There are two types of dreams that invariably bring folks straight into my practice, often shaking and trembling and more than a little troubled. They are dreams involving death and dreams involving sex. What is it about death and sex in dreams that makes us take things so seriously, so literally?
As the book I am currently working on is dedicated to dreams involving dying and the so-called dead, let’s talk now about sex in the dreamtime.
At an event I recently attended, a woman was asked by one of her friends if she and her husband would be interested in forming a couples dream group. “Oh, no,” the woman answered gravely, under her breath, “My husband would kill me if he ever found out who I’m having sex with in my dreams!” Hilarious!
Now, for those of you who are old enough . . . recall, if you will, a dream of yours involving sex. You may not be having sex dreams like the woman above, but as dreams involving sex are on the “top 10” list of the “most frequently dreamed” dreams, my good guess is that you’ve had at least one!
Okay . . . now, have you got the dream? In whatever detail you can remember, I want to invite you to notice the dream on its terms rather than on our waking-‐world terms. Therefore, it will be necessary to suspend your judgment of the dream images. (This is a necessary requirement to working with all dream material—but with sex dreams this seems particularly fraught and difficult to accomplish.)
If you are able to successfully suspend your judgment, what you’ll notice rather quickly is that the morality of the dreamtime is strikingly different than our waking-‐ world morality. In other words, and this is generally speaking of course, the sex we’re engaged in during the dream is not particularly troubling. It’s only when we awaken from the dream that we are filled with what might be called the “ooooohhh!” factor, or, as the case may be, the “ewwww!” factor.
But because it’s not terribly fruitful to talk in general terms when it comes to the dreamtime, let’s get specific. A dreamer comes to me with a dream involving sex with her mother:
“I discover that she has both a penis and a vagina,” the dreamer says. Then, “I’d heard that such things were possible, but I had no idea until now that my own mother is a hermaphrodite! I am exploring her sexually, feeling my way around with curiosity and amazement, even wonder. But it is definitely sexual. Everything unfolds in a lovely, just-‐so discovering sort of way, without even a hint of repulsion, and, in fact, only very pleasurable sex with a hermaphrodite, who also happens to be my mother. Until I awaken. In horror! Can you imagine? I am filled with repulsion and embarrassment. Why would I dream of having sex with mother? Of enjoying it, even? And why is she a hermaphrodite? And, oh, what’s wrong with me that I would dream something like this? I think I need professional help!”
The dreamer’s radically different responses to the dream—her pleasurable response during the dream, and her mortified reaction afterwards—provide a perfect example of the differences between the dreamtime morality and that of the waking-world. Ah, but the dreamtime is well aware of these differences, and indeed it uses the dynamic tension of these different responses to get our attention specifically.
“The soul is most profoundly moved,” James Hillman reminds us, “by images that are unnatural, distorted, twisted, and in pain.” The horror that this woman experiences upon waking, however, has everything to do with her inability to enter the dream on the dream’s terms; she takes the dream literally. But dreams do not speak a literal language. Dreams speak symbolically, in a hidden, ineffable language that seeks to draw us ever deeper into the mysteries of the heart.
So, let’s imagine that the dream involved having sex with a dream-hermaphrodite, that is, with someone whom the dreamer does not know, or whom she only knows from the dreamtime. We might further imagine then that her response upon waking would be altogether different. For one thing, we can readily imagine that the curiosity, wonder, and amazement she experiences while dreaming would be allowed to linger.
But the dream quite specifically uses her mother’s image in the dream. Let’s get curious about why, and what the dream might be trying to bring the dreamer into relationship with.
When we say that the dream uses her mother’s “image” what does this mean? Well, it’s actually rather easy for us to recognize that the image of the dreamer’s mother is not really her mother, right? For one thing, her actual mother is not a hermaphrodite, or an “intersex” (a newly introduced term for folks with ambiguous genitalia which is considered to be less stigmatizing).
Additionally, we all can readily imagine that her actual mother was somewhere sleeping in her own bed, perhaps dreaming her own dream, while this dream was unfolding in the dreamer’s sleep. But here’s the kicker: the image that the dreamer recognizes as being herself is not actually the dreamer, either. For she, too, is asleep in her bed! So the dream being she recognizes as herself is but an “image” of the dreamer, just as the character of her mother is but an image of the dreamer’s mother.
So then the next question is: why is this so? Well, as it turns out, it’s the set up of the dreamtime. In other words, the image that we readily identify as ourselves in the dream . . . the person who is usually at the center of the dream drama . . . is actually a “trick” of the dreamtime. That is, the “I” of the dreamtime is the absolutely necessary image, the one image that is generally required to keep us fully engaged. Soul will have out. So the dreamtime uses the one image that is indispensable to us: the “I” of the dreamtime in order to keep us engaged with the story that is written on our souls. This is so that as dreamers we can begin to see the drama unfold, as it were, “over there” in the dreamtime. So what is here, inside of us, can be seen and experienced “over there” upon the stage of our dreams. And it’s also so that what is over there in the dreamtime, can be experienced in here, that is, inside us as dreamers. The dreamtime merely helps us to see and feel, and to be touched into the story that is inside of us, played out as an engaging drama in our dreams in a larger context that is now connecting things, that is, connecting images and beings.
