22 August 2017

When is now? Where is here? And am I me?

(This is a further meditation on the nature of dream consciousness during a vacation trip)

I wake up in the perfect dark and silence of this time-worn villa in the alpine foothills of the Hungarian frontier, my mind still resonating with the images and feelings of a dream I just emerged from. As I have trained myself to do over the years, I ask myself, “What were you just dreaming?” without moving a muscle from the position I just woke up in.

The familiar despair hits me as the unearthly, jarring, disjoint, paradoxical recollections flow into memory: How on earth am I going to write this down in words?

This is a familiar experience to the experienced dreamworker, because the more clearly you learn to recall the details of dream experiences, the more you understand that the dreamworld does not conform to twenty-first century mainstream concepts of time and space. You can recall sequences in which two things seemed to be happening at the same time in the same place (which, in the conventional waking world is a paradox). Or actors in the drama of the dream can have multiple identities (“He was like Chairman Mao and my cousin Fred at the same time,” or “At the beginning of the dream the man driving the car was Jim, but later the driver was Susie, not to mention that the car had turned into small dragon.”) Objects have the qualities of several objects. Objects can be things that don’t even exist in the waking world. Objects morph into other objects. The dead are still alive. You could be in a contemporary building and World War Two is happening outside the window.

It’s all so slippery and hard to pin down. It’s hard to remember because it’s hard to remember things you can’t describe in conventional terms.

If you think you can describe the dream world while sticking to a language of Newtonian physics, empirical facts, strict linear timelines, and a sort of Randian/Dawkinsian dearth of the numinous, please give me time to go get some popcorn so I can watch your inevitable train wreck.

So how do you use a human language designed to describe a consensual world of conventional space and time (such as English) to describe events in a world which behaves according to other rules of space-time?

In this struggle, your weapon of choice is the art of narrative.

How does mythology impose a meaningful order on the sublime events of the cosmos at the divine levels? Narrative. It becomes a story that can be told. Prometheus stole fire from the gods and smuggled it to the human race in a hollow tube? I suspect this is a very pared-down version of the original experience some temple priest had while lost in trance at the peak of an ecstatic ritual. And do you know what he probably thought when his eyes popped open in the middle of his sweaty face, his ears filled with flutes and drums, his sense of smell overwhelmed by the herbs and resins smoldering on the glowing coals? “How the hell am I going to write that down in words?”

Ah! I know how you feel, Zosimus.

When Tom Wolf endevored to convey the insanity of 1980s America unhinged by reckless financial deregulation, he didn’t write a report; he wrote a novel. The Bonfire of the Vanities can arguably give a better understanding of what happened than a manic massing of mountains of facts. Narrative shows its power again.

And even in the hard-nosed world of the multi-national corporation, I have been advised time and again when writing a report, “Tell a story! Give a meaning to the numbers and trends! What succeeded? What failed? How did that impact the mission?”

Narrative is your man.

In mainstream dreamwork, the rules for recording dreams are fairly strict:

  • 1.      Record the dream as a story and tell it from beginning to end.
  • 2.     Include as much detail as possible.
  • 3.     Include feelings.
  • 4.     Do not digress into interpretation. Stick to the story.

They are good rules. They should be followed as much as possible. But there are times when the demands of capturing events from non-mundane space-time through the language of contemporary human culture requires resorting to something that can only be described as art.

The more challenging dreams in my journal contain passages written in language that becomes dramatic, poetic, and borders on purple prose. I dig deep into my bag of metaphors and similes. I stretch the symbolic, etymological and semantic potential of words as far as I can stretch them.

Lying awake in the dark silence, the difference between my internal experience and the waking experience of my physical body intermingle and I almost redream parts of the dream with my eyes open. I make an effort to take the bits and elements I can remember and put them into some sort of “logical” order.

 At this point I have to accept that I am forgetting huge amounts of detail, and that images have changed from what they might have been in the original experience to the “remembered” experience. And I also have to accept that the sequence I am imposing on them is a way of making sense of them in physical space-time, and that it might not have happened quite that way. I also need to maintain faith that the process is not an arbitrary process I’m imposing from outside. This is an organic, human process. Since before recorded history our ancestors have been going through this process of transforming a nearly ineffable internal experience into a tangible, practical artifact. The remembered dream is always only a condensed, stepped-down version of the original experience.

