The dream world is my home world, and has been from very
I first died in this lifetime when I
was three years old. My great aunt the opera singer saw this in the tea leaves
but didn’t talk about it until long after. What she did not see was that – as a
doctor at the hospital in Hobart, Tasmania told my parents – I “died and came
back”. That is still the term I prefer to use of these experiences. I don’t
remember much of what happened when I left my body at age three, only that it
was very hard to live in a body in this world after I came back, and that I
felt that my home reality was somewhere else.
At nine, I died again during
emergency appendectomy in a Melbourne hospital. This time I seemed to live a
whole life somewhere else, among a beautiful people who raised me as their own.
I came back remembering that other life and that other world. It still wasn’t
easy for me to live in the ordinary world, and I was nostalgic for that other
world. The gift of these experiences,
and my persisting illness (I had double pneumonia twelve times between
the ages of three and eleven) was an inner life that was rich and prolific, and
an ability to move between states of consciousness and reality at will.
At age eleven, I had the vision of a
great staff of burning bronze with a serpent wrapped around it that seemed to
fill half the sky. Right after that, I came very near death for a third time,
back in hospital with pneumonia. But this time, I came back healed, and was
able to live a relatively normal life – except that in my mind, the dream world
was my “normal”. I later realized that my vision in the sky resembled a giant
version of the serpent staff of Asklepios, the Greek god who heals through
I can’t remember a time when I did not understand that our
personal dreams can take us into the Dreamtime, which is about more than the
bargain basement of the personal subsconscious; it is the place where we find
our spiritual kin on a higher level and remember the origins and purpose of
life. That’s the way the First Peoples of my native Australian, the Aborigines,
see it, and one of the few people I met in childhood who could confirm and
validate my experiences of dreaming was an Aboriginal boy. He said of my
near-death experiences, “Oh yeah, we do that. When we get very sick, we go and
live with the spirits. When we get well, we come back.” He did not think it was
extraordinary to dream future events, or to meet the dead in dreams, as I did
all the time.
I had to be fairly quiet about these
things, growing up in a conservative time in Australia, in a military family.
But as I grew older, I was able to do more and more with the gifts of dreaming.
My dreams of ancient cultures led me to my first job, as lecturer in ancient
history at the Australian National University. My dreams of possible future
events enabled me to avoid death on the road, quite literally, on three
occasions. Then, in mid-life, on a farm in the Upper Hudson Valley of New York,
I was called in a lucid dream – also an out-of-body experience – into a meeting
with an ancient Native American shaman, a Mother of the Wolf Clan of the Mohawk
people, who insisted on speaking her own language. That changed everything and
put me on the path of a dream teacher, for which there is no career track in
Most human societies have valued dreams and the dreamers for
three principal reasons. They have recognized that in dreams we see the future,
and this can help whole communities as well as individuals to make better
choices. They have understood that dreams give us a direct line to the sacred,
to the God/Goddess we can talk to, to the ancestors, to the animate spirits of
Nature. And they have grasped that dreaming can be very good medicine. Dreams
diagnose problems before they present symptoms; they offer imagery for
self-healing; and they show us the state of the soul and can help us retrieve
parts of our vital energy that may have gone missing through what shamans call
All ancient and indigenous peoples that I have encountered,
in my studies as an independent scholar and in my travels, understand that the
dream world is a real world, maybe more real than the regular world of our
consensual everyday hallucinations. When I told an elder of the Longhouse
People, or Iroquois, about my dreams of the Mohawk “woman of power”, he told me “you made some visits and you
received some visitations.” There you have a central understanding, forgotten
or ignored in much of Western psychology: dreaming is traveling. In dreams,
soul or consciousness gets around, far beyond the body. In dreams, we may also
receive visitations. The very words for “dream” in many cultures reflects this
insight. In the language of the Makiritare, a shamanic dreaming people of
Venezuela, the word for “dream” is adekato,
which literally means “a journey of the soul.”
