Friday, November 27, 2009

Thanking and affirming

I am in favor of affirmations. At a certain period in my life, I did not think much of selp-help gurus who were pushing them. I still have major reservations about affirmations that seem to be pitched from the head instead of the heart, and either project ego-driven "gimme" agendas or , alternatively, are shackled by received notions of what is spiritually correct. But I am greatly in favor of starting the day with a statement to the universe that affirms the intention to live as fully and creatively as possible, and return thanks for the gifts of life, especially when life seems hard. To affirm is literally "to make firm", or strong. To make a conscious affirmation, on any given day, is to firm up our whole approach to life. Whether we know it or not, everything is listening, in our conscious universe.

In the United States, we just celebrated Thanksgiving, an all-American holiday I generally enjoy, though it was completely foreign in the country where I grew up. At Thanksgiving, I rarely think about the Pilgrim Fathers getting through a rough winter with the help of red people who did not yet understand what the irruption of pink people into this continent would mean for them. But I often think about how, for the First Peoples of America, prayer is often a practice of returning thanks for life, and all that supports life in our conscious, inter-connected universe, and how this is not just a part of one big turkey day, but of everyday affirmation.

I like to come up with fresh affirmations as often as possible. But I also find it good to voice "default" affirmations on any day they feel right, including those on which "fresh words" are lacking. Here's a simple affirmation that came to me long ago, when my dreams and visions drew me into the imaginal realm of a Native American people - the Onkwehonwe, or Iroquois - for whom returning thanks is part of what keeps the world turning:

I return thanks for the gifts of this lifetime
and for its challenges
I seek to walk in balance between earth and sky

I would love to hear affirmations from others, in words old or new, in our Comments thread.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The contention of hawk and crows

Bird-watching in human history has been the favorite form of divination, second only to dream interpretation. The most famous Greek dream interpreter, Artemidorus wrote a (lost) book on bird omens as well as his classic work The Interpretation of Dreams fom which Freud borrowed the title of his book a mere 1,700 years later. The Romans were devoted to getting messages from the behavior of birds. Before making any important state decision, top Roman officials, accompanied by the council of augurs ("bird-watchers) would go up on the Capitoline Hill to observe what was going on with the birds in a certain quarter of the sky. From the numbers, flight and voices of the birds the augurs would determine whether it was a "good day" or a "bad day" for state action. In recent years, I have wondered whether we could have done any worse - in the management of national and global affairs - if our leaders had based their decisions on the behavior of birds rather than the prognostications of economic forecasters and expert advisers.
I value bird signs highly among my personal omens, in the category of omina oblativa (to borrow the language of the ancient augurs) which means the signs that are "given" by the play of natural phenomena. rather than "provoked" through a divinatory practice. A red-tailed hawk, in fine shape, usually gives me the sense that a day will go well.
Like other everyday oracles, bird omens can be ambiguous or obscure. Take my experience this morning. On my first walk of the day with my dog, I observe a tremendous flurry of activity among the crows that gather in great numbers in this season in a neighborhood park. Thirty or more are wheeling and flapping, cawing and squalling. I realize they are trying to drive away a red-tailed hawk, a female to judge by her size. The hawk isn't easily driven. She lands on a branch of a leafless maple, maybe ten feet from the top. Crows land above her, croaking and jabbing their beaks at her. Others flap in midair, as if trying to sweep her from her perch. A daring crow dives down at the hawk, talons outstretched, braking and wheeling away just before contact. The hawk is unmoved.
The crows are suddenly distracted by the appearance of a second hawk in the distance. Many take off after this new threat. One - now two - stay at the top of the maple, keeping watch on the hawk perched below, leaning so close to their branches that they temporarily lose the profile of birds and look like part of the tree. The other crows come back. No sign of the second hawk. Half a dozen - now more - of the crows join the sentinels atop the maple. Others flutter around, cawing but less aggressive than before. The hawk waits. When she moves, it seems it will be on her own schedule.

