Compass Dreamwork

Dreamwork as Spiritual Practice

Tag: dreamwork as spiritual practice (page 1 of 7)

Resistance and Dream Catharsis

It seems peculiar that when so many profound spiritual and physical changes are occurring in my waking life, my dreams continue to be uncomfortably uneventful. I’m having lots of what I call problem dreams, the dreams that drain energy, vent frustration, and express unproductive struggle. In these dreams, I’m trying to do something or get somewhere, encountering petty obstacles, feeling impatient, inadequate, exasperated, resentful and worried. Do you have dreams like this? Problem dreams are extremely common. They’re like the “filler” that takes up space and time in our lives, the day-to-day entropy of irritation and expectation that fills in the gaps while we’re waiting for something more meaningful to occur.

Ironically, I’ve been quite free of such “filler” in my waking life lately. While my physical health has declined rather sharply, I’m finding ease and meaning in the unfolding of my everyday experiences. The obstacles I encounter while awake are very real, but somehow acceptable; yet at night, in the relatively harmless dream world, I’m tripping over every step, struggling with every task, resisting all the way. 

Jung wrote of the compensatory quality of dreams: how they balance our waking life experiences by showing us what we’re missing about our reality, how they restore wholeness by including what’s being neglected. In my own case, however, my “compensatory” dreams don’t seem to be inviting me to integrate these neglected, problematic elements into my waking life. Instead, they seem more cathartic, helping me to discharge energies that would exhaust me if I acted them out during the day. It seems like I’m getting the usual messy business of wrestling with difficulties out of my system in my dreams, so I can ease up when I’m awake. 

My primary spiritual practice right now is “Don’t Waste Energy.” My symptoms are exhausting enough, and I want to appreciate the life I have, not expend scarce resources on unnecessary resistance. For the moment, I have to deal with increased pain and neuropathy, increasing debility, and the threat of further deterioration. None of this is under my control, though I do have a say in how I’m going to respond, and everything is improved by a response that is yielding rather than confrontative. My health issues also put me directly in the path of a dysfunctional and absurdly obstructive medical system, which is nevertheless staffed by many kind, capable practitioners—so when I encounter difficulties (the referral inadvertently lost; the long-awaited appointment accidentally canceled at the last minute; the insurance billing misdirected) it is a waste of energy to rage and blame the decent people who are just trying to do a good job in a bad business. It’s better for me to dream and re-dream my relentless, unsolvable issues than to take them out on myself and others when I’m awake. 

At a deeper level, all of these draining difficulties are only difficult because I’m afraid. The physical symptoms and the ineffective health care system only exhaust me because they scare me, they make me aware of my own helplessness in the face of my mortality. Every exasperating problem, finally, comes down to an encounter with the truth of how vulnerable and ephemeral we all are, how little control we have over our lives or our deaths. In dreams, I’m feeling the frustrating futility of fighting, so when I’m awake I can open my arms to the shared experience of being human; I can let my own transitory suffering soften my heart. I can embrace the awesome depth and breadth of our humble, meaningful moments together—the ways we need each other, the ways we care for each other (friends and strangers alike), however imperfectly. 

I’m facing the prospect of a major spinal surgery that would restructure my body, and thus my sense of myself, completely. My vertebrae are stacked crookedly, pressing into the spinal cord, and so the spine may have to be straightened and fused—cut, broken, rebuilt. It’s difficult to contemplate being taken apart at my very axis. My spine is the tree that springs from the source of me and spreads the branches that manifest me in the world, the twigs that leaf out into my life. How frightening to permit such drastic pruning. And not to be pruned by my own cautious clipping and splicing, but to give myself over to whatever hands I have to trust. 

While my dreams take on the tangled negotiations between my idea of me and my resistance to what happens to me, my waking life is free to experience itself happening. While walking or meditating, I hear the background chatter of my fears, like the ambient noise in a busy airport or, more pleasantly, like rain pattering on the spread leaves of my life, or wind rocking the branches so they rise and fall out of sync with one another yet rhythmically. I can almost feel myself as mere awareness, sheer awareness, pervasive as sunlight or darkness. This is the truth behind all of the stories that nest in my branches, or the insidious little worries that infest my heartwood like boring insects. The sunlight is everywhere and nowhere; the darkness is everywhere and nowhere. Sunlight feeds each individual tree. Darkness is quiet. This is okay; I can live like this.

For now, my problem dreams gnaw at my sleep, but they don’t bring down the tree. In fact, there’s a kind of symbiosis going on. The dreams live in me, and they give me permission to let them be. Usually, I think of dreams as deeply important, to be explored, but these dreams are meant to be left to get on with their work, releasing me from resisting them. I don’t need to bushwhack my way toward some sort of answer. I can step back for a larger view of the thriving chaos of my life. I can witness the chaos, allow it, even love it. When I’m not resisting, I stand in the sunlight, and shine, as we all do. 

Walk Softly On The Earth: Tenderfoot Dreams

When someone shares a dream about feet in one of my regular dream groups, there’s often a humorous tone to the discussion. The dreamer usually presents the dream in a light-hearted way, and the group members may respond with laughter. Feet seem to be inherently a bit comical, or maybe it’s just the way we dream of them. In our dreams, we walk on tiptoes, hop, skip or trip over our own feet; we find ourselves wearing bunny slippers or someone else’s old loafers; our shoes are missing or mismatched; our socks have holes; we have luminous toenails or too many toes… Feet appear fairly commonly in dreams, and the preponderance of foot-related silliness can make these dreams seem trivial. But feet can be significant. In fact, awake or asleep, we need our feet. There’s a reason that feet are sometimes called “dogs.” Like our canine friends, our feet can be trusted. They are faithful, sometimes funny, often brave. They serve us with love, and their service is both practical and spiritual. 

