Compass Dreamwork

Dreamwork as Spiritual Practice

Author: kirstenbackstrom (page 1 of 16)

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 Peanutscomic 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 storyof 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 reallyam 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.

Walking Each Other Home: Vulnerability, Authenticity and Community

Authenticity always involves vulnerability. When we really listen to ourselves, and let our presence in the world reflect what we care about most deeply, we are making ourselves truly available and opening the way for beautiful connections with others. We are realizing our full potential. We are inviting unimaginable, transformative experiences that we can meet wholeheartedly. But there are risks. What we have to offer can be rejected; what we long for can be denied; who we are can be dismissed. When we give ourselves wholeheartedly, we can be hurt.

Several times in my life, I’ve felt this kind of hurt. I know that I’ve done my best, yet it doesn’t matter—my best is not good enough. Maybe I’ve been as open as I can be, as responsible as I can be, as caring as I can be—and someone takes advantage of the opportunity to do harm. Our politics, social dynamics, and interpersonal struggles frequently show the same pattern. But I don’t think this is a reason to shut down. Just the opposite. I believe that being authentic—and vulnerable—is my greatest strength. I believe that authenticity and vulnerability are exactly what we all need right now. Pain is a possible outcome when we are authentic, but inauthenticity always leads to even more pain in the long run.

In order to be trusting without becoming  victims, we need to have each other’s backs. This doesn’t mean that we should fight off bullies on behalf of others—the more we fight, the more we become bullies ourselves. It’s not useful to see others as helpless weaklings who need us to protect them. Authentic vulnerability is not neediness: it is strength; it is courage. Like trees who grow from the same root system, we need to stand together. And standing together means being true to ourselves and one another: letting others know that they are not alone, that we see their strength and courage, that we are willing to be strong, courageous, and vulnerable alongside them.

What I try to remember when I’m feeling wounded and raw, is that sweet, familiar quote from Ram Dass: “We’re all just walking each other home.” When we’re being authentic, we’re not alone. We inspire others to walk with us, to grow with us, to dance with us, to ride along with us.

Being physically vulnerable is one of my own biggest challenges right now. I’m aware that, if a situation is emotionally charged, my neuro-muscular system will reflect my vulnerability in a way that I can’t disguise or control. I’ll develop tremors; I’ll become tearful; my heart will skip and skitter; my voice will shake; I might get faint, or have sudden chills or sweats. Even—or especially—when I trust the strength of my authenticity, my body can seem terribly weak and awkward. Sometimes, I feel ashamed of my infirmities and uncertain about my own truths. In these situations, the affirmations of others who stand with me can make all the difference.

In my dreams, I see the importance of our interconnectedness. The other dream figures may be seen as distinct individuals but may also be seen as aspects of myself, so the support, guidance and companionship I get from these figures may be exactly the support, guidance and companionship that I need to give myself (as well as receive from others) when I am feeling vulnerable.

Similarly, in waking life, if I want to risk standing for what I care about, even when my knees are shaking, then the people whose presence strengthens me will show me the same inner qualities I most need to strengthen in myself. And the vulnerable strength I am showing by standing with others will inspire them to find those vital qualities in themselves, too. In our waking or dreaming lives, our shared strengths and vulnerabilities make up our authenticity.

Our dreams may become more extraordinary as they reflect the true commitment we have made to our interdependent gifts, needs and callings. Continue reading

Howling Together: Healing Dreams & Community

What does healing look like in the dream world? Dreams reflect the changes that are happening all the time, in our physical bodies and in our spiritual lives. For me, those changes have been dramatic in the past couple of years, and recently I had a wonderful dream, which gave me a deeper trust in the process of change itself. I dreamed about the wisdom of wolves.

Thanks to this dream, I can believe that authentic healing is going on in my body and spirit. I’m especially grateful because the dream not only helped me to experience this healing directly, but also gave me a restorative image of death and renewal that truly resonates. I will hold this image like an open door inside myself, through which powerful emotions can come and go. Because of the dream, I can sense the small voice of my own life rising to meet the wild song of all life—just as the howl of one small wolf rises to meet the music of the whole pack.

I’ll share some of the changes that have been happening in my waking world, followed by the dream and its resonance. Please howl along (leave a comment), if the song speaks to you…

For the past two years, health problems have shaken up my life: heart damage, deteriorating muscles in my upper body and neck, neurological issues, migraines and stroke-like symptoms, digestive difficulties that drained the life out of me… There’s no certainty at all about where this is going. My disease is rare, and doctors have no idea what the progression will be. When my heart function seemed to be failing steadily, the prognosis was five to ten years, or less. When I lost too much weight and was just too frail to function, I couldn’t imagine surviving more than a year or so. Some days, it felt like I might be dying pretty soon—but some days that just seemed too melodramatic to believe. Often, I felt almost normal, just with a stiff neck, a tummy ache, and some clumsiness and weakness. Then, my heart stabilized, at least for the time being. I started adjusting to most of my symptoms with less fear. It became possible that I might live for quite a while. But I can’t know for sure, of course. Overall, I’ve just had to accept the chaos within myself.

