When the Past Comes Back to Save Us

Posted on by

Memory is an odd thing: slippery as a fish, shapeshifting and disappearing with the flick of its tail. We call our memories ours as though we had some dominion over them. But nobody knows why memories surface when they do, after decades of absence.

In his final years, my grandfather was tormented by a rhyme from his schooldays that he could only remember part of. It was a verse listing the presidents, and each time we visited he would recite what he knew: “Washington, Adams and Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe. Adams again, then…”

He begged my father to look it up for him, ask a librarian, do something to ease his mind by recalling the rest of the verse. Each time my father promised he would, though I could tell by the look on his face that he would not. He never did.

The past can haunt us, but it can also come back to save us.

It was the Spring of 2008 when out of the blue I remembered my first piano recital, in 1967. I was five years old, the youngest student and therefore first on the program. Our recital was held at the Chapel of the Chimes in downtown Oakland, with its beautiful Julia Morgan architecture.

The room seemed cavernous to me, and my family sat on a pew several rows back. I remember feeling confident about my piece, and calm about playing it in front of everybody. When my name was called, without hesitation I walked up to the front and sat down, played my piece, took a bow, and returned to my seat. That was that.

What I remembered most in the Spring of 2008 was how matter-of-fact that performance had felt. There was no moment of hesitation, none of the agony and nerves of later recitals and performances. I had no idea why the memory had surfaced, but used it as an opportunity to reflect on my current life of public speaking and teaching. Did I ever feel so calm and confident about performing now? Would I ever find my way back to that simplicity?

When a memory from the distant past revisits us, we turn it over in our minds for a few hours or days and then it recedes again. This memory did not. For weeks it kept returning, as I planned workshops, traveled and taught. Then, that Summer Solstice, my father died.

His death was quite sudden, and took us all by surprise. I was about to fly to Portland and teach, so needed to coordinate with my family to make sure his service was scheduled for right after I returned. That’s when I learned that his funeral would be held at the Chapel of the Chimes.

I had always intended to speak at his funeral, to honor what an important figure he was in my life. Now I learned that neither my sisters nor my mother wanted to. I would be the only one of us to speak, and therefore first on the program.

How could I possibly rise from my seat and proclaim that my father was dead? Because if I spoke about him in the past tense he surely would be gone, and therefore his return would be impossible. In that extreme, surreal state of grief, writing his obituary and then his eulogy, flying and planning and teaching and returning to speak again, returning to the scene of my earliest memory of public performance, seated now in the front row of a room that seemed so very small, that memory saved me.

By some miracle the words had come that I wanted to say. I wrote them down. I felt calm, sitting next to my mother waiting for the service to start. When it was my turn I got up, went to the lectern, said my piece, thanked the crowd, and sat back down again. It was done.

That simplicity had returned in the moment I needed it most. Unmoored by grief, there was no part of me left to be nervous or insecure. There was just this piece, the delivery of it, making people laugh and cry, and then the long drive home, wondering all the way what had just happened, how I had been so lucky to have a memory come like a lifeboat and carry me through rapids that I hadn’t even known were going to be there.

What Would Sarah Winchester Do Now?

Posted on by

Amid all the national clamor for sane gun safety laws, one forgotten figure keeps coming to my mind: Sarah Winchester. The heir to the Winchester rifle fortune, Sarah felt hounded by the spirits of those who had died by those rifles—Native Americans, Civil War soldiers, and many others. In 1884 she moved to California and bought a farmhouse in San Jose, where she ordered construction to proceed around the clock to trap and confound those restless, vengeful spirits.

I visited the Winchester Mystery House with my kids several years ago, during a trip to PantheaCon. What struck me then were the parallels between the Spiritualist circles that Sarah Winchester moved in 100 years ago, and the New Age community still so prevalent in the South Bay. They shared the belief that the spirit outlasts the body, and can be communicated with through channeling and other methods. Both provided a means for (primarily) women to cope with the loss of loved ones, and to experience a kind of spiritual transcendence not found in established religions.

Today what strikes me about Sarah Winchester is not her troubled personal story but the very fact that she felt responsible for how her fortune was made. To feel answerable to the victims of gun violence—is this even on the radar of the people now made wealthy by the Glock, the Bushmaster, and other weapons flooding our streets and killing innocent children?

Spiritualists in the 19th century were generally liberal—most abhorred slavery and were in favor of women’s suffrage—yet stayed focused on the spiritual realm. Women of that era did not have much political power, even those of great wealth such as Sarah Winchester. But today the social landscape has completely changed, and particularly around gun violence women are flexing real muscle.

