Compass Dreamwork

Dreamwork as Spiritual Practice

Tag: universal symbols

Dreaming of Homelessness, Part 3: Metaphor & Imagery

path & wallI’m pretty sure it’s true that “no dreams come just to tell you what you already know” [from Jeremy Taylor’s “Dream Work Tool Kit”]. There’s always value in looking further, letting the dream take us into unknown territory. My recent dream about a homeless man being separated from his dog troubled me, and dreams that trouble me suggest that it’s particularly important to expand the bounds of “what I already know.” Can I see beyond the troubling first impression? Can I find more meaning here than meets the eye?

I started with what I could easily see by taking the dream literally [“Dreaming of Homelessness, Part One”], and then listened for resonance between the dream and my own recent experiences walking the Camino de Santiago [“Dreaming of Homelessness, Part Two”]. But both of these approaches kept well within the realm of what I already know—about the dream and about myself. Now, I’d like to tap into the dream’s core imagery, its metaphoric energy source. This is still a somewhat personal, psychological approach, but the dream gives me a boost so I can peek over the wall at the edge of my conscious imagination.

When we pick up the symbols that generate the dynamic life force in a dream and hold them to the light, rainbow patterns flash from every facet. Through metaphor and imagery, personal projections glitter and unfold into multiple dimensions that reflect universal meanings.

Here’s a short version of the dream, emphasizing some key images (for the full dream, see Part One):

The Homeless Man Will Lose His Papillon: A homeless man comes to my partner and me for shelter on a cold, wet night, and we offer him food, a warm bath, and a sleeping bag on the couch. He has a little dog—a female papillon named “Pierrot.” While he sleeps, We realize that he can no longer take care of himself and his dog. It seems like a betrayal to suggest this, but the only solution is for the dog to be adopted by someone else. Unwilling to give up his papillon, the man leaves—but soon returns, because he is too sick to survive out there. He seems to agree, reluctantly, to let Pierrot go, though for now he withdraws again to the sleeping bag, saying nothing. I remove my valuables—passport and cash—from the room where he is sleeping, so he will not be tempted to steal.  

Now, we witness a different scene: another dog—a retriever—is in a crate. Her owner is giving her up for adoption, and says good-bye through the cage door. Then, her new owner, apparently the same kind woman who will adopt Pierrot, comes and opens the cage door and lets the dog out. They get to know each other, gently. I think that it could be like this for the papillon, too—a sad separation, but the chance to go to a warm and loving home.

My peer dream group helped me to hold “The Homeless Man Will Lose His Papillon” up to the light, to see through the dream’s words and into the dream’s world. Ordinarily, I know how to play creatively with images and metaphors, to uncover the paradoxical intricacies of a dream—but this dream had hit my blind spots. I couldn’t see past the homeless man’s needs, my own fears, and my shameful failure to trust him or find a compassionate solution that would allow him to keep his dog.

There were some obvious symbols that I recognized right away, but they seemed opaque, dulled by my literalism. I needed the help of my fellow dreamworkers to open up some space in my thinking and give this dead-end story a new life. They heard the dream in a fresh way, and echoed its metaphors back to me, with their own associations and emotional responses—and in those echoes I could hear the dream’s voice speaking more clearly to me, singing to me.

A homeless dream figure is not the same thing as a homeless human being, and a dream papillon named Pierrot is more than a man’s canine companion. Separating them from each other, even though it feels painful and sad, is not necessarily a tragedy since the dream itself suggests in the final scene that, after the good-byes are over, the cage door will be opened and a new relationship and home may be gently introduced.

My friend Pearl as “Pierrot"

Pearl Luick standing in for “Pierrot”

The dream figure of the homeless man will have his turn in the final post of this series, but here I’d like to concentrate on the little dog. She is a papillon—a breed of toy spaniel known for big, perky, silky ears that look like butterfly wings. The name does, in fact, mean “butterfly” in French. In many traditions, butterflies are associated with the soul, because of their beauty, lightness, and the way that they emerge from a process of metamorphosis. The papillon is the soul of this dream. I don’t even actually “see” that little dog—I know she’s there, but have no visual impression of her presence—and yet the whole dream is her story.

