Expansion and Contraction
in the Dreaming Body

Karen Jaenke, PhD

This article explores psycho-somatic states of expansion and contraction awakened by dreams, along with methods for consciously engaging with hypnopompic states in order to resolve the constrictions of trauma in favor of spaciousness.

First, it looks at several dreams of the author that confer expansive states. These dreams reveal that affect joy accompanies states of expansiveness in the subtle body.

Secondly, the article considers what disrupts and interferes with the human experience of joy, focusing on trauma. Experiences of trauma involving the freeze response impinge on our sense of spaciousness, resulting in fragmentation and constriction in the body-psyche, which is the antithesis of joy. With their healing impetus, dreams surface imagery depicting contracted states—dense and disturbing images to encounter and metabolize.

However, a meditative practice of meeting zones of contraction in the body-psyche with mindful awareness allows contraction to relax into spaciousness. By developing the robust mindfulness that is necessary to meet sites of extreme density in the body, trauma’s contraction is released into joyous expansion.

Literature Review

A brief review of the literature on somatic approaches to dreams provides a contextual framework for this exploration. First, I consider foundational tenets supplied by Joseph Campbell on the relationship of body anatomy to imagination, myths and dreams. Then, four somatic approaches to dreams are examined: Arnold Mindell’s dreambody approach of attending to channels and processes in the body to resolve symptoms; Eugene Gendlin’s focusing, felt sense and growth-direction approach; Robert Boznak’s embodiment method of anchoring dream images in the body; and Karen Jaenke’s hypnopomic approach to the somatic understructure of dreams.

In The Power of Myth (1988), 20th century mythologist Joseph Campbell emphasizes the bodily foundations that underlie imagination, dreams and myths. For Campbell the deepest source and framework for imagination is located in the anatomical organization of the human body. “The imagination is grounded in the energy of the organs of the body, and these are the same in all human beings. Since imagination comes out of one biological ground, it is bound to produce certain themes” (Campbell, 1988, p. 42). Moreover, according to Campbell, myths and dreams are storied depictions of the struggles, conflicts and potentials found within the body:

Dreams are manifestations in image form of the energies of the body in conflict with each other…. Myth is a manifestation in symbolic images, in metaphorical images, of the energies of the organs of the body in conflict with each other. This organ wants this, that organ wants that. The brain is one of the organs (1988, p. 39).

Similarly, noting a connection between dreams and body symptoms, Arnold Mindell (2002) coined the term dreambody, defined as “a multi-channeled information sender asking you to receive its message in many ways and notice how its information appears over and over again in dreams and body symptoms” (2002, p. 33). Following Freud (1953), Mindell differentiates between primary processes, those closer to awareness, including content that one can verbalize and consciously direct, and secondary processes, which are unconscious phenomena, like body symptoms and dreams, of which one is only vaguely aware and unable to control. Yet by discovering an unfolding psycho-somatic process, and amplifying its channel, Mindell discovered a symptom can turn into healing. His dreambody approach is highly specific to the individual situation and unpredictable, similar to the processes of nature.

Karen Jaenke, PhD Served as Chair of the Consciousness & Transformative Studies Masters degree program at National University (formerly John F. Kennedy University) from 2013 to 2022. In 2016, she launched and built the online modality for the Consciousness & Transformative Studies program, giving this cutting-edge program global reach. In 2021, she added to this leading-edge curriculum a Coach Training Program certified by the International Coaching Federation. Formerly, she served as Director of the Ecotherapy Certificate Program at JFKU (2011-14) and Dissertation Director at the Institute of Imaginal Studies in Petaluma, CA (2001-2008). An Executive Editor of ReVision: Journal of Consciousness and Transformation, she has edited journals and published articles on the topics of Imaginal Psychology, Shamanism and the Wounded West, Earth Dreaming, and Places of Hope, as well as numerous articles on dreams and consciousness. A repeat presenter at the International Association for the Study of Dreams, Society for the Study of Shamanism, and Science and Nonduality conferences, her creative vision synthesizes dreamwork, indigenous ways of knowing, subtle body awareness, living systems theory, and flow states.

Mindell’s dreambody work (2002) takes Jung’s practice of active imagination (1960), or consciously engaging with the impulses and images of one’s unconscious, and broadens it into a multi-channeled exploration. Mindell differentiates several different channels through which dreams and body processes seek to communicate information: the visual, auditory, kinesthetic, proprioceptive, and world channels. The first four of these refer to seeing, hearing, moving, and sensing/feeling, while the last refers to outer events that grab our attention. The proprioceptive channel refers to body awareness, namely, sensing and feeling the messages and sensations occurring inside the body, such as pain, tightness, cramping, pressure, blockage, constriction, or tingling.

In Let Your Body Interpret Your Dreams (1986), Eugene Gendlin applies his focusing method to dreams, encouraging dreamers to adopt a welcoming attitude towards the inchoate, nonverbal “felt sense” that often accompanies dreams, putting one’s attention on the “felt sense,” and seeing where the energy wants to move, where it opens, expands, or releases. Gendlin defines the “felt sense” in this way:

A felt sense is not a mental experience but a physical one. Physical. A bodily awareness of a situation or person or event. An internal aura that encompasses everything you feel and know about the given subject at a given time—encompasses it and communicates it to you all at once rather than detail by detail (1981, p. 32).

The felt sense is meaningful, though the meaning is initially unknown, so this practice requires an ability to suspend rational knowing, in favor of trusting an emergent process within the body. The “felt sense” offers vital clues to a “growth-direction,” incremental shifts seeking to emerge from within the body and the dream. This inner stirring is how life-energy feels when it organically moves forward. When a pro-life, forward-moving growth process is active, energy flows, bringing a sense of expansive spaciousness and inner guidance. The expansive movement in the body acts as a guide, confirming this little step or shift in awareness is in the right direction, i.e., in the direction of vitality. Conversely, mental resistance to the life energy brings constriction, tightness and narrowing. With practice, one learns to differentiate the expansive, life-enhancing growth direction, from blocked places where there is life-limitation, opposition, and constriction. Inherent in Gendlin’s approach is a profound trust in the deep guiding wisdom of the body. Implicitly, then, Gendlin’s method applies nonverbal somatic awareness to the dream discernment process, as a primary indication of the emerging growth possibilities of personhood.

