Compass Dreamwork

Dreamwork as Spiritual Practice

Category: Working With Dreams (page 1 of 4)

The Depths of the Dream

Although I know all kinds of ways to work with dreams, I can still miss the most significant implications of my own dreams. Sometimes, the images are just too close to home—I take the dream too literally, or let the more obvious features stand for the dream as a whole, ignoring some meaningful details. When a dream is delightful, I’m tempted just to enjoy it, and let those troublesome details slide. Jeremy Taylor used to say that when his dreamwork clients brought him awful nightmares they’d always leave the session feeling happier (having discovered the shining, breakthrough elements of those ugly dreams), but when they brought happy dreams they were in for some hard work, and usually left the session sobered. He was pointing out that those happy dreams can pack a punch. And I wanted to say, “Yes, but sometimes a happy dream is just a happy dream, right?” 

Whether I’m working with others’ dreams or my own, I believe it’s vital that we simply enjoy our “happy dreams,” allowing the powerful positive emotions and images to comfort and heal us, without overworking or overthinking. Nevertheless, I also believe that Jeremy knew what he was talking about (he usually did): Every genuinely happy dream must include our pain as well as our pleasure, and often the pain needs our attention in order for the pleasure to be possible. 

In my own life, joy and grief have a fundamental relationship—and I know that my dreams reflect this. Yet, when I finally had a beautiful, “happy dream” after months of plodding “problem dreams,” I just wanted to savor the beauty and did not look below the surface at first. I thought that the dream addressed some painful issues, but gave me a reassurance that although change and loss were happening, it was possible to relax and enjoy and adapt. I was right, of course—authentic happiness was certainly at least part of the true meaning of the dream, since the dream really did provide a direct experience of relaxing, enjoying, and adapting. But there was more to this paradoxical dream than my direct experience of joy.

It was a long, rich dream in which I felt a sense of warm connection to the people around me, even though the atmosphere was chaotic and a little sad as we were all completing a task (a game or project) and preparing to say goodbye to one another. The dream was full of the same patterns of problems that have been regular dream themes for me lately: I’m packing for departure but keep losing precious things I want to take with me; I feel somewhat vulnerable and tired; I encounter people or animals in distress and cannot help them; there’s too much happening at once and I have no control over anything. Yet, in every situation: I care deeply about others and they care for me; we share our problems, laugh together, comfort each other; I appreciate the delicious sensory experience of a warm breeze, the ground under my bare feet, flower fragrances, sunshine glittering on ocean waves; we are all at ease in our own awkward but capable bodies, and trust in the changes we are experiencing.

Here’s how the dream ended:

I am happy, walking with friends, with my senses wide open. The ocean (a deep bay, with a rocky shore) is right over there—and as we are talking about how beautiful it is, we’re delighted that it gets even more special because I’ve glimpsed a humpback whale spy-hopping just offshore. We pause to watch several other kinds of whales as they surface, spout, and plunge. Wow! Look, there’s the stunning black-and-white face of an orca, open-mouthed, in ferocious pursuit of a harbor seal! Both animals break the surface together and then submerge—the whale hunting; the seal fleeing. I expect to see blood in the water when they go under, because it seems that the seal won’t be able to get away. I’m briefly horrified, but there’s nothing I can do, so I let go of my visceral distress, allowing myself to feel compassion for the seal and respect for the whale, without anxiety. This is just the way it is, the way it must be. Now, the seal has apparently become a bedraggled dog, limping slowly along on the surface of the water (as if the water were ice). We want to coax the dog to shore before the whale looms up and swallows him… But again it is clear that this situation is not within our control, the dog is out of reach, and our caring response from a distance is the only help we can offer. We must walk on. I accept this completely, and wake feeling at peace.

I’ve been handling my waking life challenges with this same acceptance, as much as possible. Most of my circumstances are beyond my control for now, and all I can do is bring compassion to bear on my situation—compassion for myself, and for those whose lives touch mine. As in the dream, I sense the underlying joy and beauty in just living, sharing difficult experiences with others, appreciating small pleasures in the midst of great uncertainty.

I’m waiting (it seems like forever, but actually it’s been eight weeks) for a consultation with a neurosurgeon about a major surgery to straighten and fuse most of my cervical spine, and maybe part of my thoracic spine. The as-yet-unscheduled surgery is frightening enough, and it’s also unclear whether I will be able to recover and heal from it afterward due to my underlying diagnosis—a progressive, degenerative neuro-muscular disease, causing kyphosis and pressure on the spinal cord. Being in limbo for so long has been excruciating, as my condition continues to deteriorate and I won’t know what to expect, what to prioritize, or how to prepare until I can finally meet with the surgeon next week. 

Long walks and writing projects have been the most consistent features of my daily routine, and these things have given me a sense of accomplishment that makes it possible to remain in the present moment and exercise some patience. I was functioning fairly well, feeling an underlying joy in spite of the strain of waiting… But then, quite rapidly, I lost the ability to walk more than a short distance, as my crooked spine can no longer support the weight of my head. When I try to walk, my gait is impaired: I stumble, stagger, struggle. I can’t walk upright. There’s something about the forced posture of “hanging my head” that induces an unconscious sense of shame and dejection. Plus, I’ve been focused on preparing a manuscript for publication—a frustrating task with many obstacles and little creative satisfaction—which means that my “writing time” involves more stress and less actual writing. 

