I drew down into the cave of myself
And lived off my fat. Now that food was safe,
The damage already done,
I would not eat. The chewed heart
Of pomegranate blocked my throat. . . .
Above the black walls of my world, the sun
Drifted in its ring of fire. With half
The journey done, it sent a signal down.
The ground above me split.
Like a child in the womb I felt
The tingle beneath the fingernails
That marks the end of death. (Stone, 1992, p. 22)
Contemporary western culture sadly does not place much stock in dreams. What were once seen by ancient peoples as potent messages from divine or demonic forces (Freud, 2001, p. 1) are now considered by many in the west to be inspired solely by the food they have eaten that night or to be incoherent images produced by neurons not worth a second thought. Freud and Jung came to a different conclusion, and both labored greatly to reestablish dreams as important parts of psychic life with great healing potential. Jung asserted that “dreams are the guiding words of the soul” (2009, p. 233), and it is with this belief in mind that I have approached my dreams. Like Persephone, I have been to the underworld and retreated “into the cave of myself” (Stone, 1992, p. 22), but by engaging with my dreams using elements of the work done by Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, Robert Johnson, and Steven Aizenstat, I have been able see the light through “the ground above me” and feel “the end of death” (1992, p. 22). As a result of this work, my ascent has begun, and I am ready to re/emerge into the land of the living.
When it has come to working with my dreams, I have found associations and research coupled with the various techniques described and developed by Jung, Johnson, and Aizenstat to yield much fruit. I struggle at times with expressing my feelings and often experience a lag between when I know something intellectually and when I believe it in every fiber of my being so writing, moving, and engaging with dreams through different creative modalities help and have provided much insight into my inner world. Many of my dreams, especially those treated here, have archetypal components, but there is so much material to explore and with which to engage in each of the dreams, active imaginations, visions, and art produced from them, that I know there is much more work to be done. However, before diving in to these materials, some autobiographical information will be helpful for context. While it is not pleasant to recount, the past is important in framing why these dreams have been so impactful and essential to my healing. I only ask the reader to view my parents with grace and love.
My mother and father separated when I was about 13 or 14 months old and finalized their divorce when I was around 2½. I remember some moments from when they were married, and the night my mom finally decided to leave my dad is scarred in my mind. In truth, the divorce was a blessing. I honestly do not think she would be alive had she stayed in the marriage, and I am not sure where I would be. However, due to fear and a naïve sense of hope on my mother’s part, she and my father had joint custody of me. He was not a kind man, was verbally, emotionally, and sexually abusive, and used both the threat and lack of physical abuse as a weapon. Beginning when I was 3, he started using unsupervised alone time with me as currency to repay some of his debts and in exchange for services. While my mom suspected I was suffering at the expense of his temper, she either did not know about or did not want to see the other. It has only been in the last year that I have begun to open my eyes and see the extent of the neglect and abuse.
When I was 7½, one of my best friends, Sierra, was murdered, and that is when I began to close myself off to the world. I was informed of her passing 4 days prior to Mother’s Day, but my family still expected me to go to the celebration that Sunday. While we were out at lunch, I began crying as the loss was very fresh. My mom told me that I had to get it together, and that my tears were inappropriate and needed to stop. I never really let myself cry very much after that. By the time I turned 10, I did not express very many feelings outwardly anymore, and I had no idea how to regulate or honor my emotions so I pushed them down. After that, I went out of my way to make myself unseen, unnoticeable, small and spent most of my teen and adult years at war with my body and spirit.
Until recently, I felt incredibly detached from my childhood and from important parts of myself that I truly believed had died. While in my soul, I knew they were not gone for good, intellectually, I could not see a way to recover them. My dreams have provided a wealth of healing content once I started to pay more attention to them; by harkening back to the past on one level, they have allowed me to finally heal those wounds while on the other, they have shown me the way forward (Jung, 2010, para. 444, p. 24).
Whitmont and Perera wrote that “dreams are a portal to the source of life” (1989, p. 180). This means that dreams not only emanate from the source, which “sustains and directs the individuation process throughout the dreamer’s life” (1989, p. 8), or Jung’s Self, but can also return the dreamer to it. My dreams have provided me with access to my truth and to my Self once more. Simultaneously, this source has been a treasure trove, and I am grateful to have reconnected to it.