If Sarah Winchester were alive today, maybe she would be an active member of the Women Donors Network, which just kicked off the Women United For campaign to take a leadership role on the issue of gun violence prevention. In an era where women’s activism is changing the game of national politics, she would certainly find more constructive avenues to channel her deep grief and guilt.

Perhaps her nearly 40 year project was simply the result of an addled mind, a harmless hobby for a wealthy eccentric. Maybe she was better off donating anonymously to local charities and living alone with her ghosts. But somehow I think Sarah Winchester might rest easier today knowing that the cause of her private torment is now being acted on by the entire nation.

We may never hear of a single wealthy gun magnate who is currently grappling with a guilty conscience. Perhaps they don’t exist, or maybe their are viewed as personally weak rather than principled.

Either way, the numbers of innocent dead have grown too large, their stories too anguished for us to ignore. And if we do finally enact universal background checks and outlaw assault weapons, I think the Winchester Mystery House should be part of the story of how America confronted its revolutionary roots and eventually, after too many generations, turned away from violence.

Magic is a Way of Living

Posted on by

In September of last year, I posed a question on Facebook about magic:

How do you define magic? What is it? How does it work?
I’ve never liked Dion Fortune’s definition, that magic is “the art of changing consciousness at will.” I’m thinking of writing an article about why it’s so bad, but first I’d like to hear what others think. No pressure, mind you…

Little did I expect such an overwhelming response: 55 generous, thought-provoking comments by a range of brilliant people. Re-reading them now feels like being in the best graduate seminar ever. Needless to say, it has taken me a while to digest it all.

My impetus for asking the question was to continue the work I started in The Baby and the Bathwater, and examine the foundations of my spiritual training. I want to explore what I was taught versus what I now believe about aligning with the elements, working magic, creating community and using ritual for transformation.

This will eventually lead to a bigger work, probably a rewritten and expanded version of my dissertation on the priestess. These days I write books one blog post at a time, so for now I just need to dive in. Defining magic seems like a good place to start.

“Magic is the Art of Changing Consciousness at Will”

I first heard Dion Fortune’s definition of magic in the early 80s, and it has taken me this long to figure out why I don’t like it. It turns out that 30 years is not an unreasonable amount of time in which to fully change our consciousness around a single issue—especially if you apply a great deal of willpower to it.

And that’s the key to why I rejected Dion Fortune’s definition.

The big fallacy in the “focused will” model of magic is that consciousness is hierarchical. The mind sets its goal, you use breath and a bunch of other stuff to clear the channel between your head and all those lower chakras, create a circuit of energy flowing into your solar plexus, then beam out that laser-focused will to activate your desires.

Even if this method works for some people, for me it just highlighted the model’s deeper flaws. Because what happens to the minority report? Sure, our minds can overpower just about any conflicting signals coming in, but is that really what we want?

I reasoned that the proof of this philosophy of magic would lie in studying the lives of those who live by it. Were there any teachers or practitioners out there whose lives as a whole I admired? What were they successful at manifesting, and what were the obvious caveats to their success? Most importantly, did they have healthy relationships? Were their children happy and thriving, or disturbed and struggling?

In the end, out of a few hundred I found maybe a handful of people who I felt were grounded and sane as well as successful at this type of magical practice. So I abandoned that approach entirely and turned to dreams, particularly dream incubation, to see how well that worked.

As I wrote here, dreams are an excellent means for both listening to and integrating that minority report. If there is something I want to manifest, I ask for dreams about it. Without exception, this has helped me be wiser in what I ask for and better able to integrate the changes that come.

What About the Body?

If consciousness is not hierarchical, what other methods can we use to change it? In my experience, transformation starts in the body, as far away from the head as possible, then slowly makes its way into our minds. And because deep wisdom arises in the extremities, the more focused and overpowering our will is, the more difficult it is for this emerging wisdom to register in our awareness.

Dreamwork helps. Trusting dreams means trusting the wild reaches of consciousness, following them and learning their logic. It really helps to do this with a solid group of friends who can help you identify those emerging patterns and keep your bearings at the same time.

But dreamwork can also be very heady. We need a physical practice too, like aikido or chi gung.

Aikido helped me learn how it feels when my will and mind are aligned and in right proportion with the rest of my body. It taught me at a far deeper level than any other practice how to expand my awareness, how to be aligned with the flow of power, how to move strongly with a centered focus that comes from the body as well as the mind. I use it every day.

The Consciousness of Everything

At last, I had found a combination of practices that enabled me to trust both what I asked for, and what I received. It was a much more complicated and demanding process than the one I’d been taught, but in the end felt so much simpler.

There were a number of responses to my original post that took a Taoist view of magic: being in the flow makes things happen. This is true, but it’s kind of like saying that jazz improvisation is easy, when making it look easy is actually the end of a very long process of mastery.

