Compass Dreamwork

Dreamwork as Spiritual Practice

Walking Around The Block

[This essay first appeared in the Winter 2023 Special Issue of Passager Journal. It’s written in a longer format than my usual posts, so please take your time reading it. Although it is not about dreams, I wanted to include it here, because it relates to the many posts I’ve written about how trauma, grief, and other kinds of life-changing events can influence our dreams.

“Walking Around the Block” is a very personal take on how trauma may come to us not only through our own personal experiences, but also through the experiences of others in the past, and through the conditions of the world in which we live. These kinds of traumas are what IFS (the Internal Family Systems model of psychotherapy) calls “legacy burdens.” Legacy burdens are burdens that are not intrinsic to our own psyche, but instead are inherited from our ancestors, our culture, and the society that surrounds us. We are all affected by legacy burdens, and such burdens appear in our dreams as well, which may become a topic for a future post. In the meantime, I’m including this essay here, because I believe it is vital that we all consider just how much we affect one another. We suffer together, and potentially heal together, so we all need to consider our impact on future generations and on the world we’re inhabiting right now, for better or worse.

While some of the images at the beginning of the essay may be triggering for some people (and if you need to stop reading, definitely do so!), please know that this story moves toward resolving the harm that such harsh images can stir up. I believe it’s essential that, whenever we are courageous enough to let ourselves be stirred, it is vital that we keep walking until we come all the way through the experience and into a new place. And, when we walk in courage and vulnerability, it is best that we do it together.]

Seven years before I was born, my parents had a ghastly car accident. They were on the freeway, on the way to a wedding; my dad was driving when a tire blew out. He lost control of the car, which skidded across the median strip into oncoming traffic and was then struck and spun and finally crushed “like an accordion” (my mom told this story so many times that I’ve memorized the phrases she habitually used). Fortunately, my parents were not wearing seatbelts, so they were thrown clear, probably through the windshield, at some point before the front seats were obliterated. Dozens of cars were involved in the pile-up, but theirs were the only serious injuries. Both were “given up for dead” at the scene. 

I know exactly what that scene looked like, not only because of my graphic imagination, but because there are large glossy black-and-white (thank god) photos of it. These gruesome photos were shot by “an ambulance chaser” who sold them to my parents later, so that their lawyers could extract evidence of the cause of the crash. When I was a kid, the photos resided in the attic where my sisters and I, exploring, would periodically dig them up and bring them downstairs, so we could ask my mother to walk us through the story once again. Hearing it was both horrifying and oddly reassuring. I knew that my parents would ultimately come through, and that the happily-ever-after conclusion was my own eventual birth—my whole existence, in fact. The appeal of the story seemed to be the same for my sisters, and even, perhaps, for my mother who was always willing to tell it, as if the telling made her believe in her own survival.

Between the story and the photos, we’d all get pretty buzzed on adrenaline. I remember my hands and feet tingling, my lips going numb, my throat getting tight; I remember a weirdly ecstatic light-headedness. (I can remember this vividly, because as I write about it now, I’m feeling a lesser version of that same buzz.) When my mom died over sixty years after “the Accident,” my sister mailed me a big box of her possessions which included those photos. And when I went through them, telling my partner Holly the story just as my mom had told it, I felt the same symptoms, the same odd ecstasy—and afterward, a headache, nausea, and a shimmering anxiety I couldn’t shake off for several days. I haven’t opened the envelope of photos since; they live in a box at the back of a closet, or maybe in the garage. I don’t need to go looking for them.

Anyway, I know what they show. The smashed car, the debris scattered on the pavement, the blur of people being helpful or getting in the way (the police hadn’t arrived yet). My parents are the only ones not moving, not blurry. My mother is that gray, human-shaped mound on the road shoulder, with a blanket or tarp from the trunk of somebody’s car drawn up covering her face. She told us that “most of the bones in her body” were broken (not actually “most,” but many: both collarbones, one leg, a hip, several ribs), and she was badly concussed. She remained unconscious until she “woke up in the ambulance with a mouth full of teeth.” My boyish-looking dad sits slumped like a broken puppet with a stained jacket, too big for him, around his shoulders, and a spill of black blood all down the front of his white t-shirt. He had a concussion like my mother, plus a broken toe, a sprained back, and a shattered jaw. The blood came from his jugular vein; his throat had been sliced open by a large shard of glass. He would have died within minutes, except for the miracle that there happened to be a surgeon stuck in the ensuing traffic jam who happened to have a clamp in his medical bag. I don’t know whether the photo was taken while my dad was bleeding out, or just after the bleeding stopped. His expression is dazed and faraway, as if he’s watching himself die, but from a distance.

My sisters and I would gape at the closeness of this close encounter with death, and stare at my bloody young father, my covered-up mother. We passed the photos around with shaky hands. According to my mom, my dad could remember the whole Accident, though he rarely talked about it; she herself only remembered fragments, in flashbacks, much later. He remembered losing control of the car, shouting her name, and then overhearing someone at the scene who gestured toward her body, saying, “this one’s dead.” In the hospital afterward, Dad had to be brought to her bedside in a wheelchair again and again, because he couldn’t be convinced that she was alive. Her actual, living face was less persuasive than the mental image of her dead one. I know it was cathartic for Mom to tell us the story, but it probably left her feeling shaky, too.

Where was I going with this? Oh, yes. My own inheritance from my parents’ Accident was a heady mix of strong emotions and vivid mental images leading to some false conclusions that have remained extraordinarily tenacious. Although I know better, I somehow still believe that my own body went through that Accident, or at least that I am doomed to play out versions of it in my own life, to revisit it again and again. I anticipate horrors around every corner. An accidental blow-out on a sunny summer day can suddenly lead to a catastrophic, whirling loss of control, and a devastating, black-and-white still shot of chaos. Of course, while accidents do happen and change is always happening, crushing crashes are certainly not inevitable. Maybe I’ll eventually persuade myself. 

The biggest inheritance I’ve received from the Accident, however, actually adds something to my life rather than taking something away, even though it makes life feel precarious. (I notice that the words “precious” and “precarious” only differ by two letters.) Because of my parents’ story, I know, truly, that I might never have been born. And so I also know that having been born is something. Having been born is not irrelevant, not to be taken for granted, not incidental or accidental. 

For the past three years, I’ve been trying to live with—and learn from—the horrors of my own post-traumatic stress disorder following a major spinal surgery that set off a landslide of crises and losses for me personally in a world where crises and losses are everywhere. My PTSD didn’t just come from the surgery, of course. The condition that’s called PTSD rarely if ever develops from a single catastrophic personal trauma. In my case, there had been a degenerative neuromuscular disease, and a series of smaller nightmares leading up to the surgery. No trauma really exists in isolation, since anyone who experiences anything will have a previous history of other experiences, which will predispose that person to be more or less susceptible to being harmed by whatever is happening now. 

I’m not alone in my trauma history. There are always repercussions from anything that happens to anyone, and the cumulative cause-and-effect can be passed on through generations, which means that not only do we gather more and more burdens as we age, we also inherit whatever was too heavy for our parents to carry, especially if their own parents left them a back-breaking load. The good news is that when we manage, somehow, to lay down (and learn from) our own individual burdens, we protect our descendants, and the people around us, from inheriting our pain. We might even resolve the unfinished business of our ancestors simply by not perpetuating it. Of course, this works laterally as well: we all influence each other, whether we’re family or not. But parents’ trauma histories do have a particularly high impact on how their children’s traumas will play out. 

After weeks in the hospital, my own parents were released into the care of my mother’s parents. It was not a healthy arrangement. My grandmother was disapproving; she nursed a heartbroken conviction that both of my parents were going to hell since they’d renounced their evangelical upbringing, and her grim, reproachful, sorrowing silences were impossible to ignore. Meanwhile, my awful grandfather baited and shamed my father again and again with the “just joking” suggestion that he had “fallen asleep at the wheel.” 

My parents could not work, could not drive, could not pay rent, and so could not leave my grandparents’ house. They couldn’t have a private conversation or even touch each other for weeks, since it was a small house and they had to sleep separately in the living room (my mom on a couch, my dad—whose back didn’t allow him to lie flat—in an armchair) just outside my grandparents’ open bedroom door. I don’t know what burdens of their own might have made my mother’s parents as unhelpful as they were, but the broken connections implicit in the conflicts and confinement of this arrangement were almost as traumatic for my mom and dad as The Accident itself. Here, in one small house, were parents and adult children harming each other, passing their traumatic histories back and forth, deepening each other’s wounds.

Retelling this familiar tale, I intended “to make a long story short…”—but it looks like I’m making a long story long. It was certainly a long story for my parents. In a sense their story never ended, and the whole point of telling it is that the Accident seemed to go on and on, like one car skidding into another all over the freeway, one impact leading to the next in my parents’ lives, and then in the lives of their daughters. I’m wondering now how such endless stories can be told differently, so that all the moving vehicles might finally come to rest. In the haze of oil smoke and exhaust, somebody will get out of their overheated, idling car, hike past the long line of stalled traffic with a medical bag in hand, and place a clamp on a vein to “stop the bleeding.”

It has taken me three days to write the last few paragraphs, to get my parents past the Accident and out of my grandparents house at last. It was several interminable weeks for them, before they were finally rescued by my other grandparents, my father’s parents, who paid the deposit and first month’s rent on a small apartment and bought them a second hand car so they’d be able to return to their jobs eventually. Even as further trouble kept coming for my parents, there were gaps in the relentlessness of their long story, where they could rest and heal. 

