Compass Dreamwork

Dreamwork as Spiritual Practice

Tag: threshold experiences (page 2 of 2)

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

Grief Integration: The Vigil and the Dance

mom in millAs I write this, my mom has been dead for over a month—and by the time you read this, it will be over two months. I’ve had some more dreams about her, but none in which she seems fully present. Actually, I’m not really dreaming about my mother herself, but about my own experience of loss. The immediate shock of the first few weeks has passed, and now when I look at her picture (which I keep nearby, and look at often) I no longer have to remind myself that she has died. I look at her face, and it seems as if she is looking back at me. We understand each other. She is not available by telephone, but she is available in other ways. I feel our connection and her absence simultaneously (see “Grief Dreams: The Experience of Absence”).

This is what healing feels like. Healing doesn’t mean that the grieving stops. I am still trying to process some of the most overwhelming aspects of her dying—the feelings that were too intense, just too much to fully feel when everything was happening so quickly right before and after her death. I’m replaying events and emotions as stories to tell myself—to remember what happened, and that it really did happen. Of course, my dreams are doing this work with me…

Grieving Mom, Looking for Jill: I’m college-age, sitting at a table with several college friends. I tell them about Mom’s recent death. They listen, but go on to talk about other things, and my grief doesn’t seem real to them or to me. I leave them and walk, thinking about what I will do now that I have graduated. I just want to talk to Mom, to get her practical advice… Then, the grief hits me, and it feels unbearable. I go looking for my sister Jill, who is supposed to be in school nearby. I feel so lonely. I desperately need to see my sister.

The feeling of this dream echoes my waking feelings. I try to talk about Mom’s death and it doesn’t seem real, but when I’m alone and think of her, the reality is stunningly painful. In the midst of the feelings, I long to be with family—my sisters Jill and Didi, and niece Samantha—because they are closest to the loss, and share it. There’s no mystery to the dream. It makes sense that we are young, just graduated or in school, since that suggests the learning experience we are going through, and recalls some painful separations from family that occurred at that time in my life.

If there are further metaphorical dimensions of the dream to be explored (certainly, there are), I’m not especially interested in exploring them consciously right now. What interests me is that the dream gives me another opportunity to integrate the same kinds of emotional experiences I am having when awake. There’s a lot of integration to do, so both my dreaming and my waking concerns are turned in this direction. Continue reading

Dreaming and Grieving

My mother with her mother

My mother with her mother

My mom (Shirley Markie) died some weeks ago. Even as I write this, I don’t really believe it. Really, it seems as if I am writing about a dream, not about the solid fact of her death. I look at her picture, and she is so alive to me. How could she be dead? Of course, I’ve worked with lots of grieving and dying people—I am certainly familiar with these feelings, having heard them from so many others, so many times. And I’m deeply aware in this moment that I am not alone in my experience of grief and loss. So many of us have felt this, are feeling this, will feel this…

Those in my age group (fifties) are especially likely to be facing the loss of our parents; we are all saying good-bye to the generation before us. Yet it’s an entirely personal experience. Even though my sisters share the same immediate grief for the same mother, we each feel it uniquely. But we can still be a comfort to one another—and we are.

Grief dreams are like this: there are familiar patterns in the ways that dreams help us live through our losses—archetypal psychospiritual responses to grief—yet each dream carries the individuality of the loss in its own way, and we are touched by each dream uniquely. At the same time, the experience of grieving and dreaming can connect us at a fundamental level, giving us a direct sense of the universality of these landmarks of loss in our lives. When I dream of my mother—her wonderful one-of-a-kind-ness—I am dreaming into the midst of love at its most essential. As we feel loss, we feel love, and the poignancy of “loving what is mortal” (to paraphrase Mary Oliver). Dreams can make this experience feel realer than real. Continue reading

Interview with a Dream Figure

outside stairs 01If you want to meet a dream on its own terms, to enter the unmapped territory and find paths and passages you never knew were there, you have to go outside your comfort zone. Well, that’s what we’re trying to do, isn’t it? Even in our waking lives, we want to get beyond routine and have new experiences (up to a point). We aren’t just looking for reinforcement of our expectations. Jeremy Taylor reminds us that “no dreams come just to tell you what you already know.” But it’s certainly tricky to recognize a new thing when we see it, because our frame of reference sets us up to see what we expect to see.

