Compass Dreamwork

Dreamwork as Spiritual Practice

Tag: healing (page 2 of 4)

Grief Integration: The Vigil and the Dance

mom in millAs I write this, my mom has been dead for over a month—and by the time you read this, it will be over two months. I’ve had some more dreams about her, but none in which she seems fully present. Actually, I’m not really dreaming about my mother herself, but about my own experience of loss. The immediate shock of the first few weeks has passed, and now when I look at her picture (which I keep nearby, and look at often) I no longer have to remind myself that she has died. I look at her face, and it seems as if she is looking back at me. We understand each other. She is not available by telephone, but she is available in other ways. I feel our connection and her absence simultaneously (see “Grief Dreams: The Experience of Absence”).

This is what healing feels like. Healing doesn’t mean that the grieving stops. I am still trying to process some of the most overwhelming aspects of her dying—the feelings that were too intense, just too much to fully feel when everything was happening so quickly right before and after her death. I’m replaying events and emotions as stories to tell myself—to remember what happened, and that it really did happen. Of course, my dreams are doing this work with me…

Grieving Mom, Looking for Jill: I’m college-age, sitting at a table with several college friends. I tell them about Mom’s recent death. They listen, but go on to talk about other things, and my grief doesn’t seem real to them or to me. I leave them and walk, thinking about what I will do now that I have graduated. I just want to talk to Mom, to get her practical advice… Then, the grief hits me, and it feels unbearable. I go looking for my sister Jill, who is supposed to be in school nearby. I feel so lonely. I desperately need to see my sister.

The feeling of this dream echoes my waking feelings. I try to talk about Mom’s death and it doesn’t seem real, but when I’m alone and think of her, the reality is stunningly painful. In the midst of the feelings, I long to be with family—my sisters Jill and Didi, and niece Samantha—because they are closest to the loss, and share it. There’s no mystery to the dream. It makes sense that we are young, just graduated or in school, since that suggests the learning experience we are going through, and recalls some painful separations from family that occurred at that time in my life.

If there are further metaphorical dimensions of the dream to be explored (certainly, there are), I’m not especially interested in exploring them consciously right now. What interests me is that the dream gives me another opportunity to integrate the same kinds of emotional experiences I am having when awake. There’s a lot of integration to do, so both my dreaming and my waking concerns are turned in this direction. Continue reading

Grief Dreams: The Experience of Absence

alongside mom’s house, the brook continues to flow...

alongside mom’s house, the brook continues to flow…

Time keeps passing, and I’m gradually beginning to feel a little distance from my mom’s death. I can write about it, think about it, almost make it make sense that she is no longer there—three thousand miles away, but within easy reach of a phone call, in her house that is an old mill by a brook. She is still more real to me there than in my experience of her dying. It’s as if the few days surrounding her death were a dream.

What’s true is what’s always been true: she’s opening her curtains in the morning (a signal to her neighbor that she’s okay), having her coffee, watching the birds at the feeder, puttering carefully through the chores that make every knick-knack in her home and every moment of her day precious… I think I’ll call and tell her about the Bald Eagle we saw yesterday being chased by a Redtail Hawk… And then, of course, there’s that stunning punch of realization that she isn’t there. Her house is being emptied of her beloved furniture, pictures, books, coffee cups and bird feeders. Each time I think I’ve got some distance from the grief, it clobbers me again.

The stages of grief described by Kübler-Ross—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance—helped a lot of people to better understand the process of grieving, but in recent years it has become evident that those stages were being used by many as a way to cling to an illusion of control and order in an experience that is essentially chaotic. Yes, all of the “stages” can be part of grief—but we almost never progress systematically from one stage to the next. My own experience is that the grief comes in waves—different kinds of waves at different times. When I think that the intensity is easing, I’m bowled over by a tsunami. When I think I should be in pain, I’m sometimes surprisingly unperturbed. Then, when I get the idea that “grief comes in waves,” it comes as a tornado, or a thunderstorm, or a rainbow(!) instead. I think I’m prepared for the feelings, yet they always manage to take me by surprise.

Nevertheless, I’ve noticed some distinct kinds of grief in the course of these weeks. There’s the flood of memories from childhood. There’s the fierce clarity of those nearly-traumatic shocks of beauty from her last hours—and just after her death. There’s the slow, reasonable acknowledgement that things are different now. And, most of all, there’s that gaping absence… the sense of someone so “full of life” just not being there anymore. Continue reading

Dreams of Helping and Being Helped

helping 01In my recent dreams, I’ve been aware of giving and receiving, helping and being helped:

Fragments: I receive three gifts: sagebrush, a meerschaum pipe, and an iphone—and must learn how to use them… Someone lends me a bicycle, and then seems more confident and capable herself when she experiences my gratitude… I’m in prison for life, and a fellow prisoner relieves my fear by asking me to help her solve some math problems… We distract the dragon, so the young girl can complete her initiation safely… A white bull calf comes to me for comfort, but when I am threatened he places himself between me and the danger…

We all have a need for our strengths and gifts to be recognized and received by others—and sometimes the best thing we can do to support others is to receive what they have to give, whether it is by listening to their stories and learning from their example, or allowing them to assist us on our own path—physically, emotionally, spiritually. I’ve been noticing this process in my dreams, at the same time that I’ve been noticing it in my waking life.

