Compass Dreamwork

Dreamwork as Spiritual Practice

Tag: threshold experiences (page 1 of 2)

Best Case & Worst Case Scenarios: Working With Nightmares

nightmares-03Last month [“Some Bad News, Some Good News”], I described several ways of working with bad dreams in general. Now, I’d like to go a bit further into my own preferred method of working with nightmares.

[Note: As I mentioned in the last post, this kind of dreamwork is meant for ordinary nightmares, and can be practiced on such dreams by anyone. However, if these approaches are applied to PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) nightmares or really severe chronic dream issues, it should be with professional support. If you have serious sleep-disrupting dreams on a regular basis, or have other mental health concerns, seeking professional assistance and guidance is strongly advised.]

Let’s talk about really “bad” dreams. People define nightmares in different ways, but what distinguishes a nightmare from any other kind of unpleasant dream is that it leaves you in a state of strong emotion.

In my experience, the nightmare leaves you in this strongly emotional state because you wake up when the action of the dream has reached a crisis point, as the emotion is peaking. The anxiety has been building, the threat is getting closer and closer, and now the fear (or rage, or anguish, or horror, or helplessness) is so strong that sleep is not sustainable. The dream bursts its bounds and carries the shock of all those feelings into the waking world.

You’re lying in bed, but you’re also in the midst of the nightmare, and you can’t shake it. For the rest of the night, and sometimes for much longer, it stays with you. Maybe you dream it again and again, maybe it hovers in the back of your mind and haunts you. Or maybe you make a big effort and manage to forget it completely, but then something sparks a memory and it all comes back. It can seem inescapable.

This kind of dream takes you to a place that is as bad as anything can be, and even though you get over it and get on with your life, you can’t help knowing, now, that such a place exists, at least potentially, within you. A place where anything can happen, where everything you dread does happen. A place you can’t handle—or believe you can’t handle, because the emotions it evoked overwhelmed you and left you feeling messed up. You’re stuck with the idea (whether conscious or not) that this could happen again, anytime. You’re at its mercy.

So, how do you move on from this nightmare place? And, how could it possibly be meaningful or “good” to have such a dream?

As I mentioned in the last post, many dreamworkers and therapists use dream re-entry methods (going back to the dream while awake, and re-experiencing it) to recreate the dream scenario, but with safeguards and the potential to find a new resolution. You can experience the nightmare, and at least some of its emotional impact, from the perspective of the waking mind, which knows that this is a dream and that you will wake up. Such perspective allows you to exercise some choice about your responses to the dream events. And, often, a dreamworker will encourage you to imagine how the dream might continue beyond the shocking emotional crisis point where you were left hanging—following the process through to a place of potential acceptance and integration.

My own variation on this dreamwork practice is to suggest taking it a step further. It’s usually helpful to begin with the “best case scenario” resolution of the terrible dream situation. (The “best case scenario” resolution is the approach most therapists tend to use.)

Remembering that this is a dream as you come to the crisis, you would recognize that anything can happen, and begin to imagine how things might get better if the dream continued… Perhaps the monster is afraid of you when you turn to confront it, or perhaps the thing that was following you turns out to be a big, friendly dog…  Perhaps the child who was hit by a car is okay after all—a doctor rushes in to save her life… Perhaps the bloody massacre turns out to be a scene in a movie, and the actors begin to over-act playfully, so the violence becomes absurd slapstick and everyone is laughing… Perhaps everyone turns into purple furry caterpillars dancing in a ballet…

These positive possibilities can be more beneficial the more imaginative and unlikely they are. Instead of just coming up with a pat solution to a situation that you know was really and truly horrible, it’s good to be as creative and kooky as dreams can be, to make it clear to yourself that this is a dream and therefore the possibilities are truly infinite. Any dream always has the potential to go in an entirely unexpected direction—and our waking lives have a similar open-ended potential (well, maybe not caterpillar ballet…!). The important thing is to experience the truth that just because it looks hopeless, and just because the emotions are overwhelming, doesn’t mean it has to end here. There are always other ways.

