Active Imagination and Dreams
Carl Jung several times described a technique for using imagination that allowed the spontaneous expression of unconscious material. Jung described active imagination as a putting aside of conscious criticism while we allow our irrational to play or fantasy. In relationship to a dream, this technique can be extraordinarily helpful and revealing. A way to learn the technique is to take a dream in which a fairly defined person appears. It can be a child or adult. One then sits in a quiet situation alone or with a sympathetic listener and purposefully creates an internal feeling or attitude which is non critical and meditative. It may help to imagine that you have dropped any critical feelings and are ready to listen with an open heart to a friend. The aim is to allow the friend to express without your intervention or direction. This attitude is applied to yourself. See assisted passage.
Having developed the right attitude, one then holds the dream in mind, imagining oneself back in the feelings and environment of the dream, then watching to see what develops. By doing this one is listening to the unconscious and observing how it intervenes and communicates with consciousness by introducing changes, imagery and feelings into our contemplation of the dream. You do not need to develop clear images unless these come easily. Just holding the idea of the dream is often sufficient. It is important however to realise that the unconscious expresses not only through the imagery such as appears in dreams, but particularly through slight and unbidden or spontaneous shifts in feeling states, in body sensations, in movements and fantasy.
Writing about this technique of allowing the unconscious to express through fantasy – Jung says in his psychological commentary on the book Secret of The Golden Flower by Richard Wilhelm (Routledge and Kegan Paul):
‘Nothing could be simpler than this, and yet right here the difficulties begin. Apparently no fantasy fragment is at hand – yes there is one, but it is too stupid! Thousands of good excuses are brought against it: one cannot concentrate on it; it is too boring; what could come of it? It is ‘nothing but’, etc. The conscious raises prolific objections. In fact, it often seems bent on blotting out the spontaneous fantasy activity despite the intention, nay, the firm determination of the individual, to allow the psychic processes to go forward without intervention. In many cases there exists a veritable spasm of the conscious.
‘If one is successful in overcoming the initial difficulties, criticism is likely to start afterwards and attempt to interpret the fantasy, to classify, to aestheticise, or to depreciate it. The temptation to do this is almost irresistible. After a complete and faithful observation, free rein can be given to the impatience of the conscious; in fact it must be given, else obstructing resistances develop. But each time the fantasy material is to be produced, the activity of the conscious must be put aside.
‘In most cases the results of these efforts are not very encouraging at first. Moreover, the way of getting at the fantasies is individually different… oftentimes the hands alone can fantasy; they model or draw figures that are quite foreign to the conscious.
‘These exercises must be continued until the cramp in the conscious is released, or, in other words, until one can let things happen; which was the immediate goal of the exercise. In this way, a new attitude is created, an attitude which accepts the irrational and the unbelievable, simply because it is what is happening. The attitude would be poison for a person who has already been overwhelmed by things that just happen, but it is of the highest value for one who, with an exclusively conscious critique, chooses from the things that happen only those appropriate to his consciousness, and thus gets gradually drawn away from the stream of life into a stagnant backwater.’
It works best if you allow yourself to say, feel or move in nay way that occurs, with the feeling that you can criticise later – but at the moment you are allowing yourself complete freedom.
The following example may help to illustrate this.
A few nights ago I dreamt I was with a group of people walking in a very dry, desert type countryside. It was like I imagine Egypt to be – or as I saw Israel. We were walking somewhere quite purposefully, but I was not aware of where the goal was. I was caring for a younger man who was not mentally alert, or at least appeared to need looking after. Our path took us into a rock tunnel cut into a huge rocky hill. The tunnel was large and with a well worn path, and with a high enough ceiling for us to easily stand. It was dry and comfortable. Well within the tunnel we entered a huge cavern which spread for over a hundred yards to our left. The others in the group were ahead of us and out of sight, but the young man and I stood and looked at the cavern which was not at all dark or dismal. What was so remarkable was that on the floor of the cave, entirely covering it, were thousands of shoes. I knew that they had been left by a race or tribe of people who had been on a great exodus. They had left their homeland and travelled through this tunnel. The shoes had been left as a sign of the great journey, the great change they had undergone – as if they had left all behind. I felt it had happened long ago. Rick A.
While awake Rick sat comfortably and imagined himself in the dream again, particularly in the cave. As he did this and observed what occurred spontaneously in his fantasy and feelings, this is what he experienced:
‘I worked a couple of times on the ‘desert/shoes and cave’ dream with H and K listening and helping me. While I stood in the desert I felt a warm relaxing environment – in looking at my life from this viewpoint I see I am relaxing, feeling I no longer need to restrict myself as much as I did in a ‘cold’ climate. I felt it related to a dream I had a long time ago in which I decided I was going to move to a warmer climate – i.e. not work stressfully until I die as my father did. Not be trapped by anxieties as he was.
I didn’t have clear responses about the rock, but I had a lot of feelings emerge in connection with the shoes, and a lot of imagery and memories. The shoes connected with my attempts to cling to roles in recent years – my difficulty in just BEING instead of trying to be ‘something’. If I look at my life from my old viewpoint, then I see I have been out of work. But despite this I have been very busy doing radio shows etc. to promote something I produced. I am not earning money in a set way though – there is no ‘hours pay for an hour’s work’. It is a different way of life, one in which I am occasionally earning money, but in between I must trust in the events of life as they come.
Here is what I said verbatim – I am seeing how some people live, and more than anything else what has impressed me – something I no longer doubt – is that people live in a mental climate or mental world, which is invisible, intangible and often not recognised. It is can be equally as imprisoning as living on Devils Island, or living back in the past like a black slave. It is just as real, just as awful as that, even though we can’t see it, yet there is evidence of it all around us. There is evidence in the lives of tens of thousands, of millions of human beings. They are trapped in this world of fears and darkness.
