This is the creature there has never been.
They never knew it, and yet, none the less,
they loved the way it moved, its suppleness,
its neck, its very gaze, mild and serene.
Not there, because they loved it, it behaved
as though it were. They always left some space.
And in that clear unpeopled space they saved
it lightly reared its head, with scarce a trace
of not being there. They fed it, not with corn,
but only with the possibility
of being. And that was able to confer
such strength, its brow put forth a horn. One horn.
Whitely it stole up to a maid, -to be
within the silver mirror and in her.
Rainer Marie Rilke, from Sonnets to Orpheus: Second Part, IV
Translated by J.B. Leishman
I have come to love this selection from Sonnets to Orpheus. Rilke’s unicorn breathes. We feel its movement, notice its gaze, prepare to open our hearts to it. The encounter is sweet and potent, leaves me feeling more alive and playful than I felt before I dropped into the experience of the poem, whether as witness, unicorn, or maid. Rilke delicately holds the tension between the creature that is both there and not there. Not constructed, but emergent, Rilke’s unicorn visits us from the wellsprings of his Imagination. It exists alongside physical reality, not as a substitute. His creature deepens our connection to our senses, to our feeling life and to mystery.
I didn’t always feel connected to Rilke’s unicorn. Rilke’s subtlety was lost on me the first time I encountered this poem. I arrived at adulthood with an impaired imagination, and a poor understanding of the distinction between Fantasy and Imagination. Dreams have played an outsized role in this rehabilitation. Natural Dreamwork has been particularly important. In Natural Dreamwork we step into the flow of feelings evoked by images and encounters and let go of the narratives and conceptual explanations that encumber our dreams. In this way, Natural Dreamwork helps make the distinction between Fantasy and Imagination.
The unicorns I knew from childhood were products of fantasy- Like the unicorns in Peter Paul and Mary ‘s The Unicorn Song, ‘playing dancing and romancing in the wildflowers’ these fantasy unicorns, were treacherous – like the faeries in Yeats’s poem, The Stolen Child who led children away from ‘a world full of weeping’ into a substitute reality that was also a prison.
Both Imagination and Fantasy engage with images, but in different ways. Imagination is a form of perception. It is spontaneous, surprising, fluid, an experience in present time, rather than some distant future. Our dreams offer us nightly experiences of Imagination; Imagination can also come in the form of a waking dream. Not long ago, as I walked from my office, lost in thought, I suddenly and unexpectedly felt the presence of a Golden Retriever accompanying me down the stairs. I heard the rustle of his steps, felt wind on my legs as his tail swished back and forth. I saw his reddish golden fur, as he leaped from the last step toward the front door. While I knew he was not in my physical reality, he was most definitely present and his presence brought both surprise and delight, as well as a deeper understanding of what I most desired. I should explain: Recently, I have spent many hours ‘thinking about getting a dog’ These thought experiments: what it would be like to have one kind of dog or another, what might be required to accommodate a given breed’s size, proclivity for barking, need for space etc left me feeling dazed and anxious. Though these forays helped me clarify some of the logistics of dog ownership, they did not bring me deep understanding of what I wanted. The unexpected, though brief upwelling of Imagination did. Perhaps the thought experiments I’ve described are a third category distinct from Imagination and Fantasy: They help us anticipate logistical challenges, prepare us for the future, but don’t necessarily enrich our lives in present time. Sometimes these thought experiments are a diversion, a poor substitute for heart-felt discernment.
While Fantasy leads us away from the depths, Imagination expands our capacity for deep feeling and teaches the wisdom of the heart: Imagination lead us not just to joy, but also to fear, sadness, longing and grief. Recognizing all of our feelings and reckoning with both the depth and breadth of our unique and particular predicament lends us courage to ask for help, try something different, have the difficult conversation. Imagination leads us into Life. What it can’t do is predict an outcome.
Fantasy, as I use this term, is full-scale retreat. For a little while, we may feel more ‘in control,’ safe or loved – until the fantasy crashes: In Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Match Girl a hungry, cold-numbed little girl lights a match and fantasizes that she is sitting in front of a large iron stove. The match goes out, she is even colder than before. She lights another, finds herself in a fantasy of a steaming roast goose, dancing towards her- until the little flame burns out, and she again faces a cold damp wall. Eventually, the little match girl freezes to death. For the little match girl, like many children born into desperate circumstances, there may have been no escape from tragedy; however, it’s also possible that the fantasy of warmth and care, when there was none, robbed her of the capacity to act.
Fantasy may be born of the belief that it is futile to express or even acknowledge pain, need, or desire. In Fantasy, we pretend that we are powerful, loved, or stimulated while we actually experience the opposite. In Fantasy we leave behind our body and our senses. Fantasy is a child of our Will, constructed, not found. Sometimes Fantasy is all that is available to get us through difficult or oppressive circumstances beyond our control. The problems come when we continue the habitual escape long after it is required, or mistake Fantasy for Imagination. But, like Yin and Yang, Imagination and Fantasy each contain seeds of the other. Fantasies offer an opportunity to reawaken the Imagination: As we rediscover the feelings that lay dormant with in the static images of Fantasy, the images may molt into a new form, once again alive.
