Living soulfully requires that we learn to trust ourselves, recognize what we truly long for, recognize the trustworthiness of others (or lack of it) so we can sustain meaningful relationships and live creatively. If we have had parents or other adults in our lives who were fully present to us as children, we will have an easier time trusting our inner world. Often this is not the case and our feelings, desires, and creative impulses become ghosts that possess us: we do everything in our power to distance ourselves from them, while expending a great deal of energy attempting to win validation and approval from others. This is a form of soul-loss. To live soulfully, we have to remove conditioned obstacles to honesty, directness, simplicity and vulnerability: qualities we associate with the child. In the Natural Dreamwork framework, the energy of soul is carried by children (rather than adults): boy and girl rather than Animus and Anima. Reflect on your own dreams and those dreamers bring to you. See if this fits with your experience.
Our dreams reflect our soul-losses and, also show us the path of reclamation. Sometimes the depictions of our soul children are very painful: we would prefer to ignore them or explain them away. But we MUST pay attention: Our life depends on it. When we recover Soul, we find the song, develop hands and fingers that touch and create with sensitivity, alive to wonder beauty, pain and even horror. We learn, again, to love, and be loved with the innocence that we once knew, if only briefly.
Many times in dreams, a child is demanding attention we are not prepared to give. We view them as a nuisance, a creature to be ‘taken care of.’ As dreamers we try to manipulate or discipline them, make them over in a mold that fits a preconception of who we ‘should be.’ The boy and girl disrupt the efficiency of the adult persona, and we may find our dream children left in a corner crying, throwing tantrums, painting walls, pouring water on the floor or kicked out of the house.
The children in our dreams may be missing limbs, listless, talking heads, or turned to plastic. These deficits are not, in my opinion, a reflection of true deficits of the Soul, so much as a depiction of the state of our relationship to our soul children. As we attend to them, the connection to our soul-children heals, and there is a corresponding change in how they are depicted. Often children in our dreams become our teachers. They teach us how to breath underwater, comfort a dying animal, play an instrument, or just play in the dirt. They teach us how to go naked and rest in the embrace of another. Most importantly, they teach us about feelings we have struggled to disavow: our anger, our fear, our pain and often our joy.
In the beginning of dreamwork, it’s common for children to show up in the form of our biological children, though perhaps younger versions: typically, soul children show up as 4 to 7 year-olds, but they may show up as older children- sometimes of an age where something important happened to us.
As we remove the burden of our personal baggage from our biological children, our soul children start showing up in different guises, separable from our biological children, and we are more receptive to their messages. We even start to become like them in our dreams. We let go of adult proprieties, show up naked, vulnerable, loving, curious and daring.
I’d like to illustrate this process for you with the dreams of Elliot Byrd. I don’t want to suggest that these dreams are a template. In selecting just a few, I am making the choice to highlight a particular aspect of his process, namely the development of his relationship to the boy. I also don’t want to suggest that dreamwork is a ‘journey with a destination’. Instead, I believe it is an unending spiral with many cycles: however, sometimes we get the sense we have completed a cycle – and this is something to celebrate.
Boys and girls show up in the dreams of both men and women. At different times, we work more with one than the other. If boys and girls are a depiction of our soul’s energy, it is important to recognize that the way they are gendered in our dreams may reflect, in part, our cultural constructs of gender: the Soul holds aspects of both, and like Yin and Yang, the boy and the girl aren’t fully separable. In some dreams, dreamers work with both together; a boy may turn into a girl (or the other way around), a girl may show up with a scrotum, a boy with a vagina. These dreams help us recognize that dreams point toward an essence that goes beyond simple characterizations. Still, boys in dreams are frequently depicted in dreams about desire and action, girls in dreams of love and relationship. This could change as our culture changes: that is why the phenomenological approach of Natural Dreamwork is so valuable. We keep an open mind and an open heart and work with whatever arises.
