Compass Dreamwork

Dreamwork as Spiritual Practice

Author: kirstenbackstrom (page 1 of 16)

Noninterference In Healing And Dreamwork

The body’s capacity for healing amazes me. As I slowly recover from my spinal surgery (I had surgery on May 1st), I’m more and more aware that my primary task is not to help the healing along, but to trust that healing is happening, sometimes even in spite of my interference. 

My first experience of myself after surgery was of shocking physical damage. There was a puckered ten-inch incision down my back, held together with staples. There was a raw four-inch incision across my throat, held together with glue. Ten vertebrae in my upper spinal column had been pulled apart, rearranged, and bolted back together. Nerves and muscles and blood vessels in my neck and back had been severed. I couldn’t reposition myself in bed, turn my head, swallow properly or manage my own beleaguered senses. My heart sputtered under the strain, and I felt so sick, feeble and disoriented that I really couldn’t imagine ever being whole and strong again. 

Yet, almost immediately, the healing began. Soon, the wounds in my back and throat became neat seams. The chaotic sensory panic signals found a tentative rhythm, so my body’s communication became comprehensible again. Each day I felt better as I relaxed my ineffectual instinct to struggle against this experience. My body had been overwhelmed, but my body knew how to heal. All I could really do was cooperate, bear witness, and rest.

Before the surgery, with the progression of my neuro-muscular disease, it was almost impossible to believe in healing. No matter what I did or didn’t do, the symptoms steadily worsened. Yet healing was happening even then. Sometimes healing can be an increasingly profound spiral downward into the unknown, even into death. Or sometimes things just have to get worse before they can get better, and that’s how it was for me. The disease intensified to the tipping point, against my will, but in the post-surgical wreckage of my body, healing began to show itself as naturally as a green shoot breaking through rubble. Now, it seems to be growing easily in me. I’m not approaching death (not yet)—I’m relaxing into possibility. 

Five months after surgery, all of my current symptoms can be seen as forms of healing in themselves. The inflammation that causes me pain is actually promoting bone growth in my spine. My weakness and lethargy are my body’s call for patience; I truly need the rest that this fatigue imposes. My heart’s arrhythmias slow me down, because it’s good for me to go slowly. 

I’m not making this happen. Healing resists my interference. But noninterference can be active; it certainly doesn’t mean apathy. I’m fully engaged in recovery, and my noninterference includes caring deeply, using all of my senses to discern what to do and what not to do, how to nurture the green shoot of the moment as it spirals upward. 

I have a strong preference for long-term survival and physical well-being, of course—but ultimately it’s not up to me. Ultimately, I will die, even the earth will die, and when the time comes, it could be a kind of healing, a not-yet-conceivable transformation. However, as long as I’m alive, healing must include appreciation, and participation in the life force that sustains my body and the earth. Interference is always a lack of appreciation, a lack of respect which creates distortions in natural cycles and developmental processes that would otherwise resolve themselves in balance over time.

Dreams are healing processes, and good dreamwork is also about noninterference. I don’t think there can be any effective prescriptions for interpreting dreams, just as I don’t think there’s any medication or surgery that will “fix” my body permanently, or any intervention that will “fix” our planet. Dreamwork is a fluid process, not a “fixed” method. Dreams move in the direction of healing and wholeness—but the key word I’m using here is move. All healthy processes are changing, moving. “Fixing” invariably means interfering by interrupting that movement. 

If I claim that certain dream images always symbolize certain things, or that a dream’s meaning can be found only according to a particular method, or that there is only one correct meaning to be found in a dream, then I am interfering with the momentum that makes the dream what it is. A dream is a changing, unfolding, un-pin-downable experience. We can’t “fix” it or define it without violating its wholeness and preventing its potential. Yet dreamwork through noninterferenceinvites engagement, commitment, and patience with our own unknowing. 

As I heal, I’m being invited to trust. I’m being invited to enjoy my life, with all of its discomforts and upheavals, and even with the inevitable unknown potential of its ending. As I explore dreams, I’m being invited to enjoy the sometimes disturbing and confusing impressions that those dreams make when they break through the rocky soil of my life and grow wild, escaping my understanding. I can nurture the green sprouts of healing possibilities, through trust and appreciation, without interfering at all.

Out-of-Body: A Mystery

During my hospitalization in May (following spinal fusion surgery), I had an “out-of-body experience” that was on the threshold of a “near-death experience.” It wasn’t a dream, though it may seem somewhat dream-like as I describe it:

I’m sitting up uncomfortably in bed, trying to remember how to eat and drink. My partner Holly is feeding me tiny bites of food. Swallowing is painful, exhausting and scary. I’ve choked several times already, but I think I’m managing okay. Holly turns away for a moment while I rest between bites, and suddenly… I’m up near the ceiling. The room is whirling slowly, as if I am on a merry-go-round, or as if I am weightlessly turning in space. Everything looks much clearer than normal—stunningly bright and gorgeously detailed. The upper panes of the tall windows come into view, dazzling me with sunlight and sky. I can’t ordinarily see that part of the room from my bed, but there it is. The pocked surface of the ceiling tiles, the lintel of the bathroom door and the gap of the doorway pass by. The television mounted high on the wall shows a PBS children’s program with Buddy the adorable orange dinosaur grinning and revealing his T-Rex teeth (rounded, cartoon teeth, that don’t look dangerous). The room is fascinating, lovely, as it swings around and around, suspended, like a mobile in a warm breeze. What is happening? I wonder, but I’m not worried. Then Holly is shouting my name, shouting at me to breathe. There’s a a loud buzzing and everything becomes harsher and blurrier than it was a moment ago. I’m back in bed. Holly is leaning toward me, her face desperate. I try to reassure her, though I don’t know what’s going on. She apparently called for help, and now the room fills with people. I try to explain, but I can’t explain. Someone else explains what they saw on the monitor: my heart stopped for seven seconds. My heart still isn’t working right. It feels awful. Now, there are plenty of things to worry about. My heart is in atrial flutter, my blood pressure is way too low… Did I choke? What caused this, and what if it happens again? Soon my bed is jolted into motion by a team of young men and I’m clattering through the halls at high speed on the way to the ICU, leaving Holly behind.

