Monthly Archives: August 2009

The Historicity of Dreaming

Posted on by

That dreams have been influential in many pivotal episodes in history is accepted as fact in some circles; in other circles it is considered nonsense. Yet for anyone bothering to dig into the archives, it becomes indisputable that many important figures over time and across disciplines have been guided by their nighttime dreams—and have changed the course of history in the process.

Secret History of DreamingIf you have ever wondered where to find a worthy compendium of these stories, with footnotes and resources for further investigation, look no further than Robert Moss’s new book The Secret History of Dreaming. Not only is this a fascinating book of historical treasures, it is also a great read. Moss is a consummate storyteller, and once you’ve read his version of Joan of Arc as a tree seer, you will soon want to hurry forward and learn more about the incredibly detailed, accurate dreams that guided Harriet Tubman on her rescue missions.

From then it is just a short hop to Mark Twain’s prophetic dreams and visions, which informed his comedy but gave his life a tragic cast. Physicist Wolfgang Pauli’s wild dreams, featured by Jung in his book Psychology and Alchemy, bleed into the waking life synchronicities of this eccentric genius. And then there are Winston Churchill’s time machines, and the young 15th century noblewoman Lucrecia de León, the “dream spy” of Madrid.

This book reads like historical fiction, and for good reason. Before he began writing exclusively about dreams and active imagination Robert Moss had a successful career as a fiction writer, most notably with The Firekeeper: A Narrative of the Eastern Frontier (newly re-issued by SUNY Press). His fiction relies heavily on actual or at least plausible events and entanglements, and he is a diligent researcher of historical setting. His writing style in The Secret History of Dreaming may strike some as more imagination than history, but it works quite well for bringing the very real power of dreaming to the attention of a wide audience.

Moss calls his particular method of fleshing out the bones of a story “dream archaeology.” It involves being able “to read all the clues from a scene in another time, enter that scene, and then bring back new discoveries that will stand up to cross-examination.” After doing a thorough study of all related historical sources and getting a feel for the details of the period and culture, the dream archaeologist uses some rather familiar tools to fill in the gaps of his knowledge:

Through the arts of conscious dream travel, active imagination, and “mutual visioning,” we can enter other times and gain firsthand knowledge of conditions there that we can then research and verify…. We can reclaim the best of ancient traditions and rituals in authentic, helpful, and timely ways.

Here lies the crux of not only Moss’s method of storytelling, but his convictions about the importance of dreaming to human evolution as well as his vision of the future of dreaming. Moss is adamant that “dreaming is a vital understory in the human odyssey,” and he makes the case quite well, citing cross-cultural examples throughout history where dreaming has been both a survival skill and an integral part of daily life.

I am in agreement with Moss that we can make much better use of our dreams today: to help us weather societal, familial and personal crises, be alerted to health issues before they become serious, and communicate with loved ones near and far, alive and dead. (To name just a few possibilities.) His previous books on dreaming lay out some useful techniques and guidelines for pursuing this kind of work, developing one’s intuition and learning how to both ask questions and receive answers from the web of energy all around us, including our dreams.

He never fully explains what he hopes to achieve through these methods of creative scrying, however. In his epilogue on “The Future History of Dreaming,” Moss gets specific about the necessary “return of the seer,” as he puts it. He outlines three basic types of seer: the receivers, the travelers, and the far-seers. Receivers are mediums and empaths, receiving information, filtering it, and passing it on. Travelers engage in out of body experiences and soul journeys. Far-seers widen their inner sight and use the instantaneous power of thought to be everywhere at once, yet never leaving the body.

But to what end? How will a world filled with psychic/shamanic adepts be fundamentally better, or even different, than the world we have today? The one thing I never hear Robert Moss admit in his almost uniformly optimistic vision is that people are people. He may have traveled back to ancient Greece and found that “from the moment a pilgrim entered an Asklepian temple, he was given constant encouragement to believe that healing was available and to abandon old mental habits and self-defeating attitudes.” But I went there too, and found that not everyone in the dream priesthood was great at what they did. And while some miraculous healings did take place, there was also a powerful social expectation that pilgrims would declare themselves healed, even if they weren’t. 

The dirty little secret of the human potential movement is that even if we all develop to our fullest potential, our society will still not be perfect. Theocracy is just an election away, as we have seen quite recently. And as important (and rare) as true dreamers and healers are, it is just as important for a healthy, just society to have people who can establish good public policy and make the trains run on time.

I personally am quite relieved that I don’t live in ancient Greece, or any number of dream-centered tribal societies. I want to live in a functioning democracy where women and men have equal rights, and I also want strong dreamers to aid and support the quality of life for all. I don’t see any clear way to get there from Robert Moss’s vision, partly because the dreamers he talks about were mostly outsiders. This may in fact be the “natural” social position for the vast majority of those who take up the call and develop their own capacity to dream. 

And so, those of us who help people pay attention to their dreams are faced with a conundrum: How do we encourage people to explore the healing, liberating, transformational power of dreaming consciousness, while at the same time remaining realistic about the limits of change? How do we strive for the best result while being unattached to outcome? And most crucially, how can dreaming support the overall social goals to which we aspire? These are questions I would love to hear Moss respond to.

