Sunday, January 21, 2018

The Place of the Lion

I dreamed that I stepped through a certain gate, and found myself swapping a place of self-limitation for a place of wild freedom, the Place of the Lion. One of the things active dreamers do is to offer the energy of a dream of power to others in such a way that they can take it into their bodies and minds and travel with it. So let me offer this dream to you as part of your possible life story:

You are at a zoo on a Sunday afternoon. People are wandering about, snacking and chatting as they inspect the animals and birds. As you approach the big cat enclosures, you are uneasy because you know that big cats don't belong in confinement.   
    When you come to the lion pen, you are disgusted because people are mocking the great beast, pulling faces - until someone screams that the gate is open and the lion could get them. Now all the people are running away.
    Instead of fleeing, you step through the open gate, into the place of the lion. The great beast runs towards you and leaps up...and his great paws are on your shoulders...and he licks your face like a friendly dog. He wills you to turn around and look at the scene in the zoo in order to understand what is really going on here.

    When you look back, you see that it is the humans that are living in cages. In the comfort of their suburban houses and malls and supermarkets they have failed to notice that they have walled themselves in places of confinement. When you look beyond the lion, you see there are no walls, only an open horizon of wild freedom and possibility. The lion says to you, in his gravely lion voice, "You see, my dear, humans are the only animals that choose to live in cages."

text adapted from Robert Moss, Active Dreaming. Published by New World Library.

Photo of a doorway in Prague by Robert Moss

Friday, January 19, 2018

The Nishan shaman brings back a soul from the Land of the Dead

Remember Orpheus, who went down to the Underworld to try to bring back a soul from the Land of the Dead? In an epic poem recorded in the Manchu language – related to the Tungusic language family that gave us the word “shaman” – we have a story that folklorists might place in the “Orphic” category but differs from the Greek myth in three important ways. First, the shaman succeeds in retrieving the soul – because, unlike Orpheus, she refuses to look back. Second, the shaman is a woman. Third, she is not operating on behalf of a spouse or lover or even a close family member, as in many tales of this kind. She intervenes on behalf of a stranger in need. 
     By the fires of the Daur Mongols and neighboring peoples of Manchuria, they still tell the story of the Nishan shaman. In addition to the oral traditions, there is a written version, collected by Russian ethnographers before the Bolshevik Revolution; The Tale of the Nishan Shaman is the one great surviving text of Manchu literature. By harmonizing these voices, we can reclaim the extraordinary experience of a shaman who is a woman, and a dreamer who uses her gift to rescue souls, even from the Underworld. It begins like this:

