Just when you seem to yourself
nothing but a flimsy web
of questions, you are given
the questions of others to hold
in the emptiness of your hands,
songbird eggs that can still hatch
if you keep them warm,
butterflies opening and closing themselves
in your cupped palms, trusting you not to injure
their scintillant fur, their dust.
You are given the questions of others
as if they were answers
to all you ask. Yes, perhaps
this gift is your answer.
~Denise Levertov (Sands of the Well)
I love the evocative delicacy of this poem, its quiet sensuality. So much to experience here: the stickiness of a web, the warmth of a songbird egg, the soft subtlety of butterfly wings. The images in this poem are tactile as well as visual, and anticipate an auditory component: we wait, almost holding our breath, for the birdsong that is not yet with us. “The Gift” calls me to close attention. I feel the egg and the butterfly in my own hands. If I hold them too tightly, their delicate life gets squashed; too lax, the egg rolls to the floor and cracks. My whole being participates in this poem – body, heart, and imagination.
This is also how I approach dreams as a Natural Dreamwork Practitioner. If I stray into symbolic territory, I lose my connection (to both dream and poem). We are meant to feel the opening and closing of the butterfly’s wings with childlike wonder, not generate an equation of meaning, however sophisticated.
In Natural Dreamwork, we encounter images as living presences. We allow the images to ‘speak’ from the particularity of their being. These encounters are the gateway to deeper feeling and deeper knowing. Dreams present us with many questions, but sometimes it takes the gentle presence of another to even hear the questions. Levertov’s poem suggests that the questions of others draw us deeper into experience. Without another’s gentle questioning gaze, maybe we wouldn’t be drawn in so deeply. Telling a dream to another gives us a chance to revisit the dream, hear the questions a little differently, look more closely at what the dream has to offer, appreciate it in all its sensual richness.
Though dreams offer many questions, we also trust our senses to provide certain facts about the dream.
Not everything in a dream is a question. Dream images have a specificity and a vitality that needs to be honored – even when seeing their truth evokes discomfort and pain- or the love and joy we dare not approach, lest we be disappointed. We may go to great lengths to avoid the specificity of an image, glossing over dream figures that unsettle us.
Sometimes this can be very dramatic: A dreamer speaks of a polar bear taking food from her refrigerator, then shifts the conversation to her annoyance at the ants crawling in her sink. None of us are immune from this kind of distortion because coming to our senses can feel like death.
It took me over a year to come to terms with one particular dream figure. I dreamt, I am at the edge of the woods. Something flies by, I see some birds, but also skeletal ram’s head, a hollowed-out log with a short person inside female, girl or woman? The dream continued, and I chose to focus on the latter portion of the dream. The figure inside the hollowed-out log felt elusive and for a long time I told myself that she wasn’t as important as other aspects of the dream. Then, many months later, I retold the dream to a friend, who expressed curiosity about the person in the log. As I stepped back into my dream, really encountered her, I took in the facial features of a woman, the body of a girl. I finally saw what I hadn’t wanted to experience: the parentified-child in me, the one who had worked too hard to be a grown-up before her time, and later (having missed the freedom of childhood) felt stuck between. The knowing was deeper than the sensorial details of the dream figure, but it took immersion in the details of the image to begin the descent to deep layers of feeling – the loss and grief – carried by the girl -woman stuck in the log.
When we see things as they really are, we are forced to give up false notions of ourselves, forced to let go of the roles we believe we must play in order to be valued. And that can feel as if it’s the end of our existence. So we purposely avoid, shade or distort the actualities set before us; in our outer-life as well as our dreams. We use language that hides rather than describes our experience. When asked to describe the details of a dream ‘baby’ we discover it has claws, teeth and a tail: it is a rat. The hat that falls into our hands may not be any old hat, but the cherished cap of a beloved friend, or the iron gladiator helmet that gives us migraines. A dreamer finds herself in a house. Within the dream, the dream-ego plans for the future: how she will make this dreamhouse into a comfortable home, paint and replace the curtains and plant a garden. When asked to describe her dreamhouse, we find crumbling walls and ceiling, and a dirt floor. It is a shack set in the middle of a highway. Exploring the dream together, she recognizes how often she has lived her life trying to make a bad situation into something tolerable. Seeing things as they are sometimes forces us to give up the false hope that we can continue doing what we have been doing repetitively and compulsively and expect a different outcome.
Sometimes it’s the luminosity, the real gold of a dream, that gets overlooked, rather than the pain: We don’t believe that anything truly nourishing will last. The same dreamer who dreamt of the shack also dreamt of a spacious, bright house near the bank of a river with a beautiful garden. In that dream she noticed it was dusty, disregarded its potential. Until we spent time wandering through this dreamhouse, she hadn’t appreciated its value. It was as if her psyche’s wariness of believing that anything really good could come to her had made her vision dusty.
Dreams offer us a great opportunity to come to our senses. As we expand our ability to see, hear and feel in our dreams, we also strengthen our capacity for deepened presence in other aspects of our lives. Opening the questions of our dreams takes courage, but what better time could there be, to make a commitment to living a more embodied, attuned, open-hearted life? If not now, when?
Among all the New Year’s resolutions competing for your attention, I’d like to suggest one that you probably hadn’t considered: That you make a practice of Writing Down Your Dreams.
For the New Year, why not crack open that blank journal collecting dust on a shelf, or begin a new document. Label the document DREAMS. Let it sit in the middle of your Desk/Laptop/IPad (not buried in file) as a reminder to record your dreams before you head into the Labyrinth of Email, FaceBook or Newsfeed each morning. Perhaps you already share your dreams with a partner or family member- over coffee or during a morning walk -as humans have done for Millenia. Speaking dreams is a form of communion, a way of feeling and being felt more deeply than is possible in ordinary discourse. It’s a wonderful practice, but not sufficient to take full advantage of dreams’ healing and creative potencies. For that, you have to write them down.
In Natural Dreamwork, we view dreams as living energetic experiences rather than messages to decode. When we write dreams down, we recognize that we can’t recapture the whole experience of the dream. The dream record is simply a map that guides us back to dream territory for deeper exploration. In our waking visitation of the dream, we steep in it again and explore the dream experience more fully. Aspects of the dream that weren’t recognized the first time become more prominent, more fully appreciated.
