Embodied Imagination: A Conversation with Robert Bosnak

Robert Bosnak is a Jungian analyst in Sydney, Australia. Born and raised in the Netherlands, he earned a law degree from Leiden University before receiving his Diploma from the C.G. Jung Institute Zurich. He maintained an analytic practice for twenty-six years in Boston, where he also served as a training analyst at the Boston Jung Institute. He is the past president of the Association for the Study of Dreams and was a visiting professor of clinical psychology in Kyoto, Japan. In the late seventies, he pioneered a method of working with dreams that he calls "embodied imagination," and he currently holds dream practicum throughout the world and in cyberspace. He is the author of four books about dreamwork: Embodiment: Creative Imagination in Art, Medicine, and Travel (Routlege, 2207); A Little Course on dreams (Shambala, new ed., 1998); Dreaming with an AIDS Patient (DianePub Co., 1997); Tracks in the Wilderness of Dreaming (Delta, 1997).

I interviewed Bosnak in October 2006, at a home overlooking the East shore of Seneca Lake, about twenty miles from Ithaca, New York. Bosnak had just returned from Amsterdam and was preparing for a dream practicum that same evening, he was willing to spend time discussing his work. The afternoon was perfectly crisp and beautiful, and we had a distant view of the lake. We sat together, a woodstove nearby and two large dogs at our feet, and I was reminded again of his willingness to challenge pre-conceived notions of dreaming, including his own, and his seemingly endless desire to explore the landscape of the dreaming mind.

Platek: You have worked with dreams professionally for more than thirty years. You travel all over the world running dream groups, you teach dream work, you write books on dreaming: why is it important for people to pay attention to their dreams?

Bosnak: Well, first let me say that I am not sure whether it is important for people to pay attention to their dreams. In some cultures they believe that we only dream when we are sick, for example. So I don't know whether it is objectively important that people pay attention to their dreams. I can say, however, that I first became interested in my dreams while in analysis and that they proved very useful. I think that once we pay attention to dreams they are absolutely fascinating. And once we bring attention to our dreams they have a tendency to become helpful in the healing process, in the creative process, and in our relationships.

Platek: I think it would be fair to say that our culture has lost touch with the dreaming process. Most people today place far more emphasis on external events than on exploring their internal landscapes. In fact, I recently heard an article on NPR suggesting the fact that widespread use of antidepressants and sleep medications may be causing people to remember fewer dreams.

Bosnak: My reading of the research suggests that antidepressants like Prozac may increase dream recall. So there doesn't have to be a conflict between psychopharmacology and dreaming. But we have been at a cultural low point in terms of interest in dreams. Interest peaked in the 60's and 70's and then we hit a lull. At this point, though, we may be experiencing a resurgence. Wherever I have traveled, I have experienced a new interest in dreaming on a global level. In fact, I have just returned from Amsterdam where they celebrated Freud's 150th birthday with a big event at the National Theater called The Night of The Dream. This event was sold out two months in advance. Dreaming and other forms of imagination are becoming interesting to people again.

Platek: The ancient Greeks had a particular understanding of how dreams healed. People would sleep inside a special temple dedicated to the god Asclepios in order to have a dream that might cure them of their illness--whether mental or physical. They believed that the god would appear in their dream and cure them directly. What do you think happens when we dream?

Bosnak: People in every culture of the world--while dreaming--are convinced that they are awake and surrounded by a real world. So the only thing we can say for sure is that, while dreaming, we are in a quasi-physical environment where events take place and where the environment feels utterly real. We can touch a table, smell flowers-- all our senses are engaged in the dream. Of course we know that the dream is not an actual physical environment because as soon as we awaken the physicality evaporates. That's why I call it a quasi-physical environment. While we are dreaming we were someplace. We can know this simply by observing the phenomenon. Anything else we say about dreams is really just conjecture.

Platek: You mean we can't really know anything else about dreams directly.

