Compass Dreamwork

Dreamwork as Spiritual Practice

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Pity the Poor Ego: Trickster Dreams

My most disturbing dreams have not been the classic frightening nightmares—instead, I dream of being a bystander while someone else suffers. Instead of terror, there’s horror, and the agony of helplessness and vicarious pain. Just as with nightmares, the emotional impact is ugly, and, at first, it’s not especially useful to tell myself that there must be something valuable here, even though I know that disturbing dreams have been some of the most meaningful experiences in my life. I’ve witnessed the beauty and transformative power they can have again and again in working with my own dreams and those of clients and friends. Yet, I can’t plunge in with enthusiasm right away; I need to respect the real (awful!) feelings that such dreams arouse, and give them time.

When I had the following dream, it left me feeling ashamed and upset:

Burning Alive: A man, with the cocky over-the-top manner of a Master of Ceremonies from a television game show, keeps intruding on the scene. He has a large, toothy smile, and he speaks loudly and glibly about nothing, with a lot of fake laughter and fake friendliness. He assumes that everyone should pay attention to him, and is idiotically over-confident.

There’s a room with its floor covered in blazing hot coals, radiating waves of heat. A waist-high wooden wall, blocks the open double-doorway. Casually, the man climbs onto the wall, waves, and jumps into the room—showing off. Apparently someone else is inside there, working on the hot coals (raking them?)—but s/he must be wearing protective clothing, because s/he’s not harmed by the heat. The Master of Ceremonies, who jumped in without protection, has no chance of survival.

I’m horrified. There’s nothing that I can do, or that the person in the room can do, to help him—and he can’t help himself either. He must be in agony as he falls on the fiery coals, unable to get up or get out, slowly burning to death. I don’t actually see this, but I hear him shouting and imagine what is happening. Ironically, his voice sounds almost as stagey and artificially enthusiastic as he was when he was just showing off. First, he shouts, “It’s so hot!” An absurd understatement, in that loud, falsely cheery voice. Then, his cries seem more poignant and painful, though he’s still using this “game show” voice He says something that suggests he can’t stand the suffering: something like, “Please get on with it!” And even though there isn’t anguish in his tone, I feel the anguish for him and find this suffering unbearable. Please, let it be over soon. Let him die quickly.

I woke from this dream truly distressed—and the only meaning I could find in it at first was not at all encouraging. The waves of heat radiating from the room reminded me of the radiation treatments that are the source of my current neuro-muscular disease. Twenty-three years after my cancer treatments, the residual radiation is increasingly active in my body, “burning me alive.” Am I like that pathetic fellow, somehow causing my own pain? Have I been “showing off,” throwing away my life, leaping into trouble and then finding myself helpless—desperate, but somehow also ridiculous? Of course, this is not a fully-formed response, and certainly not a reasonable way to approach the dream or my own life situation. But it seemed consistent with the awfulness of the dream’s aftertaste. I wanted to feel compassion for that man (and for myself), yet all I could feel was pity, helplessness, and a strong desire to turn away from the suffering, to get it over with.

I didn’t want to remember this dream. I wrote it down, but tried to forget it. Then, a couple of days later, while I was taking a walk, it came back to me vividly—with a new title making a different impression. Instead of “Burning Alive,” the new title was much more specific, and somehow less painful: “The Self-Immolation of the Master of Ceremonies.” Why did this seem less painful? Well, “self-immolation” implies a kind of intention, a sacrifice rather than a silly, wasteful, careless act of self-harm. I associated “self-immolation” with the Vietnamese Buddhist monks who set fire to themselves in protest against the Vietnam War. Their actions were drastic, and not consistent with my own cultural ideas about what constitutes appropriate dissent… yet their intentions were genuinely meaningful. They gave their lives to draw attention to an injustice. Could the man in my dream be making a similarly meaningful statement? Also, the term “Master of Ceremonies” implies not careless foolishness but the possibility of “mastering” a situation that might represent a “ceremonial” offering. What if this ridiculous character is suffering for a reason? And what if his suffering is something other than it seems?

In a previous post [“Seeing With Fresh Eyes”], I mentioned two important “tricks” that I often use in working with difficult, unpleasant dreams: 1) look for anomalies and inconsistencies in the dream itself; and 2) question the dream ego’s perspective on the situation. In “The Self-Immolation of the Master of Ceremonies,” the anomaly and the questionable point-of-view are directly related; the most obvious inconsistency suggests a potential inaccuracy in the dream-ego’s perspective. The dream-ego assumes that someone who has fallen on hot coals must be in agony, yet the “Master of Ceremonies” himself does not sound distressed. He uses his “game show” voice to express what he is experiencing, and his emotion is not at all consistent with the suffering that the dream-ego expects him to experience.

