Tami Simon: You’re listening to Insights at the Edge. Today my guest is Dr. Stephen Aizenstat. Steve Aizenstat is the founding president of Pacifica Graduate Institute and a practicing clinical psychologist. He has explored the power of dreams through depth psychology and his own research for more than 35 years, which centers on a psychodynamic process of “tending the living image,” particularly in the context of dreamwork. With Sounds True, Stephen has created an audio program called DreamTending: Techniques for Uncovering the Hidden Intelligence of Your Dreams, where he invites the listener to tap the “world unconscious,” the living, dreaming mind of the universe itself. In this episode of Insights at the Edge, Steve and I spoke about the concept that dreams are “alive” and not just conceived from our personal unconscious. We talked about how a dream image could have a relationship with us, just like we have a relationship with a dream image. We also talked about to work with an image through dream tending, and what it might mean that the body is always dreaming. And finally, we talked about the contribution of dream tending on the field of dream interpretation. Here’s my conversation with Dr. Stephen Aizenstat.
Steve, you’ve developed this very interesting approach to working with dreams, and I have to say it’s unlike any other approach to dream interpretation I’ve ever experienced. And so, I want to begin just by really getting an understanding of your approach, which you call “dream tending,” and this core idea that you teach, which is in dream tending, we consider our dreams as if they are ALIVE! Our dreams are alive! The dream figures are alive. What do you mean by that, our dreams and our dream figures are alive?
Stephen Aizenstat: Well that’s exactly so. It’s as if, Tami, when you’re actually experiencing the dream, as the dream is taking place, [the dream isn’t] written down in the narrative, nor is it part of a dream journal. There’s actual figures that are interacting with one another. They have body, they have presence. They have a sense of their own autonomy and independence and have an actual living quality to them. So when I’m working with dreams, or I’m tending to a dream, I allow their living presence to be in the room along with me, and the dreamer. So when I say dreams are alive, I’m imagining from the beginning that that’s just so—that the imagination is active, alive, and actually has a presence. Even though, of course, it’s an invisible presence, there’s still a sense of those figures still having an influence and an impact on each of us in terms of our behavior, in terms of our health, in terms of our pre-disposition, in terms of our relationship with one another, and so on.
TS: Now, I want to be clear here if I understand something: this is not just an interpretive technique. You actually believe that the dream figures—for example, if I dream of a coyote—that this isn’t just a product of my unconscious, the coyote might mean this or that, but this image is a living force in some way.
SA: That’s exactly right and I actually have that conviction that when Coyote comes into a dream—just notice how I did that, instead of the coyote, which then leads to an interpretation, anything from a trickster image or something of a coyote like an animal on the prowl, which might be related to a family origin figure or a boss or a friend or something along those lines, I actually experience the coyote as a living force, an entity that’s now in the dream time, that is in the room along with the two of us. So it has its own emotional valence, and its own actual, living presence. Yes.
TS: Now I can imagine a lot of people at this point just going, “Excuse me? Wait a second. A dream is something that’s produced from the unconscious. Yes, there’s a story, images, but they don’t exist separately on their own as living beings, separate from the dreamer’s unconscious process.”
SA: Well that’s true. And actually, I think that all dreams that come through us, implicate us in some way. So there is clearly a relationship to my family of origin experience, circumstances of the day, from the archetypal, which means the kind of the patterns the human experience moves through in one way or the next. So I do have the sense that that is the case, that we are implicated in a particular way.
At the same time, I think that that image have a living actuality on behalf of themselves. So I do believe that they do visit and impact our lives. In fact, the questions that I lead with from the beginning are questions that go more towards, “Who is visiting now? And what’s happening? What’s the actual activity? What’s going on in the dream?” Versus the two other questions that are interpretive, which are, “What does this mean and why is this happening?” And that’s what we’re mostly trained into, are those two questions. And yes, they’re valuable, it’s just that I start from the other direction. First the image, and then the explanation.
TS: OK now, I’m going to keep gnawing on this issue for a little bit, because I think once one really understands, at least in my experience, what you mean by dream tending, it’s like the whole world sort of shifts. And here’s what I mean by that. I would like to understand, from the theory of dream tending, what you think is going on in the world, altogether with. I’m serious, Steve!
SA: I hear you. I hear how serious you are. And I think it’s incredibly serious. I do, on many levels. You know, I once was a public school teacher. I’m a therapist. I’m a university professor and a chancellor of this institution. So I’m a pragmatist. I really care about the actuality of people’s lives, and how they are in relation to one another, and how a business works, and all those kinds of things. So it is serious. So what I mean by that is that I start from the place where I experience the imagination has an actuality, is real.
For example, when you watch children, and they’re engaged in children’s play, right? And you can imagine the imaginary friends that they have. I just don’t think that’s wrong or pathological. I actually think they are interacting with the invisibles that are part of their imagination. Then, of course, you go into public education or you go into a private school and you begin to get that trained out of you. And we do that because we subscribe so keenly to the philosophy of science trying to make meaning out of everything so quickly, and as a result, we take the inspiration or the figures that really mentor us or muse our most creative thinking. They seem to go away.
In dream tending, we do just the opposite. We start with the actuality that the imagination is still alive and active and has a kind of intelligence of its own. So if we can hear the figures speak on behalf of themselves, we then can listen to and develop a relationship with that kind of intelligence, that kind of presentation that the psyche offers us.
