The Dreamwork Summit 2018™

Natural Dreamwork and the Sacred Encounter

Rodger Kamenetz

Susan:            Welcome, everyone. We’re here with author and dreamworker Rodger Kamenetz. Rodger is the founder of Natural Dreamwork, an approach that looks at every dream as having the potential of being a sacred encounter that can heal us. His 2007 book, The History at Last Night’s Dream, was featured on Oprah Winfrey’s Soul Series. Among his 11 books of poetry and prose is the international bestseller The Jew in the Lotus. Welcome, Rodger.It’s such a pressure to have you.

Rodger:          Thanks, Susan. Nice to be here.

Susan:            I’d love for you to start by sharing with us how you came to value working with your dreams.

Rodger:          When did everybody else stop? I think I’ve always felt my dreams were important. I remember being an undergraduate and writing down my dreams. I was also a poet from about the same age of adolescence. I think intrinsically I felt there was a connection somehow between dreams and poetry. I couldn’t have articulated it. I think in some ways that’s been the role of imagination, and dreams and poetry have really been central to me for most of my life.

Susan:            That’s beautiful, that connection with poetry. I haven’t heard anybody share that yet in this event. That’s really lovely. Can you share with us perhaps one particular dream early on that really got your attention and kept you looking at your dreams?

Rodger:          Yes. This kind of dream, I’m going to say I think so many of us have had, and it’s the dream about someone we’ve lost that we are close to, that we loved. The person comes back in a dream after their death. My mother died in 1980, and I had a dream in which she came back and spoke to me in this extraordinary way. It was so moving and so real. One of the things that she said, or strangely– she said, I said, and the universe said– was that all of these things that you think are separate are like the single motion of a wave in water. So as a result of the dream I wrote a book called Terra Infirma (Shaky Ground). It was a premature autobiography. It was quite a long time ago. I think that dream not only moved me deeply but changed my life and gave me a sense of how to tell the story of my mother’s life.

Susan:            Beautiful. Thank you for sharing that with us. That’s definitely a sacred encounter that we talked about in the opening here when I introduced you. I’d love for you to share about how our dreams have potential. Not all of our dreams are that potent. In looking at more of our “everyday dreams,” how do we look at them as being or having potential to be a sacred encounter?

Rodger:          Right. The good news is that every dream potentially has a sacred encounter. Maybe the difficult news is that often we miss it. The reason we miss it is also very interesting in itself. I think an example of a dream with a sacred encounter, certainly the dreams that all of us have of our dead, almost always the feeling of it is holy or the feeling of it is deeply moving. People will deny the meaning of their other dreams but not those kinds. But there are also figures that appear in our dreams who come to guide us or to teach us. I want to give an example. One of my co-practitioners of Natural Dreamwork, Leigh Randolph had a dream. She wrote about this on our site. Basically, she had all these dreams about an art gallery that was also filled with music.She had a really profound feeling from that dream of her own inner I guess you could call artistry and musicality. The beauty of the visual and the beauty of music were within her. She wasn’t aware of it in the same way. She said, “I began to understand that these paintings were a part of me.” Then she had another dream where she visited a gallery, and all of these paintings were hanging in galleries and they were her paintings even though she hadn’t painted since her 20s. One time she had a dream where a figure, a teacher handed her tubes of paint and said, “You can use these.” From that she began to paint. I think that’s an example, may be a fairly dramatic example of someone whose life was changed by the dream.

Susan:            It’s like a sacred encounter of her soul self, her creative self coming through.

Rodger:          Right. The teacher thrust a handful of tubes of paint at her and said, “Here, you need these.” When she woke she understood and began to paint. She’s now designed our Natural Dreamwork logo. It’s a very moving piece. She called it “The Art of Dreaming.“She wrote an essay about it for us. I think how do we get to that? This is what we’re looking for in dreams, but often we’re not available or we’re not prepared for the sacred encounter. We drive by them.