Although the “out-of-body experience” itself had been curiously pleasant, it was soon tainted by the nightmarish days that followed. I kept asking myself the same unanswerable, existential questions over and over, “What happened? How could it happen so suddenly, without any warning? What if I’d died?” My body was a precarious place to be. 

I didn’t die, and the separation between my body and me lasted less than a minute, but the experience was so fundamentally strange that I couldn’t leave it alone. Unlike slipping into the alternate reality of ordinary sleep, I’d been catapulted right out of my identity—still in the same room, but no longer in my body, no longer in my own life at all. If the separation had continued, where would I have been? Not whirling around the ceiling in that hospital room forever. There wasn’t enough of “me” to grasp—but the world (even the orange dinosaur on television) was so clear and complete in itself that it didn’t seem to matter what happened next. In the midst of the out-of-body experience, I perceived the world as a puzzling and pervasive sweetness. But immediately after it was over, I started grappling with the mystery: How could I have perceived anything without my body? Who experienced this experience? Certainly not the same helpless, frightened and wretched patient who was tormented by these questions in the ICU afterward.

In the three months that have passed since this experience, the big mystery of “not knowing” has become a lot less traumatic than it felt at first. Instead of being preoccupied with relentless questions, I keep remembering the ease of that sparkling, turning world, where I wasn’t embodied and no questions needed answering. The strain of surgery and hospitalization had triggered some cardiac arrhythmias that briefly disconnected my body from the directed flow of my life and myself—as if I’d been unplugged. Somehow, I was still present to experience the unplugging. But I don’t know whether that was death, or just a glimpse of what it’s like not to be entirely corporeal. We are never entirely corporeal anyway. Our dreams allow us to forget our physical bodies, or at least to perceive them differently, on a regular basis—yet this was nothing like a dream. In a dream, the world is insubstantial (even though the dream seems real), but in this out-of-body experience, the world was acutely manifest, while I was nothing but awareness.

The world I see from my everyday perspective is somewhat blurry, distorted by my well-worn 59-year-old eyes and habitual expectations. Yet somehow, without physical eyes, I “saw” this world with the dazzling clarity of pure vision. My body was confined to the bed, and I couldn’t turn my head (due to the spinal fusion), but somehow I saw—accurately—parts of the room that I couldn’t have seen through my physical eyes. How is this possible? I don’t know. Why was everything going around and around? I don’t know. I was a point-of-view rather than a personality, yet this “point-of-view” had distinct characteristics and a way of experiencing that surprised me. Whatever “I” was, I could be surprised! Not knowing, and not needing to know, made this constantly shifting perspective feel spacious, fresh, and quite easy; in its enchanting impossibility, it was perfectly real.

Having seen the world in this way, there’s an opening for me now. As I recover my strength, resume my work, and see my life from a new perspective with a newly healing body, I’m finding that the easiest and best response to every question I encounter is, “I don’t know.” How has the ordeal of serious illness and major surgery changed me? I don’t know. Where will I go from here? I don’t know. How should I respond to the thousands of tiny, pleasant and unpleasant surprises I encounter every day? I really don’t know. Though I find myself responding, one way or another, to each moment, there’s nothing I “should” do or be. I really don’t need to be certain about anything. It’s delightfully liberating, not knowing. There’s space—like sky—between the cloudy, complicated questions. Instead of defining and redefining myself and my circumstances, coming up with plans and explanations, I often find myself floating, weightless, in slow circles, just looking at the world as it drifts around me. Can I be a point-of-view rather than a personality? When my mind gets snagged on something and starts grappling again, can I remind myself that uncertainty is not a problem? I don’t know. And that’s fine.

The Body’s Metamorphosis: Posture & Stance As Dreams

The countdown has begun, and my body knows it. In a few days, I’ll be going into the hospital for a major spinal surgery, and probably won’t be home again for several weeks. When I do get home, after hospitalization and rehabilitation, my body will not be the same; it will not be this body. Not only will I have nine fused vertebrae and a permanently straight spine, but I’ll also have a different stance relative to the world around me, other people, and myself. I will have to stand, sit, and lie down differently. I won’t be able to move in familiar ways, and I might be able to move in new ways, or in ways that I haven’t moved in years. Putting on my socks, washing my hair, feeding the cats, reading a book, hugging Holly and my friends, walking, eating, sleeping, maybe even dreaming… everything will be different. 

While my mind is trying to tell me that this is just a medical procedure, a repair job, no big deal—my body knows better. As soon as the surgery date was finally set after months of waiting, my body figured out what was about to happen and, like a dog who gets wind of the fact that she is about to be taken to the vet, my body reacted with visceral, physical fear—shivering, glancing around furtively for a place to hide, losing appetite and concentration, flinching at small sounds. While my mind tries to calm me down, my body remembers past surgeries and injuries. She knows what’s coming. 

It is impossible to separate myself from this body, and I wouldn’t want to. The body has a kind of clarity that is expressed in her instant response to cues in her environment. I depend upon the way she breathes and lives without the mind’s conscious guidance, the way she feels truths from the inside, the way she moves into action on my behalf, her courage and cowardice, her competence and clumsiness, her compassion and raw vulnerability. These qualities are the body’s language, and also fundamental aspects of the person I believe myself to be. So, no matter what my mind tries to tell me, when my body is changed by this surgery, there is going to be an essential change in who I am.

