Compass Dreamwork

Dreamwork as Spiritual Practice

Tag: death images (page 1 of 3)

Tree Medicine: Existential Dream Wisdom

Sometimes dreams seem to offer direct communication from the natural world—bringing guidance that reconnects us with the earth itself, and reminds us that we belong here. Our bodies are made of the same essential elements that make up all life, and we are part of the intricate and magnificent ecosystem that includes all living beings.

The Tree Is Not Afraid of Death: There’s a single row of red-cedar trees along the edge of the parking lot. A woman is clinging to one of the trees, crying. When I approach, she tells me that this one is her special friend, and they are going to cut it down. The whole place is under development. I see an arched doorway carved all the way through the trunk of the tree (like the tunnels in giant sequoias that cars could drive through—but much smaller). Since the trunk is just a couple of feet in diameter, and the doorway is about eighteen inches high and six inches wide, it’s a gaping hole, so I’m surprised that the tree seems healthy in spite of the damage. Some of the other cedars have doorways as well.

The woman begs me to protect her tree—not to let it be destroyed. I don’t know how to respond. I think that I have no authority to prevent them from cutting down the tree. Then, I think maybe they really aren’t planning to cut it down, since this row of trees was left standing when all the others were bulldozed to clear the lot. But these thoughts don’t seem particularly helpful; the woman is truly desperate.

 I put one hand on the cedar and the other hand on the woman’s back, and I tell her, in a clear, strong voice: “You know, this tree doesn’t fear death the way we do. This tree feels no separation between itself and the earth. For the tree, death is just returning to the earth, becoming earth. The tree is already part of the earth.” I’m astonished at my own apparent arrogance in speaking for the tree—but the voice just seemed to come out without my volition, as if the tree had spoken directly to the woman, through me. The woman is comforted. She knows she can trust her connection with the tree, and the tree’s connection with the earth.

It is not really surprising that the trees in our dreams might speak to us, or through us; trees and dreams are rooted in common ground. Although our human business may seem to separate us from nature and from our dream-source, nothing, not even death, can uproot us from the ground of our being.

I’m often preoccupied with the big existential questions that tend to trouble our earnest human minds. As my health is tenuous, the prospect of death has become very real to me. I know that I am finite. Sooner or later, I’m going to be cut down. So, the part of me that is clinging to life, the part that thinks it’s special, the part that is uniquely “me,” the part that will die—thatpart of me is worried. I’m attached to being me.

Many people say that they’re not afraid of death, they’re only concerned about what the dying process will be like… Will it be painful? Will it be undignified? But, for me, the dying seems no different from what we’re doing all the time—sometimes it’s painful and undignified, sometimes it’s not—it’s just living. When I get close to death, I’ll still be living, in one way or another, I’ll still be me. I’m curious about the dying process. But dying always ends in death. And death is the end of me. At least, death is the end of the part of me that worries about me. Death is the end of my familiar, human business.

Still, the trees remind me, there’s more to my life than this identity, which is always “under development.” When I had cancer in my thirties, I was too ill to worry so much about dying or death. I relaxed into the larger life of the natural world around me. I noticed the slow-growing trees whose business was just absorbing sunlight, drawing water from the soil, making leaves and losing leaves, sheltering birds, animals, insects, and reaching toward the sky. Looking at the old ones—the big oaks and cedars and beeches and redwoods—I felt peaceful knowing that they might go on living long after my death. The trees reassured me: being dead would be like life expanded to include everything, with no business to get done and no place else to be.

All this lovely philosophy was helpful then, but now it’s not so easy. I’ve seen too much death in recent years. I’m tired and I feel the limitations of my body and my small, restless, anxious human mind, yet I’ve got a pretty strong attachment to being ME—and staying this way forever, if I can manage to hold on. Of course, I can’t. Even long-lived trees don’t live forever, let alone busy, ephemeral human beings. So, my dreams remind me of the tree-medicine within me, the tree-medicine I can offer to the part of myself that suffers the fear of loss, the fear of death.

In a previous post [“Pity the Poor Ego”] I wrote: “If you want to find the Ego in a dream, look for the one who’s suffering, because the Ego always suffers when reality doesn’t conform to what the Ego believes is important.” By this definition, the Ego in this particular dream is the woman who clings to her special tree and cannot bear to let go. The “I” character in the dream—the one I’m most identified with—has a more complex role that matches the role I find myself holding at this threshold in my waking life. While part of me tries to solve the problem that the suffering Ego would love to have me solve, another part of me holds her ground between that Ego and a deeper wisdom—making the connection between them.

My Ego (the woman in the dream) needs to save her tree, to save herself; she needs to find a way to prevent death from cutting in and bulldozing everything she loves. I ponder her problem, and feel her desperation. But I don’t have a solution. Instead, I place a hand on her back and a hand on the tree, and I bring them together. The tree-medicine flows through me. The three of us cannot be separated, and all the other living cedars in a row, and all the ghost-trees that once made up a forest here, all of us are rooted in the earth together, letting life rise up in us like sap.

