A series of essays on how dreams can increase vision and certainty in business and in life.
“He understood that modeling the incoherent and vertiginous matter of which dreams are composed was the most difficult task that a man could undertake, even though he should penetrate all the enigmas of a superior and inferior order; much more difficult than weaving a rope out of sand or coining the faceless wind.” –Borges, The Circular Ruins
It makes perfect sense that the turning point in the way I experience dreams came in the form of a dream. It happened one night in my early thirties while sleeping in my East Village apartment—seemingly out of nowhere. It marked the beginning of a personal practice in which I would ultimately learn not just to receive and remember my dreams, but to work with them as a source of creativity and empowerment.
A dream: I am living in an overly-commercialized hell hole, like something out of a dystopian cautionary tale, like Bladerunner or The Lorax.
Hovering over this town, at the top of a prominent hill, is a billboard. As the messages on this billboard change, so do the qualities and desires of the populace. In a rapid montage, I see the billboard advertise a new flavor of bubble gum, and watch the town morph into a chaotic scrum of kids in a candy shop. A new liquor pitched with seductive imagery ignites the lustful nature of the people. Next, an image of athletic prowess causes a heightening of competitive sentiment. The townspeople puff out their chests and challenge each other. I’m watching this as an invisible observer, absorbing a truth about the power of media. When suddenly, I am a character in the action.
I am now a townsperson myself, and a young man I’m very fond of, but haven’t seen for a long time, returns from a journey. He looks radiant, remarkable. I wonder with deep curiosity about his luminous glow and peaceful countenance. I ask him where he’s been and what has caused this change in him.
I can tell that he has found a way to exist in the service of others (for no one existing solely for themselves has such a glow) and I ask if he has become a doctor or a teacher. He laughs and tells me that he has in fact, gone into advertising. I’m baffled until he explains that he also began to recognize the power of the looming billboard, and that he’d left in order to find a way to harness that power for good. He’d looked far and wide for a means of dismantling the billboard, but then finally realized that the answer was simply to use the medium to promote healing and beneficial messages.
As he speaks, I look up at the billboard on the hill and it is–like this young man–glowing with a radiant light that is now illuminating the streets of the town. The faces and postures of the people convey a sense of bliss. They are breathing and growing like healthy human plants under a nourishing sun.
I’d been in marketing and advertising for about a decade and had been nursing misgivings about my career choice for a couple of years when I had this dream. I’d been considering an escape hatch, but in my waking, black-and-white thinking, I’d convinced myself that I needed to abandon my career altogether. Distaste for the overtly-commercial aspects of advertising had me feeing like I needed to become an artist or a writer, to severe all ties to that brand of materialism. The dream showed me there might be another way, a middle path.
Upon waking—while still in bed—I realized I could no longer approach my work without thinking about consequences. In my current position, I would be required to continue shilling for companies I didn’t believe in, so I quit. I found the courage of my convictions in the material of the dream. The dream had been so vivid and so beautifully metaphorical, it was as if it had been sent for me to experience an alternate version of the future that was waiting for me. It helped me see that I might not be as far from the mark as I’d thought: I could use the skills I’d honed in advertising to promote worthwhile causes and messages.
I didn’t mention this dream to anyone; not when I walked into my boss’ office just a few days later and gave notice, not when he asked me why I would do such a thing. I never said, “I had this dream...” I offered other rational reasons. But, in my heart I knew it was this message, this dream, that had called me to take action.
My personal passion for dreaming and dream analysis is pretty typical of any passion in a few ways: the evidence of the interest exhibited early in my childhood; I turned away from my gift before I was able to fully embrace it; and I’m not exactly sure whether I chose it, or it chose me. Today, I genuinely love to dream, but this wasn’t always the case.
“You would have to be half mad to dream me up.” ― The Mad Hatter, Alice in Wonderland
As a child, I had vivid dreams and nightmares. I remember my first nightmare with such clarity, I still flinch to think of it. I was walking through a dark room. Out of the pitch black, I became aware of an object — a long box, which I recognized as a coffin. In a state of curiosity, I approached, the lid opened, and a vampire sat bolt upright. I jumped in fear and began to run. When I stopped to catch my breath, I looked down and a seed was wedged in a wound on the back of my hand. I was horrified by the idea of the implant.
About six years old when this dream happened, I remember feeling amazed by the intensity of the experience and confused by where the images had come from. It was the first time I was cognizant of the presence and potential of my mind—and that it might be driven by some force other than “me,” more of a conduit than a generator. It was a very different experience from imaginary play, which I felt arose from my own intentions and was under my control. The dream felt more like…magic.