Posture and stance and gait make us recognizable to others, almost as much as facial features do. When I had extensive radiation treatments for cancer in my thirties, the molecular disruption began to work on my body gradually, over so many years that the physical changes were not much different from the ordinary changes of aging. Slowly, my muscles got weaker, my heart had to work harder to keep up, my shoulders slumped, and my neck eased into a curve. Then, three years ago, the changes sped up. My posture deteriorated noticeably, and I began to develop ways of moving to compensate for the wasting muscles in my upper body. Finally, about three months ago, the cascading changes became an avalanche. Within these few months, I’ve become someone who cannot hold up her head for more than a few moments at a time. I slouch, stumble (because the weight of my head throws me off balance), and peer up at people from an awkward angle, my head dangling or propped on my hand. I’m in pain most of the time, and exhausted all the time.

Physical symptoms can be communications from our deepest selves in much the same way as dreams. If a character in your dream is slumped and “cannot hold up her head,” this character will evoke certain instinctive responses and assumptions: She could be lazy, or embarrassed, or hiding something. Maybe she represents a part of me, or another person or situation, that can’t stand up and face the world. Similarly, I notice that the more my body’s posture crumbles, the more uncertain and insecure I feel. There’s even a strong sense of shame, humiliation. 

I’m seeing this punishing dissolution of my physical confidence as a difficult challenge, but also trying to see its positive, transformative potential as well. Just as I might ask “Why am I having this particular dream at this particular time?” I might also ask “Why is this happening to my body? Why is this happening now?” The immediate answer comes from my body herself. There’s the predictable but apt image of a chrysalis. The confident caterpillar must go into her private cocoon and completely disintegrate before becoming any kind of butterfly or moth. My body recognizes the metaphors of metamorphosis, and understands the imperative of letting go.

I’ve been on the threshold of big personal change for a long time, contentedly occupying my larval identity as well as I can. Although I’ve been learning and growing through many metamorphoses over the course of my lifetime so far, this one could be the most irrevocable (short of death). Physically as well as developmentally, I’ve reached the limits of my old posture, my stance, myself. I’m not sustainable anymore. There’s no more adapting to be done—my body will not, cannot, cooperate. So, along with all of the physical changes, I must lose or release my plans for myself—my ambitions, my certainties, my habits, my resistances, my needs, my resentments, my strong stride and my adroit rationalizations. Maybe some of this stuff will be returned to me in another form, maybe not. Metaphorically and literally, my stance is changing; my posture is changing; my gait is changing. My relationships with others are changing because, although my care for them is consistent, I don’t know (or care so much) how I appear to them. My slumped posture reflects a genuine desire to humble myself, to step back into the shadows, into the secret chrysalis where the deepest possible metamorphosis can happen. 

These are the last few days for my body to be as it is: in a state of flux and confusion. For years when I was younger, I dreamed of initiations. Then, for many more years, I dreamed of graduations. Now, the graduation dreams have stopped. Have I graduated? What happens next? Post-surgery, I’ll have a new body with a straight spine. Will I recognize myself in this new body? Will other see me differently when my body is upright, stiff and strange, when I can’t tilt my head back to watch the geese fly over, when I can’t dance fluidly or even sway to music, when I can’t bend down to look at a friend’s snapdragons, or wrestle and play with a puppy? Will my rigid posture make me a more rigid person? Or will I stand tall, with the grace and flexibility of a tree, spreading my branches in the sun? 

I’m going into this surgery not knowing what the outcome will be. I might have less pain and more mobility than I do now. Or, there might be more pain, more disability. The unknown stuns me. For now, I’m allowing myself to come apart, piece by piece, trusting the process, open to the possibilities, afraid and excited. 

Human beings have always had rites of passage for big, transformative life events, and I find that I’m instinctively following some ancient rituals of preparation. Yesterday, I got my hair cut very short so that it will be easier to wash it when I’m recovering—a practical motive, but one that recalls the ceremonies of initiates entering a monastery, or recruits going into the army. Cutting the hair is preparation for sacrifice—giving up the old stance, the old appearance, the old self, before the new one can come into being. When I was about to start chemotherapy 24 years ago, I had my head shaved (anticipating that it would all fall out anyway). Just before walking the Camino de Santiago three years ago, I got a short haircut like the one I’ve got now. I make my posture consistent with my experience: the shorn hair symbolizing vulnerability, humility, a kind of self-erasure. 

The night before surgery and the morning of surgery, I’ll shower with antibacterial soap, erasing my own familiar smell. When I’m leaving for the hospital, I will remove my necklace, my wedding ring. I will empty my pockets. I will carry nothing. I will say good-bye to Holly before I’m taken into the operating room. Under anesthesia, I will become nothing for a while. And, I will trust in my own restoration, in a new form, a new body.

It’s no coincidence that my largest scar will be on my back, where I will never see it directly. This kind of deep change is not my business—at least not the business of my busy self-defining self. Big change happens behind my back. My body will know it, though. And I think my soul knows it already. When I come out of surgery, there will be more space in me—more spaciousness because I will not be able to confine myself to what I was before. I will be emptier, and there will be more room for life itself to expand whoever I am. Going through such an experience does not make me special or important, but it makes me feel that I am precious. My whole life is precious, and includes every possible posture, every way of walking, every stance, every opening. I’m nothing but infinite transformation, infinite dissolution, infinite manifestation, infinite mystery.

This is true for you, too—whatever you think of yourself will change, and every change is a chance to expand and include. You are not what you think you are, yet somehow you know yourself. When you see me next, I will be different and so will you—yet somehow we will recognize each other.

[Note: Kirsten had her surgery on May 1st. This post was written a few days before. If you’d like to follow her recovery, you can go to the Caring Bridge website, enter “Kirsten Backstrom,” and you will find journal entries and updates from Kirsten and Holly there.]

