Compass Dreamwork

Dreamwork as Spiritual Practice

Tag: playfulness (page 1 of 2)

Getting The Wrong Idea: What The Dream Is Not About

Sometimes it takes a mistake to point us in the right direction. This is especially true with dreamwork. When I’m trying to unfold the many meanings of a dream, I often get the clearest sense of what is truly significant by testing “false leads” and taking “wrong turns.”

Dreams offer multiple (and sometimes contradictory) truths, and it’s possible to find truth in unexpected places, yet it is still quite evident that some interpretations seem off track or “wrong.” Some ways of looking at the dream obviously don’t fit. But we shouldn’t be ashamed of trying on those ill-fitting garments, because when we’re wearing them and we look in the mirror, it is immediately apparent just how and why this outfit is not right. Obviously, the sleeves are too long, or the material is too scratchy, or the colors clash. And then, we can go back to the rack and find an alternative with shorter sleeves, or softer fabric, or better colors. In other words, when we know what a dream isn’t we have a much clearer idea what it is.

Sometimes, if a dreamer is sharing a dream and having difficulty remembering the details, I’ll just throw out random suggestions that might or might not fit. While the suggestions that happen to be “hits” are helpful, the ones that are obvious “misses” often spark an even clearer sense of the dream.

For instance, if the dreamer mentions that there’s a man standing beside her in this dream, but says she doesn’t remember anything about the man, I might ask things like: “Was he very old? Was he tall? Did he have a beard?” These specific questions are much more likely to evoke a deeper memory of the dream figure than the usual, more open-ended questions such as “How old was he? How tall was he? Did he have any distinguishing features?” I think this is because the more specific questions actually create an image in the dreamer’s mind, and when she compares this image (a tall, bearded, or old man) to the vague impression of the man in her dream, she can tell that it’s not a match, and therefore the dream figure’s actual presence begins to emerge more distinctly.

Occasionally, if I’m not sure how to approach a dream that someone shares with me, I’ll intentionally “try on” some possibilities that I sense probably won’t fit. If someone has a dream about a cow, and we aren’t sure what to make of it, I might say, “Hmm. Well, cows are often associated with motherhood (because they give milk)…” when, even though it’s true that cows can be associated with motherhood, I suspect that the cow in this dream has a more immediate significance for the dreamer. When I make a suggestion that seems to lead further away from his direct experience of the dream, the dreamer shakes his head and begins to tell me how this particular dream cow reminds him of a family car trip when a cow blocked the road and wouldn’t budge. It’s possible, of course, that this dream-cow had something to do with the dreamer’s mother, but the dreamer is much more engaged by his memory of the cow as an obstacle which led to a family dispute—and other aspects of the dream are consistent with this insight whereas the “motherhood” association is, at best, remote.

Of course, if I made a lot of these off-base suggestions, the dreamer would begin to doubt that I was really listening to the dream itself, and could even feel uncomfortable with such an insensitive, heavy-handed approach. So, ordinarily, I’ll offer these bad ideas as bad ideas, saying, “Well, this probably has nothing to do with your dream, but…” Still, just having an image or idea to place in juxtaposition with the actual experience of the dream is often enough to initiate the dreamer’s own insights.

Another commonly used “compare and contrast” trick is to ask the dreamer how the dream would be different if the cow were, for instance, a moose. Even if the dream cow was a pretty vague image, most dreamers would immediately respond that the cow must be a cow—a moose would be all wrong. One dreamer might say that a cow is more mild-mannered and domestic than a moose; another dreamer might say that this cow, unlike any moose, had a face that reminded him of Donald Trump, or a way of chewing her cud that reminded him of a kid chewing bubblegum. This tells us a lot about how a dreamer feels about cows in general and this cow in particular, and often evokes associations relevant to other images in the dream.

I regularly play the “wrong idea” game with myself and my own dreams. While working with a recent dream where I was trying to carry a fox pup in one arm and a fawn in the other, I thought of the grim old story of the “brave Spartan boy,” where a boy hides a fox under his tunic, stoically holding on while walking for miles, only to drop dead when he reaches his destination because the fox has been gnawing at his belly, trying to escape. Yes, that’s a vivid, disturbing image, and could possibly have something to do with my dream… But, more importantly, it contradicts the dream’s essential feeling. The “wrongness” of the story makes me shake my head and remind myself: “But the fox in this dream is not hurting me. This fox is playful, wiggling and batting at the fawn. The fox and the fawn are both youngsters, and my main concern is how I’m going to keep from dropping them as they wake up and start getting curious about each other and the world.”