In this dream series Elliot is working with the boy. At the end of the series, Elliot becomes the child, finds himself swinging on a zipline across the elementary school of his childhood, proclaiming his joy un-self-consciously to men in suits who walk down the hall. For him, this dream series was his final one; the last act in a life terminated abruptly by cancer. But series like these occur in dreamers of all ages, all stages of life. His experience is shared as a concentrated illustration of what happens for all of us, if we work with our dreams for any significant period of time.
Introducing Elliot Byrd* (*name and identifying details have been altered):
Elliot is in his early 60’s, married with a young adult son. He is a long time Buddhist meditator and works as program director at an educational NGO. He also has a history of depression. Elliot was referred by a hospital social worker following surgery for an incurable cancer.
On the one hand, Elliot wants support, a place to talk about ‘the hard questions’ (which he is afraid to ask in front of his wife for fear of upsetting her), on the other, he isn’t sure he wants to ‘dredge up all that old stuff’. He seems almost allergic to his feelings. In our initial session, I have the sense that he has difficulty reaching out for any kind of support: physical, spiritual, or emotional and that pain, fear and anger are festering under his mild demeanor.
He tells me he feels lonely. His life continues to revolve around work despite his illness. He either didn’t inform, or downplays his illness, works long hours, comes home exhausted unable to do much other than sleep. At work he is the wise authority, cheerful and unflappable, he supports his colleagues and stabilizes his department, but he does not consider his workmates his friends.
Elliot is ashamed of his illness and uses it as an excuse to isolate himself even more. While his illness has made physical intimacy difficult, it is the long hours at work, coupled with his inability to ask for help that seems to affect his relationship with his wife- whom he loves.
During the first months of our work together, I find myself asking him the same question repeatedly, “Is this how you want to spend your remaining time- however long it is?”
We worked together for close to a year and a half. During that time, he made many changes in his life, began to participate more fully in social activities, learned to express his needs, his fears, desires, and grew much closer to his wife Maria. I believe the dreamwork played a significant role in these changes, that the reawakening of his connection to the boy was an important aspect of his healing.
In our first or second session, Eliot brought this dream:
I can hear my son in the room next door playing guitar. I am relieved and happy he is playing.
Eliot hears music in the next room, assumes it is his son, but really it is the music of his soul beginning to be heard. In his younger years he loved to play guitar, and sing; something he almost never does anymore. Music brings up too much feeling. His desire for music has been transferred to his son, a classical guitar player, who carries this vocation in a very conflicted way. In session, we talk about the music that Elliot likes and play some of it from my iPhone. I invite him to start listening to music again.
A couple of sessions afterward, I ask him if he has followed up on my suggestion: He tells me he meant to begin listening to music again, but always seems to forget. A few months later, the boy in his dream sings a song of pain, but Elliot still doesn’t recognize the boy as himself.
I am with a crowd of Indian people. Young boys are standing around me. One is supposed to go up to the front of the crowd. He can’t find the belt for his pants and is upset about it. He starts to move up to the front and I throw him a black belt, but he doesn’t put it on. His mother picks him up. He starts singing a song while softly crying. His mother holds him.
When we are in the realm of the ‘Archetypal’, dreams sometimes depict images of people and places beyond our everyday experience, here the group is depicted as Indian. Interestingly, a month or so earlier, Elliot had dreamt of an estranged friend who had invited him on a trip to India. Uncomfortable with the intimacy of the invitation, Elliot backed away, and their connection was lost. So here he is, back in touch with what he had rejected. Elliot views the boy’s work as a performance and is uncomfortable that the boy isn’t ‘holding it all in,’ doesn’t have a belt on. From Elliot’s perspective in this dream, the sadness is about not having a belt, but when Elliot tries to give the boy a belt, the boy rejects it. It’s not why he is sad at all. This conditioned attitude and behavior: keep your pants on, keep everything hidden is one of the biggest obstacles Elliot faces in becoming more deeply connected to himself.