As I explored this dream, I began to trust myself more—trusting the connection between myself and the fundamental, immortal essence of all living beings. At first, I didn’t think much of those doorways through some of the tree trunks. I thought of them as ugly wounds, imposed upon the trees by the heedless human business of development and destruction. After all, those thousand-year-old giant “tunnel trees” in the great redwood forests eventually died because people had cut out their hearts to run roads through. But a doorway through a dream tree does no harm: the tree is healthy, in spite of the gaping hole. In fact, the more I look at that doorway now, the more I see it as an opening, a portal through which I can reach the other side.

Paradoxically, our destructive human business, the plans and projects we devise to avert loss and fear, can sometimes open our hearts. We can come to understand the selfishness and neediness that leads us all to try to control and subdue the natural world, just as we would like to control and subdue death. And if we can see through our own motivations, our vision expands. That hole is indeed a doorway, an invitation to stoop down and step through. In a dream, the doorway doesn’t have to be big enough to accommodate me—you know, my dream-ego can get smaller, crossing that threshold. Can yours? Let’s try it. Maybe we can step through that doorway, through the tree’s heartwood… And maybe there’s a flourishing forest on the other side.

Howling Together: Healing Dreams & Community

What does healing look like in the dream world? Dreams reflect the changes that are happening all the time, in our physical bodies and in our spiritual lives. For me, those changes have been dramatic in the past couple of years, and recently I had a wonderful dream, which gave me a deeper trust in the process of change itself. I dreamed about the wisdom of wolves.

Thanks to this dream, I can believe that authentic healing is going on in my body and spirit. I’m especially grateful because the dream not only helped me to experience this healing directly, but also gave me a restorative image of death and renewal that truly resonates. I will hold this image like an open door inside myself, through which powerful emotions can come and go. Because of the dream, I can sense the small voice of my own life rising to meet the wild song of all life—just as the howl of one small wolf rises to meet the music of the whole pack.

I’ll share some of the changes that have been happening in my waking world, followed by the dream and its resonance. Please howl along (leave a comment), if the song speaks to you…

For the past two years, health problems have shaken up my life: heart damage, deteriorating muscles in my upper body and neck, neurological issues, migraines and stroke-like symptoms, digestive difficulties that drained the life out of me… There’s no certainty at all about where this is going. My disease is rare, and doctors have no idea what the progression will be. When my heart function seemed to be failing steadily, the prognosis was five to ten years, or less. When I lost too much weight and was just too frail to function, I couldn’t imagine surviving more than a year or so. Some days, it felt like I might be dying pretty soon—but some days that just seemed too melodramatic to believe. Often, I felt almost normal, just with a stiff neck, a tummy ache, and some clumsiness and weakness. Then, my heart stabilized, at least for the time being. I started adjusting to most of my symptoms with less fear. It became possible that I might live for quite a while. But I can’t know for sure, of course. Overall, I’ve just had to accept the chaos within myself.

I had to let go of my ambition for the future. I had to let go of defining myself as either “healthy” or “sick.” I had to wait on the threshold: tired, confused, hopeful, peaceful, constantly aware of the reality of death, sometimes numb, sometimes afraid… existentially baffled. There was, and is, a kind of grace in the open-endedness of my situation, even though some aspects of the process have been lonely—impossible to share with others. Sometimes, all I can do is immerse myself in the unknown, and wait.

I haven’t been remembering many dreams—which contributes to the general uncertainty. My sleep is shallow and disrupted by discomforts, but most of the dreams I’ve been able to remember could be classified as “death dreams.” I’ve dreamed, over and over, about packing for a long journey “home,” with my deceased parents coming to accompany me. From my experience in hospice work and spiritual direction, I know that these kinds of dreams are typical for people who are literally getting ready to die, but they’re also common for people going through life transitions of one kind or another. The death is just as often metaphorical as literal: one part of my life is dying, my deceased loved ones are helping me on this journey, and my ultimate goal is a sense of “home,” a sense of knowing I’m in the right place.

So, are the dreams literally predictive of death, or metaphorically describing the experience of my present life? The situation is complicated by the fact that dreams often reflect our priorities, the things we’ve been thinking about—and I’ve been thinking a lot about death. Whether it comes tomorrow or twenty years from now, it’s real and it’s on my mind. These dreams have a healing quality, because they’re reassuring in an ultimate kind of way… but they’re repetitive, and I haven’t really gotten beyond packing, or riding in a car with Mom and Dad, on the way…

So what has changed recently that would invite a new kind of healing dream? Where did the wolves come from? Recently, I’ve been feeling healthy. It’s weird, because my upper body is still deteriorating and painful, and I still have many of the symptoms I had before. But my heart seems steadier, my digestion has settled down for now, and I’m getting stronger. I walk long distances several times a week, and I can feel the muscle tone all over my body (except in the areas affected by the disease). Maybe I’ll die tomorrow, or maybe I’ll live forever. I’m appreciating other people, and myself. I feel that I belong to my life again. I’m allowing my vulnerability to be an invitation to others: Let’s all open up a little, find what’s most authentic in ourselves, share our challenges and gifts, be at home with uncertainty because it allows for new possibilities.

