POLYPHONYJournal of the Irish Association of Creative Arts Therapists
Words Interviews

BodyDreaming: A Conversation with Marian Dunlea

Published on Jan 30, 2020 by Bernadette Divilly

This interview was originally published in IACAT Journal, Vol. 6, No. 1, 2019, pp. 70-75.

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Marian Dunlea, M.Sc., IAAP, ICP, is a Jungian analyst who has been leading workshops internationally for the past 20 years integrating body, mind and soul. With the development of her unique approach BodyDreaming, Marian’s work has expanded to incorporate developments in neuroscience, trauma therapy, Jungian psychology and the phenomenological standpoint of interconnectedness. Her trainings include Jungian Analyst, Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy, Psychosynthesis, Infant Observation, BodySoul Rhythms® and Somatic Experiencing. Her book BodyDreaming in the Treatment of Developmental Trauma: An Embodied Therapeutic Approach was published by Routledge in May 2019. It was winner of the NAAP 2019 Gradiva® Award. 

BD:       Congratulations, Marian, on your new book? Will you talk about it?

MD:       Thanks, Bernadette. The book is called BodyDreaming in the Treatment of Developmental Trauma: An Embodied, Therapeutic Approach (2019). It provides a theoretical and practical guide for working with developmental trauma, drawing on neuroscience, analytical psychology, attachment theory and trauma therapy to explore the interconnection of body, mind and psyche.

Essentially, the BodyDreaming approach activates our innate capacity for healing, as it restores balance to a dysregulated psyche and nervous system.

It does so by changing our default response of “fight/flight” or “freeze/collapse” and creating new neural pathways and new attachment behaviours. BodyDreaming brings awareness to our sensing bodies, an interoceptive attunement to our inner states, as we experience ourselves in the container of the therapeutic relationship. In this process, we have the opportunity to develop a core sense of self, which is key to healing developmental trauma.

BD:       That interdisciplinary, and holistic, approach and passion was developed over a long period of time, wasn’t it – when did you start working as a therapist?

MD:       I started working as a therapist in my early thirties, training at the Institute of Psychosynthesis in London. Prior to that I had been working in a hospice as a bereavement therapist, and prior to that I’d worked as an assistant in L’Arche in France, which is a community for people with intellectual disability.

I talk about my experience of living in L’Arche in the book, where I describe Angelique, who came to L’Arche having grown up in a very big mental institution. She was probably born there, surrounded by women of all ages who were institutionalised. When she first came to the community, she walked and talked as if she was an old woman, even though she was only in her twenties. At times, Angelique would hit out at people in rageful attacks. It took many years in that particular caring environment before she was able to trust rather than destroy positive relationships. Initially in L’Arche, two special carers worked with her, focusing on the daily rituals of nourishment, personal hygiene, play, and sleep times. This careful attention brought her right back to her early infant self, as it were. I was privileged to witness the transformation and regulation that their loving attention and presence brought to her, how she blossomed and became such a wonderful member of the community. She used to love to go and visit the older and the more disturbed or traumatised people. She just wanted to be with them, and she brought a lot of love. I was really, really touched – to me that planted the seed that human relationship heals.

BD:       This is where you go in your book, that human relationship heals, and you show how to slow down so that healing can really occur?

MD:       Yes. In the book I expand on how working with the body, tracking the nervous system and its default positions of fight, flight or freeze/collapse is key to healing. We get to observe the body, paying attention to how the body responds to the therapeutic conversation and interventions (influenced by Eugene Gendlin’s work, Focusing). We learn how you follow somebody, tracking the prosody in the voice, tone, pacing, rhythm, mirroring and reflecting of key words, gestures and movements, which gives the feeling to the person that you are there with them, receiving their experience.

BD:       Before we delve into what you do in practice, can you expand on why you wrote the book? Who and what influenced what you are writing about?

MD:       I’ve been teaching workshops for many years and over time I developed my own approach to working with the body and with dreams. The work grew out of my engagement with Marion Woodman, Mary Hamilton and Anne Skinner, the founders of BodySoul Rhythms®. It was with them that I had the extraordinary creative time discovering the interconnectedness of body and psyche/soul and the central role the body plays in healing early trauma. I really value their creative approach to working with image and embodied imagination, through movement, voice work, mask and dream work. However, what stays with me about their practice was the strength of the loving container they provided.