TS: OK, let’s see if we can break this down a little bit. Our imagination is real. I’m now imagining somebody listening to this and saying, “Look, a little kid, they’re talking to an imaginary playmate, there’s nothing pathological about that. It might be very healthy, but that doesn’t mean that the imaginary playmate is ’real.’ It just means that they’re talking to themselves in a harmless way.”
SA: [Laughs]Yes, exactly. But one can extrapolate, right? Let’s imagine an engineer who’s designing a bridge, for example. Or a person that’s a scientist, who is thinking about the next evolution of what’s possible. Certainly they’re trained in their skills in deductive reasoning; they’re trained in the craft of their profession, of course. At the same time, there’s something that comes in that’s innovative and creative and goes beyond the ordinary. And it’s that which comes in that pushes the envelope, that’s beyond the ordinary, that I think originates in the imagination. And it’s from that point of view that I think the imagination is real.
So another way of understanding this in very practical, simple terms—because I think it ought not [to] be metaphysical, or complicated, or esoteric. In very practical terms: we are inspired. Or there is something that muses us—often when we’re with another person, or a project, or when we’re figuring out a mathematical equation for that matter—there’s something that comes in that uses or sparks our intuition, our intelligence. From my point of view, it’s that something that comes in which has that quality of an imaginable figure. So all the great stories that talk about that: the muse that is alive and active, that kind of pushes our experience and somehow evokes us into something out of the ordinary something other than what we might do if we follow the straight and narrow path.
TS: OK, but let’s say right in this moment—and I’m asking these questions because I really want to understand your theory of dream tending—in this moment, I imagine a rainbow right here in the room. Let’s say that I dreamt about a rainbow last night. Do either one of those things make the rainbow alive and real, or aren’t I just imagining it or dreaming it?
SA: Well, there’s a bit of a difference. When the rainbow comes in the dream, right, one wonders who’s dreaming the rainbow? Is it me, Steve? Or Tami, that’s dreaming the rainbow? Or has Rainbow come into the dream, from the deeper source of the imagination?
From my point of view, there’s something else at work in our lives. When our eyes close, something else comes awake. And the question is, what comes awake? In this instance, Rainbow comes into our experience. So we can look at Rainbow and say, “Yes, you know, that has a quality of the rainbow serpent.” I mean there’s hundreds of explanations of Rainbow. Or, “That’s the transition from one place to the next,” or the rainbow represents something important, significant, and represents something of abundance in our life—you know, the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. And we can make all those kinds of interpretations, which is our tendency.
On the other hand, from the point of view of dream tending, when rainbow comes into a dream, I’m curious as to the actuality of that particular rainbow. How is that rainbow different than any other rainbow that I’ve experienced? I invite the rainbow as a living image into the room, and I allow the rainbow to tell me what it’s about, rather than me talking to Rainbow and imagining that I know what its significance is. So you see the difference?
TS: Well, I understand the difference in the approach and how fruitful it can be. I think I’m still befuddled at what it means that the rainbow is “alive.”
SA: Well, the rainbow—first, I love these questions—the rainbow is alive in the sense that it’s not fixed. Once a rainbow is fixed—in other words, once I say, “A rainbow appeared in my dream, and now rainbow means this,” and then I start to relate it to a transition in my life, which may be true. I may relate it to something of wealth, which may be true. I may relate it to something of multidimensional colors, and something new and interesting, and a threshold that I’m moving to, and that may be true also. But as soon as I do that, as soon as I make that move, you’ll see that I’m in my mind and I’ve already made that interpretation. And there goes Rainbow, right? There’s no longer a rainbow—only what’s left is the explanation of the rainbow. On the other hand, if I can keep the rainbow alive, and active—it’s not that I dismiss all those other explanations, I mean, they’re all part of it—however, if Rainbow is alive, it stays with me the rest of the day. And it may even change. The colors may change, and it may lead me, or inspire me, or emotionally move me to do something that I would not otherwise do. So, I try to keep the images alive and active in my life. And when I’m working with folks, and we tend to dreams this way, those images are really invited to be the visitors of our experience and stay with us, like companions might stay with us for the next number of hours or days.
TS: OK Steve, I’m going to keep going on this. It’s really the same point that I keep saying over and over again, because as you describe that, and I think of working with an image like Rainbow from a dream, I see how useful that could be. I really do. I’m no longer in my head and calling it dead and complete. There’s a companion with me now: Rainbow. And we’re going through the day and it’s changing and I’m changing and we’re dialoging with each other. I actually get that. I think the part that disturbs me is to think that the rainbow is alive in the same way that I’m alive or my friend that I work with is alive or my dog is alive. Is Rainbow really alive like that?
SA: Well, that’s a great question. That would disturb me too. No, I don’t think Rainbow is alive like that, actually. I think rainbow has an imaginal life, but not necessarily a life that is similar to your dog or to me, or to a friend. But they do have an imaginal presence, for sure. I think that to the extent that we experience them as the figures of imagination, as living entities, is the extent that we then are able to develop a relationship with them. Of course, not the same relationship [as we have] with a physical person, yet a relationship, though, that’s just as intimate. We learn to befriend them, to tend to them, to really get to know them.
