Compass Dreamwork

Dreamwork as Spiritual Practice

Tag: self and other

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

Soul Retrieval and Shamanic Dreaming

reservoir 08The healing work of a shaman regularly involves the practice of “soul retrieval.” To continue my series on shamanism and dreamwork, I’d like to explore some ways that the concept of soul retrieval can give us an understanding of particular kinds of dreams, and help us to fully experience the healing that these dreams may bring.

When an individual or community is disturbed, diseased, wounded, or out of balance, there can be a variety of causes according to the shamanic tradition. But probably the most common cause—a problem that is almost universal in our modern culture—is what is called “soul loss.” Soul loss can occur when something happens to an individual or community that cannot be fully integrated. If the trauma or shock is enough to violate the integrity of the individual (or community), the soul can respond by splitting off a part of itself—in effect, sending that part out of harm’s way, just as city children were sent away to the country during World War II when the cities were being bombed. These soul parts may become lost—unable or unwilling to make their way home after the immediate danger has passed.

As a result of soul loss, the original “home” soul lacks an essential aspect of itself, suffering from the absence of qualities that constitute its wholeness and uniqueness and make it possible to cope with change and challenges. These split-off qualities can include resilience and flexibility, creativity, openness, emotional availability, playfulness, generosity, innocence, discernment, trust… and finally even the will to live.

In indigenous cultures, the lost soul part is seen quite literally as a separated Spirit being—often taking the form of a child or adult at the age when the initial traumatic splitting occurred. These split-off souls continue to exist somewhere in the worlds of Spirit, and a shaman can be called upon to journey into these other worlds, find the lost souls, and persuade or help them to come home. Once returned, these souls must be nurtured and integrated—a process which, like any healing, can be facilitated by the shaman, but is ultimately the responsibility of the one who receives the healing. Continue reading

Humbling Dreams

Some dreams are very good at keeping me humble. They remind me that I’m not the center of the universe, while simultaneously engaging my attention in everything that is going on around “me,” everything other than myself that is ultimately essential to who and what I really am.

A humbling dream:

Connecting the Student with her True Teacher: I have a student who has been working with me for a long time. But I realize that there is another teacher she really needs to meet. I go to great lengths to create an opportunity for my student and this teacher to come together, and then I get out of the way and watch how they connect. They have great chemistry and understand each other in a way that is beyond me. For the remainder of the dream, their dynamic learning/teaching relationship plays out, and I’m not actually even present as a character. Yet there’s a pervasive sense of joy at the “rightness” of this unfolding process. I am just a witness, but feel fortunate to have been a part of it.

One excellent way of looking at dreams [“Two Basic Dreamwork Skills”] is to see everything in the dream as an aspect of the dreamer’s whole Self. In other words, when I connect the student with her true teacher in my own dream, I am also connecting the student aspect of myself with a particular teacher aspect of myself. The dream self (the “I” character in the dream) is a teacher, too—but she is a kind of teacher that is closer to my waking identity, closer to my ego. The other teacher is deeper, less familiar. The relationship between the student and that deep teacher (the “Inward Teacher,” as Quakers call “that of God” within each of us) is beyond “me,” beyond my ego, beyond what I know of myself.

Dreams tend to humble the ego with subtlety and sometimes humor. Often, the central “I” character in a dream fades into the background, or becomes embarrassed, inhibited or diminished, while other characters seem increasingly significant. The narrator is forgotten as we get caught up in the story. In this way, a larger awareness, a larger sense of “Self” that we don’t ordinarily recognize, has an opportunity to emerge. Continue reading

Extraordinary Dreams

brook 01

If we follow the water it will lead us back to the source: a deep, secret lake so reflective that travelers can become lost between the surface and the sky…

One of the most meaningful experiences for many of us at the recent International Association for the Study of Dreams (IASD) conference came from hearing the “Big dreams” of others, and participating in the world-view of these powerful dreams.

Jungians often use the term “Big dreams” to talk about, well, big dreams—which I’d describe as dreams that expand or transcend the dreamer’s sense of self and open up a larger reality. At the conference, Robert Hoss, Patricia Garfield, and Jacquie Lewis offered a presentation entitled, “Dreams That Change Our Lives,” where they spoke of the transcendent and transformative capacity of significant dreams, and gave examples of life-changing dreams (or series of dreams) from their own experience.

