Compass Dreamwork

Dreamwork as Spiritual Practice

Tag: creativity (page 1 of 3)

The Art of the Gesture: Dream Guidance in Gentleness, Genuineness and Generosity

What do I have to give? How can I create and offer a meaningful response to all that this life has given me? How do I do the work that is mine to do, convey the depth of my caring, and contribute actively to the well-being of this world, my own community, and my loved ones?

These questions become more urgent as I get older. Urgent, because I no longer assume that I will somehow begin to “give back” at some indeterminate time in the future… I know from experience that loved ones may die before I have given as much as I wanted to give; that the world around me and my own life keep rapidly changing all the time, and opportunities to make a difference might not be available when I think I’m ready. I know how easy it is to put off doing and being what I would like to do and be, and I know that I’m often too tired, or too busy, or too distracted to notice that the things I care about most are getting left out. I know that the years go by, and there’s so much I want to offer in gratitude and love… But, maybe this evening my back hurts, and I’ve already had several appointments, worked hard, run lots of errands, and I just feel like watching television with Holly or playing spider solitaire on my cell phone.

Because I have a degenerative disease that adds to my exhaustion and will probably shorten my life, I’m both more urgently aware of the need to give what I have to give now, and more easily spellbound by the need to rest, recover, and cope with immediate concerns rather than extending myself to make a creative effort. So, how to reconcile this paradox? I know I’m not alone in the dilemma. Most of my clients and friends, especially those who are over fifty, are wrestling with similar challenges in their own ways.

An example that will be familiar to many is my desire to get some writing done (articles, blog posts, a book) along with an equally compelling desire to do something—anything!—else. I’ve written and published all my life (usually wrestling with the process the whole way), and now that my health is problematic, writing is one of the primary ways that I can engage with others and make a contribution to the world. So, I really do want to do this work. But, when the time comes to do it, I’d almost always rather not. I’m easily drained, and concentration is difficult; there’s usually a good reason to give myself a break.

After years of experimentation, I’ve learned not to force myself into long writing sessions with high expectations, but also not to indulge in excuses that would allow me to avoid the issue entirely. Instead, I make a gesture toward writing every day: I write at least a sentence or a paragraph, or whatever I can do in twenty minutes, just to remind myself that this is important to me, that I care about doing it, and that it’s easier than I think. Of course, once I get started, I often keep going and work for hours, and whatever I have to offer in a particular piece of writing begins to take shape based on something truly heartfelt, rather than based on something that I think I “should” express.

Dreams have helped me develop this practice. In dreams, the possibilities aren’t limited by our expectations or excuses. Dreams invite the art of the gesture. Often, a dream situation will give me a new insight or direction, but I don’t know how to follow it up with concrete action in the waking world. Yes, that crazy dream was really important, but how the heck am I supposed to apply it to my waking life? The dream has given me a gift, but what do I do with it? I’ve found that any simple gesture (even just a pause for intentional thought or prayer) in response to the dream’s offering can be tremendously meaningful, because the dream points toward the vital essence of my experience, which is ready to be conveyed at this particular moment. Almost any expression of that dream-essence will resonate outward as a meaningful gesture, and will be in keeping with my own capacity to give and others’ availability to receive. It doesn’t have to look like a purposeful or important demonstration of anything.

Making a gesture in the direction of the dream, or in the direction of my own deepest intention, doesn’t require me to plunge right into a big enterprise when I’m not sure what to do or whether I have the energy to do it. When I make a gesture, I stand where I am (in my uncertainty) and tentatively reach out, allowing myself to experience just a little bit of my gratitude, longing, gifts and hopes, as well as my authentic desire to connect with others.

This kind of gesture engages the intrinsic human capacity for gentleness, genuineness and generosity. Like most dreamworkers and dreamers, I have a penchant for wordplay: the root “gen-” that these words share means that they are all connected in some way with creativity.

