Dreamwork as Spiritual Practice

Green Sloths and Synchronicities

One morning, while trying to learn to read Russian, I was puzzling my way through a silly Russian kids’ science fiction story and ran across an expression that seemed rather odd. I was sure I recognized the word “green”—but when I looked up the unfamiliar other word, it was “sloth.” “Green sloth?” This turned out to be the correct translation, since, on the next page, there was a picture of the boy astronaut encountering a green sloth on an alien planet. Okay.

Later that same day, I was reading a completely unrelated book about Teddy Roosevelt’s travels in the Amazon, and the words “green sloth” jumped out at me again. Yes, Teddy had seen green sloths on his journey—and it was explained that they are green because of an algae that thrives in their fur.

And then (no, really)—turning on the television that evening, I caught a glimpse of a documentary… about sloths. They were, indeed, a bit green. The narrator talked about the algae on the fur, while I called Holly at work, wild with excitement, to tell her that I’d actually seen three green sloths in a single day!

This exceptional set of coincidences is really only a bit beyond what seems to be happening on a regular basis all the time, though we only occasionally notice. For obvious reasons, Holly and I now refer to such events as “green sloths.” Jung called them synchronicities.

A synchronicity is generally defined as a “meaningful coincidence.” Maybe you’re not sure why seeing three green sloths is meaningful? Well, I’m not entirely sure myself! But I think that when unlikely events coincide, they might best be understood as if they were dream images: the nature of the image (or the green sloth) may have metaphorical significance. And the more startling and unlikely it is, the more it gets our attention—which may imply that it contains something worth attending to!

When sloths kept presenting themselves to me, I thought I’d take a look at the nature of sloths, and how that nature might be relevant to my life. I’ve always admired the slowness of sloths—their unhurried eating, their easy sleeping, the lazy, benign expressions on their faces. No doubt, I’m projecting my own ideas about sloths rather than expressing an educated understanding of their lifestyle. But the fact that I was all at once encountering sloths, and particularly green sloths, suggests to me that the qualities I imagined them possessing were important to me at that time. The fact that they were green might have been related to my associations with green things that could be 1) growing; 2) new or raw; and perhaps 3) flexible rather than brittle. So, maybe I needed to incorporate a patient, slow-growing, flexibility into my latest undertakings.

Some synchronicities seem to be meaningful in more obvious ways. For example, many times in my work with end-of-life care, powerful “coincidences” have occurred just as a person is dying. These events usually have some intimate connection to the person involved—such as when, at the moment of death, a hummingbird hovers at the window of a woman who loved hummingbirds… But they can also have cultural or archetypal significance as well: in some traditions, hummingbirds are thought to be the strong souls of warriors, or of women who died in childbirth, coming to escort the dying to the other world.

But there are also plenty of ordinary “green sloths” whose meaning is obscure to say the least. A particular ancient Greek poet gets mentioned repeatedly everywhere you go… You keep finding single sneakers in the street, in the park, at the dentist’s office… Eight different cars of the same make, model and color, with a similar-looking driver and passenger, go by during the fifteen minutes that you’re waiting for a bus… Hm. What do you make of that? And then there was that weird dream about the green sloth writing Greek poetry, wearing a single sneaker, and riding in the passenger seat of the same car… It’s all part of the great synchronicity Mystery!



  1. micheal

    DO you think it is possible to have a dream that is more than a dream? Im not talking about content or meaning necessarily, but that perhaps a dream could be more than just your subconscious speaking to us? Maybe i can explain better with an example.

    Im very familiar with my dreams. Lucidity has always been a part of me. When i dream i can control it. I can do whatever i want and my imagination is my only limit. I can NEO-jump (like in the Matrix), 360 degree view, create pathways where none exist (doorways too). I have been able to control my energy to allow myself to hover slightly off the ground (now i use that ability to prevent myself from “dying” in falling dreams and i will often just jump from high places because i know i can land safely (: ). More or less i have crazy adventures every time i close my eyes. Most people would consider these to be re-occurring nightmares, and they probably are, but lucid dreaming allows me to control my fears, and even have fun in the process.

    Sometimes though, i have these other dreams. They are similar to a re-occurring dream only in the fact that they happen semi-frequently, perhaps once or twice a week. The setting will always be the same, but the same events never happen. Each one is like a continuation of the others, and they will go on intermittently for a month or two until something major happens and there is some sort of resolution in the dream.. Then, i go to a new place with a new story. The thing that sets these dreams apart from the rest though is that i have a inability to control the dream. I m used to being able to do a lot of different things when i dream. In these dreams i am only able to control my personal actions. I can choose to walk, run, jump, just like in real life, wit hreal life gravity limitations and physics. But i cannot do anything that i could not do outside of real life. Additionally, the dreams do not skip around, and are very detailed. Usually a dream will have ADHD; it jumps from bit to bit and you couldnt answer how you got from one spot to another. THese dream states dont do that….and the amount of detain (as far as thoughts i have, environment) are strangely vivid.

    So I, being a physics student, have to research this and i came to a very interesting conclusion… Im just curious on your opinion of this question…. Could it be possible that we could experience different universes and time streams through our dreams? Perhaps through entanglement? Or maybe because of the Higgs Boson? I feel as though i am on the verge of something big with this. I have written a 10 page research paper on this topic and believe that it may be a plausible explanation for what i have experienced. If your interested i could send it.

    So, in a nutshell, i have normal dreams, and dream states. Normal dreams are full of symbolism and just your subconscious helping your cope and understand life. Dream states, i believe, is my energy, entangled with the same universal energy that makes up all matter, experiencing a different universe (not necessarily me either). Somehow that information (the events that are experienced in the DS) is recorded in my memory to recall later.

    Am i a crazy person? Do you think this possible?

    • kirstenbackstrom

      Well, I don’t actually agree that “normal dreams” are “just your subconscious helping you cope and understand.” I think all dreams have mysterious and strange aspects that can make us question the nature of reality itself. Dream reality can be as complex, meaningful and “real” as waking reality, in its own way. I do agree that the distinction between waking and dreaming realities is sometimes questionable as well.

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