Compass Dreamwork

Dreamwork as Spiritual Practice

Tag: metaphors (page 1 of 2)

Feel It In My Bones: A Dream Experience of the Body

My relationship with my body is undergoing some rapid changes, and my dreams reflect this process in a visceral, or rather a skeletal, way: I can feel these dreams in my very bones.

Over the past year, I’ve been coping with Radiation Fibrosis Syndrome, a progressive disease that causes structural and systemic damage to muscles, nerves, blood vessels, bones and major organs. The course of this disease is unpredictable, so it’s difficult to find a place to stand within myself; the ground of my physical being is continually shifting. Most of the time, I’m very tired and uncomfortable (or painful). As my body becomes increasingly uncoordinated, I also feel more socially awkward and self-conscious. Yet I can still function fairly normally even though I’m probably moving toward further disability and a shortened life expectancy. What am I to make of this? Are my dream experiences offering suggestions?

I sometimes see myself in an oddly objective way these days: as though my body is a dear, rather difficult, old friend. Of course, I’m worried about this friend. She looks and feels fragile, and her mortality unsettles me—yet, at the same time, I’m impressed by her stubborn resilience. I don’t know how she’s doing it, but she seems to be coping. Both her vulnerability and her toughness make me feel fairly helpless and unnecessary. Does the body really need me to manage her business? She’ll do what she needs to do, in her own way, whether it inconveniences and grieves me or not; she’ll live as long as she can live, and then she’ll die. From her perspective this mortal life seems completely straightforward. From my perspective, it’s sometimes frightening, sometimes sad, sometimes fun, sometimes beautiful and moving, often (almost always) confusing.

It makes sense that my dreams usually represent my changing physical condition through dream figures other than “me.” In my dreams, other people—or animals, or plants, or objects—exhibit my symptoms and face my worst fears, while “I” (the dream-ego) am just a bystander. Other dream figures have wasting diseases, weakening bodies; other dream figures suffer heart attacks or strokes, and may suddenly die. Meanwhile, “I” call 911, or bring tea, or sing, or burst into tears… bearing witness with love, trying to be helpful.

As I’m not fully identified with my own body right now (she’s changing so fast, I can’t keep up), I’m very aware in waking life of other people who have disabilities similar to mine, and I keep being drawn to stories of people who are dealing with their own mortality or health challenges. So, my dreams reflect this exploratory process, and show me ways of relating to my bodily changes as if I were relating to other people who are physically frail or in transition. My dreams are filled with sick people and dying people, and the response of deep tenderness I feel for these dream figures is healing for me as it teaches me to care for my own body in a similar way. Continue reading

Game Over: Dreams That End With A Bang!

fireworks 01I’m writing this just after the fourth of July, and the thunderous bangs are still echoing in my head (along with a few illegal leftover rockets occasionally shaking up the neighborhood). The cats are edgy, and I’m just glad that most of the noisy ordeal is over for another year. On the other hand, much as I personally dislike the explosions, I have to admit that a lot of violent energy has been fairly benignly discharged, and the atmosphere feels a bit clearer.

People often tell me about dreams that end with an explosion of unexpected violence. Of course, such dreams can be pretty distressing for the dreamer: In the midst of a tense public gathering, or meeting that’s gone on too long, the dream-ego, or another dream character, suddenly pulls out a gun and starts shooting, or a bomb goes off... These are pretty common dreams, and there’s no reason to think the dreamers are aggressive or repressed people. But it can be difficult to share such dreams, without somehow feeling like we ought to apologize for them. There’s far too much violence in our world already—and it can be disturbing to acknowledge that it’s in our dreams as well. Nevertheless, such dreams need to be shared.