Marion was a Jungian analyst and that was incredibly important at that point for me, to deepen the journey I had already begun in Jungian analysis, opening to the archetypal field with Marion and experiencing the body work with Mary and Anne (Mary is a dance movement therapist and Anne is head voice coach in one of the main theatre schools, Stratford, in Canada). Their combined deeply embodied approach provided an amazingly creative temenos or container. My journey took me from a psychoanalytic psychotherapy training with its emphasis on mother-infant work, which included infant observation, to BodySoul Rhythms®, which roots the primary relationship in the body. Core to the work is the understanding of the archetype of the mother in all her aspects. It teaches that through the body and dream work we can develop a positive mother in and for ourselves. It was a safe and deep temenos, an amazing container to heal the primary wound and to grow what it is to be an embodied therapist. Later, as a BodySoul teacher facilitating workshops, I started to incorporate some of the practices coming out of Peter Levine’s Somatic Experiencing® with BodySoul Rhythms®. Over the years, I recognised that this combined approach meant that I was bringing something different to the work, which I called BodyDreaming.

BD:       So, what had happened, and how?

MD:       In BodySoul Rhythms® workshops, you’re always working as a team. I have had fabulous collaborators, bringing great diversity to the work.

For instance, Candace Loubert was one of my collaborators; we trained together in BodySoul Rhythms® and we ran workshops in Canada and Ireland. I was deeply inspired by Candace’s work. She was a dancer and a visual artist, who loved working with clay. Candace had included Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen’s work, Body mind Centering®, as well as the work of Susan Harper and Continuum. She worked a particular way with the body that really, really slowed things down. It focused on tracking the body and waiting for the pre-movement, movement as impulse, to express itself. The impulse for creativity, for expression, is always coming from within, and, as far as possible, we create the conditions whereby the response is not automatic but rather autonomic, in the territory of the unconscious.

It’s not habitual movement or pattern that we’re watching for, but we’re creating conditions where the deep relaxation, or the parasympathetic, is somewhere where the person can really feel safe and contained. It is out of those safe and contained places that spontaneous rhythm, movement, image and sound come and are given expression, reflecting the energy that’s moving in us.

BD:       And how does this come up in your book?

MD:       In the book, I'm focusing on Bodydreaming – how the body and the psyche work together. I’m showing very simply how I create conditions for greater regulation, homeostasis, coherence to come into the body. This in turn allows deeper connection with image. I talk about the body in terms of activation and deactivation of the nervous system, which comes out of the work of Peter Levine (Somatic Experiencing) and Stephen Porges (Polyvagal Theory). The new healing impulse comes in the form of an image, or gesture, or sound, or dream when we have supported the client’s nervous system to feel safe and to be in greater alignment.

For me, it’s about setting up the conditions, whether in a group setting or in individual therapy, whereby a person can attain greater fluidity, flow and movement in their system, so it’s not a one-sided position either with excitement or with depression and anxiety. It’s about creating those circumstances by really focusing on the nervous system – it’s like you can really adjust the volume when you’re working very delicately with the nervous system. It’s something that we can all learn, in fact I really feel it’s an imperative that we have to take on when we’re working with people – whatever our interactions with another human being, we’ve got to make more conscious what happens around the nervous system exchange between people.

BD:       Could you say a little bit, then, about what your book is offering the arts therapies?

MD:       I think my message to people working in the creative arts, whether it’s movement, visual or sound, is how a regulated nervous system is key to working in depth with the imagination.

The book focuses on the responses of the nervous system and energy moving through the body and its creative expression, hopefully offering the reader some insight and techniques to follow that can give opportunity to create alternative responses and offer more space and facility for emotion in the body. In short, the book teaches us about how to use self-regulation in our practice with clients.

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BD:       So, regulation is very important?

MD:       Yes. Regulation is key because when we learn to self-regulate, we have a greater capacity for emotion and for imagination and expression.

BD:       And you also talk about how developmental work is important?

MD:       Developmental work, for me, is crucial because it’s all about how the neural pathways are laid down, in terms of attachment patterns, right from the beginning in the primary relationship. It is that relationship which lays down the foundation of our autonomic nervous system responses of fight, flight and freeze/collapse. Thanks to neuroscience, we now know that the brain’s plasticity ensures that we can rewire the brain and lay down new neural pathways. Therefore, I place a lot of attention on the regulation of the nervous system, working with the innate capacity (or resource) in each of us to help self-regulate, creating new nervous system responses so we are not trapped in our default positions.

BD:       Could you expand on that?

MD:       Yes, so in terms of our nervous system responses, each of us has a default position that has ensured our survival. We talk about a fight-flight or freeze-collapse response. Neuroscience, using fMRI and PET scans, shows us how the brain works, which synapses fire to establish neural pathways; these are established primarily through relationship. In the book, we see how the early attachment relationship forms our neural pathways – patterns that have us reacting in particular ways. Viewed through the lens of attachment, we have the experience of secure attachment and insecure attachment, e.g., avoidant, ambivalent or a disorganized, disoriented attachment, which will have developed in the early relationship with the primary caregiver, often the mother. And whichever attachment pattern it is, it’s a pattern of response of the nervous system to that particular relationship in those early years of development.

