Dreamwork as Spiritual Practice

Category: World Dreams (Page 2 of 2)

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

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

Facing the Monster: Responding to the Nightmare of a Trump Presidency

monster-01Well, the nightmare has come out from under the bed and is now in plain sight, in our very own country, where we might have imagined we were safe. The monster is not Donald Trump, but the hate, fear and ugliness he embodies. And the nightmare can only be changed into a new dream for our future if we face that monster head on—resisting not only the monstrous message and agenda of this administration, but the echoes of that monster in ourselves.

There are many constructive ways of approaching our sleep nightmares, and similar approaches can apply to the nightmares that confront us when we are fully awake. One of the most helpful dreamwork techniques involves becoming lucid—which means becoming aware that you are dreaming in the midst of a dream—and then moving toward the thing that most scares you, encountering it directly instead of succumbing to blind helplessness.

I won’t go into methods for becoming lucid in a dream here, because I’m more interested right now in how we become lucid in the midst of our present waking nightmare. We become lucid by acknowledging that this nightmare is part of a big dream we’ve all dreamed up together. We face the monster and move towards it by recognizing the ways our own hate and fear can shape our perceptions and actions. By consciously and collectively turning that energy in a new direction, we will be able to resist its monstrous manifestations in the world around us. Continue reading

Dreaming and Daring: Meeting the Unknown Every Night

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I am suggesting that the crazy nature of dreams is precisely what makes them useful and meaningful. Each night when we sleep, dreams combine fragments of our personal lives (memories, recent incidents, perceptions, sensations) with something more essential and shared (archetypal imagery, body and earth wisdom, a vital sense of meaning and connection). All of this same stuff is available to us when we are awake, but in our dreams it is organized in crazy ways, with a pattern-producing randomness similar to that which creates fractals in nature. It is my belief that the all-inclusive chaotic patterning behind dream craziness is actually closer to “the way things really are” than the self-reinforcing information structures that make up our waking conception of reality.
-Kirsten Backstrom, “Dreaming and Daring”

At the recent 2015 Psiber-Dreaming Conference (an exciting international on-line event that explores the outer reaches of dreamwork and dream studies), I offered a presentation called  “Dreaming and Daring: Meeting the Unknown Every Night.” 

This paper is a playful adventure into the Open Mind Theory of Dreams…

Click on the picture to plunge in and read on…

Reconnecting with the World Dream

compass rose 01Have you heard of “The Work That Reconnects”? Joanna Macy and Sam Mowe describe it as “a process that helps build motivation, creativity, courage, and solidarity for the transition to a sustainable human culture.” It’s a sequential process that “works as a spiral, because it repeats itself” over and over in our projects, in our lives, and in our dreams. As I learned more about this process, I became aware of how clearly it parallels some of the things I’ve been learning and teaching about the potential of dreamwork to make a difference in the world.

Our dreams reflect passages through the process of “The Work That Reconnects”—including, expressing, and revealing the levels in Macy’s spiral: 1) Coming From Gratitude; 2) Honoring Our Pain; 3) Seeing With New Eyes; and 4) Going Forth.

1) “Coming From Gratitude: To be alive in this beautiful, self-organizing universe—to participate in the dance of life with senses to perceive it, lungs that breathe it, organs that draw nourishment from it—is a wonder beyond words. The spiral begins with gratitude because that quiets the frantic mind and grounds us, stimulating our empathy and confidence.” –Joanna Macy and Sam Mowe

We belong to this world, and are manifestations of this world, together with the plants, animals and other humans that share in it with us. Dreams manifest the life force, and are one way that we maintain connection—to our place within the world and to one another. Often, in dreams, we experience beauty and feel this connection directly through our senses, perceptions, and emotions. We can receive nourishment from such dreams, and allow gratitude to fill the springs within us that we thought had gone dry.

Many times, when I’ve been identifying with discouragement and investing in impossibility, a dream has turned me around, waking me up to another way of looking at myself and my experience. My ego can’t change its mind so easily, but my dreams can show me what I’ve been missing and open my heart. When I share such dreams with others, and they share such dreams with me, our world is expanded. Each time I take part in a dream group, I come home with a new appreciation of my life—I’m humbled by the gifts available all around me, and I’m grateful. Continue reading

Bees and Babies: “Culture Dreams”

frost 01Here’s a recent dream that led me to think about larger meanings:

The Cold Baby: Wandering the halls of a hospital, looking for a sick friend who was taken here. I come upon a room crowded with cribs—in rows and stacked against the walls. The room is stark and cold, and the cribs are filled with sick babies, including tiny newborns. A very small one is lying on the bare floor, swaddled tightly so that she is the size and shape of a short loaf of French bread. Her face is bluish with cold. Someone has forgotten to put her back in her crib, and she is badly chilled—still and silent, with closed eyes. I pick her up and hold her against me, trying to warm her before putting her back in the crib. I don’t know whether she will survive.

