Robbie Bosnak: true gold

2 Feb

Robert BosnakThe talk Sunday night by Dutch psychoanalyst Robert Bosnak (who’s now based in Australia) was greeted with enthusiasm for this renowned and gracious dreamwork pioneer. In the late 1970’s, Robbie pioneered a radically new method of dreamwork—embodied imagination—that incorporates aspects of Carl Jung’s technique of active imagination and insights from Jung’s studies of alchemy. Robbie’s book A Little Course in Dreams has been translated into twelve languages. In the late 1990s, Robbie and advanced nurse practitioner Jill Fischer in Connecticut pioneered dreamwork on the Internet, establishing, via which dreamers in locations around the world engage in real-time dream-sharing groups via PalTalk. And now they both are part of a team establishing a healing sanctuary in Santa Barbara, California.

Nieuw Amsterdam drawing by Rev. Samuel Manning, from Wikipedia Commons

Nieuw Amsterdam drawing by Rev. Samuel Manning, from Wikipedia Commons

Scheduled to be a keynote speaker at the 2011 conference of the International Association for the Study of Dreams (IASD) in Kerkrade, Netherlands, in June, Robbie chose a topic for New York that links his homeland with this city that originated as a Dutch colony: “Nieuw Amsterdam and the Dream of the Golden Age: An Alchemical Perspective.” Though Robbie set the dream succinctly against the cultural heritage of the 17th-century Dutch Golden Age that helped spawn Holland’s New World colonization, the “dream of the golden age” in Robbie’s title was the culmination of a modern-day dream series. The dreams were incubated (requested of the dreaming mind before sleep), under Robbie’s direction, by a person he characterized as a financial expert dealing with the emotions and practicalities of the past three years’ turmoil in the financial world.

Robbie intends to publish his research with the dreamer in question, so best to leave it to him to get it into writing the sensitive dream text accurately. Descriptions of the dream imagery in this post will be limited mostly to the very general (sorry, folks!), but it was rich with metaphors that seem easily associated to the stock market of the past couple of years: metaphors for bloatedness, performance measures, lack of transparency, control and lack thereof, indifference by those in charge to how activity is directed, heart-stopping panic, and collapse. The Dutch historical perspective that Robbie recounted also seemed easily associated to modern times, in a history-repeats-itself way.

More on those aspects in a minute. First, here’s some of the theoretical grounding of Robbie’s talk—which I knew some other audience member would be better equipped to convey than I am. So I’m grateful to New York psychoanalyst and IASD member Lou Hagood for doing that in the next couple of paragraphs (and for starting this blog on its way toward the multiple authorship I’ve intended from the start):

On Sunday, January 30, a group of dreamers gathered in a room of the appropriately named Center for Sharing & Remembering in New York’s Greenwich Village to hear Robbie Bosnak speak. Robbie’s embodied dreaming is an experience of both sharing and remembering between separated parts of the dreamer—ancient consciousness and rational thinking, old brain and new, body and mind, self and other—all resulting from the separate ego of the dreamer. Robbie illustrated the process with a case of dream incubation, or “healing imagination,” which resulted in a series of transforming dreams.

The case highlighted what Robbie calls “the language of dream embodiment,” reminiscent of Freud’s comparison of dream imagery and neurotic symptoms based on the neuroscience of his times. Freud found that the hysterical enactments of patients like Anna O. were like symbolic dream imagery of his own that he documented in The Interpretation of Dreams in 1900. The process is alchemical, drawing on Jung’s “psychologizing” of the ancient, indigenous science. The alchemical process “cooks” the primitive substances and “sublimates” them to higher forms, just as consciousness emerges from unconsciousness and bodily sensations. Again, split-off  and unconscious feeling and expression is transformed into “higher consciousness” through healing imagination.

The element gold was tied to the “Golden Age” of Holland…

"Alchemist," Cornelis Bega, 1663 (The Getty Museum)

"Alchemist," Cornelis Bega, 1663 (The Getty Museum)

Alchemy, the precursor to modern experimental science (particularly chemistry), was a medieval esoteric pursuit that on the surface attempted to turn lead to gold, but (Jung concluded in the 20th century) at a deeper level described the process of individuation, the integration and transformation of the psyche. Interest in alchemy was at its peak at the time of the Dutch Golden Age, and in fact, Robbie quoted from a 1666 book that recounted an alchemist’s visit to the Prince of Orange (the Oranges being, as Wikipedia explains, a dynasty that “has played a central role in the political life of the Netherlands.”)