Our capacity to take in dream experiences is limited by conditioned beliefs about ourselves and how we ‘should be’. It’s also limited by whatever taboos we have around feeling particular feelings- whether anger, sadness or erotic delight. These blinders become clearer as we record our dreams. In a first encounter, we frequently miss important aspects of the dream. I rush out of a room, convinced I am late, just barely noticing the little boy in the corner holding out a chocolate bar: A baby has white dots on her cornea, I try to wipe them off with IPad cleaner. When that doesn’t work, I head for the sink.
In the first dream, the conditioning, ‘I am late, I need to be somewhere other than where I am’ blocks my appreciation of the gift of pleasure the boy tries to offer. In the second dream, the pain of recognizing an impediment keeps me from fully experiencing the predicament of the baby with spots on her eyes- or the suffering I inflict on ‘the baby’ and myself with my attempt to cancel out the problem. Writing them down, including the details of the dream images gives me access to these deeper layers. The written details of the dream are the gateway to its depths. Contrary to what Freud claimed, dream details do not disguise the meaning of the dream. That role is reserved for the ‘dream ego’, the narrative voice that tells stories and convinces the dreamer (within the dream),“It’s time to leave” or “These spots have to be removed”.
As you develop proficiency writing down your dreams, you’ll begin to notice curious and humorous images that weave through many of your dreams. Some of these threads are unique to you and bring a coherence to your dream experience and your life. Other images are part of the evolving dream language of the collective. They help us metabolize the stresses we share with others. Dreams of wearing ( or not wearing ) a mask has emerged as a common thread for many during the pandemic. Other threads are more subtle. When I first started recording my dreams over 20 years ago, I had a pink flip phone. In my dreams I would try repeatedly to dial my phone without ever succeeding in making a call. The context of these dreams suggested a pun on cell phone: Self phone. I was anxiously trying to connect with deeper aspects of myself, unsuccessfully. Since the advent of the ‘Smart Phone’, the ‘I Phone’ my cellphone dreams have a different tone and my dreams have done their best to separate me from this device-my mind, my ego. In a series of dreams, I’ve had my phone pried phone out of my hand, twisted beyond recognition, and tossed into the ocean. At some point my dreams let go of the Iphone image, and I found myself alone in an unfamiliar city enjoying myself, even though I had lost my phone and my purse. Our dreams change, and we change. This is most often apparent in retrospect- as we look back over months and years of dream records. Writing down our dreams, we recognize the recurrent themes, as well as the ways we are changing.
Some dreams are gifts we have to grow into. We may not fully appreciated them when they are first written down. On numerous occasions, I have opened up an old dream journal and been struck with powerful aspects of the dream- sometimes delightful, sometimes like a sucker-punch- that I hadn’t experienced when I first recorded it. It is as if the dream had been waiting for the future me to arrive.
While all of these reasons are good reasons to record your dreams, I believe that the best reason to do so is that the act of writing down our dreams liberates us and stimulates our creativity. There are no rules about our dreams: no grammar rules, no etiquette rules, posturing, and all emotions are welcome. Writing down my dreams has given me more freedom from my inner censor than any other practice. I attribute my development as a poet and a writer to the practice of writing down my dreams.
So why not make 2022 the year of this new and different resolution, and begin to record your dreams? Go gently with yourself, remembering that there is no right or wrong way to go about this wonderful adventure.
Now the act of seeing begins your work of mourning…
As your tears fall over that wounded place,
May they wash away your hurt and free your heart…
Excerpt, John O’Donohue, “For Someone Awakening to the Trauma of His or Her Past” in To Bless the Space Between Us
Most of us arrive at Adulthood with at least a handful of wounds to body, heart and spirit. There are many good reasons for letting these injuries ‘rest’ unexamined. Our Present has greater claim on us than the Past, we are wary of getting stuck in bitterness, and we recognize that the sources of injury were themselves injured. While these arguments are all valid, in many cases, our past remains with us. Unacknowledged or unrecognized, our injuries may distort our present experiences and relationships so that we see through a dark fester of thorns, unable to fall towards love – in the words of John O’Donohue.
Dreams often call attention to our wounds, with the intention to help us see them and heal. Our first big challenge is to become courageous enough to actually look, to take the dreams seriously, not dismiss them: the act of seeing begins.. (the) work of mourning… In this Invitation I would like to share a few dreams that helped me to accept the reality of my own injuries and develop faith in the healing process. I share with the hope that my experience will provide a sense of camaraderie to others on a similar path, a faith that the dreams can help sustain us in our process, wash away the hurt and free the heart. Certainly, not all wounds can be healed, but many can be tempered, borne with fewer impediments to full living.
In my early dreams, I frequently found myself wandering hospital corridors. Worried I had forgotten to visit my patients, the only patient forgotten was myself. It took a while to loosen the grip of my professional identity (I trained as a physician before becoming a psychotherapist) and recognize that my dreams were concerned with my own injuries and healing, rather than my role as the doctor in charge; so much easier to give to others what I myself most needed.
Many dreams depicted leg injuries, an impairment that reflected (in part) my difficulty standing my ground and an inability to speak my true desires. While I prided myself on being confident and independent minded, this was mostly true in situations where I was acting on behalf of another. But I didn’t want to see:
There is an explosion. Two girls suffer extensive injuries of their legs. I believe they want to hide these injuries, but their ‘Father’ already knows. He tells me, “The one thing that is forbidden is to cover the wounds with gauze.”
I am a part of the explosion but in the dream have no awareness of the injuries I have sustained, so the dream presents not one, but two girls who are injured. In seeing them I begin to explore the shame I feel for having injuries in the first place. How can I be loved if I am wounded? It seems I must explore this layer before I am able to feel the deeper pain of the injury itself. The father in this dream feels authoritative, archetypal. I trust him, though I don’t much like his message: the one thing that is forbidden is to cover the wounds with gauze. The injuries must be seen.
Looking at our wounds is difficult. I find it so much easier to tell the story of the ones I believe have injured me, than to recognize how the wound itself is alive in me. It is easier for me to speak, for example, about the role my mother plays in my ‘Catalog of Injury’ than to feel the ache and hobbling of my wounded base. But notice that the ‘Father’ in the dream doesn’t ask about the cause of the explosion. That is less important. In our need for an easy explanation of our suffering, we may come to premature conclusions of the true nature of our injury. And no explanation is going to heal the wound: maybe that is why so many are wary of endless years of psychoanalysis.