So, what if the “burning alive” really is a ceremony, a game, or a show—a metaphorical ritual that involves the “burning up” of old patterns rather than a soul in torment?

With the strong emotion of my initial reaction to the dream, it was easy to assume that this egotistical fellow represented my own Ego-identity in its crudest form: trying to be the center of attention, and coming to grief as a result. But, in fact, the dream-ego (the “I” in the dream) is actually a much more accurate representative of how my own Ego-identity (the “I” in my waking life) sees the world. The Ego, in Jungian terms, is not necessarily egotistical—it is just the essential lens through which the much larger Self perceives and understands experience. We can’t reject the Ego, because we need an Ego-identity to function in the world, but we shouldn’t take her perspective as the whole truth. The dream-ego, like my waking identity, does her best to interpret what she’s experiencing. She understands what’s happening according to its impact on her, so when the Master of Ceremonies behaves as he does, she reacts by judging and defining him as “idiotically over-confident”—his leap onto the burning coals is “ridiculous” and, from her perspective, inevitably results in his pathetic annihilation. Yet, she also wants to be a good person, and finds her own inability to help, or to feel authentic compassion, shameful and painful.

If you want to find the Ego in a dream, look for the one who’s suffering, because the Ego always suffers when reality doesn’t conform to what the Ego believes is important. In this dream, the man who leaps onto hot coals doesn’t seem to be suffering—but the dream-ego is clearly in a lot of pain. She can’t bear what she thinks is happening. In my waking life, my own experience of fluctuating emotions and deteriorating health often causes me suffering. Yet there’s more to me than this suffering Ego, and more to my experience than my Ego can imagine.

Who is the Master of Ceremonies, then? Who is running this “game show”? Dreams have more to offer than the Ego can grasp—but the wholeness of my Self includes all of it, and my Ego can learn from the other characters in the dream. In this dream, I suspect the Master of Ceremonies is not just an exaggerated Ego figure, but a Trickster.

Tricksters in world mythology are not usually very appealing characters, and their stories can make an ugly and painful first impression. Characters like Coyote in some Native American traditions, and Loki in Norse traditions, have all the worst qualities of the Ego: they are malicious, greedy, lustful, and brutally selfish; they are clever, even brilliant at times, but they always end up being too smart for their own good and coming to a bad end. Other Trickster figures may seem more benign, especially when they are represented in cartoons for children, through characters like Bugs Bunny or the Cat in the Hat. But all of them are, at the very least, cocky—and, to some degree, this cockiness is self-defeating. Tricksters are always getting into trouble. While the Master of Ceremonies in my dream seems merely annoying rather than mean, his bad behavior (“showing off”) seems to be his downfall. But wait…

Tricksters are not just bad guys. They may be brought down by their own machinations (often explosively, grotesquely, or pathetically) but, like Wile E. Coyote, they are always up and at it again in the next scene. They always bounce back, and the inadvertent consequences of their actions are often massively transformative.

Tricksters are game changers; the world is recreated in their wake. When Coyote steals fire for his own selfish reasons, his tail ends up in flames, and as he flees in panic, the sparks he scatters form the stars in the sky. By accident, new energies are released, new life begins, new possibilities are opened up. We human beings are the epitome of the Trickster, with our greedy self-interest, our crazy, impulsive, ego-driven yet creative technological advances, we harm and transform ourselves and the world around us. The Trickster leads the way to catastrophe, but also, potentially, initiates whatever comes next.

In my dream, the Master of Ceremonies leaps onto the hot coals, showing off. The dream-ego interprets this as a wretched mistake. Meanwhile, another unseen person, who is impervious to the heat, bears witness. The MC should be in terrible pain, yet his expressions of dismay are unconvincing, and it’s primarily the dream-ego who seems to suffer. Another dream anomaly is that the wall which separates the blazing coals from the rest of the world is made of wood. Wouldn’t a wooden wall catch fire?

If the wall is made of wood, then perhaps the fire is not as hot as it’s supposed to be? Or else, that wall represents an illusion of protection; sooner or later, the wall will burn and the fire will be right here, where I must experience it directly. The fire is inescapable, not only for the MC (who plunged right into it!) but for me. For every mortal being, protections are only temporary. It’s inevitable that we will all encounter experiences that are too painful, “too hot to handle,” as we lose loved ones, physical health, and ultimately our own lives.