About a month ago, I dreamed …a doctor rushes into the hospital room, but instead of helping, he brings a heavy rifle and blasts the patient. Someone is setting off fireworks to cover the sounds of the bangs. I’ve had my share of stress, pain, and sadness, but there have been very few truly violent situations in my life (and nothing like this). Where does this stuff come from? Sure, I’m regularly exposed to violence in the media—but the power of this dream, and the power of the explosive dreams that others have shared with me, is intensely personal. The details are intimate, and the emotion seems to come out of nowhere.

Dreams that end with a bang often seem like nightmares. The sudden violence triggers an adrenaline rush, and the dreamer is shocked awake. But—unlike regular nightmares that leave us feeling haunted or hunted, and unlike PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) nightmares that recreate the horror of actual traumas, dreams that culminate in a sudden, loud, unexpected shock tend to be more energizing than terrifying. After the adrenaline settles, the dreamer gets curious about what the heck happened. Continue reading

The “Unreliable Narrator” in Dreams

coffee cup 01Can I trust the opinions and emotions of my dream-self? The dream-ego (the “I” character in the dream) is the most likely to share my waking point-of-view about dream events. As I’m remembering and writing or telling the dream, I think of the dream-ego as “me” and can easily take it for granted that what the dream-ego thinks and feels reliably reflects the “truth” about the dream situation. But let’s look more closely at this…

The Jungian dream explorer James Hillman has said that “in a dream the ego is usually wrong”—meaning that the dream-ego tends to apply a waking-life worldview to the dream world, and thus to misinterpret dream events. The dream-ego generally shares the waking ego’s assumptions and prejudices, but the dream world as a whole may have surprisingly different perspectives and possibilities to offer.

As I look at my dream, I need to remember that even in waking life, my own view is not the only way of looking at things—I must question this view in the light of others’ input. In the dream world, this is even more true, because dreams are almost always telling me more than my conscious mind already knows (see Jeremy Taylor’s Dream Work Tool Kit #4). The dream-ego’s view should be taken as only one out of many possible ways of understanding dream events. What does the rest of the dream have to say? What other points-of-view are available?

A Rib Comes Out of Me: I feel a sharp point sticking out of my left side, and when I tug on it, a long, thin, curved rib bone comes out. I hold my side, expecting to find a wound, but there is no mark, no pain, no blood. The rib has come out clean and white. I go to a professor—a pompous, arrogant fellow, who immediately says we should put the rib into a solution of coffee, so that its true, natural color will be revealed. I don’t really want the rib to get stained, so I say sarcastically, “That will work fine if its natural color is coffee-colored.” I keep asking him why and how the rib could have come out so cleanly, without leaving a mark or being smeared with blood. The professor dismisses my question, saying that this sort of thing (a rib coming out) only happens to “end-stage alcoholics with orgasm dysfunction.” I’m mortified and defensive—that description does not apply to me! He clearly does not know what he’s talking about. I certainly won’t tell him that the rib came from me.

I worked with this dream in my peer dream group, and the first insights that came up were consistent with the dream-ego’s opinion about the situation. Something strangely beautiful and with creative potential had “come out of me” (like Adam’s rib…) and the arrogant fellow (patriarchal male? inner critic?) was trying to diminish its significance (by staining the rib and implying that its “true color” was stained). He was also disparaging the source of this new creation (describing her/me as damaged or weak-willed). In the group, we all had a tendency to dismiss the professor’s suggestions, reinforcing the dream-ego’s negative response to him.

The professor was evidently an offensive character, and the statements he made were incorrect in a literal sense, so it seemed reasonable to assume he represented a mistaken point-of-view… Clearly, since I’m not an alcoholic nor do I have “orgasm dysfunction,” he’s got it all wrong—although the discomfort and defensiveness of my response both in the dream and about the dream are suggestive… There’s nothing I’m trying to hide, is there? The rib was simple and clean and left no wound, and that’s a good thing, right? Why stain it? Isn’t clean white its “natural color”?

Well, the next step was, of course, to start questioning these assumptions. Continue reading

Review: “Lucid Waking”

Lucid Waking: Using Dreamwork Principles to Transform Your Everyday Life by Zoé Newman. White Egret Press. Paperback. 260 pages. $17.95.

