Life is But a Dream: An Interview with Jill Mellick by Fabiana Fondevilla (In Spanish - click here)

Very few still doubt that the strange stories which visit us at night when we close our eyes are filled with meaning. But how to decode those symbolic messages from our unconscious? Some visit a psychologist, others look in dream journals. Jill Mellick, a jungian analyst, poet and painter, chooses another path: that of the creative imagination, intuition and art.

Who has not woken up perplexed by the incredible adventures lived in a dream? Who has not overflown the world with the freedom of an eagle, or dropped freefall from the highest heights and lived to tell the tale? Beautiful, sinister, inspired or recurrent, dreams constitute a parallel life we all share, even if we don’t remember it.  Freud, Jung and other seekers of the mind have erected their entire opus on such strange foundations.

A  question comes to mind: Is it necessary to understand what a dream means to be able to make its message one’s own?  Jill Mellick, a Jungian psychologist born in Australia and living in California, believes it’s not. A plastic artist, poet and explorer of indigenous American cultures, Mellick relies on her knowledge of the human soul to propose an alternative path: to approach dreams with love, on tiptoes, without demanding anything, listening to them as one would a friend. Instead of the analytic interpretation, Mellick proposes such tools  as art, singing, imagination, dance.
In the course of a  telephone conversation from her home in Palo Alto, California, the psychologist provides us with a road map.

Do you think that different parts of a dream are usually related? How about dreams on consequent nights (in other words, do dreams usually come "in sequence"?)

“Usually” doesn’t fit much about dreams at all really, in my experience. I’ve been tracking my own dreams for almost 50 years and have yet to be able to make generalizations other than saying that generalizations about dreams are suspect!

Dreams inhabit their own land with their own language, culture, and constantly changing customs.  Dreams and the arts live in the same land so dreams have more in common with the arts and shamanic cultures than they do with our daily life. 

The idea of a dream “sequence” comes from waking life.  We like to group and order things, to tell ourselves stories that have a beginning, middle and end. However, in working with my own dreams and those of hundreds over 25 years, I’ve noticed that dreams sometimes stand alone, like a palm tree on a long beach; sometimes they are one in a family of dreams related by theme, image, tone, or narrative; sometimes they repeat like a refrain in a song, whose cumulative effect is to have us remember.  

Our psyche is extraordinarily patient and tender as well as fiercely honest.  It will, indeed, keep trying to find ways to offer us the same insight.  What is important to remember, however, is that the message from our psyche via our dream might or might not have anything to do with our daily life.  Sometimes a dream is, indeed, concerned with helping us move into a place of deeper and clearer understanding about a waking concern or issue.  Sometimes, however, a dream could care less about whether we are getting married or divorced, having a baby, grieving a loved one, or enduring life-threatening illness.  Our psyches can be more concerned with offering us timeless, priceless dream gifts than with temporal things.  When I was being treated for a life-threatening illness, my dreams were not distressed because I felt at one with what was happening. The Pueblo Indians of New Mexico, if asked how they are often say they are well even if they are seriously ill.  Why?  Because if they feel at one with their soul, with their inner world, their spirit life, whatever you want to call it, they feel well with themselves.  Our dreams are what can keep that relationship with our deepest essence healthy, flowing.  We can be well with ourselves if we are in vital relationship with our dreams.

So what does this mean on a practical level? I don’t try too hard to classify dreams as sequential or not.  However, I stay open to the possibility that my psyche is offering me the same message in different ways. I stay open to the possibility that my psyche is updating its data bank according to changing circumstances.

Some dreams do seem to be part of a sequence but they can happen over many years with long breaks in between scenes.  A patient of mine would dream occasionally that he had no voice when he opened his mouth.  This dream appeared in many forms.  He would come in for a round of work with long breaks in between for many years. Over the years, his dream self gradually found voice regardless of circumstance. This paralleled his evolution in a high profile executive position where he was constantly called upon to address large audiences. He was a gifted orator but had a terrible inner critic who excoriated him no matter how well he was received outwardly; over time that inner critic eased off. He still could be discerning about his speeches but was no longer hypercritical. There was a clear relationship in this case between the dreams helping him experience a new way to be; they prepared the inner developmental ground in advance at times; at others, they described what was currently happening. 

