Compass Dreamwork

Dreamwork as Spiritual Practice

Tag: transformation

Howling Together: Healing Dreams & Community

What does healing look like in the dream world? Dreams reflect the changes that are happening all the time, in our physical bodies and in our spiritual lives. For me, those changes have been dramatic in the past couple of years, and recently I had a wonderful dream, which gave me a deeper trust in the process of change itself. I dreamed about the wisdom of wolves.

Thanks to this dream, I can believe that authentic healing is going on in my body and spirit. I’m especially grateful because the dream not only helped me to experience this healing directly, but also gave me a restorative image of death and renewal that truly resonates. I will hold this image like an open door inside myself, through which powerful emotions can come and go. Because of the dream, I can sense the small voice of my own life rising to meet the wild song of all life—just as the howl of one small wolf rises to meet the music of the whole pack.

I’ll share some of the changes that have been happening in my waking world, followed by the dream and its resonance. Please howl along (leave a comment), if the song speaks to you…

For the past two years, health problems have shaken up my life: heart damage, deteriorating muscles in my upper body and neck, neurological issues, migraines and stroke-like symptoms, digestive difficulties that drained the life out of me… There’s no certainty at all about where this is going. My disease is rare, and doctors have no idea what the progression will be. When my heart function seemed to be failing steadily, the prognosis was five to ten years, or less. When I lost too much weight and was just too frail to function, I couldn’t imagine surviving more than a year or so. Some days, it felt like I might be dying pretty soon—but some days that just seemed too melodramatic to believe. Often, I felt almost normal, just with a stiff neck, a tummy ache, and some clumsiness and weakness. Then, my heart stabilized, at least for the time being. I started adjusting to most of my symptoms with less fear. It became possible that I might live for quite a while. But I can’t know for sure, of course. Overall, I’ve just had to accept the chaos within myself.

I had to let go of my ambition for the future. I had to let go of defining myself as either “healthy” or “sick.” I had to wait on the threshold: tired, confused, hopeful, peaceful, constantly aware of the reality of death, sometimes numb, sometimes afraid… existentially baffled. There was, and is, a kind of grace in the open-endedness of my situation, even though some aspects of the process have been lonely—impossible to share with others. Sometimes, all I can do is immerse myself in the unknown, and wait.

I haven’t been remembering many dreams—which contributes to the general uncertainty. My sleep is shallow and disrupted by discomforts, but most of the dreams I’ve been able to remember could be classified as “death dreams.” I’ve dreamed, over and over, about packing for a long journey “home,” with my deceased parents coming to accompany me. From my experience in hospice work and spiritual direction, I know that these kinds of dreams are typical for people who are literally getting ready to die, but they’re also common for people going through life transitions of one kind or another. The death is just as often metaphorical as literal: one part of my life is dying, my deceased loved ones are helping me on this journey, and my ultimate goal is a sense of “home,” a sense of knowing I’m in the right place.

So, are the dreams literally predictive of death, or metaphorically describing the experience of my present life? The situation is complicated by the fact that dreams often reflect our priorities, the things we’ve been thinking about—and I’ve been thinking a lot about death. Whether it comes tomorrow or twenty years from now, it’s real and it’s on my mind. These dreams have a healing quality, because they’re reassuring in an ultimate kind of way… but they’re repetitive, and I haven’t really gotten beyond packing, or riding in a car with Mom and Dad, on the way…

So what has changed recently that would invite a new kind of healing dream? Where did the wolves come from? Recently, I’ve been feeling healthy. It’s weird, because my upper body is still deteriorating and painful, and I still have many of the symptoms I had before. But my heart seems steadier, my digestion has settled down for now, and I’m getting stronger. I walk long distances several times a week, and I can feel the muscle tone all over my body (except in the areas affected by the disease). Maybe I’ll die tomorrow, or maybe I’ll live forever. I’m appreciating other people, and myself. I feel that I belong to my life again. I’m allowing my vulnerability to be an invitation to others: Let’s all open up a little, find what’s most authentic in ourselves, share our challenges and gifts, be at home with uncertainty because it allows for new possibilities.

So, I have a dream…

Howl:I look behind some bushes near my campsite, and I’m stunned to see a full-grown wolf—sitting up at first, then lying down as if unconscious, in a shallow pool of icy-cold water with decaying leaves at the bottom. I think she might be dead… but she is still breathing. She has chosen to lie in this freezing water—why? Perhaps she is dying, and is trying to hasten the process and numb her pain? It is hard to see her die, but perhaps she is trying to heal herself somehow. It wouldn’t be right for me to interfere, but I mention her to others, because I’m concerned and hoping someone will know why she is here or how to help her.

When I return to check on her, I hear sounds coming from her hiding place. A veterinarian—a middle-aged woman in a white coat—is working over the wolf, doing CPR. The wolf’s heart must have stopped! But, the vet can revive her. Soon, the wolf stands unsteadily, shakes herself, then seems to regain her strength. Other wolves gather around—and other humans, too. Everyone seems excited about the successful healing. Spontaneously, playfully, the vet lets out a howl, and several other people pipe up, too. They don’t really sound very wolf-like, and the wolves look away, as if embarrassed for them.

Quietly, I try a little howl myself. It begins with just a murmuring sound, and then rises to a hollow, resonant tone that comes from deep within me—gentle, tentative, but clear. There’s no contrivance or exaggeration—I let myself feel the wolf-ness inside me, and then release the wolf- song. I sound like a small, cautious wolf.

Now, I notice a wolf pup—very shy and slightly awkward as if she hasn’t yet grown into her body. Her fur is a soft gray, lighter than the other wolves. She’s sitting on a flight of stairs (even though we’re in the woods). Her ears prick up at the sound of my howl, and her whole body trembles, alerted. She looks at me with intent eyes, as if trying to determine whether my howl is a true howl. Can she trust it? She decides to trust—closes her eyes, and listens. Then, she tips back her head and begins to howl with me. She has never howled before, and she pours herself into the sound—high, sweet, rich and pure. The other wolves join her, and then the humans. We are all howling together and I can feel my heart expanding with the gorgeous howling of the pack.

