“There are many who don’t wish to sleep for fear of nightmares. Sadly, there are many who don’t wish to wake for the same fear.”
(Dandelions, The Disappearance of Annabelle Fletcher, Rochelle F. Goodrich)
Have you noticed lately that your dreams are more permeated than usual with a vague or not-so-vague sense of anxiety, dread, or foreboding? What we might call “free floating anxiety”, to use a professional term. Many of us can easily name our waking angst as related to the current political scene in our country, but more and more it is apparent that PTSD (Post Trump-atic Stress Disorder) has infiltrated our dream lives as well. Reports from countless dreamers since the election have been replete with themes of invaders, intruders, floods, danger, running for safety or the need to protect, including for people who do not usually report dreams of this nature. I’ve been seeing this with my clients, my dream groups, all my colleagues are reporting this, and my own dreams bear it out. Our collective psyches that come together at night seem to breach the boundaries of our very bedrooms. Dreams can contain not only the personal layer of “my dream”; but as we pick up in our unconscious the energies of others, another layer becomes reflective of “our dreams” too. Jung named this phenomenon the collective unconscious, and our collective unconscious is having a field day lately.
Both anecdotal stories and actual polls taken among therapists and mental health professionals indicate a noticeable rise in anxiety, depression, and people seeking treatment either for the first time ever, or coming back after a significant time out of treatment. They all say some variation of “I don’t feel safe any more” or “I am getting triggered by old stuff I thought I had resolved”. They want to talk about current events in a way that is unusual for personal therapy to lead with. It is clear that we are troubled in this post election season by not only our own personal histories, but also the state of the world we are living in and how it affects our psyches and our being.
In one of my dream circles a member had a dream that she titled “The Secular Behemoth”. In the dream some one spotted a large behemoth monster (which is what a behemoth is) on the ground, perhaps just the head, with the rest of it buried, and instructed everyone to run for safety. Then young people chased them who were apparently working for the monster. The feeling of the dream was one of fear and trepidation. The dreamer was very clear that this was not a personal dream, but a collective dream, and that the behemoth represented the “monstrous new world order” under the current administration, and the young people had been brainwashed to work for him in the dream. She attributes it’s arrival to having returned to watching the news after a period of a news fast. The secular part of her title referred perhaps to this new order feeling unholy -who is caring for the needy among us? Her waking world dream tasks after sharing it included to gather up protection, and then to look at and face the monster with collective support.
Another dreamer had a dream of an enormous tinker toy structure in her children’s room where 2 teens had “invaded” her space and had set up camp there. She yelled to them “Get Out!”, feeling invaded, terrified and full of rage. Her associations when we worked on the dream were of feeling invaded as some one large and powerful was “tinkering” with her private world, and worry for the future of the children. One of the ways we worked on this dream from the inside was by dismantling the tinker toy structure and boxing it up.
We can work right inside the dream images to change them up, change the ending, or gather up supports if we are getting overwhelmed or anxious or outright terrified. It is, after all, our own dream – even though we might not be able to change the world quite so quickly, we do have the ultimate power to change our own stories, whether in our waking or our dreaming life. So, if you have an anxiety dream, ask yourself “What can I do to feel more empowered, to get to safety, to help myself and others inside this dream?” when you wake. Then, re-write that dream, adding in any resources you want: in dreams you are not limited by the laws of physics or gravity or logic. The more we can feel safe and empowered, even in our dreams, the more we can bring that forward into our waking lives as well.
In addition, here are a few more dream ideas to try before going to sleep at night to help contain the flood of feelings and the deluge of upsetting images.
1. Use your dream journal to set an intention the night before to write something like “I will allow in and recall only the dreams that are in my highest purpose and best interest”. Or “I will be safe and protected in my sleep and dreams”.
2. Hang a dream catcher near your bed with the same intentions (that is what Native tradition tells us they are designed to do – allow the good dreams to filter through the hole in the center, and snare the upsetting dreams in their webbing.)
3. Surround yourself and your bed/bedroom with a bubble of light for safety, protection, and good boundaries. Pick your favorite most healing and protective color.
4. Imagine closing a door in your mind before going to sleep, like a portal between worlds. You can also add a phrase such as “I close the door to unwanted intrusions in the night”.
5. Say the words “No”, or “No more” or “Enough”, (Dayenu, in the spirit of Passover) strongly, perhaps even out loud to your dream muse to give you a break!
Stay connected with your supports and your tribe as well, so we can face the Behemoth together. Join groups, gather with friends and fellow dreamers, feel the power of the collective spirit. Brene Brown recently said that collective courage is an antidote to collective trauma. She quoted Howard Thurman saying “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive and then go out and do that. The world needs more people who are fully alive.”
