Saturday, June 30, 2018

The myths we are living swing on hinges into other lives

As some people use the word, myth is synonymous with fake news, or superstition, or outmoded hand-me down beliefs. A myth may be a prevailing worldview – that the earth is flat or the still center of the turning universe, that humanity begins with Adam and Eve, that the world is enthralled by a dark Demiurge. A myth may be a sacred teaching story that explains how the world came into being – and what is beyond it – and why bad things, as well as good, things happen, and what it means to be human. A myth may justify the ways of gods to humans, or those of humans before their Creator.
    A myth may introduce you, like the major arcana of tarot, to essential members of your archetypal family: to personified forces at play in your life and your universe. A myth may invite you to consider who among the gods defends you, and who has it in for you. A myth may also be a living reality beyond the realm of facts, a source of truth that cannot be confirmed in a laboratory experiment but may be evidenced by the data of raw experience.
    Your dreams can be a nightly screening of gods and archetypes. A dream may be your place of encounter with a Big story that is looking for you. It may call you to a tradition about which you previously knew nothing. Psychologist Betty De Shong Meador, author of Inanna: Lady of Largest Heart was called to study Inanna and her poet-priestess after a dream that involved the prayer flags of the great Sumerian goddess, Queen of Heaven and Earth, that were previously unknown to her.
     I was seized by Kali in a terrifying night vision – beginning with sleep paralysis – when I was fourteen. I wrote a cycle of poems in her honor. Later Kala, better known as Yama, became one of my principal mentors, reminding me to consider every life choice in the presence of Death.
     A little-known Celtic deity came into my ken in a series of dreams in which I was defending my property with a long-handled hammer, like a weaponized croquet mallet. Some shelf elf produced then image of a Gallo-Roman statue of a god with a similar hammer, named in the inscription as Sucellos, which means the Good Striker. He seems to share some qualities with Thor. He is also the consort of a great goddess of abundance, called Rosmerta by the Gauls and Abundantia by the Romans. 
    We confirm our relationship with a mythic power when it comes to our aid. Athena came to me like this in Anatolia when I incurred the wrath of another ancient deity, a story told in my new book Mysterious Realities. The Bear has come to me like this many times since it claimed me when I found the courage to step back into the space of a dream where it had terrified me.
     Myths are a cauldron of stories and symbols that hold superabundant energy for life. You want to become conscious of the myth you are living. If you are unconscious about this, then the myth is living you and you may be driven into confusion and disaster, like Odysseus when his men lose control of the winds. In different phases of life, we may inhabit – and be inhabited by – different myths. We may find ourselves in the play of rival stories. We may be able to match and mix.
    The great scholar of religions Wendy Doniger writes about the “seed text”, bija mantra. In her book Splitting the Difference: Gender and Myth in Ancient Greece and India, this is the story of the goddess Saranyu (later called Samjna). Her father is the great Maker. He compels her to marry a hot, misshapen lump (who happens to be the Sun) who sires twins on her, Yama and Yami.  She can’t stand the male or the marriage, so she abandons her family. She makes sure that her defection will go unnoticed by creating a double, called Shadow (Chhaya) or Look-Alike and gives her copy clear instructions that she is never to reveal the swap to her husband. 
      Beyond the Indian names and exotic trappings, many of us may find a mirror for certain life situations in this myth. You can't abide a soul-crushing situation. So the spirited part of you takes off to run free, leaving a compliant copy in the house. Maybe no one will notice that you are soul-gone unless you overdo the Stepford Wife performance or do something completely out of character with the earlier you they remember. Wendy Doniger says that this story has kept after her for decades, prompting her to reach deeper and deeper into its well. Whenever she hears it, she says “That’s the story of my life.” 
      The myths we are living now swing on hinges into other lives, whose myths swing back at us. Because our present life dramas are connected with those of other personalities, in other places and times, within our multidimensional family, it is not surprising that “old” gods and “dead” religions feature in our spontaneous mythology, as mediated by dreams and visions and by moments on the roads of this world when we experience a hidden hand, pushing us forward or holding us back, or rearranging the stage set.

