Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Secrets of Flow: creative dreamers and shaman poets

Creativity comes most deeply and naturally when we enter a state of flow. This is evoked in the Tewa Pueblo word for creativity or art. The word is po-wa-ha. The three syllables literally mean “water-wind-breath”. The understanding is that creating is a process of connecting to a deep natural flow [and that art is a process, not a product]. Rina Swentzell, an architect and artist from Santa Clara Pueblo, explains that the Tewa do not have a separate word for art because they do not experience art as an activity separate from any other in life. Creativity is as close as breathing; it is the spirit of life moving effortlessly through its cycles.

Po-wa-ha, literally “water-wind-breath” is that energy that flows from everybody and everything – plants, stones…Creativity just begins to flow out of people. [It] breaks through limits and limitations and flows through from the very source of life. [1]

Dreams can help move us into creative flow, as poet William Everson observed:

The development of the dream-life is one of the best of all possible ways of getting you into the imaginative dimension from which true writing springs…There is no real creative process without mood. It is a losing of objectivity to another dimension, a further loss of self, and it is from this loss that all authentic work springs. It is not possible to create without losing your ego-consciousness. The great thing about the dream is that it takes us into that dimension of mood. Sometimes your finest poems come out of dreams, or out of your recording of a dream. [2] 

Creators and shamans both enter a state of conscious dreaming to do their work, and bring back gifts of magic and healing. In Birth of a Poet William Everson beautifully evoked the similarity between those who reenchant the world as poets and as shamanic dreamers:

In trance [the shaman] descends to the unconscious and like a grebe or cormorant swims underwater in search of the delivering images, the spirits…It is the talent and the genius of the shaman to control the conditions of the trance until the remedy is found and the cure effected. The artist must do the same thing…The shaman enters a trance-like condition in order to engage the archetypes of the collective unconscious and stabilize their awesome power, appease the demons, as it were. This is precisely the function of the poet today. For the poet, too, can only work through trance. [3]

    The connection between the shaman and the creator goes even deeper. The Inuit say that the spirits like “fresh words”. They want to be entertained. They are easily bored with humans who go on repeating old formulas and old ways. When we bring something fresh and new into the world, we entertain the spirits and delight our own creative genius, and our lives are infused with natural magic, confirmed by the play of synchronicity about us.
    I teach an unusual creative writing retreat called "Writing as a State of Conscious Dreaming" at a magical private retreat center in the green woods east of Seattle. But I have the pleasure of watching people move into creative flow in many other situations as they learn to start their day by drifting in the fertile space between sleep and awake, and then to bring fresh dreams to the breakfast table and take action to create with the fresh energy and imagery that is with them. 


1. Rina Swentzell and Sandra P. Edelman,  “The Butterfly Effect” El Palacio 1, vol 95 (Fall/Winter, 1989)
2.William Everson, Birth of a Poet: The Santa Cruz Meditations edited by Lee Bartlett, (Santa Barbara: Black Sparrow Press, 1982) 41
3. ibid 133.

Art: "Mandala de l'arbre" by Annick Bougerolle.

Egyptian Gates to the Afterlife: Flying to the Sky Goddess

The Egyptian Book of the Dead is full of spells for becoming a bird - a swallow, a falcon, a heron, or the benu bird the Greeks identified as the phoenix, the bird that is reborn from the ashes of its own funeral pyre. Sprouting wings was clearly one of the preferred Egyptian ways of entering the Otherworld and embarking on a happy afterlife. The ba soul is already winged; it is depicted in many inscriptions as a human-headed bird coming or going from the body of the soul traveler.

I come to you, O Nut.
I come to you, O Nut.
My wings have grown into those of a falcon.
My two plumes are those of a sacred falcon.
My ba-soul has brought me
and its magic words have equipped me.

