Dreamwork as Spiritual Practice

Category: Buddhism and Dreamwork

Dreaming and Anatta: Non-Self

jizo 01This is the final post of my very heady series on Buddhism’s “Three Marks of Existence” (unsatisfactoriness, impermanence, non-self). Now, I’m going to consider anatta: the absence of a substantial self. If there’s no self, then who is writing this article…? And who is reading…? And who is dreaming…? Well, I’m going to plunge right into my own non-existence, and see what I can dream.

Dream of Being Dead: Seven children have died (in a fire, or of an illness), and the only remaining family member is their grandmother, who sits in her living room, surrounded by their toys, grieving. I am one—or all—of the children. I understand that I am dead, but still, for now, have a sense of my body, though I am invisible to the living. We gather around our grandmother, surround her with love; she can feel that we are there. We try to play with our toys, but can only make them move very slowly. With great effort, I roll a toy train along its track. Our grandmother can see the toys moving; she is comforted by our presence. Then, we go out in the rain, and I feel the rain fall through me. I can sense my substance dissipating, but know I will lose nothing significant of myself. I am curious about what will come next.

In the course of our lives, each of us dies many times. We leave childhood behind, lose people we love, change jobs, change in our physical bodies, change in our sense of ourselves. There is a continuity to this process, yet no central, substantial self holding it all together.

In the “Dream of Being Dead,” the dream-ego (the “I” within the dream) reflects the continuity of an unfolding life process, but is not, strictly speaking, a “self.” She is one child and seven children; she is not visible yet has awareness and even a sense of physicality. In her empathy, or the dream’s empathy, for the grandmother, she knows the grandmother’s experience as if it were her own. As she “dissipates,” she loses the distinction between herself and the rain: the rain falls through her. And yet, she is also continuously present and aware, narrating the story of the dream, wondering what will come next. What will come next? Continue reading

Dreaming and Anicca: Impermanence

gyroscope 01As I explore the Buddhist concept of impermanence (anicca), the second of the “Three Marks of Existence,” I’m going to let a long dream do most of the talking for me. Dreams are ingenious in their fluid approach to time, and in dreaming we can drop our usual linear understanding of experience—freeing ourselves for a larger sense of life.

Dreaming In and Out of Time: It’s nearly dark and several of us have missed the bus in a neglected city neighborhood. We go into the only open shop to get change, and when we return, the bus is there, but we have to climb a hill, then cross a ditch and a road to reach it. We scramble up the hill, then descend into the ditch, which becomes a deep, wooded ravine—so deep, and so full of trees and shrubs, that we can no longer see the bus. As we come to the bottom, we find a lake among pines. People wearing 17th century European peasant clothing are going about their business along the shore path. Nearby, there’s a farming settlement. As a young man from our group approaches the lake, he enters this other world; his bright modern jeans and t-shirt become plain brown and gray work clothes. We join him, and our clothing is also transformed. A woman welcomes us, offers us their wonderful, abundant food, and shows us around, introducing us to a whole, peaceful community of people. Buildings are constructed on platforms, at various levels. On one platform, an old man is dying, surrounded by loved ones; on another platform, a young woman is giving birth, with the help of a circle of neighbors. I stay with a family for some time—maybe a few days, maybe months, getting to know this village and its way of life intimately. It is not perfect, but it is a good place. Eventually, I understand that I need to return to my own world. Some from our group choose to stay, and some leave when I do. We’re led back to the road, where the bus is waiting.

Then it is twenty or thirty years later. I’m in late middle age now. I’ve had a full life in my own world—was married and widowed, but have no children. In late middle age, I realize, with joy, that it is time to return to the hidden village. I drive around looking for someone to give my car, my house, and my few other possessions. I go into a hospice where I once worked, and find three tired-looking, hard-working aides pausing at the bedside of a dying person, who is asleep. Whispering so we won’t wake the patient, we talk about the hidden village, and they offer to drive me there, drop me off, and park my car in a safe place. They don’t yet know that I will leave them everything—or that they may also choose to join me in the other world. We drive through the woods until we come to the familiar ravine, and get out of the car, preparing to descend…

Impermanence—anicca—simply means that everything changes. This could be understood as a statement about time, suggesting that all things are subject to time. However, in the Buddhist sense, impermanence is really about timelessness. There is no subject or object in impermanence, as all things equally are changing. If everything, everything, is always changing, then there is nothing but change. In a sense, the condition of change is changeless. Continue reading

Dreaming and Dukkha: Unsatisfactoriness

dukkhaI’m exploring dreamwork through the lens of Buddhism [see “Buddhist Philosophy in Dreamwork”], taking each of the “Three Marks of Existence” (unsatisfactoriness, impermanence, and non-self) in turn. These may sound like gloomy ways to mark existence… and I’m going to start with the gloomiest of all: dukkha. But let’s see what dreams can do with this stuff that defines unhappiness in our lives:

