Friday, September 24, 2021

The Cave of the Nymphs

The Neoplatonist philosopher Porphyry wrote a commentary on a scene in Homer's Odyssey that offers a remarkable allegory of the soul's comings and goings from embodiment in this world. A translation of Porphyry's text, new to the English language at that time, inspired William Blake to paint a picture full of codes for the awakening spirit.

For  Porphyry the Cave of the Nymphs is a “harbor of the soul”, a waystation between the worlds. Porphyry insisted that nous (mind, spirit) is never contained in the body, but only “acts in it” through affinity or gravitation. An affinity for what is moist and humid brings souls back into incarnation; a tendency towards what is dry and light and fiery carries the soul into the realms of the immortals. In the Cave of the Nymphs, Naiads (spirits of fresh waters and fountains) weave “moist envelopes” – “purple tissues” – on stone, and bees deposit their honey in stone urns. Images of taking on flesh, of coming into generation. 

The word-picture fascinated William Blake, who gave it visual form in a watercolor painting found only in 1947 in the clutter atop a cabinet in a stately home in Devonshire. The first experts to examine the picture decided to give it a title from one of Blake’s letters: “The Sea of Time and Space”. Kathleen Raine explains in fine detail that the picture is an illustration of the Cave of the Nymphs. It seems that Mystery rituals dedicated to Odysseus and the Naiads – and the soul? – were actually held in a cave near the beach of Dexa in Ithaca where Odysseus is said to have returned to his homeland, dreaming. 

Kathleen Raine discusses Blake's imagery in an essay in her book Blake and Antiquity. She finds ithat even with self-taught, self-driven Blake, it is true (as Yeats declared) that poetry is “the traditional expression of certain heroic and religious themes, passed on from age to age, modified by individual genius, but never abandoned.”  

In 1947 a stately home in Devonshire called Arlington Court was taken over by the National Trust. Among broken glass and junk on the top of a pantry cover was found a painting by Blake clearly dated 1821. The art experts provisionally titled it “The Sea of Time and Space”, after a phrase in one of Blake’s letters and in his poem “Milton]. Its actual nature – as an illustration to Porphyry and Homer – was not recognized for a long time because of the tendency to regard Blake as an “untaught original” rather than an autodidact who devoured and integrated huge bodies of literature. The symbols appear again and again in Blake’s own work, yet we see that they also have deep roots in mythic experience and Neoplatonist tradition. For Raine, 

Neoplatonism may be compared to an underground river that flows through European history, sending up, from time to time, springs and fountains; and wherever its fertilizing stream emerges, there imaginative thought revives, and we have a period of great art and poetry. [1] 

Blake was a contemporary of Thomas Taylor, who brought the Neoplatonists into the English language (and was often ridiculed for it). Taylor was a crusader for the philosophy of Plotinus, calling on the young men of his time to take up its “weapons of truth”. He published the first English translation of Porphyry’s De antro nympharum

Blake's picture gives s nymphs, weavers at a loom, a sea-god, souls entering incarnation, bright spirits reborn -  perpetual cycle of the descent and ascent of souls between an eternal and a temporal world. 

In Mystery traditions, the  voyage of Odysseus in its entirety was read as the type of such a journey of soul. The sea, in constant flux, is the world. The watery cave of Calypso is the world’s enchantments. The beggar’s rags in which Odysseus returns home are the body, which the soul discards when they are no longer needed. The sea crossing, as in many legends and myths, is the type of the soul’s journey to the Otherworld. 

Blake incorporates the image of Odysseus throwing something out to sea, his face averted. This borrows an image from Book V of the Odyssey where the  hero is washed up on the Phaeacian shore. Odysseus is the soul survivor of the wreck of his ship; the goddess Ino takes pity on him and lends him her girdle, urging him to swim to shore. When he lands he must throw her girdle back to her, turning his face away. In Blake’s painting, the hero has thrown the girdle; the goddess has caught it, and she is dissolving back into a spiral of radiant cloud.

Athena stands behind Odysseus, a figure of Divine Wisdom, pointing to the shining realm of the sun.

Things to look for in Blake's painting:

The source of life in the underground river or spring. 

The dry and the moist. Heraclitus sas “a dry soul is the wisest” although “moisture appears delightful to souls”. 

Womb and tomb: Birth into the cave is a death from eternity. The Cave of the Nymphs is the womb through which humans are born into the physical world. 

Bowls and urns: Blake shows them carried like water pots on the heads of winged nymphs in the depths of the cave. 

Bees: These winged nymphs are Porphyry’s bees, winged souls about to descend into the cave of the world through womb-like vessels. 

Weavers: Blake has borrowed from his own Daughters of Albion, who ply their shuttles to bind immortals into mortal bodies. In Homer, there are marble looms and purple garments. Porphyry’s gloss is that “the formation of the flesh is on or about the bones, which in the bodies of animals resemble stones.” There is a hint of cruelty in the faces of the weavers. 

The child enmeshed: To the right of the looms, in Blake’s image, a little girl is enmeshed in what the nymphs are weaving – she is being woven into a body. 

The tubs: borrowed from Porphyry (who in turn borrowed from the Gorgias and Hesiod): the tub or bucket of the evolved, temperate and “dry” soul that is intact and can hold its contents, and the one of the person ruled by passion that is pierced and spills everywhere. Seen in two figures in the right foreground of Blake’s painting: a resolute woman turns her back on the swirl and climbs the steps, holding a bucket in her right hand while her left is raised towards the heavenly world. She is opposed by the nymphs. Close to her, a “moist soul” lolls half-immersed in a tub which lies on its side, forever spilling and unfilled even as water streams into it; she looks happy but she disgusts Blake, because she is caught in the “deadly sleep” of physical life and is on her downward journey. 

The river’s mouth: the lowest stage of descent into matter in Blake’s painting. Here he introduces Fates who control the entry of souls into the Sea of Time and Space. Savage and cruel, one unwinds the thread, a second measures it, a third waits with shears to cut it off. Phorcys (who Raine sees as a variant of Proteus) bears the phallic distaff from which the thread is unwound. 

The sleeping sun god – when this world wakes, the other world sleeps.