A rich boy is out hunting. They call him Sergudai. He kills the animals without reverence, for sheer pleasure. Sometimes he does not even bother to send his retainers to take the hides and the meat. He revels in running down a mature female reindeer; her antlers are bigger than those of the males. He kills her with his arrows, and laughs.
     The animal spirits complain to Irmu Khan, the Lord of Death, that the order of things has been disturbed. The death lord sends his shadow to strike down the boy hunter and carry his soul down to his inner keep in his sunless domain.
     The boy’s father, a wealthy headman called Baldu Bayan, is inconsolable. A stranger tells him there is a powerful shaman, who lives on the Nishan river, who could bring back his son. Bayan is skeptical; the local shamans are greedy charlatans and the stranger is a hunchback in rags. Then the stranger performs a disappearing act on a many-colored cloud, and Bayan understands – whether or not he was dreaming – that his message came from an immortal.
     So the father sets out in quest of the shaman. People describe her house, on the east side of the river. When he comes to the western shore, Bayan looks over the water and sees a pretty young woman doing the wash. She is wearing a simple, unbelted dark blue gown, the year-round garb of any other ordinary woman. But when he swims his horse across the river, he greets her with respect. “Elder Sister, are you the shaman?”
“Not me,” she tells him. She directs him back across the river, to another house. When Bayan makes his way back, they tell him on the other side that he has been deceived. Shamans are tricky.
Bayan crosses the river for the third time. “You are a powerful shaman. Can you bring back my son?” She must consult her guardian spirits, her onggors. They can take many forms. They promise their help. She must also ask permission from her mother-in-law, because she is living with her husband’s clan, and is required to conform to their rules, shaman or not. She has been a widow for some time, and may be older than she looks. The mother-in-law says she can go.
Her personal name is Teteke; it is there in the Manchu version of the tale. But most people who tell her story call her simply “the Nishan shaman”, as if to release her from personal and family circumstances. [Note the word “shaman” is not gender specific]
The shaman’s fee is agreed. The Nishan shaman gathers her professional tools – her drum, her robe hung with bronze mirrors and horse tails, her antlered headdress – and follows Bayan back to his home, where the son’s body is laid out. She knows that her work will require a long journey, where no normal person would choose to go. Offerings will be required for the gatekeepers she must pass; bean paste and bundles of paper, a dog and a rooster.
    Her safety requires an assistant who is a powerful drummer and singer, strong enough to propel her along the roads of the Underworld – and, above all, to bring her back. She names the man she must have, Sunny Anggu. There’s an edge of excitement when he is named; we sense that they know each other body and soul.
When Sunny arrives, the Nishan shaman gets ready to journey. She is unrecognizable now as the girl with the wash, resplendent in her long fringed coat of skins, hung with bells and horsetails, with a bronze mirror hanging over her heart. In her own language, the mirror is called the “soul vessel”, a place to capture and carry soul. She pounds her skin drum, while Sunny echoes her beat. She is cantering, galloping, turning to the left, her feet almost noiseless in her high reindeer boots. A deerskin fringe flutters over her face, hiding her eyes. The antlers of her headdress sweep back and forth, in a spray of feathers.
She dances until there is foam on her lips, until she crumples into a dream as deep as death, her drum over her face. “She dies,” they say.
The hoofbeats do not slacken or tire. Her assistant is riding his drum, sending her the power.
The steady beat helps her to make a road out of a chaos of fog and sourceless shadows. The road brings her to a river. The Lame Boatman is on the other side. He is a hard bargainer. She has to promise more than is easy before he comes for her in his dugout canoe.
There are more crossings, more negotiations, and many tests of her courage. She comes to a river without a ferryman; she crosses by making her drum her boat.She descends at last to the inner keep of Irmu Khan. She sees the soul of the boy hunter playing with a youngster she knows to be the child of Death. None of her companion spirits can help her now. She must raise a cry from her heart and her gut that can reach all the way to the nest of the heaven bird that is her strongest ally.
    In some lands, they call him the Garuda. The shaman’s cry spirals up from the depths of the Underworld. In the Middle World, her assistant echoes it. The cry rises up the World Tree, and rouses the heaven bird from his nest. The great bird unfolds his long form and swoops down. At the shaman’s direction, he folds himself tight enough, like a projectile, to penetrate the fortress of Irmu Khan, snatches up the boy hunter, and delivers him to the shaman, who places the soul in her mirror.
Now she is racing back up the confusing, murky roads from the lower depths, pursued by Death’s servitors. Her animal guardians can help her now, blurring her trail, leading pursuers in the wrong directions.
Her greatest test is in front of her. From a mob of hungry spirits, twittering like bats, a man’s shape separates and becomes gruesomely familiar. It’s her ex-husband. He often out her down, when he was still living, beating her if the milk was sour or his meal was late, chasing after other women. But he wants her now, desperately. “Take me with you,” he implores, alternately cajoling and threatening. When she explains that there is nothing to be done for him – his body rotted long ago – he tries to hold her in the Underworld by laying a guilt trip on her, then by brute force. She has to fight him and silence him. “She stamps on his face and his mouth” so stop the words that are draining her strength and resolve.
She stops by a kind of registration office and bargains hard for a good long lifespan for Sergudai, the soul in the mirror. She has a moving encounter with Omosi-mama, the "divine grandmother" who "causes leaves to unfurl and the roots to spread properly," who is the giver of souls and protectress of children. We learn that it was Omosi, no less, who ordained that Teteke would become a great shaman.
The Nishan shaman loses so much energy during all of this that she might never make it back, except for the pull of the drum. Sunny is beating harder and faster, calling her back. Now she is riding his beat, back to her prostrate body. When she rises in that, she can finish her job by fanning the boy hunter’s soul from its vessel – the bronze mirror – back into his own body. The Nishan shaman has dreamed strong enough to rescue a soul even from the fortress of Death.