But the relentlessness always resumed. My dad’s jaw had been wired shut during this time, so he’d been sipping his miserable meals through a straw. He was so excited when the wires could finally be removed that he indulged in a steak dinner immediately. That night, shortly after they’d moved into their own place, he woke my mother, clutching his stomach, groaning, “I’m dying.” It was an ulcer, though they didn’t know it at the time; all they knew was that they had to get him to the hospital. He was too sick to drive, and she had a cast on one leg from hip to toes and on one arm from shoulder to fingertips. They called 911, of course, but—wouldn’t you know it?—there was a minor hurricane going on at the time (at least it was a minor hurricane) and the dispatcher said there were no available ambulances. 

So, my mother had no choice but to get behind the wheel. Neither of them had driven since the Accident, and these weren’t the best circumstances for restoring their confidence. With her one good leg, Mom worked the pedals, and with her one good arm, she steered. Dad, in agony in the passenger seat, shifted gears whenever she stepped on the clutch and shouted at him. The rain lashed down, the dark was impenetrable, and the gale-force winds hurled trash cans at the windshield. The main roads were closed, and every side street came to a flooded dead end. They couldn’t get the car into reverse, so she made innumerable U-turns in narrow alleys, and soon realized that there was no way they were getting to the hospital. So she gave up and drove to my grandparents’ house (not the miserable grandparents’ house, but the helpful grandparents’ house). Finally, I’m coming to the point of my story.

My helpful grandfather wasn’t particularly surprised to see them, and wasn’t particularly worried. The arrival of his frantic daughter-in-law and apparently dying son at three in the morning in a hurricane didn’t faze him. According to my mom, he just shrugged on his overcoat and said (I imagine he drawled), “Well, you know, when the horses had colic, we’d just walk them around until they got over it.” My grandfather was a Baptist minister, not a cowboy or a farmer, but he grew up in rural Sweden where everybody had horses and it was a long way to the nearest hospital, or veterinarian. He wrapped my dad in a blanket and walked him around and around the block for hours. And by the time it had gotten light, and the hurricane had blown over, and they could get my dad to the hospital and find out he had an ulcer, the crisis didn’t seem so critical after all. My dad was okay, though he didn’t eat steak for a while. 

The family mythology of the Accident, accompanied by graphic images, fed an adrenaline addiction in me that the culture at large cultivates in all of us. We seem to trade in shock stocks that are always on the rise. So I came to associate the alarming, painful events depicted in those photos with being energized and alive. The quivering thrill of catastrophe is incomparable. Whether it’s experienced directly or just stimulated by a story, this perceived danger drives the autonomic nervous system to pour every bit of life force into survival, pumping us full of an energy so compelling that we cannot help but live. Afterward, we’re exhausted—almost high, but also empty. The way it’s supposed to work, once the danger is past, the body rests and returns to equilibrium, reminded by a calm environment and caring people that safety is possible, that ordinary stimulation is enough to live on. But if the danger signal gets sent again and again, then there’s no reassurance, no escape, no return to normal. There is no normal. A final burst is kept in reserve for emergencies, but after a while everything looks like an emergency and we’re constantly firing off what little we’ve got at nothing, wasting our life force on nothing. Worst of all, we become fundamentally disconnected from ourselves, and especially from all the other people who seem to have gone on without us.

Our culture sets us up for easy adrenaline addiction through violent entertainment, stressful competition, high-risk short-term pleasures. Yeah, yeah, we’ve heard it all before, but we’re addicted so we don’t do anything about it, or can’t do anything about it. Maybe I believe that I’m only alive when my body’s playing out a life-or-death scenario in my imagination if not in action. But the truth is, it’s rarely life-or-death—it’s always life-and-death. Life includes small, quiet encounters with mortality all the time: something ending, giving way to something else. I could be savoring and sharing the cycles of endings and beginnings that repeat routinely but are subtly changing with each repetition. 

Get this (I remind myself): I don’t have to to fight for my life in order to be alive. In fact, the fight takes the life out of me. The less I have to fight the better off I am. Wouldn’t it be enough, just living and eventually dying, alongside our loved ones, in our own time, in our own way? Life’s not the accident or the ulcer or the hurricane; it’s not the surgery or emergency; it’s the walk around the block as the winds blow themselves out and your father tucks a blanket warmly around you, and keeps you walking until morning.

The Accident and its aftermath was horribly hard on the young people who became my parents, of course. Hearing about their trauma, I got to realize that their lives were not about me; their lives were their lives. I couldn’t help but notice that these two twenty-one year olds on the way to a wedding on a hot July day, were not “my mother” and “my father,” they were Shirley and Philip, who were not expecting to become my parents any more than they were expecting The Accident to happen to them. The Accident shaped them, but it was only part of what shaped them. I had a place in their lives, but I didn’t define them either. And I don’t want to define them now. Yes, both got stuck in what could be called PTSD, a kind of adrenaline addiction. In terms of trauma’s influence on their lives, Shirley could be described as “freezing,” while Philip “fought” and “fled.” Their trauma responses impacted their daughters, and later their grandchildren. But both Shirley and Philip also recovered, to a considerable extent, and lived, day in and day out, for many years, through many experiences. Both died in their eighties, with their daughters and grandchildren nearby, loving them. My own catastrophic accidents and aftermaths in the course of a lifetime have affected me, too, of course, sometimes in ways that echo my parents’ experiences, often not. It’s how we live the everyday that distinguishes us—not the shocks that force us to react but the ways we walk with our reactions, covering the same familiar territory: eating, sleeping, relating, circling the neighborhoods of normalcy.

Shirley told the story of the Accident for some of the same reasons I need to tell my own painful stories of illness, surgery, grief, PTSD. These reasons fall into categories that are either helpful or not—sort of like the strategies of the helpful grandfather and the awful grandfather. Like the awful grandfather, unhelpful reasons are focused on getting an adrenaline-fueled reaction. Telling stories to stimulate excitement is not necessarily harmful, but it’s certainly not helpful. We often do it because teasing out more emotion has become habitual; we’ve been scared into believing that life requires the utmost intensity of us and that connecting with others involves attracting their attention dramatically. This is, unfortunately, a slippery slope and can lead to manipulative behavior like that of the awful grandfather. Anyway, there are much better reasons for storytelling. Like the helpful grandfather, helpful stories try to evoke courage and coping, not over-reaction. When we share the story of a terrible experience with the intention to encourage and connect, when we have compassion for ourselves and gratitude for own survival and pass it on to the next generation, it is life-giving. 

Dividing my grandfathers into the “awful” one and the “helpful” one is actually problematic. Do I need to divide my ancestors between the bad guys and the good guys? It’s true that one of my grandfathers used shame as a power play and was selfish and destructive in many other ways, while the other tried hard to be a good person, shouldered his responsibilities, and attempted to serve others. It’s true that some of my ancestors were Nazi collaborators, and others were artists, farmers and civil rights activists. But even the best of them—the best of us—were and are sometimes troubled, sometimes angry, sometimes hurtful. Even the worst of them—the worst of us—were and are capable of generous gestures and thoughtful moments. 

I learned from my own PTSD that trauma causes shame, not because there’s anything shameful in being traumatized, but simply, biologically, because being in a traumatic situation makes the autonomic nervous system disconnect us. When we become stuck in a trauma response, as in PTSD, our social functions are impaired: we cannot make eye contact or smile authentically; our adrenaline pumps when we feel threatened, and we react in anger or deploy tricks to protect ourselves; we feel small and helpless, and this translates as a physical sense of shame even if we know there’s nothing to be ashamed of. This kind of shame is contagious, from ancestor to descendant, and right now in the present generation from one person to another. But other cycles are operating as well. 

In the immediacy of traumatic pain and loss, that which makes life most meaningful may be sacrificed temporarily in favor of mere survival, but when PTSD makes that trade-off chronic and the suffering keeps coming, I invite my parents and grandparents to walk around the block with me. I invite those who are here now, and those who will come after us. And I try to receive the invitations that are extended to me. By disabling our capacity to engage with others, PTSD causes despair. More than anything else, healing calls for reconnection with the trustworthy people and humble routines that make life meaningful. Sometimes, even in desperate circumstances, a walk around the block means more than a rush to the hospital. My own PTSD got reenforced because each time I started to settle down to that everyday kind of comfort another emergency came along. So now I practice walking back through my stories slowly, sharing them with an awareness of those who are listening, emphasizing the pauses between the crises, the love and support, the parts where telling it will not crank adrenaline or jerk tears but instead can encourage us all to take a breath in the stillness before morning, after the winds have died down, when the rain-wet pavement smells like gentleness. 

Dreams & Internal Family Systems (IFS)

Richard Schwartz developed Internal Family Systems (IFS) as a therapy model forty years ago, and it is a highly effective approach to trauma-informed mental health care that is still evolving and being applied innovatively today. Psychotherapists who work with dreams might notice that dreamwork and IFS have striking similarities; combining these tools can have tremendous potential in their work. Outside of a therapeutic context, there’s also a naturally symbiotic relationship between the two, and bringing dreamwork and IFS together in our personal self-care and spiritual practices can result in life-changing insights and breakthroughs. Although such inner work is important, it doesn’t have to be laborious. Dreamwork and IFS both offer a sense of radical possibility, so using them to explore our psychodynamic ecosystems can feel more like play.

