Where can you find an inflatable cat-in-a-can, absinthe lip balm, zombie finger puppets and Last Supper mints in the same store? Archie McPhee’s (now in Wallingford) is a don’t-miss stop for me whenever I am in the Seattle area. I went there recently on an outing with a group of student-teachers from my training for teachers of Active Dreaming.
This just in from Marta, who was part of the expedition: “The day after I got home from our training, my sister shared a dream about zombies. We did some great work with it, and then I ran into my room and gave her a silly little zombie finger puppet that I had gotten at the magic shop. What a coincidence! The gruesome (and comical) little puppet reminds her of her dream message not to be a zombie, and to make a very important change in her work situation.”
The world around us will speak to us in the manner of a dream if we are willing to pay attention.
This doesn’t just happen when you go to a cabinet of curiosities as weird and wonderful as Archie McPhee’s. It can happen on any road, any day.
The zombie theme reminds me of a message from the world that could have saved me a bundle had I had the sense to act on it right away. Days before the collapse of the Lehman Brothers investment bank – the event that ushered in what became known as the Great Crash of 2008 – I was driving to a local dream circle that I lead once a month. I’m not an active investor, but I have a few pennies in my pension fund, so I decided to listen to the latest financial news on NPR’s “Marketplace” report.
Halfway through the show, they announced they were going to run the numbers on the day’s stock market activity, a standard feature of the show.
Instead of giving the closing prices, the narrative switched to a mock news report about an entrepreneur who had been secretly producing an army of zombies in the bayous of Louisiana in order to create a market for a new product called Zombie-Gone, that would soon be in supermarkets and convenience stores everywhere. The skit was quite funny. But it began and ended without any explanation, which was quite startling – and I never got those market numbers.
When I opened my dream circle, I reported this curious dreamlike episode and speculated, “What would the message be, if you dreamed that you were waiting for stock market information and instead got a weird report about an army of zombies?” We kicked this around for a bit. Might it indicate that Wall Street and government types were behaving – or were about to behave – like zombies? Might it be an alert that it was time to “be gone” from the market?
I very nearly resolved to call my broker the next morning, with instructions to sell all stocks in my portfolio. But in the cold light of day some residual part of my psyche kicked in – a part that still second-guesses the spontaneous productions of the world-behind-the-world that show us what the daily calculating mind doesn’t see. Are you going to risk the financial security of your family by taking radical action because you heard a radio skit about zombies? lectured Mr Conventional Wisdom. Puh-lease. Be responsible.You’re invested in safe funds on the advice of expert planners. At least take the time to check things out.
So I stayed in the market, and got whacked by the zombies. The famous brokerage house that employed those “expert planners” is now the property of a bank. The “safe funds” they pushed me to buy are the only significant parts of my portfolio that have not recovered from the crash. The stocks that have notably outperformed the market are ones that I picked for myself – to the dismay of my then broker and Mr Conventional Wisdom – because of dreams.
Hmmm. Maybe I need to go back to Archie McPhee’s and get myself one of those glow-in-the-dark zombie finger puppets, and use it to give the finger to Mr Conventional Wisdom next time he tries to make me ignore a secret handshake from the universe.
Do you remember The Missing Piece Meets the Big O, Shel Silverstein’s delightful parable for kids of all ages? My youngest daughter (now 20) told me the other day that it was the best story we read together when she was very young. I woke from an evening nap just now in which a sidekick to some Mr Big told me that I needed to “get” the missing piece.
I could hardly ignore the double prompt so I went to my daughter’s room and borrowed her copy of the Shel Silverstein story (with her permission, of course).
With the aid of wickedly simple line drawings, we follow the adventures and travails of what looks like a slice of pie. It’s trying to find a hole it can fit, and tries varies orifices that turn up, in characters it encounters.