Image: The goddess Yami (also called Yamuna) and attendants, red sandstone sculpture from Rajasthan c.800 in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

I am leading a high-octane weekend adventure in "Living on the Mythic Edge" in Berkeley, California on October 27-28, 2018/

Monday, June 25, 2018

Everyone who dreams is a little bit shaman

It’s a saying of the Kagwahiv, an Amazonian dreaming people: “Everyone who dreams is a little bit shaman.” Or, in an alternate translation: “Everyone who dreams has a little bit of the shaman in them.” The Kagwahiv are right. It is no less correct to flip and amplify the statement, as follows: Every shaman is a big-time dreamer.” Or: Every shaman dreams big.
     We have been enjoying a resurgence of shamanic practice in Western society. This is partly due to the work of teachers like the late Michael Harner (who made the important contribution of stripped-down “core” techniques for shamanic journeying) and the wonderful Sandra Ingerman (who has brought us a clean and clear approach to soul retrieval as a mode of healing). It is also connected to our hunger for experiential knowledge of ancestral traditions such as those evoked by Joseph Campbell and the great archaeomythologist Marija Gimbutas.
     In all the descriptions of the shaman in the literature – as wounded healer, as guide of souls, as walker between worlds, as negotiator with the spirits – there is an essential element that is rarely featured strongly enough, and is sometimes missed altogether. First and last, the shaman is a dreamer. Shamans typically receive their calling in dreams, and are initiated and trained in the Dreamtime. The heart of their practice is the intentional dream journey. They may incubate dreams to diagnose for a patient and to select the appropriate treatment. They travel – wide awake and lucid – in their dream bodies to find lost souls, to intercede with the spirits, to fight sorcerers and to guide spirits of the departed along the right roads.
     Yes, hallucinogens or “entheogens” are characteristic of shamanic traditions in some parts of the world, especially South America. But the master shamans manufacture their own chemicals inside their bodies, and hallucinogens are never required for a truly powerful dreamer. They have never been part of my own practice, but then I was called by dreams in early boyhood, and discovered the reality of other worlds during life-threatening illnesses, so I do not judge those who seek help in opening the strong eye of vision.
     In the language of the Mohawk (who have never used hallucinogens as part of shamanic practice) the shaman is “one who dreams (ratetshents), a term that also means “doctor” and “healer”.
     In the languages of other indigenous peoples, especially in Native America, the connection between dreaming and shamanic practice and perspectives is equally clear. For the Makiritare of Venezuela, a dream is an adekato, a “journey of the soul”. Among the Dene (Athabascans), the same words are used to designate dreams, visions and shamanic journeys. Among the Wind River Shoshone, the word navujieip means both “soul” and “dream”; the navujieip “comes alive when your body rests and comes in any form.”
     Among the Aborigines of Walcott Inlet, it is believed that the high god Unggud summons potential shamans in dreams. Their initiation will depend on their ability to brave up to a series of fearsome tests, at the end of which they are reborn with a new body and a new brain filled with light. The shaman now has the ability to project a dream double. His powers are described as miriru. In Aboriginal Men of High Degree, A.P.Elkin explains that miriru is fundamentally “the capacity bestowed on a medicine man to go into a dream state or trance with its possibilities.” Here, built into the language of the Earth’s oldest people, is the understanding that the heart of the shaman’s power lies in his or her ability to dream.
     In our everyday modern lives, we stand at the edge of such power, when we dream and remember to do something with our dreams.

For much more on dreamers as shamans and shamans as dreamers please see my book Dreaming the Soul back Home.

Art: "Tiger in a Tropical Storm" by Henri Rousseau (1891). In the first years of my public teaching of Active Dreaming, my original synthesis of dreamwork and shamanism, many people told me they had come to my workshops because they dreamed of tigers.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

