Dreamwork as Spiritual Practice

Tag: imagination (Page 2 of 3)

Surrender, Dreamer!

backpack 02You know those times in the middle of the night when you wake up and start worrying, and every challenge you anticipate becomes an impossible obstacle, or a catastrophe waiting to pounce? Late night anxieties are notoriously difficult, perhaps because on the edge of the dreamworld we are especially vulnerable to our strongest emotions, and prone to experiencing every passing thought or impression as portentous. But these very characteristics of dreaminess (increased emotional tone, powerful sense of significance) can also be openings to inspiration, or invitations to creatively explore our fears.

So, the other night, half-awake, I found myself imagining the realities of a pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago (a journey I plan to take next spring). First, there’s just the panicky certainty that I’m not up to it, and then, gradually, a weird mix of anxiety and anticipation. I imagine myself arriving alone in some large city in Europe, jet-lagged and disoriented, making my way by train or bus to a small village in France or Spain (still haven’t settled on the exact starting point), finding food and shelter for the night, then setting out to walk 10-15 miles a day, carrying an awkward backpack, for almost two months. I imagine sleeping in crowded hostels, coping with mountains, rain, cold, heat, exhaustion, injuries, illness, loneliness, food and bathroom issues, and utterly unfamiliar people and surroundings…

The prospect is, to say the least—daunting. The middle-of-the-night effect amplifies the out-of-control feeling of my imaginings, but I hold myself poised on that edge, balancing, leaning forward, allowing the fears to rise and flow and pass. I surrender to the experience, as if I will be leaving for the airport in the morning (no turning back!), or as if in a dream where everything that happens has an all-or-nothing spontaneity. Continue reading

Turning the Dream Upside Down

upside down 01If I start with some straightforward approaches to dreamwork (see “Two Basic Dreamwork Skills”), I can learn a lot about dreams. But I can learn a lot more if I’m willing to turn the dream upside down, or inside out—to spin it, flip it, and toss it around a bit.

Actually, it’s not the dream that needs to be turned upside down, it’s the dreamworker. Have you heard the Nietzsche quote: “If you gaze long enough into the abyss, the abyss gazes back”? In order to see the whole dream in all its multifaceted dynamic transpersonal splendor, I have to suspend my own habitual patterns of thought, stand on my head, and take a new look at the dream—until I can see the dream looking back at me. Like a mirror, the dream shows me a reversed image of myself, and more than myself. Continue reading

The “Unreliable Narrator” in Dreams

coffee cup 01Can I trust the opinions and emotions of my dream-self? The dream-ego (the “I” character in the dream) is the most likely to share my waking point-of-view about dream events. As I’m remembering and writing or telling the dream, I think of the dream-ego as “me” and can easily take it for granted that what the dream-ego thinks and feels reliably reflects the “truth” about the dream situation. But let’s look more closely at this…

The Jungian dream explorer James Hillman has said that “in a dream the ego is usually wrong”—meaning that the dream-ego tends to apply a waking-life worldview to the dream world, and thus to misinterpret dream events. The dream-ego generally shares the waking ego’s assumptions and prejudices, but the dream world as a whole may have surprisingly different perspectives and possibilities to offer.

As I look at my dream, I need to remember that even in waking life, my own view is not the only way of looking at things—I must question this view in the light of others’ input. In the dream world, this is even more true, because dreams are almost always telling me more than my conscious mind already knows (see Jeremy Taylor’s Dream Work Tool Kit #4). The dream-ego’s view should be taken as only one out of many possible ways of understanding dream events. What does the rest of the dream have to say? What other points-of-view are available?

A Rib Comes Out of Me: I feel a sharp point sticking out of my left side, and when I tug on it, a long, thin, curved rib bone comes out. I hold my side, expecting to find a wound, but there is no mark, no pain, no blood. The rib has come out clean and white. I go to a professor—a pompous, arrogant fellow, who immediately says we should put the rib into a solution of coffee, so that its true, natural color will be revealed. I don’t really want the rib to get stained, so I say sarcastically, “That will work fine if its natural color is coffee-colored.” I keep asking him why and how the rib could have come out so cleanly, without leaving a mark or being smeared with blood. The professor dismisses my question, saying that this sort of thing (a rib coming out) only happens to “end-stage alcoholics with orgasm dysfunction.” I’m mortified and defensive—that description does not apply to me! He clearly does not know what he’s talking about. I certainly won’t tell him that the rib came from me.

I worked with this dream in my peer dream group, and the first insights that came up were consistent with the dream-ego’s opinion about the situation. Something strangely beautiful and with creative potential had “come out of me” (like Adam’s rib…) and the arrogant fellow (patriarchal male? inner critic?) was trying to diminish its significance (by staining the rib and implying that its “true color” was stained). He was also disparaging the source of this new creation (describing her/me as damaged or weak-willed). In the group, we all had a tendency to dismiss the professor’s suggestions, reinforcing the dream-ego’s negative response to him.

