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Tending the World’s Dream: A Creative Practice for Critical Action

by: Teresa Michelle Nowak, PhD

The world today is faced with an ecological crisis that demands our critical action, and arguably a shift of consciousness to create meaningful change. At the front of the world’s ecological problems are rising temperatures which result in climbing sea levels and expanding deserts; vast ocean pollution, jeopardizing the totality of sea life; the destruction of the rainforests at epic extinction levels; as well as, the extraction of fossil fuels which threaten rivers and our clean water supply. Still, as we saw in recent political moves, there remains some disbelief in the reality of climate change itself, and resistance to act in response to the world’s suffering. At the core, there seems to be a fundamental dispute over the function of the planet as a source for consumption versus an extension of self.

What will it take for disbelievers to see oceans, trees, and rivers –all natural landscapes—as sentient and vital aspects of the world’s collective health? How we can create meaningful change by taking the planet’s animated perspective to approach ecological problems, and how can this help create action?

I propose one way of imagining into this query is through a creative practice to bring somatic awareness of the intelligent, ensouled world as an extension of our own bodies and psychic reality. This paper explores an enactment of a World’s Dream through a group dream tending experience where somatic intelligence awakened individuals to a collective experience of ecological consciousness through numinous encounter. I show how the personal soma-psyche connection acted as a bridge to an empathetic feeling state to the world’s soul, and I suggest such an experiential awareness helps to shift consciousness regarding our relationship with the planet, and inspires a form of archetypal activism.

Starting from the depth psychological viewpoint of the fundamental reality of the psyche as fluid, sophisticated, multifaceted, and relational, this paper illustrates how a depth psychological lens is a useful into the ecological crisis through its central belief of an ensouled world, what Carl Jung saw as our inherent relationship to the archetypes and the transpersonal psyche. It outlines how this lens impacts the attitude and approach to this inquiry, which I argue is the essential catalyst to psychological transformation. I show how an imaginal research methodology that Susan Rowland calls a “close reading of the text of dreams” is expanded through active imagination, and bridges the gap between the conscious and unconscious, allowing a force of transformation to emerge. In other words, this creative practice is an effective research methodology, which brings forth soul wisdom.

In Memories, Dreams, and Reflections, Jung described his experience of an ensouled, unified world, or unus mundus, as numinous encounter in nature, saying: “I am spread out over every landscape and inside things, and am myself in every tree, in the splashing of waves”. Jung experienced a form of participation mystique, or a mystical connection at a universal, primordial level of unconscious state, where object and subject are bound to one another in identity. I insist this imaginal way of knowing is pivotal to sway disbelievers to the reality of the ecological crisis.

Seen through the archetypal imagination of James Hillman, dreams carry multifaceted perceptions in the images as projections from what Corbin termed the mundus imaginalis, or the imaginal world, onto individuals. In this way, the anima mundi itself dreams and communicates to us in the underworld of consciousness. For Hillman “It is not what is said about the dream after the dream, but the experience of the dream after the dream.” The archetypal approach is to let the images speak for themselves, and let the mystique emerge.

At an Eranos lecture, archetypal psychologist Stephen Aizenstat emphasized this perspective, saying: “The world’s dream consists of images that do not come exclusively from within us.” What Aizenstat professes, is the entire world, its landscapes, creatures, and things, including people, dream, and in our psychic connection, The World’s dreams break through for our consideration to their cause. I confess from my own dream experience once this shift of consciousness occurs, a deeper bond to the world synthesizes.

Lending the Jungian and archetypal perspective to address how to propel consciousness toward restorative health of the planet is a subtle, qualitative style where “psyche speaks” as Russell Lockhart describes, participating with us in the problem solving.

In this way, psyche brings our attention to a deeper dimension of reality, to an Archetypal Imagination where James Hollis says “the numinous is autonomous and seeking us.” In other words, when we shift the perspective to the invisible reality, we encounter the depths of psyche –of soul—as it reaches out to us. It is my belief that by combining this psychological view with reverence for a sentient world, we have the potential to transform the consciousness of disbelievers.

Stephen Aizenstat takes the archetypal imagination a step further with his dream work tradition, extending to a broader ecological field of the world’s psyche where the “intersubjective imaginal field is sourced in the psyche of Nature.”

He says:

“Dream Tending listens to the 2 billion-year-old intelligence of the world’s dream. Perhaps, this ingenious knowledge, along with a new way of tending dreams becomes ever more urgent, given the challenges we face in today’s world.“

Aizenstat recognizes the urgency of tending to the word’s dreams, as it implicates the personal and collective human experience, saying, “The scope of the ecological crisis demands it.” As dreamers we are vessels for the world’s soul, embodying its plight and beauty as projected through dreams; we manifest images as extension of Nature’s psyche and matter, and tending the dream through embodied form stretches the relationship as a phenomenological extension of the collective body. This is an effective way into the imagination of the embodied practice where participants dream the dream forward in experiential somatic movement.

