Compass Dreamwork

Dreamwork as Spiritual Practice

Category: Difficulty Remembering Dreams

Appreciating Incoherence

Dreams are often incoherent: the images shape-shift, the timelines tangle, the events overlap, and the whole dreamy experience itself can get lost in a haze at the edge of awakening. We count on coherence in our waking lives, expecting the narrative to make sense with a reasonable cause-and-effect predictability. We generally think that things should hold together—they should cohere—and when things fall apart incoherently, it’s bad news. But we all know that the dream world is different, and we’re willing to accept a certain amount of disorder there. Still, our waking minds have to do some reconstructive work before they can get a grip on those slippery dream experiences, and some dreams just won’t cooperate. We know we have dreamed; the dream is a palpable presence with a distinct sensory intensity… but we just can’t get hold of anything solid enough to make a memory. So, the incoherent dream gets forgotten.

Lately, my waking life has been almost as incoherent as my dreaming life, and accepting this much incomprehensibility has been a challenge. I have an illness that is unpredictable and rare, so I don’t know what to expect from one day to the next. My symptoms shift like loose sand  underfoot; my daily routine is a steep dune I’m climbing, and the routine itself disintegrates as I struggle up its sandy slope. I can’t get on top of it, can’t see what’s on the other side. Is there an open ocean somewhere out there? Or just an endless sea of similar sand dunes? I’m discovering how much our lives usually depend upon our plans for the future, and my plans have been suspended in this slippery limbo, since my prognosis is uncertain.

Ordinarily, our experiences have some coherence. The sand has been moistened and packed down, so we can walk without wallowing. Even our dreams can usually be shaped into sand castles. But, sometimes the sand is so dry and fine, or so wet and slack, that we can’t hold onto a handful without its slipping away, and it’s not possible to shape a story or a structure with such material. The sandman has come to sprinkle our sleep with dreams, and has delivered a sweeping desert landscape that changes with the wind.

Dream meanings are not usually direct messages, they are more intricate, richer, and sometimes disturbingly weirder than any direct communication could be. Yet even the most incoherent dream can feel meaningful, can be meaningful, if we care about the dreaming experience, allow it to touch us and allow ourselves to respond. I’m trying to see the incoherence of my waking life in the same way. Meanings do not necessarily make sense. Life can be meaningful whether it makes sense or not.

I can’t give a good example of an incoherent dream, because, well, those dreams are really incoherent—they don’t hold together. But there’s been a sort of theme to my recent incoherent dreams. They start with a chaos that I’m trying to control:

I’m packing, but there’s nothing to contain all the stuff I need to carry with me… I’m cleaning, but the messes keep multiplying… People or animals are in trouble, but there’s no way to tell where the trouble is coming from and no way to help… Something or someone is lost—maybe it’s me… Then, in the dream, I remember that the ocean is not far from here. I haven’t seen it yet, but I know it’s nearby. I know I just need to get to the ocean. If I could only set all the impossible problems aside and get out in the fresh air, I’d be able to get there…

But usually the problems remain unresolved. Things get more and more confusing. Often, the ocean seems impossible to reach, even though I realize it’s just outside, just beyond the edge of this chaos.

Actually, the ocean itself is chaotic, too, but in a different way. The ocean is infinitely wild, vast, incoherent because it can’t be contained. The chaos indoors (or inside myself) seems disturbing because I’m trying to control it; the chaos of the open ocean, by contrast, is glorious, unrestrained and impossibly deep. The ocean has its own rhythms and patterns, which defy my sense of coherence. There’s something liberating in this. Somehow, I recognize those inconsistent and incomprehensible rhythms and patterns—I know the ocean with my own deep sense of wonder, not with my grasping mind.

“It is like what we imagine knowledge to be:
dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free…”
-Elizabeth Bishop, from “At the Fishhouses”

There’s an authentic relationship between the oceanic unknown (or deep knowledge) and the shifting sands of my everyday experience. The depths of the infinite lap at the shores of the ordinary, so sometimes the sand gets just damp enough to shape sand castles at the water’s edge: coherent dreams, insights, projects, possibilities… and then, predictably, the tides recede leaving those castles to dry and slump, or the tides rise to wash them away completely.

In my incoherent dreams, I flounder in confusion, trying to accomplish something, remember something, catch hold of something, anything… But, still, I know that the ocean is out there. The ocean does not concern itself with my accomplishments, my concerns, my comprehension. It gives me nothing to hold onto, and yet it shapes my experience. I trust the tides; I trust the depths. Occasionally, my incoherent dreams complete themselves: I leave the frustrating incoherence of my problems and worries behind, and find the more profoundly incoherent openness of the ocean. It’s right here, all around me: the infinite. I immerse myself in that dark, clear water. And I find myself fully awake.

The Dreams We Don’t Need To Remember

tree rootsWhat if I rarely, or never, remember my dreams? In “Inviting Dreams” you’ll find some good ways to look at the dreaming process, and some practical methods for making dream recall more likely. But right now, I’m looking at this question from another angle: What is happening in those dreams I don’t remember? Are they still “working” at another level of awareness, even though I can’t access them consciously?

Even those who are practiced in the techniques of dream recall, and those with a vividly-remembered dream life most of the time, will have phases when only fragments, or nothing at all, remains of their dreams in the morning. I’m going through this myself lately. Last night, for example, there were a lot of dreams, but I can’t get any of them to take shape in my mind now that I am awake. Something about sweeping up shreds and shards of something… I struggled with it for a while, then let it go. Many nights have been like that in recent weeks, and although I have had several meaningful dream memories, for the most part there’s not a lot to get hold of.

This is okay. In fact, this is good. (Or maybe I’m just trying to reassure myself?) Actually, in my experience with my own dreams and the dreams of others, I’ve seen clear evidence that going through times when few, if any, dreams can be recalled is natural, and even healthy. I also think that if you’re one of the people who really can’t remember any dreams at all, that can be okay, too. Dreams are part of a process that is larger than our thinking and remembering minds. That process goes on and does its work—and we live parts of our lives in the dream world—whether we remember dreams or not. Continue reading

Tuning In To Dreams

My work revolves around dreams, so—wouldn’t you know it?—I’ve been having insomnia. Sleep deprivation is not good for dreaming. The sleep I’m getting is fragmented and shallow, tinged with fatigue, and really, really frustrating because just when I’m slipping into a snooze, one of the cats lets out a friendly little noise, or a neighbor’s car door slams, or I sneeze… and I’m wide awake for another couple of hours.

Squirrely bits of dreams keep squabbling for space on the telephones lines of this tenuous sleep pattern. Okay, I’m overdoing it a bit here, but have you seen what happens when two squirrels meet on a tightrope like that? Crazy acrobatics—and somebody usually ends up dangling. Anyway, with this thin, disrupted sleep, the dream stories never get going, and I can’t catch many of the images, even though they leave me with emotional fall-out and a speeding heart. Continue reading

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