Compass Dreamwork

Dreamwork as Spiritual Practice

Author: kirstenbackstrom (page 1 of 14)

Feel It In My Bones: A Dream Experience of the Body

My relationship with my body is undergoing some rapid changes, and my dreams reflect this process in a visceral, or rather a skeletal, way: I can feel these dreams in my very bones.

Over the past year, I’ve been coping with Radiation Fibrosis Syndrome, a progressive disease that causes structural and systemic damage to muscles, nerves, blood vessels, bones and major organs. The course of this disease is unpredictable, so it’s difficult to find a place to stand within myself; the ground of my physical being is continually shifting. Most of the time, I’m very tired and uncomfortable (or painful). As my body becomes increasingly uncoordinated, I also feel more socially awkward and self-conscious. Yet I can still function fairly normally even though I’m probably moving toward further disability and a shortened life expectancy. What am I to make of this? Are my dream experiences offering suggestions?

I sometimes see myself in an oddly objective way these days: as though my body is a dear, rather difficult, old friend. Of course, I’m worried about this friend. She looks and feels fragile, and her mortality unsettles me—yet, at the same time, I’m impressed by her stubborn resilience. I don’t know how she’s doing it, but she seems to be coping. Both her vulnerability and her toughness make me feel fairly helpless and unnecessary. Does the body really need me to manage her business? She’ll do what she needs to do, in her own way, whether it inconveniences and grieves me or not; she’ll live as long as she can live, and then she’ll die. From her perspective this mortal life seems completely straightforward. From my perspective, it’s sometimes frightening, sometimes sad, sometimes fun, sometimes beautiful and moving, often (almost always) confusing.

It makes sense that my dreams usually represent my changing physical condition through dream figures other than “me.” In my dreams, other people—or animals, or plants, or objects—exhibit my symptoms and face my worst fears, while “I” (the dream-ego) am just a bystander. Other dream figures have wasting diseases, weakening bodies; other dream figures suffer heart attacks or strokes, and may suddenly die. Meanwhile, “I” call 911, or bring tea, or sing, or burst into tears… bearing witness with love, trying to be helpful.

As I’m not fully identified with my own body right now (she’s changing so fast, I can’t keep up), I’m very aware in waking life of other people who have disabilities similar to mine, and I keep being drawn to stories of people who are dealing with their own mortality or health challenges. So, my dreams reflect this exploratory process, and show me ways of relating to my bodily changes as if I were relating to other people who are physically frail or in transition. My dreams are filled with sick people and dying people, and the response of deep tenderness I feel for these dream figures is healing for me as it teaches me to care for my own body in a similar way. Continue reading

Easy Does It: The Path of Least Resistance, In Dreamwork and In Life

Dreamwork doesn’t have to be difficult. We don’t need to come up with a “solution” to the dream, because the dream is not a problem or a puzzle—it’s an experience, and, like any other experience, is filled with rich potential, some baffling details, and a variety of emotions and perceptions. I’m learning not to view my waking life experiences as problems to be solved, but as offerings to be appreciated. Dreams, too.

What does it look like to do dreamwork the easy way? Well, in dreamwork, as in life, following “the path of least resistance” can be a meaningful practice. When I encounter a dream—either remembering one of my own or hearing someone else’s—the first step on the path of least resistance is simply accepting the dream without judgement or analysis. I might notice that the dream images bring up feelings of confusion, anxiety, impatience, amazement, boredom, revulsion, comfort, excitement, restlessness, distress, delight… maybe one strong feeling, maybe a jumble of different feelings, maybe just a bewildered uncertainty about how to respond. I don’t work too hard to catch every detail, but let the dream present itself in its own way, and let myself be drawn into the dream’s images, events, and emotions as they come along.

After accepting and experiencing the dream uncritically, my natural curiosity leads me to ask questions that will increase my awareness and participation in the dreaming. I’ll open my senses, and wonder about everything. If some aspect of the dream seems especially incomprehensible or uncomfortable, I just notice my discomfort and let it be. Like a kid playing in a muddy stream, I take a long twig and fish up weeds and rotting leaves from the bottom, build little dams and watch the water spread behind them, float bits of bark to see which ones are fastest, look for jewelweed (the leaves turn silver underwater) and touch-me-nots (the pods burst and scatter tiny seeds). I take off my shoes and socks and wade right into the dream. This is all-absorbing, even when I encounter slimy or spiny creatures, even when I dredge up old beer bottles, even when I step in a deep spot and get wetter than I intended. I don’t need a plan: one question or experiment naturally leads to the next, and learning happens easily in the process.

