Dream Gates

_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.

Mark Twain - from Dave Thomson, The Unabridged Mark Twain.jpg“Go to heaven for the climate and hell for the company,” counseled Mark Twain. I’ve quoted this more than once in front of church audiences, when I have judged them genial enough to take it in good heart, or in need of genial-izing. It’s an example of the type of one-liner Mark Twain called a “snapper”, or sometimes an “astonisher”. It was his practice never to leave a lecture platform without committing one at the very end, and often it brought the house down.

When we are sharing dreams by my Lightning Dreamwork process, the last step is to come up with a snapper, a personal catch-phrase that captures the essence of the dream and the insights that have come through in discussion. This is a neat way to retain a message and it orients us to do something about it.
Once when I was leading a weekend Active Dreaming playshop at a ranch in the Texas hill country, a woman in the group approached me for guidance on her marriage. “Ask your dreams for guidance tonight,” I told her, “and bring me a dream in the morning.” This she did.
In her dream, as she told it before Sunday breakfast, she was in her favorite Mexican restaurant. She was waiting for takeout, and had already paid for her meal. People kept coming and going, picking up their orders, while she stood at the counter. A “cute guy” came in, collected his food, and winked at her as he left. Later, another “cute guy” – a musician – picked up his meal and paused to murmur in her ear, as he headed for the door, “You know, this place sucks.” At the end of the dream, the dreamer was still waiting.
We did our Lightning Dreamwork process. When I asked the dreamer how she felt on waking, she said, “hungry and frustrated.” Reality check? Well, it was unlikely that the people in her favorite restaurant would treat her like that, but the situation felt familiar in a more important sense. The heart of our conversation was to make the link between the dream and the intention, which she had recorded simply as: I would like guidance on my marriage.
If it were my dream, I suggested, I would notice that I’m in a place where things look good, but I’m not being fed. She thought about this and came up with the following snapper: I am in a place where I’ll never be fed or nourished, even though I’ve paid up front.

Dreams require action. Her action plan? “I’m going to call a divorce attorney on Monday.” The follow-up? A year later, the dreamer wrote to me to report that she was now happily remarried to a “cute musician” who strongly resembles the guy who spoke to her in the sad cafe.
Come up with the right snapper, and it may lead you to the right snap decision.
For the rules of the Lightning Dreamwork game, please read my book The Three “Only” Things: Tapping the Power of Dreams, Coincidence and Imagination (New World Library)
Illustration from The Unabridged Mark Twain, edited by Dave Thompson (Running Press)

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I often read a page or two of Emerson before greeting the sun. For me, he is the wisest of American philosophers and the most practical, because his words create a stir in the spirit that is a wonderful incitement to action. He is the perennial enemy of hand-me-down systems of belief and self-limiting notions about what is possible in a life. When we are wandering lost in a fog of confusion in the low marshlands of group-think, he pipes the tune and shines the light that will get us back to the upward slopes of our life purpose.
The other day, leading a five-day adventure in Active Dreaming at the Omega Institute, I guided a group of brave and ready souls on a journey to a real place in the Imaginal Realm that I call the House of Time. It is the kind of locale that creators, shamans and mystics have always wanted to visit, a place where we may encounter an inner teacher who is the master of any field that compels our best attention and study, and where any book of secrets – even that Book of Life containing our sacred contract – may be accessible.
While drumming for the group to provide fuel and focus for the journey to the Library in the House of Time, I found myself in contact with intelligences who have guided and inspired my work in the past. It seemed that Emerson, in high collar and frock coat, had joined the group. I do not say this was the individual spirit of the great sage; I do not claim the privilege of a personal interview, and I am sure that wherever Emerson may now be, he has many things to do. I say only that for a few moments I seemed to be in the presence of a figure who embodied some essence of Emerson’s thought. I was eager to receive insights I could easily retain, while my consciousness was working on several levels, including that of drumming for the members of the group and watching over their own adventures.
My Emerson gave me three words: Rectitude. Plenitude. Attitude. Just now, in the twilight before dawn, as the first pink suffused the gray sky, I tracked these clues through Emerson’s essays and letters, and through the pedigrees of the terms themselves.
In its origin, rectitude is the virtue of being straight, or upright, in your conduct and condition. It derives from the Latin rectus or straight. It has nothing to do with a narrow moralism. As Emerson wields this word, it is the property and armor of the brave soul who dares to live by his own lights. In his famous 1838 address to Harvard Divinity School – a speech the faculty tried to suppress but the senior class insisted upon – Emerson defined “the grand strokes of rectitude” as “a bold benevolence”, and that independence of mind that enables us to ignore the counsel and caution of our friends when they seek to hold us back from pursuing our calling, and the readiness to follow that calling without concern for praise or profit. Those who can do this are “the Imperial Guard of Virtue” and “the heart and soul of nature.” They “rise refreshed on hearing a threat”; they come to a crisis “graceful and beloved as a bride”; they can say like Napoleon at Massena that they were not themselves until the battle began to go against them.
Plenitude is fullness or abundance, coming from the Latin plenus, or “full”. For Emerson, plenitude – abundance – is our natural condition, and we miss it only by failing to live from the fullness and integrity of our own spirit. When we develop self-trust, we gain “the plenitude of its energy and power to repair harms,” he instructs in his essay on Heroism. “There is no limit to the Resources of Man,” he adds in a letter on that theme. “The one fact that shines through all this plenitude of powers is…that the world belongs to the energetic, belongs to the wise.”
Attitude has an even more suggestive etymology. It first came into usage to describe the posture an actor playing a role strikes on the stage. Go further back, and we find it is kissing cousins with the word “aptitude” and both share a common root in the Latin aptus which means “fit” or “suited” – in short, ready for something. Our attitudes indeed determine what experiences we are apt to encounter on our roads of life. “The healthy attitude of human nature,” Emerson instructs us in his essay on Self-Reliance, is “the nonchalance of boys who are sure of a dinner” – in other words, the confidence that since we are at home in the universe, the universe will support us. In the face of hardship and challenge, we need to strike that posture of determination that “by [that] very attitude and…tone of voice, puts a stop to defeat,” Emerson adds in his letter on Resources.
We are now entering one of the great open secrets of life. “We are magnets in an iron globe,” as Emerson told the young men at Harvard. “We have keys to all doors….The world is all gates, all opportunities, strings of tension waiting to be struck.”  We choose which doors will open or remain closed. We decide what we will attract or repel in life according to whether or not we are straight, and full, and ready.