“The Secret History of Dreaming” may sound like an exotic tale, but historian, writer and dream explorer Robert Moss is as deeply rooted in religious traditions as the Bible, the Quran, the Vedas and other scriptures from around the world.
For example, Jews and Christians only have to recall our ancient religious milestone on that stunning night when the patriarch Jacob fell asleep outdoors and received his divine vision of the heavenly realms. He awoke the next morning to utter the title of Lawrence Kushner’s popular book: “God Was in This Place and I — I Did Not Know It.” (Note: You can find out more about the books mentioned today and you can purchase copies via the Amazon links below, if you wish.)
Muslims continued our shared tradition of dreams. John Esposito writes about the importance of dreams to the Prophet Muhammad and says that, down through the centuries: “Dreams have often been seen as vehicles of divine communication in the lives of famous Muslims.” Some dreams come from God; some dreams reflect human desires in Muslim tradition. “This distinction is so important that different Arabic words are used for a dream inspired by God (ruya) and for one inspired by desire (hulm),” Esposito tells us.
Plus, dreams are simply flat-out fascinating. Robert Moss’s new book jumps from the ancient to the modern world, from faith to global politics. He spins exciting true stories involving everyone from Winston Churchill to Joan of Arc.
But Moss goes a step further in his work. He reminds us that through many centuries our spiritual and cultural traditions often have merged the realms of dreams, visions, imagination — and even the unlikely jolts of awareness that come with odd moments we think of as “coincidences.” (And coincidences are a special focus of other contemporary writers as well, including “The Spiritual Wanderer.”)
SO, HERE ARE HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR CONVERSATION WITH ROBERT MOSS:
DAVID: Robert, let’s start with “coincidences,” which you’ve written about in this book and earlier books as well. They’re eerie. They’re unsettling. Starting to take coincidences seriously is a good example of the appeal you’re making in this book to stop thinking of our world as a hard-and-fast, bricks-and-mortar, easy-to-define realm. The truth is — we’re often spiritually surprised by things we can’t explain.
Most of our readers probably think they know what a “coincidence” is. We might describe it as a remarkable moment of strange convergences. They’re things we suddenly notice as strange because we don’t expect to see them in the same place at the same time. How do you describe coincidences?
ROBERT: Coincidences are secret handshakes from the universe.
The experience of coincidence is an experience of mind and matter meeting. In our lives, we observe a thought or a feeling or a theme that is in our mind — and it encounters an external event that cannot be rationally linked. And yet there it is! Two things have matched up! We can see it! But it doesn’t make sense rationally.
Here’s one of my own: I was walking my dog in a park in Albany, New York, not far from where I live. Before the walk, I had been doing some research on medieval Europe. I was looking into the image of the antlered stag that became a symbol of Christ. It’s in the story of the Roman general who becomes St. Eustace. He is a hunter and he sees this stag staring at him and it becomes an encounter with Christ — the stag has a cross between its antlers.
DAVID: Yes, this was a very popular Christian story for centuries, depicted in tapestries and paintings.
ROBERT: As I was walking in the woods that day, I was also talking on my cell phone to a friend about my current state of thinking on this research. I was thinking and talking about the religious symbolism of this stag as a symbol of Christ — and I realized that right there at my feet in the park was a coaster with a stag on it and a cross between its horns.
What’s going on here? I couldn’t explain it. Why should a coaster be there. And that coaster with that image! I’m studying this symbol, thinking about this symbol, talking to my friend about it — and for no reason I can think of the symbol is there in the park on a coaster at my feet.
I found out that the image on the coaster is the symbol of Jagermeister, but that doesn’t explain why it should be in a park that day where I’ve never seen any other coaster before on the ground — and that particular coaster on that particular day?
Coincidences, from my point of view, are experiences that bring us awake to the universe. Our waking lives are often lived like we are sleepwalkers. Coincidences wake us up.
DAVID: You see a much broader substance to the universe — deeper spiritual connections that aren’t easily visible to us — deeper realms that things like coincidence and dreams and vision can pierce, sometimes.
ROBERT: Yes, we can travel beyond the curtains or walls of our consensual understanding. We can travel across time through the workings of coincidence. Coincidences are the forces of the deeper universe — the things that we sometimes experience in our dreams — suddenly probing into our physical life. And why?
To bring us awake.
The experience of coincidence centers on a feeling, a personal recognition. You know it in yourself. You may struggle to find words to describe it but you know it’s important because something in your field of perception touches deep inside of you. Perhaps it may even touch upon a buried thought within you.
DAVID: Your book shows us how many cultures touched upon these themes.
ROBERT: If we look at Scots’ Gaelic vocabulary, there is a word bruadaraiche (“broo-e-taracher”) that describes a dreamer who is more than a dreamer in the common sense. This is a dreamer who can travel into the past and the future. If you look into the history of words used for dreaming in different cultures, you find echoes from the depths of practices that largely escape our awareness of dreams in modern society.
DAVID: In your book, you use the phrase “imaginal realm” to describe some of the power of dreams to shape our worlds. Tell us about what that phrase means.
ROBERT: Imaginal realm is the realm of true imagination. The adjective imaginal is not yet well known in English but I hope it will be. It’s a way to distinguish the workings of the true imagination from fantasy. The imaginal realm is where creative ideas take form.
