In a phenomenon identified by C.G. Jung as collective dreams, individuals dream about culturally-shared realities. “A dream with collective meaning is valid in the first place for the dreamer, but it expresses at the same time the fact that this momentary problem is also a problem of other people…. Every individual problem is also the problem of the age….” (Jung, Collected Works 10, par. 323). Such dreams have a collective meaning and people instinctively want to share them.
The commencement of this column, Dreaming with the Collective, foregrounds the special wisdom of dreams in illuminating our common cultural concerns. This column aims to tap into the wisdom of dreaming in addressing today’s unprecedented societal and global issues. The shift in the Western orientation so urgently needed in our times, called the Great Turning by Joanna Macy and David Korten, refers to an epic shift from a 5000-year era of empires and earth domination to a new era of earth community; it can be fostered by attending to the undervalued perspectives of nighttime dream knowledge.
Rather than focusing on a particular societal or global issue, this piece addresses a sweeping one-sidedness, a root imbalance in collective life—the neglect of feminine ways of knowing and being. This deficit can appear in men and women alike, as it refers to an attitude, a predisposition, a perceptual and relational capacity, rather than to gendered bodies or roles.
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.
In classic Western thought, the “feminine” carries connotations of receptivity and passivity, in contrast to the penetrating and active orientation of the masculine principle. Susan Griffin finds that running throughout Western philosophy and culture, women are associated with earth and nature, as life-giving sustenance (1978). This line of thinking originates with Plato’s division of spirit and matter, where men and the masculine become associated with spirit and mind, and women and the feminine with matter, nature, earth and body (Griffin, 1978).1
In Eastern thought, yin-yang are two complementary forces in the universe emanating into all phenomena. Yin symbolizes earth, femaleness, darkness, passivity, and absorption, with yang connoting heaven, maleness, light, activity, and penetration (“Yinyang,” n.d.). According to Taoism, both proceed from an original Unity, with their mutual interplay being responsible for the actual processes of the universe and all its elements. When operating in balance or harmony, the two principles are depicted as the light and dark halves of a circle, equal in size. Emphasizing the mutual interpenetration of yin and yang, the black half includes a white dot while the white half includes a black dot. The complementary relationship of yin and yang means that as one increases the other decreases, leading to situations of imbalance.
A dream of mine draws different contours of meaning around the feminine, and by implication, the masculine. In the dream, a reality outside familiar cultural structures—something foreign—breaks through, radically altering perceptions. Expressing this foreignness, the dream is set halfway around the world, in a distant land.
I am visiting a foreign country—India or Nepal—one of the cradles of ancient religion. I enter a small dimly-lit and tightly packed shop, filled with exotic sacred objects, too many for the eye to take in. The space is brimming with religious and symbolic figurines and items stacked on shelves lining the walls from floor to ceiling. Gold is present on many of the sacred objects, cohering the many discrete items, shapes and colors with a golden-themed hue.
A man is covering for the shop owner, who is a mysterious woman with a spiritual aura, away for the month. He is receiving and unpacking a newly-arrived shipment of sacred objects. Among them is a small ornately carved sacred box, strikingly decorated with numinous stones. the box, which has caught my eye amid the myriad of things calling out, contains a series of boxes, housed one inside another, like Russian dolls. Each smaller box is more enchanting than the prior one, intricately carved and decorated with precious stones, arranged in receding layers of size and subtly. An overpowering fascination and spiritual yearning towards the specially-decorated boxes captivates me. I want to keep the boxes for a month until the shopkeeper returns, for they contain the fulfillment of my soul’s deepest longing.
The foreign location halfway across the world suggests the rarified otherness of the dream environment. The female shop-keeper, a master collector and proprietor of scared objects, who casts a spiritual aura around her, but is herself hidden from view—away from the shop yet mysteriously present in the background—hints at the atmosphere of the sacred feminine.
The central captivating image is the numinous sacred box, a box of many boxes. Womb, chalice, and container are all ancient symbols of the feminine denoting the primal containing and gestating space of the womb, resurfacing here as the box (Neuman, 1972). These connotations of the feminine derive from the elemental form and function of the female body. Meanwhile, the numinous box-of-boxes, found inside her shop (which itself functions as a container for sacred objects), illuminates the essential structure of the sacred feminine—a hidden enclosure partaking of receding degrees of interior depth and subtlety.
Yet unlike the womb, in the dream there is not just one containing space, but a series of them. The dream presents a sequence of enclosures, one inside the other, in ever receding fashion. The boxes emphasize a progression towards smaller and subtler hidden, interior spaces. The nesting of boxes of diminishing size accentuate interiority. Not only is there interiority, there are greater degrees of interiority.
Rather than the classic connotations of passive/active, or receptive/penetrating, the dream redefines the essential feminine as containment and interiority, with the implication that the masculine is associated with exteriority—a distinction that in fact mirrors female and male genitalia. More fundamentally, exterior and interior denote two prime ways of orienting and organizing human consciousness, two alternative attitudes or approaches to life.
