Sunday, December 31, 2023

Tendrels of Dreaming: Shamanic Dreamers and Tibetan Buddhists


There is a fascinating ambivalence about dreams and dreaming in Buddhist tradition. On the one hand, Buddhism begins with a conception dream of the Buddha’s mother, Queen Maya, in which a numinous white elephant enters her body and is then born through her. On the other hand, ordinary dreams are often dismissed as the product of confusion and the work of the “three poisons” of desire, hatred and fear.

The dreamworld is a realm of illusion – but so is everything in the experience of a human who has not attained spiritual liberation. The great Tibetan lama Milarepa counsels his disciples that dreams are of no importance – and then instructs them to pay close attention to their dreams and tell them to him in the morning; his favorite pupil, Gambopa, brings a powerful prophetic dream that previews the spread of Buddhism in Tibet.

In Tibet, the Buddhist ambivalence about dreams is accompanied by a dynamic process of conflict and engagement over many centuries with indigenous shamans known as “heroes” and “invokers”. Dreaming is a basic mode of shamanic operations, a means of travel by which shamans interact with the powers of the deeper world and guide souls of the living and the dead. As mediators for the community, shamans meet and negotiate with the conscious, spiritual aspects of all life, including the Earth itself. By contrast, the first Buddhist rulers of Tibet planted twelve pagodas at strategic points on the body of the land, to “nail” and hold in subjugation the Earth Mother they characterized as a “demoness”.

In an excellent and very readable scholarly study, Angela Sumegi explores the creative tension between Tibetan Buddhism and shamanic dreaming. In Dreamworlds of Shamanism and Tibetan Buddhism, Sumegi demonstrates how, while retaining its philosophy of transcendence, Buddhism in Tibet has adopted many of the characteristic techniques of shamanic dreamers, healers and diviners. She explains that she was drawn to this theme by records of the highly shamanic visionary experiences of the Fifth Dalai Lama who once, during a serious illness, invoked a fierce deity who projected a scorpion inside his body that proceeded to devour his organs until he seemed to burst into flame; his illness then passed.

I interviewed Angela Sumegi on my “Way of the Dreamer” radio show in 2010, when her book came out. There was a little magic in play that day. I rose on the morning of the interview with two fragments from the hypnopompic zone, the intermediate state between sleep and full waking. In a vivid dream scene, I watched Central Asian riders gallop across a great plain where everything was verdant green. Above them, thunderheads came rolling across the sky. When I looked at the lightning, I suddenly saw it as the riders did – as a fiery god, resplendent in red garments, hurling thunderbolts as he rode the sky on a great charger.

When the scene receded, a word came into my mind with quiet insistence: Kalachakra.

I thought these scraps from my dreamlife might be a rehearsal for my interview. Prior to recording the radio show, I took Angela’s book along to a conference at a medical center, where I was kept waiting for much longer than expected. This gave me a chance to re-read sections of her book, including a discussion of the concept of tendrel to which I’ll turn in a moment. The person who cleared the logjam at the doctors’ office was a very efficient and pleasant Jamaican. His origin interested me, because I had noticed that Angela Sumegi was born in Jamaica, though she migrated to Canada many years ago and now taught at Carleton University in Ottawa. I had not met anyone from Jamaica for many years. Now, in the space of a few minutes, I was going from one Jamaican to another.

This seemed like a meaningful coincidence. It also felt auspicious, in relation to the interview, since the first Jamaican had played such a helpful role. Might this be an example of the workings of what Tibetan Buddhists call tendrel?

I put the question to Angela Sumegi on the air. She reminded me that the word tendrel is a contraction of a longer phrase referring to the Buddhist doctrine of “dependent origination”, according to which all phenomena arise “dependent on causes and conditions”. It is also used to mean “sign” or “omen”. So the word applies both to the practice of reading signs in coincidence, natural phenomena, divination kits and dreams - and to a deep philosophy of hidden causes. Tibetan paintings show the twelvefold manifestation of the principle of dependent origination around the Wheel of Life: old age and death arise from birth, etc., etc. As Sumegi explains in her book: “The principle that all phenomena arise interconnectedly and interdependently applies without exception to every existent, linking them throughout time and space; what appears to be a random or chance occurrence can be analyzed in terms of its connections.”

We agreed that my Jamaican sequence might be an example of tendrel at work in the divinatory sense of an omen that felt promising. It also hinted at hidden patterns of causation and connection.

We were already deep into the practice of dreaming. In dreaming cultures, dreams are not isolated from “signs” in the way of Western dream analysis. You read signs in dreams; you also look for dreamlike symbols in the midst of everyday life.

I told Angela the fragments from my dreams and asked her what the Tibetan mind would make of these. She went to the right place (from my point of view) immediately, by telling me that Tibetans would want to know my feelings around the dreams. I am firmly convinced that the first thing we need to know about a dream is how the dreamer felt about it, on first waking. My feelings around the dream scene of the horseman on the verdant plain were of excitement and driving energy, which Angela proceeded to confirm in commenting on the positive energy she felt in the horses and the lush green of the landscape.

What about that word, Kalachakra?

“It’s the great Wheel of Time,” Angela explained, “and the most complex and profound of the approaches to Tantra. It is also the name of a ritual His Holiness the Dalai Lama conducts frequently.”

As we discussed the Kalachakra ceremony, we noticed that it features dreaming. Monks hand out sheaves of kusha grass – long blades to place under the mattress, shorter ones to tuck under the pillow. Grass to dream on, and to invoke only good dream experiences.