Lucid WakingHow would our lives be different if we approached waking situations with the same openness we might bring to our dreams?

When we are reflecting on our dreams, we don’t need to apply the same expectations and judgments, take sides, or assign blame—we tend to think more in terms of exploring and experiencing, trying out different points of view, considering possibilities, and finding meaning through metaphor and creativity. These dreamwork skills can be cultivated in waking life, too, so that our relationship to the world around us can become as flexible, playful, unexpected and intuitive as our relationship to the dream world.

In past posts [such as: Haiku Dreams, Green Sloths & Synchronicities, and A Bird-Watching Dream Walk] I have written about the waking/dreaming continuum, and have suggested some ways in which dreamwork approaches could be applied to our waking lives, but Zoé Newman has gone far more deeply into this work in Lucid Waking—a book that offers both the imaginative insights and the practical tools we need to relate more openly (less habitually) with our waking lives. She writes:

“Lucid waking is seeing situations as opportunities for experimenting, for trying out new behaviors, for cultivating undeveloped qualities. It’s being in life in a playful, risk-taking, adventurous, free way… letting the world become a classroom, a laboratory, a creative canvas.”

Reading this book makes it seem perfectly natural to learn from our waking experiences as we learn from our dreams. Using examples from the lives of real people facing real challenges, Newman explores creative ways of coping with unpleasant situations (such as getting a parking ticket), working through interpersonal conflict, and expanding opportunities for spiritual growth. She draws on some essential Buddhist wisdom about relating directly to our experience, which can be useful both in the practice of lucid dreaming and in “lucid waking”:

“Buddhist mindfulness is, in essence, a practice of bringing lucidity to our waking life. Developing mindfulness, as a matter of fact, is very similar to developing dream lucidity.”

In other words, when we become lucid in a dream, we “wake up” within the dream and become aware that we are dreaming, which opens up all kinds of new options for our responses to dream events. When we become mindful (or “lucid”) in waking life, we “wake up” to our immediate experience and become aware that this present moment offers far more possibilities than we had previously conceived. Either way, lucidity means that we are not limited by our habitual expectations and opinions, so we can relate to experiences as they unfold, with open eyes, heart and mind. Continue reading

Walking Around Wondering: The Wide-Angle Approach to Long, Detailed Dreams

beach in fog 01Although it’s common to remember dreams in a fairly fragmentary way—with more impressions than exact details, and with few extended storylines—most dreamers will periodically experience long, vivid dreams with elaborate plots, a full cast of characters, and nuanced, detailed scenery. Especially for young people, or those who are going through major life changes, such dreams may come in abundance.

When I’m working with long dreams (my own and others’) that contain a wealth of images, interactions, emotions and events, it is easy to get overwhelmed. So, I’ve been considering different ways of approaching such dreams. In the last post, I described the close focus approach (“Holographic Webs”) and today I’d like to talk about the wide angle approach.

In the wide angle approach, if someone is sharing a long, complex, richly detailed dream, I listen to the whole thing with an openness to the big story, as if I were dreaming it, and really experiencing it, myself. But I don’t expect to remember every exact detail. Maybe I try to organize the whole dream into some shape that seems natural: What is the beginning, the middle, the end? Does the dream have “acts” or “scenes” like a play—and is there a progression, a “plot development”? Continue reading

Green Sloths and Synchronicities

One morning, while trying to learn to read Russian, I was puzzling my way through a silly Russian kids’ science fiction story and ran across an expression that seemed rather odd. I was sure I recognized the word “green”—but when I looked up the unfamiliar other word, it was “sloth.” “Green sloth?” This turned out to be the correct translation, since, on the next page, there was a picture of the boy astronaut encountering a green sloth on an alien planet. Okay.

