit, there is
something unknown, at least unknowable in
terms of mind. The logic of intellect will
flatten because it leaves out that which is
mysterious. What I think you may not
understand is the other quality, the
darkness. Besides its soft enfolding,
intimate quality, which is so feminine,
there's also a quality of danger in the
blackness; hidden things lurk in the
corners. This blackness in you, which needs
the illumination of the moon, is something
you have not come to terms with yet.
monkey was not just teaching me of my body, but about
the feminine aspect of spirit represented by the soft
light of the moon, by the darkness of night, and by the
mysteries of the unknown.
As I have grown older some thirty years have passed
since the dream remnants of the issues of this dream
still remain. For example, sometimes tension appears in
my neck, reminding me of a disconnection with my own
natural physicality; then I remember my friend the
monkey, a teacher of "no-neck," comfortable in his tree
with arms, legs, and tail, and I laugh and relax. And
often, in the full moon, I see not the "old man" in the
moon but the face of the monkey, speaking to me as a
friendly companion, reminding me of the softness of the
moonlight not the bright sunlight of intellect and
the subtlety of the imagination that speaks in the quiet
of the night.
IF YOU WANT to work with your own dreams like this,
there are many ways to approach them. You can spend time
writing about your dream, or writing dialogue with some
of the characters. You can continue the dream in a
story. You can draw an illustration of it, or make
something out of clay.
I suggest, however, that you don't try to do it all in
one sitting. If the dream figure is full of energy, it's
like having a new friend. When you have a new friend,
you don't just say, "Let's have a cup of tea. Good-bye."
You stay with her or him for a long time, and you do
different things together.
Writing the story of your dream can allow you to have a
deep conversation with something unknown. Write a
dialogue, as if you were writing a play or a novel. When
you write in that way novelists and playwrights often
talk about this you can develop the characters to a
point where they take over. You no longer have control
of them. For maybe the first ten minutes, it feels like
you're making it up, but all of a sudden something
happens and you are much more of a witness to the voices
that are speaking.
When you dialogue with figures from the dream, it is
important that you and the figures be in equal
partnership. In other words, don't just listen passively
to the figure. Question it, challenge it, say, "I don't
think so." The unconscious and your conscious mind
should be in a real relationship. When you do this, a
very amazing thing happens. The barrier between the two
begins to drop; you begin to have two friends, both
aspects of yourself, talking to each other.
In a significant passage on dialogue, Jung says that
unless the conscious mind and the unconscious learn to
dialogue with equality and respect, we probably will not
learn to do that person to person, group to group, or
nation to nation. The psyche is your training ground to
give an equal voice to both the inner unconscious
knowledge and to the knowledge that your consciousness
Another way of working with dream as story is not only
to write it but also to illustrate it, on paper or in
sculpture. One of the things that's very important, I
think, in drawing, painting, or working with clay, is to
forget what happened to you in kindergarten. Back then,
if your painting went up on the wall, you were described
as an artist, and you had to be a good artist. If your
painting didn't go up, then you weren't an artist. In
this way in our culture, we stop ourselves early on. In
artistically rendering the dream, I am not referring to
what I call gallery art; I am referring to an expression
Drawing or sculpting a dream is a very powerful way to
bring solidity to the images. But often, by the time you
draw the dream image, it has already moved on. What
happens is something like what happened to me. In my
second drawing, I drew not the actual image of the
monkey in the dream but the monkey doing something else.
In that way, I continued the story.
I call this work second-chaptering. The dream is the
first chapter, and then you second-chapter it either in
drawing, writing, or perhaps even dancing it. Jung said
it beautifully: "Often the hands will solve a mystery
that the intellect has struggled with in vain."
Whether it uses the hands, body, or poetic voice, the
imagination wants to move the story onward, giving us
the second or third acts of our personal drama. This
desire of the imagination, combined with the creative
energy behind it, leads to surprises and new solutions,
which we could not have found through rational,
Practically, you can continue a dream in several ways in
a waking state. For example, if in a dream you miss a
train, you can second-chapter the dream by imagining
what you would do and writing that down in story form.
Or, if you were to paint a scene from the dream, you
might discover that some new element wants to emerge in
the painting that was not in the dream, leading the
Sometimes you find figures in your dream stories that
you don't particularly like. This happens frequently,
and it's important to also pay attention to these
figures because they can bring something new and
essential to your life. However, you may have
frightening dreams in which there is a force that feels
very powerfully negative. In those cases, it may not be
appropriate for the ego to deal with that force or those
My metaphor for that is, if you meet a snake on the
path, you don't go up and shake hands with it. In dream
work, if you encounter a powerful, frightening, and
perhaps very negative force, bring in, through your
imagination, another equally powerful balancing force.
The snake, for example, is often balanced by the eagle
in medieval paintings, which display an understanding of
the balance of two equally powerful figures. You see
other examples of this balance of forces in Buddhist
iconography, where you have both wrathful deities and
benevolent deities. You have both sides. In certain
aspects of Christianity, you have the devil and you have
In all of these examples, you have a balancing that is
not just from the ego. This is very important to pay
attention to because it can be very overpowering to deal
with negative forces only with the ego.
You also see this in fairy tales and myths. Red Riding
Hood could not deal with the wolf by herself. She could
have been swallowed by it; she needed the woodsman to
rescue her with his axe. In doing this kind of work with
dreams, especially in dialoguing, we may need to summon
the "woodsman" to deal with the "wolf."
Many people ask how they can develop the capacity to
remember their dreams. First, you can set a clear
intention when you go to sleep. You can say to yourself,
"I really want to catch the dream in the morning." That
can be quite effective, as is having paper and pencil
near you so you can capture the dream immediately.
Again, it is about the amount of attention you give to
that realm. If you put a certain amount of energy into
your relationship with dreams working with them,
trying to integrate them into your life the psyche
will respond to your friendship. As I have said before,
the psyche is there to help you. Once it finds out that
you've plugged in the telephone, it'll start calling you
up, giving you the latest chapter of your life story.
The whole point of working with dreams is to effect
change in our lives in a very real way. Otherwise, it is
just an intellectual exercise or fantasy. The point of
integrating your dreams into your life is to do some
healing, and to expand your awareness of who you are and
what your place is in the world. Joseph Campbell had a
marvelous word for this work: He called it
"shape-shifting." That means that you and your
perceptions don't have to stay stuck. That is what the
dream wants to do to move things around in your life,
to give you the insight and courage to become more fully
humane in the service of the world.