I watched this avian drama for twenty minutes. It's not clear to me what it means, but if I were a Roman augur I might suggest that this is not the day to rush a decision. I might feel that the day was revealing itself as one of the dies intercisi, one of the "divided" or indeterminate days that are neither fasti (when things are "allowed") or nefasti (when they are not). Then again, if I were an augur with the Senate depending on me I might have been willing to stay in place, on a cold morning, to see how the stand-off between the hawk and the crows played out. Instead, on the day before Thanksgiving, I'll just stay open to what the rest of today brings. Later, with hindsight, I can look back at the bird contest and try to determine whether it provided clues to something that happened later. I may have missed those clues this morning, but maybe I can get a message quicker next time I see a hawk engaged with a murder of crows.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Sisyphus in the dentist's chair

Running out the door to an appointment at the dentist's office this morning, I grabbed a paperback small enough to stuff in the back pocket of my jeans - a copy of The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus, which I first read in my late teens. In the dentist's waiting room, I reflected on the Greek story that Camus borrowed to define his sense of the "absurd" as the field in which we are required to discover a purpose strong enough to live for. Sisyphus, an otherwise obscure figure who may have been a hero or a highwayman (or both) was punished by the gods (for an offence whose nature is also disputed) by being compelled to push a huge boulder to the top of a mountain. Every time he reaches the top, the rock rollls back down to the bottom and Sisyphus is required to start all over again.

I could feel the soft bulge of The Myth of Sisyphus in my back pocket, as I settled into the dentist's chair. I was scheduled for a long session: root canal work, followed by clinical crown lengthening, which would involve peeling back the tissue around the stump of a tooth from which I had recently lost a crown, to provide more structure for a new crown to be set. I have been going to the same dentist for over 15 years. When I first came in for a root canal and declined all anesthetics, she was incredulous. "Just let me know when you change your mind," she responded. At the end of that surgery, I opened my eyes to find several of the staff gathered in close."They want to know how you do that," said the dentist. "Oh, while you were doing your thing I was an African lion sunning himself in the savannah. I was aware of you fleetingly, as an irritating long-beaked bird that was picking my teeth. Nothing worth any real attention."

I survived further root canals and oral surgery in the same way, by switching my attention to a separate reality. At the start of a long and messy tooth extraction, I transferred my attention to the pink sand of Bermuda, and to swimming in the warm waters of a pirate cay. When the tooth shattered and a different dentist started digging out the fragments, I was unable to shut out the pain. My meditation became different. I made myself go into the pain, into its raw savage furnace, and find some form of strength there to get me through, again without any type of anesthetic.

When I was deathly ill as a child, coughing into my pillow at night so as not to disturb my mother, I learned to shift my focus in these and other ways in order to survive extremes of pain. This was a survival mechanism. It was also, perhaps, something that was bred into me, as a Scots-Australian from a military family, in which men, by and large, did not complain about pain.
Yet long before today I had come to recognize that ignoring the complaints of the body isn't necessarily very smart, or very evolved. The body has its needs, one of which is to have its distress signals heard before problems get serious.

At 9:45 AM today, my regular dentist came in to the place of pain with her regular cheery greeting and family update. Then she said (knowing me well by now), "No Novocaine, right?"
"No Novocaine," I confirmed. This time, she did not point out that I could always change my mind.

The work began. The dentist explained that it might be hard to find enough space on the stump of my broken tooth for the clamp she needed to apply. "I'm afraid you won't enjoy it too much if I have to clamp the gums." That's exactly what she had to do. I felt exquisite pain as the sharp metal cut into my gums. I began to ready my mind to travel somewhere away from here, perhaps this time to the city of Delft, as it was in the time of Vermeer, the master of light whose paintings had delighted me at the Met in New York on Sunday. Yet another image came first. I saw a picador in a bull-ring, tormenting a strong but weary bull by jabbing him again and again, drawing blood. I recognized myself in this scene, as both characters in the ring.
As a counterpoint to the stabbing pain of the clamp, I again felt the soft pressure of the pocket book under my rear end. I could not escape the message coming to me both from my body's protest, from my internal imagery and from the ancient myth. The tragedy of Sisyphus is that he is a man condemned (perhaps by the gods he has made for himself) to go on repeating an experience of pain and hard labor from which he learns and gains nothing. His pain does not rise to the level of suffering, which we might define as pain that provides access to meaning. The pain of Sisyphus is most terrible because it is dumb repetition, without meaning. I was now obliged to ask myself: What do I have to learn, or gain, by putting myself through anoher hour of excruciating pain in a dentist's chair simply because in my bull-headed (or rather picador-capped) way, I've decided I won't take pain-killers?
With my mouth full of stuff, I tried to make a sound that might be heard as distress. The dentist and her assistant removed enough equipment for me to say, "I'll try the Novocaine. On condition you give me the smallest dose and only apply it to the immediate area you're working on."