Gentleness is probably pretty self-explanatory: Whatever it is that I want to bring into the world and give to others cannot be forced—neither forced out of me, nor forced onto them. Genuineness is also fairly obvious: Giving cannot be contrived—ulterior motives just get in the way. Generosity may seem redundant—if I’m giving then I’m being generous, right? Well, not really, no. So often we give because we need something. Maybe we need others’ gratitude or recognition, or maybe we just need to feel that we have accomplished something or contributed something. These needs are completely natural, and not “wrong” in themselves, but any need comes from a sense of lack, a sense of deficiency, whereas the true joy of generosity is that it comes from abundance. We are all so gifted, so blessed—with our own unique creative potential, our love and caring and gratitude toward others—that giving can just spill over. As Rilke wrote: “May what I do flow from me like a river, no forcing and no holding back, as it is with children…” And this doesn’t mean I have to move mountains to make way—all it takes is a gesture, a small act of gentleness, genuineness and generosity, to release the flow.

The best metaphor for the profound gifts we have to offer the world might be the tangible gifts—like birthday presents—we might give to our loved ones. Though I often want to give something special to those I love, the usual forms of giving don’t seem to fit. The expectation of a gift exchange around holidays has become so commercialized, and most everyone I know has enough “stuff” already—to give a present can seem to create an obligation for reciprocation. Also, trying to figure out what someone else might want can cause me agonies of indecision, and can seem wasteful and disappointing when I suspect I’ve gotten the wrong thing. On the other hand, an authentic gesture of love and acknowledgement can be wonderful.

I always felt a genuine desire to give my mother presents, yet I had a difficult time coming up with an uncontrived offering for each special occasion (Christmas, birthday, Mother’s Day). So on holidays, I just made a gesture by sending a card, and the the rest of the year I made a deeper gesture by holding her dear, complicated, unique self in my heart, waiting for the right gift to come along. Out of the abundance of my own pleasure in the process, I recognized when something would truly delight her—and then sent it as a surprise, for no particular occasion. This became a gesture of spontaneous appreciation and affection between us.

I’ve wanted to make a similar kind of gesture toward my sisters, Jill and Didi, too—especially since our parents both died in 2015. I hold my sisters in my heart all the time, and often feel a longing to give them something meaningful that would make their lives easier and bring them joy. So far,  I haven’t found literal gifts for them like those I gave my mother. But a recent dream reminded me of the feelings of gentleness, genuineness, and generosity that flow through me when I think of them:

Gifts for the Family: I’m traveling with a group (walking the Camino?) and we stop for supplies at a huge supermarket. I must find everything I’ll need for the remainder of the journey, and it’s very stressful and rushed. Mostly I’m looking for groceries I can carry and prepare easily, but I also pass through a bookshop within the larger store. Can I find a lightweight book? There are too many options, and I’m feeling frustrated when I notice a display of beautifully-bound blank journals. Immediately, I think of my family—these would be perfect gifts for my parents and sisters. I know that Mom and Dad are dead, but it doesn’t matter, I can still give them something precious and personal. And I’ll find exactly the right journal to suit Jill, exactly the right one for Didi. My sense is that these blank books will represent all the love I feel for each of my family members. The books I choose for them will recognize the individuality and “wide open” potential of each of their lives. I’m not able to complete my choices yet, but I know that I’ll come back here after I’ve finished the rest of my shopping. The shopping task is no longer overwhelming. Now that I’m thinking about the gifts for my loved ones rather than concerned with my own urgency, finding what I need for the journey comes naturally. Choosing the journals will be effortless, too. I am happy and at peace.