Contrasting the dream with the awful story makes me more aware of the dream’s gentleness, and my concern for these two shy forest creatures. One may be a predator, and the other may be prey—yet they are both in my care, and the fox shows no sign of any instinct to harm the fawn, or me. On some level, the dream may indeed relate to my “bravery” and endurance in carrying something difficult to carry, but this takes a very different form from the story of the Spartan boy. Specifically, I notice that, in my dream, I’m holding onto a paradox: two opposing forces that are innocently trying to play together. Perhaps I wouldn’t have noticed this if I hadn’t first thought of the Greek story, and how it doesn’t match my dream experience.

I hope that when you’re exploring your own dreams or the dreams of others, you can invite the ideas that don’t fit as well as the ideas that do. Like playing dress-up—putting on costumes (or trying out dream theories) that seem wildly inappropriate can be fun, and can make it clearer who we really are or could be.

Incidentally, with this kind of no-holds-barred approach to dreamwork, we’ll occasionally stumble upon a wildly unlikely dream insight that fits perfectly. While trying on the crazy costumes and laughing at how silly they look, you might discover that, in fact, the weird space alien outfit really suits you! Don’t be afraid of making mistakes. All the best discoveries happen when we drop our resistance to the unlikely, the uncomfortable, the unexpected—especially with dreams.

Three-Part Dreams: Discovering the Rogue

Many dreams have distinct scenes, and it’s surprising how often those scenes come in threes. It’s also common to have multiple dreams in the same night, and those frequently come in threes as well. Maybe it’s just that our memories tend to organize themselves in sets of three—perhaps there was a fourth scene, or a fourth dream, that we don’t remember. Nevertheless, whether it’s a function of memory or a function of the dreams themselves, the pattern is significant, and can be useful when we are trying to relate to the dream world.

One way of looking at a three-part dream is to think of the parts as past, present and future. Something happened in the first dream, which leads to what happens in the second dream, which leads to what will happen in the third dream. Or, there’s a problem in the first dream (where the problem started), which becomes better or worse in the second dream (what is going on now), and could reach its best or worst potential in the third dream (what will happen if the trend continues). If you look at a three-part dream this way, you’ll see a development from one situation to the next, and that can certainly be meaningful in many cases.

However, time may not really be relevant to the unfolding of dream meanings. Modern physics suggests that our sense of past-present-future does not reflect the way things actually are. Time is not linear, and we can sometimes experience this in the dream world. Often, it’s not entirely clear which dream-part came first, second or third. Dreams can transcend clock time—with precognitive elements (showing future events in the waking world), or dream events that occur simultaneously, or with cause-and-effect dream elements that work both forward and backward.

For example, recently I dreamed:

I’m buying some food at a deli counter for tomorrow’s journey: a packet containing an egg-and-potato pancake. I walk past the produce display just as the mist-spray comes on—but it malfunctions and is more like a gushing sprinkler, which soaks my clothes…

When I tried to record this dream (which had many other details not included here), I realized that I couldn’t figure out which part happened first. It seemed impossible, but in the part where I was buying the packet of food, my clothes were definitely wet. And in the part where my clothes got sprinkled, I was definitely carrying the packet of food. So, somehow, each scene had to have been preceded by the other scene. Hm.

Because of such incongruities, I’ve been exploring other ways of looking at three-part dreams—where the three parts are interdependent in a more cyclical or multi-dimensional model that doesn’t rely on sequence.

Threes are dynamic. When you have two things, there’s balance or contrast. When you have four things, there’s stability. But three means that something is happening. Whenever two things interact, a third thing comes into being that is more than the sum of its parts. My own way of describing the “third thing” is to call it the “rogue.”*

In couple relationships, the two partners as individuals combine their energies, but the rogue of that relationship is a third individual in itself—often having characteristics possessed by neither of the two partners. A child is a rogue, because she or he comes from two parents and has an individuality that can resemble both parents, but is also unique and distinct. The rogue is not just a synthesis, but a leap into new possibilities. Continue reading

Initiation for Grown-ups: Dreaming Into Maturity

initiation imageDuring times of deep change, dreams don’t just guide us through the chaos of transitional threshold experiences, they can also participate in our initiation into the next phase of life. In fact, a dream may actually be an initiation in itself.

