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Dawn Dickson Psychotherapy

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Walking the Sacred Wheel: The Way of the Visionary
with Dawn Dickson, MSW, LICSW

Using Angeles Arrien’s The Four Fold Way and material from the Sacred Circles Institute, we will explore ways to access the numinous in our lives in an experiential and supportive group focused on the ancient Wheel of Life. Engaging with the archetypes and energies of the four directions of the wheel, participants will have the opportunity to go deeper into themselves and their relationship to nature and the unseen world for connecting, understanding, and healing themselves, the collective, and the planet. Using indigenous wisdom and teachings from the Mystery traditions, group members will explore both inner and outer landscapes.
March 4: Callings and Synchronicity
March 18: The Vision Quest
April 1: Shamanic Journeys
April 15: Meditation and Mystery
May 6: Personal Power
May 20: The Creative Spark

First and third Wednesdays – 6:30 to 8:30 PM. $140 for six sessions or $25 per session.

All sessions held at Standing Stone Healing and Arts, 943 N. 89th St. Seattle 98103

Please bring drums and rattles if you have them, a blanket for your chair, a water bottle, and journal/pen.

To enroll, contact Dawn Dickson at (206) 777-5283 or

Dawn Dickson, MSW, LICSW is a psychotherapist in private practice in Seattle. She has seventeen years experience engaging in psycho-spiritual, ceremonial and transpersonal group work focused on healing and transformation. Dawn has worked with indigenous peoples in the United States, Mexico and Peru.
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“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
— Mary Oliver


When we face challenges that change us forever, it is often difficult for us to connect events to any purpose. The adversities that life can deliver most times have that "It happened to me" feeling. We may feel we were given a raw deal or dealt a bad hand, and somehow the experience becomes something to rail about or endure. Surely it is important for us to lend compassion to the pain of turmoil and tragedy. We need to bear witness for each other in times of great challenge and emotional upheaval. But there comes a time when we ask ourselves, "Was this all for nothing?" 

I recently had the privilege to sit with a group of cancer survivors to discuss finding meaning in the face of adversity. I asked the group to bring a small item that symbolized something that has great meaning in their lives. The purpose of this exercise was to help them connect with the symbolic so that they might see the symbolism and metaphors in their own situations. It was also a way to show how one event can have many meanings. I was deeply moved by the symbols that each individual chose to share. One man brought a medal he had won for completing a triathlon one year after his cancer treatment was completed. Someone else brought decorative metal plates that each told a story from when she had visited India. She said that looking at them reminded her of a time when she was not afraid, a time when she felt free and larger than herself. An older gentleman who is part Native American brought a dream-catcher that his grandmother made which had always hung in the window of his bedroom while growing up. It still does, and to him, the hand-crafted talisman reflects the reminder to recall the good dreams and bring them to life. Another woman used crinkly gold paper to fashion flames leaping upward. She said that it symbolized the perpetual flame of caring that burns in her heart. Finally, a young woman told the story of feeling isolated and depressed given her breast cancer diagnosis. She was someone who preferred to stay away from groups and not speak up in public. Breast cancer had added to her already shaky self-esteem. She said she found meaning and a renewed sense of self-worth from a support group for young women dealing with breast cancer. The symbol she brought to the group was attached to her body. She showed us a tattoo on the inside of her forearm of a pink ribbon with these words scripted below: She is clothed in strength and dignity, and she laughs without fear of the future. We can see so many messages about meaning in these items. In their expressions, we can see meaning found in transcendence, courage, heritage, tradition, remembering dreams, the spark of life, warmth, the power of community, and a reclaiming of what is essential. 