The dream-ego is caught up in the horror of the dream’s apparently disastrous momentum, but she never actually sees what is going on in the fiery furnace of that room. If I actually get closer, overcoming my revulsion and dismay… If I actually look past that anomalous wooden wall… What might I see? I imagine the Master of Ceremonies, the Game Show Host, would not be writhing in agony. In fact, he wouldn’t be there at all. The “someone else in the room” could turn out to be another face of the Trickster, with no need for “protective clothing,” impervious to the pain, but raking those coals in order to make the room ready for a ceremonial Fire Walk. These “too hot” horrors could become a way of transforming pain into something more meaningful.

Perhaps my own Ego-identity can step into that room, and walk across it, without judgement or suffering. Perhaps she is willing to change, to let her old life be burned away, and to walk into a new world, born out of the flames of losses, illness, and uncertainty. Continue reading

Beyond Dead Ends: Accepting the Kestrel’s Invitation

Recently, I shared a dream about a hawk, and explored ways of working with dreams that present us with our “problems.” Since I wrote that article [“Seeing With Fresh Eyes: Finding Meaning in Problem Dreams”], more hawks have appeared both in my dreams and in my waking life. They seem to be heralds of a new way of seeing and being, presenting me with a challenge to open my eyes, my mind, and my heart to new possibilities.

The hawk in my previous dream was a juvenile Sharp-Shinned Hawk: a small hawk that generally hunts in forested areas. Within a week of that dream, I saw a hawk exactly like this in two different places. Both times, the hawk appeared unexpectedly, landed close to me, and seemed to look straight at me. Up until then, I’d seen many adult Sharp-Shinned Hawks, but no juveniles. I knew from the field guide that juveniles have different markings—plain brown and white, rather than the more detailed adult markings—but I’d never encountered a juvenile up close (except in my dream). Seeing these juvenile hawks when I did seemed significant. At the very least, it suggested to me that my dream was both meaningful and currently active in my life.

Then, I had a second hawk dream about a different kind of hawk: a Kestrel. A Kestrel—also called a Sparrowhawk—is a very small falcon with extraordinarily colorful markings. Kestrels hunt by hovering high in the air, beating their wings rapidly in place (like “treading water”), looking for their prey below. This dream also includes my deaf black cat, Toby, who died of a neuro-muscular disease (not too different from the neuro-muscular disease I’m coping with myself) last year, while he was still quite young. He was a sweetheart, very brave and innocent, funny and affectionate—I’m still wrestling with his death, not fully able to accept it.

Toby Wants To Fly: Toby’s on a leash outside with me, and I need to get him home safely. I lift him in my arms, holding him tightly, and hurry. It’s a long way. I have to get across a large, busy intersection and traffic circle. We’re surrounded by loud trucks, car horns, shouting voices, city sounds… I’m so afraid that Toby will get spooked and struggle to escape, but then I remember that he is deaf, so of course it isn’t noisy for him. He’s alert in my arms, looking around with calm curiosity at everything.

We get beyond the city, and I have to climb a little hill covered in low, heather-like shrubs. Suddenly, a stunningly beautiful Kestrel flies right up to us, and hovers in the air at head-level, just a few feet away—looking straight at us with a piercing gaze. Toby struggles to get free, to leap after the Kestrel. I cling to him, desperately determined to hold onto him. I can’t let him go. I know that if I let him go, he will die. I notice that there’s a second Kestrel in a bush nearby.

Having subdued Toby, I continue on over the top of the hill and begin to descend the other side. Now, it’s getting dark, and the downslope is treacherous because there are white plastic garbage bags full of some unspeakable, dead, rotting stuff scattered everywhere in the shrubbery. It’s difficult to pick my way through the shrubs, without stepping on those bags. Toby’s still wriggling. Perhaps this is a place where people come to do drug deals or shoot up, a real “dead end place.” I’m not scared, but the downslope is ugly, grim and sad. I need to get Toby home.

Because of his deafness and his obliviousness to danger, Toby would not have been safe outside; he was an “indoor cat” his whole life. I never took him out on a leash (except in this dream). But I loved to hold him in my arms, whenever he would let me, and I wished I could have held him like that forever.

Throughout the dream, I’m motivated by seeking “safety” and “home.” I’m apparently willing to ignore the powerful invitation of the Kestrel, because my strongest need is to get Toby home safely. When members of my peer dream group pointed out how clearly the dream was offering an opportunity to let go, I insisted that if I let go, he would die. Maybe I would die.