Traditionally, development from childhood to adulthood is acknowledged by significant rites of passage: in some cultures, there are vision quests and initiation ceremonies, and in other cultures there are graduation parties and college entrance exams. Then, as life goes on, there are relationship passages as family roles evolve, work passages as career roles evolve… But where are the rites of passage for later life? Retirement, bereavement, physical aging and death… Often, these passages are treated as if they mark only an absence—the lack of something that had previously defined us, the encroachment of time on our meaningful lives.

How can we trust the new and strange kind of meaning that comes along with the real losses and changes in later life? How do we recognize the passage from a social identity based on tangible accomplishment, action, and independence to a deeper, more mature, elder adulthood, which includes a fuller awareness of mortality and interdependence?

Late middle age is a time of profound transformation. This passage includes the physical changes of the aging body, the changes in perspective and understanding that come with cumulative life experiences, the professional and social changes that come with altered work priorities and abilities, and the spiritual changes that come with the recognition of death (our own and others’) as a direct influence on our lives. In the course of these changes, we redefine ourselves…

For me, health issues, career issues, and the deaths of my parents and several friends this past year marked deep change. I’m always in the midst of some sort of transition or other, but this has been a particularly big one. Without a culturally-sanctioned rite of passage, it’s easy to feel lost, even though I’m closely connected to the community of my peers and friends who are passing through a similar process of transformation. We are becoming more aware of our own aging, and we are facing the losses of loved ones. But how do we find ourselves on the other side of this transition? What are we inheriting? What are we becoming? And what do we have to offer the next generation?

These are questions about initiation. Initiation is a process which represents not only an ending, but a new beginning. Initiation acknowledges, and celebrates, our completion of one stage of life, and turns us toward the possibilities ahead… giving us a gentle, encouraging nudge forward.

My dreams have been helping to initiate me into a new maturity. I ask myself: What is the difference between the person I have been and the person I am becoming? And dreams offer responses, because dreams come from an unbounded sense of self, which includes not only what I think I am, but also what is possible for me. And then, dreams go beyond “me” completely.

Part of the initiation into full maturity is the acceptance of experiences that go beyond the questions we are asking. Here is one of my recent initiation dreams: 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

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

Impossible Things Before Breakfast

“‘I daresay you haven’t had much practice,’ said the Queen. ‘When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.’”        –Lewis Carroll, from Through the Looking Glass

arborist 01Dreams give us all regular practice “believing impossible things before breakfast.” My own theory is that this particular exercise is essential to our mental health and well-being. In daily life, it’s all too easy to think we know exactly what is possible and what is impossible.

I generally walk around secure in the belief that I am a particular kind of person for whom certain ways of thinking, speaking, feeling and acting are possible, and others are not. I may adapt to circumstances, but it’s all within the range of what I consider realistic for me. Similarly, I assume that certain things are possible in the “real world” around me, and other things are impossible. And I tend to ignore things that make me question my assumptions about myself, other people, and “reality.”

arborist 03Actually, however, “impossible” things are happening within me and around me all the time, and every once in a while one of those things breaks through my shell and gets my attention—provoking laughter, wonder, indignation, anxiety, delight, or sheer wordless amazement. Continue reading

Smoothing The Transitions

pillows 01After a long phase of insomnia, I’m finally sleeping very well. The trouble isn’t with sleeping, it’s with getting up in the morning! I wake slowly, still melted by sleepiness, still brimming with dreams. As the cold realization that it is time to get up begins to creep over me, I resist mightily.

First there’s denial: “Maybe I’ll check the clock and it will really be 2:00 AM….” Then anger: “Why should I have to get up? I don’t want to get up! I won’t get up!” Then bargaining: “Maybe I can sleep late this morning, then get up a couple hours earlier tomorrow?” Then depression: “What if I never get up? What if I just stay here until I die?” Then, finally, reluctant acceptance: “Okay, here we go. Push back the covers. Feet on the floor. Up, up, up!”