Angela suggested that the way the word “Kalachakra” had come to me might be an example of what Tibetan Buddhists call a dream of “permission”: an invitation to proceed to a deeper connection with a practice or a deity.

By now, I was enjoying our conversation hugely. I knew already the depth of Angela’s research, including the years she has spent in India studying with Tibetan religious communities and learning the languages. She now confirmed her credentials in the way that dreamers instantly recognize, by sharing a night vision from her childhood in Jamaica in which a huge figure with three eyes and fearsome weapons entered her space. She was able to identify this entity many years later, as she embarked on Tibetan studies and first saw images of the deity known as Mahakala (the “Great Black One”).

Picture: 12th century Tibetan Mahakala in Rubin Museum of Art

Friday, December 22, 2023

Up All Night with the Daimon


My creative daimon is the most demanding of the spirits I seek to entertain. I use the word “daimon” as Yeats did, to describe a spirit that is forever driving me to do the most difficult things “among those not yet impossible.” Real angels (not the greeting cards kind) are forever saying, Get Up, Wake Up, Get On With It. My creative daimon operates the same way. He has never heard of a body clock. He has no interest in what time it is, or how much sleep I get, and knows that what I most need to do with this body is to create with passion, entertain the spirits, ignite creative and healing fire in others... and marry the worlds. 
    I felt the wind of his wings in the middle of the night in Paris in May, 2013. I was staying in a studio on the Street of the Moon Man and the Sun Woman, as I renamed this section of the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Denis because of the statues a couple of blocks away. After a long day leading an Active Dreaming workshop, followed by dinner at a pleasant brasserie opposite the Gare de l'Est, I rose at 1:00 a.m. and sat at a table to work on the  book that was published as The Boy Who Died and Came Back. 
      In France, it seemed natural to write about my "far memories" of other lives lived here, and to narrate how I have used the tools of dream archaeology - marrying shamanic dreaming to scholarly research - to investigate one life in particular: that of Charles d'
Orléans, the medieval poet-prince in whose name Joan of Arc went to war. Three hours later, I was satisfied with a fresh 3,000 word draft and had written a couple of shorter pieces, so I thought I might put my body back to bed in order to be rested for the morning workshop session.
     Flat on my back around 4:00 a.m., I found my body was nowhere near flirting with sleep. I considered my situation from the perspective of a greater entity I felt was with me in the space. I sensed the wind of his wings. I rose from my body to join him and look down at the Robert body sprawled under the sheet. From this perspective, I had no concern, no worries, about how much sleep the body in the bed might get, or what might be done with it, as long as it served my creative purpose. I agreed with the daimon: let’s get that body up. Let’s get on with the new book. So I did, and turned out another 2,000 words. When the time came to shower and dress and get myself to the workshop, I was charging on all cylinders. Writing is a workout, and the creative act is energizing and healing. And the extraordinary becomes easy when we entertain our creative spirits and borrow their wings.
     I have learned this:
- When we are passionately engaged in a creative venture - love, art or something else that is really worthwhile - we draw support from other minds and other beings, seen and unseen.- - -
-  We draw greater support the greater the challenges involved in our venture. Great spirits love great challenges.
- Whether we are aware of it or not, all our life choices are witnessed by that creative spirit that that Yeats called the daimon. The daimon lends or withholds its immense energy from our lives according to whether we choose the big agenda or the little one. The daimon is bored by our everyday vacillations and compromises and is repelled by us when we choose against the grand passion and our life Work, the “talent that is the call”.
- The daimon loves us best when we choose to attempt what is all but impossible, and may be perceived as quite impossible by the daily trivial mind.

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.

Photo: On the Street of the Moon Man and the Sun Woman




Tuesday, December 19, 2023

Homer's Book of Portents

The homecoming is often the hardest part of the hero's journey. Odysseus has survived sea monsters and sirens and the wrath of a sea god and is at last on his home island. But he has been away for ten years since the war he went to fight, and almost everyone believes he is dead. His palace is full of brutish and lustful men, suitors vying for the hand of his wife Penelope and with it, his kingdom. Their appetites are laying waste to his livestock, his wine cellar and his female servants.
     At the prompting of his constant guide, who is no less than the goddess Athena, Odysseus has disguised himself in the rags of a beggar, with a funny traveler's hat. He is mocked and scorned by the suitors and even some of his own retainers. Nobody recognizes him. They will find it hard to recognize him even when he shows himself in a different form. His homeland seems stranger to him than the magic realms from which he has returned. He must be asking himself, Which is the dream? He may be wondering whether he is dead.
    He spends a sleepless night, tossing and turning. This is wonderfully conveyed in the muscular modern verse of Robert Fagles, which will speak to anyone who has struggled through a night like this:

...But he himself kept tossing, turning,
intent as a cook before some white-hot blazing fire
who rolls his sizzling sausage back and forth,
packed with fat and blood - keen to broil it quickly,
tossing, turning it, this way, that way - so he cast about

