Compass Dreamwork

Dreamwork as Spiritual Practice

Tag: archetypes

Dreams of the Living Dead

I mentioned in the last post (“‘No Feeling Is Final’: Healing Beyond Feelings’”) my recent dream about fighting “two terrifying eight-foot-tall living corpses”—zombies! Dreams about zombies, or “the living dead” seem to be getting more common these days. What is that all about? In addition to this dream of mine, I’ve had at least one other zombie dream, and have heard at least three more such dreams from different people I work with, in the past year. I’ve also read references to zombie dreams all over the place.

Of course, zombies are big in popular culture right now—movies, comic books, toys… Yuck. The image of animated corpses lurching and moaning (or ominously silent) seems to be no more than an invitation for our violently over-stimulated society to revel in gruesomeness and gore. And, as a cultural icon, they might represent our modern illusion that we can keep our physical bodies going, even beyond death. Or they might refer to our technology, which can be as mindless and relentless as animated corpses hungering to eat our brains. Or they might refer to our materialistic appetites and dedication to distraction, which drive the corpse-like ego on and on without mind, spirit, or soul.

But I haven’t been watching zombie movies, and neither have the others I know who are having zombie dreams. True, we’re immersed in popular culture, whether we like it or not—but we’re not saturated by the images and we don’t take those cultural messages at face value. So why are we dreaming of the living dead?

In two earlier posts (“Monsters In My Dreams,” and “More Monster Dreams”) I described how monsters of all kinds relate to a primal fear of death. This isn’t necessarily a fear of physically dying, but a larger resistance to the natural process of death/loss essential to the ongoing, ever-changing nature of growth and life. Fear of death is really just fear of change, since all change involves death. Something must end in order for something new to begin—and, in fact, the ending process and the beginning process are inseparable. Continue reading

Dream Nemesis or Dream Teacher?

Toby 01Last night, my cat, Toby, woke me up with his hollering. He is deaf, and so can be oblivious to the noise he is making—reporting on his night-time activities in a very loud voice: “I’m on the bookcase, way up high! I’m pushing this heavy thing over the edge! [Crash!— the bowl of small change hits the floor.] Wow! Jumping down now! Hey, look, at all these shiny things! There’s some under the chair! Oh boy, I found my ball! [Whack! Scamper! Bang!] I ran into the door but I’m okay! Are you in there? Will you come out and throw my ball?” This goes on and on.

Just as I’m slipping back into sleep, Toby lets out another happy bellow or hunting cry. After being shocked awake three or four times, my adrenaline is pumping and it’s almost impossible to relax and ignore him. On nights like this, Toby is my Nemesis. My adorable little friend is taking the form of an awful, disruptive force, preventing me from doing what I want to do: Get some sleep! I can shout at him all I want (he’s deaf, remember?)—and it doesn’t do any good. It feels like a bad dream. Do you ever have dreams like this?

In dreams, the Nemesis character can be as innocent as Toby, or as demonic as a nightmare murderer. The Nemesis can be an annoyance, or a challenge, or a major threat. But, overall, when your Nemesis appears in a dream, like when Toby has a busy, noisy night, you are bound to be bothered. This is the character that “pushes your buttons”—making you feel things you don’t want to feel and do things you don’t want to do. Continue reading

Dream Catalysts and Witnesses

In the previous post, I focused on the dream figure of the Companion, who can represent our essential connectedness with others, and with life itself. Dream figures that serve as Companions, or as Messengers, Guides, and Guardians, tend to have strong individual characteristics, and can seem to be independent entities with their own reasons for taking part in any particular dream. Some other dream figures, such as Witnesses and Catalysts, can seem more objective, even neutral. Although they play meaningful roles in our dreams, they may not seem to have great significance in themselves.

A couple of years ago, when I was coping with a lot of change, I had a series of dreams in which I saved, or tried to save, a child from drowning. Sometimes these children were girls, sometimes boys, and they ranged in age from about two to about 10. They were children of diverse ethnicities, from various parts of the world (the Netherlands, North Africa, North America, Central America, Southeast Asia )—and seemed to represent “children” or “childhood” rather than any individual child in particular.

In the dreams, I often had intense, personal interactions with the child’s mother or father, but never with the child—except in one instance where I was carrying the little one out of a flood, when our eyes met. I felt a profound sense of love and awe at the beauty of this small being, who seemed to change gender and age continuously as I held him/her. This dream marked the last in the series, and after that I had a number of dreams in which a child played a much more personal role.

