How dreams Heal
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.
Unfreezing the light in our dreams
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:
Unburdening the shadow
Mystic shadow, bending near me,
Who art thou?
Whence come ye?
And—tell me—is it fair
Or is the truth bitter as eaten fire?
Fear not that I should quaver.
For I dare—I dare,
Then, tell me!
-Stephen Crane, 1905
What is Shadow? How does it appear in dreams? These questions puzzled me for many years. The raging teen, the woman in a wheelchair, the homeless guy in the basement and the timid girl wiping up crumbs at my feet; were they each a part of my shadow? And if so, how was I supposed to work with them? What did it mean to ‘integrate them’ as Jungian theory proposed? Reading what Carl Jung wrote about Shadow only added to my confusion.
In some passages, his description of Shadow is so broadly defined it becomes either meaningless or overwhelming:
Before unconscious contents have been differentiated, the shadow is in effect the whole of the unconscious. It is commonly personified in dreams by persons of the same sex as the dreamer. Shadow is the dark aspects of the personality…composed for the most part of repressed desires and uncivilized impulses, morally inferior motives, childish fantasies and resentments etc.- all those things about oneself one is not proud of… [CW9ii, par. 14] … but also displays a number of good qualities, such as normal instincts, appropriate reactions, realistic insights, creative impulses, etc. [Conclusion, CW 9ii, par. 423.]
In other writing, Jung portrays Shadow as a double, an alter-ego, much like Stephen Crane’s Mystic Shadow:
One has to become aware of its (Shadow’s) qualities and intentions…a long process of negotiation is unavoidable. This must lead to some kind of union, even though the union consists at first in an open conflict… it is a struggle that goes on until the opponents run out of breath. [Rex and Regina CW14 par. 14]
Listening to Jung in passages such as this, I am reminded of Jacob wrestling with the angel in Genesis, struggling to extract a blessing: But Jacob’s angel was fairly matched in size and strength, while the proportions of Shadow, swollen to include everything unconscious, are huge. No wonder Jung viewed the shadow as a moral problem that challenges the whole ego-personality. I believe the confusion stems from conflation of two metaphors – the shadow silhouette that follows us wherever we go, and that which is obscured in shadow – unknown. This conflation has resulted in important misunderstandings about which aspects of our unconscious are fundamental to who we are and which are symptoms of unresolved pain and trauma that can be healed.
Working with my own dreams, and those of my clients over the past 20 years, I have come to believe that Shadow is not a moral problem, but a compassion problem. The beating heart of shadow is not the ‘dark underside of the personality’ but the wounded self. And the work of integrating shadow is an embrace – not a negotiation or a fight.
Most of us have a difficult time accepting that we have wounds at all. As adults we hide behind a veneer of competence, avoid arenas that evoke any feelings of inadequacy and restrict our lives unnecessarily. The need to look away from our pain creates distortions in our perceptions, both of ourselves and the world.
Our dreams have the potential to help us heal. In our dreams, we may find ourselves alive without a heartbeat, with burns on our skin, pus coming out of our ear, unable to see, unable to speak. Sometimes the dreamer experiences these conditions first-hand, and sometimes the wounds are carried by other figures in our dreams: these figures frequently teach us how to live with our pain, to express our feelings and accept help. They help us recognize that we are not alone. These figures feel very real, they pulse with life, we feel them deeply when we allow ourselves to connect with them. Embracing these figures is the work of Integrating Shadow.
In Natural Dreamwork, we distinguish between the figures that carry our wounds, and figures of conditioning. Figures of conditioning highlight survival strategies: inflexible patterns of perception and behaviors that develop to help us survive in challenging circumstances. While these strategies once kept us safe, when continued they hinder our growth and healing. We find ourselves locked into rigid roles, unable to recognize possibilities for growth, while also carrying a great deal of anxiety that we are not ‘ok.’ Our wounds get cloaked in shame. Figures of the ‘wounded self’ remove the cloak so we can heal.
Figures of conditioning are qualitatively different from the figures of the wounded self: They exist to highlight a dynamic, show us stereotyped behaviors. They are ‘paper thin,’ without much life. Sometimes they are almost comic. These figures fade away as we embrace our difficulties. Figures of conditioning are not fundamental to who we are as people.
Here is an example:
‘Melissa’ is a woman in her 40’s, married with two college-age sons. She is very bright and articulate but struggles to find meaningful direction for her life. She suffers from intense self-doubt and is very critical of herself.
After working together for a year, she shared the following dreams.
A couple of months before the dreams, she had spoken to me about her insecurity picking out gifts for others. In her dream ‘Nadia’ fills this role:
Nadia asks if I got the crochet gift she gave me. I did and I say so and she says, “I thought maybe you weren’t here when it was delivered.” We’ve actually talked about the gift before so I’m surprised she needs to be told again that I got it. She’s holding it up now, “I hope you don’t notice the mistakes,” She’s pointing them out but what I’m noticing is the lovely details and crochet embellishments. It looks like something I’d like to make. Nina is wearing a blue crochet sweater and it’s hard to tell where the gift starts and the sweater ends. I say, “even the finest handcrafted things have small mistakes.” She says, “Oh well, I just wanted to make sure you got it. I thought you weren’t here when it was delivered.” I feel like she’s determined to stay stuck in the doubts and problems.
The dream highlights a pattern of behavior. ‘Nadia’ comes off as a caricature. The description of the dream figure’s insecurity is exaggerated to the point of comedy; the image of a string from the gift still attached to the one giving the gift is very funny. We had a good laugh together as Melissa shared this dream. She is on her way toward letting go of this pattern of anxiety, self-doubt and perfectionism that has plagued her. As she says in the dream, “even the finest handcrafted things have small mistakes.”