Flashes of Memory and Dream

As I prepare for sleep, I lie in bed with a book and let my mind drift. It is peaceful; there’s nothing to be done, nothing to be decided. Drowsiness comes over me slowly, and during this interval between bedtime (according to the clock) and the untethered dreamtime, I often have flashes of memory that are unlike the everyday “remembering” that makes up the narrative of my life. Instead of remembering events and stories linked together sequentially, I experience memories that have no beginning or end. Perhaps they are located in space rather than in time. They are vivid impressions of a place, a situation or a circumstance from my past, with all of the vivid sensations and emotions of the immediate experience. 

This is an entirely different kind of memory. It is not really like remembering at all. It is an eternal present, an unfolding moment fully realized. It is as real as now, lying in my bed with my book. Here comes a moment: In my first grade classroom, the dusty, nutty smell of the pencil sharpener, the oblique afternoon sunshine falling through tall windows and warming a corner of  my desk, so many details along with the feeling of being six, forever. As if that moment, that day, never actually concluded or became another day. As if I could resume that life any time, and live into it. And then the memory flits away and another alights: A salt marsh on a winter night, cold stars, frozen tussocks of grass, reflections of silvery alder saplings in the dark water, wind low to the ground and wood smoke rising, the feeling of being twenty-five, forever. I could slip back into that life just as easily as falling asleep now. 

These memory moments keep coming, almost every night. Sometimes, I turn them into more ordinary remembering: I think about first grade, the classmate who died of leukemia, my mother picking me up at the end of the school day and taking me with her to the college library where she would study while I read my treasury of Peanuts comic strips… Or I think about what happened next, after I left the rough log cabin on the salt marsh and moved to another cabin on another island on the other side of the country… But these ordinary, orderly memories are like remembering the story of an experience, rather than the experience itself. Most memories are really just the memory of a memory. By contrast, my immediate memory flashes are far richer, far deeper: I can taste them, smell them, breathe into the many dimensions of actually living those experiences. It’s better not to elaborate them, or organize them. By themselves, as impressions, they allow me to experience immortality. As if, somehow, every moment of my life is ongoing, as if every moment is a hologram containing all of my experience, and nothing can ever be lost.

I love these memory moments, these momentous memory flashes—they seem to be a gift that has come with aging and illness. When I am too tired or too ill to be somebody with a whole personal history to sustain, I can let myself be made up of moments. Just these flashes of perfect presence. Sometimes they are so poignant that they are painful, but even the painful moments are to be savored. They come and go so quickly, taking no time, lasting forever. I imagine this is what is meant by the idea that “your whole life flashes before your eyes” when you die. I’m not dying at this time (as far as I know), but I’m understanding how it might be to die—to live instantaneously and simultaneously, experiencing all possibilities as “now.” 

Some of those flash memories have no context—I don’t know exactly where or when they fit into my life story: …a dimly lit hallway with a thin pink carpet, a staircase descending to the left, closed apartment doors on the right, a feeling of mild apprehension and also curiosity, the feeling of being lost… Perhaps they are moments that weren’t substantial enough to add to the narrative of my life events, or perhaps they are moments from the future rather than the past. Perhaps they are even someone else’s memories. Yet, they are real, and they belong, in a way, to me. 

Obviously, the kind of memory moments I’m describing have a lot in common with dreams. Like dreams, they are filled with vivid impressions and emotions, but can be very difficult to describe, and impossible (or unnecessary) to hold onto. In order to remember dreams as stories that we can share, we generally manage to find a narrative structure that approximates the experience of the dream while giving it a linear coherence that can be followed. All the rest of our dreams are forgotten, but perhaps still present within us as moments, as flashes of experience, flashes of life being lived onward and inward.

My theory is that when we are young adults or teens our dreams often seem more like accounts of consecutive events. We fill our dream-journals with long, detailed narratives. But when we are small children or older adults, our dreams may be more impressionistic, more like those flashes of momentary memory that don’t lend themselves to narrative as readily. This makes sense because young adulthood is the time when we shape the story of who we are and what has happened to us. By contrast, when we are children or elders, doing things and describing what we’ve done may be less important than just following life as it unfolds around us and within us. 

Children and elders can sometimes dream (and live) in the midst of experience itself, rather than perpetually retelling the stories that define their lives. Of course, throughout our lives, we still want to “get a handle on” our stories and make sense of ourselves, but maybe in childhood and aging we’re more willing to give that handle a twist and let it go, rather than trying to wrench and wedge it into a set position.

Perhaps this is why remembering dreams often gets more difficult as we get older, and why children’s dreams can seem so disorganized. I’m trying to understand why I, and many of my clients (who are mostly over fifty), wake up feeling that we have been completely immersed in a dream reality, yet even though we grope around in our minds, looking for that “handle,” we cannot find the faintest thread of a dream memory. The impression is strong, but the narrative isn’t there. 

At this time in my own life, making a story out of my experiences seems less and less important. I’m even accepting the fact that few of my dreams can be remembered in the unequivocal way they once were. Not so long ago, I had a clear sense of the narrative trajectory of “me,” my memories, my dreams. I could tell you who I am, where I’ve been, what I’ve done, what I’m dreaming, where I’m going. But as the uncertainties and losses mount, I’m losing the thread. Yes, I still know my own story, and it still interests me… but I don’t know where it’s going, and I’m not sure who I really am or what will become of me. I’m aware of death—that stark perspective reminding me that I will eventually be forgotten—yet also more aware of life. The kind of remembering that matters is like my momentary memories, like impressionistic dreams, rich with the experience of being alive in a particular way, right now, exquisitely, eternally. My flash memories remind me that I have always been alive in this way, maybe even beyond this lifetime. Someone has been experiencing something, always. We are all experiencing. Maybe that’s the only thing we really are. Our dreams, our waking lives, all of our moments in this world—this is authentic reality.

