Animals appear in all kinds of guises in dreams. When we have dreams about animals, we know we have had an archetypal encounter — but of what kind? This dream lends itself to a consideration of two very different ways we might understand the image of eating a lion.
Following is a transcript of the dream discussed in Episode 228 — Donald Kalsched: Trauma and the Informed Heart.
The dreamer is a 31-year-old male who works as an attorney and here’s his dream.
“I enter my parents’ kitchen, where a group of people are ready to cook lion meat for me to eat. I’m not sure who the cooks are. They show me the different ways they can cook the lion’s meat (minced, in a stew, steak, or raw, sashimi style). Afterward, they show me a mask made of the lion’s face, which I have to wear after I eat the lion’s meat. I never get to actually eat the meat or wear the lion’s mask in the dream.”
He adds this context. “I’ve been in a place shrouded by self-doubt. Am I good enough, smart enough? Am I going to be able to achieve the goals I’ve set myself? It’s just been a year of self-examination and study to learn who I am and where I want to go.” He adds that he really didn’t want to eat lion meat, as he thought it was gross, but felt that he had a duty to eat it. He adds that it’s his parents’ house, the childhood house and he associates the lion with courage, self-confidence, and strength.
Okay, well, this is a great dream to talk about. The first thing we need to say is to remember what Jung said whenever he approached a dream, which is to say, “I know absolutely nothing about what this dream means.” We need to put that up like a sign over the doorway of approaching the dream because it’s impossible not to get a sense of what the dream means, at least it is for me now after 50 years of doing this. So, I think I know what this dream is about. But I don’t.
We have to cultivate humility.
Cultivate humility. That’s right. The second thing is to say that we have to be very careful, because we don’t have the dreamer here and consequently, we don’t have an active conversation with a dreamer about his associations. We have some of his associations, but a great deal will emerge only after that dialogue and in dialogue with the patient. There is no correct interpretation to a dream. A dream is an ambiguous stimulus that we try to play with, and it’s the process of the play, that’s the healing part, not the insight, or the conclusion about what the dream means. Meaning is not the issue here. It’s the process of playing with the dream images and the patient’s associations.
So, we’re not going to be able to play. I mean, we can try, but without the dreamer here, we’re not going to have that dialogue play, that would lead to a better sense of the “aha” moment. You know, if you’re in the process of that kind of play with a dream, the patient usually has a sense of what the dream is about by the end of it. They’ll say, okay, I think this is about this and that’s as far as you can go.
So, let’s just summarize what the dream is about. We start off in the parents’ kitchen, which is a very psychoactive place, probably. I’d want to know all about what that place felt like. A group of people that he doesn’t know are preparing to cook meat for him to eat, and he doesn’t know who they are, but he does feel it’s his duty to eat the meat. I’d want to know, tell me about yourself and duty. Where do you feel that you have a duty? So those are just some preliminary things. Now, they show me the different ways that they can cook lion meat. It can be minced, stewed, steak, sashimi style where it would be eaten raw. And then they show me this mask of the lion’s face which I have to wear after I eat the lion’s meat, and I never get to actually eat the meat or wear the lion’s mask in the dream. Okay, I never get to. That’s a passive way of saying it, right?
We also hear that he doesn’t want to eat the lion’s meat because he says it’s gross. I would ask him okay, I want to know all about you and gross. What do you consider gross? What is it about this prospect that feels gross to you? So, as you can see, I’m entering the space by trying to open the subjective experience of the dreamer. What does it feel like to be in this dilemma? You’re being asked to do this by people you don’t know. What is your feeling? You feel it’s your duty to eat it? Well, how did that get to be your duty? Who are they? And how did they get lined up with duty? So, you find this a gross thing to be asked of you and you’re resisting it. What does that feel like? Does that remind you of anything? Does it remind you of anything in this kitchen?
