Compass Dreamwork

Dreamwork as Spiritual Practice

Tag: dream images (page 1 of 2)

Feel It In My Bones: A Dream Experience of the Body

My relationship with my body is undergoing some rapid changes, and my dreams reflect this process in a visceral, or rather a skeletal, way: I can feel these dreams in my very bones.

Over the past year, I’ve been coping with Radiation Fibrosis Syndrome, a progressive disease that causes structural and systemic damage to muscles, nerves, blood vessels, bones and major organs. The course of this disease is unpredictable, so it’s difficult to find a place to stand within myself; the ground of my physical being is continually shifting. Most of the time, I’m very tired and uncomfortable (or painful). As my body becomes increasingly uncoordinated, I also feel more socially awkward and self-conscious. Yet I can still function fairly normally even though I’m probably moving toward further disability and a shortened life expectancy. What am I to make of this? Are my dream experiences offering suggestions?

I sometimes see myself in an oddly objective way these days: as though my body is a dear, rather difficult, old friend. Of course, I’m worried about this friend. She looks and feels fragile, and her mortality unsettles me—yet, at the same time, I’m impressed by her stubborn resilience. I don’t know how she’s doing it, but she seems to be coping. Both her vulnerability and her toughness make me feel fairly helpless and unnecessary. Does the body really need me to manage her business? She’ll do what she needs to do, in her own way, whether it inconveniences and grieves me or not; she’ll live as long as she can live, and then she’ll die. From her perspective this mortal life seems completely straightforward. From my perspective, it’s sometimes frightening, sometimes sad, sometimes fun, sometimes beautiful and moving, often (almost always) confusing.

It makes sense that my dreams usually represent my changing physical condition through dream figures other than “me.” In my dreams, other people—or animals, or plants, or objects—exhibit my symptoms and face my worst fears, while “I” (the dream-ego) am just a bystander. Other dream figures have wasting diseases, weakening bodies; other dream figures suffer heart attacks or strokes, and may suddenly die. Meanwhile, “I” call 911, or bring tea, or sing, or burst into tears… bearing witness with love, trying to be helpful.

As I’m not fully identified with my own body right now (she’s changing so fast, I can’t keep up), I’m very aware in waking life of other people who have disabilities similar to mine, and I keep being drawn to stories of people who are dealing with their own mortality or health challenges. So, my dreams reflect this exploratory process, and show me ways of relating to my bodily changes as if I were relating to other people who are physically frail or in transition. My dreams are filled with sick people and dying people, and the response of deep tenderness I feel for these dream figures is healing for me as it teaches me to care for my own body in a similar way. Continue reading

Dreaming Up “The Bad Guys”

On my walk this morning, I saw a little boy dressed as a dragon, following his mother up a steep hill, roaring. He was tiny (barely four years old, probably) but formidable, in his fierce, floppy dragon-head hat, with his spiked tail swinging from side to side when he stomped his feet. Rows of green fins or scales lined his striped leggings and sleeves, and ran down his back. His sister (just a bit older) waited with their father at the top of the hill.

The little girl shouted, “Mom, are you the good guy?” Her mom, trudging up the hill, replied, “Yes. I’m the good guy.” The girl shouted, “You’re the good guy, and he’s the bad guy!” Mom said, tentatively, “Yes…”

The girl hollered at her brother, who had stopped walking to listen to the exchange: “You’re the bad guy! We’re the good guys! You’re the bad guy!” He stood with his mouth open—uncertain. Perhaps at first he’d intended to roar and be the bad guy, but his sister’s tone became increasingly taunting, and now it looked like he might decide to cry instead.

His mom couldn’t see his face, but his dad saw it and interceded, calling to him—“You’re not a bad guy.” And with that affirmation, the dragon burst out, in a teary wail of self-defense: “No! I’m not a bad guy! No, I’m not! I’m not a bad guy! I’M NOT A BAD GUY!”

Nobody really wants to be the bad guy. Yes, it feels powerful to make a lot of noise and to be a dragon… But, ultimately, the good guys are “us” and the bad guys are “them”—and being excluded from “us” just doesn’t feel right. Of course, this applies to the adult world as well as to the world of dragons and their older sisters.

