Monday, September 14, 2020

Who was the dreamer?

We travel, in this world and in others, in the direction of our interests and desires, and we see what is around us through our personal lens.

Swedenborg, one of the great astral travelers, observed that this determines our experience of the afterlife. He wrote in Heaven and Hell about how the light of heaven was a consuming and terrible fire to those who wanted to go somewhere else.
This is highly relevant to how we understand what goes on in our dreams. The famous American psychic Edgar Cayce suggested that we need to discern whether a certain dream reflects the needs or wishes of the body, the mind or the spirit.
Our dreams are often excursions, in which we travel beyond the physical body in a subtle vehicle, guided by whatever part of the self is in control.
Let's turn to another of the world's great astral travelers, the Persian mystic philosopher Shahabuddin Suhrawardi, whose followers called him Shaykh al-Ishraq, the Leader of Illumination. He distinguished different levels of dreaming – with corresponding degrees of importance and reliability – according to which aspect of the self is the prime experiencer.
Clear dreams or “free revelation” [kashf] are experiences of soul [ruh] traveling beyond the body, or having clear communication with a visitor. The territory visited may be a separate reality or a situation in the future. “With the eye of the free soul, by the imagination, a person contemplates in dreams the state of things which is yet in the hidden.”
In this condition, the dreamer can have accurate foreknowledge of future events, and true clairvoyance. “After separation from the body, the soul knows even of the small things heard and seen of this world.” In clear dreams, the dreamer becomes a remote viewer.
This is a practice that can be developed in waking states of altered consciousness, or mukashafa. The Prophet Muhammad scouted out the progress of a caravan en route to Mecca in this way. The Caliph Umar, from afar, scouted an ambush that had been laid for his general Sariya (and sent his general a telepathic warning that was received).
The second of Suhrawardi's categories is symbolic dreams or “fancied revelations”. These he defines as dreams in which the lower self [nafs] is dominant. Clear vision is cloaked by the “fancy garments” of appetite and desire. Landscapes traveled in such dreams are “the stages of lust.” Interpretation is required to separate a message from the fancy dress.
Suhrawardi's lowest category is dreams of “pure fancy”. These unfold when “sensual thoughts” take over completely and higher consciousness [ruh] is “veiled from considering the hidden world.”

Then there are the dreams in which we seem to join or rejoin another personality, in another body, in a different reality or a very different version of our present world. I have just been reading the travel reports of a prolific dreamer who has found herself entering the perspective, the life experience and seemingly the bodies of different animals, including a small terrier dog and a very large polar bear.
These experiences seem to me entirely plausible, and possibly quite similar to the dreaming of many of our ancestors, and of indigenous people who remain rooted in the old ways. This dreamer loves animals and lives close to the natural world, so it seems likely that the animal-lover in her, and the part of her that not only identifies with animals but is willing to learn from them, takes charge during these adventures. Typically, she retains dual awareness, of her human self with its current life situation and memories, and of the animal self she joins.

Here's a question to ask when you come back from a dream excursion: who was the dreamer?
Translations of Suhrawardi are from H. Wilberforce (ed. and trans.) A Dervish Textbook ('Awariful-Ma'arif) London: Octagon Press, 1990. For more on Suhrawardi, see The Secret History of Dreaming.
Art: "Guardian of the Kingdoms of God". Persian school, 16th century.