Trying to write, trying to walk, I face failure. Without the essential structures of physical competence and creative flow, I’m floundering. Acceptance is coming less easily. I’m not sure what I have to offer others, and my needs and moods are not entirely within my jurisdiction. Although my relationships with clients, family and friends continue to be meaningful, I’m finding it harder to accept “the whole catastrophe” (as Zorba the Greek would describe it, with an exuberance I can’t quite muster). In fact, the main thing I must accept right now is my own non-acceptance. Really, I want the struggling to stop—but my resistance is part of this experience, and I can’t force myself to be more accepting than I actually am. The underlying joy is still here, but grief is present, too.

So, having such a lovely, happy dream was a blessing. It raised my courage, my strength, and my gratitude; it relaxed my resistance. The dream was, and is, an authentic gift that shows me what is possible. Nothing can diminish that experience. And yet, there’s more to the dream than bliss. 

I savored the bliss for a while, responding to the dream with ready appreciation. That seemed good enough. I’d gotten the message. There are ways to feel joy, no matter how hopeless things seem. Yes. Yes… but. Eventually, I realized that the dream wasn’t finished with me. I’d missed something fundamental. 

As a dreamwork facilitator and teacher, I frequently remind my clients that the dream ego’s perspective is not the whole story. The entire dream is communicating, and although the “I” in the dream may have meaningful insights, other dream figures may have other points of view that are equally valuable. This is true in waking life as well: The way I experience the world is only one way of experiencing, but the world itself offers an infinite array of possible experiences, and alternative perspectives bring more possibilities. Dreaming and waking, this world is multi-faceted and sparkling. If we let ourselves be too dazzled by the overall brilliance, we’re depriving ourselves of this paradoxical diversity, the play of light and contrasting colors, the exquisite patterns. If we just see what we already know to be there, we don’t learn or change. I know that I want to let this dream change me. 

Whenever I see the ocean in my dreams, I look for whales, and if I see whales I know that this is a deep, powerful dream for me. I can’t turn away from those depths. So, remembering my own professional guidance, I extend my empathy to the fleeing seal and the bedraggled dog. It is so hard to ask that dog how he feels, because I really can’t bear to feel what he feels. When he speaks for himself, I have to acknowledge him fully.

The dog hears us calling to him from the shore. He longs for us, for the joy we are able to experience as we go about our lives. But we aren’t going to save him, and he knows he is going to be eaten. He is already hurt, and exhausted. In a sense, in the form of the seal, he may have already been eaten, while as the dog he is just limping along helplessly, trying to escape the inevitable. Our joy breaks his heart, because he can’t reach us, and we can’t reach him. 

Of course, I recognize this dog’s pain. Of course I do. But the joy is still real, the peace and acceptance are strangely, impossibly, essentially and absolutely real—along with the pain. The dog is walking on the water, he is somehow divine, even in his misery. Meanwhile, the orca is as glorious, powerful, and beautiful as any of the other whales, even though, unlike the gentle baleen whales, orcas have sharp teeth—they kill to eat. From the whale’s perspective, the pursuit of the seal is exhilarating. From the seal’s perspective, there’s fear and flight, and then—what? From the dog’s perspective, there’s longing and loss. From my perspective, there are joyful aspects to every situation and ways of savoring those joys, even when I’m struggling, even when I’m suffering. From the dream’s perspective, everything is unfolding in wholeness.

A happy dream, or a happy life, would not be happy if there were nothing but happiness. If we lived forever, nothing would ever be able to change or grow, and life would have no value. We are mortal; our bodies age, and we die. Some living beings kill and eat other living beings. But life also includes the capacity to welcome our interdependent experiencing of everything, our capacity to care about these experiences and one another. Even when we can’t feel welcoming acceptance of the painful events themselves, the fact that we feel pain is a testament to the fact that we love, and we can embrace the experience of loving. I may suffer because I am losing aspects of myself and my life that I care about, but the intensity of that loss makes me more aware of how much I do care—not just about having a healthy body, fruitful work and precious relationships, but about living life however difficult it may be. 

The intense experience of longing and loss practically eats me alive—while at the very same time, expanding my definition of “me,” my connection with “you,” our participation in “everything.” In pain and in joy, we all dream this paradoxical life, and live it too. 

Getting The Wrong Idea: What The Dream Is Not About

Sometimes it takes a mistake to point us in the right direction. This is especially true with dreamwork. When I’m trying to unfold the many meanings of a dream, I often get the clearest sense of what is truly significant by testing “false leads” and taking “wrong turns.”

Dreams offer multiple (and sometimes contradictory) truths, and it’s possible to find truth in unexpected places, yet it is still quite evident that some interpretations seem off track or “wrong.” Some ways of looking at the dream obviously don’t fit. But we shouldn’t be ashamed of trying on those ill-fitting garments, because when we’re wearing them and we look in the mirror, it is immediately apparent just how and why this outfit is not right. Obviously, the sleeves are too long, or the material is too scratchy, or the colors clash. And then, we can go back to the rack and find an alternative with shorter sleeves, or softer fabric, or better colors. In other words, when we know what a dream isn’t we have a much clearer idea what it is.

Sometimes, if a dreamer is sharing a dream and having difficulty remembering the details, I’ll just throw out random suggestions that might or might not fit. While the suggestions that happen to be “hits” are helpful, the ones that are obvious “misses” often spark an even clearer sense of the dream.

For instance, if the dreamer mentions that there’s a man standing beside her in this dream, but says she doesn’t remember anything about the man, I might ask things like: “Was he very old? Was he tall? Did he have a beard?” These specific questions are much more likely to evoke a deeper memory of the dream figure than the usual, more open-ended questions such as “How old was he? How tall was he? Did he have any distinguishing features?” I think this is because the more specific questions actually create an image in the dreamer’s mind, and when she compares this image (a tall, bearded, or old man) to the vague impression of the man in her dream, she can tell that it’s not a match, and therefore the dream figure’s actual presence begins to emerge more distinctly.

