This article is the second in a series drawing from my training as an art therapist in support of my Natural Dreamwork practice. Art therapy and Natural Dreamwork both recognize that the primary imagination gives us images saturated with feeling and that healing emerges when we let go our ego-defenses and allow these feeling-images to penetrate us.
In this series, I introduce to dreamers the basic framework that art therapists are trained in, which is called the Expressive Therapies Continuum (ETC), first mapped out by Vija Lusebrink and Sandra Kagen. (For those with therapy backgrounds who want to read more, I recommend the book Expressive Therapies Continuum: A Framework for Using Art in Therapy, by Lisa Hinz.) Explained briefly, the ETC facilitates engaging the kinesthetic, sensory, affective, perceptual, cognitive, and symbolic levels of the creative process. I think of these levels as the doorways into creativity, which help us cross the threshold into primary imagination.
Becoming familiar with how to personally access the multiple doorways of the Expressive Therapy Continuum can help dreamers deepen their relationship with the images and feelings offered by dreams. In “Tending Dreams through Art-Making: Part One”, I described some art techniques that illustrate entering dreams through the kinesthetic and sensory modalities of creative expression. In Part Two, I now provide dreamers with examples of how the perceptual and affective aspects of creativity can engage us more fully with our dreams.
I have intentionally chosen to share examples of art I made in response to painful and challenging dreams and imagery. I risk sharing my struggles for two reasons. First of all, I turn to art because I know it can help me process the painful, potent, disturbing images given by dreams, tapping their healing medicine. And secondly, I want to help other dreamers feel more accepting of their own painful, challenging dreams. Through my sharing you can see that, even after years of dream work, I have not reached nirvana, or made “progress” as in having reached a place of no more struggle. In fact, dreamwork keeps taking me deeper into where soul is wounded, and my progress is in being able to see more fully the depth of the wound.
I also want to encourage dreamers to please remember, you don’t have to identify as an artist, or have specific technical training in the use of art materials to benefit from exploring dream imagery through creative expression. The art reflections described here are for you and your dreamlife, and no-one else. The expressive arts approach is internal, focusing on the process of creating as a way to deepen inner experience and emotions. It doesn’t matter at all what the finished product looks like to anyone, even yourself! What truly matters is this – does your creative process help you feel more deeply what the dream needs you to feel?
Entering the creative process through the perceptual and affective doorways can help shift us away from this self-conscious external focus, because both these doorways help us deepen into perceiving and feeling what the dreams offer us. Dreams are very rich with unexpected ways of perceiving, unusual geometric shapes and forms, shifting directions, weird terrain, as well as potent emotions that are often avoided, unexpressed or unresolved in waking consciousness.
The perceptual aspect of creativity focuses on elements such as line, color, form, direction, shape, pattern, arrangement – in other words the visual language through which images are composed. From the Expressive Therapies Continuum framework, the perceptual level of creativity emerges from the kinesthetic and sensory by helping bring structure, form, boundary, and organization to what is physically released and sensed. So, while we can benefit from kinesthetic scribbling to express a tangled knot of energy too complex to unravel, as we shift to perceptual mode, we start to look for connected shapes, the direction of lines, the placement of the tangle on the page, for example, all of which give us was of seeing what couldn’t be seen before. Sometimes our feelings are too large or scary. The perceptual mode’s focus on the visual elements of the dream image can provide us a reflective distance from which to approach the image and the feeling embedded in it. Sometimes dreams themselves even provide this reflective distance through altered presentation of imagery. For example, in a dream about a bomb, we might see the explosion on a movie screen, which provides a geometric shape containing and distancing us from the explosion.
Expressive arts modalities that can help us engage perceptually with our dreams include creating drawings or sculptures of dream objects or geometric elements within dreams, making lines that depict our movements and pathways in restless dreams, creating schematics to look for pattern or organization within long dreams, creating art to explore dream imagery from different viewpoints such as close-up and bird’s eye views, or directly exploring shapes that occur in dreams, such as boxes, squares, hoops, circles, waves, etc.
