Harry Guntrip’s ‘big dream’ sequence

Harry Guntrip’s psychoanalytical biography written by Jeremy Hazell is the most extraordinary read – a lifetime’s journey over twenty years in psychoanalysis, to discover his earliest trauma and record all his dreams. In his first ‘proper’ analysis with Ronald Fairbairn (he had earlier years of therapy with several others) Guntrip reached the insight that his mother had given him the ‘form of a relationship but not the content’– she was non-relating to him. This left him unable to live and love to the full, which he believed was every person’s birth right. Between 1962-9, after his work with Fairbairn ended, Guntrip was in analysis with Donald Winnicott who enabled Guntrip to begin to get in touch with the early trauma – the death of his baby brother Percy when Guntrip was aged 3. Prior to that tragedy was the absence of any warm loving relationship with his mother. The dream sequence was triggered by the death of Winnicott in 1971, and reveals the trauma as a screen memory for ‘a profoundly depersonalised experience’ with Guntrip’s emotionally exhausted mother.

On the very night that Winnicott died Guntrip had a

‘startling dream. I saw my mother, black, immobile, staring fixedly into space, totally ignoring me as I stood at one side staring at her and feeling myself frozen into immobility: the first time I had ever seen her in a dream like that. Before she had always been attacking me. My first thought was: “I’ve lost Winnicott and am left alone with mother, sunk in depression, ignoring me. That’s how I felt when Percy died.”’

As the sequence continued over the next nights a most dramatic dream confirmed for Guntrip that Winnicott had helped him find the truth about the trauma:

‘I was standing with another man, the double of myself, both reaching out to take hold of a dead object. Suddenly the other man collapsed in a heap. Immediately the dream changed to a lighted room where I saw Percy again. I knew it was him, sitting on the lap of a woman who had no face, arms, or breasts. She was merely a lap to sit on, not a person. He looked deeply depressed, with the corner of his mouth turned down and I was trying to make him smile.’

In his self-analysis, Guntrip realised with great joy that ‘the eternal quality of his relation to Winnicott, who was not, and could not be, dead for him’ had taken the place of his mother and made it safe to remember the trauma that had dogged his entire life. Guntrip was clear that analysis cannot give anyone a different life history and there is no such thing as an immediate full cure, but one can be put in a stronger position internally to experience and gain greater understanding of ‘the ways in which the old ingrown bad-relation patterns are aroused and disturbed by present-day affairs.’ His dreams were a symbolic record of originally external bad experience which had to be internalised as it could not be accepted and used for ego-development. He felt his unconscious had ‘known best’ and ‘gone its own way’ and that dreams were ‘a way of experiencing on the fringes of consciousness, our internalised conflicts, our memories and fantasies of conflicts that have become our inner reality.’ Guntrip was in his 70s when this breakthrough came.

Thomas Merton’s ‘big dream’

Thomas Merton’s ‘big dream’ of Proverb

On February 28 1958, Thomas Merton had a dream:

‘On the porch at Douglaston I am embraced with determined and virginal passion by a young Jewish girl. She clings to me and will not let me go, and I get to like the idea. I see that she is a nice kid in a plain, sincere sort of way. I reflect “She belongs to the same race as St. Anne.” I ask her name and she says her name is Proverb. I tell her that is a beautiful and significant name, but she does not appear to like it – perhaps the others have mocked her for it.’

Some days later Merton writes a love letter to Proverb explaining that while there is a great difference in their ages he is ‘grateful … to you for loving in me something which I thought I had entirely lost, and someone who, I thought, had long ago ceased to be.’ The gratitude and love is for ‘your lovely spontaneity, your simplicity, the generosity of your love’ for ‘the revelation of your virginal solitude.’ He explains at the end, ‘Dearest Proverb, I love your name, its mystery, its simplicity, and its secret, which even you yourself seem not to appreciate.’ Merton pledges his love to her writing ‘I will give you everything’.

This dream links to Merton’s famous epiphany at the corner of Fourth and Walnut where he sees himself no longer separate from the rest of the human race. And where he is struck by “the secret beauty” and “womanness” of the women he sees in the street. Right after this he writes to Proverb again in his journal:

‘I have kept one promise and I have refrained from speaking of you until seeing you again. I knew that when I saw you again it would be very different, in a different place, in a different form, in the most unexpected circumstances. I shall never forget our meeting yesterday. The touch of your hand makes me a different person. To be with you is rest and Truth. Only with you are these things found, dear child, sent to me by God.’

