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Exploring Dreams through Art- a search for Divine Presence

My recent paintings have been heavily inspired by the language of dreams, and how we engage in spiritual realities when our conscious, problem-solving minds are at rest. My deep longing is to understand how God engages with us in our dreaming unconscious state…Do we fly freely in our inner world, a solitary orb? Or is the Divine Spirit a tangible presence there just as it can be in our waking life?

Perhaps God is healing and helping us during our sleeping sojourn because we are too limited and distracted otherwise, laying the foundation for connections and those ‘aha’ moments later realised in waking life.

For me, attempting to remember my dreams and writing them down has become a form of contemplative prayer, a way of yielding and accepting what God is doing in my life. This yielding is not passive- it is a kind of active open-handed-ness. It’s an attitude of co-operation borne from the belief that God is a good, kind and benevolent force in the universe who loves us perfectly and wholly as precious children.

Through this practise, I am learning to notice the details of my life- even in waking hours as being significant. When I say details, I mean emotions, reactions, memories, places or thoughts of a person. These details work in synergy with the content of my dreams, giving life as a whole a sort of super-charged meaning. It’s like a seed planted at night, which later springs up and grows.

So, I’ve developed a pretty solid habit of recording dreams. However, I have come to realise how enriching it can be to interact with and explore them creatively. My hope is to find greater depth, clarity, and an ever -increasing grounding in my spiritual life and understanding.

Carl Jung developed a technique called ‘Active Imagination’ which involves using creative expression as a way of engaging with dream elements and characters. Using the creative arts in this way seems to help us bypass the logical left hemisphere of the brain, and utilise our more intuitive, image-rich right hemisphere. Jung himself was a painter, and it is fascinating to look at his artwork and how he has been able to dive into the content of his dreams and emerge with messages from archetypal characters.

Jung’s ‘Philemon’ character from his own dream analysis. Courtesy of https://philemonfoundation.org/

How I utilised ‘Active Imagination’ to Understand my Dream

To enter into my own dream interpretation, it was important to remind myself that the technique as a whole is not about “getting an answer” or “solving a puzzle”, but to engage with it loosely and playfully. Allowing curiosity and an attitude of experimentation leads to open ended questions- “I wonder what would happen if I ….drew my dream/ interviewed a dream character/ created a song or poem? What would this character say to me if I asked who they were? What does this colour/place/animal mean? ”

Dreams are fluid, energetic and organic. Their meaning is richer and deeper than one answer or understanding. They can change over time, and bring different offerings to us according to our circumstances and emotional states. Dreams originate from a vast landscape. Their content is both particular to the dreamer and universal as part of what Jung describes as the ‘collective unconscious’. Think of the well known idea of the iceberg…our conscious mind being what is above the water, our unconscious the massive iceberg below. The invitation is to look below the surface- as deep as we would like to plummet. In this analogy the ocean represents all of us- the collective unconscious where we are all united and knit together as one.

Iceberg courtesy of https://octavianreport.com

I engaged with a recent dream by creating a painting about it. It is much shorter than most of my dreams, however, since the colours and imagery were so rich, it demonstrates how much can be gleaned by just a little bit of material. As such, I had a very strong idea of what I wanted to depict. I also found it beneficial to give dreams a title.

Here’s a brief overview of the dream.

Three Birds

I was by the sea, and there were 3 budgies in a cage. One was orange, one was blue and the third was a colour I cannot recall. I took them out and they were tame. I was wearing orange, so the orange bird felt comfortable with me. My youngest son was with me, and he was wearing blue, so he held the blue bird.

The process of painting this, with my dream as a guide was interesting and different. I was very aware of allowing the painting to become what it needed to whilst maintaining some of the main features. I changed the image of the woman holding the canary- which in my dream was me- based on an imaginative dialogue where I interviewed her as a separate part of me. In my journal I asked, “What is your name?” and the answer came, ‘Golden Shadow’. Many dream analysts suggest doing this by writing the question in your dominant hand, and the answer in your non-dominant hand. However, another way is through getting into a meditative and ‘attentive’ attitude by focusing on relaxing and being aware of the breath. (I found this way works best for me). After this, the woman holding the orange bird changed from having dark hair, and being almost like a self-portrait, to a ‘separate’ person altogether.

The water element is also very important. In this dream, the ocean speaks of the unconscious, going below the surface (this is not always the case as water has a strong connection to emotions). In my imaginative meeting with the dream character in the orangey/red dress, she took me from the window down a staircase where there was another window showing under the water. I could see jellyfish and tropical fish. She took me down another staircase leading to a window of a deeper sea- telling me “keep going” “You can go as deep as you want”. The invitation was also, significant to the birds, to allow myself to be affected by “the little ones”: in other words, it is safe to be soft and tender of heart in the world, rather than trying to shield myself from it.

So, the woman in my painting became ‘Golden Shadow’, with red-gold hair. Her message to me was to encourage me to ‘keep going’ . Notably, the orange bird became a canary. Canaries are symbolic of joy and compassion as well as freedom from limitations or shackles (especially pertinent because the symbol of a cage was also in my dream). I added tears to the woman’s eyes, which is serendipitous since part of her message to me was to allow myself to feel and be affected by the world. The birdcage became a pretty decorative planter- a container of life as opposed to captivity or oppression.

Here’s a little snippet of my painting process- as I said it changed quite dramatically as I engaged with both the dream and the emerging artwork itself.

Finished painting, “Three Birds”

Alyssa Kanitsch

As an artist, I am deeply inspired by imagery that explores tangible metaphors. This is perhaps why I am drawn to the world of fairytale, fantasy, dreams and iconic or religious artwork; especially from artists in the early renaissance. In many of my paintings, I try to use images, landscapes and objects to weave together a story or a sense of nostalgia and distant memory. My favourite art medium is acrylics, however, I also love mucking around with mixed media and pastel, and I occasionally work with oils. I have been known to paint furniture, murals and surfboards, mostly because I love to surround myself with the energy of colour.

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