Saturday, September 12, 2020

Mark Twain's terrible memories of the future

Great humor often sparkles on the surface of a dark tide of challenge or tragedy. Mark Twain, still America's most beloved humorist, was stricken by many terrible events in his life and that of his family - the loss of a beloved brother and later his favorite daughter, the loss of all his money late in life, forcing him to start over - yet generally managed to come back laughing, and making the rest of us laugh.
    His ability to laugh his way through did not mean numbing himself to tragedy. Sam Clemens (who adopted the pen name Mark Twain) dreamed the death of his younger brother Henry before it took place, in exact detail, and this haunted him for the rest of his life..
     Sam and Henry were set to embark together on the riverboat Pennsylvania, Sam as apprentice pilot, Henry as a  lowly “mud clerk”, given food and sleeping space in return for helping out at places on the river where there were no proper landing sites. The night before they sailed, Sam dreamed  he saw Henry as a corpse, laid out in a metal casket, dressed in one of his older brother’s suits, with a huge bouquet of white roses on his chest and a single red rose at the center.
     Sam woke grief-stricken, convinced this had actually happened and that Henry was laid out in the next room. He could not collect himself, or convince himself that the dream was not “real” until he had walked around outside. He had walked a whole block, he recalled, “before it suddenly flashed on me that there was nothing real about this – it was only a dream.”
     Family members urged him to dismiss his terrible dream; after all, it was “only a dream”. Though the force of his feelings told him something else, Sam agreed to try to put the dream out of his mind.
     The tragedy began to unfold soon after the two young men boarded the Pennsylvania. The pilot of the Pennsylvania, William Brown, was an autocrat with a violent temper with whom Sam was soon scrapping. During the voyage downriver, Sam got into a full-blown fight with him. The captain sided with Sam, and said they would find a new pilot when they got to New Orleans. But a new pilot could not be found and since Sam and Brown could not coexist on the same boat, Sam was transferred to another vessel, leaving Henry on the Pennsylvania, which started the upriver journey fist. Just before they parted company, Sam and Henry discussed how they would act in the event of a riverboat disaster such as a boiler explosion, which was a common occurrence.
      The Pennsylvania’s boiler exploded in a hell of steam and fire, in the way they had discussed.  Badly burned, Henry survived for a few days, to die in Memphis, where the injured were carried. His handsome face was untouched, and the kindly lady volunteers were so moved by his beauty and innocence that they gave him the best casket, a metal box.
     When Sam entered the “dead-room” of the Memphis Exchange on June 21, 1858, he was horrified to see the enactment of his dream: his dead brother laid out in a metal casket in a borrowed suit. Only one element was missing: the floral bouquet. As Sam watched and mourned, a lady came in with a bouquet of white roses with a single red one at the center and laid it on Henry’s chest.
    Mark Twain kept telling and retelling the circumstances of Henry’s death, in his mind and in his writing, for the rest of his life. He was one of the first to join the Society for Psychical Research after it was founded in London in 1882 in the hope that its investigators could help him understand the workings of dream precognition. He could never escape the thought that – had he only known how to use the information from his dream – he might have been able to prevent Henry’s death.

When I described this episode in a lecture, someone asked, "What's the use of dreaming the future if you can't do anything about it?"       
    My response: any future we can foresee, whether in dreams or though intuition or careful analysis, is a possible future. We may be able to change the odds on the manifestation of a future event, reducing the likelihood that something unwanted will happen, or improving our chances of securing a happy outcome.
     Our ability to dream the future is part of our basic survival kit, part of what kept us alive when we were little more than naked apes without good weapons, trying to fend off leathery raptors or saber-toothed tigers. In our Active Dreaming approach, we use these key methods to work with dreams of the future in order to make better choices and shape the future for the better:

1. Run a reality check on all dream material
Ask, of any and all dream material: Is it remotely possible that something going on in this dream could manifest in the future, literally or symbolically (or both)?

2. Practice dream reentry to clarify and expand the available information
If you can get your head back inside the dream, you may be able to get clarity on the when, where, how and who of a possible future event. If you think of a dream as a place you have been, it's not too hard to understand that because you have been to that place, you might be able to go there again. When you succeed in reentering a dream space, you are not confined to your first memories of the dream on waking, which may have been muddled and fragmentary. You can enter other, related scenes and bring back much more data.

3. Make a practical action plan to use your dream guidance
If you now feel sure that your dream revealed a possible future, you want to  to take definite and appropriate action to head off an undesirable future event, or to bring through possible good fortune. The action plan may range from getting a health checkup to being extra cautious at a certain road intersection, to checking up on your financial planner, to sharing dream information with another person to whom it may relate.
    Some cultures teach rituals for containing or taming an unwanted future. I am intrigued by an apotropaic ritual in traditional Iroquoian society, which consisted of play-acting parts of an evil future, foreseen in a dream, in the hope that the partial fulfillment of the dream in the performance would satisfy whatever was at work in the secret order of events, so that the full evil portended by the dream would no longer have to be play out. I have written about this in Dreamways of the Iroquois. Bizarre though it may sound, I have seen this method work.