The spiritual associations are with the Annunciation and the Incarnation, of Sophia and linked to Merton’s work Hagia Sophia, yet from a psychological perspective the setting in the dream on Merton’s maternal grandparents’ porch links to the lost child part too. Is this the feminine part of Merton’s psyche – his anima? In his vision at Fourth and Walnut he writes that he felt ‘he was married to what is most true in all the women of the world’. Is there some balancing here with the ascetic, the intellectual, the ordered, celibate monastic life? Is there then an acceptance of the spontaneity of feeling and emotional side of himself for which he indeed might have been mocked for certainly during his schooling. Proverb is part of the hidden true self re- emerging again through the dream to touch him and affect his relationship with God.

Carl Jung’s ‘big dream’

One of Carl Jung’s ‘big dreams’ provided him with the map of his future thinking on the conscious and depths of the unconscious – the inner world: the dream showed the many layers in the psyche.

‘I was in a house I did not know which had two storeys. It was “my” house. I found myself in the upper storey where there was a kind of salon furnished with fine old pieces in rococo style. On the walls hung a number of precious old paintings. I wondered that this should be my house and thought “not bad”. But then it occurred to me that I did not know what the lower floor looked like. Descending the stairs I reached the ground floor. There everything was much older, and I realized that this part of the house must date from about the fifteenth or sixteenth century. The furnishings were medieval, the floors were of red brick. Everywhere it was rather dark. I went from one room to another thinking “now I really must explore the whole house”. I came upon a heavy door and opened it. Beyond it I discovered a stone stairway that led down into the cellar. Descending again I found myself in a beautiful vaulted room which looked exceedingly ancient. Examining the walls I discovered layers of brick among the ordinary stone blocks and chips of brick in the mortar. As soon as I saw this I knew that the walls dated from Roman times. My interest by now was now intense. I looked more closely at the floor. It was of stone slabs and in one of these I discovered a ring. When I pulled it the stone slab lifted and again I saw a staircase of narrow stone steps leading into the depths. These too I descended and entered a low cave cut into the rock. Thick dust lay on the floor, and in the dust were scattered bones and broken bits of pottery, like the remains of a primitive culture. I discovered two human skulls, obviously very old and half disintegrated. Then I awoke.’

Jung saw that the representation was of the psyche with consciousness represented by the salon. The ground floor was the first level of the unconscious; in the cave was the remains of the primitive culture representing the world of the primitive person within him. This Jung wrote is, ‘a world that can scarcely be reached or illumined by consciousness. The primitive psyche … borders on the life of the animal soul, just as the caves of pre-historic times were usually inhabited by animals before man laid claim to them’. For Jung the distinction was between the personal unconscious and the various levels of the collective unconscious -where there are archetypal forces which are the shared possession of humankind.

June Singer’s big dreams

The Jungian analyst June Singer had two big dreams about death – she knew because of the emotion involved that the dreams were very important. The first took place when she was in training in Zurich and living there with her first husband, also a Jungian analyst, and her then teenage daughter.

‘I open a door to a bedroom just slightly, enough to see into the room. The room is bare of furniture except for one bed that is in the far corner. Around the bed is a strange glow, as if a bright radiance were emanating from it. Although the light is nearly blinding, I cannot help looking at it and trying to make out what is there. I realize that my husband and my daughter are in that bed. Apparently my husband sees me at the door, and he throws a heavy object at me, perhaps a shoe, which I take to be a sign that I do not belong there, the sight is not for me. I quickly close the door. I am shocked and trembling.’

June Singer says for years she did not understand the dream but it stayed with her. She felt cut off from some mystery, isolated and alone. Her husband died five years after the dream, and five years later her daughter. ‘So I was left outside the luminous place of death to which they had gone. I knew now that I understood the dream.’

The other dream she had of death came twenty five years before her actual passing in 2004. She was quite well but ‘the big dream’ led her to let go of any fear of death, and adopt a practice of letting go of all worries and concerns.

