23 August 2022

"Come to Training Tomorrow" - an ancient post-modern Zen tale


Why do I go to Margit Island every Monday morning at 9:00 to engage in Martial Yoga training? Allow me to tell you an ancient post-modern Zen story to explain. 

Once upon a time in ancient China, or Thailand, or somewhere sufficiently Far-Eastern and exotic sounding (though maybe, come to think of it, this incident might actually have happened in Los Angeles or Budapest), there was a martial arts student named Wong, or maybe Charles. Now, Charlie had heard a rumor that his martial arts teacher, Wun Hung Lo (though everyone called him Larry) was in possession of a secret technique that he only taught to students he found to be diligent and honorable. 

One day, at the end of class, as Larry was about to slip through the beaded curtain that led to his private quarters, or the dojo office, Charlie shouted, “Wait a minute Sensei! (or Sifu, or Guruji, or whatever he called him).” 

“Yes, Charlie?”

“I was wondering if… if… (Charlie nervously played with the silk sleeve of the fancy Chinese training uniform that had been delivered by UPS the day before, while he stared at the floor)... if you considered me a diligent and honorable student?”

Larry gave Charlie a suspicious side eye. “Well, yes I do,” he said, (“...sort of”, he muttered under his breath.) “Why do you ask, Grasshopper, or padawan learner, or whatever I’m supposed to call you in this story?”

“Well, uh, I was wondering if you’d, uh, teach me the secret technique?”

A broad smile broke out on Larry’s face. “Oh! Of course! Come to training tomorrow!"

At which Larry disappeared through the beaded curtain. Charlie left the dojo very pleased.

The next day Charlie put extra effort into his training to impress his teacher with his worthiness. At the end of class he went up to Larry and asked, “Are you going to teach me the secret technique?”

“Yes. Come to training tomorrow.” At which he again slipped through the beaded curtain. Charlie was a bit put off, but he assumed Larry had a meeting with a local warlord or had an online chi kung class to teach that he’d forgotten the day before when he made his appointment with Charlie.

For an entire week, the same thing happened. Charlie showed up to class every day and trained like a demon, and his skills took a leap forward. After class he would ask about the secret technique, and Larry would say to come to training the next day.

Finally, one day Charlie flipped out. “WTF! Why do you keep brushing me off and lying to me, Larry?”

Larry smiled the benign indulgence of a Buddha, or the sly smile of a sitcom character who’d been set up with a great punchline. “But Charlie, I’ve been telling you the secret technique every day: Come to training tomorrow!”

And Charlie was enlightened… or not. But at least coming to training so often really improved his skills. 

OK. I’ll confess to being a bit facetious here. It’s actually true that some martial arts teachers have secret techniques that they won’t teach just anyone. 

But even those teachers would nod sagely if they heard this story, agreeing that the most important martial arts technique of them all, is to show up for training tomorrow. If you don’t train, you won’t learn squat. 

I can be found under a tree on Margit Island next to the Szabadtéri Szinpad (visible from the 26 bus stop of the same name) every Monday morning at 9:00. If you come, I will share with you the martial movement I have learned from aikido, tai chi, systema, karate and chi kung over the last 40+ years. My goal is to share those movements that promote health, flexibility and energy flow. And the movement exercises are regularly interspersed with seated meditation (I am a certified meditation teacher).

And who knows? Perhaps I will even show you the secret technique. Come to training.  

03 February 2020

The fifth choice: continuing to blog in a social-media desert

There have been calls among some of the die-hard bloggers of yore, among them Gordon White, to keep feeding the collective mind of the world with the long-form thoughts that come from the efforts of reflective, intellectually brave bloggers. The kind of content that cannot be found in a retweet or a link on Facebook.

I realized this morning that I needed to heed this call to action -- one also issued by Blogos, who has more than once, in face-to-face conversation, declared himself to me as an "essayist" -- when I watched an inspirational video, and then nearly linked it on Facebook.

But I didn't.

I didn't, because I think linking a performance of Edith S. Sampson's 1965 commencement speech to North Central College would be an insulting contradiction to its content: an appeal to young graduates to lead the examined life, even if it means sacrificing the comfort of conformity or privilege.