Once, you’ve played with the “best case” possibilities, however, I’ve found that the really powerful transformative work happens when you are brave enough, and feel safe enough, to go on to the “worst case scenario.” Now that you’ve had some practice with the flexibility of dream outcomes, you can dare to follow the nightmare where it clearly seems to be going… into the place where everything is as bad as it can be. Continue reading

Looking for Work on My Behalf

By Tina Tau, Guest Blogger

In my last post, I started to tell the story of some dreams that belong to a trip I took to Italy in the fall of 2006, when my marriage was crumbling.

In Pari, an old Tuscan hill-town with winding climbing streets and ancient stone houses connected like beehives, I had a tiny studio for ten days. I started my days in the empty plaza a few steps up from my apartment, listening to roosters and the occasional bang of a hunter’s gun, looking out over the golden sweep of clouds and fields. Then I strode a mile downhill to the farm where my friend Rosie was staying with her boyfriend Carlos.

She and I helped his two farmhands with the olive harvest. It was happy, hard work. Olive trees are beautiful, with their twisty trunks and slender silvery leaves. We laughed, ate cold frittata for lunch on the rough-tilled ground, shook big nets of olives into blue plastic bins. Carlos put the bins in the back of his car and drove them to the presser, where they turned into silky, neon-green olive oil. We all ate dinner together and then I’d walk back up the hill in the dark, past the olive groves and lavender fields.

But I’d come on this adventure not just to pick olives and eat home-cured prosciutto; I’d come to interrupt my life, to see it from the outside instead of the painful, constricted inside. Should I leave my husband? Could I? What about our daughters? I had no money, and all I knew at this point was that I had to get a job. Without any money, I had no choices. Beyond that, I couldn’t see. I was starving for some perspective, for the long view. I wanted to be so far out at sea that I could steer my ship to end up on an entirely different coastline than the one I was headed for. Continue reading

Dark River

by Tina TauGuest Blogger

Kirsten has asked me to be a guest blogger at an interesting time. I’m in the midst of the sad and difficult waters of a breakup with my boyfriend of eight years. The work I’m doing around this breakup—and the energy of Kirsten’s pilgrimage on the Camino—bring to mind a deep adventure I had in Italy ten years ago, just before my marriage ended. This adventure was previewed by a big dream:

Dark River
September 2005
I’m in my dad’s book-lined study. One of the walls is waist high, with a river on the other side that is cresting into the room. I realize I’m going to have to swim, and meet up with my family later in New Orleans. I call my sister and tell her I have her kitten and doll, and she says, “Thanks, but if you’re swimming for your life, let them go.” Her voice grounds me into a new and more serious reality. In the river, I see I have to let them go, and I do. The river is very dark, very cold, scary and intense, sweeping me along.

The point of most intensity in the dream was the surging icy water up around my neck, and the blackness of the night and the water.

This was not just a vivid dream of coming change. It was also a heads-up about my attitude. My sister, a cancer survivor, was grounding me. She warned me, and it turned out to be so, that this swim was going to take everything I had—in two senses: It was going to take every ounce of my strength, and I was going to lose some precious stuff.

In October of 2006, about a year after the dream, I was lifted out of my life and given a chance to look at it from afar and above, much as Kirsten is doing on the Camino. My friend Rosie, a teacher in Hungary, wanted company on her visit to her boyfriend in Tuscany. She gave me the trip, air tickets and all, as a present. Continue reading

Lying Down Dreaming: Body Language in Dreams

Lying DownSince we experience the dream world as actively embodied (dream figures are usually doing things), it’s likely that movement, gesture, and posture are expressing something important, just as they would be in waking life. When we consider the metaphors, storylines and themes in our dreams, let’s also consider what’s going on in the body language.

In waking life, the body language of conversation can be as significant as the words that are exchanged, so shouldn’t it be the same with dreams? Suppose the incidental gestures and postures of dream figures are as meaningful as their overt intentions, opinions, and emotions… What do our dream bodies have to say?