But time and again we overlook this. We take dreams, and especially those dreams involving sex, as though they’re literally happening. This is because the dream feels so real, and as though it’s actually happening. To us. With us. And it is! Only where it’s happening is in the imaginal, dreaming realm, the essential realm, and not in the literal, waking world of concrete, substantial things.
But it is at the very same time happening in our actual dreaming bodies. This is why there is sometimes a somatic response to a sexual dream—whether it’s a wet dream, or we awaken sexually aroused, or . . . (you can fill in the blank here with your own experience).
So let us now return to our example. In the case of this particular dream, the dreamtime brings the presences of the dreamer and her mother together for an intimate encounter, which happens to be sexual. But it’s important to keep in mind that the dream is not for the images themselves, or at least not for these images only. In other words, the dream is intended for the dreamer, for the gal sleeping in her bed, the very one who wakes up horrified after having dreamt of having sex with her hermaphrodite mother.
Without getting caught in the details as though they are literal then, what’s actually happening in this dream is that two beings that heretofore had not been brought into the intimate contact of discovery, are coming together (no pun intended!) with feeling, with sensual pleasure, with curiosity, and with wonder and amazement. In other words, with eros.
We moderns are accustomed to thinking of “eros” strictly in terms of sexual desire. But Eros, that Ancient Greek god of desire, whose name as well as his function, was to make explicit the connectedness between things and beings . . . things and beings that might otherwise imagine themselves as decidedly unconnected. Eros therefore brings together and “makes one from what was once two.” I am reminded here of that lovely poem by Robert Bly, The Third Body:
A man and a woman sit near each other,
and they do not long at this moment to be older, or younger, nor born
in any other nation, or time, or place.
They are content to be where they are, talking or not talking.
Their breaths together feed someone whom we do not know.
The man sees the way his fingers move;
he sees her hands close around a book she hands to him.
They obey a third body they have in common.
They have made a promise to love that body.
Age may come, parting may come, death will come.
A man and woman sit near each other;
as they breathe they feed someone we do not know,
someone we know of, whom we have never seen.
Bly sets the Third Body drama between a man and a woman in his poem, but it can be set anywhere. “Third” bodies are, in fact, everywhere, between everyone and everything. The question is: are we capable of engaging with them imaginally? In other words, eros is everywhere in the dreamtime, always connecting things, always bringing things together, always creating new imaginal beings between our dreaming bodies and the dream images themselves. Can we learn to show up, really show up?
The sexual organs of the dreamer’s mother is but another example of Eros at work, bringing both a penis and a vagina together in one image, so that the dreamer now gets to explore an altogether new “being” by feeling her way along, as it were. Isn’t this so that what the dreamer assumes she knows about her mother (and remember it’s not really her mother) gets put on hold while she “discovers” who this dreaming- mother-hermaphrodite being is in relation to the dreamer’s “touch”?
Isn’t this because sex is intended to be a discovery of being—between our own being and another’s? And, when sex is wonderful, isn’t this what makes it so wonderful? Because we are touched into being by another, that is, we are being discovered, just as we are discovering another. That third body, imaginally speaking, is being created between us. This is why what is discovered between two beings in the course of sexual discovery is entirely unique.
As soon as we think we know another person, we fall out of the wonder of discovery, quickly becoming like two dead things engaged in what’s already been established, in what’s already been. And sex then falls dangerously close to becoming like a chore, or something on our “to do” list. But it’s precisely this sense of wonder and discovery that the dreamtime is trying to awaken us into. ALWAYS. And always, always in living bodies, which are also dying bodies (not merely our physical bodies, as objects in space, but living bodies that include our physical bodies).
In short, who we are is being given to us moment by moment, image by image, and dream by dream. We are being touched into being by the dreamtime. Touched into being in a living, dreaming body that includes the physical body, and the sexual, sensual body, and the soul/spiritual body. But because the dreamtime is trying to awaken in us an ongoing sense of curiosity and wonder, of surrender—for we are being asked continually by the dreamtime to surrender all we know, or think we know, so that we might be brought beautifully into moment-by-moment discovery, so that we might start to orient ourselves not only toward who we are as coming- into-being, incarnating creatures, but also towards who the other is as a coming- into‐being, incarnating creature as well. So that the whole thing is a discovery of what comes next instead of just a bunch of beings wandering around repeating patterns that have already been as though we are already dead, breathing a little and calling it life.
If you’ve got specific questions about sex and the dreamtime, I invite you to submit them. I’ll try to tend to them here, in my blog. Bear in mind, however, that questions and responses will be handled anonymously.