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Inner Wilds Alchemy: A Dream-Work Case Study
How we can freestyle our way through the inner wilds with just a handful of moves and well-honed intuition
I had a pretty intense dream a few nights ago. The most relevant bit consisted this key scene:
I’m standing in a field, near a tree, with 4 other men and 1 woman. We’re here for an event, a party of some sort. We all keep forgetting something. We’re in danger of losing the thing we’ve forgotten forever. The other guys try to shrug it off, say it’s probably just us feeling weird or excited about the event. The woman is insistent: this matters. We can’t forget what is most vital, we can’t let this place take it from us. She starts to storm away, and I grab her by the shoulders, look into her eyes—I ask her directly, “Are we forgetting?” She looks back with bleak intensity in her eyes: “yes.” She runs off in another direction.
I dream journal almost every day, and most days I practice Dream Return—in which I drop into meditation, then call the dream imagery/impressions/vibes back up and allow them to continue unfolding as I sense into them. It’s a beautiful and richly clarifying practice, I can’t recommend it highly enough.
In Dream Return, and in other imaginal practices, I use the basic moves of Inner Wilds Alchemy as appropriate. I separate out different aspects of myself, let them purify and clarify into core drives—and I keep an eye out for inner figures, aspects, and images that feel like they want me to re-blend with them, to directly join myself with their experience and eros.
This dream was no different. I returned to it mid-morning, lying on a blanket in the park, and waited to see what wanted to come up.
(I’ll be editing the Dream Return down quite a bit to more relevant parts; the whole thing would be real long, and there are some parts that don’t want to be shared.)
To begin, I returned to the people I was standing with in the field—a handful of men and one woman, the woman telling me in no uncertain terms that yes, we are forgetting something vital. The visuals, the atmosphere, the texture of her hair: I called it all back up into awareness and let it stay there. I held it all while deepening into somatic meditation, with an intention of sensing what does this scene want?
The answer came quick enough, as the woman stormed off. I was supposed to follow her. I jogged up alongside her in the dream, and as we crossed into a forest I asked, “what do you want to show me?”
She pulled me by the forearm and simply said “What you forgot.”
(I replayed this part a few times, deepening further and further into somatic meditation to vibe-check it—the response seemed potentially too obvious, so I allowed it to repeat and soak in for a bit until I was sure it was what wanted to come through)
She pulled me to the edge of a swamp, at which point she kind of evaporated—the dream-logic of the moment allowed her to disappear, leaving me at the edge of a swamp. I slowed down, took a couple breaths, and tried to subtly feel into what this scene wanted.
This, it turned out, was unnecessary. Within seconds, a shining golden being burst out of the swamp to hover in the air above it, blasting me with rays of molten gold. (…Dreamwork isn’t always subtle or nuanced.)
At this point, I made a move to unblend from the situation, to step back and get some perspective on the dream-figure, the scene, the event—to separate them out and maybe dialogue a bit. The inner wilds shut this down immediately, sending a clear, strong sense that intentional blending was the move that wanted to happen here. So I dropped myself fully into the experience of being blasted by magic molten gold from some kind of sun-god-in-a-swamp.
My whole body lit up with golden sparks, my hips and spine began to twist and stretch, working some of the energy through my body. Huge rushes of energy surged through and around me, and I lost some amount of time (10 minutes? 15?) to simply meditating into the experience, allowing myself to flow fully into its contours.
When I came back to awareness, back to the scene, the woman had returned. I was still by the swamp, now on my back and covered in a thick shell of hardened gold, which the woman was chipping me out of, bit by bit. While I waited, this seemed like a good moment to unblend, separate out the elements of the scene and see what was there.
First, the woman. She was distinctly anima-flavored, very familiar to me from a lot of previous anima/feminine integration work I’ve done. I realized that I’d also been associating her with a girl I knew in high school, mostly because they were both white women with similar hair color and length. I separated out this association and checked it against the rest of the dream-figure, found it didn’t fit, and let it go. I checked for other interference, other stray associations that should be purified and separated out, but didn’t find anything.
Moving along to the scene itself, I distanced myself from the events to unblend and dialogue with them. Me trapped in a golden shell in the woods, a woman helping to excavate me, my skin maintaining a slight golden sheen even after I’d been pulled out. The first thing that came out of the scene was a James Hillman quote about alchemy:
“Dissolve and coagulate, dissolve and coagulate. This is the rhythm of life. So no, you never get something you can hold onto and say ‘this is me.’ But you do get stained an indestructible color.”
