Read an Excerpt
The Secret History of Dreaming
By Robert Moss
New World Library Copyright © 2009 Robert Moss
All rights reserved.
EARTTH SPEAKERS AND DREAM TRAVELERS
The angel — three years we waited intently for him closely watching the pines the shore and the stars. One with the plough's blade and the keel of the ship, we were searching to discover the first seed so that the ancient drama could begin again....
We brought back these carved reliefs of a humble art.
— GEORGE SEFERIS, "The Angel"
You find the villages of the Temiar when a shady path through the rain forest opens out onto a field of hill rice or a clump of man-high tapioca plants. This people of the Malaysian rain forest live in the old way, by slash-and-burn agriculture, moving their thatched houses when their fields get tired. They live very close to their land. Their stilt houses are walled with bamboo poles laid horizontally, with gaps between them. There are also gaps between the bamboo slats of the floors. Earth and trees are always visible. No solid boundary is set between human settlement and the natural world.
It is not surprising that, in this setting, people have an intimacy with the earth that colors and informs their dreams. They believe that everything is alive and conscious, and that in dreams human spirits, traveling outside the body, encounter spirits of plants and animals and mountains and rivers. There is great power in these encounters, especially when a tiger or a tree gifts the dreamer with a song that later can call in its energy for healing. A song of this kind, received in a dream and freighted with the power to summon an animal guardian, or wake a mountain, is called a norng, which literally means a "road" or pathway. The kind of path that can get your body safely through the forest or guide a soul to where it belongs.
I learned about the Temiar through the beautiful work of American musicologist and anthropologist Marina Roseman, who not only has recorded their dream songs but also has sung in the women's chorus when healers have sung over a patient. I have listened to her recording of a tiger dream song. It is thrilling. Above the tapping of bamboo sticks, you hear the gravelly voice of the tiger as he rises from a nap to become an ally in healing, by driving away a disease spirit or lending his own fierce vitality to a sick person.
One of the songs Roseman translated reveals the process of acquiring a healing song from a plant spirit. A man had been seeding and tending keralad plants, patting and shaping the earth around the roots. In the time when the keralad came into flower, he smelled its fragrance strongly inside a dream. After releasing its odor, the plant took human form and announced a spiritual connection with the dreamer: "It is you that I want." As a human, the plant now began to sing, giving the dreamer a new song for healing. Notice the stages in this process, which proceeds like the natural growth of fruit and flower. You make a connection in the natural world by getting your hands in the earth, seeding, and weeding. The plant releases its odor. Then its spirit morphs into human form, initiates conversation, and finally produces the song.
For peoples who live close to the earth, like the Temiar, dreaming is a way to communicate with the earth and all that shares life on it. Everything is alive. Everything will speak to you — and speak through you — if you will pay attention. Dreaming is not only about what goes on in the night; it is also about being attuned, at every turning, to the speaking land.
I once met a wonderful woman called Freida Jacques, who at that time had served for twenty-seven years as the mother of the turtle clan of the Onondaga, the keepers of the central fire of the Six Nations of the Haudenosaunee, or Iroquois. The clanmother told me, "I don't dream so much in the night anymore. My head is getting full of the junk food of American culture. I dream like this: I've been asking myself whether I should make a trip out West. And at that moment, I see a hawk flying west, followed by three geese flying in arrowhead formation. I get my message, from the arrow pointing west in the sky."
Indigenous dreamers not only listen to the earth; they also speak for it and seek to sustain the web of connection between humans and the whole. I think of my friend Ed Harkins, a Vietnam vet of mixed Native American heritage who now lives in the Cascade foothills of Washington State and works with a wilderness school, following the trails of cougars and bears, the flight of eagles and ravens, and the cycles of the salmon and the salal berries. After the disastrous oil spill from the Exxon Valdez tanker in Alaska, Ed sat at a favorite spot on Puget Sound, thinking of all the harm that had been caused to the fish, the whales, and the sea. "Without much thought, I put a short prayer into the waters of the Sound by offering my hand to the waters, expressing my atonement for what had happened there. It was a short prayer to the creatures of the sea and the birds affected by that spill, asking for their forgiveness."
Afterward, as he drove home through heavy traffic, he heard deep pulsing sounds reaching to him through the highway noise. It took him a while to figure out what he was hearing. Late that night, in his den, he heard the sounds again and suddenly realized they were the song of whales. "A pod of gray whales appeared in my mind's eye. They were calling to me while clapping their long side fins, expressing gratitude for my humble prayer for forgiveness."