The IFS model draws upon our natural tendency to think of ourselves as complex multifaceted beings, recognizing that some aspects of our psyches are familiar to us while others can surprise or offend us. In IFS these parts* of the psyche are treated as sub-personalities, which might be compared to dream figures, with distinct feelings, behaviors, and motivations. Our parts, even the ones we consider problematic, all have something to contribute to the wholeness of ourselves, so IFS teaches skills and practices for communicating with these parts, to win their trust, address their concerns, and receive their gifts. 

Some parts have been forced into extreme roles in response to difficult experiences, usually in childhood. The parts known as exiles are like vulnerable children who have been hurt; because exiles carry so much pain, other parts called protectors try to keep them contained (or exiled). Protectors resemble “parentified children” themselves, and they have taken on the burdens of extreme roles (like perfectionism, being overly critical, people-pleasing, etc.) in a misguided effort to control pain. Such strategies might once have been useful, but have become unsustainable, distorted, or ineffective over time, and often cause further harm. Protectors and exiles interact with one another in ways that can resemble a family in distress.

IFS also affirms that behind the ecology of parts, our original nature, called the Self, has an infinite capacity for qualities like curiosity, calm, clarity, compassion, courage, creativity, confidence and connectedness. If parts are comparable to dream figures, the Self is the deeper wisdom of the dream and the dreamer. The presence and guidance of Self means a happier inner family, providing an experience like waking from a nightmare and recognizing that you are the dreamer of the dream, not its victim. Even the most disturbed and disturbing parts or dream figures have reasons for doing what they are doing. When you, the Self or dreamer, create a trusting relationship with troubled parts or dream figures, you understand and honor what they’ve been trying to accomplish, and help them step out of extreme roles or patterns of suffering that are stuck in the past. Once unburdened, your parts can contribute their unique gifts to your overall well-being, and that of the larger community. This may sound like make believe, but the process feels astonishingly real, and the ensuing transformation can be remarkable. 

*

For a brief example of how dreamwork and IFS might play together, here’s a dream with my commentary:

I’m a patient in the hospital, getting better, but still weak and fragile.

[The dream ego often acts as a protector, so her self-description might indicate the burdensome role she uses to avoid or manage pain. Here, the protector identifies with being “weak and fragile.”]

Another patient, a sick toddler, is crying. 

[Exiles typically appear in dreams as children or animals in distress.] 

Holly is here visiting me. She comforts the toddler, but I’m not sure we should be taking him out of his crib.

[My partner Holly is sometimes a stand-in for Self in my dreams. I see her as someone who can handle things that I can’t handle. In waking life and in dreams, I often have mixed feelings about this! Protectors are likely to distrust the way that Self relates to exiles, at least at first. ]

The baby is wriggling, so Holly lets him walk around a little. But someone opens the door, and the toddler becomes a cat and scoots out. I’m afraid he will get hurt, or disturb other patients and get us in trouble. 

[The transformation and escape suggest that this exile has been spontaneously healed by the loving attention of Self. As a cat, the child no longer needs to be guarded by the protector, but the protector is afraid to let him go.]

I chase and catch the cat, and he nips my hand. I get mad at Holly, telling her that I’m supposed to be the sick one and don’t have the energy to chase cats! Besides, she’s the one who let him out, so she should try catching him. She picks him up, but then it’s me holding him. Maybe I’ve become Holly—I seem strong enough to manage him gently now. 

[The protector herself has transformed here. As a weak patient trying to grab the cat, she got bitten, but when she becomes Holly-Self, she is able to handle the cat gently so nobody gets hurt.] 

Now, the whole dream changes and I’m no longer trying to return the cat to the hospital room. Instead, I’m getting to know the hospital staff and patients, offering them my support. 

[Now Holly is no longer here, so the dream ego has become fully Self, getting acquainted with various other parts in ways that could potentially support them.]

*

This is an oversimplification of the way IFS might look in dreamwork, but it demonstrates how the dream itself can enact a healing process with an IFS cast of characters. The dream ego (protector) is no longer anxious or weak by the end of the dream; the cat is no longer a sick toddler (exile) confined to a hospital room. The dreamer wakes up feeling that some inner dilemma has been resolved. 

In most cases, dream figures don’t fit quite so easily into IFS roles, but the IFS model can still be applied helpfully when dreams and the feelings they evoke might otherwise be baffling or distressing. For example, I dreamed recently that I was behaving like “an absent-minded professor,” and woke feeling upset without knowing why. Recognizing the upset part of me as an exile, I asked her what she needed me to know, and distinctly “heard” her reply that she didn’t trust me to keep her safe. She showed me an image of myself as a small child: my father was “an absent-minded professor,” and although some parts of me found his eccentricities amusing, there was a vulnerable part that felt frightened and hurt when he didn’t behave like an adult I could depend on. The dream pointed out that a protector in me now (represented by the dream ego) acts like my father, deflecting painful emotions by acting confused and disorganized—and this eccentric behavior is threatening for the vulnerable exile, whose upset feelings emerge upon awakening. IFS techniques support my Self-capacity to be responsible and trustworthy, so I can attend to strong feelings (exiles) without being overwhelmed by them, and without resorting to absent-mindedness or other problematic strategies to avoid them. The dream drew my attention to an inner dynamic that I can now address compassionately. 

I invite you to explore IFS as you explore your dreams, with curiosity and the other “C” words that distinguish the Self. What happens to our dreamwork when we believe that even troubling dreams are meaningful, and troubled dream figures are potentially helpful? What would happen to our lives if we could trust that we are, at the core, truly able to handle our “cats” (our strong feelings, difficult challenges and disturbing dreams)—with kindness, wisdom, and grace? 

*Boldface indicates IFS terminology.

[This article was originally published in in the Winter, 2024 issue of DreamTime Magazine. If you enjoyed it, please consider subscribing to DreamTime by joining the International Association for the Study of Dreams ]

Dreams & Gender

If a dreamer describes a dream figure simply as “someone” or “a person,” one of the first questions to ask is typically “Male or female?” The answer, however, is often, “I’m not sure—Maybe female?” or “Maybe male?” Gender can sometimes be difficult to pin down in dreams. But perhaps that’s because gender is actually a more fluid concept than we tend to think. Because rigid binary categories exist in our culture, people and animals (and, in some languages, objects as well) get assigned to those categories. Of course, there’s a gender revolution happening all over the world these days, and more genders than the most familiar two are gaining wider recognition. Are our dreams reflecting this increased recognition of gender diversity? Or have dreams, perhaps, been gender diverse all along, and it is only now that we are being called upon to acknowledge—or at least notice—that things aren’t as binary as we believed? Though simplistic ideas about identity may have dominated our thinking until recently, it seems pretty clear that diversity and fluidity have always existed, in our dreams as well as in the waking world.

I’ve been trying to notice my own gender biases in dreamwork, as I’ve been questioning those biases in waking life. In the process, I’m feeling more creative as a dreamworker, and freer as a human being. Any trend that shifts our “us-and-them” categories can potentially be healthier for all of us, though we have to be willing to feel uncomfortable at times. If there are more kinds of categories, we are less likely to identify too exclusively with any one way of being. We’re also more likely to find that every “unique” personal challenge we face is, almost certainly, shared by lots of other people in this multifaceted world. It’s meaningful to embrace the identity that seems to fit best (and the communities that form around that identity), as long as we hold our categories lightly, recognizing that we are defined by much more than any single self-concept. 

In dreams, it’s quite common for dream figures to be maybe-male, maybe-female, maybe-both/neither. They might be maybe-old, maybe-young, maybe-ageless or age-shifting. They might also be human-but-also-cat, or tree, or robot, or shape-shifting. In most dreams, I don’t actually know exactly what or who I am, unless someone asks me (in the dream or afterward) and then I feel obliged to decide. In some languages, people, animals, and objects are described by verbs rather than nouns: it’s not what you are, it’s what you’re being. I suspect that a dream-like strangeness represents something very close to the true nature of reality: at a fundamental level everything is movement and change, in shifting patterns of interrelated energies. When you look for an “elementary particle” you find “there’s no there there.” We are not static identities, we are life itself, living.

But, in a world where categories do exist, we’re often called upon to define and redefine ourselves. Wouldn’t it be great if this could be playful, rather than a struggle? If some categories weren’t privileged over others, we might all enjoy experimenting rather than settling down with one identity absolutely. What if we approached dreamwork this way? In my ideal dream world, “beings” are not assigned absolute categories—they’re just being and doing whatever they are being and doing, interacting with one another and changing one another in the process. Maybe we need a kind of dreamwork that leaves more room in our minds to ask questions without definite answers. 

In waking life, I’ve been defined as female, but I never really felt female. I’ve been mistaken for male, but never really felt male. I’ve identified as a lesbian, but how can I define myself as a woman-attracted-to-women when our society’s understanding of “woman” doesn’t fit either me or my spouse? Now that there are more possibilities that more people are likely to recognize, I’ve become aware that a “nonbinary” gender identity describes me better than “female” or “male” ever could. “Nonbinary” was not a concept that was available to me when I was growing up, but, in my dreams and in the life I’ve lived, I’ve been nonbinary all along. 