Her feat does not go unpunished. The Nishan shaman is not allowed to enjoy her triumph for long. In the Manchu text, her late husband’s mother brings the equivalent of a legal action against her, for failing to bring her ex back. She is forced to relinquish the tools of her trade – the antlers and the mirror, the robe and the drum – and to give up her lover, the indefatigable drummer, and becomes just another of the drab “work women” in her village, bound to the routines and taboos of her husband’s people. In this last version we encounter a perennial theme in the history of women.
     The Nishan shaman is not a solitary figure in the history of shamanism, especially in this part of Central Asia. The Chukchi say “Woman is by nature a shaman.” [1] Among the Manchus, shamans were mostly women. There is strong evidence that under the Shang dynasty in China [1766-1122 BCE], shamans again were mostly women. For the Nishan shaman, as for women of power in other cultures, the way to establish authority is to dream stronger than others, to become at home with the uncanny, and to risk herself in a soul journey from which most men would flinch. A woman with gifts like hers will be sought after in an emergency, but the guardians of the conventional order will pull her down, if they can, once the crisis is over. [2]

For more on the Nishan shaman, please see The Secret History of Dreaming, chapter 1. In this telling I have interwoven (a) the Manchu version translated in Margaret Nowak and Stephen W. Durrant, The Tale of the Nishan Shamaness: a Manchu Folk Epic. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1977 with (b) oral traditions, especially a Daur Mongol version transcribed in Caroline Humphrey and Urgunge Onon, Shamans and Elders: Experience, Knowledge and Power among the Daur Mongols. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996.


  1. M. A. Czaplica, Aboriginal Siberia, a study in social anthropology. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1914, p 243.
  2. Stephen W. Durrant,, “The Nišan Shaman Caught in Cultural Contradiction” in Signs, Vol. 5, No.2. (Winter, 1979), pp. 338-347.
Image: The Nishan shaman with her drum and antlered headdress. Illustration from Nowak and Durrant (trans.) The Tale of the Nishan Shamaness: a Manchu Folk Epic.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Plutarch in the Light of the Moon

For Plutarch (c 50-120 AD), the realm of the Moon assumes huge importance as the residence or way station for some (though by no means all) spirits of the departed, and the base for a variety of daimons (many of them formerly humans) who take a close interest in Earth affairs.
Plutarch knew what he was talking about. He was not only a marvelous historian and philosopher, but a Mystery initiate, who spent his last thirty years as a priest at Delphi, communing with the gods and traveling between the worlds. He traveled in Egypt and wrote a treatise on Isis and Osiris that has a continuing influence on our understanding of ancient Egyptian religion.
He knew the importance of dreams. He wrote in his essay "Amatorius" that “Since [the soul’s] arrival in the world, it is by means of dreams that it joyfully greets and gazes upon that which is most beautiful and most divine.”
In hies essay "On the Divine Vengeance" Plutarch describes a journey to a locale in the sphere of Luna where three daimons sitting together in the shape of a triangle are mixing dreams in a cosmic krater (or mixing-bowl). Different streams flow into it, one “whiter than sea foam” another “the violet of the rainbow”. The lighter and whiter the dream that is mixed up, the more true it will be. “This is the source from which dreams derive.”
The source of this account is an ancient NDE. A dissolute man of Soli who is told by an oracle that he will do much better when he dies. Soon after he falls from a height and is believed to be dead until he revives at his burial place three days later
Plutarch explains how after death spirits that are able to rise beyond the lower astral plane may enjoy a pleasurable afterlife in the realm of the Moon. They may live on there for a great length of Earth time, or graduate to existence on a higher plane, leaving their astral bodies behind. Or they may become Moon-based daimons, closely engaged with human affairs, playing far-from-infallible guides to people in the physical world.
In a most remarkable tract titled" Concerning the Face that Appears in the Orb of the Moon" Plutarch gives a comprehensive account of the role of the Moon in relation to the soul history of humans. The Moon is here described as the portal through which spirits travel on their way to birth on Earth, and to which they ascend, if they pass certain tests, after physical death. Some of these spirits of the departed may be promoted to the status of daimons, with permission to interact with the living.
"Not forever do the spirits tarry upon the moon; they descend to take charge of oracles; they attend and participate in the highest of mystic rituals; they act as warders against misdeeds and chastisers of them, and they flash forth as saviors manifest in war and on the sea." [1]
These spirits of the Moon, far from omniscient or infallible, are on probation.If they act unfairly, giving in to wrath or envy, they are cast out and again confined in human bodies on earth.
Plutarch shakes up our mythic geography when he tells us that Earth is the realm of Demeter, the Moon of Persephone, and everything between Earth and Moon is the realm of Hades. Entry by the departed into the realm of Luna requires the ability to travel beyond the temptations, fears and distractions of the lower astral (Hades) and go through a clean-up, effected by “scrubbers” (maybe resembling scarab beetles).
In summary, this ancient shaman-philosopher confirms that It is in the realm of Luna that spirits take on and take off the astral body before birth and after death. And that the Moon, as an astral realm, is the base for a large population of daimons (many formerly human) who have a close engagement with human affairs.
[1] Plutarch, De facie quae in orbe lunae apparet [“Concerning the Face which appears in the Orb of the Moon”] in Moralia XII trans Harold Cherniss and William Helmbold
Image: Detail of the Moon from Donato Creti, "Astronomical Observations" (1711) in the Vatican Museum