This form of research is a way to bear witness to images, listen to their longings, and situate their symbols as a spiraling soul path, where transcendence may be observed. Active imagination adds the dimension of engaging the dreams in embodied form, and as Susan Rowland tells us, it “becomes soulful magic, soul-fulfilling magic . . . . re-weaving into the body of the earth.” Said this way, active imagination lends a way into World Dreams in embodied form, and brings the ethereal back to the grounded nature of the body—it delivers a somatic depth of soul, so we might listen to what it is that the anima mundi might be asking of us, and how that relates to our own bodies.

Enacting the images from the depths of what Aizenstat calls a “World Dream”—where “dream images come on their own behalf, for their reasons, as part of Nature’s own dream of which we experience but a part” –is particularly powerful and may carry strong psychic reactions, and ethical considerations must tend to the emotional care and psychological exposure of participants.

The following is a personal dream image, which I shared in Aizenstat’s Dream Tending™ course during a session called The World’s Dream. The focus of this session was placed on the living presence of dream images and the development of a skill set to deepen into relationships with dream figures as a practice of eco-psychological activism. Of special consideration was the work in tending to world images, encountering archetypal shadows, and tending to the dream as a way of tending to the soul of the world by listening to the dream for guidance, cultivate the psyche, and animate the soul. It is confessed here through my own somatic experience, and is overlaid as a close reading of the group’s participation of the creative practice and their shared embodied experience:

From the perspective of the atmosphere, I hover above a flattened view of the world. Deep blues, greens, clouds, pulse with life. I notice a sparkling area that beckons me. I zoom down and see millions of tiny plastic squares churned together in a mass, choking the flow of water. I zoom away, and then in again to see a huge fleshy mound through the Amazon forest, like a bulging keloid scar. I zoom away, and then in to see an immense red and black plume throughout the Pacific Ocean. I zoom away, and then in again to see rusty veins running through North America. I zoom up again to see a mass confusion of color and energy over the Middle East. I zoom down closer over that region to search for people, animals, plants, or buildings. I see nothing but arid cracked ground that appears like crushed cremains of bones. I am struck with grief. I am greatly distressed to see no life forms on the entirety of the natural landscapes. I have a strong taste in my mouth of metal and I smell the smoke of fire. I feel these wounds in my body when I wake up—my chest hurts, I have difficulty breathing, and I writhe in pain.

From a Jungian perspective, this dream demonstrates archetypal images of the natural world, and the body, as seen in the wounded images, visceral responses, colors, emotional affect, and a global perspective of the world in its death and destruction. In this way, it represents an encounter of not only my own personal unconscious associations with body and underlying complexes, but also the shadow of the collective. I submit the alchemical motifs in the dream also situate it as a meaningful dream as an evolving collective psychological process.

Jung shows with his own examples in The Red Book that such dream encounters open a portal to the vast aspects of the collective unconscious, where there is an intelligent connection to inform consciousness. He says, “My deep interior is a volcano, that pushes out the fiery-molten mass of the informed and the undifferentiated. Thus my interior gives birth to the children of chaos, of the primordial mother.” For Jung, the body as vessel for dream and imagination gives birth to the riches from the primordial great mother—the world—as it sheds new insight. As we see, this World Dream clearly expresses the wounded body of the world as felt through its psyche-soma connection.

After retelling my dream, Aizenstat suggested this creative approach. The class grouped off by dream images—Plastic Island, Amazon Scar, Toxic Ocean, and Rusted Rivers, Crushed Bone Land. Each group was asked to embody the images as they felt me describe them, while I walked through the circle and encountered them.

Plastic Island swirled, churned, and shrieked. Amazon Scar twisting a beige scarf, moaned, and contorted in pain. Toxic Ocean kicked their legs and feet with anger, thrashing in chaos, and screamed.

Rusted Rivers stood still, as if paralyzed in fear. Crushed Bone Land laid flat on the floor, taking various shapes and mounds, hissing like wind, their faces looking upward, eyes searching wildly. I trembled and wept at the sight of agony in the faces of my dream friends as they held poses and enacted movements and sounds of World’s wounds.

Sensitive to everyone’s emotional disturbance, we were called to share our experiences. The feelings were deep and raw, and a heavy blanket of grief hung in the air. Each participant held the embodiment of wounds. Overwhelmingly, each dreamer expressed a strong somatic reaction ranging from pain, grief, the feeling of death, and also hope in a deep knowing of relationship with World. The collective feeling was one of generative release—a conversion of consciousness; awe and empathy for sufferings from World’s perspective; a sense of inspiration for action; and, gratitude to their own expressive bodies for capturing the moment.

This creative practice proved to be a numinous encounter, and brought a shared sense of community and connectivity to Nature, as experienced somatically in each individual. I contend when ego consciousness breaks open through embodied experience, a powerful sense of awe and deep insight to the connection of the unified world manifests as an essential catalyst for the transcendent function—the third thing—in the form of new consciousness. Transformation of consciousness implicitly depends on the soma-psyche relationship, and emphasis here is placed on being in a state of grounded awareness of body as an extension of matter. Using the body as the vessel for Earth, I say this imaginal approach is a significant offering for environment efforts as a way to listen closely to the soul of the world—to hear what it laments for its healing in its projected dream imagery.

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