Compass Dreamwork

Dreamwork as Spiritual Practice

Tag: paradox

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

Turning the Dream Upside Down

upside down 01If I start with some straightforward approaches to dreamwork (see “Two Basic Dreamwork Skills”), I can learn a lot about dreams. But I can learn a lot more if I’m willing to turn the dream upside down, or inside out—to spin it, flip it, and toss it around a bit.

Actually, it’s not the dream that needs to be turned upside down, it’s the dreamworker. Have you heard the Nietzsche quote: “If you gaze long enough into the abyss, the abyss gazes back”? In order to see the whole dream in all its multifaceted dynamic transpersonal splendor, I have to suspend my own habitual patterns of thought, stand on my head, and take a new look at the dream—until I can see the dream looking back at me. Like a mirror, the dream shows me a reversed image of myself, and more than myself. Continue reading

Ugly Duckling Dreams

If my dream-self were graded on her performance by the standards of my most judgmental waking self, she’d get an “Unsatisfactory” on her report card. The “I” character in my dreams has been disappointing lately. She fails to work and play well with other dream characters—is frequently sullen and whiney and withdrawn. She doesn’t make the most of opportunities, step up to challenges, or take responsibility for her mistakes. She falls apart under pressure, and her dream-space is often cluttered, neglected, and unimaginative. In short, the dreamer often wakes up dissatisfied with this character’s work, and discouraged about her prospects.

Fortunately, there are less judgmental parts of me exploring dreams and discovering what they have to teach! When I go through a phase where my dream world seems lackluster and my dream-self is miserable, I do tend to wake up discouraged—but I also see these dream patterns as part of a larger process. Like little Einsteins, my recent dreams fail to impress at this phase in their development—but when the time is right, I trust that they will come out with something brilliant! I know this because I’ve gone through this phase dozens of times before (with my own and others’ dreams), and if I bear with the ugly ducklings, they always turn out to be swans. Continue reading

Dream Nemesis or Dream Teacher?

Toby 01Last night, my cat, Toby, woke me up with his hollering. He is deaf, and so can be oblivious to the noise he is making—reporting on his night-time activities in a very loud voice: “I’m on the bookcase, way up high! I’m pushing this heavy thing over the edge! [Crash!— the bowl of small change hits the floor.] Wow! Jumping down now! Hey, look, at all these shiny things! There’s some under the chair! Oh boy, I found my ball! [Whack! Scamper! Bang!] I ran into the door but I’m okay! Are you in there? Will you come out and throw my ball?” This goes on and on.

Just as I’m slipping back into sleep, Toby lets out another happy bellow or hunting cry. After being shocked awake three or four times, my adrenaline is pumping and it’s almost impossible to relax and ignore him. On nights like this, Toby is my Nemesis. My adorable little friend is taking the form of an awful, disruptive force, preventing me from doing what I want to do: Get some sleep! I can shout at him all I want (he’s deaf, remember?)—and it doesn’t do any good. It feels like a bad dream. Do you ever have dreams like this?

In dreams, the Nemesis character can be as innocent as Toby, or as demonic as a nightmare murderer. The Nemesis can be an annoyance, or a challenge, or a major threat. But, overall, when your Nemesis appears in a dream, like when Toby has a busy, noisy night, you are bound to be bothered. This is the character that “pushes your buttons”—making you feel things you don’t want to feel and do things you don’t want to do. Continue reading

Lucid Dreaming: Control and Choice

Lucid dreaming is paradoxical by definition: in a lucid dream, I am asleep and dreaming, but also fully aware that this is a dream and capable of making choices and taking action as if awake.

I wrestle with another paradox that goes along with lucid dreaming, and relates to waking life as well: how to find a balance between “free will,” and letting go into the unknown. To what extent should I try to take control of events in a lucid dream (or in my waking life), and to what extent should I allow the dream (or my life) to unfold around me and invite my participation? This is really a very big question.

