“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.
“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.
“Dreams are todays answers to tomorrows questions”Edgar Cayce
When we dream, we are in a place. We are in 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.
“I dream I am a circus performer, balancing on the back of a horse.”
However, 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?
The work on “embodied imagination” by Robbie Bosnak, and Jung’s concept 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 or 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.”
We collectively become 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 a whole which is then greater than the sum of it’s 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.
Join us on Friday 11/20/15, 9:00-4:00 in Newton, MA. for the “Dreams Alive” workshop to play with these ideas. No dream or dance experience necessary. Contact Linda Yael Schiller () or Julie Leavitt () for more information/registration.
At this time of year, we celebrate Easter, Passover, the equinox, and the coming of spring. Themes of renewal, resurrection, and freedom abound as we mark this season, and remember that the healing potential lays under the darkest of places. Although here in New England we are still dealing with a layer of snow, the buds are pushing through the ground and out the ends of the tree branches, reminding us that what has been buried underground all winter has not died, just has been waiting for enough light and warmth to come forth. Our darkest dreams, our nightmares even, contain the roots and sources of our freedom and liberation. As we struggle up through the layers of sleep to our dream-saturated waking consciousness, retaining what we can of the messages that came through to us in the night, we can find the hints of our healing, and as Mary Oliver suggests, we get that “click” of an “Aha!” and the taste of sweet blossoms in our mouths.
Dreams(by Mary Oliver)
the dark buds of dreams
In the center
of every petal
is a letter,
and you imagine
if you could only remember
and string them all together
they would spell the answer.
It is a long night,
and not an easy one—-
you have so many branches,
and there are diversions—-
birds that come and go,
the black fox that lies down
to sleep beneath you,
the moon staring
with her bone-white eye.
Finally you have spent
all the energy you can
and you drag from the ground
the muddy skirt of your roots
and leap awake
with two or three syllables
like water in your mouth
and a sense
of loss—-a memory
not yet of a word,
certainly not yet the answer—-
only how it feels
when deep in the tree
all the locks click open,
and the fire surges through the wood,
and the blossoms blossom.
May your dreamings bring you insights and blossoms
“Myths are public dreams, and dreams are private myths”
At the core of our dreams are The Images. Beautiful, frightening, sensual, intriguing, they usually represent the heart of our dreaming landscapes. Lately I ‘ve been learning to pay more attention to the living nature of these images. Last summer at the Dream Conference (http://www.IASD.org) I was introduced to the work of Stephen Aizenstat. I had been familiar with his book “Dream Tending” for some time, but had never read it. After hearing him speak, I got it.
Aizenstat opens up the concept of imagery to what he calls the “Living Image”. Drawing on the work of Carl Jung, James Hillman, Marion Woodman and others, he shares his perception that the dream images are not static. They have a life of their own and exist in this world as well as the one we dreamed them in. The images may start out in our dreamscape, but Aizenstat teaches that they have a life of their own in our awake walk-around world. We already know that they feel real to us when we are dreaming them. Vividly alive in our night journeys, the image can enrich our lives as we allow it to become animate in our daytime world by engaging with it. His basic premise is that “dreams are alive”.
When we engage with the images from our dreams, and give them their due outside of their lives inside our dream, we are engaging in a process called “Amplification”, or making larger. When we expand the image to be as large as it can be we enter the realm of myth and archetype– the great grand stories that have engaged humankind for millennium. Aisenstat tells us “…a myth is a story that expresses something meaningful about a culture, from origins to values to…social interactions”. We dream in our own personal mythologies; our waking task is to then connect our dreams with the mythologies of the larger world. Doing so, we may not only gain insight into ourselves and make broader meaning of our small self-stories, but we can also connect with the larger world dreams, and thus see ourselves and our issues and problems as part of the human condition. Mindfulness practice might call this “right-sizing” the problem.
Aizenstat teaches that there are three steps to the process: Association, Amplification, and Animation. First, allow your mind free Associate to the image, that is, to allow your mind to spontaneously wander about and connect to whatever comes up for you from your own life, feelings, and memories. Then we Amplify, or enlarge these associations to find the bigger stories: these new directions may not have been part of the original dream, but the dream helped to point you in this direction. Finally, we Animate; embody, bring the image to life in some way.
