Dreamwork as Spiritual Practice

Category: Healing Dreams (Page 3 of 3)

Dreamwork Tells A Healing Story

In many (if not all) indigenous cultures, the regular practice of storytelling is considered essential to the well-being of the community as a whole, not only because of the entertaining and teaching value of shared stories, but also because they can be literally healing. And many dreams come in the form of stories, which, when shared and explored, can have this same healing power.

In studying a variety of spiritual traditions, I find again and again that stories keep cultures alive, and serve to bring people into harmony with their environment and one another. In some cases, the healing power of storytelling is explicit. For example, healing ceremonies of the Dineh (“Navajo”) recount—and in a sense re-enact—the experiences of spirit beings in the mythic past whose stories become the healing template for addressing present day problems.

In one such story, the hero twins Monster Slayer and Born-for-Water undertake a long and difficult journey in search of their father. Upon their return, they must defend their home community from the overwhelming onslaught of some terrible monsters. Their successful battle with these monsters leaves them exhausted, at the point of death. They are healed by being told their own story from the beginning… And eventually, this story itself becomes a healing gift to all people, retold in ceremonies for those who seek to be brought back into harmony with life. (I’m drawing this interpretation of the Dineh story from Joseph Campbell—and apologize if I’m misrepresenting it in any way.)

The idea that we might be healed by being told our own story has great resonance on both a psychological and a spiritual level. We require healing when we find ourselves out-of-balance (physically or otherwise), as our sense of connection to the source, context, and meaning of our lives has been impaired, injured, or even destroyed. If this damage is significant, then healing cannot be accomplished simply by curing the illness or repairing the broken place—there’s a profound need to go back to the beginning, to see the larger patterns of our lives and how those patterns fit together with the life around us. We need to hear others tell us—and to tell ourselves—who we have been, what we have done, and where be belong. In this process, our individual stories become part of a universal story, and our lives can be of service to all life. This is harmony, wholeness, healing.

My dreams are healing because they tell and re-tell my stories in new ways—and help me to recognize that these stories are not mine alone. When we do dreamwork, we engage in a healing, storytelling practice: we discover familiar patterns, familiar images, familiar emotions, familiar relationships, familiar responsibilities and challenges, familiar gifts and blessings, and we know we are part of a larger whole: we belong. But what makes this process wonderful (and truly healing) is that all of the familiar stuff is expressed in the light of individual experience, with its own color and texture, comedy and tragedy, characters and settings, surprises and satisfactions.

Life itself is engaging because it manifests in so many forms; each individual form is perfectly unique yet recognizably interconnected with all the others. The stories and dreams that arise from our lives are meant to be shared because they open up new worlds for all of us, while restoring, sustaining and enriching the world we know.

“No Feeling Is Final”: Healing Beyond Feelings

feeling stone 01The title of this post is a quote from the poet Rainer Maria Rilke—“no feeling is final.” I’ve been writing and thinking a lot about the meaning of healing lately (see “Kites in the Wind: Defining a Healing Dream”), in preparation for a workshop on healing dreams that I’ll be offering soon. At the same time, I’ve been looking at the experience of healing in my own life, and have found that my personal sense of wholeness and well-being has a lot to do with my relationship to feelings, emotions, moods.

Emotions come and go—good or bad, they are the life energy of my experiences. However, their nature (like the nature of all energy) is to be perpetually moving, flowing, changing. In a healthy system, emotions flow through without getting stuck. Personally, I’ve found that when I become too identified with a feeling, it turns into a mood—a prolonged, limited and limiting state of being—and leaves me with few options.

If I think (and repeatedly reinforce the thought) that “I am angry,” then only the choices of an angry person are available to me. But if I just notice, “I feel anger,” then I am free to feel something else in a few moments. When “no feeling is final,” all the possibilities, pleasant or unpleasant, are at least open to change.

How does this apply to dreams? I just read a reference to studies by the dream researcher Calvin Hall, which revealed a surprising paradox: When counting the pleasant or unpleasant emotions in the dreams of his research subjects, he found that a significant majority of the emotions experienced in their dreams fell into the “negative” category (anxiety, frustration, sadness, etc.); yet, when the subjects were asked to rate dream experiences as a whole, most of them described their dreams as pleasant rather than unpleasant. Continue reading

Kites in the Wind: Defining a Healing Dream

Healing is a hard word to define! I don’t think of healing as fixing or curing or solving, but as a process of moving toward wholeness. Healing experiences can include maturing or ripening—coming to fullness and realizing potential—but they may also include dissolution and death, which are essential to completion and new birth.

