In his interview at Buddhist Geeks lama Surya Das was asked about the ways that would allow us to experience the transformative powers of spirituality in our everyday lives and outlined the following six building blocks as a base for a well-rounded and grounded spiritual practice.
- a daily, formal spiritual practice period (meditation, prayer, yoga, chanting, etc)
- some form of spiritual study (anything from opening the book of nature to studying yourself to studying your relationships)
- inner growth work (therapy, men and women’s support groups, twelve step programs)
- working with teachers, elders, experts, and mentors
- group practice, being a part of a community
- some form of service, giving back
He also noted that most of the time we already are doing one or two of those and that could be enough for some period of time (parenting, being a good colleague and worker, being engaged in the community work, etc). What I particularly was glad to hear was the point about the inner work. It is my understanding that meditation alone is not enough to help us deal with the internal issues and as another guest at BGs mentioned some time earlier, it was not designed for it. This inner growth work includes any kind of self-inquiry work that gives us insights about ourselves such as expressive arts, gardening, contemplation.
I have been exploring different forms of inner work, depending on what I have access to and what appeals to me at the moment. Moving to a greener part of town that would allow me to take walks in the fields and the forest at any time was a way to come closer to nature that always brings me back to center and is conducive to the contemplative moods as opposed to analytical thinking. I see the inner work as coming close to the unconscious part of ourselves by getting to know its language that uses symbols to communicate to us.
“To get a true sense of who we are, become more complete and integrated human beings, we must go to the unconscious and set communication with it. …It is only by approaching it that we have a chance to become conscious, complete, whole human beings… We begin to live in partnership with the unconscious rather than at its mercy or in constant warfare with it.”
Robert A. Johnson “Inner Work: Using Dreams and Active Imagination for Personal Growth”
Once I start paying attention to the dreams, my dream life became richer and fuller and I could remember up to four or five dreams on some nights. Working with the dreams brings up a lot of internal material that I don’t have a chance to encounter otherwise. As always, I looked for a structured and well-grounded way and found Robert Johnson’s four-step approach to be extremely helpful.
It is easy to slip into the usual for us methods of dealing with the dreams, taking them literally and starting with the overall interpretation right away. For example the night after a falling out with someone I dreamt that I was witnessing a brutal execution of a person. For all I knew he had not been proven guilty. I was shaken and repulsed by this whole scene. The person about to be executed seemed to be in a state of a shock himself and did not do anything to protest or protect himself from the terrible death. The most tempting way for me to interpret the dream would be to see the person I had a falling out with as a brutal executioner and myself as a victim, not proven guilty but punished anyway. Yet another dream that same night involved the huge frozen fish I had to deal with (stiff, inflexible, cold were the few association that came up for me). In the dream I tried to unfreeze in an oven of sorts but the energy device in the machine would not work. So I gave up and put the fish into the freezer box. Here, too, I could be tempted to see the fish as a symbol for the other person who would not listen, would not reason and was acting in a cold and detached way. This kind of interpretations however would not add anything to my understanding of the situation in the wake state. We can only get to the heart of the matter if we look at the dreams as the reflection of the unconscious dynamics within us rather than the reflection of what is going on in the outer world.
- even short, seemingly insignificant dreams try to tell us something we need to know
- every dream is a portrait of a dreamer: in our dreams the images should not be taken literally but as symbols, spokesmen for different parts of ourselves and the dynamics in our inner lives
- dreams often speak in extremes, compensating for our lack of awareness by extreme imagery
In our dream life we get to meet all the parts of ourselves that together make up our total self. Exploring all the images in a dream, I can look for ways in which this particular characteristic or personality is manifested in my life right now. What part of me is that? Where have I seen it functioning in my life recently? Who is it inside me who feels like that or behave in this way? Where am I being judgemental (towards myself, others)? Where am I being emotionally detached, inflexible and stiff as a frozen fish? The dream work using this particular approach unfolds in layers and lets me get to know all sides of me. Everything that is brought to the right level, even the most negative and scary stuff, can be used.
Other tools for self-exploration include anything from gazing at the flame of a candle as the night falls to using the means of expressive arts (doodling, painting one’s emotions, collaging, movement and painting, art journal etc.) Combining a few tools to the music in tune with my emotions works best for me. Sometimes I feel too constricted to start painting right away so I start with a collage and then take it from there.
It is important to not let the inner critic obstruct the creative flow and start thinking in terms of producing something, judging one’s work. When I feel this could be the case, I change the hand (I am right-handed so I use the left hand), use both hands at the same time or simply close my eyes and let the movement come from within.
I’d be interested to hear what kind of inner work you find contribute most to your practice? How does it enrich/empower/transform your life?