Living ‘Til We Die

“I asked my doctor how long I have to live. She said, ‘Two months.’ Then, she paused, and said’ ‘Two to five, depending.'”

Jay and I had been friends for a long time. We usually meet for lunch once a month at our favorite restaurant, halfway between his home and mine, about a twenty-minute drive. I knew he had health issues, as most of us do when approaching our 70’s and 80’s. But Jay had mentioned, almost in passing at our previous lunch meeting, that he may be moving towards Hospice Care. I couldn’t believe it!

The man sitting across the table from me was fully alive. If you asked me to give you an example of someone who fit that description, “fully live,” Jay would easily come to mind. At 78, Jay had had at least four different careers during a long life that suddenly felt way too short. His current vocation was heading up a non-profit bestowing grants to organizations who confronted difficult population issues, usually in third world countries. For someone on their way to the end of life, Jay seemed as alive as ever.

There are people with whom our paths have crossed, that, looking back, seem more than coincidental. It’s as if someone other than me is writing this novel of life while placing certain characters in the plotline just at the moment I needed them. Jay is one of those.

I first met Jay when my first wife and I were heading towards divorce after 25 years of marriage. We sat down with Jay, a Family Mediator at the time, in a humble brick building on Park Road in Charlotte, while Jay laid out for us a plan to work out the terms of a separation agreement. Jay looked like a “dead head” wearing coat and tie — with his long, dark hair and beard. Affable, intelligent, and clearly a student of good communication and relational skills, my fears about the process settled down under the patient explanation of what my wife and I were about to face head-on. Three sessions, spaced several weeks apart, and we were done.

Fast forward at least 10 years, in my 50’s, recovering from a second divorce — the dreaded “rebound” marriage — I felt lonely and in need of male friendship. I needed men who weren’t married so we could talk about things only singles could understand. I had taken a class with Jay on “Faith Beyond Religion,” and was impressed again with his intelligence and his willingness to push the bounds of religious beliefs. So I found his phone number, and dialed.

“Hi Jay. I really enjoyed your class. Would you care to meet sometime?”

“Sure,” came the familiar resonant, deep voice. “I like walking while talking. Care to join me some evening after work on the greenway?”

“Sounds great to me.” I had an instant sense that a meaningful connection had been made.

It’s a mystery to me how these things happen. Carl Jung coined the term, “synchronicity.” We normally just call them “chance.” But I don’t buy it. What I believe now, after 10 years of a friendship that has had it’s highs and it’s lows, is that God was in my loneliness, and also in the friendship that unfolded on long walks and soulful talks over supper. It’s been one of those things that we refer to as, “It was meant to be.”

We live in a world that worships the material, the cause and the effect, explainable reasons and what can be measured or quantified. But for all that I have experienced with Jay over the years and what I have learned and what we have shared, I consider it to be true: “Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.”

Jay is one of my Angels. And I trust that I’ve been something like that for him.

Dreamwork: A GPS System for the Soul

Monarch ButterflyWhy do dreamwork? One could certainly do other valuable things in the early morning rather than spending time writing down dreams and images from the night before. Sipping morning tea or coffee, reading the paper, working out, reading devotions, or just getting ready to meet the day — all worthy activities. So why do dreamwork?

The answer, for me, is that there really isn’t any universal reason that one should do dreamwork. Dreams are interesting, entertaining, and, according to some dream researchers, dreams accomplish necessary functions regardless of whether we attend to them or not. Apparently, dreams help to integrate memories, thoughts, and emotions important for our survival. In fact, if we are prevented from REM sleep and thus dreaming, we will begin to hallucinate in waking life! Some dream researchers even claim that dreams, left unattended, still serve as a kind of “unconscious psychoanalysis” that works nightly to keep us in balance.

So, there needs to be some compelling reason for doing dreamwork, a reason that addresses a felt need on the part of the dreamer. A reason such as a desire to understand relational difficulties that seem to repeat themselves, despite our best efforts to change. Or one might want to better understand what vocation or career one is being called to. Or you might be confronted with the challenges of parenting or of aging, or some other life transition.

A common reason people give for doing dreamwork is that they desire to grow spiritually — knowing that our ego-centric lives, by definition, ultimately defend us against the authentic stirrings of our souls. When people feel that there is “something missing,” dreamwork is something they turn to in order to discover what their egos are unable to find.

