Sunday, April 23, 2017

The dream questioner in ancient Mesopotamia

Our earliest records of the work of a dream interpreter come from ancient Mesopotamia. Here the person you asked for help with your dream was called the “questioner”. On clay tablets from Assur and Nineveh, the “questioner” is usually a woman. The title suggests that she will put questions to the dreamer, but also, more fundamentally, to the dream itself.
     Who or what was speaking in the dream? Is the dreamer’s recollection reliable? Where did the dream experience take place? What part of the dreamer — a higher part of soul or a lower one — was active in the dream? Is the female entity “as high as the sky and as wide as the earth” who appeared to that young man in Kish truly the great goddess?  What was the context of the dream? For example, was the dreamer sleeping in a special hut, built from reeds, that was used for dream incubation after ritual purification? Or was he sleeping off a bender?
    A Mesopotamian term for an obscure or mysterious dream is “a closed archive basket of the gods”. Picture a woven basket used for carrying a set of clay tablets. The role of the questioner is to lift the lid and help read what is in there. One technique she might use in doing this, suggests cuneiform decoder Scott Noegel, is to record the dream and look for visual as well as auditory puns in the patterns that emerge as she scores the clay with a reed or wooden stylus. That image, from five thousand years ago, seems strangely modern: the dream as text, the dream reader looking and listening for puns.
    But we are in a different world from modern analysts. Literacy is still a rare skill, and the questioner will use the magic of writing. But she will bring other tools to bear. She may seek a second opinion through one of many systems of divination, which range from reading the stars to examining the entrails of a sacrificial animal to noticing what is coming into view in the landscape in a given moment — the cry of the boatman, the wind bending the reeds.
 Mesopotamia, as in most human cultures, dreaming was understood to be close kin to divination. The famous Assyrian dream book in the library of King Ashurbanipal — brought to Nineveh in 647 bce from the house of an exorcist of Nippur — was filed with the omen tablets, the largest category in the royal collection. Among ordinary folk as well as in royal palaces, across most of history, dreamwork has never been separated from other ways of reading the sign language of life.   
 Ur or Uruk, the questioner may decide to go beyond the dreamer’s imperfect recollection of a dream into the fuller dream experience, by transporting herself to the place where the dream action unfolded and asking questions inside that space. What would that mean? There's a clue in a tablet that describes the questioner as “one who lies at a person's head.” An Oxford scholar suggests “the method was to lie beside the sleeper in the hope of intercepting or sharing the dream as it entered his head”.
     We have a hint here that ancient dream specialists may have used a core technique of Active Dreaming that we call tracking. With permission, a practiced dreamer can make a shamanic journey through the portal of another person's dream to bring back a clear account of what is going on in the dreamspace, to solve a mystery or resolve a problem.

Text adapted from The Secret History of Dreaming by Robert Moss. Published by New World Library.

Image: Gypsum statuette from Mesopotamia c 2400 bce.

In my next online course for The Shift Network, "
Dreaming into the Dreamtime", we harvest wisdom and practice from seven world traditions of dreaming. Classes start on May 3.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Active Dreaming to rescue soul and community in scary times

I received this message from a friend:

"Robert; I am experiencing soul loss after the last presidential election...are you? I am working on it."

I responded:

Our everyday practice of Active Dreaming has become absolutely essential. I do the dreamer's equivalent of "chop wood, carry water" every day, and I recommend this for all dreamers. Write in your journal, the secret book of your soul. 
    Find someone with whom to share dreams and life stories by our
 Lightning Dreamwork process. Seek or create a circle of active dreamers, raising vital energy and helping each other to remember and act upon the secret wishes of the soul.
    Dream with the Speaking Land, conscious that you walk everywhere in a forest of living symbols. Hug a tree, renew your connection with the elemental powers.
    Remember that your dreams and the play of synchronicity give you sources and resources beyond the obvious. Keep your direct line to the sacred and the God/Goddess you can talk to open.
    Find a way, every day, to entertain your spirits and make a playground rather than a prison in this world. Never forget that in any situation you have the freedom to choose your attitude, and that this can change everything. Choose the day.