Sometimes we find meaning in our experiences. Other times, when we are searching and searching for something to make sense, we realize actually that we have to make meaning. Victor Frankl who wrote the classic book Man's Search for Meaning says that it was not the strongest who survived Nazi concentration camps, but those who could make some kind of meaning of the situation, however horrific. I saw a TED talk recently where author Andrew Solomon talks about growing up gay and bullied, and how he is now grateful for those times because they allowed him to forge meaning and create identity. That kind of transcendence is what is necessary to heal trauma. Forging meaning and creating identity does not diminish the traumatic event or make it right, but rather it says, "This is the stuff I am made of and this is how I am going to use it." There are some things in life that will never make sense. There are some things that were meant to remain a mystery. But human beings are meaning-makers. I do not believe it is all for nothing. We have purpose, our existence matters and our lives have meaning. 
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Illness as a Transformative Experience

Prior to opening my private practice, I worked for many years as an Oncology Social Worker. For a year I provided weekly therapy through an interpreter to an Iraqi woman, a refugee, with an aggressive breast cancer. She was terrified given language and cultural barriers. She initially hid her diagnosis from her six children by never removing the hijab from her bald head in their presence. In her view, she was permanently damaged with a death sentence. Most of our therapy involved acknowledging feelings, dispelling myths, and helping her navigate the confusing and often impersonal healthcare system. 

After many months, I felt a bit stuck in our work together. At a loss, I described Joseph Campbell’s model of dealing with adversity. In A Hero With a Thousand Faces (1949), Campbell outlines commonalities found in stories cross-culturally and historically where the protagonist must venture out on an arduous journey of challenge and discovery. The hero receives a call and wishes he hadn’t. He tries to refuse the call but realizes he has little choice. The hero always leaves home (comfort, safety, familiarity) and heads out alone (even with a large support system, the cancer patient is, in a sense, on their own). As Campbell puts it, the hero receives The Call to Adventure. Stories, myths, and movies show us that the adventure could be anything - wandering the maze to kill the Minotaur, entering the belly of the whale, obtaining the ring from the underworld, or entering the Hunger Games arena. I like the motif of the dark forest. When we enter the forest, we cannot see; we do not know where we are going, it is disorienting. While the goal is to find the Holy Grail, exit the forest and return home, the hero must first face many tests, obstacles, challenges and dangers. This resonates for anyone dealing with illness.

While making his way, the hero is given a task: He must find the hidden treasure which may be easy or difficult to find; the treasure may be large or small; there may be one treasure or many. I have heard cancer patients say that they have discovered a renewed sense of compassion for self and others. I remember a perpetually busy man deciding to take his whole family on a long cruise. One woman came into support group and announced, “I did it! I bought a piano!” She had frugally denied herself something she had always wanted, and now she was taking piano lessons. 

Not everyone finds the treasure and some don’t even look. Nor is finding the treasure necessarily contingent upon survival. I have known people to be cured from cancer who never allowed themselves to be introspective enough to dig for it while others cherish the treasures they find before they leave this world. The idea is to locate the treasure, exit the forest and return home to share it with the village. It is the community’s job to welcome the hero home. We might also say that he returns home to himself, changed, with an inner treasure, hard won and life altering.

So what is it that makes one person look for the treasure while others barrel through without contemplation? I have often wondered what the mechanism is in which one person cannot emerge from the maze of despair while another is able to transcend adversity, make meaning, and move on. Lawrence LeShan wrote about this idea in Cancer as a Turning Point (1990), which has sparked workshops and conferences around the country. He encourages patients to question the meaning of their illness and asks what might be emerging as a new life purpose given their circumstances. The literature on post-traumatic growth (PTG) may also give us some ideas about this. It is suggested that with PTG, one moves beyond simple recovery where we can see an enhancement of their psychological state. It involves “a process of revision and reconstruction of shattered beliefs that results in the development of new beliefs and assumptions that can accommodate the traumatic experience.” (Gerrish, N., Dyck, M., Marsh, A. Post-Traumatic Growth and Bereavement; Mortality, Vol 14, No. 3, August 2009). The assumptions that correlate with PTG include a belief that the world is benevolent, that the world is meaningful, and that the self is worthy. In other words, resiliency is linked to these internal schemas. Perhaps this is why someone with a history of significant trauma may have more difficulty in adjustment to illness, since their prior experience may very well have contributed to the development of different schemas.

Cancer patients often ask, Why me? This question may be rooted in grief related anger, or it may simply be an attempt to make sense of what seems so senseless. Perhaps the question people need to ponder is not so much Why?, but How? What? and Where? How has this illness changed me? What is my disease trying to tell me? Where in my life have I abandoned myself? These questions are less accusatory than the question Why? They are softer, include inquiry, curiosity, and multiple possible answers. They allow for compassion. At some point in every social worker’s career, they will encounter at least one client who is grappling with a life threatening or chronic illness. These ideas may be good to keep in mind as we work with people suffering with illness. 

