Compass Dreamwork

Dreamwork as Spiritual Practice

Tag: awareness

Being the Dreamer, Living the Dream

My priorities have changed significantly in the past few years, and so have my dreams. Although I’m not yet sixty, I’m starting to see the world as an elder, and my dreams have reflected this change as well. Especially in the past year, as I’ve developed symptoms of a degenerative disease that is accelerating my physical aging process (Radiation Fibrosis Syndrome), I’m truly discovering what it means to be initiated into a completely new stage in the life cycle—and it’s not what I expected. It’s much more subtle than the leap from childhood to adulthood, yet more profoundly meaningful than any of the other transformative experiences I’ve known.

So many times in my life, I’ve come to the end of one phase, experienced losses, uncertainty, and “suspended animation” during a transitional period, and then begun a new phase, with new energies, new resources, and new options. But, for some reason, when I left a job I loved five years ago and entered one of those painful, liminal transitions, the “new phase” I expected never seemed to arrive.

Instead of starting over, I found that the “suspended animation” just went on and on. Somehow, I’m not getting re-animated! Unless I reframe this experience, and change my expectations, my situation and prospects could look pretty grim. Loved ones just keep dying. I face more and more physical limitations. When I tried to go “back to school,” seeking out further education and training (which had always worked before), I encountered impossible obstacles. When I started new projects, they didn’t exactly fail, but required constant attention and drained away my energies rather than rejuvenating them. And, most disturbing, many of my familiar spiritual practices and disciplines no longer seemed life-giving.

At first, all of these discouraging experiences seemed to point to depression—so I soldiered on patiently, kept trying, hanging in there, not giving up, waiting for an opening, doing my best. I tried some big things, and lots of small things, but life just kept slipping by without any significant breakthrough.

Then, I began to notice something strange about this apparent stagnation. Underneath it all, I’m at peace in a way I’ve never been before. The harder I try, the more drained and discouraged I become; yet when I stop trying so hard, I’m filled with quiet joy. I’m not so concerned with proving myself, or even with being myself—instead, I’m just being. I’ve lost most of my ambition, but it doesn’t actually worry me (except when I think “Shouldn’t you be worried about this?”). I’m paying lots of attention to the physical pleasure of doing the things I can still do, and not dwelling much on the things I can’t do. The past makes me sad, the future can make me anxious—but I’m quite interested in the present, and the present is just fine.

Even when the world situation seems catastrophic, even when there are too many losses coming too fast, even when it looks like finances or health or politics will cause everything to fall apart—I sense and trust a kind of spaciousness, and can hold that space open for others and myself. I have no idea how I’m doing it.

What is this? The “new phase” I’ve been looking for is actually already in progress. It just doesn’t work the same way that any of my previous phases have worked. I’ve always been drawn to old people, because many of them have this funny way of not getting bothered, while still caring deeply. Could this be where I’m going? Could this be who I really am?

My dreams are different, too. Like many older adults, I’m not remembering them as well. Aside from the fairly common sleep difficulties that can disrupt dreaming as we get older, I suspect the dream-recall deficit is because the work of these dreams doesn’t urgently need to be brought to my conscious attention. I’ve accumulated enough material to work on over the past fifty-six years, and I don’t need more stuff to figure out and make sense of. What I need is simple experiences of being alive and valuing life. When I remember my dreams, they just point to what’s most important right now.

I have a lot of dreams about helping or teaching others, dreams where I’m not the “hero,” but the mentor, sidekick, or teacher. I’m trying to make it easier for someone: saving a spider from the bathtub, or bringing peppermint tea to a sick girl. In many of my dreams, I’m not the central character—and often, I’m not present at all, just a disembodied observer of someone else’s story—which, ultimately, is my story, too, of course. I have dreams of returning to familiar places, finding them changed, and adapting to those changes. And then there are the sweet dreams of just appreciating something beautiful: birdwatching from the deck of a becalmed ship as sunlight glitters on the water’s surface; or approaching a lit cabin through the woods in the dark. Continue reading

No Bad Dreams: What’s Good About “Bad” Dreams?

nightmares-02Many people have primarily negative feelings about dreams. But, paradoxically, the unpleasantness of their dream experiences may be the very thing that leads them to new ways of thinking about their dream lives. With a few simple tools, “bad” dreams can become openings.

Suppose someone listens politely to my enthusiastic ravings about dream openings… then shrugs and says, “Well, it’s great that you have such wonderful dreams, but most of my dreams are exhausting and weird. Or sometimes I have awful nightmares. I’d really rather not remember them at all.” Well, that could be a total conversation stopper—or a chance to give a helping hand to a poor soul whose dreams are a drag.

