“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.
Nightmares are frequently one of the aftershocks that follow traumatic events. They reflect the trauma in one of three ways: Either an “instant replay” of the events that occurred, a close replaying with some features changed a bit, or as symbols and metaphors that capture the felt sense or emotional resonance of the trauma. These nightmares can occur immediately following the event, or many years later as our system is still trying to process and heal from it. We will meet Jackie at the end of this post and follow her dream saga over the next several posts as she heals from childhood trauma as an adult in her 50’s.
Trauma is when we have encountered an out of control frightening experience that has disconnected us from all sense of resourcefulness or safety or coping or love.
Therefore, these resources of self-agency, ability to cope, safety and love are what we need to reconnect with in order to resolve the trauma. There are two aspects to any trauma:
What happened, and;
How the person reacted and responded to what happened.
Buddhist philosophy teaches that life can give us two darts: The first dart is what happens to us that causes the pain. The second dart is the story we tell ourselves about the pain and our reactions to it, that causes the suffering. The first dart is an inevitable part of life, the second one, the suffering, is optional.
With compassionate dreamwork we can address both of these darts in different ways. There is a book by Daniel Amen about ADHD titled Change your Brain, Change Your Life. We can’t actually change what has already happened in our waking world of life events – that first dart – but we can change it inside of our dreams and thus reduce the second dart: our suffering.
Our sleep and dream world is just as real as our waking one. Because of the nature of dream time and space, we have much more control over this dreamscape than we do in the waking world of linear time and space. Dreamtime is non-linear, it loops and turns inside out like a Mobius strip. It is always “now” in our dreams: We never dream of the past or the future.
This is one of the beauties of dreamwork: When we practice active dreamwork and change things up inside of our dreams, we can also reap the benefits in our daily lives. We will learn several methods to do this over the next few posts. And, of course, we can change our reactions and responses to the things that happen in our dreams as well as the dream narratives. These chosen changes and adjustments can also seep through the porous barrier between our sleeping and waking selves to give us gifts of insight, healing, and transformation while awake.
Case Study in Healing Nightmares
Jackie reported to our dream circle that she had a long history of repetitive dreams where she couldn’t speak: She either had a mouth full of sticky taffy and couldn’t talk or even open her mouth all the way, or else her tongue was literally tied up in knots, or when she tried to talk to advocate for herself in some dream confrontation she could only peep like a little bird. She had shared with us that she had grown up with a mom who was chronically depressed and was in and out of hospitals most of her childhood. Jackie spent much of her childhood trying to be good and quiet and not to upset her mother, while inside she often seethed with anger, fear and grief.
As an adult, Jackie was kind, polite, and fairly soft spoken and admitted to being “conflict avoidant”. She still kept her thoughts and feelings inside, not wanting to stir up potential trouble. In dream group, we explored with her possible connections between her tongue-tied dreams to both to her current communication style and to this history with her mother. Both resonated with her as connected.
Here is one form of dream intervention: The creation of insight and connections between the dreams and life, both past and present (and always focused on “now.”) So her “aha” was to understand the symbolic content of her repeating dream themes as connected to both past and current life.
We also worked with Jackie within the dreams themselves. At one point she was encouraged to pull the taffy out of her mouth (literally, we had her mime this in group), and to use her hands to untie her knotted up tongue. At another point we asked her what she wanted to say in the dream conflict. Her first thought was that she wanted to say “F… you” to her overbearing boss in the dream. Jackie shocked herself but enjoyed her out-of-character response. We then asked if there was something less inflammatory she might like to say in waking life the next time he made unreasonable demands on her beside a “little peep”.
After several weeks of working on this dream theme, Jackie reported two things: One, that she felt more empowered and safer to speak up at work, and two, that recently her husband told her that she has been waking him up at night screaming and swearing in her dreams! From no voice to a big angry one, announcing in no uncertain terms another part of her processing. Here was the next layer to address. Stay tuned as these dreams unfold.
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.
“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.”
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 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.
Visitation dreams: mom comes knocking
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.
The icy grip of 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.
“Though we seem to be sleeping, there is an inner wakefulness that directs the dream, and that will eventually startle us back to the truth of who we are.”