Awake to your dreams, and then take them with you out into the world.
“And like seeds dreaming beneath the snow your heart dreams of spring.Trust the dreams, for in them is hidden the gate to eternity.” Kahlil Gibran
It has been some time since I last posted here. But last night “I had a dream” – maybe not as powerful as that of Dr. King, but one I wanted to share here; a journey dream that helped to point the way to traveling without fear.
Dreams often take us on journeys. We dream travel in usual or unusual modes, to known or unknown locations. We travel in our dream vehicles of cars or planes or flying carpets or flying horses to New York City or down the street, to our childhood homes or our office building, to Mars or to Narnia. We journey in time and space, to both the outer and inner worlds that we inhabit nightly. Sometimes these journeys are pleasant, sometimes they an be terrifying,
This early fall time of year is a time of transition and journeying in non-dream time as well. We had 2 dark (new) moons this month; an unusual occurrence that points us toward the gifts of the night and the dark places. The leaves have begun their journey as they turn from summer greens (and the browns of this drought year) to the reds and golds of autumn. The kids have gone back to school, the college students are back in force, and it feels like the New Year, whether or not you are celebrating Rosh Hashanah now. Rosh Hashanah is a holy window in time and space. Similar to the January New Year transition, it can be a time of personal reflection and transformation as we look back on the year that passed and make resolutions for the year to come. One of the key concepts at Rosh Hashana is “t’shuvah”, which means return, and also to make amends. We sing a song with the lyrics “…Return again…return to the land of your soul…” Another song tells us that the main point of the journey is not to be afraid: That “All the world is just a narrow bridge” that we must cross without being immobilized by fear.
Journeying. Returning. Without fear. Fear is part of the human condition. How do we journey without it? If we pay attention to our dreams, they may provide resources and guidance for us to address this dilemma and help us on our way over these narrow bridges.
I had a dream a few nights ago that I knew was important, but didn’t realize it’s potential until sharing it with my dream circle. The process of talking about it out loud, with a few well-placed questions from my friends helped me to recognize what had been in my blind spot before. Here’s a part of the dream:
I am driving my car on my way to meet my husband somewhere, when all of a sudden there is no light- it has become pitch dark. My car lights are gone, and there are no streetlights or stars-nothing but blackness. I am surprisingly not as frightened as I could be, just a bit anxious. I grip the steering wheel and just keep driving up and down ramps and over passes and underpasses. Suddenly there is light again, it is daylight, and I am in a warm southern place.
The dream continues a bit, but this is the journey part of the dream. The initial title I come up with is “Driving Blind”. As I talked my way through it, I realize that it is kind of like life itself – sometimes we are “driving blind”, we don’t really know where we are going, but we just know that we have to keep on going through whatever this difficult time is. If we stop, if we get paralyzed by fear, we get stuck in the dark. In my dream I come out into the light – if that’s not a metaphor, I don’t know what is. As I kept talking, I realized that the reason that I wasn’t as afraid as I might have been about driving in the dark had to do with faith – I must have trusted even while driving with no lights that is would turn out ok. I then was able to re-name the dream “Blind Faith” and bring that trust into some of the ups and downs of my life right now.
On this journey of life, we just keep going, even during times when we are driving in the dark.
My you be blessed with the gift of faith, and with peace, abundance and sweetness in this New Year.
“And like seeds dreaming beneath the snow your heart dreams of spring.
Trust the dreams, for in them is hidden the gate to eternity.” Kahlil Gibran
So, my mom died recently. It has been a sad period of time, up and down, days of being “fine” interspersed with days with tears. The whole process however, has been punctuated with waking and sleeping dreams that have brought me comfort, clarity, and no small bit of awe and trepidation.
When a loved one dies it is often the case that that the bereaved report various dreams and/or visits from the departed. Sometimes these are incredibly comforting. Sometimes they are frightening. Sometimes they contain unfinished business. These dreams come in the service of peering between the veils that separate the worlds for connection, information, or a way to make peace that was not available during life.
I thought to share some of my process with you, to illuminate some of the ways in which waking and sleeping dreams can come through when we stand on the edges of life, and then when we mourn those who have passed over.