And what has this to do with dreamwork? Real dedication to dreamwork is a commitment to go wherever the dreams lead you. It is a commitment to allow the knowledge and impulses that come through dreams to challenge every assumption we have ever made or accepted from our surroundings or culture. Dreamwork is anything but comfortable.

In our last dream circle session, I shared a dream in which my dream ego (the "I" that experiences the dream in the dream state), concluded that my life progress was being hindered by all the books that I own. Remember the last time you moved? Remember packing and unpacking all those boxes full of books and thinking "Why do I drag all of these around with me?"

My assumption -- arising from being the son of a professor and holding a self-image of being an "intellectual" -- is that books are sacred objects. I have never thrown out a book. I have sold them. I have given them away. But I have never just treated them like the worthless dross some of them actually are.

As you might know, if you've been following this blog, one of the core practices of dreamwork is to commit to "honoring" a dream once you have worked it, either alone or with a group. Honoring a dream means performing some act in the physical world to "ground" the impulse of the dream; to manifest it in waking life. Once we had worked this dream, I committed myself to honoring it by getting rid of some books.

Yesterday, I browsed through shelves in our flat, pulling out volumes that have not been read by anyone in our family for many years, and very likely never will be again: yellowing Mickey Spillane paperbacks, copies of books published in Hungary in which I have English-language editing credits, old sci-fi short story anthologies...

In all I found about 100 books that were just taking up space. I toted the huge box down to our paper recycling bin on the ground floor and -- with a flutter of guilt -- dumped them in.

At the same time, it was liberating.

It's not that I don't still love books. God knows we still have shelves and shelves of them in our flat. But I came to understand something as I reflected on what I'd done. Discarding those books was not a declaration that I don't value books anymore. It meant that I place even greater value on the ones I choose to keep, and to give pride of place in my study and living room.

And I feel I have a clearer understanding of the difference between who I am, and the books that I own.

I will continue blogging, and I will continue challenging my assumptions. And all outworn suppositions will go to the recycling bin.

01 May 2019

A giant bears the message

The THING that appeared at my window
When I pulled up the shades after getting out of bed, I was shocked by the view of a colossus that totally dominated the landscape. It stretched across my entire view of the sky. And it set the tone for the day: the construction of the tower crane in the lot behind our apartment building the day before (which I hadn’t seen yet because I’d returned home in the dark of night) meant that the construction project next door has drastically accelerated.

Every time I passed one of our flat’s  back windows, the crane’s immensity impressed itself upon my consciousness. And an hour later, as I sat contemplating it while sipping coffee in my study, the meaning of its dream-like presence in my environment became clear to me.

But before I share that revelation with you, let me build the foundation (see what I did there?) on three pillars.

The first is a discovery I made about the relationship between dreams and life when I was still only 17 years old, and had only been recording dreams for a few months. I observed that there were occasionally, in my waking life, short stretches of time – an hour, an evening, a day – in which a sequence of events would occur that was pregnant with meaning and/or simply crackling with the energy of synchronicity. It felt like an invisible hand was arranging the people, objects and occurrences in my life to give me a message. And these sequences of events could be worked with and understood in the same way I understood my dreams.

Secondly, this neighboring construction site has been bubbling up in my consciousness for… well… over a year now. The one-family house that stood there was razed to the ground almost two years ago. Then they excavated and poured a foundation this last  autumn before the ground froze.

But in recent months activity there has picked up. And because I am a lover of the cold, I sleep with the windows wide open (all the way through winter). A few weeks ago the noise of the construction activity began disturbing my sleep on those rare mornings when I get to sleep in.

The third pillar is that I have been working my way toward big changes in my life for what seems like forever now. For some years now I’ve been preparing myself for a big life change, but whenever I assessed where I was in my process, it always seemed like I was still disappointingly unprepared for the big transition. “Not yet,” I kept telling myself. The slowly escalating pressure was enough to disturb my sleep and to generally put me on edge. But still not enough to feel like “the time has come.”

And then that Leviathan appeared outside my window. The building process has shifted into high gear.

It is an essential teaching of dreamwork that we must not content ourselves with merely understanding and interpreting our dreams (or any other potent symbolic message from deeper levels of reality). We are being called on to ACT!

