Two perfect peonies from Jean's garden in western North Carolina

I’ve been carrying on a conversation with author Jean Raffa ever since she posted this essay about the active imagination and her creative process, excerpted below:

Here’s how it works for me. I find a quiet, comfortable, private, and distraction-free place to sit, usually in front of my computer so I can record what is happening as I go along. Then I focus on an issue or concern or dream image that I have a question about and write it down. I light a candle to signify to my unconscious that I am setting aside a sacred time to listen to it, close my eyes, imagine myself in a beautiful, safe place, then, after clearing my mind, I ask my question and wait. When a thought, feeling or image shows up, even an unlikeable one, I don’t reject it. I just let it come, and without forcing the issue, I wait to see what happens. If nothing does, I might ask my original question again, or any other that occurs to me.

When I feel ready, I take a moment to write down what has happened so far, then return to where I left off. I write conversations like dialogues in plays, describing who’s speaking after brief designations like “Me” and “Stranger,” or maybe just the initials “M” and “S” so the writing takes up as little time as possible. Then I return and continue until I feel a sense of closure. The whole process usually takes me about a half hour.

Even though I have been meditating regularly this year, I’ve never used this kind of process for writing my memoir draft. I have never analyzed a dream.  Part of me is skeptical.

But, as always, I pay attention when I feel a pull toward a person or an idea, and I felt that pull when I read the words above and, even more when I conversed with Jean online.  Most of us are curious about the meaning of our dreams but few of us have ever studied them. If you are interested in this subject also, come along.

How did I find Jean? First, there was Charles Hale. Then there was Toni, who wrote a beautiful essay on Charles’ blog and became a Twitter friend. Toni is the one who introduced me to Jean Raffa on Twitter. So what we have here is another one of those synchronous connections that happen when like-minded people meet online.

I asked Jean four questions. She was so generous with her responses that I will share the questions and answers over the next several blog posts. Here’s question #1:

Q: You say on your website: “My life is a dream; my dreams are my life.”Also, you’ve recorded over 4,000 dreams since 1989 if I remember correctly. I can see how helpful it would be to be guided by dreams as a writer. But many of us, myself included, do not remember our dreams very often. Can you provide suggestions on how to become more conscious?

A: As of today, the number of recorded dreams is 4,355!   I know it sounds like a mind-boggling undertaking, but really it’s just been a day-by-day, step-by-step thing that I did several times a week when I had the time and energy, or when I felt the need, or when I remembered enough of a dream to be curious about it.

Of course, I didn’t work on every one of these, and I’ve had several in between that I never even recorded, plus lots more I simply couldn’t remember. At first I was worried about not capturing them all in writing so I could keep coming back to them.

But our psyches are always trying to communicate our soul’s purpose and desire to us via our dreams, and I learned to trust that if the messages were important enough, they’d return in other dreams until I “got” them.

All my books but the first, which was an outgrowth of my dissertation, are essentially memoirs, and dreamwork has been invaluable to me in this endeavor. Writing has always been a deeply satisfying means of expression for me, and when it’s combined with working on my dreams it’s my fundamental “practice” that brings enormous meaning to my life and helps me tie up all the disconnected threads of my personal history.

Especially helpful in this regard is the fact that since my college days I’ve had a habit of jotting down my day-to-day activities and appointments on calendars, and I’ve kept them all. Likewise, when I started working on my dreams I dated and numbered them.

Having this dual, inner world/outer world record of my life to return to when writing my books has been invaluable. So my first suggestion to memoir writers about how to become more conscious would be to keep some kind of written record of what’s going on with you both inside and out, including a dream whenever you remember one. It may not feel important now, but years from now having this information could add powerful layers of meaning to your writing.

Essentially, having a regular practice of some sort is essential to becoming more conscious. You’ve simply got to take time every day to pay attention to your inner life, even if it’s only a few moments a day.

The major obstacle to this, of course, is the extreme busyness of life in today’s world, so it’s imperative to carve out at least 20 or 30 minutes every day when you won’t be distracted by kids, telephones, music, computers, or television so you can write undisturbed, or do whatever else you’re drawn to: writing, of course, but also body work like dancing, massages or yoga, or regular talks with a wise friend or psychotherapist.

