Reverie: Between Thought and Prayer

Marilyn Mathew
London, England
British Association of Psychoherapists, Jungian Section

“… We fashion clay into a pitcher, but its use comes from the void within.
The doors and windows we make in a house function because of their emptiness.
Thus we gain benefit from what is and usefulness from what is not.”

– Lao Tzu


The importance of containing boundaries is evident – the clay of the pitcher, the walls of the house, the frame of analysis. The void within is a potential space (Winnicott, 1971) for inspiration and thought. By opening the ‘doors and windows’ in the perimeters of our psychic boundaries, reverie allows the soul to travel between thought and prayer; beyond our known selves, to experience ‘what is not’.

Taken from the French verb ‘to dream’, we usually think of a ‘reverie’ as a day-dream. How do we find ourselves in a state of reverie? Perhaps I began by thinking about something or someone, staring out of a window.

I am ‘looking’ … but imperceptibly, vision shifts … until I am not ‘seeing’ at all. Minutes tick by; concentration fading like colours at dusk. Before long I am lost in a void of time and space; utterly elsewhere, utterly entranced.

Why, when I return from reverie, do I find so often I have been gazing out through a window? Is it possible that, coincidentally, a window has swung open in my mind allowing psyche access from one world to another?

I am going to reflect on four aspects of ‘reverie’: infant observation, maternal/analytic reverie, paternal/supervisory reverie and archetypal reverie to demonstrate the usefulness of the void within and the perceptive function of emptiness in the windows of our mind.

Infant Observation

‘Maternal reverie’ describes the enigmatic way a mother holds her baby in mind, a concept Bion (Bion 1962) extended beyond the mother-child relationship in his concept of ‘container-contained’. Babies seek to replace the original containment and connection of womb and umbilical cord with their mother’s body, mind, and eye- to-eye contact. Visual connection anchors, focuses, penetrates and searches, transporting us both out into the sunlight of the material world and back into the shadow-world of insight and imagination.

Beatrice is two weeks old:

“Hello Beautiful!” said Katie, smiling at her. Beatrice raised her arm, the fingers of her left hand spread out, stretching towards her mother. Katie put her finger in Beatrice’s hand and she closed her tiny fingers over it. Katie picked up the pink seahorse and held it near her daughter’s face. “Look here’s your seahorse!” Beatrice moved her head a little to the left towards the seahorse and then back to look up at her mother. “It’s a seahorse”, said Katie again, dancing it around in front of her. Beatrice moved her left arm in a pushing-away motion and looked up into her mother’s face. After a few seconds Katie dropped the seahorse and returned her gaze. Beatrice moved her arms and legs now and then, but her eyes remained intent on her mother. Katie occasionally looked away from her, out of the window, but Beatrice continued to seek her gaze.

It can be daunting to be held in the unblinking gaze of a tiny baby. Beatrice spent most of this observation seeking direct eye contact with her mother, but Katie found it hard, breaking off almost as though coming up for air by glancing out of the window or introducing a toy between them.

Here is two-week-old Bobby. Grandma hands him back to his reluctant mother, Sally. He contracts his body as Sally tells him she can’t possibly feed him again, she’s so tired (Sally has Chronic Fatigue Syndrome). She says how much better Daddy is at this:

“Bobby turned his face into her shoulder, drew up his legs, pulled in his arms; his whole body retracted, pink faced and wrinkled. Bobby’s gaze moved round Sally’s face, resting on the hairline, returning to her eyes. His left hand moved towards her face and fell away. After a minute or so Bobby fell back onto Sally’s arm and his gaze moved out into the space of the room, focussing on the window. His left arm reached out into the space beyond him, fingers flexing and retracting.”

Again and again as he grew up, the observer witnessed Bobby losing himself in the light through the window. It seemed to happen when his mother was unavailable – not necessarily physically, but mentally. Katie sometimes found the intensity of little Beatrice’s gaze hard to bear and both children, like many others observed, turned away at times towards the light of the window.

