Compass Dreamwork

Dreamwork as Spiritual Practice

Tag: death images (page 2 of 3)

Grief Dreams: The Experience of Absence

alongside mom’s house, the brook continues to flow...

alongside mom’s house, the brook continues to flow…

Time keeps passing, and I’m gradually beginning to feel a little distance from my mom’s death. I can write about it, think about it, almost make it make sense that she is no longer there—three thousand miles away, but within easy reach of a phone call, in her house that is an old mill by a brook. She is still more real to me there than in my experience of her dying. It’s as if the few days surrounding her death were a dream.

What’s true is what’s always been true: she’s opening her curtains in the morning (a signal to her neighbor that she’s okay), having her coffee, watching the birds at the feeder, puttering carefully through the chores that make every knick-knack in her home and every moment of her day precious… I think I’ll call and tell her about the Bald Eagle we saw yesterday being chased by a Redtail Hawk… And then, of course, there’s that stunning punch of realization that she isn’t there. Her house is being emptied of her beloved furniture, pictures, books, coffee cups and bird feeders. Each time I think I’ve got some distance from the grief, it clobbers me again.

The stages of grief described by Kübler-Ross—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance—helped a lot of people to better understand the process of grieving, but in recent years it has become evident that those stages were being used by many as a way to cling to an illusion of control and order in an experience that is essentially chaotic. Yes, all of the “stages” can be part of grief—but we almost never progress systematically from one stage to the next. My own experience is that the grief comes in waves—different kinds of waves at different times. When I think that the intensity is easing, I’m bowled over by a tsunami. When I think I should be in pain, I’m sometimes surprisingly unperturbed. Then, when I get the idea that “grief comes in waves,” it comes as a tornado, or a thunderstorm, or a rainbow(!) instead. I think I’m prepared for the feelings, yet they always manage to take me by surprise.

Nevertheless, I’ve noticed some distinct kinds of grief in the course of these weeks. There’s the flood of memories from childhood. There’s the fierce clarity of those nearly-traumatic shocks of beauty from her last hours—and just after her death. There’s the slow, reasonable acknowledgement that things are different now. And, most of all, there’s that gaping absence… the sense of someone so “full of life” just not being there anymore. Continue reading

Dreaming and Grieving

My mother with her mother

My mother with her mother

My mom (Shirley Markie) died some weeks ago. Even as I write this, I don’t really believe it. Really, it seems as if I am writing about a dream, not about the solid fact of her death. I look at her picture, and she is so alive to me. How could she be dead? Of course, I’ve worked with lots of grieving and dying people—I am certainly familiar with these feelings, having heard them from so many others, so many times. And I’m deeply aware in this moment that I am not alone in my experience of grief and loss. So many of us have felt this, are feeling this, will feel this…

Those in my age group (fifties) are especially likely to be facing the loss of our parents; we are all saying good-bye to the generation before us. Yet it’s an entirely personal experience. Even though my sisters share the same immediate grief for the same mother, we each feel it uniquely. But we can still be a comfort to one another—and we are.

Grief dreams are like this: there are familiar patterns in the ways that dreams help us live through our losses—archetypal psychospiritual responses to grief—yet each dream carries the individuality of the loss in its own way, and we are touched by each dream uniquely. At the same time, the experience of grieving and dreaming can connect us at a fundamental level, giving us a direct sense of the universality of these landmarks of loss in our lives. When I dream of my mother—her wonderful one-of-a-kind-ness—I am dreaming into the midst of love at its most essential. As we feel loss, we feel love, and the poignancy of “loving what is mortal” (to paraphrase Mary Oliver). Dreams can make this experience feel realer than real. Continue reading

Article on Dreams of the Dying, in “Dreamtime” magazine

dreamtime-forblogs[1]DreamTime is an inspiring and intriguing magazine published by the International Association for the Study of Dreams, and I recently had an article appear in the Winter 2015 issue.

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

And consider becoming a member of IASD! You’ll receive DreamTime three times a year, along with many other benefits!

 

Dreams of the Living Dead

I mentioned in the last post (“‘No Feeling Is Final’: Healing Beyond Feelings’”) my recent dream about fighting “two terrifying eight-foot-tall living corpses”—zombies! Dreams about zombies, or “the living dead” seem to be getting more common these days. What is that all about? In addition to this dream of mine, I’ve had at least one other zombie dream, and have heard at least three more such dreams from different people I work with, in the past year. I’ve also read references to zombie dreams all over the place.