Occasionally, if I’m not sure how to approach a dream that someone shares with me, I’ll intentionally “try on” some possibilities that I sense probably won’t fit. If someone has a dream about a cow, and we aren’t sure what to make of it, I might say, “Hmm. Well, cows are often associated with motherhood (because they give milk)…” when, even though it’s true that cows can be associated with motherhood, I suspect that the cow in this dream has a more immediate significance for the dreamer. When I make a suggestion that seems to lead further away from his direct experience of the dream, the dreamer shakes his head and begins to tell me how this particular dream cow reminds him of a family car trip when a cow blocked the road and wouldn’t budge. It’s possible, of course, that this dream-cow had something to do with the dreamer’s mother, but the dreamer is much more engaged by his memory of the cow as an obstacle which led to a family dispute—and other aspects of the dream are consistent with this insight whereas the “motherhood” association is, at best, remote.

Of course, if I made a lot of these off-base suggestions, the dreamer would begin to doubt that I was really listening to the dream itself, and could even feel uncomfortable with such an insensitive, heavy-handed approach. So, ordinarily, I’ll offer these bad ideas as bad ideas, saying, “Well, this probably has nothing to do with your dream, but…” Still, just having an image or idea to place in juxtaposition with the actual experience of the dream is often enough to initiate the dreamer’s own insights.

Another commonly used “compare and contrast” trick is to ask the dreamer how the dream would be different if the cow were, for instance, a moose. Even if the dream cow was a pretty vague image, most dreamers would immediately respond that the cow must be a cow—a moose would be all wrong. One dreamer might say that a cow is more mild-mannered and domestic than a moose; another dreamer might say that this cow, unlike any moose, had a face that reminded him of Donald Trump, or a way of chewing her cud that reminded him of a kid chewing bubblegum. This tells us a lot about how a dreamer feels about cows in general and this cow in particular, and often evokes associations relevant to other images in the dream.

I regularly play the “wrong idea” game with myself and my own dreams. While working with a recent dream where I was trying to carry a fox pup in one arm and a fawn in the other, I thought of the grim old story of the “brave Spartan boy,” where a boy hides a fox under his tunic, stoically holding on while walking for miles, only to drop dead when he reaches his destination because the fox has been gnawing at his belly, trying to escape. Yes, that’s a vivid, disturbing image, and could possibly have something to do with my dream… But, more importantly, it contradicts the dream’s essential feeling. The “wrongness” of the story makes me shake my head and remind myself: “But the fox in this dream is not hurting me. This fox is playful, wiggling and batting at the fawn. The fox and the fawn are both youngsters, and my main concern is how I’m going to keep from dropping them as they wake up and start getting curious about each other and the world.”

Contrasting the dream with the awful story makes me more aware of the dream’s gentleness, and my concern for these two shy forest creatures. One may be a predator, and the other may be prey—yet they are both in my care, and the fox shows no sign of any instinct to harm the fawn, or me. On some level, the dream may indeed relate to my “bravery” and endurance in carrying something difficult to carry, but this takes a very different form from the story of the Spartan boy. Specifically, I notice that, in my dream, I’m holding onto a paradox: two opposing forces that are innocently trying to play together. Perhaps I wouldn’t have noticed this if I hadn’t first thought of the Greek story, and how it doesn’t match my dream experience.

I hope that when you’re exploring your own dreams or the dreams of others, you can invite the ideas that don’t fit as well as the ideas that do. Like playing dress-up—putting on costumes (or trying out dream theories) that seem wildly inappropriate can be fun, and can make it clearer who we really are or could be.

Incidentally, with this kind of no-holds-barred approach to dreamwork, we’ll occasionally stumble upon a wildly unlikely dream insight that fits perfectly. While trying on the crazy costumes and laughing at how silly they look, you might discover that, in fact, the weird space alien outfit really suits you! Don’t be afraid of making mistakes. All the best discoveries happen when we drop our resistance to the unlikely, the uncomfortable, the unexpected—especially with dreams.

Three-Part Dreams: Discovering the Rogue

Many dreams have distinct scenes, and it’s surprising how often those scenes come in threes. It’s also common to have multiple dreams in the same night, and those frequently come in threes as well. Maybe it’s just that our memories tend to organize themselves in sets of three—perhaps there was a fourth scene, or a fourth dream, that we don’t remember. Nevertheless, whether it’s a function of memory or a function of the dreams themselves, the pattern is significant, and can be useful when we are trying to relate to the dream world.

One way of looking at a three-part dream is to think of the parts as past, present and future. Something happened in the first dream, which leads to what happens in the second dream, which leads to what will happen in the third dream. Or, there’s a problem in the first dream (where the problem started), which becomes better or worse in the second dream (what is going on now), and could reach its best or worst potential in the third dream (what will happen if the trend continues). If you look at a three-part dream this way, you’ll see a development from one situation to the next, and that can certainly be meaningful in many cases.

However, time may not really be relevant to the unfolding of dream meanings. Modern physics suggests that our sense of past-present-future does not reflect the way things actually are. Time is not linear, and we can sometimes experience this in the dream world. Often, it’s not entirely clear which dream-part came first, second or third. Dreams can transcend clock time—with precognitive elements (showing future events in the waking world), or dream events that occur simultaneously, or with cause-and-effect dream elements that work both forward and backward.