As I told her The Hero’s Journey story, my Iraqi patient looked at me with wide eyes. Through tears she said, “I know what the treasure is. The treasure is my life, and when I get through all of this, I am going to learn English. Maybe I will have American friends.” Touched, I reflected, “Now wouldn’t that be a great gift to the community?”  She eventually felt ready to leave therapy. Occasionally I would get calls from other refugee patients that were sent to me by her. I was happy to know that she had come out of isolation to help others. One day, many years later, while at a local well filling large bottles with fresh water, I looked across the well and saw her. Wearing her beautiful abaya and hijab, she walked over and hugged me. I am still deeply moved by the vision of two women from very different worlds, surrounded by onlookers, embracing at the well. I smiled when she spoke to me in English. I thanked her for finding the treasure and bringing it back to the village.
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"The is the true joy in life,
the being used for a purpose recognized
by yourself as a mighty one."

-George Bernard Shaw

The next time you want to complain about Seattle City Light, remember this story.

For many years I saw an eccentric bearded man walking his dog in my neighborhood. I would occasionally stop to chat with him and we would engage in lengthy philosophical discussions about the miracle and preciousness of life. I thought he was a kind man, and quite Zen in his approach to life. I always looked for him and would notice him walking his dog Pongo, but I never knew where he lived. One day on my walk I saw him standing on the dilapidated porch of his old home. The house was clearly beyond run-down, with overgrown bushes, piles of wood, and a ladder being used to replace a missing handrail. It was then that realized that my Zen friend was a hoarder.

By now, most people have seen the show Hoarders. A crew of televised helpers moves in to someone’s home of tunneled belongings, and often times filth, to help the recipient stay in their home and cope with the change that come with the purging of heir precious stuff. It’s an emotional process that leaves the dweller feeling increasing anxiety and the viewer wondering how on earth such a situation could come into being. Hoarding is a diagnosable disorder that is classified under anxiety and obsessive/compulsive disorders. Collecting things - almost anything it seems - creates a sense of safety for people for a variety of reasons. Whenever I see that show, I look around my own house and wonder where I am on the continuum of this ailment that causes such distress. The process of de-cluttering creates stress for most people. So many items are imbued with importance. All of the things that are sentimental, for example, or the items that might someday be useful and therefore wasteful to discard. For the true hoarder, somehow it all gets out of hand and tangled up in old defenses, out of control anxiety, and shame. The treatment can be long, distressing, and sometimes involves drastic intervention.

On my walk today I notice that my neighbor Jack’s street is blocked off. Several trucks and two dumpsters line the street. Table saws are set up next to stacks of two-by-fours. I can’t help it - I detour my route to investigate. I run into several people wearing Seattle City Light tee shirts. They proudly tell me that they have been at Jack’s for two days doing renovation. The work actually began months ago as they assessed and discussed the plans with Jack. It turns out that every April 27th, Seattle City Light works with a program called Rebuilding Together where employees volunteer along with 1500 other volunteers and numerous businesses across the city to help repair the homes of people in need. Jack had a leaky roof and his local senior center helped him apply for assistance.

The workers tell me stories about Jack I never knew. He has a masters’ degree in English Literature. He loves stones and collects them in his yard in various shapes and sizes. He plays the washtub bass - a string attached to a broom handle with a notch that fits onto the brim of an overturned steel tub. Jack is a Korean War veteran who also served in Viet Nam. When he returned to the U.S., he was fired from the university where he taught for speaking out against the war. He spent the rest of his working days repairing Volkswagens. He is now eighty-one and his beloved Pongo died recently.

With Jack’s permission, the crew has spent two days trimming trees, clearing brush, hauling debris, re-roofing, planting flowers, painting, and rebuilding the porch where I had seen him standing month’s before. He had to use a plunger to wash his clothes in an old broken washing machine that would no longer agitate. They replaced the broken washing machine with a new one. He now has a new stove - the old one had only one burner that worked. There were many electrical and plumbing problems, which were repaired. In honor of his military service, they hung an American flag off the porch of his1909 home. 

