Books & Culture

Carl Jung, Dreams, and How to Make Creative Choices

In his book Dreams, Carl Jung argues that we might find guidance in how to make creative choices while dreaming. While I’m not so sure about getting all of one’s answers from dreams, the heart of Jung’s point is resonant. To make better choices, we need to balance logic and love, weigh our conscious desires against deeper desires for which there aren’t always words. Decision-making so often involves the decision to preserve the status quo, but creative decision-making can take us outside the expected, and into the place where transformation and the extraordinary is possible. Jung writes, “ A dream may perhaps supply what is then lacking, or it may help us forward where our best efforts have failed.” I read Jung’s Dreams when I was myself searching for answers. I was married. I wanted to be married. I also didn’t want to be married. I loved my husband. I loved myself. But I couldn’t reconcile love for myself with love for my husband. Lacking answers in my waking life, I turned to dreams.

There comes a point in one’s life where real choices must be made. As the horizon between adolescence and adulthood becomes more blurry, perhaps a more authentic definition of adulthood is the moment in one’s life where one is forced by fate or circumstance to take real responsibility for one’s life. There are choices no one can make for us, choices for which we, and only we, can bear the consequence. For some, these choices take the form of what to pursue as a field of study, which college to attend, or which career path one will take. For others it involves whom one chooses to marry or where one chooses to live.

The pressure of choice can arrive early or later in life, but at some point, all of us are forced to bear responsibility for our lives. Making choices is difficult. In real decision-making, it means we are forced to sacrifice between two mutually exclusive competing desires. For example, when deciding whether to paddle out into the ocean on a bigger day, my desire to tackle the challenge and the thrill of riding those waves is often balanced with my desire for self-preservation. Choice also entails some degree of risk. Do we pursue a dream and sacrifice some security? Or do we choose security? (Steph Davis, the great free solo rock climber and BASE jumper writes brilliantly about decision-making in the context of risk-taking here.) Not making a choice is also a choice, as we have seen in the recent failure of the Supreme Court to act on a law in Texas prohibiting abortions that essentially imposes an abortion ban on the state of Texas. The Supreme Court’s choice to not choose effectively took choice away from millions of women.

You Must Change Your Life. Watercolor. Janice Greenwood. Original Art.
You Must Change Your Life. Watercolor. Janice Greenwood.

Carl Jung is most well-known for his theory of the collective unconscious, but his writing covers a broad spectrum of human experience, roving into the nature of dreams, literary theory, myth, metaphor, religion, and esoteric art. One of Jung’s most famous ideas, the idea of the collective unconscious, serves to explain why themes across religious and cultures recur again and again. Jung believed that certain themes or archetypes involving birth, death, the mother figure, the earth, the sea, the forest, the sun, and more are inherited and exist in our unconscious. After all, if the physical structures of the brain can be inherited, why wouldn’t the structures, responsible for thought, also leave us with traces of ancient ideas?

How so many billions of neurons networked together somehow blink awake to form consciousness is one of the great mysteries of the universe. According to Jung, a person is born with archetypes inherited from the depth of human time. Yet how the structure informs thought remains mysterious, and the great sea of the collective unconscious does little to offer us guidance in how to make choices in our lives.  

Decision-making isn’t just a process that sets a trajectory for our lives. It can also be a process of deciding how we plan to use our limited time on this planet.

Perhaps Jung’s better advice about creative decision-making is more practical than esoteric and comes from a letter he wrote in 1933, reproduced in part in Oliver Burkeman’s Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals, a wonderful book about the nature of our limited time and how to use it.

Jung had been asked in a letter how one should go about creating a life. To this question, Jung had no answer, explaining, “one lives as one can. There is no single, definite way.”

Indeed, Jung’s answer touches at the heart of the modern challenge of creating our own moral code. Most of us muddle along as best we can. Even if one chooses to follow a religious doctrine, we do so by choice. If our current megachurch fails us, there’s always another one down the road with open doors.

In the Middle Ages there was the Catholic Church, and in other places and times there may have been the king or the socially-acceptable pantheon of deities, but in modern America, you get to choose your deities, and capitalism would prefer your deities be material goods. I think many of us realize that the deity of consumption will only leave us feeling more empty. At the end of the day, we’ll need to choose something other than what to buy.

Jung explained that the path one chooses is “the way you make for yourself, which is never prescribed, which you do not know in advance, and which simply comes into being when you put one foot in front of the other.” Jung continues: “But if you do with conviction the next and most necessary thing, you are always doing something meaningful and intended by fate.”

Creative decision-making, according to Jung, doesn’t involve an intricate life plan. Instead, it requires each of us to fully inhabit the present moment and to do the “next and most necessary thing” whatever that is. Perhaps true creativity lies in this space: the space of real urgency.

The most important decisions in life can’t be made with a pro and con list, like Darwin does here. They cannot be made by reading the right self-help books, or even by asking others for guidance. Indeed, creative decision-making exists only in the present, when you commit to doing the next most necessary thing, and then the next.

And maybe that’s how the big creative decisions of our lives are best made.

I read Jung’s Dreams. I was married. And then I lovingly did the next necessary thing, and the next, and the next, until I wasn’t in the city anymore, until I wasn’t married. And I was sad for a very long time. But then I learned to surf, and I traveled more, and I spent more nights dreaming under the stars, and slowly, I grew happy again.

Carl Jung’s Dreams at Amazon.com (affiliate link)

About the Writer

Janice Greenwood is the author of Relationship: A Poetry Book. She holds an M.F.A. in poetry and creative writing from Columbia University.

She founded Sphinx Moth Press to provide more opportunities for low-income writers to have their work read and reviewed.