It is not what is said about the dream after the dream, but the experience of the dream after the dream. A dream compared with a mystery suggests that the dream is effective as long as it remains alive.
– James Hillman, The Dream and the Underworld, p. 122
I am grateful to living people with vibrant souls who have occasionally sat with me and my dreams. These include Steve Aisenstat, who introduced me to the phrase “Dreams are alive” in 1998, Nancy Gallindo, who has organized several retreats in which I have been able to live with dream in a vibrant landscape, and Burger Vaughn, who taught me there is no such thing as a clock when sitting with someone else’s dream. And from Jim Hillman, in lecture, in print, and in the few candid informal conversations I was fortunate to have, I learned that the dream image is not something to be wrestled with in the dark to bring captive into daylight. One meets the dreams on the terms of the dream, or as Steve Aizenstat says, “we meet the dream in the way of Dream.”
In the earliest nightmare I recall:
I am in a cellar of an old, old building. The cold floor is made of concrete, and it is dark except for the small light, surrounding me, like a spotlight. It is like there is a circular balcony above me, I am in a dungeon, and there are a bunch of men in black robes above, each calling me guilty.
I could not have been more than about four years old, but I have always thought I was younger. Immediately I sought refuge in my parents bed, seized with terror. Notice how in the dream above, I am speaking in first person, present tense, as though the dream is happening now and unfolding before me in real time. Sometimes this is hard: dreams do not always seem to happen in sequence. Time is “unstuck,” like Billy Pilgrim in Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five. But in recalling, retelling, or writing a dream, my mentors have encouraged me to treat the dream like a living thing, not speaking of it as dead and past. Speak like it is alive and in the room, now.
Not until many years later reading Henry Charles Lea’s Inquisition of the Middle Ages did this scene seem powerfully centered in another time. Maybe I had recently seen an old movie about a dungeon. Was this nightmare a manifestation of Original Sin? Maybe I had upset a parent in toilet training, hence the feeling of guilt. Very hard to reconstruct now fifty years later what was going on in my very young life in terms of “day residue” or stressors. But the dream is clear and has a time and a life of his own, and serves something as a touchstone to key times in my life when the dream made its meaning more and more available to me. In the living image of the cellar in the living image of the council still sit I, or the living image of “I.” Not all dreams stay so fresh:
One clap of day and the dream
where it came from. For a moment
the ground is still moist with it.
Then day settles. You step onto dry land.
Morning picks out the four
corners, coffeepot, shawl of dust
on a cupboard. Stunned
by brightness, that dream —
where did it go?
All day you grope in a web
of invisible stars. The day sky soaks them up
like dreams. If you could see
in the light, you’d see what fires
keep spinning, spinning their mesh of threads
around you. They’re closer
than you think, pulsing
into the blue. You press your forehead
to the cool glass.
They must be out there in all that dazzle.
When I sit with a client, as I have for fifteen years now, exploring their dreams, I ask them to tell the dream “as though it is unfolding before you right now, in first person and in present tense.” I don’t always correct them when they lapse into third person (or occasionally second person, “you walk into a large room and you see purple curtains all around . . . .”) There are exceptions to this – sometimes a person does not have a dream ego present, watching the dream as though it is a play or a movie in front of them. Mostly, retaining the reference of the dreamer in first person keeps them rooted not just to the action of the dream, but their feelings and thoughts as well. Present tense, though, is the more important element. Working with a single dream over time allows a person to see how even a single image from the dream can, without changing, deepen its meaning for the life of the dreamer.
Write down the last dream you can remember. Don’t worry if you can’t remember a dream from last night or this week, write down any dream you can recall. It’s okay to practice getting it in the right order or to leave parts unstuck in time. When you are finished, proofread to make certain you have used first person and present tense. Read the dream aloud, and as you do so, notice any emotion that comes up that you did not recall when writing the dream out originally. Now that you have a revised dream in front of you, ask, “what did this dream (or image) mean to me when I had the dream? What does it mean to me now? In a later blog, we will talk about dream councils, and how a dream image may become an important voice in helping you make sense not just out of your dreams but out of your life.