I was first initiated into the paradox of spacious awareness through several dreams in which death played a prominent role; experiences of overflowing spacious joy accompanied this death imagery.

Robert Bosnak (2007) offers another somatic approach to dreams known as embodiment, defining embodied images with the help of recent dream and sleep brain research. Following Hobson (2002), he agrees that emotion is a primary shaper of dream plots. Following Solms (2000), he found that the part of the brain activated during dreaming is a region that spatially organizes information. Bosnak defines embodied images as “surrounding, imagined, quasi-physical environments and presences in and among which we find ourselves, presenting themselves as self-evidently real, accompanied by basic physiological processes” (2007, p. 41).

Embodiment is a type of dreamwork in which the affects and sensations associated with dream images are anchored in the body and then experienced simultaneously. The dreamer is facilitated to re-experience the dream, slowly and methodically in a frame-by-frame manner that reveals specific image-feeling-sensations. Adopting dual consciousness, simultaneously in waking consciousness verbalizing one’s experience while experiencing the dream environment, the dreamer’s awareness is brought to the details of the image environment, including affective states and physical sensations. When the affect is being fully experienced, the dreamer is asked to locate it in the body. After fully embodying the affective states and physical sensations together, the dreamer is guided towards another dream image, until the most significant dream images are anchored in the body.

Finally, by experiencing the various dream images simultaneously, along with their affective and somatic aspects, the dream is metabolized systemically, as a single simultaneous system, allowing for the psycho-somatic energy behind the dream to be gathered and cohered, then re-organized. This process “releases the static energy, clogged in dissociated isolation, into a larger system as a quickening fresh circulation” (2007, p 134).

In “Ode to the Intelligence of Dreams,” Karen Jaenke (2004) advocates applying Gendlin’s felt sense method during hypnopompia, the transitional state between sleeping and waking, while the dream is fresh and the dreamer remains in an altered state of consciousness. The conditions of hypnopompia offer “a vast gold mine for deep exploration of a cellular, bodily, ancestral kind of knowing” (2004, p. 8-9). Hypnopompia entails “a transition point in consciousness where there is a vortex or opening to enter the somatic underbelly of the dream, the place that the dream images are literally born and carried in the flesh” (Jaenke, 2004, p. 8). Building on Gendlin’s method, she finds that dreams: arise along the psycho-somatic interface; carry not only the well-known visual and verbal dimensions but also visceral dimensions; possess a somatic understructure, appearing in the body or subtle body in a particular configuration; constitute the body’s speech in image form; provide access to cellular memory deposits; hold their interpretive meaning in the body, in the precise corporeal way that the dream appears; possess a form of “intelligence built on the foundation of sensation”; and ultimately drive at “a completely awakened body… and vitalized person” (Jaenke, 2004, p. 9).

Through a practice of deep sensory awareness during the hypnopompic state, the attentive mind is carried into deep and unknown caverns of cellular memory and somatic awareness, into a primal knowing. [The] return to an archaic way of knowing…[transmits] contact with the primitive igniting spark of the life force. This descent into primeval origins, into an archaic awareness of a primordial animating force, quickens and refreshes the tired stasis of the (post)modern mind. It has the potential to counterbalance and heal the dominant evolutionary direction of human culture… an ever-increasing dissociation from nature (Jaenke, 2004, p. 9).

Expansive States in Dreams

Applying Gendlin’s sensory awareness method, this article seeks to explore states of expansion and contraction that appear in conjunction with dreams, accessed during the hypnopompic state of awakening through mindfulness. For each of us, dreams impart a natural, nightly, and direct expression from the depths of the psyche. Indeed, dreams arguably present the most direct and transparent voice of the soul regularly available to us.

The language of dreams is images. Dream images are often accompanied by intensified affects and bodily sensations, as well as perceptive insights into the dreamer’s life situation and the human condition. In addition, dreams bear both a retrospective function, assisting in gathering a more complete personal and collective memory, and a prospective function, with hints and openings to higher developmental potentials. Due to this prospective function, dreams can awaken previously unimagined expansive states of being.

Expansion in Death Dreams: A Personal Example

My most stunning and lucid states of expansive consciousness appeared in dreams. Notably, these expansive dream states were accompanied by the affect joy. The imagery of these joy-filled dreams coalesces into two types, which, at first glance, may appear startling—imagery associated with death, and imagery associated with physical matter. This surprising imagery hints at the paradoxical nature of expansive states and of joy.

Upon waking, floating in the in-between space between dreaming and waking—I am flooded with pure bliss.

I was first initiated into the paradox of spacious awareness through several dreams in which death played a prominent role; experiences of overflowing spacious joy accompanied this death imagery. The most striking of these death-joy dreams occurred while I was taking an intensive graduate course on Death and Dying in summer 1995, with an immersion, day and night, in readings, conversations, and musings on death. A few years earlier, I regularly encountered with death while working as a prison chaplain in an AIDS unit in the late 1980s. With no cure for this stigmatized and feared disease, men close to my own age, 30, were dying all around me from AIDS, moreover without any ability to fulfill a single final wish, due to their incarceration. Simultaneously, I visited the sole woman on death row in the state of New Jersey, who was facing a radically different type of death, ominous and foreboding, with even greater social stigma. With a little distance from the immediacy of these experiences, I welcomed the opportunity to explore death from an academic perspective

A few days after completing my final paper for the class, the following dream appeared:

A former professor of mine, an elder whom I held in high esteem, and his wife, also a cherished friend, have just died. I am at their house, [where I had previously house-sat for two summers], along with their four children, who are sorting through their belongings. While at the house, Gib, my former professor, calls on the phone from Death. We talk for a few minutes, before I finally gather the courage to ask him what it is like where he is. After a poignant pause, he confides, “Oh, Karen, it is the most wonderful thing. From here, I can see that at the core of all reality is bliss.” As he speaks, waves of pure bliss fill me, as if transmitted on the wings of his words. I enter a state of complete expansiveness, from which all boundaries, tensions, and fears are banished – I am one with all that is, without separations and contractions. It is the most complete and full state of being ever known to me.

Upon waking, floating in the in-between space between dreaming and waking—I am flooded with pure bliss. There is a vast opening into lucid awareness and spacious stillness. Gradually, this dissolves into reflective attention towards the subtle energies unleashed by the dream. Then comes a gradual falling away from the seamless expansiveness, descending through layers of reality, contracting at each layer, as I come back into awareness of my body, and my normal personality is re-constituted.

