Compass Dreamwork

Dreamwork as Spiritual Practice

Category: Dreaming and Waking Reality (page 1 of 2)

Out-of-Body: A Mystery

During my hospitalization in May (following spinal fusion surgery), I had an “out-of-body experience” that was on the threshold of a “near-death experience.” It wasn’t a dream, though it may seem somewhat dream-like as I describe it:

I’m sitting up uncomfortably in bed, trying to remember how to eat and drink. My partner Holly is feeding me tiny bites of food. Swallowing is painful, exhausting and scary. I’ve choked several times already, but I think I’m managing okay. Holly turns away for a moment while I rest between bites, and suddenly… I’m up near the ceiling. The room is whirling slowly, as if I am on a merry-go-round, or as if I am weightlessly turning in space. Everything looks much clearer than normal—stunningly bright and gorgeously detailed. The upper panes of the tall windows come into view, dazzling me with sunlight and sky. I can’t ordinarily see that part of the room from my bed, but there it is. The pocked surface of the ceiling tiles, the lintel of the bathroom door and the gap of the doorway pass by. The television mounted high on the wall shows a PBS children’s program with Buddy the adorable orange dinosaur grinning and revealing his T-Rex teeth (rounded, cartoon teeth, that don’t look dangerous). The room is fascinating, lovely, as it swings around and around, suspended, like a mobile in a warm breeze. What is happening? I wonder, but I’m not worried. Then Holly is shouting my name, shouting at me to breathe. There’s a a loud buzzing and everything becomes harsher and blurrier than it was a moment ago. I’m back in bed. Holly is leaning toward me, her face desperate. I try to reassure her, though I don’t know what’s going on. She apparently called for help, and now the room fills with people. I try to explain, but I can’t explain. Someone else explains what they saw on the monitor: my heart stopped for seven seconds. My heart still isn’t working right. It feels awful. Now, there are plenty of things to worry about. My heart is in atrial flutter, my blood pressure is way too low… Did I choke? What caused this, and what if it happens again? Soon my bed is jolted into motion by a team of young men and I’m clattering through the halls at high speed on the way to the ICU, leaving Holly behind.

Although the “out-of-body experience” itself had been curiously pleasant, it was soon tainted by the nightmarish days that followed. I kept asking myself the same unanswerable, existential questions over and over, “What happened? How could it happen so suddenly, without any warning? What if I’d died?” My body was a precarious place to be. 

I didn’t die, and the separation between my body and me lasted less than a minute, but the experience was so fundamentally strange that I couldn’t leave it alone. Unlike slipping into the alternate reality of ordinary sleep, I’d been catapulted right out of my identity—still in the same room, but no longer in my body, no longer in my own life at all. If the separation had continued, where would I have been? Not whirling around the ceiling in that hospital room forever. There wasn’t enough of “me” to grasp—but the world (even the orange dinosaur on television) was so clear and complete in itself that it didn’t seem to matter what happened next. In the midst of the out-of-body experience, I perceived the world as a puzzling and pervasive sweetness. But immediately after it was over, I started grappling with the mystery: How could I have perceived anything without my body? Who experienced this experience? Certainly not the same helpless, frightened and wretched patient who was tormented by these questions in the ICU afterward.

In the three months that have passed since this experience, the big mystery of “not knowing” has become a lot less traumatic than it felt at first. Instead of being preoccupied with relentless questions, I keep remembering the ease of that sparkling, turning world, where I wasn’t embodied and no questions needed answering. The strain of surgery and hospitalization had triggered some cardiac arrhythmias that briefly disconnected my body from the directed flow of my life and myself—as if I’d been unplugged. Somehow, I was still present to experience the unplugging. But I don’t know whether that was death, or just a glimpse of what it’s like not to be entirely corporeal. We are never entirely corporeal anyway. Our dreams allow us to forget our physical bodies, or at least to perceive them differently, on a regular basis—yet this was nothing like a dream. In a dream, the world is insubstantial (even though the dream seems real), but in this out-of-body experience, the world was acutely manifest, while I was nothing but awareness.

The world I see from my everyday perspective is somewhat blurry, distorted by my well-worn 59-year-old eyes and habitual expectations. Yet somehow, without physical eyes, I “saw” this world with the dazzling clarity of pure vision. My body was confined to the bed, and I couldn’t turn my head (due to the spinal fusion), but somehow I saw—accurately—parts of the room that I couldn’t have seen through my physical eyes. How is this possible? I don’t know. Why was everything going around and around? I don’t know. I was a point-of-view rather than a personality, yet this “point-of-view” had distinct characteristics and a way of experiencing that surprised me. Whatever “I” was, I could be surprised! Not knowing, and not needing to know, made this constantly shifting perspective feel spacious, fresh, and quite easy; in its enchanting impossibility, it was perfectly real.

