Animal Dreams, and Dreaming with Animals
Like many other things in the world of Dream, the research is in, and few experts can fully agree on what it really means. Dogs dream. Horses dream. Pigs dream. Cats dream. What role do we play in their landscape? We cannot be certain. Poetry may be ahead of science in this regard:
The paws twitch in a place of chasing
Where the whimper of this seeming-gentle creature
Rings out terrible, chasing tigers.
Are licking like torches, full of running,
Laced odors, bones stalking, tushed leaps.
So little that is tamed, yet so much
That you would find deeply familiar there.
You are there often, your very eyes,
The unfathomable knowledge behind your face,
The mystery of your will, appraising.
Such carnage and triumph; standing there
Strange even to yourself, and loved, and only
A sleeping beast knows who you are.
“Dog Dreaming” by W.S. Merwin, from Green With Beasts. © Knopf, 1956.
Humans forget that we are also of the Animal Kingdom. Often, we want to think of Animal, Vegetable, Mineral, and then us – more along the lines of a combination between a Benevolent Monarch and an infallible supercomputer. Humankind has adopted the position of superiority, or a privileged status, with regard to other animals. Somehow this seems tied up with Original Sin, the Fall, getting kicked out of the Garden, and being God’s favorite. The story runs that man was given dominion over the animals and therefore, can pick and choose which ones become extinct, which ones work for our economies, which ones we eat, and which ones we entertain in our homes like third world princes. What we forget is that we share the planet – really an interdependent ecosystem, instead of thinking that each of the 7 billion humans is Lord and Master of all other species. The notion that this dominion is harmful is not a liberal ecology position: It is currently playing out as a management issue, and the planet is failing at the ultimate MBA comprehensive exam. Even if you do not believe animals are endowed with soul, most of us must grudgingly admit that people are animals, too. That’s what we forget. We think at times we are gods, or worse. We think we are God. Not you and me, of course, but People do. So easy to forget in these times we are still part of Creation, and not mini-Creators.
Animals carry the Collective Unconscious
Now there is some psychobabble if ever I heard it! We may dismiss Ken Keyes’ Hundredth Monkey Theory, but observation of the trends animals exhibit toward humans shows that definite patterns exist. The loyalty of a dog. The independence of a cat. The slyness of a fox. The mistrust by birds of man. Now, some of these traits are so matter-of-fact they come down to us through fairy tale and idiom. And people also have their individual conceptions about animals such as Horse, Lion, Tiger, Eagle, Mouse, and the hundreds of other animals that surface in dreams. So an encounter with an animal in the dreamtime can carry the collective unconscious – say, the opinion of the average person of snakes – or they may represent a different element to persons who have their individual connection to the animal represented. Maybe the dreamer has or had a pet snake. Maybe as a child they were part of religious worship involving snakes. Maybe they had a pet killed by a snake. Or maybe they were once captivated by the behavior of a snake in a zoo, in the wild, or in the home of a friend. The process of individual association is so important in determining the dreamer’s view of the animal. But what about the animal’s view of the dreamer?
Many views of dreamwork start with the common cultural or “universal” association of the animal and work from there. The animal is reduced to what may be found in a dream dictionary, and the part of the dreamer that quality represents. Sure, I have done this and still do. There are at least a couple of things I dislike about this. One, it is taking the animal out of the context of the dream and reducing it to be an aspect of the dreamer. This is the common “intrapsychic” approach many of us counselors use and it achieves helpful results, but it may reinforce, with clients recovering from trauma and from addictions, ego defense mechanisms which no longer serve the dreamer. Secondly, it robs the dream image of its own wisdom, perhaps missing an opportunity to unfold to the dreamer something she does not already know. So in a way, both therapist and dreamer harness the image in service to the ego, in something of a colonization of the image. I prefer to engage the image; recognize its autonomy, allow it to develop and to speak from its own realm. This is what dreams do for us; they bring us wisdom we cannot access through waking consciousness. And with animal images, the wisdom is embodies with its own will, it’s own consciousness, and its own affect.
Clients work with their dream animals is experiential and unique. Descriptions in writing never do service to the emotion of a meeting with a dream animal; the making of eye contact; viewing the animal in her element and allowing the trading of places, to allow the dreamer to see the dreamer through the eyes of the animal and to share that bond; these are the things that can neither be extracted from a dream dictionary nor well relayed in a dream blog. Poetry serves better then than does description. Yet few things in dream group tend to dissolve the fears of the dreamer, and few things seem to reinforce more that we are all in this together, than an experience with a dream animal. It is more that they are dreaming us into existence than the other way around.
Even the dream Joseph interpreted for Pharaoh of the seven lean cattle and seven fat cattle seems to reinforce man’s desire to have mastery over the dream images. Joseph learned from the dream the need of managing the Pharaoh’s wealth, furthering man’s dominion over the animals. But wasn’t the message of the dream also that the abundance of the earth, a gift from God, is finite and requires wise stewardship? The more I do this work, the more reverence I have for the images themselves. Just like the dreamers, these images have their own rights to privacy, their own wisdom, and their own emotions and insights. I will close with a verse from an engaging children’s book published this year on dream animals by Emily Winfield Martin:
Dreamers get where dreamers go
Dreamland is too far to run
And sleepy feet, too slow.