The contraction brings unimaginable anguish, tempered, however, by the consolation of having just glimpsed and partaken of ultimate reality. The epiphany being so utterly perfect, a secondary knowing suggests that an entire lifetime may be required to realize, inhabit, and embody this perfection of joy. I glimpse a possibility I did not know existed, and my soul’s desire to consciously cultivate spaciousness and joy has just been awakened.

…joy dwells at the boundary where the opposites, life and death, meet and merge into one another.

Subsequent dreams similarly coupled images of death with states of profound expansiveness and joy, indicating that joy is intimately bound, not only to profound ego-death, and utter submission to the ultimate mystery of death, but also that joy dwells at the boundary where the opposites, life and death, meet and merge into one another. The life-death polarity represents perhaps the most profound archetypal reality to be encountered; and at the synergistic place of their meeting, joy abounds.

Dreams of death often signify deep transformative processes at work. Death dreams may also offer windows or glimpses into other dimensions of reality. Dreams of death often usher in archetypal realms charged with numinous energies, challenging us to expand our capacity to experience and assimilate the most intense human emotions. Death dreams may challenge our conceptual and intellectual frameworks by expanding our notions of the real and the possible, transporting us to dimensions of experience and reality outside typical belief systems. Integrating such reality-shattering dreams may require deconstruction of prior worldviews and creation of new, vastly expanded frameworks or cosmology. Finally, death dreams may transport us into dimensions of reality designated as spiritual, radiating a sacred quality, bearing the presence of the numinous, eliciting utmost respect and reverence, inspiring “sacred emotions” of holy terror, solemn awe, as well as states of ultimate consolation, joy, and bliss.

Expansion in Dreams of Matter: A Personal Example

In addition to death as the harbinger of spaciousness, in my experience, a second distinct type of dream imagery accompanies vastly expansive states of consciousness, perhaps still more surprising and mysterious. These dreams concern matter—yes, material reality, all along its continuum from dense to subtle. Since these dreams depict transformations between matter and energy, dynamics of expansion and contraction, and the continuum from dense to subtle reality, the worldview and metaphors of quantum physics become pertinent.

The first of these “matter dreams” penetrates into the mystery behind the most dense form of matter encountered in our everyday lives, the stones. This dream appeared near the culmination of a group pilgrimage to the Arctic Circle region in summer 1997, during a cultural exchange with the Saami people, the last remaining indigenous peoples of Northern Europe. On the morning our group was to make the trek to an ancient, rock-carving site, the following dream synchronistically appeared:

Walking alone in thick woods, I find myself enmeshed in a thick tangle of branches, leaves, trunks, and vines, knotted together into a dense forest. Everything is cloaked in shades of gray: branches, vines, roots and undergrowth weave together into one intertwined mesh of gray. Making my way through the dense thicket, I notice something that stands apart from the vegetation—a tall standing stone. Angling towards it, I see a series of tall standing stones extending off to my left, dwarfing me. Rising in the shape of solid arches, the large gray boulders appear like grand hooded beings. Huge gray stones people the forest! Then suddenly I realize the stones are alive with energy—energy more immense and all-pervasive than any I’ve ever known. They are living beings just like me!

I awaken awash in a sea of energy. The surrounding space dances with motion. A mysterious vibration emanates equally everywhere, without beginning or end, source or direction. Within this electrified space, no discrete thing stands apart with its own form—there is only one continuous field, supercharged with pulsation. Boundaries of discrete things give way to fluid motion. Unceasing waves of energy envelop me. Quivering vibration is all that I know.

Suspended, my mind circles round one shifting impression and then another. This is matter and vibration—I swim here. Energy is everywhere and I float in it. A veil has been pulled back, the immense energy present in matter, E=mc2, has suddenly exploded from behind the appearance of solidity, unleashed in the room, in my body, in both all at once. So this is the energy of the stones, and they are alive! I awaken to the epiphany of my elemental kinship with the stones.

Dreams of death often signify deep transformative processes at work.

The living stones pummel me with energy more vitally alive than anything I have ever known! My electrified consciousness expands into the surrounding space, knowing no boundaries, losing all sense of self and non-self. Awareness of reality as one shimmering expanse of vibration, and the transparency of my participation within it, bestows effervescent joy.

These dramatic somatic shifts, occurring in the immediate aftermath of the dream—impart a wholly new sense of embodiment, as a light body composed of pure energy, with no solidity whatsoever. In addition, the stunning aliveness challenges the plodding density of my thought patterns, presenting a radically new vision of reality—as a seamless field of pure energy. The worldview     of the dream is akin to that of quantum physics, attesting that all matter is in fact energy, arranged according to different degrees of density.

Expansion in Dreams of Death and Matter: A Personal Example

While this dream reveals the superabundance of energy, vitality and joy present in the densest concentrations of matter naturally occurring on earth, a subsequent dream in winter 2001 exposes the mystery of matter at the opposite end of the continuum. It deposits me inside the life force of a single particle, traveling at the far edge of the universe, where new space is being unfurled. Transcending time and space, the dream reaches across a continuum as vast as the universe itself. Once again, death is the doorway into this expansive state:

My beloved grandmother, my precious dog and I stand together at a precarious three-way intersection near my house. Suddenly a red vehicle races towards us at top speed, and for a split nano-second, I know everything is about to change. Yet there is no time to act. The three of us are hit and thrown to the other side. We lose track of one another, and I find myself on a solitary journey travelling through space.

Disoriented, tumbling in space, I seek to find my bearings in this unfamiliar dimension of reality. I realize that here reality is composed of vortices or cones, narrow at one end and wide at the other. The only choice available to me is which way to orient within this vortex. I choose to orient towards the expansive direction, psychically gravitating towards greater expansiveness. Then I come to the expansive end of this vortex, only to discover that the wide end of the first vortex is the narrow end of the next vortex. Again, I am presented with the same choice—to go either narrow or wide, to constrict or expand. And again, I choose to orient towards the expansive direction. Then once again, the wide end of the second vortex becomes the narrow end of the next vortex. Again, I choose expansiveness.