In early adolescence, I had insomnia. The hours I spent lying awake in the dark at an hour that felt way-too-late for a kid, impressed upon me the loneliness and otherness of night. I’d lay awake in the bed listening to the sound of the late night television shows, desperate to fall asleep before my father, a night owl, shut them off and left the house silent, cavernous. A child psychologist was able to help me through the anxiety, but I soon found sleeping had its own pitfalls.
For a few years in my late teens, I was visited regularly by beings I still have a hard time explaining…ghosts? aliens? hallucinations? I would wake in my darkened room to find small groups of human-like figures crawling about the corners, sitting expectantly at the foot of my bed, or most disconcertingly, crouching next to me, face-to-face. Though seemingly awake, I couldn’t move and would lie there trying to shift in my bed, to sit up, feeling like I was under a lead blanket. Many years later, I read about the experience of “sleep paralysis,” a hallucinatory event that occurs when a sleeper creates a bridge of consciousness between REM and the waking state. The symptoms sound very much like my experience, but the science doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. Whatever the case, these visitors contributed to my growing fascination with altered states of consciousness and what happens when we sleep.
During those years, too, still under my parents’ roof, I witnessed my mother’s intense relationship with dreams. She had powerful dreams; some that felt like memories of times past, some that felt like premonitions. She talked to my father about them, and I mostly eaves dropped. On one family trip to Europe she stopped in her tracks on a London side street and stared in horror at an abandoned building that she had dreamed of only weeks before. In the dream, she’d been a teacher, walking the halls of a school, when she witnessed a murder that had scared her awake. I remember her pale face as she sent my father through the dilapidated gate and up to the entrance where he was able to read the etched inscription over the door. It had been a school.
Throughout my twenties, my dreams slowed down as my nightlife ramped up. Looking back, I regret the nights I spent in a dull, inebriated, dreamless sleep. My inner life suffered at the expense of an outer life that had me in its thrall. The dreams I do remember from that time were of a repetitive and insistent quality.
I can’t remember many “positive” experiences with the dream world from my youth and adolescence; they simply didn’t leave the same indelible marks. Still, I was interested in dream symbolism and had several dream interpretation books. One given to me by my father at Christmastime was inscribed, “To Schuyler, Keep dreaming, Dad.” I also remember a beautiful dream my mother had one night when her mother was in the hospital. In the dream, Mom opened the front door to see the bush on our front porch, nearly dead from winter cold, in full, radiant bloom. She woke feeling sure her mother was fine; even before we received a call with the news that Granny had made a miraculous recovery in the night. We both cried at the profundity of the mother-daughter connection and the beauty of the dream’s metaphor. But, at that point, I’d never had such a dream—one that offers something of deep meaning and utility to the dreamer. I thought this was my mother’s gift.
Because of these experiences and many others, I developed a belief that dreams were not to be trifled with. Dreams had for me an unruly power. It took many years and a lot of effort to correct this misperception. By relegating my dreams to the realm of the supernatural, I absolved myself of understanding them…or further, learning from them. In this life what’s completely natural is often more confounding to our modern minds than what we label “supernatural.” Supernatural pushes away and permits us to not understand the thing, when it is probably arising precisely because it wants or needs to be seen, and grasped.
Today I believe this is where we are as a culture: in a state of childlike fear with regard to our dreams and the content of our collective unconscious.
We’re afraid of what we might find if we actually allow ourselves to dream. It’s like a massive fear of the dark. We’re all sleeping with the closet light on, hoping to keep the monsters at bay. Not accepting that the only way to deal with them is to bring them to light. Not understanding that all the energy we’re putting into suppressing them is also suppressing an awesome source for creativity and healing. I had to go into the dark myself in order to understand this tendency we harbor collectively. Facing my fear was the first step on a long journey to loving the night, loving my dreams, and learning from those same images and characters I’d once seen as supernatural forces or worse, monsters.
Things began to shift for me in my mid-thirties, as they do for many seekers. This is the time of life when one has to learn to stop identifying with the body, which is dying, and start identifying with the spirit, which is rising. The lessons can be beautiful and sometimes brutal.
By this time, I’d had the instructive dream of the billboard on the hill. I’d left my comfortable job in advertising and taken the road less traveled as an independent consultant. In the language of the hero’s journey, I’d answered the call…or maybe I was already in the woods. Looking back, I know that I was growing up and learning to hear my inner voice, trust my intuition, and ultimately accept responsibility for the life I’d been given to lead.
Now outside of the consuming, conformist structure of the corporate world, I was able to focus on integrating my growing spiritual appetite into my life and work. I spent time meditating, practicing yoga, reading spiritual texts and attending talks by great teachers. What had once been a way to unwind from my stressful job and overactive mind, had become the primary focus of my existence. I needed to know myself better before I could really be useful to the world.
