Dreaming with the Earth

by Karen Jaenke, Ph.D.

In the soft womb of the psyche lay the seeds of all creation. We enter that fertile darkness each night as we dream. Before anything enters into being, it must first enter imagination, and dreaming is the pure font of imagination. In the Australian Aboriginal creation story, everything in the universe comes into existence after first emerging in the dreamtime (Lawlor, 1991). If humans are to bring forth a new relationship to the Earth, its seeds will be in dreaming. Our dreams express the leading edge of creation.

Dream face (Karen Jaenke)

In addition to this indigenous perspective, evolutionary psychology recognizes dreaming as an ancient function, present in mammals for at least 220 million years. Dreaming sleep is a necessary evolutionary function that allows an animal to update its strategies for survival by integrating the total behavioral repertoire of the species encoded into the brain with the recent experience of the individual (Stevens, 1992). This “ancient mammalian process… evaluate[s] current experience against a store of encoded information… assembled over millions of years of evolution, [providing] a reliable template for guiding our actions” (Stevens and Price, 2000, p. 204). Because “our dreams nightly put us in touch with the wisdom of the two-million year old human being, who exists as a living potential within the collective unconscious of us all,” ancient wisdom is available to us (Stevens, 1992, p. 36).

Throughout our human presence on the planet, dreams have served an adaptive survival function, transmitting vital guidance for individuals and communities in times of crisis. We should expect no less, and indeed, far more, amidst the current global ecological crisis, which threatens survival for untold species. The environmental dilemma marks an evolutionary call to unfold the next phase of species development, presenting an initiatory threshold for the human species. Likening the present day ecological revolution to three prior major human revolutions—the agricultural revolution, the industrial revolution and the technological revolution—Joanna Macy names our current global crisis the Great Turning (1998).

Global warming presents a crucible for humanity, a heating up in which not only the planet but the human psyche is being cooked for alchemical transformation. Amidst this heating up, dreams offer sacred inklings and divine hints of a transformation both possible and necessary. Although dreams are only one pathway, they are our greatest source of inspiration and imagination, a perennial friend to the human soul in its trials, travails and triumphs upon the earth. As the global crisis heats to boiling point, earth dreams offer the first bubbles of awakening in the planetary imagination.

Karen Jaenke, M.Div., Ph.D., has taught qualitative research, dream studies, imaginal psychology, group process, and professional identity courses at Bay Area graduate schools since 1998. She currently serves as Chair of the Consciousness and Transformative Studies MA program at John F. Kennedy University in Pleasant Hill, CA. An executive editor of ReVision, she has edited issues on Imaginal Psychology and Shamanism, and contributed articles on dreams, participatory knowing, shamanism and evil. A graduate of Princeton Seminary and the California Institute of Integral Studies, her dissertation Personal Dreamscape as Ancestral Landscape explored the power of dreams to recover deep memory and indigenous ways of knowing. She founded Dreamhut Consulting, offering dissertation coaching, dream work, hypnotherapy consulting services in Marin, CA (www.dreamhut.org).

The universe addresses us personally in our dreams. Every night we are offered the opportunity to re-connect to our essential relatedness. Dispelling the illusion of separateness, our dreams pull back the veil, revealing the hidden energies into which our lives are woven. We are intimately part of the living splendor that spreads out on all sides before us, continuously in every direction; dreams transport us into this seamless fabric of being. Dreams are the experience of All This, entering the human psyche afresh at night, revealing interior depths and hidden threads that bind together the web of life.

Not only do dreams assist individuals to work through personal psychological issues, the dreaming soul carries and expresses a much larger agenda – as wide as the cosmos itself (Jaenke, 2000, 2004). Dreams labor to heal the fragmentations in our souls, in the nuclear family, in the wider community, with our ancestors, and with the entire web of earthly life. Dreams restore connection to the essential. Our immersion in this world – our dreams will help us remember that as well.

The most direct bridge from nature to the human being is through dreams. Jung recognized dreams as the language of Nature herself. “Nature speaks to us directly in dreams and myths” (Stevens, 1992, p. 30). Our dreams are voice of the natural mind, accessing an ancient database of images built up over the course of our evolutionary heritage, offering clues about how to restore the human-earth relationship. Even the chronicle of a single person’s dreams can illustrate the process of a dissociated, postmodern person being woven back into the web of life.

The relationship between the individual and the culture, between microcosm and macrocosm, is an intricate one. Unresolved conflicts in the collective culture become deposited within the soul of individuals, where they are carried and suffered by the individual—often escalating towards unbearable acuteness, demanding attention. Through personal angst, individuals are prodded to wrestle with conflicts that are simultaneously personal and collective, so that their own lives can flourish. When tensions in an individual’s life closely mirror unresolved tensions in the collective, the individual soul becomes a cauldron and laboratory for engaging such conflicts. By the deep work of inner wrestling, an individual participates in resolving discordant patterns found in the collective. While consciously bearing such conflicts, an individual’s dreams may spew forth archetypal images that bring healing resolution for tensions simultaneously personal and collective. Thus tending to one’s deepest wounds, fractures, and conflicts paradoxically carries medicine for the collective.

A growing chorus of voices today recognizes that collectively as a species, we have reached critical impasse. Here I contend that we must plummet the depths of our own psyches—to the point of resolving a pervasive human tendency towards psychological splitting—if we wish to heal the human-earth split, outwardly manifest as our ecological crisis. Our ecological crisis is the voice of the earth urgently beckoning humanity back into participatory kinship and balance.