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

The reindeer with shaman eyes

We derive the word shaman from the Tungus people of Siberia, now generally known as the Eveny or Evenki, which means "fast runners". I have been rereading an extraordinary book about the Evenki by anthropologist Piers Vitebsky, who lived with them and entered their culture, ecology and dreaming very deeply. The book is titled The Reindeer People: Living with Animals and Spirits in Siberia. It is beautifully written and offers a gift on every page.
    We learn, for example, how anomalies in the natural environment are immediately scanned for guidance on what is developing beyond the normal range of perception. The Evenki read the world around them as a book of clues. "If they noticed an untypical pattern, or a striking analogy between two forms that were otherwise unconnected, they took this as a pointer to something significant in reality itself." The behavior of animals, both in regular life and in dreams, is studied for clues as to what is happening at a distance in time or space. It is considered an especially bad omen if a wild animal comes inside a tent. A dream of a wounded reindeer might portend the illness or death of someone. Predictive dreams are especially likely towards morning, when the dreamer is half-awake. For focused guidance, for example on which way to go on a hunt, the Evenki still heat the shoulder-bones of reindeer over embers and find maps in the patterns of cracks. Vitebsky reports step-by-step instructions by a shaman hunter on how to get this right.
    I am greatly moved by the depth of soul connection between the traditionally shamanic Evenki and the reindeer - those they herd, and the wild ones they hunt. This extends to the bonding with individual reindeer who are chosen to defend the health and even the life of their humans. The reindeer given this role, in ritual bonding, is known as the kujjai. A Evenki may have a whole series of kujjai in the course of his or her life, as one after another gives its life to preserve that of the human. It is believed that the reindeer that takes on this role is a willing sacrifice.
    "Nearly everyone who lived on the land had a kujjai, a reindeer that was specially consecrated to protect its owner from harm. When you were threatened by danger, your kujjai placed itself in front of you and died in your place...You then had to consecrate another reindeer to maintain the same level of protection...Only a reindeer could sacrifice itself knowingly and intentionally."
    An Evenki reindeer herder told Vitebsky, "A kujjai is a very special kind of reindeer. Its 
eyes aren't like an ordinary reindeer's. I can't really explain it. It's like a shaman's, I suppose - it's hypnotic."
    A kujjai can be consecrated by a shaman to protect someone at a distance. Vitebsky describes the simple ceremony by which a white reindeer was appointed to guard the life of his young daughter in England; he was to carry a photo of the kujjai back home with him.
    I have seen a deer give its life for a human, and I have painted the Deer hanging on the cross, its heart open, as the willing sacrifice. I find it fascinating that a people who live so close to the deer have made this a ritual of conscious mutual bonding, for life.
    I have read elsewhere, in Esther Jacobson's The Deer Goddess of Ancient Siberia, that in archaic hunting rituals the Evenki honored a form of the Antlered Goddess. Before a moose hunt, a shaman would go into the forest, to a sacred tree, to contact the female spirit of the land and ask for her help. She would sent the shaman a spirit ally that took the form of a giant cow moose or perhaps a giant woman with moose horns. The shaman would now rehearse a successful hunt with the help of his ally. The physical hunt that followed was believed to manifest what had already been accomplished on the spirit plane.


