Dreamwork as Spiritual Practice

Category: Healing Dreams (Page 2 of 3)

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

A Dream By Any Other Name

We’ve all used the word “dream” when we talk about a positive waking vision or hope for the future. While struggling with our current political nightmare, I find myself dreaming (imagining a better future) this way more often—such dreaming is a manifestation of longing, and longing has power. I dream of healing for the earth, and for all living things. I dream of kindness, fairness, simplicity, generosity, gratitude, integrity, beauty, cooperation, balance, peace. These are collective dreams, of course, shared by many millions of human beings all over the world—and perhaps by other creatures as well. Just as our sleep-dreams have archetypal images and themes, so do our waking dream-visions of what goodness could be. We have a common vocabulary for our longing, and even those who are greedy and hateful may dream of these positive possibilities (at least for themselves and their friends).

Yet, such waking dreams rarely have much substance. They are often abstractions rather than fully realized imaginings. I can “dream” of world peace—but what would that actually look like? Unlike most daydreams, our sleep-dreams have emotional richness, physical details, stories and surprises; although they may lack the coherence of conscious intention, they make a substantial impression because they are lived experiences, not just intangible ideas. We may try to imagine the future in a positive way, but our daydreams usually lack direct experiential weight. Our night-dreams have more vivid “reality.”

When Holly and I went to the humane society to adopt a kitten seven years ago, we dreamed (imagined, hoped) that our new family member would be sweet and special and a joy in our lives; we dreamed that we’d love him. But we could never have imagined Toby himself—the deaf cat whose voice sounded like a donkey braying; the little guy who bravely overcame his fear of balloons, liked to drink the bathwater, and would gaze soulfully into our eyes, begging for tiny bits of apple. Our Toby. Dreaming up a person (whether that person is human or cat) is not the same as experiencing that person. Although my daydream of who Toby might be could not measure up to Toby himself, my night-dreams of Toby, since his early death a few months ago, have been filled with the full intensity of his living presence.

What if our daydreams—our true longings—could have the same resonance, reality, narrative strength and specific impact as our night-dreams? Recently, for example, I had a vivid sleep-dream image: I’m seeing the coast of California from the air, and all the coastal cities are under water—I can feel the jolt of sad realization that climate change has already gone too far….

When I woke from this dream, the intensity of the feelings made my daydreamed longing for a healed relationship between humanity and the earth, between human cities and coastal ecosystems, much more real. I could smell the sea and hear the rustling of grasses in the salt marshes; I could feel the energy and vitality of city people and city life; I could sense the pulse of the planet, and the movement of meltwater. I could feel the real consequences of our human environmental carelessness, and I could truly imagine what it might mean if we moved toward a reciprocal, respectful relationship with the planet we inhabit.

When we have big dreams (longings)—like Martin Luther King Jr. did, or like our wisest, kindest, most courageous selves can—they are as real as our vibrant night-dreams. We need to imagine our longings as fully realized. This is not always possible, but it is something to move toward. Continue reading

The Necessity of Dreaming

bridge 02After two months away (walking the Camino de Santiago in Spain, and participating in the IASD conference in the Netherlands), I’ve been home now for a couple of weeks. I was exhausted by my travels, physically and emotionally stretched to my limit, so simply resting and recovering has been my top priority. During those months of strenuous effort and unfamiliar conditions, I slept very badly and remembered few dreams. In fact, because of disrupted sleep patterns, there were probably some nights without any dreams at all, remembered or not. This gave me a direct experience of how vital dreaming is for my sense of well-being, and even my capacity to function.