This is the perspective of Jung’s view of the ego-Self axis.

ego self axis

As we go through life, we typically shift from being united with our deeper selves to gradually becoming more and more alienated from the Self, the God-image (imago dei) that is unique to each individual. So the question is a good one: “How do I stay in-tune with my own soul? How do I open up to God’s guidance in my life?”

Most forms of spiritual discipline do not help with this process of experiencing in a deeply felt way God’s guidance for one’s life. Prayer, Worship, Bible Study, doing acts of charity — all of these tend to rely on conscious behavioral practices. They do not deal with the unconscious, where the God-image or Self resides. While other spiritual practices, such as Centering or Contemplative Prayer, Lectio Divina, Walking the Labrynth, and Meditation do provide ways of setting consciousness aside in order to provide for a more immediate experience of the Sacred or the Holy.

Dreamwork enables a person to go more directly and consciously to the Source — the GPS system inside of us that God has so wonderfully designed for our guidance through life. Just as the Monarch Butterfly (See Flight of the Butterflies at IMAX) “knows” precisely how to travel over 2500 miles, not to a country or a county or a city or a town, but to a specific mountain peak where it has never been before, so we can find our way through the challenges, the storms, and the uncertainties of life to fulfill God’s plan for us by paying close attention to our dreams.

Of course, it involves taking time to write our dreams down, learning how to interpret our dreams, either alone or preferrably in a group. Also, reading deeply and widely in Jungian psychology is a must, it seems to me. It may take years to learn well the symbolic language of archetypes and one’s own personal symbol-world. But the opportunity to live one’s life feeling “fully alive,” deeply in touch with the same energy that formed the stars, the planets, the incredible diversity of Mother Earth, as well as the chance to make a unique difference in this world — for those willing to travel this journey, what a remarkable privilege!


Knowing God, Knowing Ourselves — Is There a Relationship?

The LabyrinthWho looks outside, dreams.

Who looks inside, awakens.

                                     Carl Gustav Jung

In the ancient wisdom tradition of the early church, it was an accepted fact: we dream in order to know God. How, then, is this ancient tradition connected to the contemporary idea: we dream in order to know ourselves?

This, I think, is a great question for our consideration. It addresses the criticism of some who see working with dreams as simply a form of navel-gazing, a merely selfish — while entertaining — enterprise. While others, such as those involved in Christian dreamwork circles, see dreams as a way to bridge “knowing the self” and “knowing God.” We can, they claim, do both — and do so with curiosity, increasing skillfulness, humility, reverence, and even entertainment as well!

Death, for example, is a familiar theme in both religious practices and depth psychological ways of viewing the life of the soul. “Dying daily” to sinfulness and selfish-attachments is not just the perview of Christians seeking to become closer to God. For death, symbolically, speaks to multiple ways in which our ego-centered lives are confronted by the challenges of growth and openness to change — always a blend of hope and new life mixed with suffering and angst. We can literally “die” inside, for example, if we stubbornly resist adjusting to changing circumstances — classically exhibited in cases of delayed adult maturity or in cases of dependency on substances rather than relying on building healthier means of coping. “Letting go and letting God,” a slogan made famous by the Alcoholics Anonymous movement, embodies the reality that growth and change involve both dying to self and walking more intimately with the Divine.

So, while experiences of death in a dream — of either ourselves or others — can be deeply disturbing on the face of things, depth psychology and dreamwork open the way for seeing God’s hidden hand at work shaping our souls. Death can be seen as a metaphor or symbol, rather than as a conrete fact.

For example, a recent conversation between me and my wife centered around the death of beloved “parts of me” in a dream that I had the night before. It turned out that both of us were holding fears within us about impending changes in our lives and how those changes — which both of us wanted and desired — felt somewhat threatening at a personal level. Our discussion did not absolutely resolve the “threats,” but by allowing the metaphor of death a legitimate voice, we were able to experience a greater sense of mutual support, understanding, and energy for facing into the changes.

In the Christian tradition, the Celebrant at the Lord’s Table calls out to us in the name of Jesus Christ: “Come, die with me. Come die with me, so that you might really taste life and live fully!” And the promise is that, in dying to ego-centeredness, we will find both more of God and more of our authentic selves at the same time. Spiritually then, death is not necessarily a tombstone blocking our paths. It may be, instead, a potential warning, or an invitation to grow, or a mirror that shows us truths about our struggles, or even a spirit-guide who leads us onward towards a life of Resurrection, of hope, of faithfulness, and of vitality.