1. Kathleen Raine, "The Cave of the Nymphs" in Raine, Blake and Antiquity: The A.E. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts (Princeton N.J.: Bollingen, 1977) 4


William Blake, "Sea of Space and Time" (1821)





Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Punch a Hole in the World: Listening to Children's Dreams

Young children know how to go to Magic Kingdoms without paying for tickets, because they are at home in the imagination and live close to their dreams. When she was very young, my daughter Sophie had adventures in a special place called Teddy Bear Land, where she met a special friend. I loved hearing about these travels, and encouraged her to make drawings and spin further stories from them.

One day Sophie sat down beside me and asked with great earnestness, "Daddy, would you like to know how I get to Teddy Bear Land?"

 "I'd love to."

 "Sometimes I take the Sun Gate. Sometimes I take the Moon Gate. Sometimes I take the Tree Gate. Sometimes I take the Rainbow Bridge. And sometimes I just punch a hole in the world."

I've never heard anyone say it better. To live the larger life. we need to punch a hole in the world. This is what dreaming - sleeping or waking or hyper-awake - is really all about. On our roads to adulthood, we sometimes forget how to do it, just as older children in the Chronicles of Narnia cease to be able to see Aslan as they approach adolescence and become more and more burdened by the reality definitions of the grown-ups around them.

When we listen, truly listen, to very young children, we start to remember that the distance between us and the Magic Kingdoms is no wider than the edge of a sleep mask. True listening requires us to pay attention; to attend, in its root meaning in the Latin, is to stretch ourselves, which requires us to expand our vocabulary of understanding. We owe nothing less to the young children in our lives. When we do this, we discover that they can be our very best teachers on how to dream and what dreaming can be.

Here's what we need to know about listening to children's dreams and supporting their imaginations:

1. Listen up! When a child wants to tell a dream, make room for that. Make some daily space for dream sharing. Listen to the stories and cherish them for their own sake.

2. Invite good dreams Pick the right bedtime reading or better still, tell stories. Help your child to weave a web of good dream intentions for the night - for example, by asking "What would you most like to do tonight?" Encourage children to sleep with a favorite stuffed animal (whether teddy bear or T-Rex) and make this a dream guardian.

3. Provide immediate help with the scary stuff If your child was scared by something in the night, recognize you are the ally the child needs right now. Do something right away to move out that negative energy. Get a frightened child to spit it out (literally) or draw a picture of what scared her and tear it up as violently as possible.

4. Ask good questions. When the child has told her story, ask good questions. Ask about feelings, about the color of the sky, and about exactly what T-Rex was doing. See if there's something about the future. Say what you would think about this if this were your dream. Always come up with something fun or helpful to do with this story. Open up the crayon box, call grandma, etc.

5. Help the child to keep a dream journal. Get this started as early as possible. With a very young child, you can help with the words while they do the pictures. When your child reaches the point where she closes the journal and says, "This is my secret book and you can't read it any more" do not peek. Give her privacy, and let her choose when she'll let you look in that magic book.

6. Provide tools for creative expression. Encourage the child to bring dreams come alive through art, dance, theater and games, and to draw or paint dreams. Gather friends and family for dream-inspired games and performance. Puppets and stuffed animals can be great for acting out dreams. This can also be dress-up time. It's such a release for kids to portray mom or dad or other grown-ups in their lives - be ready to be shocked!

7. Help construct effective action plans Dreams can show us things that require further action - for example, to avoid an unhappy future event that was previewed in the dream, or to put something right in a family situation. A child will probably need adult help with such things, starting with your help. may require adult help, starting with yours. This will eventually require you to learn more about dreaming and dreamwork (hint: you can start with my books).

 8. Let your own inner child out to play As you listen to children's dreams, let the wonderful child dreamer inside you come out and join in the play.

9. Keep it fun! When you get the hang of this, you'll find it's about the best home entertainment you can enjoy.

Notice two things that are not on this list, but would be at the very top of a list of what NOT to do with your children's dreams:
1. NEVER say to a child "It's only a dream". Children know that dreams are for real and that scary stuff that comes out in dreams needs to be resolved, not dismissed.
2. DON'T INTERPRET a child's dreams.You are not the expert here; the child is.

Text adapted from Active Dreaming by Robert Moss. Published by New World Library.