Bosnak: Everything we have to say about dreaming is entirely shaped by the culture we are in. The only thing we know for sure is that, while dreaming we were somewhere, something happened to us, and we were in an environment that we believed to be real at the time. So here in our Western individualist culture we believe that dreams are about us. But this belief says nothing about dreams, it only says that we are individualists.

Platek: You certainly have traveled to many cultures to explore dreaming and dream work. In the book "tracks in the Wilderness of Dreaming" you describe sitting with an Aboriginal spirit doctor to discuss your respective work with dreams. How did being in that culture influence your sense of the dreaming process?

Bosnak: Well, I was only able to do that because I was completely and utterly naive! I did not know very much about Aboriginal culture. I know a bit more now, but then it was as if I'd landed on another other planet. But that's where I learned with enormous shock that the notion that our dreams are about us is entirely culturally based. For example, a woman told me that a dream was created by the Mountain in order that a dance could be created and the Mountain could experience that dance. That is a very different way of looking at dreams. Even so, it is a cultural perspective.

Platek: I am thinking about your original training at the Jung Institute in Zurich. You tell a story about attending a class in which a dream was placed in the middle of the floor for everyone to interpret, even though the dreamer was not present. That approach felt disembodied to you--in fact you call your own style of working with dreams "embodied imagination." You clearly feel that it is important to bring body into work with dreams.

Bosnak: A dream is not an intellectual occurrence. When we dream, our whole body is involved. In fact, neuroscience has disproved the notion that cognition is central to dreaming. Neuroscientists fight about many things, but the one thing they all agree upon is that affect and emotions shape dreams. Affects and emotions are physical. And we know from neuroscience that the affective system runs throughout the entire body, that it is not just centered in the brain. So, if our dreams are shaped by affects then it stands to reason that our work with dreams needs to be affect-focused. And when we work with affects, we are of course working with the body.

Platek: Perhaps you could describe something of how this process of embodied imagination works--how you actually work with a dream.

Bosnak: The first thing we do is move back into a state of consciousness that is more like the dream consciousness. So, for example, at the Jung institute, we stayed in our usual waking consciousness to look at dreams. I like to have people move in to a state just between waking and sleeping, what the sleep laboratories call the hypnagogic state. This is a kind of liminal state where we hover just above the sleep state without actually falling asleep. From within that state of consciousness, we re-enter the dream as an actual environment. Here's the interesting thing. When we re-enter the dream from the hypnagogic state we can trigger what we call a flashback experience. The notion of a flashback memory comes out of trauma work. Flashback memory works differently than ordinary memory. With ordinary memory we remember the narrative. So, for example, you might remember entering through the door, greeting me, sitting down with your recording device, beginning our conversation, and so on. You recall a narrative in a linear sequence. In a flashback memory, however, the whole environment is present--smells, sensations--even things we were not consciously aware of the first time around. It all comes back in its entire form.

Platek: And you are attempting to create a flashback experience in the dream work.

Bosnak: Exactly. My feeling is that the best memory with which to work with dreams is flashback memory. So we essentially create an artificial flashback. We are trying to sense what is happening to us in the dream environment. When you work on dreams using narrative memory--like at the Jung institute--you are using a completely different mode of the brain. If you were to do brain imagery, you would see that a different part of the brain is activated in each case. We are trying to physically feel the dream and its experiences.

Platek: This is a very different notion of dream work than that of the analyst mining the dream for important insights and life-changing "aha" moments.

Bosnak: Trying to understand conceptually what is going on is a fool's errand with dreams. The important thing about being in the hypnagogic state and using the flashback is that we can slow things down. In this slowing down process, the details of the dream really begin to become apparent. The more we slow down the experience of the dream, the more it can begin to enter the body. And this includes the experience of the dreaming ego--the "I" character in the dream--as well as that of the other characters. I see self as a habit of consciousness. We can move out of this self by identifying with the other characters in the dream using a kind of interior miming--like an actor might do. So we feel these states in the body, and locate where they are felt most intensely, and then we "etch" them into the body, so to speak--we implant them in the body so that when they are activated the whole experience comes back. At the end of the work we have many states that can be triggered simultaneously. Many of them are completely incompatible emotional states. But this has always been the grail of psychoanalysis: to hold incompatible states without splitting them off. When we can hold all these states at the same time--even those arising from other characters and perspectives in the dream--it changes our way of being in the world.