- Odyssey Book 20, lines 27-30, Fagles translation

    The "man of many ways" is seeking a way to expel the suitors who have taken over his home. But they are many and he is one, and even if he finds the way to kill them all, their kinsmen will come to take revenge. The goddess Athena now appears to him in mortal form, "swooping down from the sky in a woman's build and hovering at his head". She wants to know why he is still awake, fretting and exhausting himself. Why does he distrust her when she assures him that he will gain victory that day? Athena promises that "even if fifty bands of mortal fighters closed around us, hot to kill us off in battle" - because she is with him.
     Athena "showered sleep across his eyes", but when Odysseus wakes, on the morning of Apollo's feast day, even the promise of a goddess is not enough. He wants further signs. He speaks to the All-Father, Zeus. "Show me a sign." In fact, Odysseus asks for two signs, "a good omen voiced by someone awake, indoors" and "another sign, outside, from Zeus himself."
     He is answered at once by a great roll of thunder, out of a clear blue sky.
     Then he hears a "lucky word" from a woman grinding grain inside the halls. Hearing thunder from a cloudless sky, the woman recognizes a sign from Zeus. She speaks aloud to the king of the gods:

Sure it's a sign you're showing someone now.
So, poor as I am, grant my prayer as well;
let this day be the last, the last these suitors
bolt their groaning feasts in King Odysseus' house!

- Odyssey Book 20, lines 128-131

    The twin oracles - from the sky and from overheard speech - harden Odysseus' resolve, and the scene is set for the astonishing slaughter of the suitors under the rain of arrows from the bow that none but the hero (and his son) can bend. In the Fagles version, Book 20 of the Odyssey is given the title "Portents Gather", and it is a good one. Here we see oracles speak in ways the Greeks observed closely and valued highly: through brontomancy, divination by thunder, and cledonomancy, divination by overheard speech or sound.
    In the Odyssey, as in ancient Greek society, dreams and visions are the most important mode of divination. Yet our understanding of dreams may be deceptive, as Penelope explains in Book 19, when she speaks of the since-famous gates of ivory and horn. So even when blessed by a direct encounter with a goddess, the hero turns to the world around him for confirmation.

Quotations are from Robert Fagles (trans) The Odyssey published by Penguin Books.

Graphic: Odysseus in beggar's disguise, about to be identified by his childhood nurse Eurykleia, when she sees the scar on his thigh from "the wound I took from the boar's white tusk on Mount Parnassus."

Saturday, December 16, 2023

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

Photo by RM


Monday, December 11, 2023

Healing in the Dog House: In Praise of Gula

All of us who love dogs know that they are great natural therapists and healers. Our dogs love us no matter what and that in itself can boost our immune systems and raise our spirits. Their slobber may be a salve.
    Many cultures have revered dogs as both therapists and sacred guides - and sacrificial animals. The catacombs of Anubis at Saqqara in ancient Egypt contain seven million mummified dogs [1]. If you made the journey to a temple of Asklepios (Aesculapius to the Romans) the great god of healing and dream incubation in the Greco-Roman world,you would expect to meet many dogs, as well as snakes, his companion animals.
   Among  all the cultures that valued the healing power of dogs, ancient Mesopotamia rises like a step pyramid because of the immense popularity of Gula across millennia.. Gula ("Great") was the Babylonian name for a goddess of healing and medical arts first reverenced in Lagash as Bau (sounds like bow-wow). Gula, mistress of herbal remedies, healed bodies and souls. Her epithets included "She Who Makes the Broken Whole Again" and "The Lady Who Restores Life". She is always accompanied by dogs and clay dogs inscribed with her name were buried at thresholds to protect the household from disease and demons.
    If most of us have never heard of her, that is because history involves forgetting as much as remembering. Writing, invented in ancient Mesopotamia, was highly valued there and people competed to go for a prized education in the tablet schools where they learned to write in cuneiform ("wedge-shaped") strokes with a reed stylus on moist clay. However, writing was the skill of an elite. The successive city states and empires, from Sumer and Akkad to Babylon and Assyria were basically oral cultures. What was of most importance to ordinary people – in body or spirit – cannot be found in the often broken and fragmentary fired clay tablets that have survived time, giving us omens and accounts and king lists and dream reports and the world's first recorded literature.. Setting bones, plant medicine, and the healing of souls are not recorded, though we do hear about how to appeal to a god or exorcize a demon or an evil dream. We have over 1,000 tablets relating to Babylonian medicine but they tell us almost nothing about the belief system involved, partly because only 15 percent have satisfactory translations .
    Let us introduce Gula with due ceremony, through one of her hymns  

Gula Hymn of Bullussa-rabi

I am the physician, I know how to heal
I take along all healing plants. I expel disease
I am girded with a bag containing life-giving incantations
I carry a scalpel for curing
I am giving medication to people:
the pure bandage softens the skin sore
the soft poultice eases the sickness.
My very glance at he moribund revives him,
my mere words make the weak stand up ...

I am merciful; even from afar I am listening
I bring back the moribund from the netherworld…
I am the Lady of Life
I am the physician, I am the seeress, and I am the exorcist [2]

In other texts, she is called Great Healer, Healer of the Land, Lady of Health, She Who Makes the Broken Whole, She Who Creates Life in the Land. At Nippur, Gula was called the Lady Who Gives Life to the Dead. 
     In religious art, Gula is often shown holding a lancet or scalpel in one hand and a bandage or swab in the other. The modern sculpture at the Wellcome Historical Medical Museum in London [top photo]  is true to her spirit. This is the very image of a hands-on surgeon and physician. She is called “mother with the soothing hand” and “faithful hand of heaven”[3] She soothes with her hands, draws out infection, and her bandaging is so effective that the craft of the physicians is characterized as “laying on bandages” [4]
     Her greatest temple was in the city of Isin, south of Nippur.. Her vast precinct there  has been compared to a Mesopotamian Lourdes. It was always full of people, lots of pilgrims coming for healing, a glimpse of the goddess, a statue being carried through the streets.

