Grief is a sacred journey

9 Ways to Unpack a Powerful Dream

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Orangutan mother & child in acrylic (Elaine Mansfield)

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.

Bornean Orangutan mother & child (Wikimedia Commons)

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.

Adult orangutan (Pixabay Free Photo)

Young rescued orangutan (Wikimedia Commons)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Orangutan mother and child (public domain)

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.

Elaine’s acrylic painting (brown borders are sleeping orangutan backs)

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.

Photo by Bernard DUPONT (https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=40782225)

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.

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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.

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24 Comments
  1. Dear Lady of the Forest, this is just wonderful! Thank you so much Elaine for sharing more of your rich, insightful dream knowledge. You gift us with nine practical and creative ways to help us work with our own numinous night visions. You’ve covered lots of directions and many approaches here, all of which are highly effective. And, oh my goddess! What a truly amazing dream you’ve had.

    Relaxed in agitated surroundings, protective of her child, the all-seeing (Great) Mother cradles her new potential. A beautiful working model for humanity if ever I saw one! And one that brings me to the wonderful review you recently wrote for me as you cast your own soulful gaze over my (poetry) child. Thank you. If only the eyes could see deep enough! For all hearts, when open, are poetry in motion!

    There are many fascinating symbols to unpack in your enchanting dream, yet most of all, I am drawn to the child, and wonder what will become of her in the years to come. Maybe she will grow into a new book? Yesterday, in pure synchronicity I chanced upon this amazing orange, velvet gorilla (not orangutan though) lamp and found myself mysteriously drawn. The lightshade was above her head, beyond words really!

    As I reflect on the various demands placed on each of us throughout our lives, often to nurture and nourish many others, I wonder if the Soul guides us all in our dreams to witness, that despite the “noise” (however defined) we too can give birth, if we allow ourselves to do so, to second or third chances, openings in life. And like yourself, on the very night before we are to present our own baby to the “Heart-land.” Love and light always, Deborah.

    • I was excited when I woke up to this dream, Deborah. I can’t get that gaze out of my head. I don’t want to stop looking at her calm eyes. II also love the image of the patient mother with her young one in the video. Patience. Patience. Patience. We’ll get there. I held on to this one and explored in a variety of ways. Nine ways is a lot and they haven’t all received much attention, but they will. Dream tending or any kind of soul work takes time. One of my favorite ways to explore is telling the dream to someone. Fortunately, I have interested friends. Choosing just one way of exploration can be revelatory.

      As you point out, the dream came at a loaded moment in life. We all have those moments where step into something new. Jung in the Heartland still hasn’t shared the article in their newsletter, so I can’t share it either. I also have a video of my presentation. It will be interesting to watch dreams and inner worlds when I put this work into the outer world. It felt like a big step.

      Thank you again, Deborah, for feedback about the article when I felt stuck and unsure. Your message was “trust myself” and “follow the image.” That’s what I did. I hear you saying somethings similar now. Hang on to the powerful dream image and see where it takes you. With gratitude for you across the seas.

      • One of the ways I work with my own dreams is to explore them further within my poetry. The Dream of the Cosmos http://theliberatedsheep.com/dream-cosmos/ is my retelling of quite possibly the greatest dream I’ve ever had. Like yourself, I woke up incredibly excited!

        Ha-ha! I can’t stop thinking about Orangutans now! Great videos, I love how the mother displays both strength and gentleness. The tension of the opposites before my very eyes! What a joy to behold, that’s what Bowlby would’ve called very, “Secure attachment.”

        • Thank you for sharing the poem, Deborah. I was happy to revisit it and think of it in terms of “the greatest dream” you ever had. That’s gotta be a big dream. “Secure attachment” is a wonderful term, too. It describes the way I feel when I walk in my forest. And on that note, the sun came out for the first time in many days.

  2. I love this dream, Elaine. As one who spends most of my time in my head, animal dreams always feel like special reminders to pay attention to powerful instinctual forces within.

    I always ask myself which instinct it might it be. Jung said we have five: nurturance, activity, reflection, sex, and creativity. Certainly nurturance must be involved with that marvelous image of the Mother archetype. And how unusual that it’s an orangutan mother! Such an exotic image. And a new birth? Creativity? And reflection? Which you are obviously deeply involved in all the time. If it’s my dream I’m wondering if/how my instinct for reflection is birthing new creative life, especially in my capacity as nurturer.

    And orange! And the red blood. Yes, we don’t, can’t birth new life without pain and suffering. And such fiery colors associated with the rubedo stage of alchemy.

    Well anyway, I hope you don’t mind me sharing my own associations. I just can’t resist a fascinating dream. Whatever your new birth is, may it, and you, live well and prosper.

    Thank you for sharing your process. It’s an important gift.