Observers have described moments of intimacy when a mother meets her child’s gaze as ‘magical’ or ‘spiritual’. But when the windows of their mother’s soul are closed to them, a child may look beyond the human realm. Esther Bick (Bick, 1968, p. 484) wrote about adhesive identification and second skin formation:

The need for a containing object would seem, in the infantile unintegrated state, to produce a frantic search for an object … which can hold the attention and thereby be experienced momentarily at least, as holding the parts of the personality together.

Perhaps moments of early failure that stretch de-integrative endurance (Fordham, 1979) produce more than a defensive manoeuvre. In leaping mentally beyond the experienced relationships of their known worlds, for example from eye contact with their mother to the light through a window, perhaps they are also creating and/or discovering psyche’s archetypal process and space for reverie.

When he was just over one year old, Sally was very unwell and Bobby was cared for by his father. In this observation Bobby had played angrily with a toy telephone and then flung earth around outside. Now it was bath time:

“Daddy said it was time to get out … the water was all gone. He put the shower on and a fine stream flowed lightly over Bobby, draining away the suds. Bobby put his slightly closed palms under the stream. He was still; half catching the water, half letting it flow; spellbound …”

Bobby’s observer experienced him in this moment as “a little Buddha who had disappeared, entranced, within himself”.

Beatrice is nearly two and in previous weeks the observer had been preparing her for the ending of the observation:

“Beatrice lay back on her cushion, and bit into the apple, staring out of the French windows, a faraway look in her eyes. She looked at me briefly and then out of the window again … Beatrice glanced at me again as I said I would see her next week but after that I wouldn’t be coming like this every week because she was going to be two. She smiled and quietly said, ‘yes’”.

Beatrice’s observer described that moment as “beautiful, peaceful, almost mystical … the most precious in the whole experience of observing”.

The moments when Bobby watched the water trickling through his fingers and Beatrice stared faraway out of the French window were numinous for both observers, but what was going on in the children? Both seemed lost in reverie. Both may have been contemplating loss (of mother or observer) but the air was spiritual. I wonder about the containing power of the observer’s reverie but I also wonder if these children have developed a capacity for reverie themselves. Have they found the exterior/interior gaze that opens windows in the meniscus of the self, breaking into the empty circle of Bion’s “O” (Bion, 1965), to access an anima mundi?

Prayer before Birth

Coming now to the process of maternal/analytic reverie in the consulting room, I am going to describe a fragment of my work with Jane.

We had become aware that, possibly at birth, Jane had protectively withdrawn an essential part of herself into a self-enclosing psychic “womb”. Her fourth pregnancy seemed to have activated the possibility of giving birth to this incubated part of herself, but she was she was terrified that this tiny baby self would meet the same disastrous lack of maternal empathy that it had done originally.

Six months previously I had heard a beautiful poem by Louis MacNeice called “Prayer Before Birth” for the first time. I had meant to search it out but it had fallen from my mind. Then one weekend, an urgent thought came from out of the blue and began to niggle ferociously. There was no peace until I ransacked my bookshelves, eventually finding the poem in a scruffy paperback. Marking the page with a train ticket, I took it into my consulting room, and left it on the bookcase behind my chair – where I forgot about it again.

A few days later, Jane began telling me about her childhood love of poetry, and the profound sadness that her mother found it meaningless. Jane had won countless medals in competitions, reciting hundreds of poems.

“Was there ever one poem that meant more than any other?” I asked.

“Yes”, she replied instantly, “there’s a wonderful poem by Louis MacNeice called ‘Prayer Before Birth’, I wish I could remember how it goes”.

I reached behind me, handing her the battered paperback. She opened it where it was marked. The third verse reads:

I am not yet born; provide me
with water to dandle me, grass to grow for me, trees to talk
to me, sky to sing to me, birds and a white light
in the back of my mind to guide me

This experience came from the other side of the rainbow, bringing immense meaning, transforming our analytic relationship.

We could call this unconscious communication “participation mystique”, projective identification (Klein, 1946), or synchronicity (Jung, CW 8). Perhaps it demonstrates the usefulness of the window in the mind that can unlock between self and other and make use of the void within, the “what is not”.

Paternal Reverie

If “maternal reverie”(Bion, 1962) is kindled in the one-to-one relationship of analyst-analysand, perhaps the process of supervision triggers an extra layer of “paternal reverie”.

