Elephant in the Cave


Inner work is any practice that helps make the unconscious conscious; for example, dreamwork, art, journaling, psychotherapy, meditation, prayer, yoga, body work, active imagination, ritual, and so on. But the ego’s fear of seeing beneath the surface makes most of us naturally resistant to this kind of work. The ninth dream I ever recorded addressed this issue:
It is night and very dark. I try to lock an elephant in a cave, but when I push on the door to close it, it breaks. I run for help because I am afraid the elephant will get out and do some damage.
This dream is short, sweet, and very much to the point. What could be more frightening to a tiny ego than a massive elephant on a rampage? Who wouldn’t try to lock it in or run away?
In religious practices and literature, the elephant often symbolizes power, wisdom, and happiness. As a mount for Asian royalty, it represents sovereignty. And as an instinctual creature with advanced sensitivity, it symbolizes inner knowing and intuition. Since animals in dreams usually represent our instincts, (Jung said we have five: activity, nourishment, reflection, sex, and creativity), to me the elephant suggested my instinct for reflection because reflecting on our inner lives can activate these positive qualities.
What about the other two symbols in this dream? A cave is associated with birth (the Eastern church depicts Christ’s birth in a cave), the maternal womb, and sacred initiation rites. Like the unconscious, caves are dark places containing hidden potential and spiritual treasures. A door represents a psychic force which, when closed, keeps us from knowing what lies behind it. But when it is broken or open, we can travel between the outer, conscious world of logic, reason, and objective fact, and the mysterious inner world of repressed emotion, intuitive wisdom, and personal meaning.
While this dream helped me recognize my resistance to reflecting (elephant) on my personal unconscious (cave) because my ego was afraid of opening (door) to the unknown, it held much more meaning for me than I was capable of understanding then. At the time I thought the unknowns I feared were change and some hidden unworthy qualities I didn’t want to see, but after over twenty years of inner work, I have rooted out the deeper, archetypal source of my fear.
All three symbols in this dream are related to spirituality. Western and Middle Eastern religions traditionally associate spirit with the distant masculine Sky God with whom they connect via mental abstractions: correct words, clear ideas, strong beliefs, and noble ideals. This approach has long devalued the spiritual significance of the soul which is associated with femininity: physical matter, the body, emotion, instinct, feeling, inner knowing, intuition.
Of what was I so afraid? To what has my religion had such stern resistance for the past 5,000 years? Simply this: The feminine aspect of the Mystery we call God. The Mystery incarnate in matter. The sovereignty, spiritual authority, power and wisdom of our own infinitely beautiful and loveable bodies and souls. The energies of Sophia, Goddess of Wisdom: the sacred spark that indwells us and all creation. Poor little ego.  So terrified of life!

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0 Responses

  1. I would have to know you better to even guess at what your dream symbols mean. In my own dreams I often notice some element from the recent conscoius world. I have so many dreams that I’ve given up on journeling entirely. but still watch for dreams with repeated elements. Now that I’m conscious of my contrasexual self my dreams on this topic have greatly reduced.
    Last night it was a river and when I climbed the hill for a better view I saw a large isoceles decorative triangle made of white stones on the far side. From my vantage point I could see the remains of a cookout (mostly beans) and some pans with holes melted in their sides.

  2. Hi James,
    I couldn’t agree more. I’ve just been working on an upcoming blog about how we are the only ones who can really know what our dream symbols mean. Other people can guess and make suggestions according to what the symbols would mean to them, but the dreamer is the final authority because the dream is about his/her inner life and who else can know that?
    I think your observation about giving up on dream journaling is significant and may have something to do with the accumulation of self-knowledge. You’re not the first person I’ve heard that from. In my case, the more I learn about myself, the less compelled I feel to record my dreams. 22 years ago I was obsessive about writing down every snippet, but In the last few years I’ve only averaged a few a month and am completely comfortable with that.
    Rivers, hills, triangles, white stones, beans, holey pans! Holy cow! What a wealth of images! And seemingly unrelated!! Of course, only to an outsider. Your soul knows the trails of associations that make the connections.
    Thank you for your comments. I’m enjoying these discussions so much.

