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Me flying in my dreams
Last night, instead of flying through dream landscapes, on a sojourn to Stonehenge, I dreamt about the Serta sheep. Just like in the mattress commercials, they crowded into my room, whining because I didn't need to count them to fall asleep. It seems, after years of trying, I have as much control over my dreams as I do over the weather, now bitter cold, as if last week's warmth never happened. Once, though, I flew in a lucid dream, and I long to recapture that feeling of ecstasy.
For a long time, I've been interested in dream shamanism, but despite years of learning, I'm still equivalent to a karate white belt. Or perhaps, by now, I've earned a yellow belt. Still, my inner Pat Morita keeps intoning, "Wax on, wax off." I have much more to learn.
Dream shamanism is the technique of using dreams to seek spiritual insights. It is typically accomplished through lucid dreaming, which means dreaming while knowing that you are dreaming. Through practice, lucid dreamers can learn to affect the content of their dreams, and a dream shaman can interact with a dream in order to seek spiritual insight and guidance.
Whether or not you believe that dreams are a conduit to the spirit world, most people agree that they are a window into our unconscious mind and, therefore, a great place to seek greater self-knowledge. Plus, lucid dreaming is fun, especially changing objects and environments. It's kind of like the holodeck on Star Trek: The Next Generation. Except you don't need to worry that Moriarty will show up and kidnap your friends.
You could say my "flying lessons" began at the family breakfast table, where each morning, we shared our strange, interesting, or even boring dreams. My brother used to share particularly vivid dreams in great detail; it was like listening to a novel. By contrast, my dreams tended to be fractured and convoluted, failing to cohere into a solid narrative. Many times, I ended my stories with, "And then I woke up." Still, our daily ritual taught me the importance of remembering my dreams.
Then, one summer in the mid-90s, I met a dream shaman at a Rainbow Gathering, which is kind of like a hippie convention, held every year in a national park. We were walking the dirt path which ran between sections of the encampment. He was a man of indeterminate age, thin and tanned, wearing very little. He carried a tall walking stick, and his white hair and beard made him look like an archetypal "wise man of the mountains."
As we walked, the conversation turned to dreams, and he told me about his work as a dream shaman, through which he helped people discover insights and solve problems. I asked him for his advice to a beginner. He suggested keeping a daily dream journal to record my dreams, which would teach me to pay closer attention to them. While I was tempted to ask him, "And what's the next step after that," I held my tongue. I'd just read the Celestine Prophecy, which says that we encounter people who teach us things at the moment we need to learn them. I trusted someone would tell me the next step when I needed to know it. When we parted ways, I asked him his name. "Dreamwalker," he said. Of course.
Using Dreamwalker's advice, I started a dream journal. It was easy at the time, because I worked second shift at a pizza place and didn't have to awake to an alarm in the morning. Alarms can rip the dreams right out of your head, I've found.
I like the way that King Missile describes the process in the song "How to Remember Your Dreams" (video here). They say, "In order to remember your dreams, You must think of them as if they were little kittens. When you wake up in the morning, Before you get out of bed, Sit up and say, 'Here, kitty kitty kitty kitty kitty kitty kitty kitty kitty kitty'." Silly, but it's close to what I actually did. Every morning, I spent a couple minutes remembering my dreams and writing them down. That's a practice I need to revive, especially since I'm once more working second shift.
In my dream journal, I also wrote my interpretations of my dreams. I've read that almost anything in a dream can represent an aspect of yourself; so if you dream about being tied to a chair, you may be the person, the chair or even the rope. I don't put a whole lot of stock in standard dream interpretation books, though, because I think it's more important to consider what a given symbol means to you personally. Those moments of reflection gave me valuable insights into what happened in my dreams. Looking back on them years later, I've learned even more, like how the dreams of my then-husband being attacked by vampires were really dreams about my fears of losing him to mental illness.
Richard Linklater would be my next instructor. His movie, Waking Life, compiles various interviews about dreaming, animated in a series of shifting scenes. From that movie, I learned some important lucid dreaming techniques. (I also learned that rotoscoping, when done well, is really cool.)
The first step to lucid dreaming is realizing that you're in a dream. So it's important to train yourself to recognize dream characteristics. If objects or faces change, if you can't change light or sound levels, and if writing shifts and is almost impossible to read, you're in a dream. If you're talking to your mother, and she looks suspiciously like Barbra Streisand, then changes into a German Shepherd, chances are you're in a dream.
The movie recommended asking yourself, while you're awake, "Am I dreaming?" Then look at an object, look away, and look back. If the object is the same, you know you're awake. The more you train yourself while you're awake, the more likely you'll repeat the process in your sleep and recognize that you're dreaming. Or, alternatively, that your mother is really weird.
The next step would be to affect the objects around you. I have to admit, too often when I realize I'm in a dream, I forget to seek spiritual insights, and instead act like a kid with Play-Doh. "I can change anything I want," I think gleefully. And I spend my entire dream making trees really tall, or commanding music to swell out of fountains.
More productively, I've had lucid dreams where I converted a stressful or terrifying situation into a positive outcome. In those dreams, I've faced down monsters. For example, I finally booted my former boyfriend, Leechboy, from my dreams. For more than a decade, he'd pursued me in the dreamworld, insisting on moving in with me, even as my heart sunk. Then, in several successive dreams, I told him no and forced him to leave. The last time I saw him in the dreamworld, he had resigned himself to his fate, marrying someone else in a very tacky all-white wedding.
Rather than passively accepting the material of their dreams, I understand dream shamans use flight to enter different portions of the dreamworld to seek spiritual knowledge. That, I felt, was the next task I should strive to achieve.
Now, I had flown in regular dreams, but it was usually a frustrating experience. Flying in those dreams was like frog-kicking through murky water. I moved slowly, if I actually moved anywhere at all. Another time, I levitated in a dream with Carlos Castenada, the author of a series of books about shamanism. This was not a lucid dream, either, and I got stuck on the ceiling, bouncing around like a helium balloon, unable to descend.
I've been told that it's important to preprogram yourself about where you might fly if you do achieve flight in dream. I decided I would fly to the pyramids of Egypt, which I've never seen. Looking back, that probably wasn't the best choice; I should have chosen a place I'd visited and could picture more vividly, like Stonehenge. Or something even more familiar, like a site from my childhood.
On one particular night, in the midst of an ordinary dream, I realized I was in a dream, and miracle upon miracles, I remembered that I wanted to fly to the pyramids. As soon as I thought it, I was whooshing through the air, the sky blurring around me, wind caressing my limbs. I was filled with elation. Ecstasy, Bruce, ecstasy.* I got so caught up in the moment that I forgot I was supposed to go somewhere, and I spent the rest of the dream whirling around the sky like a drunk seagull. Next time, though, I'll choose a place I know better, and hopefully, I'll remember to fly there.
Dreams aren't like life; they are life. We spend a third of our life inside them, and therefore, they're a valuable tool for understanding our deepest fears, hopes, and challenges. Me, I hope to fly once more through those dream skies, to feel that elation. Whether I go to Stonehenge or my favorite summer camp, I look forward to testing my wings.
Bonus video: Pink Floyd's "Learning to Fly"
* A line from one of my favorite Bonzo Dog Band songs, "Trouser Press" (video here)
Dreams can offer more than a picture show.