As I write these words, I pause. The clock chimes and keeps ticking, the world is humming around me. I notice this moment. I can’t even describe it. Maybe, later in my life, this moment will come to me in a memory flash or in a dream. Maybe someone else is experiencing an identical moment right now. Maybe this same moment has been going on since before I was born. No moment is really separate from the next. Past is present, present is future, and forever is everywhere and always. Do you remember?

Just Walk

A big dream of mine has become a reality. The book that I’ve been dreaming and writing for the past couple of years is now a living being, made of actual paper and ink: Just Walk: Following the Camino All the Way Home. When I walked the Camino de Santiago in 2016, this book was stirring deep underground, breathing beneath my feet at every step. And when I returned home and found myself grappling with some serious health issues, the pilgrimage continued in my everyday life and the dream of telling its story began to emerge—first in fragmentary whispers on the edge of sleep, then flowing slowly into wholeness.

For me, the Camino pilgrimage was an experience of immediacy. I couldn’t reflect on the changes as they were happening; it was all I could do to “just walk.” The process of integration happened gradually, as I stepped through the mirror to follow the Camino again in reflection, discovering dynamic soul connections between that journey and my life’s journey, between past and present, grief and love, stillness and movement, courage and vulnerability, solitude and community, wellness and illness. Although those connections were intimate, they were not merely personal—they were beyond me. I needed to make something out of them that could be shared. Thus, the book.

Because of my work with the world of dreams, where the dynamics of the imagination are truly real, I know that this book is not only a real physical object, but actually alive: it is tender, funny, contrary, painful, joyous. And right now, as I’m preparing for a life-changing surgery (multi-level spinal fusion) that will literally take me apart and put me back together again differently, I’m also watching how this book, this reflection of my lived experience, has fundamentally changed me, and how it has the potential to change others who may read it. The book itself will change, too, becoming richer as it is read.

If you read it, the book will be yours, and it will whisper to you like a walking-prayer, accompanying you on your path. I hope you will read it.

[to find the book, click on the photo]

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. 

Resistance and Dream Catharsis

It seems peculiar that when so many profound spiritual and physical changes are occurring in my waking life, my dreams continue to be uncomfortably uneventful. I’m having lots of what I call problem dreams, the dreams that drain energy, vent frustration, and express unproductive struggle. In these dreams, I’m trying to do something or get somewhere, encountering petty obstacles, feeling impatient, inadequate, exasperated, resentful and worried. Do you have dreams like this? Problem dreams are extremely common. They’re like the “filler” that takes up space and time in our lives, the day-to-day entropy of irritation and expectation that fills in the gaps while we’re waiting for something more meaningful to occur.

Ironically, I’ve been quite free of such “filler” in my waking life lately. While my physical health has declined rather sharply, I’m finding ease and meaning in the unfolding of my everyday experiences. The obstacles I encounter while awake are very real, but somehow acceptable; yet at night, in the relatively harmless dream world, I’m tripping over every step, struggling with every task, resisting all the way. 

Jung wrote of the compensatory quality of dreams: how they balance our waking life experiences by showing us what we’re missing about our reality, how they restore wholeness by including what’s being neglected. In my own case, however, my “compensatory” dreams don’t seem to be inviting me to integrate these neglected, problematic elements into my waking life. Instead, they seem more cathartic, helping me to discharge energies that would exhaust me if I acted them out during the day. It seems like I’m getting the usual messy business of wrestling with difficulties out of my system in my dreams, so I can ease up when I’m awake. 

My primary spiritual practice right now is “Don’t Waste Energy.” My symptoms are exhausting enough, and I want to appreciate the life I have, not expend scarce resources on unnecessary resistance. For the moment, I have to deal with increased pain and neuropathy, increasing debility, and the threat of further deterioration. None of this is under my control, though I do have a say in how I’m going to respond, and everything is improved by a response that is yielding rather than confrontative. My health issues also put me directly in the path of a dysfunctional and absurdly obstructive medical system, which is nevertheless staffed by many kind, capable practitioners—so when I encounter difficulties (the referral inadvertently lost; the long-awaited appointment accidentally canceled at the last minute; the insurance billing misdirected) it is a waste of energy to rage and blame the decent people who are just trying to do a good job in a bad business. It’s better for me to dream and re-dream my relentless, unsolvable issues than to take them out on myself and others when I’m awake. 

At a deeper level, all of these draining difficulties are only difficult because I’m afraid. The physical symptoms and the ineffective health care system only exhaust me because they scare me, they make me aware of my own helplessness in the face of my mortality. Every exasperating problem, finally, comes down to an encounter with the truth of how vulnerable and ephemeral we all are, how little control we have over our lives or our deaths. In dreams, I’m feeling the frustrating futility of fighting, so when I’m awake I can open my arms to the shared experience of being human; I can let my own transitory suffering soften my heart. I can embrace the awesome depth and breadth of our humble, meaningful moments together—the ways we need each other, the ways we care for each other (friends and strangers alike), however imperfectly. 

I’m facing the prospect of a major spinal surgery that would restructure my body, and thus my sense of myself, completely. My vertebrae are stacked crookedly, pressing into the spinal cord, and so the spine may have to be straightened and fused—cut, broken, rebuilt. It’s difficult to contemplate being taken apart at my very axis. My spine is the tree that springs from the source of me and spreads the branches that manifest me in the world, the twigs that leaf out into my life. How frightening to permit such drastic pruning. And not to be pruned by my own cautious clipping and splicing, but to give myself over to whatever hands I have to trust. 

While my dreams take on the tangled negotiations between my idea of me and my resistance to what happens to me, my waking life is free to experience itself happening. While walking or meditating, I hear the background chatter of my fears, like the ambient noise in a busy airport or, more pleasantly, like rain pattering on the spread leaves of my life, or wind rocking the branches so they rise and fall out of sync with one another yet rhythmically. I can almost feel myself as mere awareness, sheer awareness, pervasive as sunlight or darkness. This is the truth behind all of the stories that nest in my branches, or the insidious little worries that infest my heartwood like boring insects. The sunlight is everywhere and nowhere; the darkness is everywhere and nowhere. Sunlight feeds each individual tree. Darkness is quiet. This is okay; I can live like this.

