Compass Dreamwork

Dreamwork as Spiritual Practice

The Depths of the Dream

Although I know all kinds of ways to work with dreams, I can still miss the most significant implications of my own dreams. Sometimes, the images are just too close to home—I take the dream too literally, or let the more obvious features stand for the dream as a whole, ignoring some meaningful details. When a dream is delightful, I’m tempted just to enjoy it, and let those troublesome details slide. Jeremy Taylor used to say that when his dreamwork clients brought him awful nightmares they’d always leave the session feeling happier (having discovered the shining, breakthrough elements of those ugly dreams), but when they brought happy dreams they were in for some hard work, and usually left the session sobered. He was pointing out that those happy dreams can pack a punch. And I wanted to say, “Yes, but sometimes a happy dream is just a happy dream, right?” 

Whether I’m working with others’ dreams or my own, I believe it’s vital that we simply enjoy our “happy dreams,” allowing the powerful positive emotions and images to comfort and heal us, without overworking or overthinking. Nevertheless, I also believe that Jeremy knew what he was talking about (he usually did): Every genuinely happy dream must include our pain as well as our pleasure, and often the pain needs our attention in order for the pleasure to be possible. 

In my own life, joy and grief have a fundamental relationship—and I know that my dreams reflect this. Yet, when I finally had a beautiful, “happy dream” after months of plodding “problem dreams,” I just wanted to savor the beauty and did not look below the surface at first. I thought that the dream addressed some painful issues, but gave me a reassurance that although change and loss were happening, it was possible to relax and enjoy and adapt. I was right, of course—authentic happiness was certainly at least part of the true meaning of the dream, since the dream really did provide a direct experience of relaxing, enjoying, and adapting. But there was more to this paradoxical dream than my direct experience of joy.

It was a long, rich dream in which I felt a sense of warm connection to the people around me, even though the atmosphere was chaotic and a little sad as we were all completing a task (a game or project) and preparing to say goodbye to one another. The dream was full of the same patterns of problems that have been regular dream themes for me lately: I’m packing for departure but keep losing precious things I want to take with me; I feel somewhat vulnerable and tired; I encounter people or animals in distress and cannot help them; there’s too much happening at once and I have no control over anything. Yet, in every situation: I care deeply about others and they care for me; we share our problems, laugh together, comfort each other; I appreciate the delicious sensory experience of a warm breeze, the ground under my bare feet, flower fragrances, sunshine glittering on ocean waves; we are all at ease in our own awkward but capable bodies, and trust in the changes we are experiencing.

Here’s how the dream ended:

I am happy, walking with friends, with my senses wide open. The ocean (a deep bay, with a rocky shore) is right over there—and as we are talking about how beautiful it is, we’re delighted that it gets even more special because I’ve glimpsed a humpback whale spy-hopping just offshore. We pause to watch several other kinds of whales as they surface, spout, and plunge. Wow! Look, there’s the stunning black-and-white face of an orca, open-mouthed, in ferocious pursuit of a harbor seal! Both animals break the surface together and then submerge—the whale hunting; the seal fleeing. I expect to see blood in the water when they go under, because it seems that the seal won’t be able to get away. I’m briefly horrified, but there’s nothing I can do, so I let go of my visceral distress, allowing myself to feel compassion for the seal and respect for the whale, without anxiety. This is just the way it is, the way it must be. Now, the seal has apparently become a bedraggled dog, limping slowly along on the surface of the water (as if the water were ice). We want to coax the dog to shore before the whale looms up and swallows him… But again it is clear that this situation is not within our control, the dog is out of reach, and our caring response from a distance is the only help we can offer. We must walk on. I accept this completely, and wake feeling at peace.

I’ve been handling my waking life challenges with this same acceptance, as much as possible. Most of my circumstances are beyond my control for now, and all I can do is bring compassion to bear on my situation—compassion for myself, and for those whose lives touch mine. As in the dream, I sense the underlying joy and beauty in just living, sharing difficult experiences with others, appreciating small pleasures in the midst of great uncertainty.

I’m waiting (it seems like forever, but actually it’s been eight weeks) for a consultation with a neurosurgeon about a major surgery to straighten and fuse most of my cervical spine, and maybe part of my thoracic spine. The as-yet-unscheduled surgery is frightening enough, and it’s also unclear whether I will be able to recover and heal from it afterward due to my underlying diagnosis—a progressive, degenerative neuro-muscular disease, causing kyphosis and pressure on the spinal cord. Being in limbo for so long has been excruciating, as my condition continues to deteriorate and I won’t know what to expect, what to prioritize, or how to prepare until I can finally meet with the surgeon next week. 

Long walks and writing projects have been the most consistent features of my daily routine, and these things have given me a sense of accomplishment that makes it possible to remain in the present moment and exercise some patience. I was functioning fairly well, feeling an underlying joy in spite of the strain of waiting… But then, quite rapidly, I lost the ability to walk more than a short distance, as my crooked spine can no longer support the weight of my head. When I try to walk, my gait is impaired: I stumble, stagger, struggle. I can’t walk upright. There’s something about the forced posture of “hanging my head” that induces an unconscious sense of shame and dejection. Plus, I’ve been focused on preparing a manuscript for publication—a frustrating task with many obstacles and little creative satisfaction—which means that my “writing time” involves more stress and less actual writing. 

