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.
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.