So, when I talk about healing dreams (as I have been in the last couple of posts), I don’t usually focus on those exceptional dreams that actually seem to initiate a miraculous cure to an intractable illness, or a perfect solution to an impossible dilemma. Such dreams do occur, and entire cultural/religious practices (like the ancient healing rites at temples dedicated to Asclepius) have been devoted to the incubation of dreams that will bring health, wealth, and happiness to the desperate.

There are stories of people afflicted by poverty who dream of a buried treasure in the backyard, and then find the treasure just where the dream said it would be. There are stories of people with terminal illnesses dreaming of a healing herb that ultimately cures them, or experiencing a healing within the dream itself (an infusion of light, a cleansing, or a surgical intervention) and awakening disease-free. You can find books full of these stories—and there’s little doubt that dreams can bring about healing that involves a total reversal of fortunes, a “cure.”

However, if we are looking for special “healing” dreams to solve our problems, we are likely to be disappointed. I believe the reason some rare dreams actually “fix” things is that in those particular situations true healing happens to coincide with fixing, curing, solving. Most of the time, healing is a more subtle process, and healing dreams work their “miracles” by moving toward balance within the intricate network of other factors in a dreamer’s life experience. Continue reading

Can Healing Dreams Offer Practical Help?

plant 01In the last post (“The Healing Experience of the Dream Itself”), I emphasized that healing dreams aren’t usually specific in their helpfulness. I wrote: Dreams don’t generally bring healing by offering immediate solutions. If I incubate a dream with a particular problem in mind, asking for an answer, I believe I will always get a response, but usually it is a response that asks me to open myself to the whole experience, rather than giving me a specific key to unlocking the problem.

But, can dreams offer any practical help? By asking me to “open myself to the whole experience” of the problem I’m facing, can they help me to find useful tools or guidance within myself and within my situation? I believe that they can. And I believe that attending to the details of my dreams is one of the best ways to become aware of unexpected options and unconventional answers that might be available to me.

It is the very fact that the possibilities presented in dreams are unexpected and unconventional that makes them useful. If I am in need of healing, I have probably already considered, and tried, every possible solution within the grasp of my conscious mind. I’ve already reacted with strong emotions, and worked my way through various approaches to the problem. By the time I remember to go to my dreams for help, I’ve usually exhausted myself with the struggle, and I’m ready to try any crazy thing the dreams might suggest. Continue reading

The Healing Experience of the Dream Itself

One evening recently, a dear friend was coping with a crisis—and I could think of nothing else. My heart and mind were completely with the pain that she was going through, and the unresolved situation that she faced. There was nothing to be done to help, nothing to be done but wait and pray. As I waited to learn what the outcome might be, I couldn’t imagine working, writing, or even distracting myself with books or television. How could anything to do with dreams or dreamwork possibly make any difference here?

Nevertheless, since it was all I could do, I went to bed and to sleep—holding in mind the wish that all would be well. During the night, each time I woke, I did the Buddhist practice of Tonglen—which involves opening up (rather than shutting down) to the experience of suffering, letting myself feel this suffering on behalf of all those who suffer, breathing it in, and then sending love, relief and peace on the out-breath.

I breathed in the pain of helplessness that I was feeling along with my friend and so many beings all over the world who have suffered similar pain. I breathed out the warmth and safety of my own bed, the dearness of my loved ones, the easing of pain that comes from feeling connected and cared for—wishing that all beings could share this easing of pain. The Tonglen practice pervaded my sleep and my dreams.

In the morning, I felt rested and peaceful, even though my concern for my friend was still with me every moment. My dreams had been deep, and left a clear experiential memory of emotions, interactions, questions—though they seemed to have no direct relationship to the situation at hand. In my dreams, I wandered around schools, airports, familiar places—having sympathetic conversations with strangers. What did this have to do with my friend? Still, it was as if the dreaming (and the Tonglen) had healed my sense of being lost in my own uselessness.

The struggle to find solutions where there are no immediate solutions is both exhausting and isolating. But in the ordinary interactions of my dreams, I felt the simple connection of compassion and empathy—which is ultimately the only “solution” we really have to offer one another. In my dreams, I was just present with the feeling of being human and in relationship with others whose experiences I recognized and shared. This was enough. This was helpful.

Within a few more hours, I heard from my friend that the crisis had been resolved. The relief and love that I felt in response seemed to flow directly from the sense of connection in the dream experience. In fact, we are never “helpless” as long as we are connected in this way—our willingness to be fully present to one another’s lives (and our own) makes a tremendous difference in the way we all cope with crises.

Dreams don’t generally bring healing by offering immediate solutions. If I incubate a dream with a particular problem in mind, asking for an answer, I believe I will always get a response, but usually it is a response that asks me to open myself to the whole experience, rather than giving me a specific key to unlocking the problem. Continue reading

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