Art: Book Tree by a 10-year-old Romanian boy

Saturday, September 18, 2021

Shamanic lucid dreaming

In the practice of Active Dreaming, we do many of the things involved in what is popularly called "lucid dreaming", and a great deal more. However, I confess I have never been enthusiastic about the term "lucid dreaming" because it has often been associated with notions of "controlling" or "manipulating" dreams. This is why I called my first book in this field Conscious Dreaming.
     Through dreaming, we have access to a source that is infinitely wiser and deeper than the everyday ego, and we want to be available to that source. I am in favor of learning to choose where we go and what we do in dreams, as in waking life, but that requires discernment, not the fantasy of control.
     Another problem I have with the term "lucid dreaming" is that it is most often associated with techniques for waking yourself up to the fact that you are dreaming while you are asleep. However, the easiest way to become a lucid or conscious dreamer is to start out lucid and stay that way: in other words, to enter conscious dreaming from a waking or semi-wakeful state. 
      My preferred name for what I teach and practice is Active Dreaming. As the phrase suggests, we can be active in embarking on conscious adventures in dreaming, and we want to be active in bringing the energy and insight of our dreams into waking life. 
       Since I am often asked whether Active Dreaming is a mode of lucid dreaming, I am going to borrow a phrase employed by one of my friends in the lucid dreaming fraternity who refers to my "shamanic lucid dream adventures." I am using the adjective "shamanic" here to describe a method for shifting consciousness to enter nonordinary reality for purposes that include the care and recovery of soul. 
      How do you become a shamanic lucid dreamer? You start out conscious and you stay that way. To accomplish this, you only need three things: a clear intention, an image that can serve as a portal, and a means of focusing the mind and fueling the journey. All these things can become available naturally, in the twilight zone of consciousness that researchers call hypnagogia. You are between sleep and waking. Images rise and fall in your mindnd any one of those images can become the gateway for a conscious dream adventure. 
      An equally simple and natural way to become a shamanic lucid dreamer is to use a remembered dream as the portal for a journey. In your night dream, you went to a place, which may resemble a site in ordinary reality or may be a locale in a separate reality where the physics are utterly different. Either way, because you were in a certain place, you may be able to find your way back there, just as you could return to a house you once visited in regular life. 
      Why would you want to do this? Maybe you've been running away from something in your dream world that scares you - from the Bear, or the Tiger, or an unknown intruder or pursuer. If you can find the courage to go back inside one of those nightmares and face what frightened you on its own ground, you may find power and healing waiting for you on the other side of the terror. 
      You may want to go back inside a dream because you were with your dream lover in a tropical paradise but were interrupted by the alarm clock. You may want to talk to someone who appeared to you in a dream. You may need to clarify whether that auto accident could take place in the future, as either a literal and symbolic event, and what you need to do with that information (once you have it clear) in order to avoid an unwanted development. You may simply want to know more about a dream. The best way to understand a dream is to recover more of the experience of the dream. A dream experience, fully remembered, is its own interpretation. 
     Through the technique of dream reentry, you can pursue any of these agendas, or simply enjoy the fun and adventure of using a personal dream image as a portal to the multiverse. 
     The best time to attempt dream reentry may be when the dream is fresh and you are still closely connected to it, lingering in bed after waking. But if the dream has energy for you, you can go back inside any time, even decades after the original dream. 
      Shamanic drumming - a steady beat on a simple frame drum, typically in the range of three to four beats per second, but sometimes faster - will help you to shift consciousness and travel into the dreamspace. The steady beat helps to override mental clutter and focus energy and intention on the journey. The rhythms of the drum correspond to brain wave frequencies in the theta band, associated with the hypnagogic zone and its dreamlike imagery. If you want a physiological explanation of why shamanic drumming is such a powerful tool for shifting awareness, you could say that the "sonic driving" of the drum herds our brain waves into the theta band, opening us to its characteristic flow of imagery. I have made my own drumming recording for shamanic lucid dreamers. 
      The drumming will also help you to synchronize and focus shared adventures in dream travel. You can invite one of more partners to journey with you through the portal you have chosen and act as companions and trackers who can support you and bring you extra information. In my workshops, we frequently have 30 or more active dreamers traveling together on group adventures of this kind. Often we keep group logs, and you can read samplings from these in my book Dreamgates and in the epilogue to Dreamways of the Iroquois, where I describe how I led a group of frequent flyers on a group journey to meet the shaman-priests of the Kogi, on their sacred mountain, at the invitation of a Kogi elder. Through such experiments, we assemble truly scientific data on the reality of the dreamworlds, and what is possible within them. 
     Shamanic lucid dreaming is an adventure in navigating the deeper reality that we can share with a partner, with a group, or a whole community. Through practice, you can develop the ability to shift consciousness at will, travel in nonordinary reality, and bring back gifts, with or without drumming.

Photo: Leading a fire ceremony for a circle of active dreamers. Photo by Jeanne Cameron.

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

At the Stag Tree


At the Stag Tree

I am the antlered one.
I raise living bones
as taproots into the sky
to draw down the strength of heaven.

I am sure-footed, potent,
a warrior in love,
with power to read the land,
to see behind me and around me.

I grow my own crown, royal,
magnificent, and have the wisdom
to give up its burden
when the year grows old.

I come here, to the hickory,
to rub out my royalty,
to drop the burden of my crown
and grow again, stronger than before.

September 15, 2018

- lines composed in an exercise to become Animal Speakers in my "Writing as a State of Conscious Dreaming" retreat in the green fairyland of northern Bohemia

Monday, September 13, 2021

When it's time to cut the cords


We are linked to those with whom we have shared significant life experiences by cords of psychic and emotional attachment. The Hawaiian kahunas maintain that an aka cord of "sticky" etheric substance runs between us and everyone who has ever touched our lives unless it is detached. 

     When our relations with the people close to us are strong and healthy, there is no problem in being joined to them in this way. On the contrary, we want to be connected to those we love, those with whom we are engaged in a common purpose, and our family of chosen life companions. We still need to notice that, linked in this way, we can very easily pick up other people's stuff. Dreams teach us about how this works. We can find ourselves, in dreams, in another person's situation, or receiving their imagery or their visitations across the psychic bridges that are open between us.
     The problem with the psychic cords arises when a relationship has gone sour, or become unbalanced, so that energy is moving only one way, draining one of those involved. A very common issue is that when we break up with a spouse or partner or close friend, the psychic cords between us remain intact. What flows along them now is no longer healthy emotional energy but bad feelings and rancor that can bring both members of the old relationship down. More seriously, the surviving psychic bridge can become a means by which a jealous or bitter ex comes calling, confusing night dreams and wakeful perception and energy.
      To maintain psychic good health, we want to learn to scan our energy fields and locate the psychic cords of attachment between ourselves and others.I recently had members of a training do this by the method explained in my book Active Dreaming in the chapter on "a low maintenance plan for psychic well-being". Our special interest was to determine the appropriate ways to "unplug" unwanted or unhealthy cords of attachment. Simply picturing yourself hacking away at a cord might not be the best way!
      For many in the group, color was a guide to the condition of psychic cords. Toxic attachments appeared black; old, energy-draining attachments appeared grey, sometimes the grey of used chewing gum. Some fresh and improvisational approaches to releasing or cleansing psychic links emerged.
      One woman pictured herself swimming in healing waters while little fish nibbled away gently at the psychic cords that needed to be released. A man found that an ally (a "Chinese doctor") entered the scene; he tiled "little bows" in the problematic cords, leaving them to wither and drop away gradually. For another member of the group, the ally appeared as a crow that pecked away at the root of a black cord of connection to a deceased friend, until all the stagnant dead energy drained away.
     Some found it possible to cleanse and restore proper flow in the cords of attachment involved in current relationships. A woman found that the psychic cord between her and her boyfriend was a very mixed picture; it was mottled grey, black and red. She did not like the deadness of the black and the drabness of the grey. She pictured herself drawing the energy of a waterfall to which she had recently hiked to cleanse and refresh the connection. She continued with this powerful and spontaneous mediation until the cord glowed red and gold, the black and grey gone.

drawing by Robert Moss

Dream Archaeology: The Columns of Siq

I returned this morning from an excursion to an archaeological site. I did not have to wait for my bags, clear customs and health checks, or catch an Uber home from the airport. Yet my travels were entirely real. I walked that site, studied it with the help of a guide and a little bilingual guide book, felt the sun and sand in my face, and gratitude for the warm water of that wadi. I felt goosebumps in the presence of stones that might be eidola, breathing images. My outing has given me a new research assignment in the field I call dream archaeology. I'm juiced, especially because I knew very little of the culture involved before my dream self traveled to Petra overnight.

