Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Little Drummer Girl

The beautiful little drummer girl in the photo is 18-month-old Jaslyn. She came with her parents, Roger and Gabby, to a very special gathering I led on Gore Mountain, in the New York Adirondacks, last weekend. Jaslyn joined us in the opening rounds of drumming to call up the dreams and visions that wanted to play with us, and very often would call for "More, more!" when the drumming stopped.

There is another sense on which Jaslyn is a dream child. Roger and Gabby met in their dreams long before they first met in the physical world, at one of my dream workshops in Manhattan. Gabby dreamed of a tall, handsome and humorous man who resembled Bob Saget, the host of "America's Funniest Home Videos", and shared his flair for performance. To her surprise, in the dream her very traditional Korean family were happy to welcome this man - who seemed to be her fiance - into their midst. When she first met Roger, she recognized the man from her dream. Like Bob Saget, Roger is 6'4''. He is also an actor and playwright - and a most gifted dreamer.

This story is a fine example of how we can dream our way, to Mr. Right, Ms. Right - and Baby Right. The presence of the Little Drummer Girl in our circle of thirty "frequent flyers" over the weekend was especially meaningful because one of the themes that emerged was the need to help families everywhere better understand how to listen to the dreams of children and nourish the imagination of the child.

When I returned from the mountain, I opened an email from an anthropologist (previously unknown to me) who is seeking to revive the understanding of shamanic practice in ancient Europe by leading retreats involving ecstatic trance postures from prehistoric Minoan art. She reported that she had just read my book Conscious Dreaming on the island of Crete. When I visited her website, I found this provocative quote from a teacher I greatly respect, Rachel Naomi Remen MD:

"You heal a dominant culture by forming a subculture of credible people, in the middle of it, who value something new, who reinforce and reward something that the dominant culture represses."

We understand this in the Dream School, and we have been working in this way for close on 15 years. In the presence of the Little Drummer Girl, it also seemed clearer to us than ever before that if we are going to rebirth a dreaming society in our time, we must begin by supporting our children as dreamers, and listening to them. When it comes to dreaming, kids are the real teachers because they are at home in the world of the imagination and they know that dreams, whether fun or scary, are real experiences. Look for a new series of playshops on "Dreaming for Kids and Families", coming soon.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Colorado adventures in shared dreaming

I spent last weekend in Boulder, Colorado, leading my "Active Dreaming" workshop. On the Thursday evening before the workshop, 111 people (nice number) braved rain and sleet to come to the Boulder Bookstore for my talk on "The Secret History of Dreaming". The energy was crackling as we explored the need to reclaim ancient tools of healing and seership such as the construction of webs of dreaming by intentional families to scan the environment and scout out the possible future in order to help whole communities to thrive and survive.

Someone at the bookstore commented on all the Bear energy he felt I had brought into the space. So I was cheered - after driving through a snowstorm to Denver the following afternoon for another bookstore event, at the Tattered Cover - to be welcomed to the downtown area by a huge blue bear saluting his double in the glass facade of the conference center.

The weekend workshop was held on the Naropa campus. I was reminded how, the night before I first traveled to Boulder, twelve years ago, I dreamed I had a delightful dinner conversation with an Asian man I regarded as "a shaman in a business suit". He had a great sense of humor, enjoyed a drink or two, and had the aura of a true magician. We talked about life and death and the larger reality. When I got to Boulder and reported my dream to people at Naropa University, they were convinced that my "shaman in a business suit" was Chögyam Trungpa, the Tibetan Buddhist teacher who founded Naropa, enjoyed alcohol, and once greeted the Governor of Colorado by saying, "Welcome to my kingdom." Chögyam Trungpa had died long before my visit, but it would have been very like him - so one of his former students said - to appear in nonordinary reality to welcome a visiting teacher.

In the Active Dreaming workshop, I was struck by the depth of our shared experiences in dream tracking and group dream travel. A Swiss woman in the group shared a dream in which she is on the deck of a cruise ship at night. The moon grows bigger and bigger until it fills half the sky, to the right of the boat. As she nears the moon, she is amazed and thrilled to see that it is covered with lush green vegetation that reminds her of scenes from her childhood in the French part of Switzerland. She is eager to reenter this dream and so, of course, are we.