So, I have a dream…

Howl:I look behind some bushes near my campsite, and I’m stunned to see a full-grown wolf—sitting up at first, then lying down as if unconscious, in a shallow pool of icy-cold water with decaying leaves at the bottom. I think she might be dead… but she is still breathing. She has chosen to lie in this freezing water—why? Perhaps she is dying, and is trying to hasten the process and numb her pain? It is hard to see her die, but perhaps she is trying to heal herself somehow. It wouldn’t be right for me to interfere, but I mention her to others, because I’m concerned and hoping someone will know why she is here or how to help her.

When I return to check on her, I hear sounds coming from her hiding place. A veterinarian—a middle-aged woman in a white coat—is working over the wolf, doing CPR. The wolf’s heart must have stopped! But, the vet can revive her. Soon, the wolf stands unsteadily, shakes herself, then seems to regain her strength. Other wolves gather around—and other humans, too. Everyone seems excited about the successful healing. Spontaneously, playfully, the vet lets out a howl, and several other people pipe up, too. They don’t really sound very wolf-like, and the wolves look away, as if embarrassed for them.

Quietly, I try a little howl myself. It begins with just a murmuring sound, and then rises to a hollow, resonant tone that comes from deep within me—gentle, tentative, but clear. There’s no contrivance or exaggeration—I let myself feel the wolf-ness inside me, and then release the wolf- song. I sound like a small, cautious wolf.

Now, I notice a wolf pup—very shy and slightly awkward as if she hasn’t yet grown into her body. Her fur is a soft gray, lighter than the other wolves. She’s sitting on a flight of stairs (even though we’re in the woods). Her ears prick up at the sound of my howl, and her whole body trembles, alerted. She looks at me with intent eyes, as if trying to determine whether my howl is a true howl. Can she trust it? She decides to trust—closes her eyes, and listens. Then, she tips back her head and begins to howl with me. She has never howled before, and she pours herself into the sound—high, sweet, rich and pure. The other wolves join her, and then the humans. We are all howling together and I can feel my heart expanding with the gorgeous howling of the pack.

When the howling is done, there’s a moment of stillness. I realize that these wolves are completely at ease with human beings. Apparently, a woman has opened her house to them, so they can come and go as they please. Now, the wolves (including the pup) walk into the open door of that house—across the threshold. They enter without fear. I don’t see the woman who owns the house, but I know that she keeps the door open.

What are wolves? They are very wild animals, but very social, deeply connected to one another. I’ve had a funny relationship with wolves, because several years ago, when I asked for a “spirit ally” to appear to me, I had a distinct image of a subway door opening to reveal a wolf. A wolf as a spirit ally seemed like a cliché, and I wanted something more unusual, maybe a sloth or a wombat. But a wolf showed up. And the wolf wasn’t always friendly. When I asked the wolf for help, the wolf said, “You don’t need help.” In dreams, sometimes a wolf would attack me and I’d rush into the house and try to slam the door—until, finally, I held my ground, offered my arm and said, “Go ahead, eat me.” When the wolf took a bite of me in a dream, it hurt, but being eaten up wasn’t so bad. Another dream came after that, and the wolf and I were on better terms. I have a history with dream wolves, but this last dream is new to me. Continue reading

Pity the Poor Ego: Trickster Dreams

My most disturbing dreams have not been the classic frightening nightmares—instead, I dream of being a bystander while someone else suffers. Instead of terror, there’s horror, and the agony of helplessness and vicarious pain. Just as with nightmares, the emotional impact is ugly, and, at first, it’s not especially useful to tell myself that there must be something valuable here, even though I know that disturbing dreams have been some of the most meaningful experiences in my life. I’ve witnessed the beauty and transformative power they can have again and again in working with my own dreams and those of clients and friends. Yet, I can’t plunge in with enthusiasm right away; I need to respect the real (awful!) feelings that such dreams arouse, and give them time.

When I had the following dream, it left me feeling ashamed and upset:

Burning Alive: A man, with the cocky over-the-top manner of a Master of Ceremonies from a television game show, keeps intruding on the scene. He has a large, toothy smile, and he speaks loudly and glibly about nothing, with a lot of fake laughter and fake friendliness. He assumes that everyone should pay attention to him, and is idiotically over-confident.

There’s a room with its floor covered in blazing hot coals, radiating waves of heat. A waist-high wooden wall, blocks the open double-doorway. Casually, the man climbs onto the wall, waves, and jumps into the room—showing off. Apparently someone else is inside there, working on the hot coals (raking them?)—but s/he must be wearing protective clothing, because s/he’s not harmed by the heat. The Master of Ceremonies, who jumped in without protection, has no chance of survival.