I feel strongly that the kind of control advocated by some popular books on lucid dreaming is misguided. Such books suggest that as soon as we realize we are dreaming (which can happen spontaneously, or as a result of practices like the one described in “Threshold Experiences: Dreaming and Waking”), we should start doing the things we’ve always wanted to do: go to Paris, have sex with someone famous, swim with dolphins, etc. Although I think it’s not a bad idea to try new things when lucid dreaming—such as flying, moving through walls, asking questions of other dream figures—I think it would be a waste of a good dream to actually decide what the dream reality is going to look like. I also think it’s not really possible. I suspect that those who do this kind of “lucid dreaming” are probably at least partially daydreaming or fantasizing rather than fully immersed in the dream state.

“The multitude of lucid-dream stories that come from the Tibetan and other Asian traditions suggest that no matter how dedicated and skilled the lucid dreamer, the dream remains autonomous and defies counterproductive manipulation and control.”   -Jeremy Taylor

Dreams go beyond our conscious minds, beyond our wishes and desires—and thus have the capacity to expand those minds and show us more possibilities, more choices, than we could ever consciously invent. Continue reading

Threshold Work As Spiritual Practice

What does my work with dreams have to do with my “other” work supporting people who are facing death, loss, illness, or difficult life changes? I’ve been asking myself this question a lot lately, as I’ve been preparing to lead a retreat on “Walking in the Dark: The Spiritual Path Through Illness, Loss, and Limitation”—a retreat based on both professional and personal experiences close to my heart.threshold 01

I’ve offered “Walking in the Dark” many times, and although it is not directly related to dreamwork, dreams frequently come up in relation to difficult, disorienting, and deeply transformative life challenges. I recognize both dreams and painful, life-changing events as threshold experiences—liminal, paradoxical, in-between places where certainties dissolve and possibilities multiply. Such threshold experiences are always spiritual opportunities, even when they seem chaotic or empty.

Following my cancer (which was, indeed, a threshold experience), I began to volunteer, and later to work professionally, in hospice, bereavement care, chaplaincy, spiritual direction, and pastoral services with people who were dying, grieving, elderly, seriously ill, or experiencing other significant life changes. Because dreaming had been meaningful in my own life, I naturally incorporated dreamwork into my practice of spiritual care—exploring dreams with individuals and groups in various contexts. Continue reading

Death Dreams Are Healing Dreams

To conclude this series of articles on the theme of death dreams and Mystery, I want to emphasize the most significant thing about dreams associated with death: death dreams are healing dreams.

In a sense, all dreams are healing dreams—as Jeremy Taylor writes, they “come in the service of health and wholeness” (see Taylor’s “Dream Work Tool Kit,” #1). All dreams come from the perspective of our wholeness—sometimes referred to as the “Higher Self,” the Psyche, the Soul, the Atman, the “Inward Teacher,” the “Spirit Guide,” the Source, etc.—and show us both the struggles and fears that challenge us, and the larger potential for insight, openness, transcendence, and interconnectedness. In fact, dreams are not just showing us these things, but giving us a direct experience of them.

When a person is seriously ill, or facing a life-threatening crisis of some kind, he or she may have death dreams similar to the ones I’ve described in the previous posts (see “Walking In The Dark,” “Death Dreams And Open Fields,” “Not Knowing,” and “Journeys Into The Unknown”). Such dreams should not be viewed as warnings or predictions of death, or as messages with suggestions about how to avoid death, or as simple reflections of the body’s dying process—even though they may serve these river 01purposes.

Dreams go beyond the meanings that our conscious minds ascribe to them. Death dreams, in particular, do not align themselves with our conscious agendas—they give us experiences that point beyond those agendas. Continue reading

Death Dreams And Open Fields

open fieldAt an in-patient hospice where I’ve volunteered for many years, I got to know a man named Jasper who was dying of lung cancer in his seventies. Over several weeks, he told me stories about growing up on a midwestern farm. He shared his memories of the endless acres of green-gold alfalfa fields shimmering in the wind—memories that were associated with a sense of spaciousness, but also with hard labor and long hours as he tried to follow his father’s example and expectations.

When Jasper could no longer get out of bed, and was sleeping more and more of the time, he began to share dreams. In a hoarse whisper, he told me:

I’m walking across an open field. Just walking and walking. Trying to get to my father. He’s at the far side of the field, standing by a fence. He’s expecting me. I walk and walk but can’t get any closer. Don’t want to disappoint him, but I’m too slow, can’t keep up. The tall grass is dragging on my legs, slowing me down. But I have to keep walking. The sun is setting.