Having seen the world in this way, there’s an opening for me now. As I recover my strength, resume my work, and see my life from a new perspective with a newly healing body, I’m finding that the easiest and best response to every question I encounter is, “I don’t know.” How has the ordeal of serious illness and major surgery changed me? I don’t know. Where will I go from here? I don’t know. How should I respond to the thousands of tiny, pleasant and unpleasant surprises I encounter every day? I really don’t know. Though I find myself responding, one way or another, to each moment, there’s nothing I “should” do or be. I really don’t need to be certain about anything. It’s delightfully liberating, not knowing. There’s space—like sky—between the cloudy, complicated questions. Instead of defining and redefining myself and my circumstances, coming up with plans and explanations, I often find myself floating, weightless, in slow circles, just looking at the world as it drifts around me. Can I be a point-of-view rather than a personality? When my mind gets snagged on something and starts grappling again, can I remind myself that uncertainty is not a problem? I don’t know. And that’s fine.

Flashes of Memory and Dream

As I prepare for sleep, I lie in bed with a book and let my mind drift. It is peaceful; there’s nothing to be done, nothing to be decided. Drowsiness comes over me slowly, and during this interval between bedtime (according to the clock) and the untethered dreamtime, I often have flashes of memory that are unlike the everyday “remembering” that makes up the narrative of my life. Instead of remembering events and stories linked together sequentially, I experience memories that have no beginning or end. Perhaps they are located in space rather than in time. They are vivid impressions of a place, a situation or a circumstance from my past, with all of the vivid sensations and emotions of the immediate experience. 

This is an entirely different kind of memory. It is not really like remembering at all. It is an eternal present, an unfolding moment fully realized. It is as real as now, lying in my bed with my book. Here comes a moment: In my first grade classroom, the dusty, nutty smell of the pencil sharpener, the oblique afternoon sunshine falling through tall windows and warming a corner of  my desk, so many details along with the feeling of being six, forever. As if that moment, that day, never actually concluded or became another day. As if I could resume that life any time, and live into it. And then the memory flits away and another alights: A salt marsh on a winter night, cold stars, frozen tussocks of grass, reflections of silvery alder saplings in the dark water, wind low to the ground and wood smoke rising, the feeling of being twenty-five, forever. I could slip back into that life just as easily as falling asleep now. 

These memory moments keep coming, almost every night. Sometimes, I turn them into more ordinary remembering: I think about first grade, the classmate who died of leukemia, my mother picking me up at the end of the school day and taking me with her to the college library where she would study while I read my treasury of Peanuts comic strips… Or I think about what happened next, after I left the rough log cabin on the salt marsh and moved to another cabin on another island on the other side of the country… But these ordinary, orderly memories are like remembering the story of an experience, rather than the experience itself. Most memories are really just the memory of a memory. By contrast, my immediate memory flashes are far richer, far deeper: I can taste them, smell them, breathe into the many dimensions of actually living those experiences. It’s better not to elaborate them, or organize them. By themselves, as impressions, they allow me to experience immortality. As if, somehow, every moment of my life is ongoing, as if every moment is a hologram containing all of my experience, and nothing can ever be lost.

I love these memory moments, these momentous memory flashes—they seem to be a gift that has come with aging and illness. When I am too tired or too ill to be somebody with a whole personal history to sustain, I can let myself be made up of moments. Just these flashes of perfect presence. Sometimes they are so poignant that they are painful, but even the painful moments are to be savored. They come and go so quickly, taking no time, lasting forever. I imagine this is what is meant by the idea that “your whole life flashes before your eyes” when you die. I’m not dying at this time (as far as I know), but I’m understanding how it might be to die—to live instantaneously and simultaneously, experiencing all possibilities as “now.” 

Some of those flash memories have no context—I don’t know exactly where or when they fit into my life story: …a dimly lit hallway with a thin pink carpet, a staircase descending to the left, closed apartment doors on the right, a feeling of mild apprehension and also curiosity, the feeling of being lost… Perhaps they are moments that weren’t substantial enough to add to the narrative of my life events, or perhaps they are moments from the future rather than the past. Perhaps they are even someone else’s memories. Yet, they are real, and they belong, in a way, to me. 