Earth Communing Dreams

I have been blessed to receive many dreams of the earth. These extraordinarily beautiful and poignant dreams, among my most treasured ones, came over a period of approximately fifteen years at mid-life. Each time I come back into contact with them, I re-experience some of their power. Here are recounted some of my most significant earth dreams, along with the meanings I made from them.

Today I understand these earth dreams as addressing the pervasive effects of the bizarre circumstances that affected me at the beginning of my life. Although my parents loved me in their own way, as a young being I seemed to fall repeatedly through the cracks of their care, fated like Persephone to suddenly plunge into the clutches of the underworld. My early psychology was thus shaped by recurring episodes of being cast outside the networks of human protection, care and connection. These traumatic events left profound scars on my psyche that no human seemed able to perceive or touch. Thus I lived sealed within a strange prison of internal isolation, for which there were no words.

In mid-life, my dreams came to my rescue, giving me language for the hidden depths of being. The dreams coughed up images for all the unspoken things, furnishing pictures of the haunting monstrosities of childhood that secretly tormented me. Among the most remarkable dreams that I received were the dreams of the earth.

The first set of earth dreams to appear on the shores of my psyche seemed intent on mothering me. They provided mirroring for a psyche sealed in a void, cut off from humanity and the world. Counteracting my extreme psychological isolation, the earth dreams conveyed most dramatically that I was seen in the depths of my being by a larger-than-life presence, and that I belonged intimately to the earth.

Witnessing Rare Cosmic Events

When I first began attending to my dreams twenty years ago, one of the first striking and memorable earth dreams entailed witnessing the red-orange ball of sun falling into the ocean. If the story were captured in the newspaper, the headline would read: “The ocean swallows the sun!” It was not that the sun set behind the ocean, along some distant horizon, but rather that the ball of sunfire fell directly into the ocean, being swallowed alive. The orange-red disk became engulfed within the cool midnight blue waters of the ocean.

Even within the dreamworld, this scene registered as a cataclysm, a rare and unprecedented cosmic event, charged with shock and awe. A cosmic curtain opened, and I, an audience of one, witnessed an epochal event in the natural world, with that rare once-in-a-lifetime quality. Never mind the relative size differences of sun and ocean, as recognized by consensus reality. In the dream, these dimensions of scale were utterly reversed, with ocean, not sun, being the more all-encompassing reality, and with it, a clear sense of the absolute end of the sun’s existence. The sun would not rise the next day, but had fallen into the ocean, consumed completely in the vast expanse of the sea.

Today it seems obvious that this dream signified, in the most radical manner, the end of the reign of solar consciousness in my psyche. Until then, I carried a strong identification with my father’s world, and with a solar way of being. Fitting the classic description Sylvia Perera’s ‘daughter of the patriarchy,’ my life was embedded in the values and strivings of the daylight world, focused on conventional achievements, as measured by the consensus standards of waking reality. The dream signified that something else was emerging on my developmental horizon: an internal shift of cosmic proportions, an emerging attunement to nighttime, lunar, watery consciousness. For this to happen, the sun, solar consciousness, needed to die. The death of the sun came not by outward explosion, nor inner exhaustion of its fuel, as predicted by contemporary physicists, but rather by engulfment in the cool waters of the ocean.

While this psychological explanation holds valid meaning, it fails to convey the numinosity bursting from the seams of the dream. Indeed, the most salient aspects of the dream were the mysterium (wholly otherness), tremendum (awe, overpoweringness, energy or urgency) and fascination (attraction and uncanniness) that Rudolph Otto associates with experiences of the holy (1958). In fact, the impression of numinosity is what most remains with me today, nearly twenty years later.

Sun reflection (Gary Newman)

It is noteworthy that I play no active role in the dream, except to witness. But witnessing entails receiving the cosmic event fully into myself, being affected by its stark potency, allowing the uncanny to enter me, forever altering my way of being. The act of witnessing implies radical receptivity. Receptivity, a capacity of the feminine, attends the lunar, dreamtime consciousness, into which I was being initiated.

Today we all are witnesses, witnesses to the global effects of a millennial reign of solar consciousness. The human species has set in motion massive changes in the atmosphere, the waters, and the land that may well be beyond our most heroic efforts to reverse. We are being called to see our one-sided identification with the fiery, daylight, active solar consciousness in all its guises – the fire of the combustion engine and of nuclear power, the fire of war and burning acquisitive greed that ravages our planet. Humanity is being beckoned toward the watery, nighttime, lunar, receptive consciousness of the feminine. The dream points toward dethroning the one-sided solar consciousness that has reigned with patriarchal culture, and cultivating a relationship with the dark, watery, receptive feminine. This dialectical solar-lunar way of being hints at the global shift in consciousness so urgently needed in our times.

Dream Travel to Place of Personal Destiny

Another dream journey transports me to the deepest place in the ocean, with a stark encounter between vast ocean and solitary human.

I float on the surface of the ocean, at the place of greatest depth. Floating alone in the expanse of the ocean, aware of an unfathomable abyss beneath me, trepidation and awe fill my awareness. In surrender to these greater forces lies my sole source of protection.

Never having travelled remotely near this spot in waking life, the dream inspires geographic curiosity. I imagine the depths of ocean floor to be located somewhere in the vast expanse of the far Pacific. Consultation with a world map confirms the location of the Mariana Trench, near the Mariana Islands, east of the Philippines. The lowest point on earth is Challenger Deep, at the bottom of the Mariana Trench, at a depth of 35,797 feet, nearly seven miles below sea level.

For Carl Jung, the ocean conveyed the depths, mystery, inexhaustibility and fluidity of the unconscious psyche. The ocean, the origins of all life, is suggestive of the emergence of consciousness from original unconsciousness. The radical otherness of sea life from life on land is an apt parallel for the disparity between the unconscious and conscious psyche. The fluidity of emotional life and the vast, opaque mystery of the human psyche are well-symbolized by the ocean.

