Happy Halloween! Historically, Halloween is the Anglicized celebration of the Celtic new year, known as Samhain. Early November is traditionally the final harvest in Europe, and also marks the calender as a “cross-quarter day,” in this case in between the fall equinox and the winter solstice.
So, we can say that Halloween is the marking of an important crossroads, into winter, into darker nights, and into days of eating a lot of boiled turnips and oatmeal. For all these reasons, except for the turnips, Halloween is open season for powerful dreams.
Today, I’m republishing the first article I wrote for the web, titled “Ancestral Knowledge in Lucid Dreams,” originally published in Electric Dreams in April, 2006. It’s a piece about the depth of dreams that extends far past the commercial notions of lucid dreaming, delving into ancestral themes and what James Hillman called, “the underworld of dreams.”
Soul just asks to be scratched. We know it when we do it right. There is soul in dreamwork, but only when the dream is approached like a bottomless well. For me, this work sometimes comes in the form of spontaneous lucid dreams. They are unbidden, and can be terrifying. In my early twenties, I tried to possess too much and almost lost my bearings in the waking world. A natural turning away from dreams occurred over the next five years, and I sought comfort in the material world. I trained as an archaeologist, digging graves and measuring the width of thin flint blades. Slowly I convinced myself again of our “real,” biological nature. But the dreams came back, with a reality of their own, until I could no longer ignore them.
More careful now, with more respect, I have begun to peer down the well of souls again. So when I use the term “lucid dream” I want to make clear that I am only speaking of a dream in which I know I am dreaming. There is not an attempt to control the dream matrix, or engage in pre-ordained tasks. Over time, I hope to find a way to incubate without control, and to intend without dominating, but for now I experience lucid dreaming simply as a spontaneous self-awareness within the folds of the dream itself. This is how my soul currently scratches its itch.
Last year, I read a stunning article by Apela Colorado, in which she describes her experience of self-awareness in dreams. I was drawn to a quality of her dreamlife that is usually absent in my own: reverence. In her dream, a great white shark threatens her in the ocean waters. Without hesitation, she rolls over on her back, floating motionlessly. The shark, a powerful animal spirit in her native Hawaiian cosmology, responds by swimming under and around her body, “wrapping me in vivifying intelligence and power.” This reverence is mirrored in her waking life. Colorado’s next move is to honor the dream in the waking world by making an offering of gratitude at the ocean shore, where she glimpses a shark fin in the distance. Her powerful experience, then, is not only a tale of right action, but also an example of a life that is intertwined with thanksgiving.
In the context of lucid dreams, reverence can be acted out, or embodied, with ritual in the dream. This thought has been distasteful to me in the recent past, because I had decided that “going with the flow” was the only way to prevent the domination of the analytical mind in the dream. “Lucid” come from the Latin word luce – light – and after-all, it is the nature of light to banish the shadows. And it is the shadows from whom we learn the most in dreams.
However, willpower is crucial during numinous meetings. We usually maintain our boundaries in dreams, and should recognize the heightened magic of transference that operates here. So the paradox is: how to wield our power in conversation without crushing the dreaming Others?
The Western, postmodern viewpoint has historically concentrated on the change of consciousness during an altered state. Aldous Huxley’s Doors of Perception is a classic example of Western letters’ approach to altered states. The shift is what is noted, and the comparison of one state to another. This can be seen of most academic research into lucid dreaming, in which the state’s uniqueness lays in its “double-consciousness” or meta-knowledge. In fact, some researchers’ definitions of lucid dreaming require this meta-knowing; not only must the dreamer realize she is dreaming, but she also must know simultaneously that she is laying in bed in a darkened room.
Shamanic counselor Jurgen Kremer puts this seeming paradox into perspective. From an indigenous holistic viewpoint, Kremer suggests that “the focus seems less on the alteration than on the spontaneous or ceremonial encounter with power or spirit(s)” (1994, p. 90). Rather than focusing in an endless self-referential loop of meta-knowing (aren’t we clever?), a traveler can concentrate on the situation at hand. And in the meeting of spirits or entities in the dream, reverence is highly recommended.
Roots and Blood
I have roots in Brittany and Gaul. Remnants of my ancestors’ cosmology are carved into the rocks along the shorelines, into gold interred in earthen mounds, and inked into words, much later, by Christian monks and Romans. In these Celtic traditions, the Otherworld is where the spirits of the dead reside, as well as gods and assorted demons. Timeless, eternal, and just around the corner, the Otherworld wavers at the boundaries of consensual, social reality. As agricultural people, the Celts were bound to the seasonal Gods of fertility, death, and rebirth. Sacrifice in blood was the way. In short, Celtic worship was a bloody and brutal affair, and the gods were not happy about being ignored. As Rome conquered Europe, in commerce as well as cosmos, the gods of the Celts shrank in proportion to the populace’s lesser belief. The Little People of Ireland are an artifact of this reality. Often maligned by the Church, but never forgotten by the people, the little gods still affect daily life in Brittany.