If you keep a dream journal, you might become aware that you are describing certain physical actions repeatedly within a single dream, or as a pattern over the course of many dreams. Perhaps you notice there’s a lot of reaching, or crouching, or stumbling, or smiling, or running, or waving. Or you might sense that there’s a trend in the way things are being done when you keep coming across certain adverbs like quickly, or carefully, or awkwardly, or angrily. These words refer to the body language of the dream. What do they tell you? Are they consistent with the dream’s other communications?

Does one character’s “crouching” have the same purpose or significance as another character’s “crouching”—? Or is one character crouching down to pet the squirrel, and another character crouching behind the couch to eavesdrop? Is one “careful” gesture the same as another—? Or is someone carefully placing the chopsticks in a row, and someone else carefully tucking the baby into bed, or carefully crossing the minefield?

In the process of sharing a recent dream with my peer dream group, I noticed that the dream-ego and other dream figures kept lying down. Each lying down seemed different, and together they expanded the range of the dream’s meanings for me. Like with dominos, each dream figure’s lying down seemed to set off the next—click, click, click… Continue reading

Gentle Adventures: Dreaming Courageously, Without Catastrophe

dark road 01Adventures don’t need to be awful. I need not be awe-struck, but perhaps can be awe-stroked instead. In my dreams, I’ve been taking challenges in stride, bringing trust to bear on new experiences, finding courage in going forward slowly, feeling my way, with humility and willingness.

Dream of Walking Into The Dark: The car has broken down, and my companions are gone. I’m stranded at a desolate gas station with two men who are up to no good. I’m their prisoner, but we keep up a friendly pretense that we are just fellow travelers, while I try to figure out how to get away, and they try to decide what to do with me. We wait while the car is being repaired. It is dusk; we’ve been waiting for hours. Perhaps I could walk ahead? I know there’s a country store at the other side of the dense forest; from there, I could get help. The men pretend to go along with this, but in fact intend me harm. Either they’ll come after me and eliminate me where no one else can see, or I’ll be waylaid by bandits in the woods. I know they’re plotting, but also know that if I don’t let fear take over, I can outwit them and reach safety.

I believe it is less than a mile to the store. As I set out, darkness sets in. There is no moon. The road curves, and I run my hand along a bamboo fence as a guide into the total darkness of the forest. Then, the fence ends, the black woods close in on on both sides. I hold back my fear as I go, feeling the road with my feet. Bright eyes can be glimpsed in the deepest darkness, but they don’t look fierce and I don’t need to fear them. I’m following the road’s edge closely, so I won’t stray and wander off into the depths of the forest. I keep walking… Now, I realize it’s actually seven miles through this forest, and I prepare myself to accept a much longer journey than I had anticipated. I expect real danger ahead, but I know I can face it when it comes.

This dream reminds me of an all-night hike I took in my late teens, when I lived on an island off the coast of Maine. On my way home after midnight, I followed an unlit road that spiraled down a mountain, in total darkness, alone. The rhythm of my slapping footsteps on the sloping pavement was soothing and hypnotic. The downward road seemed to go on and on for hours, until I forgot myself. I was inseparable from the sounds and sensations of walking, from the clouded night sky, from the spiraling road.

These days, life seems a lot more complicated. As I prepare for the pilgrimage I’m planning to take, on the Camino de Santiago, in a couple of months [see “Pilgrimage: Walking the Way of the Dream” and “Surrender, Dreamer!“]—I’m overwhelmed by the complexity of my preparations, and regularly wrestle with the wish to control the process, to make everything manageable. There’s the challenge of getting physically strong enough. There’s the challenge of coping with my anxieties and habit patterns. And there’s the plain ridiculous effort of organizing transportation, communication, insurance, finances, supplies and logistics.

The goal is to place myself on an unfamiliar path, adapt to the circumstances I encounter, and just keep walking. So how come the preliminaries require so much planning? Well, we live in a complicated world. I long to let go, and step into the darkness without decisions or drama, feeling my way along, trusting something other than my own plans.