As my friend Kay is now on hospice, I’m recalling the many ways she has been a mentor to me. Kay and I worked together on the pastoral care team for a continuing care retirement community. She was an experienced pastoral counselor and spiritual director (volunteering with the team, since she was technically retired); and I was a relative beginner in this work. With warmth and grace, she gave me exactly the encouragement I needed, by allowing me to take the lead. She attended my workshops and groups as a participant; she brought me her dreams, and she invited me to act as her spiritual counselor as she got older and faced health challenges. It wasn’t like an adult letting a child win at checkers—she authentically found things that I could give her, that she could learn from me. While she also helped and mentored me in more traditional ways, she always allowed me to bring my best self to our relationship, and to experience my own gifts with her.

Kay is an especially wise and kind person. But, actually, similar giving/receiving relationships are happening all the time. If I pay attention, I notice that the true gifts and blessings in waking or dreaming life are always somehow reciprocal.

The other day, I was climbing a long, long, long set of steps (18 flights, I think) to the top of a hill in a nearby park. As I was going up very, very slowly, two brisk women and a healthy young dog passed me going down, with an older dog following stiffly behind them. The older dog—a sweet-faced, short-haired terrier—gave me a commiserating look as she went by. Continue reading

Reconnecting with the World Dream

compass rose 01Have you heard of “The Work That Reconnects”? Joanna Macy and Sam Mowe describe it as “a process that helps build motivation, creativity, courage, and solidarity for the transition to a sustainable human culture.” It’s a sequential process that “works as a spiral, because it repeats itself” over and over in our projects, in our lives, and in our dreams. As I learned more about this process, I became aware of how clearly it parallels some of the things I’ve been learning and teaching about the potential of dreamwork to make a difference in the world.

Our dreams reflect passages through the process of “The Work That Reconnects”—including, expressing, and revealing the levels in Macy’s spiral: 1) Coming From Gratitude; 2) Honoring Our Pain; 3) Seeing With New Eyes; and 4) Going Forth.

1) “Coming From Gratitude: To be alive in this beautiful, self-organizing universe—to participate in the dance of life with senses to perceive it, lungs that breathe it, organs that draw nourishment from it—is a wonder beyond words. The spiral begins with gratitude because that quiets the frantic mind and grounds us, stimulating our empathy and confidence.” –Joanna Macy and Sam Mowe

We belong to this world, and are manifestations of this world, together with the plants, animals and other humans that share in it with us. Dreams manifest the life force, and are one way that we maintain connection—to our place within the world and to one another. Often, in dreams, we experience beauty and feel this connection directly through our senses, perceptions, and emotions. We can receive nourishment from such dreams, and allow gratitude to fill the springs within us that we thought had gone dry.

Many times, when I’ve been identifying with discouragement and investing in impossibility, a dream has turned me around, waking me up to another way of looking at myself and my experience. My ego can’t change its mind so easily, but my dreams can show me what I’ve been missing and open my heart. When I share such dreams with others, and they share such dreams with me, our world is expanded. Each time I take part in a dream group, I come home with a new appreciation of my life—I’m humbled by the gifts available all around me, and I’m grateful. Continue reading

Article on Dreams of the Dying, in “Dreamtime” magazine

dreamtime-forblogs[1]DreamTime is an inspiring and intriguing magazine published by the International Association for the Study of Dreams, and I recently had an article appear in the Winter 2015 issue.

Click on the picture to read the article: “Dreams of the Dying: Where Reality and Identity Become Fluid” by Kirsten Backstrom

And consider becoming a member of IASD! You’ll receive DreamTime three times a year, along with many other benefits!

 

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

Shamanic Ancestral Dreams

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

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

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

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

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

Soul Retrieval and Shamanic Dreaming

reservoir 08The healing work of a shaman regularly involves the practice of “soul retrieval.” To continue my series on shamanism and dreamwork, I’d like to explore some ways that the concept of soul retrieval can give us an understanding of particular kinds of dreams, and help us to fully experience the healing that these dreams may bring.

