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In the Company of Friends
Dreamwork Within a Sufi Group
By Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee
The Golden Sufi CenterCopyright © 2008 The Golden Sufi Center
All rights reserved.
THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY
For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as I am known.
THE GOLDEN THREAD
Dreams tell stories. They are the stories of our inner life, the tales of our unconscious self, our fears and hopes, despairs and loves. Like fairground mirrors they offer different pictures of ourself, seeming distortions of both beauty and horror. Sometimes we are chased down endless corridors, sometimes we meet the lover we long for. Always our dreams point behind the façade of the world, revealing other faces than those we show to our friends and colleagues.
But amidst the seeming distortions of our dreams, in the myriad reflections they offer us, a single thread is hidden. This thread is our own story; not the story of our outer life, but the deeper destiny of our own being. It is the story of the soul going Home, the search for the invisible treasure which is nothing other than our own essence.
In the outer world we are continually distracted, caught, and confused by our desires, by the responsibilities, difficulties, and attractions of everyday life. But when we sleep the outer world disappears. We are free to forget its illusions. We are free to hear the voice of our own longing as it speaks to us in our dreams, telling us the stories of our innermost self, a self we have often forgotten and disowned. When we awake the dream remains as a reminder, pointing our way along the path. It carries with it the energy of the inner world, the scent of the garden of the soul. The work then is to make the dream real: to integrate its energy into consciousness and make its story a part of our life.
Following our dreams, watching their images and listening to their music — this work is a process of attunement, attuning our consciousness to our own mystery, the heartbeat of our own soul. And as we listen to our dreams, so they share their secret, they point to this golden thread that is the innermost dream. This dream is the soul's one message: the spiritual purpose of our life which is the journey Home. The golden thread connects us to the Source, that place deep within the heart where Truth is waiting. And as we follow this thread, slowly we see that behind every reflection, behind every masked face, whether lover or tyrant, is our own face. This is not the face that we show to the world or even show to ourself. It does not belong to the ego or the personality, but is hinted at by our dreams. Both unknown and familiar it is "the face we had before we were born."
As we watch our dreams we sense this essential aspect of our being. Unknowingly we feel the attraction, and hear the call from the depths to "return to the root of the root of your own self." Opening to our dreams we open an inner eye which can trace the golden thread of our own unique spiritual path. Slowly this thread becomes clearer, more distinct. We attune ourself to its subtleties, learn to listen to the guidance it offers. It calls to us, and, responding, we look inward, gradually glimpsing the profound purpose of our life. In this way our destiny comes to meet us and our sense of alienation dissolves. We become familiar with our own essence.
To work with dreams is to work with the symbolic substance that underlies our life. The images and symbols that come to us in dreams are not idle fantasies, but point to a reality that is deeper than the reality of the outer world. Almost all processes of inner growth and transformation depend upon working with this symbolic stratum of the psyche. It forms the embryo from which we are reborn.
Dreamwork can take many forms, and each of us learns to work with our dreams in our own way; we learn to make our own intimate relationship with our symbolic nature. Some dreams remain as an enigma, reminding us that we are deeper than logic and more profound than the mind can grasp. As we bring these dreams into our waking life we allow their mystery to be infused into the ordinary world, blurring the borders with which we delineate ourself. Their subtle impact upon our consciousness reminds us that the unknown is always greater than the known. Their energy permeates the protective boundaries we have erected, gradually breaking down the walls that hide our consciousness from the infinite inner world.
Medieval sailors stayed close to the shore, for on their maps the deeper seas were charted with unknown dangers. Voyaging beyond the horizon one could fall off the edge of the world. Twentieth-century conditioning has charted the inner world with similar warnings. We are advised to stay close to the shore and keep our attention focused on the known land of consciousness, the towns and cities of our rational civilization. But just as the pull of the unknown forced the mariners to sail beyond the horizon, into those seas marked "Here there be dragons," so do our dreams bring disquieting and exciting news of real adventures and fantastic mythical creatures. When a friend dreamt that a wounded unicorn flew to her asking for help, she was confronted by a dimension of herself that was both miraculous and frightening.
The inner world comes to us in our dreams because it needs our attention. It is not a problem to be solved but a part of our self that needs to be accepted and understood. Carl Jung wrote, "A dream that is not understood remains a mere occurrence; understood it becomes a living experience." We need to make our dreamworld into a living experience, because only then can we be nurtured by its magic. This magic is our own essence, which the walls of our rational culture have shut out and banished. Dreamwork helps us to make this magic real, and so enables us to be nourished by the manna that we need on our journey Home.