I’m horrified. There’s nothing that I can do, or that the person in the room can do, to help him—and he can’t help himself either. He must be in agony as he falls on the fiery coals, unable to get up or get out, slowly burning to death. I don’t actually see this, but I hear him shouting and imagine what is happening. Ironically, his voice sounds almost as stagey and artificially enthusiastic as he was when he was just showing off. First, he shouts, “It’s so hot!” An absurd understatement, in that loud, falsely cheery voice. Then, his cries seem more poignant and painful, though he’s still using this “game show” voice He says something that suggests he can’t stand the suffering: something like, “Please get on with it!” And even though there isn’t anguish in his tone, I feel the anguish for him and find this suffering unbearable. Please, let it be over soon. Let him die quickly.

I woke from this dream truly distressed—and the only meaning I could find in it at first was not at all encouraging. The waves of heat radiating from the room reminded me of the radiation treatments that are the source of my current neuro-muscular disease. Twenty-three years after my cancer treatments, the residual radiation is increasingly active in my body, “burning me alive.” Am I like that pathetic fellow, somehow causing my own pain? Have I been “showing off,” throwing away my life, leaping into trouble and then finding myself helpless—desperate, but somehow also ridiculous? Of course, this is not a fully-formed response, and certainly not a reasonable way to approach the dream or my own life situation. But it seemed consistent with the awfulness of the dream’s aftertaste. I wanted to feel compassion for that man (and for myself), yet all I could feel was pity, helplessness, and a strong desire to turn away from the suffering, to get it over with.

I didn’t want to remember this dream. I wrote it down, but tried to forget it. Then, a couple of days later, while I was taking a walk, it came back to me vividly—with a new title making a different impression. Instead of “Burning Alive,” the new title was much more specific, and somehow less painful: “The Self-Immolation of the Master of Ceremonies.” Why did this seem less painful? Well, “self-immolation” implies a kind of intention, a sacrifice rather than a silly, wasteful, careless act of self-harm. I associated “self-immolation” with the Vietnamese Buddhist monks who set fire to themselves in protest against the Vietnam War. Their actions were drastic, and not consistent with my own cultural ideas about what constitutes appropriate dissent… yet their intentions were genuinely meaningful. They gave their lives to draw attention to an injustice. Could the man in my dream be making a similarly meaningful statement? Also, the term “Master of Ceremonies” implies not careless foolishness but the possibility of “mastering” a situation that might represent a “ceremonial” offering. What if this ridiculous character is suffering for a reason? And what if his suffering is something other than it seems?

In a previous post [“Seeing With Fresh Eyes”], I mentioned two important “tricks” that I often use in working with difficult, unpleasant dreams: 1) look for anomalies and inconsistencies in the dream itself; and 2) question the dream ego’s perspective on the situation. In “The Self-Immolation of the Master of Ceremonies,” the anomaly and the questionable point-of-view are directly related; the most obvious inconsistency suggests a potential inaccuracy in the dream-ego’s perspective. The dream-ego assumes that someone who has fallen on hot coals must be in agony, yet the “Master of Ceremonies” himself does not sound distressed. He uses his “game show” voice to express what he is experiencing, and his emotion is not at all consistent with the suffering that the dream-ego expects him to experience.

So, what if the “burning alive” really is a ceremony, a game, or a show—a metaphorical ritual that involves the “burning up” of old patterns rather than a soul in torment?

With the strong emotion of my initial reaction to the dream, it was easy to assume that this egotistical fellow represented my own Ego-identity in its crudest form: trying to be the center of attention, and coming to grief as a result. But, in fact, the dream-ego (the “I” in the dream) is actually a much more accurate representative of how my own Ego-identity (the “I” in my waking life) sees the world. The Ego, in Jungian terms, is not necessarily egotistical—it is just the essential lens through which the much larger Self perceives and understands experience. We can’t reject the Ego, because we need an Ego-identity to function in the world, but we shouldn’t take her perspective as the whole truth. The dream-ego, like my waking identity, does her best to interpret what she’s experiencing. She understands what’s happening according to its impact on her, so when the Master of Ceremonies behaves as he does, she reacts by judging and defining him as “idiotically over-confident”—his leap onto the burning coals is “ridiculous” and, from her perspective, inevitably results in his pathetic annihilation. Yet, she also wants to be a good person, and finds her own inability to help, or to feel authentic compassion, shameful and painful.

If you want to find the Ego in a dream, look for the one who’s suffering, because the Ego always suffers when reality doesn’t conform to what the Ego believes is important. In this dream, the man who leaps onto hot coals doesn’t seem to be suffering—but the dream-ego is clearly in a lot of pain. She can’t bear what she thinks is happening. In my waking life, my own experience of fluctuating emotions and deteriorating health often causes me suffering. Yet there’s more to me than this suffering Ego, and more to my experience than my Ego can imagine.

Who is the Master of Ceremonies, then? Who is running this “game show”? Dreams have more to offer than the Ego can grasp—but the wholeness of my Self includes all of it, and my Ego can learn from the other characters in the dream. In this dream, I suspect the Master of Ceremonies is not just an exaggerated Ego figure, but a Trickster.