When the howling is done, there’s a moment of stillness. I realize that these wolves are completely at ease with human beings. Apparently, a woman has opened her house to them, so they can come and go as they please. Now, the wolves (including the pup) walk into the open door of that house—across the threshold. They enter without fear. I don’t see the woman who owns the house, but I know that she keeps the door open.

What are wolves? They are very wild animals, but very social, deeply connected to one another. I’ve had a funny relationship with wolves, because several years ago, when I asked for a “spirit ally” to appear to me, I had a distinct image of a subway door opening to reveal a wolf. A wolf as a spirit ally seemed like a cliché, and I wanted something more unusual, maybe a sloth or a wombat. But a wolf showed up. And the wolf wasn’t always friendly. When I asked the wolf for help, the wolf said, “You don’t need help.” In dreams, sometimes a wolf would attack me and I’d rush into the house and try to slam the door—until, finally, I held my ground, offered my arm and said, “Go ahead, eat me.” When the wolf took a bite of me in a dream, it hurt, but being eaten up wasn’t so bad. Another dream came after that, and the wolf and I were on better terms. I have a history with dream wolves, but this last dream is new to me.

Here, I’m camped out—vulnerable, in a temporary situation, but outdoors, in the natural world where I love to be. I look through a tangle of branches and see the wolf, my sole, or soul, companion, so close. When I see that she is lying in the cold water, I’m afraid she is dying or dead. There is no fix for this. I remember last year when Harold, the feral cat we loved, became ill and was preparing to die, he insisted on lying out in the rain. We’d move him to a warmer place, trying to protect him, trying to feed him though he wouldn’t eat—but he always returned to the cold rain. He was letting his body go cold, slowing his heart and numbing his pain, easing into death in his own way. I couldn’t bear it so I tucked a towel around him, but it made no difference. In the dream, I’ve learned my lesson and I let the wolf do what she needs to do. If she needs to lie in the water, immerse herself in cold, then I can’t interfere. But I share my grief with others. It helps me, which somehow helps her, because we are the same.

But then, things change. Perhaps whatever has needed to die has died. The wolf slowed her body down just like I slowed my whole life down in order to find out what was most meaningful to me, when I had too little energy to waste any on my busy mind. Maybe, death happened, the heart stopped. But something, someone, is there to start it again. And there’s a communal response to the restoration of life. We’re all so excited when someone recovers from an illness, or when a baby is born, or when new love emerges out of our ordinary lives, out of our griefs. We’re clumsy in our exuberance. We try to howl, to celebrate, to express our feelings, but mostly, we can’t quite reach our souls with our loud voices. Our souls understand that we’re sincerely trying, but they turn away a little.

A quiet, uncertain effort works better than an outright howl. I don’t know what I’m doing, but I try anyway. I listen to my soul and let the howl flow, as a murmur at first, from my inner wolf. I believe that this is what’s called for, after an ending—a tentative new beginning. Can I convince the young one to follow me, to join in? The wolf pup sits on a flight of stairs—halfway up or halfway down—in transition herself. Can she revive the life of the whole pack, just as the one, dying wolf has been revived? Can we restart our hearts and howl together? We howl wholeheartedly.

And then, we recognize that we have come together across all kinds of differences, to become a pack—human and animal—at home in the world. Within myself, I’ve struggled with my various voices, my human and animal conflicts, my fears. But all the time, someone has kept a door open. Every aspect of myself, and all of the qualities of hope and fear I recognize in the friends and strangers that surround me… all are welcome. We cross the threshold together.

For me, this is what healing means. There are two other women in the dream who make it possible: the veterinarian who heals the wolf, and the unseen woman who keeps her door open. I might think of them as unrealized potentials within myself—maybe this is true. Maybe it’s also true that they are separate individual beings, visiting my dream to help me, or even to make a difference to the world, somehow, through this dream-sharing. However, for the moment, the explanation seems simpler. They are just doing their jobs, as I am doing mine…

I identify with the dream-ego, the “I” in the dream, who must let the dying wolf do what the dying wolf needs to do. I identify with the one who may be able to approximate an authentic wolf song, inviting the wolf pup into her first howl, inviting the pack to join in. Meanwhile, the healer (veterinarian) and the threshold guardian (the woman with the open house)—within me, within all of us—do their work. I don’t need to identify with them, to make them consciously “me” or “mine.” They know what to do. The veterinarian is a “vet”—she’s a veteran of all the experiences of my lifetime, all the pain and difficulty and learning that make it possible to heal oneself and offer healing to others. She can’t really howl—that’s my job—but she can heal. The woman who own the house where we all belong does not need to be seen: we feel her presence in the open door. The fullness of myself includes all these dream figures: the dream-ego who doesn’t try to fix things but finds a way to howl out, the vet who heals, the woman who leaves the door open for all of us to participate in change, in possibility.

What makes a healing dream truly healing? Well, I believe that all true healing involves community. Every change is a potential healing process, and such healing change always requires a kind of death (letting go) followed by homecoming and new beginnings. Usually, the death aspect of the process has to be solitary—we must set ourselves apart, slow ourselves down, cool our emotions and connections, let ourselves go beyond the range of help. The pack may be nearby when the one wolf lies down alone, but they can’t step forward until the time is right, until she is ready to return to life. Yet the return to life is not actually the essence of the healing. As with any transformative initiation, a solitary retreat or ordeal is followed by a return, but the return cannot  be fully realized without a community to welcome the healed one home.

All the beings—humans, animals, plants—who surround me in my life make up my community. Sometimes they know how to offer welcome, sometimes they don’t. But my healing will only be complete when the pack howls with me, when we can all trust the open door, and come and go freely across the threshold, knowing we are welcome in this house.

Dreaming the Change We Wish To See In the World

When I work with dreams, I’m always asking myself what kind of meaning and value this work might have for the larger world. Mahatma Gandhi said that we should “be the change we wish to see in the world”—and I believe our dreaming lives can be as important as our waking lives as we try to manifest meaningful change.

