Dreamwork as Spiritual Practice

Tag: healing (Page 3 of 4)

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

Review: Dreams and Guided Imagery

Dreams and Guided Imagery: Gifts for Transforming Illness and Crisis by Tallulah Lyons. Balboa Press. Paperback. 269 pages. $18.99.

Tallulah Lyons BookI recently heard Tallulah Lyons speak about her work (and that of Wendy Pannier and her other colleagues) as “crafting a new language” that would help make dreamwork more accepted in the world of mainstream medicine. Such a language is essential because the exploration of dream imagery, in dream-sharing groups and individual meditative practices, can play a significant role in the healing process, particularly for cancer patients.

Yet, to gain credibility with the mainstream, the effectiveness of dreamwork needs to be supported by evidence (in the form of research statistics), placed in the context of established healing modalities, and described in a language that makes sense. Lyons is not only a gifted dreamwork facilitator, but also a writer, teacher, and guide who can articulate the value of this work, so others may appreciate it.

While dreamworkers and researchers are collaborating to provide clinical evidence that will substantiate the effectiveness of dreamwork, the work itself is already changing lives and bringing healing to many patients in a variety of clinical and private settings. Dreams and Guided Imagery beautifully conveys the significance of this work in the kind of language that would be accessible and inspiring to patients and clinicians alike. Lyons offers practical wisdom through approaches and insights that make sense. Continue reading

Dreamwork Tells A Healing Story

In many (if not all) indigenous cultures, the regular practice of storytelling is considered essential to the well-being of the community as a whole, not only because of the entertaining and teaching value of shared stories, but also because they can be literally healing. And many dreams come in the form of stories, which, when shared and explored, can have this same healing power.

In studying a variety of spiritual traditions, I find again and again that stories keep cultures alive, and serve to bring people into harmony with their environment and one another. In some cases, the healing power of storytelling is explicit. For example, healing ceremonies of the Dineh (“Navajo”) recount—and in a sense re-enact—the experiences of spirit beings in the mythic past whose stories become the healing template for addressing present day problems.

In one such story, the hero twins Monster Slayer and Born-for-Water undertake a long and difficult journey in search of their father. Upon their return, they must defend their home community from the overwhelming onslaught of some terrible monsters. Their successful battle with these monsters leaves them exhausted, at the point of death. They are healed by being told their own story from the beginning… And eventually, this story itself becomes a healing gift to all people, retold in ceremonies for those who seek to be brought back into harmony with life. (I’m drawing this interpretation of the Dineh story from Joseph Campbell—and apologize if I’m misrepresenting it in any way.)

The idea that we might be healed by being told our own story has great resonance on both a psychological and a spiritual level. We require healing when we find ourselves out-of-balance (physically or otherwise), as our sense of connection to the source, context, and meaning of our lives has been impaired, injured, or even destroyed. If this damage is significant, then healing cannot be accomplished simply by curing the illness or repairing the broken place—there’s a profound need to go back to the beginning, to see the larger patterns of our lives and how those patterns fit together with the life around us. We need to hear others tell us—and to tell ourselves—who we have been, what we have done, and where be belong. In this process, our individual stories become part of a universal story, and our lives can be of service to all life. This is harmony, wholeness, healing.

My dreams are healing because they tell and re-tell my stories in new ways—and help me to recognize that these stories are not mine alone. When we do dreamwork, we engage in a healing, storytelling practice: we discover familiar patterns, familiar images, familiar emotions, familiar relationships, familiar responsibilities and challenges, familiar gifts and blessings, and we know we are part of a larger whole: we belong. But what makes this process wonderful (and truly healing) is that all of the familiar stuff is expressed in the light of individual experience, with its own color and texture, comedy and tragedy, characters and settings, surprises and satisfactions.

Life itself is engaging because it manifests in so many forms; each individual form is perfectly unique yet recognizably interconnected with all the others. The stories and dreams that arise from our lives are meant to be shared because they open up new worlds for all of us, while restoring, sustaining and enriching the world we know.

“No Feeling Is Final”: Healing Beyond Feelings

feeling stone 01The title of this post is a quote from the poet Rainer Maria Rilke—“no feeling is final.” I’ve been writing and thinking a lot about the meaning of healing lately (see “Kites in the Wind: Defining a Healing Dream”), in preparation for a workshop on healing dreams that I’ll be offering soon. At the same time, I’ve been looking at the experience of healing in my own life, and have found that my personal sense of wholeness and well-being has a lot to do with my relationship to feelings, emotions, moods.