At first, I was tempted to approach this as a “soul retrieval” dream [see “Soul Retrieval and Shamanic Dreaming”]—a dream relating to my personal history and the need to recover child-like aspects of myself that have been lost, abandoned, or “frozen out.” But there were elements of this dream that were inconsistent with a personal soul retrieval experience.

Often, my feelings within the dream and upon awakening can tell me a lot about the best way to look at that particular dream. In the case of “The Cold Baby,” I feel distress and urgency when I find the tiny child has been left out in the cold—but the feelings are not personal or overwhelming (as they would have been if this had been a waking life experience). There is more of an abstract sense that something is very wrong, and needs to be corrected.

According to psychologist and dreamworker Meredith Sabini, “Culture Dreams,” which are more significant for the culture as a whole than for the individual dreamer, are often marked by this kind of objectivity. Approaches such as seeking personal associations to the dream images, or viewing those images as aspects of the dreamer, may not be particularly helpful. Continue reading

Indescribable Dreams

web 01Where do I begin? How can I convey this dream experience to you, when I can’t even quite catch hold of it for myself? I’d been asleep for only an hour or two when I had this dream. Then, I woke for a few minutes, with the dream still fresh in my mind—but, not exactly as a memory…. In a sense the dream was still happening, even though I couldn’t quite remember it. I soon slipped back into sleep, and this peculiar dreaming experience seemed to continue in some way for the rest of the night: throughout my other dreams, and through my brief periods of wakefulness, and maybe even during the stretches of deep, “dreamless” sleep. I woke in the morning filled with the essence of this amazing dreaming.

But what was the content of this dreaming? It’s so hard to describe.

There is an awareness, in the dream, that “I” have left my physical body and am now just consciousness, taking many different forms. There are rich interactions with others, and I feel myself as a sort of “me” character, but also as every other character, and as the context, and as the communication itself that flows among us. We are in a large stone building, in an echoing room. I am aware of being the echo. We are outside, sailing through the air, over water. At one point, there’s a huge dinosaur-like creature, swimming in a narrow waterway—I see this as if from far above, and at the same time I am the creature swimming, and the water, and the surrounding landscape. There’s a thought that my physical body is still around here somewhere (sleeping in bed?), and I will be able to return to that body. But also a sense that when the body dies, there will still be this consciousness—there is always this consciousness—and it won’t be lost. There is complete freedom in this experience,but also total immersion.

This dreaming might be considered a “numinous dream,” a “Big dream.” Experientially, it is equivalent to a spiritual epiphany, the kind of mind-opening breakthrough into a larger conception of self and reality that William James described in his classic text, “Varieties of Religious Experience.” And, for me, it was wonderful. It gave me a direct sense of being a part of something beyond my ego-identity, something vast and fascinating that I could trust absolutely. Never mind that I can’t fully remember or tell what happened. It was the kind of experience that makes the idea of our ultimate interconnectedness immediately real, rather than an abstraction.

However, I doubt if I will include this particular dream among the “Big dreams” that I keep with me and share, and use to remind myself of the potential for profound spiritual experience. Why not? Well, because this dream does not have a frame of reference, a storyline or a structure that makes it possible to describe it, or even recall it, in any way that is recognizable to waking consciousness. So, the dream lifts me up and gives me a glimpse of something, but when it sets me back down on the ground, I don’t know how to frame the awesome expanse of sky and clouds that surrounded me up there, in terms of the streets and people and buildings that surround me down here. They’re different worlds, and there’s no evident connection between them. Continue reading

Living Up To Our Dreams

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We discover where we are going, together, as we go…

So here’s the question I’ve been asking myself ever since the inspiring experience of the IASD (International Association for the Study of Dreams) conference: How do we apply the experiences of our dreams to our ordinary lives in such a way that they will make a difference in the world?

When I work with individual dreamers and small groups, I am constantly aware of how the dreams I hear are changing my life. Each of the people I meet with for spiritual direction or dreamwork is genuinely grappling with profound spiritual challenges that are both personal and universal: How do I cope with the speed and complexity of the modern world, without losing my ability to be fully present in the process? How do I share my unique gifts and skills creatively—and is what I have to offer truly wanted or needed? How do I respond kindly and compassionately to others when I am feeling frustrated, impatient, or overwhelmed? What is my responsibility to myself, my family, my community, and ultimately, to all beings? How do I cope with feelings of fear, anger, loneliness, exhaustion, grief, apathy, despair? Where do I belong?

