Compass Dreamwork

Dreamwork as Spiritual Practice

Category: Threshold Work (page 2 of 2)

Becoming “Loving Awareness”

sky 05In the last post, I talked about the spiritual concept of “ego death” as it is reflected in dreams [“When the Dream-Ego is Slipping or Sleepy”]. “Ego death” occurs when the whole psyche is undergoing a transformation (due to illness, crisis, loss, or deep inner work) in which the familiar ego must die in order for a new, potentially larger, sense of self to come into being. During such times, dreams often contain death imagery: the dream-ego or other dream-character faces death, and perhaps actually dies in the dream. Deaths can be enacted again and again in transitional dreams, and then other dreams (or sometimes the same dreams) may begin to indicate the development of new life, new ways of being.

Sometimes, when the transformation is particularly significant, we experience breakthrough dreams: extraordinarily powerful dreams that not only represent the transformation from one ego identity to another, but actually involve the “willing sacrifice” of the entire self-definition, allowing for complete openness to a new way of experiencing reality and identity. These dreams may be like great mystical experiences, beyond words. They may be like literal near-death experiences where attachment to our present life is let go almost easily as we glimpse what we really are and the vastness that includes us.

Occasionally, a dream can be quite direct in its metaphorical expression of the process of “willing sacrifice” and “ego death.” About two years ago, I had this extraordinary dream:

The Willing Sacrifice: I am a young Asian prince in an ancient Eastern culture. My small community has been suffering from a drought or other catastrophic challenge. Our survival is at stake. We have just completed the re-enactment of an ancient ritual that is supposed to restore harmony: the symbolic sacrifice of the community’s leader (me). But it does not work, and I now realize that only an authentic sacrifice will make a difference. We must enact the ritual again, and this time I must actually die. I accept this with sadness, and some fear, but a deep sense of responsibility, feeling the weight of what I must do. The community is gathered to bear witness: to support me, and to honor and grieve for my sacrifice.

            Ahead of me is a large ritual space—a square, marked on the ground by a wide golden ribbon. I am wearing a white tunic or kimono. I walk, formally, toward one side of the square. I hope that my death will not be bloody—but then I release that thought: it will be what it will be. I release the hopes I had for the rest of my life. On the left side of the square, there’s a gap in the ribbon that opens onto nothingness, and I believe that when I die I will go through that gap. In the far right corner of the square sits the Emperor or King—a wise, compassionate, powerful being, like a god. I sense his deep sympathy with me, and his willingness to play his role as I am playing mine. His attendant, a young man in white like myself, leaves his side and comes to meet me as I approach the square. We stand facing each other at the edge of the square, and I realize he’s almost a mirror image of me.

            Before stepping across the ribbon, I must ask permission to make this sacrifice. I kneel down, as I have done many times before during the symbolic ceremonies, but this time I know I must go further. I close my eyes and bow all the way down to the ground. It seems a long way down, an infinite falling in and giving over. At the moment when my forehead finally touches the earth in complete surrender, I feel flooded with love: the loving tenderness of the young attendant standing over me, meeting me absolutely where I am; the loving benevolence of the King; the loving warmth and gratitude of the people… Also, the overwhelming love that pours through me from the earth herself. It is more than I can contain.

The final sentence in my description of the dream says it all: “It is more than ‘I’ can contain.” The ego “I” cannot hold the larger experience of life itself that rushes in with love at the moment when the sacrifice is accepted. The small self gives way, and the larger self can then be experienced. The larger self is not limited to one apparently separate identity, but includes all who are taking part in this ceremony. And beyond the shared human experience, there is also a profound connection with the earth. Continue reading

When the Dream-Ego is Slippery or Sleepy

sky 02Many of my dreams lack focus. The dream-ego (the “I” in the dream) can’t seem to accomplish what she intends, or is the victim of something or someone, or doesn’t participate in the main action. Sometimes these dreams are frustrating, and at other times, the “I” just seems to be slipping away. For me, a common dream metaphor for this slipperiness is when the dream-ego has to cope with actual sleepiness within the dream. Here are two examples:

Gathering for Ceremonies: I’m with a large group of people gathered halfway up a mountain, for some spiritual ceremonies. It’s a relaxed atmosphere with lots going on. I’m responsible for a toddler named “Sleepy,” and much of the time, I carry Sleepy around as s/he sleeps heavily in my arms. When s/he’s not asleep, s/he’s running around wildly, very distracting. The more I try to keep up with Sleepy, the drowsier I get…

Sleepy Attender: I’m attending an important workshop, sitting right up front, but I can’t stay awake. I sit up straight and pretend to be listening/meditating with my eyes closed, so the presenter won’t realize I’m asleep. After a while, I know I need to open my eyes at least briefly, to maintain the illusion of attentiveness, but I’m too groggy and can’t get myself to come out of it. [Finally I literally wake myself up by trying to open my eyes.]

Another expression of this same lack of dream-ego focus is when the dream itself just seems hazy, as if the dreamer is not able to generate vivid images. The environment around “me” in the dream is vague—maybe indoors, maybe outdoors, but with no noticeable features. Events in the dream, and body awareness for the dream-ego and dream characters, can also be hazy. In lucid dreams, where “I” realize that this is a dream, the experience is not sustainable, because the dream-ego and the dream environment are not distinct enough—either I wake up, or fall back into non-lucid, unremembered dreams. Continue reading

Threshold Experiences: Dreaming and Waking

crater wallIn the previous post (“Threshold Work As Spiritual Practice”), I was thinking about how an everyday familiarity with “small” threshold experiences can help us when we are thrown into more intense and overwhelming threshold experiences such as a life-threatening illness, or the death or loss of someone or something significant in our lives.

Now I’d like to consider some examples of those “small” thresholds. On a daily and nightly basis, we encounter in-between places—where the ordinary suddenly seems strange and surprising, or oddly off-key, or wonderfully new, or just uncomfortably indescribable.

Dreams are definitely thresholds like this. In the midst of a dream, I find myself thinking: “Wait, this can’t be happening!”

Someone gives me a paper bag with a fish in it, and, after carrying it around for hours, I suddenly  realize that the beautiful, silver creature is still alive and flexing… The fireplace is the size of the whole room, and we are walking around inside it, tiptoeing gingerly among the coals… Two rhinoceroses come out of the woods and walk down the path toward the lake… I am about three years old, riding a bus alone, and I am also my middle-aged self, sitting across the aisle and worrying about that child… We’re exploring a perfectly-preserved shipwreck at the bottom of the ocean, and have no difficulty breathing underwater…

In Tibetan dream yoga, a central practice is to learn to ask oneself repeatedly during the day, “Is this a dream?” By doing this on a regular basis, especially when something unusual occurs, we learn to ask the same question when we realize that something peculiar is happening in a dream—and so, “wake up” to the fact that we are dreaming (lucid dreaming). The deeper aspect of this practice, however, is to learn to question our waking state as well… Until we discover that our waking “reality” (the world we think we know) is also, in a sense, a dream—a tenuous, transitory condition, a threshold experience. Continue reading

Threshold Work As Spiritual Practice

What does my work with dreams have to do with my “other” work supporting people who are facing death, loss, illness, or difficult life changes? I’ve been asking myself this question a lot lately, as I’ve been preparing to lead a retreat on “Walking in the Dark: The Spiritual Path Through Illness, Loss, and Limitation”—a retreat based on both professional and personal experiences close to my heart.threshold 01

I’ve offered “Walking in the Dark” many times, and although it is not directly related to dreamwork, dreams frequently come up in relation to difficult, disorienting, and deeply transformative life challenges. I recognize both dreams and painful, life-changing events as threshold experiences—liminal, paradoxical, in-between places where certainties dissolve and possibilities multiply. Such threshold experiences are always spiritual opportunities, even when they seem chaotic or empty.

Following my cancer (which was, indeed, a threshold experience), I began to volunteer, and later to work professionally, in hospice, bereavement care, chaplaincy, spiritual direction, and pastoral services with people who were dying, grieving, elderly, seriously ill, or experiencing other significant life changes. Because dreaming had been meaningful in my own life, I naturally incorporated dreamwork into my practice of spiritual care—exploring dreams with individuals and groups in various contexts. Continue reading

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