Looking Back: Social Dreaming, Art and Lockdown

In August the regular group of Dreamers who have been engaged in The Art of Social Dreaming, had our eighth Matrix. After our post-Matrix discussions, we decided that our ninth gathering would be a review of the consolidated content, of the matrices so far, identifying recurring, shared motifs, themes, imagery or affect; and constructing where possible hypotheses as to the underlying meanings or narratives.

It is impossible to describe all the themes and images the eight matrices surfaced in a short blog – it was such a complex and interwoven tapestry. The notes from the eight sessions ran to forty-two pages, representing eight hours of dream-sharing and a further eight hours of reflection and analysis.  So, I have tried to pick out some hypotheses gleaned from a distillation of some of the most strongly recurring images.

In Social Dreaming practice as used in psychosocial contexts, reflections from the Matrix are worked towards the creation of a hypothesis – what do the collective images and their arrangement in relation to one another suggest is going on in the shared unconscious?  In the early stages of the group, these were entirely creative hypotheses – responses in visual art, words and photographs to the rich content of the matrix.   As we progressed, we started to build other forms of hypotheses – questions about the world and how, as a group, we are responding to the times we find ourselves in.

Here, first, is an example of a single session on 3rd July, summarised:

First Dream: A dry stone wall on my property had collapsed… I was worried about security, that a cordon sanitaire had been breached and the virus had come in and was all over the fallen stones. I didn’t know what to do or where it was. (… the next day I was awake, walking in the field where the wall is. A tree was leaning right over the road, we called the tree surgeon to cut it down. It was an old cherry tree full of cherries which, like drops of blood fell on the wall in the same place where it had been breached in the dream).

Dream: I’m in another country with people I’m close to – I’m trying to pack a bag to get out of the place quickly. An Irish friend had done something serious and let me down. I couldn’t pack the bags, couldn’t leave.

Dream: I had done two terrible things. I had poisoned my grandmother with some wine. I had also aided in a rape. In the dream I was both mystified and fearful – why had I done these dreadful things? And what would happen if these deeds were made public?

Dream: Something terrible I had done was about to be made public. I was fearful that a letter would reveal it.

Dream: I’m riding a horse near some houses – a police officer stops me and asks me to dismount. She wants some information about an incident. I can’t talk because my mouth is full of a light blue viscous liquid. Two men are shot. I felt their bodies fall. I listen to their breathing as they died.

Dream: I was walking in the hills. I wanted to paint the misty day…  I visualised the pictures. The sun had come out. The space which had been empty was now full of children dressed in blue. I couldn’t get back to the hills because I was surrounded by children. When I woke, I decided I’d paint in blue (I have been painting in red and green but was struggling to paint in these colours – I felt that blue was a colour of hope)

Associations: Blue birds over the white cliffs of dover; painting the rocks and desert in blue; Yves Klein – he covered his naked body with blue paint and rolled on paper; painting trees – blue with a white tip.

Dream: many decades ago, asleep on a hot morning in my room at University. I had a dream, the only images I can remember were the sound of a gunshot and a falling to the ground. A few days later I had a letter from my parents saying that my horse had been destroyed, shot. It had happened the morning of the dream, at about the same time.

Dream: My daughter (24 years) asked me whether we told her the truth when she was a child.   When?” 2005?  We were being playful back then. Yes, of course I did, I said. I knew I was lying.

Dream: With my 9-year-old daughter trying to escape something maze like – indoors. I was protecting her from danger, there was something macabre and grotesque which I was keeping her from seeing.

Dream: I’m in an office, a friend I hadn’t seen for a long time is there, her daughter arrives, I feel emotional, she’s such a lovely young woman. I want to show a picture of my son, but I can’t find it on my phone, they’re in a hurry, they have to go. Now I’m in a building where a man has been working as a carer for a woman and a dog. There’s a collection of small ceramic items in a tin with a sliding lid, different styles and textures there is pleasure in handling and arranging them.

Dream, I’m at a party upstairs in a Victorian house. Someone is painting the blue ceiling white, using a ladder. I’m sitting on some sofas next to my father.

Dream: My partner and I are doing something at the local library, I finished and went downstairs I couldn’t remember where the car was parked. I sat on the stair huddled in a sheet, feeling weak and clutching a notebook and pieces of paper. A female friend comes in and announces she’s pregnant. She is my contemporary (70’s). I say, “This changes everything”. I woke up feeling – what a relief! The end of winter! (it was June 22nd)

Dream: I was at university heading into a lift to the second floor to find the room I’m staying in. I’m working out where everything is. Can other people see into my space? There’s a lift ladder and a space above with crockery. I’m looking for food ingredients’ difficult because of Corona – I’m missing things from my own kitchen. At the firepit a woman offers me a joint – I say no because I don’t have any with which to reciprocate.

