Dream. Life. Recovery.

For several years in my early thirties, I attended a dream group with the Jungian psychotherapist, Peter O’Connor. Peter, who is now retired, was a gifted therapist who for many years from the late 1970s held the torch in Melbourne for a humanistic and mythopoeic psychology against the rat-observers and statistical behaviouralists who were dominant back then. Peter had built a public profile by writing on the the mid-life crisis, and had written a book, Dreams and the search for meaning (1986), which I had read as part of my self-driven diagnosis of my mental distress and recovery from the traumas of life.

It must have been this little book on dreams that led me to call Peter O’Connor’s rooms and ask to participate in the dream group. Peter interviewed me in his rooms in Hawthorn, where I recall he had small statues both of Shiva in the form of Nataraja, the divine dancer, and of Asclepius, the ancient Greek god of healers. We clicked, or so I felt, because of a common dream to search for meaning in both the traditions of literature and myth and the fallen petals of my mind, of which the most delicate and fragile were my dreams.

I had pursued an intellectual interest in dreams for many years, reading Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams, Jung, many humanistic and existential psychologists, and, perhaps of more interest to specialists, Michel Foucault’s early career essay on the 1930 essay by a Swiss psychiatrist, Ludwig Binswanger, Dream and Existence. From my mid-to-late-20s I took this further and kept a dream diary, and the frequency of my conscientious recording of my unconscious was highest in these years of my late 20s and early 30s, after I had left my university life and aspiration to become a writer in the disguise of a history professor, and was still struggling with my rightly-sized but ill-fitting clothes as a bureaucrat. The dreams worked mercurially as part of my therapeutic journey, and I became convinced they were the royal road to my recovery. Back then in the early 1990s, I had sought therapy from a clinical psychologist, Ivan Milton, who later became a Buddhist monk, initially for smoking, then to overcome my procrastination and blocks that were preventing me writing my doctoral thesis to completion, and then lastly broader, but more murkily identified, concerns of depression, anxiety, father absence and uncertain purpose. In the course of this therapeutic alliance, from which I emerged so much stronger, so much freer, I had some profoundly important dreams that I still recall vividly.

I still have that book in which for years I recorded my dreams, palely, without ornament, imitating the model set by Jung himself in his Red Book. I called it, “The Book of Soul I”. There in that book, which I described as “a meticulous gesture to dignify and deepen my soul”, I discover tonight, after leafing through this personal archive, my notes from the first dream that I shared with Peter O’Connor’s dream group in late 1994.

Dream – The bloodied, poisoned fish

I am in the water, like a lake or ocean but with one walled concreted edge where I am supporting myself. Rising out up from the water is a poisoned, bloodied fish hanging from a large hook, like a meat hook. The front half of its body drops down, as if it were unfolding. It drenches in blood, like a gush of tears, or shit. Like a shower bag being released. It hangs there a while and then is slowly drawn away over the water. It hangs above the water in the distance, and sharks leap up on their tails in the water to bite at the fish.

My notes say “The first dream I shared with the group had great force. Peter and the group felt it was an archetypal dream. Its core symbol remains perplexing to me.”

Dreams are gifts of the underworld. Can we Orphean imitators ever truly look back and explain these gifts or the world from which they come? We can only be thankful for these gifts and embroider their meanings into the texts of our lives. We can be thankful for when the gods bestow dreams on our memories. For many years, I slept without recalling dreaming, almost certainly – I think now – because of the interruptions to sleep from snoring and sleep apnea. But over the last year, as a result of the improvement of my sleep through a CPAP machine, the dreams have begun to resume and emerge from the clouded horizon of morning. Thankful for this renewal of imagination after a long shriven winter, I took down from my shelf the other day, after being prompted to remember the dream group on my camping holiday at the beach at Lorne, another book which I used to deepen my soul, James Hillmann, The Dream and the Underworld (1979).

From that book I noted two quotations with which I will end this post

“The image has been my starting point for the archetypal re-visioning of psychology… To start with the image in depth psychology is to begin in the mythical underworld, so this book provides the mythical perspective to our psychology of the image. The claim that images come first is to say that dreams are the primary givens and that all daylight consciousness begins in the night and bears its shadows.”

James Hillmann, The dream and the underworld, p. 5

And lastly like Virgil guiding Dante through the Inferno, let us close with Hillmann’s epigraph that warns us of the seriousness of the approach to recovery through dreams:

“The dread and resistance which every natural human being experiences when it comes to delving too deeply into himself is, at bottom, the fear of the journey into Hades.

C.G. Jung, Psychology and alchemy, Collected Works, 12, # 439

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