Of the many forms of mind-training that bring more self-knowledge, my favorites are writing and dreamwork. When I combine the two, as I usually do, I never fail to gain a valuable insight. For example, the following dream from a few weeks ago dramatizes my ego’s growing awareness of its attitude toward an unlikeable shadow.
Dream #4329: “Cleaning Up My Act.” I enter the basement laundry room of a hotel with five soiled items of clothing. I see the clothes of a traveling companion soaking in a big tub of hot, sudsy water. Their owner, a rather withdrawn, grumpy woman who doesn’t seem to like me, is nowhere in sight. Since there’s plenty of room in the tub I add my clothes to hers and leave.
When I return the only item of mine still in the water is a white blouse. I take it out wondering where everything else is. I see the woman’s suitcase sitting open on a counter. I move her clothes around to see if she might accidentally have put mine in with hers.
Just then she walks in the door and says, “What are you doing with my clothes?” in a suspicious, accusatory way. I feel confused and guilty. As I try to explain my innocence I start to wonder why I put my clothes in with hers. That was her laundry, not mine. Did I overstep her boundaries? Did I do it again just now by going through her suitcase? I realize with a bit of a shock that my behavior was not as justified as I originally thought it was. This unlikeable woman is the victim here, not me.
At first my dream ego sees little wrong in what I did. But once I see the woman and am seen by her I begin to question my assumptions. I realize my behavior was not exemplary, and I see that to dismiss her significance because she doesn’t like me is not in accord with my preferred image of myself as a kind and accepting person. In fact, I was feeling a bit self-righteous and critical of her, and it is a shock to realize she sees me the same way.
I’ve been aware of traveling through life with this shadow for a while now, but so far my tendency has been to ignore her. The theme of wanting to wash my dirty clothes says I want to clean up my persona, or public personality. But the dream says my efforts are being stymied by my ego’s ignorance about this shadow — where she lives and how she influences my personality — and by my reluctance to take care of this unfinished business.
This dream reminds me to pay closer attention to the feelings and behaviors this shadow represents until she and my ego ease up on their judgments of each other. I need to be less critical of her, and she needs more acceptance from me to feel safe enough to express her feelings honestly and appropriately.
Every soul is different and the direction our inner work takes varies from one individual to another. Most people probably don’t have as strong a need as I do to improve their personas, and not everyone with an inner curmudgeon wants to stifle it. But whatever our issues, the same rule applies: Until we can see and come to terms with the shadows our dreams show us, they will continue to disturb our inner peace.