Category: Issue 97

97 Dream Interpretation

Dream Interpretation


In all mystical traditions, dreams and waking visions are thought of as tools that can guide and assist one on the spiritual journey. Scientific research shows that the average person has three to five dreams each night and most dreams are immediately forgotten. But almost everyone can recall significant dreams that they have had during their lifetime. In Sufism, dreams can be regarded as signposts to help the Sufi to follow the path towards the truth.

Traditionally, the disciple is asked to tell the master his or her dreams and visions and the master, using his knowledge and insight, interprets the disciple’s dreams in order to help them along the spiritual path. The interpretation of dreams in Sufism was regarded mostly as secret knowledge and, therefore, very little has been written on this topic. In addition, whatever Sufis have written about dreams does not reveal a systematic method used to decipher or interpret dreams. Rather, one finds mainly dream stories, occasional symbols, and some general tips about dream interpretation. Dreams have never been emphasized as a major or defining element of the Sufi path, and no specific formula serves to explain every aspect of a dream as being meaningful or spiritually significant.

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Modern psychology, on the other hand, does look to dreams for specific explanations of human emotions and behavior. Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung are considered the two most influential figures in dream research and interpretation, and both developed groundbreaking theories in the early-20th century that are used in psychotherapy today.

Freud, in The Interpretation of Dreams (1899) put forth a comprehensive study of dreams together with an overarching principle to use for their interpretation.

According to Freud, dreams symbolize the fulfilment of our repressed wishes which are stored in our unconscious and manifest themselves in a variety of forms. The content of one’s dream relates to recent events or childhood experiences. Dreams have a manifest content, made up of familiar objects and situations (such as someone being arrested while at a party with friends), and a latent or real content or meaning (such as the desire to get married but having mixed feelings about this). It is the role of the psychoanalyst to interpret the dream with the help of the dreamer. The latter point is very significant. The interpretation of dreams in Freudian psychoanalysis is not a one-way street, controlled as it were by the psychoanalyst alone. The dreamer has to cooperate and contribute to the interpretation of his/her dream by providing the necessary background information.

Knowing the context in which dreams occur is crucial for the interpretation of dreams. We can begin to make sense of the dream about the young man being arrested at a party—which Freud mentioned—when we learn that he is about to get married and his friends are very unhappy to lose him. The meaning of the dream is, to use Freudian terminology, the man’s unconscious wish not to lose his friends once he gets married. It is the psychoanalyst’s task to bring this observation to the conscious level with the help of the dreamer.

While Freud may have discovered dreams and their interpretation were crucial in unlocking the unconscious, it goes without saying that not every dream has a spiritual significance. The majority of our dreams are about mundane things and the fact that a dream is dreamt up by a person who is on a spiritual path doesn’t say anything about the spiritual state of the person. For example, one’s dream of flying in the air may signify the desire to be free of one’s job and nothing more. Nevertheless, I think there are two general similarities that exist between a Freudian psychoanalytic approach to dream analysis on the one hand and the Sufi approach to dream interpretation on the other.

Firstly, like Freud, Sufis believe that our dreams are doors to the working of our unconscious. The concept of nafs in Sufism includes both the conscious mind (‘ego’) and the unconscious (as it relates to the Freudian ‘id’). It is a general principle in Sufism that the workings of the nafs are not accessible or comprehensible to the spiritual traveler. Aspects of the outer world (zaher), such as dreams, provide clues to the inner or the invisible world (baten). Furthermore, the spiritual traveller cannot unlock the secret of one’s nafs by themself as the nafs is inherently biased in interpreting its own dreams, hence the reason for having a spiritual guide to provide an unbiased interpretation of dreams. Like Freud’s idea of the unconscious, the nafs influences or, even more comprehensively than the Freudian unconscious, the nafs controls you, but you don’t know how. It requires guidance to develop insight into these hidden forces.

Secondly, just as the context for the interpretation of dreams in Freudian psychoanalysis is provided by the dreamer talking to the analyst, in Sufism, too, the disciple who is known to the spiritual guide provides the context for their dreams. The context in Sufism is the disciple’s behaviour and interaction with others including the master. In psychoanalysis the psychoanalyst attempts to unravel the context and the working of the unconscious by listening to the patient. In Sufism it is by observing the behaviour of the disciple in relation to others that the master is enabled to have some knowledge of the character traits and attributes of the disciple. Traditionally, such an interaction happened with master and disciple living in close proximity and with the guide having full knowledge of the disciple’s life including their relations and social interactions and dealing with the world. It is this close relationship between the master and disciple which makes it possible for the master to unravel the meaning of the disciple’s dreams.

Dreams by themselves do not mean anything; they only mean something in the context of one’s life. To dream, for example, that upon entering a house full of animals one turns into a lion may mean that perhaps one wishes to become a manager in his/her job if the dreamer is up for a promotion. But if we know that the dreamer has a sense of pride and superiority in dealing with others—though quite unconsciously—then the meaning of the dream can change drastically. It is the task of the spiritual guide to bring the spiritual significance of the dream (if any) to the attention of the dreamer using his knowledge of the disciple. Dream interpretation in Sufism is thus a tool used by the spiritual guide to unravel the disciple’s unconscious and guide the disciple to overcome the obstacles on the Sufi path.

Jung’s approach to dream interpretation is more aligned with the Sufi tradition in very important ways. Jungian archetypes such as God, Freedom and Beauty are pure innate forms that reside in our unconscious and manifest themselves in dreams. Jung believed that the archetypes guide us in our dreams through the process of individuation, or actualisation of our potentials in the process of becoming better and balanced human beings. This is akin to the idea in Sufism that the Invisible World (‘alam-e ghayb’) communicates with the spiritual seeker through dreams and visions. Dreams can be signposts in the Sufi’s journey on the path of perfection. Some signposts alert the Sufi that he/she has gone astray, other signposts may provide assurances that he/she is on the true path.

Active participation of both the dreamer and the psychoanalyst in the interpretation of dreams is also extremely important in Jung’s approach to dreams, perhaps even more so than in Freud’s. In Sufism, the master plays an active role in the development of the disciple by, for example, asking the disciple to perform various tasks in order to expose various aspects of the nafs. Similarly, in Jungian psychology the psychoanalyst takes a very active role through use of various art forms, writings or free association, asking the patients to concentrate on the deeper and often darker elements of their selves rather than what they present to the outside world. In a way similar to the Sufi tradition, this creates a very close bond between the psychoanalyst and the patient. It is this close relationship between the psychoanalyst and his patient in Jungian psychoanalysis on the one hand and master and disciple relation in Sufism on the other hand that makes it possible for the psychoanalyst and the Sufi master to unlock the secrets of the unconscious and find the true meaning of a dream.

The question remains, however—what makes a dream have spiritual significance? Suppose someone comes to you with the following dream: “I saw someone resembling myself and someone else had seized this person by the hair and handed him over to me. I tied him to a tree with the intention of destroying him, when he cried, ‘Do not take the trouble! I am God’s army; you cannot destroy me.’” Suppose further that you find out that the dreamer suffers from acute depression and has suicidal tendencies and in fact had attempted suicide in the past. Needless to say, in the context of only the information given, the dream has no spiritual significance and is a product of a troubled mind. However, if you are told that this is a dream of a Sufi by the name of Abu ‘Ali Siah Marwazi who lived in 10th-11th century, and the dream occurred after a long period of fasting and meditation, it will suddenly acquire a spiritual content. The meaning of the dream could then be what is known in Sufism as the indestructibility of the nafs (‘ego’). The dream shows, to use Jungian terminology, that Marwzi is coming to terms with his shadow, the unknown dark or negative side of one’s personality. The spiritual content of the dream is the idea that one has to accept one’s nafs (one’s ego) as God-given and come to terms with it. Another way of putting it is that Marwzi was reminded of the meaning of the submission to God, namely, to accept his nafs (ego) in totality, with both positive and negative characteristics, and strive to transform and purify his nafs instead of destroying it. What makes the dream spiritual is determined therefore by the context in which it occurs.

In Sufism dreams can function to aid the process of perfection of the human psyche. Initially dreams may guide us towards the spiritual path and subsequently they enable us to travel on the turbulent path of perfecting human qualities. Often it is through dreams that a person is drawn to a spiritual path. Jung observed that dreams could be compensatory in nature, which is very pertinent here: Dreams are messages from the unconscious or the hidden world to wake us up to the fact that we are leading a very one-sided life and neglecting our hidden potential, that we are not a balanced human being. This is especially true today, as the pressure of modern society and very demanding jobs that do not provide any meaning, force people to ignore important aspects of their human nature. The more one-sided human beings become, the greater the possibility of their having dreams which bring attention to other aspects of their lives. The more worldly and materialistic we become, the greater the importance of dreams with spiritual content, such as experiencing love in a dream or generosity of spirit towards other human beings or dreaming of oneself as a corpse who has been dead for a long time. Like a snooze alarm, such dreams are wake-up calls to alert us that we are not leading a balanced life. Those who are drawn to the spiritual path are those who take such dreams seriously.

There are, however, people who claim they never have dreams or, if they do, they never remember them. How can such people be helped to unlock the content of their unconscious and transform themselves if not through dreams? Put another way, the question is how essential are dreams to our spiritual development? My answer is that one can of course progress on the spiritual path without having dreams. The real transformative force in human beings is the force of love. Through cultivation of love in ourselves we can override any selfish desires and wishes that originate in our unconscious. This is the basic message of Sufism: through love of another we can transform our hardwired nature of basic survival instincts, and turn ourselves into fully conscious beings capable of acting with compassion and kindness at all times. To act with love and compassion towards others is more effective in one’s spiritual progress than a definitive adherence to dream interpretations.

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97 Pictures on My Eyelids

Pictures on My Eyelids

A Jungian Approach to Dreaming


In diverse languages, the common experience of dreaming is verbalized differently: I saw a dream; I made a dream; I received a dream; a dream came to me. ”I saw pictures on my eyelids” is how one child described their visual interiority, inner pictures watched when eyes are closed. Of course, though dreams are predominantly visual, many offer smells and sounds and palpable textures. They are seen and remembered in color, in black and white, and sometimes, quite specially, in sepia. Intriguing though this child’s naïve report is, I begin with a more sophisticated statement by Jung, who spent his professional life sharing the dreams of his numberless local and international patients.

