For rest and shelter of the night,
For health and food,
For love and friends,
For everything Thy goodness sends.
and for its challenges
I seek to walk in balance between earth and sky
Let’s be candid: Jung’s Red Book is not for the faint-hearted. Yes, there are passages of incandescent beauty, perhaps beyond any other of his writings. There are also vertiginous falls into places of rank terror and screaming madness. In my own reading, there was a moment when I wanted to throw the book violently across the room – and may well have done so, except that the book is the size and weight of a tombstone, and I feared for breakages.
The moment when I was close to chucking the book came when Jung describes how he found himself compelled (by a woman he identified as his soul!) to eat part of the liver of a murdered girl. I was revulsed, almost gagging. And I forced myself to read on, to go every step with Jung on his frightful shamanic journey through the many cycles of the Netherworld.
Let’s be even more clear: Jung goes through hell. He converses with a Red Devil. He battles with a Bull God and shrinks him to the size of an egg he can fit in his pocket, then raises up the old horned god again. He howls to a dead moon and a dark sea about combining good and evil, but he doesn’t trust his own shouting.
He comes to a library that may be a place of sanctuary and reflection. When the librarian asks him to choose the book that he wants, to their mutual surprise he names The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis, a medieval favorite. He debates with the librarian what it would mean to imitate Christ today. He decides that since Christ imitated no one, this would mean going his own way, and paying the full price for creating that way that no one before him has mapped or trodden.
He finds himself in a kitchen attached to the library, conversing with a plump, matronly cook. There’s a great stir in the air and a host of the restless dead come flying through, yelling about going to Jerusalem. He demands why these dead are not at rest, and their leader tells him that he must explain that to them. He tells the dead that they can’t rest because of what they failed to do in their lives. The dead clutch at him, and he shouts, “Let go, daimon, you did not live your animal” – by which he means the instinctive, natural life of the senses.
The noise of this altercation is so loud the police come and carry him away to a madhouse where a little fat professor diagnoses “religious madness” after the briefest of interviews. “You see, my dear, nowadays the imitation of Christ leads to the madhouse.”
He is confined in a room between two other patients, one sunk in lethargy, the other with a fast-shrinking brain. He compares himself to Christ crucified between two thieves, one of whom will go up, the other down. His mind turns on the problem of dealing with the dead, which the kitchen scene taught him is vaster than he had known – “the dead who have fluttered through the air and lived like bats under our roofs from time immemorial.” This will require “hidden and strange work”, but it is not clear how he can do this from his confinement.
He listens to a voice praising madness, a voice he identifies as his soul. “Madness is a special form of the spirit and clings to all teachings and philosophies, but even more to daily life, since life itself is illogical.”
In the night, everything heaves in his room in black billows. The walls become terrible waves. He finds himself now in the smoking room of a great ocean liner, where the professor reappears in beautiful clothes and offers him a drink, while telling him he is utterly mad and must be committed. The torpid neighbor from his room reappears and announces he is Nietzsche, and also the Savior. Back in his locked room at the madhouse, he struggles with entangling webs of words and ideas. He cannot tell whether it is day or night when he hears a roaring wind and then sees a great wall of darkness advancing on him.
He opens his eyes and looks up into the jolly round face of the cook. “You’re a sound sleeper,” she tells him. “You’ve slept for more than an hour.” Jung thinks he is awake, but of course he is still in a dream, and far from his physical home.
Once again, we see the price Jung paid for his knowledge of the depths. He commented in his Epilogue to the Red Book, nearly half a century later, that he would certainly have gone mad “had I not been able to absorb the overpowering force of the original experiences.”
Some of the processes he developed in that heroic effort are ones that are suitable for all of us. He wrote his way through, by journaling and then writing up his journals. He sought and created images of balance and integration, which became a fascinating series of mandalas. And he developed the approach he called active imagination, by which – instead of rejecting the characters and contents of dream and fantasy – we work with them, carrying the drama forward towards healing and resolution. This is the shaman’s way, attuned to our modern language of understanding, but born in the depths of primal experience.
Illustration from Jung’s Red Book.
I don’t carry a handbag myself, but I have come to know a bit about women’s purses and pocketbooks, and especially how they feature in dreams. I have talked with hundreds of women about their dreams of handbags over the years. In leading dream theater in my workshops I have been struck by how often a pocketbook has proven to be a key element in the drama – lost or stolen, at risk, flaunted or misused or swung as a weapon.
The handbag in a dream may just be a handbag, one that needs to be checked or kept safe. Everyone knows someone who’s had a handbag nabbed by a mugger, sometimes after dreaming this exact event, while failing to recognize a quite literal warning. So if you tell me a dream in which your pocketbook is lost or stolen, my first step will be to encourage you to look for clues in the dream as to when and where this could happen, so you can avoid this situation in the future. We also know people who have rushed off to the airport without a passport or driver’s license. So if you tell me you dreamed something like that, my first advice to you will be to check that you have your travel documents before you leave home on your next trip.