For much of my life, I didn’t really understand my feet. They seemed somehow embarrassing. I broke my ankle when I was three (racing down a slippery hallway in my socks) and was prone to sprains, so I always thought of my feet as a weak point. My arches were too high, my toes too long… I avoided going barefoot because my feet just seemed so naked.But when I really needed them, those feet stepped up. When I was training to walk the Camino de Santiago in 2016, I worried that they would fail me, but they just got stronger. The further I walked, the stronger they got. During that 500 mile trudge across northern Spain, I began to realize that my feet are sacred, and very dear. I learned to care for them, as they care for me. Though they sometimes ache with all their hard work, they carry me easily, and they’ve become muscular and beautiful in their own awkward, knobby, intrepid and steadfast way. 

Metaphorically, a foot can be a stand-in (pun intended) for the body as a whole. The ancient healing art of reflexology is based on the fact that pressure points on the feet correspond to the organs and systems of the body. What could be more representative of our physicality than our feet? Our feet literally bear the weight of our mortal lives. They connect us to the earth, and we balance ourselves upon them. With each step, one foot rises into emptiness, transcending gravity and carrying us forward, while the other accepts the entire burden of the body’s weight, bearing down, holding steady—then, as the first foot comes down to the ground, the second foot eases up,  tipping us forward, rising to swing into motion. The feet are indeed taking turns, engaging in a perfect dance of give-and-take that creates the essential momentum for our progress through the world.

Unlike our other paired parts (hands, eyes, etc.), the feet cannot perform their functions separately—one hand can still work, one eye can still see, one ear can still hear, one lung can still breathe, but one foot can only fidget on its own. We have to stand on our own two feet, and it takes two to tango. In a sense, our feet remind us that our separateness is an illusion, our lives are carefully balanced with the world around us, and if we are not acting in harmony with ourselves and in coordination with others, we can go nowhere.

So, when feet appear in our dreams, they may be telling us something profound about the nature of our bodies and our souls (soles), our independence and our interdependence, our connection to the earth and to one another. There’s something tender, even poignant, about our feet. They manifest our strength and our vulnerability at the same time.

In the Christian story, feet play a significant role. With great tenderness and reverence, Mary (the sister of Martha) pours precious ointment over the feet of Jesus and wipes them with her hair. This is a way of offering blessing and gratitude to the most fundamentally human aspect of the divine—and when Jesus acknowledges this by saying “you will not always have me with you” he is emphasizing his own mortality, his temporal nature. In Buddhist terms, he is acknowledging his rare and precious “human birth,” his fragile humanity. The hardworking feet embody this humanity, with humility. When Jesus stoops to wash the apostles’ feet, he again draws attention to the humble and temporary nature of all of our lives—the ordinary holiness we must treasure in each other. 

Although I’m not a traditional Christian, such images have always moved me. I remember sitting in my uncle’s church as a child, horrified by the presence of a larger-than-life-size crucifix above the altar, yet fascinated by the poignant vulnerability of the feet of Christ, pierced together by a single nail. Even in death, when the feet have been mortified along with the rest of the body, those bleeding feet remind us powerfully that they belong to a flesh-and-blood human being, a unique person, who somehow transcends the final brokenness of the physical self.

When my mother died, I was sitting at her bedside and watched the life go out of her face. Unlike most of the other people whose deaths I’ve witnessed, no trace of her individuality lingered in her features after death; her body seemed instantly emptied of all that she had been. My sister (Jill) was unsure she could handle seeing Mom like this, yet she feared that if she did not look, she would regret it later. So, my other sister (Didi) and I suggested looking at Mom’s feet instead of her face. Even though the rest of the body was just a corpse, swollen with edema and slackened by death, those feet were still Mom’s feet. The three of us, her three daughters, gathered close. Uncovering Mom’s feet was like receiving her blessing, and giving her ours. We touched her feet gently, crying, recognizing them, remembering them. They were so familiar and so ordinary, so uniquely Mom’s. 

I’ve been more aware of my own feet recently. While much of my body is changing rapidly due to illness (losing muscle, and becoming more frail), my feet, like Mom’s, are still reassuringly familiar. Whether I’m barefoot or wearing shoes, I look down at my feet a lot because the structural changes in my upper body make it difficult to hold my head up. When I’m taking long walks, I have to rest my neck by hanging my head much of the time, and when my head is down, I notice my feet, as well as the ground under them.

The ground is beautiful; the earth is beautiful. I notice the the scrambled tweed pattern of douglas-fir needles on the path, the maple leaves etched in frost, the footprints of humans and dogs in the mud, and my own feet in their well-worn boots finding the earth with every step. When I’m hanging my head, I can’t see where I’m going, but I can see where I am. Right here, pressing my feet against the sustaining ground of my life. 

Dreams about feet might be amusing because it is wise and right to acknowledge our human vulnerability and courage with a sense of humor. Look at us! We are awkward, knobby, intrepid and steadfast creatures. We are beautiful, from our heavy heads to our stumbling feet. And the earth we walk upon is holy ground.

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.

Tree Medicine: Existential Dream Wisdom

Sometimes dreams seem to offer direct communication from the natural world—bringing guidance that reconnects us with the earth itself, and reminds us that we belong here. Our bodies are made of the same essential elements that make up all life, and we are part of the intricate and magnificent ecosystem that includes all living beings.

