Last week I was thinking of a story that arose from the Catholic monastic tradition. My flawed memory is that his time of year about thirty years ago I was reading Lawrence LeShan’s book How to Meditate but I cannot find it there, so I can’t properly attribute the source at this time. The story goes that a monk was new at meditation. He had a vision of the Virgin Mary, and was very pleased, seeing this as some advanced state of enlightenment. He related his good fortune to his mentor who promptly told him, “Go back to sitting, and if she appears again tell her to go f— herself.” This seemed pretty blasphemous to me at the time, but the image has lasted.
Behind this story is the primacy of meditation for meditation’s sake. The idea is that to free one’s mind totally also means freeing it of the images from the spiritual dimension as well as from the tasks of life: “Did I pay the AmEx bill?” and “Does the dog need his Parvo shot?” are equal to distractions of divine revelation from opening of the crown chakra. For instance, in The Lotus of the True Law, or Saddharma Pundarika, the Buddha, “sat cross-legged on the seat of the law and entered ipon the meditation termed ‘the station of the exposition of infinity,'” when a marvelous thing happened:
And at that moment issued a ray from within the circle of hair between the eyebrows of the Lord. It extended over eighteen thousand Buddha-fields in the eastern quarter, so that all the Buddha fields appeared wholly illuminated by the radiance, down to the great hell Aviki and up to the limit of existence.
So the draw toward meditation is perhaps that experience of “enlightenment” such as the Buddha with the curl modeled for us. I’ll have to say, that is what I anticipate every time I sit, and that’s my goal when I contemplate the station of the exposition of infinity.” That was also, by the way, the goal each time I smoked weed in the 1970s.
And meditation is often defined by our ability to anticipate and dismiss mental distractions. Dreamwork sometimes operates in a different order. In the dream we are presented with the images first. Then we write out the dream, and share the dream with another and associate on the image. We invite the image into the room. We allow the image to take form, to dialogue, and to instruct. We are no more master of the image than a chimney is master of its smoke. Dreams start with the image, the image comes to life, and the image brings meaning or experience. Meditation has a different directionality; we start with the experience, the image is banished or put to death, and undisturbed mediation proceeds. Of course, neither process is that neatly linear, and neither direction is right or wrong; I am just pointing out there is different directionality and different meaning. One thing happens if one’s aim is to banish the image; another thing happens when one is open to interplay or submission to the will of the image.
Meditation is a broad term to many people; perhaps a more narrowly defined term for those who have adopted a formal or regular practice for a number of years. In the mind of this writer, meditation and dreamwork overlap and yet are distinct: and meditation can be a tool to enhance a dream image, to allow it the live of its own much like an active imagination such as may be described in the works of dreamworkers as different as JamesHillman and Robert Johnson. This morning, in approach of the New Year, it is my intention to allow an active imagination in a meditative style between the part of me that meditates and the part of me that dreams.
In an early meeting with Count Vronsky in Tolstoy‘s classic novel, Anna Karenina,said, “if it is true that there are as many minds as there are heads, then there are as many kinds of love as there are hearts.” As a younger therapist, armed with an advanced degree and no shortage of opinions, it was my thinking that people could easily fit archetypal patterns as defined by their dreams. Perhaps they would fit into one of Carol Pearson’s dozen in “Awakening the Heroes within: Twelve Archetypes we live by” or her earlier work featuring six archetypes. And in truth, these were helpful tools in finding the proportion of different qualities that seemed to be afoot in the dreams of the patients participating in dream groups during the 1990s. Using Pearson’s Heroic Myth Index, which is now sold separately as the Pearson-Marr Archetype Indicator or PMAI, (*) the patterns of patients dominant and repressed archetypes made a lot of sense. Yet it quickly became apparent that the complexity of the human spirit and the multiplicity of dreaming contexts made it seem ridiculous for dream “interpretation” to reduce people to the shell of someone else’s archetype. And echoing Anna Karenina, Carl Jung wrote that there are “as many archetypes as there are typical situations in life.” Each dream encapsulates one or more of those situations in life in which we find ourselves, and the pattern may resonate with other patterns, but is unique to the time, place, and individual.
Carl Jung:There are as many archetypes as there are typical situations in life.”
So here is a top ten list of things I have learned through the dreams of those I have worked with in therapy. This is separate and apart from what I have gained from my own dreamwork, which merits a different article:
10) How we receive a dream may say as much about us as the telling of one of our dreams:
Sometimes when someone is sharing a dream, a member of the group cannot contain laughter. This is often the nervous laughter (like me laughing at my grandfather’s funeral visitation with my sister in a way that my mother never forgot or forgave!) It is important to make the detting for sharing a dream as safe as possible, and yet that unconscious laughter may indicate that the dream content is touching deeply – and in a frightening way – a member of the group. It also happens from time to time that the dreamer cannot access any feelings about the dream, but someone listening who cares about the dreamer may have an emotional reaction. So themes of codependency or transference surface repeatedly in dream group, one one does not have to be the “protagonist” to gain therapeutic benefit.