‘I am lying on a narrow hospital bed, perhaps a gurney such as they use to wheel a patient into an operating room. I am very comfortable. I notice that I am hooked up to all sorts of wires and tubes. It strikes me as strange that I should be in this place and in this condition and feeling very well, unusually well. I am relaxed and peaceful. But I feel weak, not in an unpleasant way, simply weak. I do not feel that I can get up, but then I have no inclination to do so. It is as if my strength were slowly ebbing away, and the realization comes to me that I must be dying. Oh well, I think, if this is the way it is, just let it happen and observe it carefully. You may not have another opportunity. I pay close attention to everything slowing down, my body, my thoughts. Yet I keep a keen awareness of a growing sense of calm and a very quiet pleasure, as it is to sleep in the arms of the Beloved. I feel my life slipping away from me and I feel myself slipping like a drop of water sliding into the sea. And then I am no more myself alone, but merged into the fullness.’

 For June Singer this ‘big dream’ helped her shed a sense of self-importance, especially about her work – it helped her ‘learn to do a little less, do it a bit more slowly, do it with care, and do it with love.’


lovely extract of an interview with June Singer about the soul…

Martin Israel’s ‘big dream’

‘I seemed to have been involved in a road accident, and I clambered out of a rather shadowy car. The road ahead was poorly made up, and I had to crawl my way forward – in the process, escaping from some people who were impeding my departure. At last I reached the end of the road and found myself in a vast expanse of clear space. There were no markings, but the space was occupied by diaphanous beings who had a mere outline of shape. This shape superficially resembled the human form, but there were no recognizable features. They seemed to cluster together in joyous groups, animated by a spirit of love that poured out into the atmosphere. They received me as one of their own, and I seemed to play along with them in their harmonious movement.

Then I began to wonder where I actually was. One of the company seemed to sense my question and asked me, ‘Don’t you know that you are dead?’ I then seemed to be ushered towards a great shadowy building where someone awaited me, apparently for appraisal and instruction. By this point, though, I was so excited that I seemed to awaken myself consciously: I had had direct proof of the survival of my personality after bodily death, and I wanted to make this knowledge available to others as soon as possible. Seldom have I woken up with such excitement and joy. Shortly afterwards, I even considered writing a book on what I had experienced, but a later, more sober, consideration showed that there was barely enough material for even a single page of foolscap.’

This dream led the priest and healer Martin Israel (who for many years also worked as a medical pathologist) to write his book ‘Angels, Messengers of Grace’. He wanted to convey his dream experience that all would be well and that angels are an essential link between a human being and God – and, more universally, between the whole created world and its creator.

If he hadn’t woken himself up in his excitement Israel wondered about whom he might have met in the great shadowy building, perhaps it may have been a representative of God the Holy Trinity. He writes, ‘had I been rather less impetuous, I might conceivably have attained this knowledge, but I suspect I did what was expected of me. In my earthly state of spiritual understanding, I am surely not eligible for a heavenly meeting. It may be that when I make the great transition that we call death I shall be better prepared for what is to come.’



Edwin Muir’s big dream

The poet Edwin Muir had this big dream many years ago, but dreams are timeless and it seems to speak to our contemporary situation and the threatened extinction of our fellow creatures and ultimately ourselves.

Muir sees the dream as about our blood-guiltiness towards animals and our vision of a day when humans and other species will live in friendship – when the lion will lie down with the lamb. In the dream Muir is asleep but wakened by a man standing by his bed wearing a long robe falling about him in motionless folds. Muir writes that the light that filled the room came from the man’s hair, which rose, burning ‘like a motionless brazier’. Muir follows the man through a cloister out into the street, and then to a field where it becomes early morning.

‘As we passed the last houses I saw a dark, shabby man with a dagger in his hand; he was wearing rags bound round his feet, so that he walked quite soundlessly; there was a stain as of blood on one of his sleeves; I took him to be a robber or a murderer and was afraid. But as he came nearer I saw that his eyes, which were fixed immovably on the figure beside me, were filled with a profound violent adoration such as I had never seen in human eyes before. Then behind him, I caught sight of a confused crowd of other men and women in curious or ragged clothes, and all had their eyes fixed with the same look on the man walking beside me. I saw their faces only for a moment. Presently we came to the field, which as we drew near changed into a great plain dotted with little conical hills a little higher than a man’s head. All over the plain animals were standing or sitting on their haunches on these little hills; lions, tigers, bulls, deer, elephants, were there; serpents too wreathed their lengths on the knolls; and each was separate and alone, and each slowly lifted its head upward as if in prayer.