The Tree Is Not Afraid of Death: There’s a single row of red-cedar trees along the edge of the parking lot. A woman is clinging to one of the trees, crying. When I approach, she tells me that this one is her special friend, and they are going to cut it down. The whole place is under development. I see an arched doorway carved all the way through the trunk of the tree (like the tunnels in giant sequoias that cars could drive through—but much smaller). Since the trunk is just a couple of feet in diameter, and the doorway is about eighteen inches high and six inches wide, it’s a gaping hole, so I’m surprised that the tree seems healthy in spite of the damage. Some of the other cedars have doorways as well.

The woman begs me to protect her tree—not to let it be destroyed. I don’t know how to respond. I think that I have no authority to prevent them from cutting down the tree. Then, I think maybe they really aren’t planning to cut it down, since this row of trees was left standing when all the others were bulldozed to clear the lot. But these thoughts don’t seem particularly helpful; the woman is truly desperate.

 I put one hand on the cedar and the other hand on the woman’s back, and I tell her, in a clear, strong voice: “You know, this tree doesn’t fear death the way we do. This tree feels no separation between itself and the earth. For the tree, death is just returning to the earth, becoming earth. The tree is already part of the earth.” I’m astonished at my own apparent arrogance in speaking for the tree—but the voice just seemed to come out without my volition, as if the tree had spoken directly to the woman, through me. The woman is comforted. She knows she can trust her connection with the tree, and the tree’s connection with the earth.

It is not really surprising that the trees in our dreams might speak to us, or through us; trees and dreams are rooted in common ground. Although our human business may seem to separate us from nature and from our dream-source, nothing, not even death, can uproot us from the ground of our being.

I’m often preoccupied with the big existential questions that tend to trouble our earnest human minds. As my health is tenuous, the prospect of death has become very real to me. I know that I am finite. Sooner or later, I’m going to be cut down. So, the part of me that is clinging to life, the part that thinks it’s special, the part that is uniquely “me,” the part that will die—that part of me is worried. I’m attached to being me.

Many people say that they’re not afraid of death, they’re only concerned about what the dying process will be like… Will it be painful? Will it be undignified? But, for me, the dying seems no different from what we’re doing all the time—sometimes it’s painful and undignified, sometimes it’s not—it’s just living. When I get close to death, I’ll still be living, in one way or another, I’ll still be me. I’m curious about the dying process. But dying always ends in death. And death is the end of me. At least, death is the end of the part of me that worries about me. Death is the end of my familiar, human business.

Still, the trees remind me, there’s more to my life than this identity, which is always “under development.” When I had cancer in my thirties, I was too ill to worry so much about dying or death. I relaxed into the larger life of the natural world around me. I noticed the slow-growing trees whose business was just absorbing sunlight, drawing water from the soil, making leaves and losing leaves, sheltering birds, animals, insects, and reaching toward the sky. Looking at the old ones—the big oaks and cedars and beeches and redwoods—I felt peaceful knowing that they might go on living long after my death. The trees reassured me: being dead would be like life expanded to include everything, with no business to get done and no place else to be.

All this lovely philosophy was helpful then, but now it’s not so easy. I’ve seen too much death in recent years. I’m tired and I feel the limitations of my body and my small, restless, anxious human mind, yet I’ve got a pretty strong attachment to being ME—and staying this way forever, if I can manage to hold on. Of course, I can’t. Even long-lived trees don’t live forever, let alone busy, ephemeral human beings. So, my dreams remind me of the tree-medicine within me, the tree-medicine I can offer to the part of myself that suffers the fear of loss, the fear of death.

In a previous post [“Pity the Poor Ego”] I wrote: “If you want to find the Ego in a dream, look for the one who’s suffering, because the Ego always suffers when reality doesn’t conform to what the Ego believes is important.” By this definition, the Ego in this particular dream is the woman who clings to her special tree and cannot bear to let go. The “I” character in the dream—the one I’m most identified with—has a more complex role that matches the role I find myself holding at this threshold in my waking life. While part of me tries to solve the problem that the suffering Ego would love to have me solve, another part of me holds her ground between that Ego and a deeper wisdom—making the connection between them.

My Ego (the woman in the dream) needs to save her tree, to save herself; she needs to find a way to prevent death from cutting in and bulldozing everything she loves. I ponder her problem, and feel her desperation. But I don’t have a solution. Instead, I place a hand on her back and a hand on the tree, and I bring them together. The tree-medicine flows through me. The three of us cannot be separated, and all the other living cedars in a row, and all the ghost-trees that once made up a forest here, all of us are rooted in the earth together, letting life rise up in us like sap.

As I explored this dream, I began to trust myself more—trusting the connection between myself and the fundamental, immortal essence of all living beings. At first, I didn’t think much of those doorways through some of the tree trunks. I thought of them as ugly wounds, imposed upon the trees by the heedless human business of development and destruction. After all, those thousand-year-old giant “tunnel trees” in the great redwood forests eventually died because people had cut out their hearts to run roads through. But a doorway through a dream tree does no harm: the tree is healthy, in spite of the gaping hole. In fact, the more I look at that doorway now, the more I see it as an opening, a portal through which I can reach the other side.

