Compass Dreamwork

Dreamwork as Spiritual Practice

Category: Group Dreamwork

Working with a dream-sharing group

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.

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

What Actually Happens In A Dream Group?

dream circle 01

Dream images come to life among us…

Last week I played with the metaphor of a dream group being like a happy gathering of dogs in the off-leash zone (“Dream Groups and the Doggy Jamboree”). I took the metaphor and ran with it—like a dog with another dog’s squeaky toy—and maybe got a bit carried away. Of course, a dream group is not just a free-for-all romp. Among other things, it’s a mutual opportunity to share experiences. Often, in the process of this sharing, unexpected and indescribable events occur. Although I can’t describe the indescribable (I gave it a shot with the doggy jamboree metaphor), I can at least mention some of my own recent experiences with groups.

The groups I facilitate meet in a classroom, in the local Quaker meetinghouse. The room has lots of windows and a high ceiling—and although it is small, it feels spacious and light-filled most of the time. We move the big tables to one side, and sit in a circle of chairs near the windows (trying to arrange things so that no one gets the sun in their eyes).

At the beginning, we “check in” briefly. After several sessions of meeting together, we know each other, and we also begin to recognize images and themes that have a tendency to come up in each person’s dreams as well as in their waking lives. We’ve come to know some of the things we have in common, and some of our individual special qualities. We catch up with anything new that is arising, and sometimes find it’s arising not only for one person, but for several, or all, of us. Maybe it’s a time of feeling too busy; or a time of losses and letting go; or a time of reconnecting with old friends; or a time for a fresh start. A shared theme can emerge even when we are just giving the smallest glimpses of our daily lives.

Then, we go around the circle again, and each of us tells a brief dream. Like the check-in, there are common images and themes that come up, and already there’s a sense that a dreaming process is going on collectively as well as individually. For example, in one group, several people dreamed of babies—human or animal—being born; in another group, the color blue kept being mentioned. Continue reading

Dream Groups And The Doggy Jamboree

Earlier this week, I participated in two dream groups—one is a group that I facilitate, and the other is with fellow dreamworkers on-line. Both groups are now at the point where the true alchemy of dream-sharing begins to work among us, and a living dreaming process takes shape with a life of its own. These group experiences leave me feeling invigorated and open. After the second one (on-line), I emerge from my office for lunch, and notice that it’s a windy, sunny, beautiful late-autumn afternoon. So I decide to forget further work for the time being, and take a walk in the park. Walking is a good way to let the dream group’s energy and insights bubble and spark inside me, while the cool, fresh air stimulates my senses, and the rhythmic pace of forward momentum steadies my thoughts.

There’s an open, grassy, off-leash area in the park where the dogs come (with their human companions) to meet and play. I stand for a while, watching. The atmosphere tingles as each new dog arrives and the leash is unclipped. At first, even the big Bernese Mountain Dog is shy. She keeps close to her human, while he stands sipping coffee and chatting with the others. But almost immediately, more dogs bound up. They stop a short distance from the Mountain Dog, tails wagging tentatively, legs a bit stiff. There are perky gestures with heads and ears, gentle woofs, and soon a general sniffing and greeting and all the tails are wagging enthusiastically.

Then, one bright little terrier jumps to attention and shoots off like a rocket, and everybody explodes into motion. Dogs chase; dogs bound and roll in the grass; dogs tumble over each other and leap up barking. The humans whistle or call if things get out of hand, and occasionally throw a ball, but mostly they aren’t needed. The dogs are having fun, building and affirming relationships, learning from each other, and feeling the freedom of infinite possibilities.

Of course, because I’m thinking about dream group dynamics anyway, I make the connection: a good dream group can be like this doggy jamboree. The “humans” could be the participants’ conscious minds and waking identities: aware of the rules and roles, good-hearted and willing to go along. They want their “dogs”—their deeper, dreaming selves—to get some exercise and have a nice time. Continue reading

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