Sometimes I fool myself: I think I am looking when I am not, not really. I dream:
I am speaking with two surgeons. One is a kindly middle-aged man who has done surgery on me. I have a sense of growing connection, many pieces of my life coming together. Then I am in a car traveling and have stopped. I reach down to my left knee where I have had an operation. A piece of bone has been removed. I am tugging at it, curious. A flap comes up and I sense how deep it is, a chunk of flesh and muscle has been removed. I am ‘taking stock of it’ and realize that I will need to be mindful of this place.
First I experience joy and connection, then I lose it, see the wound as a thing that I will need to be mindful of. I’ll be ‘mindful’ in the future, not ‘heartful’ in present time. In other words, I make a decision to restrict my behavior, so I don’t have to feel the pain. Notice suddenly I am stopped, not moving anymore. I don’t want anything to niggle the wound. In the next part of the dream, I exclude a wounded girl from entering my car. There is no room for her. Better to stay in the stopped car, then continue to move with ‘her’ in tow.
A very common response to a wound is to restrict our lives. We avoid situations which reawaken pain, or we disconnect and deny the pain. When this happens, we often lose traction with details of our reality. In my dreams, this is presented as a forgetting or a dropping: I forget the name of the girl who is mine, I drop things I value, keys, jewels, writing.
The healing comes as I feel the pain I already know, and somehow find the experience different than I expected. I forget the name, but a dream figure holds me with love; I feel handless, but somehow I am able to hold a beautiful baby and feel great joy. My heart aches, my tears flow, and yet I feel more alive than I thought possible.
Each of us requires guidance and compassionate support to do this kind of work; I have been blessed with compassionate and wise guides all along my path – both in waking life and in my dreams. Some of these are tough love figures, like the father in the first dream. Others simply radiate compassion, like the surgeon of the second dream. Both waking world and dream figures have shown injuries they carry, how they can be borne and worked with in the service of life.
Not long ago I dreamed:
A man comes to see me. I believe he has also run away from captivity. He shows me his arm: his left lower arm has been replaced by a spiral of meat and bone with a hook on the end. I say to him, “Wow that looks really painful!” He says, “It is, but the point is to live!” Not a trace of pity in his demeanor. I am awed and inspired by his example; I want to stay with him.
His wound has become a source of his strength, not a disfigurement. This, for me, is one of the most potent forms of healing: when we can view our injuries as a source of strength, see that they illuminate us, make us more open-hearted and even beautiful. I am reminded of the Japanese practice of Kintsugi in which broken pottery is repaired with gold. In the process of repair, the vessel is made stronger, more unique and more beautiful than it was before.
If you are interested in working more deeply with your dreams, or if you are a practitioner wanting to learn more about the Natural Dreamwork approach, we invite you to visit About Us to learn more about our community of practitioners. Natural Dreamwork Practitioners work with clients throughout the world in person, on the phone and over video-conference. We are happy to connect with you, to continue the conversation with you about your dreams.
For Someone Awakening To The Trauma Of His Or Her Past
by John O’Donohue
For everything under the sun there is a time.
This is the season of your awkward harvesting,
When pain takes you where you would rather not go,
Through the white curtain of yesterdays to a place
You had forgotten you knew from the inside out;
And a time when that bitter tree was planted
That has grown always invisibly beside you
And whose branches your awakened hands
Now long to disentangle from your heart.
You are coming to see how your looking often
When you should have felt safe enough to fall
How deep down your eyes were always owned by
That faced them through a dark fester of thorns
Converting whoever came into a further figure of
You could only see what touched you as already
Now the act of seeing begins your work of
And your memory is ready to show you everything,
Having waited all these years for you to return and
Only you know where the casket of pain is interred.
You will have to scrape through all the layers of
And according to your readiness, everything will
May you be blessed with a wise and compassionate
Who can accompany you through the fear and grief
Until your heart has wept its way to your true self.
As your tears fall over that wounded place,
May they wash away your hurt and free your heart.
May your forgiveness still the hunger of the wound
So that for the first time you can walk away from
Reunited with your banished heart, now healed and
And feel the clear, free air bless your new face.
The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you.
Don’t go back to sleep.
You must ask for what you really want.
Don’t go back to sleep.
People are going back and forth across the doorsill
where the two worlds touch.
The door is round and open.
Don’t go back to sleep.
by Jalal Al-Din Rumi
-from The Essential Rumi, translations by Coleman Barks
Sleep gets a bum wrap. Through the lens of our productivity-oriented culture, sleep is time wasted, time you could be ‘doing something’. While the Pandemic has tempered this outlook for some, for many it’s still a way of life.
We used to think our brains went quiet during sleep, but now know this is not true. Our brains are very active while sleeping, and sleep deprivation has major (documented) consequences for our health.
Sleep as synonym for unaware or unconscious is another matter – as when we sleepwalk through life, live on automatic pilot, oblivious to beauty, wonder, deep love – or profound loss.
Our hearts and minds have great capacity for aliveness, but we sometimes (or often) betray ourselves with addictions, rationalizations, dissociations and willful looking away. In this sense of the word sleep, the poetic injunction, Don’t go back to sleep is most powerful.
Ironically, one of the greatest vehicles for waking up is our dreams.
Some dreams literally knock us awake: we hear a loud knock at the door, get a knock on the head, get electrocuted (this really happened to me in a dream; it was quite painful). Other dreams are more figurative and poetic, but no less heart-stopping. What we are urged to wake up to varies: often it’s about feelings we’d rather not feel, a life predicament we’ve tried to ignore, a nasty habit, or an unlived potential.
As a psychotherapy intern, I dreamt: I am sleeping in a clinic office. I wake to find both my supervisors asleep and cannot rouse them… I am alone, those who are meant to help me asleep, unconscious. On waking, I revisit my childhood, where I learned to be self-reliant, the adults around me ‘asleep’ to my needs… A part of me slowly wakes up to a repetition that is beginning to play out, yet again …… I ask myself how it feels to be awake when they are sleeping? I feel frightened and lonely, but this time I heed the dream. I feel my aloneness, and reach out for help.