Involuntary, tears well in my eyes as I hear these stories. I wipe them away but they keep coming. I am surprised by this, but I know the feeling - I am experiencing a heart-opening moment. They see that I am deeply moved, and invite me for a tour of the home. Everywhere we go, they tell me, “You couldn’t walk through here, there was so much stuff.” Jack could not part with everything, so there are still some piles of wood and stones in the yard. There’s an old shack in the backyard that I am warned I do not want to enter. I am informed that this was the dwelling that the original owners lived in while they built the main home. It probably dates to the late 1800’s. Jack has a claw foot tub in his bathroom and he has cleverly jerry-rigged a hand-held shower-head to a two-by-four so he can shower. The crew shows me the new stove and tells me they have washed all of his dishes. They add that every neighbor has visited today.

I am guided through the small house to a room Jack calls “the parlor” where he is standing with his washtub bass. He welcomes me kindly by shaking my hand and grins from ear to ear through his grey beard. He is so very grateful and says that he won’t sleep tonight with all the excitement. He can’t believe that all of these volunteers have come out to help him. “It’s a miracle,” I say. He agrees as he recounts all of the work that has been done. He is especially pleased with the new porch, the roof that no longer leaks, and the washing machine. Two dog beds sit in the corner. He had five, but just couldn’t depart with all of them. A framed photo of his home in better days hangs on the wall. The matting is signed by all of the volunteers. He offers me a lesson in washtub bass playing.

The miracle is that a community can come together in such a loving way to make life so much better for one person. I witnessed people and local businesses who have enough in their own lives and organizations giving their time, energy, money and supplies to a man who has served his country, spoken out about a senseless war, and sacrificed his livelihood as a result; a man who loves animals, music and literature. He asked for very little and was given much while inadvertently giving neighbors an opportunity for a heart opening. None of it was televised; no money made; no people sitting in their living rooms gawking in wonder at the mess and mayhem - just simple generosity.

I’ve heard it said that it is the volunteers in this world that make things happen. The first hospice program was volunteer run. Shanti was the first program that served people with HIV/AIDS and was volunteer-based. These volunteers on April 27th made it possible for Jack to stay in his home, doing so respectfully, while enlivening a neighborhood. Community outreach is truly the light of a city. Anything is possible when that light shines.
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The Liminal Space: Facing the Threshold

“Whatever your age, your up-bringing, or your education, what you are made of is mostly unused potential.” — George Leonard

“Your way begins on the other side.
Become the sky.
Take an axe to the prison wall.
Walk out like someone suddenly born into color.
Do it now. ” — Rumi

The word liminal comes from the Latin word limen, which means threshold. Cultural anthropologists have used the word liminality to describe the space/time between the ritual death and rebirth that occurs in initiation rites. There is a disorienting time between letting go of an old life and walking across a threshold into a new one that accompanies any important change. The word limbo is derived from this same root. Limbo is the place between earth and heaven - a place of waiting for entry. People also use the word limbo to describe a place of not knowing, i.e. "I can't decide - I'm in limbo." The liminal zone is the place between this and that, between what was and what will be, between old and new. It is an exciting time of anticipation, but it can also be excruciating in it's suspense. Liminality can be scary because it is about stepping into the unknown. In the liminal space, we face a gate or a doorway and we do not know what is on the other side. The unknown is something we often instinctually avoid as it conjures up all kinds of anxieties. The ego likes to know it all, and when you are not sure of who or where you are any more, the ego gets edgy and starts scouting for anything that looks familiar. So there you are, not sure what to do or where to go, knowing that you can't go back and yet feeling like you can't move forward even though you know you have to do so. 

We need to remember that the liminal space is a place of great potentiality. Since we haven't yet opened the gate and walked though, anything is possible. It is the imaginal realm where the sky is the limit. If we rush through this passage too quickly, we may get somewhere before we were meant to arrive. We may miss some important information or a teaching from life. Sometimes we need to sit still, stay put, and wait for the right time. We need to wait for the fruit to ripen before we move in to pluck it from the vine. "When will it ripen? Is it time yet?" we impatiently ask. The tree has it's own wisdom and so do we. If we slow down and listen, we will be given instruction - in psyche’s time, not ego time.

