Compass Dreamwork

Dreamwork as Spiritual Practice

Category: Working With Dreams (page 2 of 4)

Best Case & Worst Case Scenarios: Working With Nightmares

nightmares-03Last month [“Some Bad News, Some Good News”], I described several ways of working with bad dreams in general. Now, I’d like to go a bit further into my own preferred method of working with nightmares.

[Note: As I mentioned in the last post, this kind of dreamwork is meant for ordinary nightmares, and can be practiced on such dreams by anyone. However, if these approaches are applied to PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) nightmares or really severe chronic dream issues, it should be with professional support. If you have serious sleep-disrupting dreams on a regular basis, or have other mental health concerns, seeking professional assistance and guidance is strongly advised.]

Let’s talk about really “bad” dreams. People define nightmares in different ways, but what distinguishes a nightmare from any other kind of unpleasant dream is that it leaves you in a state of strong emotion.

In my experience, the nightmare leaves you in this strongly emotional state because you wake up when the action of the dream has reached a crisis point, as the emotion is peaking. The anxiety has been building, the threat is getting closer and closer, and now the fear (or rage, or anguish, or horror, or helplessness) is so strong that sleep is not sustainable. The dream bursts its bounds and carries the shock of all those feelings into the waking world.

You’re lying in bed, but you’re also in the midst of the nightmare, and you can’t shake it. For the rest of the night, and sometimes for much longer, it stays with you. Maybe you dream it again and again, maybe it hovers in the back of your mind and haunts you. Or maybe you make a big effort and manage to forget it completely, but then something sparks a memory and it all comes back. It can seem inescapable.

This kind of dream takes you to a place that is as bad as anything can be, and even though you get over it and get on with your life, you can’t help knowing, now, that such a place exists, at least potentially, within you. A place where anything can happen, where everything you dread does happen. A place you can’t handle—or believe you can’t handle, because the emotions it evoked overwhelmed you and left you feeling messed up. You’re stuck with the idea (whether conscious or not) that this could happen again, anytime. You’re at its mercy.

So, how do you move on from this nightmare place? And, how could it possibly be meaningful or “good” to have such a dream?

As I mentioned in the last post, many dreamworkers and therapists use dream re-entry methods (going back to the dream while awake, and re-experiencing it) to recreate the dream scenario, but with safeguards and the potential to find a new resolution. You can experience the nightmare, and at least some of its emotional impact, from the perspective of the waking mind, which knows that this is a dream and that you will wake up. Such perspective allows you to exercise some choice about your responses to the dream events. And, often, a dreamworker will encourage you to imagine how the dream might continue beyond the shocking emotional crisis point where you were left hanging—following the process through to a place of potential acceptance and integration.

My own variation on this dreamwork practice is to suggest taking it a step further. It’s usually helpful to begin with the “best case scenario” resolution of the terrible dream situation. (The “best case scenario” resolution is the approach most therapists tend to use.)

Remembering that this is a dream as you come to the crisis, you would recognize that anything can happen, and begin to imagine how things might get better if the dream continued… Perhaps the monster is afraid of you when you turn to confront it, or perhaps the thing that was following you turns out to be a big, friendly dog…  Perhaps the child who was hit by a car is okay after all—a doctor rushes in to save her life… Perhaps the bloody massacre turns out to be a scene in a movie, and the actors begin to over-act playfully, so the violence becomes absurd slapstick and everyone is laughing… Perhaps everyone turns into purple furry caterpillars dancing in a ballet…

These positive possibilities can be more beneficial the more imaginative and unlikely they are. Instead of just coming up with a pat solution to a situation that you know was really and truly horrible, it’s good to be as creative and kooky as dreams can be, to make it clear to yourself that this is a dream and therefore the possibilities are truly infinite. Any dream always has the potential to go in an entirely unexpected direction—and our waking lives have a similar open-ended potential (well, maybe not caterpillar ballet…!). The important thing is to experience the truth that just because it looks hopeless, and just because the emotions are overwhelming, doesn’t mean it has to end here. There are always other ways.

