Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Black Elk, the poet and a dream passport

One of the great creative and spiritual encounters in American history took place under a shelter of pine boughs on a barren hill on the Pine Ridge reservation in the summer of 1930. The men who met that day were John G. Neihardt, a renowned poet and critic from Nebraska, and the Lakota holy man Black Elk.
     Neihardt was engaged in writing “The Song of the Messiah”, the last narrative poem in his epic  Cycle of the West. He was eager to talk to an elder who had been warrior and healer, hunter and seer, who had worn the Ghost Dance shirt and lived the brave and tragic history of his people from the slaughter of the buffalo through victory at Little Bighorn and the massacre at Wounded Knee. The government agent at Pine Ridge, an admirer of Neihardt’s work, had arranged an interview, describing the “old Sioux” as a “kind of preacher”, a wichasa wakon (holy man). Neihardt’s Lakota interpreter, Flying Hawk, counseled him not to get his hopes up about the interview. Black Elk, now almost blind, was reclusive and reluctant to talk about sacred things; he had turned away another writer the week before and might simply refuse to see Neihardt..
    As it turned out, Black Elk was eager to talk to Neihardt, and talked for nearly five hours during their first encounter. He spoke not only from memory but from vision, “of things that he deemed holy”. As Neihardt passed out cigarettes, Black Elk said, through the interpreter,“I feel in this man beside me a strong desire to know the things of the Other World. He has been sent to learn what I know, and I will teach him.”
     Black Elk was not mistaken. Both men had received their calling in dreams and visions, and they immediately recognized that in each other. Black Elk placed a power object, representing the Morning Star, round Neihardt’s neck, and started talking about a “power-vision” from his boyhood. When he was just nine years old, the Lakota fell into a trance on Harney Peak and saw the sacred hoop of the world, and the tree of life, and the powers of the six directions.

I was standing on the highest mountain of them all, and round about beneath me was the whole hoop of the world. And while I stood there I saw more than I can tell and I understood more than I saw; for I was seeing in a sacred manner the shapes of all things in the spirit, and the shape of all shapes as they must live together like one being.

On the first conversation with Neihardt, Black Elk gave only “flashes” of  what the vision contained. But he invited the poet to come back in the spring to receive it all. He announced that his purpose was to “save his Great Vision for men”; he had chosen Neihardt to be his “word sender”, the one who would take his story from one language and mindset and root it in another, so the world could hear and awaken.
     Neihardt was ready to understand and interpret, not only because he had studied Native American traditions for thirty years, but because he was a dreamer whose life had been shaped by a big dream in his boyhood. Aged 11, on his own “hill of vision” in Nebraska, Neihardt lay in a fever. Three times during the same night, he felt himself hurled through a vast emptiness at terrifying speed, his arms stretched forward, while a great voice drove him on. He interpreted the dream as a mandate for his life calling: to follow a higher purpose that he would manifest through poetry.
    Two decades later, Neihardt wrote of his encounter with the voice of the fever dreams in a poem titled “The Ghostly Brother”. Here he presents the driving force of the dream as a greater self or daimon that tells him, “I am you and you are I.” The poem speaks of the tension between a power that calls him to travel “somewhere out of time and place” beyond “the outer walls of sense” and the everyday self that wants safety and comfort and rest.
     When Neihardt shared the dream with Black Elk, the Lakota elder called it a “power-vision”, using the same language with which he described his own boyhood vision on Harney Peak. Black Elk told Neihardt that he thought the voice in the dream was “an Indian brother from the happy hunting grounds who was your guide.” Black Elk felt that the guide that sent young Neihardt flying through space had brought them together. “It seems that your ghostly brother has sent you here.”
     Neihardt felt shivers of recognition when Black Elk got to the point in his narrative – the following spring – where he described himself flying through space, in a vision when he was in Paris with a Wild West show, in the same style as the 11-year-old poet.
     From the conversations between the two dreamers came an essential and perennial classic of Native American spirituality, Black Elk Speaks, first published in 1932 and now available from Excelsior Editions (an imprint of SUNY Press) in a handsome annotated edition with illustrations by Standing Bear. The subtitle of the book speaks of the depth of creative collaboration the Lakota holy man and the poet achieved: Being the Life Story of a Holy Man of the Oglala Sioux as told through John G. Neihardt (Flaming Rainbow).
     Notice the phrase “told through”, as opposed to “told to.” The book blends two voices flawlessly, and beautifully fulfills Neihardt’s intent (as he described it in 1972, a year before his death) “to re-create in English the mood and manner of the old man’s narrative.”
     In the Mohawk language, which I was required to study because of my own dreams and visions, the word for “interpreter” (sakowennakarahtats) carries the sense of transplanting something from one place to another. This Neihardt accomplished.  In explaining why he gave the poet the name Flaming Rainbow in a Lakota adoption ceremony, Black Elk said:

He is a word sender. This world is like a garden and over it go his words like rain, and where they go they leave everything greener. After his words have passed, the memory of them shall stand long in the West like a flaming rainbow. 