More than anything, magic is a study in paradox. So it was probably no coincidence that the other day I came across a great quote about magic by Carl Jung, a master at understanding paradox:

Everything that works magically is incomprehensible, and the incomprehensible often works magically. The magical opens spaces that have no doors and leads one out into the open where there is no exit. We need magic to be able to receive or invoke the messenger and the communication of the incomprehensible. Magic is a way of living. If one has done one’s best to steer the chariot, and one then notices that a greater other is actually steering it, then magical operation takes place. (The Red Book, 314)

For now, “Magic is a way of living” is a good enough definition for me. Because magic is what you see and experience when a whole bunch of other things are finely-tuned and working well. Maybe it sometimes looks like a mere act of will and mindful focus, but the reality is so much more interesting, and rewarding.

Abortion, Small Town Iowa, 1927

Posted on by

My grandmother, Dorothy Mary Gibson Roberts, was so lucky. When her first husband became jealous, then violent, and then brought a gun into the house, she removed the bullets, hid the gun, then called her father to come pick her up in Sioux City. He drove down the very next day, nearly being run off the road when my grandmother’s husband saw them leaving.

With the clothes on her back, she went home to Whiting, Iowa, to stay with her parents while she got a divorce and figured out what to do next. Meanwhile, Will Gibson protected his daughter Dorothy from a raging, harassing ex-husband, filing divorce papers for her, and arranging for an abortion when she found out she was pregnant. My grandmother was 25 years old.

Fram, as we called her, was reeling from the consequences of her choices:

“It was one of my minor disasters. I didn’t realize you had to be in love to get married. And I was not in love with Al. I liked him a lot, but I just had no affection—I didn’t love him. I knew immediately I had made a terrible mistake.”

When I interviewed Fram extensively for my senior thesis in 1983-84, I got the story of her abortion from her bit by bit, asking another question each time we met, until I had as much of the story as she was ever going to tell. According to Fram, both the town doctors performed abortions, and they did quite a lot of them.

“It was definitely illegal at that time. It wasn’t fun; it was supposed to be a disaster, but nowadays it’s no disgrace at all. I remember going up to their office. It was at night. But I don’t remember that it hurt or anything. I don’t remember anything about it. It apparently didn’t bother me mentally. I would have done anything not to have a child, because I knew that I’d made a horrible mistake.”

The doctor who performed my grandmother’s abortion was also the doctor who delivered her and her two brothers. My grandmother was so lucky: her family was white and middle-class, owned the car dealership in town, went to Church with the doctors and their families, and were part of a small-town fabric that valued independence and privacy. She was lucky because in Whiting, Iowa in 1927, the town doctors believed that women and their families should be able to make their own health care decisions, and that women were strong, resilient, and capable of reconciling having an abortion with their relationship to God.

Watching the national coverage of the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, I wonder where those doctors are now. Why is there just one abortion clinic for the entire state of North Dakota, only one in South Dakota, in Arkansas, and in Mississippi? Why don’t more Family Practice doctors and OB/GYNs offer abortion services to their patients in these states?

Really, I am the lucky one in this story. My grandmother was able to recover from her low point, work again as a pipe organist and then as a secretary in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where she met my grandfather. This time, she knew she was in love.

They married and had two daughters, one of whom is my mother. And my sisters, cousins and I got to have a feisty, independent, funny, straight-talking grandmother, who in spite of the pain of recalling that time did tell me this story, so I could tell others.

Abortion is part of women’s health care services. Access to safe and legal—and affordable—abortion is the best way to insure women’s health, and the health of their families. Abortion has always been performed in this country, and will always be, no matter what some backward state legislatures decree. But not everyone will be as lucky as my grandmother was.

Poetry, Inauguration, Land

Posted on by

I’ve been sitting here watching President Obama’s second inauguration today, thinking about politics and ritual, about society and culture, and how even powerful, hard-won change can still seem, and maybe is, fragile.

Our country’s story in my lifetime has so often been written by violence. And every day that big story is not about tragedy but about the peaceful transfer of power, of a participatory democracy and civil society, I feel so moved I am riveted to the scene. So be it.

8th Annual Brigid Poetry Festival

This seems like a good time to start the ball rolling for the Brigid Poetry Festival, an outpouring of verse in honor of the Goddess Brigid, Patron Saint of Ireland. Already people are starting to post on the Poetry Festival’s Facebook Page that I have been curating for the past two years. I think this year’s silent poetry reading could be even larger and more inclusive than the last.