Of course, zombies are big in popular culture right now—movies, comic books, toys… Yuck. The image of animated corpses lurching and moaning (or ominously silent) seems to be no more than an invitation for our violently over-stimulated society to revel in gruesomeness and gore. And, as a cultural icon, they might represent our modern illusion that we can keep our physical bodies going, even beyond death. Or they might refer to our technology, which can be as mindless and relentless as animated corpses hungering to eat our brains. Or they might refer to our materialistic appetites and dedication to distraction, which drive the corpse-like ego on and on without mind, spirit, or soul.

But I haven’t been watching zombie movies, and neither have the others I know who are having zombie dreams. True, we’re immersed in popular culture, whether we like it or not—but we’re not saturated by the images and we don’t take those cultural messages at face value. So why are we dreaming of the living dead?

In two earlier posts (“Monsters In My Dreams,” and “More Monster Dreams”) I described how monsters of all kinds relate to a primal fear of death. This isn’t necessarily a fear of physically dying, but a larger resistance to the natural process of death/loss essential to the ongoing, ever-changing nature of growth and life. Fear of death is really just fear of change, since all change involves death. Something must end in order for something new to begin—and, in fact, the ending process and the beginning process are inseparable. Continue reading

Death Dreams Are Healing Dreams

To conclude this series of articles on the theme of death dreams and Mystery, I want to emphasize the most significant thing about dreams associated with death: death dreams are healing dreams.

In a sense, all dreams are healing dreams—as Jeremy Taylor writes, they “come in the service of health and wholeness” (see Taylor’s “Dream Work Tool Kit,” #1). All dreams come from the perspective of our wholeness—sometimes referred to as the “Higher Self,” the Psyche, the Soul, the Atman, the “Inward Teacher,” the “Spirit Guide,” the Source, etc.—and show us both the struggles and fears that challenge us, and the larger potential for insight, openness, transcendence, and interconnectedness. In fact, dreams are not just showing us these things, but giving us a direct experience of them.

When a person is seriously ill, or facing a life-threatening crisis of some kind, he or she may have death dreams similar to the ones I’ve described in the previous posts (see “Walking In The Dark,” “Death Dreams And Open Fields,” “Not Knowing,” and “Journeys Into The Unknown”). Such dreams should not be viewed as warnings or predictions of death, or as messages with suggestions about how to avoid death, or as simple reflections of the body’s dying process—even though they may serve these river 01purposes.

Dreams go beyond the meanings that our conscious minds ascribe to them. Death dreams, in particular, do not align themselves with our conscious agendas—they give us experiences that point beyond those agendas. Continue reading

Journeys Into The Unknown

Before my cancer diagnosis and treatment, as I was becoming increasingly ill, I began to dream of a wonderful journey to a place I called the Western Archipelago.

I arrive at the ferry dock with a group of others. It’s surprisingly easy to embark on such an important journey. We are all thrilled at the prospect. We board and the boat heads northwest, across a harbor and out through narrow straits into the open ocean. Almost immediately, we come to deep, crystalline waters, where icebergs and ice floes drift, radiant in the sunset. An infinite number of small islands can be seen in the misty distance. We will visit all of them. I can see down through the water, where whales are swimming under the boat. Occasionally, they surface and spout, then vanish into the dark depths. Our breath steams in the freezing air, but we are warm. There is a sense of playful camaraderie, anticipation, and innocent, uninhibited excitement—like the joy of waking on Christmas morning as a child.

 As people approach death or significant life changes, they often dream of embarking on a journey. For me, the dream of The Western Archipelago became increasingly vivid and magnificent, and the ferryboat went further out among the islands, as I got sicker and the possibility of death got closer. Around the turning point of my illness, just before and after I was diagnosed, the ferryboat went quite far—and some of us were getting ready to disembark on one of the islands. Continue reading

Not Knowing: Dreams of Resistance and Opening

“Since knowing gives us definition and control, it enables us to keep the world at arm’s length. Having established our ideas and preferences about what is, we no longer have to bother to pay attention. Not knowing, on the other hand, leaves us vulnerable and free. It brings us very close to experience, unprotected and fully engaged. Not knowing, we merge with what confronts us. We let go of  identity and evaluation and allow ourselves to surrender to amazement.” -Norman Fischer

The dreams that come during periods of significant change in our lives often parallel the dreams that come as death approaches. When we are ill, in crisis, or grieving, we may have dreams that resemble the dreams of dying people (who are also going through powerful changes). In my personal and professional experience, I’ve seen that both death dreams and transition dreams tend to be about the experience of “not knowing” in one form or another.

