Dreamwork as Spiritual Practice

Tag: spiritual journey (Page 2 of 2)

A Pilgrimage and A Quest

[Note from Kirsten: I’ve been away for the past two months, walking across Spain and participating in a dream conference in the Netherlands, while guest blogger Tina Tau has brought her gentle wisdom and beautiful writing to Compass Dreamwork. Now, since I still need a little time for rest and reflection before I’ll be ready to fully resume my own writing here, Holly Jarvis—my business partner, and beloved life partner—has offered a lovely article on personal transformation and communal connection…]

By Holly Jarvis, Guest Blogger

LightSong Fire mediumIt might seem that a pilgrimage or a quest would be a deeply individual, personal experience. Yet, the power of those experiences ripples out, touching the lives of family, friends, and community.

This past year brought big changes for both Kirsten and me. Kirsten lost her parents and I left my job and career. We’ve both been looking for meaning, a new perspective not easily accessed in ordinary consciousness or busy lives. And that brought each of us to commit to a transformational life challenge over the summer—for Kirsten a pilgrimage walk across Spain on the Camino de Santiago, and for me a vision quest.

As we talked about our hopes and concerns for our adventures, we discovered how similar they are. Kirsten’s pilgrimage would involve being far away from home, encountering physical hardships, and finding inner strength and spiritual renewal in unfamiliar circumstances. My vision quest will put me alone into a small area in a forest with no food, water or shelter for four days and four nights, also experiencing being away from home, encountering physical hardships, and finding the inner strength to complete the quest.

Like Kirsten, I am looking for a way to wake up, to become more lucid in my waking life by moving into a dream-like state of openness. By taking myself out of my everyday world and entering a situation that is so outside-of-the-ordinary as to be almost surreal, I hope to gain access to an experience of imagination, allowing this dream-like state to help me reassemble my perspective, understanding, and sense of life as it is happening in “real time.”

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The Uncertainty Principle: in Pilgrimage and Lucid Dreaming

my friend Woody Brinati, posing as “the Westie boy"

My friend Woody Brinati, as “the Westie boy”

By the time you read this, I hope to be on the brink of departure—completing final preparations for a life-changing two-month pilgrimage. The plan is to leave May 1st, to walk across Spain, and then go on to the Netherlands to attend (and present a workshop) at the International Association for the Study of Dreams annual conference.

Maybe many of you are world travelers or athletic hikers, but, for me, this is the most challenging experience I’ve ever voluntarily undertaken. I’ve never been to Europe, and the complexities of modern travel intimidate me. This expedition is on a frugal budget, without much of a safety net. I’m a skinny 55-year-old with some of the disabilities of a 75-year-old, and, in spite of lots of training, walking 12 miles a day with a pack and staying in hostels will test my physical limits. On the way to the airport, I’ll certainly be wondering what I’ve gotten myself into!

However, as I’m writing this, the journey is still almost two months away (I usually write and schedule blog posts ahead)—and I don’t yet know whether any of my plans and dreams will actually come to pass.

At this moment, I’m up in the air. I had a surgical procedure two days ago, and will wait another week to get test results. It’s probably not cancer, but I won’t know for sure—and can’t buy my tickets and make a full commitment—until those results come back. So, there’s a chance that when you read this I’ll actually be in the midst of a completely different kind of journey, no longer preparing for the Camino after all. Right now, I’m still recovering from surgery and walking slowly around the block is enough to tire me out. It’s difficult even to imagine being ready for the Camino by late April. For a little while at least, everything is uncertain.

This is a strange place to be. I think I know how Schrödinger’s cat must have felt. I’m in that dark box, waiting patiently (!) to find out whether my pilgrimage plans are “alive” or “dead.” For now, both possibilities exist. I am both a pilgrim on a path, and a patient facing whatever has to be faced. When the box is opened, I will be one or the other… Right?

