So much of modern dreamwork views dreams as a product of the personal unconscious – in other words, the theory is that somehow they come from inside us, from the workings of our own individual psyche. For this kind of dreamwork, there are all kinds of books on how to interpret dreams – even ‘dream dictionaries’, as if it ever could make sense to assume that what a snake means to you in a dream means exactly the same to me. Whereas, in fact, images work on us all in different ways, carry different associations, depending on who we are and how we have lived. Archetypal images, characters and themes aren’t fixed: they’re potentials. How those potentials are manifested in different cultures or individual lives can vary enormously.

Following on from the work of depth psychologist James Hillman, founder of Archetypal Psychology and a major influence on my decades-long training and practice as a psychologist, I view dreams a little differently. I see them, like the archetypes I wrote about in my last newsletter, as coming from outside us. Dreams, like myths and stories, have an independent existence. We don’t make them up; if we’re very lucky, they happen to us. The trick is to learn how to pay attention. How to respect the dream, court it, work with it, rather than try to bully it into becoming something it never intended to be – to overly define it, label it, confine it, deprive it of its own becoming by insisting that it be what we want it to be.

When we learn to see dreams as offering a pathway for the archetypal images and beings who inhabit the imaginal world to find a way into us, then we might also learn to treat them with more respect – as we would treat any other guide, or ally. Because, as James Hillman said: ‘Dreaming is the psyche itself doing its soul-work … our dream-work, yours and mine, is protective of those depths from which dreams arise, the ancestral, the mythical, the imaginal, and all the hiding invisibilities that govern our lives.’

I first began to really believe that dreams came from somewhere outside of us when, many years ago now, I was following a path of Sufi practice. I’d approached a leading Sufi teacher in the UK, and asked her if she would be my spiritual guide during my period of exploration. She agreed, and we arranged to speak by telephone one day. The night before our telephone call, I had a dream in which she and I were talking together, but suddenly she began to recede from me, and disappear into the distance. I called out to her – but the name I called out wasn’t hers.

The next day, I told my guide about my dream, and she gasped. The name by which I knew her – the only name by which I knew her – wasn’t her birth name at all, as I had imagined: it was her Sufi name – a name given to her by her own spiritual teacher. The name I had called out in my dream was her birth name. But that wasn’t all – I’d actually called out the French version of her birth name, and her mother, she told me, was French.

The relevance of that dream – a dream in which, abandoned now by my guide, I found myself in a vivid, green, glowing landscape – became clearer to me several months later, after I’d attended a silent meditation retreat held by this teacher. I described that experience in this way in my book The Enchanted Life:

[S]everal years ago … I signed up to attend a five-day silent meditation retreat. I did it because, for more than three decades, I’d been worried about the fact that I couldn’t meditate ‘properly’. My interest in meditation had begun around the age of sixteen, when I first heard about ‘transcendental meditation’, and imagined that it might help me very literally transcend the challenges of the difficult world around me. At the time, I was all for escapism. I was also fascinated by the idea of enlightenment (whatever that was), and enlightenment, from all that I had read, was always going to be found on ‘another plane’. The physical plane – this world – was just too hard and cruel. 

But the trouble was, at that time and through all the long years that followed, whatever form of meditation practice I tried, I just couldn’t ever make myself want to do it. In fact, mostly, I really hated it. So I never could form a meditation habit, and I’d always felt that was a failing. I imagined that this was partly because of lack of discipline (and it’s true – for this particular activity I had none), but partly also because I was probably ‘doing it wrong’. 

And so I set off from the late-spring, storm-strewn bleakness of the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides, where I was living at the time, and headed across the sea and down-country to the remarkable lushness of Herefordshire in May. I hadn’t seen trees for months, and I’d forgotten how green the rest of the world could be. Here, it was warm and sunny; I’d come from a land of rain and gales. I found myself in a lovely, slightly dilapidated old mansion in the middle of nowhere, with wild-fringed gardens overburdened with bird-song. It was heaven. All I wanted to do was sit outside and bask in it, let it all melt into me. Instead, it quickly became apparent that ‘outside’ wasn’t on the programme. And so, while the sun shone and the birds sang and the trees danced; while the owners’ dogs lay on their backs in the grass with their legs in the air and the sun on their bellies – I was going to have to sit for three full days in a dark, dank room with other people, all of us crammed into a tight circle, sitting still, closing our eyes, and meditating on various ideas and images that the facilitator would present to us for approximately eight hours each day. And into the bargain, this was a silent retreat. I wasn’t allowed to talk; I wasn’t even supposed to vocalise at all. Laughter was off the menu, for sure.

I lasted till the coffee break on the first morning before I began to feel panicky, as if I’d been incarcerated. I was used to spending long hours outside walking the dogs or working on our croft; I didn’t know how to do this intense insideness any more. Another hour, and I began to feel weepy. My back ached and my backside was numb from trying to sit still, and I was longing for light and air. A group of magpies were having a very loud conversation in the trees outside and I badly wanted to go and join in. But all of these things were the ‘distractions’ I was supposed to overcome in order to sit in this dark, crowded room and focus on the content of my own head while everyone around me focused in on the content of theirs. All of this, as a useful side-effect, was supposed to make us love each other (and the divinity which apparently lived within us) all the more. By lunchtime, I hated everyone in that room. 

Soon enough, my emotional pendulum swung again and hilarity (or possibly hysteria) set in, and by mid-afternoon I realised that I was going to have to flee. And so I did. I ran for what seemed like my life. Took off in the car like an escaped convict, heading north. I spent the night in another green valley in Wales, and sat on a hillside enjoying the warmth of the evening sun on my shoulders and the light breeze on my skin. I thought of nothing; I just let my body relax and merge into the sounds of the land and its many, mostly avian, non-human inhabitants. All of my senses were singing. And by the time I arrived back on Lewis late the next day, I discovered that I had cured myself forever of the odd notion that what I needed to find in order to attain ‘enlightenment’ was ever going to emerge out of the confines of my own skull, locked away from the vibrant, living world around me.

And that was the real beginning of the path I’m on now: the Earth-centred, ecological approach to myth and depth psychology which has formed the unique focus for my personal practice, teaching, and writing. I had to let my insistence on a meditation-based practice recede into the distance, along with my very lovely guide in my dream, before I could come to realise that the ‘answer’ was in the land – where I’d been, all along. This is one of the ways our soul-guides come to us, and teach us. This is why we need to learn how to tend our dreams.
* James Hillman, The Dream and the Underworld, p. 201-2.

Image by Andrea Kowch.