Dream Gates

elephant dung.jpgAt one of my lectures, an earnest fellow asked me to “bottom-line it” for him; what is my approach all about? Remember to play, I told him. He wrote this down carefully, which suggested that he may not have gotten the message.

I might have said, Don’t pass up any chance to fool around with elephant dung. I’m thinking of what happened in the Laetoli valley in Tanzania in 1976, when a couple of young archeologists in a team led by Mary Leakey were horsing around with dried clumps of elephant dung. Ducking a flying pellet, Andrew Hill found himself prone above three sets of footprints. Closer inspection proved that they had been preserved in volcanic ash, hardened by rain to a cement-like consistency, at least 3.6 million years ago. The way the big toes were set parallel to the others, and the evidence of a “heel-first” mode of walking indicated that the prints were left by proto-humans rather than apes. Mary Leakey was moved by the discovery that the female in the trio had paused in her journey to look towards the left – perhaps to check on the child who was walking in her steps, or to scan for danger, which might include the plume of an active volcano.
So many great discoveries have their origin in play. The best work, by my observation, is done in a spirit of play. This requires us to forget the consequences and do what we are doing for its own sake. You may not find the Laetoli Footprints, now regarded as one of the greatest discoveries in the history of archeology, every time you fool around with elephant dung but – hey – it’s odor free and (nicely dried) a great substitute for a beach ball. 

Thumbnail image for SparkleWater 1 LoRes[1].JPGCarpe diem, goes the old Latin tag. “Seize the day.” My personal mantra is no less proactive, but more conscious: choose the day. By my observation, what we encounter on any day has a great deal to do with what we bring to that day. We draw or repel different events and encounters according to our attitudes and the basic energy we are carrying. We find doors open or closed according to our willingness or refusal to change our expectations and our plans as circumatsnaces change.

We choose every day, whether we are aware of this or not. If we tell ourselves we have no choice, that is a choice we are making. If we tell ourselves that we have no choice because a situation is beyond our control, we forget that we can still choose our response to the world, and that can change everything. Whenever I hear someone – perhaps a voice within myself – bleating or protesting that the world is cruel and can’t be changed, I think of Viktor Frankl in the nightmare of Auschwitz. Reduced to a tattooed number, starved and worked almost to death, liable to be killed at any moment, Frankl chose to project his mind into a vision of an “impossible” future in which the Nazis were an ancient memory and he was again a respected pyschologist, lecturing to an enthusiastic audience on “the psychology of the concentration camps.” In growing the vision of a future beyond the pain and horror, he found the means of survival, as described in his indelible book Man’s Search for Meaning – and throws down the gauntlet to all of us who tell ourselves, under gentler pressures, that we have no choice.

At the close of a beautiful week of soul healing and shared dreaming in my workshop at Hollyhock on Cortes Island, I asked the members of our circle to choose the day, in a personal statement. Here’s a sampling of what they said:

“I choose to be present today with all of my senses.”

“I choose to have Tiger in my heart.”

“I choose to follow my soul’s purpose.”

“I choose to see my waking life as a dream.”

“I choose to travel with the energy of the group.”

“I choose to be compassionate.”

“I choose to be a survivor.”

“I choose to soar with the bird and see my roads from a higher perspective.”

“I choose the fire.”

My own statement for the day: “I choose to live as if everything matters.”


Champagne sparkle in the waters at Hollyhock. Photo by Steve Case.

_Device Memory_home_user_pictures_IMG00452.jpgWhen I was last in London, I walked down a quiet road off Kensington High Street where I once lived and noticed that there is now a blue plaque marking the apartment building opposite my former home as a place where the poet T.S.Eliot once had a flat. This took me back to even older memories, of listening to Eliot read his own poems on a scratchy old 78 rpm record in my room when I was in my early teens. Eliot read very well, and I can still recite long passages from “The Waste Land”, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and above all, his luminous Four Quartets from memory.

In “Little Gidding”, Eliot reminds us that any action we take, at any moment, may be 
a step to the block, to the fire, down the sea’s throat
Or to an illegible stone: and that is where we start.

