Dreamwork as Spiritual Practice

Tag: good dreams

Game Over: Dreams That End With A Bang!

fireworks 01I’m writing this just after the fourth of July, and the thunderous bangs are still echoing in my head (along with a few illegal leftover rockets occasionally shaking up the neighborhood). The cats are edgy, and I’m just glad that most of the noisy ordeal is over for another year. On the other hand, much as I personally dislike the explosions, I have to admit that a lot of violent energy has been fairly benignly discharged, and the atmosphere feels a bit clearer.

People often tell me about dreams that end with an explosion of unexpected violence. Of course, such dreams can be pretty distressing for the dreamer: In the midst of a tense public gathering, or meeting that’s gone on too long, the dream-ego, or another dream character, suddenly pulls out a gun and starts shooting, or a bomb goes off... These are pretty common dreams, and there’s no reason to think the dreamers are aggressive or repressed people. But it can be difficult to share such dreams, without somehow feeling like we ought to apologize for them. There’s far too much violence in our world already—and it can be disturbing to acknowledge that it’s in our dreams as well. Nevertheless, such dreams need to be shared.

About a month ago, I dreamed …a doctor rushes into the hospital room, but instead of helping, he brings a heavy rifle and blasts the patient. Someone is setting off fireworks to cover the sounds of the bangs. I’ve had my share of stress, pain, and sadness, but there have been very few truly violent situations in my life (and nothing like this). Where does this stuff come from? Sure, I’m regularly exposed to violence in the media—but the power of this dream, and the power of the explosive dreams that others have shared with me, is intensely personal. The details are intimate, and the emotion seems to come out of nowhere.

Dreams that end with a bang often seem like nightmares. The sudden violence triggers an adrenaline rush, and the dreamer is shocked awake. But—unlike regular nightmares that leave us feeling haunted or hunted, and unlike PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) nightmares that recreate the horror of actual traumas, dreams that culminate in a sudden, loud, unexpected shock tend to be more energizing than terrifying. After the adrenaline settles, the dreamer gets curious about what the heck happened. Continue reading

Extraordinary Dreams

brook 01

If we follow the water it will lead us back to the source: a deep, secret lake so reflective that travelers can become lost between the surface and the sky…

One of the most meaningful experiences for many of us at the recent International Association for the Study of Dreams (IASD) conference came from hearing the “Big dreams” of others, and participating in the world-view of these powerful dreams.

Jungians often use the term “Big dreams” to talk about, well, big dreams—which I’d describe as dreams that expand or transcend the dreamer’s sense of self and open up a larger reality. At the conference, Robert Hoss, Patricia Garfield, and Jacquie Lewis offered a presentation entitled, “Dreams That Change Our Lives,” where they spoke of the transcendent and transformative capacity of significant dreams, and gave examples of life-changing dreams (or series of dreams) from their own experience.

After the presentations, there was an “open mike” opportunity for audience members to share “Big dreams,” too. Each person who came forward told a dream story that was breath-taking in a unique way, and each one inspired insights, reminded us of possibilities, warned us of how we need to pay attention, and gave us a glimpse of something beyond our separate selves, something that connects us at the deepest level with our planet and fellow beings.

Whew. That’s a lot to get out of a handful of dreams! These were not dreams that could be boring—they were so rich in detail, so surprising, so original and yet so deeply familiar. They didn’t require interpretation, or even feedback—they just needed to be heard, acknowledged, experienced in a group so that their wisdom would resonate through us and out into the world.

The half hour or so of sharing during the presentation just whetted my appetite for more of this, so in the days that followed I ended up in several conversations where extraordinary dreams were shared. There were dreams in which the dreamer learned something that saved his or her life, or met someone who evoked profound empathy or love, or encountered an apocalyptic event, or was given a great gift, or created a stunning work of art, or went through an initiation, or became a bird or a storm, or experienced total oneness with all things, or lost everything and was blessed…

Okay, the people at this conference were special in the sense that they all had an interest in dreams—and many of them had developed that interest because they’d had extraordinary dreams that had changed their lives. So, you’d expect to hear some “Big dreams” in this context. But that’s not the only reason these dreams were coming up. Continue reading

Dream Composting

compostIn my waking life, I am very happy in my work: I love teaching about dreams, facilitating dreamwork with individuals and groups, writing and exploring dreams in general… But a big part of my job is just the business of tracking a million details—and this can make me feel a bit crazy, even though I’m pretty good at it. I guess this sort of thing is part of most people’s lives these days: responding to e-mails, updating schedules and mailing lists, checking facts, creating new documents, planning and promoting events, social networking communication, troubleshooting website problems, etc. In the midst of the lists and reminders, it’s hard to find breathing space, and easy to lose touch with the meaning behind all this activity.

