Compass Dreamwork

Dreamwork as Spiritual Practice

Tag: paying attention

Believing in the Dream

Do I really believe that dreams are meaningful, and that they are always (at least potentially) healing and helpful? Well, yes and no. I believe that my beliefs are beside the point.

Like everything else that we experience, dreams offer us opportunities to relate and respond to events, relationship dynamics, and our own emotions. Regardless of whether or not we believe that our existence has a larger spiritual “meaning,” our life experiences (including our dreams) are truly meaningful when we treat them as if they were meaningful. Experiences may be wonderful, terrible, ridiculous or confusing—it doesn’t really matter what we believe about them, or even how we feel about them—if we seek guidance, growth, creativity and connection through those experiences, then they can become healing and helpful. I don’t actually have to “believe” in the intrinsic goodness or wisdom of something in order to experience it fully and find it valuable.

On a daily basis, I find myself investing deeply in my beliefs about the nature of my life experiences. I hear a news story about environmental devastation or social injustice and I believe that I’m trapped in a nightmare where I absolutely must take action but really can’t influence the situation no matter what I do. Or, I take a long walk in the park on a sunny, breezy day, greeting my neighbors (and their dogs) and believe that it’s easy to appreciate every moment. Or, I talk to a friend who has just suffered a terrible loss, and I believe that she is going to be okay, or that losses are inevitable, or that I don’t know how to respond, or…

All of these beliefs are “true,” in a way—but not particularly useful. As soon as I hold a belief about something, it limits me. If I’ve decided that this is the way things are, then that belief sets me up to see everything in a certain light. Beliefs lead to more beliefs. Some are just passing thoughts, but others get bolstered by an array of arguments, which interlock neatly to form an entire system of thought. Beliefs may contradict each other, but then I can somehow manage to find arguments to make them fit.

Even now, I’m writing this article about my belief that believing isn’t a good idea. Darn it.

This is where dreams make a difference. Dreams demonstrate that “believing” is a moving target. What am I seeing? How did this happen? Where is it going? Why did he do that? In dream-sharing groups, when we first hear a dream, our impulse is to figure it out and believe something about it. As soon as someone suggests a meaning that seems to make sense, we all tend to create variations on that theme. It all fits together… doesn’t it? But why is there an octopus and not a giraffe? Why does one of the table legs have stripes? Why are we eating oatmeal when we’re supposed to be at a funeral? What is that peculiar green mark on her forehead? There are always elements that don’t quite fit. 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

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

Looking for Work on My Behalf

By Tina Tau, Guest Blogger

In my last post, I started to tell the story of some dreams that belong to a trip I took to Italy in the fall of 2006, when my marriage was crumbling.

In Pari, an old Tuscan hill-town with winding climbing streets and ancient stone houses connected like beehives, I had a tiny studio for ten days. I started my days in the empty plaza a few steps up from my apartment, listening to roosters and the occasional bang of a hunter’s gun, looking out over the golden sweep of clouds and fields. Then I strode a mile downhill to the farm where my friend Rosie was staying with her boyfriend Carlos.

She and I helped his two farmhands with the olive harvest. It was happy, hard work. Olive trees are beautiful, with their twisty trunks and slender silvery leaves. We laughed, ate cold frittata for lunch on the rough-tilled ground, shook big nets of olives into blue plastic bins. Carlos put the bins in the back of his car and drove them to the presser, where they turned into silky, neon-green olive oil. We all ate dinner together and then I’d walk back up the hill in the dark, past the olive groves and lavender fields.

But I’d come on this adventure not just to pick olives and eat home-cured prosciutto; I’d come to interrupt my life, to see it from the outside instead of the painful, constricted inside. Should I leave my husband? Could I? What about our daughters? I had no money, and all I knew at this point was that I had to get a job. Without any money, I had no choices. Beyond that, I couldn’t see. I was starving for some perspective, for the long view. I wanted to be so far out at sea that I could steer my ship to end up on an entirely different coastline than the one I was headed for. Continue reading

Impossible Things Before Breakfast

“‘I daresay you haven’t had much practice,’ said the Queen. ‘When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.’”        –Lewis Carroll, from Through the Looking Glass

arborist 01Dreams give us all regular practice “believing impossible things before breakfast.” My own theory is that this particular exercise is essential to our mental health and well-being. In daily life, it’s all too easy to think we know exactly what is possible and what is impossible.

I generally walk around secure in the belief that I am a particular kind of person for whom certain ways of thinking, speaking, feeling and acting are possible, and others are not. I may adapt to circumstances, but it’s all within the range of what I consider realistic for me. Similarly, I assume that certain things are possible in the “real world” around me, and other things are impossible. And I tend to ignore things that make me question my assumptions about myself, other people, and “reality.”

arborist 03Actually, however, “impossible” things are happening within me and around me all the time, and every once in a while one of those things breaks through my shell and gets my attention—provoking laughter, wonder, indignation, anxiety, delight, or sheer wordless amazement. Continue reading

Nature Dreams

nature dreamsIn the last post, I wrote about how dreams can be made up of “haiku moments”—rich images and direct experiences that speak for themselves and don’t require interpretation (“Haiku Dreams”). Another characteristic of haiku that I only mentioned briefly is the way they include the natural world; this, too, is a quality they share with dreams.

I just returned from a long walk. It’s really spring here now, and this has been an exquisite morning: warm sunshine, soft wind, smells of flowers (including the stinky Mountain Ash—not all flowers smell sweet!) and grasses, birdsong and windchimes and lawn mowers, swaying shadows and busy squirrels. As I am walking, I try not to separate myself from all this. Everything is alive, and includes me—even the things that make me uncomfortable.

