During my avid martial arts phase I was blessed to train with some true masters. And often on the razor’s edge where something may be working —yet for minutely wrong reasons— they would straighten me out. A technique I thought I understood would reveal hidden facets or covert flaws that, once corrected, took it to another level. Without such a guidance the technique would not have developed to its full potential. Or at least its potential attainable with my limited skills.
When I left Japan, my teacher told me the path was mine; I’d learned all I needed to continue, the rest would be revealed in practice. Budo. The way.
Last night my dream reminded me of something discovered only through practice. It was a small detail of great importance.
I have been exercising more daily mindfulness. For a few reasons, but one of them was in the hope it would carry over into my dreams. That I would become mindfully aware while dreaming. And last night it worked. I was watching a comedy act in a club. The comedian wasn’t funny, but hey, I wasn’t there to be entertained, I was practicing my “mindfulness.” Mindfully listening to the comedian, mindful that I wasn’t enjoying it very much, and aware of thoughts and dialog happening in my head without getting caught up. Yet the critical missing piece: I wasn’t mindful of the dreaming.
A minute but crucial detail. And a subtle flaw in implementation I often gloss over in daily practice. A flaw of omission which became readily apparent when put to the test in the dream world.
Mindfulness has become the darling of pop psychology. But a teacher in the older traditions once said something, almost as an aside, that is not usually reflected in the contemporary self-improvement approaches. He said it’s not enough to sit and be aware of our thoughts and feelings, we must also be aware that we are doing this. That we are in this place, aware of this awareness of things. When we do this, awareness becomes less of an “I” or a who and more of a “what.” As in, “what the heck is this no-thing that is aware?” Because it seems very strange to call it “me” which is just a collection of things that this no-thing is aware of and untouched by.
Words are poor containers for this point, but the point was this: simply noticing thoughts and feelings can be a type of introspection rather than a type of awareness. And introspection is just another flavor of sleep so one cannot expect lucidity from its practice. Introspection could just be an identification with the idea of detachment. With an idealized “objectivity.” In contrast, there is an alchemy that comes with awareness of being aware. “Self-remembrance” as fourth way1 practitioners call it. The mindful dream that was not lucid seemed to be speaking directly to this flaw in my practice.
In my dream an old musician told me his secret to life. He said: react to things as an artist. Here’s what I think he meant.
Normally we react to events and situations based on past experience. And usually we are quick to classify and bring to bear our summary encounters and limited purviews of personal history.
To react as an artist means opening to the moment. Not just connecting the dots deterministically and robotically. The older we get, the more autopilot seems to engage. If we’re not careful, pretty soon we’ve got everything sorted and nothing really informs us, or enlightens us, or moves us. We can travel long intervals unaware we are still at the wheel.
To react artistically, engages different parts of mind than the bookkeeping of our habitual conditioning. To play with the potential of a moment opens to a larger field of inquiry. It’s a not so subtle difference between creating and manufacturing. Every widget is not the same. And we may have to discover this by stretching our imaginations rather than pushing shapes into slots. Then our experiences become invitations to unfold creatively. Then we can peek into, behind and around things and ferret out umbral dimensions of illumination, connection and enchantment. Some claim this can be done with nothing but a grain of sand. Or maybe a wildflower in a pinch.
The dream took place in a large mall. I was in uniform, back in the service; a sergeant, so towards the end of my tenure. A detail of later importance, I believe. My troupe had cleared out for the lower level of the mall, I hurried to catch up but noted one half of the mall in utter chaos. I shouted to the security guard, Ray Liotta(!), asking what was going on. People scurried for exits, Ray himself was jittery with nerves but resented my challenging his command of the situation. While berating my impudence, another Ray Liotta ran up, lacing the first Ray in an anaconda hug bringing them both to their knees. Original Ray’s eyes panicked abruptly then flickered lifeless, drained. I twisted around to bolt out of there and ran smack into my own doppelgänger. Its eyes solid black, like evil Willow’s blinded with magical rage in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It embraced me in a death coil but somehow I slipped free and sprinted toward the escalators. On the way down another person’s doppelgänger became caught up in the escalator and tripped, it’s head splitting like a melon full of black, tarry ooze. I shocked awake.
A few days previous, over a pint in a pub where all stories such as these begin, I had been discussing Jung’s idea that each of us has a “shadow” and that to become whole, according to Jung, we needed to reintegrate these rejected parts of ourselves in a process he calls individuation. Thinking about this dream, I wondered if this was the flip side of that —when the shadow integrates us instead. Yikes! But then I examined the dream elements a little closer.