My mom got sick suddenly: the day before she went to the hospital she was teaching her “Yoga for Seniors” class. After a week of hospitalization, she was discharged to a rehab facility. I got down to visit her; and spent the weekend giving her reiki and massages and buying her some favorite foods (like vanilla yogurt, health conscious to the end!) that the rehab didn’t provide. When I left, she seemed tired but stable. But as I drove back to the airport, I had a waking dream: I heard a voice, clear as day, saying, “Mom has died”. I so didn’t want that to be true. I argued with myself, saying, “That’s just your fear”; and while that was also true, the voice in no uncertain terms repeated itself again. Two days later I got a call from the hospital saying that she was in multiple organ failure, and asking if she had a living will. We were lucky that my mom had been both organized and very clear: My siblings and I all knew that she definitely did not want any extreme measures. She died while I was on the phone with the doctor. So while I was not “there”, I was there.
About an hour or two later, I had another waking dream. This time I saw a swirl of smoke and mist rise up and spiral out of her body straight up to join my stepfather, her beloved Bud, who had died eight years before. I saw and felt their embrace- it was clear he had been waiting for her. Some souls hang out in the Bardo (that place between worlds where souls can rest and regroup while they get oriented to having released their bodies before moving on to the next stage.) No waiting room for my mom though – she had a concierge already waiting to welcome and orient her. I felt a great peace come over me with this.
I didn’t expect to have her visit in my dreams for a while, because concierge or no, this was still a big journey. About 3 weeks later, I had my first night dream. Mom visited me, and in the dream we were in a house and there seemed to be some confusion about whose bedroom was whose. I thanked her for her visit, and told her that it was perfectly ok for her to get really settled first before visiting again. I had a sense that she appreciated this, and that next time she visits, she will be more settled in her new place. When I had my next dream about being lost and disoriented, she was not in it. This was my journey, my work to come to terms with this new phase of my life.
Jeremy Taylor tells us that all dreams, even nightmares, come bearing gifts. They are not always the gifts we are seeking, so we have to find a way to integrate them into our lives when they show up. It would seem that this is one of my unasked for gifts: a dream that can presage a death, and then more comforting gift of being able to entertain visits afterwards. A few days before my stepdad died (he had had a stroke), I had a dream of an owl. I knew that owls were often harbingers of death in shamanic tradition, but I remember telling myself that there could be many other associations as well. As with my mom, I knew deep down that my self -talk was just wishful thinking. He died a few days later. I then had a dream of a small wooden hut overlooking a frozen river. There was a guard in the house. My dream circle helped me to know that this was Charon, boatman of the River Styx; over which he ferried the souls of the dead in Greek myth. As I watched, the sun came out and the ice began to break up. My grief slowly melted as time passed, and Bud has come to visit me regularly and even on request since that time. I am immensely comforted at this time of loss to know that I can expect to continue my relationship with both of them, and will no doubt hear my mom telling me to take my vitamins, to live fully, and to always take a direct flight whenever possible in the future.
At this time of year, we celebrate Easter, Passover, the equinox, and the coming of spring. Themes of renewal, resurrection, and freedom abound as we mark this season, and remember that the healing potential lays under the darkest of places. Although here in New England we are still dealing with a layer of snow, the buds are pushing through the ground and out the ends of the tree branches, reminding us that what has been buried underground all winter has not died, just has been waiting for enough light and warmth to come forth. Our darkest dreams, our nightmares even, contain the roots and sources of our freedom and liberation. As we struggle up through the layers of sleep to our dream-saturated waking consciousness, retaining what we can of the messages that came through to us in the night, we can find the hints of our healing, and as Mary Oliver suggests, we get that “click” of an “Aha!” and the taste of sweet blossoms in our mouths.
Dreams(by Mary Oliver)
the dark buds of dreams
In the center
of every petal
is a letter,
and you imagine
if you could only remember
and string them all together
they would spell the answer.
It is a long night,
and not an easy one—-
you have so many branches,
and there are diversions—-
birds that come and go,
the black fox that lies down
to sleep beneath you,
the moon staring
with her bone-white eye.
Finally you have spent
all the energy you can
and you drag from the ground
the muddy skirt of your roots
and leap awake
with two or three syllables
like water in your mouth
and a sense
of loss—-a memory
not yet of a word,
certainly not yet the answer—-
only how it feels
when deep in the tree
all the locks click open,
and the fire surges through the wood,
and the blossoms blossom.
May your dreamings bring you insights and blossoms
“Myths are public dreams, and dreams are private myths”
At the core of our dreams are The Images. Beautiful, frightening, sensual, intriguing, they usually represent the heart of our dreaming landscapes. Lately I ‘ve been learning to pay more attention to the living nature of these images. Last summer at the Dream Conference (http://www.IASD.org) I was introduced to the work of Stephen Aizenstat. I had been familiar with his book “Dream Tending” for some time, but had never read it. After hearing him speak, I got it.