    In his work with Black Elk, as Neihardt  wrote near the close of his life, he was convinced that “there were times when we had more than the ordinary means of communication.” I am sure of it. Dreamers know each other, and where people value dreaming, the right dream is a passport to essential things, which are shared on more than one level of consciousness.

Time Note: I wrote a first version of this essay in 2011, when I was honored by an invitation to give the John G. Neihardt Memorial Lecture (in honor of the author of Black Elk Speaks) at the State University of New York.

Photo: Black Elk on Harney Peak by Enid Neihardt (1931)

Monday, August 3, 2015

Dreaming in India ink

“Action is better than inaction” – Krishna to Arjuna.

I continue to be impressed by how dreams can call us to traditions and cultures of which we may have had little or no previous knowledge, from any obvious sources, yet may now prove to be part of our authentic path. One of my students, Maureen, described how she was guided deep into Indian philosophy by a fascinating series of dreams. The sequence began with a dream encounter with a charming Indian man who wanted to escort her on a trip.
     When Maureen asked for specific guidance on her spiritual path, she dreamed she was given two books, one a book for children, the other the Bhagavad Gita. She then joined her sisters – they all used to be champion gymnasts – and they performed in something as important as the Olympics. In company with her sisters, she discovered a “book” composed of five panels. Examined a certain way, the five panels revealed an unusual and highly significant map, drawn in “India ink”, that only she could see. She communicated the map to her sisters by singing its meaning.
      Now: the dreamer had never previously read the Gita. She did not know that it is a “song” (the title means “Song of the Lord” and it is traditionally sung in recitation). She knew next to nothing about Indian philosophy. She certainly did not know that the Greeks in the army of Alexander the Great who encountered yogis called them “gymnosophists” (a word related to “gymnasts” that means “naked philosophers") because these ascetics wore rather little clothing.
     Inspired by her dream, Maureen proceeded to read the Bhagavad Gita. She reported: “I feel as if I am holding a jewel in my hands with this book. I have never been to India, and have no close associations with it - but now it has really grabbed my attention. I feel I am being guided on a question I always wrestle with - how do we live a truly spiritual life in our earthly existence?”
      She felt the gymnasts in her dream had a dual meaning, related to that question. “The lesson I learned from my father about embracing gymnastics not to compete, but to give myself to the sport, to let it be an expression of me, was very liberating for me at the time, and life altering.” As she studied the Gita, she realized that the “five panels” that composed her dream map may relate to the five “immutable truths” and five “causes of action” that Krishna explains to Arjuna.
      She found the Karma Yoga (yoga of Action) in this work highly relevant to her need to make a balance between the practical necessities of life and a spiritual awakening. “Action is better than inaction,” Krishna admonishes Arjuna, on the field of battle. (But think not on the fruits of action...)
      Maureen’s experience is a rich example of how dreaming can guide us in keeping body and soul together as we try to marry a spiritual awakening to the requirements of ordinary life.
      Frjtof Capra dreamed that the subatomic world is Lord Śiva's dance.
      Now I recall 
that I once told reporters in a dream that I am writing a book inspired by the Hindu epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata - the immense cycle in which the Bhagavad Gita is the central jewel. That would be quite an assignment!

Photo of Krishna and Arjuna by RM

Literature begins in dreams of the Goddess

Inanna, Queen of Heaven and Earth

The raw sexuality of her call to her lover is wild and shocking.  He plunges into her like a wild bull. When they couple, he is the green life of all growing things and she is the Queen of Heaven. He is Dumuzi and she is Inanna.
     But she is called to go down into the dark places and travel a terrifying path of ordeal and initiation. When she returns, transformed, to the surface world, she finds that her man has forgotten her and is playing king of all he surveys. Her angry curse sucks the light out of his day. 
     Now Dumuzi dreams that everything turns against him. Trees are uprooted, his hearth fire is doused, his drinking cup is thrown down, his shepherd’s crook is taken away. A fierce raptor seizes a lamb from his sheepfold, and he knows that something fearsome and unforgiving is coming for him.

The churn lies silent; no milk is poured.
The cup lies shattered; Dumuzi is no more.
The sheepfold is given to the winds.

Death is coming for him, and his only hope lies in the love and feminine wisdom of his younger sister, Geshtinanna. She is a reader, “a tablet-knowing scribe” who knows the meaning of words and of dreams.
     She tells him, “Your demons are coming for you.” She helps him hide, but in the end he cannot escape his demons. 

