Compass Dreamwork

Dreamwork as Spiritual Practice

Category: Dream Figures

The Unknown Someone: Anonymous Dream Figures

Have you noticed that there are characters in your dreams who are a part of the story, but remain unidentifiable? Perhaps in a dream, someone tells me the truth… someone is angry at me… someone is sitting alone in the corner…someone keeps interrupting. Is it a man or a woman, old or young? Is it even a human being? I’m really not sure. I’d like to get to know this unknown someone—to make a connection, to recognize who is there, hovering in the background, exerting an influence on the dream scene. These dream figures are often overlooked when we share dreams or write them down: we assume they are unimportant, because we can’t describe them adequately.

Such incidental, indeterminate characters keep showing up in my dreams. In “Pity the Poor Ego,” for example, there’s a room full of hot coals that is too hot to endure, yet I sense an unknown someone in there, just out of sight. The only thing I know about this person is that they are where no one can be, so I imagine that they must be wearing protective clothing, though I don’t actually see them. When I wrote the dream down, I almost didn’t mention this person, because their presence seemed incidental. But, as I explored further, the unknown someone began to seem more and more significant. I looked for similar characters in other dreams, and found them, in abundance. They always seemed to have something to do with the relationship between self and other, between “me” and “not-me.” Often, these characters were doing something that “I” (the dream-ego) couldn’t do (like standing on hot coals), or saying something that I couldn’t say, or knowing something that I didn’t know. They “just happened to be there”—but at a key moment, presenting an alternative understanding of the dream reality.

Perhaps these dream figures are unidentified because they represent, or embody, more than the dreamer can imagine. They are “beyond me.” Like images of the divine, they are beyond words, beyond our limiting ideas of what is possible or reasonable, or what is even conceivable.

Many spiritual traditions avoid naming God, or creating images of God that can only diminish that which is inexpressible. Yet, in most traditions, God is among us all the time, seeming so ordinary, so inconspicuous, that the immanent presence of the unknown someone can appear to be merely an inconsequential afterthought: the person standing beside me at the bus stop; the dog pausing to sniff my hand; the trees along my street that blossom extravagantly every Spring—all these divine beings can show me a different way to experience the reality I tend to take for granted.

Exploring the “unknown someone” can open up big, universal concerns—and can also be personally revealing. So, as I write about this, I think about my own identity in relation to these anonymous dream figures. Many of my recent posts have been quite personal. Sometimes, I feel that I’m walking the fine line between sharing and self-indulgence. Still, I believe it’s vitally important to share, because an isolated experience quickly becomes meaningless, while a shared experience resonates beyond any individual, potentially creating deeper connections and a larger purpose from challenges that would otherwise be monotonously difficult, empty, painful and exhausting. We are all manifestations of God for one another—we show each other that there is more to us than what we think we are. When I really see you, I see someone“not-me,” someone beyond myself, someone that expands my understanding of who I am. When you see me, you see another world, another way of being that is both familiar and unfamiliar.

Anonymous characters share our dreams, and also populate many areas of our waking lives. It’s important to acknowledge them and recognize that we are in relationship all the time, even if we are preoccupied with our own concerns.

Because my health challenges have forced me to spend more time than I’d like attending to my own immediate needs and coping with my own practical problems, I find my work with others (in spiritual direction and dreamwork facilitation) to be refreshing, and even more meaningful than it would have been if I were healthy. What a joy to concentrate on someone else’s concerns and spiritual journey for a change! I also find it refreshing to engage with “strangers” who I encounter in the course of my day, or who have become friends through social media, for many of the same reasons. When I write, I hope to open up my own concerns and journey to others, as others have opened their lives to me. We all play essential roles in one another’s lives: we learn from each other, receive support and encouragement from one another, and have the opportunity to be supportive and encouraging ourselves.

In dreams, all of the dream figures (human or animal) might be considered to be aspects of the dreamer’s own personal psyche. But, more significantly I think, all of our dreams touch upon levels of experience that we share, and all of our dream figures can legitimately be seen as other people, other beings, other possibilities—manifestations of something or someone beyond ourselves. So, when I’m sharing a dream, I’m revealing things about myself, but also communicating about a mystery that includes you, and invites you to enter the dream world with me. There, in the dream world, we meet friends and we meet strangers. The dream characters that are least familiar to us—those unknown someones—may have the most to offer. And sharing the dream, like sharing our waking-life experiences, gives us the opportunity to acknowledge and learn from perspectives that differ from our own. Continue reading

Feel It In My Bones: A Dream Experience of the Body

My relationship with my body is undergoing some rapid changes, and my dreams reflect this process in a visceral, or rather a skeletal, way: I can feel these dreams in my very bones.