September 13, 2021


The Columns of Siq

My guide is a younger woman, Arab or Turkish, wearing a hijab. We are walking around a vast archaeological site in the desert. We came through a dark, narrow passage lined with niches and columns, some natural, some carved from the rock. Some of the stones around us give the impression of humanoid forms, perhaps of gods or jinn.

“This place is protected by them,” she tells me. She gives the protectors a name I can’t quite understand. Is it “The Daniels”?

The place, or some part of it, is called Siq. I see it in a section head in a little bilingual guidebook. Between us and the barren mountains, on a rise, is a ruined colonnade. I have the sense that there is life in these stones, even the ones that may have belonged to a Roman marketplace. Perhaps holographic memories of what happened here.

She walks me up a hill. I feel sun and sand on my skin. I am getting very thirsty, in the dry heat. There is water below us, across a slope of fine greyish sand, apparently rich in metal content. I enjoy the walk down. She tells me, again, “This place is protected by The Daniels.” Again, I can’t quite get the key word.

The pool is very shallow, perhaps only the last of water that fell in the last rains. But we are now in welcome shade from the mountains and I long to drink. I reach down into the water with cupped hands.

I am surprised when she tells me that I need to go to Cyprus. She says she has family there. Is she also telling me that cousins of "The Daniels" are there? I know Cyprus is the island of Aphrodite. I tell my companion that I have always wanted to go to Cyrus, because “I have a relationship with Aphrodite.” Whoops. I must avoid provoking the goddesses again.


Feelings: Excited, intrigued. Just so: this was an entirely real experience, engaging all the senses.

Reality check : The word “Siq” was crystal clear but I did not recognize it. An online search told me instantly that it is the name of a long passage through a narrow gorge leading to the ancient city of Petra in Jordan.  Siq means “gorge”. It is lined with niches that once held “god-stones” called baetyls or betyls. Some were meteorites. It is speculated that the ancient Nabataeans thought they contained the energy of gods, and that contact with the stones could open a portal to other worlds. I suspect that what I heard as “The Daniels” was actually “The Betyls”. The Arabic is betel. Related to the Hebrew Bethel, “House of God” as in the place where Jacob had an immense night vision while sleeping on a stone he afterwards set up as a column. I see that Wendy Doniger, the religious scholar, thinks that the betyls in their niches – they have counterparts in many cultures - were the first of all altars.

If you want to know what I mean by "provoking the goddesses" read my story "How Much Ephesus Have You Had?" in Mysterious Realities.

Action: I love taking on the research assignments my dreams give me. In my memoir The Boy Who Died and Came Back I give detailed reports on the dream archaeology missions that have taken me into other times and other lives. I have barely started to follow up my visit to Petra and the magic stones. The dreamer and the independent scholar in me look forward to more discoveries.

Follow-up: Pillars of the Goddess

I had just started my research when a friend found a report by a German scholar who surveyed hundreds of betyls at Petra.  This added some interesting leads. The style of Nabataean religious art was basically aniconic; in other words, not figurative, though stones were sometimes given a hunt of anthropomorphic form. 

It was notable many betyls were dedicate to al-Uzzah, the mother goddess of Petra, or to Allat, the Great Goddess worshipped especially in the Arabian peninula. Some of these betyls had "eyes" in the form of simple rectangles, or twin stars. "The eyes can be interpreted as the morning and the evening stars, the two aspects of the planet Venus." [1] The betyls of Petra were typically set in niches on bases,. Quite a few were carved from free-standing stones and could be carried in procession. 

A relief carving from Bab al-Siq ("Gate of the Siq") shows a betyl being transported on the back of  horse of mule. Some betyls were simply carved from rock walls.

Where stone was quarried for such purposes, efforts were made to show respect to Dushara, Lord of the House among the pantheon at Petra, whose energy was strongly felt in sacred stones. Columns were left standing in his honor. Other standing stones around Petra were for the nephesh (the same word as in Hebrew). The nepheshes held spirits of the dead rather than the energy of the gods. 

I later found photos of an unusually anthropomorphic version of the "eye-betyls" of Petra. It stood in a niche in the wall of the temple of the Wnged Lions and is believed to represent al-Uzza or Allat. The eyes here are almond shaped and the nose and lips are formed naturalistically. The face is crowned by a wreath with an opening in the center that mikght have held a jewel or a horn. This iamge,carved from limenstone in the 1st or 2nd cetury of the common era, may reflect syncretism between Nabataean religion and the Isis cult.

1.Robert Wenning, “The Betyls of Petra” in Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 324, 2001, p.83.

Journal drawing: "The Columns of Siq" by Robert Moss

Friday, September 10, 2021

Synesius on the Dream Oracle


You have direct access to sacred knowledge, in your dreams. Your dreams are a personal oracle that reveals the future and helps you prepare for it. Don’t let anyone tell you what your dreams mean; get rid of dream dictionaries. Pay attention to signs from the world around you; know that everything in the universe is interconnected and constantly interweaving. Use your imagination. What you grow there will be stamped on your world and on your soul – on the energy body in which you will travel to another life after death. [1] 

Amazingly, these insights come from a fifth-century bishop of the church. His name was Synesius of Cyrene, and his treatise On Dreams, composed around 405, is one of the wisest books ever written on dreams, coincidence and imagination. Synesius was a most unusual bishop. In his life and work we find – alas, only briefly – a confluence between the best of the ancient practice of philosophy and the new religion of the Roman empire.

Synesius was a Greco-Roman aristocrat who could trace his pedigree back to the founders of Sparta, seventeen hundred years before him. He lived on a great estate in Cyrene, part of modern Libya, enjoyed the pleasures of both the hunt and the study, and chuckled over the fact that rural folk in his area still thought “the king of the world” was Agamemnon. [2]

 He had the best education possible in his time, in Alexandria, in the school of Hypatia, the extraordinary woman scientist, mathematician, and Neoplatonist who strode the streets of the world-city in her philosopher’s cloak, surrounded by eager students. 