There is so much suffering everywhere—all around us and within us—and  most of us share a deep longing to make a difference, to serve and to help, to contribute to positive change and healing. How do dreams make a difference? It’s clear that our dreams can be a tremendous resource for creative ideas, and an inspiration to collective action. But it’s not only the inspiring, constructive, encouraging dreams that have something to offer. Our mundane, difficult, uncomfortable and even awful dreams may be our best hope as we grow into new possibilities for the future of our world. If we want to “be the change,” we have to bring our entire “being” and contribute through our difficulties as well as our successes; if we want to “dream the change” then we need to share our difficult dreams, and learn from them together.

Perhaps the biggest lesson that we have to learn is that we are not alone. We share this beautiful planet, and we share a magnificent world of dreaming as well. We also share suffering. When I am in physical or emotional pain, millions of other beings are familiar with that pain, and many of them are experiencing those same feelings along with me right now. When I react in anger, or withdraw, or become overwhelmed—millions are with me. Even (or especially) when I’m lonely, I am not alone—countless others are lonely, too. When I wrestle with myself in my very personal dreams, I’m struggling with experiences that are universal: these dreams have been dreamed before, and they will be dreamed long after I am gone. So, when my dreams seem uninspiring, I can still open my heart and mind, expand my point-of-view, adapt and reflect and grow… and perhaps this opening, expansive response can grow in the world. My dreams invite me to include everything, include others, because my solitary idea of myself is too small for the dreaming we need.

When my dreams are unpleasant or just “ordinary,” my tendency is to dismiss them and move on to more substantial, more appealing dream experiences. But if I want to grow, and if I want the world to change in positive ways, I can’t avoid the reality of disruption, distraction, and difficulty. While big challenges may seem more inspiring, it’s the little day-to-day problems that add up to the most significant world crises. If I can’t manage my temper with rude drivers in traffic, I can’t expect to transform the worldwide hatred and vengefulness that can lead to war and genocide. If I can’t tolerate the minimal deprivation or discomfort of a power outage or a neighbor’s barking dog, then I can’t expect entire populations to welcome refugees or forgive painful historical wrongs. If I am greedy for more than my share of local resources like water and shelter, then I can’t help persuade wealthy nations to give up their privileges to prevent drought, starvation and despair on other continents. My “ordinary” dreams often confront me with the ways that I cling to my own agenda and refuse to open myself to new experiences. But these dreams give me opportunities to notice the problems that result from this self-preoccupied behavior, and to practice exactly the kinds of responses that could lead to real change in the world.

As I reflect on these difficult dreams (the ones that tell me disagreeable truths about myself), I discover what works and what doesn’t work in my conduct toward others. I begin to catch myself perpetuating the problems of this world, and eventually I begin to take responsibiltiy for behaving differently. These dream experiences give me the chance to change myself. And when we share such dreams—without paralyzing shame, but with authentic remorse and the desire to see clearly, grow wiser, and be kinder—we can expand the process of real change exponentially.

No Nourishment for the Long Drive: Tonight, I’m leaving for the long drive “home.” I’m looking forward to the solitary drive, but I need to get a meal first, to fortify me for the journey. I go into a busy restaurant and sit at a central table with several people. I order my meal, and it arrives: an unappetizing plate full of pale orange tomato sauce with large meatball-like lumps under the sauce so I can’t really tell what they are. But it’s okay; it’s what I ordered. Briefly, I leave the table to get something (silverware? salt?) and when I return, my plate is gone. One of the women at the table has gone, too, and someone tells me that she sent back my dinner and ordered something “better” for me—something similar to her own, more special, meal. She’s a regular here and knows the menu, so she wanted to be sure I got a memorable meal. I’m annoyed that she took this liberty and now I have to wait a very long time for the new order to come.

I need to get on the road so that I won’t have to drive all night. I wait and wait, getting grumpier and grumpier. I consider just storming out and skipping dinner, but I’m really hungry and afraid I won’t handle the drive well if I haven’t eaten. Finally, the food arrives and it’s just a tiny plate with a little serving of something that looks oddly beautiful, but not satisfying. After I’ve apparently eaten it, I’m still hungry. There are some condiments and extras on a side table so diners can help themselves—at first, these look appealing and I think I can serve myself a plateful and fill up on that. But when I try to fill a plate, I find there’s not much here after all—just some overcooked vegetables in an oily sauce. I eat a few bites, but I’m still hungry and now I really need to leave on my long drive without any real sustenance.

I complain to another woman who apparently works here, grousing that the meal I got was probably more expensive than the meal I originally ordered, and I don’t feel like paying for food I didn’t order. The woman is very nice and immediately says that she (or the restaurant) will pay the difference, so I only need to pay for the meal I ordered. I’m taken aback, maybe embarrassed by her generosity, realizing how petty I was being… but I refuse her offer saying I don’t even know how much my original meal would have cost. Then I’m at the counter, to pay. An older woman rings up my meal at the register and hands me the check—it’s way too much! I notice that one of the dishes listed is actually the meal eaten by the woman who ordered my meal. Now I’m really indignant and I say that I won’t pay for her meal, especially since she inconvenienced me so much. The restaurant women recognize that I shouldn’t pay, and start to redo the math, removing the extra meal from the check. Again, I feel a little ashamed of my own crankiness. I just want to get on the road, in my quiet car, for the long drive home.

I woke from this dream feeling disappointed, isolated, and incomplete. My fantasy of a peaceful, reflective “drive home” had been spoiled by the interference of others, and by my inability to find the nourishment I needed to enjoy the experience of my private journey.