Susan:            Even the nightmare can be a sacred encounter.

Rodger:          Yes. In fact, this is really an important point because we need all of our feelings. This whole category of nightmare that’s in our culture, I would slightly correct that and say actually a nightmare is simply a dream with fear in it. Fear and terror are also on the spectrum of awe. We can’t really have the experience of awe if we’re utterly closed to the experience of fear or terror. For instance, when a child has a dream, say there’s a bear under the bed, and we say to the child, “Oh, it’s not real.” What we’re really saying is your feelings aren’t real. If we could sit with the child and say, “You were really scared there, huh?””Yes, I was.” “Do you feel that way sometimes when you’re awake?” Begin to use the dream as a parent to help the child understand her feelings. This is really what I try to do with my clients as well.

Susan:            That’s a beautiful example. Thank you, Rodger. We’ve been mentioning it, but can we jump in now and define natural dreamwork? How is this different from other approaches?

Rodger:          Well, Natural Dreamwork, I think the main difference is that we are trying to get people to experience the dream as is, that is, what was said and done and seen and heard in the dream itself, not how we interpreted it or not how we made a story up about it but the actual event in the dream. In this way, our work with dreams restores us to what I would call the event or the fact in the dream as opposed to everything that goes on around it. I could give an example.

Susan:            Please do. Yes.

Rodger:          Sure. Say I had a client who dreamed, and she was at the stove. She said she was cooking, and then she saw these strange blue sparks jumping out of the stove. But she just told herself, “Oh, I’m going to stay here and finish cooking.” I said one thing. “Well, what were you cooking? What did you actually see in front of you?” She said,”Well, actually, there was no food there.” See, that’s a fact in the dream, and it’s very important. She told herself she was cooking, that’s her story, but the event in the dream wasn’t that. She told herself in this way that we force ourselves to keep doing something because we’re supposed to, in this case, perhaps feeling obligations as the mother who cooks. I’m going to finish cooking and hope this is okay. Then the stove exploded and threw her to the floor. That was the event. That’s the event in the dream. It’s very powerful because her whole body is moved, and it really began to open up this sense of how she would urge herself on to do tasks that were really working against the real longings of her soul.

Susan:            Well, that leads us into your description of there being a space-time-feeling in dreams. How does that loop in? Can you speak to that?

Rodger:          Well, thanks for seeing in that way. Yes. Well, I’ll try. I’ll give a different example. I had a client. I live in New Orleans, so this client was in New Orleans. We have a beautiful avenue called St. Charles Avenue with wonderful live oaks all along it. She was driving down St. Charles Avenue and out the car window she spotted a nine-foot tall naked man lying out on the sidewalk. I said, “Well, did you stop?”She said, “No. I was on my way to work.” You see, “I was on my way to work” is a story. In your dream you’re not on your way to work. You have freedom. I said, “Well, what would it be like to go back to the moment before you hit the accelerator, stopped your car and just gaze at this man? What are you feeling?” “Oh, fear.” I said, “Okay. What would it be like to get out of your car and walk closer?” “Oh, great fear, great fear.” We begin to understand that as you get closer to this event, in this case the man who really had come to be her teacher in some ways, the feeling amps up. That’s an illustration. If you spend more time with the man, the feeling amps up. Space, distance and time duration, when they are increased, so the feeling increases as you get closer and as you spend more time with something. A lot of our work is just to get people to basically do what I would call contemplate or dwell on the sacred encounter, on the possibility of it and the actuality of it, to give yourself to it. We’re teaching a way of contemplating our dreams instead of interpreting them. That’s really it ,I suppose. I think this is natural. I think those dreams are meant to be for us, but we are all such authorities now. We’re all Freudians or Jungians. We have all these interpretive schemes to impose on dreams, we have symbols and we look up things in books. What we miss is the simplicity of get out of your car and encounter, see what happens.

Susan:            I love that. You also say that there are no symbols in dreams. Can you explain that?

