Interpreting our dreams: the Jung and the restful

Dreams often reveal what is happening in the depths of our psyche, from fears to hopes. In a new guest column, psychoanalyst Michael Murphy analyses the meaning of our dream world. Denise O'Donoghue reports 
Interpreting our dreams: the Jung and the restful

Dreams occur every 90 minutes and can count for up to a quarter of a night's sleep. 

DREAMS have long been considered the royal road to the unconscious as they were once beautifully described by Sigmund Freud, a way for our unconscious selves to communicate our otherwise inaccessible hopes and fears to us. Psychiatrist Carl Jung felt similarly, stating: "The dream is a little hidden door in the innermost and most secret recesses of the psyche." 

Psychoanalyst Michael Murphy agrees, pointing out that dreams have long been a survival function in many mammals, including humans, so understanding their meaning is important.

“Some people think that they don’t dream, but dreams occur regularly throughout the night, every 90 minutes. Every person has that. Each episode of dreaming can last from five to 40 minutes. They count for a quarter of a night’s sleep,” he says.

“Dreams must perform a crucial survival function in all mammals. That’s why it’s important to pay attention to your dreams.” 

Michael, a former RTÉ news presenter and director/producer, says dreams can reveal a bigger picture that we may not realise about our lives.

“We’re inclined to look at life through the tiny viewfinder of a mobile phone, whereas unconsciously, we can see our lives writ large on a massive cinemascope screen when we sleep. It’s sensible to allow that bigger picture, seen in our dreams, to inform our lives and to follow our dreams, essentially.” 

Many of us are familiar with some form of dream analysis or another, whether it’s a dove symbolising peace or a butterfly indicating a transformation, but Michael says these images can be interpreted differently for each person. “It’s specific to each person but the archetypes do exist. There are major archetypes, like water, but then again we bring our own personal meaning to them, such as if you had terrible experiences with water as a kid where you felt you were drowning.” 

Psychoanalyst Michael Murphy. Picture:Denis Scannell

Psychoanalyst Michael Murphy. Picture:Denis Scannell

Unsurprisingly, he says many Irish people find themselves reliving a Leaving Cert experience in their dreams when they feel anxious.

“They’re back doing the Leaving Cert and they haven’t done any preparation for it. Really what that dream is about is there is something coming up, it might be a job interview or they might have to do a presentation, so it’s warning the person they need to get their skates on and put in the preparation.” 

Many recent unusual dreams can be attributed to Covid-19 anxiety and living in lockdown, such as dreams where we feel trapped or isolated as well as some ranging from a luxurious holiday to an infestation of rodents or insects, he says. “At the moment, there are a lot of dreams to do with the lockdown and what that means for us. Those dreams are really asking you to up your security measures.” 

Writing about your dream in one sentence can help you to grasp its meaning. “The dream occurs in images and it’s only when we put those images into words that we’ll find out what the dream is about. It might even surprise us by writing down in one sentence what that dream was about.” 

Despite many old wives’ tales, Michael says dreams can’t predict the future; they only interpret what you’re experiencing.

“They actually don’t foretell the future. It gives a direction going forward so a nightmare won’t happen in the future. It doesn’t foretell the future but it can give you a direction.”

Here, Michael analyses a woman's dream: 


I'm in an unknown forest surrounded by tree roots and rocks. It's getting dark and I start to climb the rocks to see if I can find a way out. I look over my shoulder and see a flying gold disc with the outline of a goat depicted on it. The disc lands on the rocks in front of me. I see it as a good omen but my dream ends there.


The woman is in a forest she doesn’t know. If you’ve ever lost your way in a forest, the panic-inducing aspect is that you can’t see a way out because of the trees. To make matters worse, the woman is also running out of time because the light is fading, so the dream is warning she’s in a dangerous situation. The picture painted here reflects in dramatic form a predicament the woman faces her everyday work or personal life, and for which she needs to find an urgent solution.

Our heroine starts to climb the rocks to see if she can find a way out, which indicates she has the resources not to be defeated or fall into despair. She’s rising above the problem to see if an overview will give her a direction to follow. Then something extraordinarily encouraging happens. From over her shoulder comes a flying gold disc which lands in front of her. 

In the dreamworld, gold is the symbol of the sun and the light of consciousness, which marks the transition from the darkening forest of unconsciousness. The woman correctly judges this to be a good omen, although the dream offers no conclusion.

There is a choice of an ending: she can consciously follow the direction towards the light which the dream proposes, or she can regress back into darkness.

The outline of a goat is depicted on the gold disc. By tradition, the goat is a symbol of fertility, vitality and fearlessness. It generates power and abundance. The goat is an animal sacred to Artemis, the Greek moon goddess, the hunter goddess of wild nature and forests, who looks after young women and helps in childbirth.

Artemis is no dreamy caricature: she shoots arrows to kill. So the dream is emphasising the divine strength inherent in womanhood by drawing on all of these mythological associations from humanity’s past. Goats are traditionally sacrificed to this goddess because they are her spirit animal. And a spirit animal assists in following the highest of goals and willingly accepts great challenges.

Given the rich references in this dream, the woman is being asked to operate out of her undoubted strengths and to use these to solve the difficulty in which she finds herself. The dream suggests she look closely ahead to plan her course fearlessly. Then she will be surefooted on that journey over the rocks that she has already begun in the dream. The energies necessary to bring it to a successful conclusion have already been mobilised.

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