Re-dreaming the dream of your life
(c) 2000 David Lee Lang
All Rights Reserved
I was nearly to the top of the mountain. The trail was steep and I was worried that I would slip on the loose dirt, sending me sliding down two hundred feet of mountainside. Still, I was determined. The early morning sun was already hot enough to make me wish for a shady place. I looked carefully at the trail, planned where to place my feet and what my hands would grab for support. I then rushed up the last fifteen feet to the top. As I came up over the rise I was surprised to find that I had not quite reached the top. There was one more obstacle I had to climb. Straight ahead, planted boldly just below the mountain's top was a porcelain toilet. To reach my goal I had to stand on this toilet.
There are many different kinds of dreaming. Had I been a skilled dreamer back in 1974, I would have recognized that I was in a dream. Had I been a skilled lucid dreamer, the kind of dream where you "wake up" inside the dream and know that you are still dreaming, I would have taken control of the dream to fly off and have great fun. Had I been skilled in the shamanic healing technique of Dream-weaving in 1974, I would have been in this dream place to gather knowledge or change some aspect of my life.
As it was, I walked over to the toilet; climbed it and looked out over the most beautiful valley I have ever seen. A wide river with beautiful sunrise colors reflecting off the water was illuminating the deep rock walls in shades of orange and violet. The cliff walls and the tops of the canyons were richly green with ancient trees, moss, ferns and the textures of hundreds of other plants. I woke breathless in my apartment. I had never seen such a beautiful place. I wrote this dream in my dream journal as I looked out over the last cold weeks of Wyoming winter. It was definitely time to move to a different place.
Three months later, around June 21, I found myself on the road, having already driven 24 hours. Exhausted, I pulled into a scenic lookout to rest. It was early morning at sunrise. Getting out of my car, I walked over to see the view. Had I been shamanically trained in 1974 I would have known that I was now looking into a guiding dream, the kind of dream that tries to guide you toward your personal destiny. As it was, I found myself breathless again as the chills cascaded down my spine -- I was looking at the Columbia River Gorge and I was looking at the landscape from my dream in Wyoming. I knew that somehow in my March dream I had vividly seen this place at this time. I had dreamed my true home.
I have learned to follow my guiding dreams and now find myself part of the rebirth of shamanic knowledge. More people are awakening to shamanism and, while not yet mainstream, people are beginning to recognize its power and possibilities.
Shamanism is an ancient spiritual system that is used for physical healing, emotional healing, guidance, and connection with the primal powers of the universe. The word "shaman" is a Siberian word to describe a type of medicine person who journeys through the mind into the realms of Spirit to obtain this healing, guidance and help from spirit guides. The shaman travels the realms that most people only experience through dreams, mythologies, and near-death traumas. The shaman journeys to these realms with a specific purpose, and then returns with healing, lost soul parts, information or other guidance.
In the Western culture most people think of shamans as Native Americans or other indigenous people. Shamanism is thought to be some kind of primitive religion presided over by "witch doctors." To many people it looks like "high weirdness" and from the Western materialist, scientific world view it is high weirdness. But it works, and has worked for over 60,000 years.
While shamanism is a broadly used word that describes many different systems and philosophies there are some basic "principles" or philosophical foundations that guide the lives and work of many shamans.
One of these principles is that "everything is a dream and all dreams are real". Couple this with the principles that:
- everything is alive, conscious and, therefore, dreams,
- all things are possible and,
- everything is interconnected,
and you are working with very powerful tools for transformation and healing.
Dream-weaving is one of these tools and a very specific form of shamanic journey work. If, as described above, our daily experience is a kind of elaborate and shared dream, then, in a manner similar to changing a nightmare into a normal dream, it becomes possible to transform the dream of your life. In the nightmare you might turn to face the giant gerbil that is chasing you and stand your ground to demand to know the monster's intention. Your intention to change this nightmare causes Super Gerbil to suddenly transform into a dream guide who helps you to confront a problem that you have been running from in your daily life. Dream-weaving allows you to use your intention to change the dream of your life.
Everything is a dream? How is this possible? Try convincing my bruised shin or stubbed toe. It is important to keep the concepts together -- everything is a dream and all dreams are real. So what is a dream, what is reality?
