Most people have recurring dreams. I’ve had several over the course of my life, but the one I had more often than any other--again and again during my childhood--was one in which I found myself walking in the big backyard of my parents’ house in suburban Virginia.
In the dream it’s warm, I’m barefoot, and the grass underneath my feet is a lush, summery green. I walk faster and faster, but without breaking into a run. Then, all of a sudden, I’m no longer walking but flying. Not high in the air, and not fast, but just off the ground. The grass moves by, only a few inches away. Gradually, I speed up. Beneath me the grass moves faster and faster, becoming a beautiful blur.
Then...I wake up.
An original dream? Hardly. In fact, you would be pressed to find a less original one. The dream of flight is perhaps the most widespread in the world. Just about everybody, everywhere, dreams--as children of course but also as adults--that they can fly.
Anyone who’s had one of these dreams knows how curiously familiar the feeling of flight is while it’s happening. Of course, I would think to myself as my feet left the ground. Of course I can fly. How did I ever forget? Flying felt as natural and normal to me, in these dreams, as drinking a glass of water on a hot summer day. Likewise, my surprise as I woke up and realized that I couldn’t fly after all was as sharp as the kind I feel today when I reach into my pocket for a set of keys and find that--unaccountably--they’re not there.
All around the world, traditional cultures have taken the human feeling that we should be able to fly so much for granted that they have assumed that surely, at some point in the past, we must actually have been able to do so. The myths and legends of these cultures usually see flight as part of a whole package of abilities that people possessed in ages past, before things went wrong and fell into their present, less-than-perfect state.
"Whatever the causes of the Fall," writes Richard Heinberg in his book Memories and Visions of Paradise, "its effects are described similarly in almost all traditions. With disobedience, attachment, and forgetting come the loss of contact with the sacred Source; death and the necessity for reproduction; and limitations of various kinds, such as the loss of luminosity and the abilities to fly and to communicate with the animals. Human beings must now labor to obtain what they need to survive, must invent technologies to compensate for the diminution of their various natural abilities, and must wander through life unaware of their real nature, purpose, and collective past."
Cultures with myths like this tend to agree that though most people can’t fly anymore, some can--at least on rare occasions. All the world’s faiths have stories of individuals who, usually because of their exceptional holiness, are able to break the bonds of gravity every now and then--even in the uncharitably thin air of today’s fallen world. And of course it’s no accident that angels, even when they appear without wings, always possess the power to overcome the laws of mundane physics that keep the rest of us stuck to the earth at all times.
Or am I?
Dreams about flying aren’t really about flight. They’re about something more than that: The power to transcend the simply physical world and recover our larger, spiritual selves--that part of our nature that, you might say, we share with the angels.
That’s not to say that it wouldn’t be fun for me to be able to jump out of my office window right now and swoop around the skyscrapers of midtown New York. And it isn’t to say that hang gliding, airplane piloting, and all the other myriad ways in which technology has made it possible for us to actually leave the ground aren’t exciting and miraculous in their manner.
But from a spiritual perspective they’re still all beside the point. The real reason that all forms of flight have an irreducible component of mystery to them (even down to a trip to Cleveland on a Jet Blue airbus) is because they remind us of a fundamental (if too often forgotten) truth: Being earthbound isn’t our natural state.
For a demonstration of this from the modern rather than mythical age, consider the 20th century’s most celebrated aviator, Charles Lindbergh. Though the transatlantic journeys that made Lindbergh famous were very real, very concrete, very un-mythical events, Lindbergh underwent a series of mystical experiences during them that were so miraculous (even to Lindbergh himself) that it was years before he felt comfortable telling the world about them.
"There’s no limit to my sight," Lindbergh wrote of one of these experiences that occurred while he was alone in his plane, high above the empty Atlantic. "My skull is one great eye, seeing everywhere at once."
As Lindbergh felt his soul expand, he became aware of a whole world of spiritual presences keeping him company as he flew. "These phantoms speak with human voices--friendly, vaporlike shapes, without substance, able to vanish or appear at will, to pass in and out through the walls of the fuselage as though no walls were there. Now, many are crowded behind me. Now, only a few remain. At times, voices come out of the air itself, clear yet far away, traveling through distances that can’t be measured by the scale of human miles; familiar voices, conversing and advising on my flight, discussing problems of my navigation, reassuring me, giving me messages of importance unattainable in ordinary life."
For Lindbergh during these episodes, "physical" flight (actually leaving the ground) and "spiritual" flight (leaving behind our smaller, purely earthbound selves and recovering the vast reserves of knowledge and vision that are usually veiled from us) magically blended into a single experience. He became a winged eye, "invisible, incorporeal, seeing but not seen" (as Ralph Waldo Emerson famously wrote of his own experience of this state while walking one day in the New England woods).
This breakthrough into higher levels of knowledge and vision, rare as it may be, is our spiritual birthright. It’s also what all our dreams of flight--from the most heroic real-life feats to the most humble childhood fantasies--are really all about.
Ptolemy Tompkins is a Senior Editor at Angels on Earth Magazine.
'A Dream of Flight' by Ptolemy Tompkins reprinted with permission from Angelsonearth.com. Copyright © 2007 by Guideposts, Carmel, New York 10512. All rights reserved.
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