Recently, I had an opportunity to take a ten-day personal retreat—staying in a little cottage alone, surrounded by rolling gardens and brambly woods. A couple of times a day, I walked over to a nearby house to feed and visit with two nice cats while their family was on vacation, otherwise I had no responsibilities. I really, really needed this time away. I’d been coping with a glut of health issues, medical appointments, work and existential crises for several months without a chance to reflect, so I was overdue for a break.

I started out thinking I might get a lot of writing done. I could set up a routine of meaningful practices—meditation, haiku, journaling, T’ai Chi, listening to sacred music, studying, exploring nearby parks, working on my book… I’d come home with a better grasp of my life situation, and a solid sense of spiritual accomplishment.

But that wasn’t what I needed, and that wasn’t what I did. Instead, I took it easy. I sat outside or inside, reading for hours on end. I watched the doe and fawn who came by almost every morning and evening to eat the garden. I listened to the birds (finches, chickadees, woodpeckers… ostriches? pterodactyls?). I dodged the yellow jackets that plagued me while I ate lunch. When I felt like moving, I walked up and down the level, quarter-mile gravel drive—up and down, up and down, up and down… walking along the magnificent row of sequoias that line the drive, past a few small pastures where there were occasionally rabbits or coyotes.

No productive planning. No long, steep, bushwhacking hikes. No writing. No schedule. No spiritual practices other than presence and participation. Nothing significant happened. I didn’t work at it, but I learned what I needed to learn from the experience itself—just as I might learn from the experience of a dream.

During this lovely, easy retreat, I couldn’t remember many dreams (and I didn’t make much of an effort to remember them), but one just came along, like the deer, to graze around in my mind:

Treasures Keep Coming My Way: I have a sense that many precious things are to be found here, so I look carefully. There are a couple of shiny quarters on the sidewalk! A homeless man claims one of them (apparently, he can’t pick up both, since his hands are full) and I pocket the other. Then, I realize he needs it more than I do, so I give it to him. He grumbles, not at all grateful, but accepts the coin—and I feel that I did the right thing. I go on, keeping my eyes open… and there are more treasures! Around a gift-shop counter where a woman is buying some fancy crystal ornaments, I see many oval glass discs scattered on the floor. Some are coin-sized, some as big as my hand; some are clear glass, some amber or pale blue. They’re incredibly beautiful, though very simple. Each disc has a tiny animal (one is a fox) etched into its center. I gather them all up, feeling rich. But then I realize they must belong to the gift-shop, so I bring them to the counter and give them to the sales clerk. She thanks me warmly, and finds my name on her customer list (she knows my name?)—telling me she’ll check the discs against their inventory, and then contact me to give them back if any do not belong to the shop. They are apparently very valuable. But I feel no sense of loss as I return them. I anticipate more and more treasures waiting for me.

 The more we give away, the more we have. Yes, of course, this is a cliché, but a very true one.

Ordinarily, I’m stingy with my energies, fearing I won’t live long enough to live fully, believing that I need to hoard my resources and my time, insisting that I must work very hard so that I don’t waste my precious life. But my retreat (and my dream) remind me that this isn’t true. Life can be easy—we can squander it, share it, give ourselves away and set ourselves free to follow an apparently random path that goes nowhere in particular… and the world will offer itself to us, willingly, again and again.

Dreamwork is easy when we drop our resistance and our itineraries and follow that plain path, appreciating whatever we find. Look at those sequoias—each one is different! Look, what a huge, scary spider (and don’t walk into that web)! Listen, I think I hear a Swainson’s thrush! Ah, let’s sit and rest for a bit… there’s no hurry. Another day, another dream, another treasure. Easy enough.

The Heart Dreams What the Heart Knows: Prodromic Dreams

As a professional dreamworker, I regularly find support and guidance in my own dreams—so it’s challenging to find myself with a serious illness, but not getting a lot of dream-feedback.