So, those are the keys that I would bring to the dream. Now, let’s say something about the archetypal structure, the dream and content of the dream. The lion he recognizes, as associated with courage and strength. I’d want to know what those qualities mean to him. Does he feel like he has them? Does he feel like he needs them? Does he feel like it would be a good idea if he could get some of these qualities under his belt, so to speak? If he said, yeah, I really do feel without courage and oftentimes, my courage deserts me and I find myself unable to really do the things I know I need to do to improve myself, like I drink too much. If he were to say that, then I might think, well, maybe what the dream is intimating then is that eating the meat of the lion would be an image of taking on some of the lion’s qualities — of taking on some of the courage This is the archetype of the meal, the animal. In early cultures, it’s understood that you eat the meat of the animal, whether it’s the tongue of the buffalo, or whatever, because it gives you the power of the animal.
There’s also this peculiar imagery of almost a communion meal, as if the animal has sacrificed itself. I’m making this up now to be imbibed by the neophyte or the dreamer, in order to get something of that God inside. To get the ego and Self connected in some way. That’s the Christian ritual of the communion service. Cooking of course brings in the whole alchemical dimension that has to do with preparation. There’s something about these people who are willing to prepare this for him and cooking is usually a way of taking raw meat and making it more assimilable, more attractive, more human in a certain way. Although there is a raw alternative here in the sashimi style. Well, let’s take one extreme, with the proviso that this is not necessarily what this dream means. Could it be that the Self capital S, his potential wholeness, is sending him this dream and the cooks to help him to take on some qualities that he needs to break through what he complains of as his lostness?
Self-doubt, yeah. To help him to claim some of his essential selfhood. Because the lion after all, is the king of beasts, right? The King is the great individual in archetypal culture. So, if you take on the King’s energy, you’re taking on something of that preeminent potentially archetypal, transpersonal dimension of the Self. And you’re taking it into yourself. That means you may be fortifying your ego from below with lion stuff and that could very well be an important thing for him to do, especially if we were able to affirm with the help of the patient that this gross reaction was maybe something not to be trusted.
Now, let me give you the other side of this dream. This dream could be dreamed by his perfectionistic defenses. Now, what would that say? That would mean that demands of duty and perfectionism that are always kicking him around and making him feel like shit, have now cooked up another meal for him. He’s now duty bound to do this. Even though he doesn’t want to, and it doesn’t really represent his primary, instinctive selfhood. So, in that case, the benefit would be in resisting the dream’s imprimatur, right?
Now, we never know whether the dream is being sent by the Self or the defenses. So, we always have to be open. I’ve had dreams that were just channeled by the demonic defense and the dreamer felt just completely under the spell and overwhelmed and dutiful and sacrificing and all the rest of it. I don’t think that’s what this dream is. I’m inclined to think maybe because I have a certain identification with this man’s dilemma and I like lions, to think that this is very, conceivably a gift that this man might be able to benefit from in terms of eat the lion. Right!
Yeah. I mean, Don, I think you’ve put your finger exactly on the kind of dilemma with looking at a dream like this and wondering kind of which attitude to take toward it and of course, it would depend so much on the quality of that childhood kitchen Well, what about that? What was childhood life? Being a lawyer, by the time you’re 31, you probably were on some path. You went to undergraduate, you applied to law school. Sometimes that path is one that’s sort of encouraged or given to us by our parents and so here he is. It sounds like he’s having some doubts about. I don’t know if he’s having doubts about being a lawyer. He’s certainly having some self-doubt and is it time to revisit the meal that has been offered by the parental complexes perhaps? Or the ancestors, giving him soul food?
Giving him soul food, exactly and the animal, by the way, is always sacred. That’s a big statement. But we have to remember that. So, we might ask the dreamer who killed this lion? Can you imagine the killing of this lion? and for what purpose was the lion killed? it was a killed by this group of people in order to provide a meal. I mean, he’s making it up. But I don’t like that idea of killing the lion for my food. I don’t think that’s a good idea. You know, you’ll get a lot of information about how he relates to that lion stuff by asking questions around the dream.