We set the intention to travel together and explore this moon of grass. People arrange themselves comfortably in the space, and I drum to fuel the journey. I find it unusually difficult to enter the dreamscape as it was described to us. I can get on the cruise ship easily enough, and feel the rhythms of the waves. But however hard I try, I cannot visualize the moon on the right side of the boat; it continues to hang in the sky on the left. So I try a path I have used before, the path of moonlight on water. Now the moon of my vision is straight ahead, across the ocean, laying a path of light along which I travel into the realm of Luna. There is no sign of the lush green vegetation the dreamer described. Instead, I see locales familiar to me from previous journeys. Something inspires me to go through this lunar scenery. I travel rapidly through a series of doors and passages and come out in a lush green garden on the other side of the moon. The high grass and the flowering trees are full of eyes, the eyes of boys and girls who are living here. I understand that this is a place of Lost Children, who came here when the world was too much (or too little). I think about how to bring them home to the grown-ups in the world who are missing their beautiful moon children. As I turn around, I see that the moon - the moon of grass - is now on my right.

The Swiss dreamer's report of her own journey was extraordinary. In the realm of the moon, she found a tool of vision: an abalone shell filled with water. As she looked in this mirror of water, she saw a second self, looking in an abalone shell - at another, smaller self, looking at a yet smaller version...and so on, all the way down. Then she sensed a larger self, viewing her in a mirror or water...and so on, all the way up. From this lovely and simple vision of nested realities her consciousness expanded and she began to perceive something of the possible shape of the multiverse.

Later in the workshop, I was privileged to work with a Navajo elder named Abraham who had driven up from Flagstaff because he had heard that I dream in the way of the ancestors, and can teach others how to do that. He wanted to reenter a dream from many years ago. In 1984 [*], he told the smaller group of dream trackers we formed for this exploration, he dreamed he was riding a paint across the desert with his deceased gradfather and a famly friend who had also passed on. They were riding hard towards a great rounded sandstone boulder rising above the dunes. He knew there were important teachings to be received at this place. But the dream was interrupted and he was unable to get back to that place.

When I drummed for the journey, I enjoyed galloping across the desert on a cream horse with a white mane. Rattlesnakes sounded a warning as I neared the great sandstone boulder. I could see no obvious way either to enter the sandstone - using it as a portal - or to move beyond it. I began to feel that perhaps this was sacred territory reserved for the Navajo and that I was not welcome within it. Then I sensed something above me and looked up to find a giant eagle - an eagle as big as a mountain - hovering overhead. Its wings were striped in horizontal bands of bright rainbow colors. I looked down at the ground and saw the same rainbow eagle depicted in a sand painting at my feet. In that moment, I realized I had stepped through the sandstone portal and been received into a Navajo imaginal world. I walked by water, and saw Abraham walking there too, with an animal ally at his heel. I heard the long blessing way chants of his grandfather, and witnessed some indigenous ways of healing.

When we shared journey reports, the deep grooves on Abraham's face opened into a smile of delight as I described the rainbow eagle. He proceeded to tell us how he had found a place of sacred teaching and healing by water, inside the world of the sandstone boulder, and had been followed everywhere by a gila monster - regarded by his people as a great diagnostician - that he would now work with, consciously, as an ally in healing work. He pronounced "gila" the Spanish way, so it sounded like he was speaking of a "healer monster".

Later I was privileged to have Abraham as one of my trackers when I shared a dream from the Saturday night in which, on my way to giving a lecture on Sir William Johnson and the Iroquois in a huge auditorium, I found myself on top of a soaring mountain, inside a security fence, and had to jump down in order to give my presentation. Abraham saw the mountain becoming an eagle, with the area at the crest within the security fence as the head of a bald eagle, and then saw the mountain-sized eagle wrapping itself around me to guide and protect. Thea, another of my trackers, had a very down-to-earth vision of my dream. She advised me to remember "not to make mountains out of molehills" and to remember to "come down to earth" in order to reach all my audiences where they live. I loved both messages, which were nicely balanced and again demonstrated how we always benefit from multiple perspectives on our dream material.

[*]A typo turned this into "19874" in the original post. See Wanda's effort to find some meaning in this slip in the Comments

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Bringing home the child who sees colors

My guest on my radio show yesterday was Dorothea Hover-Kramer, a gifted and caring psychotherapist who was conceived in Germany at the time Hitler was invading Poland. She grew up seeing the colors of people's energy fields and was almost overwhelmed by all the darkness she saw - aged three and four - as the Nazi dream progressed towards Hitler's suicide in the bunker.

She was in Berlin when the Allies moved in, and said that the most light she had ever seen around a person was in the energy fields of some of the black American soldiers, the first black people she had ever seen.

Her mother died in the wreckage of Berlin, when Dorothea was only five. Alone with her sister, she recruited a refugee to look after them and cook for them based on the colors of the woman's aura.

