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Traveling Dream Pathways Within and Between Landscapes of the Soul

Barbara Tedlock

Traveling dream pathways provides a valuable source of information about, and an empathetic understanding of, spiritual phenomena. Such phenomena occupy a paradoxical space located neither within our bodies or minds, nor outside in the natural world. Rather they exist in a sacred space located between the tangible and the intangible, the visible and the invisible, the audible and the inaudible. The reality of this sanctuary, that mystics everywhere perceive, is created through the process of living in, traveling through, and dialoguing with the world. In many cultures the conversation rapidly moves from the dream as a personal entity to dreaming as an interactive social process. And such enhanced dreaming experiences, as my Diné friend Gloria Emerson says, “Can open cosmic doorways.”

Dreaming is activated whenever energy flows inward toward the spiritual and intellectual senses, rather than outward toward the worldly and perceptual senses. Dream images, like images reflected in a lake or a mirror, are both there and not there. If I look in a mirror I see that I am there, in the mirror, but then I realize that I am also not there, in the mirror, because I am here outside the mirror. And it is this doubling that is central to the imaginative act that occurs within dreaming. The interlacing of dreams and visions with their many associations and interpretations provides landscapes where we create and communicate meanings that transcend cultural differences.

Today, ethnographers like me are paying close attention to our own dream travel as we learn and experience the many cultural uses of dreaming. Learning another culture experientially does not result in the death of the subject, the death of culture into which the subject was born, or the death of the new culture the self is entering. Rather it adds affective resonances and a new mapping of the self’s state of affairs within its context of dreaming.

When I was living on the grounds of the School of American Research in Santa Fe, New Mexico, I suffered bronchitis for the first time. After two weeks of endless coughing, I spontaneously received a healing dream:

Tola, a Zuni consultant of mine, appeared wearing a traditional black woven blanket dress. She smiled at me and rubbed finely-ground cornmeal into my cheeks, wrapped my legs and feet in white doeskin leggings and moccasins, and covered my head and shoulders with a flowered shawl. She took me to a mirror and as I stared at myself I caught a glimpse of my deceased mother standing directly behind me. She was dressed as a femme fatale in her hot-pink pants suit, high-heeled shoes, and spun silver dream-catcher earrings. As I looked in disbelief I became aware I was dreaming but decided to stay in the dream in order to see what might happen.

In the second scene Tola and I are in a Zuni home where a medicine society is singing, dancing, drumming, and healing. Tola reaches under her shawl, pulls out a ceremonial wand with long macaw tail feathers and hands it to me. I realize that it must be her “breath-heart” or mi’le in Zuni and instantly become terrified by the thought of being in the presence of such a powerful icon. Once again I realize I am dreaming, and once again I choose to remain in my dreaming state.

Tola sits me down on the floor before a wooden-slat altar, takes the two-foot long wand into her hands and, while speaking rapidly in Zuni, rubs the feathers all over my neck. Then, holding the wand perpendicularly toward me she shoots her healing energy down the feathers into my throat. I see orange and purple sparks, hear a bang, and feel healing lightning ripping into me.

I awaken to find myself lying face down in bed on soaking wet wrinkled sheets.

As I sat up, wrote down, and dated the dream (March 11, 2002), I immediately thought that the clothes and jewelry might represent my own cultural conditioning and attachments. Then I meditated on what I felt was one of the key symbols: the talisman known as a “dream catcher.” These woven circular nets strung with tiny gem stones and feathers, originated long ago among my grandmother’s Anishnaabe people. They were tied to the top of an infant’s cradleboard to allow only “good” dreams to flow through the opening at the center into the baby’s fontanel, and then seep into the infant’s dreaming consciousness. In recent years dream catchers have become symbols of Pan-Indian cultural identity. They are made in many forms and sizes: small silver earrings as in my dream, medium-sized fishing line and feather dangles for rear-view mirrors as in my car, and large irregularly shaped willow, deer sinew, feather, shell, and gemstone home decorations.

The combination of Pan-Indian dream catchers with a Zuni healing wand seemed to be metaphors for my hybrid cultural identity: First Nations Canadian and Irish-American ethnographer of Zuni Pueblo. While these interpretations centered on a set of symbols, I realized that the meaning of a dream ought to be understood by that which precedes it, sustains it, and allows it to give meaning. Because of my initial focus on isolated symbols my interpretation had thus far failed to uncover the grammar, or composite whole, of the dream with all of its rich contextual features. When I finally turned my attention to the social context I realized that the dream appeared exactly six months after three hijacked commercial jetliners crashed into the World Trade Center Towers and the Pentagon. This social and cultural disaster, which had occurred during the first week of my residency at the School of American Research, changed everything. I had been drinking my morning coffee when a fellow scholar at the school knocked on my study door to tell me that “we are gathering in the break room to watch the disaster.” I had no idea what she meant but followed her down below and saw on television the second plane slam into a tower and burst into flames.

