Dreamwork as Spiritual Practice

Tag: healing (Page 4 of 4)

Dreams Of New Beginnings

Seeing The Children: I am in a busy airport, in a waiting area near the top of an escalator, when I suddenly realize that it’s possible to see everything around me as beautiful. The shabby utilitarian carpeting, the fabric of the chairs, the molded plastic surrounding a plexiglass window—all seem richly textured, subtly tinted, almost luminous. And the people! Each one radiates a life force so complex and intricately individual—made up of interwoven patterns of mood and character and presence. The small children are almost too beautiful. Their skin translucent and soft, their hair shining, their glorious eyes… It is indescribable. There are lots of children now. I could just sit here forever and watch the children. I am a child myself, in this new moment, simply perceiving the life all around me.

I wrote recently about all of the problematic and tiresome dreams I was having (“Ugly Duckling Dreams”)—but since then, things have been changing. More and more, the dreams present openings and new energies. My dream-self (the “I” character in the dreams) becomes engaged in the process of authentically experiencing events and interactions. Lots of animals have been turning up, especially elephants. And then, I dreamed of “Seeing the Children”—the business of the dream (getting somewhere in an airport) is suddenly suspended. All at once, I find myself surrounded by children, by new life.

It is only natural that such luminous dreams come in their time, just as it is only natural that discouraging and difficult dreams come, too. Let’s not worry about “interpreting” dreams. They are what they are. Dreams are, first and foremost, to be experienced. The more fully we experience them, the more meaningful they will be. Even my unpleasant dreams are meaningful, and they cry out to be noticed, respected, attended with patience and curiosity. But especially with sweet dreams, like “Seeing The Children,” it’s essential just to savor the experience.

Dreams (pleasant or unpleasant) offer such concentrated moments of life—the intensity of emotions, the vitality of perceptions, the potential for total surprise—and they remind me to encounter my waking life with that same vividness. So, the first question to be asked of a dream is not “What does this mean?” but “How does this feel—what is this experience?” I encourage myself and others to take time with the dream itself, to appreciate its richness, before beginning to unfold its images or reflect on its implications. Continue reading

Ugly Duckling Dreams

If my dream-self were graded on her performance by the standards of my most judgmental waking self, she’d get an “Unsatisfactory” on her report card. The “I” character in my dreams has been disappointing lately. She fails to work and play well with other dream characters—is frequently sullen and whiney and withdrawn. She doesn’t make the most of opportunities, step up to challenges, or take responsibility for her mistakes. She falls apart under pressure, and her dream-space is often cluttered, neglected, and unimaginative. In short, the dreamer often wakes up dissatisfied with this character’s work, and discouraged about her prospects.

Fortunately, there are less judgmental parts of me exploring dreams and discovering what they have to teach! When I go through a phase where my dream world seems lackluster and my dream-self is miserable, I do tend to wake up discouraged—but I also see these dream patterns as part of a larger process. Like little Einsteins, my recent dreams fail to impress at this phase in their development—but when the time is right, I trust that they will come out with something brilliant! I know this because I’ve gone through this phase dozens of times before (with my own and others’ dreams), and if I bear with the ugly ducklings, they always turn out to be swans. Continue reading

Dream Catalysts and Witnesses

In the previous post, I focused on the dream figure of the Companion, who can represent our essential connectedness with others, and with life itself. Dream figures that serve as Companions, or as Messengers, Guides, and Guardians, tend to have strong individual characteristics, and can seem to be independent entities with their own reasons for taking part in any particular dream. Some other dream figures, such as Witnesses and Catalysts, can seem more objective, even neutral. Although they play meaningful roles in our dreams, they may not seem to have great significance in themselves.

A couple of years ago, when I was coping with a lot of change, I had a series of dreams in which I saved, or tried to save, a child from drowning. Sometimes these children were girls, sometimes boys, and they ranged in age from about two to about 10. They were children of diverse ethnicities, from various parts of the world (the Netherlands, North Africa, North America, Central America, Southeast Asia )—and seemed to represent “children” or “childhood” rather than any individual child in particular.

In the dreams, I often had intense, personal interactions with the child’s mother or father, but never with the child—except in one instance where I was carrying the little one out of a flood, when our eyes met. I felt a profound sense of love and awe at the beauty of this small being, who seemed to change gender and age continuously as I held him/her. This dream marked the last in the series, and after that I had a number of dreams in which a child played a much more personal role.

Part of the definition of a “catalyst” (according to the American Heritage Dictionary) is “One that precipitates a process or event, especially without being involved in or changed by the consequences.” I would call the anonymous children in danger of drowning in my dreams Catalysts, because they acted as the initiating cause or motivating energy for my actions in the dream, but had no personal response to the drama in which they were engaged, no apparent investment in the outcome. Each of these impersonal Catalyst characters changed the direction of the dream, and their presence evoked a sense of urgency (perhaps the emergent need to save something/someone child-like in myself and in the world around me, through my work), which “precipitated” a process of personal transformation for me in waking life. Continue reading

Threshold Work As Spiritual Practice

What does my work with dreams have to do with my “other” work supporting people who are facing death, loss, illness, or difficult life changes? I’ve been asking myself this question a lot lately, as I’ve been preparing to lead a retreat on “Walking in the Dark: The Spiritual Path Through Illness, Loss, and Limitation”—a retreat based on both professional and personal experiences close to my heart.threshold 01

I’ve offered “Walking in the Dark” many times, and although it is not directly related to dreamwork, dreams frequently come up in relation to difficult, disorienting, and deeply transformative life challenges. I recognize both dreams and painful, life-changing events as threshold experiences—liminal, paradoxical, in-between places where certainties dissolve and possibilities multiply. Such threshold experiences are always spiritual opportunities, even when they seem chaotic or empty.