It was a done deal. Apart from some pain at the beginning and the end of the several procedures, I experienced only mild discomfort over the next hour. I reached for a hand-mirror, to check that all the blood had been wiped from my face. "It wouln't be much of an ad for the dentistry," I joked to the assistant, "If I walk out looking like I've been hammered in an alley." The frame of the mirror was shaped like a tooth, one of those cute props you find in dental offices. I realized that today, I had been brought in front of a life mirror. In it I found Sisyphus in a dentist's chair. In that moment of self-recognition, the Sisyphus in me resigned from his duties to his old gods.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

The True Causeway

In my dream, a wise old man tells me I must remember the importance of "the true causeway". Still dreaming, determined not to forget his counsel, I work the phrase into a poem that contains this jingly couplet:

By the true causeway of imagination
You'll come to your destination.

As I woke from the dream, I thought of Napoleon, and pictured him with and without his marshal’s hat.

I woke, as I often do, with the sense that I had had a quite real encounter - the sense I record in my journal as "just-so."
Reflecting on the wise man's phrase, I played with the double entendre in the word “causeway”. A cause makes a way; a way may require a cause., or provide one. Digging into etymology, I learned that "causeway" derives from the Old English “causey way”, meaning a thoroughfare that has been “heeled” or “trampled” down. A causeway is typically a road raised above surrounding water or wetlands. The longest in the world is the Ponchartrain “bridge” in Louisiana. Singapore and Malaysia are joined by a causeway. Churchill had five causeways built - the Churchill barriers - linking the Orkney islands around Scapa Flow as defense against the German navy in WW2. Dykes in Holland are sometimes also causeways. It's quite possible a causeway featured in Napoleon's campaigns - and in his exile?
I think of the “isthmus of imagination” described by the medieval Sufi master Ibn 'Arabi. For Ibn 'Arabi, imagination is the isthmus (barzakh) between the ordinary world and the world of eternity, between body and spirit, and between being and nothingness. To walk this causeway requires discipline, practice and discernment. On the way of true imagination, higher beings become visible and intelligible. Imagination has the power “to embody that which is not properly a body.” Now, that's a true causeway.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Place of the sonnet, and the lion

In Madeleine L'Engle's luminous novel A Wrinkle in Time, Mrs Whatsit instructs the children that a human life, lived well, is like a sonnet. A sonnet (if we need reminding) is a strict poetic form that imposes demands of rhythm (iambic pentameter), rhyme, and length (14 lines). Depart from the form, and you may have something but you will not have a sonnet. In life, says Mrs Whatsit, "You're given the form, but you have to write the sonnet yourself. What you say is completely up to you."

This elegant analogy was in my mind last Sunday, since I had been re-reading A Wrinkle in Time in the middle of the night, prodded by a sequence of dreams and synchronicity I don't need to report here. The following afternoon, when the members of my circle at Mosswood Hollow shared the fruits of their homeplay assignment - which was to produce a creative act of self-definition - I was delighted when Lisa shared a sonnet she had composed in this cause:

With sleep come mystr'ies, dramas of the head
In language secret: diamond-laden code
Their stories unfold nightly in my bed
Their meanings caref'ly to the darkness sewed
The inner universe reveals such powers:
I fly, create, am rich beyond compare
O'er every enemy my presence towers
To my beloved I appear most fair
But what's the deeper meaning of these tales
That overflow my nights with filmhouse art?
The language of the daytime constant fails
I must relearn the language of the heart
The guide of dreaming points me toward the soul
And in the living of it, I am whole

- Lisa Fraser, Mosswood Hollow, November 15, 2009

Mrs Whatsit would most certainly have approved of this marvelous verse!

For my own contribution to our group essay in self-definition, I had decided to turn a big dream of my own into a mini-theatre, and I had no doubt now that Lisa should play the lion in this dramatic production. This is how I introduced the dream story to the group before we acted it out:


You are at a zoo on a Sunday afternoon. People are wandering about, snacking and chatting as they inspect the animals and birds. As you approach the big cat enclosures, you are uneasy because you know that big cats don't belong in confinement.