Once, you’ve played with the “best case” possibilities, however, I’ve found that the really powerful transformative work happens when you are brave enough, and feel safe enough, to go on to the “worst case scenario.” Now that you’ve had some practice with the flexibility of dream outcomes, you can dare to follow the nightmare where it clearly seems to be going… into the place where everything is as bad as it can be. Continue reading

Some Bad News, Some Good News: Working with “Bad” Dreams

nightmares-01Some dreams can seem like really “bad news.” Of course, this won’t be news to anyone. Sure, we’ve all had unpleasant, uncomfortable, disgusting, disturbing, frustrating dreams. Most of us have had a few frightening nightmares, too.

Many spiritual traditions recognize that some things which seem to be poison can also be medicine. Even western medical science recognizes this—an obvious example being how poisonous chemotherapy can be medicine for cancer. (Incidentally, while I was on chemo, I noticed that the mosquitos didn’t bite me!) Yes, it’s true that dreams bring us lots of experiences that can feel like poison, but even the worst dreams also have the potential to be beneficial.

In the last post [“No Bad Dreams”] I explored some of the good news about bad dreams. But I would certainly acknowledge that nightmares really do seem awfully nightmarish, and in order to find the good news within the bad news, we need to start with some tools and skills to help us understand the dream differently. The dreamworker doesn’t just turn lead into gold by telling the lead that it should be gold. There are ways and means, gleaned from study, practice, and experimentation, which can make dreamwork seem like magic—and actually work wonders.

I always start with the assumption that any “bad” dream could potentially be a good dream—so  this particular dream deserves my attention and curiosity. Such an assumption is like an invitation to the dream: “I’m listening. You don’t have to shout (or spit, or threaten, or bite, or throw a tantrum). We’re on the same side, and I want to hear what you have to say.”

Lets consider some ways of working with those “bad” dreams. Over the course of my own career in dreamwork, I’ve developed a few approaches that seem to be helpful, and I’ve drawn upon the experience and wisdom of other practitioners as well. Here are some suggestions: Continue reading

Dreaming of Homelessness, Part 4: A Larger Perspective

homeless-4-pilgrimThere are so many ways to look at a dream, so many possible meanings. The “truth” about the dream is finally up to the dreamer—if a particular approach resonates for the dreamer, then that approach is meaningful and valuable. However, some approaches to dreams, and some kinds of meanings, have a value that transcends the dreamer as an individual. Some dream images and stories can be universally recognized, and some ways of looking at a dream invite us all to participate in the dream’s wisdom, creativity, and abundance.

In the last three posts, I’ve been exploring my own recent dream about homelessness in ways that give me new insights into myself and my life. I hope that those insights may also speak to others, but the dreamwork approaches I applied were derived from my own feelings about the dream’s story and my own associations with its images. In this final post of the series, I’ll be listening for the voices within the dream that need to be heard, not only by me, but by all of us.

In the waking world and in the dream world, some voices come through loud and clear (especially those that align with our personal agendas), while those that disagree with us, or mumble in the background, or speak in whispers or foreign languages, or through silence or “nonsense”—are likely to be ignored. In my dream, there’s a homeless man whose point of view is hard to hear—which makes sense since most of us aren’t in the habit of listening to people like him. He doesn’t say much out loud, but his actions and attitudes can tell us a lot.

Here’s the dream one more time—and let’s pay attention to the perspective of “the homeless man” (for the full dream, see “Dreaming of Homelessness, Part One”):

The Homeless Man Will Lose His Papillon: A homeless man who is our friend comes to our door for shelter on a cold, wet night, and we offer him food, a warm bath, and a sleeping bag on the couch. He has a little dog—a female papillon named “Pierrot.” While he sleeps, we realize that he can no longer take care of himself and his dog. It seems like a  betrayal to suggest this, but the only solution is for the dog to be adopted by someone else. Unwilling to give up his papillon, the man leaves—but soon returns, because he is too sick to survive out there. He seems to agree, reluctantly, to let Pierrot go, though for now he withdraws again to the sleeping bag, saying nothing.