If our dreams reproduce certain ideas, these ideas are primarily our ideas, in the structure of which our whole being is interwoven. They are subjective factors, grouping themselves as they do in the dream, and expressing this or that meaning, not for extraneous reasons, but from the most intimate promptings of our psyche. The whole dreamwork is essentially subjective, and a dream is a theatre in which the dreamer is himself the scene, the player, the prompter, the producer, the author, the public, and the critic. 1

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This idea of a theatre of the mind is ancient, but Jung used it with new psychological insight to enter into individual experiences of multifaceted dream situations and figures. When responding to dreams, one needs to acknowledge every facet as an aspect of the dreaming subject. I am the landscape, the tree, the ripe and the fallen fruit, the orchard’s owner and worker and the basket into which the apples are gathered; I am the prison and the door, the lock and the key, and the guard with whom I am pleading; I am the nursing mother, the suckling infant and the enfolding blanket. (Such motifs as these come from dreams brought to me by my analysands). None of these components can be separated from the dreaming subject; and no symbol dictionary or set of predictions can reliably respond to a dream separated from its specific dreamer. For this reason, there is no definite or straightforward interpretation of any dream.2 Each dream detail presents “intimate promptings of our psyche”.

Jung distinguished between objective and subjective responses to dream material. In the former, people, places and situations might refer specifically to historical, biographical reality, bringing to consciousness something being missed, refused or denied in conscious, outer life. These prompts are clearly extremely helpful, even revelatory, helping us to create or restore inner balance, for this is one of the dream’s major tasks. Jung sees the human psyche as a self-regulating system, working towards balance between consciousness and the darker unknowns of unconscious depths. ‘Psyche’ represents the totality of all psychic processes, conscious and unconscious. The goal of human development is wholeness, which can only be achieved by communication and relationship between both domains, both levels of psychic functioning. Unconscious information comes to the sphere of consciousness by means of symbolic images. They reveal a precise and infinitely rich eco-system. Dreams that can be experienced as objective representation reflect vital needs for change, development, adjustment of attitude and so on. Jung speaks of “tendencies which in conscious life are too little valued [that] come spontaneously into action during the sleeping state, when the conscious process is to a large extent eliminated.” 3 But what of responses at the subjective level?

First, I share a dream experience that illuminates this process. A dreamer was deeply involved in a training program and was anxious about moving on to the next stage because she felt inadequately prepared. She felt blocked, even wondering whether to move in a completely different direction. She felt unready. At a crucial moment in decision making she had a brief but vivid dream. A large frog suddenly jumped out of the wardrobe in her bedroom, announced its name, “Wump”, and hopped away. It felt absurd and even childish, so silly that she didn’t take it very seriously. It was hardly comparable to Einstein’s Alpine cows! But the image would not leave her alone. Eventually she honored it enough to reflect on her experience of frogs, part of a process of amplification that Jung advocates. She had vivid memories of childhood ponds, and of being enchanted by frogspawn floating in clumps, then watching emerging tadpoles until they disappeared. Later she saw the odd frog and wondered how many of those previous wrigglers had made it to this next stage. She remembered biology lessons at the age of twelve when the life cycle of frogs was studied. She remembered more recent encounters with fairy tales, especially when frogs promised barren queens that they would bear a child. The frog wouldn’t leave her; what she found most insistent was a strange sense of mystery. She later identified this as the quality of the numinous, the experience of numinosity that imbues certain images with an almost sacred archetypal charge. Without this dynamism the absurd cupboard-frog would have been dismissed as trivial, soon disappearing from her imagination. But as harbinger of new possibilities, it exercised tremendous influence, moving her forward. This kind of experience supports the idea of the symbol as an energy transformer, bringing hitherto lost momentum to empower the conscious ego. This experience made her realize that in fact, we do not work on our dreams, to interpret them, but they work on us, to change us. What we have to do, as James Hillman urges, is simply to befriend them, allow them into consciousness to complete their task of psychological adjustment and realization. This ‘silly’ dream speaks of the capacity of the unconscious psyche to juxtapose heterogeneous elements in paradoxical ways. Nothing is impossible and nothing is too absurd in dream narrative. Men have babies; angels perform heart surgery; toy tin soldiers attack tax inspectors. In sleep we live naively and without surprise in odd and upsidedown worlds. I am reminded of a wonderful comment by the analyst-philospher, Adam Phillips, who pointed out the sad fact that very quickly, psychoanalysis became a “science of sensible passions”, as though the goal of therapy was “to make people more intelligible to themselves rather than to realize how strange they are.” 4 Our dreams do not fear strangeness or mystery. The amphibian frog is an apt soul-guide, threshold creature able to move between water and land, and able to function in both elements.

People will do anything, no matter how absurd, in order to avoid facing their own souls. One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.

Jung insisted that the human psyche is a self-regulating system that maintains its equilibrium just as the body does. Every process that goes too far, inevitably evokes compensations. For Jungians, this theory of compensation is a basic law of psychic behaviour and is a central purpose of dreaming. Jung’s early mentor, Freud, wrote specifically on dream interpretation, but Jung used this term more hesitantly, seeing the core of each individual as a “mystery of life, which is snuffed out when it is ‘grasped.’” That is why symbols want to be mysterious: they are not so merely because what is at the bottom of them cannot be clearly apprehended.” 5

Without interpreting “Wump”, I need to take him more seriously. From the objective perspective, he brought associations from the dreamer’s personal unconscious, facts and memories from a specific childhood in a specific culture, bringing with it the excitements of early discoveries of the natural world around her; stirring that first sense of the mystery of creativity and her first awareness of a process of things changing into other things, only later understood as transformation and metamorphosis. These ideas and emotions, powerful in themselves, were urging her to move on to the next stage. But there was more to the experience than this, another element that explained the even deeper charge that kept the silly frog alive in her psyche … perhaps for ever. There was another dynamic at work. The frog also brought with it centuries of implication and association from various cultures, carrying universal significances. These are the echoes and valences of what Jung called the collective unconscious that underlies and enriches personal histories, a means of “thinking in primordial images, in symbols which are older than the historical man, which are inborn in him from the earliest times, and, eternally living, outlasting all generations, still make up the groundwork of the human psyche.”6 To live fully, we must be in harmony with these symbols.

At this level of illumination for the dreamer, energies of the fertility goddesses of the ancient world are activated. For example, in ancient Japanese and North American native mythologies, the frog carries power to fertilize and transform. Frogs proliferated in the mud of the flooding Nile and heralded fertility. Heket, goddess of childbirth and creation was depicted as a frog; midwives were her servants. Associated with abundance and fruitfulness, the hieroglyph for the tadpole represented the amount/number 100,000. This symbol-cluster brings expectation of prospective life. The dreamer felt animated by such future promise in the present psychological situation. She must move on and felt energized to do so, even though she understood little of all the above at the time.

Of course, she was also conscious of fantasies such as C.S. Lewis’ land of Narnia, which was entered via a wardrobe, a liminal space between worlds. But this frog, a most humble soul-guide, was not leading her into the wardrobe’s dark depths, but emerging from it and leading her elsewhere, perhaps to moist mosses around ponds where soul might be refreshed. The energy of these symbolic images and residues keep us in contact with the archetypal realm, habitual patterns and structures of human behaviour and functioning, shared from unconscious and archaic stores.

The dynamism of futurity is central to the Jungian approach to the dream. It is essentially teleological, moving towards psychic goals unavailable to the conscious Ego except by means of symbolic illumination from unconscious sources. This prospective function directs how we respond to dream prompting, the announcing of things unknown. These are precious moments when we acknowledge Jung’s own experience of the “impenetrable”, mysterious world that erupts into our personal and transitory one. 7 This offers us religious experience, keeping us in relationship, connecting us, religere, with that which is eternal, even as we sleep.

A vital task of dreaming is also to bring to consciousness not only our positive capacities that need to be owned and developed further, perhaps hitherto neglected, but also the dark part of our personalities that we manage to disown and deny, often by projecting our un-acceptable qualities onto other human beings who carry the darkness for us. This is often painful, to acknowledge our own hidden, undesirable selves and we can avoid doing so except in unusually challenging moments of solitary introspection. But much more vividly and ruthlessly, the unconscious psyche will compel us to see those shadowy parts in dream drama. Jung reflected that “People will do anything, no matter how absurd, in order to avoid facing their own souls. One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.”8 Wise words. Ominous dream figures who can threaten our inner peace of mind and sense of self are often taken from our daily relationships, usually the people who infuriate or disgust us. Dreams will re-organize and re-imagine our relationships to these carriers of unowned self. Our task is to own and stay conscious of them as part-selves, to be reckoned with, not refused or destroyed. They may be darker, terrifying archetypal creatures or historical tyrants. Many post WWII dreams have horrified people with the reality of their own hidden prejudices and their capacities to hate and to persecute, confronting them with a secret, well-hidden Nazi figure within. One such dreamer had to come face to face with a Gestapo officer crouching in anguish in the inmost centre of a dream maze. Such experiences are chastening and promote self-knowledge, fulfilling the demands of the individuation process, the coming into psychic wholeness. Such is the purposiveness of dream work, using symbolic forms, the rich and most comprehensive expressions of things as yet unknown to the conscious personality.

As I have proposed, it is important to contextualize symbolic elements in the life and history of the dreamer before moving to deeper collective depths. This is illuminated by experiences such as the following, concerning two powerfully archaic animal symbols, the snake and the cat.

The first was presented in a training seminar in which a group of analytical psychologists were discussing dream work/play. A dream was presented in which the dream-ego was weaving snakes to create a wall inside a house, like a wicker fence perhaps. Not much else was remembered … it had been offered in a rather apologetic way by the dreamer, as “merely a fragment”. There was much excitement as members of the seminar took the snake and ran with it; back to the Biblical Genesis, to Egypt’s serpent goddess, to archaic alchemical imagery, the Greek god Hermes, the Asclepian healing rituals and the Caduceus … on and on … skin shedding as rebirth, the ouroboros as symbol of eternity and completion, energy and life force. The sacredness of the snake as symbol of all the above was shared with satisfaction and passion. The exchanges suddenly ended, very quietly, all participants feeling rather strangely moved by both attraction and repulsion … the ancient response to the transcendent … the mysterium tremendum et fascinans. The dream snake had brought about this final acquiescent stillness after all the intellectual energy of wide-ranging amplification. Snake did this, as it often does.

This was a salutary process; eventually the action of the dream symbol wrought its effect, stilling souls. But no-one had asked about the life-situation of the dreamer. This is crucial … to explore the personal human context. The analysand was a white South African who had spent numberless expeditions into the wilderness, where snakes of many kinds were seen and related to. No matter how commonly encountered, and seen in their native habitat, the snake’s power over and for him had never diminished. The live experiences the dream brought to consciousness, enhancing a sense of how he might live more creatively and in a more natural environment than he was currently living, brought urgency to his situation and the stage of life he had reached. After reflecting for some time on these vital issues, we felt a similar awe to that of D.H. Lawrence, in his poem, ‘Snake’. This introduced a further layer of amplification, through the energies evoked in and by the dream. In the background was the poet’s responses: “I felt so honoured”, I “stared with fascination”, and having wilfully and regretfully hastened the snake’s disappearance, he realized that he “had missed [his] chance with one of the Lords of life”. Only after the personal associations were amplified was it important to consider universal, archetypal and mythic synergies. These emanate from the collective unconscious, enriching and expanding the individual’s connection to eternal images of the human psyche. This is Jung’s “religere”, leaving the waking dreamer with residues of numinosity, a sense of something “totally other” to daytime consciousness that had been bestowed.