Timothy Leary preached that set (our mindset) and setting (the environment) heavily influence how our minds shape reality. Especially in altered states. Set, in this case was my uniform, being back in the military, and it’s an infrequent but still recurring scene. Military, to me, represents a period of thought control, imposed conformity, of people used like puppets without free will, in the service of other interests. A mall is an archetype of consumerism, cliques and shallow entertainment (in my psyche anyway.) One deeper meaning to all this might be (and one I didn’t first grok) that to become our whole selves, our integrated selves, our old self must die. The shadow is not just the unredeemed parts of ourselves, Jung also claimed it was 90% gold. Aspects that may not fit in our culture or our cookie cutter models of identity that carry in themselves incredible powers. Powers that would likely alienate us from our current beliefs and mode of life. Or as Marianne Williamson says:
Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.
I escaped this time, perhaps to my detriment. Perhaps it was a warning shot across the bow. Who knows what we are capable of becoming when we surmount our fears. Who knows what we have to give up to reveal what we had all along.
A whiff of rosemary to clear the mind. My coffee cup, like lifting a barbell, solid enough to serve as a makeshift weapon should zombies pour over the windowsill next to my desk. Music I’ve never heard flows from tabletop speakers, a compilation somebody made for “Sunday Afternoons” and the first track playing is from Pink Floyd’s album: Endless River.
It’s the third day of the new sleep schedule. Lights out at 11pm. Lights on: whenever. Ten to twelve hours so far, catching up from the trip, perhaps. Or sullen protest to the new regime. Slowly waking up to dream recall, but still missing many an opportunity to record due to laziness and their memories evaporate.
Recently beginning to appreciate the connection between things. Which, at first, I thought only applied to external reality. However, while trying to gain more lucidity in dreams, it appears one must gain more lucidity during the day as well. Dreams are part of the fabric of life. Conversely, I realize, the importance of dreaming more while awake. The conscious mind lives so superficially. A small boy on the corner with a dog. A conscious mind notices just that. Meanwhile, in a larger plane of awareness, which encompasses consciousness but not vice versa, there exists a fabric, rather than a thread, of perceptions. The sad look in the eyes of the dog, the holes in the sweater, the shy fingers poking through and playing with frayed fabric, the red mottled with Rorschach stains, the memories evoked unfold in wisps and strands of unnameable feeling fragments.
Another whiff of rosemary. An interval of quietude within and areas of body checking in. Not with problems or discomfort but with a pleasant fullness, relaxedness that usually comes with a good stretch. I am grateful for this and thankful. It will not always be so.
A spirit rattle shakes once. Coming from somewhere over by the bed where my android phone is running an app called Awoken. I look at my hands carefully, inspecting front and back. I remember where I am: sitting in my chair at the desk. How I got here: coming inside from errands and visiting the ATM. I carefully scan the room and my surroundings for anything that looks odd or out of place. This time reality checks out.
Last night the test almost passed, but there was a subtle slip-up. I remembered where I was and how I got there. But the memory was sketchy, glossing over some things. OK, I thought. I guess that passes. I examined my hands to make sure. Which started out well, but I seemed to be missing a part of a finger and another finger contorted oddly. Aha! This was a dream! My first lucid dream in a while. I’ve been dream journaling diligently, beginning in November. And things have been ramping back up to re-enter dream territory with more intent. Especially with the plant journeys winding down.
Now that I had awoken in my dream, my goal was simple: stabilize as long as possible. Which means, first of all, regulate emotions. Most people, myself included, when they first experienced this weird phenomenon of being totally awake, inside a dream, find it so exciting, exhilarating and wild that they wake back up immediately. So the first trick is to be a little chill about it.
And the second trick, the one I’m working on now, is to maintain focus. Meditation helps. Learning to focus on the cushion, being pulled away time and time again by chains of thoughts, but returning to one’s original focus, is good training for keeping balance in the dream. Because if one starts getting caught up in the story, just like in the “real world,” one loses oneself easily to illusions. And presence vanishes. 1
So I focused on being focused. I looked at my hands and then back at the environment and back at my hands. Back and forth —a little too hyper— but it had been a while. Then I forgot and started attending to what was happening. I forgot to come back to center and things gradually unraveled.
At one point with lucidity slipping, I asked this girl I was with in the dream how to get out of my loop. She stared into my soul but had no answer. (I may have binged watched a bit too much Westworld last week.)
In the final few minutes, I was in south Ecuador and saw the shadow of a large Incan god. While I was deciding what to do about it, and what to do next, my focus frayed. I made one last play to engage the environment by asking a kid if I could have a bite of his cool looking bird shaped ice-cream, but that wasn’t the type of engagement or focus I needed, and with the bite, I woke up.
