Dreamwork as Spiritual Practice

Tag: spirituality (Page 2 of 3)

Nature Dreams

nature dreamsIn the last post, I wrote about how dreams can be made up of “haiku moments”—rich images and direct experiences that speak for themselves and don’t require interpretation (“Haiku Dreams”). Another characteristic of haiku that I only mentioned briefly is the way they include the natural world; this, too, is a quality they share with dreams.

I just returned from a long walk. It’s really spring here now, and this has been an exquisite morning: warm sunshine, soft wind, smells of flowers (including the stinky Mountain Ash—not all flowers smell sweet!) and grasses, birdsong and windchimes and lawn mowers, swaying shadows and busy squirrels. As I am walking, I try not to separate myself from all this. Everything is alive, and includes me—even the things that make me uncomfortable.

At one point, going down a steep hill, my ankle rolled and I fell forward hard on one hand and knee, momentum carrying me down all the way so my shoulder and cheek hit the dirt. Ouch. Bruised and relieved not to be badly hurt (also glad no one was watching), I picked myself up. The ground is solid, and colliding with it was not pleasant, but there was an undeniable immediacy to the experience. I recognize myself as a creature with a body that’s made up of the same peculiar combination of solid stuff and pure energy as everything around me. The more waking time I spend outside in nature, the more my dreams become immersion experiences as well, with rich landscapes pervaded by the vitality of the natural world. Continue reading

Housekeeping Dreams

housekeepingAfter a week of deep, lucid, lovely dreams—I’m now remembering only fragmentary, unpleasant and frustrating dreams. Such is the ebb and flow of dreamwork! I woke up this morning exasperated and grumpy after dreaming:

The Bed Is A Mess: I feel frazzled, anxious, impatient. There’s a charismatic yet slightly creepy spiritual leader coming to stay in my community, and I’m preparing a bed for him. According to his preference, the bed is just a bunch of blankets and old clothes strewn on the floor and covered in a contour sheet. I see that the sheets are stained, and decide to put all the bedding in the laundry and start fresh. Now, I search through a jumble of clothes and blankets, trying to find enough soft stuff to make a new bed. Others keep taking some of the best blankets for their own purposes. I put as much stuff as possible on the floor, trying to arrange it so that it will be soft, not too lumpy, and cover all the bare spots—but I can’t really see how this is going to work. How could a sheet fit over it all, and how could it possibly be comfortable? I know I’ve slept on such a bed myself, and it wasn’t too bad, but now my efforts seem ridiculous. After scrounging for more materials, I return to find that a dog has pooped on one of the bare spots. I am disgusted, and want someone else to clean it up.

Lately, I’ve been working with “bad” dreams—especially my own—and testing the belief (or hypothesis) that, as Jeremy Taylor says: “All dreams come in the service of health and wholeness” (Dream Work Tool Kit #1). Dreams like this one might strain my ability to see the wholesome qualities! (Dramatically frightening or disturbing nightmares are another story—to be considered at another time.)

I can certainly recognize that there’s metaphor and meaning in this unpleasant dream: I am encountering my own ambivalence about preparing a comfortable place for spiritual ideals that I’m not sure I trust—and also wrestling with my own need to control and “clean up” the world around me. Old clothes and blankets (maybe old roles and securities) aren’t coming together to make a new bed! And then there’s the poop (potentially, the fertilizer for that new “bed”—as in a garden bed?) that just seems like smelly waste material to me. I want to wash my hands of this whole project!

What is the use of such dreams? I already think I know what it’s trying to say, but it’s not particularly helpful. Yeah—I’m a mess—this is no big revelation. I notice that the dream-self (the “I” in the dream) feels worse and worse as the dream goes on. And it all ends on an ugly note. This seems to be telling me that there’s no hope! But, there have to be other ways of looking at it… 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

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

Opening to Dreams

[This post is somewhat longer than usual, since it’s a whole “sermon” that I presented at Eastrose Unitarian Universalist Church. It’s about the value of paying attention to dreams and other life experiences, about “dreamwork as spiritual practice,” about what “bad” dreams have to offer, and about the transformative gifts that special, numinous dreams bring—to our lives, and to the world.]

