“We would rather be ruined than changed. We would rather die in our dread than climb the cross of the present and let our illusions die.”
– W. D. Auden
“No wise person ever wanted to be younger.”
– Native American proverb
A few weeks ago I had a very strange dream. I was in a hotel somewhere, next to a busy highway. My boys, as their most precious young selves, were with me. It was night, and I was trying to get the boys to sleep. Ben’s sturdy, two year old body was in my arms, his hair a mass of auburn ringlets, and his face held that stubborn and rebellious look he maintained for years. True to their grown up personalities, Jake was pleasantly obedient, jumping into the bed I designated, while keeping a watchful eye on the brewing storm that was Ben. Ben was squirming and making lots of noise, fighting me all the way.
At first this dream was rather unremarkable in plot, but intensely real. I SAW my beautiful five year old Jake, with his soulful brown eyes, his soft shy smile and infectious dimples. I FELT the solidness and warmth of Ben. With my nose burrowed in his neck, I took a deep sniff of his baby smell aphrodisiac. I jerked as those chunky baby thighs gave me a kick.
But then things got weird. There was someone else in the room – one of my current co-workers. She was trying to work, and was getting visibly annoyed by my boys- by the noise, by the patter and the give and take of negotiation with a two year old. I was torn between completing the crazy dance to get a two year old to sleep, and the nagging responsibility to join her in our work – which interestingly enough was represented as some ridiculous, inane card-sorting activity.
Then things got even weirder. I stopped my mothering activity to look for a card that was missing. I couldn’t find it. In order to keep looking, without distraction, I herded Jake and Ben out the door and onto the sidewalk next to the busy highway and told them to WAIT. And then I went back inside and shut the door.
What the HELL was this dream version of Jeri doing? I had just put a five year old and a two year old on the sidewalk next to a busy highway, in their footy PJ’s, in the dark!! And the two year old was BEN! – Fearless, reckless Ben – who was bound to shrug off Jake’s desperate entreaties to “Stay put like Mommy said,” and dart madly into the highway.
Back in the room, I kept looking for the stupid card for my co-worker, while glancing back desperately at the door every two or three seconds, thinking, I have got to go get them! Oh my god, what AM I doing?? And then I woke up.
With my heart racing, I struggled to stay awake. There was no WAY I was going back to sleep – back to that dream. The dream was so real, I was afraid that if I fell back into it, I would yank open the door, desperately hoping they would still be standing there on the sidewalk , and instead find an unspeakable disaster, of my OWN making.
So what did this crazy dream mean? Am I secretly a bad mother? No, I know in my heart that I was – and still am – a really great mother. Do I miss mothering toddlers? Hell, no! Although I reveled in the intensely sensual, maternal moments of this dream, I don’t think I want to return to that time. Am I torn between work and family obligations? My boys are 19 and 22. There are not many family/mothering obligations taking up my time these days.
What did the presence of a co-worker in the midst of my mundane family evening activities symbolize? Not to mention the strange card sorting activity? Is my current work filled with inane and meaningless tasks – tasks that keep me from the opening the door to meaning in my life? Well, uh, maybe. Enough said about that.
Is it all about relinquishing control? Do I still see my boys as incapable of managing their lives and their safety without me? Perhaps if I had let myself open that hotel room door, I would see them as their current selves, tall and manly and perfectly capable of not only staying out of traffic, but managing their individual lives successfully without me? Well uh, maybe again.
According to Jungian dream theory, dreams serve as a natural healing mechanism for the psyche. They act to amend a lopsided or partial perspective on life, by bringing the subconscious to the foreground. The ego, or the conscious self, is where we live most of the time- where we are strong, in control and comfortable. The ego, or our descriptive self, depends on outward descriptions – how we look, how we perform, how others see us. We are confident and comfortable when then ego is in control. But the ego can also be a place where we hold fast to old and familiar attitudes that are no longer useful, and even defective. The subconscious – or shadow – is the dark other side of the ego. The shadow holds the pieces of ourselves that are contradictory, those that do not fit with our descriptive self. The shadow is the rejected or repressed aspects of ourselves–– the antithesis of who we think we are, or the part we do not want the world to see.