Of course, when I encounter a disgruntled dreamer, I don’t start lecturing on the benefits of bad dreams. That would be rude. But I do ask about those dreams. What are they like? What feelings are associated with them? What images or themes seem to repeat? If the dreamer seems willing to answer such questions, or even seems just a little bit curious… then, there’s room to explore.

Sometimes, simply finding a connection between a recurring unpleasant dream emotion and a recurring unpleasant waking situation is enough to give the dreamer a different approach to problematic circumstances. Or, perhaps there’s a tiny, encouraging element within the “bad” dreams that the dreamer has overlooked—an element that offers hope, or insight, or reassurance.

Every conversation has its own direction, but once the conversation starts, most people will find that their interest in dreams has been awakened. If dreams present problems, they also present ways of working with those problems, and sometimes even outright solutions. When people discover this about their own problem dreams, they begin to think differently: instead of wishing dreams away, they find themselves inviting the opportunities that those dreams represent. And, once  people start inviting dream opportunities, more dreams will probably come to reinforce the positive impressions. Continue reading

The Phenomenal Dream

slow sign 01When I write or talk about dreams, I often begin by writing or talking about waking life experiences. Dreaming and waking exist on a continuum—they are not entirely separate states, only variations in the landscape of consciousness. Our lives are the roads (or footpaths or railroad tracks) that wander through this ever-changing landscape: we pass through dreaming, waking, dreaming, waking… and all the different experiences in between.

Dreams make more sense, and offer more openings, if we remember that they are lived experiences—as subjectively real as any other experiences. The essential reason for paying attention to dreams is that they are part of our lives, remembered or not—and no part of our lives deserves to be discounted. If I want to live a full life, then I want to live my dreams fully, too. Living fully involves intentional participation in our experiences, waking or dreaming, and sometimes creative reflection upon these experiences.

To illustrate what I mean by this, I’ll reflect a bit on the waking experience I’m having today. Sometime after midnight last night, I developed a migraine—and, by the time I got up this morning, I had a blinding headache, nausea and dizziness. Those are the basic facts. If this were a dream, you might say it was a pretty awful dream. But, fortunately, although I had a full day planned, I didn’t have a strict schedule, and so could let my body decide how to go about the business of getting things done. It turned out that, after taking some medication for the pain, I could do most things I would have done anyway—only very, very slowly and carefully.

Migraines affect me peculiarly: they make me zero in on one thing at a time, with exquisite appreciation, so I become absorbed in every aspect of every moment. It’s as if the pain surrounds me like a shimmering shell of light, with a soft, cool hollow at the center where something newly born is nestled.

Sipping cranberry juice and coffee, eating crispy rice cakes and plain yogurt, brushing my teeth, talking (quietly) with Holly. Then puttering through some chores, and visiting the sunny morning outside, testing my senses…

A migraine heightens my awareness. The sensation of tipping and spilling the stale water out of the birdbath so I can refill it is like tipping and spilling and refilling something inside my chest. Lowering my head as I crouch to pick a weed makes the world around me rearrange itself at a different angle, and I can feel the stringy stem between my fingertips and smell the soil as the roots let go. I have to keep looking down (resting my eyes on the soft, blunt colors of the ground) because the world is too intensely bright. Even the softest bird call (a chickadee, a goldfinch) feels painfully sharp and clean—like cool air on a toothache. Continue reading

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

The Dreams We Don’t Need To Remember

tree rootsWhat if I rarely, or never, remember my dreams? In “Inviting Dreams” you’ll find some good ways to look at the dreaming process, and some practical methods for making dream recall more likely. But right now, I’m looking at this question from another angle: What is happening in those dreams I don’t remember? Are they still “working” at another level of awareness, even though I can’t access them consciously?

Even those who are practiced in the techniques of dream recall, and those with a vividly-remembered dream life most of the time, will have phases when only fragments, or nothing at all, remains of their dreams in the morning. I’m going through this myself lately. Last night, for example, there were a lot of dreams, but I can’t get any of them to take shape in my mind now that I am awake. Something about sweeping up shreds and shards of something… I struggled with it for a while, then let it go. Many nights have been like that in recent weeks, and although I have had several meaningful dream memories, for the most part there’s not a lot to get hold of.

This is okay. In fact, this is good. (Or maybe I’m just trying to reassure myself?) Actually, in my experience with my own dreams and the dreams of others, I’ve seen clear evidence that going through times when few, if any, dreams can be recalled is natural, and even healthy. I also think that if you’re one of the people who really can’t remember any dreams at all, that can be okay, too. Dreams are part of a process that is larger than our thinking and remembering minds. That process goes on and does its work—and we live parts of our lives in the dream world—whether we remember dreams or not. Continue reading

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