All of us had difficulty doing any serious writing or research for several weeks since we were experiencing waking and sleeping nightmares. Alan Siegel and Ernest Hartmann, board members with me of the Association for the Study of Dreams (ASD), explained that everyone who saw the televised images of the crashing planes and people jumping from the burning towers had experienced psychological trauma which would last for some time. Siegel appeared on the “Today Show” providing the public reassurance about the role of nightmares in posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). He created a website to which people from all over the world emailed their nightmares. While it was already known to dream researchers that nightmares emerge after disasters, since so many people were simultaneously experiencing PTSD from the same event, Hartman decided to initiate a survey. He placed his request for pre- and post-911 dreams and nightmares on the website of the Association for the Study of Dreams and received hundreds of postings.

Two months after 911 my nightmares subsided but then, all of a sudden, six months to the day after the disaster my strange healing dream appeared. Since it involved moments of dream awareness, or lucidity, and a powerful kinesthetic sensation of lightning shooting into my throat it might be described as an archetypal or titanic dream. As I further contemplated the dream I remembered an article in the local newspaper, The Santa Fe New Mexican, published soon after 911. It said that the governor of the state had purchased 10,000 dream catchers, made by indigenous craftsmen from all over the US and Canada, and gathered them in the capital building where a group of Pueblo, Navajo, and Apache healers blessed them. Then he had them flown in a private jet to New York City where they were handed out to the surviving family members. The purpose was to promote the positive dreaming necessary for healing nightmares, sleep deprivation, narcolepsy, and the other symptoms of PTSD. After reading about the governor’s actions I, like many others, went to the Santa Fe Farmer’s Market and purchased a dream catcher to place over my bed to protect me from nightmares.

Even after contemplating the dream images and the social context of my dreaming for several more days I remained uneasy and felt there was more to my lucid dream than I had managed to understand. So, I drove across the state to Zuni Pueblo and shared my dream, associations, and interpretations with Tola. She nodded, took my hand, and said “dreaming is good medicine all right. I’ll bet your grandmother healed you when you were a child with her good dreams. But this dream of yours is pocha (bad). It’s lucky you came and told it to me right away so that it could not yuk’iis mowa’u (complete itself) or continue dreaming itself inside of you.”

She was right about my grandmother healing me by means of dreaming, but why did Tola think my dream was “bad”? Was it because I told her my dream and at Zuni one only tells a recent dream if one feels it might be “bad”? Or did the dream’s “badness” have to do with the 911 context?

Two weeks later Tola’s son visited me in Santa Fe. After chatting about mutual friends he suddenly became serious and said: “Tsilu (aunty) dreaming about your deceased mother and my mother’s medicine society healing is attanni ‘dangerous, taboo.’ It’s good you told Mother about it so she could begin sending you good dreams for your dream catcher.”

In sharing my dream with Zuni elders I realized that I had changed it from an inner psychological possession into an outer intersubjective social process. And when I did so, I moved beyond being into becoming, and put into practice the Native American enactive theory of dreaming. According to this understanding of the dreaming process dreams that begin as personal highly-valued entities shift during dreamtelling providing a doorway into another dimension of reality. The anomalous image of my mother wearing a hot-pink pants suit and silver dream-catcher earrings opened into a paradoxical dreamscape in which I experienced conscious awareness of being in a dream state and of being sound asleep. This moment of lucidity came a second time during my dream when Tola’s energy shot down her feathered wand into my throat. At this crossover point between sleeping and waking there were complex visual, auditory, and tactile synesthesias as the lucid dream emerged from the dream landscape and I woke up.

This dream, even though it coincided with the end of my bronchitis and thus was “good,” was also “bad,” indicating that I needed healing. Tola and her son were advising me that I could heal myself by accepting my grandmother’s Anishnaabe dream-catcher healing tradition as equally valid as their Zuni medicine-society healing tradition. I realized that an ethnographer who too deeply penetrates another culture’s healing system is in danger of crossing over and “going native.” To avoid this we need to re-embrace our own culture’s traditions and integrate our ethnic identity with our ethnographic endeavor. If we accomplish this we will become bicultural.

Other field workers who have shared their dreams with their subjects have also learned that in doing so their dreams were no longer their own but merged into an intersubjective bicultural field of meanings. Stefania Pandolfo, an Italian-American ethnographer, learned that among the Sufis in Morocco, dreams are never one’s own. Instead, as the twelfth-century Andalusian mystical philosopher Ibn al-‘Arabî described in Bezels of Wisdom, dreams are messages from the barzakh. This is an intermediate imaginal realm between spiritual and bodily existence, the unconscious and consciousness, self and other, the living and the dead. Si Lhassan u Ahmed, a Moroccan Qur’anic scholar and dream interpreter, speaks of dreams as exits, otherworldly journeys, encounters, and knowledge passed between the soul of the dreamer and other living and dead souls. In this oneiric realm symbols are related to humans in order to make the spiritual comprehensible in signs.

