“You must give birth to your images. They are the future waiting to be born. Fear not the strangeness you feel. The future must enter you long before it happens. Just wait for the birth, for the the hour of the new clarity.”– Rainer Maria Rilke
Everyone dreams, but why do we dream?
There is no definite scientific answer, no definite purpose for dreaming or remembering our dreams.
But for the past fifteen years I’ve spent tens of thousands of hours talking to people about their dreams, with careful attention. And I strongly believe that dreams do have a purpose. They have the capacity to heal us. They carry a natural medicine, and over time people can learn certain techniques for finding that medicine and making use of it.
What is the medicine for?
We know that the body has natural healing processes that go on without our conscious participation. As soon as you skin your knee, the body mobilizes to heal. Within moments the wound closes , the bleeding stops, and a scab forms. White blood cells engage and destroy any harmful bacteria. Then fibroblasts produce collagen that builds new skin under the wound, forming a scar. Eventually the scar itself will gradually fade.
If there is a natural process for healing the body, what about for healing the soul?
When we are wounded psychologically– hurt– damaged– even traumatized– it seems that as with the body, there is a natural process for healing.
Today we have psychotherapy, drugs, behavior modification, but what we’ve overlooked is that there is a natural healing property in our dreams. Even if we seek outside help with therapy or medications, this “inside help” dream images provide can be enlisted and is supportive.
Now not every image in a dream is healing– just as for instance, not every wild plant in the amazon jungle is a natural medicine. And we are much more confused about dreams today than we have ever been for many historical reasons.
Dreams are a riot of images and personified images, images and persons, or to be more precise, images and imagoes… for an imago is simply the image of a person who appears in your dream.
It is not so that every image in a dream is healing, or that every person who appears in your dream is a healer. So it’s important to focus on which images are helpful and which can be set aside.
What I’ve found is that you can isolate certain images that do have the power to heal the psyche– and by contemplating them, a healing process unfolds over time.
All of us are emotionally pretty scarred and scabbed by the time we reach adulthood, but unfortunately we seem to have the habit of identifying with our scars, instead of imagining the possibility that they might fade away. It’s as if we keep redressing our wounds, wearing the same dirty bandages day after day and never allowing them to fully heal.
This is where the images from dreams can help.
These healing images are full of feeling, and have the power to overturn your fixed ideas and opinions about yourself, the self-attributions that hold you back, the shame or guilt that keep you paralyzed, the reactions and old ideas about yourself that are tied to the past and block you from changes in your life that need to be made.
These images encourage, they refresh— and they have great emotional power: they can lift you high if needed and they can also bring you low if needed, they can terrify you out of complacency and allow you to feel the truth of your real pain. All of these effects of images are medicinal to the soul, when properly contemplated. In my work, the images and imagoes in dreams have helped people respond to a most powerful demand. It is the demand that the poet Rainer Maria Rilke heard for us in one of his best known works, The Archaic Torso of Apollo
You must change your life.
Rainer Maria Rilke
From what point of view, from what place in you can you hear the demand to change your life?
It is not the body that says this to us, and it’s not even the mind really. These words resonate in a deeper place that before the modern era people were quite comfortable in calling soul. Perhaps we have almost completely lost that word. Some might prefer to call it “the unconscious”, or “the psyche”. And I would like to propose yet another word that may seem at first surprising, though it is the word certain poets use– “Imagination.”
The imagination in us is the soul in us.
I believe that poets because they actively and consciously engage with the imagination as a daily practice, have a lot to teach us about how imagination works in all of us.
What is imagination? Since the word “image” is there, it suggests that the natural human capacity to make images in what Shakespeare called the “mind’s eye” is one way to understand imagination.
But imagination goes beyond the everyday capacity to make images. It means our capacity to change, to imagine for ourselves alternative versions of who we are, who we might be, to escape the iron laws of necessity and the burdens of the past, and to discover for ourselves a new creative freedom. Imagination in fact is the working of creativity within us.
The imagination contends with whatever in us is dead, whatever is fixed, whatever is written in stone, decided once and for all. The imagination contends with most of what my ego tells me I am, what my superego tells me I’m supposed to be, with what I might think I am, with how I often describe myself to others. (In fact the terms “ego” and “superego” are themselves products of the imagination.) The imagination is the very part of me that defies expectation, and that seeks always something new.
We think of imagination as producing images and that’s quite true; but it’s also true that the process is reciprocal. Images feed and enrich– can even heal- the imagination. The imagination is fed by images that are striking or beautiful or terrifying or bold, and it is starved when it has no access to such images.