I’m also thinking about something that Jung had written–what is the necessary task which the patient will not accomplish? So, in the dream, if we think of it as having a useful telos, the task is to cook and eat the lion, which he does not accomplish and may not choose to accomplish. So, even though he’s an attorney, which is quite an achievement, it’s an enormous process to become an attorney, he may think that his task is to deal with self-doubt, and whether or not he’s smart enough or good enough. But underneath that, there’s a deeper question, which is, what are you avoiding? What is the task that you’re avoiding? And if I take the mythic task, not so much as killing the lion because the lion’s already been killed and you just have a hunk of meat there in the kitchen so that part’s over, as his relationship to metabolizing whatever the lion meat represents.
Yeah, no, I think that’s a really good point. What is the task? And you know, we haven’t talked about the mask yet. Wearing the mask is becoming the lion and it’s doing it symbolically, there’s a two-step dance in this dream. One is the eating of the lion meat, which seems to be necessary to wear the mask, and he doesn’t get to the mask, because he doesn’t do the first one. Now, does that mean he’s avoiding a more differentiated symbolic capacity to actualize himself in his life as taking on some of the lion qualities? It’s a very interesting question.
So, I have a somewhat different sort of starting point with this dream and per our discussion of earlier, a sense of feeling just in myself of empathy for the dream ego. And although we often say that the attitude of the dream ego is the least trustworthy attitude, our dream ego doesn’t like any part of this whole scene. I am also wondering about whether there is an element here of the mask as persona, of whether you have to adopt sort of what might be family values, and this heroic solar king of the beast stance and whether the meat that he needs to eat might be some other kind of meat altogether. because there’s a polarity here. Our dream ego thinks it’s gross but is duty bound to embrace a heroic stance, as if you better pick one or the other. I’m feeling this sense of, wait a minute, wait a minute, let’s talk about what you think it takes to be an attorney. How aggressive perhaps as a litigator, do you have to be? How heroic do you have to be? Or is there another stance between shying off the meat and having to be a lion? That is your true path.
Very worthwhile questions, Deb and you know, here, we are missing the dreamer’s presence.
Yes, we are…
To get some indication of which way we might go with it.
Yeah, by which I mean, missing. I’m missing and feeling a sense of, wouldn’t it really be great to have him here? Yeah.
You know, I think in this vein, one of the things that, Don, you’ve already alluded to is, I’m so curious about these cooks. They are the only other people in a dream. And he says he doesn’t really have a sense of them. But if the dreamer were here, we might try to play with that. If I were gonna suggest that this dreamer do an act of imagination, it might be interesting to have a conversation with these cooks.
Oh, great idea.
I think what we’re all wondering is where does this injunction to eat the lion meat come from? What part of the psyche is that coming from? It’s a wonderful dream in a way to talk about on the podcast, because it really renders very different results, depending on which attitude you take toward it. So, that’s a wonderful kind of illustration of that.
It really is and for example, if the cooks were to say, you know, we care about you, and we can see where you’re pinned, and we know that this is good for you, it would be different than if the cooks just said, oh, we got hired by the kitchen downtown to throw their stuff together and we have no connection to you, and we couldn’t care less what happens to you. These questions always evoke important information, that we really need to really address the dream.
But talk about defense, I mean, you’ve already pointed out this one possibility that it’s a dream, sort of concocted by the perfectionistic defenses, which I really liked and I’m also curious about the attitude of the dream ego that this is gross. So, is there a sort of a defense against possibly doing something that needs to be done?
So, that’s why I would ask him what’s gross? And tell me about gross?
The last thing that it brings up for me is the death of the old king. The lion is the king of beasts. This young man is wondering whether the guiding principles or values that have brought him to this moment may no longer fit. So, I think about that very ancient tradition of executing the old infertile king and assuming the energy into the new king, it suggests the potential of a new path, a new central value that could guide the psyche into the next step.
Yeah, that he might take on by eating a lion. Yeah, absolutely.
But the lion is dead suggesting the guiding principle has already been de-potentiated which may also be playing into this feeling of, “I don’t know what’s going on. Is this the right path? Do I have capacity to make use of this? Yeah, the old king might have been telling him you’re a great lawyer. This isn’t perfect but you’re gonna make a fortune. Keep going. That voice is kind of hitting the chopping block, something else is trying to emerge.