Back to Mark Twain, and his terrible dream of Henry laid out in a casket, with the bouquet of roses on his chest. Could the methods described above have enabled Sam Clemens to help his brother to escape the "dead room" in Memphis? Of course, we cannot know. But I feel quite certain that Mark Twain would have been willing to give the Active Dreaming methods summarized above a better-than-college try, had he known about them. 
    Had he not allowed his family to talk him into dismissing his dream as "only a dream", careful analysis might have drawn him to think about possible scenarios for death along the river, of which the most likely for someone working on a riverboat, in those days, was a boiler explosion of the kind that caused Henry's death.
    Through dream reentry, Mark Twain might have been able to establish how the death scene came about, and might then have been able to take action by counseling his brother not to travel, separated from him, on the return voyage upriver with the rage-filled pilot.
     Mark Twain paid close attention to dreams and coincidence throughout his life and was keenly interested in improving his practice. In my Secret History of Dreaming, I describe how he returned, in his later fiction, to his regrets that he had not gone ahead and staged a kind of dream theater at home to help his beloved daughter Suzy lift the oppression of dreams in which she was being pursued and eaten by bears, dreams that may have portended her tragic death from illness but could also have been the key to healing had they been fully heard and acted upon.

For more on Mark Twain's dreams and his study of coincidence and what he called "mental telegraphy," please read the chapter titled "Mark Twain's Rhyming Life" in my Secret History of Dreaming, published by New World Library.

Image: Steamboat explosion (in this case the SS Sultana) on the Mississippi River, from Harper's Weekly (1865)

Thursday, September 10, 2020

All poetry comes from flooding

All poetry comes from flooding

They say this in a desert tribe
that values poets above all others
and knows what the Celt in my blood knows.
I hear this as I listen to the waves crash
against the lake shore in a northern land
that does not thirst for water.

I remember lying in a house of darkness
with a stone wheel on my belly
waiting for the words of new songs 
to rise with unstoppable power
bursting the dams of calculation.

I think of the Inuit who flames like candle
and sees through the obvious world
with shaman light, the one who told me
how his people would lie in the big house
in the dark waiting for fresh words to burst

to call the whales and please the Sea Mother.

I think of you, who bring a surge of desire
that must take form beyond our joy
breaking wave upon wave from 

inner islands into a larger world.

Tuesday, September 8, 2020

The Art of Memory


Dreaming, waking or in between

in any part of the multiverse

in any body, in any life

you are invited to play

a memory game.

Whatever world you are in

the trick is to remember

the other worlds you inhabit

where you are dead and more alive

and the self that is dreaming you

- "The Art of Memory". Poem and photo by Robert Moss


Wednesday, September 2, 2020

Rilke's angels

He hears the voice in a howling wind on a cliff path above the Adriatic, and it gives him the first line of what becomes the Duino Elegies. 

Wer, wenn ich schriee, hörte mich denn aus der Engel Ordnungen?

Who, among the orders of angels, would hear me if I cried out?

He warns at the end of the first verse that “every angel is terrifying”. He picks up that refrain at the start of the second elegy, where he calls the angels “almost deadly birds of the soul”.  He gives a longing glance at the gentler appearance of the angel in the apocryphal Book of Tobit, as a gentle, very human guide who escorted the boy Tobias along the road 

Where are the days of Tobias,
when one of your most radiant stood at that simple doorway,
 dressed for travel and no longer frightening…?”

The author is Rainer Maria Rilke, who was born in Prague and is recognized as one of the greatest poets in the German language. His imagination was angel-struck, from his early poem about the angel of the sundial at Chartres to his ghost writing for the Angel of Death in the last lines he ever wrote. His angels rarely have much in common with the familiar figures of Jewish and Christian angelology. He told  Witold Hulewicz, his Polish translator, that he was more drawn to the angels of Islam. [2]

Before he arrived at Duino Castle, near Trieste, in 1912 as the guest of the Princess Maria von Thurn und Taxis, Rilke had wandered Andalusia with a Koran and a copy of a French biography of Muhammad in his book bag  He wrote a poem about Muhammad’s summoning.