    Jeanie

    • Thank you, Jeanie. I’m having an unusual number of animal dreams these days. Recently a snarly crippled dog rather than Great Mothers. (Had to face I’m angry about a few things I can’t do anything about like hearing, Vic’s mom’s needs, and more.)

      Nurturing my body and my creative work seems right. I’m still pondering why the dream mind chose orangutans and haven’t adequately explored the sleeping animals lying around mother and child and making a protective barrier between mother and chaos. The fiery colors came out strongly as I painted which is one reason I like to paint. Fortunately, the week after having the dream, I spent a few days visiting a good friend who is a painter and an expressive art’s therapist. I could paint in her studio while she worked on her own painting.

      I like your associations and have similar ones, Jeanie. I go for what resonates with me. I rarely think of Jung’s five instincts, so loved thinking of my dream in that way. It’s also nice to remember the powerful elephant and white bear dream I had after spending time working with you on our workshop. Something about presenting Jungian material to the world rather than just keeping it to myself stirs up inner animal symbols.

  3. Dear Friend,

    Well, I like that one even better than the Virgin. Something came to me reading this. Taking more than a moment gazing with the Mother, I see she is not afraid. Resolute. She will protect against threat.

    There is protection in her. If not gentleness, then a absolute perfection of never forcing. Exactly the right amount of strength in each instant. Okay, gentleness! That’s the primate brain in its pure, balletic form. And the video, that lovely piano waltzing to the movements, a human “something” that can create a thing so pleasing to the senses.

    I’ve been thinking about the “primate brain” obsessively for most of this decade. Sure, part of my childhood fascination still realizing itself. Sometimes I talk about it with whoever will listen and sometimes they make fun of me, which is great. But the point is I have been following this trope of what is animal in us, as us.

    I’m inhabiting the male human version which is perilously close to destroying its world. Or it seems that way sometimes. So of course she’s warding that off and will perfectly take care of her child right now, which, if we want to go toward the limit, the child is the universe. The perfection of caring for this very moment is a wonderful thing to realize.

    FW

    • Thank you, Fred. You’re right. She is not afraid. I’m sure about that when so many details of this orangutan energy remain a mystery. She protects the helpless, and she’s protected by the four large sleeping bodies framing her in the dream–only vague backs on the borders of my painting, but I’ll get there. She’s relaxed and receptive, a state that often eludes me. Our culture is enduring an eruption of patriarchal madness from men and also from women who uphold patriarchal values and teach them to their children. I haven’t thought of that scrawny baby as the universe but related it to a dream I had six months before Vic’s death when I was given a starving baby girl and my job was to care for her and protect her. I’ve tried to do that. But, yes, I can go with the song lyrics when thinking of that dependent baby: “We Are the World.”

      I look forward to conversations with you about the primate brain, among other things, when I visit you and Dotty this winter.

  4. Thanks Elaine so much and thanks also for Deborah and Jean’s added commentary. As you say Elaine, honour the
    Dream. Our own soul message. How wonderfully timely as well – yes I mostly write them down and ponder – and note happenings thoughts feelings etc in waking life. That deepening is so rich – thank you for sharing your dream and saying more about it.

    • Thank you, Susan. My Jungian dream loving friends show up for this post. Dreams have fascinated me since I was young. With the help of many teachers, I’ve found good ways to explore them even without expert interpretation. Recently, I tend to let interpretation be the last thing. I’m first interested in the sensory image and the feeling it evokes. I try to bring that image into consciousness and let it unfold there. Later, if I’m fortunate, intuition and thinking kick in to make meaning clear. Occasionally, a dream shows up with a clear meaning and message, but in this dream, the message seems to be encouragement to find the place in myself that connects to quiet, relaxed, receptive, nurturing energy. Painting more might reveal more. I’m especially interested in those vague sleeping orangutans and the protective boundary they create.

  5. I am writing my comment here among veterans of this practice I notice, but I do appreciate your clear presentation which I interpret as Dream Study 101.

    As I awaken, I can usually pull the edge of my last dream by the ear out of my subconscious. I can recall the dream vividly for an instant, and then promptly forget it. My conclusion: I must be more intentional with remembering.

    My plan: I have 3 journals. My gratitude journal decorated with lilacs and inscribed with John 1:16 on the cover; my Italian Lakes journal for rants, and then there’s a 3rd journal with a luminescent Tiffany design. I think I’ll devote part of it to recording my dreams. One dream I’ll never forget was driving in the dark blind-folded, which told me I was venting fear.

    Thanks, Elaine, for sharing your 9 pointers, an analytical way to explore the subconcious. Maybe that’s why it appeals to me.

    • Thanks for your reflections, Marian. Yes, dream veterans showed up to make comments. I gave 9 approaches so people could choose what appealed to them. These are all things I do, but not all at the same time and not for every small dream. Dreams come in cycles for me and now I’m not having so many.