Let me give you an example. For many years I have been going to a location in the imaginal realm — a place I call the House of Time. There are many places within the House of Time where many useful things can be done. One of the useful locations is the library where I often visited.
DAVID: What is a library like in this imaginal realm?
ROBERT: In this library, we can read an unpublished book, perhaps one we have written ourselves but have not yet published. I’ve had many conversations through the years with my version of William Butler Yeats in the library of this House of Time that I visit.
Now, it is of no great importance to me to decide whether I have been dealing with the individual spirit of Yeats, or a form of my own imagination that takes on the form of Yeats or a core essence of Yeats that has survived his death. No. What I am interested in is the creative results of such experiences.
It is sufficient for me as a writer to notice the results of my encounter with this imaginative Yeats. These conversations have been interesting. He has goaded me to think of things I had not thought about before.
DAVID: What you’re describing in these accounts is something that many religious traditions around the world have valued for thousands of years. You talk about Indian religious traditions, for example.
ROBERT: There is one version of Indian cosmology that says the world exists within the dreaming world of the god Vishnu.
One of my favorite stories of dreaming from India is one that sometimes is called “The Sketcher of Pictures.” It goes like this:
Once a princess dreamed of a man who was perfect for her and fulfilled her in every possible way. Then, when she woke up, she wanted to find this man. Her father the king called upon all of his wise men to help her, when suddenly a wild man — a rishi from the forest with wild white hair appeared and drew a picture very quickly. The picture was a portrait of her dream lover drawn in every essential detail. Then, the rishi leaves just as suddenly.
Recognizing her dream lover in the sketch, the princess leaves the palace and runs after the rishi, calling out: “Stop! You have seen my lover! You must have because you have drawn him for me!”
But, the wise man tells her: “The map is in your dreams.”
She thinks about this and she decides — well, I didn’t just meet my dream lover in some misty cloud land. I met him in what appeared to be a real place. Perhaps I can find him. She begins a quest and, in the story, the princess sets off with elephants and retainers on this royal journey.
Eventually, she does see a horizon that is the horizon she saw in her dream. She goes farther and she sees a city that she saw in her dream. She goes farther until she reaches the place where her dream lover is rising from a dream of her. They are reunited.
It sounds like a fairy tale, but there are no fairies in it. This is a story of humans doing something with dreams that humans have been able to do in many ages and man places. The princess derives a map from her dreams and she journeys into that map with resolution — and she finds her dream lover.
DAVID: In your new book, you don’t talk about Jacob’s famous dream — one of my own favorites from the Bible. But you do talk about other biblical dream stories.
ROBERT: If people stop and think, they realize that they know many of the dream stories from the Bible already. We all know about Joseph’s interpretation of Pharaoh’s dreams. But what we may overlook about this story is that it’s not just a story about the importance of dream interpretation — it’s a story about taking the right action from a dream. Joseph arranges to store extra grain so there will be sufficient grain when the bad years come. Because of this dream, a whole nation is saved from starvation.
DAVID: You argue in your book that for most of world history, dreams and visions were very closely related, often virtually the same thing. And you go on to argue that we really shouldn’t quibble so much over exactly whether something was a vision or a dream — but, like Joseph interpreting Pharoah’s dreams, we should focus on asking: What are these experiences telling us? What should we do about it?
ROBERT: In the Christian tradition, one of the most important moments in Christianity — the moment when Christianity begins to become a world religion is in Acts 10, when a Roman centurion named Cornelius has a vision telling him to get in contact with Simon Peter.
At the same time, Simon Peter has a vision in his house in which he is encouraged to eat foods that are not kosher. Two things are going on in this visionary realm at the same time. First, the centurion has the vision telling him to get in touch with Simon Peter and Simon Peter has this vision of a tablecloth loaded with non-kosher foods. The emissaries of the centurion show up at the house just after Peter is shocked by this vision — and Cornelius is admitted into the early church as a gentile.
This leads to a revolution in the religious history of the world. If you read the Bible and trust the Bible, you cannot understand this without understanding that it was visions aided coincidence that brought these men together for what became a historic moment.
DAVID: It’s a wonderful book full of great stories and it’s not all in the realm of the ancient world or specifically in spiritual realms. You write here a little bit about one of my own modern favorites, Neil Gaiman, the creator of “The Sandman,” which now is widely regarded as one of the great triumphs in comic book art and storytelling.
ROBERT: Yes, Neil’s work is absolutely dream driven. In many of his stories, he is taking us into worlds behind worlds.
DAVID: So, where are you taking us next? What are you working on.
ROBERT: I’m working on several books at the moment. One is called “Imaginal Healing” on dream diagnosis — how dreams can diagnose physical, mental and emotional problems. I’m also writing about how to develop personal imagery for healing.
And I’m writing a story that will be published as fiction. It consists of documents from about 300 years into the future – documents concerning how life is lived in a society where dreams are very important. It’s a world a bit different from our own in which the nations support a kind of Switzerland of the mind — a place where dreaming is an essential part of the world’s connections.
I’m exploring: What would it be like to live in a community where dreaming was everyday church — a direct line to the sacred?
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