The separation of the homeless man from his papillon could be considered a process of “soul loss.” [For more about soul loss, see: “Soul Retrieval and Shamanic Dreaming.”] It seems that the primal connection between body and soul (man and dog) is going to be severed. Viewing the homeless man as analogous to the physical body makes some sense, since his needs are immediately physical—he needs food, warmth, rest. And, when the man sleeps, or when the body goes through trauma or radical transformation, the soul may take flight. Maybe the papillon is a lost soul.

But, another way of looking at this situation is that the soul is just leaving one kind of relationship with the primary identity and going on to a new kind of relationship. Both the old “owner” (the homeless man) and the new one (the kind woman) are aspects of the dreamer’s whole self, and the papillon/soul is simply shifting allegiance from one aspect to another. This movement of the soul suggests that the dreamer (myself) may be shifting away from her own identification with homelessness and toward a new understanding of home. Continue reading

Dream Labyrinth: The Winding Path of Group Dreamwork

Living-PathI’ve been exploring labyrinths lately, and finding significant parallels between the sacred labyrinth walk and the spiritual practice of dreamwork, especially group dreamwork.

While a maze is a puzzle or a trap, filled with false starts, wrong turns and dead ends—a labyrinth is a single winding path, opening at each step as we go around and around the circle, back and forth, spiraling inward and then outward again over and over, gradually working our way to the center. While the final exit from a maze is just an ending, the center of a labyrinth is a turning point. When we come to the center, we pause to center ourselves, and then turn and return the way we came, following our own footsteps back to the beginning.

Some dreams can seem like mazes—a mess of frustrations, disappointments, confusions and anxieties from which we are relieved to wake up. But when we begin to explore even the most tangled maze of a dream, we begin to find that its paths are labyrinthine: there’s a pattern (or many patterns) even though we are going around in circles; there’s always a way forward even though we are often turning back; there’s balance and symmetry even when we keep finding ourselves further from what we thought was our goal.

The reason I’m saying “we” is because the labyrinth of dreamwork is most evident when we are in it together—as a group. Several times, I’ve taken labyrinth walks with others—and it’s amazing (pun intended) how many different ways there are to walk this one path. Each person enters at the same place, but at a slightly different point in time. And then, as I proceed, I keep encountering the same people over and over, unpredictably—we may walk side by side for a while, or pass each other going opposite directions. We converge repeatedly, but never intercept each other, never cross paths. But we all find the same center, and we all return to the same place when we have completed our journey. 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

Dreamwork Tells A Healing Story

In many (if not all) indigenous cultures, the regular practice of storytelling is considered essential to the well-being of the community as a whole, not only because of the entertaining and teaching value of shared stories, but also because they can be literally healing. And many dreams come in the form of stories, which, when shared and explored, can have this same healing power.

In studying a variety of spiritual traditions, I find again and again that stories keep cultures alive, and serve to bring people into harmony with their environment and one another. In some cases, the healing power of storytelling is explicit. For example, healing ceremonies of the Dineh (“Navajo”) recount—and in a sense re-enact—the experiences of spirit beings in the mythic past whose stories become the healing template for addressing present day problems.

In one such story, the hero twins Monster Slayer and Born-for-Water undertake a long and difficult journey in search of their father. Upon their return, they must defend their home community from the overwhelming onslaught of some terrible monsters. Their successful battle with these monsters leaves them exhausted, at the point of death. They are healed by being told their own story from the beginning… And eventually, this story itself becomes a healing gift to all people, retold in ceremonies for those who seek to be brought back into harmony with life. (I’m drawing this interpretation of the Dineh story from Joseph Campbell—and apologize if I’m misrepresenting it in any way.)

The idea that we might be healed by being told our own story has great resonance on both a psychological and a spiritual level. We require healing when we find ourselves out-of-balance (physically or otherwise), as our sense of connection to the source, context, and meaning of our lives has been impaired, injured, or even destroyed. If this damage is significant, then healing cannot be accomplished simply by curing the illness or repairing the broken place—there’s a profound need to go back to the beginning, to see the larger patterns of our lives and how those patterns fit together with the life around us. We need to hear others tell us—and to tell ourselves—who we have been, what we have done, and where be belong. In this process, our individual stories become part of a universal story, and our lives can be of service to all life. This is harmony, wholeness, healing.