For now, my problem dreams gnaw at my sleep, but they don’t bring down the tree. In fact, there’s a kind of symbiosis going on. The dreams live in me, and they give me permission to let them be. Usually, I think of dreams as deeply important, to be explored, but these dreams are meant to be left to get on with their work, releasing me from resisting them. I don’t need to bushwhack my way toward some sort of answer. I can step back for a larger view of the thriving chaos of my life. I can witness the chaos, allow it, even love it. When I’m not resisting, I stand in the sunlight, and shine, as we all do. 

Walk Softly On The Earth: Tenderfoot Dreams

When someone shares a dream about feet in one of my regular dream groups, there’s often a humorous tone to the discussion. The dreamer usually presents the dream in a light-hearted way, and the group members may respond with laughter. Feet seem to be inherently a bit comical, or maybe it’s just the way we dream of them. In our dreams, we walk on tiptoes, hop, skip or trip over our own feet; we find ourselves wearing bunny slippers or someone else’s old loafers; our shoes are missing or mismatched; our socks have holes; we have luminous toenails or too many toes… Feet appear fairly commonly in dreams, and the preponderance of foot-related silliness can make these dreams seem trivial. But feet can be significant. In fact, awake or asleep, we need our feet. There’s a reason that feet are sometimes called “dogs.” Like our canine friends, our feet can be trusted. They are faithful, sometimes funny, often brave. They serve us with love, and their service is both practical and spiritual. 

For much of my life, I didn’t really understand my feet. They seemed somehow embarrassing. I broke my ankle when I was three (racing down a slippery hallway in my socks) and was prone to sprains, so I always thought of my feet as a weak point. My arches were too high, my toes too long… I avoided going barefoot because my feet just seemed so naked.But when I really needed them, those feet stepped up. When I was training to walk the Camino de Santiago in 2016, I worried that they would fail me, but they just got stronger. The further I walked, the stronger they got. During that 500 mile trudge across northern Spain, I began to realize that my feet are sacred, and very dear. I learned to care for them, as they care for me. Though they sometimes ache with all their hard work, they carry me easily, and they’ve become muscular and beautiful in their own awkward, knobby, intrepid and steadfast way. 

Metaphorically, a foot can be a stand-in (pun intended) for the body as a whole. The ancient healing art of reflexology is based on the fact that pressure points on the feet correspond to the organs and systems of the body. What could be more representative of our physicality than our feet? Our feet literally bear the weight of our mortal lives. They connect us to the earth, and we balance ourselves upon them. With each step, one foot rises into emptiness, transcending gravity and carrying us forward, while the other accepts the entire burden of the body’s weight, bearing down, holding steady—then, as the first foot comes down to the ground, the second foot eases up,  tipping us forward, rising to swing into motion. The feet are indeed taking turns, engaging in a perfect dance of give-and-take that creates the essential momentum for our progress through the world.

Unlike our other paired parts (hands, eyes, etc.), the feet cannot perform their functions separately—one hand can still work, one eye can still see, one ear can still hear, one lung can still breathe, but one foot can only fidget on its own. We have to stand on our own two feet, and it takes two to tango. In a sense, our feet remind us that our separateness is an illusion, our lives are carefully balanced with the world around us, and if we are not acting in harmony with ourselves and in coordination with others, we can go nowhere.

So, when feet appear in our dreams, they may be telling us something profound about the nature of our bodies and our souls (soles), our independence and our interdependence, our connection to the earth and to one another. There’s something tender, even poignant, about our feet. They manifest our strength and our vulnerability at the same time.

In the Christian story, feet play a significant role. With great tenderness and reverence, Mary (the sister of Martha) pours precious ointment over the feet of Jesus and wipes them with her hair. This is a way of offering blessing and gratitude to the most fundamentally human aspect of the divine—and when Jesus acknowledges this by saying “you will not always have me with you” he is emphasizing his own mortality, his temporal nature. In Buddhist terms, he is acknowledging his rare and precious “human birth,” his fragile humanity. The hardworking feet embody this humanity, with humility. When Jesus stoops to wash the apostles’ feet, he again draws attention to the humble and temporary nature of all of our lives—the ordinary holiness we must treasure in each other. 

Although I’m not a traditional Christian, such images have always moved me. I remember sitting in my uncle’s church as a child, horrified by the presence of a larger-than-life-size crucifix above the altar, yet fascinated by the poignant vulnerability of the feet of Christ, pierced together by a single nail. Even in death, when the feet have been mortified along with the rest of the body, those bleeding feet remind us powerfully that they belong to a flesh-and-blood human being, a unique person, who somehow transcends the final brokenness of the physical self.

When my mother died, I was sitting at her bedside and watched the life go out of her face. Unlike most of the other people whose deaths I’ve witnessed, no trace of her individuality lingered in her features after death; her body seemed instantly emptied of all that she had been. My sister (Jill) was unsure she could handle seeing Mom like this, yet she feared that if she did not look, she would regret it later. So, my other sister (Didi) and I suggested looking at Mom’s feet instead of her face. Even though the rest of the body was just a corpse, swollen with edema and slackened by death, those feet were still Mom’s feet. The three of us, her three daughters, gathered close. Uncovering Mom’s feet was like receiving her blessing, and giving her ours. We touched her feet gently, crying, recognizing them, remembering them. They were so familiar and so ordinary, so uniquely Mom’s. 