Rodger:          Yes. I know that sounds a little mysterious and maybe I mean to be provocative, but the whole idea of symbols, of course, comes from literary studies and also from Freud and really from great traditions of dream interpretation– is after the fact. For instance, let’s say you have a dream. Oh, my goodness, I had a client once who had a dream, and there was a tiger. Unfortunately, she locked the tiger in the laundry room and went on about her business. That’s a good example of avoiding the sacred encounter because it comes with terror, it comes with awe, and it comes with great fear, so we avoid it. What I’m trying to get at is that it’s not a symbol of a tiger.In the dream it’s not a symbol of a tiger. It’s a tiger. What’s important about it is not some abstract concept of what tigers symbolize or the history of tigers or any of that. What’s important is your terror. The tiger appears in your dream to touch into a feeling and maybe to your fear of your own wildness. She locks it in her laundry room. Her laundry room is a place of drudgery. The tiger is coming and saying, “Hey, there’s a lot more to you than washing clothes.” You see where I’m coming from. The reason I say there are no symbols is simply because, again, in Natural Dreamwork, we’re focusing on the natural experience, the felt experience in the moment of these animals or persons or images that come to us.

Susan:            What kinds of tools do you share with your clients to pull them back into this feeling tone?

Rodger:          By teasing them. Why are you standing at that stove? Is it really so urgent? With the blue sparks coming, are you really going to keep standing there? I had a client. She had a dream early on where she was standing on a balcony. She saw a large of elk lying on the ground attacked by another elk. A bunch of people are watching. A young man walks away carrying the elk’s bloody antlers. She yells from the balcony, “That’s against the law.” She kept insisting on that and telling me about the federal regulations and national parks and things like that that are very worldly and has nothing to do with what the dream is really about. Finally, I said, “Do you work for the forest service?” Just like you, she laughed. That’s when we began to move. Then I could bring her back. She was on a balcony. Again, we see this distance from the wounded elk and the fear that that distance implied. I asked her to go back and come off the balcony and come closer to the elk and feel the intensity of the feelings of seeing this wounded elk. Boy, that was the beginning. This was a person who needed to learn about her fear. She wasn’t aware of fear in her life. This began a whole opening of feeling for her.

Susan:            You’re bringing the dream to life. In doing this though, we are opening us to fear, to shadow, to uncomfortable feelings. When you’re working with clients and helping through this, how do you help them to feel safe and contained? What are some ways that they can unpack these feelings and feel empowered?

Rodger:          One thing is actually not to say too much and to be with them. Clearly, it’s important to love them. I’d say that’s the most important thing, to convey, support and love. But to also hold their feet to the fire and say, “You know what? If this is too much for you, let’s back off. You tell me. If you can handle it, let’s take another step closer.”I try to be gentle. For instance, let’s say in the example I gave of the wounded elk. If I really wanted to intensify it, I would have had her touch the wounded elk. I didn’t do that. You have to have a sort of intuition of how far to take it. I don’t force it. I also stand with the dream. If the dream brought you a wounded elk, you weren’t in that dream to yell at somebody about the regulations. You are in it to encounter the elk. Maybe that helps clarify what I mean by the dream having the potential for a sacred encounter even if it’s missed.There are so much more to say about that. Actually, the same client had a really beautiful dream where there was an injured sick girl. She came up to her and she just said, “Hey.” That was so beautiful because it was an understanding. That’s what I try to do, say, “Hey, what is that?”without pushing too hard. She was learning from that dream how to be with her own soul. Ultimately, she’s become a wonderful teacher of this work to be with other people’s souls. Hey.

Susan:            That’s lovely. Thank you for sharing that. I want to backtrack a little bit. You spoke about distinguishing between “actual events” and “story-making.” I know from my own experience oftentimes if you have a dreamer draw an image or a scene, all of a sudden, they realize, like the woman you had that I believe there wasn’t anything she was cooking, when you draw that down on paper, you see oh, there isn’t anything. It can pull you out of the story-making. What tools do you use to help people in addition to humor, which I love that one?

