Walking the Camino de Santiago over the course of two months, I found that an extended pilgrimage is nothing like a vacation. I couldn’t treat that long journey as an adventure separate from my regular life: it was my life. And it was a way of living that required versatile survival skills and relentless stamina.
Each day had to be lived on its own terms. Some days were filled with blessings, and many days, blessed or not, were terribly difficult. The difficult days gave me a tiny glimpse of what homelessness might feel like. Food, water, shelter, health, safety, communication, hygiene—the basics could never be taken for granted. Meeting my own essential needs was a constant energy drain, sometimes demanding more strength than I had.
Even on a well-traveled path, surrounded by good people, with many inner and outer resources available to me, I felt intense vulnerability, physical pain and fatigue, loneliness, and homesickness at times—especially when I was ill, or coping with rain or heat, or when I couldn’t make myself understood, or couldn’t be sure of my next meal, or bed, or shower, or toilet. I chose this path for myself on purpose, with the explicit intention of learning to adapt to whatever experiences I encountered, so it is overwhelming to imagine how much harder true homelessness would be: unchosen, with far fewer resources, and without a safety net of any kind.
Shortly after completing my long walk, while I was still far from home (at the international dream conference in the Netherlands), I had a dream that raised questions about homelessness, and what home really means. It was an important dream for me to have, and perhaps could be meaningful to others as well. So, in the next few blog posts, I’m going to explore this dream from three different angles: the literal, the personal, and the communal or universal.
Just about any dream or life issue can be seen literally, personally, or universally. First, we experience everything just as it happens, and respond to it immediately, with emotions, questions, concerns and insights about the situation as it appears to us. Then, we might take it to the next level, and see how it fits with other dreams or events in our lives, what patterns, paradoxes and metaphors are evident, and what it teaches us about ourselves. Finally, it can be meaningful to try to understand how these things apply not only to ourselves but to others, to communities and systems, to our natural environment, to our collective past, present and future.
Let’s look at the dream literally first…
The Homeless Man Will Lose His Papillon: My partner and I have befriended a homeless man who has a little dog—a female papillon named “Pierrot.” The man comes to our door on a cold, rainy night. He is chilled, soaked, and sick; he needs our help. We offer him a hot bath, dry clothes, soup, and a sleeping bag on the couch. We feed and tend his dog.
While he sleeps, we talk about his situation. He is unable to keep himself or Pierrot safe any longer. They are both going to die unless something is done. We call someone we know who works in social services. His wife (a kind, motherly person) is willing to adopt the dog. This is the only solution, but it means separating the homeless man from his beloved companion permanently. When he wakes up, he angrily refuses to discuss this, and leaves—but soon returns, because he is too sick to survive out there. He seems to agree, reluctantly, to give up Pierrot, though for now he will barely look at us and returns to the sleeping bag to rest.
Although I’m ashamed to do it, I remove my valuables—passport and cash—from the room where he is sleeping. Despite our friendship, I’m afraid that while in his current mood, upset and distrustful, he might be tempted to steal things.
Now, we witness a different scene: another dog—a retriever—is in a crate. Her owner is giving her up for adoption, and says good-bye to her, briefly, through the cage door. Then, her new owner, apparently the motherly woman who will adopt Pierrot, comes and opens the cage door and lets the dog out. They get to know each other gently. I think that this is how it could be for the little papillon, too—a sad separation, but the chance to go to a warm and loving home.
My first response to this dream, taking it literally, is anguish at the impossible decision to separate our homeless friend from his dog. I know that, in my waking life, I would not invite a homeless man into our home for the night—and I feel shame just as I felt in the dream when I distrusted my friend and kept my valuables out of his reach. Ignoring the last part of the dream, which suggests a more positive outcome, I can only think that taking away a man’s beloved dog is wrong, no matter what the justification. I do not accept the dream’s premise that this is the only option. It is too tragic and unfair. So, I am left with a painful predicament: How do I relate to a dream that pushes my buttons, and presents me with an apparently stuck situation?
A deeper question might be: What is this dream asking of me? I sense that the dream is asking me to open my heart wider. At the most literal level, in a world where some people are homeless, and some animals are harmed through their relationship with humans, and loving friendships sometimes end in grief—there are no easy answers, but there are many ways to respond. The best response is to open the heart—to feel compassion and vulnerability, and not to turn away from anyone or any situation. Although I try to be open, there are many ways that I shut down when “the right thing to do” is unclear and my helplessness is provoked by the suffering of others. The heart can always open wider, and wider still.
When faced with the situation in this dream, of course, I want to fix it, because it breaks my heart. But maybe opening the heart wider means accepting that I can’t fix some things. And, if I let go of my need to fix a situation, I might be able to see other possibilities for true healing. At first, with this dream, I thought that opening my heart wider meant finding a solution, somehow, where no solution seemed to be. Perhaps that is one meaning—I know it’s important not to give up too soon, and maybe I need to push harder for options when the “only” option is unacceptable. However, in this case the dream itself seems to imply a different kind of heart opening: the cage door is opened and the dog is free to find a new home.
Can good come out of something that looks like tragedy? Can I open my heart to the feeling of failure and shame, and allow room for healing rather than fixing? These are big questions without answers. And the literal approach to the dream leaves me with these questions.
Walking the Camino left me with big questions, too. I struggled with my own authentic and painful sense of homelessness, and with my shame about the privilege of “playing” homeless when I’m actually fortunate enough to have a home and family waiting for my return. But in the process, my empathy and compassion deepened as I directly experienced some of the struggles that homeless people face. I’m still seeking meaning in these experiences, and trying to open my heart wider, to include them in all their complexity.
The literal approach has limitations. If I take it literally, this dream about homelessness presents a social dilemma, and seems to imply that there should be a definitive answer—which leads to a success/failure dichotomy. But dreams are always open-ended, and their usefulness lies largely in their capacity to take us beyond answers and absolutes, into the wilderness of paradox and possibility. So, perhaps a personal, psychological approach—following metaphors, images and associations—would be more genuinely useful.
The personal approach may seem self-centered (or even self-indulgent), but it is actually a doorway into a more universal, communal approach. And so, in the next article, I’ll consider how this homeless dream touched me personally, how it related to my Camino pilgrimage, and how it opened my heart wider.