Tricksters in world mythology are not usually very appealing characters, and their stories can make an ugly and painful first impression. Characters like Coyote in some Native American traditions, and Loki in Norse traditions, have all the worst qualities of the Ego: they are malicious, greedy, lustful, and brutally selfish; they are clever, even brilliant at times, but they always end up being too smart for their own good and coming to a bad end. Other Trickster figures may seem more benign, especially when they are represented in cartoons for children, through characters like Bugs Bunny or the Cat in the Hat. But all of them are, at the very least, cocky—and, to some degree, this cockiness is self-defeating. Tricksters are always getting into trouble. While the Master of Ceremonies in my dream seems merely annoying rather than mean, his bad behavior (“showing off”) seems to be his downfall. But wait…

Tricksters are not just bad guys. They may be brought down by their own machinations (often explosively, grotesquely, or pathetically) but, like Wile E. Coyote, they are always up and at it again in the next scene. They always bounce back, and the inadvertent consequences of their actions are often massively transformative.

Tricksters are game changers; the world is recreated in their wake. When Coyote steals fire for his own selfish reasons, his tail ends up in flames, and as he flees in panic, the sparks he scatters form the stars in the sky. By accident, new energies are released, new life begins, new possibilities are opened up. We human beings are the epitome of the Trickster, with our greedy self-interest, our crazy, impulsive, ego-driven yet creative technological advances, we harm and transform ourselves and the world around us. The Trickster leads the way to catastrophe, but also, potentially, initiates whatever comes next.

In my dream, the Master of Ceremonies leaps onto the hot coals, showing off. The dream-ego interprets this as a wretched mistake. Meanwhile, another unseen person, who is impervious to the heat, bears witness. The MC should be in terrible pain, yet his expressions of dismay are unconvincing, and it’s primarily the dream-ego who seems to suffer. Another dream anomaly is that the wall which separates the blazing coals from the rest of the world is made of wood. Wouldn’t a wooden wall catch fire?

If the wall is made of wood, then perhaps the fire is not as hot as it’s supposed to be? Or else, that wall represents an illusion of protection; sooner or later, the wall will burn and the fire will be right here, where I must experience it directly. The fire is inescapable, not only for the MC (who plunged right into it!) but for me. For every mortal being, protections are only temporary. It’s inevitable that we will all encounter experiences that are too painful, “too hot to handle,” as we lose loved ones, physical health, and ultimately our own lives.

The dream-ego is caught up in the horror of the dream’s apparently disastrous momentum, but she never actually sees what is going on in the fiery furnace of that room. If I actually get closer, overcoming my revulsion and dismay… If I actually look past that anomalous wooden wall… What might I see? I imagine the Master of Ceremonies, the Game Show Host, would not be writhing in agony. In fact, he wouldn’t be there at all. The “someone else in the room” could turn out to be another face of the Trickster, with no need for “protective clothing,” impervious to the pain, but raking those coals in order to make the room ready for a ceremonial Fire Walk. These “too hot” horrors could become a way of transforming pain into something more meaningful.

Perhaps my own Ego-identity can step into that room, and walk across it, without judgement or suffering. Perhaps she is willing to change, to let her old life be burned away, and to walk into a new world, born out of the flames of losses, illness, and uncertainty. Continue reading

Beyond Dead Ends: Accepting the Kestrel’s Invitation

Recently, I shared a dream about a hawk, and explored ways of working with dreams that present us with our “problems.” Since I wrote that article [“Seeing With Fresh Eyes: Finding Meaning in Problem Dreams”], more hawks have appeared both in my dreams and in my waking life. They seem to be heralds of a new way of seeing and being, presenting me with a challenge to open my eyes, my mind, and my heart to new possibilities.

The hawk in my previous dream was a juvenile Sharp-Shinned Hawk: a small hawk that generally hunts in forested areas. Within a week of that dream, I saw a hawk exactly like this in two different places. Both times, the hawk appeared unexpectedly, landed close to me, and seemed to look straight at me. Up until then, I’d seen many adult Sharp-Shinned Hawks, but no juveniles. I knew from the field guide that juveniles have different markings—plain brown and white, rather than the more detailed adult markings—but I’d never encountered a juvenile up close (except in my dream). Seeing these juvenile hawks when I did seemed significant. At the very least, it suggested to me that my dream was both meaningful and currently active in my life.

Then, I had a second hawk dream about a different kind of hawk: a Kestrel. A Kestrel—also called a Sparrowhawk—is a very small falcon with extraordinarily colorful markings. Kestrels hunt by hovering high in the air, beating their wings rapidly in place (like “treading water”), looking for their prey below. This dream also includes my deaf black cat, Toby, who died of a neuro-muscular disease (not too different from the neuro-muscular disease I’m coping with myself) last year, while he was still quite young. He was a sweetheart, very brave and innocent, funny and affectionate—I’m still wrestling with his death, not fully able to accept it.