Here are two poems about the spirits of this land and the spirit of this country. The first is part of the ancient Navajo Mountain Chant, a nine-day ceremony of healing for individuals and blessing the whole tribe. It was witnessed and translated in 1884 by Irish immigrant Washington Matthews, who had served as a surgeon in the Civil War.

Twelfth Song of the Thunder

The voice that beautifies the land!
The voice above,
The voice of the thunder
Within the dark cloud
Again and again it sounds,
The voice that beautifies the land.

The voice that beautifies the land!
The voice below,
The voice of the grasshopper
Among the plants
Again and again it sounds,
The voice that beautifies the land.

Praise Song for the Day

The poet Elizabeth Alexander wrote this for Barack Obama’s first inaugural ceremony in January, 2009. I think it deserves to be read again today. All praise is due to love.

Each day we go about our business,
walking past each other, catching each other’s
eyes or not, about to speak or speaking.

All about us is noise. All about us is
noise and bramble, thorn and din, each
one of our ancestors on our tongues.

Someone is stitching up a hem, darning
a hole in a uniform, patching a tire,
repairing the things in need of repair.

Someone is trying to make music somewhere,
with a pair of wooden spoons on an oil drum,
with cello, boom box, harmonica, voice.

A woman and her son wait for the bus.
A farmer considers the changing sky.
A teacher says, Take out your pencils. Begin.

We encounter each other in words, words
spiny or smooth, whispered or declaimed,
words to consider, reconsider.

We cross dirt roads and highways that mark
the will of some one and then others, who said
I need to see what’s on the other side.

I know there’s something better down the road.
We need to find a place where we are safe.
We walk into that which we cannot yet see.

Say it plain: that many have died for this day.
Sing the names of the dead who brought us here,
who laid the train tracks, raised the bridges,

picked the cotton and the lettuce, built
brick by brick the glittering edifices
they would then keep clean and work inside of.

Praise song for struggle, praise song for the day.
Praise song for every hand-lettered sign,
the figuring-it-out at kitchen tables.

Some live by love thy neighbor as thyself,
others by first do no harm or take no more
than you need. What if the mightiest word is love?

Love beyond marital, filial, national,
love that casts a widening pool of light,
love with no need to pre-empt grievance.

In today’s sharp sparkle, this winter air,
any thing can be made, any sentence begun.
On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp,

praise song for walking forward in that light.

Smoothing the Sands of Memory

Posted on by

My sisters and I talk a lot about memory now. Perhaps this is inevitable as the four of us straddle the 50 divide—two already there, the other two taking quick gulps of 40-ish air before their inevitable plunge.

One sister is downloading apps that help her brain stretch in new ways. When another says she no longer likes playing the piano because reading music is too hard, the rest of us wonder. Is it about time she just said no to something she hated, or is this a convenient excuse to shut down the part of her brain that used to be quite good at reading music? We fear the slow constriction that shadows our choices, and the loss of supple youth each decision underlines.

Through the magic of Facebook, I am now in touch with more high school friends than I ever was after we graduated. The other day as my daughter told me about something that had really embarrassed her, I thought about the two most mortifying incidents in my youth.

One, a moment of bad judgment in the vicinity of my then-boyfriend’s parents, I remembered quite clearly. It was still embarrassing, but then I realized that both his parents were now dead. How was I supposed to feel about my hideous lapse of good sense now that it no longer mattered? Could I let it go—should I actually rake smooth the ground where that stone had forever tripped me? What, if anything, was the cost of forgetting?

The other incident happened in junior high school, as most embarrassing moments tend to do. I remember the two classmates who witnessed it, and how afterward I spent many nights tossing and turning in shame. And that’s all I now remember.

I could easily contact those two classmates now and ask them, but other than a vague recollection of us being outside the auditorium, I have no idea what actually happened. Was it something I said? Something someone said to me? The details of that heart-pounding moment have been completely erased, and all that remains is the shell that used to house the most embarrassing thing that ever happened to me in junior high school.

I feel about this incident the same way I do when I misplace something: I am frustrated by my inability to remember what I did with a minor, semi-valuable possession. But perhaps this is more a blow to my pride than any cause for concern about my memory.

After my dad died, I looked forward to finally asking my mom the questions she would never have considered answering if he were within earshot. But just as she seemed to ease into that reflective, post-raw-grief phase, she stopped being able to remember. Not through any act of will, but by the forces of erosion my sisters and I now fear.

There is a difference, I think (I hope), between realizing we have forgotten something and not being aware of ever having known. I am grateful for the things my sisters remember about our childhood that I do not. I am pretty sure they feel the same way when I fill in the gaps for them. And we now know the importance of living lives that others have witnessed, and knowing that even when the details fade away, the etchings of our passage remain.