    The streets were full of dogs, barking, sniffing, wandering, There were guard dogs at important portals and some evidence that dogs were included in sacred rites of healing. At Isin, Gula's title was Inisina, Lady of Isin and the name of her temple 
E-gal-makh means Exalted House.
    Within the vast temple complex, there was one space that had special cachet. It w
as  é-u-gi7-rathe Dog House, or Kennel. If you are in need of healing in this part of the world 3,000 or 4,000 years ago, you want to go the the dogs of the Lady of Isin. You may have your request for healing inscribed on the back of a little terracotta dog as a prayerful appeal to the goddess. Many such votive offerings have been found, along with human figurines holding organs that were in need of repair.
    In Isin archaeologists have disinteerred the remains of more than thirty dogs that were buried below the ramp leading up to the main entrance of the dog temple. [5] Here physicians were also dog keepers. 
A major function of city officials was to ensure a constant supply of sheep for the dogs of the goddess.
    There was a constant stir of activity here. The scene at the great temple complex has been compared to a "Mesopotamian Lourdes, a place of pilgrimage for the sick, maimed, and dying." [6] The temple provided midwives\). The temple complex was alive with sufferers seeking treatment, priests performing rituals and incantations, and of course the  dogs During festivals in the goddess's honor, her statue, freshly draped and anointed, would have been carried through the city to the music of drum and lyre and general rejoicing. 

Dreaming with Gula

Texts from the later Neo-Babylonian period suggest that Gula was also revered as a mistress of dreams.. She was invoked in dream incubation and dreamers prayed to meet her in their night visions. [7]
    Nabonidus, the last Babylonian king (who reigned from 555-539 bce)  dreamed of the goddess "who restores the health of the deathly ill and bestows long life." He prayed for "lasting life for [him]self and that she might turn her face towards [him]." Then she "looked steadily upon [him] with her shining face (thus) indicating (her) mercy" [8]

Sending or Releasing

the goddess was not only beneficent, but could also inflict the miseries which, normally, people asked her to allay. The lawgiver Hammurabi invoked her under anther of her names, Ninkarak,  to bring disease to  those who violated his code Like the other healing goddesses, Ninkarak had Underworld associations, as her indicated by yet another of her titless:: Nin-E-ki-siga "Lady of the House of Offerings for the Dead."

Boundary Protector

Both Gula and her consort Ninurta were protectors of boundaries, and her name and image appeared often on kudurrus or boundary stones. Seated regally on a throne, she had her sacred dog beside her. Guard dog on duty.

The Journey to Gula

In a recent class, I invited a large group of active dreamers to make a shamanic journey to Gula and her Dog House at Isin. After reading her hymn and her praise name, I gave a general description of the Exalted House and the dog temple.
     I noted that Gula is sometimes depicted enthroned above sweet water. So there is a sense of the freshness, the life-giving qualities of sweet water with her and about her. Her dogs are with her.
     If you wish, you can imagine right now that you have been invited to enter her sacred city, the city of Isin, south of Nippur, in what is now Iraq. You can't go there right now in physical reality. But you can go there in imaginal reality. You may find yourself received and escorted by a dog. The dog might want to lick you. If that happens, you may be in real luck.
     You may be bathed and cleansed.You may want to make an offering to the temple attendants. Snacks for the dogs will be welcome. You be admitted to a space where you will be in the presence of a statue of the goddess, a "breathing image"that  may come alive. You might find that her dogs is taking away from you things that don't belong, shadows of dark place of your life, symptoms of pain and illness.
     For the group journey, we used the sounds of bubbling spring water rather than our usual drumming - though drumming is profoundly Mesopotamian [9] - to power and focus our excursion. The journey was wonderfully successful for most who took part. We found ourselves blessed by a form of the sacred guide and healer that is feminine, soothing and gentle, and can raise souls from the dead. And of course we confirmed that going t the dogs is always a good idea when we are in need of loving care.


1. Paul T. Nicholson, Salima Ikram and Steve Mills, "The Catacombs of Anubis at North Saqqara" in Antiquity 89 (2015) 645-661
2.W.G. Lambert, "The Gula Hymn of Bulluta-râbi"in Orientalia 6 (1967) 105-32.
3. Barbara Böck, The Healing Goddess Gula: Towards an Understanding of Ancient Babylonian Medicine. (Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2014) 15
4. ibid, 17
5. Accessed May 20, 2020
6.  Johanna Stuckey, "'Going to the Dogs': Healing Goddesses of Mesopotamia" in MatriFocus: Cross-Quarterly for the Goddess Woman" vol 5, no.2 (2006)
7. Reiner,"Fortune-telling in Mesopotamia." Journal of Near Eastern Studies 19 (1960) 23-54.
8. A. Leo Oppenheim in James B. Pritchard (ed) Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969) 310.
9. Uri Gabbay, “Drums, Hearts, Bulls, and Dead Gods: The Theology of the Ancient Mesopotamian Kettledrum” in Journal of Ancient Near Eastern Religions 18 (2018) 1-47


Top: modern sculpture Gula at the Wellcome Historical Medical Museum in London 
Below: Plaque of dog with puppies from Isin in the Institute for the Study of Ancient Cultures, West Asia & North Africa in  Chicago. 