Let’s look closer at these two aspects of the feminine, the containing function and interiority. First, the importance of containment and interiority are rendered invisible in patriarchal society. The chief evidence for the pervasive dismissal and disdain for the core feminine is the culmination of patriarchal culture in an environmental crisis endangering all life on Mother Earth. Disregard for the feminine equals disregard for the conditions under which life originates and thrives, in womb-like structures.
The womb is an enclosed space, a darkened environment, with a containing function; within this a protected space, creative things happen. Life requires a container, a protected space in which to grow and thrive. Psycho-therapists understand and adopt this principle as foundational to their craft and the psychological healing process. In order to heal the psyche of wounding, a safe and protected space is necessary, demarcated from everyday life, with its own special agreements and rules of operation. In patriarchal society this containing function, whether physical or psychological, is often rendered invisible. Instead, patriarchal culture focuses on and celebrates the action or drama occurring the foreground, not the holding space in which action takes place. The container or space in which action occurs becomes backgrounded, largely imperceptible.
A second defining feature of the feminine, interiority, refers again to a space, one that is concave in shape, recessed, and hidden from everyday view, tucked away. The feminine attitude mimics the womb as a life-giving interior space with hidden depth. The interior aspect is accentuated by the profound alteration of consciousness that accompanies the dream. Upon waking, my awareness was descended and deposited, suctioned as it were, into the inner recesses of my body. In the dream’s aftermath, my awareness emanates from the deep interiority of my body cavity, contrasting with a more typical surface or superficial awareness, hovering on the outer skin-layer of the self.
To grasp this notion of a receding interiority, consider several related images. Akin to the dream image of a series of nested boxes is the familiar Russian dolls, similarly stacked, one inside the other, suggesting diminishing degrees of size along with increasing of degrees of hiddenness and depth. A natural object partaking of a similar form is the onion with its many concentric layers, encircling a core. An everyday instance of retreating into a protected space or nested enclosure, occurs every night when we crawl under the layered covers of sheet, blanket, bedspread/comforter, with bedroom door closed, and outside doors locked tight. Similarly, when we lock our valuables inside a safe inside our closet inside our bedroom inside our house, we are participating in the same structure which conveys that what is most valuable dwells in a hidden place shrouded by many protective layers. An ancient symbol of layers leading to deeper interiority is the labyrinth, a pathway of concentric rings retreating to an innermost center.
Whichever image is adopted, an extended process is required to uncover all layers and reach the inmost center. The process of opening the Russian dolls cannot be done all at once, but requires a series of steps, repeated uncoverings. Watching a young child unpack the Russian dolls for the first time, with utter fascination and bemusement at the repeating surprise of yet a smaller doll inside, sparks sheer delight! Through the eyes of a child, we reencounter the wonder of this mystery! The secrets of interiority, which partake of a range of depths, are not revealed all at once, but only through a process of successive engagement with diminishing scale yet increasing subtlety. When exploring interiority, the perceptual faculties that register slighter degrees of subtlety are awakened, just as a mediator discovers upon bringing sustained focus and concentration. The layers of mind open up hidden subtlety to a person persistent in attending to interiority, the building block of inner coherence.
The feminine attitude mimics the womb as a life-giving interior space with hidden depth.
Movement into interiority, with its mysterious realms and depths, and successive refinements of subtlety, is radically opposite the typical directional attention of American culture, with its pervasive “bigger is better” mindset, outward orientation, excessive stimulation of the senses, surface gaze, and superficial views. We see today’s youth caving in under the pressures of surface appearances produced by social media. In mainstream culture, attention is constantly drawn and directed outward, skating across surfaces, constantly rebounding here, then there, with short attention span. Interior versus exterior gaze, as a fundamental orientation to life, then, applies not only to the attitude of an individual, but also the culture. Looking without versus within, as a basic predisposition, transmits into social orientations and societal organizations.2 Historically, Asian cultures are more introverted, with Western cultures decidedly extroverted. “The inner life is the shadow of Western culture” (Kremer, 2023).
As a contemporary gauge of the predominance of the external attitude in Western culture, we need look no further than the Covid-19 pandemic. The virus brought a potential corrective along the interior-exterior axis of attention, with a socially-endorsed invitation to interiority, writ large across the entire globe. The necessity of social isolation to curb the spread of the virus delivered an unprecedented break in the status quo, with a rare opportunity to reorient lifestyle and attitude from exterior focus to interior.
Physical lockdown and restrictions on our movement offered a unique opportunity for all of us to travel inwards and sit with ourselves. The external limitations also offered an opportunity to work on healing and renew our vision for a better future…. With the arrival of COVID-19, many people have been forced to take the inward journey…. [D]eprived of tools for distracting ourselves away from the soul’s calling… [we are] forced us to listen to our deeper calling as we once did long ago (Soholm, 2020).
