Compass Dreamwork

Dreamwork as Spiritual Practice

Tag: healing dreams

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.

Dreaming and Dukkha: Unsatisfactoriness

dukkhaI’m exploring dreamwork through the lens of Buddhism [see “Buddhist Philosophy in Dreamwork”], taking each of the “Three Marks of Existence” (unsatisfactoriness, impermanence, and non-self) in turn. These may sound like gloomy ways to mark existence… and I’m going to start with the gloomiest of all: dukkha. But let’s see what dreams can do with this stuff that defines unhappiness in our lives:

Learning from a Child: I am imprisoned with a group of people I don’t particularly like, afflicted by a deep, visceral depression—despair, frustration, anxiety, paralysis. I know I must go off by myself and experience this depression fully. When I’m aware of my body, the depression is a sensation in my chest, a dull vibration or slowly pulsing electrical current, as if a heavy metal object has been struck by a hammer. I’m exploring this sensation when a little girl appears and begins to talk—partly to me and partly to herself. I don’t feel under any obligation to listen, still experiencing the physical sense of the depression, but then find myself absorbed in what she is saying and doing. She has drawn a cut-out human figure on paper, and she tears it down the center lengthwise, explaining that this will make it larger, because now it has space in the middle. This inspires me to act compassionately to protect another member of the group from being bullied…

I’ve had dreams about depression periodically for most of my adult life. In each dream the context is different, but the mood is the same—as intense as any waking depression. Over the years, I’ve “worked with” these dreams in various ways. Because they were so unpleasant, I used to try to forget them as quickly as possible, but I noticed that this distraction method usually just pushed the depressed feelings below the surface, where they subtly influenced my thoughts and behavior for the rest of the day.

So, my first dreamwork practice was simply to give the dreams my attention when they arose. I wrote them down, noting how the circumstances and sensations varied from dream to dream, and seeing the patterns that emerged over time. I noticed that when I gave the unpleasant dreams my waking attention their unpleasant influence on my waking state would naturally dissipate. With a dream-sharing group, I reenacted the dreams, and found grief in them, which needed to be shared.

Since the dreams continued, I kept exploring, and found layers of psychological insights into how the dreams fit my personal history. This was useful, also, in my work as a spiritual director and chaplain, where I often accompanied others who were experiencing depression. I gradually discovered a compassionate core at the center of depression, a tender place where I recognized I was not alone. No one is alone in the experience of suffering.

I found that I could work with the depression within the dream, as well. In some dreams, I’d remember that I didn’t want to let my mood affect the way I behaved toward others. In one lucid dream, I actually reached into my own head and removed a tumor-like object that was causing the depression. All this attention brought to bear on depression dreams “helped” in a sense, but my efforts were still directed toward making the unpleasant experience of such dreams stop. My awareness was tinged with judgment (“these are bad dreams”) and the need for control (“I will get rid of them”).

Unsatisfactoriness, dukkha, is the first of the “Four Noble Truths” of Buddhism, and also one of the “Three Marks of Existence.” We find experiences to be pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral, and we tend to cling to what is pleasant, try to get rid of what is unpleasant, and ignore what is neutral. But we never succeed in these efforts: pleasant things necessarily pass away; neutral things either persist in being neutral or become unpleasant when ignored; and unpleasant things arise inevitably in the form of sickness, old age, death, and a myriad of other causes and conditions. Our efforts to choose and control our experiences invariably lead to “unsatisfactoriness”—and, ultimately, to suffering. Continue reading

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