Earlier this year I experienced a nightmarish dream of a giant prawn trapped in an underwater cage. The colossal size of the creature’s head swaying and rocking out from the bars of the cage, beady eyes and appendages squirming as it struggled to free itself was horrifying. I’m positive it was screaming, or was that me? Eeeek.
The horror of this dream scene leeched into me for days. I found myself shuddering as I attempted to shake off this horrendous vision which would attack in deep sea-ed flashbacks during seemingly unrelated and random parts of my day.
Jung wasn’t kidding when he stated that in nightmares we meet dragons, shadowy characters, demons etc, all things which in no way touch the banalities of everyday. These awe-some (or awe-ful!) figures can haunt us until they are either eventually forgotten, written off as ‘merely a dream’ or banished to the murky underworld of the subconscious.
But what if, instead of ignoring, belittling or banishing them from our consciousness, we sat with these monsters and tuned into them?
What if we encountered these horrific images as intelligent presences complete with their own life force and unique energy and by transferring our consciousness into that particular life form we could extract the subtle bodily intelligence they possess?
This somatic experiencing is possible via mimicry and embodiment where the dreamer, during a therapy session, transits into the dream monster by mimicking its particular behaviours and characteristics and begins to identify with and embody other. Once transit has been established and the dreamer is in a state of dual consciousness (in that they are conscious of themselves but also aware of this new alien state of being) new information can emerge.
In the case of my giant crustacean, it wasn’t until I underwent a dream group Embodied Imagination therapy session that my initial response of fear and horror made way for something unexpected.
While I was deep in the therapeutic state experiencing the world through the alien crayfish, thrashing about the cage, appendages flailing, head reaching beyond that something interesting happened.
I became aware of my tail pressed against the bottom of the cage and could feel that the shell was coming loose. I realised I was moulting! This was followed by an ecstatic feeling that accompanied the sensation of shedding the shell I had outgrown. My direct somatic experience with the giant prawn had gifted me this remarkable perspective along with the newfound epiphany that once the moulting process came to completion I could break free from the shell and subsequently the cage. What a revelation! And what a distinctly opposing outcome from the fear and horror that this crustacean had initially elicited.
Of course I was quick to associate these themes of moulting and breaking free to some challenges I was experiencing in waking life however was encouraged by the group to sit with the sensations and experience of ‘other’ rather than jump to logic and reasoning.
This would maintain the spirit of the dream and allow for gnosis - a deep knowing that would leave space for integration and transformation.
I could also sense that my response to the deep sea dream monster had shifted from an objective repulsion and terror to the delicious subjective sensation of shedding and casting away worn off layers. By participating and identifying with my ‘monster’ it immediately become stripped of all power or as Taussig puts it ‘In some way or another one can protect oneself from evil spirits by portraying them’. I came to enjoy the flashbacks I once abhorred.
Similarly when I worked this form of dream therapy with a long standing client, the results were just as intriguing. L’s dream monster was an archetypal villain he likened to Jack Nicholson named Grandfather no 16. ‘A seriously bad hombre who had just been released from jail.’ Objectively L was repelled by this character and wanted little to do with him. However when L embodied Grandfather no 16, something extraordinary occurred. L’s posture began to change. His shoulders moved back, his position became more upright and his chin tilted upwards. There was surprise in his voice when he declared that Grandfather no 16 ‘has swagger!’. This unexpected insight gifted L with the sensation of confidence that was natural to this villain and that he could tap into when he wished.
And it’s not only to dream monsters that this form of therapy applies. Embodied imagination provides such a therapeutic tool that G, a 12 year old boy was treated for his fear of germs by transiting into an image of a shark hanging on his bedroom wall. Melbourne based psychotherapist Michelle Morris reported ‘By sensing its intelligence and nature while staying in dual consciousness G declared: Shark is the king of the sea – ‘I am the best’ – powerful. I am eating fish. The following week he had tried being brave and twice ate with his hands.’
Los Angeles based psychotherapist Robbie Bosnak goes further likening dream embodiment to martial arts ‘how you can go to the ones that oppose out against you, and as you become identified with their perspective and gain their force and like in the martial arts you begin to use the force of your opponent’.
In my experience, I have definitely found that working with client’s nightmares and dream monsters through embodiment has been empowering for them.
Have you ever struggled with a dream monster? I’d love to hear your experience in the comments below.
If you are currently struggling with a dream monster or nightmare and think Embodied Imagination Therapy could benefit you, please get in touch.
Caution: It is not advised for this form of dreamwork to be practised alone and without a trained professional.
Carl Jung: Memories, Dreams, Reflections. 1963
Patrick Harpur: The Philosopher's Secret Fire - A History of Imagination. 2002
Michael Taussig: Mimesis and Alterity. 1993
Robert Bosnak (video podcast) Spooky Dream Cafe. 2020
Martina Kocian: (dream) Creature from the deep 2020