Eventually it finds what seems to be Mr Right. He looks like a pie missing a wedge, and the missing piece slips into the hole and the fit seems perfect. But then the missing piece starts to grow, and grow, until its host complains, “I didn’t know you were going to grow.” The missing piece is ejected, and the one with the hole lumbers away, caterwauling, “I’m looking for my missin’ piece, one that won’t increase.”
We come to the denouement of the story. A character comes along who is different from the rest. He is not one of the hungry ones, or the shy ones, and there is no hole in him at all. He is the Big O. The missing piece would love to join him, but there is no place where she could fit. Can’t she at least travel on his back as he rolls along? Nope, The Big O is not going to carry her. “But perhaps you can roll by yourself,” he tells her. She is incredulous. How can she roll on her sharp corners? Corners wear off, says the Big O, and shapes change.
The missing piece just sits for a long time, despondent, when the Big O rolls away. Then very slowly she hauls herself up, and flops over. And does it again. And her edges start to wear off, and she is bumping instead of flopping, then bouncing instead of bumping, until at last, she is rolling.
There is a terrific teaching in this simple tale, and for me it’s all about soul, and soul-making. All those creatures with holes in them evoke the soul-loss any one of us is likely to suffer in the course of a life, through pain or shame or disappointment. The hunger this creates can’t be filled authentically by something that is not our own.
Nor can we find our way in life by trying to fill a gap in another person, or a niche in a social or work environment, or by just sitting around waiting for something to happen. We need to pick ourselves up and – unaccustomed though this may be – start moving according to our own inner lights. And let the road smooth out our sharp edges and put curves in our linear thinking.
Instead of trying to fit a hole, we want to become whole. To be pals with the Big O, you have to become your own Big O.
I had lunch in a pretty good area restaurant for the first time this week, and was surprised when the wait staff brought out birthday cakes and songs for three separate tables over a twenty-minute period. Three very grown-up birthday luncheons at the same restaurant in the middle of the week seemed unlikely. It made me ask: who do I know who was born today?
An online search turned up a number of writers and creators I admire who were born on July 28, ranging from Beatrix Potter and Gerard Manley Hopkins to Ibn ‘Arabi, the great medieval Sufi explorer of the Imaginal Realm whose work I discuss in my Secret History of Dreaming.
Then something clicked and I remembered that July 28 is also the birthday of a dear friend who has coordinated my Active Dreaming programs in the San Francisco Bay area for several years. The universe tipped me a wink in time for me to send her a birthday message just before the calendar page turned.
Sometimes a synchronicity signal feels even more personal and direct and feeds right into a current project. I find that when I am giving focused attention to a certain line of study, or a creative project, coincidence comes to support me, sometimes through the agency of that benign spirit Arthur Koestler called the Library Angel, a shelf elf who makes books and documents turn up (or disappear) in highly unlikely ways. This works through the internet too.
On an earlier night this month, I was trying to document a story about shared dreaming and war magic from the time of Suleiman the Magnificent. The story involves a “dream master” who supposedly had twelve people enter lucid dreaming together on a huge round bed to provide energy for an astral operation in which he entered the mind of a European prince and altered the fortunes of a battle.
I first came upon this intriguing account in The Understanding of Dreams, an old anthology of cross-cultural dream narratives,edited by Raymond de Becker, an elusive and somewhat murky character. He gave his source as an earlier book by one N. de Helva titled La Science impériale des songes, published in Paris in 1935. After much hunting, I was unable to locate a copy of this book anywhere, or even identify the publisher. When I compared the de Becker version with the historical records of the campaigns and household of Suleiman, I became more and more suspicious that someone had constructed a tall tale. But I realized that my investigation would not be complete until I had probed documentary sources available only in the Turkish language.
I said to myself in the wee hours of the morning, I really need help from a Turk.
The next instant, an email arrived in my inbox from a Turkish doctor in Istanbul, wanting to know about a retreat I am leading this fall. I seized the opportunity to ask her whether she could check out the story of the Ottoman “dream master” for me. Within hours, she started sending me documents and original translations from Turkish sources that not only confirmed my suspicions about de Becker’s cavalier use of materials but vastly expanded my understanding of the practice of dreaming and imagination in the Ottoman empire.