In another, dream, I wake within the dream to look in a mirror. In the mirror, I see that my hair is cut in a different style, frosted silver like many of the female role models I most admire. A friend is with me in the dream. She tells me, “Clearly you have undergone a transformation: whether it is good or not I am not sure”… Our friends and family may not be so happy about our awakenings. When we wake up, it changes the status quo.
Sometimes dreams present us with other beings or creatures who are sleeping. A little boy and a black dog are curled up together asleep. Is this a healthy sleep? Is it time for them to wake? I imagine being the little boy- and the little dog. I step into the dream and feel the lusciousness of their snuggly sleep, a sleep of communion, not the drugged sleep of Snow White and the Poisoned Apple.
In other dreams I’ve wondered about a Poisoned Apple: I am in Cuba in a hospital, so very tired, I want to sleep, but wonder within the dream if my desire for sleep reflects my need for restoration, or is a result of poisoned milk. This dream helped me distinguish true tiredness from the haziness of dissociation and despair- something much more pernicious.
Here is a full blown poisoned apple dream: an envied acquaintance (who has given herself permission to live louder and wilder than I have allowed myself) is lying in my bed moaning with pain. I believe she has cancer. I instruct a nurse to give her an injection of morphine- a very high dose. In the dream I tell myself I am doing this to ease her pain.
As I awake, in the breeze of dawn, I recognize my impulse as homicidal not compassionate. Dreaming of myself administering the poisoned apple helped me wake to the depth of my own pain and self-sabotage.
If we didn’t sleep, we couldn’t dream. You’d think Psyche might take a supportive view of sleeping within our dreams. But most of the time, our dreams don’t want us to sleep (within a dream), and dreams go to great lengths to wake us up when ‘dream egos’ decide they’d like a nap. I recently reviewed hundreds of dreams in my files, both my own and those of my clients and was stunned to recognize how frequently dreams take action to interrupt a dreamer’s attempt to sleep within a dream. ‘Obnoxious’ dream figures enter the scene talking loudly, dogs appear to lick the dreamer’s face, radios blare, and telephones ring. When the sleepy dreamer picks up the phone she hears a voice on the other end telling her emphatically “ Make sure you have your own life!”.
Often, the dreamer resists these attempts, indignant about those who interfere with her plans. That’s when the dreams great really funny, really creative: The dreamer tries to remove the radio’s batteries and the radio bursts into flames. A man enters a room where a dreamer is trying to sleep through her therapy appointment and and asks her if he can put stacks of paper on her back. He uses humorous hyperbole to emphasize how inert she has become to her feelings. This finally wakes her up, at least a little bit.
Take a moment and reflect on your own dreams. How often do you, as the dreamer try to go back to sleep within your own dreams? How often do you wake within a dream? What do you wake to? As we awaken in our dreams, we may suddenly find ourselves in that place where the two worlds touch…
Imagine a world where no one dreamed…
In confronting what it would mean to lose this vital function, we begin to appreciate the fundamental importance of dreaming in our individual lives and in our culture. Can you Imagine Shakespeare devoid of dreams? Or Edgar Allen Poe? What would the Bible be like without the dreams of Jacob or Joseph? Or the Bhagavad Gita without Arjuna’s dreams?
Many important scientific discoveries and inventions have been inspired by dreams. Einstein’s dream of riding a sleigh at the speed of light helped him develop his theory of special relativity. Thomas Edison devised an apparatus to wake him up when he entered dream sleep, so that he could harvest his dreams’ insights.
The fact that all mammals dream suggests that dreams play an important role in our survival. Perhaps dreams play many roles, but the one I would like to focus on here is the way dreams facilitate our emotional and relational learning: all mammals live in family groups, where survival depends on the capacity to form and sustain relationships with others. Dreams are a nightly rehearsal hall, helping us to process our emotions, understand our relational needs, and develop communications skills to successfully negotiate our world. In our skirmishes over which theory of dreams is correct, we may overlook this important fact: regardless of the origin of dreams, our dreams are extremely useful. The images in our dreams communicate so much because they tap into the core of our being. The experiences in our dreams have the potential to influence and enhance our waking lives. I would like to illustrate this with a couple of examples from my work as a dream-oriented psychotherapist.
‘Douglas,’ a man in his 50’s, is a successful professional. He has overcome many obstacles in his life, having grown up in an environment of extreme poverty and emotional deprivation. The adults in his early life were unreliable and abusive. At the beginning of our work together, Douglas’s dreams depicted him as unable to relate to the people around him, unless he was in charge. When we explored this together, he expressed how difficult it was for him to develop trusting relationships with friends, colleagues and supervisors. Soon, his dreams began to show us why: in one dream Douglas watched a child beaten until he was ‘faceless.’ In another, a boy was stuck in a bubble, unable to escape. These dreams gave us a chance to talk about his experiences growing up – which he had dismissed as not significant – and begin to process the pain of his childhood predicament, in titrated manageable bits. Issues of trust, and the capacity to receive love began to emerge in his dreams.
About 6 months into our work together, Douglas brought the following dream:
I am getting married to a woman of a very different culture. It feels like she is Italian or African or both. Her family is very close and protective. Her brother gives me a gift that is bold and makes no sense to me. It seems like an abstract sculpture of what seems like a ginger root but is quite large and curling. I feel lost and intimidated by him and the gift. I don’t want to insult him by giving the impression that I don’t appreciate it. He grabs the sculpture and walks away. I am scared that I have offended him and there will be dire consequences for me, like physical pain. He returns, holding the sculpture, and sings a very soulful song. With this action, I realize that his gift is a loving and caring gesture.
In his dream Douglas is entering a new place where there is the possibility of a corrective experience; a very different culture – one where families are protective rather than abusive, and share an intimacy that Douglas craves in his waking life.
As exciting as this may be, it opens Douglas to a very vulnerable place. This quality of encounter is unfamiliar to him, and can’t be evaluated using the tools of analysis he has come to rely on in his waking life. In the dream, a ‘brother’ approaches him with a gift that Douglas labels as ‘bold and makes no sense.’ Douglas’s first inclination is to belittle what he doesn’t understand. The gift comes from a ‘different culture’ a culture of sensuality and art- not pragmatism. Douglas has difficulty receiving the gift, but has done enough work to recognize, even within the dream, that he feels lost and intimidated by the gift. Douglas stands open mouthed and unresponsive. When the brother walks away, he becomes frightened. He cannot imagine a non-punitive response to his paralysis, expects what he learned in his family of origin (that his non-compliance will result in violence). The dream shows him a different possibility, as the brother returns singing a song of love, ‘like an operatic aria’ (Douglas’s words), serenades him, opening his heart.