When I picture that man offering his hand, with his prayer, to the waters, I wonder whether the day will come when there is no one left who will speak to the powers of nature and ask forgiveness for what humanity has done to other forms of life on the planet. If that day comes, then as described in indigenous prophecy, humanity's time on earth will be over.
The view of most indigenous peoples is that, when we dream at night, we are either traveling or receiving visitors. They recognize multiple aspects of soul or spirit, some of which have great mobility during sleep and dreaming.
When I moved to a farm on the edge of traditional Mohawk Iroquois country in the mid-1980s, I started dreaming of a woman dreamer and healer of long ago. When I approached Iroquois elders to help me understand these dreams, one of them told me matter-of-factly, "You made some visits and you received some visitations."
The Chiquitano of eastern Bolivia believe a human has three souls, called the breath soul, the blood soul, and the shadow soul. During dreams, while the breath soul stays with the body, the blood soul (otor) can wander a little. The shadow soul (ausipis) can make longer journeys, leaving the body and the blood soul far behind. In the morning, it returns and gives the other souls an account of its adventures. The longer journeys of the shadow soul produce memories of big dreams in which the dreamer enters other realms and other times.
For many indigenous peoples, dreaming is a highly social activity, in several senses. You go places and meet people when you travel in your dream body; they may be people in the next village or campsite, or beings in another world. You also have interactive dreams in which you meet and share adventures with other dreamers. Dreaming is also social in the sense that you talk about your dreams, maybe with whoever is stirring in the same cabin or the big house in the middle of the night, and you help each other figure out what went on in the dream and what you need to do. Among the Canelos Quichua of Ecuador, husband and wife sleep on either side of the center of the house, and take off on their dream travels from their respective sides. They frequently wake during the night and talk about their experiences. They may agree to return to a certain dream place and continue an adventure together. However, there are some dreams that are so powerful or so dark you'll hold them secret or share them only with specialists — shamans or medicine people or your favorite grandmother — who know about these things.
It is not unusual among indigenous dreamers for two or more people to find themselves, like the Canelos Quichua, having adventures together inside the dreamspace. An interactive dream experience may be felt to have greater objectivity. If more than one person has experienced it, then there is a stronger reason to believe in what happened, or what could happen in the future, as revealed by the dream. The Dine (Navajo) medicine woman Walking Thunder recounted that she and her husband dreamed the same night of buying a new car. In both their dreams, they had an accident after leaving the dealership. Trusting that a future event they had both dreamed was likely to take place, they decided to postpone buying the new car for a month, shifting the time frame beyond the one exposed in the dream, and had no problems.
Let's be clear about this: for peoples living on the edge of survival, dreaming is a highly practical matter. A good dreamer is also a good hunter or fisher, one who finds the game or the catch ahead of time. A Chukchi fox hunter explained that he always knew when a fox was in one of his traps, because the night before he found it he always dreamed of being attacked by a wild and beautiful red-haired woman. Sometimes she mauled him and ran away. Whenever he managed to subdue her and have sex with her, he woke certain that he would find a fox in his trap; by his account, he was never disappointed. Jivaro hunters also believe that having sex with an attractive woman in a dream promises a good hunt; after such a dream, they'll set off at first light.
A widespread practice among ancient and indigenous peoples is to open contact with spiritual guides and allies by seeking a dream at a special place in nature. Such a vision quest at puberty is an essential life passage in many traditional cultures. Among the Ojibwa of North America, a boy approaching manhood might be instructed to perch in a "nest" — a platform set high in the branches of a tree — for several days and nights, inviting an encounter with a pawagan, or dream visitor. Sometimes the boy's vision quest is supported by an adult male beating a drum. In one classic account, a pawagan appeared to a boy in human form and told him, "You are strong enough now to go with me." The visitor started dancing. As he danced, he turned into a golden eagle. The boy looked down at his own body and saw that it too was covered with feathers. The great eagle spread its wings and soared into the sky. The boy, in eagle form, followed.
A strong working relationship with a pawagan is considered essential to personal health and success. The initiatory encounter typically includes directions for future meetings. The pawagan might show the dreamer another place in nature where they could make contact again. This might be a place inside a rock, where they could meet in a secret chamber. This rock might be small enough to carry in a pouch.
The practice of ancient and indigenous dreamers very often includes establishing such stable locales in the dreamspace, where dreamers and beings at home in these realms can rendezvous and have further adventures. Master shamans will test apprentices by giving them a few clues to a place of power in the Dreaming, and then ask them to travel by these landmarks and go beyond them into territory not described. On their return, the apprentice dreamers are then required to describe, in convincing and accurate detail, places known to the adepts but not revealed to the novices in advance. If their descriptions are accurate, the elders know the apprentices have been where they were sent and have fulfilled their assignments.