From Ass to Initiate: The Dream-Fueled Divine Comedy of Apuleius

The Metamorphoses of Lucius, better known as The Golden Ass since Augustine gave it that title, is a second-century novel written in Latin by Lucius Apuleius of Madauros. Its comic, picaresque narrative follows the misadventures of a young man whose obsession with sorcery and sex leads to his transformation into a donkey. He is beaten and abused by successive masters, including ferocious bandits, and subjected to the lewd attentions of castrati priests of a Syrian goddess and ancient porn show promoters. Through his ears, we hear amazing stories, one of which – the story of Eros and Psyche – has become a perennial myth, inspiring artists, tickling the diagnostic nerve of psychologists, teasing anyone who knows what it is to yearn for the beloved. In the final, eleventh book, when Lucius is returned to human form, we move abruptly from low farce and gratuitous violence to a deep account of spiritual transformation that will blaze in the memory of any sensitive reader like the midnight sun of the initiate.
    Lucius starts out as a young man obsessed by magic. He seduces Photis, the maid of the witch Pamphile. She tells him that the witch is going to turn herself into a bird so she can fly to the room of a man she wants to have sex with. From a hiding place, Lucius watches the witch get naked and smear herself all over with an ointment, as she voices incantations – and she sprouts feathers and takes off. Lucius is now eager to fly as a bird. Photis is nervous, but he persuades her to steal some of the ointment. In a comedy of errors, she brings him the wrong one. It turns him into a donkey. To recover human form, he must eat roses. The antidote is nearby. But before he can get to them, robbers burst in, and then use him as a pack mule, and through all his misadventures in the first ten books, he somehow never manages to eat roses.
    He wakes, still a donkey, near the sea in a sudden panic and finds the full moon shining in his face across the waves. He dips his donkey head in the sea seven times, while invoking the goddess by all the names he knows in a beautiful prayer. He is unsure which aspect of the Goddess to invoke, so he calls on the Divine Feminine who shines through the thousand faces like the Moon before him. O Queen of Heaven…
    Cleansing and prayer are followed by what looks like dream incubation on four legs. He falls asleep on the sand. A divine figure rises from the sea and stands before him, crowned with a wreath of flowers, with the mirror of the moon shining at the center and serpents and ears of corn on either side Her jet-black robe is covered with shining stars. In her right hand she carries a sistrum - a bronze rattle - and in her left a boat-shaped vessel with a rearing serpent for a handle.
    "Here I am Lucius, roused by your prayers." The Goddess announces herself as universal, mother of all life.  "I am the mother of the world of nature, mistress of all the lements, first-born in this realm of time. I am the loftiest of deities, queen of departed spirits, the single embodiment of all gods and goddesses."* She tells him that peoples worship her under any names, but Egypt knows her true name, Isis. She reassures him that she has come to his rescue. “I am come to you in your calamity.” 
     She tells him to join the procession in her honor that will take place the next day and press forward until he comes to the priest with roses in his right hand. The priest will be prepared because, in that same moment, Isis is appearing to him in a night vision. Bilocation is hardly a big deal for a goddess. She cautions him that after he is changed back, Lucius will no longer be the man he was before; he must dedicate his life to her service and in return she will guide him through life and beyond death.
    The priest, the next day, is indeed ready for him; he not only offers the roses but delivers a speech revealing that he knows Lucius whole story and calls for people to bring a garment to clothe the naked human, and promises that under the aegis of Isis, Lucius will at last be freed from the slings and arrows of Fortune.
    Lucius arrives at “the birthday of initiation” (natalem sacrorem). He is transformed and dies to his former life. The whole narrative can be seen as a conversion story, wildly thrilling and never stuffy – taking the reader rollicking over a cliff into a place of awe. Dreams and visions guide the man who became an ass through death and rebirth under the aegis of the Great Goddess. 

* Apuleius, The Golden Ass, translated by P.G.Walsh (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999) 220

Monday, June 18, 2018

Close encounters with gods and angels

In Homer’s world, gods and goddesses hover close to mortals, and frequently intercede in their lives. It is rare for a human to see a deity in its true form. Most often, perceiving the gods is a matter of sensing a presence, or noticing a light or pattern of vibration, or awakening to the fact that a stranger – an uncannily beautiful youth or maiden, or an old beggar or shepherd in rags – is a divine being going around in drag. The Greeks say that the gods love to travel in disguise.
   Old Priam, scared and defenseless, makes his way through a hostile army to Achilles’ camp. The king is helped by a charming young man who appears out of nowhere and acts as his guide. “Some god has held his hand over me!” Priam exclaims, not realizing that his escort is Hermes. Even the hero Odysseus, famed for his intimacy with Athena, fails to recognize her when she appears in some of her disguises. The gods hardly ever identify themselves by name, and when they disclose their presence to mortals, it is an act of “voluntary self-revelation”. As Circe says, “Who would ever see a god, going to and fro, unless he wished to be seen?” When they show themselves, gods take on forms appropriate to the understanding of humans.
    While it is hard to see gods as they are, in the ancient world seeing the gods was regarded not only as possible, but as highly desirable. Through ritual and invocation, the Greeks asked the gods to reveal themselves in specific forms, and in a good mood. “Come in kindly mind and in easily recognizable form,” the chorus chants in Sophocles’ play Ajax, reflecting a mode of prayer in common use outside the theater.
    When Greeks invoked gods, they hoped that their divine patrons would come and stand over them and surround them with the protection of their aegis. Above all, they sought close encounters in dreams, in the sacred night. As Robin Lane Fox observes in Pagans and Christians, “in their dreams, pagans of all classes and backgrounds kept the closest company with the gods.” Dreams were regarded as a nightly screening of the gods.
    Certain individuals brought gods and humans closer together.