Platek: I have had the opportunity to participate in your dream groups. My sense is that emotional healing occurs not only for the dreamer--as he or she moves more deeply in to the dream environment--but for those participating as well. It seems that the dream itself has a kind of atmosphere that others can experience.

Bosnak: We are moving around in a world. That is the definition of the dream that I am using. When we use flashback, the others also participate in the flashback environment. This is a privileged participation in someone's most intimate life. Through this we experience our own most intimate experience and we begin to realize that, even though intimacy feels personal, it can also be collective as well. So we are in a collective state of intimacy with an environment that feels important to the dreamer and actually becomes important for everyone there. Even people who don't remember their dreams sometimes come to these groups. They find it valuable to touch the experience, to become part of the dreaming. It is a very different world from the waking one.

Platek: You have developed a special form of dream work, one that you call "somatic" dream work, which you have developed in your work with people with AIDS, cancer and other serious illnesses. How does this way of working with dream promote healing?

Bosnak: We don't quite know what the somatic dream work does. We only began to do some scientific research on the work a few years ago. We do know from patient testimonials, though, that this type of working with dreams and the body does something that the patient appreciates. Of course, that doesn't mean there are measurable scientific effects. It just means that the patient likes the outcome of the work. This type of working with the dreams is based upon what I call classical medicine. You mentioned the Asclepian model earlier--where the sick person would go to the temple to have a dream to cure him or her of illness. In classical antiquity, Asclepian medicine went hand in hand with Hippocratic medicine.

Platek: Hippocratic medicine is what we think of as our conventional medicine.

Bosnak: Yes. Our doctors still take the Hippocratic oath. Hippocratic medicine works on the body as object. That is its force as well as its lack. Asclepian medicine, on the other hand, works with dreams and imagination. At the beginning of Western medicine, dreams were thought to be important to the healing process. Imagination was important. Classical medicine had these two forms of medicine, the Asclepian and Hippocratic, intertwined. That is what I am interested in. These two streams of Western medicine that were initially intertwined and then split---I would like to see them brought together again. So, for example, when a person is sick they go for Hippocratic treatment. Hippocratic medicine has accomplished extraordinary things. I have enormous respect for this form of treatment; without it I would be dead. But again, this method of working sees body as object. We have no sense of agency here. We are being worked upon.

Platek: Like bringing our car in for repair.

Bosnak: Yes. But this creates a passive state of being worked upon in the patient. What the imagination side does is create a sense of receptivity in us, in the body. We can be active in our own treatment. My notion is that when we create receptivity in the person then the overall treatment can be more effective. This is the classical combination--both the body treatment side and the imaginal receptive side. I work on the receptive end, not the treatment end. So, if a person has cancer, for example, we can have them incubate dreams about cancer.

Platek: I believe that the term "incubate" comes from the process of sleeping in the Asclepian temple and awaiting a dream.

Bosnak: That's right. Dream incubation is a method of intentional dreaming. It is a way of seeding dreams. In ancient times, if we went to the dream temple and brought our illness, we assumed that the illness would seed our dreams and that the god of healing would come. So, with the cancer, we also attempt to seed dreams. We call upon the body to imagine. We say to the body: "please give me your imaginings about what is going on with you." We offer the body an imagined experience of the poison in the illness and then ask it to start imagining. Then we work with those imaginings, those dreams. When we are able to enter into the imagination of the body it can be more open to the treatment it is receiving. Someone with cancer told me recently that when they go for their chemotherapy they imagine their treatment as a kind of healing poison. This is a similar idea. The people I work with in this way tell me that it makes the quality of their life better. I think it goes beyond simply improving quality of life to actually improving the treatment itself. Of course we still have to prove this. It is incumbent upon us to show scientifically that what we are doing is useful.