Obviously, the kind of memory moments I’m describing have a lot in common with dreams. Like dreams, they are filled with vivid impressions and emotions, but can be very difficult to describe, and impossible (or unnecessary) to hold onto. In order to remember dreams as stories that we can share, we generally manage to find a narrative structure that approximates the experience of the dream while giving it a linear coherence that can be followed. All the rest of our dreams are forgotten, but perhaps still present within us as moments, as flashes of experience, flashes of life being lived onward and inward.

My theory is that when we are young adults or teens our dreams often seem more like accounts of consecutive events. We fill our dream-journals with long, detailed narratives. But when we are small children or older adults, our dreams may be more impressionistic, more like those flashes of momentary memory that don’t lend themselves to narrative as readily. This makes sense because young adulthood is the time when we shape the story of who we are and what has happened to us. By contrast, when we are children or elders, doing things and describing what we’ve done may be less important than just following life as it unfolds around us and within us. 

Children and elders can sometimes dream (and live) in the midst of experience itself, rather than perpetually retelling the stories that define their lives. Of course, throughout our lives, we still want to “get a handle on” our stories and make sense of ourselves, but maybe in childhood and aging we’re more willing to give that handle a twist and let it go, rather than trying to wrench and wedge it into a set position.

Perhaps this is why remembering dreams often gets more difficult as we get older, and why children’s dreams can seem so disorganized. I’m trying to understand why I, and many of my clients (who are mostly over fifty), wake up feeling that we have been completely immersed in a dream reality, yet even though we grope around in our minds, looking for that “handle,” we cannot find the faintest thread of a dream memory. The impression is strong, but the narrative isn’t there. 

At this time in my own life, making a story out of my experiences seems less and less important. I’m even accepting the fact that few of my dreams can be remembered in the unequivocal way they once were. Not so long ago, I had a clear sense of the narrative trajectory of “me,” my memories, my dreams. I could tell you who I am, where I’ve been, what I’ve done, what I’m dreaming, where I’m going. But as the uncertainties and losses mount, I’m losing the thread. Yes, I still know my own story, and it still interests me… but I don’t know where it’s going, and I’m not sure who I really am or what will become of me. I’m aware of death—that stark perspective reminding me that I will eventually be forgotten—yet also more aware of life. The kind of remembering that matters is like my momentary memories, like impressionistic dreams, rich with the experience of being alive in a particular way, right now, exquisitely, eternally. My flash memories remind me that I have always been alive in this way, maybe even beyond this lifetime. Someone has been experiencing something, always. We are all experiencing. Maybe that’s the only thing we really are. Our dreams, our waking lives, all of our moments in this world—this is authentic reality.

As I write these words, I pause. The clock chimes and keeps ticking, the world is humming around me. I notice this moment. I can’t even describe it. Maybe, later in my life, this moment will come to me in a memory flash or in a dream. Maybe someone else is experiencing an identical moment right now. Maybe this same moment has been going on since before I was born. No moment is really separate from the next. Past is present, present is future, and forever is everywhere and always. Do you remember?

Appreciating Incoherence

Dreams are often incoherent: the images shape-shift, the timelines tangle, the events overlap, and the whole dreamy experience itself can get lost in a haze at the edge of awakening. We count on coherence in our waking lives, expecting the narrative to make sense with a reasonable cause-and-effect predictability. We generally think that things should hold together—they should cohere—and when things fall apart incoherently, it’s bad news. But we all know that the dream world is different, and we’re willing to accept a certain amount of disorder there. Still, our waking minds have to do some reconstructive work before they can get a grip on those slippery dream experiences, and some dreams just won’t cooperate. We know we have dreamed; the dream is a palpable presence with a distinct sensory intensity… but we just can’t get hold of anything solid enough to make a memory. So, the incoherent dream gets forgotten.

Lately, my waking life has been almost as incoherent as my dreaming life, and accepting this much incomprehensibility has been a challenge. I have an illness that is unpredictable and rare, so I don’t know what to expect from one day to the next. My symptoms shift like loose sand  underfoot; my daily routine is a steep dune I’m climbing, and the routine itself disintegrates as I struggle up its sandy slope. I can’t get on top of it, can’t see what’s on the other side. Is there an open ocean somewhere out there? Or just an endless sea of similar sand dunes? I’m discovering how much our lives usually depend upon our plans for the future, and my plans have been suspended in this slippery limbo, since my prognosis is uncertain.