In our present adult world, we’ve got a lot of noisy, dangerous “bad guys” in positions of authority, and many of us are running scared or trying to defend ourselves by defining ourselves as “us.” When we shout at the dragons and try to make them go away so that we can be a happy family of “good guys” without them… Well, good luck with that. I know that Donald Trump has virtually nothing in common with the adorable little boy in the dragon suit, yet I can’t help thinking maybe that’s how he started out. If bad guys exist, he’s certainly a bad guy. But how helpful is the whole game of bad guys and good guys anyway?

In dreams, the bad guys can seem truly awful. There’s someone dangerous, something horrible, some monstrous creature that does unbearable things. In nightmares, the damage done by these bad guys feels terribly real. Even in waking life, we can get caught up in a movie scenario where everything is reduced to the worst possible bad people against the best, most peaceful, most reasonable, good people… It seems like this is the way things actually are. But when the movie ends, we find that the world is much more complex and subtle and paradoxical than it seemed. The world is not a movie. Dreams are not movies, either. Unlike the popular clichés in those blockbuster films, dreams potentially express the richness of real life. While nightmares may play out the bad guy/good guy dichotomy, they also invite us to explore the possibilities surrounding such simplistic scenarios.

If I listen to the bad guy in the dream, I find that he doesn’t see himself as the bad guy—and maybe I learn something, even if I still don’t like him much. If I look at all of the other elements in the dream—the dragon costumes, the sets and supporting characters, the unexpected emotions and inconsistent details—then I find that I have to include everything in order to have any real understanding of what is actually going on.

There’s no “us” and “them” in a dream—it’s all me, or something larger than me: the dreamer and the dream-maker. The human family includes the good guys and the bad guys, the dragons, big sisters, parents, and observers. The dream is a big, intricate, inconsistent story. Every aspect of that story deserves my care and attention. Continue reading

Halfway Down The Stairs: What Makes A Dream Worth Dreaming?

Some dreamworkers claim that it’s necessary to distinguish between dreams that are worthy of our attention and dreams that are not. I keep on disputing that claim (see “Housekeeping Dreams” and “Dream Composting”), but it must be admitted that although every dream, like every day of our lives, can be valuable and meaningful, some certainly do seem to be more valuable and meaningful than others.

In one exciting dream, for example, I had the opportunity to assist the Dalai Lama:

Dalai Lama Dream: First, he is an 80 year old man, then he is a little boy, then an infant, then a corpse, then a young man—and I am responsible for escorting (and sometimes carrying) him through all these transformations… Later, one of his attendants gives me a carafe full of thick liquid. But when I ask if it is mine, she says no. I hand it back and she gives it to me again, saying it is for me. I ask if I am supposed to keep it, and again she says no, so again I give it back. She returns it to me once more and tells me that it is for me to keep alive. After she has gone, I understand: the liquid is like a sourdough starter—I’ll set some aside, add to it, let it grow, keep it alive, until there is more than enough to give back…

This is indisputably important stuff! A meaningful role in the reincarnation of life itself! And what a great metaphor! It was satisfying to bring this dream to my peer dream group (along with a lot more detail that I don’t have room to include here)—and they added their own insights until, like a good yeasty dough, the dream’s already-evident potential was expanded further still…

Of course, some dreams demonstrate their qualities and get our attention right away. Sometimes, we know a dream is significant because (as with the “Dalai Lama Dream”) it has a big theme, or a clever twist. Sometimes, its emotional impact makes it stand out. Maybe it’s a frightening nightmare, or maybe it’s a transcendent revelation, or maybe it’s just stunningly beautiful, but whatever it is, we know we’re onto something.

Halfway Down 01And then, there are all of the other dreams. The ones where the bathroom is filthy, or I can’t remember the telephone number, or my hair is green and sticky, or I’m arguing furiously with someone very stubborn, or there’s no cake left at the buffet… These dreams have emotional content, but it’s ordinary emotion—nothing special. Like the familiar diversions and distractions of a typical day, the dream events don’t impress.