Later, struggling to make her way, she ceased to be able to see people's colors. The gift of reading "biofields" (as she learned to call them) revived only thirty years later when, as a nurse, she learned about therapeutic touch and helped to develop the now international healing touch program twenty years ago....

Her story brings to mind all the other people (often survivors of much less extreme situations) who have been led to suppress or part company with that magical child who sees the colors of people's feelings and is at home in the worlds of imagination.

I think of a woman I know who was punished by her art teacher in elementary school because she persisted in drawing colors around people, because that was what she saw. "It's not REAL!" her teacher screamed at her. "People don't have colors around them!" So that little girl stopped drawing colors, and fairly soon she stopped seeing them.

When I was a very young boy, I recall drawing motion lines around the figures of humans and animals, even when they were depicted as sitting or standing still, because I saw energy patterns around them. Today, mainstream science is confirming the reality of the human biofield. In her new book Second Chance at Your Dream, Dorothea describes a new technology whose slightly unsettling acronym is SQUID (for Superconducting Quantum Interference Device); it seems this can track the parameters of the human energy bubble.

Surely we all want to make more room in our lives for the child within us who sees colors or energy patterns and knows the magic of making things up.

For Robert's interview with Dr Dorothea Hover-Kramer, visit You can listen to Robert LIVE on his "Way of the Dreamer" radio show on the second Tuesday of each month from 9-10 am Pacific Time.

THE GRAPHIC is a piece titled "Parc Tremblant" by English artist Steve Niner. You can contact Steve at steveniner@

Monday, April 13, 2009

The Millet Seed sermon

In the very early hours of Easter Sunday, I woke with delight from a dream in which I was lecturing and demonstrating a simple ritual centered on millet seed. It seemed like I was giving a sermon in a light-filled space with honey-colored wood, standing at a very simple pulpit. I spoke of this tiny seed as a symbol of creation, of death and rebirth, and of the growth of the very big from the very small.

Later that day, at our Easter dinner, I told my Millet Sermon dreamlet to a dear friend who, as a Dominican sister, is quite accustomed to giving as well as hearing sermons.

When I said. "I dreamed I gave a sermon on millet seed" she thought I meant that in the dream I gave a sermon while standing on top of a millet seed. Laughing, she described the vivid mental image of me as a tiny figure in a micro-world using a millet seed as my pulpit.

I loved this mental painting, which transported us into one of my favorite themes involving the multiverse: how we may be living in one of many nested worlds, and that the universe we think is so large may be one in which the furnishings of our lives are the size of millet seeds (or vastly smaller) in proportion to universes that contain ours.

Chekhov's Man in Black

'”I wrote 'The Black Monk' without any melancholy, in cold reflection,'” the Russian writer Anton Chekhov informed the publisher Aleksei Suvorin. . “I simply took it into my head to picture megalomania. As for the monk scudding along over the fields, I saw him in a dream.” [1]

The protagonist of Chekhov’s “The Black Monk” is a brilliant young philosopher, Kovrin. He is gripped by the vision of a man in black that he thinks he might have heard about in an Arabian legend he cannot recollect. As he describes this to Tanya, the young woman he will marry, it involves a monk, dressed in black, wandering in the desert a thousand years ago. At the same time, miles away, a fisherman sees a monk in black moving slowly over the surface of a lake. The second monk is a mirage and yet “from that mirage was cast another mirage, then from that a third, so that the image of the black monk began to be endlessly repeated from one layer of the atmosphere to another.” He is seen all over the world, then he passes beyond the Earth’s atmosphere to wander among the stars. The legend says he is about to appear on Earth again, “perhaps tomorrow.”

After sharing what his fiancée calls a “queer mirage”, Kovrin wanders towards sunset into a field of rye across a stream. Waves start running through the rye then

From the horizon there rose up to the sky, like a whirlwind or a waterspout, a tall black column. Its outline was indistinct, but from the first instant it could be seen that it was not standing still, but moving with fearful rapidity, moving straight towards Kovrin, and the nearer it came the smaller and the more distinct it was.

When Kovrin makes way for it, it turns into a monk, dressed in black, with gray hair and black eyebrows set in a “fearfully pale” face. Arms crossed over his chest, the monk glides above the rye for twenty feet, never touching the ground. Then he turns and nods before he expands again, passes through the landscape and vanishes like smoke.

Later the monk in black turns up for conversations with Kovrin. They sit together on a park bench, or in a room. Kovrin’s man in black assures him that he is a genius who is working in the cause of the "kingdom of eternal truth", in which the highest value and pleasure is wisdom. He discloses early on that he is a “phantom” of Kovrin’s imagination, then adds that the products of imagination are “part of nature” and so he is also quite real. When Kovrin questions his own sanity, the phantom tells him to be bold in accepting the price of creative genius. Normality is the state of the herd; gifted people are hardly normal and often near madness in the eyes of the world. Kovrin is spurred to work day and night on his books and researches.