Yet I recognized that this kind of feeling is all-too-common in the small world of middle class American white people. The dream-ego imagines that her spiritual journey is a solitary one, and that her goal is to get on the road, to retreat into the quiet of her own private car. She thinks she needs to get where she’s going, so she doesn’t notice where she actually is. She knows she’s hungry, but doesn’t understand what kind of hunger needs to be satisfied before she can “get on the road.” The food she ordered (and doesn’t get to eat) looks pretty unappetizing—yet she resents being forced to eat something unfamiliar, chosen by someone else. When she tries to “serve herself” some “extras,” she feels even more unsatisfied. The shared table in the midst of the busy world of this restaurant offers opportunities that she rejects. Nothing pleases her, and she doesn’t want to pay for anyone but herself. When she’s ready to drive home at last, she is not really equipped for the journey ahead, and has left something essential behind.

It’s painful to see my own narcissism reflected here. But it’s a narcissism that would be recognizable anywhere—just about everybody wants to have their own immediate desires satisfied, wants control of their individual life journey. The first thing I need to understand as I approach this dream is that the important journey “home” has already begun when I enter that busy restaurant. I’m so busy trying to get “on the road” that I don’t notice I’m on the road right now. Our day-to-day search for personal nourishment and satisfaction, at a shared table in the midst of the world’s unpredictability and bustling activity, is just as important as the intentional spiritual path. I’m on the path already, along with everyone else in that restaurant. The dream seems to stall as I become more and more preoccupied with trivial matters. But, while my attention is on my own displeasure, while I’m feeling wronged and dissatisfied, I’m missing the gifts and opportunities that are coming my way.

If I order what I think I want and need, I get a bland, barely adequate meal. But a stranger at the table offers me an alternative: something surprising, something special—a smaller serving, but one that’s created with care. It doesn’t satisfy me because I barely notice that I’m eating it. I want more. But, really, no matter what I serve myself, it will never be enough. When I complain, I’m met with kindness. Yes, life is hard and we’re often hungry for more than we’ve been given, but we only have to pay for what we’ve ordered ourselves. This isn’t a dream about real starvation, real deprivation and suffering, it’s about the suffering and hunger we cause ourselves because we’ve refused to be nourished by the abundance that’s available.

When I share this dream with others, they commiserate with me, because it’s a pretty dreary story and it’s all I’ve got to share today. Yes, sometimes our dreams aren’t much fun—we all agree. But as the dreamwork unfolds, we pay attention to the possibilities that gleam softly in the dark corners of that dream restaurant. We recognize the dream-ego’s goals as our own, and we feel some compassion for her—but we also recognize that she isn’t going to be satisfied by the kind of food she’s been looking for, and she isn’t going to change unless she wakes up.

I know how I want to respond to this dream when I wake up. I want to go back and meet the other people who are sitting at the table with me. I want to thank the woman who ordered me a different meal, and the woman who offered to pay the difference, and the servers and cashier and cooks. I want to appreciate every bite of what I get to eat, and leave the extras for somebody else. I want to pay for my own meal, and more. Maybe, when I’m ready to get on the road again, I want to offer someone a ride—we could share the driving, so it wouldn’t be so hard to drive all night. If I dream this bigger dream, it won’t change the world tomorrow—but it will change me. And if I can change, we all can change, because there’s no such thing as a solitary spiritual journey. If we’re going to “dream the change,” we’re going to dream it together.

Pity the Poor Ego: Trickster Dreams

My most disturbing dreams have not been the classic frightening nightmares—instead, I dream of being a bystander while someone else suffers. Instead of terror, there’s horror, and the agony of helplessness and vicarious pain. Just as with nightmares, the emotional impact is ugly, and, at first, it’s not especially useful to tell myself that there must be something valuable here, even though I know that disturbing dreams have been some of the most meaningful experiences in my life. I’ve witnessed the beauty and transformative power they can have again and again in working with my own dreams and those of clients and friends. Yet, I can’t plunge in with enthusiasm right away; I need to respect the real (awful!) feelings that such dreams arouse, and give them time.

When I had the following dream, it left me feeling ashamed and upset:

Burning Alive: A man, with the cocky over-the-top manner of a Master of Ceremonies from a television game show, keeps intruding on the scene. He has a large, toothy smile, and he speaks loudly and glibly about nothing, with a lot of fake laughter and fake friendliness. He assumes that everyone should pay attention to him, and is idiotically over-confident.

There’s a room with its floor covered in blazing hot coals, radiating waves of heat. A waist-high wooden wall, blocks the open double-doorway. Casually, the man climbs onto the wall, waves, and jumps into the room—showing off. Apparently someone else is inside there, working on the hot coals (raking them?)—but s/he must be wearing protective clothing, because s/he’s not harmed by the heat. The Master of Ceremonies, who jumped in without protection, has no chance of survival.

I’m horrified. There’s nothing that I can do, or that the person in the room can do, to help him—and he can’t help himself either. He must be in agony as he falls on the fiery coals, unable to get up or get out, slowly burning to death. I don’t actually see this, but I hear him shouting and imagine what is happening. Ironically, his voice sounds almost as stagey and artificially enthusiastic as he was when he was just showing off. First, he shouts, “It’s so hot!” An absurd understatement, in that loud, falsely cheery voice. Then, his cries seem more poignant and painful, though he’s still using this “game show” voice He says something that suggests he can’t stand the suffering: something like, “Please get on with it!” And even though there isn’t anguish in his tone, I feel the anguish for him and find this suffering unbearable. Please, let it be over soon. Let him die quickly.

I woke from this dream truly distressed—and the only meaning I could find in it at first was not at all encouraging. The waves of heat radiating from the room reminded me of the radiation treatments that are the source of my current neuro-muscular disease. Twenty-three years after my cancer treatments, the residual radiation is increasingly active in my body, “burning me alive.” Am I like that pathetic fellow, somehow causing my own pain? Have I been “showing off,” throwing away my life, leaping into trouble and then finding myself helpless—desperate, but somehow also ridiculous? Of course, this is not a fully-formed response, and certainly not a reasonable way to approach the dream or my own life situation. But it seemed consistent with the awfulness of the dream’s aftertaste. I wanted to feel compassion for that man (and for myself), yet all I could feel was pity, helplessness, and a strong desire to turn away from the suffering, to get it over with.