In waking life, I’m learning more and more about the physical impact that radiation poisoning is having on my body. I had intensive radiation treatments for Hodgkin’s Lymphoma over twenty years ago, and knew at the time that these treatments had caused damage—loss of thyroid function, circulatory and metabolic problems, impaired heart and lung efficiency—but didn’t realize until recently that this damage was progressive, and would get much worse as I got older. In the past year, the bones, muscles and nerves in my upper spine and chest have begun deteriorating due to Radiation Fibrosis Syndrome, so it is becoming increasingly difficult to support the weight of my head. Then, an echocardiogram revealed that my heart muscle is also damaged, and my heart function will be declining. My life expectancy is now shorter, and my present strength and health will probably not be sustainable in the long-term. So why haven’t my dreams been more helpful? Why aren’t they advising me in this critical situation?

When I had cancer in my thirties, there were plenty of dreams. I was very sick for several years before my cancer diagnosis, with flu-like upper respiratory symptoms, and during this time my dreams became increasingly urgent, intense, and spiritual. Dreams gave me news of what was going on in my body, and prepared me for the possibility of death. Fortunately, I got the treatments that saved my life (for which I’m grateful, though the debt if now falling due)—and my dreaming settled down.

The fact that my dreams aren’t particularly powerful or revelatory right now should, perhaps, be reassuring. I trust that if I were going to die soon my dreams would let me know. On the other hand, the vague dream fragments I’ve been having could be considered rather worrisome. I keep dreaming that I’m packing up my stuff, to go and stay at my mom’s house. My mom died two years ago. This seems a bit suggestive. I’ve worked extensively with people in hospice, and dreams about “packing for journeys to join deceased loved ones” are certainly common when death is near.

But, my instincts are not alerted by these dreams in the way they were when I had cancer. I’ve been dreaming about going to see my mother ever since she died, and although it probably has implications for my own eventual death, right now it seems to have more to do with my relationship to her, our family history, and my experience of her loss. When I first found out that my heart was damaged, I thought of my mom, who died of heart failure—and when I learned that I might die of heart failure myself, I felt her with me, and her presence has been a comfort.

Even when dreams seem to be referring directly to dying, they don’t necessarily suggest that the dreamer is about to die. Dreams don’t measure time like we do. My prognosis of “five or ten years” seems shockingly short to me, but for dreams, it could be tomorrow or decades away—the important part is that death (and grief) is on my mind, and in my heart, and the dreams reflect that. Not particularly helpful if I’m looking for practical suggestions or a clear timeline. And, the dreams seem offhand rather than emphatic, so there’s none of the urgency I felt when I had cancer.

After the echocardiogram indicated that my heart is unable to pump properly, I looked back at some recent dreams to see if there were any communications that made sense in retrospect, or perhaps predicted what I might be facing next.

I found many more dreams than I’d expected:

  • A dream of medical students practicing heart transplants on patients without anesthetic.
  • A dream of adults who volunteer to donate parts of their hearts to a baby who is dying of heart failure.
  • A dream of bringing tea—made from heart-shaped tea-bags—to a sick girl.
  • A dream of going inside a giant, pink (heart-like) jellyfish.
  • A dream of a man collapsing with a heart attack.

And this one (two months before my heart diagnosis):

The Paper Wasp Nest Breaks Open: In an unfinished, semi-dark basement with several other friends or friendly strangers. I’m tapping things with my hiking poles, as if feeling my way, testing various possibilities. Under the stairs, there’s a paper wasp nest [heart-shaped] that has been growing slowly larger over the past few months. I’m careful not to touch the nest with my sticks, and I tell the others not to bump this nest as we make our way to the stairs. Then, I look again and see that the nest has grown to the size of a bushel basket. We don’t touch it, but its own weight is too much, and it tears away from the eaves and falls to the floor, where it breaks open. A few wasps begin to fly from the wrecked nest, and I know that in a moment there will be a furious swarm. I shout, “Run!” and make sure everyone gets out. Terrified of being stung to death, I rush up the stairs after the others, with wasps buzzing angrily around me. Finally, at the top of the stairs and out of the basement, I slam the door—safe. Everyone else is okay. But I’ve gotten at least one sting, on my chest, near the left breast.