Dreaming into the Aboriginal Dreamtime
Aboriginal Australians believe that we dream our way into this world, and dream our way out of it. "We talk to the spirit child before a baby is born," naturopath and traditional healer Burnham Burnham explained to me. If the father-to-be is a dreamer, he is frequently the one who first meets the spirit child in dreams. These dream encounters often unfold at places of water that exist in the natural world — a billabong, the shallows of a river, a waterfall — where the spirit child plays with its own kind and is not confined to a single form. It can appear as a kingfisher or a platypus, as a fish or a crocodile. The dreamer may have to negotiate with the spirit child, giving it reasons for coming into a human body. Finally, the dreamer plays soul guide, escorting the incoming spirit to the mother's womb.
On the way to death, the soul guide appears from the other side. Departed loved ones and ancestral beings who are at home in the Dreamtime come calling, in dreams, to prepare a dying person for his or her journey. When the spirit leaves the body in death, these guides from the Dreamtime escort it along the roads to the afterlife, which may involve a sea crossing, descent through a cave, and/or the ascent of a magical tree whose roots are in the World Up Top.
Aboriginal dreaming is an antidote to Freud, who wrote that the dream "has nothing to communicate to anyone else." The first Australians know that dreaming means everything and is a highly social activity. We meet other people and other beings when we go dreaming, and sharing dreams is not a matter of puzzling over obscure texts but a means of developing practical wisdom, community guidance, and grand entertainment. Among nomad communities, listening to a dream by the campfire or over a morning cup of tea is better fun than going to the movies, and the dream may run the whole gamut from romance to horror, from Star Trek to soaps.
The five-hundred-plus Aboriginal tribes of Australia share this understanding: a dream is a journey. When we dream, "the spirit goes on walkabout," says Nungurrayi, a wise woman of the Kukatja, a people of the Western Desert. A powerful dreamer, she explains, is a person who knows how to open the tjurni, travel — in spirit — to interesting places, and bring back a "good story." Tjurni is usually translated as "womb" or "abdomen." For anyone familiar with chakra work, it may be helpful to think of it as the second chakra. The dream journey is powered by the same energy that is discharged in sex. The female dreamer opens her womb or vagina; the male dreamer projects a magical cord from his penis or testes and uses it to climb to another realm.
If you know that your dream is a journey, or a visitation by another dream traveler, then you are unlikely to be interested in the kind of analysis that reduces dream experiences to a list of symbols and then interprets what the symbols mean. When traditional Aborigines share dreams, they want to know who, when, and where. Who was that sorcerer I saw pointing the bone at me? Who was that person who came to my camp and wanted sex with me? Where is the cave where the dream ceremony took place? When will the car break down?
When you know that a dream is a real experience, then you want to clarify the information in order to figure out what to do with it. Maybe you'll want to tell that dream of the sorcerer all over the camp to scare away the actual sorcerer, as anthropologist Sylvie Poirier saw done in the Western Desert. Maybe you'll get together with your dream lover (if the experience was pleasant) or find a way to prevent that person from intruding on your psychic space (if it was not). Perhaps you'll travel to the dream cave and celebrate a ritual to confirm and honor what has already taken place in the Dreaming. Maybe you'll get your car fixed before it breaks down.
The Yolngu of northeast Arnhem Land view dreams as a field of interaction between the living and the dead. This can be helpful when the encounter is with the higher spirit of the departed, or a benign ancestor, but dangerous when the contact is with the lower aspect of the departed, known as the mokuy. The Yolngu are very clear about something that is almost hopelessly confused in contemporary Western society: the need to distinguish the different nature and destiny of at least two aspects of soul or spirit that survive the death of the body, and to handle them accordingly.
Aboriginals look to dreams as the place of encounter with spiritual guides and sacred healers, who often appear as totem animals but may come in many other forms. Since the missionaries arrived, Aboriginal dream visitors have often included Jesus and the angels. A Yolngu woman dreamed that the Hero Sisters — the mythic founders of her people — came to her dancing, resplendent in lorikeet feathers, and were joined by a smiling Jesus Christ. Together, they showed her a place of power, used for a fertility rite in earlier times, that had been forgotten by her community and urged her to make it a place of worship again. One of the messages of the dream seemed to be that, if we go to the living heart of religion, there need be no conflict between traditions.
Excerpted from The Secret History of Dreaming by Robert Moss. Copyright © 2009 Robert Moss. Excerpted by permission of New World Library.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.