I’m leaving out the final scene about the dog’s potential future, since I’ve explored that pretty thoroughly in previous posts. It seems that the dog will find a home, but what will happen to the man? Will he return to the streets alone? Or will the separation allow him a new freedom, and perhaps even a chance to have a home of his own?

When I took the dream literally [in Part One], the focus was on my shame and guilt over how painfully unsatisfactory the “only solution” is for the homeless man. Separating him from his dog may relieve him of the burden of taking care of her, but it also leaves him without a companion to share his hard life. This certainly reflects a real-world problem, but doesn’t really give the dream figure of the homeless man room to be more than an unresolved case for social services.

When I looked at the dream symbolically [in Parts Two and Three], I focused on the way that the dog, and the dreamer (me), were transformed by finding a new way of relating to home, and began to consider what the “homeless man” might represent. I wrote:

“From this perspective, the man represents an identity that has become exhausted, worn down, unsustainable. This ‘homeless’ identity has been ‘out in the cold’ and is finally being acknowledged, invited inside, and given care and attention. Along with the care and attention comes a realization that the soul (the papillon) cannot survive if she remains connected to this identity. The soul needs a new home, which her companion (the homeless figure) is no longer able to provide.”

What does the homeless figure himself have to say about this? Well, in the dream, he doesn’t speak, but still communicates eloquently. It is significant that the dream opens with his willingness to reach out for help. His vulnerability is dignified, as he appears “at the door,” in need, and turns himself over to his friends (my partner and I) in the expectation that his needs will be met. If I see the dream from his perspective, I can see that he has made a choice to step forward and put himself and his dog in our care—and, in dream terms, this choice could be considered a “willing sacrifice.” He is giving up his life as he has known it, at least for one night, and doing this for the sake of other, more important, concerns: immediate comfort and safety, and perhaps a new life. Continue reading

Dreaming of Homelessness, Part 3: Metaphor & Imagery

path & wallI’m pretty sure it’s true that “no dreams come just to tell you what you already know” [from Jeremy Taylor’s “Dream Work Tool Kit”]. There’s always value in looking further, letting the dream take us into unknown territory. My recent dream about a homeless man being separated from his dog troubled me, and dreams that trouble me suggest that it’s particularly important to expand the bounds of “what I already know.” Can I see beyond the troubling first impression? Can I find more meaning here than meets the eye?

I started with what I could easily see by taking the dream literally [“Dreaming of Homelessness, Part One”], and then listened for resonance between the dream and my own recent experiences walking the Camino de Santiago [“Dreaming of Homelessness, Part Two”]. But both of these approaches kept well within the realm of what I already know—about the dream and about myself. Now, I’d like to tap into the dream’s core imagery, its metaphoric energy source. This is still a somewhat personal, psychological approach, but the dream gives me a boost so I can peek over the wall at the edge of my conscious imagination.

When we pick up the symbols that generate the dynamic life force in a dream and hold them to the light, rainbow patterns flash from every facet. Through metaphor and imagery, personal projections glitter and unfold into multiple dimensions that reflect universal meanings.

Here’s a short version of the dream, emphasizing some key images (for the full dream, see Part One):

The Homeless Man Will Lose His Papillon: A homeless man comes to my partner and me for shelter on a cold, wet night, and we offer him food, a warm bath, and a sleeping bag on the couch. He has a little dog—a female papillon named “Pierrot.” While he sleeps, We realize that he can no longer take care of himself and his dog. It seems like a betrayal to suggest this, but the only solution is for the dog to be adopted by someone else. Unwilling to give up his papillon, the man leaves—but soon returns, because he is too sick to survive out there. He seems to agree, reluctantly, to let Pierrot go, though for now he withdraws again to the sleeping bag, saying nothing. I remove my valuables—passport and cash—from the room where he is sleeping, so he will not be tempted to steal.  

