The Grim Reaper

Grim Reaper

How good are you at deceiving yourself? The problem is, while good friends and encounters with “reality” can disclose some, there are far more ways that you deceive yourself that you remain blind to. Do these matter? Not if you don’t value your peace of mind, happiness, and relationships. However, if you do, the following interview can help you understand how and why you continue to deceive yourself and show you what you can do to stop.

When you are dreaming, it is normal to assume you have a “correct” or “true” perception of dream events. This is easy to understand, because when we dream we normally think we are awake, and we trust our judgment in our dreams just as we do doing our waking life. For example, in waking life, if someone comes at you with a knife, they are certainly a threat and it is appropriate to respond accordingly. However, is this the best assumption to make when someone approaches you with a knife in a dream? Integral Deep Listening demonstrates that the answer is, “probably not.” Such dream characters, when interviewed, generally say that they are attempting to frighten the dreamer awake, and as such, serve as a wake-up call. However, because we rarely or ever ask questions of dream characters while dreaming or question our own judgment while we are dreaming, we act on our own misperceptions, that is, that we are awake and dealing with a genuine threat. The result is that the dream, as remembered, is a narrative that serves to confirm our waking delusions.

“Integral” refers to the awareness and balancing of the domains of pre-personal belief and emotion, personal self-sense and reason, and transpersonal, trans-rational experiences of oneness and non-duality.  An integral approach seeks to consider multiple legitimate perspectives in an attempt to create a more inclusive understanding that will stand the test of time.  An integral approach to deep listening considers the perspectives of interviewed emerging potentials that have a vested interest in the experience.  For example, in the nightmare below from childhood, recalled by Ken, an adolescent boy, the perspective of the Grim Reaper, who is the antagonist or perceived persecutor in the nightmare, is interviewed.  What we learn through deep listening is that the perspective of the dreamer is often very different from that of other dream characters. The dream is a good example of this process of self-deception, and the subsequent interview is also a good example of how and why scaring yourself in a dream is both a mistake and a missed opportunity.

“I had a dream when I was seven about being pushed down a hallway.  It was just a black hallway and I didn’t want to get to the end.  But something was pushing me down the hallway and I felt like everything in the world was there and I just couldn’t handle it and I was just being pushed down the hallway.  I was trying to grab onto the pillars along the sides but I couldn’t.  Someone was whispering the whole time but I didn’t know what they were saying.  I woke up before I got to the end of the hallway.”

“Maybe it was a dark dream but maybe it wasn’t a dark dream.  Maybe it was God pushing me to do something new. I think I had this dream because I was stressed out and scared at the time.  I was sleepwalking during the dream.  It’s the scariest thing in the world to me; it’s the worst for me. I would call the dream “The Hallway of Death.”

“The characters in the dream were just me and the thing that was pushing me, but I couldn’t see what it was.   It was like the black things in the Harry Potter movies that fly and try to steal your soul.  (Dementors) Let’s call it the Grim Reaper.”

Here’s what the Grim Reaper had to say:

“I’m wearing a robe and I’m helping someone move on. I can help people by helping them move on and to continue to wherever they’re going. I dislike that I have to do my job.”

“If I could change this dream it would not be dark and scary. I personify Ken’s sadness and guilt and everything bad that’s happened in his life and that’s going to happen to him.  I’m just helping him to pursue something.”

For the Emissary of Death, the Grim reaper’s scores were surprisingly high, with the exception of acceptance, which is a zero. It gave itself a five in confidence, a six in compassion, an eight in peace of mind, and a ten in both wisdom and witnessing.

“If I scored all tens I’d be a better Grim Reaper.  I’m not good because I don’t help people and I give them grief and make them suffer, but I try to help. If Ken scored high in all six qualities he would be a different person and not himself.  He’d be someone else.  He’d be a nicer person – a more careful person – careful about making decisions in general. He needs to do more things, to try to get out and do things instead of just sitting at home; try to live life more! I am in his life to change how he lives his life.”

Ken said, “The Grim Reaper has tried to change me, to live my life and change how I live for the better, like go out and do things that I probably wouldn’t do like sky diving, like accept people for who they are – don’t worry about what they look like, like how they dress. Accept them for them. Maybe it would be helpful for me to learn and practice Integral Deep Listening once in a while – once every couple of months so I learn what my dreams are and what they’re telling me so I can do what my dreams are telling me, or not do what my dreams are telling me. Can we call it ‘inner wisdom’ instead? ‘Grim reaper’ sounds like he’s trying to kill me or like he’s not trying to help or maybe trying to help but not succeeding and making me feel worse?  I can try to remember to live more – get out and do things with my friends instead of watching so much TV.”

From this interview you can see that interviewing dream characters even works with adolescent males, perhaps the most aloof and disengaged age group one could possibly do dreamwork with.  The key is to peak their interest, either in an old dream, as in this case, or through appealing to some issue they are interested in, such as getting rid of a fear or a problem by looking at a dream.

Ken already knew that he had the option to get out more with his friends and spend less time in front of the TV.  The interview made Ken consider that he might be better served by changing his priorities, and to not change them because somebody told him to, but because it was something he wanted to do, because it was in his own best interest. Such a self-motivated sense of direction and purpose is both rare and priceless. Instead of rebelling against authority, as many adolescents do, or imitating peers and getting caught up in a culture that is not his own, Ken is giving himself permission to find his own way.

How important is that?  If you have the best of intentions, but your waking priorities are in conflict with important priorities that are attempting to be born within you, will you not sabotage your development?   How often are your waking priorities in conflict with important emerging potentials?  How would you know?