The soul-boy carries the awareness of a much deeper sadness and sings a song of great loss: Elliot has had many losses that he has not even begun to process. In session, we spend time with the boy singing in the lap of his mother, talk about how it would be for him to be the boy, with both the dream mother and his own. This is a stretch for him: his biological mother was physically present in his life but wasn’t comfortable with emotional expression. Elliot’s father was stoic, believed men shouldn’t show emotion at all.
Soon after, the following dream:
It is dusk and I am on a beach looking up the slope of a sand dune. I see a large boa constrictor going up the hill. I throw something and hit its tail. The snake appears very angry and starts racing back down the hill towards me.
This is a very important dream: pivotal. Until this point, Elliot has struggled to find the will to live. Even though it is dusk, ‘the close of the day’, there is still more living for him to do. The snake in this dream is HUGE. Elliot intuits, without having words to explain, that the snake’s life force is related to his own. As scary as it is, he doesn’t want the snake to leave. In session we reenact his throwing the rock at the snake. Elliot feels life flow through him, accompanied by both fear and awe of the snake. There is something very boy-like about throwing a rock at a huge snake. Elliot has let go of his caution and acted without over-thinking; an attribute of ‘the boy.’
When we first talk about this dream, Elliot wonders if it had been a mistake to rouse the snake, but after exploring the action of throwing the rock, he has no more reservations. Elliot relates this to experiences earlier in life as a hunter (something he admits to me reluctantly, fearing I will judge him). He has always respected the animals he hunts and eats what he kills. For him, hunting is not an act of overpowering nature, but of coming into presence with nature. Sharing his experience of hunting, being validated in this primal aspect of his being led to a palpable deepening of the connection between us.
After this dream, Elliot reported making more of an effort to get out, feels able to engage with others in deeper conversations, to enjoy his time with his wife, Maria and their friends.
A month later he has the following dream:
My son is an infant/toddler. He is at the end of a pool and falls in. The pool is empty- without water. I get my son from the bottom of the pool, and I am quite upset. Maria (wife) says he looks ok, doesn’t think he hurt himself. I agree but, I’m angry because she seems so cavalier about such a dangerous incident.
When Elliot and I first step into the dream, his primary feeling is anger at his wife, who he sees as dismissive of their son’s pain. This is an active theme in waking life: Elliot and Maria have different views on how to deal with their son’s struggles. But underneath this reactive anger is the pain of his own injury that he doesn’t want to feel. In the dream, Elliot’s wife is responding to their son in much the same way as Elliot responded to the pain/sadness of the Indian boy (keep your pants on). The wife here stands as an image of his own conditioning. Sometimes in dreams, a spouse or best friend will stand in for our own conditioning – learned attitudes and behaviors that keep us from moving closer to Soul. This is not a comment on Elliot’s wife, but a way of depicting behaviors and attitudes ‘close to home.’
The most significant feature of this dream is recognition of the state of the boy. Focusing on Elliot’s disputes with his wife would be a diversion from the most important aspect of the dream. Elliot’s perception that ‘the boy’ (recall that early on in dreamwork our soul children are often depicted as our biological children) seems ‘OK’ is not supported by the image of the boy in the dream. As we explore the image more deeply Elliot reports that the boy is, listless, barely moving, his eyes glazed: He is not ‘OK.’ This is tender territory: Elliot has a hard time staying with the pain of the boy’s (his) predicament. Working with this dream helps Elliot see that I, like the mother of the Indian boy in the previous dream can stay with him as he experiences the pain of his losses, that it is possible to experience these feelings, ‘survive’ and actually feel better afterwards.
At the beginning of our work, Elliot’s father often appeared in dreams. These dreams were fraught with tension and misunderstanding. Despite our work, neither Elliot’s attitude toward his father, nor the dreams changed. Perhaps, knowing what I know now, I would be able to make more headway, but at the time I was baffled and felt adrift working with Elliot’s consternation and dismissal of his father. Elliot’s unhealed relationship with his father was the most significant unfinished business Elliot took to his grave. It’s the area of our work I wish I had been able to work with more effectively. Elliot’s dreammaker finds a partial solution to this problem by transferring Elliot’s care from his father to his Uncle Sid:
I am with my father and Uncle Sid, a fisherman who lived on a cabin on the lake. There is a cypress boat with fish in the bottom. My father tells me to row my uncle across the water. My uncle sits in the front of the boat, and I paddle him across.