For example, in a recent dream I saw a mysterious, turning machine with people being twisted and tangled together inside it. The image was vivid, but surreal, like something from a Hieronymus Bosch painting. The dream, however, offered some reflective distance from this obvious torture device in that it I heard no sound and saw no blood. Yet, the people were naked, with body parts interwoven into a tangled mass of writhing people. To approach this image of torture and excruciating pain, not ready to feel it directly, I focused instead on perceiving the actual shape and mechanics of the dream machine. It was round, with a twisting mechanism inside that pulled the human bodies down and into the center. It was metallic, steel, like something in a meat-packing plant:
I remembered a meat-grinder my mother used occasionally, and googling “meat grinder” led me to photos of my mother’s old-fashioned kitchen tool, and others) including both the interior of the device (which matched my dream machine’s construction perfectly) as well as a side view with the haunting name “Universal” Meat Chopper in raised lettering.) I printed these and another image out, cut out a series of writhing paper dolls, and made the following collage:
By focusing on the mechanical structure of the dream object, my art process began as a continuation of the reflective distance offered by the soundless, bloodless dream image of twisting bodies. This gave me enough safety and support to let the excruciating emotional truth of the image reveal itself. This is an image of people being ground up like meat. As I created the art, I let myself walk to the other side of the machine, shifting viewpoints, seeing where what is left of the people extrudes from the machine. I then could feel how “ground to a pulp” I am feeling in my “day-job” (as mental health counselor within a hospital system flooded with people seeking relief from pandemic-heightened depression and anxiety, all of whom also feel “ground to a pulp” by recent events and past traumas). The final image feels real and true, allowing me to acknowledge feelings I have tried to soldier past in order to keep going.
Following this dream, I had a series of fragmentary dreams, much of their imagery fleeting and lost, with images of moving, cars full of packed boxes, storms coming, papers and belonging being sorted, waiting in temporary spaces while reconstruction was going on elsewhere, and even a doctor prescribing me needed medicine but then saying the system through which I would access the prescription was being completely revamped and so she couldn’t tell me how I would be able to access it! Again, and again, these fragments stirred feelings of longing, searching, being adrift, disoriented, in an uncomfortable liminal state. I decided to explore the feelings evoked not by one specific dream, but by the affective experience of loss, and being lost, evoked by acknowledging my “ground to a pulp” state within the inescapable machinery of modern life, as well as by the subsequent elusive, fragmentary dreams expressing uprooted distress.
The affective path of creativity asks us to focus directly on the feelings themselves and make art that both expresses feelings and responds to them. This expression can help us increase connection to blocked or minimized feelings, heightening their energies. With already activated emotions, making art can help us safely experience their intensity. Art making can also help us release feelings and regulate nervous system arousal connected to emotions.
Examples of affective art making practices include painting abstract watercolors of current feelings, making body maps showing where and how feeling-tangles, numbness, and emotional energy reside in one’s body, making collages in which faces expressing emotions are included, and making art while listening to music that evokes one’s current mood.
In the following art example, I found myself drawn to a map of the deep-sea floor found within my collage materials, especially the section of the map naming multiple “fracture zones.” I chose this map section as my drawing surface because it express feeling lost at sea, with the only available map telling me I must go into deep underwater terrain which is riven with fractures. Over top this map, I created a semi-blind contour drawing self-portrait by looking in a mirror and drawing the contour of my facial features without lifting my pen, while intentionally avoiding looking frequently at what I was drawing. I started with a blue pen to fit with the blue map, both of which increased my acceptance of my own “feeling blue.” As I looked at the finished map, I saw my aging face floating over other-worldly ocean trenches. Seeing this, I felt sorrow and grief and acknowledged that these are the feelings I must live with and compassionately tend, while waiting for the dream-realm to carry on with its revamping of prescription services, sorting, discarding, and reconstructing on levels deeper than consciousness.
I hope these examples of how to enter your dreams through perceptual and affective art explorations expand your creative outlets for exploring dreams. As you can see from these examples, the materials used can be simple and easily accessed and the finished products can be imperfect and rough. Yet, these art meditations potently amplify the emotional medicine of our dreams and help us increase our fidelity to the primary imagination. I encourage all dreamers to continue tapping into the healing offered by dreams by engaging in expressive arts explorations. And I look forward to sharing with you, in a future installment of this series, examples of exploring dreams using the cognitive and symbolic creative arts processes.
Images by Liza Hyatt
Liza Hyatt, ATR-BC, LMHC is a certified Natural Dreamwork practitioner, board certified art therapist and licensed mental health counselor in Indianapolis. For more information about spiritual growth through dreamwork with Liza, please contact her at email@example.com. You can learn more about Liza on the About Us page of our website.