- PYRAMID TEXT OF UNAS, Utterance 245

    In the Pyramid Text of Unas, the star traveler calls to the sky goddess that he is ascending to her on falcon wings, leaving the realm of Osiris below and behind. Nut, the great goddess , mother of Isis and Osiris, Set and Nephthys, is depicted as a naked woman or a heavenly cow whose body is filled with the starry sky. When the soul voyager calls to her, she gives him the following welcome:

May you split open a place for yourself
among the stars of the sky
for you are a star...
Look down upon Osiris
When he gives orders to the spirits,
you stand far above him
You are not among them

and you shall not be among them

    A true pharaoh ascended to the realm of the gods in such ways not only to rehearse for death, but to marry the worlds and return to the body with superabundant energy and insight. Initiates made the journey of ascent to enter the realm of the Akhet - the shining ones - and to be made "shining" (akh) in transformed energy bodies.
    The transformations recorded in the pyramid texts reflect a passage through several levels of reality, requiring movement beyond successive energy bodies and the putting-on of a celestial body. Like the shamanic journeyers who find that they are required to give up human or animal form to transcend the astral plane, the royal traveler becomes lightning in the Unas text, "a blinding light...a flame moving before the wind to the end of the sky and the end of the earth."

Text adapted from The Dreamer's Book of the Dead by Robert Moss. Published by Destiny Books.

My new online training for The Shift Network, "Shamanic Approaches to Death, Dying and the Afterlife", will explore many geographies of the Other Side and open portals for first-hand experience.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Forest singing to wake up the spirits

I am teaching in Estonia again. Here is a scene from my first visit, early in 2011.

Pärnamäe, Harju County, Estonia

The gate is a simple weathered beam, fastened to young birch trees to make an arch. I tap three times with the wooden beater hanging below.
    "Tere tulemast minu juurde," says the smiling, bear-like man standing in the midst of the grove. "Welcome to my roots."
     He helps me to see the tree-sisters around us. Lindens, where ancient Estonian women offered sacrifice for fertility and domestic harmony, still held to offer psychic protection and many forms of healing; "bee-trees" in summer. Mountain ash. Birth. A solitary oak whose trunk divides into three near the roots. The oak, so important to my ancestors, is a rarity in Estonia these days. Once called "peasant's iron," the oak was the preferred wood for ship's timbers and barrels and much else.
    The trees are leafless in this season. Spring fire comes late to the Baltic. We feel spirit stirring, however, as we drum and sing together. "My house is built on the wind," sings the big man. He smiles again, after many verses, and says, "Some of the big spirits are sleepy. We have to sing runo-songs for a long time, to wake them up."
     Later in spring, he will bring school groups and their teachers into the woods and the groves, and teach them - as he says - "that a fox is not as big as a horse" and thaty inspiration, in-spiriting, comes in communion with nature.
     What does he want for the people he re-connects with the animate world of the forests? "That you can speak to everything, including your own body. And your soul. You can say to your soul, May you be like a beautiful berry."
     His English is excellent, but the strangeness of that Estonian phrase requires further translation. "A berry is good. A berry is full of juice. A berry is whole," he tries to transplant the thought.

When you are whole, you soul is a beautiful berry.

Still not sure I can take this in, until it hits me that this is Bear-talk. The Bear, lover of berries, would get it immediately.
    The man of the grove laughs when I make this observation, and mimes the action of the Bear eating berries. He grabs me in a powerful bear-hug and says, "Meel sa meeldid mulle. You come close to my soul."

Art: Albrecht Dürer, Three Linden Tree

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Dream beyond the body and discover worlds beyond the body