  3. I was going back to some of your earlier pieces, because I was yearning for something that explains “what’s it all about” for archetype and Jungian psychology generally. Several of your earlier pieces address my quest, and so far this one does it best of all. Now I just mourn the fact that this wisdom is buried back at “April 2010” in the archives. What to do? I’m thinking about it …

    1. Thank you, Skip. From my current vantage point (Jan. 2012) I agree that my earliest posts are more focused on clarifying the core issues that are of most importance to me, whereas the later ones tend to be variations on these themes. I’m thinking about compiling most or all my posts into a book at some point, but don’t know yet if I’d publish them in the same order as written. I’m wondering if an underlying organization of basic themes surrounded by satellite posts will reveal itself in time. Another thought is to resurrect and repost one of the earlier ones from time to time. We’ll see. I do appreciate your checking out these early ones, as they contain some of my best writing and most passionate ideas.

      1. Looking at this again, I guess the burning questions is Why? Why is it important to society for humanity to get these unconscious contents dredged up? If people understood why they should do it, then it seems there would be more seekers–i.e. not just those attracted to Jung, Campbell, or a therapist for answers.
        I know when I was painting a lot, things seemed to go better in my business life. When I didn’t paint for a month, things got stuck. Perhaps opening the door to my creative core helped … But I’d like to know your thoughts on the question Why? Here’s sort of the question: Why should the mainstream media highlight a story about connecting with the subconscious every night on the evening news?

        1. Why is it important to society for humanity to get these unconscious contents dredged up? This really is the question, isn’t it? For me the answer is simple: because it improves the quality of our lives and the way we treat others.
          Getting to know and accept my whole self has transformed the way I experience myself and my life. This change is on the inside so I can’t prove anything to anyone. But in there the climate has dramatically improved. It feels like the difference between hiding from a raging tornado all by myself in a dark cellar beneath a flimsy frame house and riding my beloved horse bareback beside a gurgling creek in a sun-dappled forest on a cool spring day, knowing that I’ll return to a home filled with love. (Oh, and my dog is running along beside us!) I simply like, enjoy, appreciate, and am grateful for myself, my work, my loved ones, my friends, my surroundings, and the miracle of my life a whole lot more. Not all the time by any means! But a whole lot more! And this makes me feel and behave with more compassion.
          Why would the mainstream media highlight a story like this on the evening news? Well, they wouldn’t unless they really cared about furthering love, understanding, and peace on earth. But if they did, I believe things would change more quickly, because, in the words of Jiddu Krishnamurti “To transform the world we must begin with ourselves.”
          These are wonderful questions, Skip, and in asking them you’ve inspired a new post. I’ll be including the above words in it and it will come out this Friday morning, Feb. 10, 2012.
          Thank you, Jeanie

  4. … thanks for suggesting this place Jean … on Sunday past I had a connect with a few unforgettable words whose form and intent seemed to hold such permanence of meaning … until that moment … ‘Thou are Peter and upon this rock’ … . The largest animal with amazing relationship awareness … imprisoned … ‘Peter’ … desperate to escape from shadow, from the constraints of the rock – a cave where naught can be built. ‘Thou’ – James, Skip, you, me, us, everyone – Peter as the imprisoned metaphor – you did suggest the simplicity of the dream … now my cradle religiosity is fearful … Blessings to you …

    1. This is a tough awareness, Andi. Much tougher for some souls than others. As an INFJ deeply steeped in cradle religiosity I found it devastating. I longed to be free, yet found the suggestion that I was imprisoned impossible. Leaving…staying, not believing…believing, both alternatives were intolerable. The solution arrived gradually, after years of consciously tolerating the tension between the opposites and stirring the pot without letting it boil over.
      My inner contents shifted until they created a new center whose base was not believing objective theories but experiencing subjective realities. From this new place I found myself capable of embracing and transcending all polarities instead of dividing them into dualistic, mutually exclusive categories. The dream was simple, but healing the sacred divide in my soul has been a challenging journey full of complexity and paradox. It still is, but from where I stand now, the door is wide open, the horizon is unlimited and the elephant is free.
      Blessings, my brother

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