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 dreamsâ€”and have changed the course of history in the process.
If 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 LeÃ³n, the “dream spy” of Madrid.
This book reads like historical fiction, and for good reason. Before he began writing exclusively about dreams and active imaginationÂ 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.Â
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.Â
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.