I’ll illustrate a bit of the process with a recent dream image I had. In my dream, a large bright blue-green bird with a very long tail that flew into my room. It was beautiful but a little scary, since it was fluttering around the room and it was big. I wondered if I should let it out or try to catch it first. Then I realized that it was a Quetzal.
My first associations were to my father-in-law’s parrot, to the mythical Phoenix, and to my cats liking the “catch and release” program they have devised when a bird accidentally gets into our house (they catch but don’t kill, I capture and release). I didn’t really know what a Quetzal was, just that it had to do with Central America. My dream circle helped me then to amplify: We Googled up “Quetzal “, and found references to a divine bird associated with the Mayan or Aztec religions in Mexico. It is officially called a “Resplendent Quetzal”, was associated with Divinity, Love, and Air, and its plumage was valued for headdresses of royalty. Wow! Who knew? I loved that it was called “resplendent”. My body began to fill up with the feeling of the Quetzal as I spontaneously began to animate it by kind of spreading my arms wide and flapping/waving them at shoulder level. Now I could feel this quetzal energy in my body, especially around my heart and the place on my back where my wings would attach.
Back in the dream, I decided to leave the window open so that the Quetzal could come and go freely.
By using this method of association, (seeing what first caught my attention), then amplifying (enlarging the story, broadening it to include world wide mythic associations, this time with the help of the magic scryer Google,) and then embodying and animating the image, I felt my interaction with it as a real being in ways that I didn’t begin to touch before doing so: I felt exhilarated, a little frightened, and a bit awed by it’s size and beauty. Not bad for a night’s work. It has joined my pantheon of animal guides along with puma and jaguar, and I’ll continue to watch out for it’s messages and meanings in dreams and while awake.
Next time we’ll look at using this process with the scarier images as well, to seek out their healing essence.
Did you ever have a dream that was so vivid, so sensual that you could practically taste it? That’s what Laurie’s dream of honey was like – filled with drippy sweetness, full of the senses, like in the e.e. cummings poem “…tasting, touching, smelling, hearing, seeing, breathing…” And the fact that she is a consummate storyteller, and acted it out spontaneously while telling made it that much more delicious.
Fall always feels like the real New Year to me, rather than January 1st: we go back to school, back to work from our summer vacations. The air subtly shifts its smell and texture from salty and hot to leafy and crisp, and many celebrate Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year. It is called a time of “tsuvah”- of turning, or returning (“tshuv” means turn or return). It is about renewal, reconciliation, re-commitment, and embracing the sweetness of life. Traditionally, apple slices dipped in honey are eaten at the New Year so that we may embody the sweetness of our hopes and dreams for the coming year.
There’s an old saying: Once is an accident, twice is a co-incidence, and three times is a pattern we should be paying attention to. I’ve been gifted with honey 3 times recently, and wanted to re-gift you with the sweetness. 1. A week ago I fell in love with a new kind of honey paste- a thick slightly gritty semi-solid form that tastes and feels like it is still part of a hive. I’m sure it’s been around for a long time, but it was new to me. 2. A colleague in my study group in Newton owns hives (is that the proper term- is “a beekeeper” more correct?) and showed up 2 days ago with a gift jar of her hives honey for each of us. 3. My friend shared the following dream with us the next night.
Laurie’s dream: I am rushing around doing very busy things, teaching my class, preparing notes. Then over there is this very large clear glass jar, like the kind used at banquets containing slices of orange or lemon and water, that is filled with honey. The spigot seems to be open, so it is dripping the thick golden honey. I don’t see a container, so I rush over and put my hand under the jar to catch the honey. Rushing back to my busyness over here, rushing to catch honey over there. Rushing back again to busyness over here, then rushing back again to catch the sweet sticky honey in my hands over there. Finally I stop and just catch the honey.
Listening to this dream I was so excited that I could barely restrain myself from making comments or asking questions. Luckily, Laurie was both entertaining enough, and insightful enough, that I managed to just say something simple, like “How wonderful- you were catching sweetness with both hands”. She told us that the messages she had already received from the dream were about the importance of slowing down the busyness, even stopping what we are doing, in order to catch the sweetness of life, and that her students bring such sweetness to her class that part of her job was to catch and appreciate it. As Freud says about dream symbols, sometimes a cigar is “just a cigar”.
