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Towards Dream Exploration
'Interpreting' a dream is rarely helpful; following your intuition, and allowing it to unfold and transmute on its own terms, however...
I tried writing a guide to how I do dream-work, but… it’s hard. It doesn’t want to be written about that way.
The only way it would really consent to be written down was in the form of examples, so I’m giving my first example here, along with a few footnotes that point toward wider ideas and intuitions around working with dreams and other images. More examples will follow, I’m sure.
Returning to the Scene
Rae had a dream about three swans in an ice cave. Evocative image, right? Obviously, she decided to keep working with it, to see what wanted to unfold there. Being a savvy lass, Rae avoided the main trap that people fall into: trying to interpret the dream. She didn’t pull out graph paper and start mind-mapping the cross-cultural symbolism of the swan, or go Freudian about her “Icy Cave”, or google numerological significations of the number 3. No, she wanted to work with the dream, so she simply returned to the dream; she closed her eyes, engaged herself in trance, and began summoning up the dream, allowing the atmosphere of the cave to surround her, the image of the swans to take form in front of her.
The first thing she noticed was a mournful quality to the scene. There was sadness here–
Mourning? Swan Song! Caves
are like tombs and the ice is
’cold as death,’ so this has to mean–
Deep breath, let the mental chatter fade away. Okay. Mourning in the atmosphere, what else? Bright, the image is bright. White swans, pellucid ice; it’s a cave, but it’s not dark. It’s actually impossibly bright in here, unless the sun is perfectly lined up at the mouth of the cave? Rae tries to sense where the sun is, but the source of illumination doesn’t seem to be a part of this scene. It is simply a remarkably well-lit cave, and that’s that.
Continuing to actively notice, continuing to let the image unfold. She hadn’t thought of this before, but it’s very odd that swans would be here, isn’t it. What possible climate would have both ice caves and swans? Quite a juxtaposition, even if the visual impression of the whiteness blends together well.
Something new, now clarifying: a moth, she thinks. Yeah, a snow-white moth. But it’s not in the scene; it doesn’t share space with the cave or the swans, it’s more… behind the rest of the image? Underlying it in some extra-dimensional way. There’s an existential texture of snow-white mothness underlying the scene. Words fail here, but the subtleties of the experience are clear enough.
does this all look like
that ice cave scene in
fight club? I think i
borrowed this from fight
club, ugh what a waste, I
must’ve seen a clip scroll
by on youtube or someth–
Regardless where the image came from, or what similarities it has to other images, this is the specific image that showed itself in her dream. This is a scene, a combination of images, that wants her attention, that has something to show her. Another deep breath, quieting the mental chatter that wants to dismiss this scene, that wants to get away from it. Let that voice go. Let the image establish itself further.
Cave. Swans. Mothness. Mourning. They weave together, taking shape, gathering force. Suddenly, there had always been seven swans. Three has been erased from time entirely, it was always seven swans, 3 of them awake, 4 of them sleeping. The awake swans watch Rae intently. Your move. She begins to wander around the cave, running her hand over the walls. It’s cool, but not like ice–more like glass. A thought pops up about divinity3–3 and 7 are both sacred numbers; 3 is very Christian,
the trinity and all that, but 7
feels more polytheistic, so mayb–
The cave starts glitching, the whole scene gets difficult to hold onto. She tries to anchor the image back to the swans, but their reality feels unstable as well. The impression of them keeps shifting: three of them, ten of them, dozens–a single giant goose honking at her and nipping her arms violently.
Rae breathes again, lets the image drift, lets her thoughts fall away. She knows what went wrong–she fell back into thinking, back into interpreting instead of intuiting. She takes a few breaths to return herself to an intuitive sensing space, and allows the image to take shape again. It comes back quick and sturdy, now that it knows she’s not trying to poke at it and pull it apart anymore.
Stirring the Soma
Seven swans, three awake and four asleep. Mothness, mourning, ice cave. She feels it again, this sense of the image gathering itself, gaining force. The sleeping swans breathe a little faster. The illumination of the cave dims, gets rougher and less glossy. Rae becomes aware of a shimmering coil of tension just in front of her spine4, running about from her heart to her throat. Sensing into it, it doesn’t feel like this coil of tension is new, it feels like it’s been there forever, but she’s only now noticing it.
Suddenly, something… how to describe this? It’s like the cave itself opened its eyes. Like the scene itself had been half-asleep, and just now woke up to her presence. Everything shifts now.