Part of the definition of a “catalyst” (according to the American Heritage Dictionary) is “One that precipitates a process or event, especially without being involved in or changed by the consequences.” I would call the anonymous children in danger of drowning in my dreams Catalysts, because they acted as the initiating cause or motivating energy for my actions in the dream, but had no personal response to the drama in which they were engaged, no apparent investment in the outcome. Each of these impersonal Catalyst characters changed the direction of the dream, and their presence evoked a sense of urgency (perhaps the emergent need to save something/someone child-like in myself and in the world around me, through my work), which “precipitated” a process of personal transformation for me in waking life. Continue reading

Dream Companions

shadows 01Following up on the theme of dream figures that I’ve been exploring in the last two posts (“The True Nature of Dream Figures,” and “Dream Messengers, Guides, And Guardians”): Another type of dream figure that can play a significant role in our lives is the Companion.

I’d define a dream Companion as a character—generally a human being, but sometimes another creature—who shares the experience of the dream with the dream-ego (the “I” character). The Companion often appears in my dreams in the guise of my partner, Holly, who is my regular companion in waking life. Within the dream, the Companion may also take the shape of a casual acquaintance, a stranger, the dreamer’s dog or cat (or gerbil, parakeet, iguana, etc.) or someone from the dreamer’s past (such as a childhood best friend, or a former partner). And in the dream, the “companionship” may be friendship and camaraderie, a family-like bond, or romantic intimacy.

Who is it, in waking life, that you want to tell when something exciting or painful or frightening or joyful happens to you? Who is it that shares your experiences? That person, or those people, may appear in your dreams as the Companion. Or, if something new is arising in your life and becoming important to you, the Companion may take a form associated with that new thing—representing your relationship to that aspect of your life. For example, when I was learning a set of new skills that inspired and challenged me, I dreamed of a close friendship with a fellow student I barely knew, someone who seemed especially interested in the areas I was just discovering.

When the dream Companion takes the form of a lover—with “companionship” that includes sexual intimacy—there may be a particularly intense longing for connection with whatever this Companion represents. Often, for me, a dream lover (however inappropriate the person playing this role may seem) has some characteristic of an aspect of myself that I am opening up to at a new level. Sexual energy in a dream can be a metaphor for spiritual energy—the life force, expressed as the coming-together of apparently distinct beings to create a whole that is more than the sum of its parts, an energy that transcends our “separate” selves. 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

Two Basic Dreamwork Skills

Dreamwork is more of an art than a science. And like most arts, even a beginner can use the basic tools in a creative way and come out with satisfying results. Of course, this assumes that the medium itself doesn’t require specialized skills (a beginner couldn’t do much with a chisel and a block of marble)—but even though dreamwork can seem daunting at first, exploring and experimenting with the essential medium of dreams comes as naturally to most human beings as playing with modeling clay, or clapping a rhythm, or making up a story.

To become a real artist of dreamwork (an ongoing process, rather than a final identity), like becoming a real sculptor or drummer or fiction writer, requires intensive practice and the cultivation of individual abilities. But the first steps are easy for anyone, and if you can grasp a couple of basics, you can easily play around with dreams, have fun, learn a lot, and even impress people with your terrific insight! Continue reading

Death Dreams Are Healing Dreams

To conclude this series of articles on the theme of death dreams and Mystery, I want to emphasize the most significant thing about dreams associated with death: death dreams are healing dreams.

In a sense, all dreams are healing dreams—as Jeremy Taylor writes, they “come in the service of health and wholeness” (see Taylor’s “Dream Work Tool Kit,” #1). All dreams come from the perspective of our wholeness—sometimes referred to as the “Higher Self,” the Psyche, the Soul, the Atman, the “Inward Teacher,” the “Spirit Guide,” the Source, etc.—and show us both the struggles and fears that challenge us, and the larger potential for insight, openness, transcendence, and interconnectedness. In fact, dreams are not just showing us these things, but giving us a direct experience of them.

When a person is seriously ill, or facing a life-threatening crisis of some kind, he or she may have death dreams similar to the ones I’ve described in the previous posts (see “Walking In The Dark,” “Death Dreams And Open Fields,” “Not Knowing,” and “Journeys Into The Unknown”). Such dreams should not be viewed as warnings or predictions of death, or as messages with suggestions about how to avoid death, or as simple reflections of the body’s dying process—even though they may serve these river 01purposes.

Dreams go beyond the meanings that our conscious minds ascribe to them. Death dreams, in particular, do not align themselves with our conscious agendas—they give us experiences that point beyond those agendas. 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

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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