handful of deep darkI recently returned from a five-day intensive entitled “Opening to Mystery.” It’s part of the two-year End-of-Life Practitioner program through Metta Institute, designed to teach mindfulness to hospice and palliative care practitioners (nurses, doctors, aides, administrators, chaplains, social workers, volunteers).  Although the perspective is primarily Buddhist, the approaches we are learning are intrinsic to the contemplative branch of every spiritual tradition. I’ll be writing more about how dreams relate to death and to “Mystery” over the next few months (as part of my final project for the program). At the moment, I’m thinking specifically about how death and dreams open up questions of identity: who or what are we?

In my work as a hospice volunteer and chaplain, I’ve been present during the last weeks with many hundreds of dying people and their families. I’ve seen how familiar points of reference are gradually (or sometimes suddenly) stripped away—both for the person who is ill and for his or her loved ones. I experienced the intensity of this process first-hand in my thirties, during my own life-threatening, life-changing illness (Hodgkin’s Lymphoma). Over the course of several years, I lost much of my “self,” as I could no longer work a job, participate in social activities, or even think clearly, eat or sleep normally, or take care of my own daily maintenance. Yet I was still conscious, still present, still aware in each moment. Paradoxically, for me and most others, this process of “un-selfing” is a source of both anguish and liberation.

In dreams, something similar can occur. The dreams I remember most easily are ones that follow a more-or-less expected pattern and have a central character (“I”), whose perspective is similar to that of my waking self, and whose actions are “mine.” However, as I begin to work with my dreams, I begin to see just how slippery my dream identity can be. I begin to remember more dreams that are difficult to describe because “I” am not a distinct entity at all. Often, “I” am a different age, or have different physical characteristics from my waking self. Occasionally, “I” am a different sex, or behave completely “out of character.” I can remember dreams as if they were experienced by characters other than “me,” or by several characters at once, or by an observing presence who is not a character in the dream at all.

Many spiritual traditions suggest that our everyday self (the one we identify with, and who plays particular roles in the lives of others) is only a small fragment of our larger Self—or soul, or psyche. The shifting sense of identity we can experience in dreams is not limited to the small self’s roles and thoughts, because dreams don’t come from the small self of the dreamer, but from the dreamer’s larger Self. (The convention of using a capital “S” to distinguish the large Self from the small self comes from C.G. Jung.)

This larger Self does not belong entirely to the person I think I am, but overlaps with the experiences of others, is intimately connected to the natural world, and is a constantly changing flow of experiences rather than a solid entity. This Self is not really a “self” at all, but more like consciousness or awareness. At death, the small self dies, but in some sense the larger Self continues. In dreams, the small self may be a character, but the larger Self (the dream-maker)  includes the whole show: all the characters, the setting, the dreamer, and even the complex interweaving of dreaming and waking realities.

At the Metta intensive, we did an exercise that is common in spiritual practice: two people sit facing each other, and one asks the other the same question over and over. Each time, the question should be asked as if it were a brand new inquiry, and each time the answers should arise out of the immediacy and freshness of the moment. This time, the question is, “What are you?”

For most of us, the first three or four answers come from the small self: I am my roles, my relationships, my body, my habits of thought and activity. But most of us also find that, with repetition, the question soon catapults us beyond easy answers. Here’s the question yet again, yet again, yet again, “What are you?” And as the asking continues, with each question I experience a breathless moment of suspension in the midst of emptiness: I don’t know. It’s awful to try to grasp for an answer, but wonderfully freeing to find myself so spacious. The answers I give, or hear from others, become poetry: I am rain falling. I am spiraling inward and spiraling outward. I am longing, reaching, expanding. I am a newborn baby. I am the sky. I don’t know.

In dreams, and as we approach death, we get a glimpse of the possibilities. We can’t grasp these possibilities, can’t get hold of them, can’t make sense of them—and if they come in the form of dreams, we often can’t fully remember them. But the capacity to step outside of ourselves naturally opens our minds and hearts. I know it opens mine—and then I don’t know what’s mine and what’s not mine anymore!