I didn’t want to remember this dream. I wrote it down, but tried to forget it. Then, a couple of days later, while I was taking a walk, it came back to me vividly—with a new title making a different impression. Instead of “Burning Alive,” the new title was much more specific, and somehow less painful: “The Self-Immolation of the Master of Ceremonies.” Why did this seem less painful? Well, “self-immolation” implies a kind of intention, a sacrifice rather than a silly, wasteful, careless act of self-harm. I associated “self-immolation” with the Vietnamese Buddhist monks who set fire to themselves in protest against the Vietnam War. Their actions were drastic, and not consistent with my own cultural ideas about what constitutes appropriate dissent… yet their intentions were genuinely meaningful. They gave their lives to draw attention to an injustice. Could the man in my dream be making a similarly meaningful statement? Also, the term “Master of Ceremonies” implies not careless foolishness but the possibility of “mastering” a situation that might represent a “ceremonial” offering. What if this ridiculous character is suffering for a reason? And what if his suffering is something other than it seems?

In a previous post [“Seeing With Fresh Eyes”], I mentioned two important “tricks” that I often use in working with difficult, unpleasant dreams: 1) look for anomalies and inconsistencies in the dream itself; and 2) question the dream ego’s perspective on the situation. In “The Self-Immolation of the Master of Ceremonies,” the anomaly and the questionable point-of-view are directly related; the most obvious inconsistency suggests a potential inaccuracy in the dream-ego’s perspective. The dream-ego assumes that someone who has fallen on hot coals must be in agony, yet the “Master of Ceremonies” himself does not sound distressed. He uses his “game show” voice to express what he is experiencing, and his emotion is not at all consistent with the suffering that the dream-ego expects him to experience.

So, what if the “burning alive” really is a ceremony, a game, or a show—a metaphorical ritual that involves the “burning up” of old patterns rather than a soul in torment?

With the strong emotion of my initial reaction to the dream, it was easy to assume that this egotistical fellow represented my own Ego-identity in its crudest form: trying to be the center of attention, and coming to grief as a result. But, in fact, the dream-ego (the “I” in the dream) is actually a much more accurate representative of how my own Ego-identity (the “I” in my waking life) sees the world. The Ego, in Jungian terms, is not necessarily egotistical—it is just the essential lens through which the much larger Self perceives and understands experience. We can’t reject the Ego, because we need an Ego-identity to function in the world, but we shouldn’t take her perspective as the whole truth. The dream-ego, like my waking identity, does her best to interpret what she’s experiencing. She understands what’s happening according to its impact on her, so when the Master of Ceremonies behaves as he does, she reacts by judging and defining him as “idiotically over-confident”—his leap onto the burning coals is “ridiculous” and, from her perspective, inevitably results in his pathetic annihilation. Yet, she also wants to be a good person, and finds her own inability to help, or to feel authentic compassion, shameful and painful.

If you want to find the Ego in a dream, look for the one who’s suffering, because the Ego always suffers when reality doesn’t conform to what the Ego believes is important. In this dream, the man who leaps onto hot coals doesn’t seem to be suffering—but the dream-ego is clearly in a lot of pain. She can’t bear what she thinks is happening. In my waking life, my own experience of fluctuating emotions and deteriorating health often causes me suffering. Yet there’s more to me than this suffering Ego, and more to my experience than my Ego can imagine.

Who is the Master of Ceremonies, then? Who is running this “game show”? Dreams have more to offer than the Ego can grasp—but the wholeness of my Self includes all of it, and my Ego can learn from the other characters in the dream. In this dream, I suspect the Master of Ceremonies is not just an exaggerated Ego figure, but a Trickster.

Tricksters in world mythology are not usually very appealing characters, and their stories can make an ugly and painful first impression. Characters like Coyote in some Native American traditions, and Loki in Norse traditions, have all the worst qualities of the Ego: they are malicious, greedy, lustful, and brutally selfish; they are clever, even brilliant at times, but they always end up being too smart for their own good and coming to a bad end. Other Trickster figures may seem more benign, especially when they are represented in cartoons for children, through characters like Bugs Bunny or the Cat in the Hat. But all of them are, at the very least, cocky—and, to some degree, this cockiness is self-defeating. Tricksters are always getting into trouble. While the Master of Ceremonies in my dream seems merely annoying rather than mean, his bad behavior (“showing off”) seems to be his downfall. But wait…

Tricksters are not just bad guys. They may be brought down by their own machinations (often explosively, grotesquely, or pathetically) but, like Wile E. Coyote, they are always up and at it again in the next scene. They always bounce back, and the inadvertent consequences of their actions are often massively transformative.

Tricksters are game changers; the world is recreated in their wake. When Coyote steals fire for his own selfish reasons, his tail ends up in flames, and as he flees in panic, the sparks he scatters form the stars in the sky. By accident, new energies are released, new life begins, new possibilities are opened up. We human beings are the epitome of the Trickster, with our greedy self-interest, our crazy, impulsive, ego-driven yet creative technological advances, we harm and transform ourselves and the world around us. The Trickster leads the way to catastrophe, but also, potentially, initiates whatever comes next.

In my dream, the Master of Ceremonies leaps onto the hot coals, showing off. The dream-ego interprets this as a wretched mistake. Meanwhile, another unseen person, who is impervious to the heat, bears witness. The MC should be in terrible pain, yet his expressions of dismay are unconvincing, and it’s primarily the dream-ego who seems to suffer. Another dream anomaly is that the wall which separates the blazing coals from the rest of the world is made of wood. Wouldn’t a wooden wall catch fire?

If the wall is made of wood, then perhaps the fire is not as hot as it’s supposed to be? Or else, that wall represents an illusion of protection; sooner or later, the wall will burn and the fire will be right here, where I must experience it directly. The fire is inescapable, not only for the MC (who plunged right into it!) but for me. For every mortal being, protections are only temporary. It’s inevitable that we will all encounter experiences that are too painful, “too hot to handle,” as we lose loved ones, physical health, and ultimately our own lives.