I know of well-documented experiments that demonstrate the necessity of dreaming—but these last two months have given me first-hand, personal evidence of the consequences of dream-deprivation. I’m sure that if I had been deprived of dreams for much longer, my physical and mental health would have begun to deteriorate as a result. Even though I only had diminished dreaming rather than a total dream-drought, there was a noticeable decline in my energy, memory, cognition and emotional balance, which seemed related to my sleep and dream patterns. The boundaries between waking and dreaming got a bit fuzzier, too. Of course, other health factors were in play as well, since I was exerting myself strenuously (walking 10-15 miles a day), while coping with stress and a respiratory infection… However, as the experimental subject of my own unscientific research, I can attest that my body, mind and spirit seemed desperate not only for rest, but for dreams!

bridge 01When I finally returned home and began to sleep normal hours, I felt the healing influence of dreaming almost immediately. For the first few nights, the dreams came rushing in, often nightmarish and always intense, repeating and exaggerating the stresses of my journey. I’d wake up shaken—yet with a sense of releasing pent-up pressure, allowing something within me to relax. Soon, I was dreaming more naturally, with periods of transitional sleep, sound sleep, and REM sleep working together. I could lie in bed in the morning, feeling drowsy and refreshed, with a sense of perspective on my experiences that had been lacking before.

Dreaming seems to nourish me at the deepest level, regardless of the content of the dreams. Whether the dreams themselves are pleasant or unpleasant, the restoration I feel from dreaming makes it possible to shake off the hazy, surreal trance of travel and feel fully awake to my life again.

In the next couple of articles, I’ll describe dreams that relate directly to my pilgrimage experiences, and explore some of the meanings that these experience have for me—but right now, I just want to express my gratitude for dreaming itself. Continue reading

Fair Enough: Word Play in Dreams

Humpty DumptyIn dreams, language is flexible, and words can be like puzzle boxes: superficially impenetrable, but holding meanings within meanings within meanings…

Or perhaps dream words are more like eggs: smooth and cool, not quite round, potentially edible, potentially messy—and representing the beginning of something that might hatch out, grow feathers, and fly away. Here’s a famous egg-spert on words:

“‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.’
‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’
‘The questions is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master—that’s all.’
Alice was too much puzzled to say anything, so after a minute Humpty Dumpty began again, ‘They’ve a temper, some of them—particularly verbs, they’re the proudest—adjectives you can do anything with, but not verbs—however, I can manage the whole lot! Impenetrability! That’s what I say!’”
-Lewis Carroll

Dreams scramble the language! And we egg them on! Dream puns can be real groaners. Or brilliant. Or both. Which is to be master? Who’s making this stuff up? Are we adding the meaning ourselves, folding everything imaginable into the omelet? Not just spinach but seaweed! Not just mushrooms but marshmallows! I have to admit, I’m occasionally skeptical of the way we can wrestle words into meaning just about anything…

For example, when a dream setting is “the mall,” and we’re playing with words, we can shift the “m” one space to the left… so “the mall” becomes “them all.” Like Alice, I’m not sure about this. It seems like too much of a stretch. But that’s just me. Others have found a lot of significance in the malleability of “the mall”—and they’re certainly right that a mall is where we find “them all”… all of them, all of the anonymous other people whose opinions make a mall into what it is. So, perhaps they’re right. Perhaps Humpty Dumpty’s right. Words are tricky and proud, but manageable if you know how to play with them. And “the play’s the thing” (that’s Shakespeare—a master of wordplay if there ever was one).

Okay. Enough fooling around. Dreams are, indeed, ingenious with words—sometimes there’s no doubt at all that the word play makes sense on many different levels. And even when it is a stretch, a play on words can add dimensions to the dream that might not have been recognized otherwise. A humorous pun can open the mind. A riddle can help us ask new questions about old problems.

Sometimes, when a word or phrase in a dream seems to demand my attention, I look it up and find it has multiple meanings that are absolutely apt. These may be meanings I’ve forgotten, or meanings I’ve never heard before. It’s always useful to ask myself why the dream has chosen this particular word or phrase: what makes this way of saying something better than another?

In fact, I believe that the words spoken or heard within the dream, and the descriptive words I use as I’m writing or telling the dream, always have significance. Sometimes, I see significance right away, and sometimes I have to play with the words for a while, or let others play with them, before anything makes sense. And, occasionally, nonsense just remains nonsense… at least to my conscious mind. When this happens, however, I trust that what’s nonsense to my conscious mind right now might still make a deeper kind sense… There’s more to me than my conscious mind, and dreams are bigger than I am.