In Western society, dreams are
undervalued by those the English call the “talking classes”, especially in
academe and the media. Yet we all dream, so this is common property. Ever the
hardhead who says “I don’t dream” is only saying “I don’t remember” or “I don’t
care to remember”. And when life is tough or he is going through a big life
transition, his head may be cracked open by a big dream that will expand his
understanding and maybe give him sources and resources not otherwise
available. One of the most common types
of “big dreams” that can accomplish that is a visitation by a dead family
member or loved one.
As I explained in The Secret History of Dreaming dreams and dreamers have been central to human evolution, critical for soul and survival.
Look at what is painted on the walls of the Paleolithic caves and you have evidence of the central importance of dreaming from as far back in the human odyssey as we can trace. The images are portals into a deeper reality, not simply hunting or fertility magic, but ways of connecting with the spirits, of calling through power, and of traveling between dimensions. On the most practical level, dreaming has always been a key part of our human survival kit. When we were little better than naked apes, without good weapons, dreaming helped save us from becoming breakfast for leathery raptors or saber-toothed tigers, by enabling us to scan our environment, across space and time, and identify possible dangers.
ancient Egyptians understood that in dreams, our eyes are opened. Their word
for dream, rswt, is etymologically connected to the root meaning “to be
awake”. It was written with a symbol representing an open eye.
As dreamers, we are time travelers. With or without intention, we travel to the past and the future as well as parallel worlds. This can become conscious practice, and we can learn to fold time in the sense of being present, mind to mind, with other personalities in other times, sharing gifts and insights with each other. Our ability to travel into the future is essential to our survival and well-being. We not only bring back memories of future events for which we – and sometimes whole communities – can then prepare. We visit possible futures, and our ability to read our memories of the possible future and then take appropriate action can determine whether we can escape a future event we don’t like, or manifest one that we want.
Contact with the deceased, especially in dreams, is natural
and easy if we are open to it. It’s a very common experience. Our dead may
still be around, because they have not yet moved on and that can be problematic
if they don’t understand that they are dead (in the sense of not having
physical bodies any more). Or they may come calling, for all the reasons we
might call on each other in regular life, and then some. And in dreams we go
traveling, and may find ourselves in realms where the dead are at home. These
experiences have been the source of the enduring and near-universal human
belief that consciousness survives physical death, and of countless geographies
of the afterlife.
The trick is to live consciously in both worlds, always aware that at every turning, we have the power to choose. Even when conditions seem most difficult and confining, we have the power to choose our attitude, as Viktor Frankl taught us in Man’s Search for Meaning. And that can change everything. We want to develop the art of memory, remembering who and what we are in one order of reality while traveling in another. Jung came to suspect that we lead continuous lives in other realities, and I think this is exactly correct. The dreams we recall may be memories of other lives in other times – past or future or in parallel universes – and the versions of ourselves that inhabit those other realities may be dreaming in and out of our present lives, just as we dream ourselves in and out of theirs.
Are we asleep in regular life and awake in the dream world?
Sometimes it feels like that. When I close my eyes, I often have the sense
of waking in another landscape, among people who may have been waiting for me.
Then there is that phenomenon of “false awakening”. Within a dream, you sleep
and wake up, to find later that you were in another level of the dream, not yet
back in the body in the bed. Such experiences mark transits from outer to inner
courtyards of dreaming, and when we learn to recognize what is going on, this
deepens our practice of conscious dreaming.
I practice operating in multiple
states of consciousness. When I am drumming for a group adventure in shamanic
dreaming, for example, I am in control of my body. I am also scanning the
psychic environment, warding the group. At the same time, I am engaged in a
personal journey in consciousness that may take me deep into another reality. Simultaneously, I may be looking in on the
journeys of people in the group. When I am really on, I feel I can see the
whole scene, physical and psychic, in 360-degree vision, as if it is all
enclosed in a bubble and my awareness is at every point on the surface of that
bubble as well as at the center. That begins to evoke what perceiving from the
fifth dimension may be like.
Art by Robert Moss: 1. "Storm Bird Brings Me Back to My Body" 2. "Serpent Staff in the Sky"