For me, the ocean is saturated with personal memories and meanings. As a child, my family made frequent weekend pilgrimages to the Atlantic Ocean, three hours drive away. I was never happier than during this family ritual to visit the ocean goddess. The ocean held a wonder that magically soothed my fractured psyche, though I did not yet have that story. As a child, the ocean simply was a great power and presence, to be revered and enjoyed. Failure to respect her majestic powers brought swift correction—in the form of crashing blows, with sand, surf and self tumbling in a murky mixture of threat and thrill. The ocean was also a generous giver of pleasure, offering full-bodied caresses in the waves. She granted endless wonder, along with visual delight—the endless play of shimmering sunlight dancing in motion across the dark surface of unfathomable depths. Many years later, at a major crossroads in my life as a young adult, when the psychic waters had all but dried up, I again sought refuge in proximity to the ocean, moving across the continent, far from family and friends, merging my life and destiny with the coastline of that other great ocean, the Pacific.

Yet lacking any actual connection to the place specified by the dream, the deepest place in the Pacific, I plunge into a search for the dream’s subjective meanings. The place of greatest oceanic depth mirrors my central life purpose or destiny. It speaks of a central psychological necessity—to cultivate a relationship with the depths. The dream, acting as travel agent of the soul, arranges a journey to a place of soul significance, one that echoes my life-calling, as one who must learn to swim in the depths of the unconscious, then share this gift with others.

Destiny refers to one’s core life purpose, the path that fulfills one’s potential, the way that aligns with the requirements of the soul’s unfolding. Destiny is not conferred by the human realm, but by a higher order of being—the spirit world or realm of ancestors. Personal destiny is revealed when the visionary dimension of being breaks through into consciousness, which occurs most typically during initiatory ordeals, near-death experiences, and destiny dreams. Destiny dreams bring epiphanies of the essential work of a lifetime.

Water lilies (Gary Newman)

Such destiny dreams weave us not only into connection with our higher purpose, but simultaneously into connection to the earth, tying the threads of biography to the threads of geography. The sacred place that marks one’s destiny carries profound personal meaning, recasting one’s life in a wider web of signification. By aligning with one’s destiny, the haunting sense of alienation and meaninglessness that stalks modern persons at the edges of awareness is quelled. We find the single thread that connects us to the entire web of life.

Dream Travel to Heal Core Wounds

In another dream some years later,

I am transported to the North Pole. Upon arriving at this place, charged with great magnetic power, I lay face down, with my belly spot over the magnetic center of the North Pole. From this position of alignment with the planetary magnetic field, a mysterious transmission enters the navel center of my being.

The belly is the bodily site of my earliest and deepest wounds. At the formative moment of birth, my belly center became the site of a dual transmission—the birth-inducing drug pitocin applied by doctor and blood toxicity from my mother. Suddenly, the oceanic bliss of the womb erupted into a site of chemical warfare. Blasted by foreign chemicals, suddenly I am catapulted into a life and death struggle.

My middle adulthood years became dedicated to uncovering and healing this life-defining trauma. And then the dream deposits me at the North Pole, where a transmission more potent than the original trauma occurs. The dream acts as an energetic reset button at the somatic site of my core wound. Aligning my belly center with the magnetic center of the earth, the birth trauma vortex is overshadowed by the planetary magnetic vortex. My body center becomes energetically realigned according to the earth’s central axis.

A short time later, I am carried on the wings of a dream to the South Pole. The dream experience of being at the South Pole almost defies description. A lifelong resident of the northern hemisphere, my basic orientation towards the north undergoes dizzying reversal, being turned upside down, inside out. Spatial disorientation and upheaval upend my familiar ways of organizing reality. As if to underscore the importance of the reversal effect, soon thereafter a second dream trip to the South Pole follows.

An analogy for the two dream journeys to the South Pole can be found in certain social rituals, in which an intentional reversal of the social norm is orchestrated. In such rituals, the norms of the status quo may be mocked and overturned, creating disruption of the usual social order. On “occasions of licensed reversal, or ritual inversion… the status quo is taken apart, relativized and often reconstituted in changed ways” (Bell, 1997, p. 120).

Being oriented to a Northern Hemisphere perspective, and having recently found healing at the North Pole, the visit to the South Pole invert reality. When taken together, the North and South Pole dreams suggest the insufficiency of healing personal wounds; one must also know the polar opposite of this reality. The polar opposite signifies a way of being defined neither by wounding nor healing. The visit to the South Pole neutralizes the dynamics of wounding-healing.

In a similar dream scenario, a friend dreams that the North and South Poles reverse their magnetic charge. The rivers began to flow in the opposite direction, upstream, towards their source. And so it may be that we are entering an era of planetary inversion, corresponding to the effects of global warming, with our dreams presaging reversals of planetary reality.

Earth Communing Dreams

Dreams of cosmic events and sacred places inspire and enliven, overflowing with numinous energy. Through the portal of a sacred site, one may be granted entrance into the secret interiority of special places upon the earth. Dreams journeys to sacred places impart a special sense of being chosen to receive a life-affirming or healing transmission. Such transmissions are simultaneously personal and transpersonal. Something objective and transcendent permeates these revelations, with the scale of forces so beyond the ordinary as to be transpersonal. The connection to macrocosmic forces both expands and humbles the self, bringing vulnerability and awe before the grandeur of creation.