To honor this “dream” of the crane bursting forth into my world, and the upsurge in building activity it brings with it, I am committing myself to increase the time and energy I put into building for the coming phase of my life.

The crane is telling me: the time has come!

28 October 2018

Old dogs DO learn new tricks

In the years since I last wrote about martial arts on any of my blogs, my practice has changed drastically. After (altogether) eleven years of aikido training, I decided for various reasons (not least of which was too frequent injuries) to switch over to the Russian martial art of Systema. It was easy because my aikido teacher of three years (Dániel Kati) began running Systema training. Then, about a year ago, Dani’s martial arts career also took a serious turn. In his fervent quest to track down the inner essence and true heritage of aikido (Dani is a japanophile, who has studied the Japanese language and knows his martials arts history) he came across Dan Harden, a man who teaches classes in the “inner arts” of Daito Ryu Jujitsu. If he is to be believed (and over time I have become somewhat of a believer), he has tracked down the “juice” that gave aikido its amazing power when it was introduced by Morihei Ueshiba. And Dan contends it's a secret sauce that teachers failed to pass down to subsequent generations of aikidoka. What’s more, Harden teaches that the principles he has discovered are applicable to a broad range of martial arts. Harden has also trained in other martial arts, including fighting in MMA matches. After attending a Harden workshop in Germany, Dani was enthusiastic about teaching it to everyone, including our Systema class. We did some of the exercises in one or two Systema classes. It came about that for a stretch of months during the last year, I was the only student showing up for Systema class (one student changed shifts at work, another got pregnant, etc.). I knew how enthusiastic Dani was about the things he was learning from Dan Harden (he went to a second workshop, at considerable expense). So I made him an offer. I told him it didn’t matter if we were doing strictly “classical” Systema. My only interest was in getting good martial arts training and healthy movement. If he wanted to experiment with me in applying Harden’s principles to Systema, I would gladly make our one-on-one trainings into his laboratory to see what we could cook up. We’ve recently begun making videos of various exercises we do, and one we made last week sort of struck me as “proof of concept” For those with eyes to see, I present you our work in progress. Let me give you the context for this video. The exercise we are doing consists of generating a particular state or consciousness called “heaven-earth-man”. Anyone who knows their Far-Eastern metaphysics will recognize a concept that exists in several philosophies. Through movement, breath and visualization, you establish a connection with the three axes that run through your body -- up/down, side-to-side, front-to-back -- and truly feel them as forces governing the movement of your body. Then you begin to move, focussing on every movement originating from your “hara” (energy center located below your navel, or “Tan Tien in Chinese). Only then do you engage with the person who is attacking you. There is more going on here than meets the eye, but you can see (I hope) how the mental/physical state gives you both the stability and fluidity to anticipate and flow along with the opponent’s intentions. There are moments when you’ll hear one of us make a noise and suddenly exhale. That’s when the "opponent" saw a clear opening in the other’s defense and gives the other a whack. It’s an odd thing. Since Systema teaches you to take a hit and absorb it, getting hit is sort of “funny”. It makes you laugh! It’s like hearing the punchline of a joke. “Oh! Good one!” Anyway, rest assured that The Dream Warrior isn’t just occupying himself with the dream side of his moniker. I am most definitely still maintaining my martial training.

28 March 2018

Could dreams save us from robots and AI?

Articles about the robot apocalypse pop up in my social media accounts all the time. I have attended at least three presentations about job loss to automation in the last year. It is obvious that, as a society, we are very worried about this trend. And one of the survival strategies that is always proposed is to cultivate skills that cannot be performed by a machine and algorithms.

The bad news: machines are getting more skilled every day.

Machines coupled with AI are now learning tasks we assumed -- even until very recently -- could never be performed by robots. Mid-level managers, kiss it good-bye!

Anything that is quantifiable can be done by a machine. That includes those guesstimations that come from your years of professional experience. It's all just fuzzy logic to a machine. Just more math. The things that machines cannot do involve the things that make us human. There are things machines cannot do simply because they are not human. But what is a human being, really? Until now, that was merely an interesting theme to examine. Now, the answers to that question are the key to our civilization's survival. 