“Ever since she has taken on her priesthood the gods have been appearing in visitations as never before, to the girls and women, but also to men and children. What does such a thing mean? Is it a sign of something good?”

-     Question of Alexandra, priestess of Demeter, to the oracle of Apollo at Miletus. 3rd century.

“The angels will come among you, like the prophets,” Jesus promises in the non-canonical Gospel of Thomas. By “prophets” he means not only the venerated characters of the Old Testament, but the seers who were active and highly respected in early Christian communities. Often women, they were believed to consult with angels on familiar terms, to go on otherworldly journeys, and to see into the future. In some Christian communities, such prophets may have been honored above priests and bishops. “When you open a jar of wine or oil,” advised the early Teaching of the Apostles, “take the first fruits and give them to the prophets.”

Art: Giuseppe Bottani, Athena Appears to Odysseus to Reveal Ithaca

Saturday, June 16, 2018

Dreams are not on our case, they are on our side

Our dreams show us things we may prefer not to think about — which is a major reason why many of us slam that door shut on our dreams and try to keep it closed. Those things may include future life problems, or parts of ourselves we tend to ignore or repress, or the larger values and issues involved in a situation we are approaching from a limited point of view.
We may prefer not to think about these matters, but if they are in our dreams, it is because our wiser Self is telling us we need to think about them. When our dreams show us future problems, they are also offering tools to avoid or contain those problems — if we will only heed the messages and take appropriate action. When our dreams reveal aspects of ourselves we tend to deny, they invite us to reclaim the energy we waste in denial and to integrate and work with all the aspects of our energy. When dreams reflect the bigger issues involved in a current situation, they offer us an inner compass and a corrective to decisions driven by ego or other people’s expectations.
            When we see things in night dreams we don’t like, we need to pay careful attention, because we are being shown elements in our life situation that require understanding and action. The scarier the dream, the more urgent the need to receive its message and figure out what needs to be done.
          Here’s one of my personal mantras:
          Dreams are not on our case, they are on our side.
          We need to stop running away from what our dreams are showing us and learn to stand our ground and confront the issue or the monster in the space where it first presents itself. If we fail to resolve a challenge in our dreams then – as Jung discovered – it is likely to come after us in the waking world, perhaps with even more scary consequences. A nightmare, in my lexicon, isn’t just a scary dream; it is and interrupted or aborted dream. We tried to escape from the dream, leaving it broken and unresolved, because we were too frightened to deal with what confronted us.
         We want to learn to go back inside an interrupted dream of this kind, when we can muster the strength and resources to do that, and dream it onward to healing and resolution. We can do this through the Dream Reentry technique explained in my books The Three “Only” Things and Conscious Dreaming. We can write a satisfactory ending for the broken dream, which can be a fabulous exercise in creativity.
    We may find we’ve been running away from an advisory than can help save our job or our relationship, or can enable us to avoid a road accident or an illness. Sometime we find that what we’ve been running away from is our own power. When we manage to brave up and face the beast or the alien, we may discover that what was most alien to us was our own larger Self, or that the wild animal we feared is an invitation to move beyond self-limitation into a life of wild freedom.