But as far as I’m concerned, regular meditation is the Queen of consciousness-raising. Initially, I was reluctant to take the time to meditate so I made a deal with myself.  I could only start writing if I meditated for at least 20 minutes every weekday morning first! This worked wonders and also brought more balance to my life, because I left evenings and weekends free for my husband and children.

Jean Raffa

Dr. Jean Raffa is an author, speaker, and leader of workshops, dream groups and study groups. Her job history includes teacher, television producer, college professor, and instructor at The Jung Center in Winter Park, FL. Through formal and informal means, including a five-year Centerpoint course and an intensive at the Jung Institute in Zurich, Switzerland, Jean has been studying Jungian psychology and her own inner life for more than twenty-three years. Her book, Dream Theatres of the Soul: Empowering the Feminine Through Jungian Dream Work has been used in dreamwork courses throughout the country and is included in’s list of the Top 100 Best Selling Dream Books, and TCM’s book list of Human Resources for Organizational Development.

Do you document both your inner and outer life activities in some way? Does Jean inspire you to start doing so?

In my next post, Jean will respond to a question about how we can learn to analyze our own dreams. She has agreed to respond to comments and questions on this post and two more to follow. What would you like to know? Dr. Raffa is in the office.






Shirley Showalter


  1. Jean Raffa on May 28, 2012 at 11:43 am

    Hi Shirley,

    I love your site! Especially your great video. I feel like I know you better now! It’s been fun communicating with you lately about this interview, and I thank you for this lovely post, the first in your series. I look forward to the rest.

    Questions or comments from your readers are very welcome and I should be able to answer them promptly!

    Thanks again, and best wishes in your writing,


  2. shirleyhs on May 28, 2012 at 2:36 pm

    Welcome, Jean. So glad you enjoyed the video on my site. It will help explain more fully the only childhood dream I can remember and one that has become much more fascinating to me since meeting you.

    I hope others will take advantage of the opportunity to think of their own dreams and sink more deeply into them with your help.

  3. Tina Barbour on May 28, 2012 at 11:30 pm

    This is fascinating! I love the notion that my soul is communicating with me through my dreams, but I wonder if I’m “getting” any of it.

    I used to note in my daybook a lot of the different, even mundane, details of the day. I enjoyed being able to go back to a date and remind myself what I did and even how I felt on that day. This post inspires me to get back to that.

    I’ve never done that with my dreams. I don’t remember a lot of my dreams. I’ve read that we should write them down as soon as we wake up, but I can’t seem to remember them that long!

    I do remember some recurring themes, such as trying to get home and not being able to (one obstacle after another gets in the way); trying to make a phone call, usually to my husband, and not being able to dial the correct number; and registering for a class but not attending class until the end of the semester, when it’s too late to drop the class and too late to make up the work. I would like to explore why I have such dreams.

    Thank you, Shirley and Jean!

    • Jean Raffa on May 29, 2012 at 12:29 am

      Hi Tina,

      I’m glad you liked this. Getting better at remembering your dreams is sort of like learning to play the piano. It you become intentional about “practicing,” i.e. putting paper and a pencil beside your bed and jotting down any images or feelings or scenes when you first wake up, and if you keep it up, you’ll get better.

      Understanding them is, of course a different matter. I would suggest you read an introductory book. My book, Dream Theatres of the Soul is one that will answer lots of your questions and give you enough information to get started.

      I’ve had all 3 of the dreams you mention many times; most people have. The important thing is to notice the emotions you feel in the dream, as it’s telling you how you’ve recently felt in waking life. The obstacles to getting home might speak to some recurring waking life frustration that’s preventing you from feeling the closure and comfort you seek. The difficulty in putting a call through to your husband could speak to difficulties in communicating what’s important to you—with your husband or other loved ones. And most people find the “missing class” dream to be about social worries: fear of failure in the eyes of the world, etc. When you have a dream like this look at when you felt this way in the last few days and you’ll be more aware of what your soul’s trying to tell you!

      Thanks so much for writing, and good luck with your dreamwork. I’ve found it to be very exciting; every insight I gain is like finding a piece of buried treasure!

      My best,

  4. […] this blog has introduced me to some wonderful people. Shirley Showalter is one whose inspiring site is filled with fascinating information and practical tips for memoir writers.  Recently she […]

  5. Tina Barbour on May 29, 2012 at 9:44 am

    Thank you, Jean, for your kind and helpful comments! I appreciate your time and insight.