A message in mindfulness for us all. May you all be blessed with a double handful of sweetness in your new year.
“I told my therapist I was having nightmares about nuclear explosions. He said don’t worry, it’s not the end of the world” Jay London
Understanding the meaning of our dreams can move us in surprising directions. The art of interpreting or understanding a dream has been referred to in several ways: working on the dream, dream tending, dream exploration, dream journeying, and unpacking the dream. All imply mining the dream for treasures from our emotional, spiritual, physical, mental, and/or neuro-anatomical selves (yes, I just made up that last phrase in order to differentiate our innate biology from the particular neurological wiring that is part of REM sleep.) I like all the phrasings at different times and for different purposes. I am particularly fond of the term “unpacking” (from Jung) however, because I like the metaphor of unpacking a tightly packed suitcase, one piece at a time; examining each item as we unpack it until we have emptied the suitcase of our dream of all of the baggage that was in it.
That reminds me of a therapist cartoon (my favorite kind- you gotta be able to laugh at yourself in this biz) in which an airline counter attendant is presiding over a counter labeled “emotional baggage check-in”. He asks the prospective traveler “Has your baggage been with you at all times?” to which she replies “Unfortunately, yes.” He then asks, “Has anyone asked you to carry anything?” To which she responds, “You have no idea how many times!”
Having referenced the process of unpacking a dream many times over the last few years of this blog, I though it might be fun and perhaps enlightening to see how this process unfolded for one of my dreams. So to begin with, my disclaimer: I don’t usually have toilet dreams. Some people do, and when that symbol re-emerges for them, it’s “OK, here it is again!” So I laughed as I recorded this one, and wondered right away about the significance, since it was unusual for my dream lexicon.
The dream: “I have to use the bathroom and the toilet is dirty. I gingerly clean it up as best I can, and use it. It still overflows a bit. My colleague M is waiting for me.” I title the dream “Dirty Toilet”. At this point I just let the title emerge, I don’t really know what it means yet.
Before working on the dream with my dream circle, I listed my own initial association: my colleague “M”, who I hadn’t seen in quite a while had recently participated in a dream retreat day I held. That was all I got at first, since my alarm rang and I had to rush off to my day. A few days later my dream circle began asking me questions: “Any practical plumbing problems?” (No) “Any health related ‘plumbing’ issues?” (No). Since my initial association was to my work life, one friend asked, “Are you feeling overwhelmed or over-flowing in any way at work?” This one hit for me – “Yes”- here’s my first “aha”. (Significantly, this friend frequently has dreams related to her own work – and I usually don’t -, so her resonance with my dream followed her own associations).
My first association to that question was to the larger than usual number of workshops I had been preparing for recently – although I love to teach, I am feeling a bit “over-flowing” with all the preparation. The next association I have is to doing some dream work with a particular person, let’s call her Polly, – something resonates here too.
I then ask myself – OK, what is the central image (thanks to Ernest Hartman of blessed memory for this concept) in this dream? – The toilet.
So using the Gestalt method, I asked myself, “If I am the toilet, what do I need?” Speaking as the toilet itself (yes, we do that in dreamwork!), the answer was “I need to enlarge my bowl, to enlarge the container to be able to hold everything that gets dumped in here without overflowing and making a mess on your shoes”. Now we’re getting somewhere. I could feel the rightness of that answer in my bones. Becoming the object in my dream allowed me to have a perspective about my work with Polly that I hadn’t had before. Another “aha”, 2 fold this time: 1.) Part of my work was to help Polly to enlarge her own Self capacity to be able to hold the pain in her life without overflowing, and 2.) I also needed to enlarge my own Presence and capacity as I sit with her to safely contain her and her work.
Now I associate to a Buddhist teaching tale- (stick with it, the connection will emerge): A woman who had lost her child was in deep despair, and after months of wandering she approached the Buddha and asked for help. “Oh Enlightened One, I am suffering so much with the loss of my son- can you help me?” He replies, “Of course, my dear. But first, you must walk throughout the land and bring me word of at least one being that has not experienced suffering in their life; that is the first step. Now go, and come back to me with that information.”
