Monday, October 19, 2009

Dream Play with the Dead

After the annual conference of The Association for the Study of Dreams in Santa Cruz, I had treatment for my prostate cancer the week of the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center, and felt under attack myself. At the conference I had told Sven Doerner that I would come to his dream-sharing retreat in Oaxaca, Mexico during Day of the dead festivities the end of October. Local curanderos(healers) participated in the dream sharing and were available for individual healings, which sealed the deal for me.

The retreat was at Sven’s hacienda in the sacred valley of Monte Alban, which my wife and I had explored thirty years earlier. It was like going back to college to get my Triumph Spitfire. Sven’s dream-sharing approach is for the group to reenter a dream hypnagogically as in Jung’s active imagination, intensifying the bodily sensations and “cooking” them alchemically in the retort of the group. The goal is to free blocked or channeling diffuse impulse, especially opposing impulses. Blocked impulse would be earth or body bound, while diffuse would be air-borne, intellectually or spiritually. The alchemical retort of the group is transitional space between body and mind, earth and air, like the water in my Washington dream, a medium of flow versus being stuck or all over the place. Yet another imaginal space for dreamplay, but a living, human space.

After three flights from New York during post-9/11 security, I arrived in Oaxaca after dark and was driven to the hacienda wondering what I had gotten myself into. The next morning the sun lit the bougainvilla outside my window and reassured me.
In the first dream I shared with the group there is a primitive shower with a pull chain which I don’t use. I go out into the hall in my terry cloth bathrobe where my father passes me with his eyes closed as if he doesn’t want to wake up, and he’s wearing a robe like mine. The night before I had placed his watch chain on the alter for dead loved ones who may visit us during the Day of the Dead, and it served its purpose well. He had died of cancer when just a little older than I, and I was determined not to follow him. But my father was no more engaged with me in death than he had been in life. Some in the group wept for me but I remained dry-eyed until someone said, “Pull the chain!” referring to the primitive shower. Once again I was resisting the water, blocking the flow.

The next night I dreamed of two college friends in a dorm room. The larger of the two learns that his father doesn’t love him and acts out self-destructively with alcohol and cars, then dances dangerously on the balcony ledge until he falls. The smaller reluctantly goes to his assistance, taking him in his arms down on the ground. The larger one gets the smaller in a rageful grip until the smaller reassures him, “I can help you.” Next the smaller jumps down from the balcony himself, lands safely on his legs and joins the larger who is waiting with a guitar to make music together.

In sharing the dream I felt the rageful grip and the joy of making music, opposing impulses in the alchemical method. The acknowledgment, “I can help you,” allows the two to make music together rather than act out self-destructively. “The tomb is empty,” one of the local healers said, cryptically.

Later in the week on the Day of the Dead, the group spent the night in a local cemetery, where the townspeople covered the graves with marigolds and lit candles.
That day we built a sweat lodge and purified ourselves for our spirit encounters.

At the end of the week in Oaxaca I had a healing session with the curandero who made the cryptic observation. He felt my prostate cancer was a lower back problem, and I told him the dream image of being draped backwards between the bull’s horns and my back going out afterwards. He said I had undigested anger down there, and, after my dream encounter with the rageful roommate, I had to agree. The healer gave me a limpio or cleansing with sacred water blown from his mouth onto my heart and the back of my neck, and sent me back to New York with baths and pills and a medicine pouch which I carry in my pocket as.

Was it the spirit of my father who visited me in my dream on Day of the Dead, or was it a masochistic Freudian wish fulfillment, a judgemental superego, or a Jungian compensation for my spiritual inflation in the sacred valley of Oaxaca? Perhaps I, the dreamer, was encountering Winnicott’s “not me” other—a ghostly playmate. The encounter did lead to dreamplay the next night with my grief and rage that surfaced in the dream character represented by my college roommate. Our play evolved into music-making, as the grief and rage became song.


  1. This post is absolutely beautiful. You really open up here. The last line made me cry a little.

  2. Happy Day of the Dead, Caroline.