The abstract sculpture and song, much like the gift of the dream itself, reaches into his heart, even as the full meaning is inaccessible to his mind. This dream took Douglas to the edge of his understanding and led him deeper into the mysteries of human relationship. Without being able to state a reason, Douglas recognized that the dream figure was well intentioned, a figure he could trust. Dreams such as these help dreamers learn to trust their internal sense of what is nurturing and supportive – and what is not. Douglas did not need an interpretation of the meaning of this dream, but he did benefit from re-entering the dream in the presence of a caring witness to re-experience the love, acceptance and joy the dream provided. Douglas knew this was an important dream, felt its healing influence immediately.
Douglas’s dream would have been able to do its work even if it hadn’t been shared, but many dreams pass by unharvested, unless we are given the chance to revisit them after waking: Sometimes a dream guide is required for us to realize the healing potential of a dream. This was the case for the dream ‘Kirsten’ shared with me in the week after her ex-husband’s death. Kirsten and Evan had separated when their children were quite young. Many years later, a strong friendship was rekindled, and their bond strengthened around the love they shared for their adult children and grandchildren. Their close friendship meant more to Kirsten than she had been willing to admit. Here is Kirsten’s dream:
Walking with a woman on a road. Another woman goes by in the opposite direction caring an old man in a stretcher on her back. Was that your husband? She didn’t answer. A hat came flying toward us. I picked it up and was going to throw it back, but a huge white bird (Swan)appeared. I gave it to him to return the hat to the old man. The Swan flew away.
Kirsten was heart-broken by Evan’s death but the ill-defined nature of their relationship left her feeling like she didn’t have ‘the right’ to grieve. She carried this narrative into the dream as she asks the older woman carrying the old man on her back, “Was that your husband?” In session, I invited Kirsten to reenter the dream, to imagine walking beside the woman who carried the old man. Then I invited her to imagine being that woman, as I walked beside her (back and forth across my office), feeling the weight of the man upon her own back. As we walked together, she felt the weight of this man, could feel the love with which he was carried and the irrelevance of her question, “Was that your husband?” The connection and devotion she felt made the technicalities irrelevant. Kirsten finally felt permission to grieve and found her tears.
Together we explored the image of the hat that flew towards her: As Kirsten described the hat to me, she recognized it as the fisherman’s cap she had given Evan as a gift many years before. Evan cherished this cap and continued to wear it for many years. As Kirsten imagined holding the cap, she was able to recognize the strength of their bond, and tears flowed some more. The bird in the dream was no ordinary swan, but a magnificent presence with shimmering white feathers. As she recognized its resemblance to the Holy Spirit of her childhood religion, her body began to relax. Awe and wonder mingled with her grief.
Both dreams are Big Dreams; powerful emotional experiences whose images continue to work us long after they’re dreamt. They have no expiration date. Each dream helped expand and strengthen relational qualities of the dreamer. Douglas’s dream helped him imagine new modes of relationship. Kirsten’s dream helped her to accept her grief and to let go of the narrative that she wasn’t entitled to her feelings. The dream also reconnected her with spiritual resources of her childhood faith, brought to life with the image of the magnificent bird, the Holy Spirit.
Recognizing and harnessing the healing power of dreams is our birthright. Dreams are available as a resource to all of us, regardless of our belief system or our understanding of how they arise.
Living soulfully requires that we learn to trust ourselves, recognize what we truly long for, recognize the trustworthiness of others (or lack of it) so we can sustain meaningful relationships and live creatively. If we have had parents or other adults in our lives who were fully present to us as children, we will have an easier time trusting our inner world. Often this is not the case and our feelings, desires, and creative impulses become ghosts that possess us: we do everything in our power to distance ourselves from them, while expending a great deal of energy attempting to win validation and approval from others. This is a form of soul-loss. To live soulfully, we have to remove conditioned obstacles to honesty, directness, simplicity and vulnerability: qualities we associate with the child. In the Natural Dreamwork framework, the energy of soul is carried by children (rather than adults): boy and girl rather than Animus and Anima. Reflect on your own dreams and those dreamers bring to you. See if this fits with your experience.
Our dreams reflect our soul-losses and, also show us the path of reclamation. Sometimes the depictions of our soul children are very painful: we would prefer to ignore them or explain them away. But we MUST pay attention: Our life depends on it. When we recover Soul, we find the song, develop hands and fingers that touch and create with sensitivity, alive to wonder beauty, pain and even horror. We learn, again, to love, and be loved with the innocence that we once knew, if only briefly.
Many times in dreams, a child is demanding attention we are not prepared to give. We view them as a nuisance, a creature to be ‘taken care of.’ As dreamers we try to manipulate or discipline them, make them over in a mold that fits a preconception of who we ‘should be.’ The boy and girl disrupt the efficiency of the adult persona, and we may find our dream children left in a corner crying, throwing tantrums, painting walls, pouring water on the floor or kicked out of the house.
The children in our dreams may be missing limbs, listless, talking heads, or turned to plastic. These deficits are not, in my opinion, a reflection of true deficits of the Soul, so much as a depiction of the state of our relationship to our soul children. As we attend to them, the connection to our soul-children heals, and there is a corresponding change in how they are depicted. Often children in our dreams become our teachers. They teach us how to breath underwater, comfort a dying animal, play an instrument, or just play in the dirt. They teach us how to go naked and rest in the embrace of another. Most importantly, they teach us about feelings we have struggled to disavow: our anger, our fear, our pain and often our joy.
In the beginning of dreamwork, it’s common for children to show up in the form of our biological children, though perhaps younger versions: typically, soul children show up as 4 to 7 year-olds, but they may show up as older children- sometimes of an age where something important happened to us.
As we remove the burden of our personal baggage from our biological children, our soul children start showing up in different guises, separable from our biological children, and we are more receptive to their messages. We even start to become like them in our dreams. We let go of adult proprieties, show up naked, vulnerable, loving, curious and daring.