I’ve begun to think tThe quest to create the Philosopher’s Stone, the elusive compound that would unlock the transformation from base material to gold, can be seen as the quest for sufficient imagination. A little book I’ve been reading, Alchemy: The Art of Knowing (author unidentified, Chronicle Books, 1994, p.24), says this:

The most important secret ingredient in the science of alchemy is the alchemist himself. He or she must have the power to attract and make use of the invisible spiritual ingredients, the “divine spark,” that brings about the desired transformation. In other words, the alchemist must be…able to “imitate the work of the gods.”

What greater imagination can there have been than the original one, the one that created something out of nothing? Robbie seemed to capture the mystery at the heart of alchemy itself when he said:

We’re so identified with Western individualism that we believe every part of the dream is us. Who knows? The only thing we know is that…in dreams we encounter multiple consciousnesses. We are all imagined by the dream….I have no idea who the dreamer is. All we know is it’s a state of creation we can participate in.

Applying the term “indigenous science” to alchemy, as Lou did above and Robbie did in his talk, was new to me. At any rate, the practice of alchemy was about to fall off because, Robbie noted, there was also a huge shift during that era from indigenous Western knowledge to modern Western science. The Earth was moved out of the center of the universe, and Dutch tradesman Antony van Leeuwenhoek developed the microscope. As well, Aristotle’s influence replaced that of Plato, for whom imagination was a form of reality between spirit and matter.

Aligning with what I’ve been reading in various sources, Robbie said that the reason his small country became world-dominant in its Golden Age was that “money was the most important thing for the Dutch. Because that’s all they wanted—they weren’t trying to conquer or convert—that’s why they were allowed in” to develop trade relationships with, for example, Japan.

In 1621, Henry Hudson and the Dutch West India Company established trading posts on the (now) Hudson River, and in 1626, the Dutch colony of Nieuw Amsterdam was founded on the tip of the island the native tribes knew a Mannahatta. The same sole focus on trade that gave the Dutch entrée to existing countries has been widely credited for New York’s tolerance today, its enduring status as the world’s financial capital, and even its multi-ethnic fabric (the Dutch West India Company hired people from a dozen countries for the harsh work of making the Mannahatta wilderness profitable). In these  traits, Nieuw Amsterdam differed from the repressive, Puritan-founded colony of Massachusetts, for example.

Despite the benefits to New York City’s development over the centuries, it’s on this note of sole focus on money that one begins to sense historical Dutch parallels to the modern stock market.

Tulip from 1637 Dutch catalog

The 1637 tulip book of P. Cos, the source document for much of what is known about the Tulip mania (Wikipedia Commons)

Illustrating that the Dutch Golden Age was “a time of great speculation,” Robbie referred to the Tulip Bubble of 1637, when the price of a tulip bulb reached 10 times the annual income of a skilled craftsman. The bubble burst and people lost fortunes. (See the concise but colorful account at Investopedia and the longer one at Wikipedia.) Is this sounding modern yet?

I may be wrong here about what I think I heard (and I’ll depart from my generalized-dream-description pledge for a moment)—but I believe Robbie said that in the dream from his incubation series with the financial expert, the metaphors for collapse and feeling of panic were accompanied by the image of someone “with tulips in their hand.” (If I’m wrong, it must be my projection from the historical background Robbie gave.)

Like the tulip market of 17th-century Netherlands, the stock market isn’t rational number-crunching alone. “The stock market is a hybrid,” Robbie said. “It’s fueled by the imagination.”

Imagination—that aspect of Platonic reality and the indigenous science of alchemy—is making a comeback, Robbie observed. Medical studies have found that placebo can be as powerful as medicine, even when the recipients know they’re taking a placebo. This is appropriate and necessary to the healing process (even the healing of financial traumas): “The rational consciousness was preceded by a more ancient consciousness,” Robbie said. “In neuroscience, we talk about an older brain and a younger brain.” Sleep-lab research has established that dreams, the mind’s nightly free play of imagination, originate in the pons in the earliest-evolved, “reptilian” part of the “triune” human brain (the limbic having evolved next and the neocortex last).

Dream incubation enlists the dreaming imagination in addressing an issue that concerns the dreamer. Robbie emphasized that it works only when the issue is of vital concern to the dreamer. He uses many different types of incubations, but in the present case, the instructions he gave the dreamer were to:

  • Focus on the issue;
  • Wait until the rational consciousness disperses;
  • Wait until everything slows down and the images that arise stabilize.

The series of dreams Robbie reported occurred over three months. (The first was actually a hypnogogic state, the state between waking and sleep.) Broadly, they progressed from an imagined situation of being bloated and bogged down in dark stickiness to a vision of gold—an alchemical trajectory.