Aizenstat opens up the concept of imagery to what he calls the “Living Image”. Drawing on the work of Carl Jung, James Hillman, Marion Woodman and others, he shares his perception that the dream images are not static. They have a life of their own and exist in this world as well as the one we dreamed them in. The images may start out in our dreamscape, but Aizenstat teaches that they have a life of their own in our awake walk-around world. We already know that they feel real to us when we are dreaming them. Vividly alive in our night journeys, the image can enrich our lives as we allow it to become animate in our daytime world by engaging with it. His basic premise is that “dreams are alive”.
When we engage with the images from our dreams, and give them their due outside of their lives inside our dream, we are engaging in a process called “Amplification”, or making larger. When we expand the image to be as large as it can be we enter the realm of myth and archetype– the great grand stories that have engaged humankind for millennium. Aisenstat tells us “…a myth is a story that expresses something meaningful about a culture, from origins to values to…social interactions”. We dream in our own personal mythologies; our waking task is to then connect our dreams with the mythologies of the larger world. Doing so, we may not only gain insight into ourselves and make broader meaning of our small self-stories, but we can also connect with the larger world dreams, and thus see ourselves and our issues and problems as part of the human condition. Mindfulness practice might call this “right-sizing” the problem.
Aizenstat teaches that there are three steps to the process: Association, Amplification, and Animation. First, allow your mind free Associate to the image, that is, to allow your mind to spontaneously wander about and connect to whatever comes up for you from your own life, feelings, and memories. Then we Amplify, or enlarge these associations to find the bigger stories: these new directions may not have been part of the original dream, but the dream helped to point you in this direction. Finally, we Animate; embody, bring the image to life in some way.
I’ll illustrate a bit of the process with a recent dream image I had. In my dream, a large bright blue-green bird with a very long tail that flew into my room. It was beautiful but a little scary, since it was fluttering around the room and it was big. I wondered if I should let it out or try to catch it first. Then I realized that it was a Quetzal.
My first associations were to my father-in-law’s parrot, to the mythical Phoenix, and to my cats liking the “catch and release” program they have devised when a bird accidentally gets into our house (they catch but don’t kill, I capture and release). I didn’t really know what a Quetzal was, just that it had to do with Central America. My dream circle helped me then to amplify: We Googled up “Quetzal “, and found references to a divine bird associated with the Mayan or Aztec religions in Mexico. It is officially called a “Resplendent Quetzal”, was associated with Divinity, Love, and Air, and its plumage was valued for headdresses of royalty. Wow! Who knew? I loved that it was called “resplendent”. My body began to fill up with the feeling of the Quetzal as I spontaneously began to animate it by kind of spreading my arms wide and flapping/waving them at shoulder level. Now I could feel this quetzal energy in my body, especially around my heart and the place on my back where my wings would attach.
Back in the dream, I decided to leave the window open so that the Quetzal could come and go freely.
By using this method of association, (seeing what first caught my attention), then amplifying (enlarging the story, broadening it to include world wide mythic associations, this time with the help of the magic scryer Google,) and then embodying and animating the image, I felt my interaction with it as a real being in ways that I didn’t begin to touch before doing so: I felt exhilarated, a little frightened, and a bit awed by it’s size and beauty. Not bad for a night’s work. It has joined my pantheon of animal guides along with puma and jaguar, and I’ll continue to watch out for it’s messages and meanings in dreams and while awake.
Next time we’ll look at using this process with the scarier images as well, to seek out their healing essence.
Did you ever have a dream that was so vivid, so sensual that you could practically taste it? That’s what Laurie’s dream of honey was like – filled with drippy sweetness, full of the senses, like in the e.e. cummings poem “…tasting, touching, smelling, hearing, seeing, breathing…” And the fact that she is a consummate storyteller, and acted it out spontaneously while telling made it that much more delicious.
Fall always feels like the real New Year to me, rather than January 1st: we go back to school, back to work from our summer vacations. The air subtly shifts its smell and texture from salty and hot to leafy and crisp, and many celebrate Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year. It is called a time of “tsuvah”- of turning, or returning (“tshuv” means turn or return). It is about renewal, reconciliation, re-commitment, and embracing the sweetness of life. Traditionally, apple slices dipped in honey are eaten at the New Year so that we may embody the sweetness of our hopes and dreams for the coming year.
There’s an old saying: Once is an accident, twice is a co-incidence, and three times is a pattern we should be paying attention to. I’ve been gifted with honey 3 times recently, and wanted to re-gift you with the sweetness. 1. A week ago I fell in love with a new kind of honey paste- a thick slightly gritty semi-solid form that tastes and feels like it is still part of a hive. I’m sure it’s been around for a long time, but it was new to me. 2. A colleague in my study group in Newton owns hives (is that the proper term- is “a beekeeper” more correct?) and showed up 2 days ago with a gift jar of her hives honey for each of us. 3. My friend shared the following dream with us the next night.