The 96th sura of the Quran (“Recitation”) corresponds to the night of January 12, 611, when Gabriel first appeared to Muhammad – who was sleeping in a cave in Hira -and ordered him to read. In the hadith Muhammad is roused by a blinding light. When his eyes adjust he is terrified by a radiant figure that spans the whole distance between heaven and earth. The angel lifts him by his hair (he feels no pain) and speaks to him in a voice that fills him with fear. In the name of the creator, the angel hands him a scroll and orders him to read. Muhammad protests that he cannot read.In some versions,the contents of the book enter his heart and three years later, on the orders of the angel, he starts to deliver them to others. 

When Muhammad reads, in Rilke’s elaboration,the angel submits.and bows to him.

The Angel bowed its head
before him, one from thenceforth who had read:
who knew, and carried out, and who decreed.

From the birth of the Duino Elegies in the storm above the Adriatic, it took Rilke ten years to complete all ten, after the trauma of the Great War, in what he called a thunderstorm of the mind. Often, in these lovely, wild and mysterious verses,we fell the aching distance between the human condition and the untouchable beauty of the angelic realm. In a letter to his Polish translator Rilke explained that "the angel of the Elegies is that being that vouches for [our] being able to recognize a higher level of reality in [the realm of the] invisible than in the visible.” 

“You are the bird whose wings came/when I wakened in the night and called.”  This is how Rilke addressed the Guardian Angel (Der Schutzengel) in a poem with that title.

What shall I call you? Look, my lips are lame.
You are the beginning that gushes forth,
I am the slow and fearful Amen
that timidly concludes your beauty.
You have often snatched me out of dark rest
when sleep seemed like a grave to me
and like getting lost and fleeing, -
then you raised me out of heart-darknesses
and tried to hoist me onto all towers
like scarlet flags and bunting.

In the last lines Rilke composed, in the unfinished poem that begins Komm du, du letzter ("Come on you, you last") the poet gives voice to an angel. This time it is Azrael, the Angel of Death. 

As I burned in spirit, I burn in you.
The wood that blazes held back for so long has aged;
now I feed it and burn i
n you. 

Rilke gave us a gentler version of human-angelic interaction in one of the many poems he composed in French. 

From “Vergers”(Orchards)


Reste tranquille, si soudain
l’Ange à sa table se décide:
efface doucement les quelques rides
qui fait la nappe sous ton pain.

Tu offriras ta rude nourriture,
pour qu’il en goûte à son tour,
et qu’il soulève à la lèvre pure
un simple verre de tous les jours.


Stay still, if the Angel
suddenly chooses your table;
gently smooth those few wrinkles
in the cloth beneath your bread.

Then offer him your own rough food
so that he can have his turn to taste,
so that he can raise to that pure lip
a simple, common glass

The hint that an everyday angel may sit down at our table brings shivers of recognition and hope. In these lockdown times, it's good to know we may have visitors who don't need to enter by the door or come masked. Also helpful to have guidance on the correct table manners to observe when the angel calls.


1. Rilke, Duino Elegies II trans. Stephen Mitchell
2. 1925 letter to Witold Hulewicz quoted in 
Karen J. Campbell, “Rilke's Duino Angels and the Angels of Islam” Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics No. 23, Literature and the Sacred (2003) 191-211.
3.  Rilke, "Muhammad's Summoning", translated by Leonard Cottrell. 
4. Rilke, "The Guardian Angel" in  in The Book of Images translated by Edward Snow.
5. Adapted from an unsigned translation of “Komm du” published in the Times Literary Supplement in December 1975 accompanying an essay on Rilke by Walter Kaufmann, who is presumed to be the translator.
6. from "Vergers" (Orchards) trans. A. Poulin, Jr,, in Rilke, The Complete French Poems.

Image: Duino Castle,near Trieste, where Rilke composed the first of his Duino Elegies in 1912.

Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Why dreams set us puzzles

Artemidorus of Daldis, the most famous dream interpreter of the Greco-Roman world, is of perennial relevance. While his examples of dream content and the lives of the dreamers are of his time (the second century) his insights about how to look at dreams and dreamers often speak to us today. He wrote many books of which the soul survivor is The Interpretation of Dreams (Oneirocritica).Freud borrowed the title nearly two millennia later but I would pick the original over the later effort any time.
     Artemidorus wrote about many aspects of dreaming in other books that are now lost to us. In the Oneirocritica, his dreams in dreams that reveal the future, especially in those that do this through allegory rather than by literal depiction of possible scenes and events. Allegorical dreams are “those which signify one thing by means of another.”
     He gives us a powerful reason for looking for clues to the future in our dreams when he asserts that "the mind predicts everything that will happen in the future.” He gives several examples of precognitive dreams that presented future events in an entirely literal way. A man dreams of a shipwreck and then his boat is wrecked and he narrowly avoids drowning, as in the dream. Another dreams he is wounded in the shoulder by a friend in a hunting accident, and again the dream is played out exactly.
     If it is possible to dream the future with this kind of clarity, why do we need allegories? Artemidorus gives two reasons. The first is that we may lack the experience to understand a future event perceived in a dream – for example, because we have not yet encountered a person or situation that features in the dream. By setting us a puzzle to figure out, the “allegorical” dream gives us a rational way to access what the larger mind knows about things to come. Second, a hyped-up dream production can bring an emotional charge that leads to action; “it is the nature of the oneiros to awaken and excite the soul by inducing active undertakings.”
     Artemidorus tells us that while the gods who may be dream senders do not lie, they like to speak in riddles. This is because “they are wiser than we and do not wish us to accept anything without a thorough examination”. He gives the example of a man who dreamed the god Pan told him that his wife would poison him via his best friend. It was the relationship that was poisoned, when the wife proceeded to have an affair with the friend.
    Artemidorus recognized that every dream may be unique. The snake in your dream is not the same as the snake in mine. To read the meaning of a dream symbol correctly, you must know the dreamer’s identity, position in life, habits and medical condition. “You must examine closely the habits of men before the dream….you must inquire carefully into them.” Suppose you dream you are made of silver or gold. If you are a slave, this means you’ll be sold; if you are poor, you’ll become rich; if you’re already rich, you’ll be the victim of plots because everyone will be out to get your money. You must also question the dreamer’s feelings about a dream.
    Artemidorus observes that we dream the future for others as well as ourselves. Sometimes we receive a dream message for someone else. “Many dreams come true for those whose characters are similar to the dreamer’s and for his relatives and namesakes.”
    Artemidorus gives the example of a woman who dreamed she was married to a man who was not her husband. He observed that work with this dream could proceed in several directions, including exploring the possibility that it warned of death; “marriage and death signify each other because the circumstances surrounding a marriage and a funeral are similar.” This association, it turned out, was on the right track, but it was the dreamer’s sister, not the dreamer herself, who “married death” after the dream.   

Text adapted from The Secret History of Dreaming by Robert Moss. Published by New World Library.

Photo: Library of Celsus at Ephesus,where Artemidorus lived and read dreams for most of his life.


Friday, August 21, 2020

The dragon sits on your shoulder and other messages from the Index Card Oracle

One of my favorite games in my workshops is the Index Card Oracle. I get everyone in the circle to write something - a summary of a dream, an incident from memory, a reflection or a favorite quote - one one side of a 3x5 index card, as legibly as possible. We gather the cards into a deck. I then ask everyone to write down an intention for guidance, expressing this as simply and clearly as possible. ("I would like guidance on....") I then go around the circle, offering the deck. Everyone pulls a card at random. The game requires us to pretend that whatever is written on the card is a direct message from the universe in response to the intention for guidance.

The message may be obscure or ambiguous but, hey, that's how oracles stay in business long-term. As a divination deck, our Coincidence Cards can't be beat. We come up with a one-time deck, exclusively for us, that will never be used in this form again.

Of course, some of the messages are "keepers". My journals are stuffed with index cards whose inscriptions remind me of big dreams and coincidence fugues, of wildly funny incidents and of moments of insight and epiphany when we punched a hole in the surface world and saw into a deeper order of reality.