This scenario repeats several times. Each time reaffirming my choice for expansion, finally I am carried as a solitary particle to the far edge of the universe, where new space itself is being created. At the far frontier of the cosmos, I travel as a light body across vast expanses, where matter exists in its least dense form, where single particles journey in unfathomable spaciousness. Participation in this unfurling of new space, spatiating as a light body particle, bestows ineffable freedom, lightness of being, bliss.

Upon awaking from this dream, my consciousness gradually reverses direction, passing back through successive degrees of contraction, from the most subtle to the more dense, until finally arriving at the familiar density that accompanies my normal self-awareness and recognizable personality.

The passage through death in the dream, along with revelation of out-of-this-world expansiveness on the other side, left me feeling quite tentative in life. For several weeks afterwards, there was an inescapable impression that physical death was coming. Entering such an otherworldly place of freedom, expansion, and bliss, it did not seem possible that my life could continue on. The dream must be a premonition, even preparation, for death. Yet after several weeks passed and death did not come, it dawned on me that instead the dream had imparted the task of remaining in life while realizing this utmost spaciousness in this lifetime, in this world, within the constraints of my physical existence. 

This extraordinary passage—traversing the cosmic distance from embodiment as dense physical matter to ultimate weightlessness and light, then back again—is also found in various spiritual traditions. The teachings of the Gnostics, for instance, convey a perception of how spirit becomes matter, as a movement from a subtle dimension into dense form. From this perspective, the process of incarnation, of taking on a body, entails a condensation or contraction from the light body of the spirit world, into the denser forms of embodiment found in our physical world. The incarnation process, going from the invisible spirit world into physical existence, necessitates a severe compression, a movement into great density, relative to the lightness of the spirit world, our original and final home.

The particle dream reveals the exquisite joy and freedom of the single particle, loosed from all bondage to other matter, thereby linking human bliss to ultimate spaciousness. Moreover, the dream transmits an experience that extends across the full spectrum of reality—from dense to subtle and back again. My consciousness traverses this entire continuum—from embodiment as a single particle at the far edge of the universe, where empty space is greatest —to the concentrated embodiment of a human body dwelling upon earth.

The living stones pummel me with energy more vitally alive than anything I have ever known.

When paired with the stones dream, taken together, the two dreams—of dense stones and single particle—herald the possibilities of expansiveness across the entire continuum of matter, and from Earth across the far-flung expanses of the universe. Boundaryless spaciousness is revealed as equally present in the tightly compressed rock, and in the tiniest speck of matter at the farthest reaches of the cosmos. Together these two dreams reveal the most marvelous truth: that across the entire continuum of reality, from dense to subtle, the possibilities of expansive consciousness remain ever present. Spacious awareness exists in potentia throughout the entire extension of the cosmos, vibrating within the heartbeat of all forms and appearances. “At the core of all reality is bliss!

States of Contraction in Trauma

If spacious awareness is present as a living potential across the entire continuum of the cosmos, why is it so challenging for human beings access and sustain expansive states of joy? And how can human beings, in their specifically human form—more compact and dense than the particle yet less densely concentrated than the stones—cultivate their own share in the cosmic joy potential deposited throughout creation?

The primary challenge for our species in participating in the greater joy of the cosmos is the reality of trauma. Trauma entails an experience of overwhelm, due to the impingement of other forces upon one’s own life force, which threatens the viability or vitality of one’s own existence. Etymologically, the word trauma, coming from Greek, means ‘wound’.

Since no one has long been in this world without encountering threats by other forces, in varying degrees, trauma is a reality we all must contend with in the quest for spaciousness and joy. Given the ubiquity of threatening forces, evolution equipped us with automatic mechanisms to respond to these vital threats. However, while our programmed response to immediate danger—fight, flight or freeze—helps us survive in a world that poses risks to our survival, it can also impede our participation in expansive states of consciousness.

Since trauma is a prime factor hindering our participation in expansive states of being, understanding our biological programming in response to danger and trauma is paradoxically relevant to the exploration of joy and expansive states of being. A short detour into the underlying dynamics of trauma reveals how the trauma response results in fragmentation and constriction, both of which are antithetical to the experience of spaciousness and joy.

The four components of trauma are: hyperarousal, constriction, dissociation, and freezing/immobility (Levine, 1997, p. 132). Helplessness is associated with the freeze response. In abject helplessness, immobilization and paralysis take over, preventing one from screaming, moving, or feeling (Levine, 1997, p. 142). None of these responses are under our voluntary control, but rather are embedded in our biological programming, occurring automatically, often outside conscious awareness.

…trauma assaults and overwhelms the processing centers of experience. The person is unable to digest the full experience in the moment it occurs.

When external forces impinge in a potentially life-threatening way, and danger is perceived, the initial response is typically shock; meanwhile the nervous system instinctively mobilizes tremendous resources to fight the threat through heightened arousal, energizing our survival mechanisms to meet the challenge. “The amount of energy mobilized [in a vital threat] is much higher than that mobilized for any other situation in our lives” (Levine, 1997, p. 133). Subsequently, when this energy is not discharged through the action of either fighting or fleeing, it becomes backed up in the nervous system. Trauma symptoms then arise “as short-term solutions to the dilemma of undischarged energy” (Levine, 1997, p. 134).

The fight and flight responses, if successfully executed, tend not to result in psychological trauma, for the tremendous energy mobilized through the physiology of alarm and adrenaline surge become discharged through the act of fighting or fleeing. However, if neither fight nor flight is possible, due to overpowering threat or the developmental limitations of immaturity (as in a fetus, infant or child), the freeze option remains the only recourse. When freezing occurs, the tremendous somatic energies aroused and mobilized for fight or flight are not discharged, but instead become dammed up in the nervous system, later generating energetic and emotional disturbances.1

The constriction of attention that typically occurs in threatening situations heightens one’s ability to focus on the threat and act in a maximally optimal way. When constriction fails as a sufficient strategy for mobilizing self-defense, the nervous system adopts the last resort, freezing and dissociation, as a means to channel the tremendous energies and overwhelming emotions of the hyper-aroused state.

Psychologically speaking, trauma entails an experience of extreme overwhelm; trauma assaults and overwhelms the processing centers of experience. The person is unable to digest the full experience in the moment it occurs. The normal mode of processing experience is intercepted by the shock response, and the traumatic event is automatically compartmentalized and set aside, i.e. suppressed or repressed, for later tending. This dramatic interruption in the flow of experience, known as dissociation, enables a person to endure experiences that in the moment are beyond endurance, serving a valuable survival function to keep the overwhelming emotions and undischarged energy of hyperarousal outside of conscious awareness. Dissociation refers to a breakdown in the continuity of a person’s felt sense, or bodily awareness.