Associations: paternoster lifts that constantly moved, and you had to step on and off. If you stayed in after the top floor do you came down the other side upside down? I worried I might not get out in time.  Paternoster means ‘Our Father’ – lovely word, rhythmic; fear of escalators as a kid – if I didn’t get of it might such me in like a cheese grater; a crush at the top of an escalator. A family got off and stopped moving – there was a pile up behind;fear of stepping on the yellow lines at the edges… fear of walking on the cracks in the pavement; travellator at airports – everyone’s rushing but you can go slowly; A friend reckoned he caught the Corona virus in a lift; In Hong Kong I had to go to the 40th floor. Took a long time for the lift to go up; street escalators in Hong Kong – open air, they feel safe, take you from one street to another

Dreams: often I dream I’m in a lift, when it gets to the top of the building it goes along the tops of the rooves like a cable car. I always feel anxious in these lifts.

Dream: getting in a lift, emerging somewhere completely different. Trusting I know what I’m going to find on the 4th floor, but door opens and I’m in a different city.

Dream: A man with a trolley covered in mud. I was calling to my wife, he thought I was calling him. I helped him take the muddy trolley to the supermarket.

Dream: I’m on a long run in the countryside, the sea to my left. I run past a car boot sale. I’m coming into Blackpool, trying to go through a gate without damaging a plant. The landscape has disappeared into a plastic, mineral material. Back in town a man is working with a scalpel cutting out images from a magazine, making scratches on the desk. He’s doing a presentation at work, there’s a table of black women apologised for swearing. I realise I’m in a room with religious people and think it’s time to go now.

Dream: Wooden church painted light green. It’s about to be disassembled and moved. Somebody is running up and down the aisle in an irreverent way.

Associations: in the novel Oscar and Lucinda – Oscar has to take a glass church to be assembled in a remote Australian village upriver, to replace a wooden hut. It doesn’t work out well; My window looked out over a wooden church. It had belonged to Christadelphians, taken over by a used furniture dealer, Mr Cox, who had fires outside the church. Inside the church there was judo class going on, the white figures looked like angels. The Christadelphians had left the church but missed the second coming of Christ! I heard the sound like heavy rainfall, but it was the pub across the road on fire, crackling.

Dream, with a woman in a house – we left and went to the beach… there’s thunderclouds. Out from the clouds came flying swans. Fog rolling in, we must leave. Everyone started packing up. My legs weren’t working, I couldn’t move properly. I wasn’t scared, just didn’t know why my legs wouldn’t move.

Associations: The first time I winded myself – I fell off a swing on my back – I thought I was dying; heat of anxious fear… I see blue and white light when I’m in that state

Association: colour -healing with colour. Mid to pale blue… soothing, gentle

Key significant images and associations were: blue, paralysis, terror/fear, religion, lifts, sky, daughters/ children

From that matrix, we had a number of creative responses – most of which took one or two images from the matrix to form a further set of associations. These, we viewed as ‘creative hypotheses’ which mirrored the ‘working hypotheses’ which are created from the matrix content and reflection in a psychosocial context.  They included photographs, paintings and poems and had a strong blue theme, but each took further ‘hypothesis’ associations which extended the meaning and context. So, the blue paintings were of nature – dolphins and birds; the Haiku referenced Black Lives Matter; the poem Blue also included dolphins, the sea, distant hills and fear; ending with a quote from Yves Klein:

First there is nothing. Then there is deep.
After that, deep blue.

In the later sessions, we also tried to construct ‘working hypotheses’ across the whole series, recognising the synergies and associations that recurred and developed across two or more matrices.  Here are a couple I have created from that conversation:

Hypothesis 1: Journeys into woods and forests

In the first session the lead dream was about a cave – a group had gathered by the mouth awaiting a red-haired hero who would lead them into the cave to defeat the virus. There was a sense of purpose, people had assembled by the cave with the hope of redemption/ salvation by the leader. The associations were of spring, verdency, green re-growth; of fear, of what lay out of sight, sprouting hands; the cave as the threat of the unknown and danger, but also of safety and shelter, a place to sleep and rest.

One dream was by a teacher – they couldn’t ‘teach or reach’ students, all the pupils in the class had the same name – Nicola.

