“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.Mary Oliver
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
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.
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.
Wishing you deep and healing dreams,
We are multi-faceted beings: logical and imaginative, made of clay and made of stardust. Warning: I am a little bit of a neuroscience geek, so the first part is a bit scientific; but I think very cool. Apparently, science has figured out why our eyes move (REM) while we are dreaming: Our brains do not discriminate between waking and sleeping realities: they think that the dream imagery is real!
A very short tour of the relevant brain structures: The left side of our brain helps us out with logic, linear thinking, and sequencing; while the right side of our brain supports our creativity, imagination, and poetry. Our dreams are most likely generated from deep within our limbic system (our emotional and non-rational brain) which straddles both halves deep inside the brain. We then remember and work on our dreams from our prefrontal cortex (our thinking and declarative memory brains): the surface area under our foreheads and right behind our eyes. In between the night dream and the day remembering, the medial temporal lobe, the part that serves as a bridge between memories and visual recognition, helps us process things that we saw and that happened to us in life. And, of course, as we dream we also create or remember worlds apart, embarking on mythic and soul-stirring journeys, make meaning out of metaphor, and weave gossamer strands of silk and stars in our nightly sojourns. This post gives equal time to both sides of our brain: a fascinating study on why our eyes move when we dream, and then a poem on the nature of a dreaming.
For your left brain’s pleasure, an article published in Nature Communications (8/15) by Peter Dockrill describes a new study by Tel Aviv University researchers Yuval Nir and Itzhak Fried. It seems that each flicker of our eyes is accompanying a new image in our dream, with the eye movement “essentially acting like a reset function between individual dream image “snapshots”. Using electrodes planted deep in patients’ brains as they were prepared for brain surgery to alleviate epileptic seizures, they found that the neural brain activity while seeing new images in a dream (or in our imaginations when awake) was essentially the same as when actually seeing new images in waking life. In other words, the brain does not distinguish between the “real” images we see and dreaming ones. No wonder they seem so real – to our dreaming brains, they are.
And now, for your right brain’s pleasure (and as a reward for getting through the neuro-science lesson): A poem by Antonio Machado (with thanks to Belle for reciting it and then sending it to me).
Last Night As I Was Sleeping,
By Antonio Machado (translated by Robert Bly)
Last night as I was sleeping,
I dreamt—marvelous error!—
that a spring was breaking
out in my heart.
I said: Along which secret aqueduct,
Oh water, are you coming to me,
water of a new life
that I have never drunk?
Last night as I was sleeping,
I dreamt—marvelous error!—
that I had a beehive
here inside my heart.
And the golden bees
were making white combs
and sweet honey
from my old failures.
Last night as I was sleeping,
I dreamt—marvelous error!—
that a fiery sun was giving
light inside my heart.
It was fiery because I felt
warmth as from a hearth,
and sun because it gave light
and brought tears to my eyes.
Last night as I slept,
I dreamt—marvelous error!—
that it was God I had
here inside my heart.
Or possibly- not an error? That word struck me as not exactly fitting in with the poem, or my sense of a dream, so I looked up the poem in the original Spanish. The word actually used for “error” is “ilusion”! Robert Bly seems to color his translation through his own psyche (as, I suppose all translators do to some extent). But “illusion” is illusion- not a mistake or error. This fits in more with the sweetness of the dream. For me, illusion gives options, choices, and does not negate, as the word “error” can do. In addition, as we learned early, the brain does not distinguish between dream images and seen waking images; so it may also be that this “illusion” Machado dreamt and wrote about is as real as the words you are reading now. I would love to hear your thoughts on this dream!
In any case, as Machado suggests: may you find in your dreams a source of refreshment and sweetness and warmth for your heart. May we live into our best dreams and have the luminous reality that our dreaming brains can hold as truth be true on both sides of the threshhold.
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
“May morning be astir with the harvest of night…”
A few weeks ago we spoke (read?) about using the resource of our dreams to enhance our creative process. In this post, I’d like to expand on some of the ideas from last time, and provide some “how-to’s” to work with several methods.
Let’s start with story. Our dreams usually come though with some kind of story line. It may be a very short story of a sentence or two, or at times a full-length narrative. We can examine our dream story both for it’s personal meaning (for healing, problem solving, spiritual questing, etc.) but also as a story in and of it’s own right. What is the major plot? The dynamic tensions between the characters? The sources of conflict, and how/if they are resolved? Is there an inner or outer journey involved? These types of questions and use of other literary devices can both provide the basis to turn our dream story into art, and to re-create the story of our own lives as metaphor or road map.