Toby Wants To Fly: Toby’s on a leash outside with me, and I need to get him home safely. I lift him in my arms, holding him tightly, and hurry. It’s a long way. I have to get across a large, busy intersection and traffic circle. We’re surrounded by loud trucks, car horns, shouting voices, city sounds… I’m so afraid that Toby will get spooked and struggle to escape, but then I remember that he is deaf, so of course it isn’t noisy for him. He’s alert in my arms, looking around with calm curiosity at everything.

We get beyond the city, and I have to climb a little hill covered in low, heather-like shrubs. Suddenly, a stunningly beautiful Kestrel flies right up to us, and hovers in the air at head-level, just a few feet away—looking straight at us with a piercing gaze. Toby struggles to get free, to leap after the Kestrel. I cling to him, desperately determined to hold onto him. I can’t let him go. I know that if I let him go, he will die. I notice that there’s a second Kestrel in a bush nearby.

Having subdued Toby, I continue on over the top of the hill and begin to descend the other side. Now, it’s getting dark, and the downslope is treacherous because there are white plastic garbage bags full of some unspeakable, dead, rotting stuff scattered everywhere in the shrubbery. It’s difficult to pick my way through the shrubs, without stepping on those bags. Toby’s still wriggling. Perhaps this is a place where people come to do drug deals or shoot up, a real “dead end place.” I’m not scared, but the downslope is ugly, grim and sad. I need to get Toby home.

Because of his deafness and his obliviousness to danger, Toby would not have been safe outside; he was an “indoor cat” his whole life. I never took him out on a leash (except in this dream). But I loved to hold him in my arms, whenever he would let me, and I wished I could have held him like that forever.

Throughout the dream, I’m motivated by seeking “safety” and “home.” I’m apparently willing to ignore the powerful invitation of the Kestrel, because my strongest need is to get Toby home safely. When members of my peer dream group pointed out how clearly the dream was offering an opportunity to let go, I insisted that if I let go, he would die. Maybe I would die.

But the contradiction is evident: Toby is already dead. And this is a dream: Anything is possible. If I had been lucid in this dream, aware that I was dreaming, I would have realized that I could release him—he would go free, maybe fly into the air after the Kestrel. He could not be harmed. He is already home, safe. I’m the one who’s afraid. I’m the one who’s deaf to the call of the Kestrel, and who trudges on, “over the hill,” in the bleak landscape of decay and death.

This dream, like most of my dreams lately, reflects how I’m dealing with my own mortality and health challenges, and also how I’m seeking meaning in my life.

I have a disease (Radiation Fibrosis Syndrome) that makes me vulnerable in some of the same ways that Toby was vulnerable. I long for a safe place to rest, but, at the same time, I understand that my physical symptoms and uncertain prognosis put me in a situation that is potentially a spiritual opportunity. Every moment of every day, I’m meeting the unknown. I don’t know how quickly the damage to my upper spine and heart will progress—and I don’t know whether these conditions will cripple or kill me, sooner or later. I don’t know how to proceed with my work commitments, since my ability to undertake long-term projects is entirely unpredictable. I’m holding on, desperately, to the things I treasure about my life, afraid that the clamor of the busy world around me will sap my remaining resources, or distract me into wasteful, exhausting digressions. But I know from many years of inner work that this open-ended experience of not-knowing gives me a chance to question my assumptions, release my need for control, and surrender to the freshness of a life without agendas and absolutes.

Yet my dream tells me that I’m not as open as I truly want to be. I’m holding on tightly, believing that death, or at least a painful loss, is the inevitable outcome of a leap into the unknown.

What if I let Toby leap after the Kestrel? My dreamworker friends also mentioned the phrase, “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.” The second Kestrel waits “in the bush” nearby. Both Kestrels are wild and free. My “bird in the hand,” my beloved cat, wants to be wild and free, too. But I’m holding onto him. I wonder… How am I holding myself back? Do I think that possessing my life is more important than living it? Continue reading

A Dream of Surrender and Hope: DreamTime Article

Click on the photo to read the article, and enter the woods…

For the Spring 2017 issue of DreamTime Magazine (a wonderful publication of the International Association for the Study of Dreams), I wrote a short article that really expresses the depths of my heart in these troubled times. My own dreams often invite surrender and offer hope—and I believe that such dreams can change our lives and our world in essential ways.

Please take a few minutes to read the article (by clicking on the photo)… And let’s talk about dreaming our way forward. How do your  dreams guide you? How might you choose to surrender old ways to follow a different path? And where do you find courage and hope?

Best Case & Worst Case Scenarios: Working With Nightmares

nightmares-03Last month [“Some Bad News, Some Good News”], I described several ways of working with bad dreams in general. Now, I’d like to go a bit further into my own preferred method of working with nightmares.

[Note: As I mentioned in the last post, this kind of dreamwork is meant for ordinary nightmares, and can be practiced on such dreams by anyone. However, if these approaches are applied to PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) nightmares or really severe chronic dream issues, it should be with professional support. If you have serious sleep-disrupting dreams on a regular basis, or have other mental health concerns, seeking professional assistance and guidance is strongly advised.]