I’ve been more aware of my own feet recently. While much of my body is changing rapidly due to illness (losing muscle, and becoming more frail), my feet, like Mom’s, are still reassuringly familiar. Whether I’m barefoot or wearing shoes, I look down at my feet a lot because the structural changes in my upper body make it difficult to hold my head up. When I’m taking long walks, I have to rest my neck by hanging my head much of the time, and when my head is down, I notice my feet, as well as the ground under them.

The ground is beautiful; the earth is beautiful. I notice the the scrambled tweed pattern of douglas-fir needles on the path, the maple leaves etched in frost, the footprints of humans and dogs in the mud, and my own feet in their well-worn boots finding the earth with every step. When I’m hanging my head, I can’t see where I’m going, but I can see where I am. Right here, pressing my feet against the sustaining ground of my life. 

Dreams about feet might be amusing because it is wise and right to acknowledge our human vulnerability and courage with a sense of humor. Look at us! We are awkward, knobby, intrepid and steadfast creatures. We are beautiful, from our heavy heads to our stumbling feet. And the earth we walk upon is holy ground.

Appreciating Incoherence

Dreams are often incoherent: the images shape-shift, the timelines tangle, the events overlap, and the whole dreamy experience itself can get lost in a haze at the edge of awakening. We count on coherence in our waking lives, expecting the narrative to make sense with a reasonable cause-and-effect predictability. We generally think that things should hold together—they should cohere—and when things fall apart incoherently, it’s bad news. But we all know that the dream world is different, and we’re willing to accept a certain amount of disorder there. Still, our waking minds have to do some reconstructive work before they can get a grip on those slippery dream experiences, and some dreams just won’t cooperate. We know we have dreamed; the dream is a palpable presence with a distinct sensory intensity… but we just can’t get hold of anything solid enough to make a memory. So, the incoherent dream gets forgotten.

Lately, my waking life has been almost as incoherent as my dreaming life, and accepting this much incomprehensibility has been a challenge. I have an illness that is unpredictable and rare, so I don’t know what to expect from one day to the next. My symptoms shift like loose sand  underfoot; my daily routine is a steep dune I’m climbing, and the routine itself disintegrates as I struggle up its sandy slope. I can’t get on top of it, can’t see what’s on the other side. Is there an open ocean somewhere out there? Or just an endless sea of similar sand dunes? I’m discovering how much our lives usually depend upon our plans for the future, and my plans have been suspended in this slippery limbo, since my prognosis is uncertain.

Ordinarily, our experiences have some coherence. The sand has been moistened and packed down, so we can walk without wallowing. Even our dreams can usually be shaped into sand castles. But, sometimes the sand is so dry and fine, or so wet and slack, that we can’t hold onto a handful without its slipping away, and it’s not possible to shape a story or a structure with such material. The sandman has come to sprinkle our sleep with dreams, and has delivered a sweeping desert landscape that changes with the wind.

Dream meanings are not usually direct messages, they are more intricate, richer, and sometimes disturbingly weirder than any direct communication could be. Yet even the most incoherent dream can feel meaningful, can be meaningful, if we care about the dreaming experience, allow it to touch us and allow ourselves to respond. I’m trying to see the incoherence of my waking life in the same way. Meanings do not necessarily make sense. Life can be meaningful whether it makes sense or not.

I can’t give a good example of an incoherent dream, because, well, those dreams are really incoherent—they don’t hold together. But there’s been a sort of theme to my recent incoherent dreams. They start with a chaos that I’m trying to control:

I’m packing, but there’s nothing to contain all the stuff I need to carry with me… I’m cleaning, but the messes keep multiplying… People or animals are in trouble, but there’s no way to tell where the trouble is coming from and no way to help… Something or someone is lost—maybe it’s me… Then, in the dream, I remember that the ocean is not far from here. I haven’t seen it yet, but I know it’s nearby. I know I just need to get to the ocean. If I could only set all the impossible problems aside and get out in the fresh air, I’d be able to get there…

But usually the problems remain unresolved. Things get more and more confusing. Often, the ocean seems impossible to reach, even though I realize it’s just outside, just beyond the edge of this chaos.

Actually, the ocean itself is chaotic, too, but in a different way. The ocean is infinitely wild, vast, incoherent because it can’t be contained. The chaos indoors (or inside myself) seems disturbing because I’m trying to control it; the chaos of the open ocean, by contrast, is glorious, unrestrained and impossibly deep. The ocean has its own rhythms and patterns, which defy my sense of coherence. There’s something liberating in this. Somehow, I recognize those inconsistent and incomprehensible rhythms and patterns—I know the ocean with my own deep sense of wonder, not with my grasping mind.

“It is like what we imagine knowledge to be:
dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free…”
-Elizabeth Bishop, from “At the Fishhouses”

There’s an authentic relationship between the oceanic unknown (or deep knowledge) and the shifting sands of my everyday experience. The depths of the infinite lap at the shores of the ordinary, so sometimes the sand gets just damp enough to shape sand castles at the water’s edge: coherent dreams, insights, projects, possibilities… and then, predictably, the tides recede leaving those castles to dry and slump, or the tides rise to wash them away completely.

In my incoherent dreams, I flounder in confusion, trying to accomplish something, remember something, catch hold of something, anything… But, still, I know that the ocean is out there. The ocean does not concern itself with my accomplishments, my concerns, my comprehension. It gives me nothing to hold onto, and yet it shapes my experience. I trust the tides; I trust the depths. Occasionally, my incoherent dreams complete themselves: I leave the frustrating incoherence of my problems and worries behind, and find the more profoundly incoherent openness of the ocean. It’s right here, all around me: the infinite. I immerse myself in that dark, clear water. And I find myself fully awake.

Tree Medicine: Existential Dream Wisdom

Sometimes dreams seem to offer direct communication from the natural world—bringing guidance that reconnects us with the earth itself, and reminds us that we belong here. Our bodies are made of the same essential elements that make up all life, and we are part of the intricate and magnificent ecosystem that includes all living beings.