Laurie’s dream: I am rushing around doing very busy things, teaching my class, preparing notes. Then over there is this very large clear glass jar, like the kind used at banquets containing slices of orange or lemon and water, that is filled with honey. The spigot seems to be open, so it is dripping the thick golden honey. I don’t see a container, so I rush over and put my hand under the jar to catch the honey. Rushing back to my busyness over here, rushing to catch honey over there. Rushing back again to busyness over here, then rushing back again to catch the sweet sticky honey in my hands over there. Finally I stop and just catch the honey.
Listening to this dream I was so excited that I could barely restrain myself from making comments or asking questions. Luckily, Laurie was both entertaining enough, and insightful enough, that I managed to just say something simple, like “How wonderful- you were catching sweetness with both hands”. She told us that the messages she had already received from the dream were about the importance of slowing down the busyness, even stopping what we are doing, in order to catch the sweetness of life, and that her students bring such sweetness to her class that part of her job was to catch and appreciate it. As Freud says about dream symbols, sometimes a cigar is “just a cigar”.
A message in mindfulness for us all. May you all be blessed with a double handful of sweetness in your new year.
“I told my therapist I was having nightmares about nuclear explosions. He said don’t worry, it’s not the end of the world” Jay London
Understanding the meaning of our dreams can move us in surprising directions. The art of interpreting or understanding a dream has been referred to in several ways: working on the dream, dream tending, dream exploration, dream journeying, and unpacking the dream. All imply mining the dream for treasures from our emotional, spiritual, physical, mental, and/or neuro-anatomical selves (yes, I just made up that last phrase in order to differentiate our innate biology from the particular neurological wiring that is part of REM sleep.) I like all the phrasings at different times and for different purposes. I am particularly fond of the term “unpacking” (from Jung) however, because I like the metaphor of unpacking a tightly packed suitcase, one piece at a time; examining each item as we unpack it until we have emptied the suitcase of our dream of all of the baggage that was in it.
That reminds me of a therapist cartoon (my favorite kind- you gotta be able to laugh at yourself in this biz) in which an airline counter attendant is presiding over a counter labeled “emotional baggage check-in”. He asks the prospective traveler “Has your baggage been with you at all times?” to which she replies “Unfortunately, yes.” He then asks, “Has anyone asked you to carry anything?” To which she responds, “You have no idea how many times!”
Having referenced the process of unpacking a dream many times over the last few years of this blog, I though it might be fun and perhaps enlightening to see how this process unfolded for one of my dreams. So to begin with, my disclaimer: I don’t usually have toilet dreams. Some people do, and when that symbol re-emerges for them, it’s “OK, here it is again!” So I laughed as I recorded this one, and wondered right away about the significance, since it was unusual for my dream lexicon.
The dream: “I have to use the bathroom and the toilet is dirty. I gingerly clean it up as best I can, and use it. It still overflows a bit. My colleague M is waiting for me.” I title the dream “Dirty Toilet”. At this point I just let the title emerge, I don’t really know what it means yet.
Before working on the dream with my dream circle, I listed my own initial association: my colleague “M”, who I hadn’t seen in quite a while had recently participated in a dream retreat day I held. That was all I got at first, since my alarm rang and I had to rush off to my day. A few days later my dream circle began asking me questions: “Any practical plumbing problems?” (No) “Any health related ‘plumbing’ issues?” (No). Since my initial association was to my work life, one friend asked, “Are you feeling overwhelmed or over-flowing in any way at work?” This one hit for me – “Yes”- here’s my first “aha”. (Significantly, this friend frequently has dreams related to her own work – and I usually don’t -, so her resonance with my dream followed her own associations).
My first association to that question was to the larger than usual number of workshops I had been preparing for recently – although I love to teach, I am feeling a bit “over-flowing” with all the preparation. The next association I have is to doing some dream work with a particular person, let’s call her Polly, – something resonates here too.
I then ask myself – OK, what is the central image (thanks to Ernest Hartman of blessed memory for this concept) in this dream? – The toilet.