Sunday, December 10, 2023

If you want someone to interpret your dream...

If you want someone to interpret your dream, make sure they can tell it to you before you tell them.

A Turkish friend recalls that her grandmother used to take her dreams to a Şeyh (shaykh) of the Halveti Ussaki sufi order for interpretation. On one occasion, the Şeyh greeted her by telling her the essential content of her dream before she had told him the dream. She was shocked, but also convinced that the Sufi master was the right interpreter, if he could find a dream before she gave it to him.

This kind of thing is not unusual in cultures where the practice of dreaming is still strong. That the best 
dream interpreter is one who can tell you your dream before you tell it to him is a sound principle, when you think about it, because it suggests that such a person has great intuitive abilities, and maybe very useful connections on the other side of ordinary reality, and perhaps the ability to dive into the dream world - or at least your own energy field - at will.    I have written about the practices of a West African tribe who believe you can only trust an interpreter if he can tell you your dream before you tell him. 

I have also suggested (in my Secret History of Dreaming that Nebuchadnezzar was operating by the same principle when he challenged all the dream interpreters to tell him a dream he claimed to have forgotten. In a society that valued dreams highly and had advanced dream practices, I'll bet the king had not really forgotten his dream, but rather wanted to put the supposed dream experts through their paces. Daniel, famously, was able to access the king's dream and tell it to him because he had powerful assistance; he called on his God.

Let's be clear. This is not a pitch for dream interpretation. We want to help each other to claim the power of our own dreams. We do that by offering commentary by saying "if it were my dream", recognizing our own projections and encouraging the dreamer to accept or reject feedback according to their own instincts. When we are able to enter another person's dreamspace - as shamanic dreamers learn to do, with permission - we can say, "in my dream of your dream," again leaving final decisions about the dream to the dreamer.

If you are going to look for a dream interpreter nonetheless, look for someone who can find your dream before you tell him what's in it.

"What better guide to the Other Side than a poet?"

“What better guide to the Other Side than a poet?”
     The question was put to me by a dead poet, as I embarked on writing The Dreamer's Book of the Dead. I did not know, up to that moment, that a modern poet and his efforts to envision and create a Western Book of the Dead were going to figure as the central panel in the triptych my book was to become. 
      It seems to me that the true poet has two gifts that are vital for a reliable and effective psychopomp, or guide of souls. The first is the magic of words: passwords that open gates, and the power of naming that can bind or appease gatekeepers or even bring things into being. Shamans and initiates of all traditions know that poetic speech is important.
    The second gift of the poet as Otherworld guide is that poets live by metaphor and are therefore friends of metamorphosis – inclined by their calling to shapeshift realities, averse to being penned in any routine concept of what is solid or ‘real’.
      What better guide to the Other Side than a poet? The more I think about it, the more the answer seems clear: none better.

The poet who posed the question died seven years before I was born. You know his name: William Butler Yeats.
     Our conversations took place in a space that was outside the physical world, but quite real to me and to others who have learned – and been invited – to go there. It is a place like a library, inside a complex building I have come to call the House of Time. There are fierce guardians at the gates of the building.   
     This is, of course, a magic library. You can find a book on any subject that pleases you, and – as in the children’s movie ‘The Pagemaster’ – when you open any book you may be transported into the scenes or dramas that it concerns. 
     Yes, the magic library is a ‘made-up’ place. But so is the Sears Building or the Eiffel Tower in the sense that they are products of thought and imagination. The magic library may outlast either of those physical structures. It has its own stability, now that generations of visitors have been here and contributed the energy of their own imagination and passion for study. It is a real place in the imaginal realm, which for initiates of many traditions is more real, not less real, than the physical plane. 
     Yeats was no stranger. I had always loved his poetry and have been able – since elementary school – to recite long passages from memory. I have had dreams and visions of Yeats and his circle for as long as I can remember. He was not only a marvelous poet; he was a Western magus, one of the leading figures in the Order of the Golden Dawn.I had met him many times before, in dreams and reverie.
     On one of my visits to the library of the House of Time, while I was drumming for a group and helping to hold the space for what Yeats called ‘mutual visioning’, I found myself drawn from the ground level of the library up a corkscrew staircase.
  Yeats was waiting for me, lounging at a table on a mezzanine. He appeared as he might have in his prime, broad-shouldered, his hair flowing, gold-rimmed spectacles on the bridge of his patrician nose, wearing a loosely knotted silk bow tie and a three-piece light-colored suit. I sat with him at the table and we had a mental conversation – no need to speak aloud here, and anyway libraries are meant to be quiet - that ranged far and wide and gave me crucial counsel for my life as writer.

