Studying Synchronicity in Dreams: A Visit from the Viper

Cynthia Pearson

a paper presented on the
Long Term Journal Keeping panel
Annual Conference of the Association for the Study of Dreams
University of California at Santa Cruz
July 7, 1999

Back in 1995, I gave a presentation describing how I had used a database to organize my dream records. By the next year, I had entered 600 dreams from the previous five years, and made some interesting and surprising observations. Now, I had been noting synchronicities between my dreams and waking experience for many years. In fact, the database helped me to quantify this -- 20% of the time, the contents of my dreams coincided meaningfully with later events. These connections were typically of a “local” nature, that is, the coincidence occurred soon after the dream.

However, the retrospective assignment I had given myself, of reviewing and entering the contents of five years worth of dreams, revealed additional incidences that were so much more elaborate than ordinary synchronicites that I called them “arabesques,” after those complex designs of intertwining lines. Today I will share a very fancy arabesque that occurred over a span of several years. This began with a dream I’d written down in my journal, but it wasn’t my own dream. It was one my husband had on October 21, 1993, and I share it with his permission. I titled it, “A Visit from the Viper.” His description:

There is a viper emerging from the head of Zeus. My son and I know that the time to kill the viper is while it is emerging, but we don't succeed. The viper is far more dangerous then, and very fast. My wife is in the dining room and I am halfway up the stairs to the second floor when the viper comes after her. I have figured out that the viper is a sight hunter and I tell her to keep still. She does and the snake passes her and comes up the stairs toward me. It climbs all the way up onto my shoulder and I freeze, because if I move, the viper will strike. To distract it, I move my foot. The viper moves down and begins gnawing on the big toe on my left foot. I think, "Now what do I do?" and then kick the viper down the steps. I run up the steps but because I'm moving, the viper has a target and comes after me very fast. I start to wake up but then think, "I'd better take care of this." I grab the viper, smash it against the wall and kill it.

My husband doesn't write down his dreams, but I sometimes record his, because occasionally I find correspondences with mine. This time, I found correspondences with life. Soon after we rose that day, we went for a walk. We talked about his dream, because I was very intrigued by it. The theme of father and son trying to defeat a dangerous foe seemed heroic, even mythic. I asked my husband if he knew that Athena, the goddess of wisdom, was born full grown from the head of Zeus. He pointed out this wasn't just any snake, but a viper, a "poisonous serpent of the Old World," according to our dictionary.Then I realized that a snake was a Biblical symbol of knowledge, albeit an ominous one.

Where had such an intense dream come from, we wondered as we walked our fast pace into the park. The wooded trail there was eye-popping with the yellows and oranges of mid-October. The sky above was grey and the ground below dark brown, but everything at eye level was vivid color, a tunnel of yellow light. As we started into the last stretch, I noticed a long, black tree limb lying along the left side of the path. It seemed oddly pointy and unusually wavy. I stopped dead and grabbed my husband. "That's a snake!" I gasped. And even as I was thinking, "Naw you're just thinking that because of the dream," I was turning on my heel to run away.

"Hey, yeah, a black snake," he announced as I brought my flight under control some yards behind him. When he backtracked to me, I got a grip on myself and said, "Let's make sure, maybe I'm wrong." I stepped cautiously back toward the spot and caught a glimpse of black moving off the right side of the path. Although I speculated that we should continue on our accustomed way, I discovered that I was already walking briskly in the opposite direction. I was so spooked, not only by the snake itself but by the eerie prescience of the dream, that my mind could not override my body's impulse to flee.

In my journal that day I wondered, "What was he processing, with a 'godhead' producing this symbol of knowledge, or aggression, or the unconscious, or kundalini energy -- depending on how you want to think about it?" Indeed, I was more interested in this dream than my husband was, but it would prove to have deep significance to both of us, and would turn out to be prescient again.

Eighteen months later, my husband ruptured a disk in his spine. After days of worsening pain, he was referred to a neurosurgeon, who diagnosed "foot drop." We had noticed that his foot flopped clownishly when he took a stride; we had not known that this meant dangerous nerve damage that would have to be repaired at once. Not until surgery was performed did we learn that he had a congenital malformation of the spine. But his recovery went well, and the only lasting damage is that the big toe of his left foot is permanently numb.

I did not remember the viper dream during his injury and surgery, but when I reencountered it two years later, while entering dreams into my database, I was stunned. Here was the menacing viper, gnawing away on my husband's not-yet impaired toe. I realized that the viper had been an excellent symbol on many levels, including its association with the spine. And then there is the snake as a symbol of knowledge -- of the unsuspected congenital defect; of the future confrontation with danger; of the permanent damage to the toe.

How can a dream know so much that we do not? In her book, On Divination and Synchronicity, Marie Louise von Franz says, "The unconscious knows things; it knows the past and future, it knows things about other people. We all from time to time have dreams which inform us of something which happens to another person. Most [analysts] . . . know that prognostic and telepathic dreams occur quite frequently to practically everybody, and this knowledge of the unconscious Jung calls absolute knowledge." (p. 39)

Tom’s dream appears to have been "prodromic." From the Greek for "running before," this term is used in medicine to denote early symptoms, and premonitions of symptoms. Hippocrates and many others have observed that an illness or injury may appear in dream symbolism before it is experienced in waking life. The question for the dreamer then is, of all the many sorts of things that may happen with or to our bodies in dreams, how might we know which ones are prodromic?

In this case, the synchronicity of encountering a snake directly after the viper dream, on a trail on which in over 20 years we had never before seen a snake, served as a giant checkmark: "Attention! There is significance here!" Even so, we forgot the dream over the ensuing months, and during the medical crisis, in spite of the fact that this had been a significant dream, especially as a shared experience. Which, it turned out, the crisis of his back injury certainly also was. His becoming immobilized resulted in my able body, which in the dream had not been touched, becoming the vehicle for both of us. Everything he could not do, I had to. And so this dream seemed to be not only about, but for, both of us.

Although forewarned, we were not forearmed by this dream, at least insofar as our conscious minds can recall. Yet, what if he had not mentioned the dream to me at all? What if I hadn't written it down? What if I had not ventured upon it three years later and recognized its significance? This is the question we might all ask ourselves about all our dreaming. What lies in our dreams that remains undiscovered, and how much absolute knowledge do we forget every morning?

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