Some of the blog posts I’ve been writing can get pretty abstract. In the past couple of weeks, quite a few new subscribers have joined the Compass Dreamwork blog, and as I reviewed what I was planning to post for this week, I realized that it didn’t give enough of a sense of what “dreamwork as spiritual practice” is really about. What is the starting point for this work?

It’s time to write about the essentials, to give you an idea of how I am approaching dreams in general, and how dreamwork can be a significant spiritual practice. You can find most of this basic stuff elsewhere on the website, but here I’m going to spell it out—so if you are just discovering Compass Dreamwork, this is a good place to start.

I don’t really think there are any “experts” on dreams. Just as in my work with death and dying, I’ve found that the more I explore and the deeper I go into the world of dreams, the more mysterious it becomes. But those of us who have explored dreams in depth for many years can come to have some familiarity with the territory, and can be good guides and companions for others who want to go further into dreamwork as a spiritual practice.

Here’s some of what I’ve learned, what I’ve come to trust, about dreams. I hope you will test this for yourself, and come to your own conclusions about what is useful to you and what is not.

  1. Dreams are experiences. Just like waking experiences, some dream experiences are pleasant and some are unpleasant. What matters, from a spiritual perspective, is not “controlling” the dreaming and waking experiences so that they are all pleasant (which is impossible), but becoming aware of how we respond and relate to those experiences. Our relationship to pleasant and unpleasant experiences ultimately determines their value for us—as all experiences offer the potential for learning, healing, and opening our hearts and minds
  2. The spiritual practice of relating to our dream experiences (or our waking experiences) can occur both as the experience is happening, and in retrospect as we remember and reflect on that experience. The dreams we don’t remember are still valid experiences that help shape who we are, just as the waking experiences we have long since forgotten still contribute to our lives. However, the dreaming and waking experiences we do remember offer more opportunities for reflection that can affect how we respond to future experiences, and can allow us to take a more active role in our own growth and development.
  3. Dreams offer some unique opportunities, different from the opportunities offered by waking experiences. Specifically, dreams show us that there are many ways of looking at ourselves, others, our world, and our sense of “reality.” In our waking lives, we can become stuck in self-reinforcing patterns that come to define us, limit our understanding, and determine our actions. For example, dreams call into question our absolute certainties about things like the nature of time and identity (in dreams, time can be fluid, and the experience of “self” and “other” can be malleable). Dreams can also allow us to explore moral and ethical questions without causing harm to ourselves or others—we can try out “forbidden” things and come to understand their metaphorical significance, without taking them literally.
  4. By becoming dream explorers, we enlarge our potential for coping with paradox, change and the unknown with courage and compassion. When we reach major turning points or crossroads in our lives, when one way of life falls apart (through illness, accident, crisis, death, loss of a relationship, job or home, etc.) and something new has not yet begun—we must cope with a major shift in our conception of ourselves and our lives. In dreams, we regularly have “threshold experiences” in a context that can help us to become more creative and flexible, so that we will be better able to cope with such “threshold experiences” when they inevitably occur in our waking lives. Three aspects of such experiences are especially common in dreams: paradox (contradictory truths can coexist), change (something must end in order for something new to begin), and encountering the unknown (instead of answers, we find an open-ended questioning process). In dreams, our expectations are turned upside down again and again. This is closer to the way things “really are” than the day-to-day routines we can come to take for granted.
  5. Some dream experiences can give us a glimpse—a direct experience rather than an abstract concept—of that which is ultimately meaningful and sacred. Such dreams have had a profound influence on the lives of individuals and communities, have guided spiritual and scientific breakthroughs, and may serve to remind us of our interdependence with the natural world. Dreams include our waking perspectives and draw upon our waking experiences, but they go beyond those perspectives and experiences as well. Dreams can include everything—what we think we know, and more than we could consciously imagine. So where do dreams come from? They are ours, and they are beyond us.

These are some of the essentials of my own dreamwork practice. They’ve emerged in the course of my explorations, and they guide me as I develop the programs and services of Compass Dreamwork. Of course, this is only the beginning! In other posts, I’ll write more about how these ideas (and others) apply to actually working with dreams. Please feel free to share your own learnings, or to raise questions that we can consider together.