Over the past year, I’ve been coping with Radiation Fibrosis Syndrome, a progressive disease that causes structural and systemic damage to muscles, nerves, blood vessels, bones and major organs. The course of this disease is unpredictable, so it’s difficult to find a place to stand within myself; the ground of my physical being is continually shifting. Most of the time, I’m very tired and uncomfortable (or painful). As my body becomes increasingly uncoordinated, I also feel more socially awkward and self-conscious. Yet I can still function fairly normally even though I’m probably moving toward further disability and a shortened life expectancy. What am I to make of this? Are my dream experiences offering suggestions?

I sometimes see myself in an oddly objective way these days: as though my body is a dear, rather difficult, old friend. Of course, I’m worried about this friend. She looks and feels fragile, and her mortality unsettles me—yet, at the same time, I’m impressed by her stubborn resilience. I don’t know how she’s doing it, but she seems to be coping. Both her vulnerability and her toughness make me feel fairly helpless and unnecessary. Does the body really need me to manage her business? She’ll do what she needs to do, in her own way, whether it inconveniences and grieves me or not; she’ll live as long as she can live, and then she’ll die. From her perspective this mortal life seems completely straightforward. From my perspective, it’s sometimes frightening, sometimes sad, sometimes fun, sometimes beautiful and moving, often (almost always) confusing.

It makes sense that my dreams usually represent my changing physical condition through dream figures other than “me.” In my dreams, other people—or animals, or plants, or objects—exhibit my symptoms and face my worst fears, while “I” (the dream-ego) am just a bystander. Other dream figures have wasting diseases, weakening bodies; other dream figures suffer heart attacks or strokes, and may suddenly die. Meanwhile, “I” call 911, or bring tea, or sing, or burst into tears… bearing witness with love, trying to be helpful.

As I’m not fully identified with my own body right now (she’s changing so fast, I can’t keep up), I’m very aware in waking life of other people who have disabilities similar to mine, and I keep being drawn to stories of people who are dealing with their own mortality or health challenges. So, my dreams reflect this exploratory process, and show me ways of relating to my bodily changes as if I were relating to other people who are physically frail or in transition. My dreams are filled with sick people and dying people, and the response of deep tenderness I feel for these dream figures is healing for me as it teaches me to care for my own body in a similar way. Continue reading

Dream-Winching

By Tina Tau, Guest Blogger

This post is third in a series of four that I’m doing while Kirsten is walking the Camino. They’re all connected with a dream-infused trip I took to Tuscany in the fall of 2006, when my marriage was on its last miserable legs.

In the beautiful hill-town of Pari I had my own little apartment. I spent the sunny, brilliant days picking olives on a farm in the valley. But on November 1st, I stayed in my apartment to do dreamwork. It was cold and foggy, the great views over the countryside gone, swaddled in silence.

I had four dreams from four consecutive nights to look at. I hoped they’d help me with my big questions: Should I leave my husband? What will that do to our daughters? If I leave him, what will I do, where will I go? Will I be okay? 

I trusted (and still trust) the wise people inside me who write my dreams to have a better grip on what is happening than I consciously did. I’m such a master of denial and so attached to getting things “right” that I am often blind to what is true. My conscious inclinations have led me down many dead end roads into the mud; my dreams somehow haul me out. I wanted that kind of heavy dream-winching to come into play on that foggy Day of the Dead.

The first of the four dreams, as I reported in my last post, was oddly short and neutral, just a short conversation with a woman who was looking for work on my behalf. That dream bore fruit a few months later in a strange turn of events that landed me a good job.

The other three dreams were longer, richer, metaphorical and emotional. These are short summaries:

About to Die

I arrive at a doctor’s office/clinic. Things are strangely quiet, inside and out of the clinic; there is a sense of impending but unknown crisis. On a TV screen I see an announcer reading from a press release. The crisis is worldwide, originating in the Nile delta. Someone herds all of us down the street and into a school auditorium for shelter. The general atmosphere is calm, but it’s clear we’re all going to die. A man is very distressed, and I explain to him that death is safe.