I have seen a most wonderful possibility. It is not mystical or strange. It is not weird or occult, or an absurd ideal one strives for. It is a very real possibility. I know because I have lived in the dungeon. I have been imprisoned and have seen others living in the prison. But now I have a taste of freedom. It is not the freedom based on having enough money, or living in the right country. It is freedom within myself. Therefore it cannot be stolen. It cannot be taken away by circumstances or a relationship. It is not that other people do not matter, but one is not tied because of them. Of course, one can destroy it oneself, or lose it by moving again along old pathways of thought and belief, or mistrust. All this I connect with the moving from one place to another, and the going through the tunnel.
Then, when I looked at those shoes I know something wonderful happened – something big – something that moved a lot of people.
At this point I have a spontaneous fantasy of killing, or sacrificing the young man who is with me. Although I deeply experienced this in the fantasy, yet I also found it difficult. It leads me to see there is something in connection with the cave I do not want to let go of, something I do not want to leave behind. I don’t want to look at this tomb thing. There is something I don’t want to see. I feel it is that I betrayed this young man – brought him here as a sacrifice. He put his trust in me and I betrayed him. As I say this I realise these were feelings I had when I left my children in the divorce. I felt I had sacrificed them to my needs. They put their trust in me and I betrayed their trust. And because in the dream the cave is a place of leaving behind something from ones past way of life, then what I need to leave behind is this sense of pain about feeling I have betrayed that precious trust.
I am ready to move on. I am ready to make this change. I am ready to let go of the past – I need help to unburden myself of all I have been – like these other people have with their shoes. The past is so powerful though. While we are still living in the old country there is still the sense that we can make reparation. There is still time to change, to make amends, to try to live in the past ways more successfully. One is making reparation by staying. But when one decides to leave – then I am faced by the finality of what I have done, and that it may never be undone.
I have mourned at that grave so long though. I have wept so many tears over it, to remain would be sickness. There are few tears to shed now, they have fallen in the past. There are regrets, but they are regrets that are not binding me or keeping me in the tomb. So in this way it is like the tomb one dies in or is resurrected from. All this I feel in connection with the cave and the enormity of what people have done here by leaving all behind.
So now I have the feeling that although I am ready to move on I am in a state of preparation – getting my bag packed, putting my kit-bag/rucksack on. I have left my shoes in the cave, paid homage at the shrine of the dead or the past. I have what may be an old pattern emerging though. In looking forward to change I keep expecting something amazing to happen. But the change is that I have made up my mind not to go back into the old rigid roles of trying to live in a particular mould – trying to be something in particular – struggle for recognition and making a name for myself ‘Personality’ and failing at it.
At this point I am realising something which I have stood in the middle of but never put together before or clearly recognised. It is that young people are confronting death. It used to be an old persons problem, but now young people are singing about death, they are drawing death in their art, they are frightened of death, they are watching horror films and dramatisations of violent death. I never realised before how much it has become a young persons problem to deal with. I also feel that my sons have confronted it recently. B. has died and come back to life. He literally acted it out in recent years and appears to now be emerging from the tomb. L. has met it in some way I do not understand so clearly.’ Rick.
As can be seen from Rick’s description, the amount of information arising from his active imagination far outstrips the dream itself, and also ties in with his everyday life and relationships. He takes it out of symbolism into direct statement. This is, however, not typical of how many writers present active imagination, and needs some explanation.
In describing active imagination, Robert Van de Castle, in his excellent book Our Dreaming Mind, quotes from Norma Churchill’s experience of using this technique, as follows:-
‘Help me’ I beg the serpent. He rears back, giving me a steely look with his mysterious sky-blue eyes. Then, he swiftly strikes my crippled foot and bites it with his powerful jaws. I nearly faint at the pain of it, and both my feet and legs turn black and rotten. I look at the serpent in astonishment.
One half of me glows with light, the other half is putrid and black with rot. Then in a flash, my legs and feet turn to diamond and light up my forehead.
This is typical of the traditional way of working with or experiencing active imagination, a continuation of dream like imagery, although now clearer and conscious. Often what emerges is very much like a myth or fairy tale, the person using the technique meeting dangers and triumphs as in a fairy story. So in continuing the technique they may even create a sort of personal myth. See The Different Levels of Mind.
One of the early books - The Old Wise Woman by Rix Weaver – describing a person using it, is just like such a personal myth, and is rather like reading a story. This has the function of clarifying and extending the dream and leading sometimes to great creativity in art and perhaps poetry. It also enables the dreamer to work indirectly with important issues in their life via the symbols. Thus the monstrous serpent in Norma Churchill’s early sessions could become something transformative.
For some commentators this is complete and sufficient. Indeed it is a great deal and a wonderfully effective process. From working with the technique over many years however, I believe there are stages beyond the experience of the symbol and personal mythology. If we look in detail at another dream and the work done on it, this may become clearer. I have included this very long and full example as it provides extraordinary insights into the nature of dreams and dreaming, as well as techniques of working and the possible results.
The dream took place in a large very old house or building. Jessica, my step daughter’s daughter was with me, about her present age, or a bit older, ten or twelve perhaps. We were in a very big room that was dark and full of ancient things, objects, maybe furniture. I think it was night time too, as I was holding a very large candlestick with about six or seven candles in it. We were being assaulted by the ‘forces of evil’. These had no particular form, but seemed very real and capable of physical damage, and overall had the stereotyped imagery of gremlins and soul sucking creatures.
I was trying to hold back the attack, Jessica was slightly behind me to my left. I was using the candlestick a bit like a sword, and the light from the candles was important in my defence. At one point I was lighting the candles from another candlestick. But the main defence was my voice. I was singing a powerful rousing song expressing positive life and being. But my voice was difficult to express and faltering. So I started to push the sound out forcefully, shouting out the song. I woke myself – or my wife woke me – because I was shouting loudly the words ‘Higher. Higher’, meaning I must make my voice higher and louder to push back the assault. Leon F.