Jasper was anxious and exhausted, but committed to completing the task of his life. He’d always worked hard, and he wasn’t going to give up now. So he struggled and labored through the process of dying. Towards the end, he was in a coma, unresponsive to those around him, but with his eyes partly open, and his lips moving as if he was talking to himself, urging himself on. As I sat beside his bed, hour after hour, I noticed that his feet were moving under the thin sheet: first one foot flexed and then the other. Actually, his legs were working, too—alternately tensing and relaxing. He was walking. I imagined him walking across that field, to meet his father. It was a long way, and it took a long time. He worked hard at walking, and worked hard for each breath, the whole way. Continue reading

More Monster Dreams

I’ve had monsters on my mind. I described the archetype of “the monster” in the last post (“Monsters In My Dreams”) as primal energy: the life force itself, taking the form of change. All change involves the death of something and the beginning of something else. The monster is the aspect of change we fear most—the ferocious energy with which the life force destroys in order to create.

Monsters take many forms in mythology, and in dreams. Some, as in the dream I described in “A Nightmare Is An Incomplete Dream,” are formless—or at least they remain unseen or undefined by the dream-ego (the “I” character in the dream). Other monsters are the semi-human creatures popularized in the media: zombies, vampires, werewolves, etc. Some are monstrous combinations or distortions of other creatures. Some are apparently ordinary things, but made horrifying by the context of the dream (as in some horror movies): an animated toy doll, a bunny, a flock of birds. Monsters are what we make of them. While their essential nature may be universal, the form they take is usually based on individual associations and projections. Continue reading

Monsters In My Dreams

In a recent post (“A Nightmare Is An Incomplete Dream”), I wrote about nightmares, and shared my own nightmare of “being hunted by a formless monster who tears people apart.” That post was about coping with the disturbing aspects of nightmares in general, and focused on some issues that might need to be addressed before exploring the metaphors and imagery within any particular nightmare. Now, I’d like to look at the central scary image of my dream—an image that is common in children’s dreams, and not uncommon in the dreams of adults: the monster.

mouthThe words I chose to describe the monster of my own dream say a lot about the significance that this particular monster has for me. It is “formless” and it “tears people apart.” Within the past year or so, I have come through a period of major depression. The experience of such depression is probably the scariest thing I can imagine—it is certainly “formless” (like being in great pain, but not being able to find any source for that pain), and it does “tear people apart.” Other aspects of the dream also point in this direction: I’ve been “held prisoner” by this monster in a “desolate house,” and when I am trying to escape, I am afraid to go to others for help, because I’m afraid that I’ll just bring the monster down on them.

Although there is no doubt that my personal associations create a credible case for identifying the monster in my dream with depression, it is important to note that this “solution” occurred to me very easily. According to Jeremy Taylor, “No dreams come just to tell you what you already know.” (That’s the 4th tool in his “Dreamwork Tool Kit.”) At the time of the dream, I already knew that I feared depression returning to hunt me, and I was (and continue to be) actively involved in exploring this fear in my waking life and in dreams. So, I looked further and deeper, and found other personal associations to the monster. No doubt, still more could be unfolded if I were to work on this dream with the help of a dreamworker, a friend, or a group.

The most exciting way to respond to a monster dream, however, is to go beyond the personal and explore it on a more universal, archetypal scale. Children have monster dreams even if their lives are relatively safe from threats to their well-being. Adults have monster dreams when they have no personal associations that seem particularly monstrous. Monsters appear in mythology regularly, and, as Joseph Campbell wrote: “Myths are public dreams. Dreams are private myths.”

In both mythology and dreams, across cultures, monsters are associated with primal energy—the original darkness we come from, and the darkness we fear will swallow us up at death (or if we “lose our minds,” or if the “light of reason” fails us). Whether this is the darkness of “empty” space before the big bang, of the “chaos” that precedes creation, of the grave, of the womb, or in the belly of the whale—this perceived darkness or chaos is a monster that threatens our belief that we are in charge, in control. Continue reading

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