Piers Vitebsky, The Reindeer People: Living with Animals and Spirits in Siberia. New York: Mariner Books/Houghton Mifflin, 2006.
Esther Jacobson, The Deer Goddess of Ancient Siberia: A Study in the Ecology of Belief. Leiden: E.J.Brill, 1993.

Graphic: Reindeer rider from a collection of Evenki folk tales published in Novosibirsk in 1971. 

Nine Keys to Helping Kids with Their Dreams

Here's what we need to know about listening to children's dreams and supporting their imaginations: 

1. Listen up!

When a child wants to tell a dream, make room for that. Make some daily space for dream sharing. Listen to the stories and cherish them for their own sake.

2. Invite good dreams

Pick the right bedtime reading or better still, tell stories. Help your child to weave a web of good dream intentions for the night - for example, by asking "What would you most like to do tonight?" Encourage children to sleep with a favorite stuffed animal (whether teddy bear or T-Rex) and make this a dream guardian.

3. Provide immediate help with the scary stuff

If your child was scared by something in the night, recognize you are the ally the child needs right now. Do something right away to move out that negative energy. Get a frightened child to spit it out (literally) or draw a picture of what scared her and tear it up as violently as possible.

4. Ask good questions.

When the child has told her story, ask good questions. Ask about feelings, about the color of the sky, and about exactly what T-Rex was doing. See if there's something about the future. Say what you would think about this if this were your dream. Always come up with something fun or helpful to do with this story. Open up the crayon box, call grandma, etc.

5. Help the child to keep a dream journal

Get this started as early as possible. With a very young child, you can help with the words while they do the pictures. When your child reaches the point where she closes the journal and says, “This is my secret book and you can't read it any more” do not peek. Give her privacy, and let her choose when she'll let you look in that magic book.

6. Provide tools for creative expression.

Encourage the child to bring dreams come alive through art, dance, theater and games, and to draw or paint dreams. Gather friends and family for dream-inspired games and performance. Puppets and stuffed animals can be great for acting out dreams. This can also be dress-up time. It's such a release for kids to portray mom or dad or other grown-ups in their lives - be ready to be shocked!

7. Help construct effective action plans

Dreams can show us things that require further action - for example, to avoid an unhappy future event that was previewed in the dream, or to put something right in a family situation. A child will probably need adult help with such things, starting with your help. This will require you to learn more about dreaming and dreamwork, as you are doing now.

 8. Let your own inner child out to play

As you listen to children's dreams, let the wonderful child dreamer inside you come out and join in the play.

9. Keep it fun!

When you get the hang of this, you'll find it's about the best home entertainment you can enjoy.

Notice two things that are not on this list, but would be at the very top of a list of what not to do with a child’s dreams: 

1. Never say to a child "It's only a dream". Children know that dreams are for real and that scary stuff that comes out in dreams needs to be resolved, not dismissed.

2. Do NOT interpret a child's dreams. You’re not the expert here; the child is.

Text adapted from Active Dreaming by Robert Moss. Published by New World Library.

Drawing by Robert Moss

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Befriending the ugly dwarf

I have a friend who has held high office in the Swedish government, a man deeply versed in both the humanities and science who has attended Nobel Prize dinners under the three crowns of Stockholm’s town hall.
   Over beer and akvavit one night, he confided, “I’ve had an inner guide who has helped me greatly, in and out of governments. He turns up in my dreams and fantasies. He is a horrible, ugly dwarf. He always begins by insulting me, using filthy language. You miserable piece of shit, he’ll begin. Then he’ll proceed to tell me all the reasons I’m a failure. When he’s satisfied that he’s hit home, and I’m starting to fill with self-loathing, he’ll tell me something useful. He gave me the location of a legal document that had gone missing. I found it exactly where he said it would be, and that resolved an important family matter.”
   “How reliable is your ugly dwarf?”
   “He is eighty percent reliable. Better than most advisers. So I put up with his insults.”
   I was delighted with this revelation, which sounded like something from Scandinavian folklore. It also occurred to me that there are the elements of a practice here that can be very helpful for all of us on our road to manifesting our life dreams.
    Each of us has an ugly dwarf inside us. You’ve heard his voice. It’s the one that’s forever reminding you of your failures and shortcomings. He knows your every weakness. He won’t let you forget how you let yourself or others down. Let him vent for long enough, and you’ll squirm with self-loathing. And this can become a moment of power. Let your ugly dwarf pull you down far enough, and you may find yourself bouncing up with fresh ideas and new vigor. Why? Because there is energy in all strong emotions, including the ones we tag as “negative” and that a certain kind of self-help book advises us to avoid.
   Let your ugly dwarf beat you down, break you down, and rattle you out of the need to maintain pretenses and defenses. Then move with the energy of the emotions this releases. But don’t put up with someone in your social environment who tries to play ugly dwarf; accept no substitutes for your very own version.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Arnold Toynbee, Time Traveler