Paradoxically, our destructive human business, the plans and projects we devise to avert loss and fear, can sometimes open our hearts. We can come to understand the selfishness and neediness that leads us all to try to control and subdue the natural world, just as we would like to control and subdue death. And if we can see through our own motivations, our vision expands. That hole is indeed a doorway, an invitation to stoop down and step through. In a dream, the doorway doesn’t have to be big enough to accommodate me—you know, my dream-ego can get smaller, crossing that threshold. Can yours? Let’s try it. Maybe we can step through that doorway, through the tree’s heartwood… And maybe there’s a flourishing forest on the other side.

Howling Together: Healing Dreams & Community

What does healing look like in the dream world? Dreams reflect the changes that are happening all the time, in our physical bodies and in our spiritual lives. For me, those changes have been dramatic in the past couple of years, and recently I had a wonderful dream, which gave me a deeper trust in the process of change itself. I dreamed about the wisdom of wolves.

Thanks to this dream, I can believe that authentic healing is going on in my body and spirit. I’m especially grateful because the dream not only helped me to experience this healing directly, but also gave me a restorative image of death and renewal that truly resonates. I will hold this image like an open door inside myself, through which powerful emotions can come and go. Because of the dream, I can sense the small voice of my own life rising to meet the wild song of all life—just as the howl of one small wolf rises to meet the music of the whole pack.

I’ll share some of the changes that have been happening in my waking world, followed by the dream and its resonance. Please howl along (leave a comment), if the song speaks to you…

For the past two years, health problems have shaken up my life: heart damage, deteriorating muscles in my upper body and neck, neurological issues, migraines and stroke-like symptoms, digestive difficulties that drained the life out of me… There’s no certainty at all about where this is going. My disease is rare, and doctors have no idea what the progression will be. When my heart function seemed to be failing steadily, the prognosis was five to ten years, or less. When I lost too much weight and was just too frail to function, I couldn’t imagine surviving more than a year or so. Some days, it felt like I might be dying pretty soon—but some days that just seemed too melodramatic to believe. Often, I felt almost normal, just with a stiff neck, a tummy ache, and some clumsiness and weakness. Then, my heart stabilized, at least for the time being. I started adjusting to most of my symptoms with less fear. It became possible that I might live for quite a while. But I can’t know for sure, of course. Overall, I’ve just had to accept the chaos within myself.

I had to let go of my ambition for the future. I had to let go of defining myself as either “healthy” or “sick.” I had to wait on the threshold: tired, confused, hopeful, peaceful, constantly aware of the reality of death, sometimes numb, sometimes afraid… existentially baffled. There was, and is, a kind of grace in the open-endedness of my situation, even though some aspects of the process have been lonely—impossible to share with others. Sometimes, all I can do is immerse myself in the unknown, and wait.

I haven’t been remembering many dreams—which contributes to the general uncertainty. My sleep is shallow and disrupted by discomforts, but most of the dreams I’ve been able to remember could be classified as “death dreams.” I’ve dreamed, over and over, about packing for a long journey “home,” with my deceased parents coming to accompany me. From my experience in hospice work and spiritual direction, I know that these kinds of dreams are typical for people who are literally getting ready to die, but they’re also common for people going through life transitions of one kind or another. The death is just as often metaphorical as literal: one part of my life is dying, my deceased loved ones are helping me on this journey, and my ultimate goal is a sense of “home,” a sense of knowing I’m in the right place.

So, are the dreams literally predictive of death, or metaphorically describing the experience of my present life? The situation is complicated by the fact that dreams often reflect our priorities, the things we’ve been thinking about—and I’ve been thinking a lot about death. Whether it comes tomorrow or twenty years from now, it’s real and it’s on my mind. These dreams have a healing quality, because they’re reassuring in an ultimate kind of way… but they’re repetitive, and I haven’t really gotten beyond packing, or riding in a car with Mom and Dad, on the way…

So what has changed recently that would invite a new kind of healing dream? Where did the wolves come from? Recently, I’ve been feeling healthy. It’s weird, because my upper body is still deteriorating and painful, and I still have many of the symptoms I had before. But my heart seems steadier, my digestion has settled down for now, and I’m getting stronger. I walk long distances several times a week, and I can feel the muscle tone all over my body (except in the areas affected by the disease). Maybe I’ll die tomorrow, or maybe I’ll live forever. I’m appreciating other people, and myself. I feel that I belong to my life again. I’m allowing my vulnerability to be an invitation to others: Let’s all open up a little, find what’s most authentic in ourselves, share our challenges and gifts, be at home with uncertainty because it allows for new possibilities.

So, I have a dream…

Howl:I look behind some bushes near my campsite, and I’m stunned to see a full-grown wolf—sitting up at first, then lying down as if unconscious, in a shallow pool of icy-cold water with decaying leaves at the bottom. I think she might be dead… but she is still breathing. She has chosen to lie in this freezing water—why? Perhaps she is dying, and is trying to hasten the process and numb her pain? It is hard to see her die, but perhaps she is trying to heal herself somehow. It wouldn’t be right for me to interfere, but I mention her to others, because I’m concerned and hoping someone will know why she is here or how to help her.

When I return to check on her, I hear sounds coming from her hiding place. A veterinarian—a middle-aged woman in a white coat—is working over the wolf, doing CPR. The wolf’s heart must have stopped! But, the vet can revive her. Soon, the wolf stands unsteadily, shakes herself, then seems to regain her strength. Other wolves gather around—and other humans, too. Everyone seems excited about the successful healing. Spontaneously, playfully, the vet lets out a howl, and several other people pipe up, too. They don’t really sound very wolf-like, and the wolves look away, as if embarrassed for them.