Shamanism is a world view that believes that the true source of reality comes from within the mind, and that, somehow, we project the shin-barking substances out "there." As a result, if you want to change some reality in your life, or heal illness, then go into the mind to the true source of the problem and do the work there. Success with this approach comes from recognizing that our minds are more than just fun containers for our fantasy life. Our minds are also doorways into a vast landscape of real places and real beings that can be asked for help and guidance.
The shamanic perspective believes that we, through the internal landscape of our minds, are the interface between the worlds of the material and the worlds of Spirit. The worlds of Spirit are places just as real as New York or Africa; they just exist on different planes from where our shins are blindly wandering. Everyone travels these realms in dreams; the shaman is trained to travel these worlds intentionally.
In the Western scientific culture, we have been trained to associate dreams with imagination and to associate imagination with pretend and fantasy. Never mind all the anecdotal stories of people having prophetic dreams, forget about the people who wake from shared night dreams, ignore the stories of people sharing last moments with someone who has just died hundreds of miles away. Our personal experiences have been devalued by this world view.
From the shamanic world view, of course, dreams are part of the imaginal realm, but imagination is not the same as fantasy, rather it's an active process by which we gain access to real worlds and have real experiences with real beings and real geography. This reality is on a different order of experience, however.
What exactly is reality? Now that is a question that has generated years and thousands of pages of philosophical discussion. And, much to your disappointment, I am not going to solve the reality puzzle here. Suffice it to say that there is this thing, somewhere, called reality. We will never truly know reality -- that is the business of Gods and Goddesses. We get to know our experience of reality, to varying degrees of accuracy. We have some experience of reality that is then filtered through our senses, our emotions, our brain chemistry and our culture. Based on this filtered experience we create a story and call it real. Then we act as though this story is real and true. But it is only a story, a map of our experience of "reality" and the map, as has been pointed out by people wiser than me, is not the territory.
The function of systems like philosophy, religion, science, art and shamanism are to find maps and tools to access this thing called reality and manipulate it in some way to effectively live our lives.
All these systems are arbitrary slices of the "reality pie" that provide, each in their own way, useful ways to work with reality and live in the world. Each system has its own advantages -- science makes a great telephone and I wouldn't use shamanism to make a telephone. (However, shamanic techniques have been used for communication across hundreds of miles and in some cases over thousands of years.) I don't turn to science to tell me about love; I go to the poets and mystics for this. Shamanism is just another system of tools and techniques for shaping our experience of reality. As I said, Dream-weaving is one of shamanism's tools.
A story about my wife's injured wrist will help define Dream-weaving more clearly. Annah's wrist had been in pain for several weeks. We were both intensely busy with coordinating my out-of-state shamanism workshops, which is why we hadn't worked to heal her wrist earlier. The problem naturally got worse since we weren't paying any real attention to it, other than sympathy. Finally at 11:00, the night before the workshop, Annah said to me, "David, if you want me to drum tomorrow, we have GOT to do something about this pain in my wrist. I can hardly move my hand." Well, now the pressure was on!
Of the several shamanic techniques that I could have used, I was instructed by my spirit guides to use Dream-weaving. If everything is alive and conscious, then everything, including Annah's wrist, is dreaming. The first task of Dream-weaving is to journey to discover that dream. I needed to journey to find the intention of the dream of Annah's wrist.
As I journeyed I saw images of Annah's wrist bones. They were made from granite rocks; very hard, durable, lasting for millions of years and, unfortunately for Annah, very, very rough. This was the dream of Annah's wrist bones. The painful part of their dream was that these rough bone/rocks were grinding together.
Now that I had the wrist's dream, the next stage of Dream-weaving was to create an even more beautiful dream to for her wrist to dream. This more beautiful dream must maintain the original intention of the wrist's dream, in this case to be strong, durable and hard. To this intention I "dreamed" the dream that her bones were highly polished jewels -- diamond, emerald, ruby, sapphire, and amethyst. Sparkling with glowing light, beautiful, durable, strong, hard and smooth! By midnight, Annah's hand had ceased to hurt and remained pain free for several months - until she re-injured it.
Now Dream-weaving, as I just described it, doesn't sound very much like dreaming as most people experience dreaming. The dreaming that most people do is a kind of unguided tour of shamanic space and/or of their own internal landscape. Dreams are a collage of personal hopes, fears, and fantasies, and explorations of the realms of Spirit with a bit of anchovy pizza thrown in for effect.