Ordinarily, our experiences have some coherence. The sand has been moistened and packed down, so we can walk without wallowing. Even our dreams can usually be shaped into sand castles. But, sometimes the sand is so dry and fine, or so wet and slack, that we can’t hold onto a handful without its slipping away, and it’s not possible to shape a story or a structure with such material. The sandman has come to sprinkle our sleep with dreams, and has delivered a sweeping desert landscape that changes with the wind.

Dream meanings are not usually direct messages, they are more intricate, richer, and sometimes disturbingly weirder than any direct communication could be. Yet even the most incoherent dream can feel meaningful, can be meaningful, if we care about the dreaming experience, allow it to touch us and allow ourselves to respond. I’m trying to see the incoherence of my waking life in the same way. Meanings do not necessarily make sense. Life can be meaningful whether it makes sense or not.

I can’t give a good example of an incoherent dream, because, well, those dreams are really incoherent—they don’t hold together. But there’s been a sort of theme to my recent incoherent dreams. They start with a chaos that I’m trying to control:

I’m packing, but there’s nothing to contain all the stuff I need to carry with me… I’m cleaning, but the messes keep multiplying… People or animals are in trouble, but there’s no way to tell where the trouble is coming from and no way to help… Something or someone is lost—maybe it’s me… Then, in the dream, I remember that the ocean is not far from here. I haven’t seen it yet, but I know it’s nearby. I know I just need to get to the ocean. If I could only set all the impossible problems aside and get out in the fresh air, I’d be able to get there…

But usually the problems remain unresolved. Things get more and more confusing. Often, the ocean seems impossible to reach, even though I realize it’s just outside, just beyond the edge of this chaos.

Actually, the ocean itself is chaotic, too, but in a different way. The ocean is infinitely wild, vast, incoherent because it can’t be contained. The chaos indoors (or inside myself) seems disturbing because I’m trying to control it; the chaos of the open ocean, by contrast, is glorious, unrestrained and impossibly deep. The ocean has its own rhythms and patterns, which defy my sense of coherence. There’s something liberating in this. Somehow, I recognize those inconsistent and incomprehensible rhythms and patterns—I know the ocean with my own deep sense of wonder, not with my grasping mind.

“It is like what we imagine knowledge to be:
dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free…”
-Elizabeth Bishop, from “At the Fishhouses”

There’s an authentic relationship between the oceanic unknown (or deep knowledge) and the shifting sands of my everyday experience. The depths of the infinite lap at the shores of the ordinary, so sometimes the sand gets just damp enough to shape sand castles at the water’s edge: coherent dreams, insights, projects, possibilities… and then, predictably, the tides recede leaving those castles to dry and slump, or the tides rise to wash them away completely.

In my incoherent dreams, I flounder in confusion, trying to accomplish something, remember something, catch hold of something, anything… But, still, I know that the ocean is out there. The ocean does not concern itself with my accomplishments, my concerns, my comprehension. It gives me nothing to hold onto, and yet it shapes my experience. I trust the tides; I trust the depths. Occasionally, my incoherent dreams complete themselves: I leave the frustrating incoherence of my problems and worries behind, and find the more profoundly incoherent openness of the ocean. It’s right here, all around me: the infinite. I immerse myself in that dark, clear water. And I find myself fully awake.

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.

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

Dreaming Up “The Bad Guys”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dream Thoughts

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

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

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

Here’s a recent example from my own dreamworld:

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

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

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

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

Dreams of Helping and Being Helped

helping 01In my recent dreams, I’ve been aware of giving and receiving, helping and being helped:

Fragments: I receive three gifts: sagebrush, a meerschaum pipe, and an iphone—and must learn how to use them… Someone lends me a bicycle, and then seems more confident and capable herself when she experiences my gratitude… I’m in prison for life, and a fellow prisoner relieves my fear by asking me to help her solve some math problems… We distract the dragon, so the young girl can complete her initiation safely… A white bull calf comes to me for comfort, but when I am threatened he places himself between me and the danger…

We all have a need for our strengths and gifts to be recognized and received by others—and sometimes the best thing we can do to support others is to receive what they have to give, whether it is by listening to their stories and learning from their example, or allowing them to assist us on our own path—physically, emotionally, spiritually. I’ve been noticing this process in my dreams, at the same time that I’ve been noticing it in my waking life.