Platek: Do you think this work actually affects the biochemistry?

Bosnak: I do. I think that neuroscience has more or less proved that this kind of work affects neurochemistry. That no longer needs to be proven. But what are we going to do with this. That is my great interest. What does the treatment center of the future look like? We are trying to start such a place in Santa Barbara, California. Our intention is to create a center where Hippocratic and Asclepian medicine can happen side by side. I believe that in this kind of environment the treatment will work better than just doing the standard medical treatment on its own. And we will be scientifically evaluating to see whether these methods on the receptive end really help.

Platek: After the events of 9/11 you and others set up a Nightmare Hotline in New York City. You have mentioned that you received many dreams of terrorists and planes falling out of the sky even by those who were not directly impacted by the events that day. It sounds like you were working with the way that this trauma impacted our collective psyche.

Bosnak: That was my sense, as well. But the interesting thing is that the trauma came out in personal images. A traumatic event like 9/11 triggers personal memories that are similar to the current event. In other words, trauma triggers previous trauma. This is because we are always responding from within an associative network. That was Freud's brilliance to tell us that we are always in an associative network. For example, when the plane flew into that apartment building on the West Side of Manhattan recently, a lot of people were likely dreaming of 9/11--that is the associative process happening. So then we might get a person calling up the Response Line with a nightmare about 9/11 that was actually triggered by this more recent event and even, perhaps, compounded with the time they feel out of a tree when they were five years old, and so forth. All of these trauma responses are in a kind of interactive pattern. We had to change the name, by the way. It is now called the Nightmare Response Line. That's because we don't actually provide treatment. Instead, people are just debriefed of their nightmares, which is already a very useful thing. This is especially true for children. Children have a lot of nightmares. It is helpful for them to know that they can call and talk to someone for ten or fifteen minutes about their nightmare and receive an empathic response. Empathic responses are intensely useful for nightmare sufferers. We are obviously a society in a nightmare and that nightmare is being manipulated all the time by the politicians. So it is important to debrief people of their nightmares. Nightmares have become one of the central political issues of our time. The nightmare is called terrorism.

Platek: You have written that terror is at the heart of psychoanalysis: that psychotherapists work with the soul in agony. How can dreams help us with experiences of terror and the anxiety and depression they leave in their wake?

Bosnak: The way that I look that the psyche is as a multiplicity of selves with a tendency to dissociate. This tendency is actually a helpful process. If we were to experience trauma directly, for instance, it would be horrendous. The dissociation protects us from having to feel the trauma fully. There are selves that have experienced this trauma, but they are left out of our awareness. This work with nightmares and trauma allows those disconnected selves to reattach to our habitual network of consciousness. At the end of the work, we have a larger energetic system than before. Before doing the work, there was a smaller system characterized by fear and terror. Actually, the fear and terror are about the possibility of the terror happening in the future.

Platek: Fear that the trauma that has already occurred will take place in the future.

Bosnak: Yes. The work diminishes the fear of the trauma happening in the future because it allows reattachment of the experience of having had it in the past. It allows us to experience the trauma that happened without dissociating. This lessens of the fear for the future, because we have more fully experienced the actual event. I think that one of the ways in which the Bush administration is able to manipulate fear of terrorism is because much of what happened on 9/11 was dissociated. So people fear it for the future instead of reattaching to what happened. As long as we have not fully experienced what happened we are very suggestible and this can be used for political profit.

Platek: I have heard you suggest that dreams are the purest form of creativity that we can experience, that they are our closest connection to the creative force in the universe.

Bosnak: In dreams we experience pure imagination. During waking life, we also experience the imagination, but there is a physical world present. In the dream state everything is comprised of imagination. I think there is enormous advantage in dealing with this pure imagination. By allowing it to inform us we can touch the creative process in a real way. In the dreaming process, we are exposed to the unconventional, the unexpected. Most of us fall in to a routine. If there is anything that can break us out of routine it is dreaming.

Platek: So you are saying that work with dreams can move us out of our habitual standpoint?