And in turn, from my point of view—which does sound a little, I suspect, different—they also get to know us. So from my point of view, just to move it a little further still, those images have a certain sense of body and presence as me, Steve, as a person, has a certain sense of body and presence. Are we the same? Of course not. Do we have the capacity to develop a relationship with one another? Of course we do. I mean, how many people in the world have relationships with a certain sense of themselves? Or a certain figure that’s been important for them in their lives? Or, how many people in the world remember one of their elders: a great-grandfather, or an aunt, or a grandparent that’s died, but still is alive in imagination? So you have a relationship with that figure, not as a physicality, but with an imaginal sensibility.
TS: So I understand that I could have a relationship with rainbow in my imaginal life, but it’s harder for me to understand rainbow having a relationship with me.
SA: Well, let’s just imagine it this way. Imagine for a moment that someone comes into your life in a dream, and the figure is somebody that you’ve known in the past. In fact, let’s imagine it’s a great-grandparent that was important to you at one point in time, but of course has been dead now for decades, and yet that figure comes into the dream. And there is a sense of getting to know that one, and then the idea is, as we get to know that person, as in my world, as you animate or enliven or allow that person its imaginable presence so that dream image comes alive, so Grandparent, then, is alive in your experience. Then, my idea is that that figure gets to know us as much as we get to know him or her.
When you actually invite the figure into the room—I mean, we do this all the time. We have a kind of sense that we’re being supported or mentored by these invisibles. Some traditions might call them guardian angels, but I’d rather stick with the actuality of the image in the dream. We have a sense that they get to know us as much as we get to know them, if we are in conversation. That’s the whole notion of friendship. We befriend them, and then they, in turn, have the capacity to know who we are more deeply and offer themselves to us.
I’ll tell you, very practically speaking, when I, because of what I do in the world, you know, so I’m in front of either big groups of people—I work with the United Nations on giving a talk in front of an assemblage of folks or I’m down at the county council meeting dealing with land use issues, or I’m with a group of college presidents and university chancellors and I’m offering a presentation. When I’m front of those groups of people, when I walk in simply on my own behalf—and I’m trained to do that and I have a lot of experience doing that. Certainly I bring in my intelligence, my background, I bring in my expertise, my point of view, my research, my scholarship. I do all those things. However, it’s really different when I walk into that group and I walk in not simply as Steve, but I invite these others whom I’ve befriended through this craft of dream tending—great-grandfather, for example, or even rainbow. If I invite them to companion me into the conversation, I feel supported by somebody or a force in addition to myself, and I come across differently. And something different happens in those presentations when those figures are with me.
TS: It sounds very shamanic, as you’re speaking. Meaning, shamanic practitioners who would invoke guides or helping spirits or something like that.
SA: You know, on one hand it probably does sound shamanic. On the other hand, let me tell you a story. There’s a group of American educators that went to China. And you know, we’re so proud of ourselves in American education because we’ve now developed the skill set to teach to the tests, to do evidence-based learning. You know, we’re really big on assessment. We’ve really cultivated the craft of “scientising” learning, starting from now, I think, first grade, because we start teaching the kids how to get a great score on their SAT around second grade, if not before. So we’re very big on that kind of educational program. And this blue ribbon panel went to China to talk with a group of their elite educators, imagining that they would go over there and meet with real affection and regard, because of course our stereotype is, our fantasy is, from the Chinese point of view, that’s of course what they would do, because everything is homogenized and everything would be sequential and everything would be organized in a way that people could digest and harmonized into their society.
Well they listened very respectively, as of course would be the case, and they looked as these folks—this elite group of American educators—and they were just shaking their heads. They said, “It’s so curious. That’s what we were doing 20 years ago. Now what we do is instead we bring back music, and we bring back the arts, and we bring back the imagination into the classroom, starting in grade one. Because what we know is that if we support imagination, if we allow the dreaming psyche to continue to be a part of a person’s life, that the quality of their life will be better and that they will have a different kind of spirit, a different kind of innovation, a different kind of capacity to innovate and to really be the modern world where things are changing so rapidly.” And look what happened. Where is the great innovation happening in the world today? Yes, indeed, still in the United States and other countries, but also in China, because they are bringing that kind of work back into the school, working with kids all the way through high school and then into college. So, shamanic, yes, but really practical, in addition.
TS: It sounds to me that part of what you’re really standing for in your work with dream tending is a different view of the imagination than [the] one that is held in our rationalist society, that you’re really wanting to stand and say we need to look at the imagination differently.
SA: I think that is really, quite frankly, right at the center, yes. I do think so. And I think that most of the ways that we work with dream, although instructive, it’s not that I’ve—you know, I’ve been brought up with all the traditional modalities and have experienced them and have gotten great benefit, it’s just that there’s an expense to that.
And the cost of that is that we lose the imagination. So my preference is to stand for the imagination as alive and active and embodied and engaged first, and then allow the images that come in dream to invite the stories from my personal history, the circumstance of the day, the themes that come from the collective unconscious. I allow the images to come and invite them into our lives. So, I do believe that yeah, at bottom, there is a real stand for the imagination as being an integral part of our lives, and an important part.
TS: OK, so let’s just move into the dream tending approach. I have a dream, whether it’s of a great-grandparent or a rainbow or a broken vase. How would I work with that image through dream tending?
SA: Well, we start with settling ourselves and listening. I guess the hardest part when I’m working with people in terms of offering them an approach to the dream from this perspective is to let go [of] the need to know what the answer is so quickly. So Great-grandparent comes, or Vase comes, and instead of saying “Oh, the vase is empty, that’s how I’m feeling. It needs to filled with something” —do you see how my mind so quickly jumps in and makes an explanation? Or Great-Grandparent comes—that means that I am afflicted with a sense of being overbearing because that person is overbearing, whatever. We start to make explanations.
