The night before the massacre in Newtown, Connecticut, I dreamed that someone calmly walked up behind me and began shooting me with a semiautomatic rifle. As the bullets went through my back, I contemplated what was happening. I thought about how my body was being torn apart by the dozens of bullets passing through my torso. I wondered about dying. And, a moment before waking up, I considered (and hoped) that I might be dreaming.
Perhaps it’s common that on the heels of an emotional week, one’s routine gets altered a bit. I’ve started, stopped, and tried again, but it seems I just cannot bring myself to work on a dream interpretation this week in the same old way. Is it because I am too affected by the shootings? Maybe, but I’ve gone about all of the other tasks in my life more or less as normal. I do feel a certain level of exhaustion and some sadness that I can’t name though. I’m aware that there is something else going on beneath the surface. New emotional layers have been touched and engaged.
I had to inquire: what is the unconscious asking of me right now? Why is my creative space blocked to the point that I cannot write? In all areas, I realize, things need to shift a little, and get real. I can’t be phony or robotic, continuing on with the same old routine and not expect to feel inauthentic. In my writings here, I realized, there’s something else to be said, a new space to be explored. In the dreams I choose to write on each week, there is an absence. What am I not saying here? Without context, it may falsely appear that what we explore is the totality of how dreams and the unconscious are explored. But there are things not written about, things not said.
There is so much in dreams that often feels too dark or too serious to engage in this format. Too sexual or too strange. Too chaotic or too violent. I am not writing, for instance, on the dreams I occasionally receive that seem to convey hidden trauma. I don’t want to engage those dreams that appear to have something nestled within the imagery that should only be stirred delicately and in a safer space. I dare not unravel such dreams here. I do not want to expose too starkly memories that someone’s psyche has spent years attempting to forget.
Some dreams, if the interpretation is listened to, require a complete reorientation of behavior, perhaps the canceling of plans, or the trust to jump into the complete unknown. Sometimes, dreams are seemingly prophetic, mirroring instincts around danger that our conscious minds are likely to dismiss. In the same way, they can also state things exactly as they are, picking-up on what the conscious mind has missed. Without careful attention to a very literal interpretation of some dreams, a symbolic exploration is misleading. As with danger, dreams can sometimes reflect our awareness of ruptures in relationships, betrayal and lies, when a person’s consciousness is being duped. Without a therapeutic environment or very careful exploration, it is hard for us to know when those dreams appear here.
Dreams are not always concise enough to present in a single paragraph, nor explore in four or five. A single dream is often only one installment in a series of hundreds: a single page in a volume on one relationship, one memory, or one hope. Before things come into consciousness, we may chew on them for years. Seen in that context, one dream may show only an evolution of an image or a part of a person, reflecting transformation over time. Without those other dreams, we cannot know what we are missing. We cannot benefit from what those other dreams would illuminate. We cannot watch, inspired, as a person evolves.
In this format of dream exploration, we also cannot easily see how different people may dream the same incredible, poetic, nearly identical image. The same yellow bird arriving at that same juncture in emotional growth. Or the solitary snake showing up to mark a return to an instinctual, embodied awareness. I cannot easily share with you here what I experience as a therapist, witnessing people speak on images I know well from my own dreams, or reporting an inner experience that perfectly mirrors material I’ve studied for years. It is not easy here to stand in awe before the mystery of what is hidden inside of us and shared between us.
Finally, I do not write here about dreams that leave me utterly bewildered. I do not share with you those dreams that I cannot even begin to crack. What is absent here, therefore, is an ocean of dreaming in which I am out of my depth. In relationship to the unconscious, almost everything is beyond our ability to grasp, even after years of learning its language. It is this extraordinary complexity of dreams and the vastness of the unconscious that keeps me intrigued, endlessly. It is this intrigue that I hope to share with you here.
Happy holidays to all of you, and thanks for reading! It is solstice today, a time for renewal that we don’t always remember to honor. Take care of yourselves and of each other as we move into 2013. It will be a great year.
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Satya is a psychotherapist in private practice in Portland, Oregon specializing in dream work, the quarter-life crisis, and work with individuals in their late teens, 20s, and 30s. For more information about therapy services in Portland, visit www.QuarterLifeCounselor.com
Q: In my dream, I am walking through a concrete landscape holding hands with Chris Harrison, the host of The Bachelorette, as if he’s a father figure. He leads me to a warehouse space where a lot of men work. When I walk in, I see a big fish in a tank in the center of the room. One of the men is reminded to change the water in the tank when I look at it. When he does, I see that the fish has turned into a robust mermaid, almost filling the whole tank. She’s still fishy, but her top half is definitely more human. She revels in the change of water and the movement it causes, and then settles back down, blissfully content.
A: Fabulous! I love how pop culture and archetypal imagery interact in this short dream. When we began exploring your dream together, you told me you had no idea what it meant, nor could you imagine where the dream’s characters had come from. You couldn’t remember any recent references to mermaids or The Bachelorette in your daily life. So where does that leave us? We begin our exploration of the dream with the shared assumption that it is not just a nonsensical collection of faded memories or forgotten thoughts. There must be more going on here.