Now, we witness a different scene: another dog—a retriever—is in a crate. Her owner is giving her up for adoption, and says good-bye through the cage door. Then, her new owner, apparently the same kind woman who will adopt Pierrot, comes and opens the cage door and lets the dog out. They get to know each other, gently. I think that it could be like this for the papillon, too—a sad separation, but the chance to go to a warm and loving home.

My peer dream group helped me to hold “The Homeless Man Will Lose His Papillon” up to the light, to see through the dream’s words and into the dream’s world. Ordinarily, I know how to play creatively with images and metaphors, to uncover the paradoxical intricacies of a dream—but this dream had hit my blind spots. I couldn’t see past the homeless man’s needs, my own fears, and my shameful failure to trust him or find a compassionate solution that would allow him to keep his dog.

There were some obvious symbols that I recognized right away, but they seemed opaque, dulled by my literalism. I needed the help of my fellow dreamworkers to open up some space in my thinking and give this dead-end story a new life. They heard the dream in a fresh way, and echoed its metaphors back to me, with their own associations and emotional responses—and in those echoes I could hear the dream’s voice speaking more clearly to me, singing to me.

A homeless dream figure is not the same thing as a homeless human being, and a dream papillon named Pierrot is more than a man’s canine companion. Separating them from each other, even though it feels painful and sad, is not necessarily a tragedy since the dream itself suggests in the final scene that, after the good-byes are over, the cage door will be opened and a new relationship and home may be gently introduced.

My friend Pearl as “Pierrot"

Pearl Luick standing in for “Pierrot”

The dream figure of the homeless man will have his turn in the final post of this series, but here I’d like to concentrate on the little dog. She is a papillon—a breed of toy spaniel known for big, perky, silky ears that look like butterfly wings. The name does, in fact, mean “butterfly” in French. In many traditions, butterflies are associated with the soul, because of their beauty, lightness, and the way that they emerge from a process of metamorphosis. The papillon is the soul of this dream. I don’t even actually “see” that little dog—I know she’s there, but have no visual impression of her presence—and yet the whole dream is her story.

The separation of the homeless man from his papillon could be considered a process of “soul loss.” [For more about soul loss, see: “Soul Retrieval and Shamanic Dreaming.”] It seems that the primal connection between body and soul (man and dog) is going to be severed. Viewing the homeless man as analogous to the physical body makes some sense, since his needs are immediately physical—he needs food, warmth, rest. And, when the man sleeps, or when the body goes through trauma or radical transformation, the soul may take flight. Maybe the papillon is a lost soul.

But, another way of looking at this situation is that the soul is just leaving one kind of relationship with the primary identity and going on to a new kind of relationship. Both the old “owner” (the homeless man) and the new one (the kind woman) are aspects of the dreamer’s whole self, and the papillon/soul is simply shifting allegiance from one aspect to another. This movement of the soul suggests that the dreamer (myself) may be shifting away from her own identification with homelessness and toward a new understanding of home. Continue reading

Dreaming of Homelessness, Part Two: Personal Associations

homeless 02I’ve been looking at one of my recent dreams from different angles, and writing about that process here, exploring the theme of homelessness. In the last post, I considered this dream as a literal description of the suffering involved when a homeless man must be separated from his beloved dog. Now, I’d like to take another approach, and try to understand the dream story in relation to my own life.

In the dream, a cold and ill homeless friend comes to our door, and we offer him food and shelter for the night. He is no longer capable of caring for his little papillon dog, and we must find a new home for her in spite of his unwillingness to lose her. The dream left me with many painful ethical questions about homelessness, autonomy, and responsibility, and I considered some of those questions in the last post [see “Dreaming of Homelessness, Part One”].

