“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.