Sunday, February 24, 2019

Breathless in the Bardo of Air Travel

I landed at Oakland airport on Friday night only five hours late, arriving from Denver, not on my original itinerary. There were small indications of trouble on that plane from the outset - a fat man in a loud aloha shirt who kept bawling inanities, a problem with one of the two toilets, the one at the front. We were told it was out of action, then - as lines grew long and twitchy at the back - that we could use it on condition we did not do "number 2" because of low water pressure. "Don't make me go in there and check what you did," said the humorist in the cabin crew.
    Three hours into the flight a small, elderly woman stood in the open door of the defective toilet gesturing for help. She was having trouble breathing. The flight attendants swung into action, clearing a seat at the front for her across the aisle from me, working with inhalers and oxygen tanks, parsing her limited English and her dozen boxes of pills to try to understand her medical condition. The lady was very scared. When her lips turned blue the decision was made to divert our flight to Denver.
    The EMTs were on the spot and wheeled the breathless woman away. We were promised a quick turnaround but - wait. Our plane was considered overweight because we hadn't burned enough fuel in our shortened flight; the mechanics were worried we had stressed the frame. And that toilet needed to be fixed.
    After a period of confusion we were given a new plane but no departure time. Snow was coming down hard and the clock was ticking on how long the crew would be allowed to remain on duty before a mandatory 8 hour break.
    After we boarded the new plane. we spent an awful hour on the tarmac de-icing and getting conflicting information. The blowhard in the aloha shirt kept yelling, "We'll be grounded! We'll never leave Denver!" He followed up these shouts with manic laughter. I finally leaned over and requested that he stop these predictions; they weren't funny any more. He wasn't happy with me but two minutes after he stopped announcing we would be grounded the captain came on the intercom to tell us we had been cleared for takeoff. After we got airborne, we were informed from the cabin that we had been "two minutes" away from being told we could not leave Denver that night.
    Not as eerie as another of my adventures in the Bardo of Air Travel, titles "What to Do When You Might Be Dead in Denver" that I included in my collection Mysterious Realities. But eerie enough. I had a new rowmate on the new plane, and we were sharing the empty seat between us - the only empty seat on the plane - to hold books and bottled water. When I put down my in-flight reading, a late collection of the strange stories of Jorge Luis Borges titled The Book of Sand, she laid what looked like a copy of a chapter from an academic book across it.
    I asked, "How do you think your text is getting along with Borges?" She had never heard of Borges, one of my favorite writers, so I had to explain how, in jeweled short-form fantasy, the Argentine writer takes us into the largest questions about reality. She now disclosed that her text - on personality cults and institutions in Latin America - was homework for a paper she is writing for a master's program. Argentina, Borges's country, is one of the case studies. And the political history of Latin America can be as fantastic as his stories.
    The conversation took another unlikely and synchronistic turn. My rowmate told me she had met the woman who developed a way to calm cattle on the way to the slaughterhouse by keeping them moving on a serpentine path. My mind was thrown back to a visit I made to a ranch in Mato Grosso decades ago before Temple Grandin’s work was widely known. I watched cows being driven up zigzag ramps to the platform where a slaughterer waited to crown them with a sledgehammer. I described this to my rowmate.
    The death blow might now be delivered in a different way, but – we agreed –the approach was similar. Like snaking round and round to get on a ride at Disneyworld. Or waiting in line to get on an airplane that might or might not follow its flight plan.