I’ve written a couple of articles about different ways of looking at dreams that can help us get around our personal blind spots: by questioning the dream-ego’s point-of-view (“The Unreliable Narrator in Dreams”), and by exploring the inconspicuous details of the dream scene (“Turning the Dream Upside Down”). Now I’d like to consider another mind-bending approach that is deceptively simple, but tremendously powerful: asking dream figures or images about themselves.

There are many ways to communicate directly with the images in a dream. Fritz Perls set up conversations between dream images (as aspects of the dreamer’s psyche) in his Gestalt Therapy; lucid dreaming practices invite us to ask dream figures for guidance or gifts, etc. These and other practices can be transformative on many levels, but sometimes the concentrated effort required to transcend your own limitations can seem about as easy as jumping higher than your own head. Continue reading

Becoming “Loving Awareness”

sky 05In the last post, I talked about the spiritual concept of “ego death” as it is reflected in dreams [“When the Dream-Ego is Slipping or Sleepy”]. “Ego death” occurs when the whole psyche is undergoing a transformation (due to illness, crisis, loss, or deep inner work) in which the familiar ego must die in order for a new, potentially larger, sense of self to come into being. During such times, dreams often contain death imagery: the dream-ego or other dream-character faces death, and perhaps actually dies in the dream. Deaths can be enacted again and again in transitional dreams, and then other dreams (or sometimes the same dreams) may begin to indicate the development of new life, new ways of being.

Sometimes, when the transformation is particularly significant, we experience breakthrough dreams: extraordinarily powerful dreams that not only represent the transformation from one ego identity to another, but actually involve the “willing sacrifice” of the entire self-definition, allowing for complete openness to a new way of experiencing reality and identity. These dreams may be like great mystical experiences, beyond words. They may be like literal near-death experiences where attachment to our present life is let go almost easily as we glimpse what we really are and the vastness that includes us.

Occasionally, a dream can be quite direct in its metaphorical expression of the process of “willing sacrifice” and “ego death.” About two years ago, I had this extraordinary dream:

The Willing Sacrifice: I am a young Asian prince in an ancient Eastern culture. My small community has been suffering from a drought or other catastrophic challenge. Our survival is at stake. We have just completed the re-enactment of an ancient ritual that is supposed to restore harmony: the symbolic sacrifice of the community’s leader (me). But it does not work, and I now realize that only an authentic sacrifice will make a difference. We must enact the ritual again, and this time I must actually die. I accept this with sadness, and some fear, but a deep sense of responsibility, feeling the weight of what I must do. The community is gathered to bear witness: to support me, and to honor and grieve for my sacrifice.

            Ahead of me is a large ritual space—a square, marked on the ground by a wide golden ribbon. I am wearing a white tunic or kimono. I walk, formally, toward one side of the square. I hope that my death will not be bloody—but then I release that thought: it will be what it will be. I release the hopes I had for the rest of my life. On the left side of the square, there’s a gap in the ribbon that opens onto nothingness, and I believe that when I die I will go through that gap. In the far right corner of the square sits the Emperor or King—a wise, compassionate, powerful being, like a god. I sense his deep sympathy with me, and his willingness to play his role as I am playing mine. His attendant, a young man in white like myself, leaves his side and comes to meet me as I approach the square. We stand facing each other at the edge of the square, and I realize he’s almost a mirror image of me.

            Before stepping across the ribbon, I must ask permission to make this sacrifice. I kneel down, as I have done many times before during the symbolic ceremonies, but this time I know I must go further. I close my eyes and bow all the way down to the ground. It seems a long way down, an infinite falling in and giving over. At the moment when my forehead finally touches the earth in complete surrender, I feel flooded with love: the loving tenderness of the young attendant standing over me, meeting me absolutely where I am; the loving benevolence of the King; the loving warmth and gratitude of the people… Also, the overwhelming love that pours through me from the earth herself. It is more than I can contain.