For example, recently I dreamed:

I’m buying some food at a deli counter for tomorrow’s journey: a packet containing an egg-and-potato pancake. I walk past the produce display just as the mist-spray comes on—but it malfunctions and is more like a gushing sprinkler, which soaks my clothes…

When I tried to record this dream (which had many other details not included here), I realized that I couldn’t figure out which part happened first. It seemed impossible, but in the part where I was buying the packet of food, my clothes were definitely wet. And in the part where my clothes got sprinkled, I was definitely carrying the packet of food. So, somehow, each scene had to have been preceded by the other scene. Hm.

Because of such incongruities, I’ve been exploring other ways of looking at three-part dreams—where the three parts are interdependent in a more cyclical or multi-dimensional model that doesn’t rely on sequence.

Threes are dynamic. When you have two things, there’s balance or contrast. When you have four things, there’s stability. But three means that something is happening. Whenever two things interact, a third thing comes into being that is more than the sum of its parts. My own way of describing the “third thing” is to call it the “rogue.”*

In couple relationships, the two partners as individuals combine their energies, but the rogue of that relationship is a third individual in itself—often having characteristics possessed by neither of the two partners. A child is a rogue, because she or he comes from two parents and has an individuality that can resemble both parents, but is also unique and distinct. The rogue is not just a synthesis, but a leap into new possibilities. Continue reading

Dreaming the Change We Wish To See In the World

When I work with dreams, I’m always asking myself what kind of meaning and value this work might have for the larger world. Mahatma Gandhi said that we should “be the change we wish to see in the world”—and I believe our dreaming lives can be as important as our waking lives as we try to manifest meaningful change.

There is so much suffering everywhere—all around us and within us—and  most of us share a deep longing to make a difference, to serve and to help, to contribute to positive change and healing. How do dreams make a difference? It’s clear that our dreams can be a tremendous resource for creative ideas, and an inspiration to collective action. But it’s not only the inspiring, constructive, encouraging dreams that have something to offer. Our mundane, difficult, uncomfortable and even awful dreams may be our best hope as we grow into new possibilities for the future of our world. If we want to “be the change,” we have to bring our entire “being” and contribute through our difficulties as well as our successes; if we want to “dream the change” then we need to share our difficult dreams, and learn from them together.

Perhaps the biggest lesson that we have to learn is that we are not alone. We share this beautiful planet, and we share a magnificent world of dreaming as well. We also share suffering. When I am in physical or emotional pain, millions of other beings are familiar with that pain, and many of them are experiencing those same feelings along with me right now. When I react in anger, or withdraw, or become overwhelmed—millions are with me. Even (or especially) when I’m lonely, I am not alone—countless others are lonely, too. When I wrestle with myself in my very personal dreams, I’m struggling with experiences that are universal: these dreams have been dreamed before, and they will be dreamed long after I am gone. So, when my dreams seem uninspiring, I can still open my heart and mind, expand my point-of-view, adapt and reflect and grow… and perhaps this opening, expansive response can grow in the world. My dreams invite me to include everything, include others, because my solitary idea of myself is too small for the dreaming we need.

When my dreams are unpleasant or just “ordinary,” my tendency is to dismiss them and move on to more substantial, more appealing dream experiences. But if I want to grow, and if I want the world to change in positive ways, I can’t avoid the reality of disruption, distraction, and difficulty. While big challenges may seem more inspiring, it’s the little day-to-day problems that add up to the most significant world crises. If I can’t manage my temper with rude drivers in traffic, I can’t expect to transform the worldwide hatred and vengefulness that can lead to war and genocide. If I can’t tolerate the minimal deprivation or discomfort of a power outage or a neighbor’s barking dog, then I can’t expect entire populations to welcome refugees or forgive painful historical wrongs. If I am greedy for more than my share of local resources like water and shelter, then I can’t help persuade wealthy nations to give up their privileges to prevent drought, starvation and despair on other continents. My “ordinary” dreams often confront me with the ways that I cling to my own agenda and refuse to open myself to new experiences. But these dreams give me opportunities to notice the problems that result from this self-preoccupied behavior, and to practice exactly the kinds of responses that could lead to real change in the world.

As I reflect on these difficult dreams (the ones that tell me disagreeable truths about myself), I discover what works and what doesn’t work in my conduct toward others. I begin to catch myself perpetuating the problems of this world, and eventually I begin to take responsibiltiy for behaving differently. These dream experiences give me the chance to change myself. And when we share such dreams—without paralyzing shame, but with authentic remorse and the desire to see clearly, grow wiser, and be kinder—we can expand the process of real change exponentially.

No Nourishment for the Long Drive: Tonight, I’m leaving for the long drive “home.” I’m looking forward to the solitary drive, but I need to get a meal first, to fortify me for the journey. I go into a busy restaurant and sit at a central table with several people. I order my meal, and it arrives: an unappetizing plate full of pale orange tomato sauce with large meatball-like lumps under the sauce so I can’t really tell what they are. But it’s okay; it’s what I ordered. Briefly, I leave the table to get something (silverware? salt?) and when I return, my plate is gone. One of the women at the table has gone, too, and someone tells me that she sent back my dinner and ordered something “better” for me—something similar to her own, more special, meal. She’s a regular here and knows the menu, so she wanted to be sure I got a memorable meal. I’m annoyed that she took this liberty and now I have to wait a very long time for the new order to come.