Leon’s first insights into the dream came about almost immediately. As the dream had woken him, he went to the toilet. Then describes the realisations he reached on getting back into bed.
Back in bed I let myself sink back into the mood of the dream to recapture it. At first I was still lost in the overwhelming feeling of being submerged by the creatures and the ‘evil’. I couldn’t find any sense of strength in myself to ward them off. In the past I have often had a sense of something in myself that can never be harmed by such creatures, but not this time. Then suddenly, as I was wondering where the power of transformation lay, Jessica was older, with sexual characteristics. Through this she related to me differently, causing a wonderful flow of positive feeling energy to move right through me from feet to head. This completely and effortlessly dissolved all the evil. I was then led to understand that the evil was the forces of life in myself, such as the clear flow of sexual response I was feeling in connection with Jessica, that had become dammed, and had stopped flowing. This caused it to turn back upon myself in a negative way. The attempt to stop myself ageing is one of the causes of such evil. I can see where this arises from. In being with Jessica recently I find her direct youthful sexuality delightful. She has no hesitations about expressing not only her affection, but also her love of being able to cling tightly physically, with her legs locked around my waist, obviously with the early stages of her sexual pleasure flowering. Leon F.
Two days later Leon explored the dark haunted room using active imagination. Here is his verbatim commentary.
As the room I feel I have always been here. I have existed for a long, long time. There is a way people have reached me in the past. They have used magic or ritual to get to me to find what treasures I might have. Many were unsuccessful. They were lost. They wandered. I am surrounded by a dark land. I am in a land of darkness. Many have wandered and been lost in the land of darkness. Nevertheless some found their way to me and even then they may not have succeeded in carrying away anything of value. Even if they did nothing is lost, because I am a magic place. I am an ancient and dangerous place. Leon does well to be afraid.
If I explain, if I tell you what I am – I am a palace. I was a wondrous palace. I am only a ruin of what I was. This building. This part of the building wasn’t a ballroom. It wasn’t an eating place. It was a place where certain things happened. It was a place where many people left things. They came here and they gathered and they left. It was a place of exchange. If you could bring something here, then you could take something away. Or you could take something away if you gave something.
There is an old story that has to do with how humans sold their souls. That is a degradation of what I am, what took place here. I am a place of exchange, not a place of selling. You would give something of yourself and gain something.
As myself again I realise this is the story of the sleeping beauty. As I stand in the room and hear its story I realise that I am ancient. In the past I lived in a way that destroyed something that was a treasure. The treasure has been put to sleep. What was once a palace is now a ruins and I am ashamed. I was a prince and now I am like the prodigal son living with the pigs. All my senses tell me of is the life of the body, but what was put to sleep was my life in the spiritual world. So I am facing the dark things I did in the past and finding my way through them. Then my darkness and ruin will be made into light and beauty again. Now suddenly it feels as if something is happening in my forehead, as if my eyes are being transferred up onto my forehead. Or the ability to see is being transferred to my forehead. As if I need to learn to see again.
As can be seen, the mythology and the personal symbolism is very strong. Such spontaneous fantasy in this form is probably an archaic method the psyche uses in attempting to heal itself. This may account for the fact that such stories are found worldwide and have arisen in all ages. Not only are they healing – helping to make whole – individually, but as they may be dealing with distress or conflict that is experienced by many other humans, so the stories may also be healing in a much wider social sense. Thus the stories of religion were told over and over with great effect. Today the use of films may have a similar effect.
The level of symbolism and mythology is one many people tolerate in meeting themselves. To turn the symbols into here and now insight requires another step. Without it the psyche may be finding a level of helpfulness, but there has been no true insight and understanding into the real experiences and situations that lie beneath the dream. Therefore there has been no real integration of unconscious content, and no complete healing.
Leon felt unclear about what had emerged so far. What he had seen was fascinating, promising great wonders in his life, although critical in saying he had lost something of the greatest value. But having waited for such mythological promises in vain, he approached the dream again. Here is a verbatim account of this next approach.
I see that in the dream I am holding a young woman who is potentially a sexual partner, and I am protecting her – my sexual feelings – from anxiety. This leads me on to what is partly fantasy in images and partly speculation. In it I am a young teenage boy at a fair. There is a ghost ride nearby, and I know all the sounds are fake. But I could take a girl in there and go along with it a bit to get close to the girl. So as the teenage boy I am feeling my newly emerged confidence and understanding of the world. But there is another side to it which is the held back feelings that made it difficult to shout in the dream. So I see an element of fear in myself that I have not really acknowledged, so still causes me to lack confidence in some degree. I wonder why I didn’t say all that when I first worked on the dream.
I explained at this point to my wife, that the fantasy at the fairground had in it the sense of not being as good as other blokes. I see this as arising out of the realisation that as a teenager one has attained a new level of experiencing the world. This is partly about the more implicit relationship with the opposite sex, but it is also the development of a much more rational, technical mind. One has understood more thoroughly many of the previously ‘magic’ underlying principles of the modern environment, such as electricity, amplifiers, recorded sound, films, TV, computers etc. As a child there was no conceptual framework on which to hang any idea of how those things functioned. In this sense they were ‘magic’. So my sense of not being as good as other blokes comes from an internal measuring gauge of what others at my age had achieved in the area of my development. This is purely an unconscious thing. It was never something I was aware of at the time, only now as I explore the dream.
Something now happened strongly. I reacted against seeing that my own fantasy had suggested that there was yet more of my past, perhaps a hurt teenager, or a hesitant teenager, still to deal with. I felt like saying, ‘Oh come on Leon, you’re not going to get hung up with yet more childhood pains are you?’