Continue reading

Being the Dreamer, Living the Dream

My priorities have changed significantly in the past few years, and so have my dreams. Although I’m not yet sixty, I’m starting to see the world as an elder, and my dreams have reflected this change as well. Especially in the past year, as I’ve developed symptoms of a degenerative disease that is accelerating my physical aging process (Radiation Fibrosis Syndrome), I’m truly discovering what it means to be initiated into a completely new stage in the life cycle—and it’s not what I expected. It’s much more subtle than the leap from childhood to adulthood, yet more profoundly meaningful than any of the other transformative experiences I’ve known.

So many times in my life, I’ve come to the end of one phase, experienced losses, uncertainty, and “suspended animation” during a transitional period, and then begun a new phase, with new energies, new resources, and new options. But, for some reason, when I left a job I loved five years ago and entered one of those painful, liminal transitions, the “new phase” I expected never seemed to arrive.

Instead of starting over, I found that the “suspended animation” just went on and on. Somehow, I’m not getting re-animated! Unless I reframe this experience, and change my expectations, my situation and prospects could look pretty grim. Loved ones just keep dying. I face more and more physical limitations. When I tried to go “back to school,” seeking out further education and training (which had always worked before), I encountered impossible obstacles. When I started new projects, they didn’t exactly fail, but required constant attention and drained away my energies rather than rejuvenating them. And, most disturbing, many of my familiar spiritual practices and disciplines no longer seemed life-giving.

At first, all of these discouraging experiences seemed to point to depression—so I soldiered on patiently, kept trying, hanging in there, not giving up, waiting for an opening, doing my best. I tried some big things, and lots of small things, but life just kept slipping by without any significant breakthrough.

Then, I began to notice something strange about this apparent stagnation. Underneath it all, I’m at peace in a way I’ve never been before. The harder I try, the more drained and discouraged I become; yet when I stop trying so hard, I’m filled with quiet joy. I’m not so concerned with proving myself, or even with being myself—instead, I’m just being. I’ve lost most of my ambition, but it doesn’t actually worry me (except when I think “Shouldn’t you be worried about this?”). I’m paying lots of attention to the physical pleasure of doing the things I can still do, and not dwelling much on the things I can’t do. The past makes me sad, the future can make me anxious—but I’m quite interested in the present, and the present is just fine.

Even when the world situation seems catastrophic, even when there are too many losses coming too fast, even when it looks like finances or health or politics will cause everything to fall apart—I sense and trust a kind of spaciousness, and can hold that space open for others and myself. I have no idea how I’m doing it.

What is this? The “new phase” I’ve been looking for is actually already in progress. It just doesn’t work the same way that any of my previous phases have worked. I’ve always been drawn to old people, because many of them have this funny way of not getting bothered, while still caring deeply. Could this be where I’m going? Could this be who I really am?

My dreams are different, too. Like many older adults, I’m not remembering them as well. Aside from the fairly common sleep difficulties that can disrupt dreaming as we get older, I suspect the dream-recall deficit is because the work of these dreams doesn’t urgently need to be brought to my conscious attention. I’ve accumulated enough material to work on over the past fifty-six years, and I don’t need more stuff to figure out and make sense of. What I need is simple experiences of being alive and valuing life. When I remember my dreams, they just point to what’s most important right now.

I have a lot of dreams about helping or teaching others, dreams where I’m not the “hero,” but the mentor, sidekick, or teacher. I’m trying to make it easier for someone: saving a spider from the bathtub, or bringing peppermint tea to a sick girl. In many of my dreams, I’m not the central character—and often, I’m not present at all, just a disembodied observer of someone else’s story—which, ultimately, is my story, too, of course. I have dreams of returning to familiar places, finding them changed, and adapting to those changes. And then there are the sweet dreams of just appreciating something beautiful: birdwatching from the deck of a becalmed ship as sunlight glitters on the water’s surface; or approaching a lit cabin through the woods in the dark. Continue reading

Dreamers In Good Company: The Social Dynamics of Dreamwork

Dreamwork is the opposite of naval-gazing. In my experience, people who take an interest in their dreams make good company, since they tend to become more self-aware, creative, curious, and caring. They also tend to develop better listening skills and social boundaries as well as more openness to diversity, concern for others, and willingness to be vulnerable and authentic in relationships. I might add an array of other healthy qualities I’ve observed in the community of dreamers: sense of humor, patience, kindness, intelligence, playfulness, maturity, integrity, generosity, flexibility… The list goes on.