Is it easier to interpret someone else's dreams than one's own? 

This assumes we can really interpret dreams! In my experience, even a single dream can mean different things to different people at different times. They’re all right! The experience of the dream is what we are, in the end, left with, not some neat interpretation that one puts on a shelf. We need to keep our dreams pulsing with life, to feed them with imagination and respectful curiosity, to hold them in our open palms, not pin them down; we might be able to examine them if we pin them down--but they will never fly again.  There is no one truth about a dream. Dreams can tell paradoxical truths at the one time just as that Escher painting can be as a flock of birds or a school of fish; it is both.  

Artists often see their role in an artistic experience as being 50%; the other 50% is in the eye of the beholder. So, too, with dreams.

Dreams aren’t a universal language we can learn and then act as interpreters for others, no matter how fluent we become. The language of our dreams is both universal and unique to us.  

However, to your question: first, we do seem to share some universal, cross-cultural or archetypal life experiences that come through as dream symbols, images, metaphors. We can learn to recognize material that seems to be shared in our collective unconscious as Jung called it. I share ideas about “mother” for example with all other humans; we have all had physical mothers.

Second, the culture--or cultures--in which we were raised or live influences our dreams. Your experience of Mother within your culture differs from that of a traditional Australian Aborigine. Third, our personal history adds another layer of meaning and context.  My personal experience of mother adds unique dimension to my dreams of mothering figures or entities. So, to your question: we can hazard an educated guess at the archetypal, universal language of a dream but it would be little pompous to say that we can translate both the universal language and the exquisitely personal dialect of a dream without getting to know the dreamer a little!

As far as understanding our own dreams go, then, there’s a converse risk: sometimes with our own dreams we can miss the forest for the trees: we are so wrapped up in our personal history and experiences that we miss larger meanings.  So it can be easier to connect with more transpersonal aspects of another’s dream than with the personal.  And easier to connect with the personal than the transpersonal with our own. Marie Louise von Franz, one of Jung’s first trained analysts and later theorist, also pointed out that no matter how smart we are, we can never see our own backs!  Our dreams always show us our backs and sometimes we make poor cranes!

Is it easy for you to interpret your own dreams at this point in your life?

Oh I wish I could answer your questions with tidy truths! My most honest answer is “no!”  But I like to think I have learnt something all these years!  

I do recognize recurring images, events, figures and scenes like old friends who might be playing old or new roles but are certainly familiar.

I do think it’s easier for me to accept that the deeper I dive into the mystery of my dream world, the more mysterious it becomes.  And--now--that’s fine with me. I’m not looking for answers. But I would hope, at least, that I’m asking better questions both in my dreams and of my dreams.

I look back on dreams I had ten, twenty, forty years ago and only now begin to have some intimation of their “meaning.”  I’m not trying to arrive somewhere.  I value the journey.  And it’s a spiral journey.  I return to the same places again and again in my inner journey but seem to gain a little more perspective each time round.

Have you ever made a decision based on a dream, and would you mind sharing that story?

I’ve certainly made decisions with help or hints from my dreams if the dreams seemed to have something to send from their timeless land across the border into the land of waking concerns. I’ve rarely based a decision on the dream without any reference to some other part of my inner or outer world unless it was what I call a Hammer Dream--so blatantly obvious it was unmistakable!

My dreams have often indicated needed changes in my professional life and I’ve always paid attention.  Sometimes it’s taken me a long time to line up everything responsibly and well in the waking world so I can make this thing happen but I keep at it if the dreams continues to stay with me. 