I decided to go on despite my impatience, and was confronted by trying to find out what was the right approach to this teenager. I tried various attitudes – ‘Ah, that’s the mother’ – or ‘Hi, what is it your feeling at the moment?’
Now I am both the questioning adult and the youth. As the youth I express fantasies of the young girl and have strong sexual desire. The imagery quickly goes into plant like symbols of sex. The vagina is seen as something wonderfully attractive to push into. It appears very much like a matted, hairy flower, or something covered in fibres. This is very attractive in a hairy, musky way. It isn’t a hairless young vagina. Rather it is the fully developed sexual organs of a fully grown female/plant that I want to push into and burst open in. But then he/I imagine that if I get near to this wonderful brown hairy vagina a spider comes out.
I paused at this point and thought about the dream, and how I had wondered why, having broken through the fearful images in the past, I had not done so again in this dream. It was also curious that the day before I had brought a spider back from a trip out, and B’s fascination for spiders, and R’s repulsion.
I met the hesitation again about looking at further personal difficulties, but once more decided to take time with listening to and allowing the feelings I was meeting. I realised there was definitely something to deal with. I remembered from the car trip out on Sunday the intense urge I had of looking at almost every female. What struck me at the time was how strong it was, and how some of the women actually looked around questioningly. I felt I was, am, looking for something. I feel that some of the women pick up something of my intensity. I even thought I could get myself into a fight if their man caught me looking like that, but it didn’t put me off at all. There is definitely a connection between this looking and the dream, and of course what I am feeling as a difficulty.
There are important issues here regarding using the technique that Leon is not explaining but are worth clarifying. Twice Leon has met strong feelings that made him want to give up looking at himself in this way and uncovering the insights. He looked at these feelings objectively and decided to continue. One of the reasons much active imagination remains completely at the symbol level is because to go beyond symbols would produce powerful feelings of resistance. These might be felt as fear, as uncomfortable physical sensations such as sickness or headaches. Sometimes in dreams, as in Leon’s, such resistances present themselves as forces of evil, which if the person is frightened of, manage to preserve their hidden treasure or territory. The castle, full of the past, is thus kept inviolate. Most frequently however, resistances are felt as powerful and difficult feelings such as tremendous unease or emotional pain. As we have a natural tendency to avoid anything painful or unpleasant – as we do when we automatically pull our hand back from something hot – our painful or uncomfortable and maybe self critical past is kept unconscious, or else only met in a symbolical or intellectual way. See: Fourth example in car for illustration of resistance felt physically.
Also Leon has built into his everyday life the ability to observe his own behaviour in a questioning way. He really does want to find out why he feels and behaves in the way he does. So he doesn’t explain away his intense interest for women on his trip out. Rather he looks at it and wonders what it means, what it connects with. So this detective like attitude and the gradual putting together of clues through observation is important. But so is the desire to break through the symbols. In terms of the story of the Sleeping Beauty, Leon has taken on the role of the daring prince who cuts through the dangerous briars that so many others have been lost, torn, and died in. Only the daring and strong can get through. In a sense this is a part of the way the psyche manages to regulate itself. Unless consciousness, the daring hero or heroine, has the strength to meet itself more directly, the person cannot get through the defences, the resistances.
In fact just prior to exploring the dream more directly Leon had this following dream, showing graphically the changing relationship with fear. As can be seen, it illustrates not only his traditional fears of the unconscious, which he now identifies with as his own and therefore not as something attacking him externally, but his new rational and investigative observations are shown as the modern group.
I was a vampire or werewolf – actually the word lycanthrope was one I was using in the dream – and I was also a group of people who were going to catch or deal with this werewolf. As the werewolf I was very traditional and bent on bringing gloom and terror into people’s lives, injecting them with my ‘venom’. But as the group of people I was completely opposite, very modern and technological. We had no fear of the ‘lycanthrope’ at all. We surrounded it and despite it trying to do its evil thing with us, we paralysed it with electronic gadgets that affected its nervous system. We weren’t bent on destroying it, just catching it.
Now back to being the werewolf. When these people didn’t flee in terror at my evil posturing and snarling I was really upset. I wept as I recalled my thousand years of creating havoc in communities and in the lives of individuals. My tears were because it was sad to see the passing of such wonderful superstition and its attendant fears and terrors. I had loved the dark ages. I guess I was/am a traditionalist.
As the group of people we wanted to use the ‘venom’ of the lycanthrope. It was as if it had some genetic effect upon people. So we injected some of it into adults and children. The result of this was mostly seen in children in the dream. Small children were now safe to allow to roam the streets of violent cities at night – after all, who is going to attack a vampire or werewolf, even if it’s a nipper? So the one-sidedness of the werewolf was now balanced by human qualities, and vice versa.
In a humorous way the dream gives a graphic picture of Leon’s changing relationship with his own unconscious. The last part about the children being injected is very important in that it suggests the vulnerable aspects of Leon’s inner life are now strong enough to go into the dark without being hurt. So Leon is ready to expose vulnerable parts of himself that before might well have been unready to be revealed. To continue with his narrative of exploration:
I realise there is something I am looking for, and I don’t find it in my wife, or at least I don’t sense it in her. It is a frightening thing and partly exciting. This leads me on to fantasising a struggle with a young woman. It is about wanting to have sex, but seems to be some sort of power struggle. The image was of a smart very confident and aggressive young woman. She was attractive and attracted, but her approach was one of attack, so to have a relationship I needed to fight her. What I appear to be facing is that I have the sex drive, but what I am facing is a monster. In fact I had the image of a huge spider that could come out from hiding and drag me helpless into its lair, its many eyes shining. I’m afraid.