"Nigredo & Albedo," by Guðskraftur (on Flickr)

"Nigredo & Albedo," by Guðskraftur (on Flickr)

The dark stickiness called to mind what I’d read earlier in the week in Robbie’s book Dreaming with an AIDS Patient (Shambhala 1989, p.13), describing a stage in the alchemical process:

In alchemy this state [of virginal white] is often a prelude to a darkening, when the motherly white cream turns sour and rots…through the emergence of ambiguity. Things don’t seem certain anymore, and the world is no longer a safe place. Suddenly events have a multiplicity of meanings, and the clear direction is lost as the hitherto unquestioned worldview falls apart. Alchemy attributes this transformation of an admixture of mercury, the fluid silver, a metal of inherent contradiction, destroying the single-minded certainty of virginity. Mercury is the crafty, tricky god of thieves, and one of his favorite animals, besides the fox, is the weasel who robs the coop.

Again the application to recent financial events struck me as glaring.

Each dream incubation in the series built on the last, working alchemically through the fear and loss that must have been felt by the dreamer whose livelihood was somehow connected to the financial markets. The series culminates with Robbie directing an incubation related to how the dreamer could recover from the shocks the previous dreams had processed. It’s now that the dream of the golden age comes, one that taps into ancient textures and patterns—holistic knowledge: “true gold,” Robbie said. “The is the antithesis of gold.” *

It’s well that Robbie Bosnak teaches the alchemy of imagination. “We don’t tell a dream, ‘Tell me about stocks,’” he said. “You have to create a language. Through the image, you work your way to the source of the image in the body; that’s embodied imagination. Imagination is a discipline every bit as complicated as math.”

Robbie Bosnak’s talk will soon be taken off the Events page of this blog, but the PDF of the flyer will continue to be available. Click here to download it.

See the “Getting into a Nieuw Amsterdam state of mind” post for lots of links to background on New York’s Dutch heritage.

* Addendum: This quote about true gold (if I got it right) will seem ambiguous to readers who weren’t at Robbie’s talk. I took it to be weighing the enormous, lasting value of imaginative wisdom against the fleeting, often corrupting material world (or total focus on the material world). As has been said elsewhere, “It’s not money that’s the root of all evil, it’s the love of money that’s the root of all evil.” The dream of the golden age may have been an alchemical pinnacle, but its incubation also had practical purposes, the details of which it’s not my place to get into.


11 Responses to “Robbie Bosnak: true gold”

  1. lou February 7, 2011 at 3:26 pm #

    Robbie has compared his dream-embodiment groups to ponds of water with plants that move with the flow like those sharing in the group. That is the alchemical vessel of the public bath. Monte Ullman compared dream-sharing groups to David Boehm’s explicate order–the manifestation in dream of the infinite pool of possibilities which is the implicate order in quantum theory.

  2. lou February 7, 2011 at 12:05 pm #

    The public bath in Misa’s dream, reminds me of Robbie’s alchemical vessel for transformation, or the explicate order of David Bohm, while the ocean is the collective unconscious or Bohm’s implicate order.

    • DTH-LTJK February 7, 2011 at 12:33 pm #

      Thanks, Lou, for the intriguing comment on how you experienced reading Misa’s dream. (I know you’re aware and sensitive to that this blog won’t attempt to tell anyone who posts a dream what that dream “should” mean to the dreamer.) It would be great to have you say more about David Bohm’s explicate/implicate theory and Robbie’s comments on the alchemical vessel for transformation, and how they might relate to each other, for those who aren’t familiar with Bohm and those who weren’t at Robbie’s talk.

  3. Misa Tsuruta February 6, 2011 at 6:54 pm #

    Ah, Gloria, what a great suggenstion to repeat the performance that has not been presented or constructed yet! But I believe that’s a good one and we never know how things develop in the future – so we can keep options open!

  4. DTH-LTJK February 6, 2011 at 9:24 am #

    Thank you, Sheila, Francine, and Misa for your comments — Sheila, I know you had no coincidence of timing to bring you to New York last weekend, the way Misa did. Fran, I share your hope that dream explorers and explorations will once again be valued by the larger society, and I know that you do many things to seed that awareness in NYC.

    Misa, what a lovely account of how you’ve digested Robbie’s talk, before and since, sleeping and waking. Thanks, too, for adding to this blog the perspective of the Dutch in Japan, a nice echo of the talk on Dreaming in Japanese Culture that you did for IASD-NYC on one of your previous brief returns to New York City.

    I hope to be able to get to Kerkrade and enjoy your dance performance there. And I hope you will think of repeating it here in New York sometime for IASD-NYC!

  5. DTH-LTJK February 6, 2011 at 9:06 am #

    This comment is from MISA TSURUTA:

    Places for Dream, Past and Future: Relating to Robbie Bosnak’s Talk

    Some work of coincidence enabled me to attend Robbie Bosnak’s talk at Center for Remembering and Sharing (CRS) on Jan. 31. Originally I was thinking about travelling to NYC (I’m a visitor from Tokyo) in the end of January, then I heard that he would give a talk then. Then I changed my mind, thought about travelling in March, to allow myself more time to work on my school work (the main reason of my visit). However, when I attempted to book flights using my husband’s mileage, the only possible dates turned out to be just as I originally had in mind – the end of January. So I was among lucky audience.