Dream tending would start from a different place. It would say, Vase is here now. Or Great-Grandparent is here now. Rather than [asking,] “What do you mean?”, we simply take a deep breath, get quiet, and invite that figure, as we would a friend, into relationship with us. So how that looks concretely is if I’m working with somebody with a dream—or if a person is, for that matter, working with their own dream on their own—instead of immediately going to explanation, they might sketch the figure, or they might have a conversation in their journal with the figure and allow the figure to have its own voice, to respond back, so that you go back and forth in a kind of dialogue, yes?
Or, if a creature comes into a dream—let’s say a giraffe or zebra or a tiger. Let’s take a tiger. If a tiger comes in the dream, instead of imagining that that tiger means something, like aggression, or that tiger means something like, you know, like “I’m ferocious” or “I have a tiger in my tank,” whatever that might be. Instead of going there so quickly, the method or the tool I would suggest would be to first get settled, forget that I know any of the answers and invite Tiger, although in safety, into the room and sketch it out. How is this tiger different than any other tiger? Just the one move, looking at the particularity of Tiger, how is this particular tiger different than the general category tiger? Just that, and something different happens because the tiger then takes on a quality of its own and now it’s in the room along with the dreamer.
TS: Now you have been dropping the articles; instead of saying “the tiger” it’s “Tiger” who comes into the room. What’s the reason for dropping the “the” or an “a” when you’re talking about dream image?
SA: It’s the easiest thing. There’s a number of skills that are really simple to digest and to get a sense of, and one is to drop the articles. Instead of “the tiger chased me through the forest,” that’s talking about the dream in the past tense as if it was happening last night, which is how we usually do it. If you drop the articles and we drop the past tense and bring it in to the present tense, just those two simple skills: Tiger is chasing me through the forest. Notice the difference.
The significance of Tiger without the article becomes more embodied, more actual, and the present tense brings the actuality of the dream into my experience much more directly. In fact, when we’re in the dream, that’s what’s going on, right? It didn’t happen yesterday. We’re in the dream when the dream is actually taking place, in a living way. So, there is a sense of presence from the beginning.
TS: So right here in the beginning, dream tending assumes that people are waking up and remembering their dreams and having clarity about these images. What would you say to somebody who has trouble remembering their dreams in the beginning?
SA: Well, you know, as I travel worldwide, that’s one of the questions that is asked. There are a couple things. One is most of the time we seem to dismiss the little snippets of dreams. “Oh, that’s not the grand dream that I was hoping for,” right? So the first thing before anything else is sometimes we have just a hint or a snippet or a memory of something that’s small that’s seemingly insignificant. So I encourage people to just jot that down, because often just that is enough to get things going.
The second thing that I suggest is to take a pen or pencil to your bedside and just put it there along with a dream journal—or sometimes people use laptops—and know that tonight, I’m going to remember my dream. Say that three times to yourself, “Tonight, I’m going to remember my dreams,” three times over. And then before we wake up in the morning, and before we immediately go into the day’s activities—you might be surprised, I just did a lecture in Europe on the impact of machines and technology and screen time, 40 percent of folk with check their iPhone, believe it or not, while they’re still in bed, before they get out of bed. So before we go into the world of things and demands and our agendas and this that and the other, just taking those few moments and allowing the remembrance of dream to come into our world and then to write them down so that if we practice that exercise, “Tonight I’m going to remember my dream,” three times, and then upon awakening, have something where we’re writing. Already we’re planting the suggestion, nothing more complicated than that. We’re just planting the suggestion that dreams are important. And like any good friendship, when there’s significance, and when we pay attention, they tend to respond back.
TS: Now what would you say to someone who says, “You know, this sounds nice, I’m now going to animate the dream image, I’m going to draw it. I’m going to spend time with it as my companion. I mean, I don’t even have time for my actual, physical companions in life. I have a very busy day. This all sounds very time-consuming, working with a dream image as my new friend during the day.”
SA: There’s truth in that, you know? It does take some time because, and I’ll just speak for myself, it’s a practice. Like anything in life, it’s how we prioritize things. I know for myself, if I spend the 20 minutes in the morning, and jot down the dream and then just simply write a few lines or just animate, allow it to come to life and bring it into my world in some way, that I then approach the rest of the day differently than I would than if I just woke up and just ran right into my day.
And the reason for that is, again, not really esoteric. What’s happening in the moment is that I’m inviting the imagination to be open and available. I’m allowing myself those moments of time. Let’s say it’s 5 minutes, let’s say it’s 20 minutes. I’m allowing that amount of time to open a whole range of my human experience that I wouldn’t otherwise necessarily have direct contact with. And that will change what happens during the day. I might say, just as doing this for [so many] years—again, I am the last person that would suggest to go along a path that would not be helpful in the world or in a relationship or in our community. At this point in time in our culture, I just feel we have a ethical responsibility to attend to community life and to the environment and to each other.
So what I’ve discovered is that when I do that, when I take that time to engage the figures of dream or in some way engage imagination, I am more effective, not less effective in what I do during the day. So in fact, that 20-minute investment in the morning pays tremendous dividends and saves me hours of times that I would otherwise be spinning around during the day. Because these figures on occasion will offer guidance. They will support us. We feel supported. There’s a sense of confidence. There’s also a sense of direction.