Quietly, I try a little howl myself. It begins with just a murmuring sound, and then rises to a hollow, resonant tone that comes from deep within me—gentle, tentative, but clear. There’s no contrivance or exaggeration—I let myself feel the wolf-ness inside me, and then release the wolf- song. I sound like a small, cautious wolf.

Now, I notice a wolf pup—very shy and slightly awkward as if she hasn’t yet grown into her body. Her fur is a soft gray, lighter than the other wolves. She’s sitting on a flight of stairs (even though we’re in the woods). Her ears prick up at the sound of my howl, and her whole body trembles, alerted. She looks at me with intent eyes, as if trying to determine whether my howl is a true howl. Can she trust it? She decides to trust—closes her eyes, and listens. Then, she tips back her head and begins to howl with me. She has never howled before, and she pours herself into the sound—high, sweet, rich and pure. The other wolves join her, and then the humans. We are all howling together and I can feel my heart expanding with the gorgeous howling of the pack.

When the howling is done, there’s a moment of stillness. I realize that these wolves are completely at ease with human beings. Apparently, a woman has opened her house to them, so they can come and go as they please. Now, the wolves (including the pup) walk into the open door of that house—across the threshold. They enter without fear. I don’t see the woman who owns the house, but I know that she keeps the door open.

What are wolves? They are very wild animals, but very social, deeply connected to one another. I’ve had a funny relationship with wolves, because several years ago, when I asked for a “spirit ally” to appear to me, I had a distinct image of a subway door opening to reveal a wolf. A wolf as a spirit ally seemed like a cliché, and I wanted something more unusual, maybe a sloth or a wombat. But a wolf showed up. And the wolf wasn’t always friendly. When I asked the wolf for help, the wolf said, “You don’t need help.” In dreams, sometimes a wolf would attack me and I’d rush into the house and try to slam the door—until, finally, I held my ground, offered my arm and said, “Go ahead, eat me.” When the wolf took a bite of me in a dream, it hurt, but being eaten up wasn’t so bad. Another dream came after that, and the wolf and I were on better terms. I have a history with dream wolves, but this last dream is new to me. Continue reading

Three-Part Dreams: Discovering the Rogue

Many dreams have distinct scenes, and it’s surprising how often those scenes come in threes. It’s also common to have multiple dreams in the same night, and those frequently come in threes as well. Maybe it’s just that our memories tend to organize themselves in sets of three—perhaps there was a fourth scene, or a fourth dream, that we don’t remember. Nevertheless, whether it’s a function of memory or a function of the dreams themselves, the pattern is significant, and can be useful when we are trying to relate to the dream world.

One way of looking at a three-part dream is to think of the parts as past, present and future. Something happened in the first dream, which leads to what happens in the second dream, which leads to what will happen in the third dream. Or, there’s a problem in the first dream (where the problem started), which becomes better or worse in the second dream (what is going on now), and could reach its best or worst potential in the third dream (what will happen if the trend continues). If you look at a three-part dream this way, you’ll see a development from one situation to the next, and that can certainly be meaningful in many cases.

However, time may not really be relevant to the unfolding of dream meanings. Modern physics suggests that our sense of past-present-future does not reflect the way things actually are. Time is not linear, and we can sometimes experience this in the dream world. Often, it’s not entirely clear which dream-part came first, second or third. Dreams can transcend clock time—with precognitive elements (showing future events in the waking world), or dream events that occur simultaneously, or with cause-and-effect dream elements that work both forward and backward.

For example, recently I dreamed:

I’m buying some food at a deli counter for tomorrow’s journey: a packet containing an egg-and-potato pancake. I walk past the produce display just as the mist-spray comes on—but it malfunctions and is more like a gushing sprinkler, which soaks my clothes…

When I tried to record this dream (which had many other details not included here), I realized that I couldn’t figure out which part happened first. It seemed impossible, but in the part where I was buying the packet of food, my clothes were definitely wet. And in the part where my clothes got sprinkled, I was definitely carrying the packet of food. So, somehow, each scene had to have been preceded by the other scene. Hm.

Because of such incongruities, I’ve been exploring other ways of looking at three-part dreams—where the three parts are interdependent in a more cyclical or multi-dimensional model that doesn’t rely on sequence.

Threes are dynamic. When you have two things, there’s balance or contrast. When you have four things, there’s stability. But three means that something is happening. Whenever two things interact, a third thing comes into being that is more than the sum of its parts. My own way of describing the “third thing” is to call it the “rogue.”*

In couple relationships, the two partners as individuals combine their energies, but the rogue of that relationship is a third individual in itself—often having characteristics possessed by neither of the two partners. A child is a rogue, because she or he comes from two parents and has an individuality that can resemble both parents, but is also unique and distinct. The rogue is not just a synthesis, but a leap into new possibilities. Continue reading

Interview by Metka Cuk on the “Dream Owls” website

Metka Cuk, a creative and inspiring dreamworker and artist, has been interviewing other dreamworkers and dreamers, introducing us to the depth and breadth of the dreaming community. These interviews are posted on her delightful website, “Dream Owls: A Place to Talk About Your Dreams.”

Some months ago, she did a wide-ranging interview with me about my background in dreamwork and my spiritual journey with dreams, including connections in my life between dreaming and healing, hospice work, Buddhism and Christianity, the Camino de Santiago, haiku, and more.

Please click on the picture to read the interview, and while you’re there, you’ll want to check out “Dream Owls” and the many other wonderful interviews, as well as Metka’s excellent cartoons and artwork!

I hope you can imagine your own version of how dreams have affected your life… Think of how you might share your own dreaming story with others. Dreams take us to our depths, and reflect the vital heart of our lives—and sharing these stories can be meaningful for all of us.

