Dreaming and the Shamanic Worldview

How I Became a Dreamer: Dreaming and the Shamanic Worldview

(A talk on shamanism and dreaming given by Helen Klonaris at the National Art Gallery of the Bahamas as part of their We Gatchu: Sanctuary After the Storm initiative, following Hurricane Dorian’s devastation of Abaco and Grand Bahama.)

I come from a family of dreamers. We dream when someone is going to become ill. We dream when someone we know is about to die. We dream when new life is catching in the womb. We know that to dream of a wedding means a funeral, and a funeral a wedding. We know that to dream of a storm means trouble is coming; a snake means big changes are afoot. It is old, this seeing waking life through the eyes of the dream.

The oldest living culture in the world, the Indigenous people of Australia, who scholars think have lived uninterrupted (until colonialism) for over 100 thousand years on that continent, believed it was dreaming that created the world. Once upon a very old time they said, the Rainbow Serpent, who was asleep and dreaming below the surface of a formless planet, awoke, crawled out of the below world and as She moved, formed the pathways, the mountains and valleys of the earth as it was in the beginning. Out of her belly came all life – the plants and the animals, some of whom eventually transformed into humans. Other Creator Beings – ancestors of great force – also dreamed first then woke and set about forming the lakes and rivers and rocks, and when they all withdrew to the sky and the worlds below the earth, they left in the earth’s landscape the energy or ‘seed power’ of themselves. For this reason, the land is sacred to the Aborigines, for it contains not only the story of creation, much as the Judeo-Christian Bible tells a story of creation in words, on pages, but also because it is the living vibration of the consciousness of the ancestors.

For indigenous Australians who hold the memory of this planet’s origins in their songs, their myths, their dances, their rituals, and in their worldview, life consists of two kinds of consciousness: perceptible reality as conscious awareness, and imperceptible reality as unconscious awareness. Do not be misled by the term ‘unconscious’ – which to many of us implies a state of inertness, and of not knowing. Robert Lawlor tells us that in the indigenous Australian worldview, “the unconscious mind is always conscious; it is a continuum of dreaming” of which we can become aware in various states, like sleep, or meditation. In fact, for indigenous Australians, it is the unconscious mind that is “continuous and ever-present, permeating all levels of existence” and can be encountered through the perceptible reality of form because the two are interconnected. “The visible actuality of a form,” says Lawlor, “exists simultaneously with the flow of the unconscious.” The two – the visible and the invisible – are opposite sides of the same reality, like night and day, or the dark and light sides of the moon. They are not separate. They are always present at the same time. (Lawlor)

In many ways it was my early understanding of the power of dreaming that led me to know this connection between the seen and unseen worlds. In our family it was ritual to wake and tell each other our dreams first thing. It was ritual to say, “Can I tell you what I saw in my dream?” We discussed the stories that unfolded there – strange tales of spiders spitting healing ointment into eyes, frogs that did somersaults so that I woke myself laughing, or caves filled with garbage and other debris that needed clearing before I could go deeper, following an unknown trail into a dark place. We worked with each other’s dreams to analyze them, and bring meaning to the symbols there. When someone dreamed of a long dead brother or our grandfather who had just passed, (and who in one dream began to come back to life as I sang a haunting melody over his dead body), we took seriously the messages being relayed to our living world and adjusted our lives as necessary. These practices, so intuitive and unregulated by church or school or government, were powerful ways of knowing that affirmed the connections between the dead and the living, between the unseen and the seen, between unconscious and conscious realms, and of a consciousness that infused both.

So it is no wonder that when I found myself in deep pain – because of wounds seen and unseen – it was to my dreams that I turned for direction and healing. It was in the tiny home office of an Episcopal priest turned Jungian analyst – Father Fred Fleischer – that I began to use my dreams as medicine for transformation.

I dream of a large bird, big as a person, being chased by a band of Greeks from our church. They torment it, they capture it with rope, and they tie it to the roof of a car. The bird is limp, is unconscious, is dead on the roof of the car. I am somewhere, staring at the dead bird that is as big as a person, tied up now to the roof of the car. I stare at its closed eyes, feeling such grief, such terrible pain in my chest at the sight of its limp feathered body. Suddenly, an eye opens, the bird is not dead; it is staring straight back at me. The bird in my dreaming is eying the conscious me, the knower in the dream. The captive bird is making contact with me across sleep, across a continuum of consciousness, and I cannot look away.

