“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 integrel 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.
Wishing you deep and healing dreams,
“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.
May your dreams bring you peace and restoration.
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. As I’ve said before, 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. Some one else, or several others, can be that mirror for us so that we can see beyond the limitations that our own psyche is constrained by.
Whether you are working with just one other or in a dream group, the consultants need to respect the “rules” of considering some one else’s dream. First off, the dreamer is the final expert in whether an analysis is correct or not: without that inner tingle or what Eugene Gendlin calls our “felt sense”, the insight may be true for the consultant, but not necessarily for the dreamer. 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 my fish!”
I invite you to try it with you own dreaming friends.
“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.
Doing dreamwork by yourself on your own dreams can be like trying to see the back of your own head without two mirrors.
If this post seems a surprise in the series on nightmares, that may be both true and not true. I had initially planned the next post on the big nightmares that often have a source in trauma. However, some challenging life circumstances got in the way of this intention, and I was happy to find that I had stored this post for a time when I needed one and didn’t have the time to write from scratch. In truth, it is perfect timing for a conversation about dream sharing with others. When we work with our most challenging dreams having a guide, a companion, or a group is an invaluable aide to help us stay grounded and centered as we journey through the dark nights of the soul. So here we are:
Dreams usually arrive in our consciousness as conundrums. We usually have to spend time hanging out with the dream material to unravel it’s coded messages. As we get more skilled in attending to our dreams, we can get pretty good at it, especially if we can catch our own puns and plays on words. Problem is, most dreams come to us fairly encrypted. Just as we can often see some one else’s issues or truth more clearly than our own (who among us can’t identify (ahem…) just what our spouse, child, parent, etc. should do to be a better person!). We often hit the same blind spot when we attempt to decode our own dreams as we do when we try to see our own “issues” clearly. Our dreaming self offers up it’s mystery into our conscious minds, but if we want more than it’s initial offering, we may need to enlist the help of others: from those who can see more clearly the backs of our heads and into our blind spots. (FYI, even Freud and Jung rarely considered their owns dreams completely analyzed if they worked on them alone.)
The flip side of this coin, as we discussed in a previous blog, is that only the dreamer can truly know the resonant meaning of his or her own dream. This is because only the dreamer has the first person access to their dream, and only the dreamer can say how it relates to their own life. Richard Russo quotes Jung as saying “…to truly understand (another’s) dream, we would have to know everything about the dreamers life- something only the dreamer is capable of.”
Jeremy Taylor, based on the work of Montague Ullman, designed what I call the “Code of Respect” for dreamwork with others: When we offer an idea about the meaning of a dream, we preface it with “If this were my dream…” “If this were my dream, I would wonder about the horse in the corner of the field.”… “If this were my dream, I would want to know the significance of that bright red color in her dress.” … “If this were my dream, I would wonder if that child in your dream was a younger part of yourself; it reminds me of what you said about your life when your parents got divorced when you were six”. You can be as specific or general as your insight takes you, but if you preface it with this phrase, then you are offering the option of your opinion to the dreamer, but not insisting that your explanation is correct. We can also receive our own insights from working on some one else’s dreams. What might catch my attention in your dream is something that has significance for me- whether or not it does for you. Thus, we get do a bit of our own dreamwork with other people’s dreams- what a nice benefit for sharing dreamwork. So, if you are working on another’s dream with them, pay attention to own your own projections!
The ultimate is dream sharing is being with a group- a dream circle. I have been in a personal circle of my own for almost 30 years. We know each other pretty well at this point, and on occasion don’t even get to the dreamwork if we have a lot to catch up on, but we have held the frame of dreaming together as bond and a structure to our monthly meetings. We’ve dreamed each other through births, marriages, illnesses, deaths, career changes, surgeries, milestone birthdays and now into the empty nest phase for some of us (not me yet though! – mine is the youngest of the group’s children at 15.)
I have also facilitated dream groups for over 25 years. Again, the bonds formed in the circle often extend out of the circle as well. If you chose to form a dream circle, be clear about whether some one is in charge, or you have a rotating leadership, or a “self help” model with no one in a leadership role. Set up a format and a structure that works for you, and then stick with it. So many groups without formal leadership devolve into “just chatting”, and then loose momentum and die out. As a group worker with training in group dynamics and group process, I know that these are some the biggest reasons for group failure: lack of a clear purpose, lack of clear goals, and lack of clear structure.
Choose your fellow dreamers as carefully as possible; it doesn’t have to be people you already know, but since dreamwork is such an intimate sharing, you do want to be able to trust the members to keep confidentiality and treat each other respectfully. One option is, that you can choose whether or not to share your “aha” with the group– it is always fine to say “oh’ I’ve got it”, without divulging the details if it feels too personal to share. When I teach large classes in dreamwork, I always give people this option. This creates more of a sense of safety to go as deep as you want, and still have choice and control over what you disclose.
Dream well, may your dreams bring you home.