I get up and navigate the room using the dim light of my phone’s screen so as not to disturb the others in the house. I put on my hapi coat, grab my dream journal and make my way outside into the starry August night. It is 2:30 in the morning, and I can see the sky has rotated four and half hours around Polaris since I looked at the sky before going to bed.
I put down my journal on the concrete stoop before the door and wander out into the yard. I get out my phone and load the astronomy app.

This has to be one of the most brilliant ideas any software designer ever had. It just stands to reason. If you have a device with a compass, a gyroscope, a powerful computer and a color display screen, why not write a mobile sky-map program.

And time stretches and contracts once again. Every time I observe the night sky, and contemplate stars with Babylonian, Arabic and Greek names, and constellations whose names predate civilization, I am transported back to the ancient deserts where our ancestors patiently observed the sky every night and, with the basic instruments at hand, measured and recorded the daily movements of the object in the sky until they created three-dimensional maps. The making of these maps led to the invention of mathematics, navigation, and physics, and basically all the higher knowledge of civilization. And what did they see when they looked up at the sky? Gods. Myths. Stories.

Narrative is your man.

I go back to the stoop, prop my phone up against a step and turn on its flashlight to write by. With the moon shining over my left shoulder I struggle to concoct a narrative out of the bizarre impressions and impulses of my dream. It had the feeling of a film: a crime mystery thriller. I am one of the characters, and the perspective continually shifts. From moment to moment I am either seeing this character from the outside in the third person, or I am looking through the eyes of the character. And as in a mystery thriller, there are plot twists and surprises. It’s hard to follow. On top of all of this, one of the characters in the story is a close friend of my youth who is dead now. And the subject matter is harrowing and violent.

When I finally finish writing down the dream, I look up at the stars above me. Such a contrast: the orderly motions of the heavenly bodies, and the disjointed, non-linear events of my inner life.

I go back into the perfectly dark, perfectly quiet bedroom, and lay myself down for what was known in the days before electric lighting as “the second sleep”. It seems like such a luxury nowadays; something you do when you’re on vacation. But until recently, this was the natural sleep pattern for the human race.

And, indeed, a few hours later I wake up with another experience that I am challenged to encode into English. Again, it feels cinematic. It takes place in Italy, a country I hardly know. I am hiding from my enemies by disguising myself in drag as a nun. And again, the identity of this dream character is ambiguous. Sometimes I am watching from the outside. Sometimes I am viewing things through the eyes of the character. I really can’t recall the order that things occurred in. I just have to pick an order to tell the story in. It seems this character is just walking into rooms and houses at random to adjust her/his costume and makeup. How is this possible without running into people? It’s not logical. I just have to tell the story as well as I can.

My daytime life on this vacation has parallels to the nighttime. We organize expeditions to drive across the border into Austria to go swimming at a lake. The border crossing is on a rural road so remote two cars can’t pass each other without one going partially off the road. The border guard post is a small trailer. Though we’re always diligent to make sure we all have identification when we cross, as our caravan of cars slows down at the crossing, the bored guard standing by the road notes the Hungarian licence plates and waves us through. Twenty-eight years ago, this was the iron curtain. Now, this border barely exists. The border isn’t such a fixed thing anymore.

On one occasion, we cross into Austria to visit a Templar castle called Castle Lockenhaus. You can walk into the temple; an oblong room of stone devoid of any decoration besides a small block altar on one end. I get out a compass to check the orientation of the room. Oddly the altar is in the south. My mind is blown. Altar in the south? I’ve never seen this in modern European mystical culture. When I go into the chapel nearby, I check again. As expected, the altar is in the east.

In the castle there are charts of family trees for the families involved with the castle through time. A nearly 50-50 split of Hungarian and Austrian nobility. Where does Austria end and Hungary begin. Time and space stretch, contract and bend in this castle.

Time stretches and contracts. Time, bends and twists. But sometimes it takes a break from the corporate, materialist, linear world to experience that as a reality.  

14 August 2017

Leaving the city; calming the waters of the mind

Probing the dark recesses of your personal netherworld might seem like an odd way to spend your summer vacation, but that’s my jam.

Though it isn’t quite the way it sounds. I mean: on the surface it looks like just about anyone’s vacation. But vacation, and especially certain kinds of vacation, are a golden opportunity for the dreamworker. Doubly so if you live most of your life in a dense, hectic urban environment, like the life of Yours Truly in the inner circles of Budapest.