It’s not that my sex drive abates, but within this fantasy you have to time it just right. One must wait for the ‘beast’ to become passive then dash in and plunge into the wonderful hairy cavity. Otherwise the ‘beast’ will rip you apart. It is exactly like the horror films one sees of the monster that drags men or women back to its lair. It is actually all about my fear based on past pain.
Leon is now facing his fear and is partly recognising this has to do with childhood, and certainly connected with his relationship with women/his mother. But as can be seen, although the feelings are strong and real, it is still couched in powerful symbols. He presses on and his fear switches to aggression. This is an incredibly important swing. Unless the aggression emerges the fear often remains a paralysing force, and the person remains in symbols. In a real sense, the fear hides the aggression. When the aggression is released the person can move into the next level of experience.
The me who is watching this doesn’t feel frightened, but I do feel ready to be aggressive. I feel like saying, ‘I’ve got the measure of you, you bitch. I’ll kick you in the cunt if you get in my way. Fucking bitches like you, I know what you want. You’re like the walking fucking dead’. But as this anger emerges I asked myself here what the women want.
The fantasy becomes myself walking along a street, the hard looking confident women are there laughing and calling remarks – ‘Come on big boy, I know what you want. Here it is between my legs. You want it, come and get it. – No not you, you little nipper, get out the way.’
I sense there are two parts to me. There is the part that laughs at this, and might even reply – ‘What you? I could fuck you and ten like you.’ But there is also the anxious part, the little nipper, who isn’t even recognised as a man.
The confident part recognises that all the talk is bravado and sex play talk, and could walk up and say, ‘Come on then, you and me, here, get your knickers off.’ But I think back to the first eager woman I met when I was seventeen. More or less she said, ‘Come on, let’s do it!’ She was a beauty but I ran a mile. I was so scared I never went back to where I met her, and that was the anxious part of me expressing. So that is the type of fear I am facing. I don’t seem to be facing that fear much now, but there is still something in that area bothering me or else I wouldn’t have had these fantasies.
The two aspects of Leon’s experience are highlighted in this part. He is coolly observing and ‘catching himself at’ whatever he is feeling and fantasising. But at the same time he is allowing and not interfering with very deeply felt fantasy expressive of behaviour he would not allow in his everyday waking life. This, and having allowed the aggression, produces yet another change. As he proceeds suddenly the symbolism and fantasy stop, and he drops into what he is sure is a direct regression, an experience of things that happened to him in his infancy.
I went into the feeling of trying to help the teenage part of me that was still back there in that fear. In my development I seem to have gone around a problem in some way, but I need to go back and deal with this part.
Now I feel I have let myself slip right into an experience of the biological sources of fear. I see that struggling for ones life is one of the fundamental sources of fear. In looking at this I feel I am not struggling for my life though. I don’t say this as a positive reaction, but as an assessment of how I actually feel. So I wonder what is going on. Maybe I struggled for life some time as an infant, but I don’t feel locked into that at the moment.
Suddenly I regressed to being a young child and started crying about the dark. I didn’t like the dark. When asked about my fear of the dark the fearful part of me was gradually able to formulate the fear or feelings into words. This was difficult though as I so completely felt the feelings of childhood, and had no words for what I was experiencing – ‘I just don’t see why I should have to sleep alone. I don’t like being alone. I don’t like being in the dark alone. Why do I have to be in the dark alone? Why? I don’t want to be in the dark alone’
I had the memory at this point of my parents sleeping together at the other end of the house, leaving me feeling distant and isolated. Gradually as the involvement with the young me deepened I saw how I dealt with this fear. I lived in my mind. By focusing on a point inside my head and keeping it blank, I could let an image of a moving pattern of coloured light occur. I said, ‘I’ve got a light inside me. If you’ve got a light inside you then the darkness isn’t so bad. It’s colours and patterns. Now I’m not so afraid.’ That was an incredible statement as so much of my life has been given to living in my mind.
I’m not sure if all babies feel like this, but at the moment I feel like a cluster of cells. As such I am very open to attack by other cells or things like bacteria or viruses. Not that I have a name for such things. I feel almost like some living creature in the garden, sensing it could be attacked by things and feeling anxious. I am aware of all the noises – of birds and people – around me, and how many things could attack me. So I am very vulnerable. Things could eat me.
Suddenly this went on to a strong feeling of not wanting my mother near me. I feel she tried to kill me. ‘Don’t touch me. I am DANGEROUS!’
If you are very vulnerable, one of the great defences is to make creatures feel you are dangerous – so I am being very dangerous. I am a little curled up ball, but I am trying to give off feelings of being very dangerous.
Once more I met the part of me that is saying – ‘Oh for fuck’s sake, not more bloody crap from childhood to deal with!’
My response is – ‘I’m sorry but there is more. Here I am, sorry again. I’m fucking sorry for my life again. – Anyway, I’m not sorry about you little baby. I’m here to listen to you and to love you.’
As the baby – ‘I don’t want anybody near me. I’m dangerous. Keep away.’
How old are you, little dangerous being?
‘I’m three. I’m only little. But I’m dangerous. I will KILL YOU if you get near me. I’ll bite you or something.’
Well, little dangerous three year old being, I think that you are very lonely. I don’t want to hurt you. It’s okay if you come near me, but I am not going to make a move toward you. So there is no need to be frightened. But you can come to me if you want to, and you can go away if you want to. I am here and I love you. When you are ready you can come if you want to.
‘If I am alone who is going to look after me. If I’m dangerous I keep people away. I’ve got to wait until my mother comes back. I’ve got to survive until she comes back. I don’t think she will ever come back. I don’t think she ever really wanted me. She didn’t come back.’
Your mother actually came back physically. So I am wondering why you are feeling she never came back. She says she was deeply worried about you. Why do you feel she didn’t come back?