Dream-weaving and dreaming, as shamans do them are driven by the intention of the shaman. Intention is central to all shamanic work. To do dream work without intention is like watching a movie with no plot. Intention forms the framework for understanding the experiences in shamanic realms. Another way to think of Dream-weaving is as conscious dreaming. In fact in many shamanic cultures, the work of the shaman is described as dreaming -- however there is no sleep involved.
Dream-weaving was what originally called me to shamanism, though I didn't know about Dream-weaving at the time. Years ago when "shaman" meant "Native American" to me, before I learned that every person has a shamanic heritage, I was in that early sleep-state called hypnagogic. It is that relaxed state between awake and asleep where you start to see "dream" images and are still aware that you are on your bed. As I was lying there, eyes closed, settling in for that long winter's nap, I saw a beautiful image of an egg floating against a deep blue, star-filled sky. Embossed on the egg's surface was a Celtic triskelion design. I was wondering what this image might mean and thinking about doing a painting of it when suddenly, with a flash of light and noise, the egg exploded. Three huge animals burst out of the egg and flew off into the internal landscape of my mind.
I sat bolt upright and dripping in sweat. I spent the next 20 minutes calming my breathing and trying to understand the experience. I was shaken to my core.
I felt very strange and disconnected from my body. This feeling persisted in varying degrees for the next 8 weeks. The best metaphor I could find to describe my experiences to supportive friends was that these animals were flying about completely rearranging my internal landscape. They were moving mountains, hiding treasure, building cities, burning forests, draining lakes, uncovering toxic waste and re-coloring the sky. The long and short of it was that I no longer knew "who I was."
Now it's not like I forgot my name, or how to make toast. However, deep down inside the central core of who I was, I was being completely changed. I thought I was going crazy. Fortunately for me I have done considerable reading about alternative realities and other metaphysical concepts and didn't rush straight to a psychiatrist. Instead, in a stroke of brilliant Spirit guidance, I began to Dream-weave my healing.
I realized that to survive this experience, whatever it was, I really needed to re-map my internal landscape, to relearn who I was. The only beings that knew my new landscape, the ones with all the maps, were the very beings from the egg who were inside shifting things about.
So began my first shamanic test -- to call each of these animals home and befriend them.
Thus began a series of Dream-weavings that lasted for 4 more weeks and sent me in search of deeper shamanic understanding, knowledge, training and skill. These animals are now my primary power animals* and guide me in all aspects of my life and work.
What are the limits to Dream-weaving? While theoretically there are no limits to what is possible, practically it comes down to personal power, ones connection and support from the world of Spirit, and ones intention. Dream-weaving is ultimately limited by the higher laws of Spirit. Shamanism must work within the intention of Spirit. If our intention is at odds with the intention of Spirit around the same issue, Spirit trumps you and me every time. The underlying structure for every Dream-weaving is always, "If it is in the best interest of Spirit then I am dreaming to. . ." If Annah's wrist's dream had been serving a higher, more important lesson for Annah, we would not have been able to shift that dream, at least not until Annah had learned more about the dream's intention.
As we travel through life our beliefs are often challenged by those who "know the Real Truth". These people are very committed to making you believe that their map of reality, their dream of reality is the "one true and only way to believe". There is a simple "magic spell" from one of the most powerful tenets of Dream-weaving that will protect you. It is the question, "Who dreams this dream and why?" Also you can use it to periodically question the boundaries of your own dream/reality system.
Why do you believe what you believe? How does it limit or liberate you? How can you re-dream the dream of your life to be more fulfilling, rewarding, happy and nurturing? How can we re-dream the dream of our planet, of our culture? How do we re-dream the nightmare of our environmental destruction, of our wars, or our crime filled cities?
What dream are you dreaming right now?
* Power animals are helping spirits that guide and protect the shamans in their work.
The concepts in this article are those of the author based on his research and experiences in shamanic consciousness. They do not represent any particular shamanic culture and are subject to further refinement, transformation and growth based on on-going research and teachings from shamanic realms.
Originally published as a two part article in "Alternatives for Cultural Creativity", Winter 01 and Spring 02.