Dreamwork as Spiritual Practice

Tag: listening to dreams

Keep Dreaming

Lately, I’m hearing (and sometimes feeling) a lot of discouragement, anxiety, and even cynicism about the prospects for our future survival on this earth. People are saying that it’s too late—climate change will destroy the home we share with so many other precious beings, and there’s nothing we can do about it. This seems to be true, and yet…

There’s always something we can do. Maybe we don’t have the super-powers that would be required to turn the world around, but we can create positive change, and positive change spreads just as powerfully as negative change. It’s hard to remember this when I’m feeling scared and sad, however. What I can remember much more easily is what I’m still able to experience right here and now, on this magnificently beautiful planet filled with abundant life and possibility.

When I look around me, I appreciate that, although there’s plenty to be concerned about, the earth is still a wonderland. On my daily walks in city parks or neighborhoods, I can see healthy beeches, oaks, cedars and  sequoias; wrens and herons and sapsuckers; turtles, squirrels and owls; grapevines and marigolds and crabapples. I can see water flowing over stones, autumn leaves blowing along the path, sunlight and shadow shifting as the day progresses. I breathe it all in, and remember that most of the glorious life we’re afraid of losing is actually still here, right now, all around us. Appreciating the natural world, recognizing how blessed we are to be a part of it… This is what we can do.

Savoring abundant and glorious life may be more vital than anything else we can do, and it’s certainly more important than reminding ourselves of all the things we can’t do. If people had been appreciating this earth all along, we wouldn’t have done all the terrible damage we’ve done. If every living person appreciated the earth fully right now, positive change would happen naturally and inevitably. There would be solutions. But, even if it wouldn’t change the future at all, it would be still be meaningful to savor what’s here in the present. Breathe it in. Love it. Don’t waste this gift!

My personal, physical resources have been at low ebb since my spinal surgery last May, but as the tide slowly begins to turn and my strength slowly begins to return, I don’t want to lose the increased appreciation I’ve gained during these months of healing struggle. Not knowing whether or not I will ever heal fully has made me pay attention to every small delight that I might otherwise take for granted. I recognize now that walking outdoors—feeling my own body alive in the open air, surrounded by other living beings—is sheer bliss, even when I can only walk for a few exhausting blocks. I want to remember that every moment can be filled with sensations, with connections, with surprises, with spaciousness. When I’ve been most afraid of pain or loss, I’ve also been most aware of how much I have to lose, how much there is to love about this life. I believe this is the kind of caring attention we must bring to our planet, and to all of our relationships with others. It is also the fundamental approach we should take to our dreaming lives as well as our waking lives.

Before we start worrying about what a dream means, or what we should be doing about it, we need to ask ourselves how it feels. We need to appreciate the undiluted experience of the dream, just as we need to appreciate the experience of the world around us. If we appreciate fully, we will naturally respond, naturally learn and grow in relation to the dream or to the world, and we will naturally see and feel what the dream has to offer and the possibilities that are open to us. On the other hand, if we sum up the dream with definitive interpretations or quick fixes, the dream will lose all real meaning. We’ll end up feeling helpless, or doing harm inadvertently, if we don’t first connect with that which is already meaningful in its very essence. 

The dream world, like the waking world, is not always easy to savor, of course. There are industrial wastelands—brutal, empty, ugly places in dreams or nightmares, just as in “real life.” As I work toward healing, my own dreams often feel desolate, even horrifying. But, the desolation, too, must be fully experienced, even savored, before meaning can be made of it. Such a poignant contrast between the grim “reality” of an ugly dream and the glimmers of beauty I can still remember, and still sense just beneath the surface! Feeling the intensity of the contrast compels me toward the light. If I dig deep in the dark, I find the splitting seed of a sunflower, a pale green sprout spiraling upward. If I allow myself to feel the sadness, the suffering, the uselessness and helplessness of a harsh dream, I discover the vitality of my own urgent longing and love for life itself—the longing that Dylan Thomas described as “the spark that through the green fuse drives the flower.”

I dream of a world that is made up of everything—an utterly wild, yet strangely familiar place where I am not in charge of what happens, yet not entirely helpless either. My best response to this chaotic and contradictory dreamworld (which we all inhabit, awake or asleep) is to surrender my plans and my explanations and just listen, appreciate, savor the exquisite uncertainty, and keep dreaming.

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

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