Animals dreams are memorable. An animal in our dream has a way of catching our attention. As James Hillman puts it: “Animals wake up the imagination. You see a deer by the side of the road, or geese flying in formation, you become hyperalert. I’ve found that animal dreams can do this too. They really wake people up. Animal dreams provoke their feelings, get them thinking, interested, and curious.”
The deep connection we have with animals can cut both ways in our dreams– we can love them, admire them, and be awed by them, but they can also trigger instinctual fears and reactions that we have little control over. Recently a 56-year-old man named Anthony shared a dream with me that featured a remarkable animal:
“I’m in an old city in France. I am meeting my friend S and his father A. They have recently purchased an entire section of this city and are undertaking a big project of urban renewal. They are keeping the exteriors of the old structures and renovating the insides. I feel some insecurity and some envy that this father and son duo is working so well together in this exciting venture.
We walk over a bridge into their section of the city and soon come to some steps going up into one of the buildings. A male figure is waiting for us there; he is the caretaker of this building which is owned by S and A. He leads us inside and opens a door going down to the basement. Immediately an animal races up the stairs from the depths of darkness inside. It is moving so fast! It is somehow both like a snake and a skunk– it moves like a snake, fluid and slithering; but its fur and legs are more like a skunk. The fur is short and trimmed, gray in color, as if he is older. His eyes are deep, intelligent, and receptive. He jumps up into the arms of the caretaker, they obviously have a strong and affectionate bond.
This animal is the caretaker’s companion and also the watchdog and guardian of the basement area. I am in awe of this creature, but because I was startled and frightened when he raced up the stairs, the creature recoils from me. He sensed my fear and does not trust me now. None of the others are afraid of the creature, and he is comfortable with all of them. Its only me he recoils from. I feel bad about this….I wake up….”
When Anthony and I worked on this dream we re-entered the scene right at the end, standing at the top of the stairs leading down to the basement. “Now…what would you like to do?” I asked. “I’d like to take a step back, to be more open and less fearful, to allow the situation to unfold…I’d like to feel comfortable with the creature and have him be comfortable with me. And then…I’d like us all to go down the stairs and explore the basement.”
The problem seemed to be that the sudden appearance of this animal had such a high emotional voltage that it startled Anthony out of his dream, a dream which felt as if it could have moved on towards something very important. So I helped Anthony imagine himself calming his emotional ‘animal’ brain, slowing everything down, and gradually feeling more open and less fearful. This is a primary technique in re-entry dreamwork–changing the feeling and pace of the dream, so the dreamer can be fully present in the dreamscape and become proactive rather than reactive.
After a few moments of doing this Anthony reported that he now felt calm and fully present in the scene. He still felt a sense of awe about the amazing snake-skunk guardian, but he was no longer afraid of it; and he could now sense that it was no longer recoiling from him. Now the whole group (Anthony, S, A, the Caretaker, and the Watchdog-guardian) descended the stairs and began to explore the basement.
What Anthony found down there was astonishing…a huge subterranean space divided into four large rooms: “It’s like a crypt or a catacomb, a sacred place where religious sects had come to practice their religion for many centuries. There was a powerful sense of stillness and quiet, we were deep down in the belly of the earth. S and A were delighted at my reaction; they knew how much I would appreciate this place, and I had a feeling of deep gratitude to them for bringing me here. I thanked them. Then I gave myself some time to start to explore the space. I knew I would not be able to see it all, the catacomb was so vast….” I suggested to Anthony that he could come back to this place in future imaginal re-entries, this was not his only chance to explore these catacombs.
It is important to note that the visit to the subterranean catacombs did not occur in the original dream, it happened in the re-entry, while Anthony was fully awake and conscious. And yet it seemed to be generated from the same place. There was a sense, something very familiar to me from years of doing re-entry dreamwork, of a critical interruption that prevented the further unfolding of a story. In this case the interruption came in the form of an instinctual fright and startle reaction arising from the brain stem (the ‘lower’ regions of the brain that we share with all the animal kingdom) which left in its wake the kind of wariness that animals feel around each other when they first meet. Some active dreamwork was needed here to move through this problem and allow the full dream experience to come into manifestation.
Interestingly this hybrid snake-skunk creature seems to straddle the reptilian and the mammalian. To speak of it in terms of neurobiology, we could say that there needed to be some integration of Anthony’s human brain with his mammalian and reptilian brains before the whole adventure could proceed. Difficulties that arise from the fact that we humans have a three-part brain structure (at least three) are often depicted in dreams as encounters with animals.
If you have a frightening encounter with an animal in a dream you don’t have to let it end there. Consider re-entering the dream and doing what Anthony did. Slow everything down and give your brain a chance to contextualize and integrate whatever is happening. Now…how do you feel about that animal? If you feel better…what would you like to happen next?
I will be doing a talk on animal dreams at our next Toronto Dreamers Meetup gathering on Wed Feb 19th, 7-9:30 pm. I’ll be taking a look at some of the dream content research in the area of animal dreams, then talking about some of my own observations and ideas. After that we will be moving into a dream sharing circle and you will have a chance to share your animal dreams. I hope to see you there. Click here for the link to get more info and register.
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