Compass Dreamwork

Dreamwork as Spiritual Practice

Tag: projection

Dreaming and Anatta: Non-Self

jizo 01This is the final post of my very heady series on Buddhism’s “Three Marks of Existence” (unsatisfactoriness, impermanence, non-self). Now, I’m going to consider anatta: the absence of a substantial self. If there’s no self, then who is writing this article…? And who is reading…? And who is dreaming…? Well, I’m going to plunge right into my own non-existence, and see what I can dream.

Dream of Being Dead: Seven children have died (in a fire, or of an illness), and the only remaining family member is their grandmother, who sits in her living room, surrounded by their toys, grieving. I am one—or all—of the children. I understand that I am dead, but still, for now, have a sense of my body, though I am invisible to the living. We gather around our grandmother, surround her with love; she can feel that we are there. We try to play with our toys, but can only make them move very slowly. With great effort, I roll a toy train along its track. Our grandmother can see the toys moving; she is comforted by our presence. Then, we go out in the rain, and I feel the rain fall through me. I can sense my substance dissipating, but know I will lose nothing significant of myself. I am curious about what will come next.

In the course of our lives, each of us dies many times. We leave childhood behind, lose people we love, change jobs, change in our physical bodies, change in our sense of ourselves. There is a continuity to this process, yet no central, substantial self holding it all together.

In the “Dream of Being Dead,” the dream-ego (the “I” within the dream) reflects the continuity of an unfolding life process, but is not, strictly speaking, a “self.” She is one child and seven children; she is not visible yet has awareness and even a sense of physicality. In her empathy, or the dream’s empathy, for the grandmother, she knows the grandmother’s experience as if it were her own. As she “dissipates,” she loses the distinction between herself and the rain: the rain falls through her. And yet, she is also continuously present and aware, narrating the story of the dream, wondering what will come next. What will come next? Continue reading

Dream Identity and the Independence of Images

shore 04One way of looking at a dream is to say that the whole dream comes from the mind of the dreamer, so all of the images in the dream are aspects of the dreamer. But that is just one way of looking at the dream.

If I look at waking life in that same way, I can also say that whoever or whatever I encounter in waking life is a projection of myself. Since I see each person through my own particular lens, the person I see is at least partially my own creation, and the way I see that person reflects certain attitudes and qualities of my own character. In one sense, it is true that everyone and everything I can perceive represents an aspect of myself; yet, of course, it’s also true that these people and things exist independently, beyond my projections, as well.

So everything in the dream world has something to do with the dreamer, but this doesn’t mean that the dream is the exclusive creation of the dreamer. The dream can also be understood as a world in itself, where beings with independent existence (the dream “characters” or “images”) come visiting.

Who creates this dream world? Who is the dream-maker? And who is the dreamer relative to the dream? The dream can go beyond the dreamer’s waking identity, can be larger than the dreamer’s imagination and ideas about reality—so clearly the dream-maker must be larger than the dreamer. The images within the dream may also have a life beyond the dream. Continue reading

Dream Catalysts and Witnesses

In the previous post, I focused on the dream figure of the Companion, who can represent our essential connectedness with others, and with life itself. Dream figures that serve as Companions, or as Messengers, Guides, and Guardians, tend to have strong individual characteristics, and can seem to be independent entities with their own reasons for taking part in any particular dream. Some other dream figures, such as Witnesses and Catalysts, can seem more objective, even neutral. Although they play meaningful roles in our dreams, they may not seem to have great significance in themselves.

A couple of years ago, when I was coping with a lot of change, I had a series of dreams in which I saved, or tried to save, a child from drowning. Sometimes these children were girls, sometimes boys, and they ranged in age from about two to about 10. They were children of diverse ethnicities, from various parts of the world (the Netherlands, North Africa, North America, Central America, Southeast Asia )—and seemed to represent “children” or “childhood” rather than any individual child in particular.

In the dreams, I often had intense, personal interactions with the child’s mother or father, but never with the child—except in one instance where I was carrying the little one out of a flood, when our eyes met. I felt a profound sense of love and awe at the beauty of this small being, who seemed to change gender and age continuously as I held him/her. This dream marked the last in the series, and after that I had a number of dreams in which a child played a much more personal role.

Part of the definition of a “catalyst” (according to the American Heritage Dictionary) is “One that precipitates a process or event, especially without being involved in or changed by the consequences.” I would call the anonymous children in danger of drowning in my dreams Catalysts, because they acted as the initiating cause or motivating energy for my actions in the dream, but had no personal response to the drama in which they were engaged, no apparent investment in the outcome. Each of these impersonal Catalyst characters changed the direction of the dream, and their presence evoked a sense of urgency (perhaps the emergent need to save something/someone child-like in myself and in the world around me, through my work), which “precipitated” a process of personal transformation for me in waking life. Continue reading

What Am I?

handful of deep darkI recently returned from a five-day intensive entitled “Opening to Mystery.” It’s part of the two-year End-of-Life Practitioner program through Metta Institute, designed to teach mindfulness to hospice and palliative care practitioners (nurses, doctors, aides, administrators, chaplains, social workers, volunteers).  Although the perspective is primarily Buddhist, the approaches we are learning are intrinsic to the contemplative branch of every spiritual tradition. I’ll be writing more about how dreams relate to death and to “Mystery” over the next few months (as part of my final project for the program). At the moment, I’m thinking specifically about how death and dreams open up questions of identity: who or what are we?

In my work as a hospice volunteer and chaplain, I’ve been present during the last weeks with many hundreds of dying people and their families. I’ve seen how familiar points of reference are gradually (or sometimes suddenly) stripped away—both for the person who is ill and for his or her loved ones. I experienced the intensity of this process first-hand in my thirties, during my own life-threatening, life-changing illness (Hodgkin’s Lymphoma). Over the course of several years, I lost much of my “self,” as I could no longer work a job, participate in social activities, or even think clearly, eat or sleep normally, or take care of my own daily maintenance. Yet I was still conscious, still present, still aware in each moment. Paradoxically, for me and most others, this process of “un-selfing” is a source of both anguish and liberation. Continue reading

“Significant Others” in Dreams

I often dream about my partner, Holly. Sometimes, she is very much like herself in my dreams, and sometimes she is not at all like herself. I suppose that you’ve had similar dreams about those closest to you.

two cupsWe all tend to project key aspects of ourselves onto our “significant others.” For instance, I see Holly as an extremely capable person—and she is extremely capable—so she tends to end up coping with a lot of the practical matters that I find difficult. As long as she is capable, I don’t have to be! I often see myself as lacking some of the practical skills necessary for survival in the world. But in fact, when Holly’s out-of-town (as she was recently), I have to step up and be capable. And I really do manage just fine. So, I’ve been projecting my own capability (or copability—the ability to cope) onto Holly, rather than “owning” it in myself.

Typically, in dreams, our significant others end up carrying certain qualities we don’t identify with in ourselves. Just as in waking life, Holly in my dream is usually a capable person, but sometimes in an exaggerated way that forces me to take some sort of action (either to be capable myself, or resist her with my stubborn incompetence). Dreams can exaggerate the qualities of our partners and spouses, maybe just so we get a good look at our own projections. Often, the dream context forces us to own up to those projections one way or another. Continue reading

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