Robert Moss writes with unflagging optimism and energy, spinning flax into gold as he weaves his web of stories, reassuring the reader at every turn that the future of dreaming is bright. I have had that dream too, and I believe it. Yet it doesn’t answer all my questions.

On Spiders, Painting, and the Power of Story

Posted on by

Saturday I spent a few hours prepping my hallway for painting. The color had been chosen over a year ago, the paint bought back in December, but for some reason I had not yet gotten around to the project.

It is a small T-shaped hallway, no bigger than a closet really, with a total of four doorways leading off in different directions, and an entire wall taken up with cupboards that were not going to be painted. Why the job had filled me with such dread and lethargy for months was beyond me; why suddenly I had the energy to tackle it was equally mysterious. But in my better moments I remember to just follow the energy and do the next thing, no matter what it is. That is a lesson a teacher taught me years ago, and though it seemed painfully obvious at the time I have found it to be one of the most subtle, easily forgotten, and demanding principles to follow.

Paint prep in a hallway is not difficult: swab down the walls and baseboards with a wet cloth, spackle the holes and rough spots, then do the detail work of taping off everything you don’t want to get paint on. I needed a chair to stand on, so I reached around the corner for an old wooden chair that was the right height, and that was so beat up a little paint wouldn’t hurt it. Then I got to work.

The cleaning and spackling was easy, but all the doorways and tight corners made the taping a very painstaking job—so much so that after five minutes of surveying the territory I still could not decide where to begin. The task felt endless and overwhelming, and I could barely force my fingers to tug loose the end of the tape roll.

Finally I picked an imperfect starting point, one that didn’t seem right at all, and just focused on putting down one piece of tape at a time. In that very narrow-focused state of mind, I got back on the chair again to reach the top of a doorjamb, and it occurred to me how long I had had that chair. 

With each slow tug of the blue tape I went a little farther back in time, to when it was an extra dining room chair, and before that the years it served as my son’s desk chair. At one point it had been my desk chair in college; and way back before that even, I remembered being 11 years old in my bedroom sitting in that chair at my little desk, and staring out the window into the night sky.

Back then I had had a nightmare involving this chair, in which I was sitting just so, looking out the window, and glancing down noticed a big black spider crawling toward me on the floor. I got spooked by it, and lifted one of the back legs of my chair to squash the spider. But to my horror it regenerated before my eyes, and where I had squashed one leg now ten legs emerged.

I tried again, and saw that there was no way to contain this spider whose legs were multiplying before my eyes. I knew it would soon devour me, so with growing dread I jumped from my desk chair right onto the bed and hid under the covers, waiting for the inevitable.

                                               *     *     *

On the subject of spiders in dreams Freud is insistent: they represent the devouring mother. Artemidorus, the famous Greek dream interpreter of the 2nd century, says that spiders “indicate small, contemptible men who are, however, in a position to harm one badly.”

The late Jungian analyst Don Sandner speaks of Spider Woman, symbol of Fate, who is friendly yet not to be taken lightly. Other dream books variously speak of good luck, bad luck, cosmic energy, money, traps, reality and illusion.

None of this helps me with my interminable taping task. Nor does it answer either of my two questions: Why did I have this dream? And why should I remember it now, standing on the same chair, battling another overwhelming dread?

                                               *     *     *

What would I have been thinking about back then, staring out at the night? I was probably reading there at my desk—the shelves above me were filled with books—and after a while my mind had no doubt drifted off onto some tangent. Knowing me, it had to do with imagining writing a story like that: what would the author have to know in order to write it, what did she believe, what might be going through her mind as she wrote, and was she trying to say something in the story beyond what I could comprehend?

Suddenly the whole book, and the experience of reading it, turned into a complicated morass of my own curious, striving nature combined with insecurities about becoming an adult. How could I ever hope to function in such a complex world? And how perfectly spider-like my scary, ever-expanding thoughts had become! 

If that dream had been a mirror of my own mental processes, then no wonder it was coming back to me now. Sometimes I still have to remind myself that I am not that 11-year-old, looking into the abyss of the unknowable future. I was not rendered unconscious by puberty; I did not get annihilated on the road to adulthood. Not only that, I have figured out how to write a story.

That seems to resonate with me the most now. Taping this hallway is like writing the first draft of anything: complicated, imperfect, and harder to do the longer I wait to start. Every strand of blue tape is its own sentence fragment, and every room that I paint is one more chapter in the story of this house becoming my own. 

And here I am at the crux of it, the heart of the house which extends in all four directions, like spider legs branching out into every corner of the world. Suddenly, I feel not as though I am shouldering a huge burden, but like I am standing at the top of a great summit pass looking joyfully out at the other side.

I have done it: I have written my own story, step by arduous step, for long enough that I have reached something of a turning point in the entire narrative. I can see the whole that the pieces are becoming, and even the smallest dream fragments turn out to be part of the landscape.

Such is the power of story, to help us see who and where we are. My house is not yet fully painted, but it is halfway there. I have remembered why I kept that old chair all these years, and have recalled too the blessing of following each strand of thought, no matter how uncomfortable, all the way back through the skein of memory, until its promise is fulfilled.