The first time I heard the word courtship in a context other than old-timey dating rituals, was sitting in ceremony with Martín Prechtel. He was explaining to a group of us how to approach the Holy. He said, “Courtship is to sit next to someone and discover what they love.” As sometimes happens with great teachers, Martín’s definition of the word shifted my perception into a new configuration. Suddenly I could see that approaching the holy in our dreams wasn’t at all about getting what we want, but about discovering how we can be of service to that which we love.
Though we don’t value courtship in modernity, it was originally a circling process that people who were admirers of each other would undergo. Struck with an affection for someone, you didn’t just march up to your beloved and demand that they love you in return. Instead, you would slowly circle the other, approaching them from a respectful distance, to learn about them. To understand what it is that they want, what it is that they love, perhaps one day to give it to them.
The great hope of courtship is marriage: a reciprocal and mutually supportive relationship that is in harmony with its village, or ecosystem. But in order to have a chance at this kind of belonging, you must make yourself trustworthy enough in the approach, that the Beloved might begin to open up their mysterious depths. They might begin to share their secrets with you, tell you what they long for, and in so doing, put you in sync with their rhythms. As this happens, the mysterious other will naturally become receptive and curious about you.
The reason I love this as a framework for working with our dreams, is that it acknowledges there is something Holy that we are circling. In the Western psychological tradition, we use the words “interpret” and “analyze” when speaking of dreams. The goal is to pick the dream apart and get at its meaning. I try not to use these words, because while it satisfies the thinking function, I believe this dissection process kills the living mystery of the dream.
Courtship reverses the idea that I’m trying to get something from my dreams – a method I call “the acquisitional approach” to dreamwork – and instead puts us in service to the dreaming. We are never “at the bottom of it” but rather more deeply engaged with the mystery. While it takes practice to allow some part of the unknown to remain, it is ultimately more gratifying. Unlike giving our dream images a static definition, we treat them as living, breathing symbols. And just as we learn to appreciate the ambiguity and complexity of our lovers, our symbols continue to feed us with their concealed medicine over time.
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