But the contradiction is evident: Toby is already dead. And this is a dream: Anything is possible. If I had been lucid in this dream, aware that I was dreaming, I would have realized that I could release him—he would go free, maybe fly into the air after the Kestrel. He could not be harmed. He is already home, safe. I’m the one who’s afraid. I’m the one who’s deaf to the call of the Kestrel, and who trudges on, “over the hill,” in the bleak landscape of decay and death.

This dream, like most of my dreams lately, reflects how I’m dealing with my own mortality and health challenges, and also how I’m seeking meaning in my life.

I have a disease (Radiation Fibrosis Syndrome) that makes me vulnerable in some of the same ways that Toby was vulnerable. I long for a safe place to rest, but, at the same time, I understand that my physical symptoms and uncertain prognosis put me in a situation that is potentially a spiritual opportunity. Every moment of every day, I’m meeting the unknown. I don’t know how quickly the damage to my upper spine and heart will progress—and I don’t know whether these conditions will cripple or kill me, sooner or later. I don’t know how to proceed with my work commitments, since my ability to undertake long-term projects is entirely unpredictable. I’m holding on, desperately, to the things I treasure about my life, afraid that the clamor of the busy world around me will sap my remaining resources, or distract me into wasteful, exhausting digressions. But I know from many years of inner work that this open-ended experience of not-knowing gives me a chance to question my assumptions, release my need for control, and surrender to the freshness of a life without agendas and absolutes.

Yet my dream tells me that I’m not as open as I truly want to be. I’m holding on tightly, believing that death, or at least a painful loss, is the inevitable outcome of a leap into the unknown.

What if I let Toby leap after the Kestrel? My dreamworker friends also mentioned the phrase, “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.” The second Kestrel waits “in the bush” nearby. Both Kestrels are wild and free. My “bird in the hand,” my beloved cat, wants to be wild and free, too. But I’m holding onto him. I wonder… How am I holding myself back? Do I think that possessing my life is more important than living it? Continue reading

The Challenge of Real Change

This article, “The Challenge of Real Change” was published in the spiritual direction magazine, Presence last year.  I wrote about pilgrimage, dreams, and change in my own life, and in my work with clients. I hope you’ll take the time to read it. Please consider sharing your thoughts with me: I’d love to hear how you have changed, what experiences have changed you. We can all encourage each other, and walk together, even when we are venturing into unfamiliar territory.

To read the article, click here.

What makes real change possible? My work as a spiritual director gives me many opportunities to explore dreams in the context of our spiritual lives—and, of course, our spiritual lives are always a work in process. We aren’t looking for a final, ideal state of perfection and certainty, but for ongoing flexibility, and fundamental openness to experiences of deep change. Life itself is defined by change, and  if we can’t really change, we can’t live fully.

Dreams—with their untamed (and often uncomfortable) changeability—help us to practice being flexible, but if we want to embrace change at the deepest level, we have to invite the weirdness and wildness of dreams into our waking lives as well. Sometimes, we have to step out of the “comfort zone” and into the unknown.

Fight, Flight, Freeze… or Flow?

In a recent dream, I experienced several ways of responding to chaotic and frightening circumstances:

Dangers and Discovery: I’m in a forest as it gets dark and the wind rises. The tall trees are swaying and creaking, and several come crashing down quite nearby! Frightened, I try to find shelter, scampering around looking for a safe place. One of the fallen trees is apparently dead and rotten. It breaks apart as it crashes to the ground, and a beehive inside bursts open. Shiny black bees swarm out. I run desperately and they follow… But gradually, the swarm disperses and I return to the fallen tree. I search through the fragments of rotten trunk and broken branches, and find a chunk of heartwood that is soft and pulpy on one side, but smooth, hard, rounded and beautifully-grained, like polished agate or petrified wood on the other side. It is very special. I realize that the falling trees, swarm of bees, rotten wood, and this precious gift are all part of an initiation for young girls. I’m part of it, in my own way, as an older woman.

This dream coincided with some thoughts I’ve been having about our instinctive and natural reactions and responses to threatening situations. What happens when we get past our first fearful reactions, and respond instead with curiosity and openness? In the dream, this exploratory process is an initiation for girls. While traditional initiations for boys usually involve overcoming or standing up to our fears, perhaps a female form of initiation might allow for a variety of more complex responses. Both boys and girls, both men and women, might benefit from honoring all the choices that are available to us when we are confronted with crises or uncertainties. When we recognize that every situation offers alternatives, and we can choose our responses, we are entering into maturity, finding our place in this wild and wind-blown world.