Wherever spirituality is alive, conscious dreaming is recognized as the most important source of instruction on the soul’s survival of death and its condition in the afterlife.
    Even St. Augustine – who had problems with dreams when he abandoned his lover for the church and decided that sex was disgusting – recommended paying the closest attention to dreams in which the dreamer is conscious he is outside his body. In a letter he wrote when he was working on The City of God, Augustine quoted the experience of one Gennadius, “a physician of Carthage”.
   In a dream, Gennadius encountered a radiant young man who led him to an otherworldly city where he heard singing “so exquisitely sweet as to surpass anything he had ever heard”. Waking, the doctor dismissed his experience as “only a dream”. His radiant visitor returned the following night and asked Gennadius whether he had been asleep or awake when they had met before.
   At this point, the doctor became aware that he was dreaming. When his guide asked him, “Where is your body now?” he became aware that he was also having an out-of-body experience. This was the preliminary to a teaching session in which he learned that the soul’s condition after death is similar to its condition in dreams, and he lost his doubts about life after life.
    The story of Gennadius finds echoes in the experiences of conscious dreamers today. In the wake of Raymond Moody's Life after Life (1975), there have been a flock of accounts of visionary journeys reported during "near-death experience" (NDE). It is not necessary to suffer life-threatening illness to make a conscious journey to explore the conditions of the soul after death.
    In a dream that was the gateway to many further explorations, I found myself in a large room where people in a circle were waiting for me. An electric blue fire burned in an alcove. A radiant guide indicated that I was to lead them through it. As we danced into the fire, my guide asked, "Where is your body?"
    Now aware that I was dreaming and out of the body, I was briefly tempted to rush back to check on the inert form on the bed. But I managed to stay with the dream and was shown a number of places of teaching for people who seemed to have passed on. At one of these teaching facilities, students of all ages joined their voices in songs of extraordinary beauty. The chorus of one of these songs stirs in me now:

What cannot be seen in the dream
cannot be seen in its glory

Behind the singers rose the buildings of a beautiful university. I have been able to visit this wonderful place of higher learning, meet some of its faculty, and audit some of its classes. For me it is the true Alma Mater, the school of Mother Soul.

Text adapted from Conscious Dreaming: A Spiritual Path for Everyday Life by Robert Moss. Published by Three Rivers Press.

Photo: Still from Nosso Lar (Astral City) a Brazilian film about the afterlife

The themes of this article are central to my new online training for The Shift Network, "Shamanic Approaches to Death, Dying and the Afterlife". Classes start on October 5 and run for 13 weeks.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Dream an upgrade for your flight to Paradise

In a lighter moment in an otherwise very sober guide to the bardos of life, death and after, Dzogchen Ponlop suggests that through the right practices, we can earn an upgrade on our ride to the afterlife. He writes in Mind beyond Death that “the way we make any journey depends on the type of ticket we have…We may even have collected mileage points. We may be eligible for an upgrade to first class." He allows that advanced dreamers may have earned sky priority, and direct access to the "pure lands", including the realm created by the buddha Amitabha. If you have traveled this way before, and your heart wants to go there again, you may be able to project your consciousness there at the moment of death by "pure realm phowa." Another reason to deepen the practice of dreaming. Here's the key passage:
“Pure realm phowa is connected to the practice of dream yoga. It involves directly transferring out consciousness at the time of death to one of the Buddha realms, such as the pure land of Amitabha or Akshobya, or to any of the sacred realms of the dakas, dakinis or bodhisattvas. "The capacity to effect such a transference is developed through training in dream yoga. In that practice, not only do we learn to recognize the dream state, but also we develop the skill to transform our dream appearances. When we have developed that degree of control over our minds, then we can travel in our dreams to any Buddha field we wish. "According to these teachings, if we can exercise that kind of power in our dreams, then we will be able to exercise the same power in this bardo [the Bardo of Dying]. We can use our understanding and experience of dream yoga to spontaneously transport ourselves to any sacred realm with which we have a heart connection. For example, you do not have to be a realized being in order to take birth in Amitabha’s pure land. Ordinary beings with a strong aspiration and good accumulation of merit can also take birth there. If we can achieve such a positive situation then we will have the optimum conditions to continue our spiritual training. Our practice will be supported by the blessings of buddhas and boidhisattvas."
A few notes: 1. Phowa (literally "transference" or "ejection") is the art of projection of consciousness from the body to another state at the moment of death. Dzogchen Ponlop offers a brief introduction to five modalities, including deity phowa in which the practitioner seeks to merge with a yidam or god-form. 2. "Pure lands" or "buddha-fields"  (Sanskrit buddhaketra) are especially important in East Asian Mahayana Buddhism. When we study the accounts of how such realms are created through the will, merit and imagination of superior beings, we may have an Eastern model for reality creation in the imaginal realm. 3. In our Active Dreaming approach, we do not use the symbols, postures, mantras or guru devotion of dream yoga as practiced in Tibetan Buddhist lineages and others, though we respect these. However, Active Dreaming, like dream yoga is a discipline that requires practice, practice, practice. Like yoga, Active Dreaming is a science of consciousness. It trains you to raise your awareness, play witness to yourself, go beyond consensual hallucinations, and enter the limitless field of nonlocal mind. It will certainly earn you frequent flyer miles, and maybe even premier status for the Big journey. Art: The famous Thaima Mandala, woven in Japan in the 8th century, showing the "pure land" of Amitabha, who appears as a giant figure at the center, projecting new features of this realm through the remarkable light emanation above his head.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Finding solutions in the place between sleep and awake