Continue reading

Dream Nemesis or Dream Teacher?

Toby 01Last night, my cat, Toby, woke me up with his hollering. He is deaf, and so can be oblivious to the noise he is making—reporting on his night-time activities in a very loud voice: “I’m on the bookcase, way up high! I’m pushing this heavy thing over the edge! [Crash!— the bowl of small change hits the floor.] Wow! Jumping down now! Hey, look, at all these shiny things! There’s some under the chair! Oh boy, I found my ball! [Whack! Scamper! Bang!] I ran into the door but I’m okay! Are you in there? Will you come out and throw my ball?” This goes on and on.

Just as I’m slipping back into sleep, Toby lets out another happy bellow or hunting cry. After being shocked awake three or four times, my adrenaline is pumping and it’s almost impossible to relax and ignore him. On nights like this, Toby is my Nemesis. My adorable little friend is taking the form of an awful, disruptive force, preventing me from doing what I want to do: Get some sleep! I can shout at him all I want (he’s deaf, remember?)—and it doesn’t do any good. It feels like a bad dream. Do you ever have dreams like this?

In dreams, the Nemesis character can be as innocent as Toby, or as demonic as a nightmare murderer. The Nemesis can be an annoyance, or a challenge, or a major threat. But, overall, when your Nemesis appears in a dream, like when Toby has a busy, noisy night, you are bound to be bothered. This is the character that “pushes your buttons”—making you feel things you don’t want to feel and do things you don’t want to do. Continue reading

Dream Catalysts and Witnesses

In the previous post, I focused on the dream figure of the Companion, who can represent our essential connectedness with others, and with life itself. Dream figures that serve as Companions, or as Messengers, Guides, and Guardians, tend to have strong individual characteristics, and can seem to be independent entities with their own reasons for taking part in any particular dream. Some other dream figures, such as Witnesses and Catalysts, can seem more objective, even neutral. Although they play meaningful roles in our dreams, they may not seem to have great significance in themselves.

A couple of years ago, when I was coping with a lot of change, I had a series of dreams in which I saved, or tried to save, a child from drowning. Sometimes these children were girls, sometimes boys, and they ranged in age from about two to about 10. They were children of diverse ethnicities, from various parts of the world (the Netherlands, North Africa, North America, Central America, Southeast Asia )—and seemed to represent “children” or “childhood” rather than any individual child in particular.

In the dreams, I often had intense, personal interactions with the child’s mother or father, but never with the child—except in one instance where I was carrying the little one out of a flood, when our eyes met. I felt a profound sense of love and awe at the beauty of this small being, who seemed to change gender and age continuously as I held him/her. This dream marked the last in the series, and after that I had a number of dreams in which a child played a much more personal role.

Part of the definition of a “catalyst” (according to the American Heritage Dictionary) is “One that precipitates a process or event, especially without being involved in or changed by the consequences.” I would call the anonymous children in danger of drowning in my dreams Catalysts, because they acted as the initiating cause or motivating energy for my actions in the dream, but had no personal response to the drama in which they were engaged, no apparent investment in the outcome. Each of these impersonal Catalyst characters changed the direction of the dream, and their presence evoked a sense of urgency (perhaps the emergent need to save something/someone child-like in myself and in the world around me, through my work), which “precipitated” a process of personal transformation for me in waking life. Continue reading

Dream Companions

shadows 01Following up on the theme of dream figures that I’ve been exploring in the last two posts (“The True Nature of Dream Figures,” and “Dream Messengers, Guides, And Guardians”): Another type of dream figure that can play a significant role in our lives is the Companion.

I’d define a dream Companion as a character—generally a human being, but sometimes another creature—who shares the experience of the dream with the dream-ego (the “I” character). The Companion often appears in my dreams in the guise of my partner, Holly, who is my regular companion in waking life. Within the dream, the Companion may also take the shape of a casual acquaintance, a stranger, the dreamer’s dog or cat (or gerbil, parakeet, iguana, etc.) or someone from the dreamer’s past (such as a childhood best friend, or a former partner). And in the dream, the “companionship” may be friendship and camaraderie, a family-like bond, or romantic intimacy.