When confronted with an unwanted experience, we respond instinctively in ways that reflect our most basic options—commonly called “fight or flight,” sometimes with a third possibility, to “freeze.” These responses evolved to cope with direct threats to our survival, and for the most part, they don’t serve us well when we are faced with difficult, complex interpersonal situations in the modern world.

These days, the basic instinctive responses might look a bit different from the prehistoric scenarios. Fight might not mean literally throwing a punch or a spear, but instead just throwing a tantrum, resisting, blaming, complaining, disrupting. Flight might not mean literally running away, but instead avoiding, denying, refusing, distracting. Freeze might not mean literally playing dead, hiding or becoming a “deer in the headlights,” but instead spacing out, going numb, dissociating, ignoring. Such strategies can be effective as immediate reactions to a shock, giving us a little distance from whatever unpleasantness is confronting us—but as long-term strategies, they are not only unsustainable, but potentially destructive. In the dream, I tried fleeing… but this didn’t really get me anywhere.

When we keep fighting, fleeing or freezing in response to the things that happen to us, we end up threatening others and setting off similar reactions in those around us. When I ran away, the bees seemed to chase me—if I hadn’t run, what then? When conditions are stressful, as in the United States under the current administration, the entire population can seem to be engaged in nothing but fighting, fleeing or freezing. Nothing works, and no one is happy or safe under these circumstances.

But there’s another response in our repertoire, which I believe is just as instinctive, just as natural, as the fight, flight or freeze response. We also have the capacity to respond to threats with flow. What does flow look like?

Flow is our resilience, creativity, adaptability. Flow is our capacity to respond to a threat or problem—and the accompanying rush of adrenaline—with curiosity, or humor, or surrender, or improvisation, or compassion, or investigation, or determination, as appropriate to the circumstances. Continue reading

Seeing With Fresh Eyes: Finding Healing in “Problem Dreams”

Sometimes, dreams just seem to show us where we are stuck—blatantly and unhelpfully highlighting our struggles and suffering. What is the point of such dreams? Waking life can be stressful enough without reenacting our problems when we are trying to get some restful sleep. I’m having a lot of these “problem dreams” lately, and even though I usually wake up from them feeling discouraged, I’m finding that these dreams always contain powerful healing if I can get past my initial resistance and take a closer look.

My most recent problem dreams have had to do with my deteriorating health, and the changes in my body that sometimes bring me to the edge of existential despair. I’m coping with a neuro-muscular disease that has been steadily progressing over the past year, and although the life-threatening aspects of this disease (heart damage and stroke risk) are stable for now, there are several less dramatic symptoms (muscle spasms and weakness, digestive trouble, intense fatigue) that drain my life force. It can be difficult to keep my spirits up, and everyday obstacles can seem insurmountable.

In many of my dreams, I’m trying to pack for an important journey but can’t get it together: there’s too much “stuff”—more than I can carry. Everything is just too hard. On top of this hard work, there are always other dream figures who are suffering. I feel their pain, but can’t do anything about it. My dreams are full of pathetic, bedraggled, wasted characters who embody my own physical misery in all-too-obvious ways. So how am I supposed to respond?

This seems like an impasse, but it’s not. When I look at these miserable dreams from a different angle, they can open my eyes. In a previous post [Feel It In My Bones: A Dream Experience of the Body] I wrote about how the physical condition of dream figures can reflect the physical condition of our own bodies—and how relating to those figures with compassion and respect can help us relate to our physical selves. So here’s an example of one of those dreams. In this case, compassion and respect come easily, but a sad, hard outcome still seems inevitable:

The Hawk Who Can’t Fly: …Oddly, there’s a a hawk standing on the pavement between buildings. Not perched on a branch, just standing there in the open. Although she has plain brown plumage and markings, and is quite small, her presence is powerful, and her eyes are bright and fierce. But something is wrong. Her wings are spread (as if she were flying) and one looks crooked and withered while the other has large torn gaps. Clearly, she has been seriously injured. She can’t fly, but also can’t even fold her wings to rest. The injuries don’t look fresh, so she has been surviving for quite some time like this, and appears fairly healthy for now. How has she managed to feed herself? I imagine she’s been picking up scraps, though there’s not much food that would appeal to a hawk here. Maybe people have been feeding her? Hawks needs to be able to hunt, and it’s difficult for them to eat food that isn’t alive, so this seems like a miserable existence. I’m so sorry to see her suffering this way. Should I try to feed her? Or maybe it would be better if she died quickly, since her death is inevitable. She isn’t looking at me, but I feel the intensity of her gaze.