I once dreamt I was looking at a catalogue of university classes and read about one titled “The Chemistry and Alchemy of Art, Poetry, and Music.”  I’d probably be overwhelmed at taking that class in waking life!  But I mused about the dream and wandered around it. I drew it, too, because the class listing was illustrated with a picture of a beautiful metal sculpture. The more I hung around with the dream, the more it seemed to be inviting me to change the focus of my university teaching from overseeing doctoral research projects to the role of the arts at our college.  I changed the direction of my teaching and established a course of studies for doctoral students to learn about and experiment with the use of the arts for psychospiritual healing and development. I loved that work and the inclusion of the arts naturally extended into my private practice; my patients were bringing poems, paintings, stories, art that emerged from their lives and dreams.  Twenty years later, I had another dream: I was leaving my colleagues at the end of a meeting.  I woke from that dream and said, “Oh no! I’m done!”  I didn’t want to be “done” but I was. I was on sabbatical from teaching at the time so I formally resigned. It was right for the program to have a new director and right for me in terms of what needed to happen next in my work.

Freud's theory of dreams centered mostly on sexual satisfaction and the expression of fears as motives. What proportion of the dreams you analyze would you say respond to either of these patterns?

There are so many tales and myths in our different cultures.  I don’t find that life’s experiences are reducible to one Greek mythological narrative--the Oedipus myth--or to our relationship with Thanatos. Desire and fear, approach and avoidance are present in many of our dreams but so is the full range of experience.

Have you seen clients or patients effectively change their lives or at least resolve a conflict through the interpretation of a dream?

Absolutely. However, I don’t focus on interpretation as an end point. I focus on open-ended inquiry.  We wander around the dream images, wonder, free associate, let them come again--sometimes they reoccur unexpectedly in a meeting or when we’re traveling or just lying awake. Or there is a synchronicity that underscores their relevance. Feeding dreams with respect and curiosity lets them take up a healthy residence in our inner and outer worlds. 

Our dream is a living, breathing entity! The dream isn’t the words I use to tell it. And it isn’t a living source of wisdom if we reduce it to some slick summary (“Aha! I see you hate your boss who reminds you of your father!”). If we pin the wings of the dream down with dream symbol books and clever interpretations, the wings of the dream stop beating.  So how do we keep them beating?  Here’s a lovely example. I worked with a woman who couldn’t decide whether she was ready to marry a man she had seen romantically for several years.  She had made choices she felt were poor earlier and couldn’t trust herself to make the right choices in many areas, particularly one so important. We explored various things she might not have considered but then things opened up when she brought in a dream: “I dreamt I was flying through the night.  All was silent. I thought I was alone and was afraid but I saw, just below me, another bird just like me but larger.  I knew it was invisibly supporting me, and that we were also both effortlessly supported by soundless currents. I felt such peace!”  As we imagined what the dream might offer her in addition to a lovely inner experience, she suddenly said, “You know, I can trust myself now. I don’t have to make the right decision. I’ve doubted myself so long. Now I see that even if--when--I make mistakes I can trust something deep inside to support me. I don’t need outside reassurance as much. I feel something inside that will support with me no matter what.” She went on to marry the man. She came back to see me years later after a serious illness and told me that her earlier dream had supported her throughout the tough treatment regimen. Her dream was what I call a “Big Dream,” one that informs the rest of our lives. I have one of those that has kept me company since I was 15 and for which I shall always be grateful. I don’t talk about the content though because it’s sacred and needs my protection.

How did you arrive at the idea of using art to work through dreams, or dreams to help foster creativity?

I’ve always had an open door between dreams and the arts since I was a child. My mother was a composer and would often go straight to the piano to play a melody she had heard in a dream. I started writing poetry at 11 and found that the most interesting images were those I had in dreams so they just slipped into the poems. And I loved to paint images from dreams.  It seemed natural to me; dreams and the arts inhabit a world free of time and spatial restrictions and causality.  I started recording my dreams at 11--I still have them and still remember some big ones! 

Much later, on a trip to the library with my mother, I came upon a big blue book about dream interpretation.  I looked at one page then closed it. I decided that, if there were some big theory about dreams, I didn’t want to know it because then it would influence my personal relationship with my dreams and they wouldn’t be interesting to me any more. So I left the book on the shelf until my relationship to my dreams was sturdier! 