December 22, 2019 marked the beginning of a new chapter for me after a journey with psilocybin mushrooms, and it is still unfolding. I had a numinous experience that night and another about a month later, which catapulted me into healing and prefigured the work and transformation in which I have been engaged ever since. The frequency of archetypal dreams since May 2020 is somewhat startling, and the revelatory, intense, disturbing, and powerful messages I received led me to Pacifica Graduate Institute. Within the first three weeks of coursework, the true initiation began.
On October 21, 2020, I finally accepted what I intuitively knew to be true for so long about my father. That night marked the beginning of my descent. About a week later, I woke up shortly after 4am from the following dream:
I am in the underworld. I am not dead, but a part of me has died, and I must rescue it if I want to come to back to the land of the living. It is grey and desolate and very cold, but I am not afraid. I just feel incredibly alone. It is overwhelming. (personal journal, October 27, 2020)
Unfortunately, I went back to bed without recording this dream, but when I awoke later that morning, I remembered the above and knew that the dream reached its culmination – I accomplished my task although I could not remember whom or what I rescued or how I did it. This ate away at me for the next month. No amount of dream work revealed the answer, but I knew the message would come again if it was meant to when the time was right.
On November 27, I received confirmation that these new revelations about my childhood were correct as my father had shared one of the incidents with someone. I was already in a dark place, and while the truth was affirming, I spiraled even further. The following day I spent over four hours with my watercolor pencils creating the image of the underworld as I saw it in my dream on October 27. I never revisited it, but this was the result:
Note. By H. Shields, 2020.
The night of December 4, I was sitting on my couch reading when I begin to feel an intense and anxious energy in my chest and a piercing pain in my right abdomen and back. I had felt this pain before and knew it was psychic in nature, but the sensation in my chest was strong and new. I tried to breathe through it, but that only made it worse, and I could not focus or relax. It was exhausting so I decided to lay down in bed thinking rest would do me well. As I was slipping into slumber, I had the following vision:
I am in the underworld. I have found the young girl who needs saving. The girl who was hurt, alone, and unprotected, but who still has so much joy and love. I am with her at the transition space between the underworld and the land of the living, and help her up. I stay, it is her turn now, and as I wave goodbye, she faces the sun with her arms upstretched towards it, and she is Joy. I know this is right, and all will be okay. She has been alone for so long, and now she is free. (personal journal, December 4, 2020)
Almost immediately, I got out of bed and drew what I had seen:
Note. By H. Shields, 2020.
This vision was numinous, and the image itself plus the experience of engaging with it through drawing brought me much peace and solace. However, while I had rescued myself in the dream world, I had yet to rescue my younger self in the waking world. I was overcome with the same anxiety and pain that lead up to that vision about a week later and decided to try an active imagination hoping it would yield answers. It certainly did, but it was far from what I expected:
who is this? you
. . . it’s you
what can I do to help? Listen
how? what do I need to hear? . . .
what am I missing? follow your heart
what is it I need? you need to get me
where are you? hell
how do I find you? listen
to the pain? yes
will I find you there? close
how old are you? 2
I’m coming. I promise. I love you. . . .
I shall. You’ll be safe soon. I promise. Is there anything else you need to tell me?
I love you too
(personal journal, December 11, 2020)
This interaction was highly disturbing and charged for me, and I let a lot of time pass before I felt comfortable engaging with these contents again. I wanted to listen, like my young self told me to, but I let my fear get in the way. While I continued to work with my therapist and with the content that had emerged from dreams prior and that were coming up through body memories, I slept so poorly and often awoke so abruptly that I did not remember or record many of the dreams I had after this.
The first dream I recalled in a while occurred the night before we began our residential days for a class on dreams required as a part of my graduate studies. Prior to our first dream lecture, we participated in an active imagination for our other class. We were invited to check in with a part of our past that was still alive and which would like to speak. As it had been almost two months since I left my 2 year old self behind, I decided to check in with her. It pained me greatly that I had prioritized my fear over her safety, and I felt incredibly sad and guilty about neglecting her that way, which I acknowledged when welcoming her in. The following active imagination was the result:
. . . I’m coming for you. I’m working really hard to make things safe for you. I’ll be there soon, and I love you. Are you here?