When an individual or community is disturbed, diseased, wounded, or out of balance, there can be a variety of causes according to the shamanic tradition. But probably the most common cause—a problem that is almost universal in our modern culture—is what is called “soul loss.” Soul loss can occur when something happens to an individual or community that cannot be fully integrated. If the trauma or shock is enough to violate the integrity of the individual (or community), the soul can respond by splitting off a part of itself—in effect, sending that part out of harm’s way, just as city children were sent away to the country during World War II when the cities were being bombed. These soul parts may become lost—unable or unwilling to make their way home after the immediate danger has passed.

As a result of soul loss, the original “home” soul lacks an essential aspect of itself, suffering from the absence of qualities that constitute its wholeness and uniqueness and make it possible to cope with change and challenges. These split-off qualities can include resilience and flexibility, creativity, openness, emotional availability, playfulness, generosity, innocence, discernment, trust… and finally even the will to live.

In indigenous cultures, the lost soul part is seen quite literally as a separated Spirit being—often taking the form of a child or adult at the age when the initial traumatic splitting occurred. These split-off souls continue to exist somewhere in the worlds of Spirit, and a shaman can be called upon to journey into these other worlds, find the lost souls, and persuade or help them to come home. Once returned, these souls must be nurtured and integrated—a process which, like any healing, can be facilitated by the shaman, but is ultimately the responsibility of the one who receives the healing. Continue reading

Dreaming and Journeying

drum 04In the last post (“Shamanic Dream Perspectives”), I began a series of articles that will explore shamanism as it relates to dreamwork. I mentioned briefly that a shaman’s task is “to facilitate communication and alignment with Spirit, on behalf of the larger community (and individuals)—especially where that connection has been damaged,” and “shamans journey into ‘other worlds’… where an experience of Spirit is more accessible, and they return bringing what they have learned from those experiences to be applied in concrete ways for healing and restoration.”

This week, I’ll focus on what is meant by “journeying,” and briefly consider some similarities and differences between journeying and dreaming. It’s important to understand that although shamans use journeying as a primary tool to fulfill their healing role in community, this tool—like dreamwork—can also be a meaningful spiritual practice for non-shamans. Just as a person who pays attention to dreams does not have to be a professional dreamworker, a person who journeys is not necessarily a shaman!

In fact, a shaman must develop a wide range of tools and skills, in addition to journeying—according to the unique calling of the individual shaman and the particular needs of her/his community. Each shaman may have a specific set of specialized skills (such as dreamwork, plant medicine, etc.), but journeying is an essential practice that might be considered a prerequisite to all other shamanic arts.

Journeying can be hard to define. In the broadest terms, it refers to a process of entering an altered state and traveling to “other worlds.” The “altered state” might be anything from a profound trance to a gentle shift in orientation allowing visual, auditory, or sensory experiences outside ordinary consciousness to occur.

Describing journeying as “creative imagination” or “visualization” would be controversial, since, from a shamanic perspective, the experiences one encounters in a journey are real—the “other worlds” are real—they are not “made up” by the conscious mind. However, this reality includes non-physical experiences (“non-ordinary reality”) that many non-shamanic cultures would call “imaginary,” so it could be just a question of semantics.

The “other worlds” explored in journeying, like the worlds explored in dreams, are absolutely real in the sense that they can be experienced as meaningful, and can offer insights and information not available to the conscious mind in physical reality. Continue reading

Shamanic Dream Perspectives

oak tree 01Much of what I write and teach about dreams starts from a psycho-spiritual frame of reference, integrating some basic ideas about dreamwork from C.G. Jung, Jeremy Taylor, and others. This approach assumes a wide range of creative and healing potential in the dreaming process, and uses archetypal metaphors and imagery (recognizable also in mythology and religion) along with personal, cultural, and contextual associations with those images.

But there are other—equally valid—ways of approaching dreams. The shamanic tradition has an entirely different perspective on the meaning of dreaming, and this is a perspective that I also bring to my work. (Incidentally, Taylor often includes this perspective in his work as well—as did Jung, in his own way.)

To bring this perspective to our conversation about dreams, I’ll be writing a series of posts about how I experience and try to apply the wisdom of shamanism in dreamwork. Today, I’d like to introduce the shamanic worldview—and I’d appreciate anything that those of you who are more experienced shamanic practitioners might want to add. Shamanism is a vast subject, with variations, and sometimes contradictions, between cultural traditions and the methodologies of individual practitioners. But I’ll try to mention a few of the essentials that define shamanism as a whole.

Shamanism was and is a primary spiritual and practical system of knowledge and skills in most, if not all, indigenous cultures worldwide. Thanks to the efforts of shamans, elders, and wisdom-keepers from these cultures, shamanic perspectives, along with some shamanic skills and practices, are becoming increasingly integrated into many areas of contemporary spirituality—making contributions not only to the spiritual development and healing of individuals and communities, but also to the ecological balance of all life. Continue reading

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