I’ve written elsewhere about the many hindrances to reaching deep dream states and to clearly remembering dreams, so I won’t go into great detail about that in this essay. But suffice it to say: dense cities – with their noise and light pollution, with their powerful electromagnetic fields of varying frequencies, with their frenzied auras of freaked out pressurized populations, and with their frenetic lifestyles – are a serious challenge to maintaining consciousness of your dream life. I know that some of the several-week-long gaps in my dreams journals can be directly attributed to the stress and “noise” of living in the city and holding down a corporate job.

And decades of experience have shown me that vacation consistently gives rise to an upward spike in dream activity. I record as much in my journal in one week as I had in the previous two months. For instance: I have slept in our vacation house for two nights now. In that time I have recorded nine hand-written pages of dreams, consisting of five distinct dreams. The preceding nine pages in the journal took three months to fill. See what I mean?

And it certainly is not just a matter of quantity. One dream I recorded this morning astonished me with the depth to which it penetrated. Appropriately (apros depths), the dream takes place in rooms and passageways within the Budapest Metro that are restricted to the public (places I’ve never been in waking life). Secret underworld passages. Secret things that are buried deep.

And there was a sublime pun. In one dream there is a book that has witnessed everything that’s ever happened, and it is accompanied by a portable arc lamp. It’s "the arc-lamp of the covenant." Funny and heavy at the same time.

When you’re on vacation you usually sleep a little longer than usual. I sure do. I’m lucky if I get more than six and a half hours of sleep a night most of the time. On vacation, I try to get eight. On vacation, I also love to go to places where it’s perfectly quiet and dark at night. Without the competing “signals” from the other senses, it’s easier to hear the voice of your dreams. And that goes for electromagnetic noise as well.

And the stress. Being preoccupied all the time and going to bed with a head full of mental chatter is a sure-fire formula for having low-level “psychological” dreams that express your neuroses and are cluttered with “day residue”.

So we have come to Western Hungary (a literal stone’s throw from the Austrian border) to visit the family of my eldest son’s girlfriend. It’s a very large family that can boast up to 18 people at the table at every meal (counting guests, but still!). They live on several acres of forested land in the Alpine foothills that abuts a large stream. There are animals and organic gardens, and children of all ages. My daughter and I spent three hours yesterday paring about fifteen kilos of wind-fall apples (literally: they’d been knocked of the tree by a thunderstorm the night before) that got made into several gallons of fresh cider and two huge apple cakes.

My mind is so distant from the concerns of corporate management I may as well be on another planet.

We are being put up at a house the family owns several kilometres away, situated in several acres of hilly garden with an abundance of fruit trees. It’s about 100 years old and has stone and plaster outer walls about half a meter thick. When you close the wooden shutters of the windows, it is as dark and silent as a tomb.

To quote Joni Mitchell: “… Dreamland comin’ on

25 August 2016

Cue the elephant..

...and tell those blind dudes their smoke break is over.

Disclaimer: No metaphorical animals were harmed in the composing of this blog, and the men on the left acting the parts of humans with dreadfully limited perceptions of reality were all paid union scale for appearing in this essay.  

If you're expecting me to retell this parable, you've got another thing coming. If you don't already know it (How long have you been living in a cave?), follow the link in the previous sentence and do some remedial basic cultural education. You're welcome.

The reason I'm trotting Jumbo and his friends out is because their story is the perfect illustration of how to interpret the many answers one will get to the question "What is a dream?"

It's question I like to ask at dreamwork sessions and when I am giving presentations on dreams: What ARE dreams anyway? And people take turns offering up definitions, metaphors and anecdotes:

"Dreams are the mind filing away the memories of the day."
"Dreams are the mind giving symbolic form to bodily sensations."
"They're expressions of our hopes and fears."
"...experiences on the astral plane."
"...visits to other worlds."
"...our hopes and fears."
"...astral projection."
"...the subconscious speaking to us."
"...time travel."
"...the other side of the coin from our daytime experiences."
"...our innermost selves."
"...lessons from our higher selves."
"...an alternate reality."

The list goes on and on. Every time I think I've heard it all, someone comes up with another answer.

Finally, I say, "All of these, and more, are true,"

And I mean this sincerely. Dreams cannot be be confined to one explanation. Dreams are many things. And they can be many things at the same time.

You can have a dream whose background (let's say a large public square in your town where there is a demonstration taking place) is a commentary on the social/historical milieu, where you see your colleague in that funny hat she wore to work today, while the stomach ache you went to bed with is creating the image of a child poking you in the abdomen with a stick, and you have an enlightening and useful  conversation with your aunt who passed away two years ago (visits from the dead are common experiences among dreamworkers).