Image: Serpentine chute for cattle on the way to slaughter

Friday, February 15, 2019

"Good story this one" : Listening to Aboriginal dreamers

They say in the South Pacific that when the anthropologists arrive, the spirits leave.
    A notable recent exception is Sylvie Poirier, a social anthropology professor from the Universite Laval in Quebec, who has been tracking the dreaming of the Kukatja, a people of the Gibson desert in Western Australia, for many years. She won the confidence of a Kukatja grandmother, Nungurrayi, and was helped by her to understand not only what traditional Aborigines believe is going on in dreams, but how they share and honor dreams in their communities.   
    Sylvie Poirier writes that "in Aboriginal Australia, dreams are the privileged space-time of communication between humans and ancestral beings, as between humans and spirits of the dead.” 
     Dreaming is a way of tending the land. A fertile country is a country of good dreamers.
 Dreaming is active, not merely passive. It is a form of engagement. You can decide where you are going to go, and you can go consciously.
     Dreaming is soul travel. A dream is what happens when an aspect of soul leaves the body and has encounters and adventures. “The spirit goes on walkabout," the Kukatja grandmother explains. In the understanding of her people, “a dream occurs when, while a person is asleep, his or her kurunnpa [an aspect of soul or spirit]related to the abdominal (or umbilical) area (tjurni) leaves the body to pursue various encounters and experiences.” A good dreamer is one who knows how to “open” their tjurni.
     Dreams can be shared experiences. People can enter each other’s dreams.
     When dreams are shared in community, it is often in the morning, over a mug of tea. Yet Sylvie Poirier found that the Kukatja are far from promiscuous in their dream sharing. They know that dreams are powerful, and that it is necessary to handle this power carefully. They also recognize that dreams can provide clues to situations that require discreet investigation. Like detectives on a case, they may be unwilling to share such clues until the case is solved.
     Nonetheless, Poirier heard Kukatja people open up and tell their dream narratives fluently and spontaneously in relaxed social circumstances. This is appreciated as a chance to share and enjoy some good stories. You might here someone tell a terrifying dream and get the response, "G
ood story (palya wangka) this one”. Dreams of any kind, told well, are appreciated for their story value, as entertainment, as well as for information. A dreamer who is specially pleased with their telling may conclude by saying, "Good story sweet as tea."

     While recounting a dream, the teller may be illustrating the narrative with hand gestures and by making sketches in the dry earth, so the dream is already turning into a visual and kinesthetic art form.
     When Kukatja discuss the meaning of dreams, they ask questions like "where, who, what, when?" Tracking routes and locations in a dream is of high importance. Where were you, exactly? What landmarks do you recognize? Who else was there? Everyone is conscious that they are tracking where the dream soul, the kurunnpa, went in its nocturnal excursions.
     While dreamers make visits, they also receive visitations. So the questions may center on who came calling last night, invited or not.
     Dreams reveal malfeasance, especially sorcery, and a dream of sorcery may put an end to psychic attack. In such cases it may be judged highly desirable to tell everyone about a dream. A young Kukatja woman dreamed of sorcerers who are pointing the bone at her. The elder told her to tell the dream to everyone at the camp. "Outing” the sorcerer in this way was intended to scare him off.
     Dreams are valued as sources of creative inspiration. A Kukatja man is chased by a snake in his dream. As he tells it, he dwells on the snake’s vivid colors – and decides to use them in an acrylic painting.
     Kukatja dream sharing is directed at getting all the facts from the dream and taking appropriate action, for example, to deflect a coming danger revealed in the dream or to harness its creative energy. In contributing to discussion, others may tell dreams, stories and life experiences evoked by the first dream report. Through emerging patterns of resemblance and connection, the fuller meaning of a dream - and the appropriate action - may be revealed. 
    Poirier reports that this desert people, who appear so "poor" in terms of material culture, are far more advanced in their approach to dreams than cultures that rely on dream dictionary or dogmatic modes of analysis:  “I have not found any dream that has a fixed meaning; depending on context, any dream can be read as a good or bad omen.” 
   Aboriginal dreamwork is an antidote to Freud, who wrote that the dream “has nothing to communicate to anyone else”, meaning that dreams are entirely products of the personal subconscious and even so, unintelligible until interpreted. Aborigines know that dreams are social and transpersonal, connecting us to other people, both dead and alive, and to the animate universe of spirits and Ancestors. 