I began working with a teacher of self-mastery. Through his instruction in practices of self-observation and self-remembering, I developed a new familiarity with myself and a necessary objectivity. “You have to be able to see yourself like a surgeon,” my teacher told me when we would come up against a particularly shameful or painful aspect of myself, “The surgeon doesn’t run away because he can’t handle what’s inside the body…and he definitely doesn’t cry (something I did often at the time). He observes, accepts the situation, and does what needs to be done. He’s a professional, cool.
”Over a period of months, I greatly increased my capacity to handle the elements of my shadow side, lurking for so long in the recesses of my psyche. Ultimately, everything that was mine became fascinating to me—the good, the bad, the ugly, the miraculous. It was all there inside me. The more I marveled the more I saw. The more I saw, the more I healed. Through my practice I found the desire to know the totality of myself, by any means necessary. This included a new commitment to pay attention to my dreams.
I was rewarded almost immediately with dreams illuminating various areas needing attention. In one memorable dream, I saw my fear of death. In the dream, I was practicing esoteric breathing techniques in a dark room with a group of students. The teacher was so clear to me — a woman of German heritage, with a thick accent and a taut brunette ponytail. I was following along poorly when she looked at me directly in the eyes. As she did so, I saw that hers were black holes into which I was sinking. I felt a trance-like state descending when she broke the spell by snapping at me in a thick German accent, “Not now! You are too afraid!” As she said this, I looked up to see two menacing silhouetted figures standing in the doorway. I knew immediately they wanted to kill me and I panicked and ran. I woke in my bed with my heart pounding and my nerves vibrating. I lay there experiencing how desperately afraid of death I was. The fear was raw and exposed for me to see and feel, unmasked. I understood for the first time how this fear colored my actions; how it infiltrated and permeated the smallest details of everyday existence: from the foods I eat, to the clothes I wear, to my casual interactions and deepest relationships.
After meditating on this feeling for a few weeks, getting to know the nature and flavor of my fear, coming to accept it and eventually, to move past it, I had a dream that confirmed my growth. In this dream, the same two figures appeared again in a doorway, menacing and threatening. Only this time, I felt…nothing. When I woke, I understood that the opposite of fear is not necessarily courage, but the absence of fear. It felt so different from what I’d imagined. I’d been walking around thinking I needed to become fearless by chasing some cartoon-like ideal of bravery: gritted teeth, clenched fists, puffed chest, defiance. But, my dream showed me — helped me embody — a deeper feeling of acceptance, actual fear-less-ness in the face of death. When I woke, I felt a great weight had been lifted. I couldn’t have achieved this victory without my dreams.
Soon, the floodgates opened. Within weeks I was having super dreams of a magnitude I’d only experienced once or twice previously. These dreams were insistent upon my attention as if I didn’t have a choice in the matter. As I began to understand the way my dreams communicate, I had more of them and they were more vivid. The dreamer I am today is mainly as a result of another Big Dream. This dream awakened me to the idea that dreaming might be central to my spiritual development and life path.
I dream that I am making love with a man in the position Buddhists call yab yum. We are face to face and then suddenly, we are One. I am seeing with his eyes, hearing with his ears, feeling with his nerves. I can see in all directions, I can hear through walls. There is no longer physicality, we are pure light and consciousness. Pure light and breath. It is an experience at once beyond comprehension and completely familiar. It’s not personal, but…ritualistic, timeless. A tremendous energy pours through us.
Afterwards, we are pulling ourselves together, dressing, for the arrival of our teacher (a guru, or spiritual teacher). He’s coming home today after a long absence and we’re both ecstatic. There will be a feast tonight in his honor.
Some aspect of my observing consciousness lets me know where I am: Paris, 1940s. This seems to be confirmed by the details of dress and furnishings I can see so clearly. I’m wearing my favorite green skirt and jacket. I walk through the grim streets of Paris to pick up a few items: bread and firewood. I place the items in a basket I carry on my arm and go to the counter to settle an account. I’m being watched closely, I can feel that. The shopkeeper hovers as I sign my name and there is something about the name that bothers her, that provokes anxiety. She tells me I shouldn’t be out at this time. She becomes angry and afraid and wants me to leave the store. I sense her fear, but I am high with the anticipation of my teacher’s arrival and the evening’s events. I am high because I am young and making profound love in the afternoon. I don’t care about the curfew I am breaking.