As my friend Kay is now on hospice, I’m recalling the many ways she has been a mentor to me. Kay and I worked together on the pastoral care team for a continuing care retirement community. She was an experienced pastoral counselor and spiritual director (volunteering with the team, since she was technically retired); and I was a relative beginner in this work. With warmth and grace, she gave me exactly the encouragement I needed, by allowing me to take the lead. She attended my workshops and groups as a participant; she brought me her dreams, and she invited me to act as her spiritual counselor as she got older and faced health challenges. It wasn’t like an adult letting a child win at checkers—she authentically found things that I could give her, that she could learn from me. While she also helped and mentored me in more traditional ways, she always allowed me to bring my best self to our relationship, and to experience my own gifts with her.

Kay is an especially wise and kind person. But, actually, similar giving/receiving relationships are happening all the time. If I pay attention, I notice that the true gifts and blessings in waking or dreaming life are always somehow reciprocal.

The other day, I was climbing a long, long, long set of steps (18 flights, I think) to the top of a hill in a nearby park. As I was going up very, very slowly, two brisk women and a healthy young dog passed me going down, with an older dog following stiffly behind them. The older dog—a sweet-faced, short-haired terrier—gave me a commiserating look as she went by. Continue reading

Impossible Things Before Breakfast

“‘I daresay you haven’t had much practice,’ said the Queen. ‘When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.’”        –Lewis Carroll, from Through the Looking Glass

arborist 01Dreams give us all regular practice “believing impossible things before breakfast.” My own theory is that this particular exercise is essential to our mental health and well-being. In daily life, it’s all too easy to think we know exactly what is possible and what is impossible.

I generally walk around secure in the belief that I am a particular kind of person for whom certain ways of thinking, speaking, feeling and acting are possible, and others are not. I may adapt to circumstances, but it’s all within the range of what I consider realistic for me. Similarly, I assume that certain things are possible in the “real world” around me, and other things are impossible. And I tend to ignore things that make me question my assumptions about myself, other people, and “reality.”

arborist 03Actually, however, “impossible” things are happening within me and around me all the time, and every once in a while one of those things breaks through my shell and gets my attention—provoking laughter, wonder, indignation, anxiety, delight, or sheer wordless amazement. Continue reading

Review: “Lucid Waking”

Lucid Waking: Using Dreamwork Principles to Transform Your Everyday Life by Zoé Newman. White Egret Press. Paperback. 260 pages. $17.95.

Lucid WakingHow would our lives be different if we approached waking situations with the same openness we might bring to our dreams?

When we are reflecting on our dreams, we don’t need to apply the same expectations and judgments, take sides, or assign blame—we tend to think more in terms of exploring and experiencing, trying out different points of view, considering possibilities, and finding meaning through metaphor and creativity. These dreamwork skills can be cultivated in waking life, too, so that our relationship to the world around us can become as flexible, playful, unexpected and intuitive as our relationship to the dream world.

In past posts [such as: Haiku Dreams, Green Sloths & Synchronicities, and A Bird-Watching Dream Walk] I have written about the waking/dreaming continuum, and have suggested some ways in which dreamwork approaches could be applied to our waking lives, but Zoé Newman has gone far more deeply into this work in Lucid Waking—a book that offers both the imaginative insights and the practical tools we need to relate more openly (less habitually) with our waking lives. She writes:

“Lucid waking is seeing situations as opportunities for experimenting, for trying out new behaviors, for cultivating undeveloped qualities. It’s being in life in a playful, risk-taking, adventurous, free way… letting the world become a classroom, a laboratory, a creative canvas.”

Reading this book makes it seem perfectly natural to learn from our waking experiences as we learn from our dreams. Using examples from the lives of real people facing real challenges, Newman explores creative ways of coping with unpleasant situations (such as getting a parking ticket), working through interpersonal conflict, and expanding opportunities for spiritual growth. She draws on some essential Buddhist wisdom about relating directly to our experience, which can be useful both in the practice of lucid dreaming and in “lucid waking”:

“Buddhist mindfulness is, in essence, a practice of bringing lucidity to our waking life. Developing mindfulness, as a matter of fact, is very similar to developing dream lucidity.”

In other words, when we become lucid in a dream, we “wake up” within the dream and become aware that we are dreaming, which opens up all kinds of new options for our responses to dream events. When we become mindful (or “lucid”) in waking life, we “wake up” to our immediate experience and become aware that this present moment offers far more possibilities than we had previously conceived. Either way, lucidity means that we are not limited by our habitual expectations and opinions, so we can relate to experiences as they unfold, with open eyes, heart and mind. Continue reading

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