“Are We There Yet?” This age-old lament of children in cars could be one of the siren-calls for these times of the Covid-19 pandemic and social unrest. Sometimes a parent or driver can respond, “In one hour”, or the famous, “Go to sleep and I will take a short cut”. In my experience only rarely does the parent have to say, “I have no idea, I had to take an unexpected detour” or even, “We are lost, so I don’t know.”
These days however, those last answers are the ones we are stuck with. The best we can do when our children or friends or loved ones ask, “Are we there yet?” is to say, “Not really. But we will get there.” We are tired, we are worried, we are grieving, we are so done with quarantine. Yet we know that social distancing and mask wearing and really being careful is still the best we’ve got until we are “There.” “There” being that we have a well-tested working vaccine widely available. Being stuck in uncertainty is one of the more profoundly disquieting and uncomfortable emotional states to be in. We crave the certainty of knowing, we are wired for it. We even see some of our leaders acting as if they know things for sure, since they can’t tolerate both the not knowing themselves, or looking like they don’t know.
Can Dark Times Bring Gifts?
Both good self-care and good parenting means enhancing our ability to live with uncertainty, and yet carry on in our lives with more equanimity, more compassion for ourselves and others, and an enhanced ability to tolerate uncomfortable emotional states without unraveling. Poet Mary Oliver wrote:
Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness. It took me many years to understand that this, too, was a gift.
Spiritual teachers across time and cultures tell us to look for illumination paradoxically within the heart of darkness. When we reach deep inside ourselves, the darkness contained both within us and without can be illuminated.
How can we find the hidden gifts in the times of darkness? As hard as it is, without the darkness we cannot fully appreciate the light. The role of the unknown and of the mystery is an integral part of the creative process, so perhaps we can tap into our own creative spaces at this time to learn things that have been waiting in the depths of our souls for enough space and quiet to be discovered.
Fear can hijack our imaginations and create even more frightening scenarios. Fear and worry wear us out and use up our precious inner strength that we could be putting to better uses. Faith and courage are about going forward even without all the paths being clear. They are not about the absence of fear, but rather moving forward with your highest values and your life purpose in spite of the fear.
Our “Window of Tolerance”
There is a psychological concept in trauma treatment called the Window of Tolerance. This concept implies is that we all have a certain threshold or window of our emotional states within which we can still function well. However, if our personal window is too narrow, then when our reactions and responses get outside of that window we go to the unhealthy extremes of “too much” or “too little”: Too much or too high outside our window and we get anxious, angry, act out, addicted, harmful to self or others. Too little or too low outside that window and we are prone to depression, sadness, isolating, numbness or dissociation.
Healing and living with uncertainty require us to learn better skills to tolerate these common yet uncomfortable emotional states, and/or to learn to expand our window. Resilience is the ability to bounce back from difficulties, and the more skills we have to ride out the uncomfortable emotions, the better our resilience. Tuning to our values and to our life purpose help us to tolerate uncomfortable feelings and to expand our windows.
Mindfulness Skills and Resilience
Some of the skills of mindfulness help us with resilience. Learning to bring our focus on our breathe, to notice the in-breathe, the out-breathe, and the pause that naturally happens between the two is one form of slowing down and calming down. “Externalizing” or putting your internal thoughts and obsessions and ruminations outside of yourself, instead of inside of your head also help us get some healthy distance from them. For example, when you notice yourself in a worry cycle, name it, “Ah, worry”, and then have an image of putting the worry outside yourself, perhaps in one of those thought bubbles we see in cartoons, to clear the space in your head. You can then float that bubble away, or at very least, examine it more dispassionately as you now have some distance from it. It is outside of you now, rather than inside of you.
Shifting your focus and attention to the sound of the birds, or the smell of our coffee or the beauty of the sunset or flower allows us to find a haven of peace, a home base of comfort and calm within turbulent times. For example, I was on a Zoom call with a client last week. She was sitting on her porch at home and I was in my home office with the windows open. In the midst of discussing her insomnia and the stress it was causing, a cardinal broke into song outside her porch. And as if hearing it in response, an answering trill of cardinal notes sounded outside my office window. We could both hear the birds at each other’s respective homes – and were able to pause in that momentary synchronicity and enjoyment before going back to problem solving about her sleep and processing her nightmares.
Dream Sharing to Find Home Again: Expanding Our Window
As well as an epidemic of Covid-19, we have been experiencing an epidemic of upsetting dreams and nightmares. Rather than ignoring them, we can “lean in”, as Cheryl Sandberg would tell us, and find the hidden gifts and knowledge that they are bringing. This is another way of expanding our window.
Tuning in to our intuitions and synchronicities; both forms of waking dream states, as well as our nighttime dreams, allows us to process and thus metabolize the worries and fears rather than simply be overwhelmed by them. And when you share your dreams with others, you have the benefits of two or three or five ideas being better than one. We can all resonate with each other’s dream and learn something for ourselves from the dreams of another. This is one of the powers of working in a dream group or dream circle. And since dreams are such a ubiquitous topic these days, you have even more permission and social acceptance than usual for discussing your dreams with both friends and professionals.