So using the Gestalt method, I asked myself, “If I am the toilet, what do I need?” Speaking as the toilet itself (yes, we do that in dreamwork!), the answer was “I need to enlarge my bowl, to enlarge the container to be able to hold everything that gets dumped in here without overflowing and making a mess on your shoes”. Now we’re getting somewhere. I could feel the rightness of that answer in my bones. Becoming the object in my dream allowed me to have a perspective about my work with Polly that I hadn’t had before. Another “aha”, 2 fold this time: 1.) Part of my work was to help Polly to enlarge her own Self capacity to be able to hold the pain in her life without overflowing, and 2.) I also needed to enlarge my own Presence and capacity as I sit with her to safely contain her and her work.
Now I associate to a Buddhist teaching tale- (stick with it, the connection will emerge): A woman who had lost her child was in deep despair, and after months of wandering she approached the Buddha and asked for help. “Oh Enlightened One, I am suffering so much with the loss of my son- can you help me?” He replies, “Of course, my dear. But first, you must walk throughout the land and bring me word of at least one being that has not experienced suffering in their life; that is the first step. Now go, and come back to me with that information.”
So the woman goes back and walks for days and weeks and months, and everywhere she goes, she finds one who has lost a child, or a parent, or their leg, or their crops, or their home – on and on. Finally she returns to the Buddha and says “Oh Enlightened One, I have searched and searched, and I cannot find anyone who has not had some suffering in his or her life.” The Buddha responds “Exactly right. Every being at birth is given 10,00 measures of joy, and 10,000 measures of sorrow. The difference between a life of joy and a life of suffering is the size of the container we hold them in.” He went on to offer the woman a cup of water into which he put a large spoonful of salt. “Taste it”, he said. “It is salty” she replied. Then they went down to the lake. The Buddha put the same large spoonful of salt into the lake, the scooped up a cup of the lake water for the woman to taste. “It tastes sweet and fresh”, she said. Same salt, same water. Difference is the size of the container.
May all your containers be large enough to hold all they need.
“The animals which are our totems are mirrors to us. They reflect lessons we need to learn and abilities we can most easily develop…(they are) a medicine for healing your self and your life, and a power that can be accessed to help manifest your dreams”.
Animals are one of the most common dream images. They can delight, scare, intrigue, or puzzle us when they show up in our dreams. Animals contain some of the most complex layers of universal and personal symbolism. Our “animal selves” contain our purest expressions of our emotions and psyches. When we react to sudden danger, our instinctive reptilian brains go into flight or fight mode, and if we are lucky and /or skilled, our animal instincts keep us safe. When there is a saber toothed tiger or marauder approaching, we don’t want to take the time to reason something out- we need to act fast.
So, one layer of meaning or symbolism of animals in a dream can be about our primitive instincts. Are we listening to or ignoring them? As always, we need to contextualize the meaning of the animals that visit us in the context of the dream itself, the feelings and emotions we have in the dream, and about that animal. When Fluffy shows up in our dream, is she is our beloved cat or the “cat from hell” in our lives. Are we allergic? Does she make a mess around her litter box? Is anyone making a mess like that in your life right now (or are you)? Do you need more time to sleep 18 hours a day in a warm sunny spot? Then there is the broader layer of cats in general- both the pets and the wild kind. Whether we dream of a generic or a specific animal, we also want to ask ourselves about the other category to get at the fullest meaning. Curiosity, cleverness, and independence are a few of the qualities of a cat, but your cat may also be cuddly or aloof.
Native and indigenous people put great stock in animal visitations. They believe that the spirit of the animal has great meaning or a message for our lives. In fact, if we frequently dream of the same animal, they may be our “totem” animal-a sort of guide or guardian whose qualities we should learn about and perhaps embody. As spirit-animal helper, the root of the word totem is from the native Ojibway, meaning “brother/sister kin”.
My favorite go-to guy on the meaning of animal symbols in dreams is Ted Andrews. In his classic book “Animal Speak”, Andrews teaches that our relationship with animals is not only in the physical world, but in the spiritual or mystical on as well. He combines myth and factual information to let us learn about and tune into the essence of the animal who showed up in our lives or our dreams. My universal caution regarding “other people’s ideas” about what your dream or symbol means holds here as well – it’s only true for you if it resonates with you. Andrews does a nice job giving us a bunch of options to choose from, including mythological references, behaviors of animals in the wild, prey and predator relationships, the season they represent, and the “keynote” or core message of each animal.
Snake, for example, has been the subject of great controversy and paradox. It is seen as both the highest and the lowest of symbols- blamed for the downfall of mankind in the Garden of Eden, and a symbol of death and rebirth as it renews itself time after time as it sheds it’s old outgrown skins. The snake is seen eating it’s own tail in the symbol of the ouroborus; endlessly re-incarnating and symbolizing eternity, and as the symbol of healing powers in the entwined caduseus of medicine. Sometimes, as Freud would say, a cigar is just a cigar; but the snake can also be a phallic symbol of sexuality or fertility; and is the symbol of creative kundlini energy in Eastern traditions. When snake shows up in your dreams, it often means that some kind of death and rebirth may be happening or needed in some area of your life; usually not an actual death, but a transitional time of change.