Pity the Poor Ego: Trickster Dreams

My most disturbing dreams have not been the classic frightening nightmares—instead, I dream of being a bystander while someone else suffers. Instead of terror, there’s horror, and the agony of helplessness and vicarious pain. Just as with nightmares, the emotional impact is ugly, and, at first, it’s not especially useful to tell myself that there must be something valuable here, even though I know that disturbing dreams have been some of the most meaningful experiences in my life. I’ve witnessed the beauty and transformative power they can have again and again in working with my own dreams and those of clients and friends. Yet, I can’t plunge in with enthusiasm right away; I need to respect the real (awful!) feelings that such dreams arouse, and give them time.

When I had the following dream, it left me feeling ashamed and upset:

Burning Alive: A man, with the cocky over-the-top manner of a Master of Ceremonies from a television game show, keeps intruding on the scene. He has a large, toothy smile, and he speaks loudly and glibly about nothing, with a lot of fake laughter and fake friendliness. He assumes that everyone should pay attention to him, and is idiotically over-confident.

There’s a room with its floor covered in blazing hot coals, radiating waves of heat. A waist-high wooden wall, blocks the open double-doorway. Casually, the man climbs onto the wall, waves, and jumps into the room—showing off. Apparently someone else is inside there, working on the hot coals (raking them?)—but s/he must be wearing protective clothing, because s/he’s not harmed by the heat. The Master of Ceremonies, who jumped in without protection, has no chance of survival.

I’m horrified. There’s nothing that I can do, or that the person in the room can do, to help him—and he can’t help himself either. He must be in agony as he falls on the fiery coals, unable to get up or get out, slowly burning to death. I don’t actually see this, but I hear him shouting and imagine what is happening. Ironically, his voice sounds almost as stagey and artificially enthusiastic as he was when he was just showing off. First, he shouts, “It’s so hot!” An absurd understatement, in that loud, falsely cheery voice. Then, his cries seem more poignant and painful, though he’s still using this “game show” voice He says something that suggests he can’t stand the suffering: something like, “Please get on with it!” And even though there isn’t anguish in his tone, I feel the anguish for him and find this suffering unbearable. Please, let it be over soon. Let him die quickly.

I woke from this dream truly distressed—and the only meaning I could find in it at first was not at all encouraging. The waves of heat radiating from the room reminded me of the radiation treatments that are the source of my current neuro-muscular disease. Twenty-three years after my cancer treatments, the residual radiation is increasingly active in my body, “burning me alive.” Am I like that pathetic fellow, somehow causing my own pain? Have I been “showing off,” throwing away my life, leaping into trouble and then finding myself helpless—desperate, but somehow also ridiculous? Of course, this is not a fully-formed response, and certainly not a reasonable way to approach the dream or my own life situation. But it seemed consistent with the awfulness of the dream’s aftertaste. I wanted to feel compassion for that man (and for myself), yet all I could feel was pity, helplessness, and a strong desire to turn away from the suffering, to get it over with.

I didn’t want to remember this dream. I wrote it down, but tried to forget it. Then, a couple of days later, while I was taking a walk, it came back to me vividly—with a new title making a different impression. Instead of “Burning Alive,” the new title was much more specific, and somehow less painful: “The Self-Immolation of the Master of Ceremonies.” Why did this seem less painful? Well, “self-immolation” implies a kind of intention, a sacrifice rather than a silly, wasteful, careless act of self-harm. I associated “self-immolation” with the Vietnamese Buddhist monks who set fire to themselves in protest against the Vietnam War. Their actions were drastic, and not consistent with my own cultural ideas about what constitutes appropriate dissent… yet their intentions were genuinely meaningful. They gave their lives to draw attention to an injustice. Could the man in my dream be making a similarly meaningful statement? Also, the term “Master of Ceremonies” implies not careless foolishness but the possibility of “mastering” a situation that might represent a “ceremonial” offering. What if this ridiculous character is suffering for a reason? And what if his suffering is something other than it seems?

In a previous post [“Seeing With Fresh Eyes”], I mentioned two important “tricks” that I often use in working with difficult, unpleasant dreams: 1) look for anomalies and inconsistencies in the dream itself; and 2) question the dream ego’s perspective on the situation. In “The Self-Immolation of the Master of Ceremonies,” the anomaly and the questionable point-of-view are directly related; the most obvious inconsistency suggests a potential inaccuracy in the dream-ego’s perspective. The dream-ego assumes that someone who has fallen on hot coals must be in agony, yet the “Master of Ceremonies” himself does not sound distressed. He uses his “game show” voice to express what he is experiencing, and his emotion is not at all consistent with the suffering that the dream-ego expects him to experience.

So, what if the “burning alive” really is a ceremony, a game, or a show—a metaphorical ritual that involves the “burning up” of old patterns rather than a soul in torment?

With the strong emotion of my initial reaction to the dream, it was easy to assume that this egotistical fellow represented my own Ego-identity in its crudest form: trying to be the center of attention, and coming to grief as a result. But, in fact, the dream-ego (the “I” in the dream) is actually a much more accurate representative of how my own Ego-identity (the “I” in my waking life) sees the world. The Ego, in Jungian terms, is not necessarily egotistical—it is just the essential lens through which the much larger Self perceives and understands experience. We can’t reject the Ego, because we need an Ego-identity to function in the world, but we shouldn’t take her perspective as the whole truth. The dream-ego, like my waking identity, does her best to interpret what she’s experiencing. She understands what’s happening according to its impact on her, so when the Master of Ceremonies behaves as he does, she reacts by judging and defining him as “idiotically over-confident”—his leap onto the burning coals is “ridiculous” and, from her perspective, inevitably results in his pathetic annihilation. Yet, she also wants to be a good person, and finds her own inability to help, or to feel authentic compassion, shameful and painful.

