Dreamwork as Spiritual Practice

Tag: Buddhism

Interview by Metka Cuk on the “Dream Owls” website

Metka Cuk, a creative and inspiring dreamworker and artist, has been interviewing other dreamworkers and dreamers, introducing us to the depth and breadth of the dreaming community. These interviews are posted on her delightful website, “Dream Owls: A Place to Talk About Your Dreams.”

Some months ago, she did a wide-ranging interview with me about my background in dreamwork and my spiritual journey with dreams, including connections in my life between dreaming and healing, hospice work, Buddhism and Christianity, the Camino de Santiago, haiku, and more.

Please click on the picture to read the interview, and while you’re there, you’ll want to check out “Dream Owls” and the many other wonderful interviews, as well as Metka’s excellent cartoons and artwork!

I hope you can imagine your own version of how dreams have affected your life… Think of how you might share your own dreaming story with others. Dreams take us to our depths, and reflect the vital heart of our lives—and sharing these stories can be meaningful for all of us.

Review: “Waking, Dreaming, Being”

waking dreaming beingWaking, Dreaming, Being: Self and Consciousness in Neuroscience, Meditation, and Philosophy. by Evan Thompson. Hardcover 451 pages. Columbia University Press.

Working with dreams almost invariably leads to explorations of consciousness, identity and reality. Many of my articles (such as “Humbling Dreams,”  “When the Dream-Ego is Slippery or Sleepy,” and most recently, “Dreaming and Anatta: Non-Self”), demonstrate that these big themes are particular favorites of mine. I’m fascinated by questions about the nature of the self, waking and dreaming—but although I ponder these questions endlessly, my pondering tends to lose itself in the complexity of the subject (or else becomes poetic and misty, rather than concrete and complete).

Reading Evan Thompson’s remarkable book, “Waking, Dreaming, Being,” I find myself longing for an intelligence as sparklingly clear and lucid as his. In this book, he systematically investigates the intricacies of the very mind that is doing the investigating. With great care, and perhaps some tricks with mirrors, he examines every dancing dust mote in the shaft of sunlight that is consciousness itself. (See, I’m going for the poetry again…)

Although, as the book’s title suggests, Thompson uses straightforward language and addresses basic concepts here, I found that following the unfurling skeins of his reasoning gave my brain a good workout. It’s exhilarating to participate in such hard mental exercise, with the satisfaction of knowing it’s all about the process rather than the product: there are no easy answers to the big questions. Continue reading

Dreaming and Anicca: Impermanence

gyroscope 01As I explore the Buddhist concept of impermanence (anicca), the second of the “Three Marks of Existence,” I’m going to let a long dream do most of the talking for me. Dreams are ingenious in their fluid approach to time, and in dreaming we can drop our usual linear understanding of experience—freeing ourselves for a larger sense of life.

Dreaming In and Out of Time: It’s nearly dark and several of us have missed the bus in a neglected city neighborhood. We go into the only open shop to get change, and when we return, the bus is there, but we have to climb a hill, then cross a ditch and a road to reach it. We scramble up the hill, then descend into the ditch, which becomes a deep, wooded ravine—so deep, and so full of trees and shrubs, that we can no longer see the bus. As we come to the bottom, we find a lake among pines. People wearing 17th century European peasant clothing are going about their business along the shore path. Nearby, there’s a farming settlement. As a young man from our group approaches the lake, he enters this other world; his bright modern jeans and t-shirt become plain brown and gray work clothes. We join him, and our clothing is also transformed. A woman welcomes us, offers us their wonderful, abundant food, and shows us around, introducing us to a whole, peaceful community of people. Buildings are constructed on platforms, at various levels. On one platform, an old man is dying, surrounded by loved ones; on another platform, a young woman is giving birth, with the help of a circle of neighbors. I stay with a family for some time—maybe a few days, maybe months, getting to know this village and its way of life intimately. It is not perfect, but it is a good place. Eventually, I understand that I need to return to my own world. Some from our group choose to stay, and some leave when I do. We’re led back to the road, where the bus is waiting.

Then it is twenty or thirty years later. I’m in late middle age now. I’ve had a full life in my own world—was married and widowed, but have no children. In late middle age, I realize, with joy, that it is time to return to the hidden village. I drive around looking for someone to give my car, my house, and my few other possessions. I go into a hospice where I once worked, and find three tired-looking, hard-working aides pausing at the bedside of a dying person, who is asleep. Whispering so we won’t wake the patient, we talk about the hidden village, and they offer to drive me there, drop me off, and park my car in a safe place. They don’t yet know that I will leave them everything—or that they may also choose to join me in the other world. We drive through the woods until we come to the familiar ravine, and get out of the car, preparing to descend…