I walk quickly back to to the house we all share (who are we all? I don’t know) and as I step onto the low stoop there is an explosion and a white powdery debris fills the air. I panic and wake flooded with an overwhelming pulsing of energy through my whole body. It feels like fear, like adrenaline, but also like passion. I lay there feeling it for a few minutes and then shake myself awake, afraid of feeling more. I knew, lying there, that a gateway had opened; that I’d walked through a threshold.
The next day I was still shaken when I told my teacher about this dream. I told him I’d felt overwhelmed by the power of it, the intensity of the energy flowing through me when I woke. “I lay there in my bed trying to calm down, afraid the pounding of my heart might destroy me. I felt like I was being flooded with something I’m not ready for, yet. So, I tried to calm myself, turned on the lights…” I made this announcement with some pride because I had a habit of getting carried away by things and I was trying to be the surgeon, trying to be rational in the face of something incredible. But he challenged me, “Why do you shrink from an offering like this? When will you be ready for this power, if not now? You need to look at this response, this idea that you are fragile. You’re not. This dream is the greatest gift of your life so far, you will never forget it. You come in here telling me you can’t handle it when you should have brought champagne!
”He was right (as usual). The dream was indeed a blessing on many levels. For one, it helped me shed my limited idea of myself as Schuyler. In the dream, I had been someone else, someone who looked different and lived differently, but who experienced the world through the same consciousness. I felt the truth of the continuity of my spirit.
Then, there was the passion. Never before had I felt so much in a dream (or in waking life for that matter). If you think about it, a lot of dreaming takes place in a state of passive observation. We watch things unfold and we experience emotions related to our interpretation of the events, but we don’t feel, taste, smell or touch as much as we do in waking life. This was totally different. I was—at the same time—inhabiting my body as fully as I’d ever imagined possible, and also spilling out of it. The light and my consciousness were seated in it, but completely untethered. In that embrace I felt directly and profoundly connected to another being, and through that connection, to everything. My spirit was free.
As I reflected on the dream over the next few days and weeks, I recognized the sexual position from the Buddhist and Hindu imagery I love. But, it wasn’t until a few months later, reading Julius Evola’s Yoga of Power (1968), that I came across a name and an explanation for what I’d experienced, a description of the sexual position depicted in these sacred images: viparita maithuna:
From an experiential point of view, the sexual union experienced in this way has a liberating power that abrogates the laws of duality, generates an ecstatic feeling, and leads, at least temporarily, beyond the limits of the individual and samsaric consciousness. Man and woman become one with their respective ontological principles (Shiva and Devi), which are present in their being and in their body. Since the dualistic law is suspended, samata, the state of “identity” and of transcendence also known as sahaja, can be obtained during what is commonly referred to as samarasa (the simultaneous erotic rapture and consequent orgasm that unite two beings during intercourse). In other words, a special form of exalted and transfigured pleasure may be experienced, which is the foreshadow of sambhodi itself, namely, the absolute radical enlightenment and the achievement of the unconditioned sahaja.
I began to approach the dream landscape with deep reverence. I had a sense I should take notes, record the journey, for those who might come after. And here and there, I was given signs and pointed in the right direction by those who’d come before me. During the day I investigated the practice of dreaming as prophesy in ancient cultures. I came across references to the ancient Sumerian priestesses and read a beautiful book about a poetess from that time, Enheduanna. Lady of Largest Heart: Poems of the Sumerian High Priestess Enheduanna, by Betty De Shong Meador, described the importance of dream divination in this ancient culture.
Another primary function of the high priestess was as a conduit of messages from the gods. At night the high priestess received in her sleep what Enheduanna called, “Ningal’s gift of dreams.” She then interpreted how they pertained to individuals or to the people as a whole…Ningal, who’s name means “great lady,” wanders in that borderland between dry ground and the watery deep of the rivers or ocean. In that transitional space between solid consciousness and the muddy unconscious, dreams emerge. Ningal is the divine dream-spinner who roams the marsh in the moonlight of her husband, Nanna, and taps the fertile, imaginative play of figures in the darkness that make up dreams. These she sends to her high priestess, who through training and talent interprets them.
At night I began to lay my head on the pillow with a sense of anticipation. And in a gesture that I acknowledge as being theatrical, I put a vase, a vessel, next to my bed as a symbol to Ningal that I was ready to catch more of what she had to offer. I had become a Big Dreamer…or at least an apt pupil.
In my experience, the growth of the soul is not linear. It comes—like so much in nature—in ebbs and flows, with stops and starts. I would have a period of weeks or months, where I dreamed vividly throughout the night, sometimes waking more than once to capture imagery, words, names, and details. Then, they would disappear, slowly like the receeding tide. The intensity of the imagery would die down perceptibly, the dreams would come less frequently, and I’d realize I was moving into a period of remission. My teacher helped me understand that there is a natural utility to this pattern: I needed these slow spells to integrate and process the material that had been revealed to me when the tide was high. But, it was hard to bear these dreamless nights. I felt lonely and sometimes abandoned.