TS: Maybe you could give us an example from your own dreaming life of dream tending in action and how it’s proven effective for you.
SA: I think that’s a great idea. Yes, I will. Let me just see if I can do that in real time in the last 48 hours. Yes. So, not last night the night before, a dream came forward. In the dream, I noticed that there was a lake—actually it wasn’t a lake, it was an ocean. In the ocean, I noticed that there was a path that lead from the cliff down into the sea. And what I did is, I walked in the dream, I’m walking down the path to the shore to where the sea meets the sand. As I do that, I look out to the sea and I feel something different happen. Just at that moment in time, as one would expect, I guess.
Then what I noticed was there was a seal that popped up from the ocean. Of course I live in Santa Barbara, so I’m very familiar with the ocean, and of course that would be an image that would not be out of the ordinary. And yet in the dream, a seal popped up and looked at me. And then I looked back, and that was it, dream ended.
Now it is so easy when these dreams come and the come like that [snaps] and you know, the minute I get involved with everything else in life, I have totally forgotten. I’m like everybody else, you know? If I don’t write it down or if I don’t attend to it in some way, I’m just going to go on with my life and never think about it again—I’ll just not remember. However, I had my dream journal next door and I jotted that down, right? And I even sketched the seal a little bit. I had such a feeling about being at that water’s edge, and I had such a sense of that seal, not knowing at all what it meant.
I mean I could have made up—given that I’m a clinical psychologist and marriage family therapist and have been doing psychology all these years, I could have made up a whole variety of things as to what that might mean. From a Jungian perspective, I could have gone to town with the seal emerging from the ocean. There’s all kinds of archetypal themes that that might suggest. But rather than going there first—although you know, you consider these things—but rather than going there, what I did that day, which was yesterday, is I just went through my day and I just had a sense of that ocean and that seal.
Then what happened practically, during the day, is that we had a significant meeting here at Pacifica, where I work, where I’m the chancellor of the graduate institute. And there’s a board meeting. And we had a particularly important set of—you know, you almost always do at board meeting, but at this board meeting there was a particularly important juncture where a big decision had to be made. And I tell you, I was just about to come in there with my voice and make my position known and advocate on behalf of what I thought was so correct, and for whatever reason, I took at step back and I remembered the dream. And in the dream, when I went to the ocean’s edge, I just paused. And I got a bigger perspective, and I saw something out of the ordinary happen, which is the seal emerging. And I paused and I just remembered that for a moment.
I must say, in actuality, what happened, instead of charging in with my opinion at that moment, I just sat back, I listened more deeply, and I got curious—really, curiosity is a big part of this whole thing. I got curious as to, “I wonder. If I were here” —as I was in that meeting—“with those people with the real issues, as I’m here in this meeting with all this going on, if I just take a moment and allow for something else to come in, you know, another way of seeing all this. What might that way be?” And I took that— must have been not more than what? A minute or two? And I just sat back and listened and sure enough, a whole other idea came into my imagination as to what I was going to advocate, which I ended up doing, which was very effective. So that’s one way.
And I don’t really want to romanticize this, because I must say, often when dreams come, the ones that we remember are not necessarily an ocean setting with a seal popping his or her head up and offering inspiration. I mean, sometimes they are very frightening, or sometimes they are very terrifying, or there’s something intolerable that happens. So I don’t want to romanticize it, but just in that one instance, that’s what happened just two days’ back, I wanted to share that with you as an example.
TS: The example is helpful, it leads me to circle back to how we began our conversation because I do want to make sure that I’m clear about this part of dream tending. So the seal, did the seal come from your own unconscious mind, or was the seal a messenger form something beyond you? And I’ll tell you the reason I’m asking this question: in your work with dream tending, there’s this quote that I thought was very interesting, which is, “The images don’t just come from our psyche, but also from the psyche of nature.” And I thought that was very, very interesting.
SA: Yeah, it is interesting, and it is one of the, at the heart of dream tending, one of the main ideas. In part, it comes from certainly my own personal experience. You know, I mentioned that I live in Santa Barbara, so certainly that is a familiar image for me, being at the ocean and the seal. So in part it comes from my direct experience. In part it may come from something in my developmental history, something from childhood, something special that happens or a relationship that I have—when animals come into my life, I always feel that there is something very significant or important about that. So it comes from that place, I suspect. Also probably it picks up something from the great stories of the elder seal and the meaning of that and we know the stories of the seal, the sealskin and all that kind of thing. But yes, in addition to all of that, where else do dream images originate? From my point of view, they originate not only in the human experience, they also originate in the psyche of nature. It’s as if, the image of seal originated in the actuality of seal, in the ocean, making its presence known in the dreams that are happening for me in this instance or for people. Believe me, in this point in human evolution, it seems to be more and more important that we begin to give value to that idea. Helen Caldicott, a woman, a pediatrician who has worked with kids for a long, long time and has been very active in a variety of peace movements with nuclear issues and so on and so forth, she said it is as if the death of our planet is being grieved in the dreams of our children, and I think that’s true. I think the world is always awake and dreaming and on occasion, those images that are originating not in the human experience only but originating in the psyche of World, make their way into dream. And that, again, is not esoteric, or peculiar. Just think of the sense of a spirit of place, you know? And we know that certain places have special significance for us and we know that in so many traditions around the world, there’s a sense that there’s a spirit of a tree, or a spirit of a pond, and so on and so forth. So many, many people, in fact many more people than not, believe that places or landscapes or animals have certain qualities to them, and that those qualities, I think, sometimes make their way into images of dreams.