Impermanence—anicca—simply means that everything changes. This could be understood as a statement about time, suggesting that all things are subject to time. However, in the Buddhist sense, impermanence is really about timelessness. There is no subject or object in impermanence, as all things equally are changing. If everything, everything, is always changing, then there is nothing but change. In a sense, the condition of change is changeless. Continue reading

Dreaming and Dukkha: Unsatisfactoriness

dukkhaI’m exploring dreamwork through the lens of Buddhism [see “Buddhist Philosophy in Dreamwork”], taking each of the “Three Marks of Existence” (unsatisfactoriness, impermanence, and non-self) in turn. These may sound like gloomy ways to mark existence… and I’m going to start with the gloomiest of all: dukkha. But let’s see what dreams can do with this stuff that defines unhappiness in our lives:

Learning from a Child: I am imprisoned with a group of people I don’t particularly like, afflicted by a deep, visceral depression—despair, frustration, anxiety, paralysis. I know I must go off by myself and experience this depression fully. When I’m aware of my body, the depression is a sensation in my chest, a dull vibration or slowly pulsing electrical current, as if a heavy metal object has been struck by a hammer. I’m exploring this sensation when a little girl appears and begins to talk—partly to me and partly to herself. I don’t feel under any obligation to listen, still experiencing the physical sense of the depression, but then find myself absorbed in what she is saying and doing. She has drawn a cut-out human figure on paper, and she tears it down the center lengthwise, explaining that this will make it larger, because now it has space in the middle. This inspires me to act compassionately to protect another member of the group from being bullied…

I’ve had dreams about depression periodically for most of my adult life. In each dream the context is different, but the mood is the same—as intense as any waking depression. Over the years, I’ve “worked with” these dreams in various ways. Because they were so unpleasant, I used to try to forget them as quickly as possible, but I noticed that this distraction method usually just pushed the depressed feelings below the surface, where they subtly influenced my thoughts and behavior for the rest of the day.

So, my first dreamwork practice was simply to give the dreams my attention when they arose. I wrote them down, noting how the circumstances and sensations varied from dream to dream, and seeing the patterns that emerged over time. I noticed that when I gave the unpleasant dreams my waking attention their unpleasant influence on my waking state would naturally dissipate. With a dream-sharing group, I reenacted the dreams, and found grief in them, which needed to be shared.

Since the dreams continued, I kept exploring, and found layers of psychological insights into how the dreams fit my personal history. This was useful, also, in my work as a spiritual director and chaplain, where I often accompanied others who were experiencing depression. I gradually discovered a compassionate core at the center of depression, a tender place where I recognized I was not alone. No one is alone in the experience of suffering.

I found that I could work with the depression within the dream, as well. In some dreams, I’d remember that I didn’t want to let my mood affect the way I behaved toward others. In one lucid dream, I actually reached into my own head and removed a tumor-like object that was causing the depression. All this attention brought to bear on depression dreams “helped” in a sense, but my efforts were still directed toward making the unpleasant experience of such dreams stop. My awareness was tinged with judgment (“these are bad dreams”) and the need for control (“I will get rid of them”).

Unsatisfactoriness, dukkha, is the first of the “Four Noble Truths” of Buddhism, and also one of the “Three Marks of Existence.” We find experiences to be pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral, and we tend to cling to what is pleasant, try to get rid of what is unpleasant, and ignore what is neutral. But we never succeed in these efforts: pleasant things necessarily pass away; neutral things either persist in being neutral or become unpleasant when ignored; and unpleasant things arise inevitably in the form of sickness, old age, death, and a myriad of other causes and conditions. Our efforts to choose and control our experiences invariably lead to “unsatisfactoriness”—and, ultimately, to suffering. 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

Reconnecting with the World Dream

compass rose 01Have 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. Continue reading

A Place at the Table: Dreams of Scarcity & Abundance

plates 01You know those dreams where you just can’t get what you want? Maybe there’s this buffet—you see all kinds of great treats when you walk by, but then when you get in line and it’s finally your turn to serve yourself, there’s nothing left…?

Variations on this dream are pretty common in general, but I suspect they’re especially likely to show up at this time of year. Why? Because, in the northern hemisphere at least, it’s the season when we start worrying about having enough to go around. The abundance of the harvest-time is well past, and spring still seems far away; humans and other animals begin to take a good look at the supplies, and wonder how long they will last. Sometimes we take a peek at others’ supplies, too, suspecting that they’ve got more than we’ve got.

To combat the dread, and subsequent hostility, that can come along with this kind of scarcity-mentality, many ancient (and modern) midwinter traditions include a celebration of abundance and generosity. It’s the “season of giving” for very good reasons. We need each other at this time of year. Stinginess can lead to disaster.

I find that whenever money gets tight and I become fearful about whether we’ll have enough, I need to literally give something away in order to remind myself that I am part of a larger whole, part of a community of living beings who can support each other through good times and hard times. Instead of noticing what I don’t have, I try to be grateful for all that I do have—and share it with those around me, without counting and comparing.