Now let’s think about the symbolism of a pocketbook and what it contains. By my observation, a woman’s handbag can be as loaded as a VW bus, whimsically evoked by the handbag in the picture. Typically, a handbag may contain
– credit cards
– cell phone
– photos and memories
– trinkets and lucky charms
– treats and snacks
Did you notice any repetition? Good. Three times makes the point.
Each of the literal items I have listed (and you can add your own) is rich in symbolism. Together, they represent power and identity, things we don’t want to lose or have taken from us. One woman dreamed she was fighting off a giant panther with her pocketbook. That’s power! She held up her own side so well that in a later dream the panther reappeared as her friend, purring like a kitty.
Another woman dreamed she was at the office and kept leaving her pocketbook in a place where it was vulnerable. In the dream, she could not break this habit, even though she knew that a creepy man who might be a robber was prowling the halls and snooping around her things. When I invited her to compare the behavior of her dream self to that of her waking self, she was able to come up with an action plan that involved not giving up her power in her work situation. Another woman dreamed she had left her purse in church and needed to go back to retrieve it. She felt this reflected the fact that for part of her life, as a devout member of her congregation, she had given up her right to direct knowledge of the sacred, and was now reclaiming that.
A woman’s pocketbook can represent her sexuality. You don’t have to be a Freudian to see the possible sexual associations with the way it opens and closes. I remember wildly funny dream theater back in the (Bill) Clinton era in which we play-acted a dream in which Bill is trying to get into a woman’s purse. Eons ago, at a dream conference, I could not miss the sexual character of this type of dream while doing a dreamwork process with an attractive woman from Texas . In her dream, she is repeatedly and compulsively opening her purse and snapping it shut. As she recounted the dream, in front of 200 people, she could not stop herself vamping and gyrating.
Again, a bag can just be a bag. I had a recurring motif in dreams over a period of 18 months – that a little gray carry-on bag I always took with me on trips was lost or stolen. The context was different in each of these dreams, but the outcome was the same. The dreams prompted me not to carry my passport or valuables in that bag, which was a good thing, because 18 months after the first lost-bag dream, that gray carry-on was stolen from a car I rented in California. There was symbolism in the literal event that followed the dream. On the day it was stolen, that gray carry-on bag contained a working draft of a book I later decided not to publish. A dream can preview a literal event that is richly symbolic.
pink purse from trendymods.com
After a lifetime of exploring and sharing dreams, I have invented a fun way to share dreams, get some nonauthoritarian and nonintrusive feedback, and move toward creative action. I call this the Lightning Dreamwork Game. It’s like lightning in two senses — it’s very quick (you can do it in five minutes), and it focuses and brings through terrific energy. It’s a game you can play just about anywhere, with just about anyone – with the stranger in the line at the supermarket checkout, or with the intimate stranger who shares your bed. The rules are simple, and they open a safe space to share even the most sensitive material.
You can play this game with two or more people. We’ll call the principal players the Dreamer and the Partner.
There are four moves in the Lightning Dreamwork Game.
The Dreamer tells the dream as simply and clearly as possible, as a story. Just the facts of the dream, no background or autobiography. In telling a dream this way, the Dreamer claims the power of the story. The Partner should ask the Dreamer to give the dream report a title, like a story or a movie.
The Partner asks the Three Essential Questions. (1) How did you feel? (2) Reality check: What do you recognize from this dream in the rest of your life, and could any part of this dream be played out in the future? (3) What do you want to know about this now?
The Dreamer answers all three questions.
The Partner now shares whatever thoughts and associations the dream has triggered for him or her. The Partner begins by saying, “If it were my dream, I would think about such-and-such.” The etiquette is very important. By saying “if it were my dream,” we make it clear that we are not setting out to tell the Dreamer what his or her dream — or life — means. We are not posing as experts of any kind. The Partner is just sharing whatever strikes him or her about the dream, which may include personal memories, other dreams, or things that just pop up. (Those seemingly random pop-ups are often the best.)
Following the discussion, the Partner asks the Dreamer: What are you going to do now? What action will you take to honor this dream or work with its guidance? If the Dreamer is clueless about what action to take, the Partner will offer his or her own suggestions, which may range from calling the guy up or buying the pink shoes to doing historical or linguistic research to decode odd references. Or, the Dreamer may want to go back inside the dream (see below) to get more information or move beyond a fear. One thing we can do with any dream is to write a personal motto, like a bumper sticker or something that could go on a refrigerator magnet.
Lightning Dreamwork is suitable for almost any group environment. A company manager who had taken one of my trainings introduced her department to the Lightning Dreamwork Game. They found it so much fun — and so helpful in bringing through specific guidance — that the members of her office agreed to devote twenty minutes each morning to sharing dreams as a group. Instead of a diversion of time and energy, the game was highly energizing and the source of creative business solutions as well as personal healing.
Photo: Dream sharing at Mosswood Hollow (c) Robert Moss
Text adapted from The Three “Only” Things: Tapping the Power of Dreams, Coincidence and Imagination by Robert Moss. Published by New World Library.
Thanksgiving and affirming
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Jung's underworld journey
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Play the Lightning Dreamwork Game
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