Alas, his new wife wakens in the middle of the night to catch him talking to himself. When he explains that he is actually talking to a monk in black, she declares that he is mentally ill and must seek help at once. Carted off to the country, doped with bromides and stuffed with food, force-fed milk instead of his wine and good cigars, Kovrin stops seeing and hearing the black monk. He also loses his gifts and his brains and is soon spitting blood. He goes fast downhill, wasting his years. He leaves the wife who pushed him on this course, but it’s too late to halt his own decline. He sees the whirling monk just once more, at the moment of his early death, just before his life’s blood spews from his lungs and mouth in a terminal hemorrhage.

I was struck by the way the "black monk" appears, rises in the distance like a tornado, or a whirlwind, very much like a desert jinn, before he assumes human proportions as he approaches Kovrin. I felt sympathy between the author and this jinn-like monk.

Dr Chekhov knew all about the symptoms of tuberculosis. He died of it, at 44, as did his brother before him. "I have everything in order except my health," he told Olga Knipper just before their wedding. One of the cures that failed to fix Chekhov was large infusions of fermented mare’s milk. The autobiographical element in “The Black Monk” is strong. Chekhov wrote it in the summer of 1893 at his country estate at Melikhovo, which his disease later forced him to give up. That summer he took a very keen interest in gardening (like the obsessive Pesotsky, father of the bride in the story) spending hours minutely examining roots and fruits and vines. He also took time that summer to expand his knowledge of clinical approaches to mental illness, with the help of Russia’s leading psychiatrists of that era.

Chekhov transferred to his character Kovrin his symptoms, and his dream of the monk in black, and also his keen awareness of how life can present wrenching life choices.
Is it possible that Chekhov contemplated a different ending for “The Black Monk”? Might the act of imagination involved in that have helped the author as well as his character?

Let's see - how else might Chekhov's story have ended? He could have allowed Kovrin to defy the world and live the creative life the phantom promised, sending his wife home to garden with her father. Then Kovrin might have written all those books and given lectures that astonished Moscow. He might have pulled off some of those all-but-impossible things that the creative daimon is forever demanding.

This would have brought him to more forking paths, where the author - or the character, if he had taken full charge of his own fortunes, as the best characters in fiction tend to do - would need to make further choices. Kovrin could expire in a torrent of blood as he did before. But now he would be seen by the world as the very model of the romantic hero wracked by consumption – or (wait) perhaps as a vampire lord spewing up his night feasts – or (another choice) as a madman whose scripts must be anathematized and burned. Or Kovrin could come through well in all ways, healed by living his creative assignment, even with Tanya making up a threesome with him and the man in black on the loveseat.

In any of these versions, I would want to see the author amend his title. The story should surely be called “The Monk in Black” (as in “men in black”) rather than “The Black Monk”.

Maybe I'm waxing too fanciful, under the spell of Chekhov's only "gothic" piece. He did tell the publisher, after all, that he made a cold and rational decision to "picture megalomania", implying that he would take the same naturalistic approach as he did in describing wedding luncheons or apple-grafting. And yet....

Maybe someone in this moment is digging in an old cherry orchard, near Chekhov’s former country home. Could that be the chink of a spade clipping a buried trunk, that will prove to contain the manuscript of the “Monk in Black” (the version that got the title right)?


Music helped Chekhov to bring through “The Black Monk”, specifically Braga’s “Valakhian Legend”, sung at the piano by Lika Mizinova, the mistress of his friend Ignaty Potapenko when they stayed with him in the country that summer. The composer Shostakovich later observed that “The Black Monk” has the form of a perfect sonata.

Three decades later, in amazing counterpoint, Shostakovich was inspired by a dream of a monk in white. The composer recounted the experience this way in a letter to music theorist Boleslav Leopoldovich Yavorsky:

"On the night from 31st of December to 1st of January [1926] I had some dream, which, despite my complete disbelief in dreams, still somewhat stirred me up. This dream was rather sad, yet I will describe its content for you. I walk in the desert and suddenly meet "an elder" in white robes, who says to me: this year will be happy for you. After this I woke up with the sensation of tremendous joy. This joy was so great that I could not fall asleep until morning and stayed in bed awake despite retiring at 3 am yesterday. Ah, how wonderful it was.