Yes, this is a dream about “gifts for my family,” but it’s also about any form of giving, any original, essential gifts that a person might offer in gratitude and blessing to others. In the midst of the hustle and bustle of a lifetime, we struggle to meet our own immediate needs, carried away by the tasks at hand… and then, an opening appears, a way of making a meaningful gesture that guides us toward the true tasks of our lives, the work/play of giving and loving. Whether that work/play takes the form of art or music or writing, building, cleaning, planning, social activism, counseling, healing, teaching, gardening, discovering, collaborating… or just being fully present (pun intended!) to whatever task we have at hand—we all have something to give (gently, genuinely, generously) that requires “no forcing and no holding back.” Continue reading

Interview by Metka Cuk on the “Dream Owls” website

Metka Cuk, a creative and inspiring dreamworker and artist, has been interviewing other dreamworkers and dreamers, introducing us to the depth and breadth of the dreaming community. These interviews are posted on her delightful website, “Dream Owls: A Place to Talk About Your Dreams.”

Some months ago, she did a wide-ranging interview with me about my background in dreamwork and my spiritual journey with dreams, including connections in my life between dreaming and healing, hospice work, Buddhism and Christianity, the Camino de Santiago, haiku, and more.

Please click on the picture to read the interview, and while you’re there, you’ll want to check out “Dream Owls” and the many other wonderful interviews, as well as Metka’s excellent cartoons and artwork!

I hope you can imagine your own version of how dreams have affected your life… Think of how you might share your own dreaming story with others. Dreams take us to our depths, and reflect the vital heart of our lives—and sharing these stories can be meaningful for all of us.

The Challenge of Real Change

This article, “The Challenge of Real Change” was published in the spiritual direction magazine, Presence last year.  I wrote about pilgrimage, dreams, and change in my own life, and in my work with clients. I hope you’ll take the time to read it. Please consider sharing your thoughts with me: I’d love to hear how you have changed, what experiences have changed you. We can all encourage each other, and walk together, even when we are venturing into unfamiliar territory.

To read the article, click here.

What makes real change possible? My work as a spiritual director gives me many opportunities to explore dreams in the context of our spiritual lives—and, of course, our spiritual lives are always a work in process. We aren’t looking for a final, ideal state of perfection and certainty, but for ongoing flexibility, and fundamental openness to experiences of deep change. Life itself is defined by change, and  if we can’t really change, we can’t live fully.

Dreams—with their untamed (and often uncomfortable) changeability—help us to practice being flexible, but if we want to embrace change at the deepest level, we have to invite the weirdness and wildness of dreams into our waking lives as well. Sometimes, we have to step out of the “comfort zone” and into the unknown.

Ocean of Dreams: Responsible Dreamwork

Those of us with a professional interest in dreams have a responsibility to bring creativity, curiosity, commitment and depth to our work. Whether we are therapists, spiritual directors, teachers, healers, researchers, artists or entrepreneurs—working responsibly with dreams means 1) exploring our own dreams with a willingness to go beyond what we think we know about ourselves, and 2) contributing original insights and approaches to the field of dreamwork.

Dreams are more than useful tools or clever tricks, they invite us into the unknown and the unknowable. Like an ocean, the dream world surrounds us and can seem familiar, yet the depths are largely unexplored, and anyone who cares to dive deep enough may bring undiscovered species, unexpected natural resources, and astonishing observations to light. I believe that intentional, imaginative, in-depth dreamwork is a responsibility because careless “expertise” can so easily become exploitation.

Tragically and ironically, it is because the oceans are so apparently unfathomable that people have used them as dumps for everything that we don’t want to deal with—and it can be like that with dreams as well. For those who are considered authorities on dreams, it can be all too easy to toss our toxic waste into the dream world by projecting pathology and suppressing possibilities. It can be all too easy to feel that the dream world is ours to possess, develop, explain and subdue. It can be all too easy to use the natural resources of dreaming for selfish purposes, taking more than we are willing to give back.