As I lay in bed early on a rainy Saturday morning, it occurred to me that the drifty state after waking can sometimes be - quite literally - the Solution State.
     I did not initially have narrative dream recall. Instead, I found that my mental field was like an ocean of clean, translucent oil, in which many images and ideas were floating and bobbing. I could reach around and choose some of them to mix and match, and to bring into clear resolution. As I did this, I was given very clear solutions to a number of specific problems and imagery sequences I could now develop - or allow to develop - into dream movies with plotlines.
      It struck me that this kind of experience takes place in a kind of dream matrix that could be called a Solution in the sense that many elements and possibilities are suspended in it - and that creative people have the ability, in that state of relaxed attention (or attentive relaxation) of entering the Solution State to bring through solutions.
     In The Secret History of Dreaming,, I describe how in many fields - most notably in the history of scientific breakthroughs - the Solution State has been the vital place of creation.  Many of our greatest scientists have been dreamers in a more expansive sense. Above all, they have known how to enter into a fluid state of consciousness where unlikely connections can be made that escape the workaday mind, and where the shapes of what was formerly inexpressible rise from the depth like creatures from the ocean bed.
    One of the most famous – and problematic - “dreams” in the history of science involves the dream of a snake biting its tail. It was this vision that revealed the shape of the benzene ring to German chemist August Kekulé (1829-1896). You’ll find it mentioned in almost any book that contains stories about dreams and creativity. But was it a sleep dream, or an image that came in a lightly altered state of consciousness?
     Kekulé wrote a personal account, reconstructing an extempore speech he gave at the 1890 Benzolfest many years after his visions. Study this closely, and check the meaning of the German words, and you’ll find that his dreamy perception of the “dance” of chemical elements was not a one-off affair. He described a similar experience seven years before the snake dream that gave rise to his theory of chemical structures. He made it clear that in years between the two visions he had developed a practice of seeing or thinking in visual imagery.
     In his mid-20s, when he was living near Clapham Common in London, Kekulé spent a long summer evening sharing his ideas with a friend and fellow chemist who lived in Islington, on the other side of the city. Riding home on the last bus, Kekulé drifted into a reverie (Traumerei) in which he saw atoms “gamboling” and dancing and forming combinations. He understood, when he analyzed their motions, that he had been given clear insights into chemical structures. 
    Up to this time, he had been unable to grasp the nature of their motion. “Now, however, I saw how, frequently, two smaller atoms united to form a pair; how a larger one embraced the two smaller ones…while the whole kept whirling in a giddy dance. I saw how the larger ones formed a chain, dragging the smaller ones after them but only at the end of the chain.” He stayed up late that night sketching these “dream forms”. This was the origin of his theory of carbon bonding in chemical structures.
     We see three conditions for creativity at work in this incident: (a) immersion in a subject, (b) sharing a developing idea with the right friend, and (c) drifting or relaxing into a flow state, from which the “Eureka” moment arises spontaneously..
    Seven years later, a dream or reverie during an evening nap showed Kekulé the chemical structure of the benzene ring. He was now a professor in Ghent in Belgium. Dozing by the fire in his darkened study, he again saw atoms “gamboling before my eyes.” Now his inner sight “rendered more acute by repeated visions of the kind, could  distinguish larger structures of manifold conformation: long rows, sometimes more closely fitted together all twining and twisting in snake-like motion.”
    Then he was startled to see one of the “snakes” seize hold of its own tail, and whirl “mockingly” before him. He was jolted out of his languorous state, “as if by a lightning bolt.” The image of the whirling snake gave the chemist the clue to the structure of the benzene ring. He spent most of the night that followed working this up until he had shaped his theory.
     Kekulé had become practiced in receiving and developing helpful images in this way. When he described the roots of his scientific creativity in the Benzolfest in his honor in 1890, Kekulé told his audience, “Let us learn to dream, gentlemen, then perhaps we shall find the truth.” He added the salutary caution, “But let us beware of publishing our dreams till they have been tested by the waking understanding.”
      The images that came to Kekulé would have been meaningless, in terms of chemistry, to someone who did not have a scientific mind that had long been working on the problems whose solutions they revealed. The imagery might have sent an artist off to paint, or sent someone with an interest in myth off to study the symbol of the Ouroboros in the ancient world and in alchemy.
     When Kekulé urged his audience to “dream”, he was surely not talking exclusively, or primarily, about what happens in sleep. He was talking about developing the ability to enter a state of relaxed attention in which ideas take form and interact as images.
     The base camp for this kind of operation, let us note, was the liminal state of hypnagogia. In a movie of Peter Pan, Tinker Bell tells Peter, "Look for me in the place between sleep and awake. There you will always find me." The fairy's advice was correct. This is the place where we find magic of many kinds, including the magic or creative breakthroughs and scientific discoveries.