“Now I remembered Chekhov's story The Black Monk’ and recalled that Kovrin had the same state of great joy that he did not know what to do with it. Ah how good it was, for the new year I have great hopes. Firstly, to finish the second symphony, which I have started two days ago. And I know that this symphony will be written and finished. These are not my fruitless attempts to compose, which I had lately. So far so good. I am content and happy. The throes of creativity trouble me, but I am glad to suffer this agony my whole life non-stop…. Everything is unexpectedly joyful." [2]

This energizing dream helped pull Shostakovich out of a profound creative crisis that had led him to burn many of his compositions the previous year. Interestingly, towards the end of his life Shostakovich wanted to write an opera based on “The Black Monk” as a study of failed genius, but died with this work undone.


1. Chekhov to Suvorin, January 25, 1894. In Michael C Finke, Seeing Chekhov (Ithaca NY: Cornell University Press, 2005) p 120.

2. Laurel E. Fay, Shostakovich: A Life, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), pp.20, 274

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Birth of a novel

Because of a hawk and a white oak and my need to get away from big cities, in 1986 I purchased a farm in rolling horse country in the upper Hudson Valley of New York. I had no idea how completely this move would change my life. But there were clues from the very beginning, in the irruption of the dream-logic of a deeper reality into my ordinary world. The first weekend my wife and I saw the farm - much of it still primal woodlands where the deer drifted in great droves - I knew in my gut this was a place I needed to be. I sat under an old white oak behind the derelict farmhouse, feeling the rightness of the place but also that I needed a further sign if we were to make the move to a new landscape far removed from the people we knew and the fast-track life I had been leading as a bestselling thriller-writer.

A red-tailed hawk circled overhead, a female (to judge by the size), her belly-feathers glinting silver-bright in the sunlight. She proceeded to drop a wing feather between my legs. Sometimes you can't escape the sense that something from a deeper world is poking through the veil of consensual reality, like the finger of an unseen hand. Or a wingtip.

An early snowstorm in October the following year, soon after we had finished the renovations and moved into the farm, isolated us from the modern world behind downed maple limbs and huge snowdrifts. With power gone for three days, well water was no longer available and we heated snow in buckets over the fire in the great hearth of the family room in order to flush the toilets. We read stories by candlelight, and made them up, and joked about living like the first settlers on that land, the Dutch pioneers who had used my study as their "borning room" and whose pre-Revolutionary bodies were buried in a simple graveyard on the hill on the northern side of the house.

I had impressions of presences from earlier times as I walked that land. When I sat with the white oak, I felt I could see the passage of those who had come before, indigenous and immigrant, across seasons and centuries. I saw a strapping native warrior with a great tattoo like a sunburst on his chest. In my dreams, I observed and then sometimes seemed to become a powerful man who sometimes wore the red coat of an English general of an earlier time, but at other times appeared in a great feathered head-dress, like a native chief.

I decided to take an interest in local history and played with the idea of writing an historical novel set in my new neighborhood. I frequented used bookstores, and in one of them - the old Bryn Mawr bookshop in Albany - that benign shelf elf that Arthur Koestler called the Library Angel came into play. In the local history section, my hand fell on a thick blue-bound volume, one of a collection titled Sir William Johnson Papers. Sir William Johnson? Never heard of him. I opened the book at random and found myself reading a letter from this Johnson, involving Indian affairs. His prose flowed in rolling cadences. I heard the voice behind the text, and felt sure that I knew that voice.

Intrigued, I took the book home. I was soon deeply immersed in researching the life and times of an extraordinary Anglo-Irishman who came from County Meath to the American colonies in the 1730s in hopes of making his fortune on the New York frontier. Leaders of the Mohawk people, who were no slouches at diplomacy and war, recognized in Johnson a plausible, capable young man with a magnetic personality and set out to recruit him as their agent and interpreter to the British and the colonial whites after he started farming in the Mohawk Valley. Though Johnson rose to fame as King's Superintendent of Indians and one of the architects of the English victory over France in the French and Indian War - whose outcome ushered in the American Revolution - he started out more Mohawk (and of course more Irish) than English.

It was understandable that I had never heard of him. I grew up in Australia, and American history was almost completed ignored in my school education. I now discovered that Johnson is virtually unknown in the United States today, perhaps because the world he shared with the Mohawks is quite foreign to the post-Revolutionary experience. This story has nothing to do with the triumphalist "Whig" view of Anerican history, in which events are portrayed as moving in a steady forward progression through the Revolution to the creation and expansion of democratic institutions, or with the old chauvinist "manifest destiny" theory according to which European settlers were "meant" to claim the continent from sea to shining sea.