TS: What do you mean by this expression, “the psyche of nature,” that an image could come from the psyche of nature?
SA: Well, my sense is that nature, too, has a psyche. In other words, humans, as a species, we are birthed from something. And I think that we are birthed from the natural world. And so as a result of us being part of the natural world, I believe that the natural world in addition to humans has a certain psyche, or a certain psychological—eh, I wouldn’t call psychological, that’s a human term—but has a certain animating presence, right?
So it’s almost going back thousands of years to the fantasy of animistic world that the world itself is enchanted or ensouled, that [in] the psyche of the natural world, there’s a cadence. There’s a life rhythm. There’s a kind of life force. It’s something alive and active—the circle of life includes not only humans but the rest of the plants and animals and landscapes and creatures. They too are part of the fabric of life that we are a participant in. So the psyche of nature refers to the kind of field of experience that includes the nature, that which originates in nature as well as that which informs human experience.
TS: So when you think now of this seal that came in your dream, what do you imagine it was bringing to you as the message in your dream before this moment, in the meeting, now that you’re reflecting back on the whole sequence?
SA: Well, in the meeting— just speaking directly and actually as to what happened. In the meeting, it was simply a remembrance of that there’s something more that’s going on, rather than what my rational mind was telling me. That there was something more that was being asked in that moment than what I had figured out rationally and out of my experience that I was going to contribute and advocate on behalf of. That that seal had something in addition, a different kind of knowledge, a different kind of intelligence that was being asked for. So what I did there, in that particular instance, was simply pause, listen, and wait for whatever else was brewing in a kind of, what I would call an imaginative way, that was brewing inside that had not surfaced yet. I waited for that impulse to present and then I went on with what it was that I wanted to say. So that’s what happened in that circumstance.
Now, when I’m dream tending and working with people, what I suggest earlier that seems different is that we would actually go further than what I just said. And we get to know Seal. Who are you? Remember the questions—who are you? What are you up to? What’s happening with you? And you begin to befriend Seal or to tend to Seal as if Seal is a living, imaginal entity—not a person like me, or not a seal as one that’s in the ocean, an imaginal presence in the psyche of imagination that includes both us and the natural world. And you get to know, who are you, Seal, what are you about? What do bring? What do you know?
And unfortunately, when we go there, we often hit a lot of grief because so many—what is it, 95 percent of the big fish in the sea are no longer? They’re gone now. They’re extinct. So where does that spirit live, if not in the dream time, you know? Where is it possible to still connect to the intelligence of these creatures or these landscapes, that are very, very, very limited at this point in human experience. So it seems to me that would be one place to access. Now, I just went off a little bit, so going back directly to your question, I would get to know Seal. Who are you? Who are you in my life? And I would have a dialogue. I might sketch a seal and I might begin a conversation and notice subsequent dreams and see if Seal shows up again and begin to get to know who that particular seal is in my particular dream time.
Great companion, Seal, right? I’ll tell you one thing, the next time I go to a board meeting, I might just, after this conversation, I might just bring a little image of Seal and put it right next to my agenda and my pad of paper and have Seal right there to remind me to take a breath and to listen in to my intuition and inspiration.
TS: Now, Steve, I know you teach dream tending at the Pacifica Graduate School, and I’m curious to know that if you put your work in dream tending in context with the other types of approach to dream interpretation which have been offered through Jungian approaches, Freudian approaches. What do you see as the unique contribution of dream tending to the whole field of dream interpretation?
SA: Oh, there is a really unique contribution, and people respond in extraordinary ways to it. The unique contribution is it’s on the tree of Freud and Jung and Hillman. It’s on that tree. It’s a tradition of just taking dreams, I mean, listening to dreams as if they have value. Just that, in and of itself, is something different than what ordinarily happens in modern culture. So just that. And yet, you’re asking a further question, which is, how is dream tending in particular unique and different from these other approaches and what’s its contribution?
I think the biggest deal is that when you tend to a dream, through dream tending, you’re not analyzing, as you would in a Jungian approach. You’re not looking for an amplification as to how this dream relates to the great stories of human experience. And again, I find that profoundly instructive and useful, right? In the Freudian approach, you would like the dream image or figure back to the family of origin issue, one way or another. You’d imagine it as a manifest image and you’re looking for its latent meaning, to put it most simply and most classically.
In dream tending, you’re doing neither of those. It’s a much more, to use a big long word, phenomenological approach. In other words, you’re looking at the image on behalf of itself, not going away from the image into an explanatory system, but allowing the image to come to life and evoke the deep imagination and present itself, and then it allows us to have a relationship with it. And that’s so different. Very different that either the Jungian or the Freudian. Of course, Jung himself—and we know that The Red Book was so extraordinarily popular there for a while and still is—was sketching the images. He was sculpting the images, right? [Laughs] He was really evolving, bringing himself to the images as if they had imaginal presence and getting to know them. His inspiration comes from Philemon and from a variety of other images.
So he befriended the images, as so many have over the years. And so many people—the storytellers, the women and men all through time who have really talked about dream and gotten to know these images and really began a relationship with them and really brought them into their lives as companions, so that in addition to their family members and their dear friends, they also have companions that are part of their lived experience. So I would say that is the thing that differentiates dream tending from the traditional Jungian analysis or the Freudian interpretation.