My dreams are healing because they tell and re-tell my stories in new ways—and help me to recognize that these stories are not mine alone. When we do dreamwork, we engage in a healing, storytelling practice: we discover familiar patterns, familiar images, familiar emotions, familiar relationships, familiar responsibilities and challenges, familiar gifts and blessings, and we know we are part of a larger whole: we belong. But what makes this process wonderful (and truly healing) is that all of the familiar stuff is expressed in the light of individual experience, with its own color and texture, comedy and tragedy, characters and settings, surprises and satisfactions.

Life itself is engaging because it manifests in so many forms; each individual form is perfectly unique yet recognizably interconnected with all the others. The stories and dreams that arise from our lives are meant to be shared because they open up new worlds for all of us, while restoring, sustaining and enriching the world we know.

Holographic Webs: The Close-Focus Approach to Long, Detailed Dreams

web 03When I am fortunate enough to remember long, detailed, vivid dreams—or when I get to listen to others as they tell such dreams—it’s only natural to feel a bit overwhelmed at first.

Some of the people I work with individually are great dreamers, and each dream they bring contains so much rich imagery, such incredible events, such real and meaningful interactions and settings… How do I begin to respond to these wonderful dreams?

And if I go through a phase in my own life when the dreams are abundant, elaborate and profound… How do I find time even to write them down? Never mind trying to unfold their stories and significance! To explore the many and varied possible approaches to every aspect of these dreams, I would have to spend my entire waking life working with my dreaming life!

Obviously, when faced with such an “embarrassment of riches” (too much of a good thing), it’s not feasible, useful, or necessary to make each amazing dream into a PhD dissertation (or even a term paper). There are two ways that I tend to approach these dreams: First, there’s the close focus approach, and then there’s the wide angle approach. I’ll talk about the first approach here, and then follow up with the second in the next post.

The close focus approach begins with the holographic concept that any part of the dream will contain the whole of the dream in microcosm. In other words, when I dream an elaborate story containing multiple scenes, I can focus in on one scene, explore the themes, feelings and associations I find there—and then step back to see how those same themes, feelings and associations may be manifested in other ways in other scenes and in the arc of the dream story as a whole. Or, with an even closer focus, I can choose a single image or event in the dream, unfold some of its personal, cultural and archetypal meanings (see “Two Basic Dreamwork Skills”) and then reflect on the ways that other images and events may echo these meanings throughout the dream. Continue reading

Journeys Into The Unknown

Before my cancer diagnosis and treatment, as I was becoming increasingly ill, I began to dream of a wonderful journey to a place I called the Western Archipelago.

I arrive at the ferry dock with a group of others. It’s surprisingly easy to embark on such an important journey. We are all thrilled at the prospect. We board and the boat heads northwest, across a harbor and out through narrow straits into the open ocean. Almost immediately, we come to deep, crystalline waters, where icebergs and ice floes drift, radiant in the sunset. An infinite number of small islands can be seen in the misty distance. We will visit all of them. I can see down through the water, where whales are swimming under the boat. Occasionally, they surface and spout, then vanish into the dark depths. Our breath steams in the freezing air, but we are warm. There is a sense of playful camaraderie, anticipation, and innocent, uninhibited excitement—like the joy of waking on Christmas morning as a child.

 As people approach death or significant life changes, they often dream of embarking on a journey. For me, the dream of The Western Archipelago became increasingly vivid and magnificent, and the ferryboat went further out among the islands, as I got sicker and the possibility of death got closer. Around the turning point of my illness, just before and after I was diagnosed, the ferryboat went quite far—and some of us were getting ready to disembark on one of the islands. Continue reading

Not Knowing: Dreams of Resistance and Opening

“Since knowing gives us definition and control, it enables us to keep the world at arm’s length. Having established our ideas and preferences about what is, we no longer have to bother to pay attention. Not knowing, on the other hand, leaves us vulnerable and free. It brings us very close to experience, unprotected and fully engaged. Not knowing, we merge with what confronts us. We let go of  identity and evaluation and allow ourselves to surrender to amazement.” -Norman Fischer

The dreams that come during periods of significant change in our lives often parallel the dreams that come as death approaches. When we are ill, in crisis, or grieving, we may have dreams that resemble the dreams of dying people (who are also going through powerful changes). In my personal and professional experience, I’ve seen that both death dreams and transition dreams tend to be about the experience of “not knowing” in one form or another.