Emotions come and go—good or bad, they are the life energy of my experiences. However, their nature (like the nature of all energy) is to be perpetually moving, flowing, changing. In a healthy system, emotions flow through without getting stuck. Personally, I’ve found that when I become too identified with a feeling, it turns into a mood—a prolonged, limited and limiting state of being—and leaves me with few options.

If I think (and repeatedly reinforce the thought) that “I am angry,” then only the choices of an angry person are available to me. But if I just notice, “I feel anger,” then I am free to feel something else in a few moments. When “no feeling is final,” all the possibilities, pleasant or unpleasant, are at least open to change.

How does this apply to dreams? I just read a reference to studies by the dream researcher Calvin Hall, which revealed a surprising paradox: When counting the pleasant or unpleasant emotions in the dreams of his research subjects, he found that a significant majority of the emotions experienced in their dreams fell into the “negative” category (anxiety, frustration, sadness, etc.); yet, when the subjects were asked to rate dream experiences as a whole, most of them described their dreams as pleasant rather than unpleasant. Continue reading

Kites in the Wind: Defining a Healing Dream

Healing is a hard word to define! I don’t think of healing as fixing or curing or solving, but as a process of moving toward wholeness. Healing experiences can include maturing or ripening—coming to fullness and realizing potential—but they may also include dissolution and death, which are essential to completion and new birth.

So, when I talk about healing dreams (as I have been in the last couple of posts), I don’t usually focus on those exceptional dreams that actually seem to initiate a miraculous cure to an intractable illness, or a perfect solution to an impossible dilemma. Such dreams do occur, and entire cultural/religious practices (like the ancient healing rites at temples dedicated to Asclepius) have been devoted to the incubation of dreams that will bring health, wealth, and happiness to the desperate.

There are stories of people afflicted by poverty who dream of a buried treasure in the backyard, and then find the treasure just where the dream said it would be. There are stories of people with terminal illnesses dreaming of a healing herb that ultimately cures them, or experiencing a healing within the dream itself (an infusion of light, a cleansing, or a surgical intervention) and awakening disease-free. You can find books full of these stories—and there’s little doubt that dreams can bring about healing that involves a total reversal of fortunes, a “cure.”

However, if we are looking for special “healing” dreams to solve our problems, we are likely to be disappointed. I believe the reason some rare dreams actually “fix” things is that in those particular situations true healing happens to coincide with fixing, curing, solving. Most of the time, healing is a more subtle process, and healing dreams work their “miracles” by moving toward balance within the intricate network of other factors in a dreamer’s life experience. Continue reading

Can Healing Dreams Offer Practical Help?

plant 01In the last post (“The Healing Experience of the Dream Itself”), I emphasized that healing dreams aren’t usually specific in their helpfulness. I wrote: 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.

But, can dreams offer any practical help? By asking me to “open myself to the whole experience” of the problem I’m facing, can they help me to find useful tools or guidance within myself and within my situation? I believe that they can. And I believe that attending to the details of my dreams is one of the best ways to become aware of unexpected options and unconventional answers that might be available to me.

It is the very fact that the possibilities presented in dreams are unexpected and unconventional that makes them useful. If I am in need of healing, I have probably already considered, and tried, every possible solution within the grasp of my conscious mind. I’ve already reacted with strong emotions, and worked my way through various approaches to the problem. By the time I remember to go to my dreams for help, I’ve usually exhausted myself with the struggle, and I’m ready to try any crazy thing the dreams might suggest. 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

Spiritual Direction: Frequently Asked Questions

My approach to dreamwork is grounded in the practice of “spiritual direction.” To bring some context to the kind of individual dreamwork I offer, I wrote last week about what “spiritual direction” is, and what it is not (“What Does ‘Spiritual Direction’ Mean?”). In particular: Spiritual direction does not mean that the spiritual director is “directing” the process, but that possible “directions” are being sought and explored.

This week, I’ll follow up by addressing some practical questions I’ve been asked, on the same theme.

Where do I find a spiritual director?

It is important to find a spiritual director whose personality and approach is right for you. There are plenty of good spiritual directors, and you may want to meet with several before making a decision. Many will offer a free consultation of some kind— sometimes in the form of a half-session or an opportunity for you to interview them about their approach to spiritual direction.

