Compass Dreamwork

Dreamwork as Spiritual Practice

Tag: openings and openness (page 1 of 4)

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.

Here, I’m camped out—vulnerable, in a temporary situation, but outdoors, in the natural world where I love to be. I look through a tangle of branches and see the wolf, my sole, or soul, companion, so close. When I see that she is lying in the cold water, I’m afraid she is dying or dead. There is no fix for this. I remember last year when Harold, the feral cat we loved, became ill and was preparing to die, he insisted on lying out in the rain. We’d move him to a warmer place, trying to protect him, trying to feed him though he wouldn’t eat—but he always returned to the cold rain. He was letting his body go cold, slowing his heart and numbing his pain, easing into death in his own way. I couldn’t bear it so I tucked a towel around him, but it made no difference. In the dream, I’ve learned my lesson and I let the wolf do what she needs to do. If she needs to lie in the water, immerse herself in cold, then I can’t interfere. But I share my grief with others. It helps me, which somehow helps her, because we are the same.

But then, things change. Perhaps whatever has needed to die has died. The wolf slowed her body down just like I slowed my whole life down in order to find out what was most meaningful to me, when I had too little energy to waste any on my busy mind. Maybe, death happened, the heart stopped. But something, someone, is there to start it again. And there’s a communal response to the restoration of life. We’re all so excited when someone recovers from an illness, or when a baby is born, or when new love emerges out of our ordinary lives, out of our griefs. We’re clumsy in our exuberance. We try to howl, to celebrate, to express our feelings, but mostly, we can’t quite reach our souls with our loud voices. Our souls understand that we’re sincerely trying, but they turn away a little.

A quiet, uncertain effort works better than an outright howl. I don’t know what I’m doing, but I try anyway. I listen to my soul and let the howl flow, as a murmur at first, from my inner wolf. I believe that this is what’s called for, after an ending—a tentative new beginning. Can I convince the young one to follow me, to join in? The wolf pup sits on a flight of stairs—halfway up or halfway down—in transition herself. Can she revive the life of the whole pack, just as the one, dying wolf has been revived? Can we restart our hearts and howl together? We howl wholeheartedly.

And then, we recognize that we have come together across all kinds of differences, to become a pack—human and animal—at home in the world. Within myself, I’ve struggled with my various voices, my human and animal conflicts, my fears. But all the time, someone has kept a door open. Every aspect of myself, and all of the qualities of hope and fear I recognize in the friends and strangers that surround me… all are welcome. We cross the threshold together.

For me, this is what healing means. There are two other women in the dream who make it possible: the veterinarian who heals the wolf, and the unseen woman who keeps her door open. I might think of them as unrealized potentials within myself—maybe this is true. Maybe it’s also true that they are separate individual beings, visiting my dream to help me, or even to make a difference to the world, somehow, through this dream-sharing. However, for the moment, the explanation seems simpler. They are just doing their jobs, as I am doing mine…

I identify with the dream-ego, the “I” in the dream, who must let the dying wolf do what the dying wolf needs to do. I identify with the one who may be able to approximate an authentic wolf song, inviting the wolf pup into her first howl, inviting the pack to join in. Meanwhile, the healer (veterinarian) and the threshold guardian (the woman with the open house)—within me, within all of us—do their work. I don’t need to identify with them, to make them consciously “me” or “mine.” They know what to do. The veterinarian is a “vet”—she’s a veteran of all the experiences of my lifetime, all the pain and difficulty and learning that make it possible to heal oneself and offer healing to others. She can’t really howl—that’s my job—but she can heal. The woman who own the house where we all belong does not need to be seen: we feel her presence in the open door. The fullness of myself includes all these dream figures: the dream-ego who doesn’t try to fix things but finds a way to howl out, the vet who heals, the woman who leaves the door open for all of us to participate in change, in possibility.

What makes a healing dream truly healing? Well, I believe that all true healing involves community. Every change is a potential healing process, and such healing change always requires a kind of death (letting go) followed by homecoming and new beginnings. Usually, the death aspect of the process has to be solitary—we must set ourselves apart, slow ourselves down, cool our emotions and connections, let ourselves go beyond the range of help. The pack may be nearby when the one wolf lies down alone, but they can’t step forward until the time is right, until she is ready to return to life. Yet the return to life is not actually the essence of the healing. As with any transformative initiation, a solitary retreat or ordeal is followed by a return, but the return cannot  be fully realized without a community to welcome the healed one home.

All the beings—humans, animals, plants—who surround me in my life make up my community. Sometimes they know how to offer welcome, sometimes they don’t. But my healing will only be complete when the pack howls with me, when we can all trust the open door, and come and go freely across the threshold, knowing we are welcome in this house.

The Unknown Someone: Anonymous Dream Figures

Have you noticed that there are characters in your dreams who are a part of the story, but remain unidentifiable? Perhaps in a dream, someone tells me the truth… someone is angry at me… someone is sitting alone in the corner…someone keeps interrupting. Is it a man or a woman, old or young? Is it even a human being? I’m really not sure. I’d like to get to know this unknown someone—to make a connection, to recognize who is there, hovering in the background, exerting an influence on the dream scene. These dream figures are often overlooked when we share dreams or write them down: we assume they are unimportant, because we can’t describe them adequately.

