Have you heard of “The Work That Reconnects”? Joanna Macy and Sam Mowe describe it as “a process that helps build motivation, creativity, courage, and solidarity for the transition to a sustainable human culture.” It’s a sequential process that “works as a spiral, because it repeats itself” over and over in our projects, in our lives, and in our dreams. As I learned more about this process, I became aware of how clearly it parallels some of the things I’ve been learning and teaching about the potential of dreamwork to make a difference in the world.
Our dreams reflect passages through the process of “The Work That Reconnects”—including, expressing, and revealing the levels in Macy’s spiral: 1) Coming From Gratitude; 2) Honoring Our Pain; 3) Seeing With New Eyes; and 4) Going Forth.
1) “Coming From Gratitude: To be alive in this beautiful, self-organizing universe—to participate in the dance of life with senses to perceive it, lungs that breathe it, organs that draw nourishment from it—is a wonder beyond words. The spiral begins with gratitude because that quiets the frantic mind and grounds us, stimulating our empathy and confidence.” –Joanna Macy and Sam Mowe
We belong to this world, and are manifestations of this world, together with the plants, animals and other humans that share in it with us. Dreams manifest the life force, and are one way that we maintain connection—to our place within the world and to one another. Often, in dreams, we experience beauty and feel this connection directly through our senses, perceptions, and emotions. We can receive nourishment from such dreams, and allow gratitude to fill the springs within us that we thought had gone dry.
Many times, when I’ve been identifying with discouragement and investing in impossibility, a dream has turned me around, waking me up to another way of looking at myself and my experience. My ego can’t change its mind so easily, but my dreams can show me what I’ve been missing and open my heart. When I share such dreams with others, and they share such dreams with me, our world is expanded. Each time I take part in a dream group, I come home with a new appreciation of my life—I’m humbled by the gifts available all around me, and I’m grateful.
2) “Honoring Our Pain: This is a dark time filled with suffering and uncertainty. Like living cells in a larger body, it is natural that we feel the trauma of our world. So don’t be afraid of the anguish you feel, or the anger you fear, because these responses arise from the depth of your caring and the truth of your interconnectedness with all beings.” –Joanna Macy and Sam Mowe
Frightening, painful, violent or tragic dreams can shock us and leave us feeling broken. But they can also awaken us to the intensity of our longing, the “depth of our caring,” and the recognition that we are part of a larger whole.
In dreams, we cannot separate ourselves from the experiences of others or the world around us, because everything and everyone in the dream is alive and reflects the same life force that flows through the dream-ego. This is true in the waking world as well, of course, but we may not recognize it. Intentionally or unintentionally, we often detach ourselves from others and our environment. We select the problems that are ours to worry about, and we screen out the rest; or else we become overwhelmed by emotions and dissociate or distract ourselves, creating a desperate distance.
In an emotionally intense dream, however, the distress of any dream figure, the destruction of any dream world, is my own distress, my own destruction. And when I awaken from such a dream, I feel that I have touched something essential in myself and others: a capacity for pain that is universal. With dreamwork as a spiritual practice, I can recognize that this is a place where I can “honor the pain”—which means feeling it without taking it personally, without needing to protect myself at the expense of others.
The dream events are poignant, and real in the sense of their impact on me, but they allow me to release the energy of strong emotion without harm, so that energy becomes available for authentic action in my life. As researchers have discovered, intense painful feelings in dreams are actually a way of integrating emotions and reactions that would otherwise overwhelm us. If we can’t allow ourselves to feel our pain fully when awake, we can do so in dreams, and this can help keep us from disconnecting from ourselves and others. We can feel the depths of emotion of which we are capable, and develop our innate compassion—the capacity to “feel with,” and fully acknowledge, all of life and all living beings.
3) “Seeing With New Eyes: Out of this darkness a new world can arise. Even though we cannot see clearly how it’s going to turn out, we are still called to let the future into our imagination. We will never be able to build what we have not first cherished in our hearts.” –Joanna Macy and Sam Mowe
The routines of our waking lives tend to reinforce habitual ways of seeing the world. Dreaming can literally re-route the neurological habit pathways in our brains. We could never invent the stories we dream up, because our conscious minds, however creative, cannot entirely surprise themselves! It is wonderful that we can be baffled by our dreams. This allows us to “see with new eyes.”
When I’m stuck on a problem, dreams offer ridiculous, unlikely solutions that can open my mind to unconsidered options. When I’m feeling too sure of myself, or blaming and complaining, dreams show me my projections and make me laugh at myself. When I’m lulled into complacency or depression, dreams scare me or shock me or stir my courage. When I’m trying to fix the unfixable, dreams teach me the about the healing that’s already happening.
4) “Going Forth: We go forth into the actions that call each of us, according to our situation, gifts, and limitations.” –Joanna Macy and Sam Mowe
Our relationship to our dreams is not just psychological, it’s also communal. Indigenous people (those living in original cultures connected deeply to their environment) feel a responsibility to share dreams that seem significant. The community considers what an appropriate response to the dream should be. As we “go forth into the actions that call each of us,” we need to share our unique dreams, “situations, gifts and limitations” with one another, and respond to what these individual experiences bring forth in one another and our world.
Indigenous dreamwork is about living out the story of the dream. It’s assumed that the dream is an invitation to action/manifestation: the spirit world calls for a response from the physical beings of the material world—and actions in the material world resound in the spirit world, affecting all of us, for better or worse.
When we accept our dream experiences and our waking experiences as meaningful and valuable and part of a larger whole, we find that these experiences lead somewhere, carry us forward. As patterns emerge within us and between us, we find that we are participating in “the transition to sustainable human culture” together. This is the dream.
[The above quotes are taken from an article in the Spring, 2015 issue of Tricycle: The Buddhist Review]