Let’s talk about really “bad” dreams. People define nightmares in different ways, but what distinguishes a nightmare from any other kind of unpleasant dream is that it leaves you in a state of strong emotion.

In my experience, the nightmare leaves you in this strongly emotional state because you wake up when the action of the dream has reached a crisis point, as the emotion is peaking. The anxiety has been building, the threat is getting closer and closer, and now the fear (or rage, or anguish, or horror, or helplessness) is so strong that sleep is not sustainable. The dream bursts its bounds and carries the shock of all those feelings into the waking world.

You’re lying in bed, but you’re also in the midst of the nightmare, and you can’t shake it. For the rest of the night, and sometimes for much longer, it stays with you. Maybe you dream it again and again, maybe it hovers in the back of your mind and haunts you. Or maybe you make a big effort and manage to forget it completely, but then something sparks a memory and it all comes back. It can seem inescapable.

This kind of dream takes you to a place that is as bad as anything can be, and even though you get over it and get on with your life, you can’t help knowing, now, that such a place exists, at least potentially, within you. A place where anything can happen, where everything you dread does happen. A place you can’t handle—or believe you can’t handle, because the emotions it evoked overwhelmed you and left you feeling messed up. You’re stuck with the idea (whether conscious or not) that this could happen again, anytime. You’re at its mercy.

So, how do you move on from this nightmare place? And, how could it possibly be meaningful or “good” to have such a dream?

As I mentioned in the last post, many dreamworkers and therapists use dream re-entry methods (going back to the dream while awake, and re-experiencing it) to recreate the dream scenario, but with safeguards and the potential to find a new resolution. You can experience the nightmare, and at least some of its emotional impact, from the perspective of the waking mind, which knows that this is a dream and that you will wake up. Such perspective allows you to exercise some choice about your responses to the dream events. And, often, a dreamworker will encourage you to imagine how the dream might continue beyond the shocking emotional crisis point where you were left hanging—following the process through to a place of potential acceptance and integration.

My own variation on this dreamwork practice is to suggest taking it a step further. It’s usually helpful to begin with the “best case scenario” resolution of the terrible dream situation. (The “best case scenario” resolution is the approach most therapists tend to use.)

Remembering that this is a dream as you come to the crisis, you would recognize that anything can happen, and begin to imagine how things might get better if the dream continued… Perhaps the monster is afraid of you when you turn to confront it, or perhaps the thing that was following you turns out to be a big, friendly dog…  Perhaps the child who was hit by a car is okay after all—a doctor rushes in to save her life… Perhaps the bloody massacre turns out to be a scene in a movie, and the actors begin to over-act playfully, so the violence becomes absurd slapstick and everyone is laughing… Perhaps everyone turns into purple furry caterpillars dancing in a ballet…

These positive possibilities can be more beneficial the more imaginative and unlikely they are. Instead of just coming up with a pat solution to a situation that you know was really and truly horrible, it’s good to be as creative and kooky as dreams can be, to make it clear to yourself that this is a dream and therefore the possibilities are truly infinite. Any dream always has the potential to go in an entirely unexpected direction—and our waking lives have a similar open-ended potential (well, maybe not caterpillar ballet…!). The important thing is to experience the truth that just because it looks hopeless, and just because the emotions are overwhelming, doesn’t mean it has to end here. There are always other ways.

Once, you’ve played with the “best case” possibilities, however, I’ve found that the really powerful transformative work happens when you are brave enough, and feel safe enough, to go on to the “worst case scenario.” Now that you’ve had some practice with the flexibility of dream outcomes, you can dare to follow the nightmare where it clearly seems to be going… into the place where everything is as bad as it can be. Continue reading

Sharing Ourselves in Grief Dreams

KB as kid 01I’ve been writing a lot about the deaths of my parents this past year, and the way that these losses have influenced my dreams and my waking life perspective. The last post (“Letting Them Go: Dreams of Death and Transformation”), ventured onto the shifting shores of dreaming and grieving, where the big questions—of origin, meaning and destiny—take shape. Now, I’d like to zero in on more personal ground: how dreams can respond directly to grief, offering comfort, acknowledgement, and an invitation to experience our continuing interconnectedness.

My Dad was surrounded by loved ones the night before he died. Holly and I flew from Oregon to Massachusetts just in time to be there. My sisters drove down from New Hampshire, and Dad’s wife was with him as well. I’m sure he felt our presence even though he was in a coma. Finally, however, he died early the next morning, alone—except for the kind ICU nurse nearby. We got back to the hospital as soon as we could, and again, we came together around his bed: sharing stories, crying, and saying good-bye.

He was already gone, but his face was quite beautiful in death. His eyes were closed, his chin was lifted and his lips were slightly parted—as if receiving the warmth of the sun on his face. This expression made him look like a boy, opening to something new, accepting it with willingness and quiet wonder.