The expanding universe as seen by the Hubble Space Telescope (Courtesy: NASA)

In the detaching of awareness from the body, the mind is employed “not to discover facts but to hide them” (Damasio, 1999, p. 28). What gets hidden is the body and its interiority. “Like a veil…, the screen partially removes from the mind the inner states of the body, those that constitute the flow of life” (Damasio, 1999, p. 28).

Dissociation severs the organic wholeness of experience, in various critical ways: a disconnection can occur between consciousness and the body; between one part of the body and the rest of the body; between awareness and emotions, thoughts and sensations; or between awareness and the memory of part or all of the threatening event (Levine, 1997, p. 140). Thus heavily traumatized individuals lose the ability to attend to their inner sensations and perceptions (Van der Kolk, 2006, p. 11). Hence the constituent elements of experience—cognition, affect, sensation and image—that under normal circumstances are held together cohesively and processed as a single unit, become fractured by overwhelming trauma.

However, the mechanism of dissociation serves to enable the psychological system to handle the state of overload—by fragmenting experience, dividing up and parceling out the totality of the trauma event into separate parcels or fragments, at least some of which are stored outside of conscious awareness. Then the body and the deep recesses of the unconscious psyche become repositories for the fragments of traumatic memory.

In the case of early developmental trauma, occurring in utero, or during birth, infancy or early childhood, the entire traumatic event and its impacts typically are repressed, i.e.,stored outside conscious awareness. When trauma occurs in adulthood, cognitive awareness of the traumatic event may not be entirely lost from awareness, but likely some of the affective and somatic components of trauma will be split off and preserved outside of consciousness. This divided state, while serving immediate survival, is not optimal in the long run.

Since trauma involves a fragmentation of experience, access to sustained joy becomes hampered, since joy is based upon unitive states of being. Ongoing access to joy can be restored following trauma—provided that the undischarged, constricted energy in the body is released and the parceled-out fragments of trauma memory are reclaimed in conscious awareness. Consequently, in the healing of trauma, images—which act as the integrative glue that binds together the experiential elements of cognition, affect and sensation—play a central role in recovering the memory and experience of trauma (Kalshed, 1997). Dreams—which are compositions of imagery, affect, sensation and cognition—possess an uncanny radar for locating unconscious sites where the unprocessed shards of traumatic memory are tucked away. 

To recap, fragmentation of experience, somatic freezing and contraction are the chief defensive mechanisms activated in trauma. The response of somatic constriction is has been observed at the cellular level. If a single cell is prodded with a sharp instrument, the cell contracts and recedes. With the removal of the sharp point, the contraction releases, and the cell resumes its normal shape. However, if the prick is repeated several times, the cell retains its constriction, even upon withdrawal of the intruding instrument (Judyth O. Weaver, personal communication, April 4, 1995).2 The microscopic response of the single cell highlights the fundamental organismic response to trauma: constriction. Contraction entails shifting into a state of increased compression and density. Thus, trauma generates densities of existence.

In human beings, the densities of existence that form following trauma are both physical and psychological. Bodily tissue, especially the tissue most directly affect by the traumatic assault, contracts, just as the single cell organism does. The body forms places of holding or even armoring in reaction to external threats. Similarly, in reaction to trauma, the human psyche contracts from its natural state of openness, trust, expansiveness, and participation. Expansiveness turns into contraction, trust into distrust, openness into defensiveness, participation into alienation.

If trauma is severe, contraction will also be severe, such that these densities of existence can become the primary psychological landscape inhabited by a heavily traumatized person. When a contracted state becomes dominant within a person’s psychology, such as when there is recurring trauma, it can be mistakenly regarded as the baseline or norm of existence. With recurring traumas and overlapping contractions within the body-psyche, a person can lose touch with the ability to imagine the possibilities of open, expansive, and participative states of being.

States of Contraction in Dreams

Expansive states—a living potential across the continuum of the cosmos—exist in dynamic interplay with contracted states, associated with danger and trauma. Given these twin realities, built into the deep structure of the cosmos and the deep structure of the human psyche, how then are expansive states and spacious awareness to be realized? How does one transform the trauma-based densities of existence into the expansive joy of participation? 

In order to answer this question, in this section, I delve deeper into dream imagery depicting states of contraction, along with practices for metabolizing these chilling images. For in order to shift the frozenness of trauma into the spaciousness of bliss, images of constriction, appearing either during waking or dreaming, must be faced and engaged. Drawing on my personal story, I consider three dreams that depict the crushing weight of trauma upon the body-psyche.

To discover how expansive bliss can be wrested from the trials and travails of life has formed a lifelong personal quest, as my fate was forged in the crucible of trauma, when the birth canal was transfigured into a chamber of trauma and torture. My birth involved two simultaneous assaults, and my birth story was subsequently pieced together as young adult from the fragments of my birth story as told by my mother, images provided by my dreams, and the traces of somatic memory etched into my body.

Stanislav Grof’s extensive research on birth trauma (1985) provides a theoretical framework for understanding birth trauma, and its profound impact on the psyche. Through techniques enabling deep unconscious exploration, Grof discovered the perinatal layer of the psyche, a bridge between the personal and collective unconscious. He identified four psychological stages of birth, concomitants of the biological stages of birth, deemed by him to be elemental perceptual structures underlying all of human experience.

In the first stage, or basic perinatal matrix (BPM I), the fetus floats unperturbed in the amniotic fluid in a state of oceanic bliss. This unitive state is mythologically associated with paradise and experiences of boundarylessness and cosmic spaciousness (Grof, 2012). However, disturbances to BPM I are often related to toxic changes in the body of the pregnant mother, typically experienced by the fetus as a dark and ominous threat and sense of being poisoned (Grof, 2012).

The second stage of birth, BPM II, is associated biologically with the constriction of uterine contractions when the cervix is not yet open, while psychologically, it is experienced a torturous, hellish confinement from which there is no-exit, arousing intense anxiety and existential despair (Grof, 2012). BPM III, the death-rebirth struggle, occurs after the cervix opens as the baby is propelled through the birth canal. Psychologically it entails a titanic struggle of extreme suffering, enduring strong pressures and intense energies, along with possible contact with biological material. BPM IV, the death-rebirth experience, is associated biologically with emergence from the birth canal and severing of the umbilical cord, and psychologically with emergence into the light and liberation (Grof, 2012).