I've been looking over my collection of Coincidence Cards and I'll share some of the messages here, without attempting to recall the specific meanings that each of them assumed in the context of the intentions. Notes from the dreamworld included:

I’m in a wedding procession. As we walk down the aisle of the church and step up to the altar, I realize we have entered a diner.

Circus elephants circle around linked trunk to tail, lovingly, caringly giving each other a way to follow. Each is a leader as much as a follower.  

I’m in a large room where we each have to fly up to the ceiling every 2 or 3 minutes to breathe, as if the room is under water.

I was traveling from one space to another looking for my dad and my dog who have recently died. In what space would they now be? Are they standing in the galaxy? Are they in my dad’s house? Or in a new landscape by the sea?

 I recognized myself as a spider. The spider spits white webbing around the people. I am told, “It is a unifying force”.

The Moon goddess stands in her majesty above the Sea of Tranquility. She is flanked by her armored Moon soldiers and carried on the back of a giant crab moving gently through the sea.

The dragon sits on your shoulder. His fire breath drives back the dark.

Two men are taking me to my execution by beheading. I fight until my mother appears and tells me it will be okay. I submit myself to the execution and I am happy.

A jaguar leaps out of the forest and into the driver’s seat of a pink Firebird convertible. It morphs into a cartoon version of itself, puts on sunglasses, and drives away, waving as it says, “Hasta la vista”.

Standing near the refrigerator. The door opens, it’s packed, there is movement. Oh my, the turkeys are alive and they want to come out. Some of the messages come from observations on the roads of everyday life: My daughter hands me the feather of a blue heron and tells me I will need it this weekend.

A red passion flower lying in the roadway all alone.

A death’s head skull is floating in mid-air. I look for its origin and find that it is the reflection of a pattern on a woman’s purse.

A salmon pink trumpet-like flower opens before my eyes, bursting with joyful life

Some of the cards contain insights harvested from the workshops: 

You do not need to hunt your power. Your power will hunt you. Find a sacred space where your power can find you.

Throw out your net and fish in the River of Dreams.

The child does not need to grow up to be complete.

In playing the Coincidence Card game, we sometimes draw our own card, which is statistically improbable and often very interesting. It suggests, for one thing, that you already have the answer. You don't need to look outside yourself, only to go deeper within. Over the years, I've assembled quite a collection of cards that I wrote myself that spoke back to me in the game. Some of the messages are from dreams: 

A woman is falling to earth from a great height. I spread my falcon wings and swoop down to save her, catching her just before she hits the rocks. We soar straight up into the air before I gently bring her down to a house on a headland overlooking the water. I leave clear instructions for her on living on earth. 

Some are reflections: 

Before lightning strikes, it sends down probes to find its path to earth. In a similar way, we are rehearsed for BIG events by trial events, which may be diversions, dead-ends, first sketches or caricatures of what will come later. Don’t mistake the test drive for the big journey. 

Some are quotes: 

Everything can be taken from a man or woman but one thing, the last of human freedoms: to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way. – Viktor Frankl 

On the last day of one of my depth workshops, I wrote on an index card a summary of an essay I had been working on in the early morning. My intention, in consulting the Index Card Oracle that day, was simply for "guidance on the week ahead". I drew a card from the deck. When my turn came to read out my message, I found I had drawn my own card. Here’s what it said: 

In the miasmic conditions of life on this planet, it's easy to forget the mission you came to fulfill. If you are lucky, you'll get a reminder - from a dream or another person with stars in their eyes. 

That, for me, was the right message, for the week ahead and for any week.

Now my ability to get on airplanes and lead on-site workshops has been shut down by the pandemic, I find it very satisfying – and sometimes shocking – to draw a card from the huge deck of cards I have collected in past gatherings. This brings back delicious memories and sometimes gives me starter dough for new writing and a spur to fresh projects. And messages for any day and every night.


For a full description of how to play the Coincidence Card Game, and variant versions including one for creative writing and storymaking, please see my book Sidewalk Oracles: Playing with Signs, Symbols and Synchronicity in Every