If you want to find the Ego in a dream, look for the one who’s suffering, because the Ego always suffers when reality doesn’t conform to what the Ego believes is important. In this dream, the man who leaps onto hot coals doesn’t seem to be suffering—but the dream-ego is clearly in a lot of pain. She can’t bear what she thinks is happening. In my waking life, my own experience of fluctuating emotions and deteriorating health often causes me suffering. Yet there’s more to me than this suffering Ego, and more to my experience than my Ego can imagine.

Who is the Master of Ceremonies, then? Who is running this “game show”? Dreams have more to offer than the Ego can grasp—but the wholeness of my Self includes all of it, and my Ego can learn from the other characters in the dream. In this dream, I suspect the Master of Ceremonies is not just an exaggerated Ego figure, but a Trickster.

Tricksters in world mythology are not usually very appealing characters, and their stories can make an ugly and painful first impression. Characters like Coyote in some Native American traditions, and Loki in Norse traditions, have all the worst qualities of the Ego: they are malicious, greedy, lustful, and brutally selfish; they are clever, even brilliant at times, but they always end up being too smart for their own good and coming to a bad end. Other Trickster figures may seem more benign, especially when they are represented in cartoons for children, through characters like Bugs Bunny or the Cat in the Hat. But all of them are, at the very least, cocky—and, to some degree, this cockiness is self-defeating. Tricksters are always getting into trouble. While the Master of Ceremonies in my dream seems merely annoying rather than mean, his bad behavior (“showing off”) seems to be his downfall. But wait…

Tricksters are not just bad guys. They may be brought down by their own machinations (often explosively, grotesquely, or pathetically) but, like Wile E. Coyote, they are always up and at it again in the next scene. They always bounce back, and the inadvertent consequences of their actions are often massively transformative.

Tricksters are game changers; the world is recreated in their wake. When Coyote steals fire for his own selfish reasons, his tail ends up in flames, and as he flees in panic, the sparks he scatters form the stars in the sky. By accident, new energies are released, new life begins, new possibilities are opened up. We human beings are the epitome of the Trickster, with our greedy self-interest, our crazy, impulsive, ego-driven yet creative technological advances, we harm and transform ourselves and the world around us. The Trickster leads the way to catastrophe, but also, potentially, initiates whatever comes next.

In my dream, the Master of Ceremonies leaps onto the hot coals, showing off. The dream-ego interprets this as a wretched mistake. Meanwhile, another unseen person, who is impervious to the heat, bears witness. The MC should be in terrible pain, yet his expressions of dismay are unconvincing, and it’s primarily the dream-ego who seems to suffer. Another dream anomaly is that the wall which separates the blazing coals from the rest of the world is made of wood. Wouldn’t a wooden wall catch fire?

If the wall is made of wood, then perhaps the fire is not as hot as it’s supposed to be? Or else, that wall represents an illusion of protection; sooner or later, the wall will burn and the fire will be right here, where I must experience it directly. The fire is inescapable, not only for the MC (who plunged right into it!) but for me. For every mortal being, protections are only temporary. It’s inevitable that we will all encounter experiences that are too painful, “too hot to handle,” as we lose loved ones, physical health, and ultimately our own lives.

The dream-ego is caught up in the horror of the dream’s apparently disastrous momentum, but she never actually sees what is going on in the fiery furnace of that room. If I actually get closer, overcoming my revulsion and dismay… If I actually look past that anomalous wooden wall… What might I see? I imagine the Master of Ceremonies, the Game Show Host, would not be writhing in agony. In fact, he wouldn’t be there at all. The “someone else in the room” could turn out to be another face of the Trickster, with no need for “protective clothing,” impervious to the pain, but raking those coals in order to make the room ready for a ceremonial Fire Walk. These “too hot” horrors could become a way of transforming pain into something more meaningful.

Perhaps my own Ego-identity can step into that room, and walk across it, without judgement or suffering. Perhaps she is willing to change, to let her old life be burned away, and to walk into a new world, born out of the flames of losses, illness, and uncertainty. Continue reading

Beyond Dead Ends: Accepting the Kestrel’s Invitation

Recently, I shared a dream about a hawk, and explored ways of working with dreams that present us with our “problems.” Since I wrote that article [“Seeing With Fresh Eyes: Finding Meaning in Problem Dreams”], more hawks have appeared both in my dreams and in my waking life. They seem to be heralds of a new way of seeing and being, presenting me with a challenge to open my eyes, my mind, and my heart to new possibilities.

The hawk in my previous dream was a juvenile Sharp-Shinned Hawk: a small hawk that generally hunts in forested areas. Within a week of that dream, I saw a hawk exactly like this in two different places. Both times, the hawk appeared unexpectedly, landed close to me, and seemed to look straight at me. Up until then, I’d seen many adult Sharp-Shinned Hawks, but no juveniles. I knew from the field guide that juveniles have different markings—plain brown and white, rather than the more detailed adult markings—but I’d never encountered a juvenile up close (except in my dream). Seeing these juvenile hawks when I did seemed significant. At the very least, it suggested to me that my dream was both meaningful and currently active in my life.