So this critical juncture in the story of the human race actually forces us to examine one of the perennial philosophical questions: What is it that makes us human? Emotions? A sense of meaning? Aesthetics? The capacity to love? The experience of awe? Intuition? Perception of the numinous? These are all essential qualities to be considered. I would add to that: telepathy, the capacity to see through time, the ability to intentionally transform our own natures.

And dreaming.

Machines (in spite of any poetic notions the great Philip K. Dick had) don't dream. It would be far-fetched to assert that any of the processes AIs go through can be qualified as consciousness. This facility we have for internal experiences is uniquely human. This reflection of our conscious, external lives, in which we receive messages and impulse from mysterious sources beyond our individual, physical selves, is something no machine will ever be able to replicate.

We will always have a source of wisdom and insight that comes from our being human.

So how do we survive the robot apocalypse? Certainly not by trying to outdo machines at things they do faster and more accurately than we can.

We have to cultivate those qualities and skills that are part of our essential humanness. And one of those qualities is the facility to dream. Cultivate it! Learn to do dreamwork! 

22 August 2017

When is now? Where is here? And am I me?

(This is a further meditation on the nature of dream consciousness during a vacation trip)

I wake up in the perfect dark and silence of this time-worn villa in the alpine foothills of the Hungarian frontier, my mind still resonating with the images and feelings of a dream I just emerged from. As I have trained myself to do over the years, I ask myself, “What were you just dreaming?” without moving a muscle from the position I just woke up in.

The familiar despair hits me as the unearthly, jarring, disjoint, paradoxical recollections flow into memory: How on earth am I going to write this down in words?

This is a familiar experience to the experienced dreamworker, because the more clearly you learn to recall the details of dream experiences, the more you understand that the dreamworld does not conform to twenty-first century mainstream concepts of time and space. You can recall sequences in which two things seemed to be happening at the same time in the same place (which, in the conventional waking world is a paradox). Or actors in the drama of the dream can have multiple identities (“He was like Chairman Mao and my cousin Fred at the same time,” or “At the beginning of the dream the man driving the car was Jim, but later the driver was Susie, not to mention that the car had turned into a small dragon.”) Objects have the qualities of several objects. Objects can be things that don’t even exist in the waking world. Objects morph into other objects. The dead are still alive. You could be in a contemporary building and World War Two is happening outside the window.

It’s all so slippery and hard to pin down. It’s hard to remember because it’s hard to remember things you can’t describe in conventional terms.

If you think you can describe the dream world while sticking to a language of Newtonian physics, empirical facts, strict linear timelines, and a sort of Randian/Dawkinsian dearth of the numinous, please give me time to go get some popcorn so I can watch your inevitable train wreck.

So how do you use a human language designed to describe a consensual world of conventional space and time (such as English) to describe events in a world which behaves according to other rules of space-time?

In this struggle, your weapon of choice is the art of narrative.

How does mythology impose a meaningful order on the sublime events of the cosmos at the divine levels? Narrative. It becomes a story that can be told. Prometheus stole fire from the gods and smuggled it to the human race in a hollow tube? I suspect this is a very pared-down version of the original experience some temple priest had while lost in trance at the peak of an ecstatic ritual. And do you know what he probably thought when his eyes popped open in the middle of his sweaty face, his ears filled with flutes and drums, his sense of smell overwhelmed by the herbs and resins smoldering on the glowing coals? “How the hell am I going to write that down in words?”

Ah! I know how you feel, Zosimus.

When Tom Wolf endevored to convey the insanity of 1980s America unhinged by reckless financial deregulation, he didn’t write a report; he wrote a novel. The Bonfire of the Vanities can arguably give a better understanding of what happened than a manic massing of mountains of facts. Narrative shows its power again.

And even in the hard-nosed world of the multi-national corporation, I have been advised time and again when writing a report, “Tell a story! Give a meaning to the numbers and trends! What succeeded? What failed? How did that impact the mission?”

Narrative is your man.

In mainstream dreamwork, the rules for recording dreams are fairly strict:

  • 1.      Record the dream as a story and tell it from beginning to end.
  • 2.     Include as much detail as possible.
  • 3.     Include feelings.
  • 4.     Do not digress into interpretation. Stick to the story.

