Compass Dreamwork

Dreamwork as Spiritual Practice

Category: Dream Identity (page 1 of 2)

The Body’s Metamorphosis: Posture & Stance As Dreams

The countdown has begun, and my body knows it. In a few days, I’ll be going into the hospital for a major spinal surgery, and probably won’t be home again for several weeks. When I do get home, after hospitalization and rehabilitation, my body will not be the same; it will not be this body. Not only will I have nine fused vertebrae and a permanently straight spine, but I’ll also have a different stance relative to the world around me, other people, and myself. I will have to stand, sit, and lie down differently. I won’t be able to move in familiar ways, and I might be able to move in new ways, or in ways that I haven’t moved in years. Putting on my socks, washing my hair, feeding the cats, reading a book, hugging Holly and my friends, walking, eating, sleeping, maybe even dreaming… everything will be different. 

While my mind is trying to tell me that this is just a medical procedure, a repair job, no big deal—my body knows better. As soon as the surgery date was finally set after months of waiting, my body figured out what was about to happen and, like a dog who gets wind of the fact that she is about to be taken to the vet, my body reacted with visceral, physical fear—shivering, glancing around furtively for a place to hide, losing appetite and concentration, flinching at small sounds. While my mind tries to calm me down, my body remembers past surgeries and injuries. She knows what’s coming. 

It is impossible to separate myself from this body, and I wouldn’t want to. The body has a kind of clarity that is expressed in her instant response to cues in her environment. I depend upon the way she breathes and lives without the mind’s conscious guidance, the way she feels truths from the inside, the way she moves into action on my behalf, her courage and cowardice, her competence and clumsiness, her compassion and raw vulnerability. These qualities are the body’s language, and also fundamental aspects of the person I believe myself to be. So, no matter what my mind tries to tell me, when my body is changed by this surgery, there is going to be an essential change in who I am.

Posture and stance and gait make us recognizable to others, almost as much as facial features do. When I had extensive radiation treatments for cancer in my thirties, the molecular disruption began to work on my body gradually, over so many years that the physical changes were not much different from the ordinary changes of aging. Slowly, my muscles got weaker, my heart had to work harder to keep up, my shoulders slumped, and my neck eased into a curve. Then, three years ago, the changes sped up. My posture deteriorated noticeably, and I began to develop ways of moving to compensate for the wasting muscles in my upper body. Finally, about three months ago, the cascading changes became an avalanche. Within these few months, I’ve become someone who cannot hold up her head for more than a few moments at a time. I slouch, stumble (because the weight of my head throws me off balance), and peer up at people from an awkward angle, my head dangling or propped on my hand. I’m in pain most of the time, and exhausted all the time.

Physical symptoms can be communications from our deepest selves in much the same way as dreams. If a character in your dream is slumped and “cannot hold up her head,” this character will evoke certain instinctive responses and assumptions: She could be lazy, or embarrassed, or hiding something. Maybe she represents a part of me, or another person or situation, that can’t stand up and face the world. Similarly, I notice that the more my body’s posture crumbles, the more uncertain and insecure I feel. There’s even a strong sense of shame, humiliation. 

I’m seeing this punishing dissolution of my physical confidence as a difficult challenge, but also trying to see its positive, transformative potential as well. Just as I might ask “Why am I having this particular dream at this particular time?” I might also ask “Why is this happening to my body? Why is this happening now?” The immediate answer comes from my body herself. There’s the predictable but apt image of a chrysalis. The confident caterpillar must go into her private cocoon and completely disintegrate before becoming any kind of butterfly or moth. My body recognizes the metaphors of metamorphosis, and understands the imperative of letting go.

