After my last post about the six-step method I use to work with dreams, Amy wrote with a question, “The thing I struggle most with when helping others are steps 5 and 6. I can help people substitute meaning language in place of symbols, but it seems there is a kind of leap for many people when trying to apply this to everyday experience. Many people struggle to recognise the truth even when laid out before them. Do you have any advice here?”
This is something I’ve always struggled with too, so I’d like to illustrate with an example from my own life.
In my early years of dreamwork I had a few dreams about weak, sickly trees. In one, a sapling had been almost totally uprooted by strong winds. In another, I was checking on a weeping willow I’d planted next to the canal behind our house. The tree was standing in a watery swamp and the leaves were limp and brown. The ground was so muddy that the roots couldn’t take hold and my precious tree was about to topple over.
These dreams were very troubling. Was I like these trees? Maybe sick and about to die? A bit fearful of the answer, I pressed on with my usual dreamwork method. As always, the hardest parts were Steps 5 (creating an emotional bridge between dreams and waking life) and 6 (reflecting and acting on needed changes.) I just couldn’t understand how any of this applied to my thinking or living. I had no idea what I was “doing wrong,” let alone how to change it.
What did these dreams have to do with my emotions? Did the symbol of the weeping willow mean I was deeply sad? I had endured much sadness during my nine-year-long “dark night” experience, but that was behind me at the time of these dreams and I had no conscious awareness of being sad. I was doing regular dreamwork, writing my first book, and feeling on top of the world.
Another thing; willow branches are known for their flexibility, but what could be wrong with being flexible instead of rigid? So why was Dream Mother giving me these disturbing images?
I assumed the problem must be with the roots: my connection to the underground. I must need a sturdier standpoint and firmer grounding in the unconscious. But how did this relate to my waking life? Where/how/with whom did I need a stronger standpoint? What did that even mean? And how could I acquire a firmer grounding in the unconscious? What exactly about me needed to change? It was all so puzzling that I eventually gave up trying to understand, although I never forgot these dreams.
At the time, I had undergone so much growth that I thought I was surely becoming a mature oak! But now I smile at my naivety. I was a mere sapling struggling to survive in the early stages of a journey that would last a lifetime.
The tree represents the Self. In alchemy it was the central symbol of the opus, the great work of healing and transforming the psyche:
“…the tree may represent not only a place of awakening to new life, but also of suffering—mythic suspensions of sacrifice, ordeal, suicide, execution and reversal. A treasure guarded by snakes or dragons at the tree’s gnarled roots alluded to the difficulty of achieving the goal, the extraction of the self from the tangle of unconscious factors.” (Taschen, The Book of Symbols: Reflections on Archetypal Images, p. 130.)
Transforming oneself is no carefree romp in the park. It requires intense, on-going study of an inner development that follows laws the ego can neither fathom nor predict. Twenty-two years later, I can see the part of me that was then, and almost always has been, profoundly sad. And I see how I’ve acquired a far sturdier standpoint and firmer grounding in the unconscious. But I still struggle making the waking life connection with new dreams….partly because I’m still not always attentive to my feelings, and partly because a great deal of unexplored territory remains in the ocean of my unconscious.
It’s difficult to bring light to our unconscious selves, and our natural fear and inertia make this task intimidating. But it’s the Hero’s Journey and it’s the only thing that will ultimately satisfy a soul hungry for maturity and meaning. So here’s my advice:
Be patient with the questions. You will receive answers when you’re ready for them. Keep on keeping on with your chosen practice (or perhaps add a new one), gaining tiny insights step by step until they start paying off big. With commitment and perseverance, this will happen…maybe not until after midlife, but I assure you, the wait is worth it!!
Note: Special thanks to Amy Campion for inspiring this post, and to Susan Scott for another delightful synchronicity: She recommended Taschen’s, The Book of Symbols to me after reading last week’s post, but only today when writing this post did I realize it was the same book my daughter gave me for Christmas!!
Image credit: Alchemy’s Philosophical Tree; engraving, ca. 1470 C.E. There’s more to see at the top of the tree, but I couldn’t fit it into the photo I took from Taschen’s, The Book of Symbols. And I like it this way.