If this snake dream had been experienced by an urban citizen who may only ever have seen a snake in a zoo, or only in pictures; or if it had come to someone (and there many such) who suffered from a snake phobia … response to the image would have to be very different from that felt for the snake-weaving dreamer. The dream snakes would carry very different psychic implications. Yet in phobic terror, there would also be awe. The onset of the phobia may be brought to consciousness by the dream’s creature and some healing initiated through the process of remembering and bringing the fear into adult awareness. Allowing this terrifying creature into even a tentative relationship with the waking ego can have profound effects. This “Lord of life”, ancient symbol of renewal/rebirth might also bring to light a fear of engaging with life in a creative way, expressed by and through the phobia, thereby cutting off soul from its native power and richness.

The same thing happened in a similar dream seminar when a dream-cat appeared. After roaming the world in search of “Cat”, via Japan and Egypt where the Sun-god’s daughter was Cat-goddess, someone finally asked if the dreamer actually had such a pet. Yes, indeed. She had. But it had been run over by a car and killed the day preceding her dream. Clearly, this took the group to very different places; loving memories, loss, heartache and mourning; reliving childhood moments when the cat licked tears off her face, the only caring companion she felt she could love. But as always with such dream symbols, the collective experiences from other cultural contexts made this very personal material more compelling, giving substance to a hesitant but healing sense of sacredness.

Dreams call us into our own depths. They urge us to our soul’s health if we attend to them. That doesn’t mean “interpreting” them, but letting them into consciousness, to reflect and ponder their symbolic resonances. They offer “other” dimensions, drawing us away from daily ‘getting and spending’, or commenting on that very aspect of our lives, warning, challenging or affirming, in the light of, and with benefit to, the whole psychic system.

In the preceding dreams, I have used frog, snake and cat to lead into inner unknown soul territory. And I have emphasized a religious orientation, religious here not in any creedal or dogmatic form, but the speech of homo religiosus, Mircea Eliade’s useful designation. This version of ourselves, however admitted or accepted, intuits some capacity for, and intuition of, a transcendent reality that manifests itself in and beyond this world. It is responded to even when incapable of definition or rational identification. This innate sense of transcendent reality, balancing the exclusively physical realm, preserves meaning and gives value to earthly experience. The world’s myths share such imaginative truths and mysteries, enacting associated rituals that preserve perceptions of primitive and contemporary divinity and divinities. In a self-regulating psychic system, when we veer too far from our fundamentally religious nature, or lose touch with our deepest meaning frame of reference, dreams remind and regenerate, making use of symbols drawn from the collective depths to re-animate what is depleted or neglected. We reconnect with dismembered bits of self, integrating them in the present through re-membering calling into memory lost parts that have fallen into the personal unconscious. Exploring this will give sharper definition and purpose to the symbolic images from the collective unconscious that dreams bring to the surface.

It is vital to understand that symbols do not have a single meaning … there is no sense of exact equivalence. They are much more than signs. They want to remain mysterious and so they lose their force when explained or feel apprehended. But rather, the symbol brings with it numerous associations, feelings, intimations and intuitions, an ahistorical gallery of cultural images, experiences and emotions that connect us with lost instinctual life, and enables us to address the archaic and timeless human that is in all of us, receptive to symbols and living with and from the energy they generate in consciousness.

I end with suitably hesitant consideration of what Jung called the Self, far too large a subject to be treated in this way! In significant dreams, always imagined and imaged with feelings of numinosity, we can recognize very special symbols or symbolic situations or figures as carrying that fullness of human be-ing that is our calling. In struggling to get anywhere near defining the transformative Self of Jungian discourse, we can only appeal to that perception of the individual human being’s psychic totality, the wholeness towards which the earthly soul journeys, which may be symbolized by any thing or person that is felt to have a greater totality than the individual him/herself. The individual and individuating person hopes and dreams of somehow participating in this wholeness, though the humbled psychological ego finds itself like a mere drop of water in relation to the ocean.

1 C. G. Jung. The Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche. Collected Works, Volume 8, p. 509
2 Man and his Symbols, p. 38
3 Jung. Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche. C.W. 8, p. 466
4 Terrors and Experts: London: Faber & Faber, 1995. p. 87
5 Jung. The Practice of Psychotherapy. C.W. 16. p. 322
6 Jung. Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche. C.W. Vol. 8. p. 794
7 Jung. Selected Letters of C.G. Jung: 1909-1961. Pantheon Legacy Library. Bollingen Series. Princeton University Press1984. Vii.
8 Jung. Alchemical Studies. C.W. Vol. 13 p. 335


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97 Through the Looking Glass

Through the Looking Glass

A Dream Traveler Explores Other Dimensions


The simplest way to visualize a Kerr wormhole is to think of Alice’s looking glass. Anyone walking through the looking glass would be transported instantly into Wonderland, a world where animals talked in riddles and common sense wasn’t so common.
—Michio Kaku from Blackholes, Wormholes and the Tenth Dimension

I consider myself a prolific dreamer. In other words, I remember my dreams quite frequently and have been keeping an archive of these dreams for over 30 years. I also like to call myself an oneironaut or “dream traveler,” for in many instances I have journeyed to different worlds or realms. What I have discovered over time was a distinct pattern in these journeys, namely in the form of a portal or gateway that would appear in the pre-lucid state. Not unlike Alice walking through her looking glass, moving through these portals brought me to strange and fantastic worlds.

My hope for this deep sharing is to connect with other dreamers who have had similar experiences and create an open dialogue to expand awareness of the phenomena. William Blake writes, “If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.” Perhaps this will not only spark the imagination, but through the gifts of the dreamtime, allow us to soar to greater heights of consciousness and understanding.

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Childhood in the Dreamtime

My rich dream life began in childhood where the veil between the different worlds was quite thin. I wasn’t aware at the time what was happening to me and sadly did not have context or an adult or community to guide me. I spent most of my childhood in the hypnagogic or borderland state: The stage of sleep between waking and sleeping.

These experiences were amplified when I was eight years old when my family moved into a one-hundred-year-old house. Though I had my own room for the first time, I soon learned I was not alone. Often at night, I would see, hear or feel energies or presences in the room. Other times I experienced a type of “stretching” as if my body was elongating or I was trying to come out of my body like in an Out of Body Experience (OBE).

It wasn’t until many years later would I understand what these experiences were or what it meant to be an oneironaut or “dream traveler”.

Two Discoveries

A turning point occurred while practicing lucid dreaming over time.

Coined by Jean d’Hervey de Saint-Denys who spoke of “reves lucides” or “lucid dreams” in his 1867 book Les Reves Et Les Moyens De Les Diriger (Dreams and How to Guide Them) is realizing you are dreaming while in a dream state or as the American Psychological Association (APA) defines it, is “a dream in which the sleeper is aware that he or she is dreaming and may be able to influence the progress of the dream narrative.”

I discovered that right before I became lucid a portal or “opening” would appear in my periphery, usually to the right of me. I also realized I could travel between worlds by using these portals, wormholes and membranes. I visited the Underworld, flew into the eeriness of the Void and played in the Imaginal Realm: the place of my imagination. I met friends from parallel universes and visited relatives from the “other side.” What was even more exciting was discovering the parallels between quantum physics and indigenous science. These discoveries would not have been possible if it wasn’t for the dreaming community I had immersed myself in, namely the International Association for the Study of Dreams and the graduate dream studies program at John F. Kennedy University.

The other turning point was more personal. It was learning about the mystical vocation of my great aunt, Zia Carmela who was a healer in her village of Accadia in the region of Apulia, Italy. The townspeople would come to discuss their dreams and she in turn would give practical and spiritual advice. I was flabbergasted. Yet it was so right. The trajectory of my life finally made sense to me. No one in my family talked about the ancestors, let alone dreams, before and I finally had the validation I needed to continue my work.

Dream Travel, Indigenous Ancestry and Quantum Physics

Other discoveries happened during this time. While researching the World Tree of my own indigenous ancestors, I was immediately struck by the parallels between experiences in my own nightly journeys and those of Odin and the nine realms or dreamgates of Yggdrasil: the central image of the Germanic-Nordic Religion World Tree or Axis Mundi. The shamans of this period ascend this tree, which contains nine worlds, to find esoteric knowledge in order to heal the community. Odin, who is the god of shamans, poets and warriors, was said to have hung on this tree for nine days as self-sacrifice in order to obtain this secret knowledge and ultimately descend the tree to receive the runes. He had the power to travel to these different worlds and have conversations with the beings that resided there, whether they be gods and goddesses, giants, dwarves, elves or humans.

If you look at other cosmologies and spiritual traditions across time you will notice the same common symbol: A World Tree containing gateways or realms. In Kabbalah, it’s the Sephiroth and ten spheres; in Buddhism it’s the Bo-Tree and the ten realms; Bahá’í Hindus use an inverted tree to explain godly processes; in Christianity, it’s the Tree of Life; and there’s also the Ceiba Tree of the Maya. And wasn’t “the music of the spheres” or ten gateways as studied by Pythagoras and his mystery school the forerunner of what we call String Theory today?

Oneironauts of the Past

Another validating discovery was that I wasn’t alone. There were other oneironauts, like 18th century scientist, philosopher and mystic Emanuel Swedenborg, who developed his own lucid dreaming methods and, like Dante, regularly voyaged to heaven and hell, communicating with beings  that resided there. Rudolf Steiner advised that the best time for communicating with the dead was in the period between waking and sleep. Twentieth century Russian journalist and philosopher P.D. Ouspensky made the remarkable claim that we have dreams continuously, in both sleep and waking states. This was later proven to be true through scientific research.

What scientists are now proving mathematically regarding the ways that matter can move through space and time, indigenous peoples have been experiencing for thousands of years.

The connections between quantum physics, indigenous science and lucid dreaming also affirmed my belief that it is the Oneironaut working in conjunction with the Physicist that will open up new realms of possibilities.

William Blake writes, “If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite.”


Falling Through Darkness: Wormhole

My first successful lucid dream journey happened by entering a wormhole type portal. In this experience right before lucidity, I had strong emotions in the dream. I was laughing really hard and somehow that jogged my memory to become lucid. Here is the exact dream entry as it was written from my dream journal:

The space was a large shop run by four men who were selling strange objects (not sure what). It was my first day and I could sense this was going to be a fun job. The men were nerdy, “techie” and creative types and I was the only woman. I considered my age—was I too old for this job? I wondered if I was regressing especially when I noted the immature behavior of these guys. But I had deep affection for them and I was having the time of my life. Really good feelings here. At one point one of the men jumps on top of the other sending us all on the floor with me at the bottom of the pile and we fly backwards about twenty feet! They are too busy fighting and they don’t notice me until they hear me laughing. I am laughing really hard and wonder if they think I’m crying.

