Compass Dreamwork

Dreamwork as Spiritual Practice

Category: Dreams Related to Death and Dying (page 1 of 2)

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

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

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

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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