Dumuzi fettered by demons

He is overpowered by them and carried in the talons of a raptor down to the realm of Inanna’s dark double, the Queen of the Underworld, and into his own cycle of death and rebirth. Grieving, both Inanna and his constant sister, drumming like shamans, will seek him in the lower world. And they will make a deal by which Geshtinanna will take her brother’s place in the Underworld for half the year, giving him time up top with the goddess in her sunnier disposition. But that is a later story in the cycle of Inanna.
     The Dream of Dumuzi is the oldest recorded dream. It was written in Sumer nearly five thousand years ago, scored with marks on baked clay that look like the tracks of a very thoughtful sandpiper. It was almost certainly written by a woman, who authored a magnificent cycle of hymns to Inanna. We know her name: Enheduanna. The first recorded author is a high priestess and poet devoted to Inanna. The first dream analyst is a female shaman who becomes a goddess.
     Geshtinanna becomes the goddess of dream divination (and of wine). Her consort, who is depicted with serpents shooting up from his shoulders, has an awkward-looking name, Ningishzida, which is worth inspecting closely. Chastely translated by previous generations of scholars as “Lord of the Upright Tree,” it actually means “Lord of the Erect Phallus”. Those Mesopotamians knew a thing or two about sexual arousal in dreams and how real magic rides on sexual energy.
     The Dream of Dumuzi, unclothed in its beauty and terror in a modern translation by Diane Wolkstein, is great writing, and it takes us where great writers do not fear to go: into the inner chambers of the heart, into the demon-haunted mind, into the mysteries of death and rebirth. Thanks to its survival, we can say without hesitation that one of the first uses of writing was to record dreams,  and that one of the great things that emerged from dreaming with the Goddess, at least five thousand years ago, was literature.
     That statement may be strengthened by current scholarly investigation, inspired by Marija Gimbutas, into a possible "language of the Goddess" expressed through a visual code in inscriptions in south-eastern Europe, which may prove to be a form of writing even older than that of Sumer, developed by matrifocal societies.

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

Sunday, July 26, 2015

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.

Drawing: "Return from Earth Mountain" by R.M. Oil crayons.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Heard by fairies, followed by Freud, transported to Van Diemen's Land

Mosswood Hollow is my favorite place to lead retreats in North America. Think a cross between Hogwarts and Wind in the Willows. I knew the name was propitious when a friend first brought me here ten years ago. Before that, the owners had never heard of me, nor I of them. Yet my surname is in the name they invented for their retreat center, inspired by the mossy woods all around us, in the foothills of the Cascade mountains of Washington State.
    I have been at Mosswood for two weeks, leading trainings. I am not surprised that i have new evidence that (as the Chinese say) "there are things that like to happen together", though I was amazed with delight by the incidents I will now report:

1. Fairy dust gets around

We had fairy voices in my Level One training for teachers of Active Dreaming at Mosswood last week. They included the achingly beautiful voice of inspired singer-songwriter Kai Altair. During our graduation ceremony on Friday, she sang "The Calling", a song of the heart's yearning that stirred every heart in our circle. Later she gave us a song that was born in a workshop I led on "Making Death Your Ally". Both songs are on her marvelous dream-charged album Dreamwalker.
    Faerie magic continued into Friday evening, when we gathered round a fire in the field between the lodge and the beaver pond. Joined by two other wonderful singers, a flute player and drummers, Kai sang again, improvising, riffing, playing with the spirits of the land and with visitors from the world-behind-the-world.
    When I went up to the porch, I found the owner of the lodge relaxing with a glass of wine and the glow of Faerie fire. I remarked, "We don't need a conference on fairies with so much fairy magic going on in my programs."
    He told me there is actually a conference on fairies that meets in Washington State, not at Mosswood Hollow but at another wildly beautiful location. He named some of our mutual friends, including prominent Celtic scholars, who have been presenters there.
    When I opened my email in the morning, I was amazed and delighted to find an invitation to lead keynote workshops at the 18th Congress on Human and Fairy Relations in June 2016. The invitation was charming, and since it came over the transom edged with Fairie fire, it did not take me long to clarify the details and say Yes.

2. Freud is following me

At the breakfast table yesterday, I share a brief report of a dream in which I am teaching a group to recognize the signs that gods and fairies are at play among humans. The discussion that follows leads me to recall that Sigmund Freud amassed a huge collection of statuettes of gods from the ancient world. He hated to be separated and seemed to commune with them. He jokingly referred to them as his "old and grubby gods". I was able to view 2,000 (of the original 3,000) when I visited Freud's last home in London. Later, while leading a writing retreat here at Mosswood Hollow, I wrote 4,000 words of a story about Freud's relationship with his gods, which were regarded by their makers as living vessels for the powers that had been called into their forms.
    Dreams require action. I announced that my action plan, after discussion of my dream, would be to pull out my Freud story, edit it, and see if it wants to become part of a new book.
    When I opened my laptop upstairs, I saw a message that read:

Sigmund Freud is Following You on Twitter!

