housekeepingAfter a week of deep, lucid, lovely dreams—I’m now remembering only fragmentary, unpleasant and frustrating dreams. Such is the ebb and flow of dreamwork! I woke up this morning exasperated and grumpy after dreaming:

The Bed Is A Mess: I feel frazzled, anxious, impatient. There’s a charismatic yet slightly creepy spiritual leader coming to stay in my community, and I’m preparing a bed for him. According to his preference, the bed is just a bunch of blankets and old clothes strewn on the floor and covered in a contour sheet. I see that the sheets are stained, and decide to put all the bedding in the laundry and start fresh. Now, I search through a jumble of clothes and blankets, trying to find enough soft stuff to make a new bed. Others keep taking some of the best blankets for their own purposes. I put as much stuff as possible on the floor, trying to arrange it so that it will be soft, not too lumpy, and cover all the bare spots—but I can’t really see how this is going to work. How could a sheet fit over it all, and how could it possibly be comfortable? I know I’ve slept on such a bed myself, and it wasn’t too bad, but now my efforts seem ridiculous. After scrounging for more materials, I return to find that a dog has pooped on one of the bare spots. I am disgusted, and want someone else to clean it up.

Lately, I’ve been working with “bad” dreams—especially my own—and testing the belief (or hypothesis) that, as Jeremy Taylor says: “All dreams come in the service of health and wholeness” (Dream Work Tool Kit #1). Dreams like this one might strain my ability to see the wholesome qualities! (Dramatically frightening or disturbing nightmares are another story—to be considered at another time.)

I can certainly recognize that there’s metaphor and meaning in this unpleasant dream: I am encountering my own ambivalence about preparing a comfortable place for spiritual ideals that I’m not sure I trust—and also wrestling with my own need to control and “clean up” the world around me. Old clothes and blankets (maybe old roles and securities) aren’t coming together to make a new bed! And then there’s the poop (potentially, the fertilizer for that new “bed”—as in a garden bed?) that just seems like smelly waste material to me. I want to wash my hands of this whole project!

What is the use of such dreams? I already think I know what it’s trying to say, but it’s not particularly helpful. Yeah—I’m a mess—this is no big revelation. I notice that the dream-self (the “I” in the dream) feels worse and worse as the dream goes on. And it all ends on an ugly note. This seems to be telling me that there’s no hope! But, there have to be other ways of looking at it…

Dreams are experiences, and, like any experiences, they can be pleasant or unpleasant. Developing spiritual maturity does not mean preventing unpleasant experiences; it means learning new ways of relating to the experiences that arise. And an experience (or a dream) is “in the service of health and wholeness” to the extent that it gives me an opportunity to learn what works and what doesn’t, what is helpful and what isn’t. Sometimes, it’s just hard to see what the opportunity might be, because it’s hard to see any options.

I’ve heard unpleasant, mundane dreams described as “garbage dreams,” and that seems wrong—as wrong as it would be to discard all aspects of my life experience that aren’t immediately gratifying. Rather than calling them garbage, Jung referred to such dreams as “housekeeping dreams.” This works for me, particularly because the content of many of my disagreeable dreams is, literally, the frustrating (or even disgusting) aspects of housekeeping.

I spend a lot of my time with tasks like laundry, dishes, cleaning. Mostly, I enjoy it. However, there’s no doubt that it can be monotonous, and there can be a sense of futility about jobs that never really get finished. The experience of starting one chore, and then being distracted by another and another and another—feeling busy, compulsive and exhausted, but having no sense of accomplishment. Longing to control the uncontrollable. And having no societal validation for the work. Oh, yes, housekeeping can definitely be a good metaphor for the generally tiresome aspects of life.

So, why have housekeeping dreams? Doesn’t waking life offer enough of this kind of thing? One response to this question shows up in research on dreams and emotions. There’s a lot of evidence that simply feeling strong, unpleasant emotions in dreams helps us to discharge or integrate those emotions. In dreams, the everyday frustrations are exaggerated, and so we are allowed to fully feel the stuff we’ve been resisting feeling. Apparently, it’s physiologically necessary to let these emotions get processed by the body. So, dreams that rehash the day’s problems or address trivial concerns in extreme ways can actually be physically healing, even though they’re not fun.

I’ve also found personal and professional evidence enough to trust that the healing qualities of mundane, unpleasant housekeeping dreams extend beyond the physical. The truth is that the only way to outgrow my own complacency is to get fully fed up with any method or approach that’s not working. My ordinary habitual patterns can be very self-reinforcing in everyday life, so I don’t even notice how unsatisfactory they’ve become. It’s easier to keep doing the same things, regardless of their uselessness, as long as the unpleasantness of the repetition isn’t too terribly obvious

This is where housekeeping dreams come in. They show me my ordinary problems in exaggerated form—taking the unhelpful patterns to their logical conclusion—and so give me an opportunity to see that it’s really worth changing the patterns that lead to those problems.

In my dream of the messy bed, I can see what’s not working. My ineffective strategy (which, incidentally, could be a pretty good strategy in other circumstances) is to over-ride my ambivalence about the tasks I’m undertaking, and to press on regardless of obstacles, doubts, and other people’s contradictory needs, just so that I can create some kind of order in all the chaos and feel like I’ve done my duty. The result is escalating unpleasantness—culminating in a mess that I’m unwilling to clean up.

In the dream, I’ve hit a dead end—but feeling just how much I don’t want to end up there might actually help me to address some comparable (though not so extreme) mistakes I’m making in my problem-solving strategies when I’m awake. For example, I might find that although a certain stubborn, relentless persistence was essential to me during an earlier time when things had to get done, I might be better off now if I just let some things go, and if I looked for more creative (and perhaps playful) solutions to challenges and responsibilities I face. If the dream returns, maybe I’ll use the blankets and clothes to make enough comfortable hammocks for everyone, instead of a lumpy bed!

Actually, I’m already having wonderful, creative dreams along with the mundane, frustrating housekeeping dreams. Sometimes such different dream experiences come all in the same night, or even within the same dream. That’s one of the best things about dreams, they don’t show us absolutes: nobody has all “good” dreams, and nobody has all “bad” dreams. Even while some parts of my dreams are telling me that my strategies don’t work and I’m getting myself in a real mess, other parts of my dreams (remembered or not) are showing me that there are always openings, options,  and opportunities—and I am doing just fine.