So the woman goes back and walks for days and weeks and months, and everywhere she goes, she finds one who has lost a child, or a parent, or their leg, or their crops, or their home – on and on. Finally she returns to the Buddha and says “Oh Enlightened One, I have searched and searched, and I cannot find anyone who has not had some suffering in his or her life.” The Buddha responds “Exactly right. Every being at birth is given 10,00 measures of joy, and 10,000 measures of sorrow. The difference between a life of joy and a life of suffering is the size of the container we hold them in.” He went on to offer the woman a cup of water into which he put a large spoonful of salt. “Taste it”, he said. “It is salty” she replied. Then they went down to the lake. The Buddha put the same large spoonful of salt into the lake, the scooped up a cup of the lake water for the woman to taste. “It tastes sweet and fresh”, she said. Same salt, same water. Difference is the size of the container.
May all your containers be large enough to hold all they need.
“The animals which are our totems are mirrors to us. They reflect lessons we need to learn and abilities we can most easily develop…(they are) a medicine for healing your self and your life, and a power that can be accessed to help manifest your dreams”.
Animals are one of the most common dream images. They can delight, scare, intrigue, or puzzle us when they show up in our dreams. Animals contain some of the most complex layers of universal and personal symbolism. Our “animal selves” contain our purest expressions of our emotions and psyches. When we react to sudden danger, our instinctive reptilian brains go into flight or fight mode, and if we are lucky and /or skilled, our animal instincts keep us safe. When there is a saber toothed tiger or marauder approaching, we don’t want to take the time to reason something out- we need to act fast.
So, one layer of meaning or symbolism of animals in a dream can be about our primitive instincts. Are we listening to or ignoring them? As always, we need to contextualize the meaning of the animals that visit us in the context of the dream itself, the feelings and emotions we have in the dream, and about that animal. When Fluffy shows up in our dream, is she is our beloved cat or the “cat from hell” in our lives. Are we allergic? Does she make a mess around her litter box? Is anyone making a mess like that in your life right now (or are you)? Do you need more time to sleep 18 hours a day in a warm sunny spot? Then there is the broader layer of cats in general- both the pets and the wild kind. Whether we dream of a generic or a specific animal, we also want to ask ourselves about the other category to get at the fullest meaning. Curiosity, cleverness, and independence are a few of the qualities of a cat, but your cat may also be cuddly or aloof.
Native and indigenous people put great stock in animal visitations. They believe that the spirit of the animal has great meaning or a message for our lives. In fact, if we frequently dream of the same animal, they may be our “totem” animal-a sort of guide or guardian whose qualities we should learn about and perhaps embody. As spirit-animal helper, the root of the word totem is from the native Ojibway, meaning “brother/sister kin”.
My favorite go-to guy on the meaning of animal symbols in dreams is Ted Andrews. In his classic book “Animal Speak”, Andrews teaches that our relationship with animals is not only in the physical world, but in the spiritual or mystical on as well. He combines myth and factual information to let us learn about and tune into the essence of the animal who showed up in our lives or our dreams. My universal caution regarding “other people’s ideas” about what your dream or symbol means holds here as well – it’s only true for you if it resonates with you. Andrews does a nice job giving us a bunch of options to choose from, including mythological references, behaviors of animals in the wild, prey and predator relationships, the season they represent, and the “keynote” or core message of each animal.
Snake, for example, has been the subject of great controversy and paradox. It is seen as both the highest and the lowest of symbols- blamed for the downfall of mankind in the Garden of Eden, and a symbol of death and rebirth as it renews itself time after time as it sheds it’s old outgrown skins. The snake is seen eating it’s own tail in the symbol of the ouroborus; endlessly re-incarnating and symbolizing eternity, and as the symbol of healing powers in the entwined caduseus of medicine. Sometimes, as Freud would say, a cigar is just a cigar; but the snake can also be a phallic symbol of sexuality or fertility; and is the symbol of creative kundlini energy in Eastern traditions. When snake shows up in your dreams, it often means that some kind of death and rebirth may be happening or needed in some area of your life; usually not an actual death, but a transitional time of change.
Our friend the owl is known as a symbol of the feminine, of the night, of magic, of the secrets the darkness has to offer. Andrews calls them the “eyes of the night”. It has both keen vision and keen hearing, and has been purported to be able to see into the soul of a person.