Office Supplies and the End of the World

Posted on by

Last weekend my friend Claude told me a great story from the recent Bioneers Conference, where R. Carlos Nakai spoke about his recent trip to meet with Mayan elders.

Carlos Nakai asked these Mayan elders about the end of their calendar, and just what the heck it all meant. Was it really true that their ancient calendar was coming to an end next month?

They answered yes, that was true.

“Well,” he asked, “what happens then?”

To which the Mayan elders replied, “We make a new one.”

In that moment it all became clear to me. Maybe you see where I am going with this already. If not, just think of all the months and years we have had to endure the endless 2012 prophecies, the New Age screeds with terrible graphics, the Christian fundamentalist cults, the incessant Facebook posts about paradigm shifts, eclipses, stone tablets, and ominous political movements.

It has all been completely unbearable, but after hearing Claude’s story I felt instantly better. Because it turns out the solution to all this doom-mongering is not global social upheaval at all—far from it.

In the end, the only thing that can restore balance to our tattered world is something we really should have thought of sooner: office supplies.

When you think about it, office supplies have been at the root of so many world civilizations meeting their demise. Either they’re writing down things they shouldn’t, or hiding them somewhere then forgetting where they put them, or in some cases neglecting to record the most important things, and suddenly all is lost.

No one seriously considers paper clips, until it is too late. But now we are presented with a golden opportunity to reverse the trend and end this profound clerical error. All it will take is for each of us to go to our nearest office supply store, buy an adequate amount of paper (all sizes), pens (let’s get different widths and colors just in case), scissors and push pins, and send them to the Mayan elders, c/o Guatemala.

Then when everyone comes down from Mt. Shasta, or Macchu Picchu, or wherever else they’re going this Winter Solstice, they’ll fire up their mobile devices and there, like a modern-day Christmas miracle, will be a deluge of posts and re-tweets of pictures from the sacred council chambers of Central America, where the Mayan elders will have revealed their brand new calendar!

Then maybe our millennial fever will finally play itself out, and we can all get to work cleaning things up and solving tough problems, the stuff that post-its just won’t fix.

Growing Up in the 70s—A View from 1979

Posted on by

My current book project begins with a big dream I had as a teenager. I remember the dream very clearly, but decided to go back and find how I wrote it down originally. So I spent a few hours the other night in an absolute time warp, re-reading journals from my freshman year in college.

Just a couple weeks after graduating high school in 1979, I moved out of my parent’s house in Oakland and into the student co-ops in Berkeley. My journals are full of the painful struggle between my parents and me, as well as the adventures and friendships that marked my eager entry into a larger world.

Most of what I wrote is not fit for public consumption, but I came across one piece from December 27, 1979 that I think is worth sharing. I was 17, home for winter break, and wrote every day to maintain my sanity. This particular day I was on a tear about the impending decade change, my relation to older Boomers, and what growing up in the 1970s had really been like. Enjoy:

So many people say that the only thing happening in the 1970s was 50s and 60s nostalgia. Or they say it was the Me Decade. Or that everyone went out and bought new improved consciousness, or found themselves, or bought designer jeans. What a bunch of hype.

I have too large a stake in the 1970s to see it dismissed, panned and put-down so much. I grew up in the 70s, I am a product of the American society of those years. My first political awakening occurred during Watergate; I watched Batman, Room 222, The Waltons, All in the Family; I saw Star Wars, The Graduate, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Annie Hall; I loved Big Macs and chocolate shakes, I liked Saturday Night Fever, I was into baseball, football, and chess, I went to public schools—what more do you want?

We were exposed to, opened to, and offered excesses of a whole lot of stuff, mostly sugared drinks, lots of TV, sex and violence. Also rock and roll when it became rated PG. There was a lot of talk about the apocalypse, and I sat two feet in front of Daniel Ellsberg at the Bear’s Lair and listened with gaping mouth as he talked about Eisenhower and Cambodia and Tonkin Gulf and all that I’d missed.

For a child of upper-middle-income WASP parents, the seventies were a fantasy land. Television said you could be anything you wanted to be, and we believed it without realizing it. Things were wonderful, and if you couldn’t be who you wanted to be in real life, at least you could give it your best shot at night when the lights were out.

Television showed us how very sophisticated scenes were handled, how the woman was silent and smiled knowingly and how the man couldn’t quite penetrate her depths. Unfortunately, being that woman later on, I couldn’t remember what it was I was supposed to know so secretly, the one thing that had been taken for granted, so implicit on the screen.

I don’t know, it seems to me that we were shown the surface of a universe of things. We were given so much on that level, that most of us didn’t bother with its foundation, with the root images or impulses that might spawn such symbols. So much you were supposed to have been born knowing. If you asked you were uncool, and definitely not hip to what was happening.