Here’s one where the word play definitely makes some sense to me:

Seeking Erin at the Fair: Holly and I are away from home and we get a text from our cat-sitter, Erin. The subject line reads “One Dead,” and we’re horrified. Desperately, I read the text for more information—but it’s just rambling existential philosophizing about what we risk when we leave loved ones behind.

Has one of our cats died? We must find Erin and make her tell us what she meant by this cryptic message. We go to a big fair (somehow pet-related) to look for her. We encounter many people in bright costumes at the fair, and keep seeking Erin, asking everyone if they’ve seen her. But she’s nowhere to be found…

Finally, we begin to think everything’s going to be okay. The message was about something else, and we’ll go home and find that the cats are all right.

One scene from this dream (too long to include) hinted at an overall theme I might otherwise have missed… In that scene, I complain about someone’s “unfair” behavior. As I wrote the dream in my journal, I noticed that my dream title included the words “…at the Fair.” —Hm. Could “fairness” be an issue here?

Over the past few months, I’ve been encountering so many obstacles and such painful losses, just when things should be getting easier. It doesn’t seem fair! I’ve been struggling with disappointment, and even hopelessness. So, in this dream, I’m exploring a “fair” place, to see what I might find. What’s fair, or unfair about this quest? Will I find what I’m seeking in fairness, or elsewhere?

Of course, the phrase, “One Dead,” and the name, “Erin,” stand out as distinctive language, too. The dream seems to be drawing attention to these words. So, leaving all other details aside, what is their significance? Continue reading

Lying Down Dreaming: Body Language in Dreams

Lying DownSince we experience the dream world as actively embodied (dream figures are usually doing things), it’s likely that movement, gesture, and posture are expressing something important, just as they would be in waking life. When we consider the metaphors, storylines and themes in our dreams, let’s also consider what’s going on in the body language.

In waking life, the body language of conversation can be as significant as the words that are exchanged, so shouldn’t it be the same with dreams? Suppose the incidental gestures and postures of dream figures are as meaningful as their overt intentions, opinions, and emotions… What do our dream bodies have to say?

If you keep a dream journal, you might become aware that you are describing certain physical actions repeatedly within a single dream, or as a pattern over the course of many dreams. Perhaps you notice there’s a lot of reaching, or crouching, or stumbling, or smiling, or running, or waving. Or you might sense that there’s a trend in the way things are being done when you keep coming across certain adverbs like quickly, or carefully, or awkwardly, or angrily. These words refer to the body language of the dream. What do they tell you? Are they consistent with the dream’s other communications?

Does one character’s “crouching” have the same purpose or significance as another character’s “crouching”—? Or is one character crouching down to pet the squirrel, and another character crouching behind the couch to eavesdrop? Is one “careful” gesture the same as another—? Or is someone carefully placing the chopsticks in a row, and someone else carefully tucking the baby into bed, or carefully crossing the minefield?

In the process of sharing a recent dream with my peer dream group, I noticed that the dream-ego and other dream figures kept lying down. Each lying down seemed different, and together they expanded the range of the dream’s meanings for me. Like with dominos, each dream figure’s lying down seemed to set off the next—click, click, click… Continue reading

The Phenomenal Dream

slow sign 01When I write or talk about dreams, I often begin by writing or talking about waking life experiences. Dreaming and waking exist on a continuum—they are not entirely separate states, only variations in the landscape of consciousness. Our lives are the roads (or footpaths or railroad tracks) that wander through this ever-changing landscape: we pass through dreaming, waking, dreaming, waking… and all the different experiences in between.

Dreams make more sense, and offer more openings, if we remember that they are lived experiences—as subjectively real as any other experiences. The essential reason for paying attention to dreams is that they are part of our lives, remembered or not—and no part of our lives deserves to be discounted. If I want to live a full life, then I want to live my dreams fully, too. Living fully involves intentional participation in our experiences, waking or dreaming, and sometimes creative reflection upon these experiences.

To illustrate what I mean by this, I’ll reflect a bit on the waking experience I’m having today. Sometime after midnight last night, I developed a migraine—and, by the time I got up this morning, I had a blinding headache, nausea and dizziness. Those are the basic facts. If this were a dream, you might say it was a pretty awful dream. But, fortunately, although I had a full day planned, I didn’t have a strict schedule, and so could let my body decide how to go about the business of getting things done. It turned out that, after taking some medication for the pain, I could do most things I would have done anyway—only very, very slowly and carefully.