J. Rumi (translated by C. Barks)
We all dream every night as we pass in and out of our REM cycles, but usually remember only the one or two dreams that we have just before waking. (Animals dream too, by the way – just watch your cat or dog at sleep, chasing those dream birds or bunnies as they twitch and make sounds). Recently at a dream workshop I was conducting, a participant complained that her problem was that she was flooded by dreams; commonly remembering four to six dreams every night: she couldn’t keep up with the volume. They weren’t necessarily nightmares, just dream overdrive, but leaving her exhausted when she woke up. Other members responded, “I wish I had your problem- I can barely remember any”.
The latter seems to be the more common complaint — the poverty of dream recall; but the converse — the plague of too much recall — is also a dilemma. The rest of this post will look at ways to either enhance recall or to contain the deluge when the problem is dream overdrive.
Better dream recall
Dream drought? Can’t remember a dream to save your life? Try these suggestions:
First and foremost don’t expect that you will be able to recall a dream if you haven’t written it down or recorded it some way. Dreams have the substance of mist or wisps of smoke: they need to be solidified in writing or recorded orally to gain enough substance in the waking world. So get a journal and keep it by your bedside. It could be a beautiful fanciful one, or a simple spiral notebook – your choice. Be sure to have a pen on hand as well.
Learn to recognize a dream when you have one! This may sound obvious, but many dreams are not long narratives with a clear story line. One line rememberedfrom sleep is a dream. One phrase counts. So does a single word. Don’t dismiss these dream fragments – often they contain the essence of the message your dream mind is sending you in a crisp “readers digest” format. In addition, the productions of our mind from the in between zones of waking and sleeping- the hypnopompic and the hypnogogic zones, where we are not quite awake nor quite asleep – these are dreams too.
Dreams do not come only in words. If you wake with a feeling state that is not explained by your immediate environment – that is what you are recalling from your dream. Wake inexplicably happy? That is your dream. Wake feeling anxious for no apparent reason? That too is your dream. Have an image or a picture? – that is your dream too. Record these.
Your body may remember your dream even if your mind doesn’t. This is called positional memory. Put your body back in the position it was in when you dreamt- that is, if you sleep lying on your left side with your knees tucked up, do that now. Often the dream will float right back into your brain as your body accesses this body memory of it.
Imagine wrapping yourself up in your dream. Reach your arms out, grab the ends of your imaginary dream shawl or dream tallit, and wrap them around you as you close your eyes. Your dream may be close at hand.
Before going to sleep at night, set your intention to have a dream, and to remember it and to be able to write it down. Write that sentence in your dream journal just before going to sleep. This is called dream incubation. Once you have primed the pump and have started remembering, you can also use this technique to ask for help and guidance on specific issues or dilemmas.
Dream deluge? Feeling flooded by too many dreams? Try these:
Use your dream journal to set an intention to only allow the dreams of highest priority into your conscious mind, and to filter out anything else. Incubate something like “I will remember only the essence of the dream that is in my highest good and best interest.”
Hang a Native American dream catcher near your bed. The blessing story that goes with these is that the dream catcher snares any upsetting dreams or nightmares in it’s threads, and the narrow hole in the center allows only positive dreams to come through. You can also infuse it to snare an over-abundance of dreams.
Surround yourself and/or your bed and/or your room with a bubble of light for protection, safety, and good boundaries. Find the color(s) that are just right for your purpose.
Imagine closing a door in your mind before going to sleep; this door is to the portal between the waking world and the dreaming world. You can also add a phrase such as “I close the door to unwanted intrusions in the night”.
Say the word “No” strongly, perhaps even out loud, to your dream muse. Be firm and clear that you are setting a limit and boundary.
Before going to sleep, decide if you would like a dream to come through. Then write a sentence or two about the issue or topic you would like guidance on; and end the writing with a seal (“chatimah” in Hebrew) such as “may it be so”, or “just this and no more”
“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.
At the end of the movie, when Dorothy returns from her sojourn in Oz, her aunt and uncle and their 3 farmhands are there to greet her at her bedside. On waking, she is told by her Auntie Em and the kindly doctor (who looks remarkably like the Wizard) that she had been hit on the head during the twister and passed out for a time. When Dorothy insists that she has actually been off traveling in a “strange and wonderful land… that was sometimes scary, but mostly very beautiful,” she is assured by all present that it was “just a dream”.