Finally, don’t forget about the mythological and fairy tale associations with the animals of your dreams- the “big bad wolf”, the “ugly duckling”, the centaur, the unicorn, the Owl of Athena; goddess of wisdom. These deep archetypes can take us even farther along the road to our truest selves, as our dream exploration then includes following the story or myth in which they occured.
“Dreams transport us each and every night into that strange and radiant world inside ourselves wherein, for better or worse, we come face to face with powers greater than ourselves.”
(James Hagan, “Diamonds of the Night: The Search for Spirit in Your Dreams”)
Dreamworker Robert Moss tells us “ A dream is a place; you don’t have a dream, you have an experience in a place”.
That fits with my sense of dream – that sense that we have really been traveling somewhere else for a few hours during the night while our bodies seem to lie in our beds. When Dorothy awoke, she insisted on this. Auntie Em tried to tell her that it was “…Just a dream, dear”, but Dorothy declaimed “Oh no- it was real-and you were there, and you, and you, sometimes it was scary, but mostly it was very beautiful…” Who among us doubts that Dorothy really was in Oz! Remember how the movie suddenly switches from black and white to Technicolor when she steps out of her traveling house into Oz? Even after seeing it over and over again for more than 50 years, I still get a thrill every time she opens that door and steps out (a dream? or alternate reality?) in vivid color.
The landscapes in our dream are important. Sometimes we recognize the place- we’ve been there, lived there, seen it in a movie. Sometimes it is nowhere that we recognize, but a curious or fantastic environment. Sometimes the very stones speak to us, and the trees are dream characters in their own right. The setting is where we are in the dream, and we have to start with where we are to be able to orient ourselves to where we are going.
We know that reoccurring dreams or dream themes at the very least are giving us a heads up that something is important. They will frequently return in one form or another until we “get” the message they are trying to convey to us and do something about it. Dreaming of the same place, or a similar landscape can have the same function- we are meant to pay attention; there is something to be learned here. The dream landscape is a portal into a time and place that has meaning for us.
For example, if we have a dream set in our childhood home, you can bet that there is something about that time in our life that is relevant for us today. When you lived in that blue house with the black shutters, how old were you? And how old are you in the dream? What about that time in your life is relevant in your life today? Kevin kept dreaming about the town he grew up in when he was 6 years old. In working back and forth between the dream and life, he realized that he had lived in that house during a time of great turmoil when his parents were divorcing and he didn’t know where he would be living next; and currently he was between jobs and experiencing many of the same feelings of being uprooted, out of control, and not knowing where he would be working next. Once this dream-to-life landscape connection was identified, he could see the differences between changes over which he had no control at age six (parents divorcing, possible move), and one now (job search) that could make choices about. Recognizing this let Kevin recapture some of the excitement and possibility that accompanied looking for more meaningful work.
A re-occurring dreamscape can also be a kind of code for “Hello-this is a dream”. For close to 20 years many of my dreams begin “I am in Israel and…” then some story would unfold. My dream circle helped me recognize this first layer of my “Israel dreams” as such a code. In my case, I had actually lived there for five years in my 20’s, big formative years for my adult self. It seemed that my unconscious had decided to announce “Heads up – different reality here!” by setting my dreams in that other place that I had previously inhabited. In one desert dream I am dancing in a line of robed and veiled Bedouin women towards a large tent where powerful drumming seems to be calling us in, in another I am standing on a sea of sand, seeing the shimmering heat waves rise up. in another I am promoted to a new job there. I actually began my professional career in Israel, going to graduate school and working with teen girls in a development town. The land itself was both foreground and background to all the rest.
Shamanic practice teaches that we can inadvertently leave a part of ourselves in a place, and if we do, then we have to go back and retrieve that part in order to be fully whole again. These places may show themselves to us in our dream worlds, to let us know that we have to make the journey back, either literally or figuratively to complete some part of our personal mythic journey. Think about it- have you ever experienced a sense of yearning or longing, passion or curiosity, homesickness or a bittersweet tug associated with some place or setting or landscape in your life or dream? It may be that a part of you has been left there, needing to be retrieved.