Such incidental, indeterminate characters keep showing up in my dreams. In “Pity the Poor Ego,” for example, there’s a room full of hot coals that is too hot to endure, yet I sense an unknown someone in there, just out of sight. The only thing I know about this person is that they are where no one can be, so I imagine that they must be wearing protective clothing, though I don’t actually see them. When I wrote the dream down, I almost didn’t mention this person, because their presence seemed incidental. But, as I explored further, the unknown someone began to seem more and more significant. I looked for similar characters in other dreams, and found them, in abundance. They always seemed to have something to do with the relationship between self and other, between “me” and “not-me.” Often, these characters were doing something that “I” (the dream-ego) couldn’t do (like standing on hot coals), or saying something that I couldn’t say, or knowing something that I didn’t know. They “just happened to be there”—but at a key moment, presenting an alternative understanding of the dream reality.

Perhaps these dream figures are unidentified because they represent, or embody, more than the dreamer can imagine. They are “beyond me.” Like images of the divine, they are beyond words, beyond our limiting ideas of what is possible or reasonable, or what is even conceivable.

Many spiritual traditions avoid naming God, or creating images of God that can only diminish that which is inexpressible. Yet, in most traditions, God is among us all the time, seeming so ordinary, so inconspicuous, that the immanent presence of the unknown someone can appear to be merely an inconsequential afterthought: the person standing beside me at the bus stop; the dog pausing to sniff my hand; the trees along my street that blossom extravagantly every Spring—all these divine beings can show me a different way to experience the reality I tend to take for granted.

Exploring the “unknown someone” can open up big, universal concerns—and can also be personally revealing. So, as I write about this, I think about my own identity in relation to these anonymous dream figures. Many of my recent posts have been quite personal. Sometimes, I feel that I’m walking the fine line between sharing and self-indulgence. Still, I believe it’s vitally important to share, because an isolated experience quickly becomes meaningless, while a shared experience resonates beyond any individual, potentially creating deeper connections and a larger purpose from challenges that would otherwise be monotonously difficult, empty, painful and exhausting. We are all manifestations of God for one another—we show each other that there is more to us than what we think we are. When I really see you, I see someone“not-me,” someone beyond myself, someone that expands my understanding of who I am. When you see me, you see another world, another way of being that is both familiar and unfamiliar.

Anonymous characters share our dreams, and also populate many areas of our waking lives. It’s important to acknowledge them and recognize that we are in relationship all the time, even if we are preoccupied with our own concerns.

Because my health challenges have forced me to spend more time than I’d like attending to my own immediate needs and coping with my own practical problems, I find my work with others (in spiritual direction and dreamwork facilitation) to be refreshing, and even more meaningful than it would have been if I were healthy. What a joy to concentrate on someone else’s concerns and spiritual journey for a change! I also find it refreshing to engage with “strangers” who I encounter in the course of my day, or who have become friends through social media, for many of the same reasons. When I write, I hope to open up my own concerns and journey to others, as others have opened their lives to me. We all play essential roles in one another’s lives: we learn from each other, receive support and encouragement from one another, and have the opportunity to be supportive and encouraging ourselves.

In dreams, all of the dream figures (human or animal) might be considered to be aspects of the dreamer’s own personal psyche. But, more significantly I think, all of our dreams touch upon levels of experience that we share, and all of our dream figures can legitimately be seen as other people, other beings, other possibilities—manifestations of something or someone beyond ourselves. So, when I’m sharing a dream, I’m revealing things about myself, but also communicating about a mystery that includes you, and invites you to enter the dream world with me. There, in the dream world, we meet friends and we meet strangers. The dream characters that are least familiar to us—those unknown someones—may have the most to offer. And sharing the dream, like sharing our waking-life experiences, gives us the opportunity to acknowledge and learn from perspectives that differ from our own. Continue reading

The Art of the Gesture: Dream Guidance in Gentleness, Genuineness and Generosity

What do I have to give? How can I create and offer a meaningful response to all that this life has given me? How do I do the work that is mine to do, convey the depth of my caring, and contribute actively to the well-being of this world, my own community, and my loved ones?

These questions become more urgent as I get older. Urgent, because I no longer assume that I will somehow begin to “give back” at some indeterminate time in the future… I know from experience that loved ones may die before I have given as much as I wanted to give; that the world around me and my own life keep rapidly changing all the time, and opportunities to make a difference might not be available when I think I’m ready. I know how easy it is to put off doing and being what I would like to do and be, and I know that I’m often too tired, or too busy, or too distracted to notice that the things I care about most are getting left out. I know that the years go by, and there’s so much I want to offer in gratitude and love… But, maybe this evening my back hurts, and I’ve already had several appointments, worked hard, run lots of errands, and I just feel like watching television with Holly or playing spider solitaire on my cell phone.