‘If she had loved me she would never have let me be alone for so long. How could anybody leave me for that long? She never ever came back after that. (referring to being left in a hospital when three). She is dangerous. She might do it again. I don’t want her near me. I want my real mother. That’s not this woman who says she is my mother. I want my real mother. I waited and waited for my mother. Every woman I look at to see if it’s my mother. Is that my mother? Is that my mother? Perhaps that’s my mother?’
In what followed Leon gradually developed a closer relationship with this vulnerable young part of himself that had been imprisoned in the dark dungeon of childhood pain for several decades. The child gradually accepted Leon as someone who loved him, and was willing to leave his defences and his prison. From these insights Leon realised that if his REAL mother ever came along – i.e. a woman who showed him love – he would not dare to actually allow himself to bond to her. In his mind his natural mother was not his REAL mother because there was no bonding. But if his REAL mother came along, that is, a woman showing him warm love, he knew his natural mother would never let his real mother take him away. So he lived his life in the torment of looking for love but never allowing real bonding, even in his marriage.
There is a point in the experience where Leon skipped past something that only later was realised to be of extreme importance. It is where he says, ‘I’m not sure if all babies feel like this, but at the moment I feel like a cluster of cells.’ Later he describes this further by saying, ‘If you are very vulnerable, one of the great defences is to make creatures feel you are dangerous – so I am being very dangerous. I am a little curled up ball, but I am trying to give off feelings of being very dangerous.’ In fact Leon still hasn’t got to the source of his fear shown in the dream as the forces of evil in the ancient building. If he had stayed with symbols he would not have got as far as he has, but now another step is necessary. He needs to go once more into his unconscious to see whether his young self is in fact rescued. He realised this need when he had the following dream.
I was in a hospital ward with two of my family. One was a child, probably male, about eleven or twelve years old. The other was possibly a woman, adult. A male doctor was examining the child. There was no sense of disaster or anxiety. The doctor then stood up and took off his white gown. This seemed natural and necessary in the dream, as he had changed position. So he was naked, revealing that his body was not a normal shape. I had the impression this was a situation he had been born with. He was quite short, almost an ovoid shape, with a bull neck and round head, but flatter from front to back. I felt a sense of admiration that he had achieved so much with such pronounced physical difficulties.
Suddenly a female nurse who had seen me staring at the doctor’s body, said to me, ‘You’re not good at it are you?’
I didn’t at first understand what she meant, and she said that I wasn’t good at seeing misshaped bodies. I started to explain that it wasn’t difficulty but interest, but she said something else which I had to ask her apologetically to repeat several times. I finally understood her to be asking me a question – ‘Do you want a bad one or a fair one?’ She meant did I want to see someone with a really badly distorted body, or just fairly distorted. I think she herself had some abnormality.
I followed her along the ward, trying to explain that I had seen malformed bodies before, but she took no notice. As we arrived at the end of the ward nearest the door, to my left I saw a pile of washing moving apparently under its own volition, rearranging itself and folding into a neat pile. Then I looked to my right to a line of beds and realised the children in the beds were doing this using some sort of mental control. They were all incredibly malformed. As I approached they giggled and one of them said something like, ‘Well, just lying here gets boring, and it gives us something to do.’ I understood what she said implied that because of being trapped in badly misshaped bodies, the children had gradually played with their mental faculties and broken through the boundaries most people live within. They had thus discovered these wild talents.
I went and sat on the end of one of the beds – the children were all girls – and I felt very warm to them. I put my hand under the bedclothes and held one of the girl’s legs affectionately. They were so eager for any affection one of them managed to squirm from her bed under the covers to the bed I was sitting on, and get into my arms. I held her very lovingly and there was a great feeling of pleasurable warmth between us.
After some time I moved to put her back in her bed. It was difficult because her body was so injured. At one point I fell onto her bed and her head banged mine, revealing awful scars or clefts in the back of her head. I was afraid of hurting her, but it didn’t seem to. But when I put her down she really went for me verbally with abuse. I felt this was some need she had because of her frustration. I let it pass and she stopped and we reaffirmed our relationship as before. That is, a communication that could develop further in the future.
This is a very moving dream mixing both tragedy and a great deal of love. Something that becomes apparent as the dreams are put together with Leon’s comments are that the dreams are very literal in many ways, although this is not seen until they are understood. Leon explored this dream, and as can be seen, by allowing fantasy the unconscious gradually weaves meaningful images with incredible art and dexterity. But this takes time and so patience is very necessary. The description that follows is shortened from over three hours of work.
The fantasy begins by presenting images with an Eastern suggestion. At one point there are images of the fat Buddha of China. I feel that I haven’t understood what is being presented at this point, but realise that something is emerging that I am watching for.
Now the imagery gets more specific and I watch/experience an exquisite Japanese ritual of meeting, touch, massage, that is leading to sex. The beauty of it is in understanding how wise and artistic the whole approach is. I see it is to lead the awareness out of being bound by everyday affairs. It diffuses concentration on particulars of external life and gradually opens the senses to feel and allow pleasure. It helps the mind to drop fixation on externals and allows it to drop boundaries until one senses oneself as in a semi dream state. This allows sex to be not just a particular thing, but something that connects ones body with a huge process which one shares with all nature. Ones partner is not simply a human being, but the very essence of the female principle, merging with the male principle.
I laugh at the way the unconscious presents imagery. It is so wonderfully versatile, sensitive, artistic, crude – a master of imagery. The laughter is because the fantasy now presents me with the view of a hot dog/sausage being fried slowly in a pan on a stall. As I watch I feel/realise that this is the heating up of the male sexual feeling, getting one excited, the preparation for sex seen from a different perspective.