Since I grew up on Homer and Virgil and struggled to read Dante in medieval Italian when I was a student, I was aware that poets are extraordinary guides to the Other Side.  All the same, I was shocked when my Yeats made a spontaneous appearance, and proposed that I should let him be my guide to the Other Side. He suggested that my fieldwork should include interviewing quite a few dead people previously unknown to me – but not, perhaps, to him – on their post mortem experiences.
      I was on the Connecticut shore on a blustery day in mid-November when Yeats made his proposal. I was leading an advanced group of dream travelers, by common agreement, on a group journey to the Library of the House of Time. I was drumming for the circle and watching over the group both physically and psychically, allowing myself to enter the astral locale quite deeply, but with no fixed personal agenda. I checked on our dream travelers. Some were meeting a favorite author, or consulting the librarian, or opening books and travelling into the worlds of knowledge and memory and adventure that each one contained. A couple of brave souls were inspecting the books of their own lives, looking in to the future or to things beyond time – for knowledge of the soul’s purpose, and the connectedness of one life in time to other lives in other times, and to personalities beyond time. Everything seemed to be going well. No need for me to intervene to help someone overcome their fears or open the vision gates wider.
      So: my body is circling the room, my arm working the beater against the drum. My mind is tracking inside the dreamspace. And in that space, I feel the tug of a transpersonal intention. It is not coming from another member of our circle of thirty dream travelers. It is coming, quite specifically, from the figure who appears at the top of the spiral staircase that leads to an upper level of the library. It is Yeats, inviting me to join him up there, where he had called me in previous encounters. It is here that he makes his astonishing proposal: “Virgil was Dante’s guide to the Underworld, and I am willing to be yours.”
      The poet’s manner is quite brisk. He sounds rather like a tour guide announcing the schedule we’ll follow before a pub lunch. Next time we meet, Yeats advises me, we’ll visit the place of an ancient king. Later, we may delve ‘into the realm of Maeve’. Most certainly, I will need to interview quite a variety of people on their experiences of the afterlife, because these vary so greatly.
     Yeats insists on the need for me to understand the importance of Ben Bulben, the ‘bare’ mountain under which he had wanted to be buried – in Drumcliff churchyard – with the following inscription carved on his tombstone:

Cast a cold eye
On life, on death
Horseman, pass by

     Those lines had been with me since childhood, so I was a little wary of what I was receiving. I have a vivid imagination, and it seemed rather likely that it was weaving from half-buried memories. The idea that Yeats could play the role for me that Virgil played for Dante was absolutely thrilling, but was this anything more than a pleasant fantasy?
      The creator’s answer moved through me: Just let it play. Enter the game, and let the results be judged on their own merits. Whether you are talking to the actual Yeats, or the part of yourself that so loves him, or some daimon or essence of personality that is using the mask of the poet is of secondary interest. What is primary is what you bring through.
      Need I say that this offer was quite impossible to refuse?
      No sooner had I accepted the offer than synchronicity came into play, as may be counted upon when emotions are running high and bold ventures are unfurling their sails.
       I drove home from Connecticut and found a message waiting for me from a friend who had traveled in Yeats country in the west of Ireland the previous year. She had decided, for no obvious reason, to share with me her feeling that the barrows and faery mounds of Ireland had been used across the centuries as sites of shamanic initiation and interdimensional communication – even as launchpads for star travelers, coming or going.
     I shivered with excitement as I recognized the link with Yeats’s inaugural itinerary, involving two ancient tumuli in his own landscape. I hurried to research the names that Yeats had given me. My excitement deepened when I found that ‘Queen Maeve’s Tomb’ – a huge cairn that has never been opened – is right opposite Ben Bulben, at whose foot is Drumcliff churchyard where Yeats wished to be buried.
     In Yeats’s early book The Celtic Twilight, I found a passage in which he says that there is a gate to the Otherworld in the side of Ben Bulben, “famous for hawks” – “the mountain in whose side the square white door swings open at nightfall to loose the faery riders on the world.”
      I called the friend who had sent me the message, out of the blue, about the cairns of Ireland. She described how, as she drove by Ben Bulben, her Irish guide had pointed out a strange shadow moving across the side of the mountain and declared that Yeats believed that this marked a door to the Otherworld of the Sidhe and the ancestors.
      My encounters with Yeats have guided me to travel to ancient sites in the west of Ireland that were places of vision for him and portals to the realms of the ancestors and the Sidhe. 

Text adapted from The Dreamer's Book of the Dead by Robert Moss. Published by Destiny Books.

Photo: Ben Bulben from Yeats' gravesite by Wanda Burch
Drawing: "Yeats in the Magic Cottage" by Robert Moss
Photo: Swan on the Door of St Columba's, Drumcliffe by RM

Models of the Multiverse: Indra's Net and the Golden Lion


Indra's Net is a powerful model of the interconnectedness of all phenomena, well-know in Eastern tradition. When Indra fashioned the world, he made it as a web, and at every knot in the web is tied a pearl. Everything that exists, or has ever existed, every idea that can be thought about, every fact that is true - every dharma, in the language of Indian philosophy - is a pearl in Indra's net. Not only is every pearl tied to every other pearl within the web on which they hang, but on the surface of every pearl is reflected every other jewel on the net. Everything that exists in Indra's web implies all else that exists. [1]

-    The Avataṃsaka Sūtra has it that far away in the heavenly abode of the great god Indra, there is a wonderful net which has been hung by some cunning artificer in such a manner that it stretches out infinitely in all directions. In accordance with the extravagant tastes of deities, the artificer has hung a single glittering jewel in each "eye" of the net, and since the net itself is infinite in dimension, the jewels are infinite in number. There hang the jewels, glittering like stars. Choose any one of these jewels and study it closely and you will find that in its polished surface are reflected all the other jewels in the net, infinite in number. Each of the jewels reflected in this one jewel is also reflecting all the other jewels; the process of reflecting is infinite. [2]

Around the year 700, Fazang, the third patriarch of the Hua-Yen school in China, changed the image of the starry net into a golden lion to instruct the empress Wu.