The swans are gone, the cave is gone. There’s a new space now, with similar qualities, but it feels closer to the mothness than where she was before. Her heart feels tight, there’s a ridge of light blue violence5 running from her chin to the top of her skull, and it wants to shake violently, shake itself free of this stuckness. Rae stays with it, she stays with it all–the facial ridge, the spinal coil, the mothness; it all builds and she feels herself caught up in it, in the urging and urgency of it, midwifing it into… into something, into what’s next.
While all of this happens internally, she’s on her floor, on her back, rocking her head back and forth–this feels like what the facial ridge wants. She’s making a waving up-and-down motion with her chest and spine–this feels like what the coil of tension wants. She’s humming, lightly but deeply, and not fully aware that she’s doing it–the hum is coming directly out of the image somehow.6
In a peaking rush and roar, the gathered force releases into a shatter of white specks, like powdered snow flashing upward behind a running animal. The release is felt all through her body, as the spinal coil releases and the facial ridge bursts outward.
Rae stays where she is; there’s a lot of force and movement still working its way through her body, a lot of potent texture7 marinating its way into her mind and emotions. She sits with the intensity as it slowly ebbs–10, 20, 30 minutes go by–and when she’s ready, she rolls over and gives herself a good stretch, feeling more of the texture wringing itself out of her tissue like water from wet laundry8.
Today was a big one–most days she works with much more subtle images–but it’s not outstandingly rare. In the past year or so since starting this practice, she’s had maybe a half dozen days with an experience as strong as this, or stronger.
Over the next few weeks, she notices something odd: she’s spent her whole life struggling with perfectionism9; it’s affected her studies, her relationships, her work, and her self-image for as long as she can remember. But lately, it seems to have softened. She didn’t even notice until a co-worker said something, but she quickly realized they were right; she’d been reliably less tightly-wound lately, reliably less apt to snap at herself and others when results were imperfect.
She tries to trace this back to see how long this softening has been going on, but she can’t be sure. There was nothing new she’d been trying, no technique she’d decided to start, no resolution to conquer her perfectionism. Perfection and purity simply seem to have stopped mattering so much, for some reason.10 Whenever she tries to trace it back, all that comes up is a sense of pellucid whiteness and a loose feeling in her chest, behind her heart.
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Getting the scene to return with stability can be a hurdle early on. It often feels glitchy or slippery, which is perfectly fine. It gets sturdier with practice.
It’s helpful to remember dream-senses, here. In dreams, we often simply know something without ever seeing or hearing it. We often feel the emotion or texture in the atmosphere without any specific thing in the dream causing it. Sensing for this kind of implicit information is critical.
It’s not an accident that I don’t start the “interpretation voice” until halfway through this thought. It’s not my position that thought and interpretation have no place in dream-work. It is my position that while thought takes the primary role in day-to-day life, it takes very much a secondary role in this kind of dreamwork.
If a thought arises while attending to the image, examine it with your intuition, to see if it’s worth following. This is the mirror image of the usual waking life procedure, where an intuition might arise, and you examine it with your thoughts to see if it’s worth following.
Somatic awareness and sensitivity is key. Almost all of my best image-work ends with the image dissolving, leaving me deeply steeped in the body, attending to everything that’s been stirred up there by the image.
Language is hard. It hits a failure mode when we get deep enough into an image, but there’s also no option but the ol’ “try again, fail again, fail better.”
Humming, chanting, yelping, shouting—vocalizing seems to have an enormous effect on images and what they stir up. Give it a go sometime, play around with it.
Whenever I use words like texture, scent, or timbre, just know that I’m trying my best with something there’s not really language for.
Really, take care of your body after sessions like this. The image of wringing yourself out is a really helpful pointer—in my experience, if you just get up and move about the rest of your day, a lot of what you stirred up will follow you, and it can be disorienting as hell.
Notice: the first “interpretation voice” saw the swans and the ice and the cave and the mourning, and it wanted to lead the interpretation towards death. This makes some sense, and I’m sure we could get some extremely clever interpretations by following that line of thought. However, in the end it appears to be related to something underlying an internal reliance on purity and perfection—which also makes sense, logically, but would have been hard to arrive at without developing the scene intuitively.
I’ve experienced this several times (not with perfectionism, but other long-intractable personal problems), and I wish I could give you a concrete, linear connect-the-dots of how it works, so that the logic-brain could accept it a little easier. But I simply don’t know how this works. Only that it does, for me and many others, over and over again. If you’d like me to invent an explanation that sounds plausible to you, to give yourself permission to believe in the process a little more, get in contact and I’ll give it a shot.