But the dream was especially poignant for me not only because it brought up literal concerns about other people who are homeless, but also because it evoked my own relationship to home, personal losses, and helplessness. Situations from the dream directly reflect the fact that I was far from home when I dreamed it (at the IASD conference in the Netherlands), and had just completed a difficult two-month pilgrimage, walking 500 miles on the Camino de Santiago.

During that journey I came to appreciate the intensity of the challenges that homeless people must face. At times, the relentless days and restless nights brought me to my physical and emotional limits, and exhausted my inner resources so that I felt profoundly vulnerable. When I finally came to the end of the long walk, I still felt dislocated and unclear about what I had learned, and so I dreamed of homelessness and helplessness represented by a dream figure with whom I could empathize. The painfully unresolved nature of the dream reflected many of my own unresolved feelings about my pilgrimage, and about other experiences from my past.

For me, “home” is a safe place—within myself and outside myself—where I can truly rest. It is a place where I am recognized and understood, a place where I trust my sense of self and my relationships with others. It is a place that offers physical and emotional security, and a certain amount of predictability. Archimedes said that with a long enough lever, he could move the earth—if only he had a place to stand. For me, home is a place to stand—and when I have that place to stand, I can live with strength, wisdom, kindness and courage. Without a home, I don’t know who I am or what I can do.

Actually, however, this definition of home sounds skewed. It’s certainly possible to feel insecure even in the happiest home. And how important is security anyway? What does it mean to be understood or safe?—I barely understand myself (thank goodness there’s more to me than I can rationally understand), and “safety” is conditional when we’re all mortal. Besides, needing to be understood and safe creates limitation rather than a true home. The kind of home that supports strength, wisdom, kindness, and courage actually arises more from shared acceptance of uncertainty than from having a solid place to stand.

Nevertheless, although I acknowledge the importance of vulnerability and openness, of having a home that’s more like a good pair of shoes than like a castle… well, this is my “growing edge,” which sometimes feels like the crumbling edge of a precipitous cliff. I’m not yet comfortable standing there!

“Home” is a big deal in my life. In my late teens, my family fell apart and I was homeless (in a way) for some time—never to the point of living on the streets, but dependent upon friends and strangers for temporary places to stay. I had few possessions (without a home, you can’t keep much), unstable health, little control over my circumstances, no luck getting work, constant uncertainty about finding food and shelter from one week to the next, and plenty of shame because others had to help me. So, even forty years later, it makes sense that when I undertook an extended pilgrimage in a foreign land my fears of homelessness surfaced right away—in my dreams and in my waking life. Continue reading

Dreaming of Homelessness, Part One: A Literal Perspective

OpeningWalking the Camino de Santiago over the course of two months, I found that an extended pilgrimage is nothing like a vacation. I couldn’t treat that long journey as an adventure separate from my regular life: it was my life. And it was a way of living that required versatile survival skills and relentless stamina.

Each day had to be lived on its own terms. Some days were filled with blessings, and many days, blessed or not, were terribly difficult. The difficult days gave me a tiny glimpse of what homelessness might feel like. Food, water, shelter, health, safety, communication, hygiene—the basics could never be taken for granted. Meeting my own essential needs was a constant energy drain, sometimes demanding more strength than I had.

Even on a well-traveled path, surrounded by good people, with many inner and outer resources available to me, I felt intense vulnerability, physical pain and fatigue, loneliness, and homesickness at times—especially when I was ill, or coping with rain or heat, or when I couldn’t make myself understood, or couldn’t be sure of my next meal, or bed, or shower, or toilet. I chose this path for myself on purpose, with the explicit intention of learning to adapt to whatever experiences I encountered, so it is overwhelming to imagine how much harder true homelessness would be: unchosen, with far fewer resources, and without a safety net of any kind.

Shortly after completing my long walk, while I was still far from home (at the international dream conference in the Netherlands), I had a dream that raised questions about homelessness, and what home really means. It was an important dream for me to have, and perhaps could be meaningful to others as well. So, in the next few blog posts, I’m going to explore this dream from three different angles: the literal, the personal, and the communal or universal.