Once I discovered this aspect of reclamation of parts, the dreams began transforming as I tried to pay attention to their message in waking life. Over the next several years, I found some friends to speak Hebrew with again, became an adult bat mitzvah, studied shamanism from a Kabbalistic perspective, and rejoiced at my daughter’ bat mitzvah. These actions began to fill in a part I hadn’t realized had been missing since I left the actual place that later became the portal to my dreams. Then I revisited Israel itself after a twenty-five year hiatus and reconnected with old friends and places. That seemed to be the final piece-I rarely start off my dreams in Israel now.
I think that when we recognize the spirit of place in dreams, we get to renew our place of spirit.
(In our dreams) “We encounter a whole family of aspects of ourselves, and as we recognize them and bring them together, we become much more than we were”
In the last post we talked about visits from the other side; when our loved ones cross the threshold of worlds and grace us with a visit via our waking or sleeping dreams. We also have people that we know show up in our dreams who are quite fully alive however, whether or not we have seen them recently.
There seem to be four main categories of the non-visitation type of dream about people we know:
They may come as themselves,
They may come as a symbolic stand-in for some one else,
They may appear as an archetype (a Jungian term for an embodiment of a primordial image or character that reoccurs in thought and dream; Jung believed these are universal and reside in the collective unconscious that we share as a species),
They may represent an aspect of ourselves (a self part that we need to befriend, or heal, or reclaim) that is highlighted by our dreaming mind as a separate character.
We also know that dreams can have several layers of simultaneous meaning (see post of 8/12), so your dad, or your boss, or your friend Nancy may be in your dream for more than one reason. This is why doing dreamwork with others is so crucial; we can’t see all our own layers at once, and could miss something important without the extra set or sets of eyes and ears.
Before getting into the above four categories, I want to be sure to also alert us to the very fun/punny word play aspect of people in our dreams. Sometimes it is the characters name, or a play-on-words of their name that is the significance, rather than the person themselves. For example, a colleague dreamt of a set of luggage that was called Mr. Hartman luggage. After some discussion of who Mr. Hartman was, some one noticed that it could also be heard as “heart man”; and then we moved into a useful conversation about the man of her heart and how that was related to her dream. Dreaming of Aunt Missy may have several layers of meaning; one of which may be are you “missing” something, or is something “missing” in your life?
So, let’s take Aunt Missy as the character who showed up in your dream to explore these potential layers. Here are some questions you can ask to see how many of the four categories she falls into; not excluding that she may have been visiting if she had passed over to give you a message of some time, or just to say “Hi sweetie!”
If she has come as herself, we might be wondering:
•Who is Aunt Missy to you?
•What is your relationship with her like? Is she a confidant, your second mother, a source of tension on holidays?
•Do you have any unfinished business with her?
•What was your last encounter with her like?
If she has come as a symbolic stand-in, we might be wondering:
•Is she from your mother or father’s side of the family, and what does that say about why she is there in your dream?
•What are the qualities or characteristics of Aunt Missy; and do any of these resonate for you about yourself or some one important in your life?
•What does she look like? Does she remind you of anyone?
•What was she doing in the dream? How do you connect with that?
If she is an archetype, or larger than life symbol, we might notice:
•Does she have any numinous or spiritual quality about her in the dream?
•Is she dressed in an unusual way that connects you to thought of something sacred (i.e. in a white dress, or a long hooded cape)
•What is the quality of your interaction with her in the dream? Does she seem to have a message for you?
• Does she seem to embody one of the primal archetypes, such as the Wise Woman, The Mother, The Witch, The Shadow??
As an aspect or part of your self that you may recognize:
• Is Aunt Missy controlling?
• Struggling with a family member?
• Too passive?
• High -spirited?
• The center of her home?
With all of these potential layers, take a look at what the character is doing in the dream, and how you are interacting with her. What is the emotional resonance as well?
This is really fun to do with famous people as well! If Madona showed up in your dream- you can have a field day! Is it about sexuality? Or holiness? (in relation to Jesus) Or purity? Or strong powerful women? Or judgement of any of these parts? Of yourself? Of others? Of a tension between your inner Goddess, your sexual self, and your early religious training? A part of you that wants expression? Are you “mad”-(ona)? Is there a “don” in your life? Have fun with it.
These questions are just meant to start you off, please add your own as well to get acquainted with the people in your dreams! As always, let me know how this goes for you.