I couldn’t stop looking at him. But it wasn’t until later that I recognized how much he also resembled an old photograph of me, at about twelve years old, with my head leaned back against a tree in the sun. Gradually, I made the connection—remembering why this photo was in my thoughts. Just six days before Dad died, I’d dreamed of his death. And, in the same dream, I saw myself as I was in that photo… Continue reading

Part 2 of DreamTime Article on Dreams of the Dying

DT cover 2015 fallDreamTime is an inspiring and intriguing magazine published by the International Association for the Study of Dreams. The first part of my article on dreams of the dying appeared in the Winter 2015 issue, and now part 2 has come out in the Fall 2015 issue.

Click on the picture to read Part 2 of the article: “Dreams of the Dying: Where Reality and Identity Become Fluid” by Kirsten Backstrom

Click here for Part 1:Dreams of the Dying

And click here to become a member of IASD! You’ll receive DreamTime three times a year, along with many other benefits!

Game Over: Dreams That End With A Bang!

fireworks 01I’m writing this just after the fourth of July, and the thunderous bangs are still echoing in my head (along with a few illegal leftover rockets occasionally shaking up the neighborhood). The cats are edgy, and I’m just glad that most of the noisy ordeal is over for another year. On the other hand, much as I personally dislike the explosions, I have to admit that a lot of violent energy has been fairly benignly discharged, and the atmosphere feels a bit clearer.

People often tell me about dreams that end with an explosion of unexpected violence. Of course, such dreams can be pretty distressing for the dreamer: In the midst of a tense public gathering, or meeting that’s gone on too long, the dream-ego, or another dream character, suddenly pulls out a gun and starts shooting, or a bomb goes off... These are pretty common dreams, and there’s no reason to think the dreamers are aggressive or repressed people. But it can be difficult to share such dreams, without somehow feeling like we ought to apologize for them. There’s far too much violence in our world already—and it can be disturbing to acknowledge that it’s in our dreams as well. Nevertheless, such dreams need to be shared.

About a month ago, I dreamed …a doctor rushes into the hospital room, but instead of helping, he brings a heavy rifle and blasts the patient. Someone is setting off fireworks to cover the sounds of the bangs. I’ve had my share of stress, pain, and sadness, but there have been very few truly violent situations in my life (and nothing like this). Where does this stuff come from? Sure, I’m regularly exposed to violence in the media—but the power of this dream, and the power of the explosive dreams that others have shared with me, is intensely personal. The details are intimate, and the emotion seems to come out of nowhere.

Dreams that end with a bang often seem like nightmares. The sudden violence triggers an adrenaline rush, and the dreamer is shocked awake. But—unlike regular nightmares that leave us feeling haunted or hunted, and unlike PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) nightmares that recreate the horror of actual traumas, dreams that culminate in a sudden, loud, unexpected shock tend to be more energizing than terrifying. After the adrenaline settles, the dreamer gets curious about what the heck happened. Continue reading

Grief Integration: The Vigil and the Dance

mom in millAs I write this, my mom has been dead for over a month—and by the time you read this, it will be over two months. I’ve had some more dreams about her, but none in which she seems fully present. Actually, I’m not really dreaming about my mother herself, but about my own experience of loss. The immediate shock of the first few weeks has passed, and now when I look at her picture (which I keep nearby, and look at often) I no longer have to remind myself that she has died. I look at her face, and it seems as if she is looking back at me. We understand each other. She is not available by telephone, but she is available in other ways. I feel our connection and her absence simultaneously (see “Grief Dreams: The Experience of Absence”).

This is what healing feels like. Healing doesn’t mean that the grieving stops. I am still trying to process some of the most overwhelming aspects of her dying—the feelings that were too intense, just too much to fully feel when everything was happening so quickly right before and after her death. I’m replaying events and emotions as stories to tell myself—to remember what happened, and that it really did happen. Of course, my dreams are doing this work with me…

Grieving Mom, Looking for Jill: I’m college-age, sitting at a table with several college friends. I tell them about Mom’s recent death. They listen, but go on to talk about other things, and my grief doesn’t seem real to them or to me. I leave them and walk, thinking about what I will do now that I have graduated. I just want to talk to Mom, to get her practical advice… Then, the grief hits me, and it feels unbearable. I go looking for my sister Jill, who is supposed to be in school nearby. I feel so lonely. I desperately need to see my sister.

The feeling of this dream echoes my waking feelings. I try to talk about Mom’s death and it doesn’t seem real, but when I’m alone and think of her, the reality is stunningly painful. In the midst of the feelings, I long to be with family—my sisters Jill and Didi, and niece Samantha—because they are closest to the loss, and share it. There’s no mystery to the dream. It makes sense that we are young, just graduated or in school, since that suggests the learning experience we are going through, and recalls some painful separations from family that occurred at that time in my life.

If there are further metaphorical dimensions of the dream to be explored (certainly, there are), I’m not especially interested in exploring them consciously right now. What interests me is that the dream gives me another opportunity to integrate the same kinds of emotional experiences I am having when awake. There’s a lot of integration to do, so both my dreaming and my waking concerns are turned in this direction. Continue reading

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