Migraines affect me peculiarly: they make me zero in on one thing at a time, with exquisite appreciation, so I become absorbed in every aspect of every moment. It’s as if the pain surrounds me like a shimmering shell of light, with a soft, cool hollow at the center where something newly born is nestled.

Sipping cranberry juice and coffee, eating crispy rice cakes and plain yogurt, brushing my teeth, talking (quietly) with Holly. Then puttering through some chores, and visiting the sunny morning outside, testing my senses…

A migraine heightens my awareness. The sensation of tipping and spilling the stale water out of the birdbath so I can refill it is like tipping and spilling and refilling something inside my chest. Lowering my head as I crouch to pick a weed makes the world around me rearrange itself at a different angle, and I can feel the stringy stem between my fingertips and smell the soil as the roots let go. I have to keep looking down (resting my eyes on the soft, blunt colors of the ground) because the world is too intensely bright. Even the softest bird call (a chickadee, a goldfinch) feels painfully sharp and clean—like cool air on a toothache. Continue reading

A Place at the Table: Dreams of Scarcity & Abundance

plates 01You know those dreams where you just can’t get what you want? Maybe there’s this buffet—you see all kinds of great treats when you walk by, but then when you get in line and it’s finally your turn to serve yourself, there’s nothing left…?

Variations on this dream are pretty common in general, but I suspect they’re especially likely to show up at this time of year. Why? Because, in the northern hemisphere at least, it’s the season when we start worrying about having enough to go around. The abundance of the harvest-time is well past, and spring still seems far away; humans and other animals begin to take a good look at the supplies, and wonder how long they will last. Sometimes we take a peek at others’ supplies, too, suspecting that they’ve got more than we’ve got.

To combat the dread, and subsequent hostility, that can come along with this kind of scarcity-mentality, many ancient (and modern) midwinter traditions include a celebration of abundance and generosity. It’s the “season of giving” for very good reasons. We need each other at this time of year. Stinginess can lead to disaster.

I find that whenever money gets tight and I become fearful about whether we’ll have enough, I need to literally give something away in order to remind myself that I am part of a larger whole, part of a community of living beings who can support each other through good times and hard times. Instead of noticing what I don’t have, I try to be grateful for all that I do have—and share it with those around me, without counting and comparing.

But my dreams sometimes suggest that I’m still anxious about getting enough for myself:

A Place at the Table: I arrive at the feast that I have helped to prepare, but find that there is no chair for me. Someone has taken my seat, and there are not enough chairs to go around. Then I notice that there is no plate at my place, though everyone else has theirs. Also, there is not enough food. The last helpings have gone to others, and all of the serving dishes are empty. I stand alone, and feel sorry for myself.

Dreams like this one simply seem to be commenting on a state of mind that is present. Yes, the cold and dark at this time of year do bring up feelings of fearfulness, resentment, the instinctive desire to hoard and hide what I have. What is the point of being reminded that I feel this way, when I am really trying hard to remind myself that I can also feel generous and abundant?

I think the usefulness of such dreams lies in the vividness of the imagery, and the potential of that imagery to make an impression on the psyche at a deep level. When I have dreams that just seem to be telling me unpleasant truths about myself and my situation, I look at the images that the dream chooses to express those truths. Continue reading

What Dreams Tell Me About My Health

Before I talk about “what dreams tell me about my health,” I need to begin with a disclaimer: Dreams are not reliable diagnostic tools. Although dreams can carry essential information about my physical health, warn me of developing illnesses, and even offer healing guidance, they do so in unpredictable ways. Getting direct medical advice from dreams is a risky business, and I don’t recommend it.

Now let me (apparently) contradict myself by telling my own story. A while ago, I began to have spasms of pain in my upper left back. The pain was completely disabling, and frightening in its intensity. It went on for a couple of days, and I could barely eat or sleep. Because of my medical history, there were reasons to be concerned about the possibility of pancreatitis (which evoked the even more awful possibility of pancreatic cancer). So I went to the doctor. After medical consultation, tests, and a scan, both pancreatitis and kidney stones were ruled out. The pain was apparently a severely strained muscle. With pain medication and a lot of rest, I got back to normal pretty quickly.