Just about any dream or life issue can be seen literally, personally, or universally. First, we experience everything just as it happens, and respond to it immediately, with emotions, questions, concerns and insights about the situation as it appears to us. Then, we might take it to the next level, and see how it fits with other dreams or events in our lives, what patterns, paradoxes and metaphors are evident, and what it teaches us about ourselves. Finally, it can be meaningful to try to understand how these things apply not only to ourselves but to others, to communities and systems, to our natural environment, to our collective past, present and future.

Let’s look at the dream literally first…

The Homeless Man Will Lose His Papillon: My partner and I have befriended a homeless man who has a little dog—a female papillon named “Pierrot.” The man comes to our door on a cold, rainy night. He is chilled, soaked, and sick; he needs our help. We offer him a hot bath, dry clothes, soup, and a sleeping bag on the couch. We feed and tend his dog.

While he sleeps, we talk about his situation. He is unable to keep himself or Pierrot safe any longer. They are both going to die unless something is done. We call someone we know who works in social services. His wife (a kind, motherly person) is willing to adopt the dog. This is the only solution, but it means separating the homeless man from his beloved companion permanently. When he wakes up, he angrily refuses to discuss this, and leaves—but soon returns, because he is too sick to survive out there. He seems to agree, reluctantly, to give up Pierrot, though for now he will barely look at us and returns to the sleeping bag to rest.

Although I’m ashamed to do it, I remove my valuables—passport and cash—from the room where he is sleeping. Despite our friendship, I’m afraid that while in his current mood, upset and distrustful, he might be tempted to steal things.

Now, we witness a different scene: another dog—a retriever—is in a crate. Her owner is giving her up for adoption, and says good-bye to her, briefly, through the cage door. Then, her new owner, apparently the motherly woman who will adopt Pierrot, comes and opens the cage door and lets the dog out. They get to know each other gently. I think that this is how it could be for the little papillon, too—a sad separation, but the chance to go to a warm and loving home.

My first response to this dream, taking it literally, is anguish at the impossible decision to separate our homeless friend from his dog. I know that, in my waking life, I would not invite a homeless man into our home for the night—and I feel shame just as I felt in the dream when I distrusted my friend and kept my valuables out of his reach. Ignoring the last part of the dream, which suggests a more positive outcome, I can only think that taking away a man’s beloved dog is wrong, no matter what the justification. I do not accept the dream’s premise that this is the only option. It is too tragic and unfair. So, I am left with a painful predicament: How do I relate to a dream that pushes my buttons, and presents me with an apparently stuck situation? Continue reading

Give Up

By Tina Tau, Guest Blogger

“Do yourself the world’s biggest favor, and resign as general manager of the universe.”  Pema Chödrön

One more anecdote from my dream-haunted trip to Tuscany in 2006. This little story is one of the most beautiful in my life of doing dreamwork.

I’m sitting at a kitchen table, alone in my little apartment in the hill-town of Pari, in a seeming cave of silence. It is November 1, the Day of the Dead. Outside it is cold and foggy. I can’t even see the bell-tower, right outside my window. I feel outside of time and far away from my life. I’m so grateful for this silence, this chance to zoom out from my marriage and all the hopeless, flooded confusion of my days at home in Oregon.

I write in my journal, with a cup of tea to hand. For four nights in a row I’ve had interesting dreams, and I want so much to read them for clues about what I should do. They do seem to suggest that I leave my husband—as I reported in the last post, the term “press release” keeps reappearing. But there is plenty of other information in them that I mine for.

All morning and early afternoon I spend at the table, madly writing. I follow puns and associations, feel for the emotional center of each dream, and finally try to boil each dream down to a single sentence. Though I know this doesn’t do justice to all the fancy layers of a dream, it’s still helpful. After a lot of work, I do manage to get a resonant single-sentence summary of each of the four dreams. (Those sentences are more or less the summaries that appear in my last post.)