Of course, dreamwork doesn’t automatically make us better people—but there’s no doubt that dreams can be significant contributing factors in our personal and social development. There are good, solid reasons why exploring our dreams, especially with others, really can make a difference in our lives and communities.

Before I give some of those reasons, I’d like to plunge into a real-life example of dreamwork in action. Not long ago, I attended the annual conference of the International Association for the Study of Dreams. I’ve been to four of these conferences so far, and have always found them to be stimulating gatherings where dreamers from all over the world and from diverse disciplines come together to share knowledge, insights, and inspiration.

This year, however, my own participation was iffy until the last minute. Just a few days before the conference, I had an echocardiogram which showed significant heart problems. I didn’t yet know exactly what this meant, but I was already having some disturbing symptoms, and understood that I was at risk for a heart attack, and might already be in the early stages of heart failure. My life expectancy and future options had abruptly changed. Was it safe to go to the conference at all? Would I be able to travel, participate fully, lead a daily dream group, interact with my colleagues and friends in such an intense social and professional environment?

Yes. Although I was in the midst of an emotional whirlwind, feeling just about as vulnerable as I could bear to be, I went to the conference and immersed myself in this vibrant community of dreamers for five days. I had a dear dreamworker friend for a traveling companion, and the support of my beloved partner via telephone, but I was also sustained by a teeming crowd of good-hearted strangers, acquaintances, and new friends (some only previously met on-line) who surrounded me with all of the qualities I described above. The majority of these good people didn’t know what was going on with me at all, and yet their presence grounded me, giving me a sense of safety and belonging, in spite of the disorientatation caused by my new health situation and cardiac symptoms.

Because of my personal vulnerability, I was especially sensitive to the social dynamics and emotional energy of those around me. The conference schedule is always packed, and between sleep deprivation and over-stimulation, most people get somewhat stressed. Taking almost a week away from home, traveling (in some cases, from very far away), and trying to pack a year’s worth of conversations into a few days… Well, I could see that I wasn’t the only person feeling vulnerable, tired, and at least a bit overwhelmed. This (like many other conferences) could easily have been an environment where gossip, exaggerated attention-seeking, belligerence, excess alcohol consumption, and generally unhealthy behavior would thrive.

Yet, incredibly, I observed gentleness and generosity on all sides, wise self-care and compassionate attention to the needs of others, respectful interactions between those who held differing points-of-view, and an atmosphere of warm, playful, appropriate willingness to share. Even awkward interactions seemed to be handled with grace and humor. Even casual conversations seemed trust-based and genuine.

In this context, I could make room for my own fears, needs, and confusion honestly without burdening those around me. My moods were constantly changing—one moment immersed in the enjoyment of the conference activities, the next moment straining at the limits of my physical and emotional resilience—but the container was a good one. As opportunities arose to talk with others about what I was experiencing, both the sharing and the responses seemed natural and mutually healing.

When I returned home, I felt more ready to face my cardiology appointment and treadmill stress test. Certainly, the company of dreamers (at the conference, and via the internet afterward) is helping me to absorb what I’m learning about my health as I adjust to my diagnosis (cardiomyopathy progressing toward heart failure) and prognosis (still uncertain). Does the fact that all these people consider dreams valuable make a difference in the way they relate to one another and to me? Does their dream interest at least partially account for their social skills and personal qualities? Since the conference, I’ve been holding this question as I lead my three dream groups and meet with individual clients for spiritual direction and dreamwork. The impression keeps being reinforced: When people explore dreams, it seems to bring out the best in them. Why is this? Continue reading

Believing in the Dream

Do I really believe that dreams are meaningful, and that they are always (at least potentially) healing and helpful? Well, yes and no. I believe that my beliefs are beside the point.