Earth dreams may step in precisely where failures in parental and cultural transmission have left indelible scars on the soul. Such dreams compensate for the traumas and failures of family and culture that inevitably impinge on individuals. Earth-communing dreams touch places in the soul that have slipped through the safety nets of family and society, reclaiming us as children cared for by Mother Earth. Mothering, mirroring and mending the wounded soul, this initial body of earth dreams generated deep feelings of kinship between person and place.

Dream tree eye (Karen Jaenke)

Earth-communing dreams widen the horizons of the psyche. They bestow a sense of connection to the wider web of life; bring awareness of one’s sacred purpose; offer healing balm for core wounds; neutralize polarized dynamics; and confer a sense of being embraced and loved as a sacred child of the earth.

Dreams of the Earth’s Destruction

Once the process of mirroring and mending had rooted in the soil of my psyche, the focus of earth dreams seemed to shift, inviting me to enter into scenes of the earth’s destruction. Being met by Mother Earth in the fractured places of my psyche, now I was being asked to witness our earth in her afflictions.

Bearing Witness to Manmade Disasters

In a memorable dream of this kind,

I watch in horror as my father waves his arms wildly in ecstasy while a forest fire rages out of control around him. He appears like an orchestra conductor, directing and encouraging the flames to burn onward. I am horrified to see my father conducting and enjoying the destruction, and am filled with unspeakable anguish for the trees. My father and the fire are at a distance from me across an impassable ravine. There is nothing I can do to stop the destruction. I can only witness it.

In the dream it is unclear whether my father is the arsonist who started the fire, but he participates with full-blown excitement, deriving ecstatic pleasure from the fire’s destructive fury. In actual fact, my father is a lover of trees, serving as a board member for a non-profit organization whose chief activity is planting trees. So the dream is not a literal depiction of my father’s actual character, but rather presents a father figure possessed by a distorted relationship to fire and the energies of destruction. He represents a recognizable cultural male figure, one who achieves vitality through participation in violence and destruction.

Although we possess a god-given psychological need to enter into ecstatic states, neither apathy nor ecstasy is an appropriate response towards wide-scale destruction upon the earth.

Those who feed off mass destruction for their own ecstatic pleasure are possessed of a fundamentally problematic relationship to life. Being intoxicated by destructive forces, experiencing elation in the face of destruction, is a strange and horrifying aberration of human nature. To trade the life of countless other beings for one’s own fleeting pleasure displays a degree of narcissistic rage painful to fathom. Yet the dream asks me to face precisely this human aberration.

Being separated from the fire and my father by an impassable ravine, the only response available to me is to witness. The dream asks me to bear witness to a distorted human relationship to fire, to take in the dying anguish of the trees, sacrificed and consumed by the fires of human rage, to hold the catastrophic destruction at the center of my awareness, to stand present and allow myself to be affected by the tragic horror of it all.

And so the dream implies that to bear witness to the destruction, with eyes wide open, to remain present, to allow oneself to be impacted by the devastation, is an act of immeasurable import. By the act of silent witnessing, a conscious observing presence is inserted into the equation of destruction. Images of destruction pass through awareness and enter one’s being; they are preserved in the templates of consciousness for later recall.

The inclusion of a single conscious observing presence rescues a tragic event from meaningless oblivion. The presence of an observer confers on the event the dual possibilities of meaning and learning. Bearing witness to the violent wreckage is the only act of self-extension, of love, available to me, and the dream implies it is not in vain. My horror, grief, and empathy bestow silent honor on the trees, in their final vanishing from the face of the earth.

The witness, the one who surrenders to being affected by the dreadfulness of destruction, bears a noble though often unsung role, adding something vital to the total equation of destruction. In the midst of great desolation, the witness preserves respect for life and registers sensitivity to the tragic dimensions of loss. And not merely the loss, but the meaning of the loss is preserved through the witness. Through the witness, this meaning can enter the stream of human history, potentially altering its course.

The one who stays present amidst mass annihilation is forever changed—gifted with knowing something essential about the mysterious interplay between creation and destruction. The witness knows about the march of unleashed destruction and about the transitory precariousness of life. The witness knows the chilling horror of narcissistic rage, and the extreme aberrations that take residence within the human soul, wreaking havoc upon the world. The conscience of the witness becomes sensitized to life and death. For the great mistakes of humanity ultimately arise through our desensitization to the frailty of life and flailing of death. To those who bear witness, destructive events become initiatory encounters with the extremities of existence, where the fleeting breath of life meets the devouring jaws of death. Such encounters sear into consciousness the memory of life’s fragile vulnerability, quivering beneath a thin veil of robust indestructibility. The act of witnessing, with an open, undefended presence, the dream seems to say, is the first step. Witnessing is the initial, essential step that makes right action possible.

Entering the Grief of the Earth Body

A few days after arriving in New Zealand for the first time,

I dream of the virgin land of New Zealand being bombed during World War II. As the bomb falls nearby, a small group of us scatter into the woods, in hopes of lessening its impact. I feel the bomb’s assault enter the earth-body, which is simultaneously my body. My chest cavity, synonymous with the land, heaves with unspeakable grief and anguish.

I awaken to the sensation of receiving the bomb’s impact into the tissues of my flesh, with tightening across chest cavity and heart. Waves of profound grief roll through me in slow motion. The grief permeates my body, resetting my bio-rhythms to the heavy heave of heartache. Blanketed by grief, I lay still, breathing and absorbing unspeakable sorrow, for a long, long time. Ever so gradually the tightness and heaviness in my chest begins to lift. Then comes awareness of the pulsing of my heart, a surging in the midst of this weighty expanse of grief. Pain concentrates there. This is no ordinary human emotion, but a deep and enduring grief, wide as the landscape.