Source: Quotes are from Sylvie Poirier, “This Is Good Country. We Are Good Dreamers: Dreams and Dreaming in the Australian Western Desert,” in Dream Travelers: Sleep Experiences and Culture in the Western Pacific, ed. Roger Ivar Lohmann (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), pp. 107–126. Sylvie has also published an excellent book based on her years with the Kukatja: A World of Relationships: Itineraries, Dreams and Events in the Australian Western Desert (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2005).

Art: "Canning Stock Route" by Kukatja artist Rover Thomas. National Museum Australia.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Austin definitions of dreaming

I spent a marvelous evening in Austin years ago, when I gave a talk at Book People, a fine independent bookstore. To warm things up, I asked my audience if anyone would care to define the word “dream”. I expected that someone would say that a dream is something that happens during sleep. I was poised to use a response of this kind as a launch-point to discuss the deeper and wider spectrum of dreaming. 
    Instead, the Austin crowd offered definitions that took us right into the limitless adventure of dreaming. These were the first four definitions of "dream" that were volunteered

  1. A dream is a beginning.
  2. A dream is an adventure.
  3. A dream is a message from spirit.
  4. A dream is a mission.
     A challenging question was posed later by a man who told us that his mother warned him not to go too deep into dreaming because "you can get lost there". She told him this had happened to her, and he saw what this could mean as she succumbed to Alzheimer’s-type symptoms over the years before her death. We discussed how older people sometimes withdraw their awareness into another state of reality, and how we can meet them there – before and after physical death – and have helpful communication. He said he intended to try to reach his mother in her parallel reality now. I hope he succeeded. I know it can be done.