When you come to the lion pen, you are disgusted because people are mocking the great beast, pulling faces - until someone screams that the gate is open and the lion could get them. Now all the people are running away.

Instead of fleeing, you step through the open gate, into the place of the lion. The great beast runs towards you and leaps up...and his great paws are on your shoulders...and he licks your face like a friendly dog. He wills you to turn around and look at the scene in the zoo in order to understand what is really going on here.

When you look back, you see that it is the humans that are living in cages. In the comfort of their suburban houses and malls and supermarkets they have failed to notice that they have walled themselves in places of confinement. When you look beyond the lion, you see there are no walls, only an open horizon of wild freedom and possibility. The lion says to you, in his gravel-ly lion voice, "You see, my dear, humans are the only animals that choose to live in cages."

What else am I?

Last weekend a group of our frequent flyers gathered at lovely Mosswood Hollow, in the foothills of the Cascades, east of Seattle, for a weekend of deep adventure in the multiverse. Together, we grew a Healing Center in the true realm of the imagination that we can revisit, and to which we can guide others in need of fresh resources and imagery for wellness and healing. For the final homeplay assignment, I asked everyone in our circle to produce something by way of self-definition. This might be a poem or a song, an artwork or an exercise in movement or performance. It might be a simple statement defining the speaker as a person, with a life project.

Among all the creative responses that were shared in our last session, with the rain thrumming on the roof of the yurt, was this lovely poem by Savannah:

What else am I?

I am empty space and points of light
thirteen leaves left
thirteen leaves left
on the sycamore tree.

I am the child who is yet a child
growing clay fingers five yellow
clown's hands like sticky
kisses to the moon.

Sometimes I drink the sun
with the speed of darkness
of apples aged amber
in slow oak vessels.

I am eyes of garnet
in a fork tongued tangle
and a red fleece blanket
when the hailstorm hits.

I am the voice of tightropes
between churches and shipyards
I am the path of mountains
that witness but never meet.

I am an Eagle called freedom
circling fir trees plunging
and rain smiling ripples into
the depths of obsidian lake.

What else am I?
I am are thirteen leaves left
on the sycamore tree,
thirteen pages in the book of me.
- Savannah Caitlin, Mosswood Hollow, November 15, 2009

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Painting the Higher Self

I'm still savoring all the rich experiences we shared in group journeying and performance over last weekend on the magic mountain. In one of the exercises, I invited two dozen dreamers to enter a dream of my own in which I visited an artist who was working on a picture of the Higher Self. In the dream, I led a group along a spiraling path up a hill, past immense guardian figures, including a stone lion with a great carnelian in its back, flashing red fire. We entered a domed building that was larger inside than outside. There I found the artist, working on his canvas, which was set up against the opposite wall. At the bottom of the picture he had painted a human figure surrounded by bands of various colors, representing the body inside its multiple energy envelopes. This figure seemed as small as a candle flame in proportion to the shapes above it, which represented the Higher Self, as encountered on successive levels. The finished area of the canvas was minute in comparison to the vast space of the canvas above, which went up and up; it was impossible to see where it ended - if it ended.

I recounted this dream in a way that put the members of our circle on that spiraling path, and invited them to enter that domed building and inspect their own pictures of the Higher Self. With everyone relaxed on rugs and cushions, in comfortable journeying position, I drummed to provide the fuel and focus for our group adventure in expanding our understanding of the multidimensional self. When I reentered the domed building, I was initially surprised that it seemed to have acquired many windows that I did not recall from the original dream, in which the light streamed down from above, from a high skylight or a roof that was open to sun and moon. When I looked more closely, I saw that the new windows were the pictures that were being created by the other dreamers and their own artist selves. Some glowed in translucent colors like stained glass.

After the journey, I was eager to hear what our dreamers had found in their quests for an image of the higher self. Michele reported that when she reached the stone lion, she mounted the carnelian on its back, like a saddle, and rode in this way through the entrance to the domed building. She found herself entering a triune state of consciousness: she entered the painting-in-progress, while at the same time merging with the artist and also maintaining a witness perspective that kept her alert to the activity of the other dreamers. As the artist, "I was painting on a swing hung from an unknown realm that swooped higher as I painted up. Abstract shapes in different colors brushed across the canvas and became pathways, river ways, forests that I could enter. Images from dreams, gods, goddesses, and infinite symbols exploded onto the panorama in full color, vibrant and alive. Inside the world I created my soul song. The experience was fast, expansive and filled with infinite joy."