Trying to write, trying to walk, I face failure. Without the essential structures of physical competence and creative flow, I’m floundering. Acceptance is coming less easily. I’m not sure what I have to offer others, and my needs and moods are not entirely within my jurisdiction. Although my relationships with clients, family and friends continue to be meaningful, I’m finding it harder to accept “the whole catastrophe” (as Zorba the Greek would describe it, with an exuberance I can’t quite muster). In fact, the main thing I must accept right now is my own non-acceptance. Really, I want the struggling to stop—but my resistance is part of this experience, and I can’t force myself to be more accepting than I actually am. The underlying joy is still here, but grief is present, too.

So, having such a lovely, happy dream was a blessing. It raised my courage, my strength, and my gratitude; it relaxed my resistance. The dream was, and is, an authentic gift that shows me what is possible. Nothing can diminish that experience. And yet, there’s more to the dream than bliss. 

I savored the bliss for a while, responding to the dream with ready appreciation. That seemed good enough. I’d gotten the message. There are ways to feel joy, no matter how hopeless things seem. Yes. Yes… but. Eventually, I realized that the dream wasn’t finished with me. I’d missed something fundamental. 

As a dreamwork facilitator and teacher, I frequently remind my clients that the dream ego’s perspective is not the whole story. The entire dream is communicating, and although the “I” in the dream may have meaningful insights, other dream figures may have other points of view that are equally valuable. This is true in waking life as well: The way I experience the world is only one way of experiencing, but the world itself offers an infinite array of possible experiences, and alternative perspectives bring more possibilities. Dreaming and waking, this world is multi-faceted and sparkling. If we let ourselves be too dazzled by the overall brilliance, we’re depriving ourselves of this paradoxical diversity, the play of light and contrasting colors, the exquisite patterns. If we just see what we already know to be there, we don’t learn or change. I know that I want to let this dream change me. 

Whenever I see the ocean in my dreams, I look for whales, and if I see whales I know that this is a deep, powerful dream for me. I can’t turn away from those depths. So, remembering my own professional guidance, I extend my empathy to the fleeing seal and the bedraggled dog. It is so hard to ask that dog how he feels, because I really can’t bear to feel what he feels. When he speaks for himself, I have to acknowledge him fully.

The dog hears us calling to him from the shore. He longs for us, for the joy we are able to experience as we go about our lives. But we aren’t going to save him, and he knows he is going to be eaten. He is already hurt, and exhausted. In a sense, in the form of the seal, he may have already been eaten, while as the dog he is just limping along helplessly, trying to escape the inevitable. Our joy breaks his heart, because he can’t reach us, and we can’t reach him. 

Of course, I recognize this dog’s pain. Of course I do. But the joy is still real, the peace and acceptance are strangely, impossibly, essentially and absolutely real—along with the pain. The dog is walking on the water, he is somehow divine, even in his misery. Meanwhile, the orca is as glorious, powerful, and beautiful as any of the other whales, even though, unlike the gentle baleen whales, orcas have sharp teeth—they kill to eat. From the whale’s perspective, the pursuit of the seal is exhilarating. From the seal’s perspective, there’s fear and flight, and then—what? From the dog’s perspective, there’s longing and loss. From my perspective, there are joyful aspects to every situation and ways of savoring those joys, even when I’m struggling, even when I’m suffering. From the dream’s perspective, everything is unfolding in wholeness.

A happy dream, or a happy life, would not be happy if there were nothing but happiness. If we lived forever, nothing would ever be able to change or grow, and life would have no value. We are mortal; our bodies age, and we die. Some living beings kill and eat other living beings. But life also includes the capacity to welcome our interdependent experiencing of everything, our capacity to care about these experiences and one another. Even when we can’t feel welcoming acceptance of the painful events themselves, the fact that we feel pain is a testament to the fact that we love, and we can embrace the experience of loving. I may suffer because I am losing aspects of myself and my life that I care about, but the intensity of that loss makes me more aware of how much I do care—not just about having a healthy body, fruitful work and precious relationships, but about living life however difficult it may be. 

The intense experience of longing and loss practically eats me alive—while at the very same time, expanding my definition of “me,” my connection with “you,” our participation in “everything.” In pain and in joy, we all dream this paradoxical life, and live it too. 

4 Comments

  1. Kirsten – I wish I had your gift with expression in words as this touched me so deeply and not feeling that I can communicate that sense. Despite the difficulties of your condition, your life force shines with such grace and light- like the whale reaching up and diving down in the vast ocean of unknowing. Thank you for your courage in sharing your dream – and the paradox of your life – of our lives.

  2. The depth and breadth of compassion, awareness, acceptance and understanding you bring to your dreams continues to astonish and inspire me. Thank you, Kirsten. This is just beautiful.

    • Jean, your comments mean a lot to me, as I admire you and your work very much—and you astonish and inspire me with what you write as well. I’m grateful for your words. Many thanks and blessings to you!

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