Then, I had a second hawk dream about a different kind of hawk: a Kestrel. A Kestrel—also called a Sparrowhawk—is a very small falcon with extraordinarily colorful markings. Kestrels hunt by hovering high in the air, beating their wings rapidly in place (like “treading water”), looking for their prey below. This dream also includes my deaf black cat, Toby, who died of a neuro-muscular disease (not too different from the neuro-muscular disease I’m coping with myself) last year, while he was still quite young. He was a sweetheart, very brave and innocent, funny and affectionate—I’m still wrestling with his death, not fully able to accept it.

Toby Wants To Fly: Toby’s on a leash outside with me, and I need to get him home safely. I lift him in my arms, holding him tightly, and hurry. It’s a long way. I have to get across a large, busy intersection and traffic circle. We’re surrounded by loud trucks, car horns, shouting voices, city sounds… I’m so afraid that Toby will get spooked and struggle to escape, but then I remember that he is deaf, so of course it isn’t noisy for him. He’s alert in my arms, looking around with calm curiosity at everything.

We get beyond the city, and I have to climb a little hill covered in low, heather-like shrubs. Suddenly, a stunningly beautiful Kestrel flies right up to us, and hovers in the air at head-level, just a few feet away—looking straight at us with a piercing gaze. Toby struggles to get free, to leap after the Kestrel. I cling to him, desperately determined to hold onto him. I can’t let him go. I know that if I let him go, he will die. I notice that there’s a second Kestrel in a bush nearby.

Having subdued Toby, I continue on over the top of the hill and begin to descend the other side. Now, it’s getting dark, and the downslope is treacherous because there are white plastic garbage bags full of some unspeakable, dead, rotting stuff scattered everywhere in the shrubbery. It’s difficult to pick my way through the shrubs, without stepping on those bags. Toby’s still wriggling. Perhaps this is a place where people come to do drug deals or shoot up, a real “dead end place.” I’m not scared, but the downslope is ugly, grim and sad. I need to get Toby home.

Because of his deafness and his obliviousness to danger, Toby would not have been safe outside; he was an “indoor cat” his whole life. I never took him out on a leash (except in this dream). But I loved to hold him in my arms, whenever he would let me, and I wished I could have held him like that forever.

Throughout the dream, I’m motivated by seeking “safety” and “home.” I’m apparently willing to ignore the powerful invitation of the Kestrel, because my strongest need is to get Toby home safely. When members of my peer dream group pointed out how clearly the dream was offering an opportunity to let go, I insisted that if I let go, he would die. Maybe I would die.

But the contradiction is evident: Toby is already dead. And this is a dream: Anything is possible. If I had been lucid in this dream, aware that I was dreaming, I would have realized that I could release him—he would go free, maybe fly into the air after the Kestrel. He could not be harmed. He is already home, safe. I’m the one who’s afraid. I’m the one who’s deaf to the call of the Kestrel, and who trudges on, “over the hill,” in the bleak landscape of decay and death.

This dream, like most of my dreams lately, reflects how I’m dealing with my own mortality and health challenges, and also how I’m seeking meaning in my life.

I have a disease (Radiation Fibrosis Syndrome) that makes me vulnerable in some of the same ways that Toby was vulnerable. I long for a safe place to rest, but, at the same time, I understand that my physical symptoms and uncertain prognosis put me in a situation that is potentially a spiritual opportunity. Every moment of every day, I’m meeting the unknown. I don’t know how quickly the damage to my upper spine and heart will progress—and I don’t know whether these conditions will cripple or kill me, sooner or later. I don’t know how to proceed with my work commitments, since my ability to undertake long-term projects is entirely unpredictable. I’m holding on, desperately, to the things I treasure about my life, afraid that the clamor of the busy world around me will sap my remaining resources, or distract me into wasteful, exhausting digressions. But I know from many years of inner work that this open-ended experience of not-knowing gives me a chance to question my assumptions, release my need for control, and surrender to the freshness of a life without agendas and absolutes.

Yet my dream tells me that I’m not as open as I truly want to be. I’m holding on tightly, believing that death, or at least a painful loss, is the inevitable outcome of a leap into the unknown.

What if I let Toby leap after the Kestrel? My dreamworker friends also mentioned the phrase, “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.” The second Kestrel waits “in the bush” nearby. Both Kestrels are wild and free. My “bird in the hand,” my beloved cat, wants to be wild and free, too. But I’m holding onto him. I wonder… How am I holding myself back? Do I think that possessing my life is more important than living it? Continue reading

The Challenge of Real Change

This article, “The Challenge of Real Change” was published in the spiritual direction magazine, Presence last year.  I wrote about pilgrimage, dreams, and change in my own life, and in my work with clients. I hope you’ll take the time to read it. Please consider sharing your thoughts with me: I’d love to hear how you have changed, what experiences have changed you. We can all encourage each other, and walk together, even when we are venturing into unfamiliar territory.

To read the article, click here.

What makes real change possible? My work as a spiritual director gives me many opportunities to explore dreams in the context of our spiritual lives—and, of course, our spiritual lives are always a work in process. We aren’t looking for a final, ideal state of perfection and certainty, but for ongoing flexibility, and fundamental openness to experiences of deep change. Life itself is defined by change, and  if we can’t really change, we can’t live fully.

Dreams—with their untamed (and often uncomfortable) changeability—help us to practice being flexible, but if we want to embrace change at the deepest level, we have to invite the weirdness and wildness of dreams into our waking lives as well. Sometimes, we have to step out of the “comfort zone” and into the unknown.

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