Because I have a degenerative disease that adds to my exhaustion and will probably shorten my life, I’m both more urgently aware of the need to give what I have to give now, and more easily spellbound by the need to rest, recover, and cope with immediate concerns rather than extending myself to make a creative effort. So, how to reconcile this paradox? I know I’m not alone in the dilemma. Most of my clients and friends, especially those who are over fifty, are wrestling with similar challenges in their own ways.

An example that will be familiar to many is my desire to get some writing done (articles, blog posts, a book) along with an equally compelling desire to do something—anything!—else. I’ve written and published all my life (usually wrestling with the process the whole way), and now that my health is problematic, writing is one of the primary ways that I can engage with others and make a contribution to the world. So, I really do want to do this work. But, when the time comes to do it, I’d almost always rather not. I’m easily drained, and concentration is difficult; there’s usually a good reason to give myself a break.

After years of experimentation, I’ve learned not to force myself into long writing sessions with high expectations, but also not to indulge in excuses that would allow me to avoid the issue entirely. Instead, I make a gesture toward writing every day: I write at least a sentence or a paragraph, or whatever I can do in twenty minutes, just to remind myself that this is important to me, that I care about doing it, and that it’s easier than I think. Of course, once I get started, I often keep going and work for hours, and whatever I have to offer in a particular piece of writing begins to take shape based on something truly heartfelt, rather than based on something that I think I “should” express.

Dreams have helped me develop this practice. In dreams, the possibilities aren’t limited by our expectations or excuses. Dreams invite the art of the gesture. Often, a dream situation will give me a new insight or direction, but I don’t know how to follow it up with concrete action in the waking world. Yes, that crazy dream was really important, but how the heck am I supposed to apply it to my waking life? The dream has given me a gift, but what do I do with it? I’ve found that any simple gesture (even just a pause for intentional thought or prayer) in response to the dream’s offering can be tremendously meaningful, because the dream points toward the vital essence of my experience, which is ready to be conveyed at this particular moment. Almost any expression of that dream-essence will resonate outward as a meaningful gesture, and will be in keeping with my own capacity to give and others’ availability to receive. It doesn’t have to look like a purposeful or important demonstration of anything.

Making a gesture in the direction of the dream, or in the direction of my own deepest intention, doesn’t require me to plunge right into a big enterprise when I’m not sure what to do or whether I have the energy to do it. When I make a gesture, I stand where I am (in my uncertainty) and tentatively reach out, allowing myself to experience just a little bit of my gratitude, longing, gifts and hopes, as well as my authentic desire to connect with others.

This kind of gesture engages the intrinsic human capacity for gentleness, genuineness and generosity. Like most dreamworkers and dreamers, I have a penchant for wordplay: the root “gen-” that these words share means that they are all connected in some way with creativity.

Gentleness is probably pretty self-explanatory: Whatever it is that I want to bring into the world and give to others cannot be forced—neither forced out of me, nor forced onto them. Genuineness is also fairly obvious: Giving cannot be contrived—ulterior motives just get in the way. Generosity may seem redundant—if I’m giving then I’m being generous, right? Well, not really, no. So often we give because we need something. Maybe we need others’ gratitude or recognition, or maybe we just need to feel that we have accomplished something or contributed something. These needs are completely natural, and not “wrong” in themselves, but any need comes from a sense of lack, a sense of deficiency, whereas the true joy of generosity is that it comes from abundance. We are all so gifted, so blessed—with our own unique creative potential, our love and caring and gratitude toward others—that giving can just spill over. As Rilke wrote: “May what I do flow from me like a river, no forcing and no holding back, as it is with children…” And this doesn’t mean I have to move mountains to make way—all it takes is a gesture, a small act of gentleness, genuineness and generosity, to release the flow.

The best metaphor for the profound gifts we have to offer the world might be the tangible gifts—like birthday presents—we might give to our loved ones. Though I often want to give something special to those I love, the usual forms of giving don’t seem to fit. The expectation of a gift exchange around holidays has become so commercialized, and most everyone I know has enough “stuff” already—to give a present can seem to create an obligation for reciprocation. Also, trying to figure out what someone else might want can cause me agonies of indecision, and can seem wasteful and disappointing when I suspect I’ve gotten the wrong thing. On the other hand, an authentic gesture of love and acknowledgement can be wonderful.

I always felt a genuine desire to give my mother presents, yet I had a difficult time coming up with an uncontrived offering for each special occasion (Christmas, birthday, Mother’s Day). So on holidays, I just made a gesture by sending a card, and the the rest of the year I made a deeper gesture by holding her dear, complicated, unique self in my heart, waiting for the right gift to come along. Out of the abundance of my own pleasure in the process, I recognized when something would truly delight her—and then sent it as a surprise, for no particular occasion. This became a gesture of spontaneous appreciation and affection between us.

