Compass Dreamwork

Dreamwork as Spiritual Practice

Tag: spirituality (page 1 of 3)

A Dream By Any Other Name

We’ve all used the word “dream” when we talk about a positive waking vision or hope for the future. While struggling with our current political nightmare, I find myself dreaming (imagining a better future) this way more often—such dreaming is a manifestation of longing, and longing has power. I dream of healing for the earth, and for all living things. I dream of kindness, fairness, simplicity, generosity, gratitude, integrity, beauty, cooperation, balance, peace. These are collective dreams, of course, shared by many millions of human beings all over the world—and perhaps by other creatures as well. Just as our sleep-dreams have archetypal images and themes, so do our waking dream-visions of what goodness could be. We have a common vocabulary for our longing, and even those who are greedy and hateful may dream of these positive possibilities (at least for themselves and their friends).

Yet, such waking dreams rarely have much substance. They are often abstractions rather than fully realized imaginings. I can “dream” of world peace—but what would that actually look like? Unlike most daydreams, our sleep-dreams have emotional richness, physical details, stories and surprises; although they may lack the coherence of conscious intention, they make a substantial impression because they are lived experiences, not just intangible ideas. We may try to imagine the future in a positive way, but our daydreams usually lack direct experiential weight. Our night-dreams have more vivid “reality.”

When Holly and I went to the humane society to adopt a kitten seven years ago, we dreamed (imagined, hoped) that our new family member would be sweet and special and a joy in our lives; we dreamed that we’d love him. But we could never have imagined Toby himself—the deaf cat whose voice sounded like a donkey braying; the little guy who bravely overcame his fear of balloons, liked to drink the bathwater, and would gaze soulfully into our eyes, begging for tiny bits of apple. Our Toby. Dreaming up a person (whether that person is human or cat) is not the same as experiencing that person. Although my daydream of who Toby might be could not measure up to Toby himself, my night-dreams of Toby, since his early death a few months ago, have been filled with the full intensity of his living presence.

What if our daydreams—our true longings—could have the same resonance, reality, narrative strength and specific impact as our night-dreams? Recently, for example, I had a vivid sleep-dream image: I’m seeing the coast of California from the air, and all the coastal cities are under water—I can feel the jolt of sad realization that climate change has already gone too far….

When I woke from this dream, the intensity of the feelings made my daydreamed longing for a healed relationship between humanity and the earth, between human cities and coastal ecosystems, much more real. I could smell the sea and hear the rustling of grasses in the salt marshes; I could feel the energy and vitality of city people and city life; I could sense the pulse of the planet, and the movement of meltwater. I could feel the real consequences of our human environmental carelessness, and I could truly imagine what it might mean if we moved toward a reciprocal, respectful relationship with the planet we inhabit.

When we have big dreams (longings)—like Martin Luther King Jr. did, or like our wisest, kindest, most courageous selves can—they are as real as our vibrant night-dreams. We need to imagine our longings as fully realized. This is not always possible, but it is something to move toward. Continue reading

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Buddhist Philosophy in Dreamwork

yellow dahlia 01Although I am not a member of a Buddhist sangha (community), I have been a student and practitioner of Buddhism for at least twenty years, and have applied what I understand about Buddhist psychology, philosophy and practice to my work with dreams.

So, when I talk about “dreamwork as spiritual practice” I am often thinking of spirituality as it would be understood by Buddhists. From a Buddhist perspective, the first step (and perhaps, ultimately, the only step) in spiritual practice is bringing awareness, or “mindfulness,” to our experiences, so that the essential nature of those experiences may come to light. Insight into the true nature of reality can end the repetitive cycles of self-perpetuating suffering that tend to characterize existence without awareness.

All experiences are opportunities for insight. Experiences certainly occur in our dreams, just as much as in our everyday lives and meditation. Bringing awareness to our dream experiences is valid spiritual practice, just like bringing awareness to any other aspect of life.

I had this dream as a teenager, during a time of turmoil:

Mandala Dream: I am a droplet of water falling into a pool. Rings of ripples expand out from me. I am endlessly falling in, and endlessly radiating outward. The ripples unfold like the petals of a flower opening. As I fall backward and inward, I open outward, blooming concentric circles of infinite colors and forms. This continues even when I realize I am dreaming—even when I open my eyes and become aware of the little room around me and the snow falling through the apple tree outside the window. I am in the midst of everything, and I am nothing.

In some branches of Buddhism, dreams are addressed through intensive esoteric practices that lead the practitioner to recognize the ultimate dream-like nature of reality. But another way of working with dreams, still using a Buddhist perspective, would be to let the dreams themselves give the dreamer a direct experience of awakening. The significance of the dream is not in its “meanings,” but in present-moment awareness of the experience it offers. Continue reading

Grief Dreams: The Experience of Absence

alongside mom’s house, the brook continues to flow...

alongside mom’s house, the brook continues to flow…

Time keeps passing, and I’m gradually beginning to feel a little distance from my mom’s death. I can write about it, think about it, almost make it make sense that she is no longer there—three thousand miles away, but within easy reach of a phone call, in her house that is an old mill by a brook. She is still more real to me there than in my experience of her dying. It’s as if the few days surrounding her death were a dream.

What’s true is what’s always been true: she’s opening her curtains in the morning (a signal to her neighbor that she’s okay), having her coffee, watching the birds at the feeder, puttering carefully through the chores that make every knick-knack in her home and every moment of her day precious… I think I’ll call and tell her about the Bald Eagle we saw yesterday being chased by a Redtail Hawk… And then, of course, there’s that stunning punch of realization that she isn’t there. Her house is being emptied of her beloved furniture, pictures, books, coffee cups and bird feeders. Each time I think I’ve got some distance from the grief, it clobbers me again.

The stages of grief described by Kübler-Ross—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance—helped a lot of people to better understand the process of grieving, but in recent years it has become evident that those stages were being used by many as a way to cling to an illusion of control and order in an experience that is essentially chaotic. Yes, all of the “stages” can be part of grief—but we almost never progress systematically from one stage to the next. My own experience is that the grief comes in waves—different kinds of waves at different times. When I think that the intensity is easing, I’m bowled over by a tsunami. When I think I should be in pain, I’m sometimes surprisingly unperturbed. Then, when I get the idea that “grief comes in waves,” it comes as a tornado, or a thunderstorm, or a rainbow(!) instead. I think I’m prepared for the feelings, yet they always manage to take me by surprise.

Nevertheless, I’ve noticed some distinct kinds of grief in the course of these weeks. There’s the flood of memories from childhood. There’s the fierce clarity of those nearly-traumatic shocks of beauty from her last hours—and just after her death. There’s the slow, reasonable acknowledgement that things are different now. And, most of all, there’s that gaping absence… the sense of someone so “full of life” just not being there anymore. 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

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

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

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

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