What is useful or meaningful about paying attention to dreams? The same question might be applied to waking experiences, and it really comes down to the larger question: What is useful or meaningful about paying attention to anything? The world’s spiritual traditions agree that paying attention to our lives—being mindful, aware, present—is essential to living fully. Life itself becomes meaningful only when we pay attention to our experience.

Dreams are experiences, in every sense. When we pay attention to dreams, we open ourselves to a fuller life—more meaning, more options, more learnings, more openings, more genuine connection. We spend a third of our lives in sleep and dreams, and during that time, we are having experiences, whether we remember them or not. In dreams, we can experience perceptions in all five senses; we can experience emotions; we can experience states of being that enlarge our understanding of ourselves, others, and the nature of reality: states of being such as love, awe, compassion, grief, gratitude, wonder, humor, joy.

We can also experience unpleasantness, confusion, fear, shame, revulsion, and rage. Events occurring in a dream have almost exactly the same effect on the brain as events occurring while awake; to the brain, dream events are real events. By paying attention to what goes on in our dreams, we give ourselves the opportunity to live that third of our lives as fully as we might live our waking lives. Continue reading

Dreaming Deep

roots 03When I decided to focus my life’s work primarily on dreams, I was following a deep sense of trust that dreamwork can include everything I care about, everything I believe is truly meaningful—from my concern for the well-being of the natural world (including the human world), to my sense of the power of death/renewal cycles and “threshold” places in our lives, to my commitment to the transformative power of authentic listening and presence, to the essential wonder of the multi-faceted, interdependent, ever-changing patterns of relationship among all beings on earth.

In the beginning, I couldn’t express, to myself or others, exactly how dreams could be so significant in so many different ways. But the process of actually engaging more actively with my own dreams and the dreams of others has increasingly affirmed my initial intuitive sense that dreams are pathways to depth experiences. In these blog posts, I’ve been learning as I write, and exploring new ways of articulating what I am learning.

I keep coming back to the word deep. I’m not so much concerned with going (or getting) high on the spiritual journey—“going high” tends to mean having peak experiences, which can be wonderful (and dreams can give us such experiences at times), but can also be ungrounded and hierarchical in relation to other people and the natural world. Striving to attain spiritual heights can lead to inflated attitudes (“my epiphany is bigger than your epiphany”), excessive emphasis on light without respect for the dark, and a lack of compassion or commitment to the “real world” challenges of our shared existence.

By contrast, going deep means including everything, finding the heart core and living it fully. When we spiral upward and outward, we expand but get further apart; when we spiral downward and inward, we come together in the deep places, finding the ground from which all life grows. The two directions balance each other, but depth must be the place where we begin, and the place where we return, before beginning again.

“The problem of our time is that we are like uprooted trees. Our roots no longer extend down into the inner depths to nourish us, so our growth cannot reach upward into the realm of the spirit. Our task will be to see how dreams are like roots that reach far down into the nourishing depths of the earth of our souls, and help energy flow upward so our growth and development are possible.”  -John Sanford

When Holly and I first moved into our tiny house with its scruffy little lot, we planted forsythia and dogwood, raspberries, a Japanese maple, lots of daffodil and crocus bulbs, rock rose, daphne,  fennel, thyme and sage. We weren’t “gardening” in any organized way, just digging down and getting into relationship with this place we were calling home.

It wasn’t a one-way relationship. The earth responded. In the middle of our vegetable patch, an oak tree sprouted. Because we didn’t think it belonged there (at first) we both tried to pull it out. But although it was only a slender stem with two or three leaves, it already had deep roots and wouldn’t be pulled. We soon recognized that this tree was at home as much as we were. The vegetable garden could be moved, but the oak tree was staying right here. 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

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

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