When we are depressed, in despair, we are actually suffering from a starved imagination. We can’t visualize alternatives to our current situations, we don’t believe that anything new can happen for us or within us.
So the imagination when we are in a depressed or listless state might be understood as “impaired” which is exactly what William Wordsworth, the English romantic poet, wrote more than 200 years ago
At the beginning of the nineteenth century, Wordsworth, who was keenly interested in psychology, began looking into the power of images to heal psychological damage. His quest was quite personal, in fact it was a matter of life and death to him. Like many young English people in his generation he was suffering from profound despair in the aftermath of the French Revolution. He had lost his idealism and hope, and much more; his lover and their daughter. He’d been forced to return to leave them behind and return to an England that was quite depressing, for it was having a conservative reaction to the events that had inspired so many young people.
He was in despair but he found a great source of healing in natural images.
A great poet, he was also highly attuned to the beauty of natural settings: mountains, woods, lakes, in his rural Cumberland had stirred him from his childhood on.
In learning to write a whole new kind of poetry– that stood in stark contrast to the more rationalistic conservative verse he was raised on, he began writing experimentally with close companions, his sister Dorothy and the poet Coleridge. In these poems he discovered a special value in certain images. These were memories that stayed with him, and that he “recollected in tranquility”. Often the recollection took place in a crowded city, far from the natural setting of his native lake district. By contemplating these “restorative images”–as he called them, he found he could heal the “impaired imagination.”
Wordsworth was primarily interested in images that came to him from remembering certain dramatic scenes. The actual events that he recalled were not necessarily full of positive feeling, in many cases in fact they were strange, foreboding.. yet oddly by contemplating them later, he found great healing. He called these special moments “spots of time” and in his long autobiographical poem, “The Prelude” gave several examples of these events that had for him a healing property.
Wordsworth’s emphasis on “restorative images” offers a second testimony to the healing power of images I find in dreams. Dreams also offer “spots of time”, poetic moments I call “events”. By contemplating the “events” in dreams, we can also heal the “impaired imagination”.
Here is one example of a spot of time, from the earliest version of “The Prelude”
Ere I had seen
Eight summers (and ’twas in the very week
When I was first transplanted to thy vale,
Beloved Hawkshead! when thy paths, thy shores
And brooks were like a dream of novelty
To my half-infant mind) I chanced to cross
One of those open fields which, shaped like ears,
Make green peninsulas on Esthwaite’s lake,
Twilight was coming on, yet through the gloom
I saw distinctly on the opposite shore
Beneath a tree and close by the lake side
A heap of garments, as if left by one
Who there was bathing: half an hour I watched
And no one owned them: meanwhile the calm lake
Grew dark with all the shadows on its breast,
And now and then a leaping fish disturbed
The breathless stillness. The succeeding day
There came a company, and in their boat
Sounded with iron hooks, and with long poles.
At length the dead man’ mid that beauteous scene
Of trees, and hills, and water, bolt upright
Rose with his ghastly face.
You can read the whole poem here.
Notice that the “spot of time”, the event in the passage,, is in fact quite ghastly, a drowning man’s face, as seen by a boy of about eight. The impression it made on him lasted his whole life. But somehow the mysterious contrast between the natural setting and the actuality of death, created an image that had restorative properties to his imagination. It’s not just the pleasant images then that have the power to restore us, but also, and maybe especially the “ghastly”, the terrifying or painful images that can also contain a powerful medicine.
So it seems in dreams.
Not everyone is a gifted poet, but everyone can dream.
We are all capable of making images; we all have imaginative capacity. One way we know this is through the imaginative experiences we’ve had in our dreams.
Dreams can be vastly entertaining, hilarious or amusing, and sometimes a powerful dream breaks through that just overwhelms us with feeling.
Dreams have been described by Robert Duncan in The H.D. Book as a form of “involuntary poetry”, and in fact the passive way we often experience our dreams- as if they are happening to us, makes us miss that in a sense we are also co-creating them. The imaginative process in us that produces poetry and dreams seems to be similar, and that is why there’s a rich history of poetry that contemplates the dream from the earliest poem in the English language, Caedmon’s Hymn.
At the end of his career, William Shakespeare, contemplating his powers as a dramatic poet and in some ways saying farewell to them–, created a character who stood in for himself, the magician Prospero. Isolated on his island, controlling events with the help of the magical fairy Ariel– he reflects on his own nature– and ours, declaring
“We are such stuff as dreams are made on”
It seems Shakespeare wants to tell us something about the soul. Our inner core– the stuff or stuffing we are made of– is actually all dream.
For a companion essay to this piece, please see Dreams as Wild Medicine
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