This upward-lifting motion had a strange solemnity and deliberation; I watched head after head upraised as if moved by an irresistible power beyond them. The elephant wreathed its trunk upward, and there was something pathetic and absurd in that indirect act of adoration. But the other animals raised their heads with the inevitability of the sun’s rising, as if they knew, like the sun, that a new day was about to begin, and were giving the signal for its coming. Then I saw a little dog busily running about with his nose tied to the ground, as if he did not know that the animals had been redeemed. He was a friendly little dog, officiously going about his business, and it seemed to me that he too had a place in this day, and that his oblivious concern with the earth was also a form of worship. How the dream ended I do not remember: I have now only a memory of the great animals with all their heads raised to heaven.’

Muir was at the time in psychoanalysis but sees this dream as an ancestral dream linking to our racial collective unconscious, and a millennial dream involving the relationship between us all as creatures, where the animals are glorified and reconciled with humankind, and pointing to the way that we should live together. The tall figure of light that came to stand by the bed is Christ.

‘Big dreams’

Carl Jung writes extensively about dream work – seeing dreams as the psyche’s attempt to communicate important things to the individual, and so he valued dreams highly, perhaps above all else, as a way of knowing what was really going on. As did Freud, Jung saw that dreams were ‘the royal road to the unconscious’.

Dreams are also an important part of the development of the personality – the process that he called individuation. Jung thought that dreams expressed things openly, and were often a way of expressing something that the ego does not yet know or understand. They can also act as a form of compensation, particularly if we are in some way out of balance. Sometimes it’s not so easy to know what our dreams mean, because the dreams use symbols in expressing what is not known. There may be resonance with external events, but Jung thought that every object in the dream corresponds to an element within the individual’s own psyche.

‘Big dreams’ are dreams that stand out or in some way are set apart from the usual dreaming, because they link to archetypal themes and have a deep meaning. They feel especially significant. Jung used the term after visiting in 1925 with the East African tribe in Kenya the Elgoni, who had a strong dreaming culture. They explained to Jung that there are little dreams and big dreams. For the Elgoni, big dreams were seen as collective dreams as the dreamer was dreaming for the community, for the landscape, and perhaps for the entire world. Sadly, the old medicine man that Jung consulted about the big dreams said that ‘since the whites were in Africa … no one had dreams any more. Dreams were no longer needed because now the English knew everything.’ As Jung comments, the divine voice that had counselled the tribe and who had gone with the arrival of the colonialists meant that the value of life now lay wholly in this world, showing ‘the spreading disintegration of an undermined, outmoded, unrestorable world.’

But in 2020 as ‘civilisation’ finally begins to confront its own disintegration and an outmoded way of living dreams can still offer deep meaning:

‘The dream is a little hidden door in the innermost and most secret recesses of the psyche, opening into that cosmic night which was psyche long before there was any ego consciousness, and which will remain psyche no matter how far our ego-consciousness may extend…

All consciousness separates; but in dreams we put on the likeness of that more universal, truer, more eternal human dwelling in the darkness of primordial night. There is still the whole, and the whole is in [the person], indistinguishable from nature and bare of all egohood. Out of these all-uniting depths arises the dream, be it never so infantile, never so grotesque, never so immoral.’

The next few posts will be examples of ‘big dreams’ …

Experiential theology 2

Given that our sense of a living God and our sense of our self changes over time and as a result of our experiences, then at any point our insights and beliefs can only be approximations – what have been called ‘endless approximations’. Jung saw this deepening sense of God and self as approaching a centre or rather going around it but incrementally nearer. As Jung inched by inched to get nearer he found a corresponding depotentiation where the ego gets less important and the centre – a feeling of emptiness – here not meaning absence or vacant but rather unknowability endowed with the highest intensity that Jung calls God – increased. This God he thought also includes a large part of the self. But it is here that his ability to experience reached its finite point. ‘The ego can merely affirm that something vitally important is happening to it.’

For Merton there is a difference between the experience of God as one who is present – this is the God of revelation – to the God of the mystic, where, a bit like Jung’s experience of reaching the edge of cognition and affirmation by the ego, Merton writes about being lost in God. In ‘The Seven Storey Mountain’ Merton describes God as ‘that centre Who is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.’

Neither writer is reducing God to the level of an object or a thing – this is sadly what happens in much religious writing. The invitation is more to experience for oneself and with the understanding of paradox, approximation and limitlessness. This is the God who will not be pinned down by a manifesto or a doctrine or a set of conditions – this is the God without limits and boundaries. As Merton puts it: ‘He transcends them all and hence is not to be sought among them’. God is not to be found amongst all that he has made but nothing can be separated from the God who created them. Like the Sanskrit teaching ‘neti neti’ – ‘not this not this’ God is transcendent – not this object and not that thing but also immanent in all creatures as the ground of every creature’s being.