If you look back at some of your own dreams, perhaps you’ll notice that you are not always sure of the gender of every dream figure. Perhaps you’ll notice that you can’t always pin down your own gender, or age, or even species. Perhaps you are only a point-of-view in the dream rather than a distinct character at all. When writing down a dream or telling it to others, we have to use pronouns, which makes it more difficult to convey the actual dream experience, limiting our imaginations when it comes to finding that dream meaningful. Similarly, once we have assigned a particular identity to an individual we meet in waking life (even if the identity fits, and the person embraces it), we relate to that individual through the filtering lens of the identity, and this limits our capacity to respond spontaneously, naturally, and creatively to the relationship dynamic as it unfolds. Since our physical existence and even our dream lives depend on subject/object distinctions, we may need to create categories in order to have experiences at all, but those categories don’t need to be as rigid as we tend to make them. 

Notice how awkward it is to pin down gender in this dream fragment:

I’m staying in a big house where I’ve been assigned a tiny room. Holly is staying in a nearby room with several bunkbeds and room-mates. I want to get permission from the landlord (or landlady?) for her (Holly) to sleep in my room with me, even though we’d have to share a narrow cot…. Later, we’re sitting outside under a big tree.

In working with the dream, I become aware that my awkward way of identifying the landlord/landlady and Holly might not be accidental: there’s meaning in the difficulty of assigning genders, just as there’s meaning in the room assignments Holly and I have been given. When I stop focusing on defining terms (deciding how to describe the one who owns the house, or the one who belongs in a particular room), I remember the actual emotions and sensations: the smallness of my room, the crowdedness of Holly’s room, the narrowness of the cot, the need to get permission to share a bed with my own spouse. In the end, I give myself permission, and relax a little. Instead of sleeping on that cot, we can move on into the next phase of the dream and enjoy the fresh air together. There’s freedom in deciding not to decide, in letting go of the dilemma of who gets to choose and who sleeps where.

The next time you get caught up in a confining dream or a defining identity, try giving yourself permission to relax a little. I’ll meet you outside, under that big tree.

[This article was originally published in in the Fall, 2023 issue of DreamTime Magazine. If you enjoyed it, please consider subscribing to DreamTime by joining the International Association for the Study of Dreams ]

PTSD Dreaming, Part 2

In the previous post, I wrote about how trauma-informed dreamwork can be meaningful in restoring well-being for those whose nervous systems have become disregulated by overpowering experiences. Here in part two, I’ll use some of my own dreams as a case study to reflect on dream themes that are typical when people are recovering from trauma. 

It’s especially important not to over-think trauma-related dreams but to attend to the impressions they leave in the body and emotions. For people with PTSD, sense impressions in dreams can often be disturbing or confusing. Dreams may be difficult to describe or fully experience because the nervous system views disturbance and confusion as threatening, and is mobilized to react by “fighting” (denying the validity of the dream experience), “fleeing” (forgetting or fogging the dream memory), or “freezing” (becoming overwhelmed). Even vague trauma-related impressions can be emotionally intense, and can leave the person feeling haunted if the dream remains unexplored. Regardless of whether these dreams seem positive (helpful), negative (disturbing), or neutral (mundane or confusing), there is tremendous healing potential in giving care and attention to the specific sensations and emotions they bring to light.

In groups or with a therapist, theater and bodywork are wonderful tools for PTSD dreamwork. Playing the role of a dream figure allows a person with PTSD to experience themself as someone who is not “the one with the problem.” A dream scenario can free them from the need to make sense of a chaotic situation, as it emphasizes the dynamic flow of interacting characters rather than following a linear storyline. This flow—interpersonal and often playful—is particularly meaningful for those whose lives have been reduced to a series of reactions. Bodywork generally involves a similar freedom from the need to seek cognitive solutions to somatic problems. Instead of analyzing the dream’s imagery, bodywork helps the dreamer to focus on the sensations that arise as the dream is recalled, and to explore those sensations through breath, touch, or movement. 

If a group or trained guide is not available, there’s still a lot of dream exploration that can be done on one’s own. When working with PTSD dreams, always engage with intense sensations and emotions in small doses, returning to a baseline of safety frequently so you (the dreamer) can trust that you have a choice about how much to experience. If the dreamer can’t access a baseline of safety (free from physical agitation and anxiety), then it is not a good time to work with disturbing, negative dreams. Positive dreams, however, can be appreciated anytime.

If your life has been impacted by trauma, as mine has, here are some types of dreams you might recognize, and approaches you might consider. 

Some dreams offer a glimpse of life energy and possibilities. Others may set up problems that have solutions, requiring some effort but bringing a sense of accomplishment. Such dreams are simply to be savored, as they give the body a direct experience of what is needed for healing. 

Mouse In Trouble: A frightening storm. Through the window, I see a mouse huddled on the ground. I plunge into rain and wind, and nudge the trembling creature into a container, but she wriggles out again. She is afraid of me and won’t cooperate. I keep trying until finally I’m running down the trail with the mouse at least temporarily contained. She escapes just as we reach the sheltered place I’ve found for her. It’s a dry area under a shed, and there’s a cereal box lying open there. The mouse goes into the box and gobbles cereal. She must have been starving—she is so thin and frail. She knows I helped her, so she’ll be willing to trust me from now on. 

[This dream suggests ways of reassuring my own traumatized body. I can savor the mouse’s sense of safety and fullness, as well as the dream ego’s experience of having the courage to go into the storm, the patience and gentleness to ease fear, and the capacity to provide nourishment and protection to vulnerable aspects of myself.]

Especially early on in the healing process, some dreams may seem ugly, discouraging, shocking or nightmarish, leaving the dreamer feeling worse rather than better. You’d probably want to forget such dreams as quickly as possible, but it can be useful to notice how they affect your body. Try allowing your body to respond naturally, with exaggerated gestures, sounds, or facial expressions that convey the revulsion, anger, hopelessness or fear the dream evokes. Repeating these gestures vigorously (or imagining them, if they’re too intense to enact) can be cathartic and empowering.

Eating Lizards: I am eating a snack of small lizards from a paper cup. This is supposed to be one of my favorite treats, but as I become aware of what I am doing it becomes more and more revolting. I look at the last lizard and wish it were actually alive so I could let it go—but it’s dead and I have to swallow it. 

[This dream captures the misery and shame of painful experiences I was unable to stomach. As I recall the sensation of swallowing dead lizards, I allow myself to make faces and gag, shaking my head. After a while, revulsion is replaced by sadness. I can feel the strength of my longing that the last lizard might live after all—that might live.]

During the worst times of PTSD, I had violently frightening nightmares where I found myself drowning, being eaten alive, or fighting with dead-eyed attackers. Other dreams evoked grief and helplessness as I watched loved ones being harmed, or saw my home swept away by floodwaters. It was difficult to find a gesture that would encompass the enormity of such images, but I could respond by imagining myself screaming—letting the scream carry all the pain that I was unable to contain or express otherwise. Paradoxically, intense emotional pain represents a very powerful suppressed life force, and by screaming it out (in my head—it was too strong for my voice), I actually felt energized. I let the scream go on until the pain broke like a wave into crying, shivering, deep breathing—and finally receded so I could rest. 

Recently, I’ve been having dreams that give me direct experience of being free of PTSD.

Spacewalk: We journey into deep space, beyond the known universe, on a mission. My beloved and I met on this spaceship journey; we are trying to figure out how we will maintain our connection once we have returned to our home planet. For now, we share the freedom of deep space where none of the laws of physics apply. We can actually go outside the ship without spacesuits, and walk on the emptiness, which is like walking on stars. We’re surrounded by sparkling lights and infinite, rich darkness. 

Every dream is a healing journey into deep space. May we all step into emptiness and experience the infinite, in darkness and in light. We can trust ourselves to come through our most difficult experiences, restored to our home planet, reunited with our inner beloved. 

[This article was originally published in in the Winter, 2023 issue of DreamTime Magazine. If you enjoyed it, please consider subscribing to DreamTime by joining the International Association for the Study of Dreams ]

PTSD Dreaming, Part 1

For the past three years, I’ve been living with post-traumatic stress disorder from experiences that occurred before, during and after spinal surgery. Trauma-related issues have become commonplace these days as uncertainty about the future is causing unprecedented levels of stress and crisis in many people’s lives all over the world. Our dream experiences reflect and influence our waking experiences, and in difficult times this dynamic relationship becomes especially significant. Drawing upon current therapeutic models for trauma care, I’d like to explore some of the healing possibilities of trauma-informed dreamwork.

First, a brief primer on trauma. Not everyone who has traumatizing experiences gets PTSD. Usually, we are able to literally “shake off” (through releases like trembling or crying) the physical shock of such experiences and go forward integrating the changes that traumatic events can cause in our lives. But PTSD occurs when the body’s natural threat responses and recovery processes are acutely or chronically thwarted or distorted. In PTSD, we feel trapped, and therefore can’t stop reacting, can’t return to equilibrium, after the crisis has passed. When this happens, virtually every subsequent life experience is perceived as a potential threat, especially experiences that remind us of the initial trauma. The body is numbed and disoriented by internal alarms, overwhelmed and confused by external stimuli, perpetually mobilized to fight or run away, or locked into paralyzing dissociation. 

When all of the body’s resources are going toward threat readiness, some internal systems are charged up, while others are switched off. When we’re gripped by “fight-flight” (a sympathetic nervous system response) or “freeze” (a parasympathetic response), no energy is available for everyday essential functions like digestion, sleep or socializing. We can’t think creatively or systematically, can’t make decisions or feel joy. We aren’t motivated by anything but the emergency that never ends, so exhaustion is inevitable, relationships can break down, and secondary illnesses or injuries are likely. PTSD has profound physical, mental and emotional consequences, diminishing our sense of ourselves as whole beings with full lives; we become nothing but a set of reflex reactions to circumstances beyond our control. Even if diagnosable PTSD is not present, anyone with a trauma history may experience some of these symptoms when stressed. In troubled times, we all need support from one another, and from practices that help regulate our nervous systems and restore balance. Though dreams can be part of the problem (PTSD often brings repetitive nightmares and sleep disorders), they can also contribute greatly to healing. 