The dream-ego is caught up in the horror of the dream’s apparently disastrous momentum, but she never actually sees what is going on in the fiery furnace of that room. If I actually get closer, overcoming my revulsion and dismay… If I actually look past that anomalous wooden wall… What might I see? I imagine the Master of Ceremonies, the Game Show Host, would not be writhing in agony. In fact, he wouldn’t be there at all. The “someone else in the room” could turn out to be another face of the Trickster, with no need for “protective clothing,” impervious to the pain, but raking those coals in order to make the room ready for a ceremonial Fire Walk. These “too hot” horrors could become a way of transforming pain into something more meaningful.

Perhaps my own Ego-identity can step into that room, and walk across it, without judgement or suffering. Perhaps she is willing to change, to let her old life be burned away, and to walk into a new world, born out of the flames of losses, illness, and uncertainty. Continue reading

Beyond Dead Ends: Accepting the Kestrel’s Invitation

Recently, I shared a dream about a hawk, and explored ways of working with dreams that present us with our “problems.” Since I wrote that article [“Seeing With Fresh Eyes: Finding Meaning in Problem Dreams”], more hawks have appeared both in my dreams and in my waking life. They seem to be heralds of a new way of seeing and being, presenting me with a challenge to open my eyes, my mind, and my heart to new possibilities.

The hawk in my previous dream was a juvenile Sharp-Shinned Hawk: a small hawk that generally hunts in forested areas. Within a week of that dream, I saw a hawk exactly like this in two different places. Both times, the hawk appeared unexpectedly, landed close to me, and seemed to look straight at me. Up until then, I’d seen many adult Sharp-Shinned Hawks, but no juveniles. I knew from the field guide that juveniles have different markings—plain brown and white, rather than the more detailed adult markings—but I’d never encountered a juvenile up close (except in my dream). Seeing these juvenile hawks when I did seemed significant. At the very least, it suggested to me that my dream was both meaningful and currently active in my life.

Then, I had a second hawk dream about a different kind of hawk: a Kestrel. A Kestrel—also called a Sparrowhawk—is a very small falcon with extraordinarily colorful markings. Kestrels hunt by hovering high in the air, beating their wings rapidly in place (like “treading water”), looking for their prey below. This dream also includes my deaf black cat, Toby, who died of a neuro-muscular disease (not too different from the neuro-muscular disease I’m coping with myself) last year, while he was still quite young. He was a sweetheart, very brave and innocent, funny and affectionate—I’m still wrestling with his death, not fully able to accept it.

Toby Wants To Fly: Toby’s on a leash outside with me, and I need to get him home safely. I lift him in my arms, holding him tightly, and hurry. It’s a long way. I have to get across a large, busy intersection and traffic circle. We’re surrounded by loud trucks, car horns, shouting voices, city sounds… I’m so afraid that Toby will get spooked and struggle to escape, but then I remember that he is deaf, so of course it isn’t noisy for him. He’s alert in my arms, looking around with calm curiosity at everything.

We get beyond the city, and I have to climb a little hill covered in low, heather-like shrubs. Suddenly, a stunningly beautiful Kestrel flies right up to us, and hovers in the air at head-level, just a few feet away—looking straight at us with a piercing gaze. Toby struggles to get free, to leap after the Kestrel. I cling to him, desperately determined to hold onto him. I can’t let him go. I know that if I let him go, he will die. I notice that there’s a second Kestrel in a bush nearby.

Having subdued Toby, I continue on over the top of the hill and begin to descend the other side. Now, it’s getting dark, and the downslope is treacherous because there are white plastic garbage bags full of some unspeakable, dead, rotting stuff scattered everywhere in the shrubbery. It’s difficult to pick my way through the shrubs, without stepping on those bags. Toby’s still wriggling. Perhaps this is a place where people come to do drug deals or shoot up, a real “dead end place.” I’m not scared, but the downslope is ugly, grim and sad. I need to get Toby home.

Because of his deafness and his obliviousness to danger, Toby would not have been safe outside; he was an “indoor cat” his whole life. I never took him out on a leash (except in this dream). But I loved to hold him in my arms, whenever he would let me, and I wished I could have held him like that forever.

Throughout the dream, I’m motivated by seeking “safety” and “home.” I’m apparently willing to ignore the powerful invitation of the Kestrel, because my strongest need is to get Toby home safely. When members of my peer dream group pointed out how clearly the dream was offering an opportunity to let go, I insisted that if I let go, he would die. Maybe I would die.

But the contradiction is evident: Toby is already dead. And this is a dream: Anything is possible. If I had been lucid in this dream, aware that I was dreaming, I would have realized that I could release him—he would go free, maybe fly into the air after the Kestrel. He could not be harmed. He is already home, safe. I’m the one who’s afraid. I’m the one who’s deaf to the call of the Kestrel, and who trudges on, “over the hill,” in the bleak landscape of decay and death.

This dream, like most of my dreams lately, reflects how I’m dealing with my own mortality and health challenges, and also how I’m seeking meaning in my life.

I have a disease (Radiation Fibrosis Syndrome) that makes me vulnerable in some of the same ways that Toby was vulnerable. I long for a safe place to rest, but, at the same time, I understand that my physical symptoms and uncertain prognosis put me in a situation that is potentially a spiritual opportunity. Every moment of every day, I’m meeting the unknown. I don’t know how quickly the damage to my upper spine and heart will progress—and I don’t know whether these conditions will cripple or kill me, sooner or later. I don’t know how to proceed with my work commitments, since my ability to undertake long-term projects is entirely unpredictable. I’m holding on, desperately, to the things I treasure about my life, afraid that the clamor of the busy world around me will sap my remaining resources, or distract me into wasteful, exhausting digressions. But I know from many years of inner work that this open-ended experience of not-knowing gives me a chance to question my assumptions, release my need for control, and surrender to the freshness of a life without agendas and absolutes.

