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.”

Thursday, November 23, 2023

The Daoist Art of Perfected Sleep

Daoist Master Chen Tuan (871-989) was a celebrated sage who lived a secluded life in mountain caves in China, where he created kung fu and a profound practice of conscious dream travel.  He was an ardent student of I Ching. He reputedly wandered the country in disguise, and sometimes provided warnings of impending events such as the flooding of the Yellow River. He was said to travel beyond his body for months at a time. A young monk who found him awake on Huashan, his western mountain sacred to the Goddess, received the following instruction:

I practice the sleep of the perfected
Store up the breath of gold and drink the juice of jade
I lock the golden gate within, so it cannot be opened,
I close the door of earth within, so it cannot be broken.

The green dragon guards the Eastern Palace,
Perfected energy circles in my Pond of Cinnabar
The white tiger stands before the Western Hall.
And spirit water revolves around my five inner orbs.

I call the gods of Jia and Ding to adjust the time;
I summon all the hundred spirits to guard the inner chamber.

Then my spirit
leaves to ascend to the Nine Palaces above
Frolics in the sky's azureness
With it, I step on emptiness as if on solid ground,
Rise up as easy as if falling down.

I inhale the flowery essence of the sun and moon
I sport in the wondrous landscape of vapors and of haze
I visit the perfected and discuss the principles beyond
I join immortals and we go off to visit strange worlds.

Delighted I wish to return
My feet step on clear wind
My body floats on rays of light -
This is perfected sleep!

Master Chen has taken elaborate precautions to ward his body while his spirit travels, but his practice did not always involve special postures. In this account, "he slept while lying flat on his back." He did not appear to be breathing, but his face was rosy and healthy-looking.

However, he was famous for arranging his body in the Sleeping Tiger position.* There is a cave at the Jade Clear Spring Monastery where he lived his later years, with a statue of him in this classical pose, lying on his right side, right hand supporting the head.

 Chen Tuan also said this:

Superior beings do not dream
They sport with the immortals.
The perfected never sleep
They float up through the clouds.

With our attenuated understanding of what dreaming can be, we must not misunderstand this. Master Chen makes it clear that "great dreams" are the heart of the practice:

Great dreams have great awakening
Small dreams have only small.
Sleep the sleep of all that is perfection
Dream the dreams of wide eternity.

* Sleeping Tiger  You lie on your right side. Your left arm is extended along your left leg. Your right hand may be cupped over your right ear, or tucked under the pillow. The right knee is bent; the left leg is loosely extended. This posture shifts breathing to the left nostril and this is believed to activate right brain activity, facilitating strong visual and intuitive experiences and smoothing the way to states of brainwave activity associated with dreaming or meditation.

This posture is not unique to Daoists; it has been widely adopted and recommended in many dreaming traditions, sometimes as an ideal posture for entering death. The Buddha, at the moment of death, is always depicted in Asian art as lying in the posture of the sleeping tiger.

Source: Biography of Chen Tuan in Lishi zhenshuan tidao tongjiang ("Comprehensive Mirror Through the Ages of of Perfected Immortals and Those Who Embody the Dao") compiled around 1300. translation in Livia Kohn (ed) The Taoist Experience: An Anthology (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993) pp. 272-6.

