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 object 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.  

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