But, with such free rein to go out and explore life, we also found ourselves with the freedom to reject what we were shown, to search for new alternatives as any spoiled child will do. We did. Our parents had not seen that they had given us this right to snub our noses at their neo-conservative values, as had been true in previous generations also. So we were not dramatically unlike our older friends, except we consumed more drugs earlier and in greater quantities with less reason than they did, but they had better stories to tell. They still do.

Dream Incubation: Finding the Way In

Posted on by

The following is a (long, lightly edited) talk I gave at the International Association for the Study of Dreams Conference in June, 2006. 

Dream Incubation as an Extreme State

A few days ago I realized we would be presenting this panel on the Summer Solstice. Today is Midsummer, the middle point of Summer, the longest day and shortest night of the year. It is one of the two days each year that the earth leans way over on her axis, engaged in a tango with some unseen celestial partner. It is a day of extremes.

I consider this to be good timing for our subject matter, because dream incubation is a very extreme state. It is set apart from the normal routine of waking and sleeping, dreaming and living. It stems from extreme circumstances: we are desperate to know, desperate for change, all our rational options having failed us somehow. We have reached a fork in the road, or have come across an obstacle so great that we are helpless to go on the way we have been.

So we decide to enter the unknown, give over the car keys to a ghost, and ask the dreamworld for help. This is a radical act. It is an impulse which runs counter to what this culture teaches us from our first waking day. Admit we aren’t in control? There are rehab programs for that. We can consult any number of experts whose good advice we may or may not take. But asking a dream for help? That’s going a bit too far.

When I first proposed this paper, my idea was to talk about how dream incubation is a way in to our creative process, and helps us engage with a wisdom greater than our own. But when it came down to actually writing it, I found myself more interested in the ways that incubating dreams bedevils us, throws up roadblocks to understanding, and stymies even the most diligent among us who seek to use it. So if you are looking for something to inspire you to try dream incubation, this might not be it. On the other hand, I hope it will still be entertaining.

Dream incubation, the act of asking for a dream, raises a lot of big questions. Foremost of these, and my own personal favorite, is: When we ask for a dream, to whom or what are we speaking?

First Big Question: How Big is God?

To talk about dreams at this level, we have to talk about cosmology. Dreams have changed a lot since we thought of the universe as an egg sitting on a cosmic nest. In those days, the moon, sun and stars wheeled around the shell of that dome-shaped heaven. Dreams came to us from underground, from the lair of Apollo, the Sun, once he had ridden his blazing chariot across the sky and descended in the evening to the Underworld. The realm of the Gods was almost close enough to touch, and dreams were quite literal and tangible as well. When we asked for a dream, we asked a specific deity and that figure often actually appeared and gave us very specific information on what was to come.

Dream interpretation has changed a lot since those days, too. Nobody that I have read from antiquity ever talked about the different levels of meaning in dreams. Yet today that is practically the gold standard for dream interpretation. Just as there are myriad ways of working with dreams, most Western dreamworkers will tell you that every dream symbol can have multiple interpretations depending on which level of the dream you are looking at. This is a concept borne of a relatively new worldview. It is part of our cosmology, in that it goes hand in hand with the idea that ours is just one solar system among many in this enormous galaxy, one of millions of galaxies in an expanding universe. How could our dreams not hold different levels of meaning, when our minds are in the process of learning to adapt to the enormous consequences of our own knowledge?

Opening ourselves to advice from that kind of life force is a bit daunting. It helps to invoke a power in dreams that is easier to visualize: God. The moon. The Great Spirit. Isis. A dead grandmother. Asking one being for something specific is very reassuring, because while we’re giving up control, we’re giving it up to something whose essence or intentions we generally trust. Yet there is a part of our minds that says, “well, I am asking God, but isn’t God just a form of my Higher Self? Shouldn’t I ask my own psyche, or my intuition, it’s pretty much the same thing. And if I pray to Spirit, am I praying to the creator of heaven and earth, or the creator who made the Milky Way too? How big is God?”

I have a friend, a radical priest, who begins every prayer with the exhortation, “Listen, Multiverse!”

Multiverse! That’s just scary to me. I can’t even comprehend the distances in our own solar system, let alone our galaxy. I can agree to the existence of other galaxies in theory, but there’s no way I can wrap my head around how many galaxies there are in the universe. Then to talk about other universes…well, that’s what chocolate and whiskey are for, when you start thinking in those terms. So for my friend to call in the Multiverse—multiple universes!—as the ultimate intelligent guiding force just puts me into shock. I get numb and uninspired thinking of anything that huge and theoretical. For me, God or Spirit has to get a little more graspable in order for me to ask anything of it in waking or in sleeping.