Yet my dream tells me that I’m not as open as I truly want to be. I’m holding on tightly, believing that death, or at least a painful loss, is the inevitable outcome of a leap into the unknown.

What if I let Toby leap after the Kestrel? My dreamworker friends also mentioned the phrase, “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.” The second Kestrel waits “in the bush” nearby. Both Kestrels are wild and free. My “bird in the hand,” my beloved cat, wants to be wild and free, too. But I’m holding onto him. I wonder… How am I holding myself back? Do I think that possessing my life is more important than living it? Continue reading

Seeing With Fresh Eyes: Finding Healing in “Problem Dreams”

Sometimes, dreams just seem to show us where we are stuck—blatantly and unhelpfully highlighting our struggles and suffering. What is the point of such dreams? Waking life can be stressful enough without reenacting our problems when we are trying to get some restful sleep. I’m having a lot of these “problem dreams” lately, and even though I usually wake up from them feeling discouraged, I’m finding that these dreams always contain powerful healing if I can get past my initial resistance and take a closer look.

My most recent problem dreams have had to do with my deteriorating health, and the changes in my body that sometimes bring me to the edge of existential despair. I’m coping with a neuro-muscular disease that has been steadily progressing over the past year, and although the life-threatening aspects of this disease (heart damage and stroke risk) are stable for now, there are several less dramatic symptoms (muscle spasms and weakness, digestive trouble, intense fatigue) that drain my life force. It can be difficult to keep my spirits up, and everyday obstacles can seem insurmountable.

In many of my dreams, I’m trying to pack for an important journey but can’t get it together: there’s too much “stuff”—more than I can carry. Everything is just too hard. On top of this hard work, there are always other dream figures who are suffering. I feel their pain, but can’t do anything about it. My dreams are full of pathetic, bedraggled, wasted characters who embody my own physical misery in all-too-obvious ways. So how am I supposed to respond?

This seems like an impasse, but it’s not. When I look at these miserable dreams from a different angle, they can open my eyes. In a previous post [Feel It In My Bones: A Dream Experience of the Body] I wrote about how the physical condition of dream figures can reflect the physical condition of our own bodies—and how relating to those figures with compassion and respect can help us relate to our physical selves. So here’s an example of one of those dreams. In this case, compassion and respect come easily, but a sad, hard outcome still seems inevitable:

The Hawk Who Can’t Fly: …Oddly, there’s a a hawk standing on the pavement between buildings. Not perched on a branch, just standing there in the open. Although she has plain brown plumage and markings, and is quite small, her presence is powerful, and her eyes are bright and fierce. But something is wrong. Her wings are spread (as if she were flying) and one looks crooked and withered while the other has large torn gaps. Clearly, she has been seriously injured. She can’t fly, but also can’t even fold her wings to rest. The injuries don’t look fresh, so she has been surviving for quite some time like this, and appears fairly healthy for now. How has she managed to feed herself? I imagine she’s been picking up scraps, though there’s not much food that would appeal to a hawk here. Maybe people have been feeding her? Hawks needs to be able to hunt, and it’s difficult for them to eat food that isn’t alive, so this seems like a miserable existence. I’m so sorry to see her suffering this way. Should I try to feed her? Or maybe it would be better if she died quickly, since her death is inevitable. She isn’t looking at me, but I feel the intensity of her gaze.

My first impression of this dream was that it painfully illustrated my own dilemma: I need to fly, but even my wings (my strengths) have become an encumbrance. I can’t get off the ground, and I can’t even rest. My food (daily routine) is lifeless and doesn’t nourish me. I’m leading a miserable existence, not sure it’s worth the effort. Well, okay. That is how I feel on bad days. Sometimes, the broken bird is just broken. The dream seems to end with a whimper.

But I’ve still got a few dreamwork tricks to try. Let’s see what happens when I pay attention to the dream itself, instead of my predictable assumptions about broken birds and sad stories.

When I imagine what might happen next if the dream continued, I think of trying to feed the hawk, helping her fold her wings so she can rest, or even “putting her out of her misery” by gently euthanizing her—allowing her to transcend her problems through death. None of these problem-solving possibilities seem to fit with the dream itself, however. The hawk has no interest in my efforts to save her. Similarly, my own health issues seem indifferent to my urgency and concern, and the things that I try to do to fix myself—medical appointments, tests, therapies, medications—have no apparent influence on my condition. Trying so hard to solve these problems, I find myself in the same situation as the dream-ego in the dream: my genuine compassion and respect for my own body (or the hawk) seems tainted by feelings of pity, frustration and hopelessness.

Are problem dreams like this one just meant to torment us? Of course not. So, instead of buying the obvious premise that these “problems” need solving, let’s look instead at what the dream has to say. To find the core issues in a dream, it’s always useful to pay attention to anomalies or questions within the dream itself. Although dreams don’t always make sense by waking life standards, they have a kind of internal consistency, and things that don’t seem to fit are not accidental. In this dream, there’s a crippled raptor who can’t hunt for herself, yet she seems healthy and “her eyes are bright and fierce.” If her condition is so awful, how has she survived? How has she sustained herself? Clearly, there is something about her situation that is not consistent with the way I have understood the “problem.”

This leads to another important insight: Particularly with problem dreams where the dream-ego is thinking and behaving in ways that lead to an impasse (reflecting a similar waking life impasse), don’t assume that the dream-ego is always right about what is going on and what should be done about it. The dream-ego (the “I” character in the dream) usually follows the dreamer’s expectations and reinforces the dreamer’s beliefs about life’s limitations—but other characters in the dream may represent different perspectives, different possibilities. When the dream-ego’s point-of-view leads to a dead end, other characters or circumstances in the dream may be giving the dreamer an opportunity to see a different picture, tell a different story.

So, I ask myself: How is this hawk surviving and even thriving? The answer is immediate, surprising, and consistent with the information the dream presents, rather than with my expectations. I expect the hawk to be miserable, desperate, defeated, near death. But the hawk’s eyes are “bright and fierce.” What does she see? How does she see herself and her life? I’m stunned by the world that I see through those bright, fierce eyes.