The first part of this article is adapted from The Three “Only” Things: Tapping the Power of Dreams, Coincidence and Imagination. Published by New World Library

Photo: Lew Friedander, New York City, 2011

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

The Duke of Jin and the Shaman of the Mulberry Woods: Dreaming the Understory in Ancient China

In his dream, the Duke Jing of Jin, a powerful state in ancient China, is attacked by a demon with disheveled hair that streams to the ground. The demon beats its breast and leaps up, yelling, “You have murdered my descendants and I have called on the High God for justice!”
The monster breaks down the palace gate and bursts into the state room where the duke is sitting. When the duke flees into an inner chamber of the palace, the demon pursues him, again breaking down the door.
Waking in terror, the duke summoned the shaman (wu) of Sangtian, “who told him everything he had dreamed.” When the duke asked the shaman what the outcome would be, the wu predicted, “You will not taste the new wheat” – in other words, he would die before the next harvest.
After this, the duke became very ill, and asked for the services of Huan, a famous physician from a neighboring state. Before the doctor arrived, the Duke of Jin dreamed that his disease turned into two boys. He listened to them plotting to escape the doctor’s intervention by hiding themselves in spaces between his heart and his diaphragm and between his heart and his throat. When the doctor arrived and conducted his examination, he informed the duke that nothing could be done, because the disease had lodged in places he could not reach with medicine or by acupuncture – between the heart and the diaphragm and between the heart and the throat. The duke acknowledged that Huan was an honest and capable physician, and sent him away with rich rewards.
In the sixth month after the demonic dream, new wheat stood high in the fields. The Duke of Jin ordered his estate manager to have some cut and send it to his baker. Confident that he had survived the end predicted by the shaman who had seen and read his dream, the duke had the wu brought to him. He showed off the new wheat, then had the shaman put to death. The duke was just about to taste the wheat, when he felt his stomach about to explode. He rushed to the latrine, fell in, and died ignominiously.
It was learned afterwards that one of the servants who carried his body from the privy has dreamed in the early hours that he had carried the duke on his back up to heaven. The servant’s dream may have played out when he was buried alive with his master. [1]

This savage tale of dreams and death comes from the earliest narrative history written in China, a collection of chronicles known as the Zuo zhuan that were composed between the fifth and fourth centuries BCE.
What is going on here?
According to one of the oldest commentaries, the demon that scares the duke is an angry ghost of unusual power. He is the ancestral chief of the Zhao clan, that the Duke of Jin utterly destroyed. His wild appearance and behavior are those expected, in those days, of a mourner at a funeral. [2]
The curse laid on Duke Jing by the vengeful spirit is confirmed by the shaman the duke summons. According to the narrative, the duke does not tell his dream to the shaman; the shaman tells the duke’s dream to him. In many ancient and indigenous cultures, the dream interpreter who is most respected is someone who is capable of entering your dreamspace and talking to you from his or her direct experience of your dream.  
    Something of this kind may be at play between the Chinese shaman and the Duke of Jin. But something more is suggested: that the shaman was inside the duke’s dream at the same time the duke was dreaming it. If this were the case, the shaman’s role becomes ambiguous. Is the wu neutral in this matter, and if not, whose side is he or she on?
Though shamans have personal names in many other sections of the Zuo zhuan, this one is identified only as “the wu of Sangtian”. The term wu is not gender-specific, but is more often used of women than men. “Sangtian”, a place-name in modern China, literally means, “Mulberry Woods”, in the sense of wildwoods rather than tame silk-producing groves. The descriptive phrase, in Chinese ears, implies that this shaman comes from a place beyond the borders of civilized order and may have a close connection with death, since mulberry wood was used for the topknot of corpses prepared for ceremonial burial. [3]
A prime function of the shaman, elsewhere in the Zuo zhuan, is to deal with intrusive ghosts by propitiating or exorcizing them. Thus Zichan, who is both a shaman and a Zheng minister, deals with the ghost of a vengeful nobleman by relocating it, explaining, “I provide the ghost with a place to return to.” [4] The shaman of the mulberry wood, however, is neither asked nor volunteers to relieve the Duke of Jin of the hostile spirit who has attacked him. The wu simply delivers a death sentence.
We may suppose it occurred to the duke that the shaman was in on a plot to remove him, by reinforcing his fears – in a sense, by pointing the bone – without giving him any chance to reshape the evil future he had dreamed.
In the second dream, the duke is able to see his disease, in the form of two boys who may represent the two Zhao officers he had recently executed. This part of the narrative reflects the understanding, in traditional Chinese medicine, that dreams may provide accurate diagnosis of what is going on inside the body and reveal causes of disease that may go beyond the grasp of Western allopathic approaches. When the doctor comes, he confirms the duke’s dream of where his disease has lodged, and that it is untreatable by the methods at the physician’s disposal.
The problem sounds like a case for shamanic treatment. But the shaman is not called. She is left out there, in the mulberry woods, until the duke dares to hope that he has survived the duration of the ancestral curse that has been laid on him. Then he calls in the shaman – to have her killed – and survives just long enough to see the curse fulfilled. He does not live to taste the new wheat.