They are good rules. They should be followed as much as possible. But there are times when the demands of capturing events from non-mundane space-time through the language of contemporary human culture requires resorting to something that can only be described as art.

The more challenging dreams in my journal contain passages written in language that becomes dramatic, poetic, and borders on purple prose. I dig deep into my bag of metaphors and similes. I stretch the symbolic, etymological and semantic potential of words as far as I can stretch them.

Lying awake in the dark silence, the difference between my internal experience and the waking experience of my physical body intermingle and I almost redream parts of the dream with my eyes open. I make an effort to take the bits and elements I can remember and put them into some sort of “logical” order.

 At this point I have to accept that I am forgetting huge amounts of detail, and that images have changed from what they might have been in the original experience to the “remembered” experience. And I also have to accept that the sequence I am imposing on them is a way of making sense of them in physical space-time, and that it might not have happened quite that way. I also need to maintain faith that the process is not an arbitrary process I’m imposing from outside. This is an organic, human process. Since before recorded history our ancestors have been going through this process of transforming a nearly ineffable internal experience into a tangible, practical artifact. The remembered dream is always only a condensed, stepped-down version of the original experience.

I get up and navigate the room using the dim light of my phone’s screen so as not to disturb the others in the house. I put on my hapi coat, grab my dream journal and make my way outside into the starry August night. It is 2:30 in the morning, and I can see the sky has rotated four and half hours around Polaris since I looked at the sky before going to bed.
I put down my journal on the concrete stoop before the door and wander out into the yard. I get out my phone and load the astronomy app.

This has to be one of the most brilliant ideas any software designer ever had. It just stands to reason. If you have a device with a compass, a gyroscope, a powerful computer and a color display screen, why not write a mobile sky-map program.

And time stretches and contracts once again. Every time I observe the night sky, and contemplate stars with Babylonian, Arabic and Greek names, and constellations whose names predate civilization, I am transported back to the ancient deserts where our ancestors patiently observed the sky every night and, with the basic instruments at hand, measured and recorded the daily movements of the objects in the sky until they created three-dimensional maps. The making of these maps led to the invention of mathematics, navigation, and physics, and basically all the higher knowledge of civilization. And what did they see when they looked up at the sky? Gods. Myths. Stories.

Narrative is your man.

I go back to the stoop, prop my phone up against a step and turn on its flashlight to write by. With the moon shining over my left shoulder I struggle to concoct a narrative out of the bizarre impressions and impulses of my dream. It had the feeling of a film: a crime mystery thriller. I am one of the characters, and the perspective continually shifts. From moment to moment I am either seeing this character from the outside in the third person, or I am looking through the eyes of the character. And as in a mystery thriller, there are plot twists and surprises. It’s hard to follow. On top of all of this, one of the characters in the story is a close friend of my youth who is dead now. And the subject matter is harrowing and violent.

When I finally finish writing down the dream, I look up at the stars above me. Such a contrast: the orderly motions of the heavenly bodies, and the disjointed, non-linear events of my inner life.

I go back into the perfectly dark, perfectly quiet bedroom, and lay myself down for what was known in the days before electric lighting as “the second sleep”. It seems like such a luxury nowadays; something you do when you’re on vacation. But until recently, this was the natural sleep pattern for the human race.

And, indeed, a few hours later I wake up with another experience that I am challenged to encode into English. Again, it feels cinematic. It takes place in Italy, a country I hardly know. I am hiding from my enemies by disguising myself in drag as a nun. And again, the identity of this dream character is ambiguous. Sometimes I am watching from the outside. Sometimes I am viewing things through the eyes of the character. I really can’t recall the order that things occurred in. I just have to pick an order to tell the story in. It seems this character is just walking into rooms and houses at random to adjust her/his costume and makeup. How is this possible without running into people? It’s not logical. I just have to tell the story as well as I can.

My daytime life on this vacation has parallels to the nighttime. We organize expeditions to drive across the border into Austria to go swimming at a lake. The border crossing is on a rural road so remote two cars can’t pass each other without one going partially off the road. The border guard post is a small trailer. Though we’re always diligent to make sure we all have identification when we cross, as our caravan of cars slows down at the crossing, the bored guard standing by the road notes the Hungarian licence plates and waves us through. Twenty-eight years ago, this was the iron curtain. Now, this border barely exists. The border isn’t such a fixed thing anymore.