By re-writing our dream story: re-structuring dialogues between characters, resolving tensions in the dream, adding in resources our dream characters need right within the dream story itself, we can create new and more satisfying endings. Instead of turning left at the crossroads in the dream, what would happen if we turned right instead? Instead of drowning when the ship capsized, what would happen if we were able to call our dolphin allies at that moment to carry us to safety? These new journeys can then become part of our new life story, and/or the basis for our art forms. We remember that the Gestalt perspective on dreams tells us that everything in the dream is an aspect of ourselves, so when we make shifts in our dream story, we are making shifts in our self-story simultaneously.
Rabinowe states (in IASD’s Dreamtime, Winter 2006), that “Each dream is a microcosm, a living network of interacting images. Each dream holds a simultaneous reflection of the body, the soul, the waking life and the unconscious that can be understood on multiple levels. Out of this realm of mystery and paradox, a wellspring of inspiration (can) open up…”
The most important indicator of the meaning of our dreams are the emotions felt within and just following the dream. The emotional resonance of the dream within the context of our own life provide the core of meaning that makes this “My Dream”, as opposed to “Anyone’s Dream” (i.e. Green St. is the street I grew up on, Mary Smith was my college roommate, Snowball is the name of my cat who died last week). You may have associations to the word Snowball such as cold, wet, fun, messy, etc., but if my strongest association is to my beloved cat and loss, that is the core of meaning for my dream. And if people dream about a ship going out to sea, one may feel hopeful and excited, another may feel anxious and distress, and a third may feel seasick- each of which provide a different meaning to the core image.
What happens then when we work with the core emotional dream state- can we play with shifting or changing or enhancing it? What if we re-write our dream changing the core emotion from anxious to anticipatory – that slight shift can open up whole new worlds for us. What then happens to our musical composition, or our dance piece- or our lives- if we play out a different emotional tone? What if we changed the setting; and instead of having the ship go out to sea from Boston harbor, it left from Hawaii? Or we replayed the dream scene as if we were feeling hopeful, instead of despairing- what would happen then?
We feel emotions in our body- that is why they are called “feelings”- because we feel them. What happens when we tune in to our physical response to the dream- what do we notice? Where in our body to we have the sensation, and what does it feel like? (i.e. jumpy, peaceful, tight, hard, soft, warm, tingly?) How does tuning in to our emotions and sensations in the dreams inform our poetry, our dance, the characters lives in our novel, the decision we have to make about that project at work? Dance these emotions in your body, act out these sensations; let them move through you physically; when you embody the emotion you discover new dimensions of it. Engage your friends, your family, your dream circle to act out a scene from your dream.
We had great fun one time with one of my members ubiquitous toilet dreams, as she gave us roles of being the toilet bowl itself, the pipes, the water flushing, the sticky handle…and then we added some WD40 to make the handle flush more smoothly and invited a plumber into the dream to clean the pipes out. Each person then spoke from the perspective of what they were representing- the voice of the toilet bowl, the voice of the handle, the voice of the new plumber, etc. The dream flowed much more smoothly after we acted it out and added in things that the dream seemed to need! (Those who are interested in this kind of body/mind work can look up related links on Focusing, Somatic Experiencing, Sensory-motor Psychotherapy, and psychodrama).
The images of our dreams provide perhaps the richest source of visual arts. Draw the images; paint them, collect found objects that call to you while focusing on your dream, and then make a collage or shadow box of them. Go out to find found objects to create a scene from your dream; find different objects to represent different characters, locations, emotions. (a yellow or crumbling fall leave to represent the passage of time, a stick stuck in the ground to represent feeling stuck, a smooth stone to represent calm peaceful feelings, a spray of bittersweet to represent your parents, shells, tree bark, flowers, feathers, twine, bottle caps, whatever your neighborhood provides) …let yourself be surprised. Rabinowe reminds us that the most important aspect of translating a dream with found objects is the serendipity of what you find. Sit and contemplate what you have created. Then feel free to write, draw, create a dialogue between the objects representing the characters, or emotions, or landscapes in the dream; speak with the voice of one of the objects you have chosen. Let the images you have chosen speak to you from this visual form to provide a new dimension to your dream and your creative process. And most of all- enjoy the process and the delight of the dream and creation.
“There is much to be learned at both sides of the threshold.”