My book Active Dreaming contains much guidance on dreaming with and for communities. It explains how to create and maintain an Active Dreaming circle, and how Lightning Dreamwork, as group practice, is a model for enlightened community leadership, as each participant takes turns to play the role of speaker and guide.
    Community, as Peter Block defines it in a provocative  book, is about the experience of belonging. To belong is to feel at home, to know you are among family or friends. When something belongs to you, you are an owner; you have a stake in something. Playing with the word, Block notes that belonging evokes longing to be - to come fully alive, to embody fully a deeper purpose in life.
     The model leader in this kind of community  is one who can bring the right people together in the right way, name the right questions for group exploration ("what can we create together?") and listen as others find their voice and their power. Such things are best done in small groups, which Block promotes as the best agents of transformation.
     Groups that share dreams the right way are now at the vanguard in developing the kind of social space that Block advocates. Dream groups are typically small (six to twelve people) and establish a different kind of space, and a deep sense of belonging to an intentional community. They are circles in which each member receives the gift of deep listening, the chance to play leader or teacher, and the opportunity to tell their life stories and re-vision those stories.
     In Active Dreaming circles, we recognize the need for strong leadership to provide the structure and dynamic within which extraordinary group experiences can be shared. This includes selecting and defining a safe and protected physical space. It means gently insisting on time limits (dreamers can get things done on time), building and maintaining circle energy and keeping everything moving for the two or three hours of a typical session, and making sure that everyone feels at home and that everyone's voice is heard.
    Part of the leader's job in an Active Dreaming circle is to ensure that a lively alternation of discussion, movement and conscious group dream travel keeps everyone alert and engaged.     
    Above all, the leader will enforce simple rules that ensure that no one present - least of all the leader herself - will try to claim authority over anyone else's dreams or life story. We are only permitted to comment on each other's material by saying "if it were my dream" or "if it were my life." In this way, we offer associations and suggestions while encouraging the dreamer to claim the power of her own dreams - and to take the necessary action to embody their energy and guidance in the world. Finally, the leader of an Active Dreaming will give her power away repeatedly by inviting others to take charge in leading the processes.
      In these ways, we fulfill Block's definition of the mode of leadership required to restore and re-story our communities: "Perhaps the real task of leadership is to confront people with their freedom."

Quotes from Peter Block are from his book, Community: The Structure of Belonging (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers)

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Laughter is a life preserver

I received a distress call from a mother who was worried that her adult daughter was despairing of life. She felt her daughter might be getting ready to check out, not in the sense of self-destruction but in the sense of giving up the game and welcoming a "death door" - an opportunity to check out early - if she found one opening,
    The mother asked, "How do we help those we love not to welcome death's door prematurely?"
    I shared  what I've found to be practical truth. To help others - and ourselves - choose not to take one of those "death doors", it's vital to identify what makes each of us lighten up and want to stay on this good earth, and to do as much of that as we possibly can. No judgment. The answer might be sex or chocolate or French fries or tree-hugging or a walk on the beach. It might be a kitten rubbing itself against your leg, or a puppy running after a squirrel.
    We want whatever gets us to laugh and start to play life as a game again. Laughter is a sovereign healer and life preserver.
     I was reminded of this in the early hours when my youngest daughter - a night owl like her dad - asked me to watch "The World's Worst Cooks" with her on the Food Network. We both snorted and guffawed as we watched the chefs in charge selecting the absolute worst cooks from a long lineup of kitchen wreckers nominated by their families. One of the guys who won a chance to go to culinary boot camp produced his best dish - a can of Campbell's tomato soup tossed in a saucepan and topped with pre-grated cheese from a plastic pack. We laughed until tears were rolling down our cheeks.
    Laughter that convulsively rich and life-renewing doesn't come from stand-up comics and hand-me down jokes. It comes out of the deep organic humus of life, out of spontaneous play.
     Sometimes this kind of laughter rises up out from a chasm of pain and grief, even tragedy, and brings healing.
     Remember the story of Amaterasu, the goddess of the sun (no less) in the Japanese myth, who withdraws her light from the world and secludes herself deep in the Netherworld after being shamed and abused? The first thing that persuades her to start coming back towards the surface world - which is withering without her - is raw, bawdy humor.
     Medical science backs up the myth. Studies show that laughter reduces the level of stress hormones like cortisol in the body, while raising levels of health-enhancing endorphins. Laughter increases the number of antibody-producing cells and boosts the power of the T cells. This tones up the immune system and reduces the physical impact of stress. A good belly laugh is truly an inner workout: it exercises the diaphragm, contracts the abs and works on the shoulders, leaving muscle groups more relaxed. It strengthens the heart.
     Laughter has the power to cleanse and to heal. And it's contagious. It's hard not to catch the spirit of laughter that arises from the joy of life.
     So - quick - check your memory bank as you ask what brings out a good belly laugh in you? Better still, what makes you laugh till you can hardly breathe? Take those memories and play them as your inner version of Funniest Home Videos. Maybe you actually have some of those scenes on video, so you can laugh along as you replay them on your monitor.
     I may regret this, but I am going to insert a video that is, literally, in my collection of Funniest Personal Videos. In the closing session of one of my trainings, someone caught me doubling up with laughter, temporarily unable to get through reading the comic first verse of a poem I had composed that day. The title of the poem is "Women Dream Dreams that Would Terrify Men."
     When you laugh hard enough to come up gasping, you'll find that as you suck in air you are also drinking, pure and undiluted, the life force.