I’d like to illustrate this process for you with the dreams of Elliot Byrd. I don’t want to suggest that these dreams are a template. In selecting just a few, I am making the choice to highlight a particular aspect of his process, namely the development of his relationship to the boy. I also don’t want to suggest that dreamwork is a ‘journey with a destination’. Instead, I believe it is an unending spiral with many cycles: however, sometimes we get the sense we have completed a cycle – and this is something to celebrate.
Boys and girls show up in the dreams of both men and women. At different times, we work more with one than the other. If boys and girls are a depiction of our soul’s energy, it is important to recognize that the way they are gendered in our dreams may reflect, in part, our cultural constructs of gender: the Soul holds aspects of both, and like Yin and Yang, the boy and the girl aren’t fully separable. In some dreams, dreamers work with both together; a boy may turn into a girl (or the other way around), a girl may show up with a scrotum, a boy with a vagina. These dreams help us recognize that dreams point toward an essence that goes beyond simple characterizations. Still, boys in dreams are frequently depicted in dreams about desire and action, girls in dreams of love and relationship. This could change as our culture changes: that is why the phenomenological approach of Natural Dreamwork is so valuable. We keep an open mind and an open heart and work with whatever arises.
In this dream series Elliot is working with the boy. At the end of the series, Elliot becomes the child, finds himself swinging on a zipline across the elementary school of his childhood, proclaiming his joy un-self-consciously to men in suits who walk down the hall. For him, this dream series was his final one; the last act in a life terminated abruptly by cancer. But series like these occur in dreamers of all ages, all stages of life. His experience is shared as a concentrated illustration of what happens for all of us, if we work with our dreams for any significant period of time.
Introducing Elliot Byrd* (*name and identifying details have been altered):
Elliot is in his early 60’s, married with a young adult son. He is a long time Buddhist meditator and works as program director at an educational NGO. He also has a history of depression. Elliot was referred by a hospital social worker following surgery for an incurable cancer.
On the one hand, Elliot wants support, a place to talk about ‘the hard questions’ (which he is afraid to ask in front of his wife for fear of upsetting her), on the other, he isn’t sure he wants to ‘dredge up all that old stuff’. He seems almost allergic to his feelings. In our initial session, I have the sense that he has difficulty reaching out for any kind of support: physical, spiritual, or emotional and that pain, fear and anger are festering under his mild demeanor.
He tells me he feels lonely. His life continues to revolve around work despite his illness. He either didn’t inform, or downplays his illness, works long hours, comes home exhausted unable to do much other than sleep. At work he is the wise authority, cheerful and unflappable, he supports his colleagues and stabilizes his department, but he does not consider his workmates his friends.
Elliot is ashamed of his illness and uses it as an excuse to isolate himself even more. While his illness has made physical intimacy difficult, it is the long hours at work, coupled with his inability to ask for help that seems to affect his relationship with his wife- whom he loves.
During the first months of our work together, I find myself asking him the same question repeatedly, “Is this how you want to spend your remaining time- however long it is?”
We worked together for close to a year and a half. During that time, he made many changes in his life, began to participate more fully in social activities, learned to express his needs, his fears, desires, and grew much closer to his wife Maria. I believe the dreamwork played a significant role in these changes, that the reawakening of his connection to the boy was an important aspect of his healing.
In our first or second session, Eliot brought this dream:
I can hear my son in the room next door playing guitar. I am relieved and happy he is playing.
Eliot hears music in the next room, assumes it is his son, but really it is the music of his soul beginning to be heard. In his younger years he loved to play guitar, and sing; something he almost never does anymore. Music brings up too much feeling. His desire for music has been transferred to his son, a classical guitar player, who carries this vocation in a very conflicted way. In session, we talk about the music that Elliot likes and play some of it from my iPhone. I invite him to start listening to music again.
A couple of sessions afterward, I ask him if he has followed up on my suggestion: He tells me he meant to begin listening to music again, but always seems to forget. A few months later, the boy in his dream sings a song of pain, but Elliot still doesn’t recognize the boy as himself.
I am with a crowd of Indian people. Young boys are standing around me. One is supposed to go up to the front of the crowd. He can’t find the belt for his pants and is upset about it. He starts to move up to the front and I throw him a black belt, but he doesn’t put it on. His mother picks him up. He starts singing a song while softly crying. His mother holds him.
When we are in the realm of the ‘Archetypal’, dreams sometimes depict images of people and places beyond our everyday experience, here the group is depicted as Indian. Interestingly, a month or so earlier, Elliot had dreamt of an estranged friend who had invited him on a trip to India. Uncomfortable with the intimacy of the invitation, Elliot backed away, and their connection was lost. So here he is, back in touch with what he had rejected. Elliot views the boy’s work as a performance and is uncomfortable that the boy isn’t ‘holding it all in,’ doesn’t have a belt on. From Elliot’s perspective in this dream, the sadness is about not having a belt, but when Elliot tries to give the boy a belt, the boy rejects it. It’s not why he is sad at all. This conditioned attitude and behavior: keep your pants on, keep everything hidden is one of the biggest obstacles Elliot faces in becoming more deeply connected to himself.
The soul-boy carries the awareness of a much deeper sadness and sings a song of great loss: Elliot has had many losses that he has not even begun to process. In session, we spend time with the boy singing in the lap of his mother, talk about how it would be for him to be the boy, with both the dream mother and his own. This is a stretch for him: his biological mother was physically present in his life but wasn’t comfortable with emotional expression. Elliot’s father was stoic, believed men shouldn’t show emotion at all.
Soon after, the following dream:
It is dusk and I am on a beach looking up the slope of a sand dune. I see a large boa constrictor going up the hill. I throw something and hit its tail. The snake appears very angry and starts racing back down the hill towards me.
This is a very important dream: pivotal. Until this point, Elliot has struggled to find the will to live. Even though it is dusk, ‘the close of the day’, there is still more living for him to do. The snake in this dream is HUGE. Elliot intuits, without having words to explain, that the snake’s life force is related to his own. As scary as it is, he doesn’t want the snake to leave. In session we reenact his throwing the rock at the snake. Elliot feels life flow through him, accompanied by both fear and awe of the snake. There is something very boy-like about throwing a rock at a huge snake. Elliot has let go of his caution and acted without over-thinking; an attribute of ‘the boy.’
