I first encountered Robert Bosnak’s dream work technique at the C. G. Jung Institute in Boston and was later invited into a private dream group that met around a woodstove in the upstairs of his barn in the suburbs of Boston. This group deeply explored the unconscious lives of the group members. Huddled in a small circle under blankets, we only knew one another by sharing our dreams. Here I learned more about archetypal symbolism. Universal symbols can contribute to a dream’s meaning, not always by translation but by seeing the dream on the mythic level. Joseph Campbell once said in an interview, myths are society’s dreams.
Throughout all of known history, archetypes are repeated, albeit in different forms. Archetypes are dynamic forces, identified for instance, as The Divine Child, The Wise Old Man or Woman, The Devouring Feminine, The Hero, The Underworld, Trickster, Shadow, among others.
When we can look at our lives mythically we are able to accept the more difficult passages as the continuum of inevitable change. The Dark Night of the Soul is equivalent to the Nigredo in alchemy, descent into the depths, and whether it is one of sorrow or trauma, this stage is a universal one for the hero or heroine of many a myth. When we see our particular pain as a rite of passage rather than a termination, we then have the courage to confront the situation with the dragon or witch (or job loss or lawyer), understanding and feeling which part of ourselves is resisting growth.
In Bosnak’s private group we learned to apply more pressure to the vessel by questioning the dreamer; we went into the discomfort of difficult images, watching psyche autonomously at work. One discovery was to see how the dream expanded under this “heat” and in the two hour sessions we spoke of personal stories as well. All the members were able to enter the twilight consciousness under the pressure of intensive questioning.
Sometimes there were silences when everyone had fallen into the image as if it were a black hole. Sometimes active imagination would cause new images to appear. Returning to earlier scenes after feeling emotional release, we found they had changed and often enough, the monster was quelled. Most of the detours a dreamer took turned out to be relevant, resonating in a new manner. This exploration each week felt like a sacred ceremony. Even when we’d sat for long duration with a grotesque image, a mass murderer, a river of maggots, an explosive planecrash, sexual molestation, bloody wars-there was a deep sense of mystical participation in a ritual and the group bonded tightly.
Sometimes synchronistic phenomena accompanied the work and we were eerily spooked. Once an airplane dream summoned low-flying jets overhead. A dream of insects produced a large horsefly in the room. Or noises would occur at significant moments- the hum of the furnace kicking on, a neighborhood siren or barking dog, a fit of coughing, a trio of sneezes occurring at precise moments when the pressure cooker contained related imagery.
There was the contagion of laughter and tears too, usually at the unimaginable pain that the human psyche represses. Dreams exaggerate but the range of orphans, rag dolls, deformed babies, tree stumps, vile reptiles, severed limbs, earthquakes and floods was not infrequently disconcerting, especially to the dreamer. Occasionally the group dreamt in synch, animal dreams, diving dreams- eroticism. I recall once when we journeyed into space and hung there like the floating fetus in the film “2001.” In the luxury of time spent on a single dream, every nuance was followed.
Often we left these meetings dazed, smiling abashedly at one another when we finally opened our eyes. There was also a cautious respect for distance and the absolute understanding the work was confidential. I felt privileged to be a part of this dream cult and stayed with this group for four years and next to my son, it became the most important thing in my life. We led each other through questions about atmosphere, time of day, colors, sounds and sensate images. One dream I experienced there demonstrates the transformative aspects of the work. Here is the dream:
I’m on a beach, the beach I walk daily near home. It ‘s evening and I’ve just left a party where there were a lot of macho men annoying as well as rejecting me. I come down to the beach in a sullen mood when a huge German shepherd comes out from a rock and begins barking at me as if he is preparing to attack. I am terrified. I grab a stick and thrust it between his teeth, beginning to wrestle with him for the stick. I think if I engage him in play, he might see me as a friend. I throw the stick for him to fetch and as he chases it, I lean back against a rock. It seems I can relax, for I have befriended the wolf. As I lean back, the rock begins to move and I realize I am pulled upward on the back of a horse, side-saddle. The horse is white and has wings; it spreads them and lifts me up with it as it ascends into the sky. I am awed and amazed as I awaken.