TS: And what do you see as the relationship between our dreaming life and our waking life?
SA: Good question. I think dreaming and waking, on one level, they’re implicated and contiguous at all points. Certainly waking life is different than dream life. First, our eyes are open and we’re alert, and we’re involved with the issues that are right before us. When our eyes are closed, something else comes awake, as I said earlier, and the imagination presents itself more fully. My hope or my sense is that to the extent that dreaming life and waking life find each other more intimately, is the extent that we allow imagination to come forward in our lives more fully. So I think there’s a real direct relationship, and yet we have to differentiate as well.
When I’m in my life, I’m asked to do things that require my incredible—for example, I work with a lot of people that are afflicted physiologically. It’s not that I would say, when I’m working with folks that are challenged with cancer or afflicted with cancer, I’m not going to say, “Don’t go to your physician and work with all the new innovation.” In fact, some of the smartest and the brightest people in our culture have developed these extraordinary machines and medicines that really are supportive and helpful.
On the other hand, in addition to pulling from that kind of more rational intelligence that really moves toward effective and helpful and supportive, not just in cures, in addition to that, the dreaming psyche, the imaginative psyche also can contribute. So when I’m listening to dreams of people that are afflicted, I’m listening to the medicines that are available in the images. I know I just shifted into a whole other topic, but all I’m wanting to say there is that the dream offers itself to the imagination. And it has very practical, concrete effects. When dream images come, they will impact or influence our behavior, and they too will stimulate the immune system and they will create a certain kind of medicinal response. So it’s a kind of both/and rather than a separation. That’s kind of what I’m after: dream life and awake life knowing one another.
TS: Is it fair to say that you think our dreams are here to instruct and help us in some way, that they have this sort of positive, beneficial “agenda,” if you will? If we’re able to tune in and listen to what the images want to give us?
SA: Yes. You know in the now thousands of dreams that I’ve worked with, I would say that answer is yes—and I don’t want to be overly romantic about it because dreams come and they are frightening sometimes, as I said earlier, sometimes they’re intolerable, they’re very difficult, we have to wrestle with them. They wrestle with us. They’re tortuous us at times. Of course, sometimes they are ecstatic and loving and all that. However, what I’ve noticed through all these years is that when we tend to the dream, particularly in the ways that I’m talking about, when we attend to them, in turn they will tend to us. Now it takes time, right? I don’t want to imagine or even lead one to believe that it’s a simple and immediate process.
On the other hand, when you really spend the time with dreams—and that’s what the book Dream Tending has the particular methods of how to do that— if you spend time with the dream and really get to know it, even the most scary of images, it comes for a purpose. I mean why else would it come? And that goes back to the psyche of nature, why else would a dream come? It’s not here to kill us. Nature will do us in at some point—that’s part of being human. We’re all pre-disposed to be disposed at some point. At the same time, there is that instinct, alive and active in each of us that wants expression and wants to reveal itself more fully. So I think dreams are part of that organicity of life. And I think the answer to the question simply, is yes. I think there is a positive intention at whatever stage of life we’re in. I think dreams do come with that intention.
TS: OK, so you were talking with people with cancer and how dreams may bring images that could be beneficial for them to work with. And I’m curious, would you think it’s the exact same approach if somebody had an illness and asked themselves, “I’m just going to draw whatever images come to mind right now. I’m in a waking state. I’m going to draw images and then I’m going to work with whatever images come through” —that that would be similar to working in a dream tending way with images that came from dreams. Same process? Different process?
SA: Well, I just offered a workshop this last weekend working with people with affliction and talking about the healing capacity of dreams in relation to cancer, so, yes and no. Yes, this approach can be applied to kind of what one would call a kind of active imagination, and you start by drawing your cancer and then you begin to engage with a kind of imaginal process and a dialogue and so on and so forth. So I do believe that working with those kinds of awake images, if you will, or waking dreams, if you will, and working these images will bring great benefit.
On the other hand, I also believe that when it originates in the dream time from the psyche itself, when our eyes are closed, there’s a different kind of intelligence, I think perhaps, that’s at the root of those images. It’s not so filtered through our mind or through our best hopes or our intentions. It’s not part of our rational thinking. It has a different beginning place. So yes, I think you can work with pictures, and I do often and frequently, when I’m working with people. And they are pictures, and that is the difference. They are pictures, that I can work with and they will stimulate imagination and they will move forward and be supportive. When I working with dream, it’s a different task because I think they originate from, let’s say, a deeper source, to put it simply. I have a lot of faith in that deeper source. I mean, the body is always dreaming, right?
TS: OK, hold on a second. Can you explain what you mean by that? That’s a very interesting phrase the body is always dreaming.
SA: Yes, and it’s really a simple idea. When cancer comes—or any affliction, you know—the symptom or the illness itself will present through the body into the dream imagery. It’s almost causal, really. One thing leads to the next. And in fact, even before the onset of affliction and illness, often the image will present first, because subliminally, we’re picking up the imbalance that’s going on in our bodies and that will evoke an image and an image will present in a dream.
Now of course, you have to have some experience of listening to dreams and working with dreams to differentiate and figure out what’s what. And you can’t impose that—one has to be open to listening deeply and offering a set of questions and being responsible. In other words, it would be irresponsible to say “Hey, this image comes, so this means you have this and therefore you need to do that.” That would be absolutely irresponsible. So, no.