     I checked and found that my new follower on Twitter is sigmund freud@freudfreaks, a site that posts daily quotes from Freud. I rushed downstairs to tell my group that Sigmund Freud is now following me. "It's about time," I quipped.
     I stepped out onto the porch to spread the word to dreamers sipping coffee in the morning sun. When I opened the door, the first phrase I heard - from a man sharing his own dream at an outdoor table was "an erect penis."
     I am not sure whether this is confirmation that Freud is following me, or Freud's revenge.

3. The she-oak lizard of Van Diemen's Land

One of the great delights of the residential retreats I lead at Mosswood Hollow is the chance to sit out on the porch under the stars in the evening and share stories, poems and songs.
    Yesterday evening, we were graced by the flute playing of a Huron/Wendat dreamer who has come to me - as she announced - t learn how to bring back the dreamways of her ancestors. Were thrilled by the soaring voice of a singer who once formed a band called The Sidhe. Then an Irishman in the group was persuaded to give us a favorite Irish ballad from another time, "The Black Velvet Band", in which a Belfast man laments that he was deceived by a lovely woman and transported as a convict to Van Diemen's Land, known today as Tasmania.
    I sat down today to write this note on synchronicity, with the tickling feeling that the two cases above needed to be  joined by a third, since three times makes the charm and is also in the title of my book The Three "Only" Things, which explains how we may notice a hidden hand in the play of synchronicity, which thins the veils between the worlds as forces of the deeper world probe and push through the curtains of our consensual hallucinations about reality.
    I paused to check email, and found this message from a man in northern England who was previously unknown to me:

"I dreamed last night I was standing in a shallow part of the sea. Out of a small hole in the shale on the sea floor, a very long black lizard popped its head out and swam towards a group of others. When I woke up I thought this was just some strange dream creature, but then decided to Goggle it, and came across an image that was very similar, which described the animal as a She-oak skink (Cyclodomorphus casuarinae) which is found only in Tasmania.
     "A few hours later, while having lunch, I looked for a book to read and my eyes fell on Conscious Dreaming by Robert Moss on my bookshelf, which a friend lent me a couple of years ago, and which I must confess I’d never previously got round to reading. Just four pages in, my jaw dropped a little when I read; 'They were as real as the thrilling walk I once took through the Queensland bush, under a sunshower, when I heard the she-oaks sing.'
     "I had to drop you a line about this because I’d never seen any type of long lizard before this dream, and didn’t even know such things existed. I’ll have to wait and see now if there is a deeper meaning to this synchronicity!"

Fairy wings are beating, and playful spirits work are in the wires, and the wireless.

Coming soon: Sidewalk Oracles: Playing with Signs, Symbols and Synchronicity inEveryday Life by Robert Moss. Published by New World Library. Pub date: October 3. Available now for pre-order.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Message board

The words on the eraser board
vanish faster than I can get them down.
If I can catch them I will have the code
to free the prisoner in the border jail
and remember what the divine wants of me.

While I worry about this
a fish is slipping through the yard
and the lion in my living room

tells me that she is the part of me
that is on fire with love for the world.

Mornings are all like this.
I return from a room next door
with messages from another world

that slip through my fingers like slippery fish.
I see what the art of memory requires.

I train myself to step through the door
between the worlds. In my second body
I write on the message board
while my ordinary hand scratches on a pad.
This is my writer's way.

- Robert Moss, Mosswood Hollow, July 23, 2015.

Tree Dreaming at Mosswood Hollow. Photo by Robert Moss.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

The Dreamer at the Helm of the Starship Enterprise

As part of the graduation ceremony for teachers of Active Dreaming, I ask each graduate to make a short statement about the importance of dreams and dreamwork in front of the circle. I was deeply impressed by the clear and powerful remarks offered on Friday at Mosswood Hollow by the graduates from my most recent training.
    Of all their calls to the dreamer in each of us, this is my favorite.

by Theresa Matthews

When recently asked why dreams matter, I was reminded of Captain Kirk of the Starship Enterprise.  We learn in the opening of one movie that of all the Federation officers past or present, he was the only cadet to have survived the Kobayashi Maru simulation.  In one dire moment, but with a gleam in his eye, he confesses to a young cadet that he doesn’t like to lose and that he snuck in and changed the rules of the game.  

Dreams are game changers.  They bring us secret weapons in the form of hints, allies, insight, and sometimes very direct information that allow us to navigate the unknown territories of our lives with no small measure of bravery and distinction.  They allow us to masterfully captain our own ships.

Dream Teacher Training Level One, Class of 2015

USS Enterprise (NCC-1701-A)