Compass Dreamwork

Dreamwork as Spiritual Practice

Category: Shamanism

Shamanic Ancestral Dreams

roots 02For the final post in my series on shamanic dreaming, I’d like to consider the role of ancestors in the shamanic tradition, and in dreams.

Holly, a woman in her fifties who has been exploring shamanism, shared the following dream:

Relatives: At my grocery store, in my home town [Note: In waking life, Holly works for a grocery co-op, though it’s not located in her home town.] My relatives have arrived and are at the front end, near the checkstands, waiting for me. My aunt Catherine [who is deceased] with other aunts, uncles, cousins. I look down the aisle and see tall Catherine, and I walk up to her and shake her hand, greeting, welcoming. I shake hands with the others… As I greet everyone, I’m thinking, “I didn’t expect to be the last one, never imagined I’d be the last one of my family.” It is a solemn time. They are my relatives, but I am the last of my family. Sun shining through the window.

In her notes about the dream, Holly said that she was “the last, but not alone… my ancestors come to initiate, acknowledge me… Catherine is the matriarch, person of power… It is up to me, I need to step up, carry the torch forward… this takes place in my store, my community, in public, up front… somber, not sad, I feel the weight of responsibility…”

I believe that this dream reflects not only a profound personal journey, an “initiation,” but also a larger communal need for connection with those who have gone before us, and the experience—so prevalent in the modern world—of facing our responsibility alone. Here, the dreamer transcends the separateness of being “the last” by recognizing that she is supported by a lineage, and a part of something larger than herself. Such recognition of connection and acknowledgement of responsibility represent the kind of healing process that could be essential to our very survival as a species. 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

Shamanic Spirit Helpers in Dreams and Journeys

wolf 01In the last article [“Dreaming and Journeying”], I mentioned that “it’s really impossible to talk about journeying without talking about the Spirit beings that share those journeys with us, as guides and companions.” Now, in the third post of my series about the shamanic perspective in dreamwork, I’d like to consider who these “Spirit Helpers” are, and to look at their relationship with us in dreaming and waking.

Shamanic practitioners (whether they are full-fledged shamans or not) explore other ways of experiencing reality—other worlds—through “journeying” in a trance state. In these journeys, they encounter a variety of Spirit beings, just as in our dreams we encounter various dream figures. Such beings regularly appear in animal or human form (though there are also elemental spirits, plant spirits, weather spirits, etc. that can take other forms).

Among these Spirit beings, journeyers will meet one or more who volunteer themselves as committed companions—generally because they have some connection with the journeyer’s life path, or because they have something unique to offer him or her. In the shamanic tradition, these Spirit beings who have chosen to become our individual companions are referred to by many names: Spirit Helpers, Power Animals, Spirit Guides, etc. Often, these companions appear in dreams as well as in journeys. [see “Dream Messengers, Guides, and Guardians”] Continue reading

Dreaming and Journeying

drum 04In the last post (“Shamanic Dream Perspectives”), I began a series of articles that will explore shamanism as it relates to dreamwork. I mentioned briefly that a shaman’s task is “to facilitate communication and alignment with Spirit, on behalf of the larger community (and individuals)—especially where that connection has been damaged,” and “shamans journey into ‘other worlds’… where an experience of Spirit is more accessible, and they return bringing what they have learned from those experiences to be applied in concrete ways for healing and restoration.”

This week, I’ll focus on what is meant by “journeying,” and briefly consider some similarities and differences between journeying and dreaming. It’s important to understand that although shamans use journeying as a primary tool to fulfill their healing role in community, this tool—like dreamwork—can also be a meaningful spiritual practice for non-shamans. Just as a person who pays attention to dreams does not have to be a professional dreamworker, a person who journeys is not necessarily a shaman!

In fact, a shaman must develop a wide range of tools and skills, in addition to journeying—according to the unique calling of the individual shaman and the particular needs of her/his community. Each shaman may have a specific set of specialized skills (such as dreamwork, plant medicine, etc.), but journeying is an essential practice that might be considered a prerequisite to all other shamanic arts.

Journeying can be hard to define. In the broadest terms, it refers to a process of entering an altered state and traveling to “other worlds.” The “altered state” might be anything from a profound trance to a gentle shift in orientation allowing visual, auditory, or sensory experiences outside ordinary consciousness to occur.

Describing journeying as “creative imagination” or “visualization” would be controversial, since, from a shamanic perspective, the experiences one encounters in a journey are real—the “other worlds” are real—they are not “made up” by the conscious mind. However, this reality includes non-physical experiences (“non-ordinary reality”) that many non-shamanic cultures would call “imaginary,” so it could be just a question of semantics.

The “other worlds” explored in journeying, like the worlds explored in dreams, are absolutely real in the sense that they can be experienced as meaningful, and can offer insights and information not available to the conscious mind in physical reality. Continue reading

Shamanic Dream Perspectives

oak tree 01Much of what I write and teach about dreams starts from a psycho-spiritual frame of reference, integrating some basic ideas about dreamwork from C.G. Jung, Jeremy Taylor, and others. This approach assumes a wide range of creative and healing potential in the dreaming process, and uses archetypal metaphors and imagery (recognizable also in mythology and religion) along with personal, cultural, and contextual associations with those images.

But there are other—equally valid—ways of approaching dreams. The shamanic tradition has an entirely different perspective on the meaning of dreaming, and this is a perspective that I also bring to my work. (Incidentally, Taylor often includes this perspective in his work as well—as did Jung, in his own way.)

To bring this perspective to our conversation about dreams, I’ll be writing a series of posts about how I experience and try to apply the wisdom of shamanism in dreamwork. Today, I’d like to introduce the shamanic worldview—and I’d appreciate anything that those of you who are more experienced shamanic practitioners might want to add. Shamanism is a vast subject, with variations, and sometimes contradictions, between cultural traditions and the methodologies of individual practitioners. But I’ll try to mention a few of the essentials that define shamanism as a whole.

Shamanism was and is a primary spiritual and practical system of knowledge and skills in most, if not all, indigenous cultures worldwide. Thanks to the efforts of shamans, elders, and wisdom-keepers from these cultures, shamanic perspectives, along with some shamanic skills and practices, are becoming increasingly integrated into many areas of contemporary spirituality—making contributions not only to the spiritual development and healing of individuals and communities, but also to the ecological balance of all life. Continue reading

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