Elsewhere in the Zuo zhuan, we learn that the way that dreams are shared and interpreted has a huge influence on what comes from them. As we talk about dreams, as when we talk about life, we are engaged in the making of meaning. We must be careful in choosing when we tell evil dreams, and to whom we tell them. The act of making an evil dream public could help to manifest an unwanted event, as when one ruler – who had kept a dream of his own death secret for three years – finally decided to tell it, and died immediately afterwards. On the other hand, telling an evil dream to the right person can sometimes help to tame or rescript the message it contains.
    There is a fascinating example in the eve-of-battle dream of another ruler of Jin, Duke Wen. He dreamed that he was grappling with the ruler of Chu, when his enemy threw him to the ground and started sucking out his brains. Duke Wen was terrified until his minister Hu Yan pronounced that the dream was highly auspicious. On his back, Duke Wen, was facing Heaven, while his adversary, bent over him, was face down in the posture of a man receiving punishment. Eating the brains evoked a Chinese proverb about what makes you soft. The minister insisted that Duke Wen’s “brains” would win over his enemy – and indeed, when the battle came, they did. [5]

The Zuo shuan is a dutiful work of linear history, following events year by year according to strict chronology. Across its vast sweep, it is also a book of dreams. If we are willing to make an intellectual and imaginative leap into the collective mind it represents, we will find a way of looking at both dreams and history that is radically different from that of modern Western understanding, and is both fascinating and rewarding to explore.
     The ancient Chinese chroniclers not only record dreams and how they were interpreted; they use dreams (and other signs) to interpret the world, and reveal the understory behind human events. In the field of dreams, we can observe and sometimes take part in the interplay of humans and the more-than-human.


[1] My retelling of the story of the Duke of Jin is based on James Legge, The Ch’un T’sew with the Tso Chuen (Taipei: SMC, 1994) p.374, and a recent translation in Wai-yee Li, “Dreams of Interpretation in Early Chinese Historical and Philosophical Writings” in David Shulman and Guy G. Stroumsa (eds) Dream Cultures: Explorations in the Comparative History of Dreaming (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999) pp. 22-3.
[2] According to Du Yu’s commentary, the wu says, “a ghost is furious.” See Gilles Boileau, “Wu and Shaman”, Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London Vol. 65 No.2 (2002) p. 366.
[3] Boileau, “Wu and Shaman” pp. 369-71.
[4] Wai-yee Li, “Dreams of Interpretation” p. 20.
[5] Ibid, p.26.

Image: Dancing women shamans. Black clay figures from the Zhou dynasty.

Sunday, June 3, 2018

The Dream People Are Waiting for You

Around the mid-point of my life, I was awakened by a dream that changed everything.  
     I was embarking on the path that led me to become a dream teacher. I had practical concerns about paying the bills. I asked for a dream to guide me on a business plan. I was not happy with what immediately followed. In my dream, I found myself trying to drive down a street that was clogged by construction, where traffic was hopelessly jammed. I woke from the dream frustrated.  
    Remembering my intention to try to get some practical guidance, I tried to put myself back into the dream and find a way forward. I succeeded. Now fully lucid, I surveyed the scene, looking for a way through the traffic jam. Then I noticed something different in the scene. It was an amazing figure, flying over the broken street. I looked more closely and saw that this was an impossibly beautiful version of myself, a radiant double.
     He flew into the mouth of a kind of tunnel, going up a hillside above the city scene. I thought, How could I have forgotten I can fly? I flew after him, and came out in a lovely wooded setting. I was drawn to a large, simple building where people who lived close to the Earth were gathered in ceremony around a firepit. I was nervous that I might be intruding, but an elder made me welcome and showed me that they had a place for me in their circle. 
     I sang with them, I drummed with them. After a time, when the fire got friendly, I went and lay down at the center of the circle. One by one, the dream people came to me. They took red-hot glowing coals from the fire and placed them over my eyes, saying, "We do this to change your eyes, so you may see clearly."
     They placed hot coals over my ears, saying, "We do this to change your ears, so that you may hear clearly."
     They placed a red-hot coal on my tongue, saying, "We do this so that henceforth you will speak only truth."
     Then one of the dream people placed a glowing coal on my heart. I felt a stab of pain as it burned a way to my heart. I felt the fire within me rise from my heart to my throat. The dream people said, "We do this to open your heart and the passage from your heart to your throat, so that henceforth you will speak and act only from the heart."
     I rose from this thrilling lucid dream charged with energy and courage. I jumped in my car and drove to a lake in the woods. With my hand on my heart, I said to the wind and the lake and the trees and the red-tailed hawk that came knifing through the clouds, "Henceforth, I will speak and act only from the heart."