The professor was evidently an offensive character, and the statements he made were incorrect in a literal sense, so it seemed reasonable to assume he represented a mistaken point-of-view… Clearly, since I’m not an alcoholic nor do I have “orgasm dysfunction,” he’s got it all wrong—although the discomfort and defensiveness of my response both in the dream and about the dream are suggestive… There’s nothing I’m trying to hide, is there? The rib was simple and clean and left no wound, and that’s a good thing, right? Why stain it? Isn’t clean white its “natural color”?

Well, the next step was, of course, to start questioning these assumptions. Continue reading

A Place at the Table: Dreams of Scarcity & Abundance

plates 01You know those dreams where you just can’t get what you want? Maybe there’s this buffet—you see all kinds of great treats when you walk by, but then when you get in line and it’s finally your turn to serve yourself, there’s nothing left…?

Variations on this dream are pretty common in general, but I suspect they’re especially likely to show up at this time of year. Why? Because, in the northern hemisphere at least, it’s the season when we start worrying about having enough to go around. The abundance of the harvest-time is well past, and spring still seems far away; humans and other animals begin to take a good look at the supplies, and wonder how long they will last. Sometimes we take a peek at others’ supplies, too, suspecting that they’ve got more than we’ve got.

To combat the dread, and subsequent hostility, that can come along with this kind of scarcity-mentality, many ancient (and modern) midwinter traditions include a celebration of abundance and generosity. It’s the “season of giving” for very good reasons. We need each other at this time of year. Stinginess can lead to disaster.

I find that whenever money gets tight and I become fearful about whether we’ll have enough, I need to literally give something away in order to remind myself that I am part of a larger whole, part of a community of living beings who can support each other through good times and hard times. Instead of noticing what I don’t have, I try to be grateful for all that I do have—and share it with those around me, without counting and comparing.

But my dreams sometimes suggest that I’m still anxious about getting enough for myself:

A Place at the Table: I arrive at the feast that I have helped to prepare, but find that there is no chair for me. Someone has taken my seat, and there are not enough chairs to go around. Then I notice that there is no plate at my place, though everyone else has theirs. Also, there is not enough food. The last helpings have gone to others, and all of the serving dishes are empty. I stand alone, and feel sorry for myself.

Dreams like this one simply seem to be commenting on a state of mind that is present. Yes, the cold and dark at this time of year do bring up feelings of fearfulness, resentment, the instinctive desire to hoard and hide what I have. What is the point of being reminded that I feel this way, when I am really trying hard to remind myself that I can also feel generous and abundant?

I think the usefulness of such dreams lies in the vividness of the imagery, and the potential of that imagery to make an impression on the psyche at a deep level. When I have dreams that just seem to be telling me unpleasant truths about myself and my situation, I look at the images that the dream chooses to express those truths. Continue reading

Review: “Art From Dreams”

[Regular blog posts now appear only on the first and third Tuesdays of each month–but I’ll be adding “extras” from time to time, including reviews like this one…]

artfromdreams_coverArt From Dreams: My Jungian Journey in Collage, Assemblage, and Poetry by Susan Levin. Levinarts. Paperback. 48 pages. $22.50.

When I was asked by Susan Levin’s publicist to review Art From Dreams, my first thought was to take a look at the sample images and the text description posted with the promotional materials, to be sure that this was work I could appreciate.

I am not a visual artist or art critic, and so my review is based on my personal taste and intuitive grasp of the artwork, and my experience with dreams and creative dreamwork. According to my personal taste, the mixed media collage/assemblages are appealing and intriguing. And because of my background in dreamwork and creativity, I am always interested in the relationship between dream imagery and artistic expression. The book, when I received it, was not a disappointment. Art From Dreams is beautifully made and invites lingering—with little text other than a brief introduction and foreword, followed by page after page of art pieces, some accompanied by corresponding poems.

Much of the artwork is reminiscent of Joseph Cornell: many pieces use found objects and/or collage; some pieces are framed within compartmented boxes of rough wood, some are free-standing or wall-mounted assemblages. Most of the materials appear aged, weathered, rusted, or worn. Darker colors predominate, with subtle shades of brown or gray providing the tone so the occasional lighter or brighter colors stand out sharply.

Dream ideas can be powerfully expressed through such forms, and the echo of these ideas in poetry can be hauntingly lovely. The poems are like lyrics to accompany dream music: sometimes telling a story, sometimes evoking only impressions. For the most part, Levin steers clear of sentimentality and sensationalism in both words and visual images. Although I liked some pieces better than others, I found the whole process of paging through this book to be dream-like in the best sense: aesthetically satisfying, and imaginatively engaging. 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

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.