These and other such questions resonate with me as I hear them coming from others. When I work with others to see what light their dreams may shed on these questions, I find echoes in my own life and in my own dreams. We may be working with one person’s individual life issues and dream images, but at the same time we are addressing life issues and dream images that have meaning for all people and the planet as a whole. Dreams take us to the heart of the matter at hand, and at that heart level the things we have to learn extend far beyond us as individuals. Continue reading

Extraordinary Dreams

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If we follow the water it will lead us back to the source: a deep, secret lake so reflective that travelers can become lost between the surface and the sky…

One of the most meaningful experiences for many of us at the recent International Association for the Study of Dreams (IASD) conference came from hearing the “Big dreams” of others, and participating in the world-view of these powerful dreams.

Jungians often use the term “Big dreams” to talk about, well, big dreams—which I’d describe as dreams that expand or transcend the dreamer’s sense of self and open up a larger reality. At the conference, Robert Hoss, Patricia Garfield, and Jacquie Lewis offered a presentation entitled, “Dreams That Change Our Lives,” where they spoke of the transcendent and transformative capacity of significant dreams, and gave examples of life-changing dreams (or series of dreams) from their own experience.

After the presentations, there was an “open mike” opportunity for audience members to share “Big dreams,” too. Each person who came forward told a dream story that was breath-taking in a unique way, and each one inspired insights, reminded us of possibilities, warned us of how we need to pay attention, and gave us a glimpse of something beyond our separate selves, something that connects us at the deepest level with our planet and fellow beings.

Whew. That’s a lot to get out of a handful of dreams! These were not dreams that could be boring—they were so rich in detail, so surprising, so original and yet so deeply familiar. They didn’t require interpretation, or even feedback—they just needed to be heard, acknowledged, experienced in a group so that their wisdom would resonate through us and out into the world.

The half hour or so of sharing during the presentation just whetted my appetite for more of this, so in the days that followed I ended up in several conversations where extraordinary dreams were shared. There were dreams in which the dreamer learned something that saved his or her life, or met someone who evoked profound empathy or love, or encountered an apocalyptic event, or was given a great gift, or created a stunning work of art, or went through an initiation, or became a bird or a storm, or experienced total oneness with all things, or lost everything and was blessed…

Okay, the people at this conference were special in the sense that they all had an interest in dreams—and many of them had developed that interest because they’d had extraordinary dreams that had changed their lives. So, you’d expect to hear some “Big dreams” in this context. But that’s not the only reason these dreams were coming up. Continue reading

As The World Dreams

world 01Although dreamwork as spiritual practice can certainly support personal growth and development, it would ultimately mean nothing if it did not go beyond my own individual, psychological motivations. I try hard not to get preoccupied exclusively with the self-awareness level of dreamwork (which is significant, but not enough), and to maintain openness to the larger awareness available through our dreams—an awareness that goes beyond the personal, and has relevance for the world as a whole.

Last week, I participated in the annual conference of the International Association for the Study of Dreams (IASD), where hundreds of people from all over the world came together to talk about (and experience!) dreams from every possible perspective. For me, the most meaningful aspect of the conference was the way it reminded me of the larger potential of dreams and dreamwork.

In many profound, one-on-one conversations, I encountered again and again the wisdom and compassion of individual dreamers whose dreaming and waking experiences have led them to deep concern for the healing of the earth and the community of all life. In workshops, I was inspired by the collective nature of our dreaming, the concerns we share, and the responses that can arise from our interconnectedness. Through presentations of all kinds, I learned different approaches to dreamwork that include our responsibility to one another and our planet.

In his keynote address, Stephen Aizenstat spoke of “The Global Dream Initiative,” which “creates new and more generative ways of responding to the trauma of the world, ways that are not trapped in the cultural, political, economic, and environmental approaches that now are failing us.” Asserting that “the world’s suffering appears in the living images of dreams and…we can creatively respond,” Aizenstat “advocates that we go to the very depths of experience and engage the voices of the world’s dreams.”

This reminds me of Albert Einstein’s insight: “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” Dreams offer us another kind of “thinking”—another way of experiencing our problems—and responding—both individually and collectively. Such a response acknowledges that there are no private interests: our needs are inseparable from the needs of all beings and the earth itself. And our dreams reflect this interrelatedness on many levels: through expressions of suffering, calls to action, experiences of wholeness, creative openings, and direct motivations for cooperative change. Continue reading

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