Thursday, August 23, 2007

Where Do Dreams Come From?

By Mary E. Martin

Why do we love stories? Whether we know it or not, all human beings tell themselves stories every night in their dreams. And dreams have their own special language of symbolic images, words, experiences. It’s a theatre of the psyche all dressed up with color, taste and smell, floating up from another level of consciousness.

When I was in high school, one English course was about the Greek myths. We had to learn all those stories of heroes and gods. Tough to keep them all straight one from the other. But not once do I remember anything about who made these stories up and why> Where did they come from?

The great mythologist Joseph Campbell wrote that dream is the personalized myth; myth is the depersonalized dream.

So, the dreams we experience in our sleep are the outpourings of our psyches and what stories we, as human beings, tell one another are our myths, an expression of our collective and deepest sense of what it means to be human.

Do both myths and dreams come from the same place? I like this answer from Campbell.
Myth is the secret opening through which the inexhaustible energies of the cosmos pour into human cultural manifestations.

The symbols of mythology are not manufactured: they cannot be ordered, invented or permanently suppressed. They are spontaneous productions of the psyche and each bears within it, undamaged, the germ power of its source.

These stories rise up from the psyche to guide us into human ways of being. Maybe stories then are real, live organic things, which simply come to us from our unconscious selves.
And so this fulfills a fundamental human need. We need communicate our fundamental thoughts and feelings first of all to ourselves and secondly, to one another in forms we will all readily understand.

But isn’t it interesting! Reading Joseph Campbell’s book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, we learn that we even use certain story formats, plot lines if you will. So many myths [and dreams] are based on the hero being lifted out of his everyday life and called [propelled] into something he must solve. To do so, he must confront tremendous obstacles [of a huge variety], find help along the way and call upon powers within himself to reach his goal. Once he has reached it, he must return to his world with his prize. Isn’t that the basic plot of innumerable Hollywood action flicks?

Here’s another example…a story about a forty six year old lawyer.

He’s still stuck, in the backroom, under his senior partner’s thumb. Life is going nowhere and his chance at making real money is fast fading. On top of that, his wife is planning to leave him because they are ‘in different worlds.’

First, his senior partner drops dead in the office and his wife walks out. Next a brand new client arrives to seduce him into a money-laundering scheme. Finally on his own, the lawyer is sorely tempted. And a beautiful woman comes to his aid. On top of that, a special client dies in suspicious circumstances and the lawyer is forced to find a serial killer. As a result, he must go down into the psyche of this serial killer and try to understand him. [ just what the hero must do in conquering his own underworld.] At the end of the novel, he has gained a new woman who actually loves him and his own self respect and understanding. To say nothing of having laid waste a serial killer and a money laundering consortium of a firm of corrupt lawyers.

The lawyer is in the role of the hero of many myths. That is…being forced from his usual life by a demand, battling forces he has not dealt with ever before, finding within himself powers and abilities previously unknown and unused and coming back to ‘normal’ life with the booty. A good woman and a new understanding of himself. And all the bad guys are gone! Sounds like a hero’s journey to me.

What story is this? It’s the story of Harry Jenkins in Conduct in Question, the first in the Osgoode Trilogy, which I wrote.

Now do you think I wrote it with the plot of the hero’s journey upper most in my mind? Hardly! I was just trying to write a good, exciting suspense novel which readers would enjoy.

Why didn’t I write an essay about what its like to practice law and deal with clients?

I could have told about how money laundering schemes work and how dangerous some clients can be. I could have given you all kinds of facts and figures. But who would care? If a reader really wants to know how a money laundering scheme works, there are plenty of sources of information. Lawyers here can even take a course on it. I know that sounds very strange, but its true. I could tell you about how estate law works and refer you to the necessary legislation, but would you care to read it? Not likely.

After almost thirty years of practice I wanted to let you know what it feels like to practice law and deal with situations you might not have dreamed of. The only way I could do that and have anyone interested enough to read about it, would be to put it in a story. And so I did. Because that sort of information only comes to life when you put it into the context of real characters acting upon one another.

Only after editing and literally thousands of hours of rewrites did I begin to recognize that indeed this was a tale of the hero’s journey. If I were not conscious of using this structure, how did it turn out as such a tale. Because I wrote it with the unconscious part of the brain doing the ‘heavy lifting’. And it is the unconscious part that is running the show in writing.

That being said, how did my unconscious know how to do this? The point is that these story forms or structures are somehow a part of all of us as human beings. Its how we communicate our most fundamental thoughts and feelings about life and where we fit into it. What meaning there can be found in living your life? In a way, it’s a story of birth, death and redemption. Whether we know it or not, we are affected by all that has gone before us. I just ‘knew’ that that was a structure other human beings would relate to.

So, we go on thinking about our dreams, visions, thoughts and emotions. We want people to understand and maybe learn from what we’ve experienced. That’s why we tell stories.

Mary E. Martin, a Toronto lawyer, is the author of the Osgoode Trilogy which is comprised of Conduct in Question, Final Paradox and A Trial of One, all legal suspense novels. To learn more please visit and

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