Interview With Dr. Stephen Aizenstat
Stephen Aizenstat, Ph.D. is the founding president of Pacifica Graduate Institute, a private graduate school offering masters and doctoral programs in psychology, mythological studies, and the humanities. Dr. Aizenstat is a Clinical Psychologist, a Marriage and Family Therapist, and the creator of Dream Tending, which is a method of working with the figures and landscapes of dreams as “living images.”
CJSSF: Speaking of the differences between Dream Tending and classical Jungian dream interpretation, Jeanne asked the following questions:
Jeanne: When I watch you dream tending, what fascinates me most is how you shape-shift: the manner in which you physically change your physical being as you listen to the dream. I have witnessed you seeing the image, sometimes when it is not even in the narrative of the dream. So, if you could speak to that magical ability, I think it would serve anyone attempting to work with dreams.
Steve: Not magical, but imaginal. When I develop an image-centered relationship with the figures, by that I mean entering their world on their terms, images come to life, present themselves, say “Here we are.” On the other hand, when or if we meet the dream for the purposes of interpreting or analyzing, then we’re going to bring our conscious mind into relationship with the material or content of the dream. At that moment, the visitation is lost, the actuality of its presence disappears. To witness the activity of a living image is a very different mode of perceiving and a quality of relationship is needed. The “trick” is to meet the dream in the way of the dream. When I bring a dream-like consciousness to the dream then one thing happens; and if I bring a rational, active mind for the purposes of interpreting the dream, then something else altogether takes place. It’s not that interpretation or analysis is bad, it’s just that my preference is to first let the dream come forward to show itself as its Self, as an embodied enactment; then, secondly, to bring my capacity for insight or analysis. I think that is what you are most likely noticing. It really is a different mode all together. It’s a mode of perception that is anchored in an imaginal consciousness rather than an active, rational mind.
Jeanne: How do you teach that or suggest that people wishing to get there begin the process?
Steve: There are about four core skills that I suggest experimenting with. One is curiosity. When we get curious, we get interested. Rather than jumping so quickly to what we think the dream means, we get curious and follow the activity of the images and the figures of the dream. Curiosity takes us to a very different place all together. The second, along with curiosity, is a way of listening. One way of listening is to listen for the purposes of offering an answer. So, we’re already rehearsing what the answer or the response will be before we have even listening fully to what is being presented. It’s a question of taking a deep breath, getting anchored, and becoming receptive and responsive: listening first and allowing the conversation to emerge out of the silence, rather than using our mind to fill the space. Responsive listening is the second skill. The third is to really pay attention to detail or the particularity. Rather than seeing each image is the same—for example, the elephant, or even the house—noticing how each image comes with its particular distinction. When we view every house or creature or elephant or animal as the same, one thing happens: we go into a kind of explanatory system and begin to categorize these images. On the other hand, if we notice that each house is different in its own details and that each animal or creature has its own particularity or uniqueness or oddity, then we slow down, take the time to watch and look and carefully notice its activity; we become part of the dreamscape, part of the presentation that psyche has in mind. The fourth core skill is patience. In order for images to reveal who they are, we must slow down and be patient. With patience, images will reveal what they offer from the inside out.
Jeanne: One phrase that has resonated with me for a long time that you often say is that “the body is always dreaming.”
Steve: I have a couple of ideas about that. I don’t think dreams originate in our rational mind. They originate from a deeper source. On one dimension, when there’s something going on in our body—upset stomach, maybe a place in our back where we’re feeling tight, or at the onset of a cold or flu, or more seriously, something like a cancerous growth. The body is always going to have its symptoms and the psyche is going to pick up those symptoms and most likely will be presented in the imagery of dreams. On that level, the body is always dreaming because what’s going on in the body is represented imaginatively or symbolically in the dreamtime. So, when we listen to dreams, we are always listening to the body talk about itself in one way or the next. On another dimension, images themselves come with body. They are alive and active and they walk about; and they breathe and have pulse. They certainly are not incarnate like our bodies, but in an imaginal context–in the world of dream—they’re very interactive and very embodied. So, in that context images come with body—will have emotion or feeling. It’s not only we who have emotions in response to the image. Images will come with emotions to begin with and then in turn create an affect inside of us. It’s simply a different way of appreciating dream and it’s not esoteric. It’s very ‘just so.’ When we take the time to listen to dream or to watch the actuality of the dream presentation, we see images walking about affecting one another, one figure impacting another figure. The same thing happens when we walk through a dreaming landscape. The very spirit of place has an affective presence. So, I think that images are filled with emotions and feelings; and they tend to evoke us or our response, as well. As embodied images ourselves, we then can allow our bodies to move with gesture or even with dance to greet the image. Then, in a curious way, we are interpreting the dream—not through words or through our mind-—but through our bodies. We’re meeting the image body of the dream with our bodies. That kind of interaction I find quite important and useful.
The interviewer, Jeanne M. Schul, M.A., first met Dr. Aizenstat at a DreamTending introductory workshop in Atlanta, GA. It was so inspiring that she immediately signed up for his six-month professional training program in Santa Barbara, CA. That began her cross-country travel that continued for three and a half years, while she pursued her doctoral coursework in Depth Psychology at Pacifica Graduate Institute. She is currently working on her dissertation, which focuses on Creating Dances from Dreams. Jeanne gave permission for the Center to take excerpts from her entire interview for this presentation.