Because traumas impair cognitive function, many forms of talk therapy are unhelpful, but if a traumatized person is able to recall dreams and has some capacity for self-reflection, dreamwork may be a tremendous resource because dream imagery offers a perspective on disturbing experiences that includes the body as well as the mind. Although PTSD dreams are often filled with repetitious problem and threat scenarios, these scenarios can be emotionally cathartic, and may include fresh details and connections essential to restoring equilibrium. Except in the case of PTSD nightmares (which are more like inescapable flashbacks than like dreams), dreaming can refresh our range of options, helping us recognize possibilities we can’t see when our emotions and cognitive minds are on automatic pilot, stuck in threat reaction patterns. 

Dream scenarios usually diverge from literal memories of traumatic events in ways that create alternative neural pathways in the brain. Just having dreams helps, and then telling them to an attentive and caring person helps even more. If that other person has dreamwork skills and can provide fresh insights, all the better, though this isn’t essential. A listening ear and an open mind may be exactly what is lacking for a person with PTSD, and dreams provide an opportunity to connect with others in ways that are intimate and authentic yet potentially non-threatening. Just telling or hearing dreams non-judgmentally may be meaningful, because when interesting dream content is being shared, the social pressure of making conversation is reduced.

Generally, PTSD dreamwork that involves talking should emphasize sensations and impressions rather than analysis—allowing the dream itself to provide the healing. I’ll give some examples of this in part 2, but for now I’ll just say that an important aspect of PTSD healing is restoring trust in one’s own body, so paying attention to direct physical dream experiences in all five senses is extremely powerful medicine, provided there is a safe context. Even if someone does not recall any dreams of their own, or if their dreams are too disturbing to share, indirectly experiencing the imagery in others’ dreams may be meaningful, inviting physical impressions and responses without overwhelming personal associations. A person with PTSD should not be expected to offer insights, but should be welcomed to do so if it comes naturally. Above all, a vulnerable person needs permission to simply experience dreams without the imperative to make sense of them. This helps reinforce trust in self and others, so when potentially triggering dream content comes up, it can be felt with the confidence that it will pass, making room for new possibilities rather than an endless recycling of traumatic events.

If PTSD is acute, however, a more body-oriented approach may be necessary, since thinking and talking, even about neutral topics, can be too threatening. In some cases, flashback nightmares reinforce traumatic events, and more positive dream memory may be entirely absent. Yet dreams can still be the path of healing for the psyche, even if this process isn’t conscious. During REM sleep (perhaps also during other sleep stages) dreams integrate scattered memory fragments and sense impressions to create the coherence and meaning that are absent in severe PTSD. Unfortunately, it is often not just the capacity to remember dreams that is impaired by trauma, but the dreaming process itself: people with PTSD (like those with certain forms of depression or anxiety) tend to have less REM sleep and poor sleep quality overall, which deprives them of integration when they need it most. Therapies such as EMDR, tapping, and neurofeedback seem to carry out some of the same functions as dreaming, and may be helpful in reestablishing healthy dream sleep.

In part 2, I’ll give some examples of PTSD dreams, and also discuss how tools like theater and bodywork with dreams can be effective for those of us with disregulated nervous systems who might have difficulty with analytical dreamwork. In the meantime, if you are having PTSD symptoms, take heart! Even if you can’t immediately feel it, your dreams are working within you, and others’ dreams are working around you (as Jeremy Taylor would say) “in the service of healing and wholeness.”

[This article was originally published in in the Fall, 2022 issue of DreamTime Magazine. If you enjoyed it, please consider subscribing to DreamTime by joining the International Association for the Study of Dreams ]

Dreamwork & Race

Whenever a participant in one of my groups brings a dream that includes BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, or People of Color] dream figures, I inwardly cringe. My dream group members are mostly white, and their racially-inflected dreams can be a minefield of stereotypes and projections. I wish I could write about this from some moral high ground, but I can’t. As a white person in the United States, my own unconscious mind is also filled with buried racial bombs, and though I’d love to claim that I’m not the one who buried them, I’ve been living happily in a land shielded by the presence of these deadly munitions all my life. 

When recounting racially-inflected—in fact, racist—dreams, many group members are sensitive to the unconscious biases that these dreams reveal, and they acknowledge this with regret and sometimes shame. I hope I have the courage to expose myself as they do, in the interests of learning and changing at the deepest level, but the fact that we can see our own racism doesn’t make us less racist, and sometimes exposing ourselves can be a preemptive tactic to keep others from exposing us. Still, it’s less excruciating to work with these dreams if the racist implications can be openly discussed with the dreamer. Some dreamers, however, are oblivious to any implicit racism or, perhaps worse, sense that the “wrong conclusions” might be drawn from their dreams and hedge with justifications and denials. I’m afraid that my own dread as we tiptoe around our minefields doesn’t just come from the unpleasantness of hearing people I like say things that appall me, it’s also from a fear of dealing with any of this at all. Like most white people, I can avoid dealing with racism just by surrounding myself with the safety zones of whiteness—and it is those white zones of privileged obtuseness that make racism such a clear and present danger to the BIPOC community, while corrupting and corroding our collective humanity.

White people can easily take fundamentals like safety for granted, which is why I’m addressing a “we” in this article that refers particularly to white people. Although dreamers of all ethnic and cultural backgrounds can enjoy reading about meaningful dreamwork issues, BIPOC dreamworkers probably won’t be particularly surprised or enlightened by anything I have to say about white people’s racially-inflected dreams (though I’m grateful if you do choose to read on). On the other hand, I hope that all white dreamworkers will choose to reflect on issues that may cause us discomfort, letting an awareness of potential racist implications inform our work. I’ve learned a lot by overcoming my desire to avoid this subject, and dreamwork has been an excellent way to do some of that essential learning. 

While white people’s dreams with BIPOC dream figures inevitably reflect the societal racism (and sexism, and cultural assumptions of all kinds) that we have absorbed, it’s helpful to remember that dreams reflect unconscious attitudes that are not necessarily congruent with our conscious intentions. Talking about our racist dreams should not become an exercise in blaming ourselves and one another, but should instead expose the ugly psychological and sociological scaffolding that has structured some of our fundamental beliefs and behaviors. We do this hard work so that we’ll be better able to refuse to perpetuate harmful and shameful systems even when they benefit us personally.

The presence of a person of a different race in your dream isn’t automatically racist—our waking world is populated by people of differing ethnicities and so is our dreaming world. However, all dream figures have stereotypical elements (representing categories or types, not just personal qualities), so they exhibit our prejudices. BIPOC characters in white people’s dreams often end up being cast in roles that are blatantly racist: lacking individuality, and emphasizing reductionist stereotypes. Working with such dreams, do we accept these stereotypes, or do we face and challenge them? It is essential that our ways of working with our own or others’ dreams focus on the uniqueness and humanity of every dream figure, while simultaneously acknowledging the roles that our dreams have assigned to them. Our dreams can exhibit a caste system—ranking figures according to our own scale of values. This is not accidental, and we must commit ourselves to questioning the demeaning systems within our dreamworlds that reflect similar systems in the waking world.

A white person’s dream of a BIPOC dream figure can be both racist and anti-racist, since that figure’s presence and our response gives us an opportunity to see what we are assuming, and opens up the possibility of seeing something more. Dream figures aren’t just there to reinforce and represent our prejudices, they are uniquely created and creative beings with the capacity to surprise us and change us. The more we recognize our stereotypical beliefs and how they are reflected in a particular dream figure, the more we discover how much we don’t know. This individual figure appears in my dream or your dream for a reason, and when we see them in their wholeness, we expand ourselves as well. Paradoxically, any dream figure (even blatantly stereotypical ones) can teach us to see our own blind spots, confronting our prejudices with humor or deadly seriousness; subtlety or shocking crudeness; compassion, or a gut punch.

I am not an expert on racially-inflected dreams, but perhaps my clumsy “beginner’s mind” is more useful than expertise in working with such dreams. Racially-inflected dreams make me uncomfortable—and they should make me uncomfortable. Racist social structures have allowed too many white people to be too comfortable for too long, at the expense of others who can never let their guard down without their vulnerability being exploited. When a white dreamer brings me a racially-inflected dream, my discomfort is a flashing red light that says, “Stop. Pay attention. This is important. Don’t respond by rote, because your knee-jerk response will probably be an attempt to escape.” The alert message I get from my discomfort gives me good advice for any kind of dreamwork: don’t take your expertise for granted, don’t trust your own assumptions (assumptions are the opposite of insights), don’t make excuses or try to prove anything, just listen to the dream and what it says, and invite others to do this with you. 

Black people, Indigenous people and People of Color have been insufficiently heard and seen as full human beings by white people like myself, no matter how anti-racist we believe ourselves to be and want to be. That’s an essential thing to know. So, at the very least, when a figure in my dream is BIPOC, I know immediately that this dream figure is someone who should be fully seen and heard by the white dreamer (me) and by other white dreamers who might explore the dream with me. When white people dream up BIPOC characters, it’s likely that those characters, more than any white dream figures, will be carrying the information or insight that we most need to receive from this particular dream. 