I need to get on the road so that I won’t have to drive all night. I wait and wait, getting grumpier and grumpier. I consider just storming out and skipping dinner, but I’m really hungry and afraid I won’t handle the drive well if I haven’t eaten. Finally, the food arrives and it’s just a tiny plate with a little serving of something that looks oddly beautiful, but not satisfying. After I’ve apparently eaten it, I’m still hungry. There are some condiments and extras on a side table so diners can help themselves—at first, these look appealing and I think I can serve myself a plateful and fill up on that. But when I try to fill a plate, I find there’s not much here after all—just some overcooked vegetables in an oily sauce. I eat a few bites, but I’m still hungry and now I really need to leave on my long drive without any real sustenance.

I complain to another woman who apparently works here, grousing that the meal I got was probably more expensive than the meal I originally ordered, and I don’t feel like paying for food I didn’t order. The woman is very nice and immediately says that she (or the restaurant) will pay the difference, so I only need to pay for the meal I ordered. I’m taken aback, maybe embarrassed by her generosity, realizing how petty I was being… but I refuse her offer saying I don’t even know how much my original meal would have cost. Then I’m at the counter, to pay. An older woman rings up my meal at the register and hands me the check—it’s way too much! I notice that one of the dishes listed is actually the meal eaten by the woman who ordered my meal. Now I’m really indignant and I say that I won’t pay for her meal, especially since she inconvenienced me so much. The restaurant women recognize that I shouldn’t pay, and start to redo the math, removing the extra meal from the check. Again, I feel a little ashamed of my own crankiness. I just want to get on the road, in my quiet car, for the long drive home.

I woke from this dream feeling disappointed, isolated, and incomplete. My fantasy of a peaceful, reflective “drive home” had been spoiled by the interference of others, and by my inability to find the nourishment I needed to enjoy the experience of my private journey.

Yet I recognized that this kind of feeling is all-too-common in the small world of middle class American white people. The dream-ego imagines that her spiritual journey is a solitary one, and that her goal is to get on the road, to retreat into the quiet of her own private car. She thinks she needs to get where she’s going, so she doesn’t notice where she actually is. She knows she’s hungry, but doesn’t understand what kind of hunger needs to be satisfied before she can “get on the road.” The food she ordered (and doesn’t get to eat) looks pretty unappetizing—yet she resents being forced to eat something unfamiliar, chosen by someone else. When she tries to “serve herself” some “extras,” she feels even more unsatisfied. The shared table in the midst of the busy world of this restaurant offers opportunities that she rejects. Nothing pleases her, and she doesn’t want to pay for anyone but herself. When she’s ready to drive home at last, she is not really equipped for the journey ahead, and has left something essential behind.

It’s painful to see my own narcissism reflected here. But it’s a narcissism that would be recognizable anywhere—just about everybody wants to have their own immediate desires satisfied, wants control of their individual life journey. The first thing I need to understand as I approach this dream is that the important journey “home” has already begun when I enter that busy restaurant. I’m so busy trying to get “on the road” that I don’t notice I’m on the road right now. Our day-to-day search for personal nourishment and satisfaction, at a shared table in the midst of the world’s unpredictability and bustling activity, is just as important as the intentional spiritual path. I’m on the path already, along with everyone else in that restaurant. The dream seems to stall as I become more and more preoccupied with trivial matters. But, while my attention is on my own displeasure, while I’m feeling wronged and dissatisfied, I’m missing the gifts and opportunities that are coming my way.

If I order what I think I want and need, I get a bland, barely adequate meal. But a stranger at the table offers me an alternative: something surprising, something special—a smaller serving, but one that’s created with care. It doesn’t satisfy me because I barely notice that I’m eating it. I want more. But, really, no matter what I serve myself, it will never be enough. When I complain, I’m met with kindness. Yes, life is hard and we’re often hungry for more than we’ve been given, but we only have to pay for what we’ve ordered ourselves. This isn’t a dream about real starvation, real deprivation and suffering, it’s about the suffering and hunger we cause ourselves because we’ve refused to be nourished by the abundance that’s available.

When I share this dream with others, they commiserate with me, because it’s a pretty dreary story and it’s all I’ve got to share today. Yes, sometimes our dreams aren’t much fun—we all agree. But as the dreamwork unfolds, we pay attention to the possibilities that gleam softly in the dark corners of that dream restaurant. We recognize the dream-ego’s goals as our own, and we feel some compassion for her—but we also recognize that she isn’t going to be satisfied by the kind of food she’s been looking for, and she isn’t going to change unless she wakes up.

I know how I want to respond to this dream when I wake up. I want to go back and meet the other people who are sitting at the table with me. I want to thank the woman who ordered me a different meal, and the woman who offered to pay the difference, and the servers and cashier and cooks. I want to appreciate every bite of what I get to eat, and leave the extras for somebody else. I want to pay for my own meal, and more. Maybe, when I’m ready to get on the road again, I want to offer someone a ride—we could share the driving, so it wouldn’t be so hard to drive all night. If I dream this bigger dream, it won’t change the world tomorrow—but it will change me. And if I can change, we all can change, because there’s no such thing as a solitary spiritual journey. If we’re going to “dream the change,” we’re going to dream it together.

Fight, Flight, Freeze… or Flow?

In a recent dream, I experienced several ways of responding to chaotic and frightening circumstances:

Dangers and Discovery: I’m in a forest as it gets dark and the wind rises. The tall trees are swaying and creaking, and several come crashing down quite nearby! Frightened, I try to find shelter, scampering around looking for a safe place. One of the fallen trees is apparently dead and rotten. It breaks apart as it crashes to the ground, and a beehive inside bursts open. Shiny black bees swarm out. I run desperately and they follow… But gradually, the swarm disperses and I return to the fallen tree. I search through the fragments of rotten trunk and broken branches, and find a chunk of heartwood that is soft and pulpy on one side, but smooth, hard, rounded and beautifully-grained, like polished agate or petrified wood on the other side. It is very special. I realize that the falling trees, swarm of bees, rotten wood, and this precious gift are all part of an initiation for young girls. I’m part of it, in my own way, as an older woman.

