In my dream, my house is filled with noisy demanding people. Six orangutans lie in the middle of the wood floor. One lies on her back, wet and gooey as though she’s just given birth. She holds her wet newborn over her heart. The other four sleep around the mother. “Do you need help?” I ask her. “Yes,” she says. I look for clean towels to dry her and her baby. The noisy people want food and my attention. “Do you see the orangutans?” I ask them. They’re not interested. I’m glad when they leave so I can be with and help the orangutans, even though I don’t know why they’re here.
Orangutans? Why were they showing up in my dreams, especially that instinctual Madonna and Child? I understood my desire to get rid of the demanding voices within, but orangutans? I knew the image held an important message I didn’t understand. Here are the steps I took to explore the mystery.
1. Write down the dream with every sensory and feeling detail, including how I felt when I woke up: I was awe-struck and fascinated. I didn’t wait to write the dream in my journal since dreams slip away into the unconscious, even powerful ones.
2. Write down what’s happening in your life: This dream came the night before I gave my Jung in the Heartland presentation. By then, I knew my presentation fit well with the conference themes. Still, I was keyed up.
3. Explore the most powerful image(s) and make associations: I didn’t have personal associations with orangutans, but the female captured my attention through her direct gaze and ability to speak. She was relaxed in agitated surroundings with her arms crossed in a protective gesture over her newborn. The mother’s unflinching deep brown eyes pierced me. She observed everything. The other four adult orangutans lay close to her on their sides with their backs to her head, feet, and arms. A protective but unconscious (sleeping) barrier from unruly demands. A miracle of birth had taken place in my inner worlds, in the midst of chaos, and needed my help.
4. Talk to others about the dream. I have a Jungian dream therapist, but before my husband died, he and I shared our dreams. I told this dream to a few friends and my son. We discussed the instinctual Madonna and Child as a promise of new life and a balance for inner agitation. Simply retelling the dream brought it alive.
5. Imagine this powerful image every day. In the dream, the mother’s soulful gaze held me. Later, I imagined what it would be like to be in her body or to be held in her protective arms. Where was this strong quiet, birth-giving feminine strength in me? I felt her in my chest and heart as I meditated on her gaze.
6. Interact with dream images in writing, painting, or movement. C.G. Jung called this Active Imagination. I asked the mother why she needed help. I asked what she wanted from me. Our written conversation brought new information and deeper connection, but it was only beginning. I asked a question and listened. I wrote her answer and asked more. I didn’t worry about being right, but honored the mystery by tending it and inner listening.
7. Learn about the image: Orangutans were easy to find on the web. Like other large mammals, their habitat and lives are endangered. Even though the dream image was powerful, I didn’t know exactly what an orangutan looked like when I woke up except a large, long-armed primate with red hair. I found beautiful images in the public domain, some of which I’ve shared. My favorite was a short video of an orangutan mother taking care of her naughty child. I watched repeatedly, giggling with recognition. The mother was patient in a way I’m not.
Orangutan means “Person of the Forest” in the Malay language. Since I spend many hours in the forest, that idea grabbed me. At 100-200 pounds, they’re arboreal and seven times stronger than human beings. They’re rarely aggressive toward each other or humans. Gentle orangutan mothers stay with their babies seven years, nursing and protecting, while adult males live alone. I’ll read more about orangutans as Spirit and Soul Animals, but my goal is to find personal meaning, not someone else’s.
8. Paint or sculpt the image: Through painting, I saw new things (such as blood in the birth-giving) and made the image my own. In a first painting done in a friend’s studio, I didn’t know how to paint the female’s feet. They’re interesting in their strangeness. Ungrounded tree roots? I was surprised by orange halos around mother and child. I bought five 9 x 12 canvases to paint a dream series.
9. Watch for new clues from dreams and life: I notice what connects me with orangutan energy and imagine that reassuring gaze every day. I’ll keep this image alive for weeks or months, explore it and make it mine. When a dream image becomes a familiar, I learn new things about myself.
I hope you experiment with dreams in your own way. Maybe you’d rather paint than write or sculpt in clay instead of paint. Maybe you love collage. Maybe you’d like to browse on line to learn more about your dream image. You may find guidance without a definitive “this means that.”
Sometimes understanding comes as an “a-ha” moment weeks or years later, but not always. Making a powerful image conscious honors the dream as an inner messenger and transforms us without conceptual understanding. Tending our dreams connects us to Soul.
Do you record or write down your dreams? Do you find them meaningful or wish you did? What have you discovered about yourself from dreams? For other posts about dreams, see She’s Seven Now: When Dreams Lead the Way or Finding Balance during Grief: Healing Dreams and Creativity.