Although it was probably a good thing to put my mind at ease by getting it checked out, I might have saved myself a lot of trouble if I’d relied on my dream-instinct.

In the past, when something has been seriously wrong with me, there have always been indications in my dreams. A few times, there were actual “prodromic” dreams that pointed at specific problems (for example, dreams of rodents biting me around the neck area in the exact places where I later developed lymphoma tumors)—but such dreams were only really significant for me in retrospect, since I didn’t recognize their warnings at the time. Jeremy Taylor describes a more useful dream of this kind in one of his books—a woman dreamed there was a piece of rotting meat in her purse, and this prompted her to seek medical help and get diagnosis and treatment for cancer. That signal seems pretty obvious, but many such indicators (like my own prodromic dreams) are more ambiguous. It takes real skill (or a good guess) to recognize when an image in a dream points to a physical health problem, and when it doesn’t. Continue reading

Seasonal Dreaming

columbine 01Do your dreams reflect the seasons? I’ve talked about some concepts shared by haiku and dreams in the last couple of posts [“Haiku Dreams,” and “Nature Dreams”], and one more of these shared concepts is the way that references to a specific season somehow increase the sense  of universality and timelessness in both haiku and dreams.

In haiku, the season is always included, either directly or indirectly—and this provides orientation in the natural world, as well as setting a tone and implying certain common associations understood between writer and reader. Is something similar going on in dreams?

Of course, not all dreams include seasonal references. Last night, for example, my dream fragments all seemed to be set indoors, and I can’t remember anything that would suggest what time of year it might have been. But when there are outdoor settings and a more continuous flow of dreaming, I can usually get at least some impression of a season. More often than not, it’s the same season that is currently happening around me in the waking world—but fairly frequently, there are interesting seasonal shifts or variations.

In early May, in Portland Oregon where I live, dogwoods and lilacs were in bloom, but my dream took place in New England (where I grew up) and reflected the season there at the tail end of winter:

I’m visiting my mother and look out the window to see that the trees are still bare and there’s still a lot of snow on the ground. I want to take a walk, but don’t know if I have my boots, or warm clothes with me. As I watch, it begins to rain, making the snow soggy. I open the door and take a deep breath of the fragrance of mud and melting snow—which evokes a strong sense of childhood springtime. I remember the relief of spring coming after a long, long winter.

This dream brought up associations with the grudging first glimpses of spring in my childhood—a time when I would dig down through the old snow in April just to see and touch some matted green grass. When spring finally did come, it came slowly, with many setbacks, and by the time the season hit its stride, summer was ready to take over. Continue reading

Nature Dreams

nature dreamsIn the last post, I wrote about how dreams can be made up of “haiku moments”—rich images and direct experiences that speak for themselves and don’t require interpretation (“Haiku Dreams”). Another characteristic of haiku that I only mentioned briefly is the way they include the natural world; this, too, is a quality they share with dreams.

I just returned from a long walk. It’s really spring here now, and this has been an exquisite morning: warm sunshine, soft wind, smells of flowers (including the stinky Mountain Ash—not all flowers smell sweet!) and grasses, birdsong and windchimes and lawn mowers, swaying shadows and busy squirrels. As I am walking, I try not to separate myself from all this. Everything is alive, and includes me—even the things that make me uncomfortable.

At one point, going down a steep hill, my ankle rolled and I fell forward hard on one hand and knee, momentum carrying me down all the way so my shoulder and cheek hit the dirt. Ouch. Bruised and relieved not to be badly hurt (also glad no one was watching), I picked myself up. The ground is solid, and colliding with it was not pleasant, but there was an undeniable immediacy to the experience. I recognize myself as a creature with a body that’s made up of the same peculiar combination of solid stuff and pure energy as everything around me. The more waking time I spend outside in nature, the more my dreams become immersion experiences as well, with rich landscapes pervaded by the vitality of the natural world. Continue reading

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