Elliot’s father ‘s ‘handing him off ‘to Uncle Sid is an act of love. He knows that Elliot is able to receive his uncle’s love and support more readily than his own. Elliot had adored Uncle Sid as a child: Uncle Sid was a fisherman and a huntsman, had a wonderful sense of humor, and a manly vitality. As an adult, Elliot had become wary of his uncle, viewing him as a redneck. Elliot was self-conscious about his working-class roots and Uncle Sid had shown his bigotry by reacting negatively to Elliot’s marriage to a Mexican woman. Despite these reservations, Elliot had no difficulty accessing the love and admiration he had felt for his uncle as a young boy. Elliot had a series of dreams with Uncle Sid, most set in rural Tennessee, where he spent time as a child. These dreams brought Elliot back to a time of wonder, a time when he was more in touch with his instincts, to a place burgeoning with life and sensual vitality.
As Eliot’s condition worsened his visits to my office became more sporadic. Still, when we did meet, he was more open, expressed greater satisfaction and joy, and described more meaningful interactions with his family and friends. On weekends he’d gather with friends at their favorite bakery café, the scene of an earlier dream where he witnessed a dog eating cake with gusto. Then he dreamed:
I enter the elementary school I attended as a child. There is a swing hanging from the ceiling. I get in the swing and start swinging around: the swing is on a zip line cable and I slide down the middle of the hallway. I see young men in business suits and ties coming towards me. I say, “no wonder kids want to come to school – this is so fun!” I zip on down. There is a security camera which can see what I am doing. I am having great fun.
Here we see Elliot reconnecting with and becoming the boy, swinging on a zipline, having a great time, without any self-consciousness: a dream unlike any Elliot had shared before. Together we felt the freedom and joy of it, no longer self-conscious about the men in suits, nor concerned that the security camera can see what I am doing! As he states in the dream I am having great fun! This is a first for Elliot.
In a dream one month later, Elliot is in bed with an old friend and lies naked with an infant girl resting on his chest. Even though Elliot is dying, a new cycle has begun for Elliot as he holds the infant: now his dreams bring him soul as the girl. Uncle Sid serves Elliot and Maria posole, dispelling any remaining shadows of the Uncle’s earlier rejection of him and his wife. Now Uncle Sid serves them Mexican food.
In the last dream Elliot ever shared, He is sitting in a beautiful park with everything sparkling. Uncle Sid and Uncle J appear and say, “We have come to take you home.” Elliot tells them, “I am not ready yet”.
Elliot and I talked about what he most wanted from his remaining time and then he stepped back into the dream and a told his uncles (again) “I am not ready yet.” Elliot was able to take his wife for one last trip to a cherished spot in the northern woods, before dying at home, the following week.
Ten days after Elliot’s death I dreamed:
A little green bird is with me. He is a beautiful shade of emerald. I am very fond of him. I see that he has twigs all tangled in his feathers, so I remove them (the twigs), trying to do so gently and slowly. When all the twigs are out he says to me, “I think I’ll go home now.” I am sad that he is leaving, anxious for his safety, pained that I won’t see him again. I say goodbye and he flies away.
I woke from the dream with a sense of wonder and love. This dream also brought clarity: this is how it felt for me working with Elliot. My work had been to tease out the twigs tangled in his feathers so that he could fly. In the process, we had become quite close, I was sad to see him leave, but held with me this image of his beauty as he took flight.
Keren Vishny originally trained as a physician, and practiced Internal Medicine for 10 years before retraining as a psychotherapist and NaturalDreamwork practitioner and teacher. Her exploration of her own dream has led to the re-emergence of her poet, in hibernation since age 14. She is affiliated with the CG Jung Center in Evanston, as well as the Marion Woodman Foundation.