Later that same day, I was reading a completely unrelated book about Teddy Roosevelt’s travels in the Amazon, and the words “green sloth” jumped out at me again. Yes, Teddy had seen green sloths on his journey—and it was explained that they are green because of an algae that thrives in their fur.

And then (no, really)—turning on the television that evening, I caught a glimpse of a documentary… about sloths. They were, indeed, a bit green. The narrator talked about the algae on the fur, while I called Holly at work, wild with excitement, to tell her that I’d actually seen three green sloths in a single day!

This exceptional set of coincidences is really only a bit beyond what seems to be happening on a regular basis all the time, though we only occasionally notice. For obvious reasons, Holly and I now refer to such events as “green sloths.” Jung called them synchronicities.

A synchronicity is generally defined as a “meaningful coincidence.” Maybe you’re not sure why seeing three green sloths is meaningful? Well, I’m not entirely sure myself! But I think that when unlikely events coincide, they might best be understood as if they were dream images: the nature of the image (or the green sloth) may have metaphorical significance. And the more startling and unlikely it is, the more it gets our attention—which may imply that it contains something worth attending to! Continue reading

Illness Dreaming

flame 01When we get sick, what happens to our dreams? Like most questions about dreams, there is no simple answer. Sometimes, illness or medication disrupts sleep patterns and makes dreams more fragmentary and difficult to remember. Sometimes (especially with fever), it’s just the opposite: dreams become abundant and detailed, almost hallucinatory in their vividness. Often, dreams during an illness give information about the condition of the body, and may support healing processes. All of this varies from individual to individual, and from illness to illness.

As I write this, I’m feeling pretty crummy. I’ve got a typical mid-winter virus: my nose is stuffed, my lungs feel heavy, my whole body aches. I’m weak and shaky, and I keep spacing out—just staring at the computer screen in long, empty fugues, forgetting what I’m supposed to be doing. Oh yes. Here I am. These were my dreams last night:

Trouble With Fire: I’m staying in a remote cabin with a friend, and I keep thinking we should build a fire in the woodstove. It’s getting cold, but I’m moving very slowly and sleepily, and my friend’s eating breakfast, and neither of us manage to get the fire going. My friend has a standing lamp, but instead of bulbs it has lit candle stubs, burning low. I’m impatient with my friend, telling her we need to blow the candles out before we leave, because it would be dangerous to leave them burning like this. The flames are apparently caused by some kind of short circuit. Turning off the lamp or blowing out the candles doesn’t work—they keep burning. We’re wasting fuel, and it’s not safe, and doesn’t give enough light or warmth…  

The Broken Bridge: I’m supposed to be getting ready to go to the airport and go home, but just keep lying down, with no motivation to move. I’m in an empty, high-ceilinged, blue room, like a movie theater without seats, lying on a small raised platform. Where the screen would be, there’s a beautiful, detailed blue mural on the wall, several stories tall—a scene like a Chinese painting. There’s a village in a narrow river valley between steep, craggy mountains. A bridge—maybe a railroad bridge—runs between the peaks above the village, but it is broken right down the middle. Both the bridge itself and the trestles that support it are broken, so that there’s a wide gap between the two halves. It looks like it’s been this way for a long time.

If someone had told me these dreams, even without any context at all, I might have guessed that some of the images could refer to physical illness. Fire can often have something to do with the body’s vital energies, and anything broken or damaged can potentially refer to a physical condition. Such images have a lot of other meanings and implications as well, of course. But, the fact that the dream-self (the “I” character in the dream) is consistently lethargic also points in the direction of physical illness. So, if someone brought me this dream, I’d probably ask about the dreamer’s general health. Continue reading

Dream Groups And The Doggy Jamboree

Earlier this week, I participated in two dream groups—one is a group that I facilitate, and the other is with fellow dreamworkers on-line. Both groups are now at the point where the true alchemy of dream-sharing begins to work among us, and a living dreaming process takes shape with a life of its own. These group experiences leave me feeling invigorated and open. After the second one (on-line), I emerge from my office for lunch, and notice that it’s a windy, sunny, beautiful late-autumn afternoon. So I decide to forget further work for the time being, and take a walk in the park. Walking is a good way to let the dream group’s energy and insights bubble and spark inside me, while the cool, fresh air stimulates my senses, and the rhythmic pace of forward momentum steadies my thoughts.