So, even if we are not “there” yet, we can continue to dream it forward, to practice mindfulness skills, to tune in to our intuitions and to expand our windows of tolerance. In doing so, we can also expand our tolerance for others and ourselves with greater and greater compassion.
Welcome dreamers, Sleeping and dreaming are generally quite solitary acts. Even though we may share a bed or a room with others, when we dip below the horizon of wakefulness into our dreams, that journey is taken alone. We then have whatever adventures our dreamtime soliloquies take us on, often with others playing their roles as part of the dream journey. But when we waken it is our dream alone; just us, with the lingering fingers of memory tickling our senses as we desperately try to remember as much as we can in order to write it down or record it.
Then what? Even Jung himself is famous for saying that he could not squeeze all the information out of his dream by himself, as we all have those famous blind spots. We can’t see the back of our own heads without two mirrors. And not only that, we usually dream in symbols and metaphors to boot! So we ponder and analyze as far as we can under our own steam, and then if we want to really mine the treasures of our dreams, it is time to turn them over to be considered by others as well. Someone else, or several others, can be that mirror for us so that we can see beyond the limitations of our own psyche.
In other words, share your dreams with a group. I will share with you how we do it in the dream-sharing group I’m part of.
Guidelines for dream sharing
Whether you are working with just one other person or in a dream group, the people you consult need to respect the “rules” of considering someone else’s dream.
First off, the dreamer is the final expert on whether an analysis is correct or not. An insight may be true for the consultant, but not necessarily for the dreamer. The dreamer gets an inner tingle or what Eugene Gendlin calls our “felt sense” when an insight is true. So as a group we have learned to try to use the wording taught to us by dreamworker Jeremy Taylor: “If this were my dream…” and respect that it may take several rounds of ideas before one of them is a hit for the dreamer. One client of mine always tears up when there is an on–target dream hit. I can relate – that is always a true barometer for me as well. If I get tears in my eyes, then we must be at pay dirt.
Sometimes the listeners may get so excited or energized by the dream content the dreamer is presenting that they rush to jump into the fray before knowing what the dreamer wants to focus on. This happens fairly regularly in dream groups, we all get so excited as we resonate with the material.
Last week I invited the members to try to slow it down a bit. Before we listened to the dreamer share her dream, I suggested that we first cast a large energy net around the circle, and then gradually draw it in to find the fish that is the right catch for the dreamer. This image seemed to help us slowly focus and let the dreamer’s intention guide our work. As we slowly circled the dream, we could feel some of the suggestions slip through the net, while others stayed inside until the final “aha” for the dreamer – “That’s it! There’s my fish!”
I invite you to try it with your own dreaming friends. You can find guidelines for staring a dream-sharing group here.
“Dreams are today’s answers to tomorrow’s questions”
When we dream, we are in a place, a world that is just as real to us while we dream it as the one we inhabit while we are awake. In this dreaming place we talk, walk, run, play, interact with others and have whole adventures without needing to adhere to many of the rules we are subject to in our waking lives: rules such as the earth’s gravity, or social proprieties, or linear time, or three-dimensional space. As such, we are fully embodied beings living inside the dream. The images that make up our dream are quite alive as we are experiencing them, such as the following:
“I dream I am a circus performer, balancing on the back of a horse.”
When we come out of the dream to tell about it we often find that language is inadequate to the experience. We are translating a lived, moving experience into the two-dimensional limits of language, often losing some of the richness and texture of the images and the experience in the process. Like the old story of trying to describe an elephant to a blind man, we can only capture part of the experience with words alone: just the trunk, or just the legs, or just the hide. The artwork brings it much more alive; now imagine yourself enacting that scene: You are kneeling on one knee on your white horse as it trots around the ring. What does that feel like in your body? What if you put your body into that position and tried it?
“Embodied imagination” by Robbie Bosnak, and Jung’s method of “active imagination” carry the stance that the dreamed images belong to this real and embodied world; it is our job is to develop a relationship with them in order to understand why they have come to visit us and what they might want from us. Bosnak says, “Images belong to the involuntary imagination and embody their own intelligence.”
Jean Houston talks about an intelligence beyond our own called the “Entelechy”, from the Greek, that contains wisdom from our highest selves in contact with the collective unconscious. We can access this self while in altered states such as trance, meditation, dreams and the in-between edges of dreams and wakefulness. Flashback memories, déjà vu experiences, and being in the “zone” or “flow state” in art, athletics or any creative endeavor can also allow us to access this realm.
When we practice dreamwork with our bodies as well as with our words, we can get closer to the reality of the living images. By letting the images enliven our body and using our felt sense, we can create dream theater or dream movements or dream sculpture that allow our bodies and those of our dream circle to get into the act and re-create the aliveness that we felt in the dream itself.