The individual who is going through great change is always experiencing the death or loss of the “known,” and an encounter with the potential of the “unknown.” This is generally a painful and difficult struggle, as the familiar experience of self and reality falls apart. But such falling apart also, ultimately, creates an opening, a new perspective, a new kind of meaning. Continue reading

Death Dreams And Open Fields

open fieldAt an in-patient hospice where I’ve volunteered for many years, I got to know a man named Jasper who was dying of lung cancer in his seventies. Over several weeks, he told me stories about growing up on a midwestern farm. He shared his memories of the endless acres of green-gold alfalfa fields shimmering in the wind—memories that were associated with a sense of spaciousness, but also with hard labor and long hours as he tried to follow his father’s example and expectations.

When Jasper could no longer get out of bed, and was sleeping more and more of the time, he began to share dreams. In a hoarse whisper, he told me:

I’m walking across an open field. Just walking and walking. Trying to get to my father. He’s at the far side of the field, standing by a fence. He’s expecting me. I walk and walk but can’t get any closer. Don’t want to disappoint him, but I’m too slow, can’t keep up. The tall grass is dragging on my legs, slowing me down. But I have to keep walking. The sun is setting.

Jasper was anxious and exhausted, but committed to completing the task of his life. He’d always worked hard, and he wasn’t going to give up now. So he struggled and labored through the process of dying. Towards the end, he was in a coma, unresponsive to those around him, but with his eyes partly open, and his lips moving as if he was talking to himself, urging himself on. As I sat beside his bed, hour after hour, I noticed that his feet were moving under the thin sheet: first one foot flexed and then the other. Actually, his legs were working, too—alternately tensing and relaxing. He was walking. I imagined him walking across that field, to meet his father. It was a long way, and it took a long time. He worked hard at walking, and worked hard for each breath, the whole way. Continue reading

Monsters In My Dreams

In a recent post (“A Nightmare Is An Incomplete Dream”), I wrote about nightmares, and shared my own nightmare of “being hunted by a formless monster who tears people apart.” That post was about coping with the disturbing aspects of nightmares in general, and focused on some issues that might need to be addressed before exploring the metaphors and imagery within any particular nightmare. Now, I’d like to look at the central scary image of my dream—an image that is common in children’s dreams, and not uncommon in the dreams of adults: the monster.

mouthThe words I chose to describe the monster of my own dream say a lot about the significance that this particular monster has for me. It is “formless” and it “tears people apart.” Within the past year or so, I have come through a period of major depression. The experience of such depression is probably the scariest thing I can imagine—it is certainly “formless” (like being in great pain, but not being able to find any source for that pain), and it does “tear people apart.” Other aspects of the dream also point in this direction: I’ve been “held prisoner” by this monster in a “desolate house,” and when I am trying to escape, I am afraid to go to others for help, because I’m afraid that I’ll just bring the monster down on them.

Although there is no doubt that my personal associations create a credible case for identifying the monster in my dream with depression, it is important to note that this “solution” occurred to me very easily. According to Jeremy Taylor, “No dreams come just to tell you what you already know.” (That’s the 4th tool in his “Dreamwork Tool Kit.”) At the time of the dream, I already knew that I feared depression returning to hunt me, and I was (and continue to be) actively involved in exploring this fear in my waking life and in dreams. So, I looked further and deeper, and found other personal associations to the monster. No doubt, still more could be unfolded if I were to work on this dream with the help of a dreamworker, a friend, or a group.

The most exciting way to respond to a monster dream, however, is to go beyond the personal and explore it on a more universal, archetypal scale. Children have monster dreams even if their lives are relatively safe from threats to their well-being. Adults have monster dreams when they have no personal associations that seem particularly monstrous. Monsters appear in mythology regularly, and, as Joseph Campbell wrote: “Myths are public dreams. Dreams are private myths.”

In both mythology and dreams, across cultures, monsters are associated with primal energy—the original darkness we come from, and the darkness we fear will swallow us up at death (or if we “lose our minds,” or if the “light of reason” fails us). Whether this is the darkness of “empty” space before the big bang, of the “chaos” that precedes creation, of the grave, of the womb, or in the belly of the whale—this perceived darkness or chaos is a monster that threatens our belief that we are in charge, in control. Continue reading

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