The once immensely popular historian Arnold Toynbee aspired to write a universal history, and in his 12-volume work A Study of History he traced the rise, flowering and decline of human civilization. Few generalists have equaled his breadth of scholarship and his ability to synthesize, although academic specialists have poked many holes in his work.
    It's intriguing that Toynbee reported that in the course of his researches he became a time traveler, finding himself deeply engaged in dramas of different eras. He describes being "carried down in a 'Time pocket'" and experiencing "the local annihilation of Time" in Volume X of A Study of History. His revelations come in Section XIII. “The Inspirations of Historians” part E. “The Quest for a Meaning Behind the Facts of History”. 

A tenuous long-distance commerce exclusively on the intellectual plane is an historian's normal relation to the objects of his study; yet there are moments in his mental life -- moments as memorable as they are rare -- in which temporal and spatial barriers fall and psychic distance is annihilated; and in such moments of inspiration the historian finds himself transformed in a flash from a remote spectator into an immediate participant, as the dry bones take flesh and quicken into life.

He describes how, mulling over some dry research – a précis of one of the lost books of Livy’s History – he was hurled into intimate engagement with a war between Rome and confederate Italian states. He was “transported, in a flash, across the gulf of Time and Space from Oxford in A.D. 1911 to Teanum in 80 B.C., to find himself in a back yard on a dark night witnessing a personal tragedy that was more bitter than the defeat of any public cause” – to witness the fate of Mutilus, a proscribed confederate leader denied sanctuary at his home by how own wife, who takes his own life by the sword.
    His experiences of mental transport across time quicken as he travels to ancient sites – and enters the perspective of Philip of Macedon, checking his battle lines, or is present to a roaring crowd at Ephesus, or falls again into “the deep trough of Time” after climbing to a ruined citadel in Laconia.
    Then in London, soon after the Great War, walking by Victoria Station, he is seized with the universal movement of Time streaming through him and around him:

"In London in the southern section of the Buckingham Palace Road, walking southward along the pavement skirting the west wall of Victoria Station, the writer, once, one afternoon not long after the end of the First World War -- he had failed to record the exact date -- had found himself in communion, not just with this or that episode in History, but with all that had been, and was, and was to come.
     "In that instant he was directly aware of the passage of History gently flowing through him in a mighty current, and of his own life welling like a wave in the flow of this vast tide. The experience lasted long enough for him to take visual note of the Edwardian red brick surface and white stone facings of the station wall gliding past him on his left, and to wonder -- half amazed and half amused -- why this incongruously prosaic scene should have been the physical setting of a mental illumination. An instant later, the communion had ceased, and the dreamer was back again in the every-day cockney world which was his native social milieu and of which the Edwardian station wall was a characteristic period piece."

His ability to be present to the rise and fall of civilizations led Toynbee to make some observations that have uncomfortable contemporary relevance:

"Civilizations die from suicide, not by murder."

My favorite Toynbee quote, deeply prescient (he died in 1975) and unsettling in the midst of the current chaotic period in American politics, is this:

"Of the twenty-two civilizations that have appeared in history, nineteen of them collapsed when they reached the moral state the United States is in now."

Due diligence: though this statement is widely circulated, I have been unable to nail down a source in Toynbee's published works. Perhaps we can practice "mental transport" across time or dimensions to see whether he will claim the statement, and whether he wants to add to it in the context of what has unfolded since his death.