In each of the lion's eyes, in its ears, limbs, and so forth, down to each and every single hair, there is a golden lion. All the lions embraced by each and every hair simultaneously and instantaneously enter into one single hair. Thus, in each and every hair there are an infinite number of lions... The progression is infinite, like the jewels of Celestial Lord Indra's Net: a realm-embracing-realm ad infinitum is thus established, and is called the realm of Indra's Net. [3]     

 The lion represents the cosmos, parts of the lion the various phenomena of the universe; the gold itself represents emptiness. The lion has a mane, teeth, claws and eyes: parts that seem distinct. Yet the essential substance of the entire lion was the same -gold. Within each hair there are infinite lions. The differences are all superficial. Such is the nature of the integrated, interconnected Flower Garland universe. After demonstrating this principle to the empress, using the sculpture of a lion at the imperial palace gate, Fazang wrote a one-chapter Essay on the Golden Lion.

In his Treatise on the Five Teachings, a house is used as a metaphor for the universe. The complex interplay between joists, uprights, roof, tenons and mortises—the sum total of structural relationships between all parts--is contained in a single rafter. The nature of the infinite can be seen in the infinitesimal. The role of the rafter--or any other component--helps one understand the interdependence of all sentient beings. Certainly, Fazang’s flair for the theatrical and his ability to convey the message to his patrons through such brilliant demonstrations, helped successfully propagate Flower Garland Buddhism.


1.  Timothy Brook, Vermeer's Hat: The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global World (London: Profile Books, 2009)22. 

2. cf Francis H. Cook, Hua-Yen Buddhism: The Jewel Net of Indra, (Pennsylvania State University Press, 1977).

3.  Steve Odin, Process Metaphysics and Hua-Yen Buddhism: A Critical Study of Cumulative Penetration Vs. Interpenetration, (Albany NY: State University opf New York Press, Press, 1982) 17



Wednesday, November 29, 2023

The Traveler


Sometimes, lying in the drifty state near sleep, I sense that as I grow drowsy, a second self, back to back with me on the bed, is stirring awake, ready to prowl. I call him the Traveler.

I can only keep up with him by becoming him. When I come home from our travels, I am not quite myself and no longer him. When we part company, I am left to pore over scraps of memory like the things I find in my pockets and on my phone after a regular plane trip: a boarding pass, a bus ticket, a foreign banknote, a scribbled love note, random photos of far-away cities and beaches and train stations.

I track the Traveler by recording his exploits – the ones I manage to catch – in my journal. In one report he seems to be very like my present self, just two days ahead of me, on my present probable event track. Sometimes he is much further ahead, or on a different – mildly or radically – event track, or he is in another body in another time or another world.

When I am the Traveler the journey often begins at a certain threshold, a gap between the worlds, in a twilight of the mind. I may find myself floating upwards. I roll over and as I do so I feel something pulling loose from my physical body. Lights flash at the top of my head and I find myself being drawn up into a cone of light, like a pyramid with an opening at the top. 

There are days when, flat on my back under a tree, I fall upwards into the bowl of the sky, like Rumi. There are nights when I feel I am about to blast off like a rocket, or be blown from the mouth of a cannon, through circles of red within black. Or I find myself stripping off, shedding the body like a snake skin, dropping it like an old overcoat. When the travels begin, I often find myself looking at a geometric pattern. It may be a glowing energy grid. It may resemble the weave of a carpet, or the strands of a net.

This has been going on for as long as I can remember. You might say I got a jump start by being thrown out of my body and into other worlds at an early age. At age 3 and again at age 9 I was pronounced clinically dead in hospitals during crises of illness. Today we talk about near-death experiences but I still think of this as dying and coming back, which is what Australian doctors told my parents I had done. During one of these experiences, during a few minutes under a surgeon’s knife, I seemed to live a whole lifetime with a different people in another world. So I have always understood that there are worlds beyond the physical world that are no less real – and possibly more real – and that we can travel there by shifting consciousness.

Art: "Traveler" by Robert Moss


Planning to Rebirth a Soul Family in the Space Between Lives


Have you ever sensed that you belong to a soul family: that your present life experience is intimately connected to those of people living in different times and different dimensions? You may be fortunate enough to find soul family who are living in your present reality. Sometimes soul families arrange reunions at an agreed rendezvous in space and time. 

A California woman learned about this through a remarkable dream. In this dream, she was an observer. She was certain she knew the people whose stories were being played out. But she could not identify them (not at that time, anyway) in waking life.

In the dream, she watches members of a family of souls who have agreed to reincarnate together and are working out the details.  They are resolved to live their entire lives together in the same place, a midsized town in New England.

As they find prospective parents, the returning souls appear to their mothers-to-be in dreams. One of them says: “I am the soul of your unborn child. I am returning at this time with others. I expect you to raise me in the town where you are living. Then you may retire to Florida if you wish, but I am not to be removed from this town.” The gist of the other dream messages is similar.

One soul appears in his mother’s dream as a distinguished grey-haired man. He identifies himself as her unborn child. He tells her, “I was a doctor in my last life. I will be a doctor again in this one. I will expect you and Dad to put me through medical school.”

He gives her a health advisory. Living inside her, he has detected an anomaly in her heartbeat. It could easily be treated, but unless it is taken care of, it could result in difficulties during delivery. (He clearly has a vested interest in this matter!) He describes the test she should undergo and reassures her that her doctor will know just what to do.