Birth Trauma: A Personal Story

As an RH factor baby, my blood type (O negative) and my mother’s blood type (O positive) were fundamentally incompatible. In this situation, during labor the mother’s body registers the baby as a foreign entity and seeks to combat it biochemically, producing a toxic situation for the baby. As a result, I was born jaundiced. Secondly, my birth was medically induced, albeit for no medical reason. For the sheer convenience of the doctor, the drug Pitocin was utilized in order to produce my birth one hour following the preceding birth. Pitocin, a synthetic drug, mimics the natural hormones of the mother to initiate the birth process. The dose of Pitocin given instigated an unnatural, forced labor, with extreme contractions appearing from nowhere in rapid succession, violently pounding my head, catapulting me from the womb like a cannon ball. Meanwhile my mother was given a spinal block, making her unaware of the entire process.

Thus, I was flooded by toxicity while being violently beaten. These assaults became imprinted throughout my impressionable body-psyche. Adding insult to injury, I was born into an upwardly-ambitious family in the ego-driven, power-hungry D.C. area, for whom my suffering was invisible, with the expectation that I be normal and fit in, while adding my own achievements to the mix. The imposition of these social expectations meant excruciating social torment for my already-tattered soul.

As a young child, there were continuing assaults to my head, replaying what I endured in the tumultuous exit from the womb. My head became a strange attractor for trauma, as if something initiated in the womb was destined to recur throughout my childhood. My existence took hold under a dark spell, with an uncanny series of assaults to my head occurring repeatedly.

As a toddler I found myself suspended at the throat between the crib bars, nearly suffocating, hanging on for dear life, leaving the imprint of an early near-death experience. Two permanent scars, seared into my brow and forehead, marked early childhood clashes against the hard edges of dense reality. Then at biking age, while riding serpentine patterns in the street, my head hit the pavement, resulting in a concussion. Late childhood years brought headaches, which intensified into torturous migraines in young adulthood.

This layering of traumas is related to Stanislav Grof’s concept of COEXes, systems of condensed experience. “A COEX system consists of emotionally charged memories from different periods of our life that resemble each other in the quality of emotion or physical sensations that they share” (Grof, 2012, p. 38). Moreover, each COEX constellation, as a thematically-recurring experiential pattern, tends—

to be superimposed and anchored in a particular aspect of the trauma of birth… [T]he experience of birth is so complex and rich in emotions and physical sensations that it contains the elementary themes of all conceivable COEX systems in a prototypical form… [T]he COEX systems [are] general organizing principles of the human psyche (Grof, 2012, p. 39).

Dreams of Contraction: Personal Examples

The crushing weight and devastating impact of these various head traumas coalesced in a dream in 2006:

It is nighttime in the city. I’m out partaking of city life. I return late in the night to find my car, left behind in a nearly-empty parking lot, infused with a cast of golden orange light from street lamps. Glancing across the lot, I spot my car, whose body has been entirely crushed. The crushed car body sits loosely on top of the chassis and wheels, which are completely intact. Stunned, in disbelief, my first thought forms: “Who can I call to get this damage repaired?” I fear no one will agree to repair it, as this kind of damage gets labeled “totaled” and is sent to the junk yard. Still, the name ‘Car Care Center’ comes to mind. 

This image of the crushed car body was shocking and disturbing, yet it brought almost no affect. For several days, I was completely numb, a resurfacing of the freezing response. However, I immediately recalled a related dream from two days prior, in which I was being relentlessly chased by a man driving a crushing machine (similar to the Zamboni machines used to resurface ice skating rinks). In a series of scenes, I am running from the crushing machine, attempting to escape the threat of being crushed to death. This dream elicited intense fear, and I awoke in an adrenaline-soaked state of hyper alert, as if running for my life.

The dream of the crushing machine called up a much earlier dream from about fifteen years prior, in the early 1990s, during young adulthood when I was first exploring dreams and uncovering early traumas:

I am driving my car into the Lincoln or Holland tunnel in New York City, in heavy traffic that spirals downward, becoming ever more tightly compressed as it descends into the dark abyss of the tunnel. As the tunnel walls narrow, vehicles move together into greater density and concentration, metal boxes on wheels closing in on me.. Pressing nearest to me are two 18-wheeler trucks, with cranes and booms swinging loosely overhead. An ominous fear of being crushed to death engulfs me like pall.

The tunnel imagery also suggests my harrowing passage through the birth canal. My therapist and I felt this image depicted the near crushing of my ego as a young being, a near miss with psychosis. In the two more recent car dreams, at first, I run in fear, trying to escape the crushing machinery, while in the second dream, two days later, the dreaded outcome has occurred, the crushing forces have prevailed, the damage has been done to the car body. Fear is replaced by shock, disbelief, and numbness.

While seeking to digest this stark image, an analogy came to mind: the initiation of an Eskimo shaman who is taken out into the desolate cold for weeks or months, to contemplate his skeleton, while rubbing stones together. Being reduced to his skeleton, his initiation is completed when he receives the ritual name for each of his bones (O’Kane, 1994). The stark image of the crushed car body similarly symbolizes nearly complete destruction of the personality.

Bliss arises with moments of opening, when contraction relaxes its tight survival grip into the spaciousness of being. Thus, there is a bodily basis, a somatic ground, that participates in the manifestation and sustenance of authentic joy.

Cars in dreams often symbolize the body, as the body is the vehicle enabling movement through the world. After a day had passed, I was able to identify the portion of my physical body represented by the body of the crushed car, and also to notice that the chassis and tires beneath the car body were not crushed, but instead intact. It seemed that the chassis and tires referred to my hip structure and legs, the base and mobile parts, while the car body represents my upper body—torso and head—all that “sits” upon the base of hips and legs. The intact chassis and tires indicated that a portion of my body-psyche had not been crushed by the various traumas, but was still intact, allowing life to go on, without caving into a disintegration of the ego.