This dream coincided with some thoughts I’ve been having about our instinctive and natural reactions and responses to threatening situations. What happens when we get past our first fearful reactions, and respond instead with curiosity and openness? In the dream, this exploratory process is an initiation for girls. While traditional initiations for boys usually involve overcoming or standing up to our fears, perhaps a female form of initiation might allow for a variety of more complex responses. Both boys and girls, both men and women, might benefit from honoring all the choices that are available to us when we are confronted with crises or uncertainties. When we recognize that every situation offers alternatives, and we can choose our responses, we are entering into maturity, finding our place in this wild and wind-blown world.

When confronted with an unwanted experience, we respond instinctively in ways that reflect our most basic options—commonly called “fight or flight,” sometimes with a third possibility, to “freeze.” These responses evolved to cope with direct threats to our survival, and for the most part, they don’t serve us well when we are faced with difficult, complex interpersonal situations in the modern world.

These days, the basic instinctive responses might look a bit different from the prehistoric scenarios. Fight might not mean literally throwing a punch or a spear, but instead just throwing a tantrum, resisting, blaming, complaining, disrupting. Flight might not mean literally running away, but instead avoiding, denying, refusing, distracting. Freeze might not mean literally playing dead, hiding or becoming a “deer in the headlights,” but instead spacing out, going numb, dissociating, ignoring. Such strategies can be effective as immediate reactions to a shock, giving us a little distance from whatever unpleasantness is confronting us—but as long-term strategies, they are not only unsustainable, but potentially destructive. In the dream, I tried fleeing… but this didn’t really get me anywhere.

When we keep fighting, fleeing or freezing in response to the things that happen to us, we end up threatening others and setting off similar reactions in those around us. When I ran away, the bees seemed to chase me—if I hadn’t run, what then? When conditions are stressful, as in the United States under the current administration, the entire population can seem to be engaged in nothing but fighting, fleeing or freezing. Nothing works, and no one is happy or safe under these circumstances.

But there’s another response in our repertoire, which I believe is just as instinctive, just as natural, as the fight, flight or freeze response. We also have the capacity to respond to threats with flow. What does flow look like?

Flow is our resilience, creativity, adaptability. Flow is our capacity to respond to a threat or problem—and the accompanying rush of adrenaline—with curiosity, or humor, or surrender, or improvisation, or compassion, or investigation, or determination, as appropriate to the circumstances. Continue reading

Seeing With Fresh Eyes: Finding Healing in “Problem Dreams”

Sometimes, dreams just seem to show us where we are stuck—blatantly and unhelpfully highlighting our struggles and suffering. What is the point of such dreams? Waking life can be stressful enough without reenacting our problems when we are trying to get some restful sleep. I’m having a lot of these “problem dreams” lately, and even though I usually wake up from them feeling discouraged, I’m finding that these dreams always contain powerful healing if I can get past my initial resistance and take a closer look.

My most recent problem dreams have had to do with my deteriorating health, and the changes in my body that sometimes bring me to the edge of existential despair. I’m coping with a neuro-muscular disease that has been steadily progressing over the past year, and although the life-threatening aspects of this disease (heart damage and stroke risk) are stable for now, there are several less dramatic symptoms (muscle spasms and weakness, digestive trouble, intense fatigue) that drain my life force. It can be difficult to keep my spirits up, and everyday obstacles can seem insurmountable.

In many of my dreams, I’m trying to pack for an important journey but can’t get it together: there’s too much “stuff”—more than I can carry. Everything is just too hard. On top of this hard work, there are always other dream figures who are suffering. I feel their pain, but can’t do anything about it. My dreams are full of pathetic, bedraggled, wasted characters who embody my own physical misery in all-too-obvious ways. So how am I supposed to respond?

This seems like an impasse, but it’s not. When I look at these miserable dreams from a different angle, they can open my eyes. In a previous post [Feel It In My Bones: A Dream Experience of the Body] I wrote about how the physical condition of dream figures can reflect the physical condition of our own bodies—and how relating to those figures with compassion and respect can help us relate to our physical selves. So here’s an example of one of those dreams. In this case, compassion and respect come easily, but a sad, hard outcome still seems inevitable:

The Hawk Who Can’t Fly: …Oddly, there’s a a hawk standing on the pavement between buildings. Not perched on a branch, just standing there in the open. Although she has plain brown plumage and markings, and is quite small, her presence is powerful, and her eyes are bright and fierce. But something is wrong. Her wings are spread (as if she were flying) and one looks crooked and withered while the other has large torn gaps. Clearly, she has been seriously injured. She can’t fly, but also can’t even fold her wings to rest. The injuries don’t look fresh, so she has been surviving for quite some time like this, and appears fairly healthy for now. How has she managed to feed herself? I imagine she’s been picking up scraps, though there’s not much food that would appeal to a hawk here. Maybe people have been feeding her? Hawks needs to be able to hunt, and it’s difficult for them to eat food that isn’t alive, so this seems like a miserable existence. I’m so sorry to see her suffering this way. Should I try to feed her? Or maybe it would be better if she died quickly, since her death is inevitable. She isn’t looking at me, but I feel the intensity of her gaze.

My first impression of this dream was that it painfully illustrated my own dilemma: I need to fly, but even my wings (my strengths) have become an encumbrance. I can’t get off the ground, and I can’t even rest. My food (daily routine) is lifeless and doesn’t nourish me. I’m leading a miserable existence, not sure it’s worth the effort. Well, okay. That is how I feel on bad days. Sometimes, the broken bird is just broken. The dream seems to end with a whimper.

