Compass Dreamwork

Dreamwork as Spiritual Practice

Tag: mindfulness (page 1 of 2)

Being the Dreamer, Living the Dream

My priorities have changed significantly in the past few years, and so have my dreams. Although I’m not yet sixty, I’m starting to see the world as an elder, and my dreams have reflected this change as well. Especially in the past year, as I’ve developed symptoms of a degenerative disease that is accelerating my physical aging process (Radiation Fibrosis Syndrome), I’m truly discovering what it means to be initiated into a completely new stage in the life cycle—and it’s not what I expected. It’s much more subtle than the leap from childhood to adulthood, yet more profoundly meaningful than any of the other transformative experiences I’ve known.

So many times in my life, I’ve come to the end of one phase, experienced losses, uncertainty, and “suspended animation” during a transitional period, and then begun a new phase, with new energies, new resources, and new options. But, for some reason, when I left a job I loved five years ago and entered one of those painful, liminal transitions, the “new phase” I expected never seemed to arrive.

Instead of starting over, I found that the “suspended animation” just went on and on. Somehow, I’m not getting re-animated! Unless I reframe this experience, and change my expectations, my situation and prospects could look pretty grim. Loved ones just keep dying. I face more and more physical limitations. When I tried to go “back to school,” seeking out further education and training (which had always worked before), I encountered impossible obstacles. When I started new projects, they didn’t exactly fail, but required constant attention and drained away my energies rather than rejuvenating them. And, most disturbing, many of my familiar spiritual practices and disciplines no longer seemed life-giving.

At first, all of these discouraging experiences seemed to point to depression—so I soldiered on patiently, kept trying, hanging in there, not giving up, waiting for an opening, doing my best. I tried some big things, and lots of small things, but life just kept slipping by without any significant breakthrough.

Then, I began to notice something strange about this apparent stagnation. Underneath it all, I’m at peace in a way I’ve never been before. The harder I try, the more drained and discouraged I become; yet when I stop trying so hard, I’m filled with quiet joy. I’m not so concerned with proving myself, or even with being myself—instead, I’m just being. I’ve lost most of my ambition, but it doesn’t actually worry me (except when I think “Shouldn’t you be worried about this?”). I’m paying lots of attention to the physical pleasure of doing the things I can still do, and not dwelling much on the things I can’t do. The past makes me sad, the future can make me anxious—but I’m quite interested in the present, and the present is just fine.

Even when the world situation seems catastrophic, even when there are too many losses coming too fast, even when it looks like finances or health or politics will cause everything to fall apart—I sense and trust a kind of spaciousness, and can hold that space open for others and myself. I have no idea how I’m doing it.

What is this? The “new phase” I’ve been looking for is actually already in progress. It just doesn’t work the same way that any of my previous phases have worked. I’ve always been drawn to old people, because many of them have this funny way of not getting bothered, while still caring deeply. Could this be where I’m going? Could this be who I really am?

My dreams are different, too. Like many older adults, I’m not remembering them as well. Aside from the fairly common sleep difficulties that can disrupt dreaming as we get older, I suspect the dream-recall deficit is because the work of these dreams doesn’t urgently need to be brought to my conscious attention. I’ve accumulated enough material to work on over the past fifty-six years, and I don’t need more stuff to figure out and make sense of. What I need is simple experiences of being alive and valuing life. When I remember my dreams, they just point to what’s most important right now.

I have a lot of dreams about helping or teaching others, dreams where I’m not the “hero,” but the mentor, sidekick, or teacher. I’m trying to make it easier for someone: saving a spider from the bathtub, or bringing peppermint tea to a sick girl. In many of my dreams, I’m not the central character—and often, I’m not present at all, just a disembodied observer of someone else’s story—which, ultimately, is my story, too, of course. I have dreams of returning to familiar places, finding them changed, and adapting to those changes. And then there are the sweet dreams of just appreciating something beautiful: birdwatching from the deck of a becalmed ship as sunlight glitters on the water’s surface; or approaching a lit cabin through the woods in the dark. Continue reading

Quality Over Quantity: Slowing Down the Blog Again

snail-at-dawnWe all have limited time and energy for reading (and everything else!) these days—so, when a new blog post shows up in email or on Facebook, we have to decide, usually in the midst of a busy moment, whether or not to click that link and invest our precious time in something that someone else has written.

The Compass Dreamwork blog has been coming out at least twice a month for four years now, and because I’m writing about complex ideas and putting my heart and soul into finding creative ways to express those ideas… Well, those articles have been getting deeper and longer, and, I hope richer, all the time. Personally, I think they are well worth reading—but a longer article can be a bit daunting to read, and even more daunting to write!

When you see one of my blogs, I hope you will slow down, take your time, and keep reading—because reading a good, longish article about something meaningful is really and truly worthwhile.  But perhaps it’s more reasonable of me to ask this of you if I only ask it once a month.