I choose to live in this spirit, as if everything matters, as if the Big Story is playing through the small diurnal dramas, and as if Death stands, always at my left shoulder, lending me his sharp-edged clarity that comes through the knowledge that any day may be our last and that we are accountable to a world beyond this one.
Eliot was as good in prose as in verse, and he offers a precept for living that I find exceptionally helpful: “If you haven’t the strength to impose your own terms upon life, you must accept the terms it offers you.” This requires us to withhold our consent when anyone offers us a version of reality that is less than generous and open to fresh possibilities.
I had to think about that this week in a rather genial context, when I ran into one of my favorite used book dealers opening his store very early while I was out walking my dogs. I asked, hopefully, if he had a new consignment of books. No, he explained, his building had sprung some leaks and he was there to wait for the plumbers. “Everything wears out,” he declared, “including the brain.”
I did not feel obliged to quarrel with this statement. As the owner of an old house, I know that certainly old plumbing wears out and old roofs spring leaks. Yet I was not going to endorse the notion that everything wears out, even if this appears to conform to the second law of thermodynamics as well as much of our everyday experience. Neuroscience instructs us that brain cells can grow back and that the neuroplasticity of the brain is so extraordinary that survivors of serious strokes can actually transfer functions from damaged areas to other parts. Of course, if you don’t want your brain to wear out you’d better use it!
I didn’t endorse the statement that everything, including the brain, wears out, and I didn’t deny it. I simply withheld my consent and adopted the agnostic position on the matter. There are many occasions when it’s rather more important to take this stance – for example, when someone asks us to agree to the proposition that “you can’t trust people”, or “there’ll never be enough to go round”, or pushes the bumper sticker philosophy that “shit happens”. 
We are not required to argue or to preach when we withhold our consent from opinions and mindsets that turn our inhabited world into a box. We simply decline to join others inside their mind-made boxes, while we proceed to develop and impose our own terms on the world we inhabit. 
To succeed in that, we’ll need not only to go around other people’s mind traps but to drop our own negative mantras. I’m fierce about that, as a teacher. When I hear anyone in one of my workshops committing a negative mantra (which may begin “I’m no good at -” or “I’ve never been able to -“) I ask them to go outside and spit that thought out on the ground. Fair’s fair. I tell my groups that if they ever catch me committing a negative mantra of my own, they can send me out of the room to do the same thing.

Mirror.jpgOne of the most important gifts of our dreams is that they put us in touch with more aspects of ourselves than we have recognized in what Yeats called our “daily trivial minds.” Among these aspects is the famous Shadow, composed of parts of our selves we have repressed or denied (and tend to project on to others in regular life, till we awaken). But we encounter much more than the Shadow. We encounter a whole family of aspects of ourselves, and as we recognize them and bring them together we become much more than we were. 

We are given the opportunity to claim the imagination and energy of our inner children, the nature-knowing of the ancient shaman within us, the wisdom of the elder, the artist, poet, creator, entrepreneur, hero, dancer, athlete, astronaut inside.
We also meet our conscience. We are introduced to parts of ourselves that have been broken and are in need of repair. We are given clues to parts of our selves that fled from this body and this life because the pain or shame was too great – or because our dominant personality wimped out on a big dream, settled for a little story and ceased to be any fun for a bright spirit to be around. When we discover such things, we are on the road to healing through soul recovery.
There is more. As we follow these roads, we may rise to a closer acquaintance with the Self beyond all the smaller selves. Call it the Higher Self. Perhaps we are the mirrors in which some part of it is reflected, when our lenses are clear enough.
I remember a dream that mirrored the relationship between the little self and the Big Self. Here is a brief version: 
I read in the local paper that an artist is working on a portrait of the Higher Self. Greatly excited, I lead a group to see it. The path spirals up to a studio like an open tower, guarded by magnificent sculpted beasts; great carnelians flash on the back of the stone lion.
The artist is at work on a tremendous canvas. It rises as high as the tower, perhaps even above the table. 
At the bottom, he has painted a self-portrait. The figure stands within glowing bands of color. He is as small as a votive candle in proportion to the immensity of the Higher Self that rises above him, visible only as bands of energy that become subtler and subtler as I look up, until there seems to be nothing except a pristine and unblemished expanse of pearly light.
It seems unlikely that this immense work can ever be finished. But I know, as I merge with the artist and take up the brush, that this is my life’s work.