But, really, no matter how solid my plans may be, I’m always both a pilgrim and a patient. The path that I’m following is only revealed a few steps ahead (if that), and, ultimately, there’s no doubt I’ll encounter various critical turning points and detours along the way—places where the path may be swept away entirely by events beyond my control. That’s life.

“Two basic innate kinds of energy seem to operate during our lives. One may be called the energy of the journey; it is an energy that keeps us moving forward on our path with little radical change. Those who value life when it is a steady movement toward the future, comprised of a series of predictable choices and decisions, are most in tune with journey-energy. Such people are usually surprised and upset by the presence of the second kind of life-energy called death-rebirth. This is the energy that carries us into and through crisis, illness, loss, separation, major life changes, and radical transitions. Persons who have a crisis-personality—who seem at their peak when under pressure—usually operate well with death-rebirth energy.”
-Savary, Berne & Williams (from “Dreams and Spiritual Growth”)

While the authors of “Dreams and Spiritual Growth” describe “journey” and “death-rebirth” energy in terms of how certain personalities emphasize one or the other, I find that both are meaningful as a way of understanding my present (and perpetual) situation in life. In one sense, I’m always journeying, always going forward into the next possibility. In another sense, I’m always waiting at the edge of the unknown, surrendering to whatever transformative process comes next. Of course, both of these processes are also reflected in dreams.

I might imagine that, as a pilgrim, I’m following “journey” energy, and, as a patient (waiting in limbo for test results), I’m dealing with “death/rebirth” energy. Yet it’s not so simple. As a pilgrim, I can make plans and choices—but, paradoxically, true pilgrimage means letting go of both. As a patient, I must have no expectations—but, paradoxically, a willingness to encounter the unknown on its own terms allows me to be at peace with the journey of each moment. Really, the two “life energies” are inseparable and interdependent.

When I was being prepped for surgery the other day, I was reminded of being a cancer patient in my thirties. Yes, there’s anxiety and frustration in the helplessness of this role. There’s physical discomfort, some real pain, and the utter vulnerability of leaving my body in the care of strangers. My personal plans and choices are simply not relevant for a while. It’s a kind of ego-death that is essential to pilgrimage. Maybe I’m going through this uncertain part of the pilgrimage now, so I can have less of it later on…? Hm. Nice try.

Our plans and choices ebb and flow throughout the journey—sometimes it’s all about what we want to do and can do, but at other times we must let go, trust others, accept what comes, and respond rather than initiating action. In fact, this is exactly what I hope to be doing on the Camino.

In lucid dreaming, this ebb and flow of willed action and surrender is especially evident (see “Lucid Dreaming: Control and Choice”). Once I become aware that I’m dreaming in the midst of a dream, I may be able to direct the experience without many of the limitations imposed by waking life. But the lucid dream, like the pilgrimage, is most valuable when I can willingly relinquish the idea of control, and experience the dream as it comes to me: as a gift, a surprise, a challenge, a learning experience. Lucid dreaming calls for a balance: we take action and make choices, but we also ask, receive, invite, and accept.

Here’s a lucid dream fragment from last night:

Westie Boy: …There are two rude small boys mocking me. Should I make them float up into the air? Or change them into something? No, I’ll ask permission. I ask one of the boys if he’d like me to turn him into a dog. He and his friend are both enthusiastic. I begin to shape him, gently, with my hands, not knowing whether I have enough lucidity to make the transformation work. Then, I notice that the boy has curly white-blond hair, and a terrier-like spark. It feels like he wants to become a Westie (West Highland Terrier). Following this intuition, and with his cooperation, I can easily transform him into a stocky little Westie, trembling and wriggling with excitement. His friend points out that he’s not wagging his tail, and he tries a few tentative wags—enjoying the awkward sweep of his hind end. I notice his tail is unusually long and fluffy, and offer to shorten it for him…? But he pulls it out of my hands indignantly. It’s his tail, and he likes it this way. We’re all delighted by his new body, and the three of us frolic together.