The scene shifts to south Florida. The soul family appear as a group in the dream of an elderly woman. A successful mystery writer, she lives in a luxurious condo on the bay in Miami. In the writer’s dream, the members of the soul family explain what they are doing. They tell her she will be joining them in the New England town during a “second wave” of reincarnations.

The elderly writer is far from pleased. Obviously she will have to die to come back in a new body. She complains that she has worked hard to get where she is now. She enjoys her life as it is and does not want to give it up.

Her dream visitors tell her she will enjoy her next life even more. They show her the town they have selected and tell her that her future mother has already been chosen. The prospective mother is an artist who has already gained some recognition locally. Her paintings are selling well in the largest gallery in town. The artist lives in a big house on a salt pond, and the boathouse is her studio. In her dream, the Miami writer inspects a room that is filled with “water light.”

In the last part of her dream, the dreamer watches the writer wake up in her Miami condo, struggling to remember and make sense of her experiences during the night. The writer recalls the name of the New England town she was shown in her dream and checks maps to see if it really exists. When she locates the town in her atlas, she books a flight to the Northeast.

The dreamer watches as the Miami writer collects a rental car at the airport, drives to her dream town, and cruises the streets until she find the art gallery. The writer scans the paintings on display until she finds a canvas and a name that correspond to her dream memories of her prospective mother. The gallery owner gives her the artist’s home number. “I love your work!” the writer gushes on the phone. She is invited to visit the artist’s studio.

She finds herself in a scene from her dream: in the boathouse on the salt pond. Future Mom, flattered by the interest of a well-known author, thinks she has made a sale. But the writer has another agenda.

Now convinced that she “dreamed true,” the writer flies back to Miami and visits her lawyer’s office. She changes her will, leaving everything to the New England artist who may be her future mother.

“May I can take it with me,” she reflects. 

This thrilling and richly layered dream report could be an episode from a superior sci fantasy series. 

But it felt like more than entertainment to the dreamer. She was sure she was watching “actual happenings, perhaps some way in the future.”

This dream may reveal the kinds of arrangements that are actually made between members of "soul clusters" in the space between lives. It suggests a process by which souls are introduced to their prospective biological parents. It raises the stunning possibility that a second consciousness inside the body — that associated with the fetus in the womb — can offer a pregnant woman practical guidance on health and delivery (and should be approached as an active participant in the whole process). It suggests that we are born into a spiritual family, as well as a biological family.

The dreamer was not sure why this dream had come to her, but felt that she might be connected with the “soul family,” or that one if its members would one day appear in her waking life. She was living in California, but speculated she might one day be drawn to that New England town and would know it from the dream.

Text adapted from Dreamgates: Exploring the Worlds of Soul, Imagination and Life Beyond Death by Robert Moss. Published by New World Library.

Art: "Many Selves" by Robert Moss

Friday, November 24, 2023

Ismail Kadare's Palace of Dreams


In The Palace of Dreams, an extraordinary novel by the great Albanian writer Ismail Kadare, the most secret and most powerful bureaucracy of the Ottoman Empire is the Tabir Sarrail, or Palace of Dreams. Its purpose is to read all the dreaming minds of the Empire and present the Sultan a Master Dream each week that will guide his actions. While readers will be reminded of Kafka's The Castle and of Orwell's 1984, and perhaps of the bureaucratized Otherworlds of the medieval Chinese imagination, this work is uniquely Kadare's own. He writes:

"In that nocturnal realm of sleep are to be found both the light and darkness of humanity; its honey and its poison, its greatness and its vulnerability. All that is murky and harmful, or that will become so in a few years or centuries, makes its first appearance in men’s dreams. Every passion or wicked thought, every affliction or crime, every rebellion or catastrophe necessarily casts its shadow before it long before it manifests itself in real life. It was for that reason that the Padishah decreed that no dream, not even one dreamed in the remotest part of the Empire on the most ordinary day by the most godforsaken creature, must fail to be examined by the Tabir Sarrail..” 

Dreams are recorded, by hand, at the behest of the dreamers. There is no electrical method of reading brain waves, no mechanical content analysis. You may be punished for dreaming a certain dream, but not (apparently) for concealing a dream. If the Tabir Sarrail represents the ultimate totalitarian dream – of controlling the subconscious mind – it is very imperfect in its execution. The hand written reports travel a long and weary journey through collection, copying and selection to interpretation.

The protagonist, Mark-Alem, is the scion of a noble Albanian family that has contributed viziers and generals to the Empire, including the current prime minister in the novel. (The family is historical, called Quprili in the novel, Köprülü in Turkish). Mark-Alem, rising in the Palace of Dreams like a meteor going up, comes to understand that in the bowels of the vast complex there are places where dreamers are made to undream inconvenient dreams:  

 “The copyist had said that it was obvious the prisoner couldn’t remember anything about his dream. That must be the real object of his incarceration: to make him forget it. That wearing interrogation night and day, that interminable report, the pretence of seeking precise details about something that by its very nature cannot be definite – all this, continued until the dream begins to disintegrate and finally disappears completely from the dreamer’s memory, could only be called brain-washing, thought Mark-Alem. Or an undream, in the same way as unreason is the opposite of reason… the more he thought about it the more it seemed this was the only explanation. It must be a question of flushing out subversive ideas which for some reason or other the State needed to isolate, as one isolates a plague virus in order to be able to neutralize it.”