The group spent a long time getting me to feel the instincts of the dog. The value of “archetypal amplification” here is shown when we realize the dog is often a psychopomp guiding us through the underworld. Think of Anubis, the Egyptian god with the dog’s head. I was still in the lower realms with my negative masculine complex, wrestling with my demons so-to-speak, and yet all the freedom, the sky the horse flies into, to me was significant. Some of the group actually laughed at the bizarre fairy-tale ending to this dream-riding a Pegasus off into the stars!
When I amplified the archetypal meaning of Pegasus. I was surprised to learn that the winged horse was born from the blood that flowed at the beheading of the Medusa. If Medusa is the hag, the dark side of the feminine, the devouring bitch, she gives birth, nevertheless, to the beautiful Pegasus who represents-unbeknownst to me, my favorite art form, poetry!
Later I came across the essay “Horses With Wings” by the poet, Denise Levertov. Pegasus’s father is Poseidon, the god of the sea-“… undifferentiated energy… a source of life but also of terror” (Levertov 125).
Levertov also informs us that “… Medusa’s legends place her as a manifestation of the Earth Mother’s terrible and devouring aspects…” (126). Furthermore “The word Gorgon relates to gargle, gurgle, and gargoyle: Medusa is called “a shriek personified’ ” (127). Pegasus was born of the neck of the Medusa, an intermediary place between mental and physical capacities. In fact “… it was not until the moment that Medusa’s blood, spurting from her neck, touched earth that he became manifest” (129). Levertov associates the Medusa’s face with “… snakes and claws, wings and scales… gorgonic features” which “correspond to the quaking magma of emotion” (133).
Emotion is often the catalyst for the poet’s creation. Levertov speaks of Pegasus as intuitive, as a metaphor for the poem rather than the poet” (134). I saw that my dream demonstrated how the material of the underworld could be transformed into something expressive. “To say that the poem, as well as the poet, is animal means that it has its own flesh and blood and is not a rarefied and insubstantial thing” (134).
Pegasus, then is poetry, born of a “fusion of opposites.” The image emerges at the greatest point of tension. “Pegasus strikes his hoof on a stone and releases a fountain… the fountain of poetic inspiration henceforth sacred to the Muses” (129). He flies upward, like my imagination always reaching higher.
Levertov’s essay amplified my dream. The symbol of the Pegasus in its archetypal meaning was not something I consciously knew. Although I had studied mythology and knew of Pegasus in several myths, I didn’t know his significance and had not related to him as a symbol for this peculiar little hobby I had of writing poems. In alchemy the gold is transformed from the work that is done on the lead, the “Nigredo,” the dark night of the soul. I was not yet riding Pegasus in my life but I was mining the soul and facing the music, or dirge if-you-will, of my own darkness. That we can turn our demons into diamonds was not a new idea for me, yet I had not seen it happen in concrete terms like these images presented.
My dream showed how the unconscious is not time-bound. It would be a few years before I would publish a book that transformed loss into something outside of me with its own authority. Apparently, I was wrestling with the dog.
The dream group became my religion, where I felt touched by spiritual energy. It was where I witnessed conjunctions resonating like a hall of mirrors, where I received communion both with the material and with the group members. Over those years everything in my life deepened. I saw that dreams came from my daily world and their hooks into my feeling world grafted my nocturnal images.
Through the active imaginative work we make stories of our memories in ways that can’t be proven true. Memory itself is imaginative in its selection, unique to each individual. As I told a dream and the stories that ran beneath it, only my imagination could effect psychological changes. We do indeed create our reality and that reality is relative. From this I learned how wrong we are in judging one another. I saw how dreamwork could open a person to the possibility of altering a worldview. We can choose to end our victim hood by re-experiencing the feelings of the past and revision them in such a way as to make us capable of joy where sorrow had been.
Levertov, Denise. “Horses With Wings.” What Is A Poet? Ed. Hank Lazer. Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 1987. 124-134.