The Japanese myth of Amaterasu the Sun Goddess is one of the great healing stories of humanity. I retell it in my book The Three "Only" Things: Tapping the Power of Dreams, Coincidence and Imagination. The text of my poem "Women Dream Dreams That Would Terrify Men" that produced uncontrollable laughter is in Here, Everything Is Dreaming.

Photo of Mongolian child and camel by Han Chengli.

Monday, April 17, 2017

For soul growing, learn from the Big O

Do you remember The Missing Piece Meets the Big O, Shel Silverstein's delightful parable for kids of all ages? My youngest daughter (now in her twenties) told me that it was the best story we read together when she was very young.     
    I woke from an evening nap  in which a sidekick to some Mr Big told me that I needed to "get" the missing piece. I could hardly ignore the double prompt so I went to my daughter's room and borrowed her copy of the Shel Silverstein story (with her permission, of course).
    With the aid of wickedly simple line drawings, we follow the adventures and travails of what looks like a slice of pie. It's trying to find a hole it can fit, and tries varies orifices that turn up, in characters it encounters.
    Eventually it finds what seems to be Mr Right. He looks like a pie missing a wedge, and the missing piece slips into the hole and the fit seems perfect. But then the missing piece starts to grow, and grow, until its host complains, "I didn't know you were going to grow." The missing piece is ejected, and the one with the hole lumbers away, caterwauling, "I'm looking for my missin' piece, one that won't increase."
    We come to the denouement of the story. A character comes along who is different from the rest. He is not one of the hungry ones, or the shy ones, and there is no hole in him at all. He is the Big O. 
    The missing piece would love to join him, but there is no place where she could fit. Can't she at least travel on his back as he rolls along? Nope, The Big O is not going to carry her. "But perhaps you can roll by yourself," he tells her. She is incredulous. How can she roll on her sharp corners? Corners wear off, says the Big O, and shapes change.
    The missing piece just sits for a long time, despondent, when the Big O rolls away. Then very slowly she hauls herself up, and flops over. And does it again. And her edges start to wear off, and she is bumping instead of flopping, then bouncing instead of bumping, until at last, she is rolling.
    There is a terrific teaching in this simple tale. It's all about soul, and soul-making. All those creatures with holes in them evoke the soul-loss any one of us is likely to suffer in the course of a life, through pain or shame or disappointment. The hunger this creates can't be filled authentically by something that is not our own.
    Nor can we find our way in life by trying to fill a gap in another person, or a niche in a social or work environment, or by just sitting around waiting for something to happen. We need to pick ourselves up and - unaccustomed though this may be - start moving according to our own inner lights. And let the road smooth out our sharp edges and put curves in our linear thinking.
    Instead of trying to fit a hole, we want to become whole. To be pals with the Big O, you have to become your own Big O.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Seeking the innermost dream

