I just watched Hilary Swank’s stunning performance as this brave and forever boundary-pushing flier in the movie “Amelia”.
And it struck me that Hilary herself is a stellar example of a person whose dreams and active imagination gave her oceans to fly, on a journey that is still unfolding.
Hilary Swank grew up in a trailer park near Bellingham, WA, an only child with a single mom and a missing dad. She dropped out of high school. Then she dreamed of making it big in Hollywood. Her mom took this “impossible” dream so seriously that she drove them to California, where they lived in the car.
Hilary’s dream came true. Her first big role was in “Boys Don’t Cry”. She was paid only $3,000, but she won an Academy Award. Her next movie was “Million Dollar Baby” and since then no one has been paying her bottom dollar.
Hilary is a dreamer in many senses. She has described a recurring dream in which she saved someone’s life. After the third of these dreams, she felt deeply that she needed to “honor the dream”. She took a CPR course “just in case.” Three weeks later a man in an airport collapsed in front of her and she kept him alive using the CPR she had learned, until the paramedics arrived. The man died on the way to hospital, but she gave him a chance.
Hilary told the last dream story on “60 Minutes” on January 30, 2005.
The maze constructed in the movie “Inception” to ensnare the mind of the target is far less sophisticated than ancient astral traps described, most memorably, in the vast Urdu fantasy cycle of Hoshruba.
In their dastangos itinerant Urdu storytellers – eagerly sought from princely courts to humble markets – preserved an imaginal geography that includes contructed realities known as tilisms.
The word tilism, related to the more familiar “talisman” describes a realm of enchantment created by sorcerers that becomes a prison for one who falls into it.
Any world may prove to be a tilism, a mind trap constructed by Dark Side magic in defiance of “the laws of God and of nature”.
The vast tilism of Hoshruba, with its multiple layers of illusion and deception, is the realm of Afrasiyab, the Emperor of Enchantment. Its geography is more various and complex than that of the ordinary world.
There are tilisms within tilisms, nested worlds created by magic and imagination. Humans live in such places but do not see where they are. It is much easier to fall into a tilism than to get out.
The only way to pierce the veils of illusion and overthrow a tilism is to find the tablet that holds the secrets of the tilism, including the conditions for its destruction and the name of the person who will destroy it. The tablet could be concealed anywhere, often inside the tilism itself.
These traditions were largely unknown in the west until an Urdu scholar and novelist named Musharraf Farooqi was stirred by a dream to embark on a fantastic enterprise. He dreamed he was visited by mythic creatures who came galloping right out of the great Urdu story cycle known as The Adventures of Amir Hamza. He made a tremendous contribution to world literature in giving us an elegant 900-page translation of this work, published by The Modern Library. But this was only the start of his labors. Farooqi has since produced the first volume of a projected 24-volume translation of the oceanic Tilism-e Hoshruba. Titled Hoshruba: The Land and the Tilism, this is published by the Urdu Project.
In one line: the movie “Inception” is more exciting in its conception than in its delivery. It offers some great talking-points and plenty to chew on for anyone interested in dreaming and the physics of non-ordinary reality.
On the other hand, the interesting and sophisticated conceptual stuff is made to travel with a mediocre thriller plot. Whenever the film-makers are in doubt about what to do next, they insert another bang-bang shoot-em-up or car chase scene. Most of the dreamscapes are surprisingly drab and ordinary, featuring endless sterile vistas of high-rise iceboxes.
In my cinema seat, I was disappointed. Yet the movie themes linger, and can be the stuff of a good conversation about what is possible off-screen and off-world, in the real worlds of dream experience.
Let’s look at some concepts in the film that are not sci-fi at all. Shared dreaming, in which two or more people embark on conscious and intentional adventures in dream reality, is not only possible; it is a core practice in shamanic dreaming traditions and is central to my own teaching and practice. In my Active Dreaming workshops, we often have 30 or more conscious dreamers travel together on an agreed itinerary, with remarkable results. We don’t need cables, magic boxes, or potions mixed up by an alchemist in Mombasa. We used simple relaxation, clear intention, the building of a strong visual portal, and the power of steady shamanic drumming to power and focus the group journey. Needless to say, we do not used shared dreaming to invade minds!
Reality creation in the dream world, once again, is not the invention of Christopher Nolan and his crew. There are stable locales in the dreamspace, some of them more ancient than any constructions in current use on the planet, that are the product of human imaginations. I lead many group journeys to locations of this kind in what I like to call the Imaginal Realm; some of these journeys are described in my book Dreamgates. Cities, temples, palaces and residential developments in the afterlife are generated by imagination and collective beliefs. The locales in “Inception” are less alluring, the product of shackled and repetitive imaginations and of an “architect” who designs an astral trap. In Dreamgates I describe such locales as “Ibbetson lands”, after George du Maurier’s novel Peter Ibbetson, in which a prisoner meets his lover in dream locations woven from their memories.