When Wanda entered the domed building, "I settled immediately just behind the artist and then became the artist but only briefly. I looked up and around me and saw a vast seemingly endless expanse of soaring cathedral-like carvings along a cylindrical wall, shadow lit by the flashing colors of old stained glass. The patterns soared into a space above that seemed to have no limits. The small heart flame glowed on the giant canvas and I entered it. As I entered it there was an explosion of amber/yellow light with glowing beams of carnelian that blazed into a bright white along the edges and flowed upward. My body moved swiftly toward the white flowing light and then - in a flash of white - I saw myself as a young man stepping out of a shallow river. Bright sunlight flashed on the river and flashed back and forth across the face of mountain cliffs on either side of the river. I - as the young man - stood up, carrying a long staff in one hand and a white guitar in the other, and I entered his journey. As the drum sounded the recall, I felt refreshed and felt great joy - nothing seemed to deter my journey to reach my higher self . I don't yet understand why I rose from the water as a young man, or the significance of the white guitar, but it all felt right."

Diana reports: "The painter I encounter is at first a male Renaissance type but then the form disappears and it feels like me. I view a powerful, immense white light, looking something like a wide funnel or pillar, coming down from way high above where the ceiling should have been. Then it is as if I have become immense and the pillar of light is beaming through the top of my head permeating and surrounding me. There seems to be an entity invisible to me at the source of this light; it seems like a female entity. I am given to understand that this light-force holds the form of me in place, both as a "physical" image and energetically. Then I become aware that there are a number such as me attached to her and we are each living out possibilities that She dreams. They are as if attached by streams of light. They return into her when their lives are done."

In Carol's journey: "I saw the smaller flame of the personality. Then I simply went into the painting. I found myself standing on one of the lines of a grid or net. The lines go up and down. I began to walk the grid. I realized that at the intersection of the lines there were other lines or pathways that went "in". I could go up or down and then in. Those "in" lines were paths along different timelines. I walked the times of Jeanne d'Arc. Another line took me to to the times of Jesus of Nazareth. One pathway leads to the dawn of earth. There are so many lines and possibilities. I saw people I do not know. The one I most want to know more about is not in the world we know. She turned toward me. She looked serene. She seemed to be a wise woman, a healer. She wears a beautiful garment, long and flowing. This robe or dress is lightweight, silky, a tapestry of blues and silvery colors, of a fabric unknown to earth. We communicate or make contact in a language I don't know when I'm back here. That contact felt more real than real. I think she can help me. I do not know if I can help her. She was not as surprised to see me as I was to see her."

Sara reports: "I enter the space where the painter is working on a canvas that extends upward and beyond where my eye can follow. I come closer and as I approach the painter turns towards me and motions me over. The painter is me but a me that I almost don't recognize because there is so much light that emanates from her. She motions for me to stand in front of the painting/canvas facing her. She begins to apply the paint on me and with each stroke of the brush I feel myself stretched upward following the rainbow of color that goes up. I'm still the painter, and myself, but I feel my being expanded in a way. I hear the recall and come back. I feel different, more of myself than before the journey."

In my own journey, I was surprised that the painter looked like a figure from an earlier time, until part of my awareness fused with his. I studied the bands of color he had painted around the figure like a candle flame and was prompted by an inner voice to name the subtle energy bodies he had depicted in the manner of the Greek initiates: the sarkon pneumatikon, the sarkon astroeides, the sarkon augoeides. Above and beyond these, my artist had evoked a celestrial body that has to be earned or re-acquired. High above, he had begun to depict a flaming sun-like disk. A shaft of light from this center reached down to the crown center of the figure at the bottom of the painting. Similar rays, or shafts of light, extended to other personalities embodied in different times and places. I understood that this represented a family of selves, joined by a common center - a self on a higher level - who have the same origin and whose fortunes are intimately connected even if they are never aware of each other in ordinary consciousness. They can have contact with each other through their subtle bodies, which are quite mobile, but the key to their deeper identity and life purpose is to be found at their common hub, which in turn is linked to a center on a yet higher level.