Instead, there was rampant ranting and kvetching in the streets against the limitations imposed by social distancing. The masses were utterly ill-prepared to enjoin a shift from outer to inner orientation. People struggled to make this life-saving adjustment of re-orienting their mindset and activities towards more solitary or interior pursuits, thus losing a special opportunity to grow a more balanced, complex, and resilient consciousness that can comfortably and happily move in the mysterious depths of the inner world, as well as the outer world.
The interior universe is equally vast as the exterior one, ever present for pioneering exploration and enrichment. An exclusively exterior sensibility predisposes us to extract all meaning, purpose and value from the external physical and social world, taxing the body of the planet. The unsustainable depletion of our physical environment is exacerbated because collectively we lack access to the richness of an interior universe of depth. We could relieve mother earth of the unrelenting pressure of our extractive excesses by delving into the interior universe, finding sustenance, meaning, depth, and fulfillment there.
When collective consciousness becomes exclusively driven towards outer goals and manipulations of the external world, without an equal anchoring in the depths of interiority, the interior-exterior balance of mental health and wellbeing suffers, along with the earth. A lack of embodied awareness, anchored in the deep recesses of the body cavity, leads to an absence of awareness of the invisible, intangible, subtle dimensions that infuse, animate and sustain life (Llamazares, 2018).
Without the sensibilities of interiority, it becomes probable, perhaps inevitable, to damage the web of life. Lacking a taproot into the substrate of interiority, people are prone to act in indiscriminate ways that unconsciously injure the delicate balance of life. All life forms partake of layers of depth and interiority. The modern, traumatized self with its surface gaze doesn’t perceive these depths. Outer vision perceives external surfaces; inner vision perceives the interior depths. Only through accessing self-interiority can one imaginatively relate to the hidden interiority of another being. To the degree that we cultivate our own capacities of subtle sensing and perceiving, we are able to respect the subtle, intangible dimensions of other living beings. But when the outer world becomes the sole focus for deriving meaning and fulfillment, spread across an entire civilization, the delicate balance of living ecosystems becomes threatened.
How collective consciousness becomes disproportionately directed towards external pursuits merits further consideration. What causes attention to take on this excessive exterior drive, losing contact with the ground of interiority? The simple answer is trauma. In trauma, the mind-body system experiences a shattering jolt, and consciousness automatically ejects from the body. With dissociation, awareness no longer swims in the sensate body, but instead floats loosely around or above the body. Rather than circulating throughout the recesses of the body, awareness is re-positioned, in the zone of the head and outer surfaces of the body—or even detached from the body all together. Lacking tethering to the depths of interiority, the mind adopts a prevailing outward orientation towards life. Surface rather depth consciousness means a preoccupation with appearances and preponderance of superficial views. Along with dissociation and detachment comes numbness, loss of feeling, and inability to extend empathy to others.
Countering this up-and-out tendency, the boxes-within-boxes invite a staged descent into the interior underworld of the psyche, into the cavernous depths of the body. Instead of being projected outward, awareness turns and withdraws inward. The series of boxes depict the retreat of awareness into the hidden recesses of the body cavity and a progressive awakening of attention towards the small and subtle. The series of boxes symbolizes a series of interior spaces within the body, with its hidden chambers, recessed cavities. and cavernous depths.
If we embark on the interior journey, it will call for developing a capacity to attend to subtlety, being present to thought traces, faint feelings, and subtle sensations. The energy movements of the inner body register with about the same degree of lightness as a breeze grazing the skin. Transformative practices can aid in reorienting consciousness towards the interior pole. Embodiment practices, such as yoga, tai chi, and chi gong, bring conscious contact and communion with the subtle energies and deep ground of the body. Meditation funnels awareness in the inward direction. Attending to one’s dreams offers an unparalleled path for connecting to the deep well of interiority.
Taking the redirecting hint of the dream, the ills that today afflict society, accumulating over the generations of male-dominated reign, find correction by a relative shift in orientation and attention from exterior to interior. According to the theory of complementarity, the excessive exterior gaze of patriarchal culture is rebalanced by cultivating interior sources of knowing, meaning and depth. The sacred boxes herald the possibilities of a different direction for humanity, one whose consciousness is not boomeranging on the surfaces of self and society, but quietly recedes into an interior exploration of the bedrock of being.
Photo: Karen Jaenke
1. Yet under the distorted excesses of patriarchy, women also become receptive to male rage and victimization.
2. The interior-exterior distinction is formalized in Ken Wilber’s Four Quadrant model, where the left side of the quadrant depicts interior, subjective perspectives, with the right side of the quadrant holding the objective, exterior perspective. In the horizontal direction, a dividing line between upper and lower quadrants differentiates individual from collective perspectives. Putting all four perspectives together:
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