    Another coincidence of this IASD-NY meeting is that it took place in CRS, a center created by a Japanese novelist Yasuko Kasaki. She founded this center to teach and share A Course in Miracle (ACIM), help others fully actualize their potentials through artistic and creative activities. Unfortunately I have never read any of her works (they are in Japanese); I’ll do so when I’m back in Tokyo and will post about it.

    So, the beginning half of Robbie’s talk was dedicated to the Golden Age of Holland, the highest historical moments in Holland with tulipmania. When I think of Holland of course I’m reminded of the close historical connections between two countries: as he mentioned, Holland was one of the only two countries that were allowed to have access to Japan during the period of 1603-1868 (the Edo era) when the country was shutting foreigners out by its isolation policy. America was among the countries that broke that isolation. Now I knew the reason why Holland was allowed – they were just interested in money and wealth, were not concerned about other causes such as religions. In fact, Portuguese people brought Christianity and guns to Japan in the 16th Century (a religion and weapons, what a combination!); converted Christians in Japan were fiercely persecuted throughout the Edo era.

    For the latter half he talked about his recent embodied work with an Australian woman who worked at stock market. I am not new to Robbie’s work – there is a study group of his Embodied Dream Work in Japan; Robbie comes to Japan every year to give a workshop with this group. Although I am not a member there (and I am an IASD member), I participated in one of the workshops led by Japanese dream workers, shared my dream on turtles and a bird. From that experience I knew that his method can expand a dream into any directions, enriching it with unstoppable imagination.

    When he mentioned the close link between medicine (healing) and theater and Greek amphitheaters, the sensations that I had when I clapped my hand in the center of an amphitheater in Ephesus, Turkey, came back to me. The actor was not only heard by the audience; he was also responded by this marvelous theater. And as a dancer and a lover of performing arts, I have no reasons to deny the healing effects of theater.

    And despite my identity as an Easterner I secretly share Robbie’s wish to restore Asclepius’ temple in our times. The reason I presented on dream tradition in Japan in past IASD international conferences is that Japan also had a golden age of dreaming: its medieval time. Contemporary Japanese people seem too busy and distracted to be interested in dreams, packed in commuter trains and working from morning to night. Would that be possible that we revive our tradition? If so, in what ways?

    I, along with two other IASD members, have been trying to establish a Japanese chapter of IASD. Well, it’s already a chapter with three people. During the first half of this year, we already have many dream-related events to come up: Akira Enatsu’s 2nd workshop (a Gestalt therapist and an assistant professor at Alliant University/CSPP in Tokyo), my presentation on dreams at the annual conference of International Mental Health Professionals – Japan, Robbie’s workshop, and Jeremy Taylor’s workshop. Before we are realizing there may be many things already happening.

    For the Dutch IASD conference I am constructing a dance piece based on the turtles and a bird dream. Obviously the reason I picked up this particular dream is that the deep processing it received in the Embodied Dream Work workshop I mentioned before. And only during Robbie’s talk I realized that the dream I had that morning was about this talk: I was led by a woman with dark hairs from a gallery on the first floor of what looks like a yoga studio to the second floor. She offered to teach me how to prepare the public bath there, since I would start to work there as a central person. Then she led me outdoors, where I was greeted by green belts of lights – they were overwhelming. Beyond that there seemed to be more light, perhaps the ocean, so bright. I was attracted to but also was afraid to go further.

    Obviously the yoga studio in this dreams points to CRS: it has a yoga/dance studio, and even a gallery. My dance piece is called the Green Dance, a dance about healing based in part on dreams of the members of World Dreams Peace Bridge. I plan to use green ribbons in this performance. Perhaps I’ll be led to under a new light after this performance? Already if indirectly Robbie has contributed to my creative processes.

  6. DTH-LTJK February 4, 2011 at 1:35 pm #

    This comment is from FRANCINE:

    I enjoyed the stimulating talk by Robbie and it made me think that his approach to incubating a dream would be a worthwhile technique to learn and practice. I particularly appreciated his information that interest in dreams is on the rise in interenet searchs and that at one time dreams were considered a legetimate source of kinowledge. Perhaps dream explorers will be valued again by the larger society.

  7. Sheila Asato February 2, 2011 at 4:27 pm #

    It sounds like Robbie gave a very good talk. I wish I could have been there to hear it in person. Thank you for writing up such a nice summary on your blog. I really enjoyed reading it.


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