Waking life is not so different from a lucid dream. Most of the time, we actually have less control, but more choices, than we might think. In the dream, do I really have the option of imposing my will on those dream figures—or would attempting to do so have closed off my own options, and drained the dream of its energy? Choosing not to impose but to ask and attend opened up more opportunities. Continue reading

Part 2 of DreamTime Article on Dreams of the Dying

DT cover 2015 fallDreamTime is an inspiring and intriguing magazine published by the International Association for the Study of Dreams. The first part of my article on dreams of the dying appeared in the Winter 2015 issue, and now part 2 has come out in the Fall 2015 issue.

Click on the picture to read Part 2 of the article: “Dreams of the Dying: Where Reality and Identity Become Fluid” by Kirsten Backstrom

Click here for Part 1:Dreams of the Dying

And click here to become a member of IASD! You’ll receive DreamTime three times a year, along with many other benefits!

Dream Labyrinth: The Winding Path of Group Dreamwork

Living-PathI’ve been exploring labyrinths lately, and finding significant parallels between the sacred labyrinth walk and the spiritual practice of dreamwork, especially group dreamwork.

While a maze is a puzzle or a trap, filled with false starts, wrong turns and dead ends—a labyrinth is a single winding path, opening at each step as we go around and around the circle, back and forth, spiraling inward and then outward again over and over, gradually working our way to the center. While the final exit from a maze is just an ending, the center of a labyrinth is a turning point. When we come to the center, we pause to center ourselves, and then turn and return the way we came, following our own footsteps back to the beginning.

Some dreams can seem like mazes—a mess of frustrations, disappointments, confusions and anxieties from which we are relieved to wake up. But when we begin to explore even the most tangled maze of a dream, we begin to find that its paths are labyrinthine: there’s a pattern (or many patterns) even though we are going around in circles; there’s always a way forward even though we are often turning back; there’s balance and symmetry even when we keep finding ourselves further from what we thought was our goal.

The reason I’m saying “we” is because the labyrinth of dreamwork is most evident when we are in it together—as a group. Several times, I’ve taken labyrinth walks with others—and it’s amazing (pun intended) how many different ways there are to walk this one path. Each person enters at the same place, but at a slightly different point in time. And then, as I proceed, I keep encountering the same people over and over, unpredictably—we may walk side by side for a while, or pass each other going opposite directions. We converge repeatedly, but never intercept each other, never cross paths. But we all find the same center, and we all return to the same place when we have completed our journey. Continue reading

Living Up To Our Dreams

path 01

We discover where we are going, together, as we go…

So here’s the question I’ve been asking myself ever since the inspiring experience of the IASD (International Association for the Study of Dreams) conference: How do we apply the experiences of our dreams to our ordinary lives in such a way that they will make a difference in the world?

When I work with individual dreamers and small groups, I am constantly aware of how the dreams I hear are changing my life. Each of the people I meet with for spiritual direction or dreamwork is genuinely grappling with profound spiritual challenges that are both personal and universal: How do I cope with the speed and complexity of the modern world, without losing my ability to be fully present in the process? How do I share my unique gifts and skills creatively—and is what I have to offer truly wanted or needed? How do I respond kindly and compassionately to others when I am feeling frustrated, impatient, or overwhelmed? What is my responsibility to myself, my family, my community, and ultimately, to all beings? How do I cope with feelings of fear, anger, loneliness, exhaustion, grief, apathy, despair? Where do I belong?

These and other such questions resonate with me as I hear them coming from others. When I work with others to see what light their dreams may shed on these questions, I find echoes in my own life and in my own dreams. We may be working with one person’s individual life issues and dream images, but at the same time we are addressing life issues and dream images that have meaning for all people and the planet as a whole. Dreams take us to the heart of the matter at hand, and at that heart level the things we have to learn extend far beyond us as individuals. Continue reading

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