Who is it, in waking life, that you want to tell when something exciting or painful or frightening or joyful happens to you? Who is it that shares your experiences? That person, or those people, may appear in your dreams as the Companion. Or, if something new is arising in your life and becoming important to you, the Companion may take a form associated with that new thing—representing your relationship to that aspect of your life. For example, when I was learning a set of new skills that inspired and challenged me, I dreamed of a close friendship with a fellow student I barely knew, someone who seemed especially interested in the areas I was just discovering.

When the dream Companion takes the form of a lover—with “companionship” that includes sexual intimacy—there may be a particularly intense longing for connection with whatever this Companion represents. Often, for me, a dream lover (however inappropriate the person playing this role may seem) has some characteristic of an aspect of myself that I am opening up to at a new level. Sexual energy in a dream can be a metaphor for spiritual energy—the life force, expressed as the coming-together of apparently distinct beings to create a whole that is more than the sum of its parts, an energy that transcends our “separate” selves. Continue reading

Dream Messengers, Guides, and Guardians

cheetah 01I’m trying to write this post while watching the annual Oregon Humane Society telethon: a steady stream of incredible cats and dogs awaiting adoption—reminding me of the significant roles that animals can play in our lives and in our dreams. In the last post (“The True Nature of Dream Figures”), I introduced the idea of seeing dream figures—human or animal—as genuinely real and meaningful participants in the unfolding experience of life. Dream figures frequently have walk-on parts as Messengers, Guides, and Guardians—parts that are as often filled by animals as by humans.

In dreams, as in waking life, Messengers, Guides and Guardians tend to appear at turning points, or in transitional places, when we are most in need of their support.  Their messages, guidance, or protection can be obvious, or more subtle.

Regularly, when new ways of being are emerging in my life, I dream of shorelines, borderlands, or unfamiliar, dark places—with a tiger, lion, cheetah, or other big cat standing by. Twice, I’ve dreamed that a tiger actually comes up out of the water at the very place where I need to go into the water, and then seems to guard this place while I work up my courage to plunge in and do what I need to do. I have a sense, in these dreams, that the tiger will keep the way open while I explore the depths, and will be there waiting to acknowledge my return.

When people are near death, their waking or sleeping dreams tend to include Messengers, Guides and Guardians—often people or animals who have previously died. Several times, I’ve heard hospice patients say: “there’s a dog over there by the door, waiting for me.” In some cases, this is a beloved childhood pet—in others, the animal is unfamiliar, and the patient is not sure whether or not to trust this visitor. In the mythologies of many traditions, dogs carry messages between the land of the living and the land of the dead, or guard the gates of the underworld, or come to guide the recently deceased in crossing over. This is not unexpected, since dogs are commonly messengers, guides or guardians in waking life as well. Continue reading

The True Nature Of Dream Figures

mirror 1I sometimes imagine that I’d enjoy more dreams in which “I” am the only character, and can simply explore the dream landscape without complicated interactions with other dream figures. I sometimes even imagine that I’d enjoy having the whole waking world to myself for a day or two! But, really, waking or dreaming, the world would not be a very interesting place without other beings, other characters, to share it. In fact, there’s a sense in which we are all dreaming up—actually creating—our shared world together in each moment. Without a full cast of characters there’d be no play at all.

Dreams do occasionally seem to be solo performances, with only a single protagonist and no other obvious dream figures—but in such dreams even the “inanimate” objects, or features of the landscape, or even sounds and textures, can play the role of other characters in the dream drama. For the most part, however, our dreams are full of more obvious dream figures: people and creatures of all kinds that cocreate the context of the dream.

Often, we are just aware that there are others in the background of the dream scene—faceless fellow students in the classroom, fellow adventurers on the journey, fellow participants in the experience. Sometimes, such collective, indistinguishable dream figures provide an audience for the central action; sometimes they seem to be doing their own thing just off-stage. Who are all these people? They don’t stay in our memories individually any more than the members of a crowd at a concert—yet sometimes a face or a behavior stands out and turns these background “extras” into actual characters. And the dream figures that become actual characters sometimes return in dream after dream, or have such an impact on our emotions and imaginations that they become meaningful influences in our waking and dreaming lives. Continue reading

© 2018 Compass Dreamwork

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