Rodger:          Looking for the holes in the story is really important. That’s why in Natural Dreamwork we’re trying to focus on whatI would call the phenomenology, which is the fancy word of saying your actual experience in the subjective mode of what’s happening in the dream. For instance, someone will dream and say to me, “I killed somebody, and the body is in the back. The police are coming after me.” You need to test that, and you say, “Well, did you see yourself kill somebody?””No.” “Did you open the trunk?” “No.” “Then how do you know there’s a body in the back? Well, the truth is you didn’t experience it.” We focus on just simply what did you experience, and we try to peel away all the assumptions, in this case obviously a person who carries a lot of guilt. Who would assume that they’ve killed somebody? The point is in working with a person I just explore it gently and ask them these questions until I hope there are enough holes in the story that the story itself begins to collapse of its own weight.

Susan:            It seems like you’re almost playing the role of a very compassionate detective instead of going to… Because people early on, especially when they first start working with their dreams, go to a book of symbols or to the Internet and look for what does the tiger mean or what does this symbol or image mean; by unpeeling it and treating it like a real-life event, like it happens every day, then it pulls you into looking and focusing more on yourself versus the outer. I love that. I also wanted you to share about you had mentioned, in the material you sent me you said connection between imagination and soul. How do you view that connection and how do the terms “impaired imagination” and “restored imagination” fit into natural dreaming?

Rodger:          Right. Natural Dreamwork is closely related to poetry in my mind, at least the way I teach it. The experience is really coming out of a study I’ve done of the poetry of William Wordsworth, the great Romantic poet. Who, about at the time the French Revolution, had this really terrible thing where he fell in love and he had a child and then he had to leave. He went to a really profound depression. What he discovered was that inorder to heal from this depression, he didn’t call it depression, first of all.He called it impaired imagination. In a chapter of The Prelude, his autobiographical poem, he talks about this imagination, how impaired and how restored. The short of it is instead of talking about neurosis or anxiety or depression, we can just say okay, the imagination is impaired, meaning, gee, I can’t imagine a future for myself or I don’t see any possibilities for myself. We’ve lost the capacity to imagine in a healthy way a life for ourselves. The restored imagination allows us a wholer sense of ourselves. I remember one time I was depressed about my writing, it wasn’t  going well or whatever. I had a dream in which one of my teachers, Rabbi Zalman Schachter, appeared and he simply said, “Rodger, you have pages and pages in you.” He was restoring my faith in the imagination, in my own soul really. I think by focusing on imagination which the romantic poets were doing, Coleridge and Wordsworth and the ones who come after, we move the field.I nstead of talking about disease models like oh, you have a neurosis, that’s a medical model that is popular for a while, we’re really talking about no, the imagination itself can get impaired. The way it gets restored is it feeds on images. We nourish the imagination with images, images from waking life that are powerful, that are held in memory, that are full of feeling, and images from our dreams like the one I just cited about my teacher saying I have pages in me. By nourishing the imagination, we can restore it to health.

Susan:            That’s a beautiful, beautiful explanation. How can we use our dreams to restore imagination when our dreams are our imagination getting past our egoic everyday mind and allowing us to see what our soul is thinking about and wanting of us? So how can we better look through our dreams to help jumpstart a restored imagination?

Rodger:          Right. Thank you, Susan. I’ll just quibble with you a little bit because our dreams, as we actually experience them, are a mix of primary imagination and secondary imagination and fantasy and waking thoughts and ideas and habitual reaction. It’s a jumble really. That’s why we often miss the encounter. I view myself as a teacher. I’m saying let’s forget the narrative for a moment because we often write our dreams as stories.But my view is a dream is a poem disguised as a story. In other words, instead of focusing so much on the narrative when we record the dream, let’s go back. What was the one poetic moment in the dream, if we go back to the ones, I’ve given you? Clearly seeing an elk being wounded by another elk, you may not considert hat poetry in the pretty sense but it’s a poetic moment because it’s full of passion and power. What is the poetic moment in the dream? Let’s focus on that.When we do that, the story-making and fabrication and the fantasy drops away and the true power or potency of the dream for healing us comes to the fore.