Yes. I want you to be okay too. I want you to feel loved. I want you to know you are good and strong. I love you, and I know I’ll see you soon. I hope you feel okay being here soon because I want you to be here. I need you to be here too. The world needs you here too. I know you’re coming, and I’ll be here when you’re redy [sic].
I love you so much.
I love you too.
Are you safe?
I will be.
I’ll be there soon. Please know you’re loved. You’re so brave, and I can’t wait to meet you again and give you a big hug. I’ll see you soon. (active imagination, February 5, 2021)
Witnessing her bravery and reconnecting with her renewed a sense of hope and connection within me, and it reignited my desire to begin my rescue mission and to heal. I believe this also prepared me for the following dreams and somatic experience which occurred over the next two days. I woke up from this dream the morning of February 6:
I am in the alley behind my mom’s house with her. I am in high school, but I don’t look how I looked in high school. It is maybe closer to how I look now. We are walking together and she seems anxious so I ask her what is going on. She is concerned about the time, and we figure out it is 2. She seems more flustered. When I ask her why, she says it is because she is missing her show. I ask her what show, and it is a show for children along the lines of Mister Rogers but hosted by Ghislaine Maxwell, who is in jail for child trafficking. I say something about how messed up that is and how shocked I am that a network would air that. And she makes some nonchalant comment about it and brushes it off. I ask why she would watch something like that, and she gives some bullsh*t answer about how it is addicting, and she doesn’t seem to care that it is problematic, concerning, or wrong. I walk with her in silence and am disappointed that this is on air, that she watches it, and that she is upset about missing it.
Later that day or week, I am ready for prom and am going with my best friend who I also have a huge crush on. I suspect he has a crush on me too and hope that maybe he’ll ask me out or kiss me tonight. I am waiting in my house. It is the house I grew up in, but it looks different inside. I am dressed in a beautiful light blue gown and my hair is flowing and beautiful. I am more beautiful than I’ve ever been in my entire life. I am radiant, and it isn’t just outer beauty. All the beautiful feminine strength, love, and energy is radiating out of me, and I look like how I imagine a goddess looks and am exuding that energy as well. I feel strong and beautiful and powerful. He shows up at the house, and I can tell he is overcome with emotion and that I have taken his breath away. It seems like he is going to say something about how beautiful I look or something kind, but as I said “hi” in a very energetic way because of how excited I am to see him, his energy abruptly changes and he says something somewhat shortly and then says “we’re going to be late” in a curt and demeaning way. (personal journal, February 7, 2021)
I recalled the following later:
We are in the house with our parents to take pictures before the dance, but this never happens. I believe both his parents are present along with my mom. Everyone is very uncomfortable with me radiating strong feminine energy, and no one knows what to do with it. They feel very threatened by it. (personal journal, February 7, 2021)
I had not slept well that night and awoke abruptly to my cat’s yowling as I had overslept, and her breakfast was late. There was not much time to record or work with the dream prior to class, but the associations upon which I came using Freud’s method, in which I brought my “impressions” (Freud, 2001, p. 4) to the fore through relating my conscious awareness and my past experiences to the dream images, were painfully clear to me. My mother was prioritizing a predator above my safety and my needs, and she was incredibly uncomfortable with me stepping back into my power. She facilitated my abuse in a way that paralleled Ghislaine Maxwell’s activities, although I believe my mother did so unknowingly. Less than a week prior to this dream, I moved back to the town in which I grew up and into an apartment with my step-sister. My mother and step-dad married shortly before I began high school, and old wounds reopened quickly. During high school, I went out of my way to flood my life with extracurricular activities to distract myself from the pain, and because I never showed it, I did not receive much emotional support. My divine inner feminine, which was already stifled, was essentially snuffed out, and yet, here in the dream, she reemerged albeit not fully integrated yet as she still desired approval from the mother and the animus.