My first impression of this dream was that it painfully illustrated my own dilemma: I need to fly, but even my wings (my strengths) have become an encumbrance. I can’t get off the ground, and I can’t even rest. My food (daily routine) is lifeless and doesn’t nourish me. I’m leading a miserable existence, not sure it’s worth the effort. Well, okay. That is how I feel on bad days. Sometimes, the broken bird is just broken. The dream seems to end with a whimper.

But I’ve still got a few dreamwork tricks to try. Let’s see what happens when I pay attention to the dream itself, instead of my predictable assumptions about broken birds and sad stories.

When I imagine what might happen next if the dream continued, I think of trying to feed the hawk, helping her fold her wings so she can rest, or even “putting her out of her misery” by gently euthanizing her—allowing her to transcend her problems through death. None of these problem-solving possibilities seem to fit with the dream itself, however. The hawk has no interest in my efforts to save her. Similarly, my own health issues seem indifferent to my urgency and concern, and the things that I try to do to fix myself—medical appointments, tests, therapies, medications—have no apparent influence on my condition. Trying so hard to solve these problems, I find myself in the same situation as the dream-ego in the dream: my genuine compassion and respect for my own body (or the hawk) seems tainted by feelings of pity, frustration and hopelessness.

Are problem dreams like this one just meant to torment us? Of course not. So, instead of buying the obvious premise that these “problems” need solving, let’s look instead at what the dream has to say. To find the core issues in a dream, it’s always useful to pay attention to anomalies or questions within the dream itself. Although dreams don’t always make sense by waking life standards, they have a kind of internal consistency, and things that don’t seem to fit are not accidental. In this dream, there’s a crippled raptor who can’t hunt for herself, yet she seems healthy and “her eyes are bright and fierce.” If her condition is so awful, how has she survived? How has she sustained herself? Clearly, there is something about her situation that is not consistent with the way I have understood the “problem.”

This leads to another important insight: Particularly with problem dreams where the dream-ego is thinking and behaving in ways that lead to an impasse (reflecting a similar waking life impasse), don’t assume that the dream-ego is always right about what is going on and what should be done about it. The dream-ego (the “I” character in the dream) usually follows the dreamer’s expectations and reinforces the dreamer’s beliefs about life’s limitations—but other characters in the dream may represent different perspectives, different possibilities. When the dream-ego’s point-of-view leads to a dead end, other characters or circumstances in the dream may be giving the dreamer an opportunity to see a different picture, tell a different story.

So, I ask myself: How is this hawk surviving and even thriving? The answer is immediate, surprising, and consistent with the information the dream presents, rather than with my expectations. I expect the hawk to be miserable, desperate, defeated, near death. But the hawk’s eyes are “bright and fierce.” What does she see? How does she see herself and her life? I’m stunned by the world that I see through those bright, fierce eyes.

The hawk sees herself as a hunter. For her, finding food and eating it—even if it’s “scraps”—is hunting, and she sees herself plunging on her prey, doing exactly what she was born to do. The hawk embodies the spirit of a raptor, a formidable bird. For her, keeping her wings open means that she is flying—she is always flying. Even while standing on the pavement, she feels the air moving through her feathers in the smooth swerve of flight. The hawk has acute perceptions, powerful vision. For her, the world is vivid, clear, enticing, expansive, even if it’s just the narrow paved alley between buildings. The hawk is wild and free. For her, pain and disability are just part of life. Death will eventually be part of life, too. She is not crippled or desperate. As long as she is alive, she is fully alive.

If I take this hawk as my teacher instead of seeing her as a victim, I am able to experience the fullness of my life, even when my wings seem heavy and my world seems small. I can see what the hawk sees, with her bright, fierce eyes. Our limitations do not define us. Our dreams may show us those apparent limitations, but they also show us that we are wild and free.

Can we open our wings? The next time you feel oppressed by your own problems—hurt, tired, helpless—ask yourself to see as the hawk sees. Ask yourself who you are, and how you might live this life you’ve been given. Dream your wings wide open. Whether you know it or not, you are always flying.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Heart Dreams What the Heart Knows: Prodromic Dreams

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I found many more dreams than I’d expected:

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

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

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

Continue reading

Being the Dreamer, Living the Dream

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dreamers In Good Company: The Social Dynamics of Dreamwork

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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