But my dreams sometimes suggest that I’m still anxious about getting enough for myself:

A Place at the Table: I arrive at the feast that I have helped to prepare, but find that there is no chair for me. Someone has taken my seat, and there are not enough chairs to go around. Then I notice that there is no plate at my place, though everyone else has theirs. Also, there is not enough food. The last helpings have gone to others, and all of the serving dishes are empty. I stand alone, and feel sorry for myself.

Dreams like this one simply seem to be commenting on a state of mind that is present. Yes, the cold and dark at this time of year do bring up feelings of fearfulness, resentment, the instinctive desire to hoard and hide what I have. What is the point of being reminded that I feel this way, when I am really trying hard to remind myself that I can also feel generous and abundant?

I think the usefulness of such dreams lies in the vividness of the imagery, and the potential of that imagery to make an impression on the psyche at a deep level. When I have dreams that just seem to be telling me unpleasant truths about myself and my situation, I look at the images that the dream chooses to express those truths. Continue reading

The Healing Experience of the Dream Itself

One evening recently, a dear friend was coping with a crisis—and I could think of nothing else. My heart and mind were completely with the pain that she was going through, and the unresolved situation that she faced. There was nothing to be done to help, nothing to be done but wait and pray. As I waited to learn what the outcome might be, I couldn’t imagine working, writing, or even distracting myself with books or television. How could anything to do with dreams or dreamwork possibly make any difference here?

Nevertheless, since it was all I could do, I went to bed and to sleep—holding in mind the wish that all would be well. During the night, each time I woke, I did the Buddhist practice of Tonglen—which involves opening up (rather than shutting down) to the experience of suffering, letting myself feel this suffering on behalf of all those who suffer, breathing it in, and then sending love, relief and peace on the out-breath.

I breathed in the pain of helplessness that I was feeling along with my friend and so many beings all over the world who have suffered similar pain. I breathed out the warmth and safety of my own bed, the dearness of my loved ones, the easing of pain that comes from feeling connected and cared for—wishing that all beings could share this easing of pain. The Tonglen practice pervaded my sleep and my dreams.

In the morning, I felt rested and peaceful, even though my concern for my friend was still with me every moment. My dreams had been deep, and left a clear experiential memory of emotions, interactions, questions—though they seemed to have no direct relationship to the situation at hand. In my dreams, I wandered around schools, airports, familiar places—having sympathetic conversations with strangers. What did this have to do with my friend? Still, it was as if the dreaming (and the Tonglen) had healed my sense of being lost in my own uselessness.

The struggle to find solutions where there are no immediate solutions is both exhausting and isolating. But in the ordinary interactions of my dreams, I felt the simple connection of compassion and empathy—which is ultimately the only “solution” we really have to offer one another. In my dreams, I was just present with the feeling of being human and in relationship with others whose experiences I recognized and shared. This was enough. This was helpful.

Within a few more hours, I heard from my friend that the crisis had been resolved. The relief and love that I felt in response seemed to flow directly from the sense of connection in the dream experience. In fact, we are never “helpless” as long as we are connected in this way—our willingness to be fully present to one another’s lives (and our own) makes a tremendous difference in the way we all cope with crises.

Dreams don’t generally bring healing by offering immediate solutions. If I incubate a dream with a particular problem in mind, asking for an answer, I believe I will always get a response, but usually it is a response that asks me to open myself to the whole experience, rather than giving me a specific key to unlocking the problem. Continue reading

What Is the Motivation for Dreamwork?

This morning, I read something about the Buddhist perspective on “intention”—the importance of being clear about our motivations. Ideally, all our actions should be motivated by the desire to benefit others, rather than the desire to benefit only ourselves. Putting others first leads to happiness, not only for those who benefit directly from our altruism. Selfish motivations tend to lead to unhappiness all around. In my experience with hospice work, I have found this to be true. Instead of being caught up in my own problems, I get to experience the deep joy of really paying attention to other human beings, and focusing all of my energies on their needs, their concerns. In practice, however, our motivations are always mixed, and our intentions are often unclear.

What are my intentions and my motivations with Compass Dreamwork? I started this organization because I feel that dreams represent a tremendous untapped potential in our lives, and I have repeatedly expressed the conviction that working with dreams can have a positive impact on the ways we relate to others, and ultimately on the well-being of our communities and our world. But, on a day-to-day basis, dreamwork is also my livelihood, and I look for opportunities to work with dreams because I want to use my skills and experience in dreamwork to make a living. It’s important for me to acknowledge this, yet if I ask myself about my real intentions, I can honestly say that I believe dreamwork can be beneficial in a far-reaching, mind-boggling, open-ended way. Continue reading

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