Sometimes You Need to Get Physical With a Dream

What are the common ways that people work with their dreams? We think about our dreams, we talk about them, we visualize them. This dynamic trio of thinking/talking/visualizing is remarkably effective most of the time. It can help us arrive at satisfying connections and insights with the majority of our dreams.

But–sometimes these three modes just don’t do it; they don’t unlock the dream. Here’s an example from my own dream journal. In January of 2012 I had the following dream, which I called “Air, It Is!”:

I am watching a scene, as if on television. There is a huge public project underway, like a World Expo. It has begun with an enormous excavation, a huge circular hole hundreds of meters deep. It is still being kept under wraps, guarded by highly trained secret service operatives.

A young man has found his way in and has fallen into the hole. He is sliding/falling down the side of the crater wall. He is being watched by two guard-operatives who are rappelling down with ropes keeping pace with him at a close distance. They are doing this both to protect him and to secure the site. One of these guard-operatives moves in closer to protect the young man as he falls, sheltering him with his arms and keeping pace with him at free-fall speed.

Suddenly the guard collides with a large stone jutting out of the cliff wall. This inures him badly; I see him grimacing in pain and holding the back of his neck. Has he broken his neck?! He goes into a rage; he picks up the young man by his neck and screams: “I’m fuckin’ gonna kill you!”

I can’t watch, I turn away from the T.V. screen, it’s too horrible to witness. When I turn back I see the young man lying flat. As he dies he says in the voice of a young child, naïve and curious (and with a noticeable English accent): “What’s it like in there?” (meaning in the land of the dead and dying). The guard-operative replies: “Air, it is.” Then we hear a clunking noise as the young man dies….I wake up

For over two years I have been thinking about the message of this dream. It had all the markings of a big dream, including the larger than life setting and the vivid emotional intensity. But what was it trying to tell me? What was it asking for? I pulled out all three of the old reliable dream tools– I thought about it (on many occasions!) I talked about it. I shared it with others. I visualized it and re-visualized it. But a satisfying feeling of connection remained elusive.

I did recognize elements of an incarnation motif in the dream, a motif that has to do with the soul coming down into the body. The fall from a great height, the wounding impact , the life-and-death intensity–these are typical of dreams which revisit the drama of the soul “falling” into the physical body. But whose incarnation was being referred to? At this time I was the father of a one and a half year old child; was the dream a depiction of the stresses I was then living through as I protected and guided him through his development? Was it warning me to be aware of the potential anger that might flare up  in me at some future crisis point?

Perhaps that was a part of it. But it didn’t feel like I had a truly satisfying connection. This one remained in my folder of “Unsolved Mysteries and Unconnected Dreams” for many months. Until….

While I was at the Annual Conference of the IASD (International Association for the Study of Dreams)  this past June in Berkeley I attended Julia Ray’s workshop “Move Into Your Dream”. Here was a chance to work with a dream in a different way– through movement and enactment–so I chose “Air, It Is!” hoping that I might get some new insight into a tough old mystery.

We started with some freestyle dance to give ourselves some time to “get out of our heads” at what was otherwise a very mental, spiritual, and verbal conference experience. Julia’s sound track for the event was very helpful for this–it was simple, primal, embodying, and completely non-verbal and non-thematic.

Next we were invited to move into our own corner of the room, lying down if we wished, with eyes closed, tuning into the dream that we would be working on. I was instantly right back at the huge crater, only this time I felt much more physically present in the action of the dream, not merely observing it.

Then, Julia invited us to get up and start moving into the dream. I started to fall, first as the guard-operative, then as the young man. I could identify with both figures, but I found I was most readily identifying with the guard-operative who protectively cradled the young man with his hands as they both fell. Then came the moment of terrible impact, I was re-experiencing a physical trauma that felt very primal and very traumatic; it lay outside the realm of my adult “memory” but clearly my body had remembered it in some physical way.

As I approached the end of the dream I already had experienced a very resonant connection to the dream. It was about my incarnation, a twinned incarnation where one of us lived and the other died. I was the one who survived, and I felt that I was responsible for killing my twin, even though I was doing everything I could to protect him until I myself was traumatized. This all came as a non-verbal purely physical sense of knowing as I was moving on the floor of a hotel conference center in Berkeley.

The most wonderful thing about this piece of work came at the end. I realized that my little twin did not fear death. He was ready to move back into the soul realm of the unembodied beings, where he would return to the Air. He bore me no bad feeling for causing his death, there was simply a feeling that only one of us could survive this time around and it was to be me, not him.

In this piece of dreamwork I was able to experience the pervasive unconscious sense of survivor guilt that I have always carried, and I was able to start letting it go. What was it about the setting and circumstances of this particular workshop that enabled me to have this powerful experience, I wondered? It had something to do with movement and embodiment. I was recreating the actions and physical sensations that were present in the dream–falling, protecting, shielding, injuring my neck, and reacting to the shock of the injury–this is what unlocked the deeper message of the dream that had eluded me for two years.

So, if you have a dream from long ago that you are still wondering about…try moving into it.

Christopher Sowton

  • Tallulah Lyons Reply

    Thank you so much for sharing this personal experience. Dream re-entry, particularly in a meditative state can be the key to connection and a sense of resolution. I’m so glad you emphasized the meditative nature of the practice. It’s very different from simply “writing the dream forward” – which can also be helpful, but is not nearly as incarnational.

  • Zarah Reply

    Wow, thank you for sharing this! Reading it brought tears to my eyes. I know these kinds of dreams that can haunt you for years. How lucky for you that you were able to uncover the meaning!

    And yes, talking and thinking alone will often not be helpful in finding out what a dream is about. Robert A. Johnson tells the story of Toni Wolffe from the Jung Insitute in Zurich, who would kick people out of her therapy room if they had not done something physical with last week’s dream. If they said something like “I’ve been thinking about it”, she would turn them around inside the door, and tell them to come back when they had actually done something. Johnson recommends to do small rituals to make the dream physically real.

    I use roleplaying and dialogues with dream figures, but also creative methods like drawing dream symbols. With one dream it took me four weeks of staring at the drawing each morning before it dawned on me what it was about. 😉 In dream groups you can also have each participant play one character or object from the dream. Similar to family constellations, it’s amazing what people can pick up just by stepping into the role. I haven’t yet tried dancing before stepping into a role, but I’m definitely going to give it a try!

    Thanks so much for sharing this! 🙂


    • Chirstopher Sowton Reply

      Hi Zarah,
      Thanks for your feedback. Recently my dream group has been meeting in a yoga studio space which is a beautiful space for movement, dance, and physical enactment of dreams, including large scale family constellation-like enactments which can require a fair bit of space. Before every meeting we do about 15 minutes of freestyle dance as a warm up, and I think this has greatly benefitted the dreamwork that follows. I suspect it is because it helps people change gears after their busy day and get out of their heads a bit. I highly recommend it for people running dream groups, if they have enough space!

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