After the presentations, there was an “open mike” opportunity for audience members to share “Big dreams,” too. Each person who came forward told a dream story that was breath-taking in a unique way, and each one inspired insights, reminded us of possibilities, warned us of how we need to pay attention, and gave us a glimpse of something beyond our separate selves, something that connects us at the deepest level with our planet and fellow beings.

Whew. That’s a lot to get out of a handful of dreams! These were not dreams that could be boring—they were so rich in detail, so surprising, so original and yet so deeply familiar. They didn’t require interpretation, or even feedback—they just needed to be heard, acknowledged, experienced in a group so that their wisdom would resonate through us and out into the world.

The half hour or so of sharing during the presentation just whetted my appetite for more of this, so in the days that followed I ended up in several conversations where extraordinary dreams were shared. There were dreams in which the dreamer learned something that saved his or her life, or met someone who evoked profound empathy or love, or encountered an apocalyptic event, or was given a great gift, or created a stunning work of art, or went through an initiation, or became a bird or a storm, or experienced total oneness with all things, or lost everything and was blessed…

Okay, the people at this conference were special in the sense that they all had an interest in dreams—and many of them had developed that interest because they’d had extraordinary dreams that had changed their lives. So, you’d expect to hear some “Big dreams” in this context. But that’s not the only reason these dreams were coming up. 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

Dream Companions

shadows 01Following up on the theme of dream figures that I’ve been exploring in the last two posts (“The True Nature of Dream Figures,” and “Dream Messengers, Guides, And Guardians”): Another type of dream figure that can play a significant role in our lives is the Companion.

I’d define a dream Companion as a character—generally a human being, but sometimes another creature—who shares the experience of the dream with the dream-ego (the “I” character). The Companion often appears in my dreams in the guise of my partner, Holly, who is my regular companion in waking life. Within the dream, the Companion may also take the shape of a casual acquaintance, a stranger, the dreamer’s dog or cat (or gerbil, parakeet, iguana, etc.) or someone from the dreamer’s past (such as a childhood best friend, or a former partner). And in the dream, the “companionship” may be friendship and camaraderie, a family-like bond, or romantic intimacy.

Who is it, in waking life, that you want to tell when something exciting or painful or frightening or joyful happens to you? Who is it that shares your experiences? That person, or those people, may appear in your dreams as the Companion. Or, if something new is arising in your life and becoming important to you, the Companion may take a form associated with that new thing—representing your relationship to that aspect of your life. For example, when I was learning a set of new skills that inspired and challenged me, I dreamed of a close friendship with a fellow student I barely knew, someone who seemed especially interested in the areas I was just discovering.

When the dream Companion takes the form of a lover—with “companionship” that includes sexual intimacy—there may be a particularly intense longing for connection with whatever this Companion represents. Often, for me, a dream lover (however inappropriate the person playing this role may seem) has some characteristic of an aspect of myself that I am opening up to at a new level. Sexual energy in a dream can be a metaphor for spiritual energy—the life force, expressed as the coming-together of apparently distinct beings to create a whole that is more than the sum of its parts, an energy that transcends our “separate” selves. Continue reading

The True Nature Of Dream Figures

mirror 1I sometimes imagine that I’d enjoy more dreams in which “I” am the only character, and can simply explore the dream landscape without complicated interactions with other dream figures. I sometimes even imagine that I’d enjoy having the whole waking world to myself for a day or two! But, really, waking or dreaming, the world would not be a very interesting place without other beings, other characters, to share it. In fact, there’s a sense in which we are all dreaming up—actually creating—our shared world together in each moment. Without a full cast of characters there’d be no play at all.

Dreams do occasionally seem to be solo performances, with only a single protagonist and no other obvious dream figures—but in such dreams even the “inanimate” objects, or features of the landscape, or even sounds and textures, can play the role of other characters in the dream drama. For the most part, however, our dreams are full of more obvious dream figures: people and creatures of all kinds that cocreate the context of the dream.

Often, we are just aware that there are others in the background of the dream scene—faceless fellow students in the classroom, fellow adventurers on the journey, fellow participants in the experience. Sometimes, such collective, indistinguishable dream figures provide an audience for the central action; sometimes they seem to be doing their own thing just off-stage. Who are all these people? They don’t stay in our memories individually any more than the members of a crowd at a concert—yet sometimes a face or a behavior stands out and turns these background “extras” into actual characters. And the dream figures that become actual characters sometimes return in dream after dream, or have such an impact on our emotions and imaginations that they become meaningful influences in our waking and dreaming lives. 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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