I’ve been on the threshold of big personal change for a long time, contentedly occupying my larval identity as well as I can. Although I’ve been learning and growing through many metamorphoses over the course of my lifetime so far, this one could be the most irrevocable (short of death). Physically as well as developmentally, I’ve reached the limits of my old posture, my stance, myself. I’m not sustainable anymore. There’s no more adapting to be done—my body will not, cannot, cooperate. So, along with all of the physical changes, I must lose or release my plans for myself—my ambitions, my certainties, my habits, my resistances, my needs, my resentments, my strong stride and my adroit rationalizations. Maybe some of this stuff will be returned to me in another form, maybe not. Metaphorically and literally, my stance is changing; my posture is changing; my gait is changing. My relationships with others are changing because, although my care for them is consistent, I don’t know (or care so much) how I appear to them. My slumped posture reflects a genuine desire to humble myself, to step back into the shadows, into the secret chrysalis where the deepest possible metamorphosis can happen. 

These are the last few days for my body to be as it is: in a state of flux and confusion. For years when I was younger, I dreamed of initiations. Then, for many more years, I dreamed of graduations. Now, the graduation dreams have stopped. Have I graduated? What happens next? Post-surgery, I’ll have a new body with a straight spine. Will I recognize myself in this new body? Will other see me differently when my body is upright, stiff and strange, when I can’t tilt my head back to watch the geese fly over, when I can’t dance fluidly or even sway to music, when I can’t bend down to look at a friend’s snapdragons, or wrestle and play with a puppy? Will my rigid posture make me a more rigid person? Or will I stand tall, with the grace and flexibility of a tree, spreading my branches in the sun? 

I’m going into this surgery not knowing what the outcome will be. I might have less pain and more mobility than I do now. Or, there might be more pain, more disability. The unknown stuns me. For now, I’m allowing myself to come apart, piece by piece, trusting the process, open to the possibilities, afraid and excited. 

Human beings have always had rites of passage for big, transformative life events, and I find that I’m instinctively following some ancient rituals of preparation. Yesterday, I got my hair cut very short so that it will be easier to wash it when I’m recovering—a practical motive, but one that recalls the ceremonies of initiates entering a monastery, or recruits going into the army. Cutting the hair is preparation for sacrifice—giving up the old stance, the old appearance, the old self, before the new one can come into being. When I was about to start chemotherapy 24 years ago, I had my head shaved (anticipating that it would all fall out anyway). Just before walking the Camino de Santiago three years ago, I got a short haircut like the one I’ve got now. I make my posture consistent with my experience: the shorn hair symbolizing vulnerability, humility, a kind of self-erasure. 

The night before surgery and the morning of surgery, I’ll shower with antibacterial soap, erasing my own familiar smell. When I’m leaving for the hospital, I will remove my necklace, my wedding ring. I will empty my pockets. I will carry nothing. I will say good-bye to Holly before I’m taken into the operating room. Under anesthesia, I will become nothing for a while. And, I will trust in my own restoration, in a new form, a new body.

It’s no coincidence that my largest scar will be on my back, where I will never see it directly. This kind of deep change is not my business—at least not the business of my busy self-defining self. Big change happens behind my back. My body will know it, though. And I think my soul knows it already. When I come out of surgery, there will be more space in me—more spaciousness because I will not be able to confine myself to what I was before. I will be emptier, and there will be more room for life itself to expand whoever I am. Going through such an experience does not make me special or important, but it makes me feel that I am precious. My whole life is precious, and includes every possible posture, every way of walking, every stance, every opening. I’m nothing but infinite transformation, infinite dissolution, infinite manifestation, infinite mystery.

This is true for you, too—whatever you think of yourself will change, and every change is a chance to expand and include. You are not what you think you are, yet somehow you know yourself. When you see me next, I will be different and so will you—yet somehow we will recognize each other.

[Note: Kirsten had her surgery on May 1st. This post was written a few days before. If you’d like to follow her recovery, you can go to the Caring Bridge website, enter “Kirsten Backstrom,” and you will find journal entries and updates from Kirsten and Holly there.]

The “Unreliable Narrator” in Dreams

coffee cup 01Can I trust the opinions and emotions of my dream-self? The dream-ego (the “I” character in the dream) is the most likely to share my waking point-of-view about dream events. As I’m remembering and writing or telling the dream, I think of the dream-ego as “me” and can easily take it for granted that what the dream-ego thinks and feels reliably reflects the “truth” about the dream situation. But let’s look more closely at this…

The Jungian dream explorer James Hillman has said that “in a dream the ego is usually wrong”—meaning that the dream-ego tends to apply a waking-life worldview to the dream world, and thus to misinterpret dream events. The dream-ego generally shares the waking ego’s assumptions and prejudices, but the dream world as a whole may have surprisingly different perspectives and possibilities to offer.