That is why I think the old Gods will never die, at least for our purposes. All those residents of Olympus and beyond are alive and well because they are so very useful as vessels through which we can comprehend greater universal forces. Most of the time, in dreamwork as in regular life, we walk around trying to put the cap back on that cosmic egg. We want a simple answer in our dreams, something that is readily understood and doesn’t make us work too hard. But it’s too late. Our dreams generally move us toward complexity rather than away from it, which doesn’t mean they don’t also answer our questions. Yet I think they’re very interested in us coming to grips with the enormous universe we’ve found ourselves in, and their often obtuse, non-literal nature reflects that.

Second Big Question: How Do We Know What to Ask?

Of course, many people don’t have the problem of wondering who or what they’re asking, and more power to them. But they may get hung up on the next big question that dream incubation raises: How do we ask for what we want, and how do we know it’s the right thing to ask for? Remember, this is an expanding universe we’re talking to. There is no right way to do things, but there are definitely ways that are more right than others.

For instance, I may want some guidance on my career. Specifically, I may be desperate for a better paying job doing something I love to do. So do I ask the dreamworld for a job? Do I ask it to show me where to find this job? Do I ask if my profession is still right for me? How much do I want to know? How much guidance am I really prepared to accept?

Sometimes we do get very literal, simple, clear instructions in our dreams. In response to my question about finding a great job, I may have a dream that I’m walking down a street I don’t normally walk down, and I meet a friend who shows me into this incredible building which is filled with light. Maybe I take the hint and, following the scent of the dream, I walk down that street today. I might actually meet that friend, and we might go have a cup of coffee. In the course of our conversation it may come up that he knows of a great job opening that I’d be perfect for and he’ll put in a good word for me. So by virtue of acting on that dream suggestion, I find my way into the building filled with light.

This is a nearly literal dream response to a pretty specific question. I would venture to say that it represents the minority of dream responses from incubation, however. More common is the experience of asking for a job and getting a dream about my family, or a troubled relationship. This happened to a friend of mine who incubated a dream on what her next step professionally should be. The dream that came to her referred very strongly to her mother’s recent death, and it was clear from working on the dream that my friend needed to stop worrying about her job and take some time to grieve her mother’s passing. This was a message she was open to hearing, and it was helpful to her that the dream put her professional concerns in the context of everything else that was happening in her life. So if the dream we receive isn’t very clearly referring to our question, one possibility is that there are other things that need our attention before the dream question can be resolved.

Then there are instances where we ask for a dream and the response we get feels a bit like the vending machine just rejected our quarter. We may remember only garbled bits that confound our attempts to describe them. Or the dreams we get may take us on what seem like wild goose chases through strange landscapes, none of which appear related to our initial question. In these instances, it is always useful to work on the dream material even though it is not a simple answer to our question. If we have the patience and commitment, we can gain a lot by reflecting on why we asked the question we did, and which unconscious assumptions or habits the dream might be pointing to as the root of our problem.

Two things are most likely going on here. One is that the dream is placing our concerns in a broader context. The other is that the dream is commenting on the question itself.

As far as I can tell, it is these long, convoluted journeys which have the potential, if we stick with them, for the greatest increase in self-knowledge and personal transformation. Being a very stubborn person, I have of necessity become a fan of these long inner journeys, because sometimes they are the only way to whittle down my resistance to new and/or challenging ideas about who I am and where I’m going. If I keep at it, examining the dreams I get and rethinking my question, posing new questions and recording the results over a period of days or weeks, eventually I will have undergone the internal transformation necessary to solve my problem.

Time in this case is our ally, and our sense of urgency is our greatest stumbling block. Taking more time when time is running out flies in the face of the culture of stress and overwork that we are trying to survive in. But unless the dreams are coming to us as nightmares, which implies some urgency on their part to communicate with us, dreams are basically not in any hurry. They come from a time source that is not concerned with the fact that we have to pay our rent or mortgage by the first of next month. It is more important to the dreams that we figure out what questions are worth asking. They are always looking at the big picture, because they are the big picture.

So if we assume that incubated dreams are responding both to our question and to the nature of our question, we will get a whole lot more out of incubating dreams. Yet it remains a complex process and difficult to accomplish alone, because we’re trying to uncover our own assumptions while being unaware consciously that they exist. It is much easier to work on incubated material with another person or in a group, which brings us to a third problem with incubating dreams: the role of the dreamworker in assisting with dream incubation.

Third Big Question: How Do We Interpret What We Get?

