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