    • Jean Raffa on May 29, 2012 at 10:21 am

      Most definitely my pleasure, Tina! Thanks. Jeanie

  6. shirleyhs on May 29, 2012 at 9:52 am

    Jean, I just had to laugh this morning after I realized what was happening. This could get a little lengthy, but I need to set a little context. This afternoon my husband and I leave for a trip to Greece and Turkey. We’ve been house guests and are trying to pack suitcases and store things properly so that we have what we need on our trip and have stored the other things appropriately. We just moved out of Brooklyn and are missing our little grandson.

    My job today is to take our car to the Honda dealership, get it inspected and several items fixed. I don’t usually do this kind of thing, but my husband is working.

    All this, plus thinking of dreams, must have had a powerful impact on my unconscious.

    I woke up late, realizing I had to get to the car dealership right away, but I have actually remembered my dream for over 1.5 hours (very unusual for me). I’ll record it here:

    I’m at an academic conference (on Shakespeare?) close to my field of American lit. but not squarely in the middle of it. I am talking, at a round dinner table, with a venerable statesman, a white-haired man, of the academic world. He mentions that he is looking forward to my speech.

    I react internally in horror. He shows me the place in the program where my speech comes. I recognize that I may have 30 minutes max to prepare.

    I try not to show my internal panic. And I actually get calmer as I remember that after-dinner audiences love short, personal speeches (here I know that the blog post I read yesterday on advice to commencement speakers influenced me, as did my own experience of speaking extemporaneously as a college president).

    As the academic elder statesman went on talking, I mentally constructed a speech in my mind. It began with an essay my son in fourth grade called “My Hero.”

    My hero is my mother
    She tells me I can be anything I want to be
    and that trying is more important than winning
    Most of all, she is kind.

    By the end of the dream, I am feeling calm. Bathed in love, just like the people whose images I saw yesterday after they have been loving under scientific scrutiny in MRI studies.

    Then I woke up from my crisis-turned-to bliss dream into a real life panic. I was already ten minutes late and had to drive the car to the dealership.

    However, just like in the dream, all is well. I am here at the Honda Cafe, the car is getting fixed, and the same pattern of faith in the ultimate conclusions of life has returned to be my surest companion. Thanks for making me more aware, Jean. You’ve convinced me that dreams come, and are remembered, when we are open to receiving them.

  7. Jean Raffa on May 29, 2012 at 10:30 am

    Oh, Shirley! Thank you for sharing this example of the benevolent intentions of our dreams and how well they serve us. I’ve found that the more I pay attention, the more they address my daily waking life situations in helpful ways exactly like this!

    I particularly love the image of the white-haired academic statesman with you at the round table! If this were my dream I would see this as an image of the help I get from my wise and mature animus (masculine side) in service to my soul’s wholeness (the circle is a soul symbol and an image of wholeness.) What a lovely gift this dream was!


    • shirleyhs on May 29, 2012 at 12:20 pm

      It was indeed. Thanks for your perspective on the elder statesman. Giving my masculine side permission has caused me both pain and delight over the years. One lovely thing about life after sixty is that both men and women can enjoy a period of androgyny.

  8. Susan Allstetter Neufeldt on May 29, 2012 at 11:57 am

    My brother, a therapist, once said to me, “Dreams never lie.” They may, however, simply represent daily events. I once heard a dream specialist report that she dreamed of a snake when she lived in central America. Trusting her dream, she poked around her cabinets until she found the snake. She suspected she had seen the signs the day before and registered them subliminally.

    You can influence your memory of dreams. Put a notepad by your bed and whenever you awake in the night with just a dream fragment, write the dream down. Don’t turn on the light, as that may prevent your going back to sleep. Eventually you will remember longer fragments and then whole dreams.

    You can instruct yourself to dream about something that puzzles you. With such an instruction to myself, I went to sleep nearly 40 years ago, when I was trying to discern whether I should leave the college in Idaho where I was teaching psychology to take a job at a prominent New York City university or return to Santa Barbara and begin a private psychology practice. In my dream I was walking around my Santa Barbara garden crying about selling that home and heading east. When I awoke, I knew what to do and turned down the university job.