In digging into the meaning of this dream, let’s begin with the fish! When fish or sea creatures arrive in dreams, we’re often seeing something coming out of the depths of the emotional, watery unconscious. This fish, appearing front and center in your dream, represents some feeling-based part of you that is not yet entirely familiar, but which seeks your attention. The fish’s transformation is critical. Like the alchemy of making gold from stone, something very valuable is emerging from something seemingly less valuable.
So what’s emerging? As in a good fairy tale, the plot and direction of a dream can often be seen by what is absent at the outset. What’s missing in your dream, at least at first, are female characters. You are the only female in a dreamscape of men. As the dream progresses, however, we see a rebalancing of things when the mermaid, a partial human woman, begins to emerge. I suspect that some aspect of your femininity is beginning to develop more fully…
The appearance of Chris Harrison gave us a good clue that this dream is also reflecting issues related to relationships and dating. As the host of The Bachelorette, Chris Harrison is a guide to love and romance. So let’s talk about your dating life… You shared with me that you have, in fact, started seeing someone recently who you’re pretty excited about. Congrats! When we start new relationships, old feelings, fears, and fantasies that we haven’t seen for a while can come to the surface, like fish from deep waters. (!) This dream is likely exploring some bit of inner transformation that this new relationship has evoked. When we dream, our life experiences get mulled over and integrated into our consciousness. Our conscious minds may well be offline when we sleep, but our brains are still digesting things, just as our stomachs do with food long after we’ve forgotten a meal. You’re chewing on something big, it seems…
I was heartened to hear that your associations to Chris Harrison were positive. You commented that his role on The Bachelorette is to support the woman looking for love — “he’s on her side,” you told me. Good. If your associations had been negative, we might have been looking at a different interpretation. Just as he does on the show, he’s acting as a guide in your dream. It is he who holds your hand and brings you into the building where you meet your mermaid, an important, evolving part of you.
Okay, so how does all of this come together? And what about the mermaid?? After all, that was the part of the dream that most thrilled you and piqued your curiosity.
Mermaids have appeared (however fleetingly) throughout the history of human storytelling, across cultures and centuries. There are seemingly endless mythological references, from Irish fairy tales to Greek legend. And in nearly all these myths, from the Sirens to the Merrow, mermaids are represented as sensual feminine figures, associated with their relationships to human men, sometimes in ways that bewitch and cause danger, and other times expressing loyalty, love, and devotion. These myths are an important part of what Jung called the collective unconscious, and they hint at the role of this fish-lady in your psyche.
For you (as you mentioned to me), the strongest association to mermaids is of having watched the Disney version of The Little Mermaid as a girl. The Little Mermaid, of course, is about a young mermaid, Ariel, and her desire to become fully human so she can be with the human she loves. Given the father-figure relationship depicted in your dream, I asked you about your thoughts on the father-daughter relationship in the Little Mermaid. Your associations were that her father is well-meaning in his love for her, but he’s also blinded by it. “He can’t see what she truly wants and needs,” you told me, “and she doesn’t want to disobey him to get it.” When you reported this, it was evident that it had struck a chord for you. The same dynamic applies to your inner mermaid. This feminine, sensual, romantic aspect of yourself is well-enough taken care of, but she’s also quickly outgrowing the space in which she’s held. In your description, the men seem to care for her, but she’s not free to roam. She must express to the men around her what she truly needs to thrive. Let’s not forget too that, initially, the price Ariel had to pay to join her prince was the loss of her voice. Don’t make that your price in seeking love. For this part of you to become fully human, to come out of the unconscious and into consciousness, you’ll need to make sure her voice is her own, and that the men around her hear with their heart what she’s saying. When Ariel learned to declare what she needed, for her, her father was able to see that her joy was paramount and lovingly set her free. She joined her prince, with new legs and her voice restored.
A deep part of your feminine being is evolving. Something to do with your new relationship seems to have awakened a confidence in your sensual and romantic self. When I mentioned this, you nodded yes. You know what’s going on. You’re learning, little by little, to express your needs and wishes more fully. You can feel yourself discarding old layers of the conventional expectations of womanhood for a way of life that feels more authentic, more you.
As in the ritual of baptism, the immersion in water represents a rebirth into a higher state of being. You’re cleaning some old stuff, it seems — inner detritus and pollution — out of yourself, and purified waters are flowing in. In the new waters, this new oxygen and life, your mermaid revels in bliss. This dream portends deep changes for a subtle, embodied, authentic feminine. For this new element of you to become fully human, fully integrated into your conscious life, she’ll need to validate herself and her emotions more completely. As your dream seems to be telling you, no roaring or shouting is necessary to give her what she needs, just a quiet, confident way of being.
Have you had a dream like this? Leave a comment and share!
Satya is a psychotherapist in private practice in Portland, Oregon specializing in dream work, the quarter-life crisis, and work with individuals in their 20s and 30s. www.QuarterLifeCounselor.com