When bringing my attention to settle in the hip region, along the boundary between these two parts—the crushed car body and the intact chassis—I experienced a quickening of vitality. To my surprise, an abundance of trapped energy was collected here! Initially this appeared as a narrow yet steady stream of vitality flowing from beneath and beyond my familiar identity. Along this boundary, I contacted the presence of spaciousness, a flow of life force that both connected and grounded me. In contact with this bubbling of life energy, my sense of self became more relaxed, open, and spacious. Meditating on the chassis image, and becoming aware of the sensations pulsating along the hip line, I felt the old-compacted identity, built on top of the chassis, dissipating.

A shift from the crushing weight of trauma into spacious openness, vitality and joy was now transpiring. In order for the compressed density of trauma to be transformed into the exuberance of joy, the image of the crushed car body, and its associated affects and sensations, needed to be attended to, digested and integrated in conscious awareness.

Where trauma has been prominent, the road to joy travels through a psycho-somatic landscape in which states of compression and contraction are prominent features, acting as monuments of memory to earlier atrocities. Dreams, together with the altered consciousness of the hypnopompia, impart a precious gift, providing lucid access to these intensified states of contraction, as well as images and memories of earlier crushing experiences. I discovered that giving respect, attention, and receptive awareness to bodily sites of contraction, along with the associated imagery, opens the way to release and joy.

The hypnopompic state offers the ideal moment to work with the altered consciousness of both expansion and contraction. The energetic openings during hypnopompia are pure gifts from the dreaming realm, naturally bestowed by the sleep cycle without any effort on our part; in mythic terms, they are gifts from the god of sleep and dreams, Hypnos. When trauma has been buried and repressed, he hyper lucidity of hypnopompia is tantamount to a grace granted by the spirit realm, shining a light beam on the dynamics of expansion and contraction, thereby allowing a release of constriction and entry into spaciousness.

Transforming Contraction into Expansion

Given that our lives, like the universe itself, are set within the dynamic forces of contraction and expansion, how might the suffering of contraction transformed into the sublimity of expansion? Certainly, spaciousness must be cultivated amidst life’s inevitable assaults together with the proneness of the body-psyche to constrict and develop densities in response to trauma. Joy must be set free within the spaces of the soul’s suffering.

Amidst the trials and tribulations of life, there is embedded within the soul a relentless longing, perhaps even imperative, to realize the ecstasy of expansive states of being. Bliss arises with moments of opening, when contraction relaxes its tight survival grip into the spaciousness of being. Thus, there is a bodily basis, a somatic ground, that participates in the manifestation and sustenance of authentic joy. As joy is embodied and realized somatically (through releasing the densities of contraction held in the body), there is a potential that emerges, of cultivating spaciousness as an abiding way of being.

The interplay of expansion and contraction within the microcosm of the human being is derivative of macrocosmic dynamics of expansion and contraction. Contemporary physicists tell us that the universe both arises from and expresses elemental dynamics of contraction and expansion. The Big Bang, the explosive expansion into creation, emanates outward from an unfathomable density of compressed energy, the original black hole. Indeed, the world composed of multiple things, so majestically displayed before our eyes, emerges from a balanced tension between the forces of outward expansion and gravitational contraction that coheres matter and objects together.

The universe thrives on the edge of a knife. It if increased its strength of expansion it would blow up; if it decreased its strength of expansion it would collapse. By holding itself on the edge it enables a great beauty to unfold… By holding itself in the peace of a fecund balance of tensions, it enables planetary structures and living beings to blossom forth. Every being that thrives does so in a balance of creative tension (Swimme and Berry, 1992, p. 54).

Thus, consciously engaging states of contraction and expansion within the body-psyche deepens our conscious participation in the primordial patterns and organizing principles of the cosmos.

I adopt the primary framework of expansion and contraction based upon the imagery of the dreams discussed in this paper, as well as my direct experience of the fluctuations of the energy body in the hypnopompic state of consciousness. (While Peter Levine also incorporates certain metaphors from physics and chemistry into the trauma literature, he operates from a primarily contraction/expansion Newtonian model that does not incorporate advances in complexity theory—where concepts of fragmentation and reintegration have assumed greater importance.)

There is, however, a tendency for sites of contraction within the body-psyche to fall outside of awareness, to become hidden in shrouds of numbness, where the link between awareness and sensation is severed. Like black holes in space, these densities of the flesh become isolated from participation in the greater life force, forming dark holes where the light of joy is banished. Human embeddedness in these harsh densities of the body can lead to a turning away from the universal life process. Caught in the contraction side of the polarity, one can become severed from natural participative states and joy.

What restores these densities of existence to the joy of participation in the greater whole? According to Aftab Omer, awareness serves as the primary “transmuting agent” (personal communication, August 3, 2006).3 Conscious awareness must meet the sites of density within the body-psyche by using the muscle of attention. Attention directs psychic energy, thereby carrying power to shift these densities, melting frozen states of numbness. As awareness turns towards, rather than away from, these sites of density in the body-psyche, surrendering to the experience of tightening constriction, a surprising quickening of vitality and movement occurs.

Held within the sites of numbness and density in the body-psyche are earlier, perhaps forgotten, injuries that have receded from awareness and from life. Symptoms presenting as numbness and density are not meaningless, as they can superficially appear to be, but deeply meaningful traces relating directly to one’s biographical storehouse of experiences. With the sustained presence of the observing self, the memory of a prior assault, which initially shows up in zones of numbness, c breaks through the barrier erected to keep awareness out. Freud describes with eloquence this pivotal shift in consciousness—from victim to self-empowerment—which entails embracing the trauma as a worthy opponent:

[The patient] must find the courage to direct his attention to the phenomena of his illness. His illness must no longer seem contemptible, but must become an enemy worthy of his mettle, a piece of his personality, which has solid ground for existence, and out of which things of value for his future life have to be derived. The way is thus paved… for a reconciliation with the repressed material which is coming to expression in his symptoms, while at the same time a place is found for a certain tolerance for the state of being ill (Freud, 1914, p. 152).

Observing sites of density with unflinching awareness creates a spacious environment for the knot of density to relax and release, yielding a quickening of energy.

Theoretical Application

Cultivating expansive states paradoxically means attending to sites of contraction. Archetypal theory illuminates how the power of attention can transfigure contraction into expansion. Within archetypal theory, Jung theorized that archetypes partake of a bi-polar structure, organized according to positive and negative poles (Neumann, 1972). When an archetypal pattern intensifies and reaches its extremity of expression at either pole, there is a tendency for that pole to revert towards its opposite, similar to a pendulum that swings i in the other direction after reaching the far edge of its swing. Based on this principle, a shift towards the positive expansive pole can be affected in consciousness simply by a willingness to consciously suffer the intensities of contraction. Thus, one way to catalyze a shift from contraction towards expansion is to bring sustained concentrated attention to bear upon the contracted pole.