    As a psychologist, I have spent a lot of time talking about dreams with some people. Once I had a client who began every session by telling me of one of the dreams she had experienced that week. We spent much of the session making connections between the dream and her life, and she experienced considerable change in her inner and outer life by the end of our work together.

    • shirleyhs on May 29, 2012 at 12:25 pm

      Susan, this subject is right down your alley! Thanks for sharing these great stories. I wonder if you are accessing your dream life as you write about your subject of wisdom?

    • Jean Raffa on May 29, 2012 at 1:03 pm

      Thank you for these great stories, Susan. I, too, have experienced considerable change because of this kind of work! There’s no one wiser than our own inner wisdom! Jeanie

  9. Sadie Showalter on May 29, 2012 at 12:13 pm

    I have often thought I want to remember my dreams, but it seems I very seldom do, but this morning I woke and immediately wrote down the main parts of the dream. I often dream about needing to be somewhere, but can not seem to get it together in order to be there on time.

    This seemed to be the theme again in this dream. Was planning to go on a train trip with my two children, who became my two grandchildren, each having their suit cases. Upon arriving at the train station I realized that I had missed the train, and needed to wait in line to change my ticket to 6:00. The children did not want to stay with me in line, and I thought they would be in the room where they were entertaining children or in the library with the books, but when I was finished with the ticket voucher change, I could not find them.

    I was then trying to change the voucher to the actual ticket and again there was a line. Could not wait because of the concern for the children, and there were alphabet designated windows, but when I looked they were serving yogurt with different flavors rather than the needed ticket!!!

    Glad to wake up and discover it was a dream and I did not need to worry about the children.

  10. Jean Raffa on May 29, 2012 at 1:20 pm

    I’ve had similar dreams, Sadie. Usually they take place in airports. I think this theme may be about feeling stalled in my psycho-spiritual journey; as if I want to go on and expand my horizons, but circumstances are holding me back at the moment. Perhaps because I have concerns about my husband, children, or grandchildren, depending on who’s with me in the dream, that are keeping me from being able to act on my desire to move forward. This is just my gut response at the moment! I need to investigate my own dreams around this theme further! Thanks for the reminder. Jeanie

  11. Sadie Showalter on May 29, 2012 at 3:43 pm

    Thanks for your response and I am intrigued by your suggestion of the psycho-spiritual quest. I relate to that idea!

    • Jean Raffa on May 29, 2012 at 3:53 pm

      More than one sage and/or saint has said that the quest for self-knowledge is THE spiritual journey. I am in total agreement. This, in fact, is the subject of my new book, Healing the Sacred Divide. Jeanie

  12. Deb on May 30, 2012 at 10:44 am

    I really enjoyed this piece. I have had certain dreams that are very, very vivid – like I can see the raindrops on the child’s eyelashes and the light reflected in the raindrop – those dreams haunt me. My most recent is one where no one believes me when I tell them what I see.Then some pigs are being chased by prey and they fly to the top of our roof. I want to fly like a pig and not be eaten. I am still afraid as I think of this dream. How strange is that?

    • Jean Raffa on June 1, 2012 at 11:43 pm

      Hi Deb,

      I’m glad you enjoyed this piece. Both of these dreams seem to be about seeing things others don’t see. I don’t know how you felt in the first, but if it’s a sense of beauty and wonder, then I’d think this might be about a recent waking life situation when you felt the same way.

      In the most recent one you say no one believes you when you tell them what you see. So how did you feel? Angry? Frustrated? Lonely. Again, I’d look for a recent waking life situation when you felt the same way: as if you see things in ways others don’t. The more you are aware of this feeling in waking life, the more easily it will become to express your feelings in appropriate ways.

      The fear of being eaten could refer to a similar fear of being hurt or victimized or used up in some way. Dreams exaggerate to get our attention, so it’s probably not a huge, serious feeling you have in waking life, but it could be subtle enough that you’re not quite aware of it. And the desire to fly could express a wish to escape whatever it is you’re afraid of, including the fear itself. I wonder if the dream could be making a pun along the lines of the old saying about when pigs fly?

      Good luck with working on it.