I’ve wanted to make a similar kind of gesture toward my sisters, Jill and Didi, too—especially since our parents both died in 2015. I hold my sisters in my heart all the time, and often feel a longing to give them something meaningful that would make their lives easier and bring them joy. So far,  I haven’t found literal gifts for them like those I gave my mother. But a recent dream reminded me of the feelings of gentleness, genuineness, and generosity that flow through me when I think of them:

Gifts for the Family: I’m traveling with a group (walking the Camino?) and we stop for supplies at a huge supermarket. I must find everything I’ll need for the remainder of the journey, and it’s very stressful and rushed. Mostly I’m looking for groceries I can carry and prepare easily, but I also pass through a bookshop within the larger store. Can I find a lightweight book? There are too many options, and I’m feeling frustrated when I notice a display of beautifully-bound blank journals. Immediately, I think of my family—these would be perfect gifts for my parents and sisters. I know that Mom and Dad are dead, but it doesn’t matter, I can still give them something precious and personal. And I’ll find exactly the right journal to suit Jill, exactly the right one for Didi. My sense is that these blank books will represent all the love I feel for each of my family members. The books I choose for them will recognize the individuality and “wide open” potential of each of their lives. I’m not able to complete my choices yet, but I know that I’ll come back here after I’ve finished the rest of my shopping. The shopping task is no longer overwhelming. Now that I’m thinking about the gifts for my loved ones rather than concerned with my own urgency, finding what I need for the journey comes naturally. Choosing the journals will be effortless, too. I am happy and at peace.

Yes, this is a dream about “gifts for my family,” but it’s also about any form of giving, any original, essential gifts that a person might offer in gratitude and blessing to others. In the midst of the hustle and bustle of a lifetime, we struggle to meet our own immediate needs, carried away by the tasks at hand… and then, an opening appears, a way of making a meaningful gesture that guides us toward the true tasks of our lives, the work/play of giving and loving. Whether that work/play takes the form of art or music or writing, building, cleaning, planning, social activism, counseling, healing, teaching, gardening, discovering, collaborating… or just being fully present (pun intended!) to whatever task we have at hand—we all have something to give (gently, genuinely, generously) that requires “no forcing and no holding back.” 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.

Fight, Flight, Freeze… or Flow?

In a recent dream, I experienced several ways of responding to chaotic and frightening circumstances:

Dangers and Discovery: I’m in a forest as it gets dark and the wind rises. The tall trees are swaying and creaking, and several come crashing down quite nearby! Frightened, I try to find shelter, scampering around looking for a safe place. One of the fallen trees is apparently dead and rotten. It breaks apart as it crashes to the ground, and a beehive inside bursts open. Shiny black bees swarm out. I run desperately and they follow… But gradually, the swarm disperses and I return to the fallen tree. I search through the fragments of rotten trunk and broken branches, and find a chunk of heartwood that is soft and pulpy on one side, but smooth, hard, rounded and beautifully-grained, like polished agate or petrified wood on the other side. It is very special. I realize that the falling trees, swarm of bees, rotten wood, and this precious gift are all part of an initiation for young girls. I’m part of it, in my own way, as an older woman.

This dream coincided with some thoughts I’ve been having about our instinctive and natural reactions and responses to threatening situations. What happens when we get past our first fearful reactions, and respond instead with curiosity and openness? In the dream, this exploratory process is an initiation for girls. While traditional initiations for boys usually involve overcoming or standing up to our fears, perhaps a female form of initiation might allow for a variety of more complex responses. Both boys and girls, both men and women, might benefit from honoring all the choices that are available to us when we are confronted with crises or uncertainties. When we recognize that every situation offers alternatives, and we can choose our responses, we are entering into maturity, finding our place in this wild and wind-blown world.

When confronted with an unwanted experience, we respond instinctively in ways that reflect our most basic options—commonly called “fight or flight,” sometimes with a third possibility, to “freeze.” These responses evolved to cope with direct threats to our survival, and for the most part, they don’t serve us well when we are faced with difficult, complex interpersonal situations in the modern world.

These days, the basic instinctive responses might look a bit different from the prehistoric scenarios. Fight might not mean literally throwing a punch or a spear, but instead just throwing a tantrum, resisting, blaming, complaining, disrupting. Flight might not mean literally running away, but instead avoiding, denying, refusing, distracting. Freeze might not mean literally playing dead, hiding or becoming a “deer in the headlights,” but instead spacing out, going numb, dissociating, ignoring. Such strategies can be effective as immediate reactions to a shock, giving us a little distance from whatever unpleasantness is confronting us—but as long-term strategies, they are not only unsustainable, but potentially destructive. In the dream, I tried fleeing… but this didn’t really get me anywhere.

When we keep fighting, fleeing or freezing in response to the things that happen to us, we end up threatening others and setting off similar reactions in those around us. When I ran away, the bees seemed to chase me—if I hadn’t run, what then? When conditions are stressful, as in the United States under the current administration, the entire population can seem to be engaged in nothing but fighting, fleeing or freezing. Nothing works, and no one is happy or safe under these circumstances.

But there’s another response in our repertoire, which I believe is just as instinctive, just as natural, as the fight, flight or freeze response. We also have the capacity to respond to threats with flow. What does flow look like?