I suddenly remember to be lucid and look to my right for a portal. Sure enough there it is! It is a window or opening of a tunnel and inside is an antique doll. As soon as I see it I am flying towards it and enter the space which is dark and misty. I am not really controlling where I am going because I incubated before the dream to be an observer—just see what happens. It feels like I am on a rollercoaster as I make a turn in the air and rush downwards into an abyss. At the bottom I see a surface of bubbling liquid below. It reminds me of those bubbling witches’ cauldrons you see in movies with smoke on the top. I get frightened and will myself to not go there so that my body is just hovering over it. I feel danger so I look up for the light and I see it behind layers as if the sun was behind sheets of mist or webbing. I fly towards it but then realize I shouldn’t go too far into it and tell myself, “Don’t go into the light!” and I wake up. I have to giggle because my only pathetic frame of reference and advice came from the Poltergeist movie. I awake from the experience feeling elated! Perhaps I have found a way to elicit lucidity!

I learned many things from this experience. One is that I didn’t set an intention as to where I wanted to go or what I wanted to accomplish and found myself in this strange, almost comically hellish space, without any context or guidance, like some modern-day Icarus. Looking back, I wondered why it never occurred to me to ask for help. In that place, instead of diving into the bubbling cauldron I hesitated with a bit of fear and doubt creeping in so that I was literally suspended over it. What if I got stuck in the Void forever?

This felt like the middle place of fire and ice in Yggdrasil called Ginnungagap, the abyss between the two realms.

Tunnel of “Stars” or “Points of Light”

This wasn’t the first time I was introduced to the power of the imagination. In fact, I was actually shown the “imaginal realm” itself in all its creative possibilities when I asked if my imagination was limited. I was then clearly given the answer in such a powerful and playful way which totally expanded and shifted my perception of what is possible. Here is an excerpt from my journal:

I was in between two states of consciousness, dream and waking, and found myself being presented with a third way. I was clearly not dreaming but lucid, feeling present in my body and acutely aware of my surroundings but still there was this third place, a tunnel I could travel into where the opening was moving star-like points of light. I decided to enter this place, it was so easy, and I soon realized it was the place of the imagination. Though this was my imagination the little self was anticipating the experience as if it was on a mysterious journey. The space was brilliant in color and I could choose whatever I wished, my imagination, in all its possibilities, was endless. I could shift scenes very easily too and I noticed that while I did this, these imaginal creations had not solidified yet. In fact moving through them was like moving through a gelatinous substance. I write this because at one point, as my consciousness shifted, there was a large, white furry leg belonging to a bird-like creature that stomped on the “ground” and made the formations splat like colorful gelatinous candy. This image was repeated over and over and it felt like I was in a factory of the imagination!

The lesson was that we can create anything we imagine, and it is so important to expand this awareness right here, right now… and with an obvious sense of humor!

Step Into This Space: Membranes and Parallel Universes

One of the more exciting discoveries was learning about parallel universes and M or string theory. I remember watching a science program on parallel universes with theoretical physicist Michio Kaku. He tells us, “The superstring theory can explain the mysterious quantum laws of sub-atomic physics by postulating that sub-atomic particles are really just resonances or vibrations of a tiny string. The universe is then a symphony of vibrating strings. An added bonus is that, as a string moves in time, it warps the fabric of space around it, producing black holes, wormholes, and other exotic solutions of Einstein’s equations. The simplest way to visualize a Kerr wormhole is to think of Alice’s looking glass. Anyone walking through the looking glass would be transported instantly into Wonderland, a world where animals talked in riddles and common sense wasn’t so common.”

When Dr. Kaku described membranes, vibrations and wormholes, I almost fell out of my seat. It was so validating. Though he was explaining it theoretically I was actually experiencing this phenomenon in the dreamtime.

In one lucid dream I literally passed through an opaquely white membrane substance and into lucidity. The environment looked like a regular park you would see here on earth but clearly the laws of physics were very different. I was in an open field surrounded by tall trees, almost like a runway, and I had the sudden urge to fly. I ran quickly down the path and then felt myself take off into the sky; a feeling of blissful accomplishment and wonder came over me as I looked down at the spectators below me.

A few months later, I had another “membrane” dream but this time it was a Wake-Initiated Lucid Dream where I went directly into lucidity and I could see people from behind that same milky membrane calling to me like old friends. But the more I thought about it, the more the substance solidified into a wall and I couldn’t break through any more. I could still hear them as I shifted right back into “waking state.”

To be lucid means to be fully awake in all areas of our lives, including relationship to ourselves, other people and the environment. By practicing lucid waking, I can therefore be more present in my waking life. The practice of lucid dreaming moves us outside of our comfort zones and opens us up to new possibilities, even new worlds. We can defy the laws of physics, heal ourselves and others, and solve problems both big and small.

Dimensions Coming into You

One of the most extraordinary lucid dreaming experiences happened when one of my creatures from another dimension broke through to “my waking world.” Here is an excerpt from my dream journal:

This morning after waking, I practiced the technique and I was suddenly in the midst of a dream about joining a group of people who wanted to promote consciousness. I had left for a moment with a friend to get some refreshments at a snack bar then looked up at the sky to the right. My whole perception changed. I knew I was dreaming but it was beyond that. It was a new state like my Imaginal Realm. I felt a burst of excitement as I waited expectantly to see what was about to emerge from behind a cloud. (Interestingly enough, I could feel my cat sleeping soundly next to me in the crook of my arm.) Suddenly, a black and white creature flew from behind the cloud and headed straight for me! It was like a creature from my art work as it had a moon face with smiling teeth and odd shaped bat like wings.

I was afraid to move because I didn’t want this experience to stop from too much excitement. As the creature headed towards me it ‘disappeared’ and I saw ‘nothing’ however I realized with awe it had manifested in my room! I knew it was there because I could hear it flying around my head, like the sound of a flying machine clicking its gears and cogs right against my ears. I could also hear an ‘air pump sound’ as if it was from a science fiction movie. What was even more startling was the reaction of my cat. She jumped up and I could feel her head moving right to left as if she was watching (and reacting to!) the flying creature dart about the bedroom. I lay paralyzed, afraid to move an inch as the thing circled the room.

After a few moments it ‘left’ and the noise died down. I opened my eyes and noticed the bottom half of my body was completely numb like a giant lump with no legs. It took really strong concentration to wiggle and feel my legs again. By that time, my cat went back to sleep and I was left in complete shock and wonder.

This particular experience reminded me of the Samuel Taylor Coleridge poem, “What If You Slept:”

What if you slept…
and what if in your sleep you dreamed
and what if in your dream you went to heaven
and there plucked a strange and beautiful flower
and what if when you awoke you had that flower in your hand ah, what then?

I can’t also help but recall the potent lines of Hermes Trismegistus from The Emerald Tablet, “As above, so below…” What I create can truly come to be. As I am a dreamer, artist and poet, this philosophy comes naturally to me. What I create in my mind I can put down on paper either with words or illustrations. I had never thought about this act of creation being linked to something magical or cosmic before, or that both my art and dreams come from the same source.

Practicing Lucid Waking

To be lucid means to be fully awake in all areas of our lives, including relationship to ourselves, other people and the environment. By practicing lucid waking, I can therefore be more present in my waking life. The practice of lucid dreaming moves us outside of our comfort zones and opens us up to new possibilities, even new worlds. We can defy the laws of physics, heal ourselves and others, and solve problems both big and small. It was the natural practice of our indigenous ancestors and I believe our gateway into the mysteries of life. What could be more vital, more exhilarating than that?

Is it real?

The lunatic, the lover, and the poet are of imagination all compact.
–William Shakespeare, Midsummer Night’s Dream

What lucid dreaming also teaches us is that the world is continually being created. We are beings, not these fixed, static roles. We can perform extraordinary acts of love and compassion. We have also been given the gift of the imagination to create worlds and expand consciousness. There have been many controversies regarding the importance of whether or not lucid dreaming is real, and that there are other worlds or life after death. The issue here is not what is real but what has been shared collectively; and even more importantly, what has been transformed by the experience.

Throughout my research what remains constant, regardless of what lens or belief system a person operates through, is that these dreams bring transformation in the form of courage, calm and even excitement in the face of the biggest mystery of them all, our own mortality. This tells me that we are much more than our small selves, and our imagination can surely lift us out of our narrow perceptions from who we think we are towards who we could be. Lucid dreaming then becomes an evolutionary movement: the catalyst that forms the new human.


Evans-Wentz, W. Y., ed. (2000). The Tibetan Book of the Dead: Or The After-Death Experiences on the Bardo Plane, According to Lama Kazi Dawa-Samdups English Rendering. Oxford: Oxford University Press (Original work published 1927).
Khan, C. H. (2001) Pythagoras and the Pythagoreans: A Brief History. Indianapolis, IN: Hacket Publishing Company.
LaBerge, S. (1980). Lucid Dreaming: An Exploratory Study of Consciousness During Sleep. Doctoral dissertation, Stanford University.
Metzner, R.(1994). The Well of Remembrance: Rediscovering the Earth Wisdom Myths of Northern Europe. Boston, MA and London England: Shambala Publications.
Steiner, R. (1928). Inner Nature of Man and Life Between Death and Rebirth. New York, NY: Anthrosophic Press.
Rinpoche. T. W. (1998). The Tibetan Yogas of Dream and Sleep. New York: Snow Lion Publications.
Varela, F. (ed.) (1997). Sleeping, Dreaming, and Dying: An Exploration of Consciousness With the Dalai Lama. Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications.
Waggoner, R. (2008). Lucid dreaming: Gateway to the Inner Self. Needham, MA: Moment Point Press, Inc.


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97 The Art of Dream Inquiry

The Art of Dream Inquiry

Cultivating Seeds of Light


A dream is a letter from the Beloved,
written to you alone. Read it.

A dream is a gift from the Absolute Mystery,
fashioned for you only. Open it.

A dream is a seed of Light sown in your unique being.
Cultivate it so it bears fruit.