You do get stained an indestructible color. The sense of this was incredibly strong. Sometimes when stray words and quotes come up in IWA, I discard them because they feel like random interference from my conscious mind. But that wasn’t the case here. The words resounded through the whole scene, felt in evidence everywhere.
The day before this dream, I’d finished and posted my original Inner Wilds Alchemy post, with a lot of focus on solve et coagula (dissolve and coagulate), and the echo here felt important. I sat in this space for awhile, let it sink in.
(note: I’ve found journaling to be an incredibly metabolic process, helping to make sense of dreams and life events and imaginal content, and this article is no different. As I’m writing the past couple paragraphs, I’m getting a strong sense that every area of my life is steeped in this solve et coagula dynamic right now, and that there’s something I need deeper clarity on in this. Writing and talking are vital parts of the process)
While I was still sinking in, noticing what the scene was communicating, the woman grabbed my forearm and once again pulled me to a jog through the woods. I was unable to hold onto either the distanced, more objective view of the scene, or to the intentional re-blending with the scene’s messages for me. This seemed like a good sign to let go of them both and follow where the image wanted to go.
We ended up on a hill that I’d stood on in a previous dream, a Big Dream from 2 or 3 years ago, where I looked out at the landscape and saw that we were in fact re-visiting that dream in its entirety.
From there forward, the rest of the dream doesn’t want to be told, but I can tell you it involved another round of being dissolved and then re-cohering.
Hopefully you can see something of what feels so vital about Inner Wilds Alchemy in this recounting.
Rather than adhering to a handful of particular rules and structures, I find it most helpful to learn a set of moves pretty well, until they become intuitive, and then to freestyle through the inner world, using each one as appropriate.
There are a couple main prompts that always guide me through these situations, and that have led to more unknotting of personal (& interpersonal) material than any other technique I’ve tried:
What wants to happen in this scene?
The image shows us how to show up.
When in doubt, investigate with exploratory humility.
Those are the best prompts I know for navigating the inner wilds, whether its through dream work, or by investigating difficult emotions, or replaying difficult situations, or through working directly with your day-to-day experience (though this last does seem to take more practice).
All these other moves—unblending, intentionally re-blending, investigating, noticing, etc—are excellent to practice and helpful to be adept with. But any system that gets too rigid or insistent with any of them is going to be limited in scope and efficacy.
My hope is that limitations like that don’t stick around forever—that most people use them as a practice ground, then move along to wider vistas and bigger possibilities.
It has, uh, been brought to my attention that it would be helpful to give some sense of what I got out of the above session. —This is a weird part of imaginal work in general and IWA in particular: the meanings and shifts they bring about tend to be felt-sense and directly connected with the impressions from the session, which makes it feel awkward and clunky to verbalize them. To me, the sense is so incredibly obvious and encoded into the images and scenes of the journey that it seems needless, verging on pornographic to splay them out in words, but here we go.
[Me encased in gold, being chipped out by my anima]: I can still feel this image in my chest and hips. There’s this reflex to claw for perfection, to attempt fulfilling every rule and value 100%, maxing out your Good Soul points or whatever. That’s the feeling of being encased in gold. (It’s also the feeling of swinging too far towards coagula in most instances, making another round of solve necessary.)
The anima, my feminine aspect, chipping me out of the gold—the feeling here is a reminder that it’s okay to be imperfect and cyclical. That the stiffness and ossification of any move towards totality/completion is ultimately unhelpful, a kind of sarcophagus. It is death.
My skin being somewhat “stained” gold, even after being dug out, is a reminder, a concretization of the idea James Hillman put out there: There is no finish line, there is no solid ‘Me’, but the work does stain me an indestructible color. Moving through life not as a block of gold, but as one who has been stained gold—this is what I need to be orienting towards right now.
[Sun God in a Swamp]: The sense of this image feels comic to me. There’s a joke here—not to making fun of the idea, but injecting some humility and levity into it. Again we have a symbol of perfection (being covered in gold, a sun god) and again we have a reminder to not take it so seriously (being chipped out by the anima, sun god living in swamp water).
—Coming away from the session as a whole, I don’t naturally have words or ideas or concepts floating around with me (in fact I’m lightly worried that by putting them into words here, I’m over-literalizing and weakening the session), but I do have a very strong sense that it’s okay to orient towards True North… but it’s not helpful to find the exact point of magnetic north, make camp there, and refuse to leave for any reason because “I found it, I got here!”
Humility and flexibility are virtues with just as much value as an orientation towards perfection and completion.
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