When we first talk about this dream, Elliot wonders if it had been a mistake to rouse the snake, but after exploring the action of throwing the rock, he has no more reservations. Elliot relates this to experiences earlier in life as a hunter (something he admits to me reluctantly, fearing I will judge him). He has always respected the animals he hunts and eats what he kills. For him, hunting is not an act of overpowering nature, but of coming into presence with nature. Sharing his experience of hunting, being validated in this primal aspect of his being led to a palpable deepening of the connection between us.
After this dream, Elliot reported making more of an effort to get out, feels able to engage with others in deeper conversations, to enjoy his time with his wife, Maria and their friends.
A month later he has the following dream:
My son is an infant/toddler. He is at the end of a pool and falls in. The pool is empty- without water. I get my son from the bottom of the pool, and I am quite upset. Maria (wife) says he looks ok, doesn’t think he hurt himself. I agree but, I’m angry because she seems so cavalier about such a dangerous incident.
When Elliot and I first step into the dream, his primary feeling is anger at his wife, who he sees as dismissive of their son’s pain. This is an active theme in waking life: Elliot and Maria have different views on how to deal with their son’s struggles. But underneath this reactive anger is the pain of his own injury that he doesn’t want to feel. In the dream, Elliot’s wife is responding to their son in much the same way as Elliot responded to the pain/sadness of the Indian boy (keep your pants on). The wife here stands as an image of his own conditioning. Sometimes in dreams, a spouse or best friend will stand in for our own conditioning – learned attitudes and behaviors that keep us from moving closer to Soul. This is not a comment on Elliot’s wife, but a way of depicting behaviors and attitudes ‘close to home.’
The most significant feature of this dream is recognition of the state of the boy. Focusing on Elliot’s disputes with his wife would be a diversion from the most important aspect of the dream. Elliot’s perception that ‘the boy’ (recall that early on in dreamwork our soul children are often depicted as our biological children) seems ‘OK’ is not supported by the image of the boy in the dream. As we explore the image more deeply Elliot reports that the boy is, listless, barely moving, his eyes glazed: He is not ‘OK.’ This is tender territory: Elliot has a hard time staying with the pain of the boy’s (his) predicament. Working with this dream helps Elliot see that I, like the mother of the Indian boy in the previous dream can stay with him as he experiences the pain of his losses, that it is possible to experience these feelings, ‘survive’ and actually feel better afterwards.
At the beginning of our work, Elliot’s father often appeared in dreams. These dreams were fraught with tension and misunderstanding. Despite our work, neither Elliot’s attitude toward his father, nor the dreams changed. Perhaps, knowing what I know now, I would be able to make more headway, but at the time I was baffled and felt adrift working with Elliot’s consternation and dismissal of his father. Elliot’s unhealed relationship with his father was the most significant unfinished business Elliot took to his grave. It’s the area of our work I wish I had been able to work with more effectively. Elliot’s dreammaker finds a partial solution to this problem by transferring Elliot’s care from his father to his Uncle Sid:
I am with my father and Uncle Sid, a fisherman who lived on a cabin on the lake. There is a cypress boat with fish in the bottom. My father tells me to row my uncle across the water. My uncle sits in the front of the boat, and I paddle him across.
Elliot’s father ‘s ‘handing him off ‘to Uncle Sid is an act of love. He knows that Elliot is able to receive his uncle’s love and support more readily than his own. Elliot had adored Uncle Sid as a child: Uncle Sid was a fisherman and a huntsman, had a wonderful sense of humor, and a manly vitality. As an adult, Elliot had become wary of his uncle, viewing him as a redneck. Elliot was self-conscious about his working-class roots and Uncle Sid had shown his bigotry by reacting negatively to Elliot’s marriage to a Mexican woman. Despite these reservations, Elliot had no difficulty accessing the love and admiration he had felt for his uncle as a young boy. Elliot had a series of dreams with Uncle Sid, most set in rural Tennessee, where he spent time as a child. These dreams brought Elliot back to a time of wonder, a time when he was more in touch with his instincts, to a place burgeoning with life and sensual vitality.
As Eliot’s condition worsened his visits to my office became more sporadic. Still, when we did meet, he was more open, expressed greater satisfaction and joy, and described more meaningful interactions with his family and friends. On weekends he’d gather with friends at their favorite bakery café, the scene of an earlier dream where he witnessed a dog eating cake with gusto. Then he dreamed:
I enter the elementary school I attended as a child. There is a swing hanging from the ceiling. I get in the swing and start swinging around: the swing is on a zip line cable and I slide down the middle of the hallway. I see young men in business suits and ties coming towards me. I say, “no wonder kids want to come to school – this is so fun!” I zip on down. There is a security camera which can see what I am doing. I am having great fun.
Here we see Elliot reconnecting with and becoming the boy, swinging on a zipline, having a great time, without any self-consciousness: a dream unlike any Elliot had shared before. Together we felt the freedom and joy of it, no longer self-conscious about the men in suits, nor concerned that the security camera can see what I am doing! As he states in the dream I am having great fun! This is a first for Elliot.
In a dream one month later, Elliot is in bed with an old friend and lies naked with an infant girl resting on his chest. Even though Elliot is dying, a new cycle has begun for Elliot as he holds the infant: now his dreams bring him soul as the girl. Uncle Sid serves Elliot and Maria posole, dispelling any remaining shadows of the Uncle’s earlier rejection of him and his wife. Now Uncle Sid serves them Mexican food.
In the last dream Elliot ever shared, He is sitting in a beautiful park with everything sparkling. Uncle Sid and Uncle J appear and say, “We have come to take you home.” Elliot tells them, “I am not ready yet”.
Elliot and I talked about what he most wanted from his remaining time and then he stepped back into the dream and a told his uncles (again) “I am not ready yet.” Elliot was able to take his wife for one last trip to a cherished spot in the northern woods, before dying at home, the following week.
Ten days after Elliot’s death I dreamed:
A little green bird is with me. He is a beautiful shade of emerald. I am very fond of him. I see that he has twigs all tangled in his feathers, so I remove them (the twigs), trying to do so gently and slowly. When all the twigs are out he says to me, “I think I’ll go home now.” I am sad that he is leaving, anxious for his safety, pained that I won’t see him again. I say goodbye and he flies away.