Like everything else that we experience, dreams offer us opportunities to relate and respond to events, relationship dynamics, and our own emotions. Regardless of whether or not we believe that our existence has a larger spiritual “meaning,” our life experiences (including our dreams) are truly meaningful when we treat them as if they were meaningful. Experiences may be wonderful, terrible, ridiculous or confusing—it doesn’t really matter what we believe about them, or even how we feel about them—if we seek guidance, growth, creativity and connection through those experiences, then they can become healing and helpful. I don’t actually have to “believe” in the intrinsic goodness or wisdom of something in order to experience it fully and find it valuable.

On a daily basis, I find myself investing deeply in my beliefs about the nature of my life experiences. I hear a news story about environmental devastation or social injustice and I believe that I’m trapped in a nightmare where I absolutely must take action but really can’t influence the situation no matter what I do. Or, I take a long walk in the park on a sunny, breezy day, greeting my neighbors (and their dogs) and believe that it’s easy to appreciate every moment. Or, I talk to a friend who has just suffered a terrible loss, and I believe that she is going to be okay, or that losses are inevitable, or that I don’t know how to respond, or…

All of these beliefs are “true,” in a way—but not particularly useful. As soon as I hold a belief about something, it limits me. If I’ve decided that this is the way things are, then that belief sets me up to see everything in a certain light. Beliefs lead to more beliefs. Some are just passing thoughts, but others get bolstered by an array of arguments, which interlock neatly to form an entire system of thought. Beliefs may contradict each other, but then I can somehow manage to find arguments to make them fit.

Even now, I’m writing this article about my belief that believing isn’t a good idea. Darn it.

This is where dreams make a difference. Dreams demonstrate that “believing” is a moving target. What am I seeing? How did this happen? Where is it going? Why did he do that? In dream-sharing groups, when we first hear a dream, our impulse is to figure it out and believe something about it. As soon as someone suggests a meaning that seems to make sense, we all tend to create variations on that theme. It all fits together… doesn’t it? But why is there an octopus and not a giraffe? Why does one of the table legs have stripes? Why are we eating oatmeal when we’re supposed to be at a funeral? What is that peculiar green mark on her forehead? There are always elements that don’t quite fit. Continue reading

A Dream of Surrender and Hope: DreamTime Article

Click on the photo to read the article, and enter the woods…

For the Spring 2017 issue of DreamTime Magazine (a wonderful publication of the International Association for the Study of Dreams), I wrote a short article that really expresses the depths of my heart in these troubled times. My own dreams often invite surrender and offer hope—and I believe that such dreams can change our lives and our world in essential ways.

Please take a few minutes to read the article (by clicking on the photo)… And let’s talk about dreaming our way forward. How do your  dreams guide you? How might you choose to surrender old ways to follow a different path? And where do you find courage and hope?

Dreaming Up “The Bad Guys”

On my walk this morning, I saw a little boy dressed as a dragon, following his mother up a steep hill, roaring. He was tiny (barely four years old, probably) but formidable, in his fierce, floppy dragon-head hat, with his spiked tail swinging from side to side when he stomped his feet. Rows of green fins or scales lined his striped leggings and sleeves, and ran down his back. His sister (just a bit older) waited with their father at the top of the hill.

The little girl shouted, “Mom, are you the good guy?” Her mom, trudging up the hill, replied, “Yes. I’m the good guy.” The girl shouted, “You’re the good guy, and he’s the bad guy!” Mom said, tentatively, “Yes…”

The girl hollered at her brother, who had stopped walking to listen to the exchange: “You’re the bad guy! We’re the good guys! You’re the bad guy!” He stood with his mouth open—uncertain. Perhaps at first he’d intended to roar and be the bad guy, but his sister’s tone became increasingly taunting, and now it looked like he might decide to cry instead.

His mom couldn’t see his face, but his dad saw it and interceded, calling to him—“You’re not a bad guy.” And with that affirmation, the dragon burst out, in a teary wail of self-defense: “No! I’m not a bad guy! No, I’m not! I’m not a bad guy! I’M NOT A BAD GUY!”

Nobody really wants to be the bad guy. Yes, it feels powerful to make a lot of noise and to be a dragon… But, ultimately, the good guys are “us” and the bad guys are “them”—and being excluded from “us” just doesn’t feel right. Of course, this applies to the adult world as well as to the world of dragons and their older sisters.