Our friend the owl is known as a symbol of the feminine, of the night, of magic, of the secrets the darkness has to offer. Andrews calls them the “eyes of the night”. It has both keen vision and keen hearing, and has been purported to be able to see into the soul of a person.
Finally, don’t forget about the mythological and fairy tale associations with the animals of your dreams- the “big bad wolf”, the “ugly duckling”, the centaur, the unicorn, the Owl of Athena; goddess of wisdom. These deep archetypes can take us even farther along the road to our truest selves, as our dream exploration then includes following the story or myth in which they occured.
(In our dreams) “We encounter a whole family of aspects of ourselves, and as we recognize them and bring them together, we become much more than we were”
In the last post we talked about visits from the other side; when our loved ones cross the threshold of worlds and grace us with a visit via our waking or sleeping dreams. We also have people that we know show up in our dreams who are quite fully alive however, whether or not we have seen them recently.
There seem to be four main categories of the non-visitation type of dream about people we know:
They may come as themselves,
They may come as a symbolic stand-in for some one else,
They may appear as an archetype (a Jungian term for an embodiment of a primordial image or character that reoccurs in thought and dream; Jung believed these are universal and reside in the collective unconscious that we share as a species),
They may represent an aspect of ourselves (a self part that we need to befriend, or heal, or reclaim) that is highlighted by our dreaming mind as a separate character.
We also know that dreams can have several layers of simultaneous meaning (see post of 8/12), so your dad, or your boss, or your friend Nancy may be in your dream for more than one reason. This is why doing dreamwork with others is so crucial; we can’t see all our own layers at once, and could miss something important without the extra set or sets of eyes and ears.
Before getting into the above four categories, I want to be sure to also alert us to the very fun/punny word play aspect of people in our dreams. Sometimes it is the characters name, or a play-on-words of their name that is the significance, rather than the person themselves. For example, a colleague dreamt of a set of luggage that was called Mr. Hartman luggage. After some discussion of who Mr. Hartman was, some one noticed that it could also be heard as “heart man”; and then we moved into a useful conversation about the man of her heart and how that was related to her dream. Dreaming of Aunt Missy may have several layers of meaning; one of which may be are you “missing” something, or is something “missing” in your life?
So, let’s take Aunt Missy as the character who showed up in your dream to explore these potential layers. Here are some questions you can ask to see how many of the four categories she falls into; not excluding that she may have been visiting if she had passed over to give you a message of some time, or just to say “Hi sweetie!”
If she has come as herself, we might be wondering:
•Who is Aunt Missy to you?
•What is your relationship with her like? Is she a confidant, your second mother, a source of tension on holidays?
•Do you have any unfinished business with her?
•What was your last encounter with her like?
If she has come as a symbolic stand-in, we might be wondering:
•Is she from your mother or father’s side of the family, and what does that say about why she is there in your dream?
•What are the qualities or characteristics of Aunt Missy; and do any of these resonate for you about yourself or some one important in your life?
•What does she look like? Does she remind you of anyone?
•What was she doing in the dream? How do you connect with that?
If she is an archetype, or larger than life symbol, we might notice:
•Does she have any numinous or spiritual quality about her in the dream?
•Is she dressed in an unusual way that connects you to thought of something sacred (i.e. in a white dress, or a long hooded cape)
•What is the quality of your interaction with her in the dream? Does she seem to have a message for you?
• Does she seem to embody one of the primal archetypes, such as the Wise Woman, The Mother, The Witch, The Shadow??
As an aspect or part of your self that you may recognize:
• Is Aunt Missy controlling?
• Struggling with a family member?
• Too passive?
• High -spirited?
• The center of her home?
With all of these potential layers, take a look at what the character is doing in the dream, and how you are interacting with her. What is the emotional resonance as well?
This is really fun to do with famous people as well! If Madona showed up in your dream- you can have a field day! Is it about sexuality? Or holiness? (in relation to Jesus) Or purity? Or strong powerful women? Or judgement of any of these parts? Of yourself? Of others? Of a tension between your inner Goddess, your sexual self, and your early religious training? A part of you that wants expression? Are you “mad”-(ona)? Is there a “don” in your life? Have fun with it.
These questions are just meant to start you off, please add your own as well to get acquainted with the people in your dreams! As always, let me know how this goes for you.