White dreamworkers do not need to smother our BIPOC peers with questions and concerns as we try to prove our “wokeness” or genuinely wake ourselves up—instead we can turn to our own dreams, question ourselves and our dream figures, and let them teach us what we still need to learn. BIPOC dreamworkers can learn from one another and from their own dreams about the needs and challenges they face in their own lives—and white people need to take responsibility for doing likewise, so that our lives are not being lived at the expense of theirs. Most of us share a hope that if we (all people) do our personal homework we’ll overcome our fears and assumptions about each other, demolish the power structures of white supremacy, and finally let our individual dreams invite us into an authentic understanding of our common humanity, our common dream. We’re not there yet. In the meantime, let’s learn to endure our mutual discomfort , integrate our real pain, and do the hard work even as we dream big.

[This article was originally published in in the Spring, 2022 issue of DreamTime Magazine. If you enjoyed it, please consider subscribing to DreamTime by joining the International Association for the Study of Dreams ]

Dreaming Our Joy

A joyous dream is like the precious seed of an heirloom vegetable: a potential-packed kernel of our essential, ancestral inheritance. We all come from dreamers, and we’ll all pass on our legacy to other dreamers. That legacy is not only conveyed through life lessons and practices, it is also fundamentally a transferal of inspiration, through joy. Dreams that bring joy will plant themselves in our hearts and flourish there, growing and flowering outward to bless others, providing sustainable nourishment with their colorful (though maybe oddly-shaped) fruits. Our sweet dreams can inspire us with the same joy that gave our ancestors hope in difficult times, making hard-won wisdom more palatable and easier to digest. So, even as we dig deep in our dreamwork, laboring to cultivate wisdom and skills that we can pass on to our own descendants, let us cherish and share the dream-seeds of joy. 

Joyous dreams need very little working; they are immediately meaningful and only require our willingness to receive them. Each dreamer has a dream iconography for joy: images that signal the presence of hope, comfort, connection, sweetness or fun. For me, yellow birds (goldfinches, Wilson’s warblers, evening grosbeaks) come in dreams often when I’m grieving, to recall my own soul to me, bringing light in the dark. Flight and song are two qualities that make birds likely harbingers of joy in dreams. Do you dream of birds? Do you fly with them? Sing with them? Can you feel their brightness?

Music features in many of our joyous dreams, too. Sometimes, I dream of singing or playing an instrument in a public place where others join in spontaneously, so we become a “flash mob” of sheer exuberant playfulness. I sing “Oh What A Beautiful Morning!” or “Let’s Go Fly A Kite!” and the music makes me emerge from sleep “with a song in my heart.” These dreams remind me of a dream-like waking experience I had in my teens… I was riding a Boston subway at rush hour in August after a long workday, standing pressed against sweaty strangers, when I started contrarily singing “Jingle Bells” under my breath. Other passengers caught the mood and soon a dozen of us were singing Christmas carols (some could actually carry a tune). We started with the jaunty melodies, releasing our inhibitions and forgetting our weary misery with unseasonable mirth. Then something shifted; we began to harmonize, our voices softened. Eventually I stepped off that baking hot subway car on that sunny afternoon as the cool, gentle glory of “Silent Night” rose behind me. Joyous dreams can make memorable music like that, too, transcending our expectations with a paradoxical blend of merriment and holiness.

When I was younger, I felt the giddy bliss of my joyous dreams mostly in my throat, as if I had literally swallowed a song and couldn’t contain it. Such dreams were fresh winds lifting me; I woke up weightless. But these days I feel my joyous dreams deep in my chest or belly, and I dream of swimming, diving downward. I wake up trusting, supported by the liquid density of the dark, safe waters that surround me.

Swimming in the Stone Cellar: A friend takes me to a famous healing spring in the off-hours, at night, when no other swimmers are present. The spring is located in the stone-walled cellar of a ruined stone building. Perfectly clear cool water fills the cellar to the top of the steep stairs. We descend the steps, and swim down to where we can pass from room to room underwater, exploring. It is beautiful and spacious and deep—the water so pure that it is essentially invisible, like swimming in clear air. 

Later, we return during the daytime, for a last swim before we will have to leave (we’re traveling together, visiting sacred sites like this one). Now there’s a line of people waiting for access, and  groups of 10 or 12 at a time are admitted to swim together in the healing spring. It won’t be quite as awesome as swimming in the privacy of the night, but I’m still looking forward to the water, and to sharing this wonder with others.

I needed this dream, and I still feel the joy of it like the tingly glow of warming skin after a plunge in cold water. Health setbacks over the past year repeatedly broke my spirit, leaving me, sometimes, without strength, courage or hope. Worldwide crises—COVID, plus environmental, political, economic and social disasters—have been dreadful in ways shared by by virtually every living being, and yet perhaps the most terrible aspect of these crises is how they have cut us off from each other. Joyous dreams are holy healing springs, miraculously bubbling up in the stone ruins of our lives, and their restorative waters invite us to dive deep. As in my dream, we will find joyous restoration in the peaceful privacy of the night with those closest to us, but it is also vital that we “return later, in the daytime” to share joy with others. Overcoming our “social distancing” to recover our trust in one another, our trust in potential healing—this is the challenge we face now, and as we heal, individually and collectively, we will rely on our joyous dreams to remind us that happiness is still possible. We can help each other to remember this by sharing the joy whenever possible.

As I was working on this article, I received a couple of dreams from dreamers sharing their joy. Both dreams describe meaningful transformation. They are not just expressions of joy itself, but also convey change: an emergence into joy from something perhaps less easy to share. In one dream, there’s a movement from heavy greyness or meaninglessness into sacred space, and in the other a movement from night into morning. In both cases, the brightness of joy seems more fully felt because of the darkness that precedes it. This visceral contrast invites those with whom the dream is shared to resonate with joy: we recognize darkness or heaviness in ourselves, and then respond with relief to the bright opening that the dream represents. I’m grateful to these two dreamers for their sharing, and delighted to be passing their joy on to you. I’m also grateful to my own dreams—particularly those that have followed a similar pattern of emergence from difficulty or crisis into an unexpected joy—so I offer you one of these as well. It felt fitting to render these dream-gifts and my responses as a kind of conversation. May you en-joy all three, and dream on from there.

*

First Dreamer:

“I am a novice in a convent in a city that has a Mediterranean feel. I am looking at an arched stone window just before dawn. Another novice and I climb out the window and onto the red tile roof, looking across the city. As the sky lightens, the bells all over the city begin to ring, making loud booming noises I can hear through the soles of my feet, making a beautiful harmony. I begin to chant, ‘Bells, bells, bells!’  When I awake, I am still saying/singing to myself, ‘bells, bells, bells,’ and there is a feeling of euphoria at the dawn and the sounds.”

My Response:

I love the embodiment that this dream expresses, as the bells are not only heard but actually felt “through the soles of my feet” and echoed in the chant of “Bells, bells, bells!” The ringing joy is a heady, euphoric experience shared with another “novice,” and also a grounding experience that reverberates through the body; the sound is in the air and in the earth itself. Climbing out through the window and seeing the city from the rooftop suggests actively coming out of a private world and into a collective one, going out to meet the day and the “bells, bells, bells” that might be an inside-out version of the words “bless, bless, bless.” This dream carries a promise of blessing and a dawning of hope. May it be so.  

Second dreamer:

“…in the middle of this grey and uncomfortable landscape I had a lovely vision of a protected space, like a bower, with a nuthatch in it. It was a beautiful and sacred place graced with this lovely bird. The image stayed with me and I painted it. By the time I was done, I was very happy! I started to see nuthatches at my feeder shortly afterwards. They had not visited me before.”

My Response:

This dream charmed me because nuthatches have brought me joy since I was a child. These birds have an ungainly shape, but a crazy kind of grace as they zig-zag around the trunks of trees: up, down and sideways. They sound off with a nasal “beep, beep, beep” (a comic version of the “bells, bells, bells” in the previous dream) which can be hilarious when fledglings chorus together, practicing their calls like kids talking over one other, all trying to tell some big news first. Dreaming of this bird in a sacred context, and then being visited by nuthatches in waking life invites simple delight as much as awe. The nuthatch overturns expectations, representing a humble yet powerful beauty and dignity. If we prepare sacred, protected places within ourselves and in our world to welcome these messengers of joy, they will indeed visit.

Third Dreamer (me):

 I’m on a crowded bus. As we come to a narrow, winding mountain road, I see that the driver has abandoned his seat. Horrified, I take the seat and try to keep the bus in its lane, but steering is difficult and visibility is poor; I can’t control this huge vehicle so I keep swinging into the oncoming lane, narrowly avoiding accidents. I can’t keep this up for long. 

Then we’re going backward. There’s a driver’s seat at the other end of the bus, so I rush back there, and find a small girl driving this big rig! I can’t imagine how she’s doing it, but she’s managing. We’re coming into the city now, approaching the terminal. We need to slow down. I tell her to put her whole weight on the brake; her legs are too short so she has to release the steering wheel and slide off the seat to get both feet onto the brake pedal, slowing us just enough. As we hit the rear wall of the garage, I throw myself over her to shield her from the impact. The windshield cracks but doesn’t shatter, and there’s only a bump. 

We’re safe and everyone is cheering. I hug the girl, telling her how incredibly brave and capable she is. I’m filled with love and joy.