I am intrigued by nights in which we slip from one dream into another, as if moving from an outer to an inner courtyard. Sometimes the shift is marked by the experience of falling asleep and waking up inside the dream state. Waking from an inner dream, not yet fully aware that we are still in outer dream (but not yet in the outermost dream of physical reality) we record or talk about what we just experienced in that deeper place. 
     In one of the big, life-changing dream adventures of my life, I woke from a dream in which a sea eagle, an aquatic raptor native to northern Australia, my native country, and to northern Scotland, the country of my paternal ancestors, flew me across an ocean to a profound experience of contact with Aboriginal elders and their Dreaming.
      In high excitement, I proceeded to recount the dream to a gathering of dream researchers at a conference of the International Association for the Study of Dreams. I noticed, as I spoke, that the lecture theater we were in was too formal and structured for my taste, with desks bolted to the floor in steep banks. I did not notice, until I woke again in my body in the bed, that I was still dreaming.
     There was a double follow-up to that dream sequence. First, I checked with the IASD on the venue for a presentation I was to make at a forthcoming conference and found that I had been assigned a lecture theater very similar to the one in the outer dream; thanks to my dream advisory, I was able to have the venue changed to a more informal space more suited to dream experiencers. Second, on a visit to Australia I had not planned at the time of the dream, I found myself in contact with Aboriginal elders who confirmed things I had seen in the inner dream, and opened sacred space to me because I came to them with the right dream.
     Experiences of this kind can awaken us to the important fact that there are many levels of dreaming. As we develop the practices of Active Dreaming, including the ability to embark on conscious dream travels and to attain and maintain lucidity during our nocturnal excursions, we will learn that we can go with intention to successive levels of dreaming. Our design then becomes to bring back more from the innermost dreams, where the greatest treasures are to be found, but may be lost to memory as our dream selves wend their way back to the surface.
    In a program I led for sixth-graders, we were all seized with admiration for a lovely young girl who narrated a night in which she passed through seven successive dreams, nested inside each other, until she found herself in an epic of love and danger in the time of the American Revolution - and then traveled back, level by level, through the outer courts of dreaming, with exact and vivid memories of the whole adventure.
     Part of our practice, as active dream travelers, is to learn to recognize personal markers that we are moving from one level of dreaming to another. Some dreamers have familiar places of transit; favorites include a locker room (a place of changing, when we think about it), a bathroom, an Eastern restaurant, grandma's house. Some of us have the frequent experience of going up or down successive levels in a building with many floors, or an elevator that works rather differently from a regular lift.
     Shifts from color to black and white and back again may denote transits between different levels of dreaming as well as different locales. Taking off or putting on clothes, or changing vehicles, may be another marker of switching levels. To get to higher levels, we may need to move beyond the astral body (in which we engage in many of our dream adventures) to a more subtle vehicle.
     The problem of the "false awakening", in which we wake from a dream only to find - when we wake again in the physical body - is an intriguing one. I explored it one evening in a class in which I suggested that although I could not prove whether or not I was dreaming at that moment, I might be able to establish whether I was in a physical body.
     To dramatize this point, I took the candle from the center of the circle and dribbled hot wax onto the web between the thumb and forefinger of my left hand. As I felt the pain, I announced to the group, "I think I have established that whether or not I am dreaming, I am in a physical body right now." Then I woke up in my bed. I felt the residue of the heat and pain in my left hand, a dream hangover effect that is sometimes called astral repercussion.
     Growing consciousness and discernment about these things is a matter of practice, practice, practice. The reward is to become a more conscious citizen of the multiverse, awake to the fact that our ordinary lives are related to grander stories being played out, right now, in other orders of reality, able to draw from this the will to choose how we navigate life on all levels.

For more on the levels of dreaming and the subtle bodies, please see my book Dreamgates: Exploring the Worlds of Soul, Imagination and Life Beyond Death (New World Library).