The final sentence in my description of the dream says it all: “It is more than ‘I’ can contain.” The ego “I” cannot hold the larger experience of life itself that rushes in with love at the moment when the sacrifice is accepted. The small self gives way, and the larger self can then be experienced. The larger self is not limited to one apparently separate identity, but includes all who are taking part in this ceremony. And beyond the shared human experience, there is also a profound connection with the earth. Continue reading

Indescribable Dreams

web 01Where do I begin? How can I convey this dream experience to you, when I can’t even quite catch hold of it for myself? I’d been asleep for only an hour or two when I had this dream. Then, I woke for a few minutes, with the dream still fresh in my mind—but, not exactly as a memory…. In a sense the dream was still happening, even though I couldn’t quite remember it. I soon slipped back into sleep, and this peculiar dreaming experience seemed to continue in some way for the rest of the night: throughout my other dreams, and through my brief periods of wakefulness, and maybe even during the stretches of deep, “dreamless” sleep. I woke in the morning filled with the essence of this amazing dreaming.

But what was the content of this dreaming? It’s so hard to describe.

There is an awareness, in the dream, that “I” have left my physical body and am now just consciousness, taking many different forms. There are rich interactions with others, and I feel myself as a sort of “me” character, but also as every other character, and as the context, and as the communication itself that flows among us. We are in a large stone building, in an echoing room. I am aware of being the echo. We are outside, sailing through the air, over water. At one point, there’s a huge dinosaur-like creature, swimming in a narrow waterway—I see this as if from far above, and at the same time I am the creature swimming, and the water, and the surrounding landscape. There’s a thought that my physical body is still around here somewhere (sleeping in bed?), and I will be able to return to that body. But also a sense that when the body dies, there will still be this consciousness—there is always this consciousness—and it won’t be lost. There is complete freedom in this experience,but also total immersion.

This dreaming might be considered a “numinous dream,” a “Big dream.” Experientially, it is equivalent to a spiritual epiphany, the kind of mind-opening breakthrough into a larger conception of self and reality that William James described in his classic text, “Varieties of Religious Experience.” And, for me, it was wonderful. It gave me a direct sense of being a part of something beyond my ego-identity, something vast and fascinating that I could trust absolutely. Never mind that I can’t fully remember or tell what happened. It was the kind of experience that makes the idea of our ultimate interconnectedness immediately real, rather than an abstraction.

However, I doubt if I will include this particular dream among the “Big dreams” that I keep with me and share, and use to remind myself of the potential for profound spiritual experience. Why not? Well, because this dream does not have a frame of reference, a storyline or a structure that makes it possible to describe it, or even recall it, in any way that is recognizable to waking consciousness. So, the dream lifts me up and gives me a glimpse of something, but when it sets me back down on the ground, I don’t know how to frame the awesome expanse of sky and clouds that surrounded me up there, in terms of the streets and people and buildings that surround me down here. They’re different worlds, and there’s no evident connection between them. Continue reading

Smoothing The Transitions

pillows 01After a long phase of insomnia, I’m finally sleeping very well. The trouble isn’t with sleeping, it’s with getting up in the morning! I wake slowly, still melted by sleepiness, still brimming with dreams. As the cold realization that it is time to get up begins to creep over me, I resist mightily.

First there’s denial: “Maybe I’ll check the clock and it will really be 2:00 AM….” Then anger: “Why should I have to get up? I don’t want to get up! I won’t get up!” Then bargaining: “Maybe I can sleep late this morning, then get up a couple hours earlier tomorrow?” Then depression: “What if I never get up? What if I just stay here until I die?” Then, finally, reluctant acceptance: “Okay, here we go. Push back the covers. Feet on the floor. Up, up, up!”

Sound familiar? Well, eventually, it dawned on me that I could make things a lot easier on myself. I realized that although I do need to get up, I don’t necessarily have to leave my delicious dreamy drowsiness behind. I can move slowly, savoring the sleep sensations and dream impressions as I begin my day. This is a revelation! Even if I have to get busy immediately, I can still smooth the transition by imagining this is all part of a dream…

I greet our three cats sleepily in the hall, and feel that they are strange, soft creatures of the night, coming to bring me gifts or messages. When Toby hollers a loud hello, it’s a wild cry of joy that makes my nerves tingle. When Fern nudges my ankle with her wet nose, and Annie bustles past me into the bedroom, I feel myself surrounded by impulsive, encouraging energies. Sounds and smells of alchemical experiments emanate from the kitchen, where Holly is making coffee. In the bathroom mirror, I look like someone else. Washing my hair, I feel the slippery suds and it seems that my mind is being soaped and rinsed along with my oddly heavy head.

The minutes go by, I go from room to room, and each time I turn on a light, the scene changes. For a little while, things are wonderfully strange, and then, gradually, I’m awake and it’s just the usual morning routine. 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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