  13. Elizabeth Westmark ("Beth") on May 31, 2012 at 10:48 pm

    Jean and Sadie — thank you both so much for this. Jean, I just ordered your book, Dream Theatres of the Soul, and hope it arrives before I head to Maggie Valley in a few days. Sounds perfect for porch reading. learning, and reflecting. I have a section on my blog where I have kept a record of some of my dreams in the past. You’ve inspired me to make the time to continue.

    One of my favorite dreams (from August, 2009) is this one:

    I just awoke from a longer than usual night of sleep.

    I dreamed so hard I woke up with my left ear folded over and painful.

    I lay on a sofa on the second floor of the New York Public Library wrapped in fur skins, turning the pages of a large book until all the lights were turned out around me. Ancient women gently pushed me out the door and I was suddenly in the dark, violent streets.

    I drove through the unknowable avenues like a tiny ball in a huge pinball machine, swerving through noise and neon.

    I lost the car somewhere and wandered through fog-filled halls with other lost children. They clung to my ankles, mistakenly thinking I knew the way home.

    Then there was the ocean. I saw marble statues, half drowned in the green surf, unblinking eyes wide, terrifying, irresistible.

    The old man spoke, then. He broke from the network of vines criss-crossing his chest to walk with me. He stumbled. Sometimes he crawled. But his message for me rumbled, creaked and roared out of that voice that had become strange through disuse.

    I looked at my right arm this morning to see if it bore a mark from his grip.

    Upon awaking, I passed an old mirror on my way to the computer keyboard. There! The old man again. In one of my eyes.

    It felt like a “big” dream. I would appreciate your thoughts.

    One last thing: your peonies are gorgeous!

    Thank you — Beth

  14. […] Part II of my interview with Shirley Showalter, a blogger and memoir writer I met on the […]

  15. Jean Raffa on June 2, 2012 at 12:00 am

    Thank you for ordering my book. I hope you’ll let me know if you found it helpful when you’re through.

    It’s very hard to know what anyone else’s dreams mean without knowing how they felt or what their associations are to the images. For example, reading a book in the NY library might feel one way to someone and entirely different to the other.

    Losing my car, getting lost on dark, violent, noisy streets, being in the fog and being following by lost children is a bit easier for me as it seems to speak to the feeling of being lost and in the dark as I make my way through life.The children could be parts of me that feel lost and hope my ego self has a better idea of where I’m going than they are. I used to have dreams of being lost in streets and followed by an orphan child, and the feelings were frustration and annoyance. Gradually I came to see the orphans as needy and vulnerable parts of myself I didn’t like. But you might feel differently about your lost children so they could have a very different meaning for you.

    For me the symbol of marble statures being half drowned in the ocean could refer to feelings I don’t want to admit to—you know the saying that someone is cool as marble, meaning emotionless. The fact that they’re flooking terrified and overwhelmed by water but can’t express it suggests to me that there’s a part of me that feels the same way.

    The strange man breaking through vines seems to be about some masculine quality trying to become conscious in me. If you can look at your dreams like this, as if you’re watching a film and looking for the symbolic meaning of the events, you can sometimes get a clearer idea of what they mean, although it can take a while to figure out what they have to do with your waking life. Look for the emotions and try to remember when you recently felt the way you felt in the dream.

    My best to you with your dream work,

    • Elizabeth Westmark ("Beth") on June 2, 2012 at 11:16 pm

      Jeanie — thanks so much for the gift of your time, thought, and words. You’ve given me a nice trail of clues to follow. Take care (and thanks again, Shirley, for providing this forum.) –Beth

  16. […] this blog has introduced me to some wonderful people. Shirley Showalter is one whose inspiring site is filled with fascinating information and practical tips for memoir writers.  Recently she […]

  17. […] this blog has introduced me to some wonderful people. Shirley Showalter is one whose inspiring site is filled with fascinating information and practical tips for memoir writers.  Recently she […]

  18. […] about them to our generous Dr. Raffa, who has answered a number of dream questions in this previous post. If you missed it, you might want to begin the dream exploration journey […]

  19. […] Here’s Part III of my interview with memoir writer, Shirley Showalter. […]

  20. […] the final question Shirley Showalter asked me at our recent […]

  21. […] Jean Raffa has been sharing her knowledge of dreams in a series begun with this post and continuing with last week’s post about the Big dreams of childhood. Here are two more […]

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