During the lecture, we were given time to work with a dream figure or image through active imagination, and I chose the goddess who either visited through me in the dream or whose energy I embodied. I wrote a series of musings and questions in a stream of consciousness fashion before she spoke:
know this is true
know you are true
the disapproval has no space in your life or purpose, validity, or truth.
you are power. you are magic. you are divine. the goddess is within you, + you are within her. embrace her. embrace you. embrace yourself. embrace your truth. embrace your power. let your light shine + step into your magic. revel in your beauty + the beauty of your soul. allow the world to see your magic and you… (active imagination, February 6, 2021)
We were called back into class before I could finish, but somehow, I believe that the message ended there intentionally, allowing for an infinite number of possibilities and potential futures. I believe the messages carried over into the dream from which I awoke the next morning. Although I only remembered a few images, it was powerful and numinous enough to leave a lasting impression:
I am kneeling over a lake in what I sort of imagine a forest or landscape from Arthurian times to look like or something out of the legends of Avalon or where Druids would practice and celebrate. It is dusk but much closer to darkness than to light. I do not pay enough attention to the weather to remember it, but there is magic in the air. I know I am not scared and I feel at home or at least comfortable here. I do not see any animals, but I am aware of being surrounded by the magic of the natural world and the forest, and I am part of it. I am at the edge of the lake, but I am also in the lake and come up from I’m not sure where – I do not know if the lake is bottomless or if there is a bottom, but it is far deeper than what I think is normal for a lake. My higher self sees both versions of me – the one waiting on the land and the one in the water as I come towards the surface and ascend from the depths and step onto the land. Me on the edge of the lake sees her come out and knows it is her turn and that I have been reborn / that my true self has returned and is born. (personal journal, February 7, 2021)
During our class that day, we were led through a somatic exercise in which we were guided through meditation and movement to embody our dreams. The following is my reflection from the experience of moving with and in response to the images and from working with a witness afterwards:
I started lying on my back and ended up spending a lot of time in child’s pose, moving my arms around a lot. My conscious mind kept wanting me to stay down, but my body kept trying to move up. It felt like an energetic war, and I was wanting to cry. I felt like I needed to stay small, but my body and Self were begging/fighting to rise. Every few minutes, I rose a bit higher off the ground, but I was still hunched or curled up. Eventually I elevated myself enough off the ground to get kind of into a stance like how a sprinter coils up before running, and I was about to rise when the exercise started to come to a close so I stood, and it felt very powerful, but also I was sad that I didn’t get to do it on my own time as it felt rushed and less organic. But it felt freeing as well and like old was shedding.
The first question my dream partner asked me was if I carried any shame. And that really hit hard given my intense desire to stay small and hidden. My hair covered my face most of the time. He mentioned that Aphrodite was born fully grown out of the water and reminded me that in addition to her other roles, She was goddess of Beauty like the radiant beauty that comes from self-love. So I think every day I’m going to visualize myself being reborn in this way, coming through the water, and as I ascend, have the shame wash off me and step into my power and love and call that energy into my life through meditation every day. (personal journal, February 7, 2021)
The insights I received during this exercise were hugely significant. Within the dream and the movement exercise, there was an overwhelming energy of rebirth after death. My witness noticed this as well, and he shared that the images and energies reminded him of Persephone and her journey. Since this dream, I have found solace in engaging with both Goddesses and in calling the energies they embody into my life. Johnson referred to this as “the fourth step of Active Imagination” (1986, p. 196), which can be done by “acting out” (1986, p. 197) the content, or you can “incarnate it by doing a physical ritual or by integrating it into your practical life” (1986, p. 197). While it was just an idea in my journal, I kept my commitment and followed through on this important inner work. Every time I step into the shower, I imagine all the shame washing away from me, and I step out of the shower renewed. I meditate with this feeling of radical self-love every day, but there is so much rich material for engagement within these dreams and images that I have barely scratched the surface.
About a week later, I entered into a sort of dream-like state and just let myself paint. Figure 3 is of the dream image from this final dream, and Figure 4 is how I felt when I embraced and embodied a state of radical self-love.
Emerging from the Lake
Note. By H. Shields, 2021.
Radical Self Love
Note. By H. Shields, 2021.
It is incredible what can occur when existing in a state of “dreamtime consciousness” (Aizenstat, 2011, p. 159) during waking life. Dreams are not limited to the world of slumber or to the mind but are “a revelation of the living psyche, a dimension of experiences that exists everywhere, at all times, and includes all phenomena” (2011, pp. 159-160). I had no intention of creating a figure emerging from the water; I just poured paint, and she appeared.