But I’ve still got a few dreamwork tricks to try. Let’s see what happens when I pay attention to the dream itself, instead of my predictable assumptions about broken birds and sad stories.

When I imagine what might happen next if the dream continued, I think of trying to feed the hawk, helping her fold her wings so she can rest, or even “putting her out of her misery” by gently euthanizing her—allowing her to transcend her problems through death. None of these problem-solving possibilities seem to fit with the dream itself, however. The hawk has no interest in my efforts to save her. Similarly, my own health issues seem indifferent to my urgency and concern, and the things that I try to do to fix myself—medical appointments, tests, therapies, medications—have no apparent influence on my condition. Trying so hard to solve these problems, I find myself in the same situation as the dream-ego in the dream: my genuine compassion and respect for my own body (or the hawk) seems tainted by feelings of pity, frustration and hopelessness.

Are problem dreams like this one just meant to torment us? Of course not. So, instead of buying the obvious premise that these “problems” need solving, let’s look instead at what the dream has to say. To find the core issues in a dream, it’s always useful to pay attention to anomalies or questions within the dream itself. Although dreams don’t always make sense by waking life standards, they have a kind of internal consistency, and things that don’t seem to fit are not accidental. In this dream, there’s a crippled raptor who can’t hunt for herself, yet she seems healthy and “her eyes are bright and fierce.” If her condition is so awful, how has she survived? How has she sustained herself? Clearly, there is something about her situation that is not consistent with the way I have understood the “problem.”

This leads to another important insight: Particularly with problem dreams where the dream-ego is thinking and behaving in ways that lead to an impasse (reflecting a similar waking life impasse), don’t assume that the dream-ego is always right about what is going on and what should be done about it. The dream-ego (the “I” character in the dream) usually follows the dreamer’s expectations and reinforces the dreamer’s beliefs about life’s limitations—but other characters in the dream may represent different perspectives, different possibilities. When the dream-ego’s point-of-view leads to a dead end, other characters or circumstances in the dream may be giving the dreamer an opportunity to see a different picture, tell a different story.

So, I ask myself: How is this hawk surviving and even thriving? The answer is immediate, surprising, and consistent with the information the dream presents, rather than with my expectations. I expect the hawk to be miserable, desperate, defeated, near death. But the hawk’s eyes are “bright and fierce.” What does she see? How does she see herself and her life? I’m stunned by the world that I see through those bright, fierce eyes.

The hawk sees herself as a hunter. For her, finding food and eating it—even if it’s “scraps”—is hunting, and she sees herself plunging on her prey, doing exactly what she was born to do. The hawk embodies the spirit of a raptor, a formidable bird. For her, keeping her wings open means that she is flying—she is always flying. Even while standing on the pavement, she feels the air moving through her feathers in the smooth swerve of flight. The hawk has acute perceptions, powerful vision. For her, the world is vivid, clear, enticing, expansive, even if it’s just the narrow paved alley between buildings. The hawk is wild and free. For her, pain and disability are just part of life. Death will eventually be part of life, too. She is not crippled or desperate. As long as she is alive, she is fully alive.

If I take this hawk as my teacher instead of seeing her as a victim, I am able to experience the fullness of my life, even when my wings seem heavy and my world seems small. I can see what the hawk sees, with her bright, fierce eyes. Our limitations do not define us. Our dreams may show us those apparent limitations, but they also show us that we are wild and free.

Can we open our wings? The next time you feel oppressed by your own problems—hurt, tired, helpless—ask yourself to see as the hawk sees. Ask yourself who you are, and how you might live this life you’ve been given. Dream your wings wide open. Whether you know it or not, you are always flying.

 

Believing in the Dream

Do I really believe that dreams are meaningful, and that they are always (at least potentially) healing and helpful? Well, yes and no. I believe that my beliefs are beside the point.

Like everything else that we experience, dreams offer us opportunities to relate and respond to events, relationship dynamics, and our own emotions. Regardless of whether or not we believe that our existence has a larger spiritual “meaning,” our life experiences (including our dreams) are truly meaningful when we treat them as if they were meaningful. Experiences may be wonderful, terrible, ridiculous or confusing—it doesn’t really matter what we believe about them, or even how we feel about them—if we seek guidance, growth, creativity and connection through those experiences, then they can become healing and helpful. I don’t actually have to “believe” in the intrinsic goodness or wisdom of something in order to experience it fully and find it valuable.

On a daily basis, I find myself investing deeply in my beliefs about the nature of my life experiences. I hear a news story about environmental devastation or social injustice and I believe that I’m trapped in a nightmare where I absolutely must take action but really can’t influence the situation no matter what I do. Or, I take a long walk in the park on a sunny, breezy day, greeting my neighbors (and their dogs) and believe that it’s easy to appreciate every moment. Or, I talk to a friend who has just suffered a terrible loss, and I believe that she is going to be okay, or that losses are inevitable, or that I don’t know how to respond, or…

All of these beliefs are “true,” in a way—but not particularly useful. As soon as I hold a belief about something, it limits me. If I’ve decided that this is the way things are, then that belief sets me up to see everything in a certain light. Beliefs lead to more beliefs. Some are just passing thoughts, but others get bolstered by an array of arguments, which interlock neatly to form an entire system of thought. Beliefs may contradict each other, but then I can somehow manage to find arguments to make them fit.

Even now, I’m writing this article about my belief that believing isn’t a good idea. Darn it.