A typical recent dream of mine reflected this kind of ordinary emotion, in an ordinary way. I’m still grieving over the death of my mother, but the feelings are mostly just a part of me now, a part of my life. I’m reminded of her, remember that she is gone and, for a while, I feel lost and sad. This feeling presented itself quietly in my dream:

Halfway down the stairs: I stop halfway down a flight of dusty wooden stairs, and I just sit. I am sad, and I need to stop here and rest and feel the loneliness of my losses. I sit quietly, by myself.

This uneventful dream doesn’t make a statement or bring a message. It’s just a feeling, just an experience. Most of our days are filled with experiences like this—our doing and our being, our ups and our downs, our neither-here-nor-there happenings. Looking back over the years, we’ll remember the big events, or the things that led up to the big events, or the things that followed the big events… But whether we remember them or not, there have been a lot of other things going on besides crises. Between the big events and beyond the big events, there were those halfway-down-the-stairs experiences. 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

Interview with a Dream Figure

outside stairs 01If you want to meet a dream on its own terms, to enter the unmapped territory and find paths and passages you never knew were there, you have to go outside your comfort zone. Well, that’s what we’re trying to do, isn’t it? Even in our waking lives, we want to get beyond routine and have new experiences (up to a point). We aren’t just looking for reinforcement of our expectations. Jeremy Taylor reminds us that “no dreams come just to tell you what you already know.” But it’s certainly tricky to recognize a new thing when we see it, because our frame of reference sets us up to see what we expect to see.

I’ve written a couple of articles about different ways of looking at dreams that can help us get around our personal blind spots: by questioning the dream-ego’s point-of-view (“The Unreliable Narrator in Dreams”), and by exploring the inconspicuous details of the dream scene (“Turning the Dream Upside Down”). Now I’d like to consider another mind-bending approach that is deceptively simple, but tremendously powerful: asking dream figures or images about themselves.

There are many ways to communicate directly with the images in a dream. Fritz Perls set up conversations between dream images (as aspects of the dreamer’s psyche) in his Gestalt Therapy; lucid dreaming practices invite us to ask dream figures for guidance or gifts, etc. These and other practices can be transformative on many levels, but sometimes the concentrated effort required to transcend your own limitations can seem about as easy as jumping higher than your own head. Continue reading

Turning the Dream Upside Down

upside down 01If I start with some straightforward approaches to dreamwork (see “Two Basic Dreamwork Skills”), I can learn a lot about dreams. But I can learn a lot more if I’m willing to turn the dream upside down, or inside out—to spin it, flip it, and toss it around a bit.

Actually, it’s not the dream that needs to be turned upside down, it’s the dreamworker. Have you heard the Nietzsche quote: “If you gaze long enough into the abyss, the abyss gazes back”? In order to see the whole dream in all its multifaceted dynamic transpersonal splendor, I have to suspend my own habitual patterns of thought, stand on my head, and take a new look at the dream—until I can see the dream looking back at me. Like a mirror, the dream shows me a reversed image of myself, and more than myself. 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

A Place at the Table: Dreams of Scarcity & Abundance

plates 01You know those dreams where you just can’t get what you want? Maybe there’s this buffet—you see all kinds of great treats when you walk by, but then when you get in line and it’s finally your turn to serve yourself, there’s nothing left…?

Variations on this dream are pretty common in general, but I suspect they’re especially likely to show up at this time of year. Why? Because, in the northern hemisphere at least, it’s the season when we start worrying about having enough to go around. The abundance of the harvest-time is well past, and spring still seems far away; humans and other animals begin to take a good look at the supplies, and wonder how long they will last. Sometimes we take a peek at others’ supplies, too, suspecting that they’ve got more than we’ve got.

To combat the dread, and subsequent hostility, that can come along with this kind of scarcity-mentality, many ancient (and modern) midwinter traditions include a celebration of abundance and generosity. It’s the “season of giving” for very good reasons. We need each other at this time of year. Stinginess can lead to disaster.

I find that whenever money gets tight and I become fearful about whether we’ll have enough, I need to literally give something away in order to remind myself that I am part of a larger whole, part of a community of living beings who can support each other through good times and hard times. Instead of noticing what I don’t have, I try to be grateful for all that I do have—and share it with those around me, without counting and comparing.