The Tree Is Not Afraid of Death: There’s a single row of red-cedar trees along the edge of the parking lot. A woman is clinging to one of the trees, crying. When I approach, she tells me that this one is her special friend, and they are going to cut it down. The whole place is under development. I see an arched doorway carved all the way through the trunk of the tree (like the tunnels in giant sequoias that cars could drive through—but much smaller). Since the trunk is just a couple of feet in diameter, and the doorway is about eighteen inches high and six inches wide, it’s a gaping hole, so I’m surprised that the tree seems healthy in spite of the damage. Some of the other cedars have doorways as well.

The woman begs me to protect her tree—not to let it be destroyed. I don’t know how to respond. I think that I have no authority to prevent them from cutting down the tree. Then, I think maybe they really aren’t planning to cut it down, since this row of trees was left standing when all the others were bulldozed to clear the lot. But these thoughts don’t seem particularly helpful; the woman is truly desperate.

 I put one hand on the cedar and the other hand on the woman’s back, and I tell her, in a clear, strong voice: “You know, this tree doesn’t fear death the way we do. This tree feels no separation between itself and the earth. For the tree, death is just returning to the earth, becoming earth. The tree is already part of the earth.” I’m astonished at my own apparent arrogance in speaking for the tree—but the voice just seemed to come out without my volition, as if the tree had spoken directly to the woman, through me. The woman is comforted. She knows she can trust her connection with the tree, and the tree’s connection with the earth.

It is not really surprising that the trees in our dreams might speak to us, or through us; trees and dreams are rooted in common ground. Although our human business may seem to separate us from nature and from our dream-source, nothing, not even death, can uproot us from the ground of our being.

I’m often preoccupied with the big existential questions that tend to trouble our earnest human minds. As my health is tenuous, the prospect of death has become very real to me. I know that I am finite. Sooner or later, I’m going to be cut down. So, the part of me that is clinging to life, the part that thinks it’s special, the part that is uniquely “me,” the part that will die—that part of me is worried. I’m attached to being me.

Many people say that they’re not afraid of death, they’re only concerned about what the dying process will be like… Will it be painful? Will it be undignified? But, for me, the dying seems no different from what we’re doing all the time—sometimes it’s painful and undignified, sometimes it’s not—it’s just living. When I get close to death, I’ll still be living, in one way or another, I’ll still be me. I’m curious about the dying process. But dying always ends in death. And death is the end of me. At least, death is the end of the part of me that worries about me. Death is the end of my familiar, human business.

Still, the trees remind me, there’s more to my life than this identity, which is always “under development.” When I had cancer in my thirties, I was too ill to worry so much about dying or death. I relaxed into the larger life of the natural world around me. I noticed the slow-growing trees whose business was just absorbing sunlight, drawing water from the soil, making leaves and losing leaves, sheltering birds, animals, insects, and reaching toward the sky. Looking at the old ones—the big oaks and cedars and beeches and redwoods—I felt peaceful knowing that they might go on living long after my death. The trees reassured me: being dead would be like life expanded to include everything, with no business to get done and no place else to be.

All this lovely philosophy was helpful then, but now it’s not so easy. I’ve seen too much death in recent years. I’m tired and I feel the limitations of my body and my small, restless, anxious human mind, yet I’ve got a pretty strong attachment to being ME—and staying this way forever, if I can manage to hold on. Of course, I can’t. Even long-lived trees don’t live forever, let alone busy, ephemeral human beings. So, my dreams remind me of the tree-medicine within me, the tree-medicine I can offer to the part of myself that suffers the fear of loss, the fear of death.

In a previous post [“Pity the Poor Ego”] I wrote: “If you want to find the Ego in a dream, look for the one who’s suffering, because the Ego always suffers when reality doesn’t conform to what the Ego believes is important.” By this definition, the Ego in this particular dream is the woman who clings to her special tree and cannot bear to let go. The “I” character in the dream—the one I’m most identified with—has a more complex role that matches the role I find myself holding at this threshold in my waking life. While part of me tries to solve the problem that the suffering Ego would love to have me solve, another part of me holds her ground between that Ego and a deeper wisdom—making the connection between them.

My Ego (the woman in the dream) needs to save her tree, to save herself; she needs to find a way to prevent death from cutting in and bulldozing everything she loves. I ponder her problem, and feel her desperation. But I don’t have a solution. Instead, I place a hand on her back and a hand on the tree, and I bring them together. The tree-medicine flows through me. The three of us cannot be separated, and all the other living cedars in a row, and all the ghost-trees that once made up a forest here, all of us are rooted in the earth together, letting life rise up in us like sap.

As I explored this dream, I began to trust myself more—trusting the connection between myself and the fundamental, immortal essence of all living beings. At first, I didn’t think much of those doorways through some of the tree trunks. I thought of them as ugly wounds, imposed upon the trees by the heedless human business of development and destruction. After all, those thousand-year-old giant “tunnel trees” in the great redwood forests eventually died because people had cut out their hearts to run roads through. But a doorway through a dream tree does no harm: the tree is healthy, in spite of the gaping hole. In fact, the more I look at that doorway now, the more I see it as an opening, a portal through which I can reach the other side.

Paradoxically, our destructive human business, the plans and projects we devise to avert loss and fear, can sometimes open our hearts. We can come to understand the selfishness and neediness that leads us all to try to control and subdue the natural world, just as we would like to control and subdue death. And if we can see through our own motivations, our vision expands. That hole is indeed a doorway, an invitation to stoop down and step through. In a dream, the doorway doesn’t have to be big enough to accommodate me—you know, my dream-ego can get smaller, crossing that threshold. Can yours? Let’s try it. Maybe we can step through that doorway, through the tree’s heartwood… And maybe there’s a flourishing forest on the other side.

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