Wednesday, November 22, 2023

Iceland is dreamland

Iceland is a country where dream fires burn among the ice, along with the geysers and volcanoes. Most Icelanders believe in dreams and follow their guidance to a degree that is remarkable among modern Western societies.  A Gallup survey of 1,200 Icelanders in 2003 revealed that 72 percent found meaning in their dreams; many reported dreaming the future and sharing dreams regularly within their families. More than half the respondents said they had experienced lucid dreaming. Over 70 percent believed that dream precognition is real, and over 40 per cent reported personal experiences of precognitive dreams.
    The Icelandic language distinguishes vital categories of significant dreams, such as dreams of the future (berdreymi) and dream visions (draumspa). We can track Iceland’s dreaming traditions back through the Eddas and the sagas. In a classic study, Dreams in Old Norse Literature, G.D.Kelchner found 530 dream references in old Icelandic literature. In the V öluspa, even the gods go to wise women for help with their dreams.     In a scholarly article in the journal History and Anthropology Adrienne Heijnen provides fascinating insights into the respect that Icelander accord to dream visitations from the deceased, especially when it comes to naming babies that are on the way. It is widely believed among Icelanders that the deceased visit the living in dreams aðvitja nafns, “to seek a namesake”.   
     Ten percent of Icelanders surveyed by the Social Science Research Institute of the University of Iceland reported that they had received dream visitations from deceased persons who expressed the desire to pass on their names to children who had not yet been born. No less than 75 percent of the group believed that this is possible.  Heijnen explains that it is believed that “through the naming of newborn children with the help of dreams, substance can flow from the dead to the living, who are often, but not necessarily, genetically related.”
     Heijnen reports the case of a woman named Sigrun, who was killed by an avalanche while hiking with her boyfriend. After her death, Sigrun visited her friend Helga in dreams. The dreams became more frequent and more pressing when Helga was pregnant with her oldest daughter. “Sigrun came to me,” Helga began, whenever she recounted one of these dreams; she had no doubt that her deceased friend had visited her.  She told her dreams to her mother, who became convinced that Sigrun wanted to give her name to the coming child. Helga agreed the baby would be named Sigrun.  After the christening, Helga dreamed of her deceased friend as a joyously singing head and took this as confirmation she had done right.
    The typical dream visitor who comes seeking a namesake is a deceased member of the immediate family. But Icelanders also report similar visitation from drowned sailors, deceased friends, neighbors who died in accidents and "hidden beings" called 
Huldufólk or alfar, said to live in rocks and hills, who may want to give their names to the newborn. And a boy was named Gabriel because the archangel Gabriel appeared to his mother.   
    It is widely believed that when parents refuse a request from the spirits to give their name to a child, they expose the child to danger. a A woman who died young from asthma, supposedly because she was not given the name an
 alf woman had told her pregnant mother in a dream, because the priest refused to accept it.    Clearly, there is more here than we generally understand when we talk about picking a name for a baby. Heijnen notes that in Iceland "a name is supposed to carry certain characteristics, or qualities or affects. Namesakes are sometimes though to share aspects of their personality.”   
    First names are singularly important in Iceland. You see that when you open a phone book; the entries are arranged by first names. (Last names identify Icelanders as the child of a parent, usually the father, by adding "son" or "daughter" to his or her first name.) The general preference is to give a newborn child the first name of one of the grandparents, but a dream visitation will override this, as in the case of Sigrun. They say, “One may not let a deceased person down.”  As  one Icelandic woman dreamer puts it, "You may not have listened to a person when they were alive, but when they have died, you had better listen up."
     Icelanders understand, as a matter of common experience, that dreams can be transpersonal, social and objective phenomena, not simply productions of the personal subconscious. This understanding is built into the Icelandic language. When you tell a dream in Icelandic, you might begin by saying, “It dreamed me a dream” [
Mig dreymdi draum] As Heijnen puts it, “Dreaming in Iceland is not considered to be a withdrawal within the self, but a way of disclosing and relating with ‘the world.’”

Reference: Adrienne Heijnen, “Relating through Dreams: Names, Genes and Shared Substance”  History and Anthropology, Vol 21, No.3, September 2010, pp. 307-319
For more on Icelandic dreaming, please see "Dreaming a Wife - and the Fish" in The Secret History of Dreaming, pp. 128-131.

Wednesday, November 15, 2023

Sharing Dreams and Making Meaning in Ancient China


In the earliest narrative history written in China, we learn that the way that when and how dreams are shared and interpreted is of tremendous importance. You don’t want to tell the right dream to the wrong person. On the other hand, the wrong dream can turn to good if told to the right person. The ancient Chinese history is known as the Zuo zhuan. It is a collection of chronicles composed between the fifth and fourth centuries BCE.  
     Exemplary tales told in these chronicles make it clear that when we talk about dreams, as when we talk about life, we are engaged in the making of meaning. We must be careful in choosing when we tell evil dreams, and to whom we tell them. The act of making an evil dream public could help to manifest an unwanted event. One ruler kept a dream of his own death secret for three years, fearing that by telling the dream he would bring its fulfillment. He finally decided that it was safe to tell the dream – and died right after.
     On the other hand, telling an evil dream to the right person can sometimes help to tame or rescript the message it contains. There is a fascinating example in the eve-of-battle dream of Duke Wen of Jin (birth name Chong’er, literally “Double Ears”; reigned 636-628 bce). The duke dreamed that he was grappling with the ruler of Chu. His enemy threw him to the ground and started sucking out his brains.
     On waking, Duke Wen was terrified. He narrated the dream to his minister Hu Yan. To the duke’s amazement and relief, the minister pronounced that, contrary to appearances, the dream was highly auspicious. The reason: on his back, Duke Wen faced Heaven, while his adversary, bent over him, was face down in the posture of a man receiving punishment. Eating the brains evoked a Chinese proverb about what makes you soft. The minister insisted that Duke Wen’s “brains” would win over his enemy – and indeed, when the battle came, they did.
    The Zuo shuan is a dutiful work of linear history, following events year by year according to strict chronology. Across its vast sweep, it is also a book of dreams. If we are willing to make an intellectual and imaginative leap into the collective mind it represents, we will find a way of looking at both dreams and history that is radically different from that of modern Western understanding, and is both fascinating and rewarding to explore.
     The ancient Chinese chroniclers not only record dreams and how they were interpreted; they use dreams (and other signs) to interpret the world, and reveal the understory behind human events. They understood that in the field of dreams, we can observe and sometimes take part in the interplay of humans and the more-than-human.


