Now the act of seeing begins your work of mourning…
As your tears fall over that wounded place,
May they wash away your hurt and free your heart…
-Excerpt, John O’Donohue, “For Someone Awakening to the Trauma of His or Her Past” in To Bless the Space Between Us
Most of us arrive at Adulthood with at least a handful of wounds to body, heart and spirit. There are many good reasons for letting these injuries ‘rest’ unexamined. Our Present has greater claim on us than the Past, we are wary of getting stuck in bitterness, and we recognize that the sources of injury were themselves injured. While these arguments are all valid, in many cases, our past remains with us. Unacknowledged or unrecognized, our injuries may distort our present experiences and relationships so that we see through a dark fester of thorns, unable to fall towards love – in the words of John O’Donohue.
Dreams often call attention to our wounds, with the intention to help us see them and heal. Our first big challenge is to become courageous enough to actually look, to take the dreams seriously, not dismiss them: the act of seeing begins.. (the) work of mourning… In this Invitation I would like to share a few dreams that helped me to accept the reality of my own injuries and develop faith in the healing process. I share with the hope that my experience will provide a sense of camaraderie to others on a similar path, a faith that the dreams can help sustain us in our process, wash away the hurt and free the heart. Certainly, not all wounds can be healed, but many can be tempered, borne with fewer impediments to full living.
In my early dreams, I frequently found myself wandering hospital corridors. Worried I had forgotten to visit my patients, the only patient forgotten was myself. It took a while to loosen the grip of my professional identity (I trained as a physician before becoming a psychotherapist) and recognize that my dreams were concerned with my own injuries and healing, rather than my role as the doctor in charge; so much easier to give to others what I myself most needed.
Many dreams depicted leg injuries, an impairment that reflected (in part) my difficulty standing my ground and an inability to speak my true desires. While I prided myself on being confident and independent minded, this was mostly true in situations where I was acting on behalf of another. But I didn’t want to see:
There is an explosion. Two girls suffer extensive injuries of their legs. I believe they want to hide these injuries, but their ‘Father’ already knows. He tells me, “The one thing that is forbidden is to cover the wounds with gauze.”
I am a part of the explosion but in the dream have no awareness of the injuries I have sustained, so the dream presents not one, but two girls who are injured. In seeing them I begin to explore the shame I feel for having injuries in the first place. How can I be loved if I am wounded? It seems I must explore this layer before I am able to feel the deeper pain of the injury itself. The father in this dream feels authoritative, archetypal. I trust him, though I don’t much like his message: the one thing that is forbidden is to cover the wounds with gauze. The injuries must be seen.
Looking at our wounds is difficult. I find it so much easier to tell the story of the ones I believe have injured me, than to recognize how the wound itself is alive in me. It is easier for me to speak, for example, about the role my mother plays in my ‘Catalog of Injury’ than to feel the ache and hobbling of my wounded base. But notice that the ‘Father’ in the dream doesn’t ask about the cause of the explosion. That is less important. In our need for an easy explanation of our suffering, we may come to premature conclusions of the true nature of our injury. And no explanation is going to heal the wound: maybe that is why so many are wary of endless years of psychoanalysis.
Sometimes I fool myself: I think I am looking when I am not, not really. I dream:
I am speaking with two surgeons. One is a kindly middle-aged man who has done surgery on me. I have a sense of growing connection, many pieces of my life coming together. Then I am in a car traveling and have stopped. I reach down to my left knee where I have had an operation. A piece of bone has been removed. I am tugging at it, curious. A flap comes up and I sense how deep it is, a chunk of flesh and muscle has been removed. I am ‘taking stock of it’ and realize that I will need to be mindful of this place.
First I experience joy and connection, then I lose it, see the wound as a thing that I will need to be mindful of. I’ll be ‘mindful’ in the future, not ‘heartful’ in present time. In other words, I make a decision to restrict my behavior, so I don’t have to feel the pain. Notice suddenly I am stopped, not moving anymore. I don’t want anything to niggle the wound. In the next part of the dream, I exclude a wounded girl from entering my car. There is no room for her. Better to stay in the stopped car, then continue to move with ‘her’ in tow.
A very common response to a wound is to restrict our lives. We avoid situations which reawaken pain, or we disconnect and deny the pain. When this happens, we often lose traction with details of our reality. In my dreams, this is presented as a forgetting or a dropping: I forget the name of the girl who is mine, I drop things I value, keys, jewels, writing.
The healing comes as I feel the pain I already know, and somehow find the experience different than I expected. I forget the name, but a dream figure holds me with love; I feel handless, but somehow I am able to hold a beautiful baby and feel great joy. My heart aches, my tears flow, and yet I feel more alive than I thought possible.
Each of us requires guidance and compassionate support to do this kind of work; I have been blessed with compassionate and wise guides all along my path – both in waking life and in my dreams. Some of these are tough love figures, like the father in the first dream. Others simply radiate compassion, like the surgeon of the second dream. Both waking world and dream figures have shown injuries they carry, how they can be borne and worked with in the service of life.
Not long ago I dreamed:
A man comes to see me. I believe he has also run away from captivity. He shows me his arm: his left lower arm has been replaced by a spiral of meat and bone with a hook on the end. I say to him, “Wow that looks really painful!” He says, “It is, but the point is to live!” Not a trace of pity in his demeanor. I am awed and inspired by his example; I want to stay with him.
His wound has become a source of his strength, not a disfigurement. This, for me, is one of the most potent forms of healing: when we can view our injuries as a source of strength, see that they illuminate us, make us more open-hearted and even beautiful. I am reminded of the Japanese practice of Kintsugi in which broken pottery is repaired with gold. In the process of repair, the vessel is made stronger, more unique and more beautiful than it was before.
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For Someone Awakening To The Trauma Of His Or Her Past
by John O’Donohue
For everything under the sun there is a time.
This is the season of your awkward harvesting,
When pain takes you where you would rather not go,
Through the white curtain of yesterdays to a place
You had forgotten you knew from the inside out;
And a time when that bitter tree was planted
That has grown always invisibly beside you
And whose branches your awakened hands
Now long to disentangle from your heart.
You are coming to see how your looking often
When you should have felt safe enough to fall
How deep down your eyes were always owned by
That faced them through a dark fester of thorns
Converting whoever came into a further figure of
You could only see what touched you as already
Now the act of seeing begins your work of
And your memory is ready to show you everything,
Having waited all these years for you to return and
Only you know where the casket of pain is interred.
You will have to scrape through all the layers of
And according to your readiness, everything will
May you be blessed with a wise and compassionate
Who can accompany you through the fear and grief
Until your heart has wept its way to your true self.
As your tears fall over that wounded place,
May they wash away your hurt and free your heart.
May your forgiveness still the hunger of the wound
So that for the first time you can walk away from
Reunited with your banished heart, now healed and
And feel the clear, free air bless your new face.
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