BD:       And what would a healthy state be?

MD:       In relation then to the book, and in relation to the work, we’re connecting to what brings an individual into greater homeostasis – what supports their nervous system to be more regulated and not stuck in default conditions. Homeostasis is like a pendulum swinging – it’s not rigid, so we’re moving between states all the time: activation (a sympathetic response) and deactivation (parasympathetic response). Staying in one or the other place is problematic for the health of our whole system – our physiology as well as our mental and spiritual states.

The book is about learning to create a more fluid system, using practices which facilitate greater coherence and integration between body, mind and soul.

BD:       Creative arts therapists would work a lot with attachment and states. Can you expand on some of the ideas you explore in your book?

MD:       In the book, I have a number of chapters devoted to working with different attachment patterns. I use some long-term cases with live transcripts of sessions to demonstrate how to work with these patterns focusing on the nervous system responses. I demonstrate through my interventions and long commentaries how to support the physiology and the brain, so the person is not forever sentenced to a rigid patterned attachment response.

"[In] every adult there lurks a child – an eternal child, something that is always becoming, is never completed, and calls for unceasing care, attention and education. That is the part of the human personality which wants to develop and become whole". (Jung 1954, par.286)

The attachment patterns are established in the early relationships, but we know from neuroscience that the neuroplasticity of the brain ensures that we have the potential to change neural pathways and attachment behaviours. The infant is dependent on its primary care giver for self-regulation when it is born, that is why attachment patterns and capacity for self-regulation are intertwined. The infant is not able to self-regulate its overwhelm – as the capacity for self-regulation, situated in the neo- cortex, is not on line when the infant is born, and it takes time for it to be established. Meanwhile, the primary carer, most often the mother, is the chief regulator of emotions. As a therapist, by working with affect regulation, we become, to use Pat Ogden’s expression, the auxiliary cortex, to help the client’s system to regulate, we support the links from the neo cortex that soothe and settle the emotional brain (2015, p.46).

With many clients, their default position in the nervous system has got stuck on either fight, flight, or freeze/collapse response based on attachment styles. In working very closely with tracking the nervous system, we can rehabilitate the default positions, and help to create a more healthy self-regulatory nervous system and thereby begin to change attachment styles.

BD:       And, tell me, how do you work with dreams and symptoms?

MD:       With dreams and symptoms, I always begin the work with regulation to settle the initial nervous system response. The client is presenting a dream, they’re excited, but instead of going straight in, and the client telling you all about the dream, I’m going to work with getting the system into greater flow and coherence. For example, I can be activated and excited about the dream image, however if I create more homeostasis in my nervous system then I have more space within to allow myself to engage emotionally and imaginatively with the dream image. The practice allows for greater curiosity to explore the dream. In contrast, if I haven’t established homeostasis in the nervous system then the excitement about the dream can swing into hyperarousal and, from the brain’s point of view, there can be a kind of flooding of the emotional brain, and less capacity to take in the dream image. This method expands our field of consciousness beyond our initial idea of what the dream is about.

BD:       Could you expand on regulation within BodyDreaming?

MD:       BodyDreaming teaches regulation along with awareness of the body’s responses to the dream or image. Firstly, we settle our nervous system, and this practice brings attention to how our body is responding, noticing the changes that are taking place as we settle the system; changes in our breath, how our gut is responding, our muscles relaxing.

We titrate our responses, moving between states of activation and contraction to states of expansion and ease, in so doing we establish greater homeostasis and safety from which to consider the dream image. This process of establishing safety invites greater curiosity and play.

It’s all about the experience in and through the body; the body providing the healing ground from where the new impulse emerges. BodyDreaming focuses on how you listen to the nervous system and how it is responding to the moment; what degree of activation is in the system in response to the image and how to create more space for the emotion that has come in, so we are not overwhelmed but can really welcome and integrate the experience.

BD:       I am curious, how?

MD:       Like the mother who is expanding her infant’s capacity to tolerate heightened emotions and expression, the therapist uses similar techniques when working with her client. In the transcripts in the book the reader can see how these interventions work, from the point of view of neuroscience, analytical psychology and attachment theory. I use interventions, similar to the mother- infant interactions; mirroring, prosody, and slowing down what’s happening over and over and over. When something seems to activate the system, I give it time – we notice where is that particular piece resonating in the body, what happens, how is my system responding to that right now. We do a lot of tracking, as in Eugene Gendlin’s focusing technique, and a lot of resourcing, from Peter Levine.