Creativity. First of all, we need to have enough of our own juice in supply to be able to create something else. If our well is dry, we can’t get water from it. It took me several vacation weeks and enough solitude this summer to resupply my well. Our wellspring can dry out for many reasons: overwork, stress, worry, illness, lack of sleep, lack of meaningful deep sleep, and simply the too much-ness of our plugged in everyday lives. It is a chronic modern problem. In the “old days”, before electricity (to say nothing of computers) we would naturally wind down as darkness fell and settle into our first sleep . Our “first sleep” of the night lasted for a few hours, followed by a normal nocturnal wakeful period. Here inside the deep early morning silence we could think, muse, easily remember our dreams. We would rest in this soft fertile space until we naturally nodded off again in our second sleep till morning light: this was the norm for pre-industrial society.
I must admit, I was relieved when I learned this, and don’t reach for the Tylenol p.m. so quickly now when I wake at 3:00 a.m. I highly recommend the book “World Enough and Time: On Slowing Down and Creativity” by Christina McEwen where I discovered this tidbit. It is so beautifully written that I devoured it quickly on the first read; and then followed the directive of the title for a second slow and savory read.
What resources do our dreams have for us in our creative lives? Countless authors, musicians, scientists etc. have credited their dreams with providing the answers to previously unsolved questions about the project they were working on. The phrase “let me sleep on it” has real value. While we are asleep, our brain function is different than when we are awake: during sleep our left analytical brain goes off-line, and our right brain imaging and creative centers go more on-line. We thus have more access to thinking outside the box while asleep, and can dream up options that we would not have considered while awake. In addition, as I am sure every dreamer knows, we frequently do outrageous things in our dreams that we would not “dream of” doing in our waking lives. Thankfully, our internal censor is asleep as well, so we can try out things that our waking superego may have not allowed.
To use our dreams as a creative resource, we first have to remember them. I encourage readers to review my blogs of April and May 2012 for several chapters on remembering, recording, and incubating dreams with a purpose in mind.
The clearer the question we ask and write down as we prepare to sleep and dream, the greater the likelihood that we will receive a reply from the dream universe that is clear to us and needs less decoding to understand. If, for example you are stuck on writing that next chapter in you book, don’t simply ask to “get unstuck”. Be specific: i.e., ask for inspiration on “what do the characters of Jamie and Claire need next for the part of the story about passing through the Standing Stones, in order to make sense of time travel in the context of their relationship through time and space”? (fans of the Outlander series will know who I am referring to!) That clear. Or “What shades of blue do I need next for my palate to make the water shimmer in my painting?”
We can tap into our creative source from at least three primary aspects of the actual dream material: the narrative story line of the dream itself, the emotions and sensations we experience in the dream, and the images and pictures it brings to us. These three elements can include both what happened in the dream as well as what you thought/experienced/saw in the pre-dream preparation and the post-dream continuation of the dream journey.
Other sources of creativity from dreams may come from:
1.) Associations to place; the topography or landscape or a feature the landscape of the dream
2.) A particular character or the interactions between characters
3.) A color or colors that catch your attention
4.) What you title the dream
5.) What happens when you re-enter and move around inside the dream
6.) The aha’s or insights you get from the work on it
7.) Perhaps most importantly for the creative aspect of our dreams, the action plan you use to move your answers out into the world based on that dream work.
Victoria Rabinow, artist and dreamworker in Santa Fe says “…dreams have a voice and presence of their own…my role is to create a space in which (we) can enter the living experience of (our) own dreams.” In addition to writing them down, we can embody our dreams, draw or paint them, act them out, dialogue with them, dance them…More on these ways of dream working next time…
“Dreams are todays’s answers to tomorrow’s questions.”
Some of our most creative work comes to us in the still of the night and the depths of our dreams; that quiet place at 3:00 a.m. when the rest of the world seems to be asleep and we can feel the quality of hushed holiness permeate our being. Mozart did it, Gaughan did it, Kurtzweil does it- that is, create some of their most profound works from this generative spot. We can tap into our creative source from at least three aspects of the dream: the narrative story of the dream itself, the emotions of the dream, and the images and pictures it brings to us. I don’t know if Bob Franke created this song while he was dreaming, but the words reflect the possibility that dreams were his inspiration. Given the pain and grieving we are living through these days, I offer to you this song of his for a healing:
by Bob Franke
It’s so easy to dream of days gone by
It’s a hard thing to think of times to come
But the grace to accept ev’ry moment as a gift
Is a gift that is given to some.
What can you do with your days but work and hope
Let your dreams bind your work to your play
What can you do with each moment of your life
But love til you’ve loved it away
Love til you’ve loved it away.
There are sorrows enough for the whole world’s end
There are no guarantees but the grave
And the life that I live and the time I have spent
Are a treasure too precious to save.
May your creative source be for a blessing,