The Dream and the Lullaby, by Douglas Thomas, PhD, LCSW

Lately I’ve been thinking about lullabies. A lullaby seems like such a delicate primal thing. I have memories from early childhood, lying in my mother’s lap, her fingers running through my hair as she sang a gentle song to soothe me into sleep. If you’ve spent time around infants or young children, you may have felt the impulse to quiet and comfort the young one with a little song or melody. It comes almost as an instinct, deep, natural, and absent of forethought. It’s curious that music comes so naturally in such moments, often when people would never dream of singing for anyone in any other situation. That speaks to the deep intimacy of the lullaby. Those other qualities: natural, instinctual, deep, and absent of forethought, suggest there’s something shared between lullabies and the activity of the unconscious, which also implicates the rhythms of the dreaming mind into the world of the lullaby.

The word lullaby comes to us from Old English, as one might suspect, a combination of the verb to lull, meaning to quiet and soothe, and bye-bye, a colloquial expression for goodbye (American Heritage Dictionary, 2011). In the hectic pressure of daily life, the timeless melody of repose and the peaceful passage into sleep conjure an almost magical sense of another world, another time. In fact, this is exactly right. Lullabies serve as the musical offering that accompanies our transit into the dreamtime, the other world we inhabit in our sleep and in our unconscious underworld lives, the place where psyche is synonymous with soul, according to James Hillman (1979).

At the end of his own life, Hillman (2013) elaborated the significance he found in this mythic image of psyche as underworld, finding a correspondence to the living presence of ancestors and ancestry in our lives. He developed his ideas about this correspondence through his reflections on Jung’s Red Book (2009), the great illuminated repository of Jung’s own confrontation with the unconscious. In his conversations with Sonu Shamdasani, the editor of the Red Book, Hillman contemplates the intricate web of reverie, memory, and imagination that holds together the underworld mysteries of the psyche, the unfinished business of our ancestors, and the potent images that visit us in our dreams. It seems almost uncanny, given this connection between ancestors and dreams, that so often lullabies pass along from one generation to the next, from grandparents to parents to children as a family tradition. In this sense, we might imagine the lineage of a lullaby as a songline of the soul, as Veronica Goodchild (2012) uses the term. The melody of the lullaby is the music of lineage, the primal impulse to care for the young while honoring the old and the departed. At the same time, it is the melody that escorts us from childhood consciousness into the timeless world of the dream.

What kind of relationship might we imagine exists between the lullaby and the dream? The etymology of the word lullaby directs attention away from the concerns of daytime consciousness, lulling and soothing the overburdened ego, and inviting a departure, a goodbye to the world of literal facts and the substance of material problems. The word refers to a musical gesture that points away from that which is familiar. But what is it pointing toward? It gestures toward sleep and dream, which suggests that the world of symbols and subtle bodies also has a claim upon the lullaby, what might be called the hidden or unspoken aspect of the word.

One of Jung’s great contributions to the field of psychology was to introduce the prospective aspect of the psyche, that within us which is looking to the future and signaling the potential and even the necessity to grow and develop. Jung (1977/1917) used the Greek word telos, meaning end purpose or goal, to refer to this forward-looking aspect of the soul. Part of the Jungian approach to dream work, which Dream Tending adopts, is to reflect on “the pull of the future,” (Stephen Aizenstat, personal communication), which is part of the dream’s mysterious energy. Perhaps in a paradoxical way, lullabies accompany us away from the worries of waking life while at the same time sending a song of welcome to the dreamtime to become active and offer clues about the future possibilities available to us from the perspective of the unconscious.

Imagined in this way, the darker images that are so often a part of lullaby lyrics take on a deeper meaning and necessity. “If the bough breaks, the cradle will fall. And down will come baby, cradle and all.” How many mothers have tenderly sung these words to their slumbering infants? From the viewpoint of daytime consciousness, absent any cultural context that provides a patina of normalcy, the thought of a mother singing such words to a baby verges on the sadistic. Often lullabies are laced with a sense of sadness and nostalgia (e.g., “Too-Ra-Loo-Ra-Loo-Ral”), or an impulse to protect the child from the cruel and unpredictable forces in the world (think of “Brahms’ Lullaby” or “Baby Mine”). The sense of the nostalgic leads us back to the land of the ancestors, which, as Jung (1989) points out, is also the realm of the unconscious and the land of the dead. That which is cruel and unpredictable in the world finds its dark counterpart in the dreamtime. Perhaps lullabies reassure us in a subversive way that the menacing images in our lives are necessary figures to challenge, enliven, and sophisticate the psyche with the problems they introduce. The lullaby recognizes there is a place for them, even as Mother promises protection against them.

In his conversations with Sonu Shamdasani regarding Jung’s Red Book, James Hillman (2013) made the following observation:

Jung says there that we think the figures we uncover in our dreams or in active imagination are the result of us, but he says we are the result of them. Our life should be derived from them. We just think of it wrong. . . . Jung is saying these figures come to us in our dreams and even our thoughts derive from these figures, so the task would be uncovering the figures, which seems to be what the Red Book does. He allows the figures to speak, to show themselves. (pp. 1-2)

Jung and Hillman both assert that the psyche presents us with an inversion of our habitual ego-based mode of thinking and perceiving. It is not the dream that lives inside my sleeping mind; rather, it is my sleeping mind that comes to life inside the dream. The images don’t belong to us; we belong to them. This is one of the fundamental postulates of Dream Tending (Aizenstat, 2009). The images alive in our dreams are autonomous entities revealing their unique capacities and perspectives, offering new modes of responding to old questions. It is through tending these living images, growing familiar with them that they reveal their gifts. It is through sustaining an enduring relationship with them over time that we truly receive the gifts they reveal.

Inverting the habitual ways of thinking about dream images can be challenging and disconcerting. Yet the idea of the autonomous dream figure encountered through the imagination is fundamental to the practice of Dream Tending. The idea is elegant, simple, and rich with profound implications. It is these same qualities that make lullabies such a subtle and enduring expression of psychic life. The lullaby soothes us as we begin the descent into the unfamiliar terrain of the dream, just as it beckons and encourages the images of the underworld landscape to show themselves and to speak on their own behalf, revealing that which lives unfinished in the past and gestures toward our future.


Aizenstat, S. (2009). Dream tending. New Orleans, LA: Spring Journal.

Goodchild, V. (2012). Songlines of the soul. Lake Worth, FL: Nicholas-Hays, Inc.

Hillman, J. (1979). The dream and the underworld. New York: Harper & Row.

Hillman, J., & Shamdasani, S. (2013). Lament of the dead. New York: W. W. Norton and Company.

Jung, C. G. (1977). Two essays on analytical psychology. In H. Read, M. Fordham, & G. Adler (Eds.), The collected works of C. G. Jung (Vol. 7) (R. F. C. Hull, Trans.). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University. (Original work published 1917)

Jung, C. G. (1989). Memories, dreams, reflections (A. Jaffé, Ed.), (R. & C. Winston, Trans.). New York: Vintage Books.

Jung, C. G. (2009). The red book: Liber novus (S. Shamdasani, Ed.), (M. Kyburz, Trans.). New York: W. W. Norton and Company.

Nichols, B. (Ed.). (2011). American heritage dictionary (5th ed.). Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.