As Stefania Pandolfo records in her wonderful ethnography of Berber culture, Impasse of the Angels: Scenes from a Moroccan Space of Memory, she entered into conversations with a group of intercessors in which her own voice became only one of many. While she occupied an authorial space, it consisted of an intercultural dialogue in the margins. She opens an important section, entitled “The Sphere of the Moon,” with one of her own dreams. In this dream, which she both does and does not own, she finds herself in a large house after a death she did not witness:

I know it is a woman who has died. “The rûh (soul) of the house,” I think in the dream, the life breath of the textile—the woman who held the house together. No one in the house makes any mention of the event. I think to myself, have they forgotten? If the walls of this old building have been shattered by the laments of the women…no trace is left of all that. It is silence heaving with waiting in an empty room, like all the rooms of the old houses in this village.

There are three people besides me in the house: an old man, a middle-aged woman, and a child. The woman has the face and the tone of voice of one of my aunts in Italy. I am downstairs alone. It is dark, even darker than it usually is in these houses, and damp, as if after a rainstorm. From the roof the woman shouts at me to sweep the mud floor. I start sweeping and, as the earth dust gathers up, I see hundreds of dead black bugs. Sense of decay. I am the house being swept/razed. I am the one who is razing it. The woman’s voice from the roof warns me to watch my head. I raise my eyes and see the corner of the ceiling falling in. This house, I think, is collapsing.

Then the house transforms. It dissolves or expands. It becomes landscape. It turns into the rocky red soil at the edge of the palm groves. The inside becomes the outside. A young man I don’t know is telling me, “Watch your step, don’t walk, don’t sweep there, you are standing on a graveyard. Everything is disintegrating—the ground is sinking. If you step on it you’ll find yourself inside a grave. Corpses are coming out in the open.”

I raise my eyes. I realize that I am walking on the grounds of a cemetery: an old cemetery, unmarked and invisible. One can guess that there are graves only from the shape of the terrain, uneven and full of holes. I think, qbûr mensiya, a forgotten graveyard.

Since one of the characters looks and sounds just like her Italian aunt, while all the others are Berbers, and the setting is Morocco, we become aware of Pandolfo’s identity crisis as an Italian American dreaming in the US from within Moroccan imagery and epistemology. She notes that Arabic poems of loss, like her dream, draw on an imagery of space: a house in ruins and locales swept by the wind. Her tomb of a person whose name has been forgotten is also a central figure in the Berber practice of magic.

The second dream scene opens with her climbing the exterior stairs of a new house with an exposed staircase:

It doesn’t look at all like the staircase I know. I notice the smooth, freshly made earth walls. I say to myself, “This is one of the houses of the ‘outside,’ of the New Village. But unlike those houses, which are flat, one-story buildings, this house is elevated—as if suspended in air.” I climb the staircase (and) stop halfway, look up, and see the corner of the house. I think, unlike the staircases I know this one is exposed, and disengages itself from its base. I climb up and see a woman with her children playing with a bicycle on the balcony. A man comes, the same man who had warned me not to walk in the graveyard. I recognize him (and) say, “Your house is suspended in air.” He says, “Of course! Here everything is sinking; it is a world in ruin.”

Even though she experienced this dream in New Haven, Connecticut, she realized that it was not strictly her own. Rather it was the dialogical effects of an encounter. Later, when she recounted the dream to her friends in Morocco she learned that they felt that it was a moral commentary on the recent disastrous events in the community. These traumatic events led to the emptying out of the old village and resettling in the new village, burned by the sun and blown by the wind, far from the gardens and forgotten graveyards. She had dreamed biculturally: simultaneously from inside and outside Berber culture.

We only know what another has dreamed indirectly through narratives, poems, songs, dances, dramas, amulets or other visual images. Since sensory experience is mediated by its translation into interpretable forms, dreams are culturally variable expressive representations. In many cultures dreaming and waking reality are overlapped experiences. Dreams provide an arena where human beings come into intimate contact with fused natural and spiritual worlds. This commonly occurs when one is fully within the landscape and social action of dreaming but on the edge of waking consciousness. All of a sudden one realizes that one is awakening to the outer world but still engaged within the images of the soul.

Many peoples use the cultivation of imaginal consciousness as a way to gain access to the past and autonomy for the future. In such cultures children are trained to be more self-reliant by developing a dream self. Such enhanced self awareness in turn produces powerful life-changing dreams combining travels between cultural worlds with explorations of the landscape of the soul.

Reprinted from Elixir: Consciousness, Conscience and Culture, No. 3, Autumn 2006.

Comments (2)
  • very very interesting

    — angela kay on April 21, 2010

  • Thank you for your bridge into the cultures and realities.
    I would like to learn more about Zuni cultures, especially healing arts. Do you have any suggestion where to start? Thank you.

    — Kaori Oto on October 29, 2010

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1 July 2009

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