In our present adult world, we’ve got a lot of noisy, dangerous “bad guys” in positions of authority, and many of us are running scared or trying to defend ourselves by defining ourselves as “us.” When we shout at the dragons and try to make them go away so that we can be a happy family of “good guys” without them… Well, good luck with that. I know that Donald Trump has virtually nothing in common with the adorable little boy in the dragon suit, yet I can’t help thinking maybe that’s how he started out. If bad guys exist, he’s certainly a bad guy. But how helpful is the whole game of bad guys and good guys anyway?

In dreams, the bad guys can seem truly awful. There’s someone dangerous, something horrible, some monstrous creature that does unbearable things. In nightmares, the damage done by these bad guys feels terribly real. Even in waking life, we can get caught up in a movie scenario where everything is reduced to the worst possible bad people against the best, most peaceful, most reasonable, good people… It seems like this is the way things actually are. But when the movie ends, we find that the world is much more complex and subtle and paradoxical than it seemed. The world is not a movie. Dreams are not movies, either. Unlike the popular clichés in those blockbuster films, dreams potentially express the richness of real life. While nightmares may play out the bad guy/good guy dichotomy, they also invite us to explore the possibilities surrounding such simplistic scenarios.

If I listen to the bad guy in the dream, I find that he doesn’t see himself as the bad guy—and maybe I learn something, even if I still don’t like him much. If I look at all of the other elements in the dream—the dragon costumes, the sets and supporting characters, the unexpected emotions and inconsistent details—then I find that I have to include everything in order to have any real understanding of what is actually going on.

There’s no “us” and “them” in a dream—it’s all me, or something larger than me: the dreamer and the dream-maker. The human family includes the good guys and the bad guys, the dragons, big sisters, parents, and observers. The dream is a big, intricate, inconsistent story. Every aspect of that story deserves my care and attention. Continue reading

Dream Thoughts

How does your mind work in a dream? It’s generally assumed that we think differently (or not at all) when we’re dreaming—but, if you’re anything like me, your dream-thoughts are actually not that different from your waking thoughts. It’s just that, in dreams, there are different things to think about, and different assumptions about what’s important. My recent dreams have included a lot of thinking. Maybe it’s because my “inner work” right now is not particularly sensational or dramatic—my concerns are subtle and reflective rather than active.

When we are learning to recognize our challenges and limitations, we may need to confront them  directly through powerfully instructive events in our dreaming and waking lives that either exaggerate or expose our habit patterns. As we get to know ourselves better, we may be able to see the problem played out over and over again, without being able to do much about it—but gradually, as the same scenes are repeatedly reenacted, we bring more awareness to our experiences. We begin to have time to pause and consider what is going on, how it works, and whether it’s consistent with our personal integrity and values. Eventually, we’ve had enough, and it becomes possible to interrupt the predictable process and make a change.

So, all my “thinking” dreams suggest that I’m working toward an understanding that will facilitate real transformation. I don’t need to participate in the drama, I need to comprehend it. Dreams where thinking predominates can be very creative—offering new perspectives on old problems, new insights into our own and others’ behavior. Often, they present questions without answers, and ask us to tolerate the discomfort of not knowing what to do.

Here’s a recent example from my own dreamworld:

Catching Shoplifters: I catch two blond girls (about ten and eight years old) shoplifting in a store owned by a friend of mine. The older one has tucked a pair of gloves up her sleeve. I confront them and take the gloves back. The girls are defiant at first, but then seem very frightened and I soften my tone, realizing that their mother has forced them to steal, and will hurt them if they go home empty-handed. I start to give the gloves back to them, and even consider giving them some plastic toy telescopes that are hanging on a rack nearby. But then I remember that it wouldn’t be fair to the business-owner to let this stealing continue. What if I go with the girls and confront their mother? But, no—if I confront her, then as soon as I leave she will punish them for getting caught. Whatever I do to her will be taken out on them. So, I can’t change this situation. For now, there are no good alternatives. I decide to step back and wait until I understand things better before I act. I’ll buy the girls some lunch, and let them go without my interference. But I am committed to finding a way to help these children and prevent further harm.

