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.
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.
Within my Quaker community, I have a ministry “under the care of the Meeting.” This means that Friends (Quakers) are supportive of the spiritual work I offer to the larger community. My ministry has changed shape over the years, beginning with a specific call to work with death and grief, expanding to include difficult life transitions of all kinds, and finally expanding further to include dreamwork. With the help of a “clearness committee,” I came to refer to what I was doing as “threshold work.” All aspects of my calling relate to the intense uncertainty and profound potential of in-between places—being “neither here nor there,” as Seamus Heaney (who just died a couple of weeks ago) wrote in his poem, “Postscript”:
…Useless to think you’ll park and capture it
More thoroughly. You are neither here nor there,
A hurry through which known and strange things pass,
As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways
And catch the heart off guard and blow it open.
I have crossed many thresholds in my own life. With no place to “park and capture it,” no ground to stand on—as one phase of life is falling apart and another has not yet begun to take shape. Having known these places, I come to others who are at thresholds with great respect for what they are going through. There is really no way to prepare for such places of dramatic change—and yet, I’ve found that it can be meaningful and helpful to practice recognizing the smaller thresholds that we cross—every day, and every night in dreams—in the midst of our “ordinary” lives, even when no obvious crisis is at hand. If I’ve practiced with the small thresholds, I tend to have more insight into what is going on in the crazy chaos of the bigger ones.
Ordinarily, I imagine that I know who I am, what I am doing, where I am going—but if I take a moment to notice, I find that the world I inhabit exists in-between the known and the unknown all the time, just waiting to “catch the heart off guard, and blow it open.” Even the most mundane dreams can be powerful because they are so good at bringing this to my attention.
My own spiritual practice is to be more aware of how I am “a hurry through which known and strange things pass”— poised at the edge of the astonishment, the devastation, or the simple relief of having my certainties called into question. Dreamwork, and the daily practice of mindfulness, keep the mind and heart open to the unknown. So, when things really do fall apart—with death, or loss, or change on a grand scale—there is something paradoxically familiar about the strangeness and shock of this threshold place.