Dreamwork as Spiritual Practice

Category: Spiritual Direction

Bowing To One Another

Click on the photo for “Bowing to One Another”

I don’t have a new blog post this month, since I’m still healing and taking time for reflection before writing more. Instead, I’d like to share an article about vulnerability that I wrote for Presence magazine. Presence is published by Spiritual Directors International, so this article is specifically connected with my work as a spiritual director (which includes working with dreams)—but the larger theme of relationship and authenticity is certainly applicable to other contexts.

“Bowing to One Another” was written over a year ago, and although I was coping with illness and loss at the time, my understanding of vulnerability was still developing. Then, my central consideration was how vulnerable I should allow myself to be with other people, particularly with clients. By the time the article appeared in print last June, however, I had gone through major surgery and a month-long hospitalization, and vulnerability meant something quite different to me. I’m now learning about a more profound level of vulnerability, which has little to do with allowing or choosing.

So far, I’m not really ready to write about this deeper sense of vulnerability—perhaps because it must be fully experienced (willingly or unwillingly) alone, before it can be shared. But, eventually, this, too, is an experience I hope to be able to explore with you in a meaningful way. In the meantime, please join me in contemplating the essential, preliminary question that I posed in writing this article: What does it mean to be vulnerable with one another—in our work, and in all of our relationships?

[Click on the photo for the article]

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

Spiritual Direction: Frequently Asked Questions

My approach to dreamwork is grounded in the practice of “spiritual direction.” To bring some context to the kind of individual dreamwork I offer, I wrote last week about what “spiritual direction” is, and what it is not (“What Does ‘Spiritual Direction’ Mean?”). In particular: Spiritual direction does not mean that the spiritual director is “directing” the process, but that possible “directions” are being sought and explored.

This week, I’ll follow up by addressing some practical questions I’ve been asked, on the same theme.

Where do I find a spiritual director?

It is important to find a spiritual director whose personality and approach is right for you. There are plenty of good spiritual directors, and you may want to meet with several before making a decision. Many will offer a free consultation of some kind— sometimes in the form of a half-session or an opportunity for you to interview them about their approach to spiritual direction.

Through Compass Dreamwork, I offer an initial session for free, and you may use the time any way you like, either as a regular spiritual direction/dreamwork session, or as a chance to ask questions. There doesn’t need to be a distinction between whether the work is “spiritual direction” or “dreamwork.” If you choose to focus on dreams, then we would still be looking at dreams in the context of your spiritual life; if you choose to focus on your spiritual life, dreams may be useful (or not), but there will still be an atmosphere that welcomes all experiences, including those of a dream-like nature.

If you are looking for a spiritual director, you can contact me (phone: 503-231-2894 or e-mail: kirsten@compassdreamwork.com ) for a free session, or for referrals to other local organizations and individuals that offer spiritual direction. Phone or Skype sessions work just as well, if you are not local to Portland, Oregon. Spiritual Directors International (www.sdiworld.org) also has listings of qualified directors in your area, wherever you are. Continue reading

What Does “Spiritual Direction” Mean?

basswood 4I feel such abiding respect for the people I work with individually to explore their dreams and spiritual lives. These are people willing to enter unknown territory, question assumptions, open their eyes, hearts, and minds to new possibilities, share experiences and insights, and delight in being transformed by what they are learning.

Sometimes, the work is playful and creative, and often it is hard labor. Sometimes the work is painful and slow, but, always, it is healing. It requires courage and effort, but, like childbirth, it is a natural process which finds its own way of happening. Like a midwife, I help create a safe space for this “birthing,” and I bring my experience, training, caring and presence to support the unfolding process—but I don’t make anything happen. I just “watch and pray,” and bear witness to the courage and wisdom of the person who is doing the real work.

Doing dreamwork in a spiritual context, rather than as a primarily psychological endeavor, I am not trying to solve or fix what’s wrong, but to acknowledge and encourage what’s right. The context is “spiritual direction,” not therapy. What’s the distinction here? What is spiritual direction? If you are considering whether or not to explore dreamwork as a spiritual practice, it is a good idea to have an understanding of the goals and approaches of contemporary spiritual direction. Continue reading

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