I had to let go of my ambition for the future. I had to let go of defining myself as either “healthy” or “sick.” I had to wait on the threshold: tired, confused, hopeful, peaceful, constantly aware of the reality of death, sometimes numb, sometimes afraid… existentially baffled. There was, and is, a kind of grace in the open-endedness of my situation, even though some aspects of the process have been lonely—impossible to share with others. Sometimes, all I can do is immerse myself in the unknown, and wait.

I haven’t been remembering many dreams—which contributes to the general uncertainty. My sleep is shallow and disrupted by discomforts, but most of the dreams I’ve been able to remember could be classified as “death dreams.” I’ve dreamed, over and over, about packing for a long journey “home,” with my deceased parents coming to accompany me. From my experience in hospice work and spiritual direction, I know that these kinds of dreams are typical for people who are literally getting ready to die, but they’re also common for people going through life transitions of one kind or another. The death is just as often metaphorical as literal: one part of my life is dying, my deceased loved ones are helping me on this journey, and my ultimate goal is a sense of “home,” a sense of knowing I’m in the right place.

So, are the dreams literally predictive of death, or metaphorically describing the experience of my present life? The situation is complicated by the fact that dreams often reflect our priorities, the things we’ve been thinking about—and I’ve been thinking a lot about death. Whether it comes tomorrow or twenty years from now, it’s real and it’s on my mind. These dreams have a healing quality, because they’re reassuring in an ultimate kind of way… but they’re repetitive, and I haven’t really gotten beyond packing, or riding in a car with Mom and Dad, on the way…

So what has changed recently that would invite a new kind of healing dream? Where did the wolves come from? Recently, I’ve been feeling healthy. It’s weird, because my upper body is still deteriorating and painful, and I still have many of the symptoms I had before. But my heart seems steadier, my digestion has settled down for now, and I’m getting stronger. I walk long distances several times a week, and I can feel the muscle tone all over my body (except in the areas affected by the disease). Maybe I’ll die tomorrow, or maybe I’ll live forever. I’m appreciating other people, and myself. I feel that I belong to my life again. I’m allowing my vulnerability to be an invitation to others: Let’s all open up a little, find what’s most authentic in ourselves, share our challenges and gifts, be at home with uncertainty because it allows for new possibilities.

So, I have a dream…

Howl:I look behind some bushes near my campsite, and I’m stunned to see a full-grown wolf—sitting up at first, then lying down as if unconscious, in a shallow pool of icy-cold water with decaying leaves at the bottom. I think she might be dead… but she is still breathing. She has chosen to lie in this freezing water—why? Perhaps she is dying, and is trying to hasten the process and numb her pain? It is hard to see her die, but perhaps she is trying to heal herself somehow. It wouldn’t be right for me to interfere, but I mention her to others, because I’m concerned and hoping someone will know why she is here or how to help her.

When I return to check on her, I hear sounds coming from her hiding place. A veterinarian—a middle-aged woman in a white coat—is working over the wolf, doing CPR. The wolf’s heart must have stopped! But, the vet can revive her. Soon, the wolf stands unsteadily, shakes herself, then seems to regain her strength. Other wolves gather around—and other humans, too. Everyone seems excited about the successful healing. Spontaneously, playfully, the vet lets out a howl, and several other people pipe up, too. They don’t really sound very wolf-like, and the wolves look away, as if embarrassed for them.

Quietly, I try a little howl myself. It begins with just a murmuring sound, and then rises to a hollow, resonant tone that comes from deep within me—gentle, tentative, but clear. There’s no contrivance or exaggeration—I let myself feel the wolf-ness inside me, and then release the wolf- song. I sound like a small, cautious wolf.

Now, I notice a wolf pup—very shy and slightly awkward as if she hasn’t yet grown into her body. Her fur is a soft gray, lighter than the other wolves. She’s sitting on a flight of stairs (even though we’re in the woods). Her ears prick up at the sound of my howl, and her whole body trembles, alerted. She looks at me with intent eyes, as if trying to determine whether my howl is a true howl. Can she trust it? She decides to trust—closes her eyes, and listens. Then, she tips back her head and begins to howl with me. She has never howled before, and she pours herself into the sound—high, sweet, rich and pure. The other wolves join her, and then the humans. We are all howling together and I can feel my heart expanding with the gorgeous howling of the pack.

When the howling is done, there’s a moment of stillness. I realize that these wolves are completely at ease with human beings. Apparently, a woman has opened her house to them, so they can come and go as they please. Now, the wolves (including the pup) walk into the open door of that house—across the threshold. They enter without fear. I don’t see the woman who owns the house, but I know that she keeps the door open.

What are wolves? They are very wild animals, but very social, deeply connected to one another. I’ve had a funny relationship with wolves, because several years ago, when I asked for a “spirit ally” to appear to me, I had a distinct image of a subway door opening to reveal a wolf. A wolf as a spirit ally seemed like a cliché, and I wanted something more unusual, maybe a sloth or a wombat. But a wolf showed up. And the wolf wasn’t always friendly. When I asked the wolf for help, the wolf said, “You don’t need help.” In dreams, sometimes a wolf would attack me and I’d rush into the house and try to slam the door—until, finally, I held my ground, offered my arm and said, “Go ahead, eat me.” When the wolf took a bite of me in a dream, it hurt, but being eaten up wasn’t so bad. Another dream came after that, and the wolf and I were on better terms. I have a history with dream wolves, but this last dream is new to me. Continue reading

Getting The Wrong Idea: What The Dream Is Not About

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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