Flow is our resilience, creativity, adaptability. Flow is our capacity to respond to a threat or problem—and the accompanying rush of adrenaline—with curiosity, or humor, or surrender, or improvisation, or compassion, or investigation, or determination, as appropriate to the circumstances. Continue reading

Seeing With Fresh Eyes: Finding Healing in “Problem Dreams”

Sometimes, dreams just seem to show us where we are stuck—blatantly and unhelpfully highlighting our struggles and suffering. What is the point of such dreams? Waking life can be stressful enough without reenacting our problems when we are trying to get some restful sleep. I’m having a lot of these “problem dreams” lately, and even though I usually wake up from them feeling discouraged, I’m finding that these dreams always contain powerful healing if I can get past my initial resistance and take a closer look.

My most recent problem dreams have had to do with my deteriorating health, and the changes in my body that sometimes bring me to the edge of existential despair. I’m coping with a neuro-muscular disease that has been steadily progressing over the past year, and although the life-threatening aspects of this disease (heart damage and stroke risk) are stable for now, there are several less dramatic symptoms (muscle spasms and weakness, digestive trouble, intense fatigue) that drain my life force. It can be difficult to keep my spirits up, and everyday obstacles can seem insurmountable.

In many of my dreams, I’m trying to pack for an important journey but can’t get it together: there’s too much “stuff”—more than I can carry. Everything is just too hard. On top of this hard work, there are always other dream figures who are suffering. I feel their pain, but can’t do anything about it. My dreams are full of pathetic, bedraggled, wasted characters who embody my own physical misery in all-too-obvious ways. So how am I supposed to respond?

This seems like an impasse, but it’s not. When I look at these miserable dreams from a different angle, they can open my eyes. In a previous post [Feel It In My Bones: A Dream Experience of the Body] I wrote about how the physical condition of dream figures can reflect the physical condition of our own bodies—and how relating to those figures with compassion and respect can help us relate to our physical selves. So here’s an example of one of those dreams. In this case, compassion and respect come easily, but a sad, hard outcome still seems inevitable:

The Hawk Who Can’t Fly: …Oddly, there’s a a hawk standing on the pavement between buildings. Not perched on a branch, just standing there in the open. Although she has plain brown plumage and markings, and is quite small, her presence is powerful, and her eyes are bright and fierce. But something is wrong. Her wings are spread (as if she were flying) and one looks crooked and withered while the other has large torn gaps. Clearly, she has been seriously injured. She can’t fly, but also can’t even fold her wings to rest. The injuries don’t look fresh, so she has been surviving for quite some time like this, and appears fairly healthy for now. How has she managed to feed herself? I imagine she’s been picking up scraps, though there’s not much food that would appeal to a hawk here. Maybe people have been feeding her? Hawks needs to be able to hunt, and it’s difficult for them to eat food that isn’t alive, so this seems like a miserable existence. I’m so sorry to see her suffering this way. Should I try to feed her? Or maybe it would be better if she died quickly, since her death is inevitable. She isn’t looking at me, but I feel the intensity of her gaze.

My first impression of this dream was that it painfully illustrated my own dilemma: I need to fly, but even my wings (my strengths) have become an encumbrance. I can’t get off the ground, and I can’t even rest. My food (daily routine) is lifeless and doesn’t nourish me. I’m leading a miserable existence, not sure it’s worth the effort. Well, okay. That is how I feel on bad days. Sometimes, the broken bird is just broken. The dream seems to end with a whimper.

But I’ve still got a few dreamwork tricks to try. Let’s see what happens when I pay attention to the dream itself, instead of my predictable assumptions about broken birds and sad stories.

When I imagine what might happen next if the dream continued, I think of trying to feed the hawk, helping her fold her wings so she can rest, or even “putting her out of her misery” by gently euthanizing her—allowing her to transcend her problems through death. None of these problem-solving possibilities seem to fit with the dream itself, however. The hawk has no interest in my efforts to save her. Similarly, my own health issues seem indifferent to my urgency and concern, and the things that I try to do to fix myself—medical appointments, tests, therapies, medications—have no apparent influence on my condition. Trying so hard to solve these problems, I find myself in the same situation as the dream-ego in the dream: my genuine compassion and respect for my own body (or the hawk) seems tainted by feelings of pity, frustration and hopelessness.

Are problem dreams like this one just meant to torment us? Of course not. So, instead of buying the obvious premise that these “problems” need solving, let’s look instead at what the dream has to say. To find the core issues in a dream, it’s always useful to pay attention to anomalies or questions within the dream itself. Although dreams don’t always make sense by waking life standards, they have a kind of internal consistency, and things that don’t seem to fit are not accidental. In this dream, there’s a crippled raptor who can’t hunt for herself, yet she seems healthy and “her eyes are bright and fierce.” If her condition is so awful, how has she survived? How has she sustained herself? Clearly, there is something about her situation that is not consistent with the way I have understood the “problem.”