Still another aspect of sexual preparation is now presented in the imagery, once more in an Eastern Japanese environment. I see myself being challenged by another male, and this is to see if I can arouse my aggression to defend myself or meet another male’s aggression. Can I be a fully aroused male? My feelings rise and I experience readiness to be aggressive. It seems to be part of mobilising all the range of feelings to meet the woman.
Now I start to get nearer the woman and have a distinct awareness that the woman should be allowed to be the Queen – at least at such times. When the master of the house goes to the woman for lovemaking, she becomes the queen in her own domain. She is the mistress of her own house. I saw it in the imagery of China, where the master visits one of his concubines, but on entering her house he must allow her dominance. She is allowed to direct the process. I wonder if that is why many women decorate their bedroom in a rather extreme feminine way. Perhaps they are saying the bedroom is their domain. In this domain the man approaches the woman realising he is approaching the power of the woman, which must be respected, even worshiped.
So as I approach the queen, she is hidden behind curtains. From her hidden place she orders her servants to prepare me for her. She says ‘Prepare the lord.’ This means I must be bathed and perhaps anointed, maybe even fussed over by other females to get me into the right feeling state, as already described.
I wonder what all this has to do with the dream and the malformed girls. So I go back to the imagery of the dream to check it out. I meet the young girl and the imagery blends with what I have just been fantasising about the queen. The girl says, ‘You thought I was helpless. The anger she displayed while malformed has become adult power. This assures me the spontaneous fantasy is in connection with the dream in some way I do not understand yet, so I carry on.
I am now getting nearer the woman. I realise the aspect of myself that has been hurt as a child is suspicious. It could easily lead to dominating feelings that this whole preparation is a plot to lead me into a trap. This is not a troubling feeling and I pass on. As I accept the approach of the queen I experience a subtle buzzing which starts in the area of my genitals and fills my whole being. It is not simply a physical sensation in the sense of something vibrating my body, it is also a feeling of pleasure. It produces a sensitivity, a state that responds more excitedly to any external contact. I have a feeling that this is like being the genitalia of a plant or some natural thing in that I have the awareness of how my whole being is connected with what is happening. I am vibrating in connection with the opposite – the female. My pelvis was vibrating and shaking with this. Somehow I feel that my vibrating, my fullness with life in its sexual phase, stimulates the female, and she in her fullness stimulates my aliveness. If she is dead my aliveness gains no response and so doesn’t fully express or realise itself. I go to meet the queen alive in heart, in mind, in genitals. Suddenly the feelings shift.
This wonderful example of the movement of fantasy shows just how the unconscious can apparently plan a course of presentation if we have the patience to follow it and let it gradually unfold its theme. Another point is that none of the fantasy or the mythological symbolism is actually unconnected with what Leon is about to meet.
I connect with the child in the dream. She says she has got up from her ‘bed of pain’. I wonder what that means – The Bed of Pain. What does it mean – to me personally whose dream this is – that she was a tortured child. Without hesitation I begin to feel my connection with another human being. I experience that being connected with another human being is a fundamental part of life and procreation. If something threatens that connection, then it is life threatening – the reason being, I am in the womb! To lose my connection threatens my life. But my life is threatened. I am expelled from the womb prematurely, before my body and soul are mature enough to be ready to be separated, ready enough to undertake life disconnected from the placenta. I was actually born two months early prior to intensive care units. I feel incredibly vulnerable. Each sound, whether a bird singing or a car going by, is a possible threat to my existence. I had been physically and psychically attached to my mother. Now the bond is broken.
I realise as I experience this that the broken bond, the feeling of life threatening isolation, enormously increased my sensitivity to threats as a child and as an adult. It set me up for what happened at three when I was placed in a hospital and was deeply traumatised. In itself the short absence of my mother was not as potentially traumatising as it turned out to be. But because of the birth experience, I was already traumatised regarding abandonment. To be hit by it again increased the volume of it enormously.
I wasn’t properly formed, because I was born two months prematurely, so it was very traumatic to be separated as a baby (this was before babies were taken into intensive care). I am trying to heal this at the moment. I feel the struggle of resisting what has happened to me. I cry out that I don’t want to be born. I am not ready. I feel deeply alone. There is in me a sense that tells me I shouldn’t be alone. It is like something that pushes me to seek not to be separated. I feel lost. I’m not ready for this world. I’m feeling awful. My whole body feels strange and collapsed in some way.
In fact I do feel awful, like I am ill and can barely move, or move only with effort and concentration. I go on to say that I have felt awful most of my fucking life. I can see from the feelings I am meeting how they have contributed to my lifelong feelings of being lost and cut off – alone. I have always called it independence, and perhaps seen the positive side of it more than the negative. But it has been a source of restlessness and a spur to seeking a bonding with someone. Of course I want to find the security of the womb. I want to know someone is deeply committed and bonded to me.
I am so alone. Even when someone loves me I can’t feel it. I want to change. I don’t want to keep hurting my wife by living like she isn’t there at an emotional level. But that is the feeling world I have lived in – who is there for me? I was part of something and I lost it. I was part of something that was good, and I lost it. I was a part of a woman and I lost her. I was rejected. Now I face this struggle just to exist, just to breath, just to be. This feeling of life being a terrible struggle just to keep going has pervaded me all my life. I’ve got to struggle to exist just to keep alive. Got to struggle just to keep alive! GOT TO STRUGGLE TO EXIST – JUST TO KEEP ALIVE! GOT TO STRUGGLE BECAUSE THERE’S NOTHING THERE. I WANT SOMETHING TO HOLD ONTO. I’VE GOT TO STRUGGLE JUST TO KEEP ALIVE.
I cry like a baby. The question burns in me – Why is life like this? I cry again. Then I realise that at first when I was born I was too small and undeveloped even to be able to cry properly, so I couldn’t let out my misery. It is such a relief to cry now and be understood, to have it known what I felt at that terrible time.