As my mind rises above the grief, I recall a recent conversation with a man whose pastime is playing internet war games, flying WW II virtual airplanes in a squadron with other New Zealand flyers. Intrigued and puzzled by his passion for flying virtual bombers, I became vaguely aware of a gender gap at the level of imagination. Now, in the wake of the dream, that shadowy vagueness coalesces into something more explicit. A vast gulf stands between his way of relating to WW II air bombings, via internet games, and my way, through dreaming, experiencing the grief of war in the cellular knowing of my body.

The dream presents a story at odds with the dominant cultural story of triumph that accompanies military victory. Beneath this heroic story lies another, hidden story that seems to reside in the recesses of bodily tissue. Wartime bombing brings a wound to the chest, a wound to the earth heart. Although the purported target of war is some human enemy, bombing involves a direct assault upon the earth.

Within the altered consciousness of the dream, a merging of human body and earth body takes place. My body, transformed into oneness with the earth body, absorbs the assault suffered by the earth into my own body consciousness. Within the gestalt of the dream, the human body becomes a conduit for the earth body. The interiority of the human body serves as a bridge to the interiority of the earth. My life feels strangely sacralized by the dream.

The dream descends into a topography where human body and earth body become joined in a holographic relationship. Similar patterns, arising across vast differences of scale, generate a single field of participatory knowing. The patterns of the larger reverberate within the smaller, the planetary within the personal. In these fluid intersections between microcosm and macrocosm, interchanges of knowing between human and earth and are mediated through the organ of the subtle body.

The dream also brings about a shift in identification—from the culture that drops bombs and plays war games, to the recipient of this action, the earth body. Under the spell of the dream, consciousness undergoes a radical shift from actor to receptor. Entering the standpoint of the earth receptively, we apprehend the speechless sufferings endured by the earth body.   

The dream offers clues concerning successive shifts in consciousness necessary to restore psychic kinship with the earth. Implied as a first step is the releasing of our fantasy of violence as a game. A second step entails bending imagination to experience from a receptive place the impact of human violence on the earth, entering the other side of our aggression and violence, from the recipient’s perspective, then allowing this awareness to sink into the caverns of cellular knowing. From these depths, a profound grief, locked within the human heart, opens. Surrendering to the waves of grief awakens buried kinship feelings for the earth. With this stirring of affective ties to the earth body, it is a small step to relinquish our species’ role as enactors of violence upon the earth.    

After the Destruction: Earth Healing Dreams

A third set of earth dreams, appearing more recently, move beyond the act of witnessing the earth’s destruction, with intimations of healing energies that can follow cataclysmic disasters. These dreams couple destruction scenes with images of forces that effectively counter-balance destruction.

After Fire, Retreat to Mountain Snow

In 1996, I moved from San Francisco to the Point Reyes Peninsula, just a few months after the 1995 Mt. Vision fire ravaged the Inverness Ridge, backbone of the peninsula. Twelve years later, the fire instead burns in my soul. I dream of fire burning out of control on the Point Reyes Peninsula, my beloved home of the last dozen years.

Facing the Inverness Ridge, I watch the fire climb the far side of the ridge, nearing the summit. Darkened sticks of timber along the crest of the ridge stand in contrast to the glowing bright orange background. Like a row of blackened pick-up sticks, each tree along the summit line drops backwards into the orange fiery mass, falling one after another, in a strange syncopated rhythm. It is horrifying to watch this beloved landscape undergo destruction. With all my being, I want to act, to do something, to halt the destruction.

Simultaneous to the dream, my body is undergoing the fiery ravages of menopause, my skin crawling with needling sensations, pricking indistinguishably from inside and out. My treasured job of seven years is in jeopardy, the entire work environment spinning into chaos and upheaval. My blood boils in protest, pounding fiercely against the vessels meant to contain it.

Ironically, synchronistically, two months after the dream, I move my residence to a cottage situated directly beneath Mt. Vision, the site where the sparks of the 1995 fire first ignited. During these same months, I visit an old lover, who re-sparks my affections, casting my choices and commitments of the last quarter century up in the air. My life situation is summed up by the dream’s stark and piercing imagery: the entire landscape I have inhabited for the last twelve years is undergoing rapid-fire destruction. The dream signifies the major transition ahead: my identity, constructed over the last dozen years, will succumb to demolition.  

The fire dream is followed one week later by a dream of retreating to the mountains for ten days, in order to “listen to the sound of the snow.” In this pairing of dreams, extreme heat and rapid destruction are counterbalanced by the cool stillness and timelessness of the mountains, resting under a blanket of snow. Immersion in profound silence and contemplative solitude are shown as the means for restoring equilibrium following the ravages of fire. So the snow dream offers practical guidance about how to balance the dynamics of overheating and burning within a single human life, while also suggesting how these grand energies are balanced on vast scales within nature. In the pair of fire and snow dreams, the cool stillness and silence of the snowy mountains is revealed as the balancing agent capable of restoring equilibrium after the fire’s destruction.

Counterbalancing Toxicity through Oneness

The motif of counterbalancing destructive forces appears in the next dream as well, although in this case, the destructive factor comes from toxic chemicals. We may well wonder how the increasing presence of toxins, released into the environment at unprecedented levels by our industrial way of life, can be counter-acted to support the continuation of life.” A dream gives hints about restoring balance in a situation of chemical contamination.

I work on the main floor of a large, warehouse-like building, while underground in the basement, toxic chemicals are being discharged into the workplace. The toxic chemicals, with the white stringy appearance of asbestos or angel hair, are already knee deep in the basement. Underground officials do not acknowledge the toxicity in their operations, and a strange atmosphere of danger and paranoia permeates the place.