I acquired all fourteen volumes of the Sir William Johnson Papers, and later the 73 volumes of the Jesuit Relations, the extraordinary compilation of reports from the blackrobe missionaries of New France on the woodland Indians they were assigned to convert. I flew to Ireland to walk the scenes of Johnson’s childhood. He was born four miles from the holy hill of Tara, and raised in a stone house in Smithtown, County Meath. The mound of Newgange, containing a temple-tomb older than the pyramids of Egypt, is just up the road and was discovered by a farmer digging stones for a wall when Johnson was a boy. When I explored the site, the image of a double spiral incised on one of the guardian stones struck me forcibly.
Back at the farm in New York, the double spiral floated before me in the middle of the night in the drifty state between waking and sleep that the French call dorveille. I found myself lifting off the bed, leaving my dozing body behind. Soon I was flying under the night sky, seemingly on the wings of a red-tailed hawk. I felt the exhilaration of flight, the joy of catching a thermal, the discomfort when I brushed the dried-up needles of an old spruce somewhere near Lake George. I searched below me for traces of the battlefield where Johnson, at the head of an amateur militia and a band of Mohawk warriors, defeated a famous career general, Baron Dieskau, and a professional French army in 1755. I realized that modern developments and roads were missing from the landscape below. I was looking down at first-growth forest.

I kept flying north, following a tug of intention that became stronger. It pulled me down into a cabin in the woods somewhere near Montreal. I found myself sitting with an ancient indigenous woman with a face like a wrinkled apple. She spoke to me for a long time in cadenced speech, her words lapping like lake water. As she spoke, she stroked a wampum belt that depicted male and female figures holding hands near a she-wolf. This was not one of those dream visions in which you understand everything at once. The native woman spoke to me in her own language, and all I could retain were a few fragments, including a word that sounded like on-dee-nonk. And the image of the belt with the she-wolf.

Soon after this night visitation, in a serendipitous way, I met an Onondaga scholar who was working for the New York State Archives, which at that time held the wampum archives of the Confederacy of the Six Nations of the Haudenosonee, or Iroquois. When I told him the dream, he unlocked a steel cabinet and produced a wampum belt that depicted a she-wolf and two human figures holding hands. “We believe that these are the ancient wampum credentials of a Mohawk clanmother – the mother of the Wolf Clan. It would be appropriate for a woman of power to display her credentials when she spoke to you.”

Truth comes with goosebumps. My shivers of recognition were telling me that when I sought to reenter Johnson’s world, something of his world came reaching out to me. My encounters with the Wolf Clan woman continued. I sought the guidance of native speakers to help translate her words. One of them told me, “This is Mohawk, but it’s not the way we speak it today. It’s the way Mohawks may have talked three hundred years ago, and there’s some Huron in it.”

My research revealed that the grandmother of Molly Brant, who became Johnson’s Mohawk consort (and whom he called Tsitsa – “Flower” – at home) was taken captive as a child by a Mohawk war party from a Huron village. I decided to develop a character based on her, and my nocturnal visions, in my fictional recreation of Johnson’s world. In my novel The Firekeeper I call her Island Woman. She is a healer and a shaman, one of those truly power-full women who call themselves the “burden straps”, those who carry the burdens of the people. As an atetshents (“one who dreams”) part of her work is to scout across space and time to seek the means of survival for her community.

That strange word that sounded like “on-dee-nonk” is central to her practice. I found its meaning in one of those volumes of the Jesuit Relations, in a report from Father Brebeuf during a harsh winter in Huron country in the 1600s. The ondinnonk, he observed, is the “secret wish of the soul, especially as revealed in dreams”. Among these “savages”, it was believed that it was a prime duty of the community to gather round a dreamer and help him identify and honor the wishes of the soul, as seen in dreams. If this was not done, the soul might become disgusted and withdraw its energy, leaving the dreamer prone to illness and despair.
In my quest for an Irish adventurer, something from the world he inhabited had awakened me to a primal practice of dreaming and healing that was deeper than anything I had learned from mainstream Western culture. Dreaming shows us what the soul wants, and how to bring the vital energy of soul back into the body where it belongs.

While The Firekeeper is full of great men and battles that changed world history, opening the way for the American Revolution, it is also the story of a native people’s struggle for survival, and of how dreaming can bring the soul back home.

A new edition of The Firekeeper will be published by Excelsior Editions, an imprint of SUNY Press, in trade paperback in July 2009.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Black Dog Rx at the Conference of Vienna

I rediscovered a travel journal I kept during a visit to the strange city of Vienna, where I led a workshop in January 2006. I'll share an excerpt just for fun, as a sequel to my previous post titled “Black Dog Sightings” (January 27).