The hawk sees herself as a hunter. For her, finding food and eating it—even if it’s “scraps”—is hunting, and she sees herself plunging on her prey, doing exactly what she was born to do. The hawk embodies the spirit of a raptor, a formidable bird. For her, keeping her wings open means that she is flying—she is always flying. Even while standing on the pavement, she feels the air moving through her feathers in the smooth swerve of flight. The hawk has acute perceptions, powerful vision. For her, the world is vivid, clear, enticing, expansive, even if it’s just the narrow paved alley between buildings. The hawk is wild and free. For her, pain and disability are just part of life. Death will eventually be part of life, too. She is not crippled or desperate. As long as she is alive, she is fully alive.

If I take this hawk as my teacher instead of seeing her as a victim, I am able to experience the fullness of my life, even when my wings seem heavy and my world seems small. I can see what the hawk sees, with her bright, fierce eyes. Our limitations do not define us. Our dreams may show us those apparent limitations, but they also show us that we are wild and free.

Can we open our wings? The next time you feel oppressed by your own problems—hurt, tired, helpless—ask yourself to see as the hawk sees. Ask yourself who you are, and how you might live this life you’ve been given. Dream your wings wide open. Whether you know it or not, you are always flying.

 

Facing the Monster: Responding to the Nightmare of a Trump Presidency

monster-01Well, the nightmare has come out from under the bed and is now in plain sight, in our very own country, where we might have imagined we were safe. The monster is not Donald Trump, but the hate, fear and ugliness he embodies. And the nightmare can only be changed into a new dream for our future if we face that monster head on—resisting not only the monstrous message and agenda of this administration, but the echoes of that monster in ourselves.

There are many constructive ways of approaching our sleep nightmares, and similar approaches can apply to the nightmares that confront us when we are fully awake. One of the most helpful dreamwork techniques involves becoming lucid—which means becoming aware that you are dreaming in the midst of a dream—and then moving toward the thing that most scares you, encountering it directly instead of succumbing to blind helplessness.

I won’t go into methods for becoming lucid in a dream here, because I’m more interested right now in how we become lucid in the midst of our present waking nightmare. We become lucid by acknowledging that this nightmare is part of a big dream we’ve all dreamed up together. We face the monster and move towards it by recognizing the ways our own hate and fear can shape our perceptions and actions. By consciously and collectively turning that energy in a new direction, we will be able to resist its monstrous manifestations in the world around us. Continue reading

Initiation for Grown-ups: Dreaming Into Maturity

initiation imageDuring times of deep change, dreams don’t just guide us through the chaos of transitional threshold experiences, they can also participate in our initiation into the next phase of life. In fact, a dream may actually be an initiation in itself.

Traditionally, development from childhood to adulthood is acknowledged by significant rites of passage: in some cultures, there are vision quests and initiation ceremonies, and in other cultures there are graduation parties and college entrance exams. Then, as life goes on, there are relationship passages as family roles evolve, work passages as career roles evolve… But where are the rites of passage for later life? Retirement, bereavement, physical aging and death… Often, these passages are treated as if they mark only an absence—the lack of something that had previously defined us, the encroachment of time on our meaningful lives.

How can we trust the new and strange kind of meaning that comes along with the real losses and changes in later life? How do we recognize the passage from a social identity based on tangible accomplishment, action, and independence to a deeper, more mature, elder adulthood, which includes a fuller awareness of mortality and interdependence?

Late middle age is a time of profound transformation. This passage includes the physical changes of the aging body, the changes in perspective and understanding that come with cumulative life experiences, the professional and social changes that come with altered work priorities and abilities, and the spiritual changes that come with the recognition of death (our own and others’) as a direct influence on our lives. In the course of these changes, we redefine ourselves…

For me, health issues, career issues, and the deaths of my parents and several friends this past year marked deep change. I’m always in the midst of some sort of transition or other, but this has been a particularly big one. Without a culturally-sanctioned rite of passage, it’s easy to feel lost, even though I’m closely connected to the community of my peers and friends who are passing through a similar process of transformation. We are becoming more aware of our own aging, and we are facing the losses of loved ones. But how do we find ourselves on the other side of this transition? What are we inheriting? What are we becoming? And what do we have to offer the next generation?

These are questions about initiation. Initiation is a process which represents not only an ending, but a new beginning. Initiation acknowledges, and celebrates, our completion of one stage of life, and turns us toward the possibilities ahead… giving us a gentle, encouraging nudge forward.

My dreams have been helping to initiate me into a new maturity. I ask myself: What is the difference between the person I have been and the person I am becoming? And dreams offer responses, because dreams come from an unbounded sense of self, which includes not only what I think I am, but also what is possible for me. And then, dreams go beyond “me” completely.

Part of the initiation into full maturity is the acceptance of experiences that go beyond the questions we are asking. Here is one of my recent initiation dreams: Continue reading

Dreaming and Daring: Meeting the Unknown Every Night

ocean with rocks 02

I am suggesting that the crazy nature of dreams is precisely what makes them useful and meaningful. Each night when we sleep, dreams combine fragments of our personal lives (memories, recent incidents, perceptions, sensations) with something more essential and shared (archetypal imagery, body and earth wisdom, a vital sense of meaning and connection). All of this same stuff is available to us when we are awake, but in our dreams it is organized in crazy ways, with a pattern-producing randomness similar to that which creates fractals in nature. It is my belief that the all-inclusive chaotic patterning behind dream craziness is actually closer to “the way things really are” than the self-reinforcing information structures that make up our waking conception of reality.
-Kirsten Backstrom, “Dreaming and Daring”

At the recent 2015 Psiber-Dreaming Conference (an exciting international on-line event that explores the outer reaches of dreamwork and dream studies), I offered a presentation called  “Dreaming and Daring: Meeting the Unknown Every Night.” 

This paper is a playful adventure into the Open Mind Theory of Dreams…

Click on the picture to plunge in and read on…

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