Susan:            That’s lovely. Calling it a poetic moment to feel much more inviting than the terror that you might be in.

Rodger:          Right. One of the things that I learned from Wordsworth or referencing in his Prelude, he says there are, in our existence, spots of time. Most people who know anything about Wordsworth, and believe me, I love you all and forgive you if you’ve forgotten it or you skipped Wordsworth in college or high school. But no worries. It’s not a problem. Most people know his daffodil poem, I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud. He talks about the host of daffodils dancing. It’s a very beautiful, pretty poem. But when he talks about spots of time, they aren’t pretty. In fact, most of them are really difficult moments. One that he cites as an example is when he saw a pile of clothes by the side of the lake where he used to play as a seven or eight-year-old. He watched the clothes because no one came for them. Finally, he says, “The calm lake grew dark with all the shadows on its breast, and now and then a leaping fish disturbed the breathless stillness. There came a company, and in their boat sounded with iron hooks and with long poles. At length the dead man, ‘mid that beauteous scene of trees and hills and water, bolt upright, rose, with his ghastly face.”

Susan:            Thank you for sharing that.

Rodger:          Sure. It’s from The Prelude. It’s a powerful moment of encounter with death, obviously, or an experience of terror. Yet, by Wordsworth’s idea, he said, by dwelling on such moments in other times, in other circumstances, we bring this to mind and feel them, and this is what restores the imagination. They don’t have to be pretty moments, just like with our dreams. Most of our dreams aren’t pretty. Some of them are wonderfully blessed and beautiful, but most of them aren’t. But if they carry strong feelings and we dwell on them later, they nourish the imagination. This is what I believe heals us.

Susan:            Thank you for that. For listeners who are new to dreamwork, how can they get started with natural dreamwork?

Rodger:          Natural Dreamwork. Well, we have a website called which has many of our publications. For instance, the one I cited earlier by one of the teachers, her name is Leigh Randolph, called The Art ofDreaming. I’ve had some articles. Mary Jo Heyen has published a number of articles, so have others. They can read about it. They can sign up for our newsletter there. There’s a little page about us and a number of the teachers with contact information. You can have a session. You can just get in touch with one of us through email and have a free session and check it out and see,”Gee, does this work for me or is this not for me?”

Susan:            Perfect. Thank you. I’d also like to remind our listeners that if you’d like to have this recording of this special session with Rodger and the full recordings of all The Dreamwork Summit interviews for your own home library, you can find out more at We’re winding down on our time with you, Rodger. Before we go, I’m wondering if there’s one last piece of advice for our listeners regarding natural dreamwork that you’d like to share.

Rodger:          What I would say that you can do it on your own, and I think you can do a lot on your own, first of all, of course, try to remember your dreams, writing them down, and then look for the moment of greatest feeling, intensity of feeling, and just forget the rest of the story and dwell on the feeling and see what comes up for you or look for the moment of reaction when you’re not feeling but reacting. This would be my basic orientation with dreams. In other words, did I feel something, or did I react to it? For example, going back to the first dream, the wounded elk, as she was yelling from the balcony at the young man, she was in what I’d call a reaction.But when I brought her back to encounter wit the wounded elk, she entered a tremendous feeling of terror and even awe. Look for the feelings will be my three-word advice or four words. Don’t look for symbols and don’t look for meanings. Don’t look for wisdoms. Don’t look for teachings. Look for feelings because we need our feelings.

Susan:            We sure do. Thank you so much, Rodger. I really appreciate your time. Thank you to all our listeners today.

Rodger:          Susan, thank you so much. It was wonderful to hear your questions.

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