These states of contraction, black holes of being, initially feel dark, foreboding and impenetrable. The light of consciousness tends to avoid and resist contact with such impenetrable density. However, if the initial resistance to approaching these black holes of being can be overcome, a transforming movement towards spaciousness can occur.

Bringing the light of consciousness to shine upon sites of contraction within the body-psyche first requires cultivating the discipline of mindfulness, with a steady, unswerving attention, followed by allowing the gaze of the observing self to focus and rest in communion with the impenetrable density. Gradually, with practice, consciousness develops muscle to meet the intensity of density with unswerving awareness. Using the muscle of attention, a back-and-forth movement can occur, between the spaciousness of awareness and the dense zones that hold the compressed energies of traumatic memory. Eventually a rapprochement takes place between the two, such that an interactive field constellates between spacious awareness and somatic density.

Trauma, dreams, and hypnopompic experiences together offer sacred portals into the saturation of being.

The observing self, making the offering of sustained attention, naturally is affected and altered by coming into the presence of these psycho-somatic black holes. Conscious contact with density has a slowing influence on consciousness—just as matter in a solid state moves at a slower vibration than matter in a gaseous state. In addition to this slowing, stilling effect, meeting the deposits of density within the body-psyche imparts a profoundly concentrated quality to consciousness. By holding the dense knots within a field of observing awareness, consciousness itself gains greater concentration and coherence, shifting toward a more unified state of organization. The flighty, scattering effects of dissociation are gradually gathered into greater singularity. Consequently, attending to density generates internal coherence. As traumatized consciousness gathers back the scattered fragments into itself, in turn it receives the gift of a more coherent and concentrated center. As resistance to approaching the densities in one’s body-psyche fades, this concentrated centering of consciousness can become quite pleasant.

This dynamic interplay between spacious awareness and sites of somatic density, in which density gradually yields to and shifts into spaciousness, allows for a monumental figure-ground shift in perception and experience. This dance between density and spaciousness within consciousness has parallels at the material level of physical matter and empty space. While solid objects have conceded to the forces of gravitational contraction in order to come into existence, in fact they are composed of much more spaciousness than their appearance of solidity suggests to the naked eye. Thus, spaciousness underlies the outward appearance of density, both at the level of material objects and within consciousness.

Hence if engagement between awareness and density can be sustained, one mysteriously discovers its opposite—spaciousness—thereby unlocking the vitality and joy hidden within the apparent density. Bringing the spaciousness of awareness into communion with the densities of the body-psyche—that is, assimilating the numbness, heaviness, sadness, grief—the entire depressive downward turn of the soul associated with the residue of trauma—allows for a release of energy and an opening to joy.

Tolerating the sensations of density within the body tends to put one in touch with the deep well of grief held within the body. Grief, often experienced as dense sensation within the body, moves at a slow, almost still pace. It nearly stands still, and at times does. It silences. Surrendering into this still silence, detaching from all mental knowing and images, an ego death occurs. The traumatized identity ((in my dream, represented by the crushed body of the car), originally constructed to shut out awareness of trauma, dies. With this ego death, the stream of life stirs afresh with quickening movement (signified by chassis and wheels), partaking of greater spaciousness.


The vulnerable body that suffers the ordeal of trauma undergoes a contraction into the densities of existence. The frozenness of the traumatized body possesses a kinship with the stones, in whose density is hidden unimaginable energy, and vitality. The one who would know expansive joy as an abiding companion is paradoxical, asked to travel the continuum of the cosmos, befriending the densities of existence. This awake self who communes with contraction thereby transforms densities of existence into concentrations of being. While the densities of existence entail a closing off and retreat from life, this concentration of being is available for deepened participation in life and for expansive consciousness. For within the concentration of being is the dwelling place of the sacred, where joy abides and abounds. For the sacred is the saturation of being (Aftab Omer, personal communication, April 20, 2005).

Trauma, dreams, and hypnopompic experiences together offer sacred portals into the saturation of being. Dreams are symbol-rich—symbol in Greek literally means to throw together. With their multi-textured symbolism, activation of subtle body energies, and tendency to disturb the solidified structures of the egoic personality, dreams provide special access to the spaciousness of existence that is the essence of joy. Learning to pause and attend to the hypnopompic states that release the subtle energies of expansion and contraction accelerates the process of human growth at the depths of being.

While the “saturation of being” is offered initially as an evocative metaphor, phenomenologically it speaks to necessary, fate-driven encounters with experiences of density. As consciousness seeks to liberate itself from the constrictions of density, it vacillates, like a pendulum, between spacious awareness and contraction. These alternating states of expansion and contraction, and the symbolic imagery that accompanies them, feed and fuel the development of a soul that is saturated with being.

Thus, the traumatized individual, who undergoes trauma, enduring the tightening aperture of the freeze response, is invited to consciously know and intimately partake of the elemental dynamics of the universe, the dynamics of contraction and expansion. And this primal experience of participation confers a sense of belonging deeply, elementally, to the cosmos.

Photos: Karen Jaenke


1 While this article focuses on the role of dreams in releasing the freeze response of trauma, it should be noted that not all responses to life-threatening situations result in freezing and constriction. For some persons, traumatic threats are associated not with contraction but with an experience of greater lightness or diffusion in their sense of being. One example is the near-death experience, which may include some of the following elements, contributing not to contraction but to an experience of expansion: dissociation or detachment from the body, levitation with a view of one’s body from above, transcendent peace and or bliss, security, warmth, surrender and dissolution, and the presence of light. However, whenever dissociation occurs, the psycho-spiritual-social task of integration afterwards still remains.

2 Judyth O. Weaver is certified in Reichian Therapy, Somatic Experiencing, massage, Biodynamic Craniosacral Therapy, Pre- and Perinatal Therapy and teacher of Tai Chi Chuan, the Rosen Method and Sensory Awareness.

3 Aftab Omer’s work focuses on the emergence of human capacities within transformative learning communities and assisting organizations in tapping the creative potentials of conflict, diversity, and complexity.


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