A spiritual teacher of mine once called this liminal space, "The Courtyard." He said that we dwell here in the courtyard before we enter the portal of awakening. "You may want to reflect before you leap" he cautioned us, since once you enter the portal you can never return. You can't go somewhere and say you've never been. You can't know something and then not know it. With one step, you are forever changed. "But some people hang out in the courtyard forever," he warned. They spend their whole lives looking at the doorway but never walk through. It takes courage to step into mystery. Or maybe the Fool from the ancient tarot is our teacher here. In many decks, the Fool walks happily toward the cliff's edge, anxiety free, ready to surrender to what is. Maybe it is not so much courage that is required, but trust.

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"What can we gain by sailing to the moon
if we are unable to cross the abyss
that separates us from ourselves?"  Thomas Merton

I often wonder if disconnection is the fundamental ailment of our time. Our calendars are full, we are plugged into social media, we go to church or temple, make sure our kids go to soccer practice, go to weddings and funerals, and meet friends for happy hour - and yet there is often a feeling of disconnect, isolation, and loneliness. We collect people who “like” us, but does it really mean anything? We can feel like we have a thousand friends because Facebook tells us so. Busyness intrudes upon the quality of relational interactions. It is difficult to slow down enough to be present with others. We listen to sermons and lectures, but we wonder how to apply these teachings so that they are grounded in our lives. Many activities feel like obligations that have us going through the motions. Our unions have a surface quality and often lack depth. How is it that we miss the mark?

People experiencing depression are often really complaining about a profound sense of disconnection from others, themselves, and life. They don’t know who they are or what they want. Feeling a deep sense of unworthiness, they are disconnected from their essence. People with depression often believe that something is wrong with them, when really its just that they've lost the way to their own hearts and the hearts of others. They try very hard to connect with others only to find politeness without presence. People who are depressed want to belong but wonder if they do or can, or what it means to truly belong. They want more from life but don’t know where to look or how to find what they are looking for.

Most couples believe that they are fighting or disagreeing about their partners' behavior - what they did or didn’t do. Current theory points out, however, that behavior is not really the issue about which couples quarrel. Underneath their complaints is actually a sense of emotional disconnection. When one person says, “You work too much,” what they are really saying is, “I feel disconnected from you. I miss you.” When they complain that the other doesn’t listen or “You don’t hear me,” they may really be conveying a sadness related to emotional disconnection. 

True connection requires that we employ the art of presence. It means that we must slow down, unplug, make time, and evaluate the quality of our relationships. It asks that we allow ourselves the refuge needed for replenishment and reconnection. The good news about missing the mark is that we can always aim again. We can ask for more, stop abandoning ourselves, and take the time to relish this precious life, even in the midst of suffering. How do we begin to live life on life’s terms? Can we ask, “What does life want from me?” Can we open our hearts just a little to take in the beauty and pain of being human? Connection requires a certain kind of tenderness. Tenderness requires vulnerability which we often equate with weakness. I think it requires tremendous strength to let down the armor to offer tenderness and be real.
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Just Say No

As I write this post today, a family walks by the window. Mother, father, a baby in a stroller, and a small girl - a toddler, are walking to the lake. My concentration is broken by the girl sobbing loudly, "I don't wanna go!" She cries from her depth about her preference, no shame, censoring, or worry about what others will think. The parents bend down to attend to her, hopefully in a way that does not shame her attempts to establish autonomy. Unfortunately, we learn at a very young age that saying no is not acceptable in certain circumstances. We learn that stating our preference is perceived as selfish, contentious, or narcissistic. We learn that the truth of our distress is best contained within a socially acceptable package. Of course, children do need to learn about adjusting to disappointment and frustration, and they need to learn to stay away from the hot stove, but it is clear that issues of autonomy and authenticity develop very early. Can we say no and still be loved? Can we object, knowing that others might feel rejected? A child is dependent on her guardians for survival. In some families, it is not safe to say no, often because the parent takes it personally. They see their child as an extension of themselves, and so when the child resists or objects to what the parent asks, they cannot see the person in front of them, only an aspect of themselves, and the power struggle begins.