My Response:

Joy is intergenerational: we pass it on to our children along with the burdens and responsibilities we also hand over to them. This dream has many personal associations for me, but the collective story seems more interesting: the feeling here isn’t just relief at averting catastrophe, it’s an individual triumph extended to and for everyone on the journey. The passengers all cheer as they feel what I’m feeling, what the Buddhist tradition calls sympathetic joy—delight in the happiness or success of others (which benefits us all). There’s a profound shift from the front of the bus where the adult (“I”) struggled for control, to the back of the bus where a child has assumed the driver’s seat. My joy, as the adult, comes from seeing the child succeed where I could not. My role is to encourage and protect rather than to drive, and I can throw my whole body into that role just as the child throws her whole weight onto the brake pedal to slow us down. 

Sympathetic joy, shared joy, is essential to us as a species. Our survival depends on our delight in one another as we recognize that everyone on this bus is essential: some of us drive, some of us witness, all of us cheer each other on. Thank you for being essential, and thank you for your joy—wherever you find it.

[This article was originally published in two parts, in the Fall, 2021 and Winter, 2022 issues of DreamTime Magazine. If you enjoyed it, please consider subscribing to DreamTime by joining the International Association for the Study of Dreams ]

Virtual Reality & Dreaming, Part 2

[This is a recent article I wrote for DreamTime Magazine to take my exploration of Virtual Reality and dreaming a step further.]

I enter a hidden workshop, and find the tools for making and decorating an ornate mask. Wearing the mask I’ve made, I’m transported to another world where I glimpse a figure in the distance who is also wearing a mask. I return to my workshop, make a copy of the stranger’s mask, put it on, and become that stranger. I’m standing where the stranger was standing, doing what the stranger was doing! By wearing different masks, becoming different people, I am able to travel further and further into an unfolding story….

This doesn’t sound exactly like a dream—the events and images are a bit more predictable than in a typical dream—but it definitely has some dream-like elements: identity and perspective shift, and the mythical settings, vivid sense impressions and compelling narrative create a pervasive quality of significance and wonder. The experience of maskmaking prompts me to question myself and examine my own responses as if responding to a dream. I ask myself: How does my personality change in different contexts? Am I driven to acquire more and more powerful disguises, to conquer more and more worlds, or am I searching for a meaningful relationship with my own creativity and integrity? 

You may have guessed by now that I’ve been describing a Virtual Reality game. A couple years ago, I wrote a column about VR here, but at the time I was a newby and by now I’ve become something of an “expert,” at least on the softer side of VR (there’s a whole range of hardcore violent VR that I’ve avoided). Although VR games are not entirely dream-like, they’re more like dreams than like ordinary video games, and I’ve been studying them extensively to learn not only how they can contribute to my own healing from PTSD, but also to better understand how this medium might be helpful in responding to much greater questions and concerns in the world today. In short, I’ve come to believe that, at its best, VR can contribute to our sense of safety and belonging by supporting our natural creativity, resilience, patience, playfulness, and openness. 

VR mobilizes some of the same inner resources as dreams. Like a powerful dream, a well-crafted VR game gives us problems we can solve; it engages our bodies and emotions, as well as our minds, in finding answers and facing challenges. So, if you haven’t yet experienced it for yourself, I’d like to invite you to try on the “mask”—a VR headset. Now, you are the mask-maker, stepping into the stranger’s VR world, and I can give you a brief guided tour. 

The Maskmaker falls into the genre of problem-solving VR games, and many of our dreams focus on problem-solving as well. These games or dreams can be fairly mundane and practical (basic VR puzzles or simulations might be compared to dreams about doing the dishes or studying for exams), but the better ones are wildly imaginative and immersive. Ordinary activities in dreams or VR like gardening, cooking, driving, crafts or sports (there’s VR snowboarding, believe it or not) can activate the senses and refresh our mindfulness about the things we do in our everyday lives. In fact, dreams and VR both improve our “real world” problem-solving skills because our brains don’t distinguish between dream experiences, Virtual Reality experiences, and “Real Reality” experiences: as far as our brains are concerned, they are all learning experiences. But dreams and VR also offer possibilities that RR doesn’t offer. Sure you can fly, you can breathe underwater… but did you know you could raise manatee-triceratops-cows and feed them kebabs? or solve a mystery at an abandoned space outpost? or figure out how to pickle a tractor? These dream-like games become their own real reality and you forget that they are “virtual” just as you might forget that you are dreaming. You are challenged to consider different ways of approaching not only the virtual or dream worlds, but also the world you inhabit every day. When you are fixing breakfast, could you manage it if you had baseball bats for arms? Do you suppose your computer might be curious about where you go on vacation? What would your shadow look like if you were living inside a mirror within a mirror within a mirror? 

It’s so easy to become stuck in patterns of thought that not only make our own lives smaller, but actually endanger those around us and the earth itself. Climate catastrophe, rampant bigotry, brutality and greed are all the results of limited, shallow thinking, choices and actions. I believe that dreams deepen us by giving us a glimpse of possibilities beyond our own immediate interests and expectations. VR can do the same. Both VR and dreams regularly use humor (especially silly exaggerration and surprise) to keep us from being too sure of ourselves, inviting our minds to do absurd stretching exercises that will ultimately make us more flexible.

The biggest stretch for the mind might be to fully include the body. Yes, a lot of VR games literally give you a workout, but there are a few that go far beyond the virtual gym. Some VR sports, and some music games like the one called Beat Saber, approach the ecstatic. Our “real world” teaches us to be bodiless, except when we are taking exercise like bitter medicine. In VR, exercise can be bliss. In Beat Saber, for example, you are simply cutting colored blocks with a light saber but the exquisitely choreographed rhythm patterns become increasingly complex with each level, and your body becomes joyously, magically, more and more free. It’s remarkable what the body (even a tired old body like mine!) can do without the mind’s excessive coaching from the sidelines. 

If you dream that you are strong, beautiful, capable—it’s not just “pretend.” You actually wake up feeling stronger, more beautiful, more capable. The nerve pathways and micro-muscles have been sparking; you’ve been expanding your idea of who you are, and extending your body’s limits (limits that probably aren’t as absolute as your mind believes). In a VR game like Beat Saber, you discover this same dream-like potential of the embodied self, and you suddenly know, really know, body and soul, that you have greater inner resources than you could have guessed. And, when you can know this in an embodied way, it means that maybe we all have far more resources than we could have guessed. With such resources—just maybe—there’s more hope for our present lives, and for the future of our world. 

The power of dreaming, and of Virtual Reality, can be abused, of course. When you put on a mask, the disguise can define you or disguise you in dangerous ways. But if you take responsibility for who you become, you can create all kinds of masks and choose how to wear them. I hope that those who know how to dream deeply and wisely will be the ones to create the future of VR, and the future of our shared “Real Reality” as well. Those dreamers could be us. 

[This article was originally published in the Spring, 2023 issue of DreamTime Magazine. If you enjoyed it, please consider subscribing to DreamTime by joining the International Association for the Study of Dreams ]

Virtual Reality & Dreaming, Part 1

[At the peak of COVID, I wrote this article about a technology that was (and still is) meaningful for me in coping with difficult circumstances. More recently, I wrote a second article to consider the ways that my experience of Virtual Reality had evolved, so I’ll share that here as well—in Part 2, next month. Both of these articles reflect upon the similarities and differences between dreaming and VR. My personal priority in doing dreamwork has always revolved around the potential for opening our minds to new possibilities, so exploring VR from this angle comes naturally to me. I hope that you will find the subject as intriguing as I do!]

The new Virtual Reality technology, now available for reasonably-priced popular use, opens up some breath-taking possibilities, that might be applied to our dreaming and waking lives. With a heavy “visor” (resembling diving goggles) and simple hand controls, you experience a fresh reality. It’s incredibly persuasive. VR isn’t exactly a dream, but can potentially provide a dream-like alchemical recipe for personal and social transformation. 

I was introduced to this technology as a patient in a Pain Clinic this past summer. I had severe PTSD a year after traumatic spinal surgery, and for months I’d been having episodes of excruciating back spasms that couldn’t be controlled, my heart rhythms were unstable, and my nervous system was in shreds. Slowly and with great care, the pain experts were guiding my healing, and that process included an experimental trial with Virtual Reality. 

In my first VR session, I found myself floating down a sparkling river canyon while giant otters on all sides waited for me to shoot rainbow fish to them. This was actually a pretty rudimentary VR program, and the session only lasted ten minutes, but it gave me a sense of glorious spaciousness, relief from pain and anxiety, and a chance to encounter a truly unthreatening experience with the joy of a child discovering the world for the first time. Like an ecstatic dream, it freed my mind and heart.

I probably needed this experience more than the average person because of my health issues, but we could all use an opening right now. In the era of COVID, the small world we inhabit can seem tedious and stifling, when it’s not outright alarming. Our imaginations may suffer from a lack of meaningful inspiration and a surfeit of distracting or overwhelming stimulation. These times only accentuate our human tendency to get stuck in repetitive patterns that create and perpetuate suffering. Confined to an over-familiar environment, masked and buffered from our neighbors, perhaps faced with desperate stresses and choices, we share only screen presence and grow sick of the confines of our own minds. 