Source for the dream of Duke Wen: Wai-yee Li, “Dreams of Interpretation in Early Chinese Historical and Philosophical Writings” in David Shulman and Guy G. Stroumsa (eds) Dream Cultures: Explorations in the Comparative History of Dreaming (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999)

Tuesday, November 14, 2023

In the Garden Behind the Moon


I've been rereading The Garden Behind the Moon, by Howard Pyle, originally published in 1895. This may be quite my favorite story for younger readers.

    My friendly daimon of Luna concurs. He especially approves of the fact that a beautiful but terrible entity “whom so many people know by a different name and are so afraid of” is called the Moon-Angel. Around his face, it is bright like sunlight. He “never brings something but he takes something away from him again” - and we come to learn that this is most often the soul of someone who has died. The Moon-Angel of the story is also called the Master Cobbler, which appears to reflect the preferences of an old cobbler in a fishing village who “knows less than nothing” and thereby more than those around him. We see the old cobbler pegging soles to uppers on his last. My daimon points out that there is a crafty allusion here to Sandalphon, the Sandal-Angel or Shoe-Angel who gives and takes away soul bodies for transits to and from the Moon.

So to the story:

   A boy called David, who is not yet twelve, and is regarded as dreamy and simple (a “moon-calf”) by his peers, learns from the old cobbler that a moon-path opens across the sea a day or two after the moon is at its full. Close to shore, the first steps float in the tide as bars of light, slippery underfoot. But if you persist, the moon-path becomes a gravel road, and finally a broad shining field, until you get to the Moon.

    After an initial mishap, the boy gets to the Moon, where a man-in-the-Moon pulls him up a stair. From each window of the Moon house, he sees into different scenes, into the inside as well as the outside. He is set to polishing stars with lamb's wool, for nights when the Moon is waning. He earns a little break; he is allowed down a back stair into a lovely garden where he plays with other children. He has his time in the garden for three days every month, and falls in love with a little princess, but is then told that he cannot return to the garden because he is turning twelve, and will be too old.

     Now he is called to the Quest: to win his girl, he must find the Know All book in the Wonder Box that has been hidden since Eve and Adam (note the order) were driven form the garden. To do this, he must “go behind” the Moon-Angel, something that has almost never been done. When he confronts the Moon-Angel, we begin to feel his terror as well as his beauty. In effect the boy has to step through  his form, through unbearable cold that transforms to unbearable heat. He bursts through a great iron door into the landscape of the Quest. He is no longer a boy; he has aged ten years.

    He finds his local guide - a woman in a red shift who cleans souls and leaves them out to dry. She tells him what he will need to do to capture the black winged horse that will take him to the Iron Castle of the Iron Man where the Wonder Box has long been locked up. He catches the black horse by the forelock (like Kairos - opportunity - time). It can no longer fly with a human on its back, but it can run fast. David manages to enter the Iron Castle, and steals the Wonder Box, and rediscovers the girl - escapes from the Iron Castle, and kills the Iron Man with a stone from the sea shore.

    David and his beloved return to the “brown world” on the moon path, but find that the path branches to take each to their separate homes. So now there is another test, for the princess (she's a real one) to find her hero and for the Wonder Box she took from him to be opened with the key that he retained. A happy and triumphant ending, of course. 