A doggie theme began to develop en route to Vienna. On the Austrian airlines plane, I read aloud from the German text of the bilingual airline magazine, in a basically hopeless effort to bring my German up to speed. I amused and then irritated my wife and daughter by reading repeatedly the opening sentences of a humorous article describing a dog's eye (or more precisely, dog's nose) view of Vienna, describing the places with the best smells:

Ich bin ein Hund. Ich habe eine Nase

After we checked in to our hotel, we found that tales of the Austrian devotion to dogs are more than legend. There were dogs everywhere. There was one at the table of the first place we stop for refreshments, a beisl (a simple pub-restaurant with communal tables) in the Inner City. This dog had his own seat, from which he jumped up to lick faces and sniff at dishes as they were served, to general approval. His people were hard-smoking men with sharp, calculating eyes. One of them pulled out a jeweler's loupe to examine the stone in a piece of jewelry that was traveling from hand to hand.

On the night before my weekend workshop, I dreamed:


My black dog is speaking before a conference of the dogs of Vienna. He tells them that dogs have a vital role to play in helping their humans to survive. The human animal, he explains, needs not only food and water and air and love; he requires something called meaning or purpose. The best way to put humans in touch with purpose is to bring them back into contact with their dreams.

Some of the Viennese dogs object that they are already giving their humans the best thing. "We love them no matter what. We love them no matter how they treat us, and we are always there for them."

"It's not enough," my black dog says firmly, ears pricked.

A Viennese dog called Viktor speaks in support of my dog. "In Vienna, there is no doubt that man requires meaning. It was the lack of a personal sense of meaning that produced the collective nightmares that were born here and threaten to return.

"We dogs of Vienna," he insists, "must take on the role of psychopomps [soul guides] and oneiropomps [dream guides] at night."

The motion is carried overwhelmingly, with much tail-wagging.

Later, I walk with my black dog in the immense park that surrounds the Schönbrunn palace. We encounter the old Emperor Franz Josef, walking in his military uniform. My black dog, with fine deliberation, lifts his leg and pees on the emperor's leg.

I woke up laughing.

The black dog in my dream is one I loved deeply. He had been killed on the road nearly twenty years before, yet he remains a frequent character in my dreams. Beyond his own great spirit, he has become something more than the dog who shared my home: a kind of everyday (or everynight) Anubis.

Some other elements in the dream were familiar. I had done a little reading on Austria, and knew that the Emperor Franz Josef ruled for 68 years, resisting the modern world to the extent of refusing to have telephones or electric light installed in his vast palaces, stolidly chewing through the same dreadful boiled dinner (Tafelspitz) every day. The name “Viktor” and the substance of his speech reminded me of the Austrian Holocaust survivor, Viktor Frankl, and his wonderful book titled Man's Search for Meaning.

I drew a picture of my black dog lifting his leg on the emperor before walking to the subway stop near the cathedral to catch a train to my workshop.

The first dream that was shared in the group that morning featured a huge black dog lying at the dreamer’s feet while a human-sized bird fluttered on her lap. I sensed terrific dramatic potential in her dream story, and asked her permission to turn it into spontaneous dream theatre. When I explained that this would involve casting members of our circle to play-act every element in the dream, she pointed her finger at me and said, “I want you to be my big black dog.”

My dream of the Conference of the Dogs was pretty cute - so cute that as I typed up my handwritten journal account, I felt, in addition to amused delight, some amazement that my dream-maker had induced my morning editor to let this report through. Certainly the hard-boiled reporter who still lives inside me (with his saw-toothed skepticism) would never have allowed me to concoct this in a regular state of mind.

I am again struck by the creativity and wisdom of our dream-makers. I was in a city notorious for seasonal depression (the Viennese have a whole vocabulary of their own for gloom and despair) with one of the world's highest suicide rates. Walking through cobbled alleyways the night before, my family and I had felt a terrible sense of oppression - and then realized we had come to the heart of the old Jewish quarter; most of Vienna's Jews perished in the holocaust. In that bitter January weather, the leaden sky hung low over the city like heavy lid, stealing the air.

My black dog dream allowed me to enter the workshop with a light heart and a vivacious, viral humor and joy. The first woman to share a dream - the one who cast me to play the huge black dog in it - that morning explained she had lost most of her family, including her parents and older siblings, in the Holocaust. Others in the group included psychiatric nurses and hospice volunteers who spent their days among the thought-forms of madness and distress, and carried some of the burdens that go with that. Lightness and laughter helped to lift all of that and opened the way for some deep healings.