In the second dream we learn more about the root of Melissa’s conditioning. She dreams:
I’m in a bathroom with Nicky (a friend My mom once said was never going to be very pretty.) She’s crying. I’m standing behind her and can only see her grey polar fleece jacket that’s much like mine. It has a few flour smudges and strings from sewing on it. I can’t see her face in the mirror because her hair is hanging down covering it. she cries, “I always try to make my mom happy but no matter what I always disappoint her.” I turn her toward me and hug her. A powerful feeling of recognition runs through my body and it wakes me up.
‘Nicky’ feels real. We can see her, feel her, down to ‘flour smudges on her jacket.’ Her anguish is palpable, and she is able to express what Melissa has half-known but until this dream has been unable to express or fully accept: her struggle from early childhood to get approval and love from her mother. Melissa feels a powerful embodied recognition and wakes up. She embraces the wounded self, and with it integrates the wisdom and feeling this figure carries. ‘Nicky’ will stay with her, ‘Nadia’ will fade. This dream was a threshold for Melissa, one we will both remember for a long time.
As we connect with the wisdom and self-compassion of our wounded self, the rest of the ‘Shadow Work’ tends to follow in its course: we let go of outworn habits, feel freer to explore our feelings and develop capacities that have been overshadowed by anxiety and shame. Our shadow loses weight, becomes less burdened, and our lives enriched.
Last night as I was sleeping,
I dreamt—marvelous error! –
that a spring was breaking out in my heart…
So begins a remarkable poem by Antonio Machado, in which he speaks of the wonders of his nightly dreams, bringing water of a new life … and honey from… old failures. Machado speaks of this as a ‘marvelous error.’ If it is an error, how are we to understand marvelous? If marvelous, how is it an error? From a Natural Dreamwork perspective, the dreams themselves, as much as the dream content, are the water of new life, the bees making honey, the bright light bringing warmth and clarity. Our lives are greatly nourished by our dreams – even when the images are difficult, or seemingly mundane. If there is an error at all, it is only in the belief that one dream is going to do it, that one morning we are going to wake up finding ourselves suddenly transformed as it would seem from the surface of Machado’s poem.
There are still nights when I yearn for a BIG dream – the kind of dream that spurts up conspicuously, hands me a solution to a problem, knocks me sideways with awe or lifts the veil between this world and the Other. I’ve had my share of these dreams, and I am very grateful for them. I carry them with me always – precious jewels that they are. But most of the fruit of my dreams comes from loving attention to each dream, no matter how big or small. All dreams are valuable: aligning us more deeply with feeling, increasing our capacity for honest relationship, a flexible imagination and more secure connection to a ground of Divinity.
So often people tell me, “Dreams are so interesting, but I barely remember mine…”
As we talk some more, I often find that what is missing is not the dreams themselves but a misunderstanding of dreaming and how to prepare for our dreams’ arrival.We have to make space for them, give them time to settle in with us in the morning. We have to write them down.
It is very difficult to fully appreciate a dream rattling around in our psyche while rushing through breakfast, answering email or scrolling Facebook feeds. In writing down a dream, it takes on a fuller identity: like a folded textile from a distant weaver, it can’t be appreciated unless you spread it out.
When I enter a busy period, I sometimes neglect my dreams by not writing them down. I tell myself,” the dream is unclear, a throw-away, redundant.” There have been weeks when I have gone through my dreams like a box of chocolates, taking a nibble here and there, discarding most, in search of ‘the right one.’ Some days, I just can’t face the water pouring down my wall, the flies hovering in my kitchen – or even the baby left at my doorstep. I tell myself “I already know about this….” But not really.
Dreamwork is a practice, and we practice by welcoming and writing down) all that comes. We tap into the well, harvest the honey by our attention, and intention to feel what we feel as we contemplate each image.
Even when we are committed to a dream practice, there are still periods of dream drought for most of us. What then? There are many useful practices to help us recall our dreams. Many of these are well discussed in Kezia Vida’s Dream Blog. I would like to add three additional suggestions.
First: Read through your old dreams to allow them to come alive again.
Focus most on the images themselves, and what they evoke in you now (not what you thought or felt about them at the time). What you see, hear, feel and do in the dream is most important. You may find that you have a different response now than when you first dreamed the dream. That is the beauty of dream images – they are living presences that continually touch us, energetic entities that never expire. Dreams flock together: as you tend to one, more will ‘land.’
Second: Meditate daily. A short, gentle meditation practice – even 15 minutes – helps stimulate dream recall. When I sit comfortably with open attention, alive to the sensations, feelings, images and thoughts that move through me in waking life, I also increase my connection to my dreams.
Third: Write out waking experiences as if they were dreams: Slow down, pay attention to waking life encounters. Sink deeply into the feelings that are evoked in you as if that experience were a dream. It is a living dream. Record a snatch of conversation overheard while walking, a fight with your partner, a fox lounging in your back yard: It doesn’t matter what it is, as long as it is fully experienced. Each day is packed with encounters, so what we notice is meaningful. You could have chosen a 1000 other things to write about.
It doesn’t matter what you write about; but try to be brave. Make note particularly of experiences that rub against the parts of you that are rough or tender. Write these down in your dream journal as if they were dreams. If upon waking you have not captured any nocturnal images, write about a daytime event instead. Your dreams will find you. That’s a promise.
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.