Through Compass Dreamwork, I offer an initial session for free, and you may use the time any way you like, either as a regular spiritual direction/dreamwork session, or as a chance to ask questions. There doesn’t need to be a distinction between whether the work is “spiritual direction” or “dreamwork.” If you choose to focus on dreams, then we would still be looking at dreams in the context of your spiritual life; if you choose to focus on your spiritual life, dreams may be useful (or not), but there will still be an atmosphere that welcomes all experiences, including those of a dream-like nature.

If you are looking for a spiritual director, you can contact me (phone: 503-231-2894 or e-mail: kirsten@compassdreamwork.com ) for a free session, or for referrals to other local organizations and individuals that offer spiritual direction. Phone or Skype sessions work just as well, if you are not local to Portland, Oregon. Spiritual Directors International (www.sdiworld.org) also has listings of qualified directors in your area, wherever you are. Continue reading

What Does “Spiritual Direction” Mean?

basswood 4I feel such abiding respect for the people I work with individually to explore their dreams and spiritual lives. These are people willing to enter unknown territory, question assumptions, open their eyes, hearts, and minds to new possibilities, share experiences and insights, and delight in being transformed by what they are learning.

Sometimes, the work is playful and creative, and often it is hard labor. Sometimes the work is painful and slow, but, always, it is healing. It requires courage and effort, but, like childbirth, it is a natural process which finds its own way of happening. Like a midwife, I help create a safe space for this “birthing,” and I bring my experience, training, caring and presence to support the unfolding process—but I don’t make anything happen. I just “watch and pray,” and bear witness to the courage and wisdom of the person who is doing the real work.

Doing dreamwork in a spiritual context, rather than as a primarily psychological endeavor, I am not trying to solve or fix what’s wrong, but to acknowledge and encourage what’s right. The context is “spiritual direction,” not therapy. What’s the distinction here? What is spiritual direction? If you are considering whether or not to explore dreamwork as a spiritual practice, it is a good idea to have an understanding of the goals and approaches of contemporary spiritual direction. Continue reading

Illness Dreaming

flame 01When we get sick, what happens to our dreams? Like most questions about dreams, there is no simple answer. Sometimes, illness or medication disrupts sleep patterns and makes dreams more fragmentary and difficult to remember. Sometimes (especially with fever), it’s just the opposite: dreams become abundant and detailed, almost hallucinatory in their vividness. Often, dreams during an illness give information about the condition of the body, and may support healing processes. All of this varies from individual to individual, and from illness to illness.

As I write this, I’m feeling pretty crummy. I’ve got a typical mid-winter virus: my nose is stuffed, my lungs feel heavy, my whole body aches. I’m weak and shaky, and I keep spacing out—just staring at the computer screen in long, empty fugues, forgetting what I’m supposed to be doing. Oh yes. Here I am. These were my dreams last night:

Trouble With Fire: I’m staying in a remote cabin with a friend, and I keep thinking we should build a fire in the woodstove. It’s getting cold, but I’m moving very slowly and sleepily, and my friend’s eating breakfast, and neither of us manage to get the fire going. My friend has a standing lamp, but instead of bulbs it has lit candle stubs, burning low. I’m impatient with my friend, telling her we need to blow the candles out before we leave, because it would be dangerous to leave them burning like this. The flames are apparently caused by some kind of short circuit. Turning off the lamp or blowing out the candles doesn’t work—they keep burning. We’re wasting fuel, and it’s not safe, and doesn’t give enough light or warmth…  

The Broken Bridge: I’m supposed to be getting ready to go to the airport and go home, but just keep lying down, with no motivation to move. I’m in an empty, high-ceilinged, blue room, like a movie theater without seats, lying on a small raised platform. Where the screen would be, there’s a beautiful, detailed blue mural on the wall, several stories tall—a scene like a Chinese painting. There’s a village in a narrow river valley between steep, craggy mountains. A bridge—maybe a railroad bridge—runs between the peaks above the village, but it is broken right down the middle. Both the bridge itself and the trestles that support it are broken, so that there’s a wide gap between the two halves. It looks like it’s been this way for a long time.

If someone had told me these dreams, even without any context at all, I might have guessed that some of the images could refer to physical illness. Fire can often have something to do with the body’s vital energies, and anything broken or damaged can potentially refer to a physical condition. Such images have a lot of other meanings and implications as well, of course. But, the fact that the dream-self (the “I” character in the dream) is consistently lethargic also points in the direction of physical illness. So, if someone brought me this dream, I’d probably ask about the dreamer’s general health. Continue reading

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