On the other hand, I might get curious. If, for example—let me just give a concrete example. If, for example, I’m in a house and it’s a house, the place where I’m living. So already it’s a familiar place. And the house is one of the images worldwide will always dream about. And the house more often than not will pick up something of our own personhood, our own bodies, because it’s our house. It’s the structure that we inhabit, so there a natural tendency to imagine the psyche using that as an image that will present ourself.
Let’s imagine in the house, in the room of the living, the living room, there is something out of the ordinary. So let’s imagine a vine growing and in that vine there’s a pumpkin. So now I have a pumpkin in the living room of this house and I notice upon a closer look that in the pumpkin, it’s infested with maggots of some sort, or something. And I’m thinking, “That’s out of the ordinary. That’s peculiar. In the living room of my house is this pumpkin that’s infested in such a way? What could that suggest?”
Now it may be a hundred things that it suggests, and remember what I’m saying: I don’t interpret. I don’t say, this means that. If I would say, “Whoa, you have something terrible, some terrible ailment, and this means that da da da da da,” that would be first irresponsible, unethical, in my mind, and secondly, it’s not accurate.
On the other hand, let’s imagine that image comes a second, a third, and a fourth time. Certainly I would get curious, and certainly I would begin to think about that image in that place of the living room in the house that I am currently inhabiting, and I would probably make a suggestion. I’m wondering when’s the last time was when you had a physical or got a check up or something like that. And then I would be working with highly trained physicians to begin to think through what this is about.
So the body is always dreaming in that context. And when we make gesture—so, that’s point one. And then when I’m talking about the body always dreaming, when we’re waving our hands or making a gesture, it’s as if the body is always in motion and you could watch a body in motion as if it were a dream, a figure in the dream. So that would be the other idea. I just shifted channels there, but the body is always dreaming both in the sense that it’s picking up images from what’s going on inside physiologically, and the body is dreaming externally in the sense of the gestures that we make and the movements that we make. So you can read a body. Somebody is telling a story and then their arms are going in a certain way, you know? It’s as if the body is dreaming.
TS: Now Steve I just have one final question for you. Our program is called Insights at the Edge, and I’m always curious what the edge is of someone’s work. In this case, the work of dream tending, what would you say is the question or the leading edge of your exploration in dream tending right now?
SA: I am committed to this idea of what we’re calling the “global dream initiative.” We’re just starting and we’re now in our third month, and I’ve gathered around me a number of people that are very deeply rooted in dream and dream tending—extraordinary academics, and people from a variety of different disciplines. What I’m interested in at the moment is how the world is dreaming on behalf of itself and those images occurring in the dreams of people—particularly kids, because I’m asked to work with kids a lot in the classroom. I’m asked to work with troubled adolescents a lot, people that have been incarcerated or in gangs. I mean it’s very practical stuff.
It’s just that I’m aware that nature is dreaming, always, and that the figures of her dream occur in the experiences of people. Why I think that is so critical is because I think, as many of us do, that the world is out of balance at the moment. The planet is having a hard time. And if we can listen in to the intelligence of those images, that’s what’s at the edge. If we can listen to the intelligence of the images that originate in the psyche of nature, that we called attention to, if we can listen carefully, we might gain a perspective and might gain a way of seeing and being that would change the conversation.
So, concrete example. I’ve been invited to attend kind of a blue ribbon—I’ve used the word two or three times now, but a top-level group of policy makers that are really thinking in terms of climate change. And I think these are extraordinary people, they are experts in their field. They’re great scientists, some of them, they are people who have been doing this work for a long, long time. And we’re going to be sitting in a room and talking about climate change and different policies and how to work with that. Now, one way of doing that is to simply go with the body of science now that’s so compelling, that is now broadcast from A-Z, and start there and continue the conversation and keep building on what we’ve known and what we’re trying to move, in terms of everything from treaties to global warming to the nature of energy and fuel to deforestation and on and on, the toxification of the seas, and it goes on.
That’s one way of going and sitting in the room along with that. Another ways of proceeding is to start from the beginning. I’m wondering what dreams people are having and what images are coming in those dreams that inform that conversation. Now, rather than just saying that a group of people have a whole number of dreams about tidal waves or a whole other group of people had dreams of acid rain or earthquakes or something, that’s one way of doing it.
Another way is to simply introduce the idea, just the idea that the world is dreaming. Just that. Nothing more. And introduce some of the images that are coming to numbers of people internationally, because we have people all over the world now that are contributing to this project. Just beginning to see the world from an imaginal point of view, just bringing imagination into the conversation, opens folks to a different kind of consideration. It takes us off the map and into something else. So that’s what I believe is at the edge of dream tending at the moment, is to bring dream tending into the issues of the day, and particularly climate change and environmental issues.
TS: Thank you. Well, I wish you very swift and good fortune with such dream tending. I’ve been speaking with Stephen Aizenstat. With Sounds True, he’s created a six-session audio course on Dream Tending: Techniques for Uncovering the Hidden Intelligence of Your Dreams. Steve, wonderful as always to talk with you, and I think I have a deeper appreciation of your work and I’m grateful for that, thank you.
SA: You’re welcome. Thank you. It’s nice talking with you.
TS: SoundsTrue.com. Many voices. One Journey. Thanks for listening.