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A Curiosity from the Workshop of the Unconscious
On dreams, active imagination, and finding the ability to be loved
I am in a large house that seems to be my grandparent's home from many years ago. I spent a lot of time there as a child. The house is airy and quite dark as if it exists on an astral plane. I have just completed major renovations. Construction crews have finished their work, leaving me alone in the bare space. The biggest renovation was extending the ceiling upward.
The ceiling is now so high in the sky that the house feels like an ornate train station like Grand Central or the Milano Centrale. In order to extend the ceiling skyward, the construction crews had to demolish nearly everything in the house. But all the work is done and I walk over to a corner in the main part of the house where there is an American diner-style table complete with bouncy booth seats.
As soon as I sit down, my maternal grandmother joins me out of the darkness with the help of a caregiver. Once she is seated, I proceed to tell her about the renovations. I seek her approval. She tells me that the place looks great but she doesn’t really know where she is. The combination of the renovations and her age means that she is quite confused about the surroundings. It makes her feel unsettled but not upset. With a soft smile, she says everything is great.
A vacuum of consciousness
I had this dream about two weeks ago and recently presented it in a dream workshop facilitated by an Ecuadorian woman at my neighbor’s house. (Yes, I live in a part of the world where this type of thing is common.) I volunteered this dream for an exercise in active imagination, a technique I have written about previously and plan to explore in much more detail.
This is how the exercise went down. Sitting in a circle surrounded by eight other people (all women, mind you), I recounted the dream in the active tense. The facilitator then had me relax and close my eyes to descend into the dream. At first, this was difficult, as I could feel everyone looking at me. The facilitator asked me to become various characters in the dream, starting with the house itself. As I tried to quiet my thinking mind, I said the first thing that came into my head as the house: I felt neglected and could feel the paint cracking on my deteriorating walls.
Struggling to relax, I found that saying the absolute first thing that popped into my head helped me enter the unconscious. The facilitator then asked me to become the ceiling.
By now, I could feel myself letting go and going deeper. I won’t lie, it was a pretty wild experience. My surroundings seemed to fall away and I forgot about the people looking at me. As the ceiling, I responded that I felt far away from the action. Since I had been moved skyward, I couldn’t see what was happening on the ground. I could tell there was a movement happening but it was dark. I felt like I was seeing the faint light of a fire at the back of a cave.
The facilitator thanked the ceiling and asked me to become my grandmother. I was fully in the unconscious by this point and the words came easily. I reported that I was disoriented even though this was my house. It was as if I wasn’t even at home and, moreover, I didn’t even know where home was. Yet, even though the experience was unsettling, I wasn’t upset, scared, or angry. Everything was just strange.
As I was speaking as my grandmother, my neighbor’s cat became agitated. We were sitting on the ground in her living room and the cat decided to start rolling around in a bag next to me. I was told after the exercise that this behavior was usual and the whole group found the situation to be quite fascinating. The general feeling was that something or someone from the unconscious realm had joined our circle. Who knows.
Finally, I was asked to become myself in the dream. The words and the emotions were coming easily. I was upset that all the changes I had made to the house weren’t receiving an enthusiastic response. I liked the new space. Yes, it was a bit dark and had a cavernous new ceiling but I was happy to be there. It felt like an improvement and, honestly, I didn’t need anyone else’s approval.
The facilitator then asked my neighbor, who was still busy with her frantic cat, to sit next to me and assume the role of my grandmother. My neighbor took my hand and the facilitator asked me to speak to my grandmother. I was still in the unconscious and speaking from that altered place.
I felt her hand and smiled because I didn’t know why it was my grandmother in this dream with me. With a hint of my rational mind, I acknowledged that the house was a symbol of the transformations taking place in my life. But I felt like it should have been someone else in the dream with me.
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Then it dawned on me with a flood of emotion. My grandmother has always been a source of unconditional love. The infrastructure of our relationship is her incredible capacity for loving-kindness. Her presence was a manifestation of love from my unconscious designed to remind me that underneath all these changes there is love. It felt like a message that I was on the right track despite all the difficulty and emotions.
A couple of days after the workshop, I took the experience to my psychologist. What you need to remember, she said, is that all of these characters in the dream are different aspects of yourself. You are the wall, the ceiling, your grandmother, and you. The outpouring of emotion from speaking to your grandmother was actually you experiencing the ability to be loved. It was a form of self-love buried deep in your unconscious that you tapped into through the active imagination.
Woah. Throughout all this exploration in the past year, the idea of self-love or the ability to be loved hasn’t come up. Yet, this clicked. Since the birth of my son, my capacity for love has expanded exponentially. What I haven’t realized is that under the surface my ability to receive love has also been expanding. The ultimate expression is my ability to love myself.
There is much more to explore from an analytical perspective about the power of loving yourself and using active imagination to access the inner sanctums of your unconscious. This dream/active imagination experience also has a collective dimension to it. There was a current of unconditional or even universal love in my unconscious, which would fall neatly into a Jungian interpretation. However, I undeniably hit on my own ability to love myself, which would fall well within the Freudian analytical orbit.
Exploring this tension by blending the specific and the theoretical is what I am trying to build in this newsletter space. Going forward, I will provide practical advice on the basics of active imagination while also exploring the current debate about these ideas (book reviews are my preferred entry point).
I have opened this season with a lot about me, which can honestly feel extremely narcissistic. But I am humbled by the incredible responses to my last post. Thank you for sharing your stories and perspectives. While I will continue to lean on my own explorations in this space, I have a couple of more universal essays in the pipeline. I don’t want this space to be all about me.
I am going to put these Thursday posts behind a paywall starting next month; so if you can, please consider upgrading to a paid subscription. One perk that I’ll roll out in January is virtual dream workshops for subscribers. These will be more about the basics of dream work rather than facilitated workshops into specific dreams. We will see how they unfold and evolve. Thanks, as always, for reading. See you on Tuesday.