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On Spiders, Painting, and the Power of Story

Last August I spent a few hours prepping my hallway for painting. The color had been chosen the year before, the paint bought back in December, but for some reason I had not yet gotten around to the project.

It is a small T-shaped hallway, no bigger than a closet really, with a total of four doorways leading off in different directions, and an entire wall taken up with cupboards that were not going to be painted.

Why the job had filled me with such dread and lethargy for months was beyond me; why suddenly I had the energy to tackle it was equally mysterious. But in my better moments I remember to just follow the energy and do the next thing, no matter what it is. That is a lesson a teacher taught me years ago, and though it seemed painfully obvious at the time I have found it to be one of the most subtle, easily forgotten, and demanding principles to follow.

Paint prep in a hallway is not difficult: swab down the walls and baseboards with a wet cloth, spackle the holes and rough spots, then do the detail work of taping off everything you don’t want to get paint on. I needed a chair to stand on, so I reached around the corner for an old wooden chair that was the right height, and that was so beat up a little paint wouldn’t hurt it. Then I got to work.

The cleaning and spackling was easy, but all the doorways and tight corners made the taping a very painstaking job—so much so that after five minutes of surveying the territory I still could not decide where to begin. The task felt endless and overwhelming, and I could barely force my fingers to tug loose the end of the tape roll.

Finally I picked an imperfect starting point, one that didn’t seem right at all, and just focused on putting down one piece of tape at a time. In that very narrow-focused state of mind, I got back on the chair again to reach the top of a doorjamb, and it occurred to me how long I had had that chair.

With each slow tug of the blue tape I went a little farther back in time, to when it was an extra dining room chair, and before that the years it served as my son’s desk chair. At one point it had been my desk chair in college; and way back before that even, I remembered being 11 years old in my bedroom sitting in that chair at my little desk, and staring out the window into the night sky.

Back then I had had a nightmare involving this chair, in which I was sitting just so, looking out the window, and glancing down noticed a big black spider crawling toward me on the floor. I got spooked by it, and lifted one of the back legs of my chair to squash the spider. But to my horror it regenerated before my eyes, and where I had squashed one leg now ten legs emerged.

I tried again, and saw that there was no way to contain this spider whose legs were multiplying before my eyes. I knew it would soon devour me, so with growing dread I jumped from my desk chair right onto the bed and hid under the covers, waiting for the inevitable.

Spiders in Dreams

On the subject of spiders in dreams Freud is insistent: they represent the devouring mother. Artemidorus, the famous Greek dream interpreter of the 2nd century, says that spiders ”indicate small, contemptible men who are, however, in a position to harm one badly.”

The late Jungian analyst Don Sandner speaks of Spider Woman, symbol of Fate, who is friendly yet not to be taken lightly. Other dream books variously speak of good luck, bad luck, cosmic energy, money, traps, reality and illusion.

None of this helps me with my interminable taping task. Nor does it answer either of my two questions: Why did I have this dream? And why should I remember it now, standing on the same chair, battling another overwhelming dread?

Remembering Old Dreams

What would I have been thinking about back then, staring out at the night? I was probably reading there at my desk—the shelves above me were filled with books—and after a while my mind had no doubt drifted off onto some tangent. Knowing me, it had to do with imagining writing a story like that: what would the author have to know in order to write it, what did she believe, what might be going through her mind as she wrote, and was she trying to say something in the story beyond what I could comprehend?

Suddenly the whole book, and the experience of reading it, turned into a complicated morass of my own curious, striving nature combined with insecurities about becoming an adult. How could I ever hope to function in such a complex world? And how perfectly spider-like my scary, ever-expanding thoughts had become!

If that dream had been a mirror of my own mental processes, then no wonder it was coming back to me now. Sometimes I still have to remind myself that I am not that 11-year-old, looking into the abyss of the unknowable future. I was not rendered unconscious by puberty; I did not get annihilated on the road to adulthood. Not only that, I figured out how to write a story.

That seems to resonate with me the most now. Taping this hallway is like writing the first draft of anything: complicated, imperfect, and harder to do the longer I wait to start. Every strand of blue tape is its own sentence fragment, and every room that I paint is one more chapter in the story of this house becoming my own.