Some of the artists in our group - and some who did not previously consider themselves artists - are now working with brushes and paints, or oil crayons, on pictures of the Higher Self based on this journey. Since we don't yet have any of these scanned and ready to show here, I have picked a card from the Servants of the Light Tarot - painted by Jo Gill and designed by Dolores Ashcroft-Nowicki - as our graphic. This version of the Star trump nicely evokes the connection between the personality, with its denser and subtler energy bodies, and the light of the Higher Self.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Blowing the light bulb on dreams

When I opened my email this morning, I found that a friend had sent me a link to a recent article on dreams in the New York Times. I sighed when I saw her comment that yet again, a major media organ has chosen to ignore the rich everyday experience of dreamers in favor of the kind of reductionist science that holds dreams to be "meaningless". I was reluctant to click on the link. At the precise moment I did so, the lightbulb in the lamp over my desk blew.

Synchronicity strikes again. When I replaced the bulb and read the article, I saw that the Times had indeed chosen to turn out the light on our understanding of dreams. Following a paper by Harvard sleep researcher J. Allan Hobson, the piece promotes the theory that the main function of REM-state sleep, associated with visual dreaming, is physiological. "The brain is warming its circuits, anticipating the sights and sounds and emotions of waking." Forget about any other functions of dreaming, and don't fret if you forget your dreams. All that's going on in dreams is that your brain is getting a nightly tuneup. Beyond this, dreams are "meaningless."

The poverty of this kind of thinking is risible. To try to understand dreaming solely by monitoring the behavior of the sleeping brain is like trying to understand how a TV series is made by poking around in the innards of the television set, ignoring the scriptwriters, the production crew, the actors and the imagination that conceive and make the show, and the technology involved in getting the signal to your home.

Contrary to the New York Times it isn't only a few therapists, New Agers and "ancient mystics" who think dreams matter. The common understanding of most human cultures, across most of our odyssey on this planet, is that dreaming is part of our survival mechanism and a primary source of meaning and course correction in our lives. Dreaming, we scout ahead of ourselves and visit the possible future, rehearsing for challenges and opportunities that lie ahead on our life roads. I speak from first-hand experience when I say that catching dream clues to the future, reading them correctly and taking appropriate action can literally save your life. Most human cultures - and many good physicians - have also understood that dreaming is medicine: our dreams diagnose possible problems in the body, and when we get sick, our dreams are a fecund source of imagery for self-healing and recovery. Most important, our dreams give us a direct line to sources of wisdom far deeper than the daily trivial mind . Without meaning in our lives, we are less than human, and dreaming awakens us to our bigger stories and helps to restore our inner compass.
In my book The Secret History of Dreaming I report - with extensive documentation - many cases of how dreams have guided great lives and shaped great events in fields ranging from quantum physics to rock music. But the Times has a tin ear for humanity's dream song. It seems their writer did not even hear Larry Page, the co-founder of Google, when he told a crowd at his alma mater, the University of Michigan, last spring that a dream inspired Google and offered this sage advice to his audience: "If you have a big dream, grab it." Now, that's a comment on dreams worth hearing - and acting on.
The article referred to above is "A Dream Interpretation: Tuneups for the Brain", by Benedict Carey, published in the New York Times on November 9, 2009.

Undefinitis and its remedies

It's hard to match a three-headed smoking dragon for drama, but our mountain dreamers came close last weekend with the enactment of a dream of a reality TV show volunteered by Donna S, one of our Connecticut dreamers. On Donna's dream screen, the lively host of the show is helping contestants to check whether what they think they want out of life is what they really want. With lacerating clarity, the show holds up a magic mirror in which people can see their desires and jealousies for what they are. The first contestant longs for the hair, the legs and the shoes of a cool, sexy blonde. The second contestant wants the fame of a star athlete beloved of the media. The third guest on the show aches for something undefined.
Our dreamer chose Sara to play the host of the show, and Sara - a blonde, larger-than-life Italian American who has been bruised on her life road and come back laughing and full of soul - proved herself to be a natural TV diva. I slithered into into the role of "Dr Bob", a mix between Sara's shill and her ever-available resident talk therapist. We howled as the first contestant, after an elaborate makeover, struggled with whether or not to stay in her new blonde persona. Canned applause boomed when the second contestant decided the price of fame was something she wasn't willing to pay, as a swimmer in the group mimicked the actions of swimming breaststroke from New London to Bermuda.
Then we came to the Undefined. The player cast as the woman of undefined wants entered her role so completely that our infallible TV host forgot she was there and gave her place to someone who wasn't in the script. As Dr Bob, the resident guru, I was obliged to intervene. I pronounced that the woman of undefined identity and longing was a poster girl for a malady that has reached epidemic proportions in our culture. I named this foggy beast. "The medical name for the malady is undefinitis. It is a very serious complaint, because the human is an animal that must define itself or be defined by others. Letting others define who you are and what you can do puts a fatal crimp in life."
The issue raised in our dream theatre was one for all of us to address. After further games and group journeys, in the cause of curing undefinitis, I asked everyone in our circle to write a clear, simple answer to the following question: How will I live my life? Here's a sampling of the responses:
- I will live my life with the wonderment of a child