A SPIRITUAL CONTEXT FOR DREAMWORK
In the Sufi tradition we share dreams within a group, which is an important complement to individual dreamwork. Ultimately it is for the dreamer to feel the substance of his dream and integrate its meaning into consciousness. But sharing dreams within a group can greatly help this process, not just for the dreamer but for all those who are participating.
When dreams are shared within a space made sacred through meditation and aspiration, their inner core and deepest meaning become more visible, more accessible to consciousness. Through meditation the space is cleared of many of the thought-forms that distract us from our inner work. And at the same time meditation aligns the group with the Self and with the whole process of the journey Home. Thus the song of the soul can be heard more clearly and consciousness can be open to the mystery of a dream. In this way the energy of the group "opens" the dream, enabling its symbols to be more translucent. It is as if the journey itself within the listeners welcomes the dream that is being told.
This journey is not just a path we walk or a route we take, but a living substance of the soul, a spiritual energy that we need to bring into our daily life. This is the esoteric meaning of Christ's saying, "I am the way, the truth and the life." In the depths of the psyche there is a substance that is both the pilgrim and the path, and one of the experiences that the wayfarer encounters is the realization that he or she is the path, that the spiritual journey does not take you anywhere, but is an unveiling of our inner essence. I once had a dream in which the teacher was leading me and the group away from a children's school round and round in circles. In the dream I was annoyed that we were not being led anywhere, but when I awoke I realized that the dream's message was that there is nowhere to go. At the beginning, in the "children's school" of the dream, there is the idea of a spiritual quest or journey that takes us from one place to another. Later we have to let go of that illusion, and instead allow our inner essence to unfold into our life. The journey is like an inward spiral that takes us deeper and deeper, until finally both the journey and the traveller vanish and only His presence remains. In the center of the spiral there is the final mystery of our nonexistence.
The Self hidden in the depths of the unconscious calls to us and we respond, turning inward, seeking what we have lost. Our dreams guide us, outlining the path, pointing us deeper, giving us glimpses of the mystery He has hidden within us. The journey is endless because we are endless. It is an opening into our own infinite nature. In the following dream the dreamer hopes to have arrived somewhere, but even the sense of direction dissolves into a greater horizon:
With a small group of people I am climbing up a steep mountain. We are equipped with mountain boots, but no safety rope. I look around me and realize that this mountain is completely vertical, then I go on climbing up. Having with relief reached the top, I glance around and all I can see is a vast landscape of hills covered with trees, forest, and more hills! Oh no ... and which direction?
The journey is a living presence that dissolves the frontiers of our consciousness, enabling us to slowly merge into the limitless dimension of our own being. The journey leads us into the eternal present, and at the same time it is the eternal present coming to meet us. It is both the call of the Self and our response to this call. It leads us from the mind, which functions in duality — our mind registers through contrast and comparison — to the heart, which embraces us in the oneness of love. Thus at the beginning we understand this process of inner transformation from a mental perspective as a journey which leads us from one place to another, but slowly love dissolves the mind and the journey becomes a meeting in which we are immersed deeper and deeper until finally we become lost in the vast oneness of the heart.
This living presence we call the journey resonates to the inner mysteries expressed in dreams, and this resonance creates a state within the group in which the dreams allow themselves to unfold more completely. Dreams are not bound by the strict logic of the mind, and are thus able to introduce our consciousness to inner realities which can appear paradoxical. The receptive psyche of the group allows this quality of a dream to be held and fostered, rather than attacked by the thought-forms and fears of the rational mind. Dream reality is very elusive and easily overshadowed by the denser nature of the material world. And just as you cannot appreciate a painting in a room cluttered with refuse, neither can you sense the meaning of a dream in an environment that is not sympathetic. This is particularly important in dreams that direct us into the often disturbing realm of the spirit. Dreams that tell of the security that only lies in total insecurity need to be heard in a space inwardly aligned to this process.
The following dream tells the simple story of a pending execution which from a spiritual perspective is highly auspicious. It was dreamt by a man the night before he came to a Sufi group for the first time:
Seven men have been sentenced to death, to be shot in the head. The judge is in the next room and although there is the possibility of a pardon he is not interested in giving it.
The dreamer awoke from this dream in a very disturbed state. But when he told the dream within the group it was welcomed as the song of a soul going Home. The image of being shot in the head points to a journey beyond the mind, while the whole theme of an execution images the death of the ego. This death is the sacrifice that makes us love's willing slave, and allows us to live in the presence of the Beloved. Rûmî joyfully tells us of this lover's bargain:
I would love to kiss you.