“I dream of a field mouse being stalked by a panther. The grasses are high and the sun is beating down on the field. It feels so immediate in the dream.”
In my works the group collectively becomes the field mouse, the blade of grass, the stalking panther, the hot sun, and thus feel into the dream through the different characters and parts of the landscape and experience a whole which is then greater than the sum of its parts. Now we can see where is it going. By enacting the dream-drama, we get a greater sense of how it has meaning for our lives, and perhaps the lives of others.
It’s an interactive experience with participants that can lead to unexpected results and insights, and can provide a very different approach to working with dreams than the time-worn road of analysis. Contact Linda Schiller () to discuss scheduling her for your next event to teach a Dreams Alive! embodied dreamwork workshop. See Linda’s trainings page for more information.
Doing dreamwork by yourself on your own dreams can be like trying to see the back of your own head without two mirrors.
If this post seems a surprise in the series on nightmares, that may be both true and not true. I had initially planned the next post on the big nightmares that often have a source in trauma. However, some challenging life circumstances got in the way of this intention, and I was happy to find that I had stored this post for a time when I needed one and didn’t have the time to write from scratch. In truth, it is perfect timing for a conversation about dream sharing with others. When we work with our most challenging dreams having a guide, a companion, or a group is an invaluable aide to help us stay grounded and centered as we journey through the dark nights of the soul. So here we are:
Dreams usually arrive in our consciousness as conundrums. We usually have to spend time hanging out with the dream material to unravel it’s coded messages. As we get more skilled in attending to our dreams, we can get pretty good at it, especially if we can catch our own puns and plays on words. Problem is, most dreams come to us fairly encrypted. Just as we can often see some one else’s issues or truth more clearly than our own (who among us can’t identify (ahem…) just what our spouse, child, parent, etc. should do to be a better person!). We often hit the same blind spot when we attempt to decode our own dreams as we do when we try to see our own “issues” clearly. Our dreaming self offers up it’s mystery into our conscious minds, but if we want more than it’s initial offering, we may need to enlist the help of others: from those who can see more clearly the backs of our heads and into our blind spots. (FYI, even Freud and Jung rarely considered their owns dreams completely analyzed if they worked on them alone.)
The flip side of this coin, as we discussed in a previous blog, is that only the dreamer can truly know the resonant meaning of his or her own dream. This is because only the dreamer has the first person access to their dream, and only the dreamer can say how it relates to their own life. Richard Russo quotes Jung as saying “…to truly understand (another’s) dream, we would have to know everything about the dreamers life- something only the dreamer is capable of.”
Jeremy Taylor, based on the work of Montague Ullman, designed what I call the “Code of Respect” for dreamwork with others: When we offer an idea about the meaning of a dream, we preface it with “If this were my dream…” “If this were my dream, I would wonder about the horse in the corner of the field.”… “If this were my dream, I would want to know the significance of that bright red color in her dress.” … “If this were my dream, I would wonder if that child in your dream was a younger part of yourself; it reminds me of what you said about your life when your parents got divorced when you were six”. You can be as specific or general as your insight takes you, but if you preface it with this phrase, then you are offering the option of your opinion to the dreamer, but not insisting that your explanation is correct. We can also receive our own insights from working on some one else’s dreams. What might catch my attention in your dream is something that has significance for me- whether or not it does for you. Thus, we get do a bit of our own dreamwork with other people’s dreams- what a nice benefit for sharing dreamwork. So, if you are working on another’s dream with them, pay attention to own your own projections!
The ultimate is dream sharing is being with a group- a dream circle. I have been in a personal circle of my own for almost 30 years. We know each other pretty well at this point, and on occasion don’t even get to the dreamwork if we have a lot to catch up on, but we have held the frame of dreaming together as bond and a structure to our monthly meetings. We’ve dreamed each other through births, marriages, illnesses, deaths, career changes, surgeries, milestone birthdays and now into the empty nest phase for some of us (not me yet though! – mine is the youngest of the group’s children at 15.)
I have also facilitated dream groups for over 25 years. Again, the bonds formed in the circle often extend out of the circle as well. If you chose to form a dream circle, be clear about whether some one is in charge, or you have a rotating leadership, or a “self help” model with no one in a leadership role. Set up a format and a structure that works for you, and then stick with it. So many groups without formal leadership devolve into “just chatting”, and then loose momentum and die out. As a group worker with training in group dynamics and group process, I know that these are some the biggest reasons for group failure: lack of a clear purpose, lack of clear goals, and lack of clear structure.
Choose your fellow dreamers as carefully as possible; it doesn’t have to be people you already know, but since dreamwork is such an intimate sharing, you do want to be able to trust the members to keep confidentiality and treat each other respectfully. One option is, that you can choose whether or not to share your “aha” with the group– it is always fine to say “oh’ I’ve got it”, without divulging the details if it feels too personal to share. When I teach large classes in dreamwork, I always give people this option. This creates more of a sense of safety to go as deep as you want, and still have choice and control over what you disclose.