So, just as saying an elephant is like a wall, or a rope, or a tree, misses the big picture, letting yourself be satisfied with one answer to the question "What are dreams?" is equally short sighted.

Questions are more powerful than answers. Keep asking the question.

18 August 2016

How lucid is lucid?

The word “lucid” in the term “lucid dreaming” is a misunderstanding waiting to happen. If you define it as “waking up inside a dream”, or “becoming aware that you are dreaming during a dream” -- an experience nearly everyone has had at least once -- it can give the false impression that lucid dreaming is an on/off, either/or proposition: either you are lucid dreaming or not.


It’s more useful to think of the development that comes from working with dreams to be a deepening and broadening of awareness. This involves a far greater range of skills or abilities than just the one-trick pony of realizing you are dreaming. It’s a path to be followed, or a scale to be ascended, and not just a single goal to attain. And it involves your awareness of the dream state both while you are dreaming and when you are awake.


Let me give you some examples.


Let’s say that you are dreaming a location reminiscent of your grammar school. But you realize that it is somehow different: there’s a room in this building that didn’t exist in your school. The realization within the dream that this isn’t exactly like your old school is already a new level of awareness. If this level of awareness gets strong enough it can be enough to trigger the “Hey! I must be dreaming!” response. But there are many levels between total passive acceptance of dream content and activities, and achieving the awareness that you are dreaming.


There are times that we remember our dreams as being particularly “vivid”: the colors were deep and intense, the emotions were strong, the symbols jumped at us with their significance, there were characters that radiated personality and charisma. This heightened sensitivity to the content of dreams is another manifestation of higher awareness.


How often do you spontaneously recall dream content in the middle of the day? Another sign that dream awareness has heightened is when daytime experiences trigger memories of dreams from the night before. You walk into a grocery store and see the apples and oranges, and -- bam! -- you clearly remember seeing a fruit basket in a hotel room in dream the previous night. This is also an increase in awareness (a raising of consciousness). Establishing a relationship between daytime and dream experiences is an important step in understanding the meaning of dreams.


If you are noticing certain symbols (objects, places), themes or sequences repeating themselves in your dreams, and also taking note of how these dream elements change over time, that is also a form of intensified awareness.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think the acquisition of lucidity in dreams is a bad thing. It’s very exciting and also an important step in mastering the skills needed to make dreams into tools for navigating your life. But it is only one of many skills the dreamworker can acquire. It’s not a matter of on/off, black/white, lucid/not lucid. There’s a whole banquet set at the buffet table. Don’t stuff yourself with caviar and crackers, ignoring everything else.        

10 August 2016

Things that go "bump" in the night

I come to the edge of the holiday resort, where the gravel road leaves the lighted area and turns into an uphill dirt track into the dense forest; basically suitable only for more rugged vehicles, or on foot, like I am. As far as I can tell, nobody bothers going into these woods during the day, not to speak of going there at night. I have the dark forest all to myself.
The stars are out but there is still a touch of light in the Western sky. I carry a flashlight in my hand, with my thumb on the switch, but I’ve vowed not to turn it on unless I really need to. I also endeavour to walk as quietly as possible, to make my presence as unobtrusive as possible and to make all my senses – external and internal – as sharp as possible.
The crescent moon is already down, and I am amazed to discover that I can see in the forest by star light… just barely.
This whole operation has put me in a unique state of mind.
I have to emphasize that as a child I was intensely afraid of the dark. I think vague memories of other lifetimes informed me that the dark is never empty. If anything, that’s when you’re going to encounter “things” that lurk on the edges.
With “maturity” I became “rational” about the dark and didn’t feel the same way I did as a child. My involvement with mysticism and the occult is divided between two periods. The first was between the ages of 16 and, say, 25. There was a pause where I distanced myself from everything smacking of the occult, occupying myself more with martial arts, and the Eastern philosophy that comes with that (Zen, Chi Kung, a bit of Daoism, etc.) Western mysticism and magic came back into my life in 2003, when I was 44. A funny thing happened when I began trying to communicate with spirits. I started occasionally getting a little freaked out by the dark. Not all the time, but sometimes. For instance, I might walk into a dark room in my house when the family is away and I’m alone, and I feel a presence in the room. I can get goose bumps and have to control my breathing, or resort to some sort of “protection” visualization or mantra. I still feel this way sometimes. It’s kind of funny to know that I’m a 57-year-old man who is occasionally frightened of the dark.
And there’s no darkness like the forest. You are alone. No human soul there but you. And there are things out there. That’s the difference being a mystic makes. When you go into the dark forest, you know you are being watched. You know you need to have your shit together and not allow yourself to become vulnerable.
Keep your composure, and keep your “aura” strong and intact, and you have nothing to fear.
Nonetheless, it’s dark, and I’m in the forest, and I’m on hair trigger.
At the same time, without the intense signal from sunlight, and the absence of 3G, wi-fi, and 120-cycle AC electromagnetism, it’s deeply quiet in a way that belies the songs of the crickets and locusts.
So, you see: background signal is cool and calm, but my nervous system, though very quiet, is as alert as a cat waiting at a rodent hole in the ground. A unique state of mind.
I walk silently with the flashlight in my hand that I never use, stopping now and then to listen to the forest, and to feel it. I find a clearing where I do the ritual I came here to perform. It takes an act of will to speak aloud in the dark silence.
Afterwards I walk back down the hill in silence, knowing the forest is watching me.
Sometimes we have to test our courage.