At one point, going down a steep hill, my ankle rolled and I fell forward hard on one hand and knee, momentum carrying me down all the way so my shoulder and cheek hit the dirt. Ouch. Bruised and relieved not to be badly hurt (also glad no one was watching), I picked myself up. The ground is solid, and colliding with it was not pleasant, but there was an undeniable immediacy to the experience. I recognize myself as a creature with a body that’s made up of the same peculiar combination of solid stuff and pure energy as everything around me. The more waking time I spend outside in nature, the more my dreams become immersion experiences as well, with rich landscapes pervaded by the vitality of the natural world. Continue reading

Are Dreams Boring?

toby bored

bored, bored, bored…

It’s a popular cliché that listening to (or reading about) other people’s dreams is boring. Really, really boring. Henry James said, “Tell a dream, lose a reader.” In all honesty, there’s some truth in this. Have you ever listened—or tried to listen—to a six-year-old recounting the plot of her favorite movie? When dreams are told without context, and without a sense of what the listener needs in order to follow the story… well, yes, they can be pretty monotonous.

Dreams definitely can have a “you-had-to-be-there” quality. Even the best storyteller might have difficulty conveying the indescribable experiences that occurred in a dream where sensory impressions were nuanced and intense, events seemed to overlap in timeless patterns, things kept changing into other things, and there was just a whole lot happening endlessly. As the little kid telling a movie plot (or a dream) might say: and then the man ate all the pizza … and then the dog was a horse… and then they ran over the fields… and then it was the next day… oh, and I forgot, the pizza wasn’t real, it was a big cookie kind of made of toast…

There are ways of telling dreams so that people will be engaged and even entertained. When I’m just telling a dream as an example, or to make a point, or to get a laugh (in a blog post, in a workshop, or casually with friends), I leave out everything that isn’t directly related to the topic at hand, and I try to choose a dream with images that are funny or vivid, a storyline that can be summarized simply, and scenes that are relatively easy to describe and imagine.

Nevertheless, even though I’m pretty experienced at both telling and hearing dreams, I can sometimes sound like the little kid recounting the relentless saga—especially when I’m trying to share all the significant details because I’m going to be working on the dream with others.

The bottom line is that sharing any complex experience that has profoundly affected you will be difficult. The context and background may be unfamiliar to your listeners, and lots of details are needed to convey the richness of the experience and its implications. So it’s best not to even bring it up unless everyone present is prepared to get past their own impatience, and give you and your experience—or dream—their full attention.

Okay, but here’s my heated defense of dreaming and dream-telling: Dreams are not boring at all! In themselves, they are often magnificently subtle, brilliantly “on target” with their insights, full of stunning surprises, hilarious plot twists, creative genius, rich sensuality, cunning irony, dazzling landscapes… Well, you see I’m biased in favor of dreams! It is definitely worthwhile to pay attention to them and share them, even though, as I’ve acknowledged, someone else’s dream can be very difficult to follow. Continue reading

Threshold Experiences: Dreaming and Waking

crater wallIn the previous post (“Threshold Work As Spiritual Practice”), I was thinking about how an everyday familiarity with “small” threshold experiences can help us when we are thrown into more intense and overwhelming threshold experiences such as a life-threatening illness, or the death or loss of someone or something significant in our lives.

Now I’d like to consider some examples of those “small” thresholds. On a daily and nightly basis, we encounter in-between places—where the ordinary suddenly seems strange and surprising, or oddly off-key, or wonderfully new, or just uncomfortably indescribable.

Dreams are definitely thresholds like this. In the midst of a dream, I find myself thinking: “Wait, this can’t be happening!”

Someone gives me a paper bag with a fish in it, and, after carrying it around for hours, I suddenly  realize that the beautiful, silver creature is still alive and flexing… The fireplace is the size of the whole room, and we are walking around inside it, tiptoeing gingerly among the coals… Two rhinoceroses come out of the woods and walk down the path toward the lake… I am about three years old, riding a bus alone, and I am also my middle-aged self, sitting across the aisle and worrying about that child… We’re exploring a perfectly-preserved shipwreck at the bottom of the ocean, and have no difficulty breathing underwater…

In Tibetan dream yoga, a central practice is to learn to ask oneself repeatedly during the day, “Is this a dream?” By doing this on a regular basis, especially when something unusual occurs, we learn to ask the same question when we realize that something peculiar is happening in a dream—and so, “wake up” to the fact that we are dreaming (lucid dreaming). The deeper aspect of this practice, however, is to learn to question our waking state as well… Until we discover that our waking “reality” (the world we think we know) is also, in a sense, a dream—a tenuous, transitory condition, a threshold experience. Continue reading

A Bird-Watching Dream Walk

Dreamwork includes practice in looking at waking life as if it were a dream—where the ordinary may become extraordinary, experiences have multiple layers of metaphorical meaning, and anything is possible. This is a useful spiritual practice, because, really, the world we see when we look at things with the freshness of a dream-perspective is more “true to life”—and certainly more interesting—than the habitual, predictable world we think we inhabit as we go about our business in the usual way.

Here’s a creative approach (particularly recommended by Robert Moss) to getting in touch with the dream-like nature of waking life, and the responsive relationship between ourselves and our world. Suppose you have a problem or concern, or you just want to better understand your current situation: Formulate a question, and just as you might hold this question in mind before sleep and hope to dream some kind of answer, you can treat your day (or a part of your day) as if it were a dream. Pay attention to what happens, and trust that information pertinent to your question will emerge. Any unusual event, or pattern of events, will contain a message. Continue reading

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