Astral physics work differently from the rules of 3-D reality, as memorably depicted in “Inception” in scenes in which skyscrapers fold over and people walk up vertical slopes. When we explore these phenomena in Active Dreaming, we discover that on the astral plane, reality construction involves working with materials that have substance (though of much finer mesh than earthly materials) and are ideo-plastic (shaped by thought).
The different levels of dreaming depicted in “Inception” are familiar to active dreamers, as is the phenomenon of awakening from one dream into another. The most exciting first-hand account of this that I have heard from another person came from an 11-year-old girl in a class I once led for a school district. She described, in vivid detail, traveling through seven dreams, nested inside each other, and returning the same way. “Inception” manages only four.
The depiction of projections in “Inception” makes a bow to Jungian psychology. Viewers may wonder whether it is a satisfactory description of all the phenomena depicted. Cobb’s dead wife, for example, seems to be a transpersonal figure, not merely a projection.
The “militarized subconscious” of Robert Fischer, the man targeted for mind manipulation, may be fiction, but it is certainly possible – and sometimes essential – to set up psychic defense against intrusion and to call in “psychic cops”. This is another core element in my teaching and practice of Active Dreaming, and is discussed in detail in Dreamgates.
As for the key plot element in “Inception” – the effort to embed a script in someone’s mind – I wish I could dismiss this as fantasy. However, many groups throughout history have attempted mind control in this way. There is a notorious example from the ancient world. In the romance of Alexander, by pseudo-Callisthenes, an Egyptian sorcerer-king succeeds in entering and manipulating the dreaming minds of the mother of Alexander the Great and then her husband, King Philip of Macedonia.
I can readily imagine spending a long and entertaining evening discussing the pedigree and realism of the oneiric elements in “Inception.” This would be more fun than the movie itself, which became – for me – claustrophobic and tediously repetitive. The movie is unrelieved by even the tiniest spark of humor, unless an insider’s joke counts as such. (The recall signal that pulls the dream travelers back is a recording of Edith Piaf’s Je ne regrette rien as heard in the movie “La vie en rose”, starring Marion Cotillard, who plays the dead wife here.)
In the absence of humor, the thudding earnestness of “Inception” would only work if it developed much more narrative drive and the sense that something really important is at stake. But I was never made to care about why the dream gang was sent to infiltrate the mind of the heir to a business fortune.
No complaints about the acting and cinematography in “Inception”. But the great talent engaged here is confined by a lackluster
script. By the end, I was nostalgic for the verve and color and wild humor of Terry Gilliam’s version of the dreamworld in “Brazil”.
Meanwhile, I am waiting for someone in Hollywood to wake up to the fact that the real arts of Active Dreaming are not only more entertaining than this, but can be used to make things better in the world.
Quite frequently dreams reveal that the departed are present because, quite simply, they never left. A California woman dreamed she entered her living room and found her departed boyfriend on the sofa watching, TV. Surprised, she asked what he was doing there. He responded, “I’m just watching TV”. He did not seem to be aware that he had died.
The departed may linger because they have unfinished business, or wish to act as guide and protector to the family, or are attached to people and places they loved in waking life, and this may be a perfectly happy situation for a year or two. But there comes a time when our departed need to move on, for their own growth, and so they do not become a psychic burden to the living. Because our society does a poor job in preparing people for the afterlife, many people who have passed on do not know they are dead, and hover in a limbo close to familiar people and places on this Earth.
We do not need to be especially psychic to notice that in a certain kind of bar, “dead” barflies outnumber the living ones. When the departed remain earthbound, the effects are unhealthy both for those who have died and those among the living to whom they are connected. When the dead are enmeshed with the living, the result is mutual confusion, loss of energy, and the transfer of addictions, obsessions and even physical ailments from the departed to the person whose energy field he or she is sharing.
When the dead are still around in a dense energy body, they can produce physical or ghostly phenomena. The dense energy body of a deceased person should not be confused with their surviving consciousness or enduring spirit. It needs to be contained and dispersed. This sometimes reqiires a “second burial”; I offer detailed guidance on how to conduct this ritual of containment band release in my Dreamer’s Book of the Dead. However much love we may have shared with a decease loved one, we do not want long-term entanglement of the energies of the dead and the living on this level.
Helping the departed may involve a loving dialogue, a simple ritual of honoring and farewell, and invoking spiritual helpers. As we become active dreamers, familiar with the geography of the afterlife, we may find we are called on to provide personal escort services and help to instruct some of our departed on their options on the other side, as explained in detail in my Dreamer’s Book of the Dead. William Butler Yeats noted quite accurately that “the living can assist the imaginations of the dead”.
Brown Lady ghost photograph by Captain Hubert C. Provand. Published in Countrylife magazine, 1936
Next: Why the dead come calling