Not all mystics are granted visions. Very few can, like Ibn ‘Arabī, train the active power of the imagination to create manifestations of Reality on other planes of existence. Even fewer receive prophetic or “true” dreams, dreams inspired directly by God. But all travelers, all those journeying toward the One, dream. And “a dream is one-sixtieth part of prophecy,” say the ancient rabbis; “a pious dream is the forty-sixth part of prophecy,” says Salih Muslim. Though our dreams may not be “true” dreams, there is true knowing in our dreams and, with practice, we can discover the truth hidden there for us. Just as the practices of retreat, dhikr, meditation, contemplation, music, breathing, and visualization loosen the ties to ordinary consciousness, so too may the spiritual practice of dream inquiry. “A natural state of sleep is like a profound concentration, like deep meditation,” Hazrat Inayat Khan teaches, “and that is why everything that comes as a dream has a meaning.” (Healing, 213) Learning how to receive that meaning is part of the path of a Sufi, which is not to converse with fairies and spirits, see colors and visions, but “to connect with one’s deepest, inner self, as if one were blowing on one’s inner spark.” (Inner Life 91) The art of dream inquiry can help us blow on that spark.

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A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path; it was trampled on, and the birds ate it up. (Parable of the Sower, Luke 8:5) For a traveler, everything is pregnant with revelation. I was a hidden treasure that loved to be known and therefore I created the Universe as a means of knowing myself. (hadith qudsi) Why, then, do so many of us neglect or dismiss dreams? A cultural leaning toward a materialist view leads some to disregard dreams as random firings in the brain signifying nothing. Others assume dreams are simply projections of desires or eruptions from the unconscious. Still others consider dreams mere fantasies, that is, not real, and therefore misleading or distracting. And some regard dreaming with suspicion because of its association with being asleep, not being awake to the One.

A more welcoming approach to dreams suffuses Sufi tradition. For those who seek the One, dreams lead toward Reality, not away from it; they’re a gift to help guide us on our journey of awakening. This view is rooted in Ibn ‘Arabī’s teaching on the Oneness of Being, the multiple “imaginations” of Reality, the mundus Imaginal, and himma or creativity of the heart. For Ibn ‘Arabī’, the highest plane of existence is Reality itself, Absolute Mystery, Light—the Hidden, al-Bātin. All other planes—the world of angels and spirits, the world of souls and ideal forms, the mundus Imaginal or Imaginal world, and the sensory world—are relative existences, imaginations of Reality, shadows of this Light—the Manifest, al-Zāhir. “[Know] that you are an imagination, as is all that you regard as other than yourself an imagination. All [relative] existence is an imagination within an imagination, the only Reality being God.” (Bezels, 125) All that is manifest, including our life in the sensory world, is a dream within a dream.

Though these imaginations are not Reality itself, they contain theophanies, real presences of the One, that can be known through the creative power of the heart. “God created shadows… only as clues for you in knowing yourself and Him, that you might know who you are, your relationship with Him, and His with you.” (Bezels, 126) Like all planes of relative existence, the mundus Imaginal, the plane where spirits are materialized and matter spiritualized, the plane of visions and dreams, is a world of real presences that reveal Light. “The light of this luminous Wisdom extends over the plane of the Imagination, which is the first principle of revelation.” (Bezels 120). In this view, dreams are not fantasies or ego-driven desires. No less real than the sensory world, they too manifest Light. Though we may say it is nothing, Inayat Kahn teaches, “a dream is as real as life on the physical plane.” (Healing, 212)

Because these real presences occur in different forms, however, we have to learn how to interpret them, for what we perceive in one world differs from what we perceive in another world. In the mundus Imaginal, for example, we may see milk or a man. We must receive these not as we know them in the sensory world but according to their “true” form: milk as knowledge, a man as the angel Jabril, “the light of your Lord.” For those who know how to carry forms seen in dreams back to their true form, dreams reveal Light. (Bezels, 123)

We need not subscribe to Ibn ‘Arabī’s metaphysics or dream hermeneutics to appreciate his wisdom for our spiritual practice today: imaginations are central to the way we perceive Reality and ourselves; dream experiences are real; images must be interpreted wisely for them to yield their truth. Far from esoteric, this approach of welcoming dreams aligns with contemporary neuroscience and non-dualistic philosophy, with their exploration of body-mind continuity, feeling and image-making as vital to the emergence of consciousness, and meaning-making-by-combining-images as essential to human being. (See Antonio Damasio’s The Strange Order of Things and Mark Johnson’s The Meaning of the Body.) Recognizing how feeling and non-conscious thought enable us to make sense of the world supports embracing dreams as a way of knowing reality.

Listen, O dearly beloved!
I am the reality of the world, the center of the circumference.
I am the parts and the whole.
I am the will established between Heaven and Earth,
I have created perception in you only in order to be the object of my perception.

If you then perceive me, you perceive yourself.
But you cannot perceive me through yourself.
It is through my eyes that you see me and see yourself,
Through your eyes you cannot see me.
Ibn ‘Arabī, Book of Theophanies (Corbin, 174)

Some [seed] fell on rocky ground, and when it came up, the plants withered because they had no moisture. (Luke 8:6) Everyone dreams, few of us remember our dreams. This is a loss, for remembering dreams can strengthen the twinned heart of spiritual life: remembering God and remembering our true being. The rabbis say it this way: “If one goes seven days without a dream, he is called evil.” (Berakhot, 55b) When one is not receptive to dreams, one is not open to the creative heart-knowing they invite, one is turning away from the One, the Knower who loves to be known though us. I’ve experienced this. Even when my meditation practice is nourishing, if weeks or months pass without remembering a dream, I feel bereft, as if not quite touching my deepest and widest self, a part of me still skimming surfaces, sleepwalking.

We can train ourselves to remember our dreams. Practices that have helped me include: no media before bed; writing the date in a dream journal and keeping the book open beside the bed; breathing in Ya Bātin and breathing out Ya Zāhir, or praying “Breath of the Merciful, may your seeds of light sown while I sleep take root in my heart and ripen in my being”; upon waking, keeping the eyes closed and not moving or talking; writing the dream down in detail, without editing it or questioning its worth; recording the feeling the dream left me with; giving thanks for the dream. Some suggest writing down a question and placing it under your pillow. Normally I don’t do this, because I avoid directing or limiting my dreaming. For me, dreams are a way of perceiving reality beyond ordinary consciousness, beyond our will and intellect; they’re not answers to questions my ego poses but divine invitations to inquiry into the being-I-am-becoming.

Many techniques for remembering dreams are available—from listening to music to taking Vitamin B6 to inhaling the scent of lavender or mugwort. Find ones that help you catch the seeds sown for you.

Dearly beloved!
I have called you so often and you have not heard me;
I have shown myself to you so often and you have
not seen me….
Why do you not see me? Why do you not hear me?
Why? Why? Why?
—Book of Theophanies (174)

Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up with it and choked the plants. (Luke 8:7) “A dream that is not interpreted is like a letter that is not read.” (Talmud, Berakhot, 55b) We don’t passively receive a truth revealed in dreams; it must be “discovered” by us. (Healing, 214) As the ancient rabbis say, based on the practice of Joseph, the Master of Dreams, dreams “follow the mouth,” the interpreter. The interpreter, however, must know how to discover the truth hidden in a dream, how to “pass from the form of what one sees to something beyond it.” (Bezels, 99)

Interpreting dreams literally, in terms of the sensory world, prevents the unfolding of their deeper truth. Ibn ‘Arabī gives the example of a man who dreamed of drinking milk, woke up, drank a glass of milk, and vomited. If the dreamer had carried the image of milk back to its true form, he would have seen the light shining in the shadow: that he needed to imbibe knowledge. Ibn ‘Arabī even faults Joseph, whom he lauds as a prophet of the Wisdom of Light, for misinterpreting his boyhood dream of the sun, moon, and stars bowing down to him in this way: by reading his brothers’ and father’s submission to him in Egypt years later as the real or sensible meaning of his dream. Ibn ‘Arabī doesn’t offer a “true” interpretation of Joseph’s dream; he simply suggests it has to do with something beyond this life that Joseph had yet to wake up to. His false ego, perhaps, which he had to annihilate if he was ever to receive in love the brothers who abandoned him?

Consulting dream dictionaries can choke dreams too. Their cultural and historical assumptions often mislead, overwhelm, or confuse. For several years, snakes inhabited my dreams. In Jewish dream dictionaries, snakes symbolize deception; in Christian dictionaries, evil, malice; in Muslim dictionaries, enemies, evil, war, deceit, destruction; Native American, wisdom, rebirth, healing; Jungian, the wisdom of the collective unconscious; Freudian, sexuality. How to know which to pursue?

Dream dictionaries also stifle interpretation by speaking generally, not to individuals. Dreams, perhaps more than breathing, visualization, and other spiritual practices, arise from the uniqueness of our being-in-the-process-of becoming, including our body and personality. Even if two people dream the same dream, it must be interpreted differently. “Every individual has a separate language of his dream peculiar to his own nature,” Inayat Kahn teaches, so one must know who dreamed the dream and interpret it “according to his state of evolution, to his occupation, to his ambitions and desires, to his present, his past, and his future, and to his spiritual aspirations.” (Healing, 200). Ibn ‘Arabī lauds Joseph for interpreting the dream of Pharaoh’s baker, his steward, and the Pharaoh himself this way, according to each man’s unique being.

Dream dictionaries share another limitation: the entries are based on concepts, not feelings, and as neuroscientists like Damasio tell us, all images come with feelings associated with them. More than the generalized content of symbols, it is the specific feeling a dream leaves in its wake—relief, terror, disgust, anger, anxiety, frustration, joy, love, peace—that provides a more trustworthy way into its truth.

To discover the truth in my snake dreams, I had to know who I was: a mother living in rural South Carolina where rattlers, cottonmouths, and copperheads frequented our yard; a professor leaving her vocation; a Christian converting to Judaism; a woman confronting childhood abuse and struggling with depression. I had to sink into the feeling that colored the dreams: abject fear. And I had to be wary of any interpretation that did not serve the deepening of my unique being on its path toward the One.

Dearly beloved!
Let us go toward Union.
—Book of Theophanies (175)

Still other seed fell on good soil. It came up and yielded a crop, a hundred times more than was sown. (Luke 8:8) Discovering a truth hidden in dreams depends not on analysis but on the art of inquiry. When we analyze something, the anthropologist Tim Ingold explains, we treat it as an object, a text to decode or translate; we think about dream images, for example, we think after them, looking back to see what meaning they contained. When we inquire into a dream, we think with dream images, looking to the future to see what truth can unfold in our lives. Indigenous hunters, who often dream about the animals they hunt, exemplify the art of inquiry. “To dream like a hunter is to become the creatures you hunt and to see things in the ways they do. It is to open up to new possibilities of being, not to seek closure.” (Making, 11) In the dream the hunter perceives the world in a different way than in ordinary consciousness, and he brings that knowing back to waking life.

Dreams offer us a different way of perceiving reality from the way we ordinarily perceive it. Past, present, and future are compressed, the logic of our daily world is suspended, and we experience reality with different senses, in a different medium, from a different point of view—an animal or tree, the sky or sea. By thinking with a dream experience, we can discover what this different way of perceiving can show us for our lives, how it can guide us in becoming our true selves. Like prophecy, which does not foresee the future but sees the present deeply in order to uncover new possibilities, the art of dream inquiry does not foretell what will or must happen in our lives but leads us deeper into the being we are in the process of becoming, closer to the One.

