Compass Dreamwork

Dreamwork as Spiritual Practice

Tag: projection

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

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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