In another famous story, Alice of Wonderland is described as getting very sleepy while reading a book “without pictures,” and nodding off either just before -or just after- she spies the white rabbit and goes down the rabbit hole after him. Was that a dream too? Or “just a dream”? Curious and curiouser…
Which brings us to our questions, what are dreams and where do they come from? Shamans and mystics from cultures throughout the world speak to us of the dream world as a very real place, a parallel universe if you will. Judeo-Christian mystic tradition tells us that our soul can leave our bodies at night and travel in astral realms. (Which is the reason you are not supposed to wake a sleeper up too suddenly: the dreaming soul is connected to the body by a thin silver thread, and awakening too suddenly can snap the thread and the soul would not be able to find its way home back to the body.)
Lynn McTaggert, in her landmark book on non-local consciousness The Field, writes: “Deep in the rain forests of the Amazon, the Achur and the Huaorani Indians are assembled for their daily ritual…at dawn… as the world explodes into light, they share their dreams…. The dreamer is the vessel the dream decided to borrow to have a conversation with the whole tribe.”
The dream is not an individual possession, it is owned collectively by the whole tribe. I love that – “the dreamer is the vessel that the dream decided to borrow”. Doesn’t it feel like that at times?: That we are but a vessel when we wake with the sense that something came through us, rather than from us.
Michael Harner, anthropologist and shamanic practitioner writes that one of the core principles of shamanism is that spirits are real, and that spirits produce dreams. Shamanic theory states that the human soul and other spirits that have an attachment to the person can produce their dreams. This is a way of understanding those vivid visitation dreams we sometimes get of departed loved ones — that their spirits still have an attachment to us. That is an infinitely comforting thought to me. After my mom passed away, she came to me in dreams and helped to heal the grief.
More sources of our dreams
Our bodies talk to us in our dreams. Patrick McNamara, a neuroscientist at Boston University School of Medicine, encourages doctors to routinely ask patients about their dreams as a way of assessing mental status (Boston Globe, 2/3/14). “Dreams are faithful reports of a patient’s emotional life,” he states. We also know that unresolved emotional baggage from days or years before can show up in our dreams, trying desperately to get our attention by keeping memories of events or the feelings about the events alive until we resolve them. This is the essence of PTSD dreaming. We can also get medic alerts through our dreams, long before a symptom sends us to the doctor.
Kat Kanavos is case in point. A breast cancer survivor, Kat’s dream told her that her breast cancer had returned and even pointed to exactly where it was so her doctor could find it. She is co-author of the book Dreams That Can Save Your Life.
Philo, an ancient philosopher says that there are three kinds of dreams: 1.) Those that originate within us, 2.) Those that originate in the angelic or spirit realm, and 3.) Those that originate from God. Our prophets and holy men and women are often cited as having conversations with God either in a dream, or as a waking dream day-vision.
In a modern sleep lab, scientists can now chart the exact portions of the brain that are involved in dreaming and chart the REM cycles on a graph. There are those in the scientific community who maintain that dreams are merely random neuron firings of the brain (I report this in the spirit of inclusiveness, however as a spiritually-oriented therapist dreamworker, I would not put myself in that camp.)
Whether our dreams come from within our brains, our bodies, the spirit realm, or the Divine, the worlds we visit in our night journeys have gifts and messages for ourselves, our communities, and perhaps for the world. Awake to your dreams! Use their messages to heal, to grow, to explore, to journey, to connect with all manner of strange and wondrous beings. Go down the rabbit hole and over the rainbow to see what you may find. Then come back and tell about it. (tip of the hat to Mary Oliver)
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
When we recognize the patterns in our dreams and in our lives, then we have the power to shift and transform them.
Amanda, age 8, developed a fear of intruders breaking into her house. She dreams that some one will break in and kidnap or hurt her or her family members or her pets.
Jen, age 27, consistently has dreams of violence: of being chased, some one being murdered, small animals being hurt. Her current life is pretty stable and happy, so she can’t figure out what these dreams are about.