I also want to remember, in the midst of my own busy life, to take my time with the writing—to slow myself down and give myself room to write something you will want to read.

So, let’s start each day like the snail in this picture—breathing the morning air, enjoying the open spaces, remembering our dreams… And, once a month (on 3rd Tuesdays), perhaps you will visit Compass Dreamwork and me for a nice, slow ten-minutes-or-so of reading—gazing and grazing like snails in the good green fields of words.

 

Halfway Down The Stairs: What Makes A Dream Worth Dreaming?

Some dreamworkers claim that it’s necessary to distinguish between dreams that are worthy of our attention and dreams that are not. I keep on disputing that claim (see “Housekeeping Dreams” and “Dream Composting”), but it must be admitted that although every dream, like every day of our lives, can be valuable and meaningful, some certainly do seem to be more valuable and meaningful than others.

In one exciting dream, for example, I had the opportunity to assist the Dalai Lama:

Dalai Lama Dream: First, he is an 80 year old man, then he is a little boy, then an infant, then a corpse, then a young man—and I am responsible for escorting (and sometimes carrying) him through all these transformations… Later, one of his attendants gives me a carafe full of thick liquid. But when I ask if it is mine, she says no. I hand it back and she gives it to me again, saying it is for me. I ask if I am supposed to keep it, and again she says no, so again I give it back. She returns it to me once more and tells me that it is for me to keep alive. After she has gone, I understand: the liquid is like a sourdough starter—I’ll set some aside, add to it, let it grow, keep it alive, until there is more than enough to give back…

This is indisputably important stuff! A meaningful role in the reincarnation of life itself! And what a great metaphor! It was satisfying to bring this dream to my peer dream group (along with a lot more detail that I don’t have room to include here)—and they added their own insights until, like a good yeasty dough, the dream’s already-evident potential was expanded further still…

Of course, some dreams demonstrate their qualities and get our attention right away. Sometimes, we know a dream is significant because (as with the “Dalai Lama Dream”) it has a big theme, or a clever twist. Sometimes, its emotional impact makes it stand out. Maybe it’s a frightening nightmare, or maybe it’s a transcendent revelation, or maybe it’s just stunningly beautiful, but whatever it is, we know we’re onto something.

Halfway Down 01And then, there are all of the other dreams. The ones where the bathroom is filthy, or I can’t remember the telephone number, or my hair is green and sticky, or I’m arguing furiously with someone very stubborn, or there’s no cake left at the buffet… These dreams have emotional content, but it’s ordinary emotion—nothing special. Like the familiar diversions and distractions of a typical day, the dream events don’t impress.

A typical recent dream of mine reflected this kind of ordinary emotion, in an ordinary way. I’m still grieving over the death of my mother, but the feelings are mostly just a part of me now, a part of my life. I’m reminded of her, remember that she is gone and, for a while, I feel lost and sad. This feeling presented itself quietly in my dream:

Halfway down the stairs: I stop halfway down a flight of dusty wooden stairs, and I just sit. I am sad, and I need to stop here and rest and feel the loneliness of my losses. I sit quietly, by myself.

This uneventful dream doesn’t make a statement or bring a message. It’s just a feeling, just an experience. Most of our days are filled with experiences like this—our doing and our being, our ups and our downs, our neither-here-nor-there happenings. Looking back over the years, we’ll remember the big events, or the things that led up to the big events, or the things that followed the big events… But whether we remember them or not, there have been a lot of other things going on besides crises. Between the big events and beyond the big events, there were those halfway-down-the-stairs experiences. Continue reading

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

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

Review: “Lucid Waking”

Lucid Waking: Using Dreamwork Principles to Transform Your Everyday Life by Zoé Newman. White Egret Press. Paperback. 260 pages. $17.95.

Lucid WakingHow would our lives be different if we approached waking situations with the same openness we might bring to our dreams?

When we are reflecting on our dreams, we don’t need to apply the same expectations and judgments, take sides, or assign blame—we tend to think more in terms of exploring and experiencing, trying out different points of view, considering possibilities, and finding meaning through metaphor and creativity. These dreamwork skills can be cultivated in waking life, too, so that our relationship to the world around us can become as flexible, playful, unexpected and intuitive as our relationship to the dream world.

In past posts [such as: Haiku Dreams, Green Sloths & Synchronicities, and A Bird-Watching Dream Walk] I have written about the waking/dreaming continuum, and have suggested some ways in which dreamwork approaches could be applied to our waking lives, but Zoé Newman has gone far more deeply into this work in Lucid Waking—a book that offers both the imaginative insights and the practical tools we need to relate more openly (less habitually) with our waking lives. She writes:

“Lucid waking is seeing situations as opportunities for experimenting, for trying out new behaviors, for cultivating undeveloped qualities. It’s being in life in a playful, risk-taking, adventurous, free way… letting the world become a classroom, a laboratory, a creative canvas.”