- I will live as a knight who chooses the hard way, for honor and duty

- I will live in the Now

- I will live my deepest passions

- I will live authentically

- I will live on the Earth in bare feet

- I will live to serve with a joyful heart

- I will live as if every day is the start of a new life

- I will live as if today is a good day to die
My own contribution: "I will live as a chooser, who chose the conditions of this life and chooses to remember the life contract he entered before he came here."
We need to watch for the symptoms of undefinitis, in ourselves and others. We need to be able to state who we are and what we think we are doing (though this is always going to evolve). We want to play with the idea that - however confining or harsh our circumstances may appear to be - we always have choice. Every day, we choose the story we are going to live, even when we forget we are doing this.

Monday, November 9, 2009

A Russian dragon on Magic Mountain

I spent the weekend up on a mountain in the Adirondacks leading one of my favorite retreats. Our shamanic gatherings on Gore Mountain - held twice yearly - are reserved for active dreamers who have worked with me in depth and are committed to becoming dream ambassadors, soul healers, speakers for the Earth and full citizens of the multiverse. This is where we push the envelope and often test-fly new techniques in a wonderful natural setting where the Deer energy is strong and dragons are sometimes seen.

The heart of this mountain is red garnet, and so it isn't hard for us to raise dragon fire in our circles. This time we found we were entertaining a dragon who had traveled far to appear on our mountain. He came in a dream of Louisa, a brilliant Russian-American scientist who was born in St. Petersburg. By the fire late on Saturday night, she told some of us a dream in which she had a close-up encounter with Zmey Gorynynch. "Zmey" is Russian for "dragon", and "Gorynych" means "Son of the Mountain". Zmey Gorynych is an enduring figure in Russian folklore who survived all Soviet attempts to extirpate "reactionary" beliefs and superstitions. He lives deep in the realms of the nechist, dark and unclean and tricksterish forces you must approach with great care if you are foolish or brave enough to approach them at all. He has three heads, and is a great drinker and smoker.

As the fire crackled and sputtered, we listened to Louisa's dream adventure. "I am in a small boat, paddling upstream on a river through a magic forest. I am in quest of something. The way is hard, and the shadows of the woods are scary, but I am determined to find what I am seeking. I come to a waterfall and somehow find the strength to row my boat up the falls. On the mountain above, I come to the burrow of Zmey Gorynych.

"Two of the dragon's head are sleeping. The third is smoking. Zmey Gorynych is a terrible chain smoker. He blows smoke in my face and asks what I want. I start asking him questions about things I want to know. He interrupts me with a great puff of smoke and hisses, 'You bother me with this nonsense? You should ask something that matters - like, What is the purpose of my life?'

"I know that this isn't really a question I should put to a three-headed dragon whose breath stinks. But I ask him anyway. 'What is the purpose of my life?' He responds by spitting on me. As his spittle lands on my forearms, the skin crackles and turns into scales.

"I want to get out of here now, but the darkness is falling. Zmey Gorynych takes me under his wing. His heads take turns sleeping, watching and smoking, so there is absolutely no chance of slipping away. I spend the night in the armpit of the dragon."