I'll follow the Black Dog Rx every time, even when it's cute.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Following my dream self into the Arabian Nights

I've been absorbed for a couple of days in the nested stories and serial cliff-hangers of The Book of the Thousand Nights and One Night, widely known as the Arabian Nights, in an effort to catch up with my dream self. Let me explain. A good friend emailed me a dream report last week in which I was holding forth on my latest discoveries, seated in a comfortable armchair with a drink at my elbow, in altogether familiar style. There were black cats in the dream of the kind that lived with me years ago, one of which was the very model of a "cat that walks through walls". As my friend reported my dream monologue, I used a key word that sounded somewhat French yet more exotic. She decided that the word was "Alatrous," pronounced the French way.

Both of us have learned, over the years, never to discount odd words that turn up in dreams. Initial research at this juncture turned up just one "Alatrous": a genie, or jinni mentioned in the "Histoire du roi Sapor, souverain des iles Bellour" in volume 7 of Gauttier's 1822 edition of the Mille et Une Nuits. I have yet to locate the full text of that volume, but a general direction was set. I've been looking into the history and morphology of the jinni (the word means "invisible" or "concealed") and his high-powered cousins the ifrit and the marid in a number of English translations of the Arabian Nights, including Captain Richard Francis Burton's classic and Husein Haddawy's recent translation of Muhsin Mahdi's definitive edition of the 14th century Syrian manuscript version.

I've been wondering about the relationship between the jinn of the Middle East and other humanoid species that live close to the human realm in the imagination of other peoples - like the Rakshasas of India, who Burton thought were the same as jinn. Could such creatures exist outside fantastic tales? Certainly jinn are very much alive in popular Muslim belief, and there is an account of their creation (from fire without smoke) and their operations in the Koran.

I'm entertained by the idea of following a lead from what my dream self had to say in someone else's dream. This is far from a unique experience for me. My favorite example is from a decade ago, when I was working on my book Dreaming True. I was trying to write a crisp five-point summary of the principal reasons why we tend to misinterpret dream information about the future. I had the first point clear: "We mistake a literal event for a symbolic one, or vice versa." But I was not satisfied with my formulation of the remaining four points. While I was working on this, I received an email from a wise woman (wise in scholarship and in life experiences) who had attended one of my retreats at the Esalen Institute. She wanted to thank me for the lecture I had given the previous evening. She congratulated me for the "clarity" with which I had discussed how to read dream messages about the future. Unusually for me, I had written key points on a whiteboard, including five reasons why we tend to misinterpret such information.

But wait a minute - in my waking life, I had given no lecture the previous evening. It seemed that, in her dream, the woman had heard me speak about the precise themes I was working on at that time. Now quite excited, I fired off an email request: "Could you send me your notes from the lecture I gave in your dream?"

The dreamer obliged. She promptly emailed me the five points I had written on the whiteboard. The first was one I had already formulated in my book draft. The others closely reflected my thinking on the subject, but had a clarity and economy of language that I had not yet achieved in the draft. Gratefully, I took the lecture notes from the dreamer who had listened to my dream self and incorporated them, with minimal editing, into the manuscript of Dreaming True. The passage (on page 42) reads as follows:

The five most common reasons why we misinterpret dream messages about the future are:

1. We mistake a literal event for a symbolic one, or vice versa.

2. We misidentify people and places.

3. We fail to figure out how far in the future the dreamed event might be.

4. We see future events from a certain angle, that may not reveal the whole picture.

5. We confuse realities, confounding a dream that relates to external reality with dreams that are real experiences in other orders of reality.

The jury is still out on where the search for "Alatrous" will lead. Of course, the dreamer may have misheard me. I might have said "atrocious", or "albatross" or something else entirely. My friend is a highly gifted dream clairvoyant, and has been a reliable source on many things in the past. Yet when it comes to her renderings of names and foreign words, she is certainly not above suspicion. With a slight change (a learned friend observes) the word becomes the Tatar "Alatour". In fairytales, the alatour is the magical stone (white or golden) that lies at the bottom of the sea in a kind of promised land.

If jinn are involved, there's sure to be trickster element at play, and veils to be lifted. For now, I'm content to enjoy the story, and to awaken again, with Sheherezade, to how the making and telling of stories is what makes us fully human and keeps us alive.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

On the cards

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 Tranquillity. 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

At the end of my "Death" workshop in Madison, Wisconsin last weekend, I wrote a summary of a long essay I had been working on in the early morning, looking out over snowy horse pastures. My intention, in consulting the Index Card Oracle that day, was simply for "guidance on the week ahead". I drew my own card and 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.

For more on the Index Card Oracle, please read Robert's book The Three "Only" Things.