Peter was in touch with his worst nightmares. They were breaking through into his waking states and I was very concerned, very alert to his need for my whole attention. At this point I had arranged three months supervision with a male analyst and I decided to talk about my work with Peter. This decision, I think, played an essential part in what was to unfold.

Peter experienced himself as the man in his dreams who had been skinned alive in an acid bath and whose body was lying on my couch. The quality was hallucinogenic. In that moment there was no “as if” and I was faced with an untouchable man in unbearable agony.

As Peter’s experience of nigredo deepened into mortificatio, I felt as though a rip-tide was wrenching us apart. Peter then contracted ‘flu and for the first time was so ill that he could not attend his sessions for a whole week. He sank below the horizon and I felt he was – perhaps of necessity – somewhere I was denied access. I had no choice but to wait for his return.

When Peter did return, it was as if from the grave: pale and shaky, but out of the underworld, bringing a dream:

Peter is lying on the couch. I am there as an Eastern woman and he is the skinned man who is now healthy and intact. My husband carries a tiny baby into the room and hands it to Peter who holds it, snuggling happily, on his chest.

The next week, as planned, my supervision ended.

Who was my “husband” in the dream? Part of Peter? Undoubtedly. An aspect of myself? Possibly. Or perhaps an indication that Peter had benefited from my supervisor’s encircling “paternal reverie”?

Archetypal Reverie

So far I have described a process of reverie between inside and outside, you and me in maternal and paternal reverie. Sometimes, however, the windows of the self’s perimeter are blown in by the massive archetypal forces operating between I and Thou:

Linda had two numinous dreams:

A kind old couple have carefully swept up all the stray pink rose petals from their cottage garden, but Linda finds a single petal they have missed and becomes terribly upset. The old couple are concerned but don’t know how on earth to comfort her – it seems like the end of the world. Linda’s desperate sobs echo out across space until someone she’d never heard of called Sophia hears them. When Sophia arrives from the farthest edge of the universe she puts her arm around Linda’s shoulders. Linda finds herself becoming smaller and smaller, younger and younger, until she is a tiny baby rocked in the woman’s arms.

Linda’s kind internal parental couple could not manage her psychic pain. She had to send her silent screams out of the garden to the very edge of the psychic cosmos to summon Sophia, the archetypal figure of spiritual wisdom. (Jung, CW 11)


Linda has travelled to the Outer Hebrides to see the aurora borealis which she has wanted to see all her life. As she gazes into the heavens watching the curtains of colour shimmering in the darkness, her attention is occasionally drawn away by a tiny flickering light on the horizon. She realises it is actually a fire – a blazing cross – which is getting bigger and bigger because it is coming closer and closer. Before long, Linda realises it is heading directly for her. She starts to panic, tries to escape, but her back is against a wall. She is absolutely terrified, screaming her head off. The heat and noise of the roaring flames is phenomenal and Linda is convinced she will be burned to a crisp. On impact the fiery cross implodes, surrendering itself as absolute peace in her heart.

A dream like this illustrates the power of the Transcendent Function (Jung, CW 8) and describes the archetypal Self storming the horizons of our mind, challenging us to think about the notion of God.

Prayer Answered

As I was finishing writing this, Catherine, a talented musician, found herself at the end of her tether. We had worked hard on the terrified baby needs that had crippled her love life, bringing them gradually into our relationship, but there was still a long way to go.

Then, one weekend, the latest most hopeful relationship seemed to be heading for the rocks. Catherine didn’t believe in God but, almost experimentally, decided to pray. She sent her prayer for help out into the void, expecting nothing. Twenty seconds later, to her amazement, back came a response from out of the blue, (a “blue” which James Hillman (Hillman, 1981) reminds us “sponsors reverie” and “calls the mythic imagination to its farthest reaches”)

The answer to her prayer came from the other side of the rainbow, straight to the heart; beyond word or image: an immediate, complete and peaceful wholeness which has endured.

Final Thoughts

Reverie is the void within. The process of reverie dims daylight, and turns the soul’s mirror to glass. Moving between thought and prayer, reverie extends psyche’s vision beyond the doors and windows of our minds into the cathedrals of our souls.

“Thus we gain benefit from what is and usefulness from what is not”.


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