As I look at my dream, I need to remember that even in waking life, my own view is not the only way of looking at things—I must question this view in the light of others’ input. In the dream world, this is even more true, because dreams are almost always telling me more than my conscious mind already knows (see Jeremy Taylor’s Dream Work Tool Kit #4). The dream-ego’s view should be taken as only one out of many possible ways of understanding dream events. What does the rest of the dream have to say? What other points-of-view are available?

A Rib Comes Out of Me: I feel a sharp point sticking out of my left side, and when I tug on it, a long, thin, curved rib bone comes out. I hold my side, expecting to find a wound, but there is no mark, no pain, no blood. The rib has come out clean and white. I go to a professor—a pompous, arrogant fellow, who immediately says we should put the rib into a solution of coffee, so that its true, natural color will be revealed. I don’t really want the rib to get stained, so I say sarcastically, “That will work fine if its natural color is coffee-colored.” I keep asking him why and how the rib could have come out so cleanly, without leaving a mark or being smeared with blood. The professor dismisses my question, saying that this sort of thing (a rib coming out) only happens to “end-stage alcoholics with orgasm dysfunction.” I’m mortified and defensive—that description does not apply to me! He clearly does not know what he’s talking about. I certainly won’t tell him that the rib came from me.

I worked with this dream in my peer dream group, and the first insights that came up were consistent with the dream-ego’s opinion about the situation. Something strangely beautiful and with creative potential had “come out of me” (like Adam’s rib…) and the arrogant fellow (patriarchal male? inner critic?) was trying to diminish its significance (by staining the rib and implying that its “true color” was stained). He was also disparaging the source of this new creation (describing her/me as damaged or weak-willed). In the group, we all had a tendency to dismiss the professor’s suggestions, reinforcing the dream-ego’s negative response to him.

The professor was evidently an offensive character, and the statements he made were incorrect in a literal sense, so it seemed reasonable to assume he represented a mistaken point-of-view… Clearly, since I’m not an alcoholic nor do I have “orgasm dysfunction,” he’s got it all wrong—although the discomfort and defensiveness of my response both in the dream and about the dream are suggestive… There’s nothing I’m trying to hide, is there? The rib was simple and clean and left no wound, and that’s a good thing, right? Why stain it? Isn’t clean white its “natural color”?

Well, the next step was, of course, to start questioning these assumptions. Continue reading

Dream Identity and the Independence of Images

shore 04One way of looking at a dream is to say that the whole dream comes from the mind of the dreamer, so all of the images in the dream are aspects of the dreamer. But that is just one way of looking at the dream.

If I look at waking life in that same way, I can also say that whoever or whatever I encounter in waking life is a projection of myself. Since I see each person through my own particular lens, the person I see is at least partially my own creation, and the way I see that person reflects certain attitudes and qualities of my own character. In one sense, it is true that everyone and everything I can perceive represents an aspect of myself; yet, of course, it’s also true that these people and things exist independently, beyond my projections, as well.

So everything in the dream world has something to do with the dreamer, but this doesn’t mean that the dream is the exclusive creation of the dreamer. The dream can also be understood as a world in itself, where beings with independent existence (the dream “characters” or “images”) come visiting.

Who creates this dream world? Who is the dream-maker? And who is the dreamer relative to the dream? The dream can go beyond the dreamer’s waking identity, can be larger than the dreamer’s imagination and ideas about reality—so clearly the dream-maker must be larger than the dreamer. The images within the dream may also have a life beyond the dream. Continue reading

Becoming “Loving Awareness”

sky 05In the last post, I talked about the spiritual concept of “ego death” as it is reflected in dreams [“When the Dream-Ego is Slipping or Sleepy”]. “Ego death” occurs when the whole psyche is undergoing a transformation (due to illness, crisis, loss, or deep inner work) in which the familiar ego must die in order for a new, potentially larger, sense of self to come into being. During such times, dreams often contain death imagery: the dream-ego or other dream-character faces death, and perhaps actually dies in the dream. Deaths can be enacted again and again in transitional dreams, and then other dreams (or sometimes the same dreams) may begin to indicate the development of new life, new ways of being.