Following my cancer (which was, indeed, a threshold experience), I began to volunteer, and later to work professionally, in hospice, bereavement care, chaplaincy, spiritual direction, and pastoral services with people who were dying, grieving, elderly, seriously ill, or experiencing other significant life changes. Because dreaming had been meaningful in my own life, I naturally incorporated dreamwork into my practice of spiritual care—exploring dreams with individuals and groups in various contexts. Continue reading

Death Dreams Are Healing Dreams

To conclude this series of articles on the theme of death dreams and Mystery, I want to emphasize the most significant thing about dreams associated with death: death dreams are healing dreams.

In a sense, all dreams are healing dreams—as Jeremy Taylor writes, they “come in the service of health and wholeness” (see Taylor’s “Dream Work Tool Kit,” #1). All dreams come from the perspective of our wholeness—sometimes referred to as the “Higher Self,” the Psyche, the Soul, the Atman, the “Inward Teacher,” the “Spirit Guide,” the Source, etc.—and show us both the struggles and fears that challenge us, and the larger potential for insight, openness, transcendence, and interconnectedness. In fact, dreams are not just showing us these things, but giving us a direct experience of them.

When a person is seriously ill, or facing a life-threatening crisis of some kind, he or she may have death dreams similar to the ones I’ve described in the previous posts (see “Walking In The Dark,” “Death Dreams And Open Fields,” “Not Knowing,” and “Journeys Into The Unknown”). Such dreams should not be viewed as warnings or predictions of death, or as messages with suggestions about how to avoid death, or as simple reflections of the body’s dying process—even though they may serve these river 01purposes.

Dreams go beyond the meanings that our conscious minds ascribe to them. Death dreams, in particular, do not align themselves with our conscious agendas—they give us experiences that point beyond those agendas. Continue reading

Walking In The Dark

In my early thirties, my health deteriorated. Over the course of several years, increasingly severe autoimmune problems began to break down my sense of myself as an independent, capable, creative person who could make choices and take action in my own life. I seemed to have a bad case of respiratory flu that never went away. My lungs and joints ached; I had fevers and night sweats; I was exhausted, losing weight, unable to think clearly. I had to leave my job as a bookstore clerk, and soon could not even keep up with household chores or errands. I’d also developed hard lumps along my collarbones and under my arms—but these and my other symptoms were diagnosed as “cat scratch fever.” I was told that I would soon recover, but things were only getting worse. One feverish night, I had this dream:

I am walking naked in a blizzard at night, surrounded by the steam of my own breath and the snow coming from all directions in the dark. The air is freezing, but I feel warm and safe. I know I am walking, but cannot really feel myself moving. There’s just a pleasant sensation of wind-filled darkness, and icy snowflakes stinging softly all over me. I walk until the ground comes to an end at a cliff, and I step out into nothingness. I don’t feel myself falling, just merging into the swirling emptiness.

I woke from this dream with a sense of blissful release, yet as soon as I became more fully aware, I was sure that this was a dream about my death—so sure, in fact, that I woke Holly and told her I needed to see a doctor right away.

There could have been many other ways to look at this dream if it had come under different circumstances, but for me it was a perfect metaphor for the inevitable conclusion of the internal experience I’d been having. In the dream (as in my waking life at that time), each element of my conscious identity was dissolving almost easily: my clothing (roles and persona), my surroundings (relationships and work context), my perception of intentional action (will and purpose), my body (as a dependable vessel), even the ground that held me up… until there was no distinction between myself and everything—or nothing. Continue reading

A Nightmare Is An Incomplete Dream

I rarely have nightmares, but last week I had a full-blown, truly scary nightmare:

I am being hunted by a formless monster who tears people apart. The police don’t believe me and won’t help. To prove that the danger is real, I show a young couple the desolate house where I was held captive by the monster. We enter apprehensively, making sure the monster is not there. The rooms are empty except for scattered trash. The young woman goes down into the dank basement, and as the young man follows, I realize that he is about to be killed. There’s a moment of terror, as I see him on the basement stairs, screaming, and then a splash of blood against the wall. I run in panic, as the invisible monster goes down to get the woman in the basement. I know I have only a few moments to get away, but there is nowhere to run or hide—only a peaceful neighborhood where I know that I will bring harm if I ask for help again. I try to keep running, stumbling, crawling, but know that I can’t get away…

dark corner

The corners are dark, and something could be hiding there…

When dealing with nightmares, there is some preliminary dreamwork that needs to be done before engaging in the usual practice of unfolding metaphors or exploring associations with the images. A nightmare is basically defined by the emotional and physiological response we have to it. I woke from the above dream in the state of emotional distress and physical agitation typical of nightmares. This distress and agitation must be addressed, before anything else can really be done with the dream.In the short-term, the first, best response to a nightmare is simply to bring the body and emotions back to some sort of equilibrium, as much as possible. For me, that meant getting up to use the bathroom (turning on lights!) and “shaking off” the awful feelings before trying to sleep again. In really serious, chronic nightmares or dreams associated with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), returning to equilibrium can be much more difficult, and can require professional support. Continue reading

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