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DREAMS AND THE NON-SELF

04 Dec 2017, 09:30 am
Dreams have always been an important means by which I am shown things. And one of the good things about that way, for me, is that there’s no doubt about it, I didn’t make it up: I know there’s something pressing itself at me, an offering of knowledge about my life. There are messages to be found, but the dream is not the message, the ‘meaning’. With our so-called ‘rational’ minds we can think that dreams are about their ‘meaning’, and once we have found it, then we have fulfilled the purpose of the dream. But what we are then doing is trying to contain something with the rational mind, that is bigger than that. The dream is itself, like a painting, it cannot be reduced in this way. This is why it can be good to write them down: we are honouring the spirit, the ‘dream-maker’ who has come to us, building a relationship; and it gives us a means of coming back to that spirit and staying with it, mulling it over, perhaps over many years, even decades.


Last night I had a recurrent dream, and it really is recurrent, it’s been coming to me every few months for at least 35 years. It’s about being back at university and not knowing what I’m doing there. In real life, this was what happened, but I was too young to say OK, what do I need to listen to here; rather I viewed it as a problem to be struggled against. In the end I scraped through with a 3rd.

So in a way it’s a dream about not knowing who I am. This is an important theme amongst the Native Americans. A Native friend once told me about a white guy given a Cherokee name that meant a ball of cotton that gets blown about here and there, because that person did not know who they are. This guy has since claimed various forms of native ancestry and used this as his ‘medicine name’, apparently not realising the meaning and the humour and teaching within the name. And done some good teaching – we are such mixed creatures!


So what would it mean to know who I am? It’s a big question. It can seem to have a fairly straightforward answer, and I know plenty of people who have always known what they wanted to do - life is not a problem for them. Life is, in a way, as it has been presented to them.

For me, it is more complex. The university dream points to a system with a narrow and ‘aspirational’ definition of who we are. And that works for many people. It is ‘normal’. And maybe one layer of that dream is about questioning the sense of self that system engenders, that if I think in that narrow way then I will never know who I am. The dream keeps reminding me not to think in that way. It involves a way of comparing myself to other people, in which I am doomed to forever feel inadequate.


For this shamanic way, this medicine path, a very different sense of self is required. A non-self. We need to step out of this never-ending need to define ourselves. And that is a lifelong quest. It is why so many Native stories are based around a trickster figure: the ego, the desire to build ourselves up, is so basic, and it creeps in everywhere. And the way the stories deal with it is through humour. That is how to deal with our self-importance: laugh at it

I need to laugh at myself every time I get hung up on other people knowing the ‘right’ way of doing things and me not; of other people having a connection to spirit and me not. It is the inverse of people who suggest themselves as ‘elders’, and bang on about how much experience they have and their native connections. We are all in the same boat, unsure of who we are. It is the human condition. 

And, like the native peoples, we need to laugh our way out of the boat. Laugh our way out of building ourselves up and tearing ourselves down. I’ll be 60 in February. How long am I going to keep this up, this ongoing attempt to define and compare myself? I have had a perfectly good dream (which I won’t relate here) telling me how to live.

There is that thing, that vast thing that we all belong to, that wants to work through us for the benefit of everybody, that knows far better than we ever can what people need and what the world needs.


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