On one occasion, we cross into Austria to visit a Templar castle called Castle Lockenhaus. You can walk into the temple; an oblong room of stone devoid of any decoration besides a small block altar on one end. I get out a compass to check the orientation of the room. Oddly the altar is in the south. My mind is blown. Altar in the south? I’ve never seen this in modern European mystical culture. When I go into the chapel nearby, I check again. As expected, the altar is in the east.

In the castle there are charts of family trees for the families involved with the castle through time. A nearly 50-50 split of Hungarian and Austrian nobility. Where does Austria end and Hungary begin? Time and space stretch, contract and bend in this castle.

Time stretches and contracts. Time, bends and twists. But sometimes it takes a break from the corporate, materialist, linear world to experience that as a reality.  

14 August 2017

Leaving the city; calming the waters of the mind

Probing the dark recesses of your personal netherworld might seem like an odd way to spend your summer vacation, but that’s my jam.

Though it isn’t quite the way it sounds. I mean: on the surface it looks like just about anyone’s vacation. But vacation, and especially certain kinds of vacation, are a golden opportunity for the dreamworker. Doubly so if you live most of your life in a dense, hectic urban environment, like the life of Yours Truly in the inner circles of Budapest.

I’ve written elsewhere about the many hindrances to reaching deep dream states and to clearly remembering dreams, so I won’t go into great detail about that in this essay. But suffice it to say: dense cities – with their noise and light pollution, with their powerful electromagnetic fields of varying frequencies, with their frenzied auras of freaked out pressurized populations, and with their frenetic lifestyles – are a serious challenge to maintaining consciousness of your dream life. I know that some of the several-week-long gaps in my dreams journals can be directly attributed to the stress and “noise” of living in the city and holding down a corporate job.

And decades of experience have shown me that vacation consistently gives rise to an upward spike in dream activity. I record as much in my journal in one week as I had in the previous two months. For instance: I have slept in our vacation house for two nights now. In that time I have recorded nine hand-written pages of dreams, consisting of five distinct dreams. The preceding nine pages in the journal took three months to fill. See what I mean?

And it certainly is not just a matter of quantity. One dream I recorded this morning astonished me with the depth to which it penetrated. Appropriately (apros depths), the dream takes place in rooms and passageways within the Budapest Metro that are restricted to the public (places I’ve never been in waking life). Secret underworld passages. Secret things that are buried deep.

And there was a sublime pun. In one dream there is a book that has witnessed everything that’s ever happened, and it is accompanied by a portable arc lamp. It’s "the arc-lamp of the covenant." Funny and heavy at the same time.

When you’re on vacation you usually sleep a little longer than usual. I sure do. I’m lucky if I get more than six and a half hours of sleep a night most of the time. On vacation, I try to get eight. On vacation, I also love to go to places where it’s perfectly quiet and dark at night. Without the competing “signals” from the other senses, it’s easier to hear the voice of your dreams. And that goes for electromagnetic noise as well.

And the stress. Being preoccupied all the time and going to bed with a head full of mental chatter is a sure-fire formula for having low-level “psychological” dreams that express your neuroses and are cluttered with “day residue”.

So we have come to Western Hungary (a literal stone’s throw from the Austrian border) to visit the family of my eldest son’s girlfriend. It’s a very large family that can boast up to 18 people at the table at every meal (counting guests, but still!). They live on several acres of forested land in the Alpine foothills that abuts a large stream. There are animals and organic gardens, and children of all ages. My daughter and I spent three hours yesterday paring about fifteen kilos of wind-fall apples (literally: they’d been knocked of the tree by a thunderstorm the night before) that got made into several gallons of fresh cider and two huge apple cakes.

My mind is so distant from the concerns of corporate management I may as well be on another planet.

We are being put up at a house the family owns several kilometres away, situated in several acres of hilly garden with an abundance of fruit trees. It’s about 100 years old and has stone and plaster outer walls about half a meter thick. When you close the wooden shutters of the windows, it is as dark and silent as a tomb.

To quote Joni Mitchell: “… Dreamland comin’ on