It was in Alexandria that Synesius experienced his first and deepest conversion, when he found “the eye of the soul” within him opening to reveal the sacred depth of the universe. His consciousness expanded to give him the clear vision of the One beyond the many. He saw the reality behind the forms of religion. In his quiet hours, he dedicated himself to “mysteries without rites” devoted to awakening the divinity within the human that corresponds and coincides with the divinity within and beyond the cosmos. [3] He was a convert to philosophy as it was understood in the Greco-Roman world: the love and practice of wisdom. 

It was in Alexandria, around 405 and recently married, with the Barbarians at the gates of Rome, that he wrote his treatise on dreams. 

He makes it clear that his discussion of dreams is grounded in personal experience. Dreams have guided him in the hunt, showing him how and where to find the game. Dreams have led him to “swarms of wild beasts that have fallen to our spears”.[4]

He was guided by dreams when his city sent him to Constantinople to plead for favors from the emperor. In a hothouse of political intrigue, his dreams helped him to tell friend from foe, and alerted him to hostile intrigues in which his enemies hired “ghost-raising sorcerers” to attack him by black magic.

The dream oracle “helped me in the management of public office in the best interest of the cities, and finally placed me on terms of intimacy with the Emperor.”

His dreams contributed to his success as a writer and orator. The dream source “frequently helped me to write books”, correcting his style, and helping him to prune archaic Attic expressions – products of his love of old books - from his essays and poems. 

Synesius explains that dreams are “personal oracles”. We want to claim authority over our own dreams and reject anything and anyone who tries to come between us and the dream source. “We ought to seek this branch of knowledge before all else; for it comes from us, is within us, and is the special possession of the soul of each one of us.

The dream oracle speaks to us wherever we go. “We can’t abandon this oracle even if we try. It is with us at home and abroad, on the field of battle, in the city and in the marketplace.”

Dreams are our common birthright. They belong to rich and poor, to kings and to slaves. The dream oracle turns no one down because of race or age, status or calling.

Even the worst tyrant is powerless to separate us from our dreams – which may hold the key to his overthrow – “unless he could banish sleep from his kingdom”.

“Dream divination is available to all, the good genius to everyone.”

It is no wonder that dreams show us the future, because dreams are experiences of soul and “the soul holds the forms of things that come into being”

 Synesius dismisses dream dictionaries – popular in his time, as in ours – with admirable vigor. “I laugh at all those books and think them of little use”. General definitions don’t work because each dreamer is a different mirror for dream images – some are funhouse mirrors, some are made of varied materials. Big dreams do not require interpretation; their meaning is in the experience of the dream itself. Dreams that are “more divine” are “quite clear and obvious, or nearly so”, but come only to those who live “according to virtue”.

Steeped in Homer, he can’t avoid mentioning the scene in the Odyssey where the Gates of Horn and Ivory are described. In his view, both Homer’s Penelope and legions of commentators and borrowers failed to understand that dreams, in themselves, are never false. Penelope assumes that there are true dreams and deceptive dreams “because she was not instructed in the matter.” Deception arises through false interpretations, not false dreams. If Penelope had understood the nature of dreaming better, “she would have made all dreams pass out through the Gate of Horn…We should not confuse the weakness of the interpreter with the nature of the visions themselves.”

 Synesius recommends setting an intention for the night. “We shall pray for a dream, even as Homer prayed. And if you are worthy, the god far away is present with you…He comes to your side when you sleep, and this is the whole system of the initiation.”

 Synesius also stresses the value of keeping a dream journal, and of writing and creating from dreams. “It is no mean achievement to pass on to another something of a strange nature that has stirred in one’s own soul”.

 Synesius urges us to keep a “day book” for our observations of signs and synchronicities as well as a “night book” for dreams.  “All things are signs appearing through all things…they are brothers in a single living creature, the cosmos…they are written in characters of every kind”. The deepest scholarship lies in reading the sign language of the world; the true sage is a person “who understands the relationship of the parts of the universe”.

 Five years after writing his essay On Dreams, Synesius was persuaded by Theophilus, the Patriarch of Alexandria, to accept the bishopric of Ptolemais. It seems that he was baptized at the same time, rather late in the day according to our common understanding of what is involved in becoming a bishop of the church.

Synesius’ entry into the episcopate was a political, rather than a spiritual, event. The influence of his wife – who he loved deeply – may have been important; she was presumably Christian, since Theophilus was at their wedding in 403. Winning an aristocratic philosopher to the church was a coup for the Patriarch; though Christianity had become the religion of the empire, the old houses were still keeping their distance. For Synesius, assuming the rank and responsibilities of a bishop was both a case of noblesse oblige and an accommodation to the movement of history. In 399, the Serapeum – the great temple complex of Serapis at Alexandria – had been destroyed, and the might of the Roman Empire was now being used to stamp out pagan practices. The new God was fast supplanting the old ones.

In theological language, Synesius joined the Christians through adhesion rather than through the transformative experience of a full conversion. [5] But we can trace some possible lines of convergence between his philosophy and the Christian message. He believed in One divinity, behind the many forms of the divine. He wrote of the “fall” of the soul from a state of knowledge and truth. He believed that in times of darkness, a saving power may be sent to rescue humanity from itself and its deceivers. His essay On Providence depicts a world dominated by dark forces whose purpose is to drag humans down and destroy them if they reach for the light. Behind the surface events of history is the struggle between the higher instincts of humanity and the darkness within and around it. The power of light in humanity runs down, and must be restored periodically, at the end of the great cycles of history. But sometimes, when humans are in extremis, divine intervention may take place before the end of a cycle, to keep the game in play. [6] 

If Synesius lived long enough to learn the end of his mentor, Hypatia, he would have been left in no doubt that the darkness was rising. Though Hypatia’s students included Christians, the fanatical Cyril, who became bishop of Alexandria in 412, saw her as magnet for pagans. His violent diatribes against her helped to inflame a mob, led by a church lector, that pulled Hypatia from her carriage at night. In their collective dementia, these frenzied fundamentalists dragged her into a church called the Caesarium, tore off her clothes, and flayed her alive with sharp-edged shells. Then they butchered her body and burned the pieces to ashes. [7] 

In such a world, Synesius offered the means of communicating with a higher realm, and bringing gifts from it into everyday life. He taught that the realm of imagination is “the hollow gulf of the universe” where the soul is at home. Imagination is “the halfway house between spirit and matter, which makes communication between the two possible”. [Bregman 148] The soul travels in this realm in dreams.