While all this is going on, I keep remembering why dreamwork is worthwhile—trying to let it help me stay grounded in my connection to the natural world, my desire to serve others, to learn and grow. Maybe I have another twenty years or so in this life, maybe less, maybe more—Am I experiencing this time fully, and giving myself to each moment? Where is this journey taking me, and how can I better participate in the unfolding process? I hope these are questions that we all take time to ask ourselves. We can also ask our dreams…

However, dreams are tricky—or perhaps “trickster-y.” They rarely give straightforward answers, and most dream-answers compound my questions with more questions. In fact, dreams respond to inquiries in the same way that waking life responds to dilemmas: through experiences that illustrate the nature and potential of the current situation. If my situation is complicated and entangled with my ideas about how things should be, then the experiences that come in response to my big questions will be similarly complicated and entangled. 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

Dreamwork Tells A Healing Story

In many (if not all) indigenous cultures, the regular practice of storytelling is considered essential to the well-being of the community as a whole, not only because of the entertaining and teaching value of shared stories, but also because they can be literally healing. And many dreams come in the form of stories, which, when shared and explored, can have this same healing power.

In studying a variety of spiritual traditions, I find again and again that stories keep cultures alive, and serve to bring people into harmony with their environment and one another. In some cases, the healing power of storytelling is explicit. For example, healing ceremonies of the Dineh (“Navajo”) recount—and in a sense re-enact—the experiences of spirit beings in the mythic past whose stories become the healing template for addressing present day problems.

In one such story, the hero twins Monster Slayer and Born-for-Water undertake a long and difficult journey in search of their father. Upon their return, they must defend their home community from the overwhelming onslaught of some terrible monsters. Their successful battle with these monsters leaves them exhausted, at the point of death. They are healed by being told their own story from the beginning… And eventually, this story itself becomes a healing gift to all people, retold in ceremonies for those who seek to be brought back into harmony with life. (I’m drawing this interpretation of the Dineh story from Joseph Campbell—and apologize if I’m misrepresenting it in any way.)

The idea that we might be healed by being told our own story has great resonance on both a psychological and a spiritual level. We require healing when we find ourselves out-of-balance (physically or otherwise), as our sense of connection to the source, context, and meaning of our lives has been impaired, injured, or even destroyed. If this damage is significant, then healing cannot be accomplished simply by curing the illness or repairing the broken place—there’s a profound need to go back to the beginning, to see the larger patterns of our lives and how those patterns fit together with the life around us. We need to hear others tell us—and to tell ourselves—who we have been, what we have done, and where be belong. In this process, our individual stories become part of a universal story, and our lives can be of service to all life. This is harmony, wholeness, healing.

My dreams are healing because they tell and re-tell my stories in new ways—and help me to recognize that these stories are not mine alone. When we do dreamwork, we engage in a healing, storytelling practice: we discover familiar patterns, familiar images, familiar emotions, familiar relationships, familiar responsibilities and challenges, familiar gifts and blessings, and we know we are part of a larger whole: we belong. But what makes this process wonderful (and truly healing) is that all of the familiar stuff is expressed in the light of individual experience, with its own color and texture, comedy and tragedy, characters and settings, surprises and satisfactions.

Life itself is engaging because it manifests in so many forms; each individual form is perfectly unique yet recognizably interconnected with all the others. The stories and dreams that arise from our lives are meant to be shared because they open up new worlds for all of us, while restoring, sustaining and enriching the world we know.

Housekeeping Dreams

housekeepingAfter a week of deep, lucid, lovely dreams—I’m now remembering only fragmentary, unpleasant and frustrating dreams. Such is the ebb and flow of dreamwork! I woke up this morning exasperated and grumpy after dreaming:

The Bed Is A Mess: I feel frazzled, anxious, impatient. There’s a charismatic yet slightly creepy spiritual leader coming to stay in my community, and I’m preparing a bed for him. According to his preference, the bed is just a bunch of blankets and old clothes strewn on the floor and covered in a contour sheet. I see that the sheets are stained, and decide to put all the bedding in the laundry and start fresh. Now, I search through a jumble of clothes and blankets, trying to find enough soft stuff to make a new bed. Others keep taking some of the best blankets for their own purposes. I put as much stuff as possible on the floor, trying to arrange it so that it will be soft, not too lumpy, and cover all the bare spots—but I can’t really see how this is going to work. How could a sheet fit over it all, and how could it possibly be comfortable? I know I’ve slept on such a bed myself, and it wasn’t too bad, but now my efforts seem ridiculous. After scrounging for more materials, I return to find that a dog has pooped on one of the bare spots. I am disgusted, and want someone else to clean it up.

Lately, I’ve been working with “bad” dreams—especially my own—and testing the belief (or hypothesis) that, as Jeremy Taylor says: “All dreams come in the service of health and wholeness” (Dream Work Tool Kit #1). Dreams like this one might strain my ability to see the wholesome qualities! (Dramatically frightening or disturbing nightmares are another story—to be considered at another time.)