This was a turning point experience in my life, in which I reentered a frustrating dream and found myself guided to a hyper-awake, indelible encounter with my spiritual kin and my soul's purpose. That has stayed fresh in my mind across the years. On dark days, it gives me light and warmth. It resets my inner compass when I am confused about any decision. Following its direction, I found it possible to let go of old worries and ego agendas and pursue the path of a dream teacher - for which there was (at that time) no career track in our society - with confidence that the universe would provide, as it did. 
    I wish for you an awakening with similar power.

Drawing: "We Do This To Open Your Heart" by Robert Moss

On making the most important book you'll ever read

When a lusty, ambitious young Scot named James Boswell first met Dr. Samuel Johnson, Johnson advised him to keep a journal of his life. Boswell responded that he was already journaling, recording "all sorts of little incidents." Dr Johnson said, "Sir, there is nothing too little for so little a creature as man."
    Indeed, there is nothing too little, or too great, for inclusion in a journal. If you are not already keeping one, I entreat you to start today. Write whatever is passing through your mind, or whatever catches your eye in the passing scene around you. If you remember your dreams, start with them. If you don't recall your dreams, start with whatever thoughts and feelings are first with you as you enter the day, or that interval between two sleeps the French used to call dorveille ("sleep-wake"), a liminal space when creative ideas often stream through.
    If you have any hopes of becoming a writer, you'll find that journaling is your daily workout that keeps your writing muscles limber. If you are already a writer, you may find that as you set things down just as they come, with no concern for editors, critics or consequences, you are releasing descriptive scenes, narrative solutions, characters - even entire first drafts - quite effortlessly. Some of the most productive writers have also been prodigious journal-keepers.
     Graham Greene started recording dreams when he was sixteen, after a breakdown in school. His journals from the last quarter-century of his life survive, in the all-but-unbreakable code of his difficult handwriting. First and last, he recorded his dreams, and they gave him plot solutions, character development, insights into the nature of reality that he attributed to some of his characters, and sometimes bridge scenes that could be troweled directly into a narrative. Best of all, journaling kept him going, enabling him to crank out his daily pages for publication no matter how many gins or how much cloak-and-dagger or illicit amour he had indulged in the night before.

    You don't have to be a writer to be a journaler, but journal-keeping will make you a writer anyway. In the pages of your journal, you will meet yourself, in all your aspects. As you keep a journal over the years, you'll notice the rhymes and loops or cycles in your life.
    Because I am leading teach workshops in Romania, I have been re-reading Mircea Eliade, the great Romanian-born historian of religions. Opening the last volume of his published journals, I found him reflecting during a visit to Amsterdam in 1974 on how a bitter setback to his hopes at the time he first visited that city nearly a quarter-century before had driven him to do his most enduring work. He had been hoping that his early autobiographical novel, published in English as Bengal Nights, would be a big commercial success, enabling him to live as a full-time novelist. Sales were disappointing. Had it been otherwise, "I would have devoted almost all my time to literature and relegated the history of religions to second place, even though Shamanism was at the time almost entirely drafted." The world would have gained a promising, and perhaps eventually first-class, novelist; but we might have lost the scholar who first made the study of shamanism academically respectable and proceeded to breathe vibrant life, as well as immense erudition, into the cross-cultural study of the human interaction with the sacred.