In the next scene,

it is the end of the work week, Friday afternoon, and I am meeting a former boyfriend from my youth—we are going away together for the weekend. Entering one another’s presence in the hallway, after being separated by our work lives, mine in the warehouse and his in the office, instantly we are drawn into psychic communion. Without any exchange of words or touch, we are embraced by an all-encompassing field of oneness.

The dream strikingly juxtaposes a distrustful workplace infiltrated by toxins with the sweet bliss of communion between intimates. The two scenes stand side by side in sharp contrast. Indeed, the disparity between them suggests a rupture in the fabric of consciousness still in need of mending. The dream seems to offer a map for the soul work ahead, a guide for resolving conditions of toxicity through states of oneness.

Collective and personal meanings intersect in the dream. At the collective level, an industrial workplace operates blindly, producing and dispersing toxins with insufficient understanding or moral concern for the impact on human or environmental wellbeing. This attitude, commonplace in today’s corporate world, is tragically exemplified by the Gulf of Mexico oil disaster.

The dream echoes with autobiographical references to the toxicity present at my birth, and the abrupt end of the symbiotic oneness of the womb. The origins, birth, contains the power to set in motion life patterns: oneness turns toxic. Yet the dream resolutely reverses this plot: toxicity is followed by oneness.

While still under the spell of the dream’s altered state, I reach to translate the quality of oneness felt in the dream:

In our togetherness, a containing vessel forms, the container from which our individual lives can unfold. There is no gap to cross in order to connect; together we coexist within a single harmonious field, a ready-made intimacy.

Frosty thistle (Karen Jaenke)

In the dream, we are two young souls, still emotionally permeable to one another, not yet having injured one another, sensing, though not yet knowing one another’s deepest wounds. In waking life, we are two mature souls, having injured one another, a quarter century later finding our way back into connection, across the gap of years and injury. Our relationship now holds the full spectrum of possibilities: original oneness, injury and separation, reunion and restored oneness.

Although the specific image of oneness in the dream is highly personal, the field of oneness being depicted is universal. People experience merger states of oneness in at least three ways, according to Arthur Colman: through the religious experience of union with the divine, through couple love relationships, and through the dynamics of group life, when participation in a group becomes an engrossing experience and the individual is virtually lost in union with others (1995). Yet the original ground from which all three types of merger states arise is our primordial existence in the womb. “The concept of merger is a literal metaphor for one’s origin; we start life as dependent beings fused with the physiology of another person. There is no ‘I’ at the beginning” (1995, p. 24).

Colman elaborates:

Many philosophers and psychologists recognized that this early merged consciousness of infancy may hold the key to an entire range of ecstatic and mystical experiences and phenomenon… Many mystical and ecstatic traditions allude to fetal and infantile consciousness as the prototypes of spiritual bliss…. In these ecstatic states we are likely to experience a sense of merger or union with something outside our personal boundaries: God, the cosmos, nirvana. This is the reunifying experience of the adult (1995, p. 24-25).

The loss of this original oneness is a shattering experience, inflicting a profound trauma on the human psyche. However it occurs, the initial rupture between human and environment brings a shocking blow and loss of innocence. This break has been named “the basic fault” by Michael Balint, suggesting a fault line running through the foundation of the self (1992).

Foundational to the shaping of Western consciousness, the loss of primordial oneness is depicted in the creation myth of Western culture, the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the garden of paradise. When ruptures with the caring environment impinge on the impressionable young human, the psychological phenomenon of primal splitting typically results. Primal splitting marks the beginning of the great divide in our psychological development when a division is made in consciousness between me and not-me. Primal splitting sets up a fundamental opposition in the human psyche. When not met with corrective experiences that restore a caring environment, this fundamental opposition becomes writ large, projected and splattered across the horizons of the world.

Today primal splitting is an almost ubiquitous cultural phenomenon; it is so commonplace as to appear normative. The penchant for war-making, seeing enemies in the other; the production and release of toxic, anti-life chemicals into the environment; and the splitting of the atom all appear as cultural manifestations of a primal split in the psyche of Western man. Fundamentalist religions, today on the rise, constructing the world in dualistic oppositions of good versus evil, saved versus damned, heaven versus hell, are also expressions of this fundamental splitting tendency. Given the ubiquity of primal splitting, one of the tragedies of our civilization is a loss of collective ability to differentiate between that which expresses harmony with the life force, and that which opposes life. Sadly, as a culture, the possibility of conducting life from a place liberated from primal splitting is not even on our radar.

Amidst this pervasive cultural phenomenon of splitting reality, the dream announces that primal splitting can be neutralized, healed, via a return to oneness. There is a healing balm for toxicity, and it is to be found in the recovery of merger states of consciousness. States of oneness effectively counteract the attack on life, and splitting dynamics, that toxicity represents.

The two contrasting scenes in the dream hint at a choice point, a fork in the road ahead. Either we suffer the consequences of a growing toxic wasteland, with increased fear and paranoia, or we take the path leading to merger states of oneness, which also means healing the primal splitting at the foundation of the Western psyche. While resolving primal splitting is psychological work required of individuals, we can be supported or stymied in this most profound soul work by our communities and the surrounding culture.

Overcoming primal splitting entails a deep dive into the depths of the human soul, a descent into the core wound within each one of us. Perhaps as more individuals find the consequences of primal splitting intolerable, and are emboldened to descend into these primordial depths, a critical mass will be generated. The wake-up call of global warming may act as the igniting force for this alchemical transformation within the collective psyche, a call from our original Mother, the Earth, to come back into balance and oneness.