If we don’t explore our own dreaming experiences with an open mind and a willingness to be changed, then studying others’ dreams can become a way of avoiding self-awareness, confirming our prejudices, and establishing our reputations. If we don’t reach beyond what we’ve been taught about dreams, we end up trapping ourselves and others into confining habits of thought that prevent further growth. Beyond the basic ethical guidelines defined by the International Association for the Study of Dreams, responsible dreamwork means respecting both dreamers and dreams by acknowledging that they are not reducible to self-serving assessments or formulaic interpretations.

Of course, as long as I’m upholding such high standards, I’d better be sure that I’m applying those standards to myself. To the best of my ability, I do explore my own dreams, and try to make new contributions to the field of dreamwork. When I come up against personal challenges in my dreaming life, I try to go deeper, rather than shy away. There are times when it’s difficult to remember my dreams, and times when the dreams are unpleasant, disturbing, confusing or all too revealing. Sometimes, personal dreamwork takes a lot of stamina, not to mention courage. This is not always fun, but it’s good to learn how to work and play with difficult material. I write some dreams down, make art from some dreams, act on some dreams and let some go; I share some dreams and keep some to myself. I bring some of my dreams to other dreamworkers—to individual friends and a peer dream group—and I meet with a spiritual director, because such skilled helpers give me a chance to recognize my own blind spots and keep expanding the scope of my awareness. 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

Telling the Dream Story

puzzle-01Dreams tell stories in the same way that waking life experiences tell stories. Usually, we’re given a chaotic jumble of circumstances, images, occurrences and encounters that seem to come one after another, or all at once, without plan or plot or point. Then, as we reflect on these dreaming or waking experiences, we make sense of them by making stories of them. By this I mean that we find the rhythm, see the connections, sense the unfolding patterns, and find meaning in a creative process of engagement with the elements of experience.

Of course, some dreams and some waking events present themselves as perfect, ready-made parables or fairy tales or romances or crime dramas… but, for the most part, our immediate experience of the dream world or the waking world just isn’t that organized. This is why it’s important to pay attention to experiences as they are happening, and then reflect upon them with an open mind, shaping experiences into stories.

Last year, I wrote about the healing power of stories: “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…” and “many dreams come in the form of stories, which, when shared and explored, can have this same healing power…. 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.” (from “Dreamwork Tells A Healing Story”)

As a follow-up to that article, I’d like to consider how the raw material of dreaming or waking experiences gets shaped into meaningful stories, even when those experiences appear to be random and chaotic.

Applying some simple techniques of the oral tradition and the storyteller’s craft can help dream material to come alive for the dreamer and for anyone listening to the dream. We can learn how to listen to dreams when they are told by others so that the dreams don’t seem boring or intimidating (see “Are Dreams Boring?”), but it’s also possible to develop methods of telling our own dreams so that they don’t bore or overwhelm our listeners. 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

The Dream Gatherers

Here are two quite different approaches to dreams:

blueberries 011-We sharpen our weapons and follow the trail, deep into the forest. There, we corner the wild dream beast, and, after a long and valiant battle, we return victorious with meat for a great feast.

2-We get all the kids and old people together and go out with our baskets and sacks. Perhaps we have one particularly fine patch of dream berries in mind, but on the way there and on the way back we find all sorts of other treasures: some dream nuts and mushrooms, and maybe a nice stream where the kids can play and catch a few crayfish, or a meadow where wildflowers are blooming, or a shady, soft place for a nap when it gets too hot. We chat as we walk, and we munch as we gather, and then we all come home satisfied with our day. Nobody makes much of a fuss over our full bags and baskets, but, after a modest supper, there’s still plenty left over to add to the storehouse. If we do this again tomorrow (and the next day, and so on…), our community thrives.

Traditionally, the first would be the men’s story, and the second would be the women’s. However, where dreamwork is concerned, both men and women can participate in either approach. You might be able to tell by the description that I’m biased in favor of the gathering method. However, both hunting and gathering have their places in a healthy human community, and in the world of dreamwork. The only reason to put a greater emphasis on the less glamorous approach of the gatherer is that the hunter generally monopolizes the field. Continue reading

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