In dreams, this dark shadow comes to the fore and challenges the ego. The confrontation often feels like a battle. “ I am NOT that!” But facing the shadow, and understanding what it is trying to show you, can bring you closer to an understanding of the Self. By accepting and integrating your Shadow, you become more whole…and more at peace. That racing heart race says I am NOT at peace.
Jung also says that dreams are generally triggered by events of the previous day or recent past. “For a correct analysis of a dream, it needs to be appreciated as a statement of fact, albeit from an alternate perspective. A dream does not tell you what to do, rather it shows you what you are doing. ..It shows you what you are not seeing.” And just to make things more complicated, in dream analysis, you are advised to NOT literalize. Dreams offer metaphors. To take a dream literally is to completely miss the underlying meaning. Well, thank God for that. I knew I would never leave my babies alone to play in the traffic!
But I’m still stuck. What did that dream mean? What were the triggers? And what are the metaphors?
Jung said that everyone carries a shadow, and, “…the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is.” And the more well hidden the shadow is, the more it controls us. I think my Shadow in this dream is the woman who does NOT always get it right. She‘s the one who can’t do it all, the one who screws up, the one who is not always in control. She’s the antithesis of my super-woman ego persona, and I didn’t like her very much. I think she is also the one who is stunned again, each fall as school begins, with the reminder that she is a mom on the sidelines, a reluctant empty nester. If the mirror of dreams is supposed to heal and help make whole, then I am supposed to reconcile with this character. There is a message she is trying to send, some wisdom being offered.
Coincidental to this dream, (and yet, I think there really are no coincidences…), I began to read Richard Rohr’s book, Falling Upward, A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life. Rohr is a Franciscan priest and prolific inspirational speaker and writer. In Falling Upward, Rohr says the first half of life is where we are consumed by building a “strong container for identity”. We are preoccupied with establishing our persona – climbing, achieving and performing. But in the second half of life, if we are to attain spiritual maturity, we need to become focused on filling that container with the full content of our deepest and truest selves. Through “falling down” – i.e., screwing up, losing control, experiencing loss , admitting our imperfections– we are in fact “falling upward”. Only through falling upward does our soul find its fullness.
Meeting your shadow in dreams is one way God helps us to begin to see more. If we heed the messages, we see more – and can then integrate that into our conscious self. “God has to undo our illusions secretly, as it were, when we are not watching and not in perfect control, say the mystics.” And wholeness is ALWAYS paradoxical – it holds both the dark and light side of things.
Rohr also talks about the necessity of “discharging your loyal soldier” in the second half of life. The loyal soldier is the striving, obedient, performing persona who has been preoccupied in the first half of life with establishing the self, with creating psychic control, order and consistency – with solidifying their container. But according to Rohr, the loyal solder cannot get you to the second half of life. The loyal soldier doesn’t even understand the second half of life. What was familiar and useful in executing the first half of life becomes useless in the second half.
Just to reinforce the point that it might be time to ‘discharge my loyal soldier’, God sent me another dream a few weeks after this one. In this new dream, my children were taken from me for some unclear reason, and were living with a new family. I saw myself riding a bike slowly up and down the street in front of their house. They stood solemnly on the porch watching me. Ben walked out into the street, looked deep into my eyes, placed his hand upon my cheek, and said “It’s OK. I know you, Mommy.”
As I am forced to dance with my shadow in these dreams, it feels like I am watching myself painfully shed my skin. All that I knew, all that I was, primarily it seems as a mother, is being broken down. This shadow is telling me I need to stop riding up and down that old street, mourning my past, and instead, move on, get on with the next business of discovering what unique components will fill my soul’s container. Perhaps the message from my mother persona in both these dreams is that it is now time to discharge her, to release her from her old duties, and let her go. And it’s OK.
Rohr links this shadowboxing with the ego and its mirror to spiritual development and maturity. “Yes, we must write ourselves a life script. We have no choice, but do not make it too public, too certain and too superior, or you might just find yourself trapped there forever…. Could this be what Jesus means by the necessity of “dying to the self”?”
What lessons have you received from dreams? Have you encountered your shadow? What does she or he look like? Do you recognize them?
Welcome them in, they have an important message to deliver.