In the midst of all this, my dreams remind me that the important thing about any journey is to step forward—to let it carry me where I need to go. These months of preparation for the Camino are part of the camino, part of the journey, part of the way. And, as in the dream, I’m afraid but I just need to begin and go on. Continue reading

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

Sharing Ourselves in Grief Dreams

KB as kid 01I’ve been writing a lot about the deaths of my parents this past year, and the way that these losses have influenced my dreams and my waking life perspective. The last post (“Letting Them Go: Dreams of Death and Transformation”), ventured onto the shifting shores of dreaming and grieving, where the big questions—of origin, meaning and destiny—take shape. Now, I’d like to zero in on more personal ground: how dreams can respond directly to grief, offering comfort, acknowledgement, and an invitation to experience our continuing interconnectedness.

My Dad was surrounded by loved ones the night before he died. Holly and I flew from Oregon to Massachusetts just in time to be there. My sisters drove down from New Hampshire, and Dad’s wife was with him as well. I’m sure he felt our presence even though he was in a coma. Finally, however, he died early the next morning, alone—except for the kind ICU nurse nearby. We got back to the hospital as soon as we could, and again, we came together around his bed: sharing stories, crying, and saying good-bye.

He was already gone, but his face was quite beautiful in death. His eyes were closed, his chin was lifted and his lips were slightly parted—as if receiving the warmth of the sun on his face. This expression made him look like a boy, opening to something new, accepting it with willingness and quiet wonder.

I couldn’t stop looking at him. But it wasn’t until later that I recognized how much he also resembled an old photograph of me, at about twelve years old, with my head leaned back against a tree in the sun. Gradually, I made the connection—remembering why this photo was in my thoughts. Just six days before Dad died, I’d dreamed of his death. And, in the same dream, I saw myself as I was in that photo… Continue reading

Dreaming and Anicca: Impermanence

gyroscope 01As I explore the Buddhist concept of impermanence (anicca), the second of the “Three Marks of Existence,” I’m going to let a long dream do most of the talking for me. Dreams are ingenious in their fluid approach to time, and in dreaming we can drop our usual linear understanding of experience—freeing ourselves for a larger sense of life.

Dreaming In and Out of Time: It’s nearly dark and several of us have missed the bus in a neglected city neighborhood. We go into the only open shop to get change, and when we return, the bus is there, but we have to climb a hill, then cross a ditch and a road to reach it. We scramble up the hill, then descend into the ditch, which becomes a deep, wooded ravine—so deep, and so full of trees and shrubs, that we can no longer see the bus. As we come to the bottom, we find a lake among pines. People wearing 17th century European peasant clothing are going about their business along the shore path. Nearby, there’s a farming settlement. As a young man from our group approaches the lake, he enters this other world; his bright modern jeans and t-shirt become plain brown and gray work clothes. We join him, and our clothing is also transformed. A woman welcomes us, offers us their wonderful, abundant food, and shows us around, introducing us to a whole, peaceful community of people. Buildings are constructed on platforms, at various levels. On one platform, an old man is dying, surrounded by loved ones; on another platform, a young woman is giving birth, with the help of a circle of neighbors. I stay with a family for some time—maybe a few days, maybe months, getting to know this village and its way of life intimately. It is not perfect, but it is a good place. Eventually, I understand that I need to return to my own world. Some from our group choose to stay, and some leave when I do. We’re led back to the road, where the bus is waiting.

Then it is twenty or thirty years later. I’m in late middle age now. I’ve had a full life in my own world—was married and widowed, but have no children. In late middle age, I realize, with joy, that it is time to return to the hidden village. I drive around looking for someone to give my car, my house, and my few other possessions. I go into a hospice where I once worked, and find three tired-looking, hard-working aides pausing at the bedside of a dying person, who is asleep. Whispering so we won’t wake the patient, we talk about the hidden village, and they offer to drive me there, drop me off, and park my car in a safe place. They don’t yet know that I will leave them everything—or that they may also choose to join me in the other world. We drive through the woods until we come to the familiar ravine, and get out of the car, preparing to descend…

Impermanence—anicca—simply means that everything changes. This could be understood as a statement about time, suggesting that all things are subject to time. However, in the Buddhist sense, impermanence is really about timelessness. There is no subject or object in impermanence, as all things equally are changing. If everything, everything, is always changing, then there is nothing but change. In a sense, the condition of change is changeless. Continue reading

Game Over: Dreams That End With A Bang!

fireworks 01I’m writing this just after the fourth of July, and the thunderous bangs are still echoing in my head (along with a few illegal leftover rockets occasionally shaking up the neighborhood). The cats are edgy, and I’m just glad that most of the noisy ordeal is over for another year. On the other hand, much as I personally dislike the explosions, I have to admit that a lot of violent energy has been fairly benignly discharged, and the atmosphere feels a bit clearer.