     In which the most interesting feature (as my daimon observes, pointing a finger up under his left eye) is that nobody knew that David was missing all the time he spent in the house of the Moon and the lands beyond it. And nobody in Princess Aurelia's kingdom knew she was gone either; they had merely found her, from birth, strangely mute and emotion-less. She's fully alive now that her soul has come home from the Garden Behind the Moon. 

    So we may catch the hint that the story is about soul loss, when people around you may not notice you are missing, only that you are duller and quieter. And that there are places where lost souls go, from which they may be brought home by those who can muster the courage and imagination to get through some version of the Moon-Angel.

Monday, November 13, 2023

Jung and the Woman Who Lived on the Moon


Jung worked with a woman patient who said she had been living on the Moon for many years. Investigating her life history, Jung discovered that she had suffered terrible and multiple abuse of the kind that might make any of us want to check out of life on Earth. as a result of terrible abuse.

When Jung spoke of this in a public lecture, he declared matter-of-factly that she really was living on the Moon. The young Marie Louise von Franz , in the lecture audience, was shocked. How could the distinguished Herr Professor Dr. Jung talk in this way? She confronted him at the end of his talk. He couldn’t be serious, surely.

Marie-Louise suggested to Jung that what he meant to say that the patient's situation was “as if” she lived on the Moon.

Jung replied, “No, not ‘as if’. She did live on the Moon.”

By her own account, Marie-Louise thought at the time that the famous psychologist must be crazy. Later she came to understand that Jung recognized that when we suffer intolerable conditions in this world, part of us may part company with us in order to survive. Shamans call this phenomenon soul loss.

Jung did not use that language, but clearly he understood it well. If part of that young woman's soul had left her because the ordinary world seemed too cold and too cruel, why should it not go to the astral realm of Luna, which in ancient and indigenous traditions - as we reviewed - is recognized to be "thickly settled" by spirits who take a close interest in human affairs? 

Von Franz tells the story of The Woman Who Lived on the Moon in Animus and Anima in Fairy Tales (Toronto: Inner City Books, 2002). She talks about the same episode in the documentary film "The Wisdom of the Dream".

Illustration from Jung's Red Book

Saturday, November 4, 2023

Sweet, spicy, umami? What is the taste of your dreams?


Do your taste buds come alive in your dreams? Leif P. Haley, a psychology professor from Binghamton NY, put that question to a database that collects many thousands of dream reports from people of all ages and all walks of life. Using a search tool known as regex word strings, he plucked sixty-four dream series from a total of 28,003 reports and scanned them for evidence of gustatory experience.[1]

He started out with several hypotheses including the notion that there would be more "bad" tastes in dreams than good, perhaps in the service of a "vigilance" function that alerts us to possible unpleasantness ahead.  He also posited that the incidence of taste sensations would be small, occurring in no more than 1 perc cent of dreams. That second assumption proved correct. In fact, only 0.7 percent of the dream reports surveyed mentioned taste, although nearly 6 percent described eating.

However, the dreams examined turned out to be tastier - and notably sweeter - than expected. Good tastes beat out bad by more than 7 percent.. "Sweet" beat out all other categories by an overwhelming margin. Haley assigns dream tastes to the four classic varieties - sweet, sour, bitter, salty – and then adds metallic, umami and undefined. One of his ratings systems marks 32.21 percent of dream taste reports as "sweet", more than all other categories combined except for "undefined". Likely this reflects waking preferences. 

Haley concedes that it's hard to assign many reports that evoke complex flavors and combinations to a few fixed categories. Also, how do you tag a description of a certain flavor as "weird" or funny"? Good or bad? Sweet or salty?

As so often with content analysis, we miss the juicy sensory quality of the dream experiences themselves, and the context from individual lives and personalities. There's a hint of what we are missing in one respondent's description of  a sandwich of bread, pickles, peanut butter, and grapes. "I could taste each thing separately, although they were all together." 

My taste buds often come vividly alive in my dreams, and generally the experience is pleasurable, sometimes wildly so. I sometimes wake with the taste of food or drink in my mouth - of wine or coffee or pilsner, of a perfect baguette, of scaloppine al limone, of wild raspberries, of Colman's English mustard. I am quite social in my dreams, and eat at many restaurants and private dinner tables, and usually taste each dish. My dreams are not as sweet as Haley's sampling, because my tastes run to salty and savory. I don't eat cake or candy anywhere. My tastes in dreams are similar to ordinary reality. You won't find me eating mussels or crème brûlée in a dream restaurant.