Helplessness is a big theme in our country right now. There’s injustice on a grand scale, theft, coercion, unkindness, and shameful conduct in our government that reflects similar patterns and problems we can also see in our immediate environment. We may be able to control our own behavior, but we are presented with situations outside of ourselves that we cannot control. What do we do about that? Well, impulsive reactions are not helpful. Suppressing our awareness and looking the other way is not helpful, either. We need to pause, care about what is happening, and give ourselves time to think. I’m trying to do this in my dreams and in my waking life.

Connecting with My First Lover: I’m angry about some careless and inconsiderate people. My first lover [a woman I haven’t seen in almost forty years] gently points out that I’m being critical before I know the whole story. Those people didn’t actually forget to pick up after themselves, and they didn’t mean to take something that wasn’t theirs. I think about this. I might have misread the situation. I apologize. She is very kind. We hug, and she smiles at me, saying, “We have a deep connection, don’t we?”

As a teenager and young adult, I began to question my own self-righteousness about politics and personal relationships. I was trying to stand up for something important, but I was beginning to recognize that life is complicated and paradoxical. I was beginning to imagine different points of view, check my assumptions, and think deeply about my concerns and the ramifications of my actions. Thirty or more years later, these questions and concerns have not been resolved, but I can connect with the earnest effort I made (and still make) to see beyond my own prejudices. I can trust kindness, gentle correction, and the courage to acknowledge mistakes. I can connect with the wisdom to wait and think about my own agenda. A relationship that introduced me to intimacy becomes a metaphor for learning to take a risk and open up to other perspectives. Continue reading

Ocean of Dreams: Responsible Dreamwork

Those of us with a professional interest in dreams have a responsibility to bring creativity, curiosity, commitment and depth to our work. Whether we are therapists, spiritual directors, teachers, healers, researchers, artists or entrepreneurs—working responsibly with dreams means 1) exploring our own dreams with a willingness to go beyond what we think we know about ourselves, and 2) contributing original insights and approaches to the field of dreamwork.

Dreams are more than useful tools or clever tricks, they invite us into the unknown and the unknowable. Like an ocean, the dream world surrounds us and can seem familiar, yet the depths are largely unexplored, and anyone who cares to dive deep enough may bring undiscovered species, unexpected natural resources, and astonishing observations to light. I believe that intentional, imaginative, in-depth dreamwork is a responsibility because careless “expertise” can so easily become exploitation.

Tragically and ironically, it is because the oceans are so apparently unfathomable that people have used them as dumps for everything that we don’t want to deal with—and it can be like that with dreams as well. For those who are considered authorities on dreams, it can be all too easy to toss our toxic waste into the dream world by projecting pathology and suppressing possibilities. It can be all too easy to feel that the dream world is ours to possess, develop, explain and subdue. It can be all too easy to use the natural resources of dreaming for selfish purposes, taking more than we are willing to give back.

If we don’t explore our own dreaming experiences with an open mind and a willingness to be changed, then studying others’ dreams can become a way of avoiding self-awareness, confirming our prejudices, and establishing our reputations. If we don’t reach beyond what we’ve been taught about dreams, we end up trapping ourselves and others into confining habits of thought that prevent further growth. Beyond the basic ethical guidelines defined by the International Association for the Study of Dreams, responsible dreamwork means respecting both dreamers and dreams by acknowledging that they are not reducible to self-serving assessments or formulaic interpretations.

Of course, as long as I’m upholding such high standards, I’d better be sure that I’m applying those standards to myself. To the best of my ability, I do explore my own dreams, and try to make new contributions to the field of dreamwork. When I come up against personal challenges in my dreaming life, I try to go deeper, rather than shy away. There are times when it’s difficult to remember my dreams, and times when the dreams are unpleasant, disturbing, confusing or all too revealing. Sometimes, personal dreamwork takes a lot of stamina, not to mention courage. This is not always fun, but it’s good to learn how to work and play with difficult material. I write some dreams down, make art from some dreams, act on some dreams and let some go; I share some dreams and keep some to myself. I bring some of my dreams to other dreamworkers—to individual friends and a peer dream group—and I meet with a spiritual director, because such skilled helpers give me a chance to recognize my own blind spots and keep expanding the scope of my awareness. Continue reading

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