The interview deals with Ken’s present issues, not those when he was seven, when he had the dream.  Interviews address current reality; they may or may not throw light on what motivated the dream when it occurred.  That moment is gone; what exists are our present perceptions and our decisions about what to do now.  Therefore, when you work on a nightmare, remember that the feedback you get will first and foremost relate to where you are stuck now in your life and only secondarily with who you were and what was going on when you actually had the dream.

The Grim Reaper sees its function as helping Ken “move on.”  That might mean to help him get unstuck or to wake up.  This is a radically different point of view than the one we take in the nightmare, when we feel victimized. Which perspective is the correct one?  Could it be that both are correct?  If so, what would that mean?  It would imply that a wise understanding of the nightmare would take both perspectives into account. We also discover from Ken’s interview that the consciousness that generates dreams is not beyond scaring us to get our attention.  Unfortunately, as we have seen, we usually misperceive the message, since we look at the situation, both during the dream and after we awaken, only from our waking perspective and not from the perspectives of other characters in the nightmare.

Ken understands that he created the Grim Reaper and that therefore he must be scaring himself.  This is an important step in taking responsibility for one’s own experience, something any child is fortunate to learn.  The alternative is to give our power away by always assuming the source of our fortune and misfortune is outside of ourselves.  Other people make us happy or sad; we are therefore powerless to choose how we are going to feel when other people don’t treat us the way we want to be treated.  The result is that we have little power to change the “other,” whether in a dream or in waking life.  As soon as we recognize that the “other” is a part of ourselves, just as Ken did with the Grim Reaper, we gain the ability to change how we feel toward it and to reclaim that part of our own power which we have previously disowned.

What does it imply that the Grim Reaper scored itself, on a scale of zero to ten, a ten in wisdom and witnessing and an eight in peace of mind?  Such scores are generally higher than waking identity scores itself.  This implies that Ken can learn things about wisdom, witnessing, and peace of mind from a perspective that he feared.  He can best assimilate those qualities into himself by imagining that he is the Grim Reaper.  The implication is that he would make better decisions, take more risks, and be more accepting of others if he did so.  These are predictions that Ken does not have to take on faith.  All he has to do is follow the simple recommendations of the Grim Reaper and see what happens in his life.  Are his decisions better?  Is he taking more exciting and fun risks?  Is he more accepting of others?

The interview taught Ken that his dreams can help him, and he is willing to look at them again from time to time for guidance.  Ken evolves because of his interview. He is no longer comfortable referring to his dream antagonist as “the Grim Reaper,” which is what he thought that it was before.  This implies that his perception of the source of his fear has changed radically.  It is now seen as a source of wisdom and inner support. So a door has been opened to a new source of ongoing inner support for Ken.  If you had such awarenesses as a teenager, as Ken did from this interview, would it have made a difference for you in your life?  What would the world look like if most children and adolescents, whether Jewish, Islamic, Christian, Buddhist, or secular humanist, had the opportunity to be exposed to the perspectives of their own emerging potentials, particularly when they personified things that threaten them?

I have my students answer a series of questions about each interview they conduct and send their answers to me.  Here are the answers Ken’s stepmother, who conducted the interview, sent to me:

What do you think that your subject most got out of the interview?

I think that he was no longer afraid of his dream and realized that there is a part of him that is trying to help him to live life more.

How can you follow up to see how he/she is applying her experience?

He’s my step son and I see him often so we’ll be talking about it the next time I see him, which will be in two days.

What went well?

I think the whole thing went really well.  It was amazing to watch Ken get into character and it was easy for him.  He didn’t really go back and forth from Ken to the Grim Reaper.  His face changed even – it was transformational to witness it.  His honesty in answering the questions was impressive also.  After all, I’m his step mom and an adult – he’s only 15.  The process was fun and easy and you were absolutely correct, this doesn’t seem like work.

Was there any place where you or the dreamer were confused?


Did the dreamer commit to a plan of action involving identification with their new Sangha member in specific waking situations?

He said he’d like to do this every month or two and that he’d keep the interview nearby so that he could refer to it and be reminded to be like his dream character in occasions where he might need to.

Did you schedule a follow-up time to see how their application is going and/or to do the next interview?

No because he’s around a lot and we’ll likely do another before this class is finished.

What have you learned about yourself through interviewing the aspects of yourself personified by Ken and by those self-aspects that you interviewed?

Definitely mirrored something in me to interview him.   I could relate to wanting to live more and enjoy life more – for different reasons than Ken, but still can relate.  Wonderful second interview and experience.

You can see that anyone can conduct a successful interview with a child that reports a nightmare.   This was only the second interview that this student had done and it was done on a “tough customer” – a male adolescent, yet it went well. The key for a successful interview is the willingness of the subject to get into role and stay in role.  They don’t have to close their eyes or enter an altered state.  In fact, it is better if they keep their eyes open while they are in role.  They don’t have to change chairs or their physical position in a chair, as is often done with Gestalt role playing.  We normally and unconsciously shift among the roles of student, worker, driver, eater, talker, listener, buyer, and seller throughout the day without any problem.  It is no different becoming a Grim Reaper or a purple octopus or a fire hydrant, once we suspend our waking assumptions about who we are and who we are not.

Notice also what has happened to the relationship between Ken and his stepmother.  He shared with her a vulnerability, a source of serious fear.  In return he was not judged, nor did she interpret his experience.  She did not get into the role of Wise Parent or Knowledgeable Adult, which tends to force children into the opposite roles of Stupid Child and “Ignorant Dependent.”  Ken found that at least some adults have the ability to simply listen and respect who he is without making judgments or interpreting his experience.  He took a great step forward in learning not only to trust others, but also himself.  What a gift for a parent to give a child!

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