Imaginal-Ritual-Actual

A fifty-year-old man recently told me the following dream which he called: “The Colorful Toad”:

“I’m in my upstairs office in my house. The room is fairly dark. On the floor I see a glowing orange toad. I approach him and tell him that he doesn’t belong here, he should be outside. I gently pick him up and I carry him outside onto the front porch. I carefully place him down at the edge of the landscaped border which opens onto a garden. The garden slopes down to a street. The toad hops down the slope but then starts tumbling. I feel bad for him, I’m concerned if he’ll be okay. I run down the slope and I see him crash against a rock. He now loses his orange glow and turns into a regular colored toad. He appears to be stunned by the crash, but after a few seconds he recovers and collects himself. He now turns bright blue and hops away across the garden and up the slope towards the trees. As he’s doing that I get distracted by a couple walking down the street. I lose track of the toad. I wake up.”

As we worked with this dream we were given a natural connection point that the dreamer spontaneously experienced as he told the dream–when he said the words “I tell him that he doesn’t belong here, he should be outside” there was a very resonant moment, a brief but unmistakable few seconds of poignant insight. We could both feel that this dream was about a part of him that doesn’t belong inside, that should be outside. He was easily able to connect this to his career. He works in a 9 to 5 desk job in an office setting (the dream begins in an office). This job pays the bills nicely but he has no love for it. For many years he has longed for more meaningful work, for a vocation, or at least for some kind of work that is more aligned with his soul values. And when he ponders what that work might be his imagination most often takes him outside; he has fantasized about owning a wilderness retreat, an outdoor activity center, or a small hotel in the countryside. The toad seems to have appeared to underscore this quality of being not-in-the-right-place, and even perhaps to lure him out of doors and off into the forest.

Now we have achieved the first goal of the dreamwork–a resonant connection between the dream and the dreamer’s life, we can move onto the second goal–generating some kind of response to this insight. Now I’m going to share one of my insider trade secrets with you…when you’re working out a dream response, try starting with the imaginal, then go to the ritual, then finally to the actual. Why? Because going in that order seems to works best.

First let me clarify exactly what I mean when I use these three terms: the imaginal response takes place entirely in the dreamer’s imagination. The ritual response involves doing or creating something that does exist in the external world, but only in the dreamer’s private world, like placing something on one’s personal shrine. An actual response involves committing to a fully actualized life change. Let’s use the Colorful Toad dream as our example to see how this can work:

For the imaginal response I always begin by working within the setting and parameters of the dreamscape. Making the translation to waking life can come later, but in the beginning we just go back into the dreamscape and pose the question: “what is trying to happen?”, or: “what is the dream asking for?” The dreamer and I agreed that the desired direction of change that we want to support is a movement from inside to outside. The dreamer has already taken the toad outside; this transition has proved to be a bit bumpy, and it involves some very dramatic changes (depicted in the dream as the toad changing color) but it seems to be working in that both the dreamer and the toad are now out of doors. However the dreamer then gets distracted and loses touch with the toad. (This is problematic; this may mean that in waking life the dreamer has good initiatives towards important changes that would feed his soul but he also has a tendency to get distracted and not follow through with the changes. There are at least three indicators in the dream that the toad is something soulful: its mysterious and sudden appearance in his office, its numinous glowing colors, and the tender care with which the dreamer intuitively knows to handle it).

So, I asked the dreamer, what about a visualization in which he finds the toad again and follows it as it moves into the trees? He agrees that this felt right and tried it with me in the session. We are now supporting and extending a desired energy and movement that is trying to happen in the dream. The implicit underlying message of this exercise is: “the encounter with this toad is very important, it’s good that you have taken the toad outside, now don’t get distracted, don’t lose touch with this important thing, follow it, see where it might lead you.” Everything in this message is in alignment with what the dreamer and the dreamworker have already agreed is trying to happen. Typically I will ask the dreamer to repeat a visualization like this between 3 and 10 times over the next week or so after we do in the initial exercise together in my office.

Now, lets go further to a ritual response. The toad seems to have something to do with the dreamer’s soul and what it wants; such dream motifs often lead us very naturally to the ritual level, a level which intersects the imaginal and the actual. How about finding a toad pendant and wearing it for a time? Or buying a plastic toad for the office? Or finding a picture of a toad and putting it on an altar, or the fridge, or the computer desktop? All these would serve to do two important things that we human beings use ritual for– ritual elevates the relevance and importance of a thing, and ritual can help keep something alive and forefront in our awareness, it renews and reminds. I suggested in this case that he might get two toad pictures–of an orange toad and a bright blue toad, since this color change was so striking (and to this day so mysterious).

And now on to the third level. An actual response is much more serious and more involved; the stakes are higher because now other people are brought into the mix, and there could be real and lasting life changes made. For this reason it is often not a good idea to rush in to the actualized realm. That’s why I advise doing the imaginal and the ritual responses first. These two (or even just the imaginal all by itself) will often open a very natural pathway towards making an actual life change; and indeed sometimes doing these first two will even render the making of an external change unnecessary. Consider the case of a person A who feels wounded by an unresolved hurt involving person B. If A’s therapist encourages A to have an imaginary converstation with B that might bring some satisfaction and closure to the issue, they are working on the imaginal level. If the therapist suggests that A write a letter to B but not send it, then I consider this to be a ritual response (it has some degree of externalized expression in that there is an actual physical letter, but it remains within A’s private process). If A decides to write the letter and really send it to B, then we have moved into the actual realm. Now the stakes are higher and repercussions must be considered. Very often the imaginal conversation is enough all by itself; in other instances the unsent ritual letter seems to bring further resolution; and in some cases these first two measures seem to make it clear that A really does want to take things into the actual realm and speak his or her mind to B. This would be an individualized decision that must be made in each case.

The dreamer of the Colorful Toad dream has made some forays into the actual realm. He has travelled to a number of places to feel out their suitability for a potential future career endeavor. He is still working in the office at time of writing. But who knows? Toads can pop up at any time.

Christopher Sowton

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