Reading this book makes it seem perfectly natural to learn from our waking experiences as we learn from our dreams. Using examples from the lives of real people facing real challenges, Newman explores creative ways of coping with unpleasant situations (such as getting a parking ticket), working through interpersonal conflict, and expanding opportunities for spiritual growth. She draws on some essential Buddhist wisdom about relating directly to our experience, which can be useful both in the practice of lucid dreaming and in “lucid waking”:

“Buddhist mindfulness is, in essence, a practice of bringing lucidity to our waking life. Developing mindfulness, as a matter of fact, is very similar to developing dream lucidity.”

In other words, when we become lucid in a dream, we “wake up” within the dream and become aware that we are dreaming, which opens up all kinds of new options for our responses to dream events. When we become mindful (or “lucid”) in waking life, we “wake up” to our immediate experience and become aware that this present moment offers far more possibilities than we had previously conceived. Either way, lucidity means that we are not limited by our habitual expectations and opinions, so we can relate to experiences as they unfold, with open eyes, heart and mind. Continue reading

Thinking, Dreaming, Thinking

strange rock 02

The thing looks like a giant brain, cracked up from too much thinking…

I’ve been thinking about thinking. (And now, as I write this, I guess I’m thinking about thinking about thinking—as well as thinking about dreaming!)

A central aspect of my own spiritual practice is my effort to become aware of what brings me more into alignment with the intricate patterns of all life, and what tends to knock me out of alignment. Even though I’m in awe of the amazing powers of the thinking mind—it’s clearer and clearer the older I get that most of my thinking knocks me out of sync. My everyday habits of thought regularly waste energy, contribute to suffering (for me, and sometimes others), and can definitely prevent me from being fully present and in tune with the world around me.

Some basic planning, organizing, remembering, rehearsing, reflecting, creative cognitive processing, etc. is useful, of course. But really, an awful lot of the stuff that’s going through my head is repetitive, self-perpetuating worries or complaints. I tell myself stories that define me, so that I can keep thinking I know who I am. Maybe your thoughts are more elevated than this? More meaningful? Just listen to yourself for a while and see what you think…

The bottom line is that most (if not all) thinking—even the loftiest, most enjoyable, or most necessary thinking—takes us out of the present moment. The vast majority of thought refers to something either in the past or in the future, something not here and not now.

How does the world look, sound, feel, smell, taste—right now? What is this experience? Yes, some thought responses arise almost instantly even in the moment of experiencing… Yet, if I’m not swept away by my thoughts, not entirely persuaded by the story I’m telling myself about something that happened or didn’t happen or may happen or should happen—well, then I can be just where I am.

Personally, I know that too much thinking makes me pretty unhappy. Each thought has a very convincing argument for its own importance, but collectively they wear me down and make my world seem suffocatingly small. Continue reading

Walking Around Wondering: The Wide-Angle Approach to Long, Detailed Dreams

beach in fog 01Although it’s common to remember dreams in a fairly fragmentary way—with more impressions than exact details, and with few extended storylines—most dreamers will periodically experience long, vivid dreams with elaborate plots, a full cast of characters, and nuanced, detailed scenery. Especially for young people, or those who are going through major life changes, such dreams may come in abundance.

When I’m working with long dreams (my own and others’) that contain a wealth of images, interactions, emotions and events, it is easy to get overwhelmed. So, I’ve been considering different ways of approaching such dreams. In the last post, I described the close focus approach (“Holographic Webs”) and today I’d like to talk about the wide angle approach.

In the wide angle approach, if someone is sharing a long, complex, richly detailed dream, I listen to the whole thing with an openness to the big story, as if I were dreaming it, and really experiencing it, myself. But I don’t expect to remember every exact detail. Maybe I try to organize the whole dream into some shape that seems natural: What is the beginning, the middle, the end? Does the dream have “acts” or “scenes” like a play—and is there a progression, a “plot development”? Continue reading

“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

The Moment Of Openness After The Dream

I find that the moments immediately after I wake up from a dream can be as vital and meaningful as the dream itself. This is especially true for me when my dreams seem to be stuck in an unpleasant pattern. Sometimes, something opens up in that first moment of waking that didn’t seem possible in the context of the complicated dream story. That waking-up moment represents stepping back from the dream, seeing it from the outside, so the dream story may be experienced in a larger context.

The things that happen in my recurring dreams can seem frustrating, mundane, discouraging, and all-too-familiar, but I notice that the way I feel and think immediately upon awakening from such dreams can be my “growing edge”—the awkward place where I am verging on new territory. The old stuff (which is perhaps what the dream has been showing me) is fading away—I am recognizing that it is a dream—and the liminal space between sleeping and waking is pure potential for as-yet-unknown possibilities that will ultimately be realized in my waking and dreaming life. Continue reading

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