Sometimes, when the transformation is particularly significant, we experience breakthrough dreams: extraordinarily powerful dreams that not only represent the transformation from one ego identity to another, but actually involve the “willing sacrifice” of the entire self-definition, allowing for complete openness to a new way of experiencing reality and identity. These dreams may be like great mystical experiences, beyond words. They may be like literal near-death experiences where attachment to our present life is let go almost easily as we glimpse what we really are and the vastness that includes us.

Occasionally, a dream can be quite direct in its metaphorical expression of the process of “willing sacrifice” and “ego death.” About two years ago, I had this extraordinary dream:

The Willing Sacrifice: I am a young Asian prince in an ancient Eastern culture. My small community has been suffering from a drought or other catastrophic challenge. Our survival is at stake. We have just completed the re-enactment of an ancient ritual that is supposed to restore harmony: the symbolic sacrifice of the community’s leader (me). But it does not work, and I now realize that only an authentic sacrifice will make a difference. We must enact the ritual again, and this time I must actually die. I accept this with sadness, and some fear, but a deep sense of responsibility, feeling the weight of what I must do. The community is gathered to bear witness: to support me, and to honor and grieve for my sacrifice.

            Ahead of me is a large ritual space—a square, marked on the ground by a wide golden ribbon. I am wearing a white tunic or kimono. I walk, formally, toward one side of the square. I hope that my death will not be bloody—but then I release that thought: it will be what it will be. I release the hopes I had for the rest of my life. On the left side of the square, there’s a gap in the ribbon that opens onto nothingness, and I believe that when I die I will go through that gap. In the far right corner of the square sits the Emperor or King—a wise, compassionate, powerful being, like a god. I sense his deep sympathy with me, and his willingness to play his role as I am playing mine. His attendant, a young man in white like myself, leaves his side and comes to meet me as I approach the square. We stand facing each other at the edge of the square, and I realize he’s almost a mirror image of me.

            Before stepping across the ribbon, I must ask permission to make this sacrifice. I kneel down, as I have done many times before during the symbolic ceremonies, but this time I know I must go further. I close my eyes and bow all the way down to the ground. It seems a long way down, an infinite falling in and giving over. At the moment when my forehead finally touches the earth in complete surrender, I feel flooded with love: the loving tenderness of the young attendant standing over me, meeting me absolutely where I am; the loving benevolence of the King; the loving warmth and gratitude of the people… Also, the overwhelming love that pours through me from the earth herself. It is more than I can contain.

The final sentence in my description of the dream says it all: “It is more than ‘I’ can contain.” The ego “I” cannot hold the larger experience of life itself that rushes in with love at the moment when the sacrifice is accepted. The small self gives way, and the larger self can then be experienced. The larger self is not limited to one apparently separate identity, but includes all who are taking part in this ceremony. And beyond the shared human experience, there is also a profound connection with the earth. Continue reading

When the Dream-Ego is Slippery or Sleepy

sky 02Many of my dreams lack focus. The dream-ego (the “I” in the dream) can’t seem to accomplish what she intends, or is the victim of something or someone, or doesn’t participate in the main action. Sometimes these dreams are frustrating, and at other times, the “I” just seems to be slipping away. For me, a common dream metaphor for this slipperiness is when the dream-ego has to cope with actual sleepiness within the dream. Here are two examples:

Gathering for Ceremonies: I’m with a large group of people gathered halfway up a mountain, for some spiritual ceremonies. It’s a relaxed atmosphere with lots going on. I’m responsible for a toddler named “Sleepy,” and much of the time, I carry Sleepy around as s/he sleeps heavily in my arms. When s/he’s not asleep, s/he’s running around wildly, very distracting. The more I try to keep up with Sleepy, the drowsier I get…

Sleepy Attender: I’m attending an important workshop, sitting right up front, but I can’t stay awake. I sit up straight and pretend to be listening/meditating with my eyes closed, so the presenter won’t realize I’m asleep. After a while, I know I need to open my eyes at least briefly, to maintain the illusion of attentiveness, but I’m too groggy and can’t get myself to come out of it. [Finally I literally wake myself up by trying to open my eyes.]