Maybe we are fortunate enough not to be immediately afflicted by economic pressures, environmental disasters, family emergencies, health concerns or existential crises. Still, for most of us, the past year has brought some hard reckonings with the limitations of our way of life. So where can we go for a new perspective? Of course, we turn to dreams. But, dreams can sometimes be difficult to access, especially if our waking lives are energetically exhausting. Virtual Reality could be a powerful tool for reaching new parts of our brains using the same approach that dreams use to develop and exercise under-used neurological pathways, expanding our mental breathing room and creative possibilities. And, as a side benefit, VR can accentuate dreams themselves, making them more vivid and easier to recall.

Of course, any technology that offers instant sensory gratification can become problematic if it leads to avoidant or addictive behavior. On a gloomy, wet winter day, confined to my stuffy little house, it might be too easy to retreat completely into this thrilling realm of color and light. But I can resist the impulse to overdo it: the visor is rather uncomfortable, and the natural world outside is actually where I want to live my life. Just as even the most pleasant dreams don’t usually tempt us to sleep our days away, VR can enhance our appreciation of our RR (Real Reality), rather than enticing us to escape from it.

Some members of my Pain Clinic team have been studying the therapeutic possibilities of VR.  With my own home system now, I’m doing research on their (and my own) behalf—reporting back as I explore some of the most recent popular “games,” to assess the benefits and challenges that Virtual Reality might offer neurological patients like myself, or anyone experiencing “real world” stress, depression or anxiety.

I’ve been swimming with whales, gazing into unfolding mandalas, hanging by my fingertips from cliff faces, planting magical gardens, tumbling down rabbit holes, encountering thrilling surprises and staggering beauty… all while sitting comfortably in a chair. Though many of the apps designed for VR are just glorified video games full of high-speed, combat-oriented, adrenaline-pumping action, it is also possible to find apps that create a positive, transformative virtual environment. These apps, described as “experiences” rather than “games,” are remarkably similar to dreams in their capacity to challenge stale patterns of perception and thought. Personally, I try to enter a virtual world with the same respectful, even reverent, curiosity with which I approach my dreams. I expect to be astonished, sometimes confused or frustrated, often delighted, occasionally blown away. I know I will learn something. 

With some apps, there are puzzles to be solved—but unlike with my everyday problems, I feel invited to linger and explore rather than pressured to figure things out. Other apps are simply playful, peaceful, or lovely—offering a sense of expansiveness and joy that comes as a tremendous relief when the world seems to present only dark prospects. 

One of my favorite VR apps lets me experience the intense challenge of high altitude rock-climbing. In waking life or even in dreams I have severe vertigo and couldn’t begin to tackle these heights. But while the VR experience is vividly realistic, the vertigo is manageable, and I can glory in being thousands of feet above the ground, grappling for a grip on crumbling sandstone. It’s great training for a nervous system that has been primed by PTSD to react to every challenge as a major threat. VR climbing makes my palms sweat and activates the small muscles throughout my body; I grunt and gasp as I struggle upward; I fall again and again, try again and again, until I clamber onto the top. The tension mounts, and my nervous system gets charged up. But I’m learning to de-escalate, transforming raw fear into concentrated focus, vitality, and sensitivity to my environment. In climb after climb, I’m able to take risks in a safe space and discover how strong I am, how resilient I am. I’m learning to trust my own body again. A life-like, perhaps dream-inspired, “game” intended for popular entertainment, invented by people I will never meet, has given me a personal opportunity to heal and grow.

The past year has presented us with challenges that our old, familiar patterns of thought and behavior couldn’t meet. We’ve all needed to dream up new ways of being hopeful, new ways of trusting that we can change for the better. VR can be more than a personal tool or toy; it can be a social catalyst. We can co-create this reality as “players,” by choosing how we conduct ourselves within any given situation. 

When I say “this reality,” I’m not just talking about VR now, I’m talking about a potential that exists in all of our experiences, which are never “just a game” or “just a dream” or “just the same old thing.” Whatever we do to heal and inspire ourselves, we invariably share with one another just by living together in our own unique, multifaceted time and place. So, please believe that there are wonders everywhere—it’s all a kind of dream—and let yourself be surprised, virtually and truly, every moment!

[This article was originally published in the Spring, 2021 issue of DreamTime Magazine. If you enjoyed it, please consider subscribing to DreamTime by joining the International Association for the Study of Dreams ]

Natural Light: Dreaming Into Death, Dreaming Into Life

[This article was written during troubled times: the early days of the pandemic, when, like many others, I was suffering the impacts of collective and personal traumatic events. In such times (which can be anytime), dreams provide perspective—inviting us to see things as they are, in the shadowy half-light where nothing is absolutely certain. In dreams, death and life receive equal space, darkness gives way to light when light gives way to darkness. Dreams don’t accept the good/bad duality we impose on our experiences, they invite us into paradox. Here, I explore such riddles, and accept the dreams’ invitation to walk in the dark.]

When animals (including human beings) are seriously ill or badly injured, they can experience a pull toward death that may become as powerful as the drive to live. Perhaps this is nature’s way of easing suffering. When survival seems unlikely, dying becomes easier. 

I saw this when our feral cat friend Harold was living out his last days. It was winter, and we’d set up a space heater and a bed for him on our doorstep out of the wind. For a while, he kept warm, but finally insisted on leaving this comfortable shelter to wait for his death in the open, in the cold sleet. We tucked a towel around him, and he accepted it, but clearly preferred to let himself be chilled, to hasten the implacable process of dying. It was painful for us to watch, but perhaps not so painful for him. Mostly, he lay with his eyes closed, purring at the sound of our voices, otherwise patiently still. 

In 2019 I went through a major spinal fusion surgery and spent weeks in the hospital struggling with heart problems, intense pain, choking episodes and total physical helplessness—and this condition helped me understand Harold better. While one part of me progressed toward healing, another part of me prepared for potential death. For months after surgery, my physical craving for rest, which would give my body the opportunity to recover strength for new life, was also allowing for the possibility of leaving life behind. Profoundly, instinctively, I needed to withdraw. Eating and drinking required tremendous effort. I hovered in a dreamy, half-sleeping state all the time. I had no inclination toward the future, and felt no real connection to the past. This was strangely peaceful. It would have been easy to die. From the perspective of my physical body, the damage caused by years of degenerative illness and a brutal surgery might be irreparable. Even as I was getting better, my body also contemplated letting go. 

Turning away from dying was difficult. Supporting the healing process meant hovering in limbo, in that animal place where the instincts take over. I had to let lethargy consume me, let myself rest at the deepest level, yet hold myself back from death. My dreams reflected the ambivalent nature of this recovery period:

Wanting to Sleep: Restless, I get out of bed and go into the living room where there are lots of people. I realize that this must be a dream because it’s the middle of the night and there shouldn’t be people here, but even though I know I’m sleeping, I still feel exhausted. I try some lucid explorations like asking questions of the dream figures, knowing I can do anything I want. But I don’t really want to do anything, don’t want to be lucid. All I want to do is go back to bed and let myself sink into deeper sleep.

Plunging Into the Graveyard: There’s a little patch of graveyard nearby. A skeleton is just sitting there on a stump or gravestone. How can this be? Is it real? A boy wearing bulky plastic bones attached to his body like armor dives off the rail fence and plunges headfirst into the loose, loamy dirt of the graveyard. He disappears into the ground as if it were a pool of water. We’re all shocked, waiting anxiously to see if he will resurface. He doesn’t.

My dream journal was filled with dreams like these, but also with dreams that suggested a definite movement through the “dying” process, rather than the finality of a “dead end.”

Walking In The Dark: I’m in my late teens, responsible for a group of 12 to 14 year olds. It’s night. I lead them through a city, through unfamiliar urban neighborhoods. Now, we’re facing a downhill sloping sidewalk that plunges into total darkness. I tell them to put away their flashlights; our eyes will adjust. We begin to descend. The kids are whispering to each other nervously. At first, we can’t see anything, but then we get used to it, and the darkness begins to seem safe. There’s enough natural light to go on.

Now, over a year later, I am still feeling my way forward in darkness or semi-darkness, trying to sense the “natural light” that will show me where I am going. My “eye” (I) is still adjusting. The dream reflects the vulnerability, but also the potential, of a coming-of-age process as the part of me that is leading is barely older than the parts that are being led. Yet the confidence of the dream ego to “put flashlights away” and guide the whole self safely downward and inward, into the dark, suggests that a decision has been made. Unlike in the earlier dreams, there is no doubt that progress is possible, no question that we will keep going.

The world as a whole is going through some dark times right now, and it’s natural that many of us are experiencing a tendency to withdraw in exhaustion or dive into the grave of our own fear, anger, and despair. Sometimes, we dream of giving up. The earth herself seems unsure which direction to take, since ultimately death is as natural as life. Yet even as death and dissolution are possibilities manifesting around us and within us, healing is also happening. We stand up, we walk together, we learn. The natural world and the human world are the same world, even when we are divided and pulling in different directions. Outside my door, where Harold went to meet his death, squirrels and birds are eating birdseed together in the cold rain, keeping themselves warm and fed and alive. Personally, I waver every day, but even in uncertainty I recognize my own strength, and yours. 

May our hearts sustain the courage, collective imagination and energy we need to explore an unknown future. May we be willing to go inward and downward into the dark, without the probing light that insists on knowing the outcome of our efforts. May we let our “eyes” (our I-dentities) adjust. May we choose life, and find our way. 

[This article was originally published in the Winter, 2021 issue of DreamTime Magazine. If you enjoyed it, please consider subscribing to DreamTime by joining the International Association for the Study of Dreams ]

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