What both of these dreamers have in common is the repetitive and intrusive nature of their dreams. Sometimes bad dreams and nightmares resolve on their own, and sometimes they seems to get “stuck”. Paying attention to and keeping track of dreams, especially when they are repetitive dreams, is crucial in order to be able to see and to heal the patterns. We can’t recognize patterns if we aren’t keeping track over time.
Healing is about becoming aware of the healthy and unhealthy patterns in our lives – once we recognize a pattern, then we can get on with healing from the events that created and perpetuated it. Framing the dreams and the patterns of the dreams in the life of the dreamer can give us guidance towards understanding and then resolving these scary themes and images.
Alan Seigal, president of IASD (the International Assoc. for the Study of Dreams) outlines 3 stages in the resolution of recurrent nightmares:
Stage One: The Threat:The dreamer or the main character in the dream is being threatened in some way and can’t get away or defend themself.
Stage Two: The Struggle: The dreamer or main character is still being attacked or chased or imprisoned, but they are attempting to break free, to run or to get away. (For example, the dreamer is being chased by a bear and successfully climbs a tree to safety, but the bear is still lurking underneath the tree and they are trapped in the tree).
Stage Three: Resolution: A workable solution has been found, and the threat no longer exists- it has been transformed, overcome, vanquished, extinguished.
I really like this organization of stages in working through nightmares because it honors the steps along the road to progress. Looking at it in this way, we can see more clearly that even though the struggle phase is still difficult, it does represent progress. It is important to recognize the small steps along the healing path as well as the big leaps.
Alan also does a lovely job with a pneumonic for the work of healing from nightmares. The “3 R’s” of our childhood were reading, writing, and ‘rithmatic. The “4 R’s” of dream healing can be thought of as Reassurance, Re-scripting, Rehearsal, and Resolution.
Reassurance: Whether we are with children, loved ones, or clients, the first step to providing some comfort and relief to nightmare sufferers is Reassurance. Not reassurance that it’s “just a dream”, since that would negate their experience, but reassurance that you respect the feelings of the dream, that you recognize (another “R”) that it feels really real. Having their dream taken seriously is a source of comfort for both children and adults. Then leaning into the dream with better resources, rather than leaning away from it in avoidance or fear, is a good next step.
Re-scripting allows you re-write the dream and to build in resources for the dreamer to use in working with the dream and in ending the dream on a more positive note. We should encourage the dreamer to approach scary dreams slowly and carefully, and to add in resources for safety and protection even before working with the dream material itself. For example, use your imagination to provide magical tools, cultural symbols or icons, non- lethal protection such as shields, light or force fields, or a posse of people/animals/guides to protect the dreamer. Anne Wiseman, author of the book “Nightmare Help”, encourages us not to use violent means as protection, as this can encourage using violent means to solve life problems, especially with children. Even with adults, we don’t want to annihilate a dream figure that we may later discover can be a hidden resource for us.
Rehearsal: Remember the old joke: “How do you get to Carnegie Hall? – Practice, practice, practice.” That’s what Rehearsal is all about- practice using the methods you came up with in re-scripting to work out a safer and more satisfying dream scene and dream ending over and over again. Keep going over those resources, changing the dream ending, getting the characters to talk to each other, etc. until the dreamer can “do it in their sleep”. When working with Amanda (age 8), we practiced standing up tall and building a magic fence around her house, and as we acted that out she also talked back to the intruders out loud, saying “Go away, You can’t get me!” and “Get out of here” and “I’m safe”.
Resolution:Once we’ve reassured, re-scripted, and rehearsed we are much more likely to come to a good resolution that will either make the nightmares go away, or will transform them into something much less stressful, or benign, or even helpful, or provide some insight or direction for the dreamer to take in their waking life.
For those who are interested in learning more about using these methods, I will be leading a workshop titled “ Using Dream, Imagery and Metaphor in Clinical Practice: Taming Demons and Transforming Nightmares” which will be held at the Therapy Training Boston Center in Watertown, MA. on Friday May 1st. While geared for health and mental health professionals (6 CEU’s are available!), the interested dream enthusiast is also welcome, and the material and experiential exercises will be useful for all. Click here for the link, http://www.therapytrainingboston.com, and scroll to workshops. Early bird registration gets you a discount till April 1st! Hope to see you there.