Another expression of this same lack of dream-ego focus is when the dream itself just seems hazy, as if the dreamer is not able to generate vivid images. The environment around “me” in the dream is vague—maybe indoors, maybe outdoors, but with no noticeable features. Events in the dream, and body awareness for the dream-ego and dream characters, can also be hazy. In lucid dreams, where “I” realize that this is a dream, the experience is not sustainable, because the dream-ego and the dream environment are not distinct enough—either I wake up, or fall back into non-lucid, unremembered dreams. Continue reading

Humbling Dreams

Some dreams are very good at keeping me humble. They remind me that I’m not the center of the universe, while simultaneously engaging my attention in everything that is going on around “me,” everything other than myself that is ultimately essential to who and what I really am.

A humbling dream:

Connecting the Student with her True Teacher: I have a student who has been working with me for a long time. But I realize that there is another teacher she really needs to meet. I go to great lengths to create an opportunity for my student and this teacher to come together, and then I get out of the way and watch how they connect. They have great chemistry and understand each other in a way that is beyond me. For the remainder of the dream, their dynamic learning/teaching relationship plays out, and I’m not actually even present as a character. Yet there’s a pervasive sense of joy at the “rightness” of this unfolding process. I am just a witness, but feel fortunate to have been a part of it.

One excellent way of looking at dreams [“Two Basic Dreamwork Skills”] is to see everything in the dream as an aspect of the dreamer’s whole Self. In other words, when I connect the student with her true teacher in my own dream, I am also connecting the student aspect of myself with a particular teacher aspect of myself. The dream self (the “I” character in the dream) is a teacher, too—but she is a kind of teacher that is closer to my waking identity, closer to my ego. The other teacher is deeper, less familiar. The relationship between the student and that deep teacher (the “Inward Teacher,” as Quakers call “that of God” within each of us) is beyond “me,” beyond my ego, beyond what I know of myself.

Dreams tend to humble the ego with subtlety and sometimes humor. Often, the central “I” character in a dream fades into the background, or becomes embarrassed, inhibited or diminished, while other characters seem increasingly significant. The narrator is forgotten as we get caught up in the story. In this way, a larger awareness, a larger sense of “Self” that we don’t ordinarily recognize, has an opportunity to emerge. 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

What Am I?

handful of deep darkI recently returned from a five-day intensive entitled “Opening to Mystery.” It’s part of the two-year End-of-Life Practitioner program through Metta Institute, designed to teach mindfulness to hospice and palliative care practitioners (nurses, doctors, aides, administrators, chaplains, social workers, volunteers).  Although the perspective is primarily Buddhist, the approaches we are learning are intrinsic to the contemplative branch of every spiritual tradition. I’ll be writing more about how dreams relate to death and to “Mystery” over the next few months (as part of my final project for the program). At the moment, I’m thinking specifically about how death and dreams open up questions of identity: who or what are we?

In my work as a hospice volunteer and chaplain, I’ve been present during the last weeks with many hundreds of dying people and their families. I’ve seen how familiar points of reference are gradually (or sometimes suddenly) stripped away—both for the person who is ill and for his or her loved ones. I experienced the intensity of this process first-hand in my thirties, during my own life-threatening, life-changing illness (Hodgkin’s Lymphoma). Over the course of several years, I lost much of my “self,” as I could no longer work a job, participate in social activities, or even think clearly, eat or sleep normally, or take care of my own daily maintenance. Yet I was still conscious, still present, still aware in each moment. Paradoxically, for me and most others, this process of “un-selfing” is a source of both anguish and liberation. Continue reading

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