[Welcome back to Compass Dreamwork! After a three year sabbatical, I’m finally emerging from hibernation, blinking in the sunlight, ready to reconnect. It’s been a difficult time for many of us, and it’s good to return to my dreaming community, to share ideas and, I hope, hear from some of you as well. Instead of writing a regular blog, I’ll be opening up the conversation by posting articles each month that were originally published in my “Dream Alchemy” column for DreamTime magazine. If you’re a member of the International Association for the Study of Dreams, you might have seen the column, but if not, the articles will be new to you. From time to time, I’ll be sharing other essays and excerpts from various projects I’m working on. I hope you enjoy reading what I’ve written, and I invite your comments. ]
Each night as we sleep, the caldron begins to bubble. Unremarkable raw materials, mixed with infinitesimal droplets of mysterious tinctures, get cooked down to their essential elements. A cleansing steam rises as the impurities are filtered out, and the elements interact in new combinations—sizzling, sparking, shrinking and expanding, changing color. The pungent catalyst of emotion sets off a chemical reaction. Images appear in the drifting smoke. Occasionally, something explodes. Sometimes we have to discard the burnt sludge at the bottom of the beaker and begin again, but often there’s a glimmer of gold. Deep transformation can emerge unexpectedly from the chaotic process of dream creativity, rewarding us with bright insights and alchemical treasures: precious metals, the Philosopher’s Stone, the Universal Solvent, or even the Elixir of Immortality. When we begin to experiment with our dreams, we discover that anything is possible.
As we dream, a strange concoction is created. Whether we see this concoction as a psychological experience, a neurological event, a profound message, or an encounter with other worlds, our dreams represent a dynamic aspect of our lives that can inspire us to experiment. As we explore our dreams, we find ourselves delving into the vital essence of our perceptions, our choices, our beliefs, our relationships, our environment. Dreams are strange. They give us plenty of raw materials, but it’s up to us to simmer, stir, titrate, distill and filter those materials, using our tools and skills to realize their potential. We really don’t know what we’re doing when we’re dreaming, but if we bring curiosity and courage to our dream experiences, we can find authentic valuables in this process of alchemical investigation.
I’m calling this column “Dream Alchemy” because both alchemy and dreamwork have to do with finding meaning and life in a transformative process that includes everything: the worst and the best, the mundane and the miraculous, the corporeal and the ineffable. I’ll be exploring dreams from a wide variety of perspectives, applying what I’ve learned from others and what I’ve discovered through my own alchemical investigations and life experiences.
Because of my particular background and inclinations, I’ll be emphasizing certain aspects of dreams and dreamwork. As a dream alchemist, my apparatus includes:
1) Working with dreams about death, and particularly the kinds of dreams we have when we are ill, grieving, aging or experiencing big life transitions and thresholds. I’ve been exploring my own death dreams, and studying death dreams in hospice chaplaincy, pastoral care and spiritual direction contexts for many years, and they seem to represent a concentrated quintessence of change and renewal.
2) Working especially with unpleasant dreams, difficult dreams and nightmares, because they invite the alchemy of transforming heavy, dark substances like lead (or feces) into gold.
3) Finding meaningful ways that dreams can change the world—exploring the implications of dreamwork as a personal task or quest that can be part of a larger, universal task or quest. The metaphor of dreamwork as pilgrimage is especially significant for me, and I want to explore how the dream-pilgrimage of an individual lifetime reflects and contributes to the shared journey of all living beings, the whole earth, the cosmos.
4) I’ve been a student of world mythologies all my life, because they express central human existential concerns: the nature and origins of our existence, consciousness, identity, reality. Mythologies and dreams are manifestations of our longing for the Philosopher’s Stone, our endless search for meaning, which can be conveyed as story, rich with metaphor, paradox and mystery.
5) Fun and creativity! I love turning dreams (and waking life) upside down and inside out, like an alchemist messing about with ingredients, stirring up and sometimes exploding the “stuff” of our waking and dreaming experiences so that new and surprising substances can come into being.
There’s a lot of dream alchemy ahead in this column… so, watch this space!
Here’s a dream, to play with:
Giving Away the Marble: An older, wiser woman has a lot of wonderful small objects: marbles of all kinds and tiny stone animals of all species. I get to keep a few of them, and I’m trying to choose. A man with a toddler is nearby—I offer the boy a little giraffe (now a stuffed toy rather than stone) and a clear marble that reflects everything upside-down. He accepts the giraffe, but ignores the marble. I roll the marble on the floor, and it becomes much larger, the size of an earth globe. It is mostly clear, a slightly irregular glass sphere with sparkling lights in it. I pick it up (it’s heavy!) and feel its shape—finding it beautiful. Now, the man would like to have it, but I would like to keep it. I decide to give it to him.
Alchemical transformations occur in this dream: the stone giraffe becomes a stuffed toy; the marble, when rolled on the ground, becomes a sparkling glass globe; my desire to keep these treasures becomes a willingness to give them away. Gifts are passed on from generation to generation as the old, wise woman gives them to me, and I give them to the small boy and his young father.
What are these gifts? They are simple, toy-like, and “wonderful”—the kinds of gifts we all need to inspire our growth and development. The child accepts a giraffe—an awkward yet graceful creature with a long neck, reaching for the heights—just as this child will eventually, inevitably, grow into the longing aspirations and awkward grace of adolescence. Instead of a hard stone animal, this giraffe has become a soft toy, supple and comforting.
I’m a woman in late middle-age, so the gifts I choose (marble and giraffe) represent things that I can appreciate but know I can’t really keep. I recognize that the child should have the chance to choose, too. The marble is still mine for now—the spherical glass jewel that reflects everything within it upside-down… but then I roll it on the ground, on the earth, and it grows into an entire globe-like world, slightly irregular, imperfect, but full of sparkling light. It is heavy, too heavy for one person to carry forever. Even Atlas had difficulty carrying the whole earth; I can’t carry it for long. Much as I’d like to hold onto my important role of bearing the weight of this beautiful world, I recognize that the next generation needs to receive it from me. And so I give it away, just as I gave away the giraffe. Maybe now I’ve become the wise old woman myself, passing on the blessings I have in abundance.
The shifting shapes of our dreams give their gifts freely, playfully, to the holy alchemical fire that will transform them. We grow, age, choose, offer, receive. Let’s explore the transformative power of our dreams together, sharing the gold that results from our experimentation. I’ll be looking forward to the expanding possibilities of this column, and the dream-alchemy we can create together.
[This article was originally published in the Winter, 2019 issue of DreamTime Magazine. If you enjoyed it, please consider subscribing to DreamTime by joining the International Association for the Study of Dreams ]