I am aware that my connection with my stream of life has been broken – the umbilical cord. What I realise as the adult watching this, is that because of its proximity to the genitals, there is an unconscious connection made between the genitals and the link I seek to sustain my life. So even as a baby I am reaching for that connection with my genitals. I want to be fed. I attempt to reconnect through my genitals, but the pain of the separation is so acute even when I do try in adulthood, the pain of the separation turns me back. This is the story of the Garden Of Eden. I was in the garden and was cast out. Now when I attempt to return, an angel with a burning sword turns me back. Not only was it painful every time I attempted reconnection, but I had the unconscious expectation to be fed, to be nourished. Instead of that every time I had sex I felt cheated, deceived and betrayed. I was not fed, but deeply sucked dry of what small nourishment I had managed to build up. I wasn’t fed, it seemed to me I was fed upon by a predator. Each sexual act was a betrayal, a predation, and a torturous pain. Yet I had to find my way to the garden again, because there lay the secret of my genesis and myself. So I would return, to be wounded once more. Thus the imagery of the spider who will kill. It is even painful to look back on those years of misery now. Why is life so painful?
Seen from this level of experience, that of the uterine baby, God is a projection. You were in connection with a great creator, the mother. You were at-one with the creator, but now you have been cast out of the Garden of Eden, so you have lost your contact with God, the creator in whose bosom you had existed. Perhaps that is why I searched so long for God.
This made me wonder as the adult why I have got so close to many women, but never had sex with them. Why did I get so near and withhold myself? The response from my baby feelings were – ‘I don’t want that. I don’t want to go through that pain again. It’s partly physical pain. I’m not ready to eat. Don’t you understand? I cannot eat. I’m hungry all the time. I couldn’t digest milk properly because I hadn’t properly finished development. So I’m starving. I feel like I’m dying.’
I realised as the observing adult that with today’s technology I would probably have been intravenously fed. But then I was left to survive or die.
In the midst of this feeling of being alone, disconnected, not bonded with my mother, and starving to death, suddenly there was a change. I had the sense of a higher being understanding my condition, trying to help me. This higher being engulfed me in a feeling of love. I felt this right through to the root of my being and immediately responded. The response was several loud cries of what sounded like a baby bawling. But as the baby I knew I was giving a signal that I was bonding. The cries were a bonding signal. I wouldn’t cry until I was in the presence of someone I could bond with. I felt my mother had been frightened of my weakness, had thought I was dying and had not opened her heart to me. So only now did I bond.
I knew someone loved me. I knew they understood what pain was and were not afraid of it or of death. This pierced me right through. It was my grandmother, but to me it felt like some higher being who had reached out of the unknown to help me. (Actually my grandmother had lived with physical injury all her life, and given birth to thirteen children. She died when I was about eighteen months old. She took over my rearing one day when she found I had fallen out of bed and my mother had not known it. I was completely cold, and she never let my mother care for me after that. So I have been told.)
The bonding cry was a signal to say ‘I recognise you! I recognise you! I’m bonding to you. I’m bonding to you! Someone recognises me. I can cry now because I am in the presence of love.’
As the adult watching this I felt there are instinctive things that have been built into us over millions of years. The baby must not cry out while lost or abandoned as that would attract the predators. Only when it is touched by the love of the bonded person can it cry its pain, because then there is no danger. Possibly this became built in because these are the babies who survived.
As the baby I felt in the presence of a superior being who is far beyond me as I am at the moment. This I felt was an instinctive response, so in this sense religion is a genetically coded response pattern to relate the baby firmly to its carer. But the impulse at this level is reality based. It leads to bonding and an attempt to communicate with the higher being. If that is correct, the continued religious impulse into adulthood, might arise out of the unfulfilled instinctive impulses in the baby. Later religion become a more abstract thing in that it looks to an abstract God instead of a real one, like the mother or carer. This might be because within the image is the possibility of getting what you lacked. That is, feelings not found or satisfied in childhood.
I also felt that I needed to be carried near the body for ages. I was out in the world alone too soon and needed a lot more skin contact, to be as near to a womb condition as I could have. But it isn’t just the physical closeness. I needed to feel that someone was emotionally linked with me and in command of the situation so I could relax, otherwise I am on my own trying to survive – can you believe it, a tiny baby feeling it has to survive on its own resources. Of course it does have resources. If it is lucky it might call up the mother feelings in a truly caring person and give the instinctive signals to create bonding. I was one of the lucky ones in that my grandmother did this for me. Where my wife works in a children’s crèche mothers leave their baby all day – unbelievable!?
Leon has connected his dream imagery with his actual history. He has done this not in an intellectual way by reasoning about it, but allowing material that was deeply buried in him – the ancient building – be directly experienced. The malformed doctor and children depicted his own psyche twisted by the pains of a premature birth and the sexual misery this led to later. These were transforming experiences for Leon and led to a slow growth away from past limitations and depression.
As we learn active imagination, it can give us other ways of entering into the life of our dreams and therefore our unconscious. We can imagine ourselves AS the dream character, or even as the objects or animals, and allow ourselves to experience and speak from their viewpoint. We can, in a playful way develop a conversation with the dream person. Ask them what they are doing; why they appear in our dream; what do they represent of oneself? With a little practice the dream characters can come to life for you if you can let yourself play or free-wheel a little. We can enter the dream and carry it forward from where it stopped, imaging what would satisfy us, and thus becoming more active in dealing with our own inner and outer life.
This does not simply relate to the psychological traumas as the example above might suggest. It also leads, once we clear away childhood trauma and pass beyond symbolism, into direct insight into the wider experience of life access to our unconscious opens to us. See: peer dream work; processing dreams; yoga and dreams.