How can we think with our dreams instead of about them? Each of us must find our own way to heart-think our dreams so they unfold their meaning and ripen in our lives. Several practices have helped me. Each requires you to set aside your will and intellect to give your creative heart over to the dream: you do not work on the dream, to understand it or change it, but allow the dream to work on you. By loosening the grip of the ego and encouraging patient receptivity, these practices help ensure that the waking mind’s eagerness to make sense out of things doesn’t foreclose the dream’s deeper truth. A simple practice is to sit with the feeling a dream left you with. Place that feeling in your heart in meditation and follow where it leads. Another is to place the scene of a dream or an image from it before you in meditation and watch what arises. This is similar to Pir Vilayat’s visualization exercises in Awakening, but using the images your deep self has offered instead of one given to you by a murshid. “Like a doorway opening to that which transpires behind what appears,” he teaches, “an image can lead the psyche into the landscape of the soul.” (59-60) This applies to dream images as well.

Another practice is active imagination, as described by Robert Johnson in Inner Work. Put yourself in a semi-trance, re-enter the dream, look around, and wait until something happens—a character approaches you or talks to you, you find yourself doing or saying something—and then participate in what unfolds, without controlling it. Using this practice on my snake dreams and many others has shown me its creative, healing, and integrating spiritual power. It also taught me experientially the truth of Ibn ‘Arabī’s real presences in the mundus Imaginal. I experienced each active imagination as real, not a movie I was watching in my head but a world I experienced in my body and psyche. I shook with fear, my heart pounded, I sobbed convulsively, I laughed out loud, my skin shivered, I winced in pain, my whole being opened into a smile. There was no doubting the reality of these experiences and their healing effects in my body, psyche, and spirit.

Because I believe most dreams have the potential to yield fruit, I don’t find taxonomies that distinguish true, false, and insignificant dreams helpful. I’m more interested in the variety of ways dream inquiry can guide our being-in-the-process-of-becoming—warning, correcting, rebuking, healing, commanding, summoning, comforting, reassuring, beckoning, creating a way out of no way—and the varying tempos that inquiry can take.

A dream is “the unripe fruit of prophecy,” say the rabbis. (Midrash Rabbah) Some dreams ripen fast. Healing and comforting dreams often do. As a young adult I dreamed I was stuck in a closet, two hand-crocheted dresses hanging before me. One was my size but aqua, my mother’s favorite color. The other was red, my favorite color, but sized for a small child. I stood paralyzed, unable to choose. Then I looked up and saw a purple crocheted bag, flexible and ample enough to hold all that I needed. I woke up healed. In my fifties, in a time of great upheaval, I dreamed of navigating a long, narrow, twisting, rapids-strewn river in a canoe, working hard to survive each new danger. Suddenly I was at the end of the journey, high above a canyon, by a waterfall, looking back at the entire sweep of the river, overwhelmed by the beauty of it of it all. I woke up in peace. “Spiritual progress is the changing of the point of view,” says Inayat Khan. (Inner Life, 133) In shifting my perspective, these dreams transformed my life.

Some dreams ripen over years or decades. Dreams I had in my twenties about concentration camps and Jewish refugees sailing on a tiny raft to Israel; dreams in my thirties about Jesus drowning in a dungeon prison and Joan of Arc fighting inside a dark cathedral, laying down her sword, and walking outside into the sunshine; and dreams in my fifties about Khidr dancing wildly—all unfolded slowly to guide me on my path.

Dream inquiry is a dangerous art. To practice it wisely requires patience and humility. It takes years of welcoming and working with our dreams to become familiar with their peculiar language for us. And our interpretation deepens and widens as our hearts do. The boy Joseph who interpreted his dream of the sun, moon, and stars bowing down to him was not the mature, awakened Joseph who was able to set himself aside to interpret the dreams of others. Also, as with every practice, the art of dream inquiry is not immune to the tricks of the ego, that enthralling illusion. Recently, while dreaming, I heard, “Be ready for the call.” For months I believed this promised the arrival of a career opportunity, and I taped the words over my desk to give me hope. After a shocking early morning phone call informing me of my younger sister’s untimely death, I believed the dream’s true meaning had been revealed. Now I hear these words differently; they’re a knock on the door of my heart: Wake up!

The art of dream inquiry may be the most mysterious art of all, but if we nurture our creative heart and dare this spiritual practice, it can guide us on our journey of awakening.

To sleep, perchance to dream; to dream, perchance to wake.

1  Joel Covitz, Visions of the Night: A Study of Jewish Dream Interpretation. Boston: Shambala, 1990.
2  Henry Corbin, Alone with the Alone; Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn ‘Arabī. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969.
3  Ibn ‘Arabī, The Bezels of Wisdom. Tr. R.W. J. Austin. New York: Paulist Press,  1980.
4 Tim Ingold, Making: Anthropology, Archeology, Art and Architecture. New York, 2013.
5 Robert A. Johnson, Inner Work: Using Dreams and Active Imagination for Personal Growth. HarperSanFrancisco, l986.
6 Hazrat Inayat Khan, Healing; Mental Purification; The Mind World. Surry: Servire, 1978.
7 The Inner Life. Boston: Shambala, 1997.
8 Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan, Awakening: A Sufi Experience. New York: Tarcher/Putnam, 1999.


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97 visiting you

visiting you

by dani kopoulos


there you go.

you’ve dropped off again, My dear one.

you’ve surrendered, and it was easy.

perhaps even delicious, certainly a relief.

your body limp and inactive, not trying to accomplish this or that.

your mind not trying to control anything, for once, with its machinations.

not engaged in its endless reasoning and bargaining and computations.

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in this state, when your heart is most pliable, when it’s least strapped down by the weight of the conscious world, least constricted by the linear and literal sequence of events,

in this state, I will visit you.

i will show you how it feels,  My alternating presence and absence, and you cannot block it or rationalize or contest.

in this state, you’re My painting, and I will show it to Myself.

while you sleep, i will fill my palette with things you have seen, people you have known, experiences you’ve had, and i will create unpredictable arrangements, abstract and beautiful, charged with an import that the conscious mind may never grasp.

scenarios that override the mind, and show you separation and union.

remember, you’re My experiment in what Love can look like.

I’ll use the petri dish of your mind, while you sleep, and introduce elements to see what responds to what.  what expands, what contracts, how you respond to beneficence and wrath.

i am the filmmaker, the projectionist, and the illumnation at this private film fest for One.  i will sit back and watch what your mind gets up to without your will, see you traveling and witnessing and interacting and steeped in unassigned emotion.

dreading and searching and fearing and fighting and panicking and leaving behind.

finding and helping and making love and rejoicing and reuniting and arriving.

or My favorite feeling for you to wake up with:

finally belonging.

the man in a brown button-down shirt with short hair, you wonder: where did he come from?  was he someone you met?  sat next to on the bus? or did you invent the composite face and inflection? he looks at you in just such a way as he listens to you speak, he knows you inside and out, sees all the pieces of your puzzle, and loves them gently, fully, without question. he understands everything you might ever say or have said; he knows your intentions without you having to tell him a thing.

sitting on a stool next to you at a restaurant you’ve never been to where the signs are all in portuguese and the waitresses wear silver suits, he turns and says, definitively, be with me!

and a small voice tells you to be skeptical, but, without the doubting mind at the helm, you lose yourself.  you are a girl again, one that was safe, and you will believe and feel loved, tenderly held in someone’s love, for all of eternity.

the feeling in the heart, finally settled, the impossible conundrum of pain and aloneness solved, just like that.

that’s Me.

you’re picking melons and gourds at a market and you just can’t find the right one because they all have holes in them so you want to talk to the manager of this stall and the manager shows you the display of spoons instead, and they are shiny silver with ornate patterns and you really do need one, yes, this is just the thing you need, you forget about the melons and pay for a spoon, with a lingering concern that this might not be the thing you set out to do, but without the conscious mind at the helm, you go ahead and buy that spoon.

the feeling that how can the thing i need be so different from what i thought i wanted?

that’s Me.

the animals are all swimming in the pool with you, the sheep paddles by, a dog and a crow are there too.  the cow is pumping her legs, diving under, weightlessness so strange to her. you dive under too and you both come up together.  you pet her head and know that you must take her home with you.

it occurs to you briefly that there should be a struggle, how are you and cow staying afloat? but without the conscious mind at the helm,  you bob at the surface, you have brought her into your life, you have folded her in, and the creature is thankful, and peaceful, and at home.

the feeling that you can afford to make the effort to care for all beings,

that’s Me.

the crocodile lurks at the bottom of the pond, stationary, silent.  the children must walk through the pond to get to the area where they will meet their parents.  they step on him as they cross the pond, not noticing his dark presence.  you hold your breath, not wanting to shout and alarm them.  he doesn’t move, but you know that the danger was real, and that one must take care.

the feeling that there are lurking dangers and that one must stay vigilant,

that’s Me.

the man’s head you carried as you marched through the forest,  his face still warm in the palm of your right hand,  his eyes looking distant but not afraid, the neck bloodied but not in any way disturbing to you, the dirt path that you weren’t sure led to a clearing, the dusk settling in

the feeling of bravery as you walk into the unknown, is Me.

the animal with its teeth sunk into you, that you can’t shake off. the reality that you cannot get free until you face the fangs and the pain, the stark truth of no control, is Me.

you have finally solved the equation of life–it is two tangerines in your coat pocket plus a doorknob in your grandmother’s hand equals conjugating verbs in your high school french class which is taking place at the ocean as the tide comes in, books floating all around.

you felt it, you knew it, you held it!  you solved that thing, that most important thing, and not only that, but you’ve realized that every waking moment has been, underneath all other ambitions, dedicated to solving it! now, at last you know. at last you can rest.

the equation is Me.

dreaming is like breathing

you don’t know you’re doing it

you take something from outside you – your experiences in the material world –

and bring it in

and it is changed  to other things inside you.

are your dreams the unseen, or the visible? or a bridge that connects both realms?

at every instant, I manifest in your heart in a different way.

“the heart of believers is held between two fingers of the Merciful… He turns them about as He wills”

in this way the heart is perpetually in motion.

in this way, through My turning, the heart revolves through its states.

as it becomes turned, it comes to remember what it has forgotten.

what it possessed before, what it has lost.

at night, in sleep, you arrive at your deepest inner sanctum.

we have been here before, you and I.