I do eat "weird" and "funny" things in my dreams. I have eaten scrolls and even a whole book in big dreams that have left me bursting with ideas for new writing projects of my own. The taste of the scrolls reminds me of popadoms in Indian restaurants. Then there are the dreams in which I seem to shapeshift into animal form and eat what the beast eats. 

In a dream this morning, just before I discovered Haley's article, I was roaming around a kitchen in half-light, sipping a red wine I found thin and disappointing. I decided it would taste better with food and opened a small can I found on a shelf. I thought it was tuna. As I spooned a little of the conents into my mouth, I found the flavor and texture were not what I expected. Not a bad taste, but not something I wanted to eat. I realized that in the dark, I must have opened a can of Fancy Feast, our kitties' preferred breakfast, by mistake.

I got out of bed, with the taste still in my mouth, to find Lucy, our magical tabby cat, eyeing me expectantly. Is it possible she projected her breakfast intentions into my dream? I would not put it past her. Good dream? Bad dream? Good for Lucy, since Fancy Feast was soon in her dish. Good for me, because it gave me an amusing story and nudged me to read Haley's article when the title popped up, in the way of synchronicity, during an unrelated search.

The larger subject of how the full sensorium comes alive in dreams leads us to think about what we are, and how we get around, in our several vehicles of consciousness. In our dream experiences, we are not usually disembodied thought forms. Typically, we are getting around in a subtle body that is often called the astral body. It is also, in the spiritual anatomy popularized by the Theosophists, the kama-rupa or body of desire. Some say that it is the source of our experience of pleasure and pain. Certainly, in this vehicle we know the full gamut of feelings, perhaps more intensely than in the physical body, and this is highly relevant to how we will experience our transitions when we leave the physical body behind. 

Monitor the play of the senses in dreams and you may put yourself on the path to understanding the spiritual anatomy that counts - especially the nature and operations of the astral body. Oh yes, and you'll want to check whether you are eating the cat's breakfast.

1. Leif P. Haley, “Analysis of taste in dreams: A defined and large-scale investigation of dreamt gustatory experiences” in International Journal of Dream Research Volume 16, No. 2 (2023) 125-134.

Journal drawing by Robert Moss: "Unlikely appetizer". Spicy cocktail frankfurters as a starter in a grand hotel restaurant? Well the knowing waiter from Budapest recommended them and they were good with the pilsner.[February 26, 2021]

Thursday, November 2, 2023

The practice of imagination


 When have you said to yourself, “It’s only my imagination?” I’ve said it at a moment of strong intuition — intuition that subsequently proved to be correct — that lacked supporting evidence in the moment. I’ve also said it when I’ve had a glimpse of a wonderful future — and then betrayed that vision by diverting my energy to listing all the reasons it cannot be. 

When we dismiss imagination, we exile the part of ourselves that knows things that matter in an extraordinary way and has the power to re-vision and re-create our world. Imagination is the faculty of mind and soul that thinks and acts through images, which, as the English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge said, are “facts of the mind.” 

They borrow from our life memories and our sensory experiences, but they are more than copies; they can reshape and transform the raw materials into something new. And they can take on energy from a deeper source. 

The family of a young girl, Sally, who was suffering night terrors asked for my help. I gave Sally a toy soldier from my childhood — a Roman centurion — and told her that henceforth this would be her night guardian and would keep terrible things out of her space. I ran into the girl three years later, when she was about ten. “Lex is great,” she told me. “Who is Lex?” I inquired.. Sally was scandalized that I had completely forgotten the incident. “He’s the Roman soldier you gave me!” She stamped her foot. “He’s now ten feet tall, and whenever there’s anything yucky around at night, he’s right on it. I never have nightmares now.” 

This is an example of how an image borrowed from one level of reality can become a container for energy from several sources. I could simply have given Sally the idea of a night guardian, but it seemed appropriate, with a young child, to give her an object that embodied that idea. Through the power of  imagination, that object took on a larger and autonomous life. A miniature figure became ten feet tall, and it appeared spontaneously, with the strength to send off psychic intruders. It became a storehouse for protective energy. This was partly the result of wishful thinking (nothing wrong with wishing), but I believe it was also the result of a transpersonal energy — and energy from a realm beyond worldly forms — coming to take up residence in the container that had been made available. 