In the second matrix there was a cottage in the woods – a parents’ house, associated to other dreams of family houses, difficult, inaccessible, unreturnable, burning. Birth and death seemed represented by ‘dead wood’, which is actually a habitat to many forms of life.  There were several dreams and associations that suggested impermanence – a passing and letting go of what had gone before. There were also many associations with walking in the woods, green, connection to trees

Words featured: writing on unusual surfaces, on skin, a green filigree pen, changing meaning, and location. A dream of somebody trying to write ‘Thank You’ and the words coming out as ‘Think So’ – uncertainty and shapeshifting, like the dandelion clock.

In the third matrix a dreamer was walking in the woods with a friend called Peter. This was associated with Peter Pan, The Lost Boys.  There were many dreams and associations about children and young people being ‘lost’. A construction of wooden materials kept falling apart, broken.


At the start of lockdown (April 2020) there was fear and anxiety but also hope of salvation.  A sense of discovery and regrowth, the unknown. Trees provide nourishment, life and protection. We go into the wood to find ‘answers’, explore and somehow go deeper into our humanity and future…. we encounter ghosts, liminal space, sleep.

The anxiety evolves over the later sessions: death is present, things become impermanent, the past – parents and family houses – are on fire or unreachable. The journey into the forest becomes more exploratory and unknown, but also connecting and nourishing.

The Lost Boys – a future generation lost? Like the unreachable pupils called Nicola? Wood is now crafted, man-made but human structures are breaking. Conventional forms of learning are breaking down, unreliable.

We are losing connection to the recent past and the immediate future. We live in a present where things are unpredictable, impermanent, breaking – but also where we could find peace and nourishment through nature.  Maybe we are forming connections with deeper time – a past further back (the Red-Haired Hero of ancient legend) and a future further ahead.

Deep time.


Hypothesis 2: Water, Toilets, Isolation, Exposure

Toilets appeared strongly in the third and subsequent matrices, a broken toilet in a dilapidated building, a queue for a toilet.  Neither offer privacy or safety. A bright blue toilet with a brown shit. Then in the fourth matrix, cubicles, people crying behind walls, water where it shouldn’t be. Invasion, isolation, unseen harm.

In the fifth matrix a dreamer was sitting in a toilet in the middle of a conference room. She had the options of a tiny, dirty concealed toilet, or exposure. Another dream had a bathroom with no plumbing or sanitaryware. This triggered many unpleasant associations with toilets: the scene in the movie Trainspotting where Spud goes down the toilet; toilets at work, people dying on toilets. This matrix also had a lot of procedural strands: policies, agendas, barriers. In COVID times, procedures, rules.

In the seventh matrix, a dream about finding a small abandoned girl who is sent by a stern matron to go to the toilet to get washed. The girl sinks into the toilet and disappears round the U bend, the dreamer pulls her out and she is wrapped in cellophane.

Nakedness and exposure appeared in these and other matrices: walking naked, presenting at conference wrapped only in a tablecloth; but it was at its most anxious and fearful when associated to toilets.


We are confused and anxious about choices and options – personal hygiene seems to be in tension with public health, public space and visibility with privacy and isolation. There is a recurrence of water where it shouldn’t be: fear of the virus spreading? – but also a lack of plumbing and working toilets where they should be: a fear of infrastructure starting to fail?

Having to use the toilet in public, fear of public shaming over behaviours which were previously private or a matter of personal choice.  Nakedness and exposure, a constant, heightened state of ‘alert’ is making us hypersensitive to threat of all kinds. Fight or flight mode, fear, stress and anxiety are our default mind states.

The psychologist Susie Orbach has talked about the outside impacting on the inside. “The pandemic has been a prolonged assault from outside on our community. The state of uncertainty and unsafety it has created is new and utterly unfamiliar.”

By the later matrix – the young girl sent by matron to the toilet to wash – hygiene has become cruel and punishing. The dreamer is trying to rescue something –  the future? Our humanity? – from disappearance down the U bend. But even retrieved it is sealed and unreachable in procedures and policies.

The Art of Social Dreaming April – August 2020

The series has been a powerful insight into  an extraordinary time for sharing and associating to dreams, and potentially an important psychosocial record of the connective unconscious of the group during a unique period. In moving forward my understanding of making work from many minds and voices, it has started a journey which we will continue. Whether, like the work of Charlotte Beradt, our collected dreams foreshadow a future world, only time will tell.

Photography images: Olivia Rosen; Collage painting: Ruth Balogh

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