This is where dreams make a difference. Dreams demonstrate that “believing” is a moving target. What am I seeing? How did this happen? Where is it going? Why did he do that? In dream-sharing groups, when we first hear a dream, our impulse is to figure it out and believe something about it. As soon as someone suggests a meaning that seems to make sense, we all tend to create variations on that theme. It all fits together… doesn’t it? But why is there an octopus and not a giraffe? Why does one of the table legs have stripes? Why are we eating oatmeal when we’re supposed to be at a funeral? What is that peculiar green mark on her forehead? There are always elements that don’t quite fit. Continue reading

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

Some Bad News, Some Good News: Working with “Bad” Dreams

nightmares-01Some dreams can seem like really “bad news.” Of course, this won’t be news to anyone. Sure, we’ve all had unpleasant, uncomfortable, disgusting, disturbing, frustrating dreams. Most of us have had a few frightening nightmares, too.

Many spiritual traditions recognize that some things which seem to be poison can also be medicine. Even western medical science recognizes this—an obvious example being how poisonous chemotherapy can be medicine for cancer. (Incidentally, while I was on chemo, I noticed that the mosquitos didn’t bite me!) Yes, it’s true that dreams bring us lots of experiences that can feel like poison, but even the worst dreams also have the potential to be beneficial.

In the last post [“No Bad Dreams”] I explored some of the good news about bad dreams. But I would certainly acknowledge that nightmares really do seem awfully nightmarish, and in order to find the good news within the bad news, we need to start with some tools and skills to help us understand the dream differently. The dreamworker doesn’t just turn lead into gold by telling the lead that it should be gold. There are ways and means, gleaned from study, practice, and experimentation, which can make dreamwork seem like magic—and actually work wonders.

I always start with the assumption that any “bad” dream could potentially be a good dream—so  this particular dream deserves my attention and curiosity. Such an assumption is like an invitation to the dream: “I’m listening. You don’t have to shout (or spit, or threaten, or bite, or throw a tantrum). We’re on the same side, and I want to hear what you have to say.”

Lets consider some ways of working with those “bad” dreams. Over the course of my own career in dreamwork, I’ve developed a few approaches that seem to be helpful, and I’ve drawn upon the experience and wisdom of other practitioners as well. Here are some suggestions: Continue reading

Dreaming of Homelessness, Part 4: A Larger Perspective

homeless-4-pilgrimThere are so many ways to look at a dream, so many possible meanings. The “truth” about the dream is finally up to the dreamer—if a particular approach resonates for the dreamer, then that approach is meaningful and valuable. However, some approaches to dreams, and some kinds of meanings, have a value that transcends the dreamer as an individual. Some dream images and stories can be universally recognized, and some ways of looking at a dream invite us all to participate in the dream’s wisdom, creativity, and abundance.

In the last three posts, I’ve been exploring my own recent dream about homelessness in ways that give me new insights into myself and my life. I hope that those insights may also speak to others, but the dreamwork approaches I applied were derived from my own feelings about the dream’s story and my own associations with its images. In this final post of the series, I’ll be listening for the voices within the dream that need to be heard, not only by me, but by all of us.

In the waking world and in the dream world, some voices come through loud and clear (especially those that align with our personal agendas), while those that disagree with us, or mumble in the background, or speak in whispers or foreign languages, or through silence or “nonsense”—are likely to be ignored. In my dream, there’s a homeless man whose point of view is hard to hear—which makes sense since most of us aren’t in the habit of listening to people like him. He doesn’t say much out loud, but his actions and attitudes can tell us a lot.

Here’s the dream one more time—and let’s pay attention to the perspective of “the homeless man” (for the full dream, see “Dreaming of Homelessness, Part One”):

The Homeless Man Will Lose His Papillon: A homeless man who is our friend comes to our door 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’m leaving out the final scene about the dog’s potential future, since I’ve explored that pretty thoroughly in previous posts. It seems that the dog will find a home, but what will happen to the man? Will he return to the streets alone? Or will the separation allow him a new freedom, and perhaps even a chance to have a home of his own?

When I took the dream literally [in Part One], the focus was on my shame and guilt over how painfully unsatisfactory the “only solution” is for the homeless man. Separating him from his dog may relieve him of the burden of taking care of her, but it also leaves him without a companion to share his hard life. This certainly reflects a real-world problem, but doesn’t really give the dream figure of the homeless man room to be more than an unresolved case for social services.

When I looked at the dream symbolically [in Parts Two and Three], I focused on the way that the dog, and the dreamer (me), were transformed by finding a new way of relating to home, and began to consider what the “homeless man” might represent. I wrote:

“From this perspective, the man represents an identity that has become exhausted, worn down, unsustainable. This ‘homeless’ identity has been ‘out in the cold’ and is finally being acknowledged, invited inside, and given care and attention. Along with the care and attention comes a realization that the soul (the papillon) cannot survive if she remains connected to this identity. The soul needs a new home, which her companion (the homeless figure) is no longer able to provide.”

What does the homeless figure himself have to say about this? Well, in the dream, he doesn’t speak, but still communicates eloquently. It is significant that the dream opens with his willingness to reach out for help. His vulnerability is dignified, as he appears “at the door,” in need, and turns himself over to his friends (my partner and I) in the expectation that his needs will be met. If I see the dream from his perspective, I can see that he has made a choice to step forward and put himself and his dog in our care—and, in dream terms, this choice could be considered a “willing sacrifice.” He is giving up his life as he has known it, at least for one night, and doing this for the sake of other, more important, concerns: immediate comfort and safety, and perhaps a new life. Continue reading

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