Compass Dreamwork

Dreamwork as Spiritual Practice

Tag: animals in dreams

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

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

Shamanic Spirit Helpers in Dreams and Journeys

wolf 01In the last article [“Dreaming and Journeying”], I mentioned that “it’s really impossible to talk about journeying without talking about the Spirit beings that share those journeys with us, as guides and companions.” Now, in the third post of my series about the shamanic perspective in dreamwork, I’d like to consider who these “Spirit Helpers” are, and to look at their relationship with us in dreaming and waking.

Shamanic practitioners (whether they are full-fledged shamans or not) explore other ways of experiencing reality—other worlds—through “journeying” in a trance state. In these journeys, they encounter a variety of Spirit beings, just as in our dreams we encounter various dream figures. Such beings regularly appear in animal or human form (though there are also elemental spirits, plant spirits, weather spirits, etc. that can take other forms).

Among these Spirit beings, journeyers will meet one or more who volunteer themselves as committed companions—generally because they have some connection with the journeyer’s life path, or because they have something unique to offer him or her. In the shamanic tradition, these Spirit beings who have chosen to become our individual companions are referred to by many names: Spirit Helpers, Power Animals, Spirit Guides, etc. Often, these companions appear in dreams as well as in journeys. [see “Dream Messengers, Guides, and Guardians”] Continue reading

Dream Messengers, Guides, and Guardians

cheetah 01I’m trying to write this post while watching the annual Oregon Humane Society telethon: a steady stream of incredible cats and dogs awaiting adoption—reminding me of the significant roles that animals can play in our lives and in our dreams. In the last post (“The True Nature of Dream Figures”), I introduced the idea of seeing dream figures—human or animal—as genuinely real and meaningful participants in the unfolding experience of life. Dream figures frequently have walk-on parts as Messengers, Guides, and Guardians—parts that are as often filled by animals as by humans.

In dreams, as in waking life, Messengers, Guides and Guardians tend to appear at turning points, or in transitional places, when we are most in need of their support.  Their messages, guidance, or protection can be obvious, or more subtle.

Regularly, when new ways of being are emerging in my life, I dream of shorelines, borderlands, or unfamiliar, dark places—with a tiger, lion, cheetah, or other big cat standing by. Twice, I’ve dreamed that a tiger actually comes up out of the water at the very place where I need to go into the water, and then seems to guard this place while I work up my courage to plunge in and do what I need to do. I have a sense, in these dreams, that the tiger will keep the way open while I explore the depths, and will be there waiting to acknowledge my return.

When people are near death, their waking or sleeping dreams tend to include Messengers, Guides and Guardians—often people or animals who have previously died. Several times, I’ve heard hospice patients say: “there’s a dog over there by the door, waiting for me.” In some cases, this is a beloved childhood pet—in others, the animal is unfamiliar, and the patient is not sure whether or not to trust this visitor. In the mythologies of many traditions, dogs carry messages between the land of the living and the land of the dead, or guard the gates of the underworld, or come to guide the recently deceased in crossing over. This is not unexpected, since dogs are commonly messengers, guides or guardians in waking life as well. Continue reading

The True Nature Of Dream Figures

mirror 1I sometimes imagine that I’d enjoy more dreams in which “I” am the only character, and can simply explore the dream landscape without complicated interactions with other dream figures. I sometimes even imagine that I’d enjoy having the whole waking world to myself for a day or two! But, really, waking or dreaming, the world would not be a very interesting place without other beings, other characters, to share it. In fact, there’s a sense in which we are all dreaming up—actually creating—our shared world together in each moment. Without a full cast of characters there’d be no play at all.

Dreams do occasionally seem to be solo performances, with only a single protagonist and no other obvious dream figures—but in such dreams even the “inanimate” objects, or features of the landscape, or even sounds and textures, can play the role of other characters in the dream drama. For the most part, however, our dreams are full of more obvious dream figures: people and creatures of all kinds that cocreate the context of the dream.

Often, we are just aware that there are others in the background of the dream scene—faceless fellow students in the classroom, fellow adventurers on the journey, fellow participants in the experience. Sometimes, such collective, indistinguishable dream figures provide an audience for the central action; sometimes they seem to be doing their own thing just off-stage. Who are all these people? They don’t stay in our memories individually any more than the members of a crowd at a concert—yet sometimes a face or a behavior stands out and turns these background “extras” into actual characters. And the dream figures that become actual characters sometimes return in dream after dream, or have such an impact on our emotions and imaginations that they become meaningful influences in our waking and dreaming lives. Continue reading

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