Sound familiar? Well, eventually, it dawned on me that I could make things a lot easier on myself. I realized that although I do need to get up, I don’t necessarily have to leave my delicious dreamy drowsiness behind. I can move slowly, savoring the sleep sensations and dream impressions as I begin my day. This is a revelation! Even if I have to get busy immediately, I can still smooth the transition by imagining this is all part of a dream…

I greet our three cats sleepily in the hall, and feel that they are strange, soft creatures of the night, coming to bring me gifts or messages. When Toby hollers a loud hello, it’s a wild cry of joy that makes my nerves tingle. When Fern nudges my ankle with her wet nose, and Annie bustles past me into the bedroom, I feel myself surrounded by impulsive, encouraging energies. Sounds and smells of alchemical experiments emanate from the kitchen, where Holly is making coffee. In the bathroom mirror, I look like someone else. Washing my hair, I feel the slippery suds and it seems that my mind is being soaped and rinsed along with my oddly heavy head.

The minutes go by, I go from room to room, and each time I turn on a light, the scene changes. For a little while, things are wonderfully strange, and then, gradually, I’m awake and it’s just the usual morning routine. Continue reading

Dream Seeds

solar system with cabbageIn the morning, while I exercise, I listen to something enlightening (recently, radio programs about shamanism), and I watch the animated public television show, Dinosaur Train. Really, Dinosaur Train is a treat! Leaving the sound off is best, since the soundtrack combines too-cute kids’ voices with educational themes. But it’s a terrific show. The colors are so rich and intense, the characters so spunky, the premise so bizarre (dinosaurs traveling to various prehistoric times and places via choo choo train?), and the background settings—rainforest, savannah, oceans, cliffs, caves—so intriguing… I would love to live in that world!

Why am I going on about a children’s TV program? For me, watching Dinosaur Train is one of the ways I stimulate my senses (including my sense of humor), and sow the seeds of my dream imagination. In dreams, experiencing the world of Dinosaur Train would not be impossible. Our dream-making capacity can certainly be as colorful, creative, playful and inspiring as even the most inventive modern animation. And the more we pay attention, keeping our senses open and our minds alert to enjoy the world around us (animated or natural), the more our dreams will be stimulated to use all of these faculties as well.

It’s clear to me that the more open and sensitive I am to the experiences available in waking life, the more likely I am to dream vividly, and to remember those dreams in fascinating detail. Many of the toys and games and movies and books designed for children are perfect for this, because their intention is to stimulate and expand the developing faculties of flexible minds. And, incidentally, they’re also entertaining—a characteristic of good dreaming that is often under-estimated! Continue reading

What Actually Happens In A Dream Group?

dream circle 01

Dream images come to life among us…

Last week I played with the metaphor of a dream group being like a happy gathering of dogs in the off-leash zone (“Dream Groups and the Doggy Jamboree”). I took the metaphor and ran with it—like a dog with another dog’s squeaky toy—and maybe got a bit carried away. Of course, a dream group is not just a free-for-all romp. Among other things, it’s a mutual opportunity to share experiences. Often, in the process of this sharing, unexpected and indescribable events occur. Although I can’t describe the indescribable (I gave it a shot with the doggy jamboree metaphor), I can at least mention some of my own recent experiences with groups.

The groups I facilitate meet in a classroom, in the local Quaker meetinghouse. The room has lots of windows and a high ceiling—and although it is small, it feels spacious and light-filled most of the time. We move the big tables to one side, and sit in a circle of chairs near the windows (trying to arrange things so that no one gets the sun in their eyes).

At the beginning, we “check in” briefly. After several sessions of meeting together, we know each other, and we also begin to recognize images and themes that have a tendency to come up in each person’s dreams as well as in their waking lives. We’ve come to know some of the things we have in common, and some of our individual special qualities. We catch up with anything new that is arising, and sometimes find it’s arising not only for one person, but for several, or all, of us. Maybe it’s a time of feeling too busy; or a time of losses and letting go; or a time of reconnecting with old friends; or a time for a fresh start. A shared theme can emerge even when we are just giving the smallest glimpses of our daily lives.

Then, we go around the circle again, and each of us tells a brief dream. Like the check-in, there are common images and themes that come up, and already there’s a sense that a dreaming process is going on collectively as well as individually. For example, in one group, several people dreamed of babies—human or animal—being born; in another group, the color blue kept being mentioned. 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

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