And then. . .

I want to condense it even further—combine the messages of all four into one essential message.

This is tough. I can’t get it.

My best attempt (and it isn’t remotely boiled down to a single sentence):

Something is pending: about to happen. I get help from unexpected sources, much behind-the-scenes help. I am worried about getting back to the girls on time and angry at my husband. The school where we are assembling and waiting is the girls’ new school that I am trying to find.

Continue reading

Fair Enough: Word Play in Dreams

Humpty DumptyIn dreams, language is flexible, and words can be like puzzle boxes: superficially impenetrable, but holding meanings within meanings within meanings…

Or perhaps dream words are more like eggs: smooth and cool, not quite round, potentially edible, potentially messy—and representing the beginning of something that might hatch out, grow feathers, and fly away. Here’s a famous egg-spert on words:

“‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.’
‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’
‘The questions is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master—that’s all.’
Alice was too much puzzled to say anything, so after a minute Humpty Dumpty began again, ‘They’ve a temper, some of them—particularly verbs, they’re the proudest—adjectives you can do anything with, but not verbs—however, I can manage the whole lot! Impenetrability! That’s what I say!’”
-Lewis Carroll

Dreams scramble the language! And we egg them on! Dream puns can be real groaners. Or brilliant. Or both. Which is to be master? Who’s making this stuff up? Are we adding the meaning ourselves, folding everything imaginable into the omelet? Not just spinach but seaweed! Not just mushrooms but marshmallows! I have to admit, I’m occasionally skeptical of the way we can wrestle words into meaning just about anything…

For example, when a dream setting is “the mall,” and we’re playing with words, we can shift the “m” one space to the left… so “the mall” becomes “them all.” Like Alice, I’m not sure about this. It seems like too much of a stretch. But that’s just me. Others have found a lot of significance in the malleability of “the mall”—and they’re certainly right that a mall is where we find “them all”… all of them, all of the anonymous other people whose opinions make a mall into what it is. So, perhaps they’re right. Perhaps Humpty Dumpty’s right. Words are tricky and proud, but manageable if you know how to play with them. And “the play’s the thing” (that’s Shakespeare—a master of wordplay if there ever was one).

Okay. Enough fooling around. Dreams are, indeed, ingenious with words—sometimes there’s no doubt at all that the word play makes sense on many different levels. And even when it is a stretch, a play on words can add dimensions to the dream that might not have been recognized otherwise. A humorous pun can open the mind. A riddle can help us ask new questions about old problems.

Sometimes, when a word or phrase in a dream seems to demand my attention, I look it up and find it has multiple meanings that are absolutely apt. These may be meanings I’ve forgotten, or meanings I’ve never heard before. It’s always useful to ask myself why the dream has chosen this particular word or phrase: what makes this way of saying something better than another?

In fact, I believe that the words spoken or heard within the dream, and the descriptive words I use as I’m writing or telling the dream, always have significance. Sometimes, I see significance right away, and sometimes I have to play with the words for a while, or let others play with them, before anything makes sense. And, occasionally, nonsense just remains nonsense… at least to my conscious mind. When this happens, however, I trust that what’s nonsense to my conscious mind right now might still make a deeper kind sense… There’s more to me than my conscious mind, and dreams are bigger than I am.

Here’s one where the word play definitely makes some sense to me:

Seeking Erin at the Fair: Holly and I are away from home and we get a text from our cat-sitter, Erin. The subject line reads “One Dead,” and we’re horrified. Desperately, I read the text for more information—but it’s just rambling existential philosophizing about what we risk when we leave loved ones behind.

Has one of our cats died? We must find Erin and make her tell us what she meant by this cryptic message. We go to a big fair (somehow pet-related) to look for her. We encounter many people in bright costumes at the fair, and keep seeking Erin, asking everyone if they’ve seen her. But she’s nowhere to be found…

Finally, we begin to think everything’s going to be okay. The message was about something else, and we’ll go home and find that the cats are all right.