I can certainly recognize that there’s metaphor and meaning in this unpleasant dream: I am encountering my own ambivalence about preparing a comfortable place for spiritual ideals that I’m not sure I trust—and also wrestling with my own need to control and “clean up” the world around me. Old clothes and blankets (maybe old roles and securities) aren’t coming together to make a new bed! And then there’s the poop (potentially, the fertilizer for that new “bed”—as in a garden bed?) that just seems like smelly waste material to me. I want to wash my hands of this whole project!

What is the use of such dreams? I already think I know what it’s trying to say, but it’s not particularly helpful. Yeah—I’m a mess—this is no big revelation. I notice that the dream-self (the “I” in the dream) feels worse and worse as the dream goes on. And it all ends on an ugly note. This seems to be telling me that there’s no hope! But, there have to be other ways of looking at it… Continue reading

Dreams Of New Beginnings

Seeing The Children: I am in a busy airport, in a waiting area near the top of an escalator, when I suddenly realize that it’s possible to see everything around me as beautiful. The shabby utilitarian carpeting, the fabric of the chairs, the molded plastic surrounding a plexiglass window—all seem richly textured, subtly tinted, almost luminous. And the people! Each one radiates a life force so complex and intricately individual—made up of interwoven patterns of mood and character and presence. The small children are almost too beautiful. Their skin translucent and soft, their hair shining, their glorious eyes… It is indescribable. There are lots of children now. I could just sit here forever and watch the children. I am a child myself, in this new moment, simply perceiving the life all around me.

I wrote recently about all of the problematic and tiresome dreams I was having (“Ugly Duckling Dreams”)—but since then, things have been changing. More and more, the dreams present openings and new energies. My dream-self (the “I” character in the dreams) becomes engaged in the process of authentically experiencing events and interactions. Lots of animals have been turning up, especially elephants. And then, I dreamed of “Seeing the Children”—the business of the dream (getting somewhere in an airport) is suddenly suspended. All at once, I find myself surrounded by children, by new life.

It is only natural that such luminous dreams come in their time, just as it is only natural that discouraging and difficult dreams come, too. Let’s not worry about “interpreting” dreams. They are what they are. Dreams are, first and foremost, to be experienced. The more fully we experience them, the more meaningful they will be. Even my unpleasant dreams are meaningful, and they cry out to be noticed, respected, attended with patience and curiosity. But especially with sweet dreams, like “Seeing The Children,” it’s essential just to savor the experience.

Dreams (pleasant or unpleasant) offer such concentrated moments of life—the intensity of emotions, the vitality of perceptions, the potential for total surprise—and they remind me to encounter my waking life with that same vividness. So, the first question to be asked of a dream is not “What does this mean?” but “How does this feel—what is this experience?” I encourage myself and others to take time with the dream itself, to appreciate its richness, before beginning to unfold its images or reflect on its implications. Continue reading

Ugly Duckling Dreams

If my dream-self were graded on her performance by the standards of my most judgmental waking self, she’d get an “Unsatisfactory” on her report card. The “I” character in my dreams has been disappointing lately. She fails to work and play well with other dream characters—is frequently sullen and whiney and withdrawn. She doesn’t make the most of opportunities, step up to challenges, or take responsibility for her mistakes. She falls apart under pressure, and her dream-space is often cluttered, neglected, and unimaginative. In short, the dreamer often wakes up dissatisfied with this character’s work, and discouraged about her prospects.

Fortunately, there are less judgmental parts of me exploring dreams and discovering what they have to teach! When I go through a phase where my dream world seems lackluster and my dream-self is miserable, I do tend to wake up discouraged—but I also see these dream patterns as part of a larger process. Like little Einsteins, my recent dreams fail to impress at this phase in their development—but when the time is right, I trust that they will come out with something brilliant! I know this because I’ve gone through this phase dozens of times before (with my own and others’ dreams), and if I bear with the ugly ducklings, they always turn out to be swans. Continue reading

Does Dream Incubation Have To Be Hard Work?

guardian cowIf your project is dream incubation,
You must limit crude sense-stimulation.
Be calm and serene,
Conscientious and clean,
And refrain from excess celebration.

(I was going to end the limerick with an exclamation point, but that might have been “excess celebration.” )


“Dream incubation” is the process of cultivating a “good” dream by preparing oneself in various ways before sleep. The desired dreams may be spiritual “dreams of power,” predictive dreams, healing dreams, or dreams that will give responses to particular problems or questions. In any case, ancient rituals from many cultures generally involved purification (washing, fasting, etc.), prayers, offerings, visualizations, sleeping in a sacred place (such as a temple or grove), and other practices. A very serious business. Continue reading

© 2024 Compass Dreamwork

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