When the system feels supported, it can slowly begin to tolerate what had felt intolerable and this is the point where a new impulse may come in – expressing itself in breath, movement, sound and image. The new impulse contains the key to healing, and it must be encouraged, tracked and given expression.

Rather than becoming overwhelmed or, in Jungian terms, possessed by an energy or archetype, when we practice self- regulation with our client we develop a powerful resource that supports us to stay present in the here and now and offers us a refuge, where we can experience what’s happening and stay present to it until a new impulse emerges. This is what Jung refers to as “the new third”, the transcendent function, which is neither the resource nor the symptom of activation, but it comes out of an awareness of both, as we hold the tension of the opposites. The space opened up from this interplay of activation/de-activation, where emotion is titrated, Jung refers to as a “new third”… where image and body dream one another into a mytho-poetic space, carrying with it the charge of numinosity. To quote Jung from the Zarathustra seminars: “[We] have bodies which have been created by the self, so we must assume that the self really means us to live in the body, to live that experiment, live our lives” (1998, p.120).

BD:       Can you give us an example of how you worked with a dream?

MD:       In one example in the book, I work with somebody who is a psychiatrist and an analyst himself, and he presents a dream. He says, “there’s a woman in a white coat and she’s asking me to breathe, and I can’t breathe, and I wake up and I’m absolutely terrified”. This man has a medical background, and he’s a Jungian analyst, so he’s really listening to his symptoms as being very real in a dream, not just metaphor, though of course everything is metaphor as well, so I’m thinking, “Oh my God, is he telling me he thinks he’s having a heart attack”.

First, I had to regulate myself, find my ground in my body and create a space where I can stay curious with the dream. We can only be curious when we’re not in a hyperaroused state, because if you’re in emotional overwhelm, you’ll be flooded, and you won’t have the emotional capacity or space to listen, so I had to bring in that space in my body through grounding myself – tracking myself in my body and orienting myself in the space. One of the techniques I use is called orienting. Steve Hoskinson, one of the teachers of Somatic Experiencing, brought this to my attention. You invite the person to look around the room and see if there’s something in particular that takes their attention, and to be curious about exactly what it is. This participant responded by saying, “Yes, there’s a yellow spot on that carpet and that’s really attracting my attention”. So, I join with him, I say, “tell me about the yellow spot, what do you see there”. “Well, it’s a nice place, it’s a comforting place, I’d like to go there”. So, I try to follow him “there” with my curiosity, asking questions – he is quite withdrawn and there isn’t a very easy rapport, but he seems engaged enough with it. Then suddenly he cuts off the conversation. He says, “I’m feeling worse, I can’t breathe any longer talking about that”. So, I say, “Okay, we’ll just let it go for now, and bring attention to what’s happening in the body again”.

The reason I chose that example in the book is that it’s really tough – it was an hour of work, helping the person to deactivate, because every which way we went, he resisted. What we would say in neuroscience is he was retriggered – he was more and more activated by my interventions appealing to him to resource himself, to orient in the space. Ultimately, it was humour that really changed things. So, whilst I was using prosody, tone, pace and timing, tracking him and following him, I had to take a side on view, so that I wasn’t looking at him directly, and I brought in more and more humour. In the end, the very woman in the white coat who terrified him with her question in the dream had manifested in me the therapist making demands on him. This intervention became evident to him with humour and as he “got it” there was a huge release of energy and breath in the room. The whole group relaxed and laughed with him. In point of fact he began to see that she was actually a woman that he might become quite curious about. In fact, he might like to have a look and see who she really was. We were in Jungian territory now – reflecting on “who is this woman?”, “what does this woman hold for you?”. Because he was a Jungian analyst, I knew he recognized her as an anima figure, holding an aspect of the soul. The question was what was his soul asking him to do, when she asked him to breathe. We had arrived at the beginning again, but now he was available for the conversation, no longer terrified, he could listen to the dream and see the image, clear of his projections. Humour became the regulatory tool between us and with the group.

BD:       You had really created a rapport.

MD:       Yes. The big thing in all of that really was that he could see, in the way I was chasing him with my questions, that I had become the woman in the white coat. And when he got that, it just erupted into a freedom and relaxation and humour between us, which of course immediately impacted his physiology and his psychology. His breathing eased; he was more relaxed, more curious. From being really reserved, not making any eye contact at all, in the beginning, he had eye contact not just with me, but with everyone in the group. There was a kind of a recognition of what he was projecting onto me from the dream, which I had held and beautifully enacted in my pursuit of regulation.