She woke laughing. The dream adventure was such a grand romp that I suggested we might try to bring the whole group inside it. Louisa willingly agreed to let her dream be used as the script for dream theatre, the pinnacle of improv, and often wildly funny, energizing and healing. The next morning, she cast some of the men in our circle to play the dragon, and a hyper-fit woman who abhors smoking to play the cigarette they are swapping between the heads. Other actors portrayed the contrary current on the river, the pressure of the falls, the boat and the strange walking trees in the magic forest. In our rehearsal, Louisa watched another dream actor play herself. When she stepped into her own role, the performance had deepened to the point where it took little imagination to believe that Zmey Gorynych was in the space, speaking and puffing and snoring and belching through the orifices of three otherwise most civilized men - an architect, a physician and a civil servant - who heaved and thrashed at one end of a long sofa, which a humorous financial planner from Connecticut, playing the body of the beast, lolled and drooped over the other.

Invited to improvise and take the dialogue with the dragon further, Louisa astounded all of us by asking what is certainly the last question I would want to put to a dragon of this type: "What do you eat?" This brought the house down. Aching with laughter, we skipped what is often the final phase of dream theatre: the interview with the players, when the dreamer gets to hear from everyone in the cast, speaking from the role they played. Some things are too good to discuss, let alone analyze. Belly-laughs are healing, and what we never want to forget in working with dreams is that the most important thing is to seek every opportunity to bring vital energy from the dreamspace into embodied life. Спасибо большое ( Spasibo bolshoe). Thanks a lot, Zmey Gorynych!

Monday, November 2, 2009

Churchill, Einstein and the Making of Immortals

Over the weekend I journeyed through the doorway of a recent dream, intent on exploring a most interesting locale, an upscale pub-restaurant called The Huntsman's Arms. I confirmed my impression that the pub is a waystation on the Other Side, and had several memorable encounters with deceased family members and friends and with the enigmatic proprietor, the Huntsman himself. All good Halloween/Samhain fun. In my conscious dream journey, I noticed Winston Churchill looking in on a gathering in a saloon bar. The former statesman was floating in midair, like a human zeppelin, puffing on his eternal cigar. Over many years, Churchill has been a recurring figure in my imaginal life.

The latest sighting prompts me to ask: just who are the great figures of the past who turn up in this way, dead yet seemingly immortal? Who, in the collective psyche, is Princess Diana? Who, in the Catholic imagination, are the saints who are believed still to be working miracles and turning up in visions?

Answers are likely to be slippery, because we dream and perceive in so many different ways, on so many levels. Musing on this theme, I found myself reflecting again on my serial dreams of encounters and "thought experiments" with Einstein; my recent blog post "Einstein's Probability Bundles" is one example. In another of my Einstein dreams, the great scientist welcomed me at the wooden gate of a formal Chinese garden. He led me to a tea house and introduced me, inter alia, to Richard Wilhelm, who gave the West the first translation of the I Ching that works for practical purposes of divination. In the course of our conversation, Einstein made reference to a certain "Fechner", a name previously unknown to me.
I did some research and found that Gustav Fechner was a German psychologist and physicist of the 19th century, credited with pioneering the science of "psychophysics". Fechner, a firm believer in the soul's survival of physical death, attempted to define the different modes and subtle vehicles in which consciousness can both survive death and make itself known to others. In Richard Wilhelm's lectures on the I Ching I found a note on Fechner's psychophysics of the afterlife that goes to the quick of my inquiry about what is going on when Churchill or Einstein turns up in the imaginal lives of the living. Fechner suggested that after death the departed acquires a "body of immortality" that is "formed in the thoughts of other men...formed by their remembrance of the deceased". This body of immortality is "a body of a higher grade, in which the deceased can continue to live" and appear to the living. The great and famous, whose image in life is magnified by the attention and hopes and beliefs of millions, and whose memory is carried by just as many, could presumably take on a "body of immortality" that would enable them to appear and operate like the demigods of the ancient world or the saints of believers.

I wasn't sure that I was ready to post anything about this until I stopped in at my favorite used bookstore on Sunday afternoon. This is one of those happy places where shelf elves are often at play, and are sometimes embodied by the bookseller. The assistant on duty this weekend - a gentle and mature historian and scholar whose day job is at an area college - chose to recollect, out of the blue, "When I was a boy my father gave me a complete collection of Winston Churchill's speeches, on vinyl of course. I was thrilled by them. My wife put them on disk for me and I've been listening again, and they are no less thrilling. It feels like Churchill is one of those people who can reach across time, into many people's minds."