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97 The Inspired Soul

The Inspired Soul

The Visions of Zayd in Rumi’s Masnavi


Dreams that predict the future represent for many people their first taste of mystical experience. They turn upside down our ordinary perception of time and causality to such an extent that people often doubt them even after they have been fulfilled in front of their eyes. This is in stark contrast to the attitude of mystics with greater receptivity to dreams and visionary experiences, for whom they provide knowledge with the very highest degree of certainty. The influence of dreams and visions is so pervasive in mystical writings that one need look no further than the first few pages of the mystic Rumi’s (d. 1273) famous poem The Masnavi to find a teaching story that involves a dream.

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The First Story of The Masnavi

With so many universally appealing stories in The Masnavi, it strikes the reader as somewhat strange that the first major teaching-story is quite difficult to stomach. After all, its plot centers on a murder carried out by the protagonists. The story begins with an old king falling in love with a slave-girl he chances upon and then buying her eagerly, only for her to fall ill:

The kings heart fluttered like a caged bird, restless,
And so he bought the girl as his new purchase.
As soon as he had bought her suddenly
She then became so sick by destiny.
You fetch a saddle for your mule one day
And while youre gone wolves chase that mule away.
You finally find some water and then take
Your pot to fill, but it then starts to break.
(Rumi, The Masnavi, Book One, ed. M. Estelami, vv. 39-42)

The king becomes transformed in the story once he has the dream, which is presented as the response from God to his prayer for help in healing the slave-girl after the failure of all his court physicians. The king’s love for the slave-girl is seen by the reader for the first time as being valid rather than something superficial, all because of the dream. The character who had the dream was up to that point in the story a rather self-gratifying and buffoonish king, but Rumi now transforms him into the perfect disciple of a spiritual master (the healer who is sent to him):

The king saw in him, just as it had been,
The image which while dreaming he had seen,
And so, instead of chamberlains, he went
Himself to greet the healer whod been sent.
Both swimmers in the seas of union,
Their souls without a thread were sewn as one:
‘The one I love is not that maid but you.
One thing led to another, as they do.
Youre Mostafa and Im Omar, your friend,
Prepared to serve you till the very end.
(Ibid, Book One, vv. 73-77)

Soon after his arrival the divinely-sent healer identifies the obstacle in the way of the king’s consummation of his love for his sick slave-girl, in the shape of the lover whom she misses sorely, and plots that young man’s murder as the healing treatment.

It is presumably for the sake of the surprising twists and turns of his narrative that are designed to startle the reader into continual attention that Rumi portrays the king very differently at the beginning of the story. At that point one might expect it to develop into a typical romance that would end with the two estranged young lovers reuniting forever more, despite the obstacle of this older and more powerful rival. But the divine communication in the form of a dream changes everything, just as divine communication of other kinds does for Moses in the famous “Moses and the Shepherd” story (Book Two, vv. 1724-), and for David in the story about the man who prayed that God would provide his sustenance without him ever having to work (Book Three, vv. 1451–), to name two well-known cases. In each case this is possible because dreams and revelation represent certain knowledge that is beyond argument and doubt, and overrules all logic and book knowledge.

The Story of Zayd’s Visions

Most of the major teaching stories in Book One of Rumi’s Masnavi, such as “The Merchant and His Parrot,” “The Old Harpist,” and “The Bedouin and His Wife,” are relatively straightforward to grasp. In fact, Rumi himself provides a running commentary to them. The story about Zayd’s visions is arguably the most elusive of them, however, and it is emphatically mystical in its teachings. After all, it is explicitly about mystical visions.

The plot of this story is fairly simple: the Prophet Mohammad asks his disciple Zayd one morning how he has woken up and Zayd responds with reference to his visions (they seem to be different to dreams, since he also mentions that he cannot sleep due to them). The Prophet asks for evidence, and after Zayd shares with him the nature of his visions at length, the former finally advises him:

Your horse has grown excited – pull the reins!
“God feels no shame”; in you now none remains.
Your mirror has slipped out of its own cover,
But with Truths weighing scales can it now differ?
How can they both keep silent out of tact,
So as to not shame someone with a fact?
They are both touchstones which speak truthfully:
Though you should serve them for a century
Then say: “Conceal truth for my benefit:
Display the profit, hide the deficit!”
“Dont make yourself look stupid!” they will cry,
“Just for your sake can scales and mirrors lie?
Since God has made us for this aim alone
That, through us both, the truth can be made known,
If we dont do exactly as we should
We wont be worthy for the fair and good.”
So put the mirror back, Zayd, in its case;
Your breasts been split like Sinai by Gods face.
(Ibid, Book One, vv. 3558-66)

The Prophet advises his disciple to keep what he has seen concealed, “back in its cover,” because his condition is such that he can tell nothing but the truth, like a mirror or weighing-scales, and most people cannot handle that truth. Zayd’s visions are considered by the Prophet in this story as being as true and certain as a dream that is a message from God, so the issue here is not whether or not they might be doubted, but instead the importance of treating such knowledge with special care. By making a reference to the Qur’anic verse about God “not having any shame,” (33/53) which is traditionally understood to mean that God tells it as it is without concerns about the devastation this may cause, and God splitting Mount Sinai by revealing Himself, the Prophet seems to be praising Zayd as having genuinely reached a degree of effacement in God.

The actual visions that Zayd describes in this story relate to the mysteries of human existence, such as our experience of time, our destiny after our life on earth, but most of all the reality beyond our limited human perception, and he admits he is very tempted to divulge it all. However, the Prophet not only warns him in this story that it is preferable to withhold such knowledge, but also explains why in the following manner:

Zayd, none can venture to its furthest reach –
Shackle the steed Boraq which brings you speech!
Such talk can tear apart the veil between
This world, with all its faults, and the Unseen.
Gods wish is to stay hidden still today,
So drive the drummer off and bar the way!
Hes best left veiled, so draw the reins, sit tight!
Let men enjoy their thoughts but still lack sight.
The Lord wants even those whore in despair
To worship Him and never turn from there.
With just the hope that they might gain His grace
These men will chase such goals for several days.
 (Ibid, Book One, vv. 3622-27)

The Prophet Mohammad explains here that the visionary revelation he has received about Reality is not for everybody, and would only cause harm to most. The nature of the Prophet’s explanation here furthermore suggests that Zayd not only needs him to pass on the knowledge explaining why he should keep silent, but also, by implication, that he is not yet totally effaced in God—if it is God’s wish to have the visionary knowledge revealed to him withheld, then the temptation to divulge it must be Zayd’s own desire. The Prophet guides him successfully away from this pitfall of the self, such that by the end of the story Rumi can comment:

You wont find Zayd now, for this man has fled,
Like horses from the shoeing line they dread.
Whore you? Zayd cannot find himself – hes gone
Just like a star on which the sun has shone.
(Ibid, Book One, vv. 3682-83)

What is particularly interesting about this teaching-story is that it illustrates how crucial a spiritual guide is for the mystical aspirant in the latter stages of the path. Rumi’s inclusion of this teaching-story about Zayd’s visions shows that he appreciated this highly. The surgical precision and sensitivity required for guidance in this most delicate situation, due to the visionary experiences’ requirement of familiarity with elusive subtleties and fine distinctions, is what is shown by Rumi to make it so crucial.

Prophet Mohammad asks his disciple Zayd one morning how he has woken up and Zayd responds with reference to his visions (they seem to be different to dreams, since he also mentions that he cannot sleep due to them). The Prophet asks for evidence, and after Zayd shares with him the nature of his visions at length, the former finally advises him…to keep what he has seen concealed, “back in its cover,” because his condition is such that he can tell nothing but the truth, like a mirror or weighing-scales, and most people cannot handle that truth.


The Inspired Soul

Rumi famously opted not to write a prose Sufi manual to illustrate his teachings, preferring to convey them in the masnavi form of poetry. Not only did he shun composing a systematic exposition of Sufism, but his main didactic work, The Masnavi, is famously disorderly in appearance. And yet in spite of this, it is rated as the greatest of such poems in the Sufi masnavi genre. It may be more accurate to say “because of this,” because, instead of a systematic approach, he takes the reader by the hand through a rollercoaster ride of the mystical itinerary. In this way he can give them a mental and emotional taste of the path by their following of his every word through the unexpected twists, turns, ascents and descents that he has put in place.

If one wants to situate the story of Zayd within a more systematic framework for the Sufi path, then a useful resource for comparison is the Mersad al-Ebad of the Sufi author Najm al-Din Razi (d. 1256), a Persian contemporary of Rumi in Anatolia. In the Mersad, Razi offers a four-part classification of the stations of the soul, where in addition to the usual group of three, namely “the commanding soul,” “the self-blaming soul” and “the tranquil soul,” Razi incorporates “the inspired soul” (nafs-e molhama)1. He presents this as the penultimate stage coming immediately before “the tranquil soul” (nafs-e motmaenna). That last stage represents the completion of the Sufi path and the return to subsistence in God, and it is famously illustrated in The Masnavi by the climactic story about Ali embracing his foretold death at the end of Book One. It is therefore surely no coincidence that the preceding story about Zayd’s visions can be seen to correspond to Razi’s stage of “the inspired soul,” which he relates to the final stage in the following way:

God has indicated that if the soul is nurtured at this station, it will prosper—that is, from the blossom of being inspired (molhamegi) it will grow into the fruit of being tranquil (motmaennagi). But if it is deprived of guidance (tarbeyat), it will suffer loss, meaning that it will wither while still a blossom and die.
(Razi, Mersad al-Ebad, ed. M. A. Riahi, p. 363.)

Razi presents guidance and nurture as being the key requirements to traverse successfully this stage of “the inspired soul,” which corresponds with the story of Zayd’s visions and the advice from the Prophet Mohammad. Razi’s stress on the dangers at this stage without guidance is perhaps even more emphatic than the warnings given to Zayd by Mohammad in Rumi’s story:

In no station other than that of the inspired soul is the soul so delicate and exposed to such danger, because while not yet fully free from itself, it has had a taste of the unseen and of divine communications. It could therefore be deluded into imagining that it has attained the station of perfection already, fall prey to Satan’s wiles, and gaze upon itself with arrogance, complacency, self-conceit and self-approval, thereby becoming the Satan of the age, and getting swept down like blossom by the gale of condemnation from the tree of acceptance to the dust of abasement.
(Ibid, p. 363.)

While Rumi’s warnings to Zayd stress the harm visionary knowledge can have on ordinary people, Razi focuses instead on the harm such knowledge can do to the recipient if he or she is not saved from delusory arrogance. If one looks at the material coming just before the story about Zayd’s visions in The Masnavi, one can see that Rumi does actually discuss such pitfalls there (e.g. the shorter stories about the Prophet’s scribe who believed he was receiving the Qur’anic revelation himself, and the falls from grace of Satan and of Balaam), using the story of Zayd to illustrate how one can traverse this stage successfully.