People ask why some of us seem to have more frequent and more exciting experiences of synchronicity (or meaningful coincidence) than others. I think one of the facts of life is that there are periods when any of us can become a synchronicity magnet, attracting events and encounters in rich profusion according to the energy and intentions that travel with us.
We observe synchronicity at work in the world more often when we are open to seeing it, and ready to play with the signs and symbolic pop-ups of everyday life.
But there is more to it than just our willingness to pay attention. Like calls to like, and the call is stronger when our passions or curiosity are most actively engaged in a life passage or a course of study or exploration. Yeats spoke, with poetic clarity, about the “mingling of minds” that can take place when we are giving our best to a certain line of study; he noted that we draw the support like minds, including intelligences from beyond our ken and beyond our world, who share our interests.
Oh yes, the Turkish doctor is flying to the United States for my fall retreat.
I recount the story of Suleiman and the Dream Master in The Three “Only” Things. Though I now believe the story is not historical, one may say of it, with the Italians, si non e vero, e ben trovato. (“If it’s not true, it’s well found”.)
Portrait of Suleiman the Magnificent in his later years by Nigari, in the Topkapi palace.
In the biologist’s dream, a sea bird has been banded too tight and is in trouble in the water, thrashing around to try to get rid of the constraining tag. She jumps into the ocean, braving hungry sharks to try to rescue the bird, and follows it all the way to the Golden Gate bridge, where things get confused as lots of people enter the scene.
In another scientist’s dream, something strange is going on in the vast colony of murrs on one of the islands. He goes to investigate and discovers that some people have infiltrated the colony, disguised as murrs, with the aim of stealing the birds’ eggs.
In yet another scientist’s dream, his team of observers are playing hockey against a team of cormorants, with drunken elephant seals for a rowdy audience.
These are samples from a group dream log maintained by members of the scientific observation team on the Farallon Islands over the past 20 years. The sampling was made public in a most interesting article by Carolyn Jones (“Farallones biologists record similar dreams”) in the San Francisco Chronicle today.
I hope the full log of these dream reports will be made public. They may constitute fascinating raw data on how members of a close-knit community can share a life in dreams as well as in waking reality. Common themes recur in these reports: the threat of human intrusion on the fragile environment of sea birds and aquatic mammals, danger in the water in shark season, close encounters between humans and other life forms. It would be interesting to know whether the dreams of two or more biologists on a given night match up even more closely, for example in scouting a particular development that could threaten a bird colony, or warn of danger at sea for a member of the scientific team.
On a given day, there are only six or seven biologists on the Faralllones, meeting for dinner each night at one of the two Victorian houses at the base of the pyramid hill, with its lighthouse, on the southeast island. Only 27 miles from San Francisco, they are nonetheless quite remote from the modern world, and much closer to the elemental powers of wind and water than most city-dwellers can imagine. Perhaps, under these circumstances, they have slipped into a kind of mutual dream “entrainment” that is in no way exotic to indigenous peoples, or to many of our ancestors, or to circles of active dreamers today.
Communal dreaming can be developed, consciously, as a means of scanning the environment that goes beyond scientific instruments, and can be life-supporting and even life-preserving. In The Secret History of Dreaming, I describe how the Andaman islanders have a practice of conscious mutual dreaming that enabled them to receive early warning of the Asian tsunami of December 2004 and get out of its way, abandoning their coastal fishing settlements for the uplands while tourists on nearby shores were swept away.
In my own Active Dreaming circles, we have kept group logs of some of our dream expeditions, and I quote from these in the epilogue to my Dreamways of the Iroquois. While the group dream log of the biologists in the Farallones is thus by no means unique, it is a wonderful initiative that may inspire many to think more about the possibilities for dreaming as a social, as well as an individual, experience.
Southeast Farallon island from Mirounga Bay. Farallon means “steep rock” or “cliff” in Spanish.