Learning from a Child: I am imprisoned with a group of people I don’t particularly like, afflicted by a deep, visceral depression—despair, frustration, anxiety, paralysis. I know I must go off by myself and experience this depression fully. When I’m aware of my body, the depression is a sensation in my chest, a dull vibration or slowly pulsing electrical current, as if a heavy metal object has been struck by a hammer. I’m exploring this sensation when a little girl appears and begins to talk—partly to me and partly to herself. I don’t feel under any obligation to listen, still experiencing the physical sense of the depression, but then find myself absorbed in what she is saying and doing. She has drawn a cut-out human figure on paper, and she tears it down the center lengthwise, explaining that this will make it larger, because now it has space in the middle. This inspires me to act compassionately to protect another member of the group from being bullied…

I’ve had dreams about depression periodically for most of my adult life. In each dream the context is different, but the mood is the same—as intense as any waking depression. Over the years, I’ve “worked with” these dreams in various ways. Because they were so unpleasant, I used to try to forget them as quickly as possible, but I noticed that this distraction method usually just pushed the depressed feelings below the surface, where they subtly influenced my thoughts and behavior for the rest of the day.

So, my first dreamwork practice was simply to give the dreams my attention when they arose. I wrote them down, noting how the circumstances and sensations varied from dream to dream, and seeing the patterns that emerged over time. I noticed that when I gave the unpleasant dreams my waking attention their unpleasant influence on my waking state would naturally dissipate. With a dream-sharing group, I reenacted the dreams, and found grief in them, which needed to be shared.

Since the dreams continued, I kept exploring, and found layers of psychological insights into how the dreams fit my personal history. This was useful, also, in my work as a spiritual director and chaplain, where I often accompanied others who were experiencing depression. I gradually discovered a compassionate core at the center of depression, a tender place where I recognized I was not alone. No one is alone in the experience of suffering.

I found that I could work with the depression within the dream, as well. In some dreams, I’d remember that I didn’t want to let my mood affect the way I behaved toward others. In one lucid dream, I actually reached into my own head and removed a tumor-like object that was causing the depression. All this attention brought to bear on depression dreams “helped” in a sense, but my efforts were still directed toward making the unpleasant experience of such dreams stop. My awareness was tinged with judgment (“these are bad dreams”) and the need for control (“I will get rid of them”).

Unsatisfactoriness, dukkha, is the first of the “Four Noble Truths” of Buddhism, and also one of the “Three Marks of Existence.” We find experiences to be pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral, and we tend to cling to what is pleasant, try to get rid of what is unpleasant, and ignore what is neutral. But we never succeed in these efforts: pleasant things necessarily pass away; neutral things either persist in being neutral or become unpleasant when ignored; and unpleasant things arise inevitably in the form of sickness, old age, death, and a myriad of other causes and conditions. Our efforts to choose and control our experiences invariably lead to “unsatisfactoriness”—and, ultimately, to suffering. Continue reading

Buddhist Philosophy in Dreamwork

yellow dahlia 01Although I am not a member of a Buddhist sangha (community), I have been a student and practitioner of Buddhism for at least twenty years, and have applied what I understand about Buddhist psychology, philosophy and practice to my work with dreams.

So, when I talk about “dreamwork as spiritual practice” I am often thinking of spirituality as it would be understood by Buddhists. From a Buddhist perspective, the first step (and perhaps, ultimately, the only step) in spiritual practice is bringing awareness, or “mindfulness,” to our experiences, so that the essential nature of those experiences may come to light. Insight into the true nature of reality can end the repetitive cycles of self-perpetuating suffering that tend to characterize existence without awareness.

All experiences are opportunities for insight. Experiences certainly occur in our dreams, just as much as in our everyday lives and meditation. Bringing awareness to our dream experiences is valid spiritual practice, just like bringing awareness to any other aspect of life.

I had this dream as a teenager, during a time of turmoil:

Mandala Dream: I am a droplet of water falling into a pool. Rings of ripples expand out from me. I am endlessly falling in, and endlessly radiating outward. The ripples unfold like the petals of a flower opening. As I fall backward and inward, I open outward, blooming concentric circles of infinite colors and forms. This continues even when I realize I am dreaming—even when I open my eyes and become aware of the little room around me and the snow falling through the apple tree outside the window. I am in the midst of everything, and I am nothing.

In some branches of Buddhism, dreams are addressed through intensive esoteric practices that lead the practitioner to recognize the ultimate dream-like nature of reality. But another way of working with dreams, still using a Buddhist perspective, would be to let the dreams themselves give the dreamer a direct experience of awakening. The significance of the dream is not in its “meanings,” but in present-moment awareness of the experience it offers. Continue reading

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