BD:       Tell me, why would I read the book as a creative arts therapist – what is it about Marian Dunlea and her particular alchemy?

MD:       I hope that whoever reads the book will learn about how to be in the presence of psyche, soul as it moves in and through the body. The key, in BodyDreaming, is that the body and mind are one – they need to be treated as one. The dream comes out of the body, it’s about becoming more and more appreciative of being present to soul as it comes in.

It’s about stopping and allowing the image or new impulse to land, and then how you receive it, and how you support the “new life”, the new third as it presents itself. Whether you’re leading a group or if you’re with an individual, it’s about how you support that moment, how you make space for it.

BD:       Working with the numinous – tell me about that.

MD:       It’s those moments of awe that come in, and, rather than taking off in a “spiritual” or “emotional” or “intellectual” high, it’s giving permission for those moments to really land in the body. To be able to be present to the numinous is about paying attention to how the whole system responds, which gives support for the new impulse, the living third, to come more fully into the body. Jung says it is through the numinous that the real healing happens.

Building step by step this living connection to one self through one’s body has the grounding effect of bringing us home in our bodies. The integration happens at slow intervals, like in the story of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s “The Little Prince”, it’s the regular practice of the ritual of self-regulation that builds safety and secure attachment. Ultimately, we are moving toward greater coherence and integration… as the body psyche is drawn together in this new approach and begins to trust the small reintegrative moments. It is at these junctures the self appears, in the form of image or affect or memory, the moment of numenosity, embodied soul. As Donald Kalsched writes: “[The] soul needs a story – a resonant image – that is adequate to its own biography” (2013, p.31).

BD:       Marian, where are you going to go with the work now, having taken that time to write?

MD:       I’m excited, because I see that I’m just at the beginning of conversations that are going to happen and developments that will happen in the work. I really feel that the book has to be followed with a training. While I’ve been working with BodyDreaming in my private practice and in the workshops, I now feel it’s time to broaden the field and introduce it as a skill, now, to all kinds of therapists – bodyworkers, psychotherapists, creative arts therapists, psychoanalytic therapists.

In BodyDreaming, as we discover that place of regulation, of fluidity in our systems, we recognize that at the same time an alignment between body and psyche, soul happens, and this alignment is crucial. Edward Edinger, a Jungian analyst, refers to it as the ego-self axis.

I like to use the metaphor of Newgrange to describe this alignment. I begin the book by talking about Newgrange and the metaphor of alignment, and how everything is set for that moment in the Winter Solstice when the sun rises and at a certain moment the entrance of the cairn is set in its right position for the sunrise to enter the passageway and make its way to the inner chamber.

In BodyDreaming, like at Newgrange, we are working toward embodied alignment, where body, mind and psyche come into a more fluid coherent relationship with one another.

Bernadette Divilly 

@75DPI Bernadette at Nuns island

Bernadette Divilly, MA Somatic Psychology/Dance Movement Therapy, MIACAT, MIAHIP, professional member of Dance Ireland, is a senior dance movement psychotherapist and somatic psychologist based in the West of Ireland. She runs a private practice and works as a dance movement artist. Her practice is based in depth-psychology, somatic studies, an understanding of language and landscape and cultural diversity.

Bernadette has received several bursaries and awards from the Arts Council of Ireland for socially engaged practices focused in walking and contemplative dance practices. She engages with an international cohort of peers who have in-depth practices in working with the body across disciplines. Currently, she is using creation as a method of research to develop new knowledge on the themes of “Home” and “Homelessness”. She works locally but is tuned in internationally on conversations concerning diversity, migration, health and the body.

She is a psychology graduate from NUI Galway and received her masters in somatic psychology from the Naropa University, USA. She is one of an increasing number of international practitioners advocating for the intelligence of the body as central in politics, governance and working with conflict. www.bernadettedivilly.com


Dunlea, M. (2019) BodyDreaming in the treatment of developmental trauma: an embodied therapeutic approach, London: Routledge.

Jung, C. G. (1954) The development of personality, Collected Works, vol. 17, Hull, R. F. C., trans., Bollingen Series xx, New York: Pantheon Books.

Jung, C. G. (1998) Jung’s seminar on Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, Jarrett, J. L., ed., Bollingen Series xcix, New Jersey: Princeton.

Kalsched, D. (2013) Trauma and the soul, London and New York: Routledge.

Ogden, P. and Fisher, J. (2015) Sensorimotor psychotherapy: interventions for trauma and attachment, New York and London: Norton.