Art: René Magritte, "The Human Condition II" (1935)

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Revolt of the Imagination: Narrative Lessons from Olga Grushin

A Russian-American writer, Olga Grushin, brilliantly depicts the revolt of the imagination under a totalitarian system in her novel The Dream Life of Sukhanov. The protagonist is a promising Surrealist painter who buries his art in order to get a fat paycheck and a big apartment and a chauffeured car while working as an art bureaucrat. His suppressed imagination comes after him, spawning dreamlike anomalies in his everyday world, until that world - and the false values it instilled in him - falls apart.
       Olga Grushin is a wonderful writer whose narrative devices merit close study. She uses shifts in tense and person to mark the transits between current experience in a narrative and things remembered or entered in imagination. In the protagonist’s present, the action is narrated in the third person and the past tense. When he is drawn back into memories, the narration is first person and present tense. The past is more present and more intimate than the present. When his dreams begin to take over his unsettled present reality, we shift to first person and past tense; the dream world is becoming the real world.
      Another effective Grushin device: pictures come alive and spill over into the world. A figure in a brown coat from Dali turns up as a character in Moscow, both frustrator and liberator. A face reflected in a window in an early canvas turns out to be the face of the woman he will love and marry, unknown when he made the painting.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Cracked or Creative: Speaking of Coincidence.

Coincidences are homing beacons. They are secret handshakes from the universe. They are extraordinary sources of guidance and direction.
     The great psychologist Carl Jung lived by coincidence. and achieved a profound understanding that through the study of coincidence we will come to grasp that there is no real separation between mind and matter at any level of reality — a finding confirmed by the best of our physicists. He taught that the incidents of our lives and the patterns of our world are connected by meaning, and that meaningful coincidence may guide us to the hidden order of events.
     Jung was so fed up with the reflexive dismissal of coincidence as only coincidence that he labored heroically to give us a new vocabulary with which to describe both the phenomenon and its character. He coined the word “synchronicity” and it has since achieved wide circulation. The term is unsatisfactory. It refers to things happening at the same time, but an interesting run of coincidence can play out over a longer period.
     But “synchronicity” sounds scientific and respectable, and I often use it to get round the difficulty of talking about these things in a state of semantic confusion where we routinely dismiss things as “only” coincidence, or insist that an incident “wasn’t”  coincidence” when what we mean that it was coincidence, and it was important.
      Coincidence multiplies when our thoughts and feelings are strong and focused enough to set up a magnetic field. Roberto Calasso describes how this works in the life of writers in his recent book La Folie Baudelaire:  “The writing of a book gets under way when the writer discovers that he is magnetized in a certain direction…Then everything he comes across – even a poster or a sign or a newspaper headline or words heard by chance in a café or in a dream – is deposited in a protected area like material waiting to be elaborated.” This has been my experience when engaged in bringing through a book. The world gives me story after story, lead after lead, and the shelf elves became hyperactive.
     The idea that coincidences are important is troubling to some in the psychiatric community. ”Ideas of reference” – referring to the delusion that everything perceived in the outer world relates to the individual perceiving – are defined as a symptom of psychotic illnesses including schizophrenia. Determined not to be overawed by Jung’s learned borrowings from Greek, a Swiss psychiatrist named Klaus Conrad made up the word “apophenia” to describe a psychotic condition he defined as the “unmotivated seeing of connections” accompanied by a “specific experience of an abnormal meaningfulness.”
      Conrad’s Greek was not as good as Jung’s. The word he wanted is apophrenia, which means “away from the mind.” But he left out the “r” in the Greek stem phrēn, so his coinage — meant to categorize a kind of nonsense — is itself nonsense. The mislabeled condition (mentioned in the title of a rock song and in William Gibson’s novel Pattern Recognition) is a disorder of compulsive pattern recognition that produces paranoid fantasies.
     There are people who find meaning and inspiration in the cracks on a wall, and people who are simply cracked. The difference between them may be as extreme as that between Leonardo da Vinci (who urged his apprentices to study cracks in the walls) and the nut portrayed by Mel Gibson in Conspiracy Theory. When we navigate by coincidence, we move effortlessly into creative flow. When we project our delusions onto the world around us, we put ourselves in a place of blockage and pain. It is the release or constriction of creative flow that will tell us whether we are on the right track (though let’s note that the release may involve a necessary redirection of flow).

- Adapted from The Three “Only” Things: Tapping the Power of Dreams, Coincidence and Imagination by Robert Moss. Published by New World Library. This book is now available in French, Spanish, Swedish, German, Russian, Lithuanian, Turkish, Chinese, Japanese, and Korean editions.