I do not remember if I do this in Father Fred’s office, or in the dream, and I know it does not matter which; what I know is I take scissors and I cut the rope to free the bird. I know this is not what the culture wants me to do. I know to cut the rope (and free the bird) is going against the status quo, but the bird is eying me from the dream world and I cannot look away. We see each other and we know that we know. I cut the rope and the bird escapes and everyone is mad and yelling, but reality has been altered, which is to say consciousness has shifted, and the world cannot be the same.

Looking back at this dream – a dream I had years ago, while I still lived here in Nassau – I see that it was this dream that made so much more of my life possible. It made the expression of my queerness possible, flight possible, creativity possible, the expansion of the deeper regions of my inner worlds possible. It was a dreaming that continued to reverberate in multiple directions across years, and was likely the seed image of a short story I would write many years later called “The Dreamers” about a half boy half bird character whose queerness, like the imagination in a small place, is perceived as heretical, and unbelonging, and a threat to the cultural and religious status quo. In fact, it was probably the seed myth for my entire first collection, If I Had the Wings.

I left Nassau some time after cutting the bird free; and in the Bay Area of northern California, I discovered two things at once: Jungian psychology and shamanism.

Carl Jung was a Swiss psychoanalyst who studied under Freud, and expanded Freud’s work on the personality and the unconscious. He said that within each of us is a structure called the psyche (Greek for ‘soul’) that is made up of three parts: the conscious mind, the personal unconscious, and the collective unconscious. Together they work to regulate the human personality. Understanding how they work together is key to mental health, and really, the total well being of the individual.

Shamanism I would find out was very similar to Jungian concepts of the psyche. It shares the understanding that there are multiple levels of consciousness and that harmony within the individual and the society depends upon regular communication across these levels. Like Jungian psychology that uses active imagining – the ongoing dialogue with dream images while awake, shamanism also enables ‘dreaming while awake’. However, it does not relegate the accessing of the imperceptible realms of consciousness to dreams. It is a technology that has over thousands of years across the planet (and belongs actually to all of us) taught human beings how to use sound and rhythm and dance and touch and performance to shift the vibration of awareness in order to connect with consciousness of the imperceptible realms. It understands that the unseen realms are connected to the seen realms; it knows that reality is a unified field of consciousness and what we do in one place alters something in the other. It understands how to look inside the perceptible reality of disease, for example, and find there the imperceptible reality or consciousness that created the disease in the first beginning. It knows that in every moment of our visible lives, the invisible consciousness connected to it is also flowing, so that change in one place affects changes in another.

This is a powerful knowing. Because we can use it to make change for the good. This is what healers across the planet and across ages have done, particularly those of indigenous cultures, and what I mean by indigenous is those people who have always known that spirit is in the world, in the earth and trees and plants and animals and oceans and rocks, and that we as human beings are not separate from the earth and waters and winds and fire – we are made of these elements, and spirit (the unseen, the imperceptible consciousness) is in us too.

While Jungian psychology gave me tools and a language for moving back and forth between my dreams and my waking life, and working with the dream symbols of my psyche to bring healing to my everyday life, shamanic technologies taught me how to journey while awake into the unseen realms (space as well as form is consciousness) and see there not just symbols but actual consciousness that could be engaged with to bring about healing for myself and community. I learned (or perhaps remembered) how to walk in two worlds at once, to experience the consciousness of the unseen world as a world I could interact with if I came in a good way – asking permission first, and honoring the sacredness of the consciousness I was experiencing. In these realms I could have conversations with the beings and objects I encountered there – tall redwood trees of the California forests or frogs and lizards and centipedes from Bahamian bush – ask them for help, co-create with them healing for individuals and community, for the planet itself if called to do so. In other words, I could enter the continuum of dreaming without having to be asleep, and I could do so with specific intentions for healing myself and others.

This is another element of shamanism that is distinct from Jungian psychology – it is always about self and community, because like the seen and unseen worlds, we are and all things are interrelated and to forget this is to contribute to a distortion in the unified field; to forget this as the Western world has done for so long is to disconnect and separate ourselves from the unified field of consciousness and in doing so, activate trauma inside the unified field that changes the vibration of the whole, and ripples out into our visible lives as dis-ease, as conquest and inquisitions and colonization and slavery and climate emergencies of the kind that we are right here and right now experiencing. And grieving.

But, if we know how to remember, to plant our feet inside the earth again and remember that we are not separate, that we are spirit and connected to everything that is, if we know this we can remember how to heal the devastation that disconnection and alienation have wrought. If we can plant our feet back in the soil, and remember that the trees and the plants are our brothers and sisters – our teachers, because they have been here far longer than we have – then we can remember how to effect change that is not about building back stronger and better, but that sees with eyes of the dreamer how to build back greener and wiser and deeper and in connection with all of life; a world right here on these islands that remembers another way is possible.