So, our experiences of God become mediated through concepts as best it can be and through the experiences written down by others – perhaps also in our own notebooks and from our own glimpses of the something ‘more than ourselves’.

Experiential theology

As is clear, spirituality is not the same as psychotherapy, and nor is faith the same as the project of individuation, but there is a mutual influence within the one psyche. There is a deep mystery attached to faith, and one that is rarely discussed in spiritual direction or in church group discussions. In those sorts of settings it is easier to look at what is ‘out there’ than what is ‘inside’.

One difficulty is that our sense of self and our sense of God shifts, and there’s a connection there. We are as is God full of paradox and it is hard to put our deep beliefs out in the public square for scrutiny – especially if it is in the presence of a secular psychotherapist. Our deepest beliefs may feel embarrassing or unsophisticated and childlike and so our vulnerability is on display.

What is clear is that faith is a mystery and yet we are contained within the mystery, and so inevitably part of the same. What can we say about our faith and if we do are we talking about ourselves or God? Or neither? Jung says that when God is discussed we don’t know who we are talking about. If God is unutterable, unknowable and incomprehensible the nearest we can get is hesitatingly uncovering ourselves as deeply as we can go. As the Sufi poet Rumi put it: ‘I searched for God and found only myself. I searched for myself and found only God.’

Thomas Merton realised that it was not proving the existence of God and deciding through rational reasoning on God’s nature and so on that mattered so much as the experiencing of God’s presence. It was not enough to find a God who answered his mind’s questions – or indeed anyone else’s questions. He thought, and here Jung would agree with him, that many people ‘believed’ in what he called ‘an apologetic hypothesis’. This might mean believing in a God we have been told about – from received doctrine and dogma and this means that this is a God who is kept at arm’s length. Both Jung and Merton write how if we are to talk about God we have to rely on experience and to trust that experience. The experience is about being present to God, and this God demands a personal response. This is not the silent God of reason, but rather the God revelation who speaks to people.

Jung writes how growing up in the heyday of scientific materialism, with an education where only arguments against religion were offered, and watching his own father a pastor ‘cracking up before my eyes on the problem of his faith’ led Jung to rely instead on subjective experience. ‘I was thrown back on experience alone … The only way open to me was the experience of religious realities … that seem meaningful to me.’


ideas on wholeness and holiness

Carl Jung sees that the search for becoming whole involves integrating parts of the collective including what he refers to as ‘brother animal’ – ‘who is actually holier than us since he cannot deviate from the divine will implanted in him.’

This is an interesting idea because Jung is suggesting that wholeness itself – which is God – is only found in God. Jung sees this as a compelling force against which we should offer no resistance: ‘I find that all my thoughts circle round God like planets round the sun, and are as irresistibly attracted to him.’

Jung sees that his ability to think has been given to him by God and so he pits ‘my thinking at his service’. This inevitably means that Jung conflicts with the traditional doctrine including that of evil as the privation of good, and God as all good or the highest good. Jung’s challenge to the Christians through his publication of ‘Answer to Job’ is how can one square the all-good God, a guardian of justice and morality to the one who is unjust. Jung quotes Isaiah 48 where God refines and tests and why? ‘For my own sake, for my own sake, I do it.’

Richard Rohr sees these contemporary days as apocalyptic. Certainly times of trial – most of which have been brought on the planet by humankind. Is there evil? Such questions make me feel uncomfortable and uncertain. Jung makes a strong case for recognition of evil – which he sees as not ‘nothing’ but ‘something with substance’ – a force in its own right. Of course, in this sense, then acknowledging and beginning to integrate the personal shadow and indeed aspects of the collective shadow is the only way to achieve some form of completeness.

I like Jung’s comment that ‘You lose nothing and you even gain something in contemplating such thoughts.’ We seek balance but as Jung says, ‘You only get it when either side carries equal weight. Christ is crucified between the one going up and the other going down, i.e., between opposites’. Redemption Jung added is to be found in the middle ground – the centre of your self – where ‘God suffers in his own Creation’. None of us can escape the opposites within us and God wants us to unite these. Jung writes these rather lovely words so familiar to those of us who read Merton and his work on ‘le point vierge’: ‘If turmoil and torment become too great, there is still the oneness of the self, the divine spark within its inviolable precincts, offering its extramundane peace’.