The price of kissing is your life.
Now my loving is running toward my life shouting,
What a bargain, let's buy it.
The Sufi seeks to "die before we die," to transcend the ego while still living in this world. The real executioner is always the Beloved into whose hands the lover gives his whole being. Only the Beloved can hold the heart and cut the threads that attach it to the world, though the sheikh, or teacher, as someone who is already "dead," who is surrendered to God, is able to play the part of executioner. Bahâ' ud-Dîn Naqshband, the founder of the Naqshbandi order, was said to have had the position of executioner at the court of a ruler of Bukhârâ; and Irina Tweedie would often refer to her Sufi master, Bhai Sahib, as her beloved executioner.
Spiritual values are often the direct opposite of worldly values. When the dreamer awoke from his dream of a pending execution he was threatened by images whose meaning he did not understand. But when he told it within the group its deepest meaning could be contained and affirmed. He was given the opportunity to appreciate the dream's auspicious and unambiguous message.
THE GROUP AS A CONTAINER
The group was able to provide a context for this dream and help the dreamer understand its transformative potential. But the dreamwork happens not just on a mental level, not just on the level of interpretation. There is an inner dynamic in which the group psyche responds to the dream, affirming its potency to the psyche of the dreamer and providing a container to help him integrate it into consciousness.
In therapy or analysis it is the relationship between the therapist and the client that provides the alchemical vessel that contains the inner work. Without this container the client would not feel secure enough to uncover whatever difficulties or vulnerabilities lie at the source of the problem. This sense of security happens primarily at an unconscious level — the psyche of the client feels safe. The same process happens within a group in that the group is a psychological container for the dreamwork. It is this sense of security that enables the psyche of the dreamer to open and become more accessible to consciousness.
For the psyche the greatest sense of security is given by the energy of the Self. Although the Self may be threatening to the mind and to the ego-consciousness, for the psyche it provides the ultimate security. It is the rock that is the foundation of our psychic structure. Thus the more a group is attuned with the energy of the Self, the greater the sense of security that is experienced. This enables a quality and depth of dreamwork to take place that reflect the spiritual orientation of the group.
However, the security offered by the energy of the Self is directly opposite to any concept of ego-security. The Self offers an inner security that is absolute and not relative, and is based upon detachment rather than attachment. It is not dependent upon emotional or material well-being, but rather an inner state of poverty. This attitude of spiritual poverty is reflected in a Sufi saying: "Only that which cannot be lost in a shipwreck is yours," and of course in a shipwreck you can lose even your life. Security for the Self is insecurity for the ego.
The group's alignment to the energy of the Self provides an inner foundation for the work of self-transformation whose goal is to transcend the ego. Yet because at the same time this energy can be destabilizing and destructive to the ego patterns that often appear to offer people security, it can make a Sufi group inwardly dangerous because the unconscious dynamic is directed towards destroying both outer and inner attachments. Somebody once flew across America to come to our group, only to run away after a few minutes. She sensed the dynamic emptiness at the core of the group and it terrified her.
Many people are attracted to "spiritual" groups for the sense of a collective security based upon inner attachments rather than inner freedom. The collective psychological patterns that bond a group together can often be forms of codependence or shared shadow-projection. Codependence is essentially a collective insecurity in which the individuals do not have to stand on their own feet but are rather supported by the group dynamic. In some instances this group dynamic can be the collective adherence to a charismatic leader to whom the members of the group surrender their individual will. A shared shadow-projection is most obvious in politics in which one party believes itself to be right and all others wrong. This reaches a dangerous extreme in religious fanaticism when the group coheres around the notion that only the followers of a particular ideology are to be saved. Psychologically this creates a codependence in which the individual's sense of self-worth comes from belonging to the "chosen ones."
However, if a group has the energy of the Self at its central core then the participants are continually thrown back upon themselves, and are not allowed to become dependent upon anything other than the Self. The Self pulls us inward to our essence which is hidden in the unconscious. It focuses us upon our individual inner journey. The Self is tremendously dynamic and can be understood as a spinning center or "pole." The nature of this spinning is that it throws off impurities and only at the center is there any stability. Those who seek the security that only comes with total insecurity are attracted to this center, while others find the energy too disturbing and leave the group.
Excerpted from In the Company of Friends by Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee. Copyright © 2008 The Golden Sufi Center. Excerpted by permission of The Golden Sufi Center.
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