People often tell me about dreams that end with an explosion of unexpected violence. Of course, such dreams can be pretty distressing for the dreamer: In the midst of a tense public gathering, or meeting that’s gone on too long, the dream-ego, or another dream character, suddenly pulls out a gun and starts shooting, or a bomb goes off... These are pretty common dreams, and there’s no reason to think the dreamers are aggressive or repressed people. But it can be difficult to share such dreams, without somehow feeling like we ought to apologize for them. There’s far too much violence in our world already—and it can be disturbing to acknowledge that it’s in our dreams as well. Nevertheless, such dreams need to be shared.

About a month ago, I dreamed …a doctor rushes into the hospital room, but instead of helping, he brings a heavy rifle and blasts the patient. Someone is setting off fireworks to cover the sounds of the bangs. I’ve had my share of stress, pain, and sadness, but there have been very few truly violent situations in my life (and nothing like this). Where does this stuff come from? Sure, I’m regularly exposed to violence in the media—but the power of this dream, and the power of the explosive dreams that others have shared with me, is intensely personal. The details are intimate, and the emotion seems to come out of nowhere.

Dreams that end with a bang often seem like nightmares. The sudden violence triggers an adrenaline rush, and the dreamer is shocked awake. But—unlike regular nightmares that leave us feeling haunted or hunted, and unlike PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) nightmares that recreate the horror of actual traumas, dreams that culminate in a sudden, loud, unexpected shock tend to be more energizing than terrifying. After the adrenaline settles, the dreamer gets curious about what the heck happened. Continue reading

After the Nightmare: Disorientation as Opportunity

Toby sleeping 01My cat, Toby, has some bad nightmares. Because he’s deaf, he sleeps very deeply and can’t monitor his environment while sleeping like other cats do. This means that when he’s in a dream, he’s utterly immersed in that dream, and when he wakes up, he’s usually a bit disoriented. Normally, he compensates by sleeping in places where he feels especially secure, and by knowing his environment (he’s an indoor cat, and it’s a tiny house) in every detail, so when he wakes he can immediately remind himself where he is. However, when he has an intense nightmare, it takes him so far from his familiar world that his own home seems alien and dangerous as he wakes up.

Of course, I don’t know exactly what he’s experiencing, but it’s not difficult to guess when he has had a nightmare. He wakes suddenly, sometimes with a yelp, on total alert with ears pricked and eyes wild. He looks around frantically, then scrambles for an exit or a hiding place. It’s most heartbreaking when he doesn’t recognize me and is terrified of me for a moment, then comes creeping to me on his belly as I crouch down to reassure him. He huddles against me, trembling so hard that his head bobs, frightened of everything that usually comforts him.

Eventually, he remembers where he is, who he is, and what’s going on. My stroking soothes him. But it takes awhile. Usually, what he needs most is his adopted mother—our older cat, Annie. As soon as he makes a sound of distress, she comes running. She examines him all over with concern, gives me a dirty look (“What did you do to my kitten?”), and briskly washes his face until he calms down. Then we’re all back to normal. (He becomes his usual confident self—and pesters Annie until she squawks with indignation.)

Toby’s nightmares—and shaky transitions—don’t seem to do him any harm. He absorbs their impact in his own way, reorients himself, and gets on with his life. Perhaps, the experience even energizes him, making his quiet, limited, indoor world more exciting by letting him see it in a new way.

When I have a nightmare myself, it’s not quite so difficult to get my bearings as it is for Toby, but it’s still pretty disorienting. By definition, a nightmare shakes things up. The nightmare situation is so compelling and intense that it stimulates a fight or flight response, causing me to jolt awake, on full alert. And it’s not easy to find familiar points of reference, and convince myself to power down my defenses. Continue reading

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