This leads to another important insight: Particularly with problem dreams where the dream-ego is thinking and behaving in ways that lead to an impasse (reflecting a similar waking life impasse), don’t assume that the dream-ego is always right about what is going on and what should be done about it. The dream-ego (the “I” character in the dream) usually follows the dreamer’s expectations and reinforces the dreamer’s beliefs about life’s limitations—but other characters in the dream may represent different perspectives, different possibilities. When the dream-ego’s point-of-view leads to a dead end, other characters or circumstances in the dream may be giving the dreamer an opportunity to see a different picture, tell a different story.

So, I ask myself: How is this hawk surviving and even thriving? The answer is immediate, surprising, and consistent with the information the dream presents, rather than with my expectations. I expect the hawk to be miserable, desperate, defeated, near death. But the hawk’s eyes are “bright and fierce.” What does she see? How does she see herself and her life? I’m stunned by the world that I see through those bright, fierce eyes.

The hawk sees herself as a hunter. For her, finding food and eating it—even if it’s “scraps”—is hunting, and she sees herself plunging on her prey, doing exactly what she was born to do. The hawk embodies the spirit of a raptor, a formidable bird. For her, keeping her wings open means that she is flying—she is always flying. Even while standing on the pavement, she feels the air moving through her feathers in the smooth swerve of flight. The hawk has acute perceptions, powerful vision. For her, the world is vivid, clear, enticing, expansive, even if it’s just the narrow paved alley between buildings. The hawk is wild and free. For her, pain and disability are just part of life. Death will eventually be part of life, too. She is not crippled or desperate. As long as she is alive, she is fully alive.

If I take this hawk as my teacher instead of seeing her as a victim, I am able to experience the fullness of my life, even when my wings seem heavy and my world seems small. I can see what the hawk sees, with her bright, fierce eyes. Our limitations do not define us. Our dreams may show us those apparent limitations, but they also show us that we are wild and free.

Can we open our wings? The next time you feel oppressed by your own problems—hurt, tired, helpless—ask yourself to see as the hawk sees. Ask yourself who you are, and how you might live this life you’ve been given. Dream your wings wide open. Whether you know it or not, you are always flying.

 

Easy Does It: The Path of Least Resistance, In Dreamwork and In Life

Dreamwork doesn’t have to be difficult. We don’t need to come up with a “solution” to the dream, because the dream is not a problem or a puzzle—it’s an experience, and, like any other experience, is filled with rich potential, some baffling details, and a variety of emotions and perceptions. I’m learning not to view my waking life experiences as problems to be solved, but as offerings to be appreciated. Dreams, too.

What does it look like to do dreamwork the easy way? Well, in dreamwork, as in life, following “the path of least resistance” can be a meaningful practice. When I encounter a dream—either remembering one of my own or hearing someone else’s—the first step on the path of least resistance is simply accepting the dream without judgement or analysis. I might notice that the dream images bring up feelings of confusion, anxiety, impatience, amazement, boredom, revulsion, comfort, excitement, restlessness, distress, delight… maybe one strong feeling, maybe a jumble of different feelings, maybe just a bewildered uncertainty about how to respond. I don’t work too hard to catch every detail, but let the dream present itself in its own way, and let myself be drawn into the dream’s images, events, and emotions as they come along.

After accepting and experiencing the dream uncritically, my natural curiosity leads me to ask questions that will increase my awareness and participation in the dreaming. I’ll open my senses, and wonder about everything. If some aspect of the dream seems especially incomprehensible or uncomfortable, I just notice my discomfort and let it be. Like a kid playing in a muddy stream, I take a long twig and fish up weeds and rotting leaves from the bottom, build little dams and watch the water spread behind them, float bits of bark to see which ones are fastest, look for jewelweed (the leaves turn silver underwater) and touch-me-nots (the pods burst and scatter tiny seeds). I take off my shoes and socks and wade right into the dream. This is all-absorbing, even when I encounter slimy or spiny creatures, even when I dredge up old beer bottles, even when I step in a deep spot and get wetter than I intended. I don’t need a plan: one question or experiment naturally leads to the next, and learning happens easily in the process.

Recently, I had an opportunity to take a ten-day personal retreat—staying in a little cottage alone, surrounded by rolling gardens and brambly woods. A couple of times a day, I walked over to a nearby house to feed and visit with two nice cats while their family was on vacation, otherwise I had no responsibilities. I really, really needed this time away. I’d been coping with a glut of health issues, medical appointments, work and existential crises for several months without a chance to reflect, so I was overdue for a break.

I started out thinking I might get a lot of writing done. I could set up a routine of meaningful practices—meditation, haiku, journaling, T’ai Chi, listening to sacred music, studying, exploring nearby parks, working on my book… I’d come home with a better grasp of my life situation, and a solid sense of spiritual accomplishment.

But that wasn’t what I needed, and that wasn’t what I did. Instead, I took it easy. I sat outside or inside, reading for hours on end. I watched the doe and fawn who came by almost every morning and evening to eat the garden. I listened to the birds (finches, chickadees, woodpeckers… ostriches? pterodactyls?). I dodged the yellow jackets that plagued me while I ate lunch. When I felt like moving, I walked up and down the level, quarter-mile gravel drive—up and down, up and down, up and down… walking along the magnificent row of sequoias that line the drive, past a few small pastures where there were occasionally rabbits or coyotes.

