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
The number one reason men talk about dreams, in my experience, is that they have dreamed of someone who has died and the experience seemed so real that they desperately need help in understanding what is going on. I’m not talking about the brave men who come to dream classes and share thier inner lives with a mixed group. I’m talking about the guy in the neighborhood pub or on the bleachers, the cop in the all-night diner, the commuter on the train.
When I was moving into a former home, I was startled by banging on the French doors of the study in which I was shelving books. I opened the doors and a huge, wild-eyed man introduced himself as a neighbor. He was a former basketball pro. “I’ve just come from the graveyard,” he explained, breathing heavily. “My dad showed up in my bedroom last night and I had to go prove to myself that he’s still in the ground.” The cemetery was half a block away, not a long hike at all.
But in fact the distance between the living and the dead may be much shorter. It is exactly as wide as the edge of a maple leaf, said Handsome Lake, the Seneca Indian prophet.
Today, in a lovely retreat center in the foothills of the Cascades, I’m about to open a session on “Dreaming with the Departed” for a circle of 22 gifted and spirited dreamers – six of them men – who are training to become teachers of my Active Dreaming approach to dreamwork, creativity and healing. So I thought it would be appropriate to share some thoughts about what is going on when we dream of the dead.
Many of us yearn for contact with departed loved ones. We miss them; we ache for forgiveness or closure; we yearn for confirmation that there is life beyond physical death. This is one of the main reasons why people go to psychic readers.
Here’s an open secret: we don’t need a go-between to talk to the departed. We can have direct communication with our departed, in timely and helpful ways, if we are willing to pay attention to our dreams. We meet our departed loved ones in our dreams. Sometimes they come to offer us guidance or assurance of life beyond death; sometimes they need help from us because they are lost or confused, or need forgiveness and closure.
Dreams of the departed help us gain first-hand knowledge of what happens after physical death. One of the cruelest things that mainstream Western culture has done is to suggest that communication with the departed is either impossible or unnatural. There is nothing spooky or “supernatural” involved, though these experiences take us into realms beyond physical reality.
The easiest way for the departed to communicate with the living is through dreams -though sometimes the departed, as well as the living, fail to realize this. For once, Hollywood got this right. In the movie The Sixth Sense a psychically gifted young boy can see and speak with the departed. He plays counselor to a man who has died, is initially confused about his situation, and then dismayed that he cannot talk to his wife. The boy instructs the dead man, “Speak to her in her dreams, only then will she hear you”.
In most dreams, the departed appear to be living, and very often the dreamer is unaware that the person he or she encounters is “dead” until after waking. The reason is that the departed are indeed alive, though no longer in the physical realm. The departed may appear as the dreamer remembers them from their last days of physical life, especially in the first dream encounters. But over time, it is quite common for the departed to alter their appearance, to shrug off signs of age and bodily ailments, and to present themselves as healthy and attractive. People who died in later years frequently reappear looking around 30 years old.
After my father’s death, he appeared repeatedly in my dreams to offer counsel to the family, bringing specific and practical information to which I did not have access in waking life. For example, he gave me the name of the real estate broker on the other side of the Pacific – someone otherwise unknown to me – who moved with great speed and humanity (once we contacted him because of the dream) to help my mother sell her home and resettle in a community where she spent some of the happiest years of her life. My father also made a happy dream visit to one of my daughters, who bitterly regretted never having known him in physical life; he showed himself as a handsome horseman, about 30 years old, and took her riding. Through many dream encounters with my father, I was vividly reminded that a departed loved one can truly play “family angel”.
I have been dreaming of departed people all my life, and have worked with thousands of dreams of the departed shared with me by others. While the departed person in some of these dreams may be an aspect of the dreamer’s own personality or genetic inheritance – or a mask for a messenger from the deeper Self – the great majority of these dreams appear to involve transpersonal encounters.
There are three main reasons why dreams of the dead (and other forms of interaction with them) are entirely natural experiences:
1. The deceased are still with us because they have not yet moved on.
2. The deceased come visiting.
3. In dreams, we travel to the Other Side.
In future articles, we’ll explore each of these situations.
Next: When the dead are stil with us
Sunrise photo by Suzette Rios-Scheurer
George, a senior executive, dreamed he received an
urgent summons from one of his bosses to meet the boss at his second
home on the beach. George woke with the sinking feeling that he had just
When he shared this dream at one of my workshops, which he
was attending with his wife, I suggested that if it were my dream, I
would want to go back inside it and get some more specific information,
by the technique I call Dream Reentry. I told George that he could ask
another person in the workshop to go inside the dream with him and act
as tracker – gathering information for him from an independent
perspective – in an exercise in conscious shared dreaming in which we
would use shamanic drumming to fuel and focus the journey.
was excited by this plan. He invited his wife to be his partner and
tracker. At the end of my drumming, they were eager to share their
reports. They described the boss’s beach home as if they had inspected
it with a real estate agent. Being a guy, George had spent more time
looking at the den and the deck than at the kitchen and the closets, but
their accounts – of a place neither had ever seen, outside their shared
dreaming, were remarkably similar.
They returned with far more than the
layout of the beach house. They now had information on a crisis brewing
behind the scenes in George’s organization that – he realized – could
definitely cost him his job unless he made certain moves, fast. He acted
on this data from shared dreaming. The upshot was that when he was
summoned to his boss’s beach house for a crisis meeting six months
later, he did not have to ask the way to the bathroom since he had
already been their in his conscious dream. And he was sitting on the
right side of the table, with those had kept their jobs and had to tell
others about downsizing, because of the action he had taken with the
information gained in his shared dreaming.
*You’ll find much more about the techniques of Dream Reentry and conscious dream tracking, in my books Conscious Dreaming and The Three “Only” Things.I have recorded a CD of shamanic drumming for dream travelers and Dream Reentry, Wings for the Journey.
Tracking contrails photo by Savannah M. Caitlin