But my dreams sometimes suggest that I’m still anxious about getting enough for myself:

A Place at the Table: I arrive at the feast that I have helped to prepare, but find that there is no chair for me. Someone has taken my seat, and there are not enough chairs to go around. Then I notice that there is no plate at my place, though everyone else has theirs. Also, there is not enough food. The last helpings have gone to others, and all of the serving dishes are empty. I stand alone, and feel sorry for myself.

Dreams like this one simply seem to be commenting on a state of mind that is present. Yes, the cold and dark at this time of year do bring up feelings of fearfulness, resentment, the instinctive desire to hoard and hide what I have. What is the point of being reminded that I feel this way, when I am really trying hard to remind myself that I can also feel generous and abundant?

I think the usefulness of such dreams lies in the vividness of the imagery, and the potential of that imagery to make an impression on the psyche at a deep level. When I have dreams that just seem to be telling me unpleasant truths about myself and my situation, I look at the images that the dream chooses to express those truths. Continue reading

Shamanic Ancestral Dreams

roots 02For the final post in my series on shamanic dreaming, I’d like to consider the role of ancestors in the shamanic tradition, and in dreams.

Holly, a woman in her fifties who has been exploring shamanism, shared the following dream:

Relatives: At my grocery store, in my home town [Note: In waking life, Holly works for a grocery co-op, though it’s not located in her home town.] My relatives have arrived and are at the front end, near the checkstands, waiting for me. My aunt Catherine [who is deceased] with other aunts, uncles, cousins. I look down the aisle and see tall Catherine, and I walk up to her and shake her hand, greeting, welcoming. I shake hands with the others… As I greet everyone, I’m thinking, “I didn’t expect to be the last one, never imagined I’d be the last one of my family.” It is a solemn time. They are my relatives, but I am the last of my family. Sun shining through the window.

In her notes about the dream, Holly said that she was “the last, but not alone… my ancestors come to initiate, acknowledge me… Catherine is the matriarch, person of power… It is up to me, I need to step up, carry the torch forward… this takes place in my store, my community, in public, up front… somber, not sad, I feel the weight of responsibility…”

I believe that this dream reflects not only a profound personal journey, an “initiation,” but also a larger communal need for connection with those who have gone before us, and the experience—so prevalent in the modern world—of facing our responsibility alone. Here, the dreamer transcends the separateness of being “the last” by recognizing that she is supported by a lineage, and a part of something larger than herself. Such recognition of connection and acknowledgement of responsibility represent the kind of healing process that could be essential to our very survival as a species. Continue reading

Review: “Art From Dreams”

[Regular blog posts now appear only on the first and third Tuesdays of each month–but I’ll be adding “extras” from time to time, including reviews like this one…]

artfromdreams_coverArt From Dreams: My Jungian Journey in Collage, Assemblage, and Poetry by Susan Levin. Levinarts. Paperback. 48 pages. $22.50.

When I was asked by Susan Levin’s publicist to review Art From Dreams, my first thought was to take a look at the sample images and the text description posted with the promotional materials, to be sure that this was work I could appreciate.

I am not a visual artist or art critic, and so my review is based on my personal taste and intuitive grasp of the artwork, and my experience with dreams and creative dreamwork. According to my personal taste, the mixed media collage/assemblages are appealing and intriguing. And because of my background in dreamwork and creativity, I am always interested in the relationship between dream imagery and artistic expression. The book, when I received it, was not a disappointment. Art From Dreams is beautifully made and invites lingering—with little text other than a brief introduction and foreword, followed by page after page of art pieces, some accompanied by corresponding poems.

Much of the artwork is reminiscent of Joseph Cornell: many pieces use found objects and/or collage; some pieces are framed within compartmented boxes of rough wood, some are free-standing or wall-mounted assemblages. Most of the materials appear aged, weathered, rusted, or worn. Darker colors predominate, with subtle shades of brown or gray providing the tone so the occasional lighter or brighter colors stand out sharply.

Dream ideas can be powerfully expressed through such forms, and the echo of these ideas in poetry can be hauntingly lovely. The poems are like lyrics to accompany dream music: sometimes telling a story, sometimes evoking only impressions. For the most part, Levin steers clear of sentimentality and sensationalism in both words and visual images. Although I liked some pieces better than others, I found the whole process of paging through this book to be dream-like in the best sense: aesthetically satisfying, and imaginatively engaging. Continue reading

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