Rilke’s unicorn is one such image for me. Rilke’s verse found me in the pages of an old notebook, and awakened old memories, bitter and sweet. My mother loved unicorns.
A Memory: I am in the car with my mother and younger brother. We are pulled off to the side of the road. “OUT OF GAS” is scrawled on the windshield in bright pink lipstick. We wait for some ‘nice man’ to stop his car and come to the rescue…. She is singing The Unicorn Song, in a key that is difficult for us to follow. She does not notice…
Another: I am a young teenager in the car with my mother, I anxiously eye the speedometer as it creeps past 80 mph, my mother oblivious, singing The Unicorn Song as we speed down the highway…
My mother – wishful, glittery and sentimental – was the guardian of fantasy in our household. While she had a loose hold on ‘reality,’ she also possessed a childlike charm that made many people want to help her. I felt pressure to grow up ‘too soon’ and forfeited my imagination to be the ‘mature’ child she needed me to be. In equal parts because it was his nature, because it’s what he learned from his parents, and because he had to compensate for my mother, my father became the guardian of ‘realistic’: predictable, dependable and concrete. He mostly stuck to the scientific and provable. Though he has loosened up a great deal over the last few decades, I can still hear echoes of his commentary on films and books containing elements of whimsy, fantasy or science fiction, “But that’s not realistic!” My father’s ‘realistic’ was as limiting as my mother’s magical thinking. Realistic left little room for the unknown: it forecasted a future strictly predictable from the circumstances of the present, and focused on that future more than the experience of present time.
As a child I frequently felt paralyzed between my parents’ extremes. I didn’t know that it was possible to accept Reality and Imagination. Mostly I chose my father’s way: I went to medical school, focused on career and family and let go of the recreational arts, since they didn’t further my ambitions. But I also coped with distress much as my mother had, disappearing into fantasies of escape, or extraordinary success. Externally I was more ‘responsible’ than my mother had been, but my sense of responsibility was colored by compliance, fear of being like her and a despair born of the belief that there was no ‘acceptable’ path out of my predicament.
Though I didn’t know it then, I now believe my despair was the result of an impaired Imagination. It took me many years to understand that there were other ways to live.
Fortunately, dreams began to come-frequently and forcefully. As I took the risk of writing them down, of sharing them with a loving partner who was able to listen, a whole new world opened up for me. I also started working with my dreams in therapy. A few months into my first experience of dream-oriented therapy, I had the following dream:
I have put my son’s fish in a large tank, and I have come to feed them. There are only two little fish (guppy size) in the whole tank.
The next day, I return with my son to feed them again. After completion of feeding, I notice some shimmering. “There are more fish!” I think to myself, “the fish have given birth to many more fish!” I get excited. Other people begin to gather around the tank. Then I see the tank is full of a wide variety of sea-life. Beautiful! Teeming with Life. Someone points out 2 shrimp, almost translucent. They are touching and form a crescent. As I am about to leave, I tell someone, “I think I am going to have to bring more fish food”- I am feeling overwhelmed. A woman tells me, “The fish were there all along- you just hadn’t noticed: Someone else has been feeding them.”
As I step into this dream now, with the benefit of two decades work on healing my Imagination, I can feel the loneliness and impoverishment of that initial image: two guppies alone in a vast monotonous expanse. That is an accurate depiction of how I felt, that was the limit of my connection to the life of the Imagination. And yet, I did all that I could do: I fed the little fish, accompanied by ‘my child.’ Dreams often depict Soul with images of young children.
As with Rilke’s unicorn, the feeding leads to a shimmer: How often a new element in our life catches our attention just this way: an unexpected shimmer out of the corner of our eye- not known, not expected. We catch the shimmer, and then we stop our habitual pattern. We stand still and receive with new eyes what is given to us, what is mirrored back to us. We find ourselves in a richer, more vibrant experience – one that emerges not out of Will, but out of Mystery.
Imagination is a door into Mystery. 20 years in, I remain a novice in the School of the Imagination. My life is so much more satisfying than I ever ‘thought’ it could be.
Imagination is the birthright of all of us. Even if you haven’t yet discovered it, this vast, mysterious and beautiful Life is also in you. As a Natural Dreamwork practitioner, I invite you to consider this path of exploration. If you are interested in working more deeply with your dreams, visit About Us to learn more about our community of practitioners. Natural Dreamwork Practitioners work with clients throughout the world in person, on the phone and over video-conference. We are happy to connect with you, to continue the conversation with you about your dreams.
Keren Vishny is a psychotherapist as well as a practitioner and teacher of Natural Dreamwork. She has worked closely with Jungian Analyst Marion Woodman and completed the BodySoulRhythms ® Leadership Training Program offered by the Marion Woodman Foundation. She works with clients individually and in groups, and has offered numerous classes and workshops through the CG Jung Center and the Marion Woodman Foundation. To learn more visit her website, www.kerenvishny.com
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