No productive planning. No long, steep, bushwhacking hikes. No writing. No schedule. No spiritual practices other than presence and participation. Nothing significant happened. I didn’t work at it, but I learned what I needed to learn from the experience itself—just as I might learn from the experience of a dream.

During this lovely, easy retreat, I couldn’t remember many dreams (and I didn’t make much of an effort to remember them), but one just came along, like the deer, to graze around in my mind:

Treasures Keep Coming My Way: I have a sense that many precious things are to be found here, so I look carefully. There are a couple of shiny quarters on the sidewalk! A homeless man claims one of them (apparently, he can’t pick up both, since his hands are full) and I pocket the other. Then, I realize he needs it more than I do, so I give it to him. He grumbles, not at all grateful, but accepts the coin—and I feel that I did the right thing. I go on, keeping my eyes open… and there are more treasures! Around a gift-shop counter where a woman is buying some fancy crystal ornaments, I see many oval glass discs scattered on the floor. Some are coin-sized, some as big as my hand; some are clear glass, some amber or pale blue. They’re incredibly beautiful, though very simple. Each disc has a tiny animal (one is a fox) etched into its center. I gather them all up, feeling rich. But then I realize they must belong to the gift-shop, so I bring them to the counter and give them to the sales clerk. She thanks me warmly, and finds my name on her customer list (she knows my name?)—telling me she’ll check the discs against their inventory, and then contact me to give them back if any do not belong to the shop. They are apparently very valuable. But I feel no sense of loss as I return them. I anticipate more and more treasures waiting for me.

 The more we give away, the more we have. Yes, of course, this is a cliché, but a very true one.

Ordinarily, I’m stingy with my energies, fearing I won’t live long enough to live fully, believing that I need to hoard my resources and my time, insisting that I must work very hard so that I don’t waste my precious life. But my retreat (and my dream) remind me that this isn’t true. Life can be easy—we can squander it, share it, give ourselves away and set ourselves free to follow an apparently random path that goes nowhere in particular… and the world will offer itself to us, willingly, again and again.

Dreamwork is easy when we drop our resistance and our itineraries and follow that plain path, appreciating whatever we find. Look at those sequoias—each one is different! Look, what a huge, scary spider (and don’t walk into that web)! Listen, I think I hear a Swainson’s thrush! Ah, let’s sit and rest for a bit… there’s no hurry. Another day, another dream, another treasure. Easy enough.

Dreamers In Good Company: The Social Dynamics of Dreamwork

Dreamwork is the opposite of naval-gazing. In my experience, people who take an interest in their dreams make good company, since they tend to become more self-aware, creative, curious, and caring. They also tend to develop better listening skills and social boundaries as well as more openness to diversity, concern for others, and willingness to be vulnerable and authentic in relationships. I might add an array of other healthy qualities I’ve observed in the community of dreamers: sense of humor, patience, kindness, intelligence, playfulness, maturity, integrity, generosity, flexibility… The list goes on.

Of course, dreamwork doesn’t automatically make us better people—but there’s no doubt that dreams can be significant contributing factors in our personal and social development. There are good, solid reasons why exploring our dreams, especially with others, really can make a difference in our lives and communities.

Before I give some of those reasons, I’d like to plunge into a real-life example of dreamwork in action. Not long ago, I attended the annual conference of the International Association for the Study of Dreams. I’ve been to four of these conferences so far, and have always found them to be stimulating gatherings where dreamers from all over the world and from diverse disciplines come together to share knowledge, insights, and inspiration.

This year, however, my own participation was iffy until the last minute. Just a few days before the conference, I had an echocardiogram which showed significant heart problems. I didn’t yet know exactly what this meant, but I was already having some disturbing symptoms, and understood that I was at risk for a heart attack, and might already be in the early stages of heart failure. My life expectancy and future options had abruptly changed. Was it safe to go to the conference at all? Would I be able to travel, participate fully, lead a daily dream group, interact with my colleagues and friends in such an intense social and professional environment?

Yes. Although I was in the midst of an emotional whirlwind, feeling just about as vulnerable as I could bear to be, I went to the conference and immersed myself in this vibrant community of dreamers for five days. I had a dear dreamworker friend for a traveling companion, and the support of my beloved partner via telephone, but I was also sustained by a teeming crowd of good-hearted strangers, acquaintances, and new friends (some only previously met on-line) who surrounded me with all of the qualities I described above. The majority of these good people didn’t know what was going on with me at all, and yet their presence grounded me, giving me a sense of safety and belonging, in spite of the disorientatation caused by my new health situation and cardiac symptoms.