I woke from the dream with a sense of wonder and love. This dream also brought clarity: this is how it felt for me working with Elliot. My work had been to tease out the twigs tangled in his feathers so that he could fly. In the process, we had become quite close, I was sad to see him leave, but held with me this image of his beauty as he took flight.
When we say that a person in love is glowing it may be more than a metaphor: There is a physical radiance palpable in each of us at times when we are open-hearted and fully alive to our surroundings. Recently I’ve begun to notice this radiant quality in some of my dreams. The imagery of these dreams glows golden (even if the background is dark) with light emanating from the dream figures as well as from dreams’ landscape. Within these dreams I often feel a gentle swell in my chest, a lift, an opening, that is not present in other dreams – or in other parts of the dream. A feeling of love pervades these dreams.
The feeling and golden glow may not last long, but the radiance stays with me as I go about my day. The types of loves expressed is wide-ranging: the golden glow equally present in dreams of a loving relationship with a teacher or healer, a romantic love, a joyful reunion with a child or long lost friend or a choir of singing angels. Conversely in dreams where I am reactive or preoccupied with some plan of action or anxious worry the glow is absent or disappears, and the atmosphere of the dream turns gray.
Maybe this is a peculiarity of my own dream life but I suspect it is not. Just before the pandemic, I was introduced by a friend to the writings of Jacques Lusseyran. Blinded in an accident as a young boy, Lusseyran describes the inner light which persisted in him despite the loss of his eyes and guided him in his work with the French Resistance movement as well as through the hell of Buchenwald, a concentration camp where he was held prisoner during World War II. Jacques’s capacity for joy and love are deeply inspiring, and his writings have been an important touchstone for me. In his essay “Blindness, A New Seeing of the World,” Lusseyran writes of the connection between the intensity of the light and his state of being:
Since my childhood I have been impressed with a phenomenon of surprising clarity: The light I saw changed with my inner condition. Partly it depended on my physical condition, for instance fatigue, restfulness, tension or relaxation Such changes, however, were relatively rare, The true changes depended on the state of my soul. When I was sad, when I was afraid, all shades became dark and all forms indistinct. When I was joyous and attentive, all pictures became light. Anger, remorse, plunged everything into darkness. A magnanimous resolution, a courageous decision, radiated a beam of light. By and by I learned to understand that love meant seeing and that hate was night.
The connection Lusseyran makes between love and light feels very real to me and seems relevant to my own experiences in dreams, even though I can’t possibly explain it.
In an interview of the late physicist David Bohm (See “The Super-Implicate Order” in The Essential David Bohm, ed. Lee Nichol) Bohm describes matter as frozen light, and speaks of light as the foundation of the universe: “Light in its generalized sense (not just ordinary light) is the means by which the entire universe unfolds into itself…light is this background which is all one but its information content has the capacity for immense diversity. Light can carry information about the entire universe.”
Little wonder light is connected to Spirit and Love in so many wisdom traditions.
As I write these words I hear a voice asking, “So what? How is this helpful?”
To the skeptic in me ( and in others), I give the following answer:
The beauty and joy I experience in these dreams is a gift that nourishes and enhances my sense of well being. The concordance of light and love has helped me to recognize the presence of dream teachers and moments of open-heartedness that I might otherwise have glossed over. As I step back into my dreams, I can feel them more deeply and expand my sense of what it means to love. This concordance also informs my understanding of the nature of love: That love is a force, like light, not created, not destroyed. We can let it in or block it out.
A couple of years ago I had the following short dream:
I am working unclogging heart arteries. I tell a man who says, “That’s the bulk of it…”
The man who spoke was late middle-age, portly, receding hairline, unremarkable in dress or manner. Like many of the figures that show up in my dreams, he spoke quietly, stated the facts without trying to convince me of his view. I listened, without at first recognizing the full weight of his words. Coming back to the dream later I understood better what he meant: opening the heart is our most important task – it’s the bulk of what we are after – with our dreams, our relationships, and our spiritual life. Perhaps light is simply a metaphor for this love and open heart, but I suspect it is more than that: In opening our hearts, in waking life and in dreams, we ‘unfreeze’ the light.
With the Coronavirus Pandemic, many of us have felt a radical rupture from our old life. While this has affected each of us in different ways, I believe most of us share a sense of living in limbo. We wait, hoping between death of the ‘old way’ and birth of the new. In this intense period of loss and transformation, our capacity to listen to our dreams is as important as it has ever been.
As Rilke wrote, You must give birth to your images. They are the future waiting to be born. Fear not the strangeness you feel. The future must enter you long before it happens. Just wait for the birth, for the hour of the new clarity.
But experiencing our images requires a body, not just a mind: Rilke’s metaphor of birthing implies as much. We respond to our dreams with all of our senses: Whether feeling a lover’s embrace, plunging into a beautiful seaway filled with whales, hearing the rumble of an approaching storm, or feeling the breath of a giant animal that has pinned us to the ground: we need our body to enliven our images.
Here we arrive at the crux of the difficulty attending to dreams during periods of stress. When chronically stressed, we raise the drawbridge and take refuge in our heads: we disconnect from our bodily experience. When our nervous system goes into overdrive, we forget that our body can help us restore balance and reconnect with a wisdom deep within us. This wisdom includes our feelings, our dreams and the images that emerge spontaneously during periods of reverie, meditation and artistic expression. Our dreams want to bring us back to ourselves. Dreams integrate our bodily senses with our feelings and our deepest knowing. As we reawaken trust in our body’s capacity to hold our feelings without falling apart, we are enlivened, strengthened and can open to new and creative possibilities.
There are many many ways to cultivate a loving, gentle connection to our bodies, including dance, Tai Chi or Yoga and a thousand other body-based meditation practices accessible through the internet. As a place to start( or a supplement to what you already do), I offer you a short guided meditation:
Keren Vishny originally trained as a physician, and practiced Internal Medicine for 10 years before retraining as a psychotherapist and NaturalDreamwork practitioner and teacher. Her exploration of her own dream has led to the re-emergence of her poet, in hibernation since age 14. She is affiliated with the CG Jung Center in Evanston, as well as the Marion Woodman Foundation.