For more on the history of scientific breakthroughs in the "solution state", please see The Secret History of Dreaming.

Graphic: Ouroboros in a drawing in a 1478 copy of an early medieval treatise on alchemy attributed to Synesius.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Eagle woman takes me to the airport

Boulder-Denver, Colorado

"You have plenty of seats to choose from. It's just you and me," says the cheery female driver of the big green bus that comes to take me from my hotel near Boulder Creek to the Denver airport.
    I sit upfront, and conversation starts right away.
    "Were you in Boulder for work?" she asks.
    I laugh. "You could say that. But my work is so much fun I don't think of it as work in the ordinary sense."
    "What kind of work do you do?"
    "I teach people how to dream, and how to use their dreams to lead better lives."
    "Wow! That sounds like a great job." She adds, after a moment's thought, "I have a dream that's been with me for years. I don't know what it means but it keeps coming back into my mind. It always makes me feel happy. Do you want to hear it?"
    "A happy dream? Sure."
    "In my dream, I was up in the mountains. Everything felt crisp and clear, wonderful. I sat down on a rock next to a stream, the way ladies used to sit side-saddle. I looked down in the water. The creek was so clear. I saw two eggs on the creek bed, and I knew they were eagle eggs. As I watched, the eagles started to hatch. Two fluffy little eaglets came out. They were still underwater, but they were fine."
     "How did you feel?"
     "I felt happy. I felt blessed. I felt I had received a secret, and a blessing."
     "Indigenous people who have kept their traditions of dreaming would probably say that you had received an invitation to receive the power of the eagle. If it were my dream, I would want to bring the qualities of the eagle - keen vision, the ability to fly high and see life situations from other angles and higher perspectives - into my life. I would think that the power of eagle is hatching within me."
     "That's good. I am Navajo, and I watch out for bald eagles. Last week I had one flying right next to the bus. The passengers were amazed. They said they had never seen an eagle that close.
     "My aunt is traditional Navajo. She told me she was out tending sheep and she found an eagle feather on her path. It was standing straight up in the ground. She spoke words of prayer over it. She took it home and now it's part of her power."
     "A dream of power is a rare and wonderful thing," I observed. "It can come to us in the night or in the day, and it does not require analysis or interpretation. It asks to be cherished, and recalled, and to lend its energy to our lives and sometimes to be shared with others." I told her how my life has been guided by encounters with the red-tailed hawk, in the natural world and in visionary reality.
     She pointed out a solitary tree in the landscape. There were two bald eagles up in the high branches. "I always check that tree. If the eagles are there, I know things are going well on that day."

     When we arrived at the airport, I asked her Navajo name. She told me, and then gave me its meaning. "Happy person." Happy indeed.