Since engaging with the dream through paintings, I have been visited by dream figures and guides who have provided guidance, comfort, and inspiration on this path towards healing, wholeness, and rebirth. Some have come to visit without invitation, and others have come when I was not even in the dream state. Aizenstat attested to the powerful numinous experiences that can occur when entering into direct relationship with our dream images, which he calls hosting (2011, p. 40). He noted that “connecting to our imaginal intelligence opens the doors that lead to our fullest capacities” (2011, p. 53), which is something we can gain through these relationships, and with time and patience, “a new and important possibility arises: the capacity for revelation” (2011, p. 46). The relationships I have developed with these figures and their messages I hold with such sacredness that I do not wish to share them at this time, but they are important to note as the information they conveyed was groundbreaking and was the impetus for a very recent breakthrough noted below. I am grateful for what has emerged from this so far and am excited for what will unfold in the future.
As a result of all the healing materials that I have experienced in the dream world and in relationship with the images that I have begun integrating into waking life, I feel as though everything that no longer serves me and everything that was put on me that was not mine to carry is being stripped away. I am slowly getting to know my true self again. Even though I knew intellectually that what happened to me as a child was not my fault and that I was not bad, I have spent the majority of my life really believing that was so. On Tuesday, March 16, I started to believe the truth, and the following weeks, while intense, have been truly magical.
Jung wrote in his Collected Works:
The dream is a little hidden door in the innermost and secret recesses of the soul, opening into that cosmic night which was psyche long before there was any ego-consciousness, and which will remain psyche no matter how far our ego-consciousness extends. (as cited in Whitmont & Perera, 1989, p. 180)
Since childhood, I have felt trapped in a prison built for me by my family, but I was the one who eventually chose to close the doors and lock myself in. The prison is mine alone, and I can explore it at will, but there is a basement that is dark and terrifying, which I have avoided for many years. In the basement, there is a door. I had no idea what was on the other side, but I knew it could be nothing good. My dreams as doors helped me feel brave enough to visit the basement. On March 16, I finally opened the door and found it was the way out all along.
I am turning thirty this year and have no idea what the future has in store for me, which is honestly exhilarating. I did not think I would make it this long given all that I and others have done to hurt my body and spirit; it is truly miraculous that I am here. For the first time in my life, I want to be here, and because I am finally listening to the source, the pain is dwindling. While there is still anger to be processed, I am excited, and I finally believe in my soul that I was not at fault or responsible for what happened to me as a child and that I am good. As the Goddess spoke to me through my active imagination, I am realizing that I am power, magic, and divine. Around this time last year, I worked with my non-dominant hand drawing and writing affirmations while in an altered state of consciousness and produced the following which aligns with and reinforces the message from Her last month: “I am power, beauty, love, kindness, magic, peace, me, heather, infinite” (personal sketchbook, February 2020).
I can now happily say I finally believe this, and while this work has been incredibly painful, and there is still much to do, I am grateful and feel so immensely blessed. Working with my dreams and my dream images has played an integral role in getting me to this point, and after peeling back the years of untruths, I see an inner strength that is powerful and beautiful. Just like the young version of me throwing her arms in the air having seen the sun for the first time after years in the underworld, I am free. My final dream in which I emerged from the water has spurred me onwards to integrating Self, and because she is/I am back, I can finally go rescue my little two year old self who has been waiting for so long. It is time for us to re/emerge, and I cannot wait to meet her again.
Aizenstat, S. (2011). Dream tending: Awakening to the healing power of dreams. Spring Journal, Inc.
Freud, S. (2001). On dreams. Dover Publications.
Johnson, R. (1986). Inner work: Using dreams and active imagination for personal growth. HarperOne.
Jung, C. G. (2009). The red book: Liber novus. (S. Shamdasani, Ed.). W. W. Norton & Company.
Jung, C. G. (2010). Dreams. Princeton University Press.
Stone, A. (1992). Persephone’s First Season in Hell. Poetry, 161(1), 22. http://www.jstor.org/stable/20603347
Whitmont, E. C., & Perera, S. B. (1989). Dreams, a portal to the source. Routledge.