I first used dreams to widen the sluice gate for the flow of creativity for others when I was 18 and teaching a little summer course in how to write poetry to eight year olds. I suggested they remember dreams and make up poems about funny images.  They found it easy and natural and were completely unfussed about whether their images were odd or their poems “good”.  There’s no room for evaluation in art that is done for the sake of soul, in the service of psyche…..

What have dreams done for your creativity personally? Have they helped you finish a work of art or come up with a new idea?

I’m grateful to my dreams for their gifts to my creativity.  I don’t think of them as living in service of my creativity or vice versa. Rather, they are like dolphins swimming together, attuned each to the other. 

When I was writing my book on the use of the arts in dreamwork, I got a call from my publisher. She liked what I’d sent but then said politely, “I suppose we’d better come up with an organizing principle for the whole thing soon!”  I laughed; I was as a trained writer but I had let myself wander all over the place writing this dream material. It was completely and happily disorganized! I was accustomed to organizing nonfiction writing but this book eluded me for a while. Nothing seemed right; all my attempts were left -brained shackles on right-brained material. Then one night I dreamed I saw a beautiful circular beaded earring similar to those I had seen Pueblo friends make. My friends never followed a plan; they just started to do their beading and out came these lovely earrings. I lay in bed holding this image in my inner eye, wondering what on earth it had to do with anything. Then a laugh came from within: I knew this dream was an answer to how to organize the book.  My attitude was wrong: I couldn’t MAKE the organization happen. It was not going to happen in a linear fashion.  Each of the exercises, the practises that showed how to use different media to explore dreams, was a bead. Once I had all the beads, then I could play with the arrangement.  So when I had most of the exercises written, I literally laid them out on the floor until they began to group themselves and branch out from a core, which was, of course, the exploration of the natural artistry of dreams. The chapters fell into place as an inner circle.  And the practices fanned out from each chapter. I didn’t have think it through; it arrived as a visual gestalt, which I then had to enact consciously. 

Can anyone use their dreams creatively, or just artists?

Oh everyone! Anyone!  

In fact, professional artists often have a harder time using their trained medium to explore dreams.  They let expectations of performance get in the way of being free to respond as children do to invitations to create.  I often suggest to dreamers that they use a medium with which they are not familiar or skilled because they will have no  expectations of it or themselves.  It can help to use one’s non-dominant hand because its movements are less consciously controlled.  

We are all creative, all are born with the birthright of creative expression.   Some people also happen to be born with specialized skills for making certain arts but that’s irrelevant to exploring one’s dreams through the arts.  You and I can each move our hands to show what a wave looks like; that’s dance!  You and I can each splash paint on a page, put a big black X in the middle of a sheet of paper to show how trapped we felt in a dream.  We don’t have to be able to paint the Sistine Chapel!  

A patient once told me she had dreamed the color blue. She thought it was a pointless dream but told me about it because she knew I was interested in dreams! I asked her if anything came to her about the color. Nothing. She asked me for paint and paper. We sat on the floor together.  She quietly covered a large sheet of paper carefully with blue. Every spot and corner. Then she looked at it with surprise in her face: “This is where I go when things get bad.”  This lovely woman had grown up with a violent father and embattled mother. She now had a solid marriage but a daughter with a chronic, disabling condition. Life was sometimes just too hard. It really was. After she painted this blue space, she would often describe herself as “going into the blue space too much lately.” She associated it with poor memory, loss of focus, inability to direct her actions….That blue space began to clue her in to the level of trauma and stress she felt. It encouraged her to learn new, less costly, more pragmatic ways to relieve her terrible responsibilities and inner pain. Slowly, slowly as we found new ways for her to cope with the unspeakably difficult worlds of her past and her present, she began to say she didn’t just disappear into blue space any more.  She didn’t need it. It had served her well and now she had other helpers. Then she had a red dream about a red ocean.  Again, she didn’t have any conscious association other than uneasiness.  However, when she drew it--big red circles and wavy lines with finger paint--she felt rage, so long denied to her, gush up. We spent a long time in her red world….Eventually one day, she came in and said she had dreamed about a television screen where she could change the color balance to suit herself, her own eye (I?).  She realized she could have all her colors of emotions and could trust herself to bring them into balance with her self, her eye, her “I.”