My thoughts today are at Standing Rock. In a dream last night, I smeared my face with a mixture of earth, water and some fragrant herb. Ok, yeah, mud. I showed another gringo how to do this. Yeah, I’m part gringo too, though I’m also in the tribal rolls. I showed him how to clap, hands above head, to each direction. A young Native American approached, we hugged, he said “well met brother”, and ran up the mountain, turning somersaults in grassy openings. I thought it looked like fun, and before the final part of the ritual, washing my face in the river, I slid down a steep grassy slope on my belly that felt like fur (the slope, not my belly) to the bottom of a vale. And I awoke thinking about Standing Rock and the Ghost Dance of the Pauites and Wounded Knee.
The Oxford dictionary word of the year for 2016 is “post-truth.” An adjective “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” This is about all we see in the news these days.
Investigating Standing Rock a little more deeply, it’s not so black and white as post-truth media suggests. On the one hand, The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers green-lighted the project with an apparently cursory review and environmental assessment and approved it under a “fast-track” option. Native Americans protested, reacting against environmental issues in addition to the dispossession of their lands.
Technically the pipeline doesn’t cross Native American lands, except there is an old treaty, before the reservations were parsed out, which was never formally nullified. Nor are there any ancient burial grounds or sacred archaeological artifacts. The pipeline does cross under the Missouri river a half mile from the reservation and a spill could have major impact on a critical water supply. Normally this would have required review as mandated in the Clean Water Act but somehow($?) it got an exemption.
Camps were setup by Indigenous leaders which have been the focal point of the spiritual and environmental resistance, attracting many protesters, especially on the weekends. One camp that was forcefully evacuated was directly in the path of the pipeline. There are the skirmishes with private security companies and militarized police using dogs, concussion grenades, rubber bullets and water cannons in freezing weather. Along with claims of protesters ignoring private property lines and harassing security guards with knifes and poking them with fence posts.
The company claims it is losing millions daily in delays caused by the protest. The protesters point out that recent pipeline spills, one in Kalamazoo river in Michigan and another crude oil spill in the Yellowstone River in Montana has cost over a billion to date to clean up and are still contaminated.
Unless one is in firmly in one or another of the post-truth camps, this is not a clearcut issue over right and wrong. On the one side is water and earth. From the dream, to me this speaks of things that endure, epochs of time rather than moments. And clarity. Clean water is both clear and reflective.
On the other hand is fire and air. Supply and demand. There is a great and immediate demand for oil and thus great profit in providing it. There are better solutions long term, and on the horizon, but we have tremendous sunken costs. Jobs, conveniences, stability in the status quo. The elders at Standing Rock don’t deny this reality. But many of the protesters are against fossil fuel companies as a matter of principle.
The company could have taken another route, at the cost of an additional 11 miles and endangering a different water supply. One in an area predominately white. I’m not sure race made as big a difference as the accounting on 11 less miles of pipeline.
Many indigenous are tired of being pushed out of the way time and time again for economic interests of companies, shielded by state or government authority for hire, and see this as an opportunity to come together to take a stand. There are 3 kinds of power in this world (thanks Starhawk.) Power-over is the power of force. Power-with is the power of a collective wisdom and power-within is our own personal and spiritual integrity.
In our times it seems the power of force and law is often at odds with the sensible or the just. And opposing this in return with the power of force leads to wars, terrorism and revolutions in a never ending cycle. What’s emerging, at Standing Rock and beyond, is an awakening of these twin powers of with and within as a strength to be reckoned.
First within, with clarity and reflection on what is important to a quality of life that’s based on more than fear or greed. A letting go of appearances and things to experience the essence of what and who we are and want to be. Many are disillusioned with self-worth based on what we consume, or what we own or where we happen to be born in the world.
Then comes the “with” as we learn we are all part of the same journey. That this planet is alive and that everything is connected. That we have eyes in our hands all over the world that turn into streams of images of things that can’t stay hidden. Not only are the voices of the surveilled accessible to those in power but voices of those in power, spoken in secret, can be heard by the people.
What can integrity and connection do against force? What can awareness and communication accomplish? I think we’re going to see more examples like Standing Rock, becoming more and more effective at swaying the attention of the world back to things that matter to all of us, not just a few of us.
And maybe we need to touch bases once and while with mother earth and get a little mud on our faces and honor the quarters and turn a few somersaults or roll down a hill confident that we are part of something much bigger than ourselves.
Maybe the word of the year 2021 will be “post-force.”