Bosnak: Yes. I like to imagine that we have access to a large number of actors or characters. Typically, one or two of these takes center stage and jealousy guard their leading roles like divas. The rest of the cast winds up being part of the chorus. What this means, of course, is that a whole lot of our potential is not being used.

Platek: Perhaps an example would be useful. Let's say that a person's leading actor is "ambition."

Bosnak: Okay. So the ambitious self sees only through the eyes of ambition. It does not recognize the importance of anything other than that perspective, such as being with one's children, walking through a field, and so on. Naturally, there are other selves, other actors, that would like to do these things, but they have been pushed to the background. But it is possible to work with the dreams so that the person can have an experience of these other actors. For example, a dream might allow the ambitious diva to see itself through the eyes of another character, a small child, say. It is not that the person should suddenly abandon the ambitious character and become a small child. The point is not to flip into another self. But the small child should also be allowed to enter the drama, to take its place on the stage.

Platek: The various facets of our psyche can begin to influence each other through work with dreams

Bosnak: Right. And if we can have more actors involved in the act we can have a greater show

Platek: You speak about dreams as providing tracks into the wilderness of who we are. This seems especially important as we are constantly bombarded by messages about who we should be. In other words, if we trace our dreams over time, we might get some sense of the direction that our lives are trying to go--dreams can help us stay connected to what really matters to us.

Bosnak: I have this fantasy that dreaming is connected to our sense of direction. We are constantly trying to figure out where we are, where we are headed. I am a traveler and I find myself in strange places all the time. So this is my fantasy. I think that when we work on dreams, when we expand our sense of our many selves, we are honing our sense of direction. I don't think that dreaming provides a conceptual sense of where we need to go, but it can make us more sensitive to direction. I have observed this through my work. I have seen that when people work with dreams, when they enlarge their sense of the many characters influencing their lives, when they work with imagination, they create a more differentiated sense of direction. I think this is so important in the world because, as you say, we are constantly being bombarded and if we don't have a sense of direction we get lost or become completely conventional. We need a good sense of direction and I think that can be trained by working with dreams to include as many elements or selves as possible

Platek: Have you seen this in your own life?

Bosnak: Oh absolutely. I just made a huge move from the United States to Australia and I could not have done that if I hadn't worked on my sense of direction for many years by allowing many images to participate in the decision process.

Platek: In the end, dreams seem to be truly mysterious. In your book, Dreaming with an AIDS Patient, you initially hope that your work with Christopher, your client, will make him well. Instead, he dies during the course of your work together. How would you explain healing--the way that dreams bring healing--in the context of what happened there?

Bosnak: Christopher died differently than he would have if we hadn't done the work together. One of the things that is said about the god Asclepios is that he cheated death and he was punished for that. We cannot cheat death. Death will always happen. But death does not mean that the treatment has failed. If we had not done the work, Christopher would have died a death that he perceived as meaningless and as punishment for his homosexuality and his fast lifestyle. He would have died in a prison of punishment. Instead, his death occurred within a context of a spiritual experience that allowed him to feel received into the arms of another world. That experience helped quiet down his death experience--not that didn't struggle, he absolutely did not want to die. And if he had had AIDS fifteen years later he would not have died, he would be living with a chronic illness. But, the end, he died with a sense of being received by another world, a world that was kind to him. That is hugely different from dying as a form of punishment

Platek: It is also highlights a difference between the Asclepian and Hippocratic methods of healing. From the Hippocratic perspective, death is seen as a failure of treatment.

Bosnak: Yes, that's true. Naturally, when we are ill we want to live as long as possible. That is, unless we are in unbearable pain that can't be relieved. But for the Asclepian strand of medicine, there are other life elements that are just as important as the length of existence. Dreams allow us to experience these other elements. That is why we need both. We need to weave both these aspects of healing back into our method of treatment. That is the classical medicine of the future.

© 2006 • Barbara Platek, Jungian Psychotherapist • 119 East Buffalo St, Ithaca, NY, 14850 • (607) 273-4610