Spiritual Direction: Frequently Asked Questions

My approach to dreamwork is grounded in the practice of “spiritual direction.” To bring some context to the kind of individual dreamwork I offer, I wrote last week about what “spiritual direction” is, and what it is not (“What Does ‘Spiritual Direction’ Mean?”). In particular: Spiritual direction does not mean that the spiritual director is “directing” the process, but that possible “directions” are being sought and explored.

This week, I’ll follow up by addressing some practical questions I’ve been asked, on the same theme.

Where do I find a spiritual director?

It is important to find a spiritual director whose personality and approach is right for you. There are plenty of good spiritual directors, and you may want to meet with several before making a decision. Many will offer a free consultation of some kind— sometimes in the form of a half-session or an opportunity for you to interview them about their approach to spiritual direction.

Through Compass Dreamwork, I offer an initial session for free, and you may use the time any way you like, either as a regular spiritual direction/dreamwork session, or as a chance to ask questions. There doesn’t need to be a distinction between whether the work is “spiritual direction” or “dreamwork.” If you choose to focus on dreams, then we would still be looking at dreams in the context of your spiritual life; if you choose to focus on your spiritual life, dreams may be useful (or not), but there will still be an atmosphere that welcomes all experiences, including those of a dream-like nature.

If you are looking for a spiritual director, you can contact me (phone: 503-231-2894 or e-mail: kirsten@compassdreamwork.com ) for a free session, or for referrals to other local organizations and individuals that offer spiritual direction. Phone or Skype sessions work just as well, if you are not local to Portland, Oregon. Spiritual Directors International (www.sdiworld.org) also has listings of qualified directors in your area, wherever you are. Continue reading

Dream Seeds

solar system with cabbageIn the morning, while I exercise, I listen to something enlightening (recently, radio programs about shamanism), and I watch the animated public television show, Dinosaur Train. Really, Dinosaur Train is a treat! Leaving the sound off is best, since the soundtrack combines too-cute kids’ voices with educational themes. But it’s a terrific show. The colors are so rich and intense, the characters so spunky, the premise so bizarre (dinosaurs traveling to various prehistoric times and places via choo choo train?), and the background settings—rainforest, savannah, oceans, cliffs, caves—so intriguing… I would love to live in that world!

Why am I going on about a children’s TV program? For me, watching Dinosaur Train is one of the ways I stimulate my senses (including my sense of humor), and sow the seeds of my dream imagination. In dreams, experiencing the world of Dinosaur Train would not be impossible. Our dream-making capacity can certainly be as colorful, creative, playful and inspiring as even the most inventive modern animation. And the more we pay attention, keeping our senses open and our minds alert to enjoy the world around us (animated or natural), the more our dreams will be stimulated to use all of these faculties as well.

It’s clear to me that the more open and sensitive I am to the experiences available in waking life, the more likely I am to dream vividly, and to remember those dreams in fascinating detail. Many of the toys and games and movies and books designed for children are perfect for this, because their intention is to stimulate and expand the developing faculties of flexible minds. And, incidentally, they’re also entertaining—a characteristic of good dreaming that is often under-estimated! Continue reading

What Actually Happens In A Dream Group?

dream circle 01

Dream images come to life among us…

Last week I played with the metaphor of a dream group being like a happy gathering of dogs in the off-leash zone (“Dream Groups and the Doggy Jamboree”). I took the metaphor and ran with it—like a dog with another dog’s squeaky toy—and maybe got a bit carried away. Of course, a dream group is not just a free-for-all romp. Among other things, it’s a mutual opportunity to share experiences. Often, in the process of this sharing, unexpected and indescribable events occur. Although I can’t describe the indescribable (I gave it a shot with the doggy jamboree metaphor), I can at least mention some of my own recent experiences with groups.

The groups I facilitate meet in a classroom, in the local Quaker meetinghouse. The room has lots of windows and a high ceiling—and although it is small, it feels spacious and light-filled most of the time. We move the big tables to one side, and sit in a circle of chairs near the windows (trying to arrange things so that no one gets the sun in their eyes).

At the beginning, we “check in” briefly. After several sessions of meeting together, we know each other, and we also begin to recognize images and themes that have a tendency to come up in each person’s dreams as well as in their waking lives. We’ve come to know some of the things we have in common, and some of our individual special qualities. We catch up with anything new that is arising, and sometimes find it’s arising not only for one person, but for several, or all, of us. Maybe it’s a time of feeling too busy; or a time of losses and letting go; or a time of reconnecting with old friends; or a time for a fresh start. A shared theme can emerge even when we are just giving the smallest glimpses of our daily lives.

Then, we go around the circle again, and each of us tells a brief dream. Like the check-in, there are common images and themes that come up, and already there’s a sense that a dreaming process is going on collectively as well as individually. For example, in one group, several people dreamed of babies—human or animal—being born; in another group, the color blue kept being mentioned. Continue reading

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