A Dream: I’m inside a giant Gothic Cathedral and there is a deluge, a flood both outside and inside the room. Rain falls from the ceiling in sheets, the aisles are sloshing with waves. People and animals are crowded together, seeking safety. Lightning periodically illuminates the space and the fear on the faces of the people.
A beatific young woman–a saint?–hurries about helping others. She’s calm in the midst of the chaos. Someone asks her in terror: “Is this it?” And I know what they mean is “Is this the end? Is it the end of the world?” And she, in a reverie, replies vaguely, “Sometimes.”
I envy her and whatever it is that keeps her in such a state of grace. I am feeling carried away, unstable, when the swirling sensation heightens, the chaos gets more chaotic and I turn to someone and ask the same question: “Is this it?” By which I meant, “The end of ‘me,’ the beginning of liberation?” I’m so eager to make the madness meaningful, to evolve.
This person responds firmly and clearly: “You’re young. You’re exactly where you need to be.”
This kind of reassurance and sound advice gave me faith that the guides that appeared in my dreams had things under control, even if “I” didn’t. The messengers often exhibited great patience. Various characters appeared to teach me things, explain things, show me things. Some of them I knew, others were strangers to me in this life, but so familiar. One night I was placed in a literal waiting room at the center of the earth. I was waiting for my turn to tour the vineyards outside this glass-walled room. I noticed the sun coming through the vines at a funny angle and a woman explained to me that I was in “the land where the sun never sets.” Eager to get out there and explore, I asked her when it would be my turn and she replied that a woman was making me a special skirt at the moment. I understood that it would be my turn when the skirt was complete, when I was properly, ritually clothed. I settled in without anxiety, understanding now the protocols.
Sometimes these guides acted with great impatience. Often, they handled me forcefully or pushed me into situations and sensations that I needed to feel in order to understand something about myself. One night a yoga teacher of mine appeared in my dream. She looked me straight in the eye and said with intensity, “Get lit.” And I knew she meant “lit” from within.
I was undergoing an internal process that was operating by its own intelligence. Much like pregnancy.
My body was in charge and it had an infallible sense of timing. I was kept apprised of developments (so to speak) through the mythic landscape of my own dreams.
One of my greatest guides on this path, Carl Jung wrote,
“Whoever speaks in primordial images speaks with a thousand voices; he enthralls and overpowers, while at the same time he lifts the idea he is seeking to express out of the occasional and the transitory into the realm of the ever enduring. He transmutes our personal destiny into the destiny of mankind, and evokes in us all those beneficent forces that ever and anon have enabled humanity to find a refuge from every peril and to outlive the longest night.” (C.G. Jung, “On the Relation of Analytical Psychology of Poetry,” 1922. In CW 15: The Spirit in Man, Art and Literature. P.129)
I’ve been dreaming as an active practice for nearly four years now and I’ve found dreams to be a means to unlock worlds within. I’ve found direct routes to my own unconscious and the collective unconscious–that dark place of primal intelligence; a place that disappears in the blinding light of rational intellect that dominates our culture. In my own life, working with dreams has forced me to become comfortable with the language–verbal and visual–of the unconscious, of the irrational, mythic and poetic. Working with them has awakened my imagination and reacquainted me with my intuition. It is possible, I’ve found, to wake up to the medicine dreams are offering. Today, I navigate my life and make decisions with the help of dreams.
The dreams were there for me from the beginning, but it took a change of heart to bring them out of the dark and into the light. I decided to engage them, to respond to them, and they reciprocated. I might have spent my entire life receiving dreams sporadically, passively, casually, if I’d allowed myself to remain in a state of fear and awe.
He transmutes our personal destiny into the destiny of mankind…There is no doubt in my mind that dreams can be a precious and powerful tool for personal growth. But, this still ignores their use as a tool of divination and healing for the community at large. Any culture—ancient and indigenous—that respects and listens to the wisdom in dreams makes use of them for both personal and communal intelligence. This is where I am now in my own practice: I’m beginning to ask for dreams that will illuminate some aspect of the culture or our collective future that might need to be seen; and I’m looking for ways to share these dreams in a meaningful way so that they can be of use.Morpheus, guru…Are you listening?
In the final installment in this series of essays, I’ll offer suggestions and tips for embarking on a personal dream practice, and encouragement for why this is critical to our collective future.