The Ecology of Earth Dreams

A Personal Story

In my twenty-year journey through the dream landscape, the earth dreams appearing along the path have led into the underground recesses of the human soul, and into psychic kinship with the earth. The path, which began in a fog of dissociation, opened in a clearing, with exquisite moments of being mirrored and met in the depths of my wounds by the Earth herself.

Then the path came upon horrific scenes of earth destruction—raging fires, bombings, toxic contamination—and asked that I return the gift of mirroring, by witnessing and feeling —in the cellular knowing of my body—the sufferings of the earth.

And finally, the path arrived at nature’s secret: the amazing potential for reversal! The destruction of fire, the spewing of toxins inimical to life, are met by the Forces of Reversal—the soothing coolness, stillness and silence of mountain snow; the sweet bliss of communion between intimates.

It is our intimacy with nature, our oneness with the earth body, that can heal our planetary wounds. Oneness with the earth body is, however, reached through the humble doorway of the human body. Consciousness must marry, and make love to, the matter of the body.

As consciousness descends into the hidden recesses of the body, we may well find that at its core, the human body harbors a primal wound. The outer sign of the buried wound is the phenomenon of primal splitting, which, while remaining unconscious, becomes projected and enacted on the world at large. Yet as the phenomenon of primal splitting dissolves, as consciousness merges with the body, it transforms into psychic kinship with the earth. When consciousness meets, marries and makes love to the primal wound, the offspring is an earth-cherishing consciousness.

A Collective Story

In this extended series of earth dreams, some patterns appear. The earth dreams explored here coalesce into three major groupings: earth communion, earth destruction, and earth healing—which might suggest the archetypal patterns of earth dreams appearing in our time.

First, earth communion dreams overcome our culturally-inherited psychic distance or dissociation from the land, inviting the dreamer into a deep feeling connection, or subjective re-enchantment, with the earth. Second are dreams that invite the dreamer to engage with images of the earth’s destruction. These dreams ask the dreamer to return the experience of being met by the earth, through the act of witnessing and feeling the earth’s destruction. Third are earth-healing dreams, which point towards what is necessary to restore balance in the human-earth relationship.

Earth communing dreams ooze with numinous life force energy, evoking awe and fascination, thereby commanding our attention and respect. They also address gaps in the mirroring function of mothering, conferring experiences of being seen and met in one’s depths by the Great Earth Mother herself! These dreams suggest that the initial step in recovering psychic kinship with the earth entails a subjective encounter with the earth’s elemental life force. According to Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry,

Without [the] entrancement… [that] comes from the immediate communion of the human with the natural world, a capacity to appreciate the ultimate subjectivity and spontaneities within every form of natural being,… it is unlikely that the human community will have the psychic energy needed for the renewal of the Earth (1992, p 268).

Earth communing dreams bathe the dreamer in the same bath of animating energy that washes over the planet. Experiences of this participatory field serve to reawaken psychic kinship between dreamer and earth.   

Dreams that weave us back into a soulful connection with the earth may serve as preparation for engaging with a more difficult type of dream, those that confront us with destruction upon the earth. Such dreams feature cataclysmic events with massive destruction and upheaval. Sometimes the destruction pictured originates in the natural world; other times, it is manmade.

We may wonder about the deeper purposes behind earth destruction dreams, so let us pause to consider this phenomenon. Natural catastrophe dreams can assist us in sorting out our relationship to the great powers of nature. As Swimme and Berry remind us:

Violence and destruction are dimensions of the universe. They are present at every level of existence: the elemental, the geological, the organic, the human. Chaos and disruption characterized every era of the universe, whether we speak of the fireball, the galactic emergence, the later generations of stars, or the planet Earth (1992, p. 51-52).

Dreams of massive destruction can help us confront and accept this natural and inevitable part of the great drama of creation. The staggering emotions these dreams evoke speak to the reality of our interwoven relationship to the earth, that what happens to the earth happens to us. Being in the presence of unleashed elemental forces, whether in waking or dreaming, can awaken a profound sense of awe, aliveness and participation. Boundaries between self and world dissolve when such elemental potency is loosened in the world. Developing a felt relationship with these elemental powers ultimately allows one to feel more at home on the earth. Coming into a conscious, respectful relationship with the grand forces of the natural world is part of becoming a whole human being, capable of living authentically as a participant in the unfolding story of the earth.

Dreams of natural disasters often parallel cataclysmic changes happening in the dreamer’s personal life, tending to appear during major life transitions, when our identity undergoes radical transformation. Drastic upheaval and change that disrupts our familiar identity structures are regularly depicted in dreams through tumultuous macrocosmic events that sweep through the landscape.

Still we should not assume that all natural disaster dreams are necessarily or only psychological in their import. Some natural disaster dreams may be premonitions or preparations for actual events, and others may ask the dreamer to become a psychic carrier of prior catastrophes, to bear some of the psychological weight of historical collective events. Given that disruptive events in the natural world carry widespread impact, they require a collectively-shared effort to be metabolized psychologically.

Cultivating an attitude of respect and reverence towards the great powers revealed in dreams can aid our survival in the midst of actual catastrophes, rendering our judgments more appropriate to the necessities of the moment. Acting in grandiose ways, with an inflated sense of power, or in collapsed ways, with a too cowering sense of self, can increase our risk in extreme situations. Facing these grand forces with a proportionate sense of humility, we become psychically open to receiving vital guidance from beyond.

Witnessing cataclysmic events in nature often elicits terror in the dreamer. So earth destruction dreams ask the dreamer to come into relationship not only with overwhelming destructive energies, but also with our very human capacity to be overcome by fear and terror. To stay in conscious relationship with the energies of terror requires a capacity to metabolize the intense physiological and emotional states activated by the human terror response. Full- blown terror, associated with the responses of fight, flight, freeze and appease, has been estimated to be many times that of orgasm (Levine, 1997)!