    Synesius of Cyrene, a heterodox bishop in North Africa around 400, counseled in a wonderful essay On Dreams that we should keep twin journals: a journal of the night and a journal of the day. In the night journal, we would record dreams as the products of a "personal oracle" and a direct line to the God we can talk to. In the day journal, we would track the signs and synchronicities through which the world around us is constantly speaking in a symbolic code. "All things are signs appearing through all things. They are brothers in a single living creature, the cosmos." The sage is one who "understands the relationship of the parts of the universe" - and we deepend and focus that understanding by recording signs in our day journal.
    Partly because I keep unusual hours, and am often embarked on my best creative work long before dawn, I don't separate my night journal from my day journal. All the material goes into one book - a leather-bound travel journal, when I am on the road. I try to type up my entries before my handwriting (as difficult as Greene's) becomes illegible and put the printouts in big ringback binders. I save each entry with a date and a title in my data files, so I automatically have a running index.
    Here are some games I enjoy playing with my journals that you may want to play too:


"Bibliomancy" is the fancy name for opening a book at random to get guidance on a theme, or simply the quality and content of the day. I often use old journals in this way. For example, one Christmas Eve, after learning that a friend had developed a serious illness and was having other major troubles in her life, I reached blindly into a shelf of 30+ old travel journals, grabbed one without looking at the date, and opened it at random, I found myself looking at a short dream report from December 2003, just over five years before. The dream was about my friend. It stated that she had "accepted Purgatory for a year. This Purgatory is a room in her home that opens into the same realm." I shared this report with my friend, and we began to work with the meaning of "acceptance" and of "Purgatory". I also shared other reports in that old journal on tbe page before and after the "Purgatory" entry, since I have often noticed that when events start to catch up with an "old" dream, other "old" material around that dream can prove timely and helpful. The neighboring entry in that old journal involved ways of delivering spiritual nourishment, which we found highly relevant.


Tracking how symbols feature and evolve in your dreams and your experience of the world around you will give you your own encyclopedia of symbols, better than any of those dream dictionaries, because the snake or the train in your dream is yours not theirs. While it may open into the archetypal data banks of the collective unconscious, or super-conscious, those links are for you to explore and not to receive on a hand-me-down plan.


When I was an undergraduate, writing book reviews for a local newpaper, I was fortunate to be assigned one of the first English-language editions of the Carnets of Albert Camus. I was struck by how the great French writer was fired up by the quotes he recorded from his eclectic reading. Etched in my memory is a grim exchange in the Carnets from a Russian source. Avvakum, an archpriest, and his wife, are trudging through a frozen waste. The wife asks, "How far must we journey?" "Until death, daughter of Mark." "Then, son of Peter, we must hurry on."
    My own journals are peppered with quotes from all over, from sources celebrate an utterly obscure, ranging from the message I may have spotted in the first vanity plate I saw on a certain morning (BCRE8V) to a spell from the Egyptian Book of the Dead or a "snapper" from Mark Twain.


If we are privileged to have access to young children, one of the greatest gifts we can give them - and in the process, ourselves - is to encourage them to record dreams and stories in a boom that will become a journal. I did this with my own daughters. When they were very young, they would do the pictures and I would write the words for them. They took over more and more of the writing, as they got older, until, at age nine, they were keeping their journals by themselves and for themselves. Then the same thing happened in each case. They said to me, in effect: "That's it, Dad. This is my secret book and you can't read it anymore."
   Now that's a journal. The secret book of your self and your soul, not to be shared with anyone without permission, which should not be given lightly.

When life deals you a tough hand, you'll find that as you write your journal, you are practicing spontaneous self-therapy. You may be able to write your way through whatever ails you. There's a great release, perhaps a catharsis, in saying what you need to say in the safe space your journal provides. When you see and state things as they are, you already begin to change them. Keep your hand moving, and you may manifest the power to re-name and re-vision symptoms, challenges and difficult situations in the direction of resolution and healing.
    As you keep your secret book, you'll discover more, and more will discover you. You'll find yourself straying off the tame and settled developments of the everyday mind, into the wilder borders of imagination, where the Big story of your life can find you.

For more games to play with your journal, please see my book Active Dreaming. For a template for keeping a dream journal, please see chapter 7 of my book Dreaming True.