Because of my personal vulnerability, I was especially sensitive to the social dynamics and emotional energy of those around me. The conference schedule is always packed, and between sleep deprivation and over-stimulation, most people get somewhat stressed. Taking almost a week away from home, traveling (in some cases, from very far away), and trying to pack a year’s worth of conversations into a few days… Well, I could see that I wasn’t the only person feeling vulnerable, tired, and at least a bit overwhelmed. This (like many other conferences) could easily have been an environment where gossip, exaggerated attention-seeking, belligerence, excess alcohol consumption, and generally unhealthy behavior would thrive.

Yet, incredibly, I observed gentleness and generosity on all sides, wise self-care and compassionate attention to the needs of others, respectful interactions between those who held differing points-of-view, and an atmosphere of warm, playful, appropriate willingness to share. Even awkward interactions seemed to be handled with grace and humor. Even casual conversations seemed trust-based and genuine.

In this context, I could make room for my own fears, needs, and confusion honestly without burdening those around me. My moods were constantly changing—one moment immersed in the enjoyment of the conference activities, the next moment straining at the limits of my physical and emotional resilience—but the container was a good one. As opportunities arose to talk with others about what I was experiencing, both the sharing and the responses seemed natural and mutually healing.

When I returned home, I felt more ready to face my cardiology appointment and treadmill stress test. Certainly, the company of dreamers (at the conference, and via the internet afterward) is helping me to absorb what I’m learning about my health as I adjust to my diagnosis (cardiomyopathy progressing toward heart failure) and prognosis (still uncertain). Does the fact that all these people consider dreams valuable make a difference in the way they relate to one another and to me? Does their dream interest at least partially account for their social skills and personal qualities? Since the conference, I’ve been holding this question as I lead my three dream groups and meet with individual clients for spiritual direction and dreamwork. The impression keeps being reinforced: When people explore dreams, it seems to bring out the best in them. Why is this? Continue reading

Dreaming Up “The Bad Guys”

On my walk this morning, I saw a little boy dressed as a dragon, following his mother up a steep hill, roaring. He was tiny (barely four years old, probably) but formidable, in his fierce, floppy dragon-head hat, with his spiked tail swinging from side to side when he stomped his feet. Rows of green fins or scales lined his striped leggings and sleeves, and ran down his back. His sister (just a bit older) waited with their father at the top of the hill.

The little girl shouted, “Mom, are you the good guy?” Her mom, trudging up the hill, replied, “Yes. I’m the good guy.” The girl shouted, “You’re the good guy, and he’s the bad guy!” Mom said, tentatively, “Yes…”

The girl hollered at her brother, who had stopped walking to listen to the exchange: “You’re the bad guy! We’re the good guys! You’re the bad guy!” He stood with his mouth open—uncertain. Perhaps at first he’d intended to roar and be the bad guy, but his sister’s tone became increasingly taunting, and now it looked like he might decide to cry instead.

His mom couldn’t see his face, but his dad saw it and interceded, calling to him—“You’re not a bad guy.” And with that affirmation, the dragon burst out, in a teary wail of self-defense: “No! I’m not a bad guy! No, I’m not! I’m not a bad guy! I’M NOT A BAD GUY!”

Nobody really wants to be the bad guy. Yes, it feels powerful to make a lot of noise and to be a dragon… But, ultimately, the good guys are “us” and the bad guys are “them”—and being excluded from “us” just doesn’t feel right. Of course, this applies to the adult world as well as to the world of dragons and their older sisters.

In our present adult world, we’ve got a lot of noisy, dangerous “bad guys” in positions of authority, and many of us are running scared or trying to defend ourselves by defining ourselves as “us.” When we shout at the dragons and try to make them go away so that we can be a happy family of “good guys” without them… Well, good luck with that. I know that Donald Trump has virtually nothing in common with the adorable little boy in the dragon suit, yet I can’t help thinking maybe that’s how he started out. If bad guys exist, he’s certainly a bad guy. But how helpful is the whole game of bad guys and good guys anyway?

In dreams, the bad guys can seem truly awful. There’s someone dangerous, something horrible, some monstrous creature that does unbearable things. In nightmares, the damage done by these bad guys feels terribly real. Even in waking life, we can get caught up in a movie scenario where everything is reduced to the worst possible bad people against the best, most peaceful, most reasonable, good people… It seems like this is the way things actually are. But when the movie ends, we find that the world is much more complex and subtle and paradoxical than it seemed. The world is not a movie. Dreams are not movies, either. Unlike the popular clichés in those blockbuster films, dreams potentially express the richness of real life. While nightmares may play out the bad guy/good guy dichotomy, they also invite us to explore the possibilities surrounding such simplistic scenarios.

If I listen to the bad guy in the dream, I find that he doesn’t see himself as the bad guy—and maybe I learn something, even if I still don’t like him much. If I look at all of the other elements in the dream—the dragon costumes, the sets and supporting characters, the unexpected emotions and inconsistent details—then I find that I have to include everything in order to have any real understanding of what is actually going on.

There’s no “us” and “them” in a dream—it’s all me, or something larger than me: the dreamer and the dream-maker. The human family includes the good guys and the bad guys, the dragons, big sisters, parents, and observers. The dream is a big, intricate, inconsistent story. Every aspect of that story deserves my care and attention. Continue reading

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