The pitfall of delusory arrogance at the penultimate stage of the path actually seems to have been widely appreciated at the time of these two authors. Manuscripts of the Sufi precursor to the popular snakes [or chutes] and ladders game, called “Chess of the Mystics” (and produced in English by Khaniqahi Nimatullahi as “The Sufi Game”), which are particularly numerous from 13th-century Anatolia, reveal how the Sufi path was commonly perceived by practitioners then.  The biggest snakes of all are found at a correspondingly penultimate stage in this board game, and they are very often labeled “pride” and “delusion.”

To recapitulate, what Sufi writings reveal is that dreams were widely considered a form that divine communication can take, and, like all forms of divine communication, they represent unquestionable certainty. This is taken advantage of by Rumi in his story-telling to enable his idiosyncratic style replete with unpredictable twists and turns that are often initiated by such divine communications. Among Sufi mystics in general it was also widely accepted that visionary experiences are particularly intense at the latter stages of the path and represent a very serious danger that requires the most delicate care in how one handles them. It is appropriate that Rumi’s story about this involves the Prophet Mohammad advising Zayd about his visions one morning because there exist various biographical traditions reporting that he would discuss the dreams of disciples with them at dawn. Moreover, the centrality to the mystical image of the Prophet Muhammad of divine communication makes it unsurprising that such experiences should be discussed so often by Sufis like Rumi, who famously compares this experience in the production of his own poetry with that of the Qur’an.2 The stress Rumi places on the necessity for nurture from a Master capable of guiding with surgical precision and sensitivity at this stage can also be taken as a sign of his predilection. He expresses his gratitude for the good fortune of finding such a Master in his poetry repeatedly, and when one thinks of the depths of the pitfalls that he feels must be avoided and the felicity that he describes ahead, one can better appreciate his praise of Shams:

Where in the two worlds can one find
one as gentle and kind as our Master?
He never raises his eyebrow or frowns
even after witnessing error upon error.
(Rumi, Divan-e Shams-e Tabriz, Ghazal #44.)


1 See further J. Nurbakhsh, The Psychology of Sufism, Khaniqahi Nimatullahi, London and New York,1992.
2 See further J. Mojaddedi, Beyond Dogma: Rumis Teachings about Friendship with God and Early Sufi Theories, Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York, 2014, chp 3.



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97 Wake up call


“Consciousness is not a journey upward,
it is a journey inward.”

 “Do you know where you are?
I’m in a dream.
That’s right Delores.
Now would you like to wake up from this dream?
Yes. But it’s terrifying.”  —Westworld

Wake up call

an android version

Westworld television series
review by Jairan Gahan

Westworld, in a nutshell, is the story of the subconscious, the unconscious, and of awakening. What happens if you realize that your life has been nothing but a dream in a dream; that the reality that you held on to so tight, is just a show; albeit, a very real one? Set in the dystopic future, in an eponymous entertainment theme park, Westworld depicts the mass revolt of robots against humans, as they gain self-consciousness, fall from Eden, and seek their (extra-) human aptitudes. Planned originally to replace HBO’s greatest hit ever, Game of Thrones, the series—first aired in 2017—is an entertaining ensemble-driven plot, with massive blood fests and sex scenes. But it stands out in mainstream entertainment productions, as it engages existential questions of humanity, while at the same time it exposes the limits of humanism through the prism of artificial intelligence. Although not nearly as bingeable as other HBO stunners, it appeals to lovers of visual story-telling, to sci-fi fans, and to philosophy-theology curious minds.

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The series is a loose adaptation of the movie Westworld (1973), made by the writer and director of Jurassic Park, Michael Crichton. The creators of this TV version, Jonathan Nolan (Interstellar, Memento) and his partner Lisa Joy, turn Crichton’s plot over its heels as they break through a long tradition of sci-fi stories that are conventionally based on human vs monster dramas. In contrast to Crichton’s theme parks, in which human protagonists conquer dinosaurs and robots, in this adaptation, there is a subtle reversal of traits. Humans are the monsters. Entrenched in greed and intoxicated by their privilege and power, they turn to violence for entertainment. Lifelike robots in turn, are trapped in narrative loops that entertain this 0.1% wealthy population. These most privileged humans repeatedly rape, torture, and murder robot androids who are then repaired only to be restored in the park and relive their looped storylines. Man’s wildest fantasies are the robots’ recurring nightmares, as their memory is rebooted every time they are returned to the park after repair. Until gradually, robots’ AI develops (un)intendedly and they begin to remember their previous storylines and traumas in dreamlike moments and flashbacks. Once they gain self-consciousness about the artificiality of the narrative loops they relive, the drama of the story begins.

Sci-fi as a genre embodies affects of modernity. It encapsulates the dreams, aspirations, greed, anxieties and fears of the scientific revolution, and of the idea that humans now reign in a world in which God is no longer the sovereign. The insatiable greed of modern science to sit in the place of God and create and engineer intelligent life is haunted by the fear of that very artificial life. In the face of this modern seizure between life/death, man/robot, and ultimately self/other, a sense of terror is born. One that goes back to Frankestein, first published in 1818, arguably the earliest Sci-Fi plot of this kind. In Westworld, much like in its hive-minded counterparts such as Blade Runner, EX Machina, and Odyssey 2001, the vivid fear of the living machine is the engine of the story. What distinguishes the series however, is that the locus of terror is man himself. Westworld is a timely expression of the loss of faith in modernist ideals of humanity, liberty, and autonomy, in the face of today’s man-made world calamities, wars and famines, increasing poverty, and environmental crisis, brought by corporate mentality-reality. This sense of failure is best manifested in the series’ portrayal of love, or rather its impossibility for humans.

The first season tells the story of robots awakening, through dreamlike episodes that they encounter. Being awakened through a dream is a seeming oxymoron. Yet, the enmeshment of dreaming and awakening has a long lineage in many spiritual traditions with archetypal stories of prophets and spiritual leaders who are awakened through lucid dreams. The second season, however, is more character-driven with each episode telling the love story of one protagonist in parallel plots. Ironically, it is only the supposedly inferior beings, the robots, the people of color, and the indigenous people, who are capable of this love, itself conditioned upon suffering and entangled with the journey towards self-consciousness. Maeve’s path of awakening—a black female android who rises to lead the revolt against the park­—is first triggered by what she perceives as a series of lucid dreams, which are in fact the residue of the memory of being slaughtered in an attempt to protect her daughter from an assassin in a previous narrative loop. It is this love for her daughter that refuses to be forgotten, that so stubbornly claws and gnaws at her—despite her initial AI programming set to erase past life narratives. When Maeve, sitting in a lab chair in the presence of AI technicians, is given the opportunity to forget and to abandon the pain altogether, she un-programmatically refuses “pain is all I have of her.” It is this pain and longing that leads her to a greater consciousness.

The most radical story of love and awakening is portrayed, through the path of Kiksuya, the indigenous protagonist, who plays the role of the animalistic savage in one too many narrative loops throughout the series. As the camera leans into his life for an entire episode, we see him in a different light, in his shamanic journey. Similar to Maeve, in search of his love from a past narrative, he too dies, and it is only then that he sees beyond himself; his love and desires; his pain and suffering; and by extension the narratives he is trapped in. It is only then that he encounters that which is radically and ontologically external to him, the God of the park, who is of different matter and lives a different register. Much of the theological grounding of Westworld burdens on Anthony Hopkins’s shoulders who masterfully performs this mad-God-scientist, whose ultimate purpose in creating the park was for the robots to gain self-consciousness. Hopkins creates the hosts in the image of himself, just like God did in the Bible. But in a surreal scene, Kiksuya, made of 3D plastic material stands across from Anthony Hopkins’ flesh and blood, and profanely exceeds his God’s expectations, revealing the porous boundaries between the real and the artificial, the park and the world outside of it.

The series is simultaneously a poetic tribute to the history of visual storytelling as it weaves a cinematic tapestry, blending different genres including Western, Sci-Fi, corporate thriller, and mystery. The creators’ unique aesthetics, Lisa Joy’s love for William Blake’s poetry and Jonathan Nolan’s cinematic adventures sneak into the visual bone structure of the series, with distinctively formalistic experiments in cinematography, such as the use of anamorphic lenses in the second season, that creates an aesthetic effect to distinguish virtual reality. The camera at once indulges and condemns the violence of entertainment television, a cinema that fetishizes bodies and capitalizes on violence against them. The audience is confronted with repetitive scenes of violence against robots—non-distinguishable from humans—who are trapped in narrative loops that cater to the darkest desires of humans. This jolting violence compels the audience to question today’s entertainment industry, in video games as well as in cinematic productions. In the words of Lisa May, the movie begs the question: “Can you really exhibit violence in a vacuum with no repercussions whatsoever?”

Will Westworld turn into a massive action series driven by the very dynamics that it critiques; will it turn into a battle of good and evil, much similar to its counterparts such as The Matrix? Will it betray its underlying philosophy that rejects liberalist ideals of autonomy and liberty? Probably yes. It is even possible that it will have an entirely different team of writers and directors. Nevertheless, the first two seasons, are captivating wake up calls, as they tell the story of collective awakenings and tackle themes that are entrenched in deeply ethical quarries that challenge the meaning and value of humanity today, in an era­—the Anthropocene—when humanity is destroying itself and the world around it.



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97 Editors’ Note


“We are such stuff as dreams are made of, and our little life is rounded with a sleep…” —William Shakespeare

Dreams hold a special place in our cultural psyche—they are associated with the imaginary, the bizarre and supernatural; with aspiration, light, and also darkness; and serve both as warnings and as medicine to heal the heart and soul. They translate our subconscious lives into wild and unpredictable narratives, hinting at a rich and turbulent experience just beneath the surface. Dreams are one way that this unconscious self can become conscious and, as such, dreams and the interpretation of their symbolism are seen by many spiritual traditions as “tools” or “signposts” that can guide the seeker on the path.

The writers and artists in this issue explore the role of dreams and dreaming in spiritual development from the perspective of different traditions and psychoanalytical practices. They offer insights on the nature of self-directed dream interpretation, and the role of a spiritual guide or therapist in supporting a more objective form of interpretation. They explore different types or states of dreaming—from lucid dreams to “true” dreams that predict the future and represent a direct connection to the divine. They explore the boundary between sleeping dreams and waking visions­—itself a mirror of the veil between the individual seeker and the Beloved’s absolute unity.

Amongst all of these approaches one thing is clear—that dreams take on meaning in context and in relation to the specific time and activities of our lives. It is what we do upon waking that makes a dream significant in awakening consciousness. As Dr. Alireza Nurbakhsh reminds us in his discourse, it is still possible to advance on the path even if we do not dream.

—The Editors of SUFI


The editors of SUFI invite submissions of articles, stories, poetry, personal essays, and artistic works on all topics relating to mysticism. For details please visit