I am not talking about the no that accompanies the resistance that comes with pathological control and authority issues, but rather the natural desire to have one's own ideas and the normal development toward individuation. The persistent yes can be a kind of merging with others in an effort to please and acquiesce. This is the kind of dilemma I consistently see in the consulting room. In an effort to be liked, obtain approval, please, and avoid rejection, people will agree to do things they they would rather not do, or withhold the truth of their experience. No sets boundaries, says this and no more, draws a line in the sand, and says I do not agree. I sometimes remind people that they can say no without explanation. They are often shocked to learn that they do not need to give a list of excuses. I find that women in particular tend toward apologizing when they say no. It shows us the relationship between no and feelings of guilt. It's almost as if people feel that they are bad because they bow out, take a rain check, or make an opposing choice. It is the toddlers job to say no. It is a function of establishing autonomy. When adults misunderstand this, children can feel bad and guilty for simply being themselves. 
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Inhabit Your Life

To inhabit a space or a home means that you live there. You have moved in. You’ve taken up residence. When you move into a new home, you explore rooms and you see their potential. You are curious and creative. You engage in nesting, decorate, invite guests over, hangout, and settle in. So what does it mean to inhabit one's life? It might simply be described as being fully present to oneself and the environment. Curiosity and creativity are cultivated. To inhabit might mean that you engage your inner world by noticing what is true for you and sharing that truth with trusted others. The art of presence requires compassionate awareness. This can be challenging when difficult emotions surface. The tendency is to want to change it now, to make it better, to sweep it under the rug and get on with however we think things should be. But in doing so, we miss the opportunity to extend kindness to ourselves. We miss the messages that our psyche is trying to convey. We miss the truth.

Perhaps inhabiting your life means that you give notice to the life you are living that is not yours. Certainly one aspect of inhabiting life would involve examining where in our lives we engage in activities as a way to seek approval from others. Do you say yes when you mean no? Do you acquiesce? Many people equate yes with love. If you say no, it must mean you don’t love me. It is important that we learn to separate yes and no from the concept of love. No is just no, and maybe even a way to engage in boundaries and self-love. 

We are riveted by the stories told by people who broke the mold created by parents who unconsciously attempted to live vicariously through their children. The chef whose father wanted him to be an attorney; the bank executive whose parents pushed her to find a good man and have children; the florist who was told, "You will never make a dime doing that!" Parents are not the only influential sources of derailment. Siblings, teachers, colleagues, or any people with strong opinions might be counted among those who might create an agenda for us and try to steer our lives. It takes courage to inhabit one's life. One must be brave to break the mold, stand up and say, "This is who I am!." I believe that it is far more common to settle for less than to go out on a limb. There is no doubt that inhabiting one's life involves risk, trust, and faith.
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Dream Gifts

One of the great gifts offered to us by the inner landscape is the tapestry of stories the dreamtime brings to us each day. No dream is too short or too plain to be experienced in a felt sense. A single image can spark the imagination, invite curiosity, illuminate what has been hidden, or drop us to our knees with its honesty. The dreamtime allows us to be in our wholeness. When we dream, we enter the land of all possibilities. One night we are lost at sea on a life raft, and the next we show up at the party in a clown suit. Another night we might be running for our lives from a shadowy figure, while the next we find ourselves dancing in a warehouse with a complete stranger. Dream stories give us ample opportunity to try on multiple ways of being while providing us with psyche's message which always strives toward equilibrium, healing and wholeness.

Some dreams can feel like a gut-punch. You awaken in a sweat, feeling bad and not wanting to remember the dream story. As hard as it is to bear it, recalling the dream is important and trying to forget is a true mistake, for dreams such as these, many of which might be called nightmares, are messages to you from the unconscious. The dreamtime doesn't mess around. It doesn't tiptoe through your mind with niceties, making sure you are okay with the images and stories it provides. Bam! The dream may be raw, wild, sweet, slimy, confusing, inspiring, disheartening, challenging, instructive, mysterious, and hilarious. Psyche doesn't really care much about analysis. To pin it down, to package it up and put it on the shelf, to be too definitive with the meaning of a dream is to rob it of it's multi-faceted potentiality. The dreamtime asks us to ponder, to wonder, to try on different meanings, to look at paradox and contradiction. Tapestries are not always orderly. They weave and wind with overlays and undertones. Allow the dream to unfold and inform you so that it can transform you.
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