It’s well worth the effort. 

03 August 2016

Packing list: some good novels, swimming trunks, mugwort dream pillow, dream journal

I was only seventeen, and had only been occupied with my life-long dreamwork obsession for less than a year when I made a big discovery while on a Christmas visit with my father to my grandparents in Kentucky: dream activity goes into overdrive when you're on a vacation trip.

When you get away from the daily grind of your usual life, get exposed to new scenery, and -- in this case -- revisit scenes from your past, the subconscious becomes very vocal.

On that trip I recorded several very long, vivid dreams in my journal. Subsequent vacation trips corroborated this theory. At this point I assume it to be a proven fact, at least for how my dream life works.

Tomorrow I leave for a ten-day vacation trip. Tonight I'm making myself a new dream pillow using the mugwort I harvested from my mother-in-law's garden two weeks ago, and have had hanging to dry in my study ever since.

I look forward to adding many pages of rich and vivid dreams to my journal.

So, if you're going on a vacation trip anytime soon, don't forget to pack a notebook and pen.  

28 July 2016

It's all good

Whatever field of endeavor you're involved in, there are topics that come up when you are talking with the general public that get... well... tiresome. If people know you're a writer, it can get very tiresome to hear all about the film script or novel they'll write one day (they won't). If you practice martial arts, everyone who's ever seen a Bruce Lee movie thinks they can talk to you with authority about what training is and what the ultimate fighting techniques are.

If you are a practitioner of dreamwork, everyone thinks they are telling you something you've never heard of when they insist on talking about lucid dreaming. In case you don't know what the term "lucid dreaming" means, it's that thing almost all of us experienced as children when, in the middle of a dream we realized "hey! I'm dreaming!"

People who have been attracted to the contemporary lucid dreaming movement, think that if I'm involved in something called "dreamwork" it must have something to do with lucid dreaming.

Well, yes and no.

If you work on becoming more aware of your dreams, on remembering them and working with the stories they tell and the symbols they show you, inevitably you will at some point become aware in the middle of the night that you are dreaming. It's a heady experience. You suddenly realize that you aren't awake and that this world you are in at this very moment is another reality. You look around and notice that the world you are in isn't like the material world. You see that the object around you aren't like physical objects that have solid surfaces and reflect light, but that they are actually made up of tiny points of light. And you also notice that if you stare at them they slowly shift and change, unlike the objects of waking reality.

It can be tempting to want to experience this state again and again. There are techniques for doing this. I will admit to having spent time and energy on this in one part of my life. And I did succeed in bringing on this state of consciousness fairly regularly during this period.

But I came to realize the lucid dreaming is only one the many states of consciousness you can experience while sleeping. It's not important to have a "waking" type consciousness while you are dreaming. What's important is that you remember it. What's important is that you become aware of the many stories and symbols that are presented to you while you are sleeping, and that you use them to bring greater meaning to your daily life.

The lucid dreams come when they want to. They don't have to be forced. And with time they come more often. But they are not the only game in town.

So, don't obsess about lucid dreaming. Just become more aware of dreaming in general. Experience all the things it has to offer. And when the lucid dreams come, treasure them as the gifts they are.

It's all good.