The process of learning to metabolize fear entails remaining present and aware amidst the acute physiological arousal of terror that tends to scatter awareness. It requires progressively overcoming dissociative tendencies that eject awareness from the body—by cultivating a mindful still presence amidst the swirls of fear, something akin to the calm center at the eye of a hurricane.

A more problematic type of destruction dream concerns manmade disasters. Such dreams share many aspects of natural disaster dreams but include an additional complication: we often feel that manmade disasters could have been averted. Manmade disasters are the result of human mishap, human error, human misdeed, or worse yet, human malice. Hence there is a moral weight of responsibility that must land on someone’s shoulders. Questions of human culpability and cover-up may cling insidiously to manmade disasters, hovering like a ghostly cloud. Not just human short-sightedness, but issues of deception and evil can enter the mix. The ills that attend manmade disasters can seem unbounded, with their effects elongating into future generations. Thus manmade disasters tend to collect psychic baggage that extends well beyond their immediate devastating physical impact.

Manmade disasters occurring within dreams invite us to engage with the psychic ramifications of such events, yet without having to contend with any physical effects. Hence these dreams offer a special opportunity to see what these events mean to us and how we can be in relation to them. Perhaps lessons learned on the psychic plane allow us to avert enacting disasters on the physical plane. For once destruction is unleashed into dense material reality, its consequences become more entrenched and weighty, far more difficult to disentangle.

When one faces the facts about the extinction of species, depletion of resources, destruction of habitats, and imminent global warming, the plight of planet earth may well seem doomed. Al Gore’s book and film An Inconvenient Truth confront us cognitively with the growing data pointing towards impending environmental collapse. But I have noted that dreams of the earth, when taken altogether, do not yet pronounce this outcome. While they do confront us with shocking and terrifying scenes of destruction, acting as a wake-up call, they also provide clues about processes necessary for earth healing. Earth destruction dreams, along with our affective and somatic responses to them, may be followed by images that show what is necessary for healing our relationship to the earth.

And so a third grouping of earth dreams concerns healing the human-earth relationship. These dreams address questions such as: How can the tide of destructive energies—unleashed upon the earth by many generations of human beings, and now reaching a critical tipping point—be turned towards healing? What ingredients are necessary for earth healing, from the perspective of dreams?

Earth healing is frequently portrayed in dreams as a matter of balancing opposing forces that have become grossly imbalanced. This principle of balance appears in many of the dreams presented above. When the ocean swallows the sun, burning heat meets cooling balm, fire enters water, light passes into darkness, solar consciousness shifts to lunar consciousness, a balancing of forces is implied. The journey to the North Pole is soon followed by a journey to the South Pole, where the electromagnetic field reverses, and all sense of orientation inverts to its polar opposite. A dreamer floats on the surface of the ocean, directly above the depths, with an implicit expectation of bridging the two. These images affirm an ancient wisdom that opposing forces must be balanced in the creation and sustenance of life.   

The principle of balance is profoundly understood and embraced by indigenous peoples. The dynamics of balance inform the ecological, cultural, and psycho-spiritual practices that enabled humans to flourish in harmony with the natural world for millennia. Apela Colorado of the Oneida tribe distills nine tenets of indigenous science, with the principle of balance as the centerpiece:

The purpose of indigenous science is to maintain balance…. The end point of an indigenous scientific process is a known, a recognized place. This point of balance, referred to by my own tribe as the Great Peace, is both peaceful and electrifyingly alive. In the joy of exact balance, creativity occurs, which is why we can think of our way of knowing as a life science…. When we reach the moment/place of balance we do not believe that we have transcended – we say that we are normal. Always we remain embodied in the natural world (Colorado, 1994, 1-2).

Both the natural world and the individual human, macrocosm and microcosm, thrive according to the principle of balance. There are perhaps endless dream examples of a restoration of balance, following the dominance of one element whose hyper-manifestation becomes inimical to the balance of the whole. Sky and earth, air and land, spirit and matter, fire and earth, light and dark, solar and lunar, upper and lower, ascent and descent, masculine and feminine, north and south, hot and cold, surface and depths, form pairs of opposites forever being reconciled in our dreams. These same balancing principles figure prominently in dreams of the earth.

Ancient wisdom recognized balance as the deep and abiding principle that secretly permeates all of life, the organic dynamism behind the unfolding of the universe. Earth dreams return us to this ancient wisdom.

Notes

1 Freud and Jung both built their models of the psyche based upon keen observations of dreams, their own and others’. At the frontiers of consciousness, our dreams, and other altered states, may well be our most reliable informants, guides and teachers.
2 Concerning daughters of the patriarchy, Perera states, “It is precisely the woman who has a poor relation to the mother, the one through whom the Self archetype first constellates, who tends to find her fulfillment through the father or the male beloved” (Descent to the Goddess, 1981, p. 11).
3 Located in the Mariana Islands group, at the southern end of the Mariana Trench, Challenger Deep is a relatively small slot-shaped depression in the bottom of a considerably larger crescent-shaped trench, which itself is an unusually deep feature in the ocean floor. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Extreme_points_of_Earth, accessed July 9, 2009.
4 For more on the complex role of metabolizing destructive collective events, see Lisa Herman’s recent ReVision article (Winter 2009) “Engaging Images of Evil: An Imaginal Approach to Historical Trauma.”
5 For more on accountability practices, see Anne Coelho’s recent ReVision article (Winter 2009), “Erotics of Accountability: A Psychological Approach.”

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