Monday, February 11, 2019

Dreaming with Jung through a Crisis of Shamanic Emergence

The night of my birthday in 1988. I entered the rooms of a tailor in Manhattan. I wanted to have a new suit made but did not like the fabrics he had in stock. When I left the tailor’s shop, the city was different. There was the sense that hidden things were pulsing behind the scenes. Still bent on new clothes, I entered the menswear section of an upscale department store. I pulled a suit off the rack. It fitted perfectly and the price was right. It seemed to have pinstripes. When I looked at the label, it read “Shamanic.”
    Now aware I was dreaming, I examined the pattern more closely. The “pinstripes” were actually minute designs, a magical language I could not yet translate. The collar was unusual. I realized it was animal fur. My first impression, of a pinstriped “power” suit, was an illusion. I had chosen a power suit of a different kind: a shaman’s outfit, of skins and furs with magical charms.
    I dreamed I was among ancient shamans in Europe. Some of these shamans boasted that they had the power of the “taurs,” but their powers were limited. They wanted knowledge from me that they did not have, but I turned away from them because it seemed that they wanted power for self-aggrandizement and to make war on the people over the next hill. I found an old man who looked like Jung, smoking a pipe and carefully laying one stone on another.
    I turned back to Jung. In the midst of a midlife crisis that I came to understand was a process of shamanic ordeal and initiation, recently relocated to a farm in rural New York, I was in urgent need of a guide.  I had discovered Jung in high school and devoured many volumes of his Collected Works when I was an undergraduate, though I probably failed to digest the most difficult passages. In the midst of the psychic storms of 1987–1988, I turned to Jung again, to see how he made sense of his own “confrontation with the unconscious.” My main source was Memories, Dreams, Reflections, his life story as recorded and edited by Aniela JaffĂ©, based on conversations he began when he was eighty-one.
    His great life crisis began in 1912, after his break with Freud. For several years, he lived in a house of the spirits. The contents of his dreams and visions seemed to be spilling over into his physical life, producing poltergeist-like phenomena and apparitions that his children could see. Night after night, he descended into a dark and thrilling Underworld where he met mythic characters who seemed to him to be entirely real and transpersonal. He often felt he was under an avalanche of psychic events, “as if gigantic stones were tumbling down upon me.”  His survival required him to draw on a “demonic strength” that brilliant, mad Nietzsche had lacked.
    He kept seeing patients but stopped lecturing at the university and ceased publishing for three years, no longer confident that he could make sense of things for other people. He had no mentor now, in the ordinary world. He sought stability through his family, his continuing work with clients, through painting, and through “hewing stone,” building a miniature stone village that he thought he was making in collaboration with his eleven-year-old self.
    He realized that he had to reclaim beginner’s mind. He said to himself, “Since I know nothing at all, I shall simply do whatever occurs to me.” Then he took the shaman’s plunge. “I consciously submitted myself to the impulses of the unconscious.”
    Central to Jung’s ability to restore his inner compass was his daily recording of dreams. After his break with Freud and his theory, Jung's main preoccupation was to set down an unedited, uncensored chronicle of his experiences. “Dreams are the facts from which we must proceed.”  This was one of his central discoveries, and it is one of the most helpful statements that has ever been made about dreams and dreamwork. Let’s start with the facts of the dream, leaving aside theory until we have recovered as much of the experience as possible. 
    This was confirmation for me of the method I was obliged to improvise in my own time of testing. I journaled my dreams and visions as exactly as possible, giving each a title and noting the time and duration of each experience. I most required clarity when my experiences rebuffed interpretation and linear thinking. I found it essential to disentangle the reports of inner adventures from other material so that their nature and content were not blurred. I underlined Jung’s statement that “otherwise the material would have trapped me in its thicket, strangled me like jungle creepers” and put a big check mark in the margin. Exactly right.
    In his storms of emotion, Jung sought to let images take form. Images gave him a way to work with the raw power of emotion rather than being torn apart by it. He was learning how to harvest images and rework them through what he later called “active imagination” in the laboratory of his own psyche.
    He recorded the facts of his inner experiences even when he found the content nonsensical, repugnant, or freakish. In this way, he hoped that instead of being drowned by the contents of his inner life, he would gain a means of navigation.
    He felt himself pulled into the Underworld. Instead of resisting, he let himself drop and began a harrowing journey of Underworld initiation, played out over years rather than hours, reminiscent of the shaman’s path of tests and ordeals. In this time, he found an agreed form for an inner guide: an old man with the horns of a bull and wings of kingfisher blue that he named Philemon. “It was he who taught me psychic objectivity, the reality of the psyche.”  
    Near the end of his life, Jung observed, “All my works, all my creative activity, has come from those initial fantasies and dreams which began in 1912, almost fifty years ago. Everything that I accomplished in later life was already contained in them, although at first only in the form of emotions and images.”
    He had had a plan for his life, to become a professor and pursue a scientific line that had seemed clear to him. “But then, I hit upon this stream of lava, and the heat of its fires reshaped my life.”  What overthrew his plans and expectations also gave him the prima materia for a greater life work. “That was the primal stuff which compelled me to work upon it, and my works are a more or less successful endeavor to incorporate this incandescent matter into the contemporary picture of the world.”
    I felt immense affinity for the great dream shaman of the West who spoke those words, and took comfort and courage from his example. I felt the deep truth of his ringing assertion that “anyone who takes the sure road is as good as dead,” and spoke those words aloud as I walked with my dogs to the old white oak behind my farmhouse and scrambled up the slippery banks of the creek to the highest of the waterfalls.
    Jung labeled his years of psychic struggle and self-healing his "confrontation with the unconscious". I liked the relative mildness of this term, barely hinting at the tremendous raw power of the energies that raced through our psyches like wild bulls. My own confrontation with the unconscious gave me the material for more than a dozen books and put me on the road of a dream teacher, for which there was no career track in my culture.

Text adapted from The Boy Who Died and Came Back: Adventures of a Dream Archaeologist in the Multiverse by Robert Moss. Published by New World Library.

Image: Bull of Lascaux