The individual who is going through great change is always experiencing the death or loss of the “known,” and an encounter with the potential of the “unknown.” This is generally a painful and difficult struggle, as the familiar experience of self and reality falls apart. But such falling apart also, ultimately, creates an opening, a new perspective, a new kind of meaning. Continue reading

Death Dreams And Open Fields

open fieldAt an in-patient hospice where I’ve volunteered for many years, I got to know a man named Jasper who was dying of lung cancer in his seventies. Over several weeks, he told me stories about growing up on a midwestern farm. He shared his memories of the endless acres of green-gold alfalfa fields shimmering in the wind—memories that were associated with a sense of spaciousness, but also with hard labor and long hours as he tried to follow his father’s example and expectations.

When Jasper could no longer get out of bed, and was sleeping more and more of the time, he began to share dreams. In a hoarse whisper, he told me:

I’m walking across an open field. Just walking and walking. Trying to get to my father. He’s at the far side of the field, standing by a fence. He’s expecting me. I walk and walk but can’t get any closer. Don’t want to disappoint him, but I’m too slow, can’t keep up. The tall grass is dragging on my legs, slowing me down. But I have to keep walking. The sun is setting.

Jasper was anxious and exhausted, but committed to completing the task of his life. He’d always worked hard, and he wasn’t going to give up now. So he struggled and labored through the process of dying. Towards the end, he was in a coma, unresponsive to those around him, but with his eyes partly open, and his lips moving as if he was talking to himself, urging himself on. As I sat beside his bed, hour after hour, I noticed that his feet were moving under the thin sheet: first one foot flexed and then the other. Actually, his legs were working, too—alternately tensing and relaxing. He was walking. I imagined him walking across that field, to meet his father. It was a long way, and it took a long time. He worked hard at walking, and worked hard for each breath, the whole way. Continue reading

Walking In The Dark

In my early thirties, my health deteriorated. Over the course of several years, increasingly severe autoimmune problems began to break down my sense of myself as an independent, capable, creative person who could make choices and take action in my own life. I seemed to have a bad case of respiratory flu that never went away. My lungs and joints ached; I had fevers and night sweats; I was exhausted, losing weight, unable to think clearly. I had to leave my job as a bookstore clerk, and soon could not even keep up with household chores or errands. I’d also developed hard lumps along my collarbones and under my arms—but these and my other symptoms were diagnosed as “cat scratch fever.” I was told that I would soon recover, but things were only getting worse. One feverish night, I had this dream:

I am walking naked in a blizzard at night, surrounded by the steam of my own breath and the snow coming from all directions in the dark. The air is freezing, but I feel warm and safe. I know I am walking, but cannot really feel myself moving. There’s just a pleasant sensation of wind-filled darkness, and icy snowflakes stinging softly all over me. I walk until the ground comes to an end at a cliff, and I step out into nothingness. I don’t feel myself falling, just merging into the swirling emptiness.

I woke from this dream with a sense of blissful release, yet as soon as I became more fully aware, I was sure that this was a dream about my death—so sure, in fact, that I woke Holly and told her I needed to see a doctor right away.

There could have been many other ways to look at this dream if it had come under different circumstances, but for me it was a perfect metaphor for the inevitable conclusion of the internal experience I’d been having. In the dream (as in my waking life at that time), each element of my conscious identity was dissolving almost easily: my clothing (roles and persona), my surroundings (relationships and work context), my perception of intentional action (will and purpose), my body (as a dependable vessel), even the ground that held me up… until there was no distinction between myself and everything—or nothing. Continue reading

More Monster Dreams

I’ve had monsters on my mind. I described the archetype of “the monster” in the last post (“Monsters In My Dreams”) as primal energy: the life force itself, taking the form of change. All change involves the death of something and the beginning of something else. The monster is the aspect of change we fear most—the ferocious energy with which the life force destroys in order to create.

Monsters take many forms in mythology, and in dreams. Some, as in the dream I described in “A Nightmare Is An Incomplete Dream,” are formless—or at least they remain unseen or undefined by the dream-ego (the “I” character in the dream). Other monsters are the semi-human creatures popularized in the media: zombies, vampires, werewolves, etc. Some are monstrous combinations or distortions of other creatures. Some are apparently ordinary things, but made horrifying by the context of the dream (as in some horror movies): an animated toy doll, a bunny, a flock of birds. Monsters are what we make of them. While their essential nature may be universal, the form they take is usually based on individual associations and projections. Continue reading

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