Dream incubation is a natural spiritual practice, akin to our instinct to pray or observe omens. We may not think of instincts as being “spiritual,” but C.G. Jung provided the framework for this when he said, “The spiritual appears in the psyche also as an instinct, indeed as a real passion.” Archetypes, as Jung defined them, are ancient, evolved instincts that manifest in universal behavior patterns, such as dream incubation.
Today, we have no dream deities, no incubation shrines; our own bedrooms or lodging at a retreat center have to suffice. I have often lamented this lack, part of the pervasive spiritual/religious dearth of our modern era. After gathering together my ideas for this article, I was awakened one night and “told” that the absence of any visible, outer form for incubation rituals actually enables us to experience the incubation instinct at its most elementary, free of any cultural constraints. This revision was most welcome: the cup I saw as half-empty rotated to a new position in which it became half-full.
When I was ill and in need of healing, like pilgrims to Epidaurus, I spontaneously discovered incubation. For several years in the late 70s, I got quite sick at the holidays, and wanted to know why as much as to be well. At my analyst’s suggestion, I traded the extroverted activity of Christmas-to-New Year’s week for one of silence and solitude at a remote mountain cabin, my dream journal for company. Reading an entire year’s dreams during the week, I noticed recurring themes and figures; and I began to incubate dreams on asked and not-quite-asked questions. Dreams offered insight into my present and other psychosomatic illnesses—how they started and what their dynamics were; difficulties in certain relationships were also shown in a new light.
It was not that I asked a question on any given night and, in the morning, a dream was there. Questions were not always formulated clearly or consciously; rather, they existed in the twilight of the unconscious. Sometimes immediate issues have been followed by relevant dreams; but dreams concerning my personal destiny and the culture we live in have come intermittently over a long span of time. A recent dream seemed to depict this natural incubation process: candelabra on “this side” was lighted up; then, another on “that side” lighted spontaneously in resonance. Both were trident-shaped, suggesting the Greek word “psi” for psyche or soul.
I believe that freeing incubation from time-bound expectations and consciously-formulated intent still retains the essence of the practice, that is, the archetypal core instinct. This is also in keeping with ancient dream quest traditions in which the seeker would not know when or if a dream would come, and might have to remain at the cave or temple for days or weeks, or return again. To me, the interior domain from which dreams come is a vast wilderness with many layers and dimensions; I visit it and it visits me. The first hour upon waking, I lie quietly, receptive to what might arrive. This is my hour of meditation, my spiritual practice, and incubating is an integral part of it. I try not to replicate the culture’s dominating, colonizing attitude by treating the dream world as a third world country I can strip-mine for its riches.
Over the door of his Bollingen retreat, Jung carved the inscription, “Vocatus adque non vocatus, deus aderit,” meaning “Called or not, the god/s will be present.” This captures the essence of the perspective on incubation I have tried to convey here. The inherent wisdom function of the dreaming mind spontaneously responds to questions we have about our vocation, relationships, illness, destiny, whether we know we have asked them or not.