There is nothing imaginary (in the sense of unreal) about an image that comes alive in our mind. As the English philosopher H. H. Price puts it: “Paradoxical as it may sound there is nothing imaginary about a mental image. It is an actual entity, as real as anything can be.” We experience mental images, and “they are no more imaginary than sensations.” The confusion comes in because we put down the imagination, wrongly believing that to “imagine” is to entertain false ideas or wander off into empty daydreams. 

Since “imaginary” is so often equated with “unreal,” we may save some time and clarity by substituting the adjective “imaginal.” This has a longish pedigree in the English language; it first appears (according to the OED) in 1647 in the context: “That inward life’s the impresse imaginall of Nature’s Art.” The term “imaginal” has begun to acquire currency in recent times among both scholars and healing practitioners due to the influence of Henry Corbin’s work on the realm of images in Sufi and medieval Persian philosophy.  

The realm of images is a real world, as well as a creative state of consciousness. It is the region of mind where meaning takes on form and where objects take on meaning. True poets, in all ages, have understood that the realm of imagination is the fundamental ground of knowledge. 

Honoring our imaginations is of the most urgent and practical importance, because as the philosopher-emperor Marcus Aurelius said, “A man’s life is dyed in the colors of his imagination.” 

We live by images. They control everything we think and do, from brushing our teeth to making love to speaking or not speaking in an office meeting. Images generate and constitute our experience of reality. 

We tell ourselves that reality is out there, but we do not experience that reality directly. “What we experience directly,” says physicist David Deutsch, “is a virtual-reality rendering, conveniently generated for us by our unconscious minds from sensory data plus complex inborn and acquired theories (i.e. programs) about how to interpret them.… Every last scrap of our external experience is of virtual reality.… Biologically speaking, the virtual-reality rendering of their environment is the characteristic means by which human beings survive.” 

Our lives are more or less authentic according to whether we are aware of the role of images and of our own ability to choose and discard or transform the imagery that rules our interactions with everything. Hermann Hesse put this very precisely: There’s no reality except the one contained within us. That’s why so many people live an unreal life. They take images outside them for reality and never allow the world within them to assert itself.” 

The greatest crisis in our lives is a crisis of imagination. We get stuck, and we bind ourselves to the wheel of repetition, because we refuse to reimagine our situation. We live with a set of negative or confining images and pronounce them “reality.” We do this because we let ourselves get trapped in a particular version of the past or in a consensual hallucination. We do it to cling to the familiar, not daring to give up what we are or have been for what we are meant to become. 

To address our challenges, we need to draw on extraordinary sources of information and invest our energy and attention in a form of active imagination that dares to re-vision everything. 

To be citizens of the world (to quote Marcus Aurelius again) we must cultivate sympathetic imagination, which is what allows us to understand the feelings and motivations of people different from us. The ability to imagine one's self in another person's place is vital to healthy social relations and understanding. A sociopath signally lacks this ability. 

To bring peace and balance to our world, we require historical imagination, by which I mean both the ability to claim what is helpful from the past and the faculty for spotting alternatives to a particular event track— past, present, or future.  

Whether the issues are in our world or our personal life, the practice of imagination requires claiming a creative relationship with the past. There is an image from Ghana that springs to mind. It shows a strange bird looking over its shoulder. This symbolic bird is called Sankofa, and its role is to remind us to bring from the past what can heal and empower us — and dump the rest. 

One thing we want to reclaim from the past is the wisdom of the child-mind. The practice of imagination begins with making room in our lives for the child who knows it’s okay to “make things up” and knows this is fun. 

When asked why he was the one to develop the theory of relativity, Einstein said: “A normal adult never stops to think about problems of space and time. These are things which he has thought about as a child. But my intellectual development was retarded, as a result of which I began to wonder about space and time only when I grew up.” 

Mark Twain insisted, “No child should be permitted to grow up without exercise for imagination. It enriches life for him. It makes things wonderful and beautiful.”  

Whatever age we have reached, we all need a daily workout, and a place to go, in the real world of imagination. Keep working out, and you’ll remember that, as poet Kathleen Raine wrote beautifully, “Imaginative knowledge is immediate knowledge, like a tree, or a rose, or a waterfall or sun or stars.” 

Build your home in the imagination strong enough, and you may find it is the place of creative birthing we all long for, the state of mind Mozart evoked when he said: “I can see the whole of it in my mind at a single glance.… All the inventing and making goes on in me as in a beautiful strong dream.”


Text adapted from The Three “Only” Things by Robert Moss. Published by New World Library.

Art: Robert Moss, "Wrapped in Butterflies"