      I have to be dream focused immediately on waking or I forget the dream story. It works to lie in bed without moving or talking after waking up. If I’ve had a dream, I tell the story to myself while still lying in bed with eyes closed. Sometimes I feel like I’m dredging the story out of the deeps, but it’s there if I’m quiet and listen. After retelling the dream to myself and making sure I have all the remembered pieces, I write it down in a notebook that I keep right by my bed for just this purpose. (Like you, I have lots of journals.) In recent years, I’ve typed dreams from my dream notebook into a large computer file with dates and all the info I had in the dream journal. This makes it easy to search themes (for example, I haven’t had another orangutan dream that I’ve forgotten). If I searched “mother,” I’d find many dreams. It’s another way to create order in an inherently disordered dream world.

      Your dream about driving blind-folded brings me back to two years of driving with eyes closed, in the dark with no lights, with blind-folds, etc. Every kind of image for inability to see the road or control the car. Mixed with this were dreams about being lost in my car, being stuck, sliding into water, driving into a ditch, etc. I’d had those sorts of dreams before, but there was a deluge in years after Vic died. My sense of who I was and being in the driver’s seat was shaken. I was not in charge of anything, including where I was going or how I was getting there. There was fear, too, since I couldn’t even imagine a future. I wonder what was happening to you in your outer life when your dream gave you the image of driving blind-folded.

  6. I have been keeping a dream journal for about a year, but I don’t dream very often because I don’t get enough sleep. I have dreams about water quite often that point to things I’m feeling anxious about. Most of my dreams tend to have an direct trigger I can pinpoint to a recent event in my daily life.

    • The more I watch, the more I’m interested in my unconscious responses to a situation. Sometimes when outer events are overwhelming, as in your case since your diagnosis, I don’t dream much. Once the crisis is over, I’m flooded with dreams. Watching for a dream is a lot like waiting for the Muse. It’s up to something outside our ego control, but if we show up with notebook and pen, we’ve done our part.

  7. I blogged about most of it: uncertainty about the loss of Aunt Ruthie through we knew she was fast fading from view, clearing out her house and selling it. Add to that our own house “exchange” which required a mortgage because we found the house we wanted before we sold our own. (Will they approve? Won’t they approve? ran through my mind until formal approval from the company, who controlled our next step.)

    In the end, though I drove blind-folded, I didn’t go over the cliff – ha!

    • I don’t go over the cliff either, Marian, or sink into deep water. Either the dream ends or help arrives. Often the dream helper is Vic, just as he pulled me out of roadside and psychological ditches in life.

  8. The Librarian of the Unseen University (in the Discworld novels by Terry Pratchett) became an orangutan after a magical accident; he refused to be turned back into a man. I always think orangutans are both magical and wise creatures.

    • Thank you, Viv, for the recommendation and the comment. Orangutans were both magical and wise in my dream. Did you see that third small unique group was found for the first time in Indonesia? They’re good at keeping the mystery since it’s hard for humans to get at them in tree canopies.

  9. Still trying to get in touch with my dreams. Thanks for all the ideas. Just getting them down on paper is a project. Maybe if I could remember them long enough to get them written in the journal hat sits on the night table, open and ready for dream notes, – I might find that my dreams are as colorful and meaningful as yours. Oh, thank you for that hilarious video. The idyllic scene, the romantic music, the rambunctious kid, and the mommy orangutan were perfect.

    • You’re on your way or already in the Land of Dreamtime, Robin. I’ve trained myself to watch for dreams, but I have far fewer that I did in the years after Vic died. Some portal to the unconscious stayed open for a long time then. I miss that floodgate, but don’t miss how painful it was to survive each day.

      I hope you have a magical and colorful journey? I know you will.

  10. I really enjoyed this article Elaine. You have such an intimate relationship with with your inner self, especially that it affords you to remember your dreams. I’d have to have a terrible nightmare that woke me startled to remember what it was that scared me awake. Other than that, I cannot recall my dreams often. But if I should wake from a disturbing dream, I’ll turn on the nightlight and write it down before it disappears. 🙂

    • Debby, I still remember a few disturbing dreams from when I was very young, particularly one of going to school and realizing I was naked. I think many of us felt naked when we started school. Last night I had a mildly threatening dream that didn’t startle me awake. I nearly slipped away. I followed my own advice and let myself relax back into the pillow and the dream re-emerged. Nothing terrible happened in the dream, but threat was clear. I wrote it down, including yesterday’s experiences of a long road trip. By the time I returned to my computer after breakfast to respond to your comment, I didn’t remember anything about the dream so read it again from my notebook. Those midnight stories are elusive and hard to catch.

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