9) Relationships with others are “such stuff as dreams are made of:”
Freud decided our purpose in life is “to work and to love,” but I think the Beatles were closer in their summary: “and in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.” The adage rings true: few people on their deathbed regret that they did not put more time in at the office. Dreams make clear our interactions with people: A woman two years from a divorce dreaming of her ex-husband, recently remarried, as an angel; another woman who dreamed of her abusive ex-boyfriend as the Pope; these are not mistaken images. The dream suggests these women over-idealized their former mates to a saintly point that was unrealistic. Behind each of these images there is a female dreamer whose capacity to love and to bond is admirable – and more a statement about themselves than about the undeserving object of their affection. Deb Leinhart, a local therapist of high regard, recently commented her belief that “99% of recovery work is boundary work.” Dreams offer rehearsal and experimentation with choices about boundaries – leading to more ownership on the part of the dreamer regarding their life decisions.
8) The soul has a longing for wholeness and repair
A woman I’ll call Ellie recently sat with me trying to put into frail words a dream experience she had. “It was more emotional than verbal.” As she went through step by step in the dream, Ellie accomplished the hard work of translating the images of the soul world into the framework of spoken English. A woman with a horrific abuse history, Ellie was able to relate the peace and serenity that came from elements of her dream, never fully able to comprehend the where or the why. Like many patients report, Ellie awoke wanting to return to the peace and the calming sense of the dream. So many of these dreams occur, leaving us in some way more tranquil, often without our notice of them, and certainly without our deconstruction of them for how to translate the message of the dream into action.
Certainly, dream analysis and homework from dreamtime may be helpful at times, but just as often I have to be comforted by James Hillman‘s view that the images of the dreamtime are not there for us to wrangle them into the daylight, where their message and their power is muted by solar consciousness. “therapy, or analysis, is not only something therapists do to patients;” writes Hillman in Re-visioning Psychology, ” it is a process that goes on intermittently in our individual soul searching, our attempts at understanding complexities, the critical attacks, prescriptions, and encouragements we give ourselves. We are all in therapy all the time insofar as we are involved in soul-making.” Dreams are part of that soul-making, even without our permission!
7) Dreamtime is patient:
Marie Louise von Franz wrote a fascinating book On Dreams and Death which conveys through case examples how the life’s work of the dreamtime continues into life’s final stages – and arguably beyond. There are some women I have had the privilege of working with for two years or more in dreamtime, and the evolution of their dreamlife can be amazing. Just as amazing is the gentle recurrence of dreams in similar or various forms until the life lesson is incorporated.
6) Lessons are repeated gently until the meaning is brought forth:
How true in the recurrent dreamscape. The other day, I checked in with a former client about her recurrent “tornado” dreams. In each one, she was giving instructions to her family about how to survive the tornado, and in each dream, no one listened to her. Now nearly four years into her own recovery, she no longer tries to control her family, has no need to shout for attention, and her family regards what she has to say. The tornado dreams have been quiet for a long time. “Letting go” was the lesson; now she is free to dream of other things!
5) Everyone, including the beautiful, the young, the brilliant, the accomplished, and especially the brash, all of these are vulnerable:
For those who still struggle with envy, dreamwork reinforces the “grass is always greener” rule. People who seem to have it all, still yearn inside for some of the basic things that seem to elude others. People yearn to be known and to be loved; to hold onto people and to things as they are, and occasionally to want power and control over things beyond their grasp. Perhaps some of the most fragile people are those who on the outside push people away the most. There is a richness in their dreams of relationship and longing, and working with their dreams has a sweetness that sometimes softens everyone in the room in a completely unexpected way.
4) If it is not happening, do not force it.
Words sometimes fail. Silence clarifies. Whatever I think I know, there is more wisdom in the group and in the dream images themselves than a facilitator brings to the group.
3) The act of sharing a dream with another, or the act of listening to a dream, increases accountability and ownership for one’s situation in life:
“if it were my dream, I would be looking at . . . ” So starts out feedback often in these women’s dream groups. Sometimes there is some cross talk contained in the feedback – overly directive or overly interpretive of what the listener is telling the dreamer they should do. But more often, this type of sharing allows all the group participants to apply the generalized lessons of the dream to their own experience. Robert Johnson in “Inner Work” suggests that we avoid interpretations that take responsibility away from the dreamer. What I will sometimes ask is, “What do you think the dream is asking from you,” or “What choice does this dream seem to present to you?”
Montague Ullman, who probably did more in the 20th century than any other human being to make dream groups effective and popular, was quick to say, ” “Confronting the message of a dream alone, regardless of one’s degree of sophistication, is to do so with all of one’s defensive apparatus ready to spring into operation should one et close to an unpleasant truth.” (From “Guidelines for Teaching Dreamwork”, in Dreamtime and Dreamwork, Stanley Krippner, Ed.)
2) Dreams are as unique as fingerprints
Having only worked with less than a couple thousand dreams of patients, it is certain I’ve not run across everything. But as many dreams as I have encountered that signify pattern, each has a style and a variation that is specific to the dreamer.
1) No issue is too large or too small to work its way into dreamtime:
One question I often ask people in workshops is whether they would agree that sometimes when sleeping on a problem they have an answer in the morning. Not everyone agrees, but even some of the most diehard skeptics will say yes. They do not always attribute this to dream wisdom, but to me it is evidence of problem solving on a small scale. Then there are the “Big Dreams” that deal not only with our major life crises but seem to answer larger riddles of the Universe. These dreams have a “numinous” quality. And the dreamer just knows. Knows what? It is hard to say. But whatever that knowing is seems to spread beyond the dream into the larger imagination of how to handle life on life’s terms.
(*) Note: Rather than purchase the PMAI, I would recommend the purchase of the book for each individual who might be interested in taking an archetype index. For less than the price of the test, you have a lasting guide to all the theory and context.