There’s an open, grassy, off-leash area in the park where the dogs come (with their human companions) to meet and play. I stand for a while, watching. The atmosphere tingles as each new dog arrives and the leash is unclipped. At first, even the big Bernese Mountain Dog is shy. She keeps close to her human, while he stands sipping coffee and chatting with the others. But almost immediately, more dogs bound up. They stop a short distance from the Mountain Dog, tails wagging tentatively, legs a bit stiff. There are perky gestures with heads and ears, gentle woofs, and soon a general sniffing and greeting and all the tails are wagging enthusiastically.

Then, one bright little terrier jumps to attention and shoots off like a rocket, and everybody explodes into motion. Dogs chase; dogs bound and roll in the grass; dogs tumble over each other and leap up barking. The humans whistle or call if things get out of hand, and occasionally throw a ball, but mostly they aren’t needed. The dogs are having fun, building and affirming relationships, learning from each other, and feeling the freedom of infinite possibilities.

Of course, because I’m thinking about dream group dynamics anyway, I make the connection: a good dream group can be like this doggy jamboree. The “humans” could be the participants’ conscious minds and waking identities: aware of the rules and roles, good-hearted and willing to go along. They want their “dogs”—their deeper, dreaming selves—to get some exercise and have a nice time. Continue reading

The True Nature Of Dream Figures

mirror 1I sometimes imagine that I’d enjoy more dreams in which “I” am the only character, and can simply explore the dream landscape without complicated interactions with other dream figures. I sometimes even imagine that I’d enjoy having the whole waking world to myself for a day or two! But, really, waking or dreaming, the world would not be a very interesting place without other beings, other characters, to share it. In fact, there’s a sense in which we are all dreaming up—actually creating—our shared world together in each moment. Without a full cast of characters there’d be no play at all.

Dreams do occasionally seem to be solo performances, with only a single protagonist and no other obvious dream figures—but in such dreams even the “inanimate” objects, or features of the landscape, or even sounds and textures, can play the role of other characters in the dream drama. For the most part, however, our dreams are full of more obvious dream figures: people and creatures of all kinds that cocreate the context of the dream.

Often, we are just aware that there are others in the background of the dream scene—faceless fellow students in the classroom, fellow adventurers on the journey, fellow participants in the experience. Sometimes, such collective, indistinguishable dream figures provide an audience for the central action; sometimes they seem to be doing their own thing just off-stage. Who are all these people? They don’t stay in our memories individually any more than the members of a crowd at a concert—yet sometimes a face or a behavior stands out and turns these background “extras” into actual characters. And the dream figures that become actual characters sometimes return in dream after dream, or have such an impact on our emotions and imaginations that they become meaningful influences in our waking and dreaming lives. Continue reading

Two Basic Dreamwork Skills

Dreamwork is more of an art than a science. And like most arts, even a beginner can use the basic tools in a creative way and come out with satisfying results. Of course, this assumes that the medium itself doesn’t require specialized skills (a beginner couldn’t do much with a chisel and a block of marble)—but even though dreamwork can seem daunting at first, exploring and experimenting with the essential medium of dreams comes as naturally to most human beings as playing with modeling clay, or clapping a rhythm, or making up a story.

To become a real artist of dreamwork (an ongoing process, rather than a final identity), like becoming a real sculptor or drummer or fiction writer, requires intensive practice and the cultivation of individual abilities. But the first steps are easy for anyone, and if you can grasp a couple of basics, you can easily play around with dreams, have fun, learn a lot, and even impress people with your terrific insight! Continue reading

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