For Bishop Synesius, dreaming is everyday church. It is also a way of entry into the real world. According to Synesius, dreamer do not return to reality when they awaken; dreaming, they are already there. 



1. Jay Bregman, Synesius of Cyrene, Philosopher-Bishop. (BerkeleyUniversity of California Press, 1982) 148.

2.ibid 76

3. ibid 26, 32-3,citing Letter 137.

4. All quotes from De insomniis (On Dreams) unless otherwise noted are from  Augustine FitzGerald (ed) The Essays and Hymns of Synesius of Cyrene. 2 vols. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1930)

 5. See A.A. Nock, Conversion. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1933).

6. Synesius, De providentia quoted in Bregman,op.cit., 66-72

7. Socrates Scholasticus, “The Murder of Hypatia” in Anne Fremantle (ed) A Treasury of Early Christianity. (New York: Viking, 1953) 380



Lion at the Templeof Apollo in Cyrene

"Eye in the Sky" Journal Drawing by Robert Moss



Wednesday, September 8, 2021

Naked adventure in the Arabian Nights


Notes from a Reading Life

Robert Louis Stevenson notes in "A Gossip of Romance" that the Arabian Nights are entirely amoral. "You shall look in vain for moral or intellectual interest. No human face or voice greets us among that wooden crowd of kings and genies, sorcerers and beggarmen. Adventure, on the most naked terms, furnishes forth the entertainment and is found enough." This is especially true of the stories delivered outside the frame of Scheherazade's nightly narrations. 

We are not told why Aladdin - a tearaway street kid who is the despair of his impoverished mother - is selected for favors and a potentially fatal assignment by the African magician who poses as his uncle. (This fools no one but the largesse he delivers gets him in.) Aladdin is to go down a well and through tunnels and overcome many obstacles to obtain a lamp the magician (for reasons unexplained) can't get for himself. In addition to directions Aladdin is given a ring that is a talisman. He finds the lamp, empties it as instructed, and wraps it inside his garment where it is soon buffered by all the beautiful balls of colored glass the boy plucks from the trees, not knowing them to be precious jewels. 

The magician's plan is to seize the lamp from Aladdin as he comes up the tunnel, and seal him below the stone lid to die. But Aladdin evidently has some street smarts. He won't yield the lamp before he gets out. In a rage, the magician seals the tunnel and leaves him to die. Rubbing the ring, he produces a genie (called a demon in Husain Haddawy’s recent translation), hideous but required to serve him without conditions. He wishes to be out and so he is. 

At home he discovers that rubbing the lamp produces a bigger and even scarier genie and a whole host of jinn (perhaps the best term for this genus)all bound to serve the master of the lamp. There is no limit to the number of wishes and their magnitude and no conditions for the user. Aladdin goes from ordering up a good dinner to demanding vast riches and armies of slaves that persuade the king to give him the beautiful princess in marriage. They live in a palace more splendid than the king's created by demons overnight. 

Things go on until the African magician returns, guided by his geomantic box of sand. Aladdin survives the first take back attempt but not the magician's brother, who takes possession of the lamp when Aladdin is away hunting and has the whole palace including the princess transported to Africa. The genie of the ring eventually enables Aladdin to locate them. When he has possession of the lamp he can move everything back to "China" where the main action is supposedly playing out 

Utterly amoral. Whoever owns the lamp has full control of the genie - in fact legions of genies - unconditionally. Things created by enchantment don't vanish. They stay solid in the world. A couple of quick prayers to Allah are said here and there but not a modicum of virtue or any appeal to higher powers or even personal intelligence are required for success. There are no threats to the immortal soul, not even a hint that - as in other tales of invoking captive spirits - there will be dire consequences if the genie escapes captivity, or even that he can escape.

This puts the story on a cruder level than Scheherezade's tale of a genie confined in a copper jar who has been made to wait so long that- having originally promised to reward his liberator with untold riches- he will now kill him.

When RLS develops the theme in "The Bottle Imp" he introduces conditions and concern for the state of the soul (though on a transactional rather than moral basis). An imp perceived as a mysterious white shadow inside the bottle will manifest your wishes but as a result you will be sent to hellfire when you die unless you can sell the bottle to someone else for less than you paid for it, after apprising them of the risk. The money must be paid in coin. Our protagonist pays the $50 he has in his pocket to the haggard owner of a mansion in Nob Hill who got his house from the imp. 

The drama now turns on a series of efforts to sell the bottle at ab ever lower price (after fulfilling a series of wishes) until we are down to one cent and hell for the owner is certain. Then it is recalled that there are places where there are coins worth less than a cent. And we are off to Tahiti and traffic in centimes. It ends with a drunken longshoreman, not afraid of hell, taking the bottle with its imp for one centime.


Illustration by René Bull' (1872-1942)


Tuesday, September 7, 2021

When dreams do a morning flit

Some mornings I have a dream – it might be a big one, full of romance and adventure – but it gets away before I can find any way to hold it. Then I am like a fisherman kicking his creel, stretching his arms to show the size of the one that got away, but not managing even that. Sometimes I know a night visitor slipped out the window in the instant I rolled over and turned my back..
     How do dreams do this vanishing act? Notice I am not talking about the absence of dreams, not at all. We can absent ourselves from dreams. We might even say, “I don’t dream” which only means “I don’t remember” or “I don’t want to remember”. Because dreams are never absent from us. We dream for hours every night. The guys in white coats in the sleep laboratories can show you the physiological evidence for that.
     I am talking about something more specific than a chronic or occasional lack of dream recall. That is a common condition and when it is protracted it is a real malaise, gravely injurious to your health and well-being, for which I have offered remedies, notably in my book Active Dreaming.
     I am talking, quite specifically, about how and why dreams get away. Waking, you have them. You may feel you have perfect recollection of what you were doing and with whom in another reality, just a raised eyelid ago. The next moment, all that is gone. Your memories have been erased, as if a Man in Black zapped you with a Neuralyzer
    What’s going on here?
     I’ve been going over some of my own experiences of dreams doing a morning flit. Here are some of my thoughts on how dreams get away:

It is hard to remember one world when you are in another world

Neuroscientists talk about how retrievable memories are established when data is passed from the cortex to the hippocampus. But what we experience in dreams is not just a matter of seeing movies between our ears. We enter an altered state of consciousness and then find ourselves in other realities. So the memory download is not just between areas of the brain, but between the nonlocal mind or the traveling dream soul and the brainbox receiver. The brain is an awesome organism that can handle far more than most of us ever imagine. But the download from multidimensional reality into forms and linear narratives we can recognize and use in ordinary reality is an awesome operation. We grasped something in the deep but it slips from our hand as we rise into the shallows and soon all that is left is a little froth, until that is gone too.

Your dream was so real you didn’t think you could forget it

On the other hand, our experiences in dreams may be so very real, engaging our inner senses, that – whether or not we become aware we are dreaming – we may feel no need to lay down a memory trace. Few of us would feel the need to write down that we took a certain road to work, or that a lover’s kiss tasted of wine or raspberries, at least not right away. These are actual events, they happened, how could we forget about them moments later? Well, it can be the same with dreams. They happened, they were real – and so we let them slip away.

You haven’t been taking action to honor your dreams

If we do not take action to honor our dreams, we do not dream well. Our dream producers may become so disgusted by our lazy neglect of what they have been giving us that they actually close down their movie-making, or pull a heavy curtain after a screening. As a writer, I am grimly aware that I have been given far, far more ideas for all kinds of new productions – novels and screenplays and novellas and short stories, as well as new nonfiction – than I have developed. When I have a patch where I can’t hold onto my dreams (or the dreams I do snare seem paltry) I often ask myself: Is this because I have not been doing enough to create from the scenes and scripts I have already been given?

You got zapped

Sometimes it feels like something intervenes to erase dream memories. When I write this, I remember the Neuralyzer used by the agents in the Men in Black scifi movies to make sure that regular people are not freaked out by memories of alien life forms.
    We are all subject to inner censors, and maybe sometimes to psychic interference.
     However, I like the idea that sometimes there may be a benign agency at work that seeks to ensure that we don’t bring through too much from other worlds before we are ready to integrate the knowledge.
     I gained insight about this from a good friend who is usually a prolific dreamer. She is also one of those who rarely fails to take action to embody the guidance and energy of dreams. Even so, she entered a period when her dreams were doing that morning flit. She willed herself to stay present, alert and conscious, in that moment when she felt herself stepping through the door between the dreamworld and her ordinary reality. When she did this, she noticed there was a figure standing beside a doorway, with a large timepiece in his hand, a pocket watch as big as a clock.
    “Who are you?” she demanded.
    “I am the Timekeeper,” he told you. “I decide when it is time for you to remember what happens over here.”

So, what can we do if we want to prevent our dreams doing the vanishing act?
    I like to visualize a door-stopper, that holds the door between the worlds open, just a chink, when I come back to this side, with dreams fluttering all around me. This gives me a chance to reach back in and grab a few before they have flitted away entirely. In my house, we use an old flat iron and a brick, and a stone the shape of Africa as door stoppers. In my imagination, the door stopper is sometimes a black dog, generally bigger than this little cutie I acquired from an antiques store.

Please Note: This article is not about the general problem of lack of dream recall, a widespread malaise in our society which is partly related to the absence of social reinforcement for the practice of sharing and working with dreams. You'll find my thoughts on common causes for a generalized dream drought n my book Active Dreaming, together with many fresh and effective suggestions for restoring your dream flow. This book also explains the Lightning Dreamwork process I invented, which gives us a safe and fun way to share dreams, get helpful feedback, and be guided towards actions to apply the guidance from a dream and embody its energy. This gives us a strong incentive to bring more from our dreams to the table of life.

Monday, September 6, 2021

Dream interpretation by mating birds


Jung was a master of navigating by synchronicity. His practice in this field is, to my mind, far more impressibve and instructive than his theory. He practiced pattern recognition, noticing what was going on in his field of perception as he wrestled with an idea or tended to a patient, following the wind and waves on the lake, the rustle of leaves and the cries of animals and birds in the woods near his house. 

I came upon a choice example of how he used coincidence to get a second opinion on dreams - and sometimes to get a point across to a dreamer who seemed to be missing the point.

A patient whose dreams seemed to Jung to be full of strong sexual imagery declined to look at this aspect of her dream life, drifting off into associations that seemed to Jung to be far removed from what the dreams contained. His efforts to get her to look at the possible sexual content did not prosper until, on the day of the woman's next appointment, a pair of sparrows fluttered to the ground at her feet and "performed the act" right in front of her.-

This incident, recorded in the notebooks of Jungian analyst Esther Harding, recalls the famous epiphany of the scarab that Jung recorded in Memories, Dreams, Reflections. He felt stuck in his analysis of another female patient until the session in which she recounted a dream of a scarab, vitally important to the Egyptians as a symbol of rebirth. At that instant, Jung heard something scraping at the window of his consulting room. He opened the window and caught in his hands a flying beetle known as a rose-chafer, the closest thing to the Egyptian scarab that was likely to be found in Switzerland. He presented the golden-green beetle to the woman, saying, "Here is your scarab" , and noted this as the breakthrough point in her analysis.-

These episodes are fine examples of how (to borrow from Richard Tarnas in Cosmos and Psyche) "spontaneous archetypal resonance" can act as "a healing solvent on the hardened polarities - between self and world, subject and object conscious and unconscious - of the person experiencing the synchronicity."

Attend to synchronicity, as Jung did every day,and you may become a magnet for it.