And here I am at the crux of it, the heart of the house which extends in all four directions, like spider legs branching out into every corner of the world. Suddenly, I feel not as though I am shouldering a huge burden, but like I am standing at the top of a great summit pass looking joyfully out at the other side.

I have done it: I have written my own story, step by arduous step, for long enough that I have reached something of a turning point in the entire narrative. I can see the whole that the pieces are becoming, and even the smallest dream fragments turn out to be part of the landscape.

Such is the power of story, to help us see who and where we are. My house is not yet fully painted, but it is halfway there. I have remembered why I kept that old chair all these years, and have recalled too the blessing of following each strand of thought, no matter how uncomfortable, all the way back through the skein of memory, until its promise is fulfilled.

About the Author:

The Dream Theories of Carl Jung

Except for Dr Freud, no one has influenced modern dream studies more than Carl Jung.

A psychoanalyst based in Geneva, Switzerland, Jung (1875 -1961) was a friend and follower of Freud but soon developed his own ideas about how dreams are formed. While depth psychology has fallen out of favor in neuroscience, Jung’s ideas are still thriving in contemporary psychoanalytic circles. Popular applications directly based on Jung’s research include the Myers-Briggs Personality Type Indicator, the polygraph (lie detector) test, and 12-step addiction recovery programs.

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The basic idea behind Jungian dream theory is that dreams reveal more than they conceal. They are a natural expression of our imagination and use the most straightforward language at our disposal: mythic narratives. Because Jung rejected Freud’s theory of dream interpretation that dreams are designed to be secretive, he also did not believe dream formation is a product of discharging our tabooed sexual impulses.

Original Art by Carl Jung from The Red Book

And surprisingly enough, Jung did not believe that dreams need to be interpreted for them to perform their function. Instead, he suggested that dreams are doing the work of integrating our conscious and unconscious lives; he called this the process of individuation. It’s easiest to think of individuation as the mind’s quest for wholeness, or that quality of applied wisdom that separates elders from grumpy old men. While not required, working with dreams and amplifying the mythic components can hasten along the process.

Archetypal Images Bring Balance

Jung drew heavily from Medieval texts and described his psychology as alchemy

This mythic world of Jung’s is the realm of the archetypes, which are the universal energies of every human who is not only in conflict with society but also with him or her self. Jung suggested that the archetypal images that come through dreams may be derived from different organs and thought centers in the body, and as such represent evolutionary drives.

Despite all the conflict, order is where it’s all headed from Jung’s perspective. The quicker we can balance all these ancient needs, the more productively we can live. The psychotherapist’s role is to provide hope for this order by helping the client make sense of their night visions and how they relate to waking life.
In Jung’s reckoning, the psychotherapist is like a modern shaman or priest who helps the individual create a personal mythology that works by throwing out maladaptive patterns and establishing healthy ones in their place.

The Collective Unconscious is not a Psychic Soup

The components of our mythic lives all have a similar structure throughout the lifespan. This is Jung’s collective unconscious, an idea that is usually misrepresented in popular culture today as some kind of psychic reservoir of knowledge. Jung was pointing more towards the psychological constants in all societies, such as rites-of-passage into womanhood, or the growing fascination with death after middle age.

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The confusion over the collective unconscious might have to do with the fact that Jung believed in telepathy. Ever the empirical scientist, Jung wrote “I would not assert the law behind them [telepathy] is “supernatural”, but merely something which we cannot get at yet with our present knowledge” (1974, p. 48).

If you are interested in how dreams can reflect the Big Moments in our lives, as well as our natural aptitude for mysticism, then start with Jung’s Dreams, Myths and Reflections, his autobiography. It is rich and provocative.

Jung’s dream journal has also just been published for the first time, in limited numbers. Known as the Red Book, this is the journal that Jung kept during his “encounter with the unconscious” during WWI, in which he holed up in his studio and purposefully went crazy for a while. He claimed later that all the seeds for his major ideas are represented in the Red Book, which is full of ornate drawings and calligraphy. This book may prove to rewrite everything we thought we knew about Carl Jung.
Next, we’ll look at the work of Calvin Hall, creator of the first cognitive theory of dreams.

Further Reading:

Memories, Dreams and Reflections by Carl Jung

Dreams by Carl Jung

About the Author:

Ryan's recent dream research focuses on lucid dreaming, sacred sites, the anthropology of dreaming, and sleep paralysis. DreamStudies.org