“Dreams transport us each and every night into that strange and radiant world inside ourselves wherein… we come face to face with powers greater than ourselves.”
~ James Hagan
We had such an interesting discussion about Joseph’s dreams in Torah study with Rabbi Allan Ulman. I’ve been in a study class with him for many years; we use a psycho–spiritual many layered look at Torah (the first 5 books of the bible) and other spiritual teachings. We usually think of Joseph as a somewhat arrogant youth, who is favored by his father (remember the fancy coat!) and lords it over his brothers. His first reported dream is about the bowing sheaves of wheat (Genesis 37) while he is young and living at home with his father and 11 brothers. Rather than his own hubris however, it is actually his brothers who interpret from Joseph’s dream that they are the sheaves of wheat that bow down to his sheave, and infer that Joseph is planning to rule over them. As Allan pointed out, the brothers are not actually dream interpreters– but Joseph is. So when his brothers try to interpret his dream and accuse him of planning to subjugate them, it is their overlay on it that we read.
It would seem that the skinny on biblical dream interpretation is that it corresponds with our modern view that the dreamer is the final expert–others cannot assume to know the true meaning of the dream unless the dreamer concurs. It is the brother’s projections of what they fear this dream means that we read about, not what Joseph is actually saying at this time. We find at the end of the Joseph saga however, that without knowing his identity, the brothers do in fact bow down to him as they ask for relief from the famine in their land, as he is Pharaoh’s right hand man. The future was contained in this dream, although they did not know it at the time. While that was not Joseph’s intention, it was what their future unfolded.
Here’s another dream layer: the potential that our dreams contain our future. How might our lives be different if we could recognize when we were “seeing around the corner of time”, if you will; and thus plan accordingly?
If you recall, earlier in the story, Joseph’s brothers are envious of their favored younger brother and conspire to kill him. The text actually says that they want to kill him because “he is a dreamer” (Gen. 37). The brothers are threatened by his dreams/visions, and it is his future that they want to kill off. This theme unfortunately continues to be true in our lives today- how many have been killed over the millenniums because their dreams or visions did not match up with their neighbor’s?
Joseph’s first dream, the sheaves, is about earthly matters: food, wheat, sustenance. It is the prequel to the dream of Pharaoh that is brought to Joseph many years later while he is imprisoned in jail. Word got out about his skills in interpreting the cupbearer’s and the baker’s dreams while he was imprisoned, and so he is brought to interpret Pharaohs dreams of the 7 fat and 7 lean sheep. In fact, the importance of that dream is doubled since Pharaoh also dreamed a similar dream about 7 healthy ears of corn and 7 shriveled ears. (We know that when a symbol or event is doubled or repeated in a dream, the message is of particular significance.) Once again, these dreams are concerned with food, sustenance, and the earth: By interpreting this dream correctly, Joseph averts a famine and saves the people.
Joseph’s second dream is about heavenly or spiritual matters. In this one, the sun, the moon and the stars were bowing down to him. His brothers freak out again when they hear this second dream, and they accuse him of thinking that they and his parents represent the sun, the moon and the stars who are to bow down to him. Joseph actually never makes that interpretation though. Though seem obvious, it is the others who again superimpose their own projections of envy and anger onto him. We’ve all had dreams where we had the position of “observer” as a dream story unfolds, this is the perspective that Joseph had in this dream. It is like watching a movie, instead of starring in it, and provides a different perspective.
I learned that the key to understanding this second dream is that Joseph accepts the mantle of divine will, and recognizes that he has a sacred life purpose. This mantle of divine purpose isin contrast to his youthful first “coat of many colors”. Joseph’s “hero’s journey”, as Joseph Campbell writes, is about relationship repair and reconciliation of brethren, carrying on the thread of the theme “am I my brother’s keeper?” that we were introduced to early on in Genesis in the story of Cain and Able. Joseph is able to forgive his brothers for selling him into slavery at the end of Exodus. He accepts the mantle of being his brother’s keeper in a way that Cain could not, as Joseph provisions his brothers against the famine in their own land. Joseph answers this question by saying, in effect, “Yes, as a matter of fact, I am my brother’s keeper”. How do we answer that question in our own lives today?
In this story woven around Joseph’s dreams and his skill as an interpreter of dreams, we see the progression of the core theological concepts of family and community interdependence and caring for each other. We humans don’t start off very successfully in this department, (Cain killing Able is the template for the relationship of first set of siblings). As we follow our own deep stories and archetypes and pay attention to the dreams and visions of the men and women who precede us, hopefully we learn that we do need to take care of each other and honor our own and others dreams until we reach our promised land.