I had an intense dream recently in which elements of my ancestors’ way of life came alive.
I enter a spiral stairwell and walk down the steps. I am aware I’m dreaming, nervous and excited. The banister is also a snake, winding its way down. I feel a sudden surge of humility as I walk down, knowing I am close to a source of power. The staircase becomes a round tunnel and I slide down quickly, enclosed but not restricted, emerging on a platform. I look down and am horrified to see that I am bleeding profusely from my chest and abdomen. Blood splatters the floor and I am simultaneously holding a box in front of me that is also bleeding. I feel I am close to something powerful. I hurriedly make one more downward turn, where the axis of the staircase winds tightly into a standing column of blood and light. It is alive, transparent, and pulsing with energy. I hold up my box and it fits into the column at about chest level. Suddenly, I feel relieved, and am no longer bleeding. Still lucid, but unsure how to proceed, I am struck with a pang of humility again. I fall to my hands and knees, prostrating myself in front of “the source.” I thank it for this opportunity and feel very emotional, both ecstatic and sorrowful. I feel a compassion for myself (in my own thoughts) and I know that I am safe.
This dream is the first of a series of “reverence” dreams I have experienced since I began to concentrate on ancestral ways of knowing. This dream vision had an intense quality of more-than-realness that Anthropologist Lee Irwin calls “apodictic.” The powerful column of energy and blood was terrifying to behold. I felt that I was seeing something that I was not meant to see. Irwin, in Dreamseekers, describes this numinous feeling as it manifests in Plains Indian vision states: “The threshold experience is described as a sudden feeling of an overwhelming, often frightening presence… is that of mystery, power, and the unknown” (p. 128). The comparison I’m drawing here is merely thematic; a gulf of experience and cultural transmission separates the Plains visionaries from my dreaming self. Regardless, in my dream the power of the Other is the central focus of the experience, not my clever lucid witness. As soon as I framed this experience as a meeting, I was overcome with the need to ritualize my actions. And with this spontaneous action came an outflowing of thanksgiving and compassion.
Abandon all Hope?
From a Celtic-shamanic perspective, dreams can be seen as visits to the Otherworld. Although this realm is sometimes describes as the “Happy Otherworld,” it can be a dangerous place for mortals to visit. King Arthur almost dies there, and the legendary hero Cu Chulainn encounters monsters and terrible visions. Unwary humans who return safely from the beyond transform instantly into old men and women upon their return. It is fair to say that bringing back the fruit of the Otherworld to the lands of everyday life could be a misleading quest.
I often feel the same way about dreams and their interpretations. James Hillman warns about this false alchemy in his work Dreams and the underworld. He suggests that we honor dreams for their own expressions and view the “gurgitations that ‘come up’ in dreams without attempts to save them morally or to find their dayworld use” (1979, p. 40). This is a radical view of dream experience; perhaps Hillman has taken too seriously Dante’s admonition to give up all hope. However, concerning the journeys of dreamlife that take us into the murky underworld of spirits, ancestors, and mythic creatures, this is warning enough for me. The archetypes and the gods live out their lives on the periphery of our daily life. By reducing their expressions to daily concerns and personal trauma, we may be dishonoring our ancestors.
The future is the past
The schism in my Western mind is deep and troubling. I derive a lot of enjoyment out of the analytical skill set, and I am invested heavily in words, constructs, and my own self-deception. Separating the linguistic mind from the kinesthetic knowledge of the soul flows the cold river Styx. I am ready to pay the ferryman, but at the same time I’m afraid he’s going to shortchange me. The analytical gaze I bring with me often crushes the delicate expression of my deeper self – and it happens without my knowledge. I sense that the ancestral work that begun this season is a pathway to a truer identity. Without a past, disconnected from my ancestors, I am exactly what my culture dictates: a loose constellation of selves all set out to oppress each other. My work with lucid dreaming is attempting to expose the oppressive cultural riders that come with the gift of the intellect, while giving the Others a forum to meet me, on hallowed grounds. For this work to truly take hold, I can only continue to say thank you.
Colorado, P. (1995) ”Remembrance, an intercultural mental health process”. First Reading. Vol.13, no.3 ESPC
Gackenbach, J. (1991) “Frameworks for understanding lucid dreaming,” in Dreaming, vol1, no2.
Green, M. (1993) Celtic Myths. Austin: University of Texas Press.
Hillman, J. (1979) The Dream and the Underworld. New York: Harper press.
Huxley, A. (1954) The Doors of Perception. New York: Harper & Row.
Irwin, L. (1994) The Dream Seekers: Native American Visionary Traditions of the Great Plains. University of Oklahoma Press.
Kruger, J. (1994) Looking for Dame Yggdrasil. Falkenflug Press.
Pennick, N. (1997) The Sacred world of the Celts. Rochester: Inner Traditions International.
First Image: Magic Stone? by Michael Filion, CC 2007