Sunday, September 5, 2021

You Can't Understand a Dream Without the Dreamer


Listen to Jung on this theme: “No interpretation can be undertaken without the dreamer. The words composing a dream narrative have not just one meaning, but many meanings. If, for instance, someone dreams of a table, we are still far from understanding what the ‘table’ of the dreamer signifies, although the word ‘table’ sounds unambiguous enough. For the thing we do not know is that this ‘table’ is the very one at which his father sat when he refused the dreamer all further financial help and threw him out of the house as a good-for-nothing. That is what our dreamer understand by ‘table’. Therefore we need the dreamer’s help in order to limit the multiple meanings of words to those that are essential and convincing [for the dreamer]." [*] 

In our Active Dreaming approach, we respect this cardinal rule through the first questions we put to a dreamer about their dream. The very first question is, “How die you feel on first leaving the dream?” This provides immediate – and often the best – guidance to the basic character of the dream, whether it is negative or positive, urgent and personal or something else. If a bear turns up in your dream house and you wake up feeling cheerful, your bear is clearly very different from the kind people flee from, at least in your perception and availability for interaction. If you are at work in a humdrum situation but wake with feelings of crawling dread, there is something in that scene – perhaps something that will unfold in the future – you need to understand and be ready to contain or head off.

The next question we ask is the reality check. It has two aspects:

What do you recognize from this dream in the rest of your life, including the life of your imagination; and

Could any part of this dream play out in the future, literally or symbolically?

The question about the future is vitally important because dreams often rehearse us for challenges and opportunities that lie ahead and sometimes give us very clear precognition (a phenomenon that Jung, for all his brilliance on many fronts, was slow to accept).

The first part of our reality check answers Jung’s concern by taking the elements of the dream straight to the dreamer and locating them in the context of thir outer and inner life. I will never forget listening, in a dream sharing circle, to a dream of bats. Everyone there had strong feelings and associations with bats, across a wide spectrum from bats in the belfry to witches, from speleology to being able to navigate in the dark.  Some were quivering with eagerness to offer feedback on the dream. “If it were my dream, the bats would mean…”
     But wait. First we do the feelings: cheerful, confident. Then we do the reality check. “Have you encountered bats in your life?”
    “Oh yeah,” the dreamer said nonchalantly.”I kept bats as a pet when I was a kid.”
     I don’t think we had ever met someone who kept bats as pets and regarded them as delightful childhood playmates. This took our dreamwork in an entirely different direction from where it might otherwise have gone

*  C.G. Jung, “On the Nature of Dreams” in Collected Works vol 8, p 539

Photo: Australian flyig fox (a fruit bat)



Thursday, September 2, 2021

The state of our soles

In dreams, the state of our footwear often suggests the state of our souls. You can hear the echo of "soul" in "sole". A dream of lost shoes may invite us to think about where on the roads of life we may have lost or misplaced soul. Sometimes you can reach back into that kind of dream in order to look for lost shoes, and that search may take you back to a place in your life where you lost something more important - vital energy and identity - that you can now reclaim. 
    Shoes not only have soles. They have ties, and the state of your laces or straps in a dream may say something about connections - "old ties" or new ones. A woman getting ready to attend a high school reunion in Manhattan dreamed she was urgently seeking shoes that would be comfortable for walking yet smart enough to suit her taste. A salesman in a fancy store persuaded her to purchase a pair of sneakers with laces made of genuine, but flexible, gold. She smiled at the thought that after all the years since graduation, her ties to her classmates were "golden", and that she would be comfortable with them in the big city. 
     A Freudian psychiatrist I know dreamed that her shoes were far too tight; they were torturing her feet and making it nearly impossible for her to walk. When she reflected on this, she realized that her Freudian approach was cramping her ability to do her job. She expanded her studies, embracing Jung and other approaches to the psyche and its healing. Now, in her dreams, her shoes usually fit just right. 
     In some dreams, we find ourselves wearing shoes that would be highly unlikely in regular life, except at a costume party. We seem to be cross-dressing, or wearing the footwear of a different historical period, or dispensing with shoes altogether in a primal landscape. When we inspect the bodies we inhabit in dreams of this kind, we sometimes discover that our dream self slipped into someone else's situation, in a different place or a different era. The state of our shoes in such dreams (and other details) may be a clue to connections within a soul family that includes personalities in different times.  
      That thought has been of great interest to me since I dreamed that I visited my favorite professor at a research institution where he was doing some remarkable work that involved pairs of shoes. The professor is Manning Clark, the famous Australian historian, who was a great friend and mentor to me when I was a student and a precocious lecturer at the Australian National University. Manning died in 1991, but I have had many intriguing encounters with him since.
     In the dream involving shoes, Manning showed me that he is now busily engaged in studying "parallel lives". This meta-historical approach seems to involve tracking how choices made and actions taken by two people living in different times impact each other's fortunes, by a process of causation that you can only grasp if you can step outside linear chronology. One of the pairs Manning had selected for study was Lenin and Dionysius of Syracuse (a tyrant of ancient Greece). Each time the professor finished work on one set of parallel lives, he moved a pair of shoes to a different position on the far side of his desk. This was evidently a kind of tally, but I felt the shoes signified something more.
    There is an angel of shoes, or more especially sandals, the most common footwear when his name was most commonly invoked. He is Sandalphon, and his name is still important in the pathworking and astral travel protocols of certain Mystery and kabbalistic orders. He wears sandals in the presence of his Maker, and leather footgear in the presence of Shekinah, the Divine Feminine. Some say he was once the prophet Elijah, or Elias. He presides over the astral body and the soul journeys we make in this vehicle. Some believe he watches over the big journeys that precede birth and follow death, which involve putting on and discarding "garments", like soft shoes. 
     In the Terry Gilliam movie "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus", a well-heeled lady is whisked away to a paradise of shoe-lovers, and stilleto heels by top designer Jerome C. Rousseau dance along the seabed. 
     Common expressions involving footwear may provide clues to where your dream is walking. A few that jump to mind:

- Goody two-shoes
- if the shoe fits...
- well-heeled
- given the boot
- pulled himself up by his own bootstraps
- to know someone, you must walk in his shoes (or moccasins)
- if you were in my shoes...
- those are big shoes to fill
- get your skates on
- put on your dancing shoes

So - what's in your shoe closet, in your dreams?

For more on dreams that show the state of our soul - and can provide portals for soul recovery healing - please see my book Dreaming the Soul Back Home.