It should be pretty obvious by this point that I am not coming to this subject from a quantitative perspective. Thank heavens I can be anecdotal rather than follow a rigorous methodology. It is not where my strengths or interests lie, but I have immense respect for those who can use the scientific method to learn more about dreams. And frankly, scientific inquiry itself is under fierce attack in this country by forces of fundamentalism, corruption and greed. Talk about wanting to cap that cosmic egg! Therefore, even the most militantly intuitive among us should support our colleagues in the academic and dream research communities.

That being said, being a dreamworker changes how we look at dreams. Our training expands our capacity to view dreams from many angles, so that we can reflect back to the dreamer as many facets of the dream as we can access. Along with training programs, and constantly working on our own and others’ dreams, we also enter a lifelong study led by the dreamworld itself, which sends us the dreams (and dreamers) that we most need to learn from. This continuous cycle of knowledge and reflection is what being a dreamworker is all about.

As dreamworkers, we face a question of alliance that is not always acknowledged, but shows up particularly when dealing with the obtuse, difficult-to-decipher dreams I mentioned earlier. The quandary is: are we on the side of the dream, or the dreamer? Is our goal to get the dreamer to realize certain difficult things presented by the dream, or do we want to focus on levels of meaning that the dreamer can understand?

The problem of alliance arises because of a feature of the human condition: we ask for things without knowing what it is that we are really asking for. There is a difference between what we think we want to know and what we are prepared to learn. In dream incubation, what we ask for is what we think we want to know. But when push comes to shove there are usually some key parts we don’t really want to know or aren’t ready to hear, and our dreams point these out as well.

Of course, central to the excellent IASD Code of Ethics is that each dreamer gets to decide what his or her dream means. Yet there are times when I feel my role is that of a mediator, trying to balance what the dreamer can hear with what I see in the dream. Because dreams come from a greater source than our waking consciousness, eventually they will have their way. But in human terms the changes that dreams demand can be wrenching. In the end, I always err on the side of the dreamer.

To this point, there is one piece of advice I always give to people asking me about dream incubation—and to everyone who uses fervent prayer at all. I suggest they include some sort of caveat in their prayer or question, along the lines of this prayer attributed to Socrates:

All-Knowing Zeus, give me what is best for me. Avert evil from me, though it be the thing I prayed for; and give me the good which from ignorance I do not ask.

What is the Way In? Where Does It Lead?

When I started writing this paper, I assumed that the idea of entering an inner realm through dreams was a generally understood concept. Then I had the good fortune to lead a workshop with a new group of people. We created a collage on the cover of a new dream journal as an aid for remembering dreams, and I led a simple visualization drawing a parallel between this external place where our dreams would be written and the internal space where our dreams come from. One of the women piped up, “what do you mean, ‘internal space’”?

My immediate answer (and thank goodness I had one) was “your heart.” The image of hope and other qualities dwelling in the human heart was immediately understood, and we went on. But for me this was a very important point, and it made me wonder just what I meant by the title for this presentation. What is the way in? Where is “In”, and why would we want to go there?

One of the attractions and paradoxes of dream incubation is that we are taking action in order to be still, and listen. It requires both intention and patience, like the best of all spiritual practices, and its rewards come when we are able to stay in that quiet place, listening, until something—let’s call it a dream—arises from somewhere else. That somewhere else is the “In” I am talking about. At the risk of alienating people who don’t like to view these things in religious terms, that still point is where we experience communion with the Divine. We can also call it the mythic realm, Dreamtime, the collective unconscious.

For me, dream incubation is a process that helps me know myself, and helps me understand and accept what is going on in my waking life. It is a process of putting dreams at the center of our spiritual life, through a ritual with the act of dreaming at its core. So for those of us who have eclectic tastes in ritual and spirituality, it provides a wonderful anchor for our observances.

And yet we don’t have to incubate a single dream to feel the connection and sanctity that a spiritual or creative practice affords. Every night, without any extra effort on our part, our minds dream as a way to funnel material from that inner still point out to our conscious awareness. Whether we pay attention or not, that built-in process of reflecting on and integrating our experience goes on as long as we are alive. We can lead perfectly satisfying, successful lives without worrying for one moment about where our dreams come from or whether that might be a nice place to visit.

So why would anyone bother adding complexity to their life by incubating dreams? The simplest answer is that sometimes our dreams tell us to. There is a very subversive element to dreams, they are always searching for ways to complicate our understanding of who we are and where we’re going. Maybe someday they will even convince me that speaking to the Multiverse might be a useful practice, but I certainly hope not.

In spite of all the difficulties inherent in incubating dreams, I have found it to be an immensely insightful, rewarding practice. I will probably continue incubating dreams and finding new ways of interpreting them for a long time to come. I highly recommend trying it, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.