One scene from this dream (too long to include) hinted at an overall theme I might otherwise have missed… In that scene, I complain about someone’s “unfair” behavior. As I wrote the dream in my journal, I noticed that my dream title included the words “…at the Fair.” —Hm. Could “fairness” be an issue here?

Over the past few months, I’ve been encountering so many obstacles and such painful losses, just when things should be getting easier. It doesn’t seem fair! I’ve been struggling with disappointment, and even hopelessness. So, in this dream, I’m exploring a “fair” place, to see what I might find. What’s fair, or unfair about this quest? Will I find what I’m seeking in fairness, or elsewhere?

Of course, the phrase, “One Dead,” and the name, “Erin,” stand out as distinctive language, too. The dream seems to be drawing attention to these words. So, leaving all other details aside, what is their significance? Continue reading

Lying Down Dreaming: Body Language in Dreams

Lying DownSince we experience the dream world as actively embodied (dream figures are usually doing things), it’s likely that movement, gesture, and posture are expressing something important, just as they would be in waking life. When we consider the metaphors, storylines and themes in our dreams, let’s also consider what’s going on in the body language.

In waking life, the body language of conversation can be as significant as the words that are exchanged, so shouldn’t it be the same with dreams? Suppose the incidental gestures and postures of dream figures are as meaningful as their overt intentions, opinions, and emotions… What do our dream bodies have to say?

If you keep a dream journal, you might become aware that you are describing certain physical actions repeatedly within a single dream, or as a pattern over the course of many dreams. Perhaps you notice there’s a lot of reaching, or crouching, or stumbling, or smiling, or running, or waving. Or you might sense that there’s a trend in the way things are being done when you keep coming across certain adverbs like quickly, or carefully, or awkwardly, or angrily. These words refer to the body language of the dream. What do they tell you? Are they consistent with the dream’s other communications?

Does one character’s “crouching” have the same purpose or significance as another character’s “crouching”—? Or is one character crouching down to pet the squirrel, and another character crouching behind the couch to eavesdrop? Is one “careful” gesture the same as another—? Or is someone carefully placing the chopsticks in a row, and someone else carefully tucking the baby into bed, or carefully crossing the minefield?

In the process of sharing a recent dream with my peer dream group, I noticed that the dream-ego and other dream figures kept lying down. Each lying down seemed different, and together they expanded the range of the dream’s meanings for me. Like with dominos, each dream figure’s lying down seemed to set off the next—click, click, click… Continue reading

The Dream Gatherers

Here are two quite different approaches to dreams:

blueberries 011-We sharpen our weapons and follow the trail, deep into the forest. There, we corner the wild dream beast, and, after a long and valiant battle, we return victorious with meat for a great feast.

2-We get all the kids and old people together and go out with our baskets and sacks. Perhaps we have one particularly fine patch of dream berries in mind, but on the way there and on the way back we find all sorts of other treasures: some dream nuts and mushrooms, and maybe a nice stream where the kids can play and catch a few crayfish, or a meadow where wildflowers are blooming, or a shady, soft place for a nap when it gets too hot. We chat as we walk, and we munch as we gather, and then we all come home satisfied with our day. Nobody makes much of a fuss over our full bags and baskets, but, after a modest supper, there’s still plenty left over to add to the storehouse. If we do this again tomorrow (and the next day, and so on…), our community thrives.

Traditionally, the first would be the men’s story, and the second would be the women’s. However, where dreamwork is concerned, both men and women can participate in either approach. You might be able to tell by the description that I’m biased in favor of the gathering method. However, both hunting and gathering have their places in a healthy human community, and in the world of dreamwork. The only reason to put a greater emphasis on the less glamorous approach of the gatherer is that the hunter generally monopolizes the field. Continue reading

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