Dreams have played an important part in the history of nations as well as of individuals, long before the emergence of the psychology of dreams. But when we are fortunate enough to have what I would refer to as a significant dream, we should not treat it like a crossword puzzle, but learn to meditate on the dream, to carry it about with us, allowing it slowly to reveal its deeper meaning. As Gurdjieff said, ‘One does not set out to change one’s self; one merely becomes open to the possibility of change the more aware one becomes’.
Recently I came across a note I wrote for the actor playing Jesus in my production of the Chester Mystery Plays:
The actor must be continually aware of the wider and deeper implications of each of Jesus’s remarks for, like all Gnostic teachers, he sees things sub specie aeternitatis.
It is all too easy to take Jesus’s remarks literally.
‘Lazarus, come forth!’
‘Loose him and let him go!’
‘Go and sin no more!’
‘Take up your cross!’
Always the command is: go and do. You have your freedom, you now know who you are; you know your own unique destiny. Each of us has our task to do.
Jesus does not bind people with rules and regulations, but sets each person free to become the person they are meant to be. To achieve this we have to learn how to be still — and listen!
Silence is not easily found in Western society nowadays. In many households the television is on all day even when no-one is watching or listening. People are locked into their mobiles and I-pods and do not hear the sound of birds or children playing.
Yet silence remains a precious gift which goes way beyond any words we may speak. As Claudio says in Much Ado About Nothing, ‘Silence is the perfect’st herald of joy; I were little happy if I could say how much’.
In our practice of meditation we sit in silence. We learn that — in the words of the Welsh poet R.S.Thomas — ‘the meaning is in the waiting’. Slowly, over weeks and months, the sands within us shift and change; we find ourselves growing into a deeper aware-ness, more alert to the needs of others, while neuroses and other problems dissolve of their own accord. We have only to persevere in our practice.
Once a small boy said to me with much passion, ‘God is a feel, not a think’ and I thought: Wow! Children have such remarkable insight and directness.
There was a period when — as the author of the seven books of The Adventures of Odd and Elsewhere — I would be invited to schools and libraries in England and Ireland to tell stories about my two heroes. The children were about nine or ten, and time and again I found myself startled by their directness. On one occasion — with the whole school crowded into the hall, seated cross-legged on the floor — a small boy at the front asked: ‘Where do you get the ideas for your books?’ He said it with such urgency and I could sense the whole school waiting to hear how I would respond. In a flash I said to him, ‘Do you have a garden?’ He said ‘yes’. I then asked him what he grew in it. ‘Seeds’ he replied, ‘and they grow into plants.’
I knew then that I had my answer: ‘And I have seeds of ideas. I plant them in my books and they grow into stories!’ There was an audible sigh of satisfaction around the hall.
On another occasion I took along a very old teddy bear which had been given to me, one of the first ever made. It was dressed in a frock so I called her Harmony. At one school a small boy asked why she was called this, so I said ‘Why do you think?’ He paused for a few moments and then said, ‘Because she doesn’t harm anyone!’
And harmony means exactly that. It is the state into which — if we persevere with our practice of meditation — we arrive: we are at harmony within ourselves and so will never hurt or wound another, while also we become more awake to the needs of others.
James Hillman remarks in one of his books how there are three kinds of knowledge: scientific knowledge where facts are weighed in the balance; philosophic knowledge where one evaluates the pros and cons; and, finally, contemplative knowledge, which is sometimes called intuition, or gnosis, knowledge of spiritual things.
It is this latter that the practice of meditation can lead one to access. And of late it has led me to reflect on the friends who have crossed my path, many of whom have been signposts pointing me in the direction I should go. I think also of those major loves which have profoundly changed me both in the past and now in this present moment. My meeting with such individuals appears more and more to me not as accidental but pre-planned, that X and I were meant to meet and come into a relationship.
In many of our emotional or sexual encounters we are like passing ships, but there are those few relationships which become a long voyage of discovery. And so one asks: where does this attraction between two people come from? Is there a destiny at work here? Who can tell why some find the perfect partner and others don’t? How do we manage to be in the same place at the same time. And if we had missed the moment would we have remained strangers?
Increasingly, at an intuitive level, I have come to sense that we all live several lives, and that certain relationships of love or deep friendship, have been meant from many lives ago.
Silence is not easy to find in the Western world. In many households the television is switched on all day, though no one may be listening or watching. People walk down the street locked into their mobiles and iPods and do not hear the sound of birds or children playing.
And yet silence remains a precious gift which goes way beyond any words we might speak. As Claudio says in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, ‘Silence is the perfect’st herald of joy; I were little happy if I could say how much.’
It is the gift of poets to express such precious silence in words. I remember Robert Frost saying that if he wrote a poem about heart-ache or heart-break, and a reader said, ‘That is exactly how I feel, though I couldn’t have put it into words’ then, he felt, he had achieved his task.
In our practice of meditation, seated in silence we learn, in the words of the Welsh poet, R.S.Thomas, that ‘the meaning is in the waiting’. Slowly, over weeks and months, the sands within us shift and change, and we find ourselves growing in deeper awareness, while neuroses and problems have a way of dissolving of their own accord. We have but to persevere.
One doesn’t have to be in therapy to realise that certain dreams are significant, in that the sleeping self is sending a message to the waking self with the intention of helping us to know ourselves better.
So many fragments of our lives have been scattered, rejected or forgotten; yet they are all filed away in the cabinets of our sub-conscious and return to us in our dreams. They are parts of ourself which we need to integrate into our lives.
I had such a dream following the death of my partner of 54 years, Hywel. I was in a tea shop. On the table opposite me sat a very dull-looking woman in a tightly belted raincoat, sipping at her tea. I said nothing and ignored her. Suddenly she put down her cup with a clatter and, rising, said to me, almost spitting the words, ‘Thank you, Father!’ and stormed out.
I awoke with a start. It was like a slap in the face, but I recognised what the dream was saying. I am by nature a very private person, though I conceal this behind an extrovert manner, so that few guess. When Hywel was alive I used to hide behind him, for he was naturally outgoing, smiling and speaking to strangers, whereas I would be withdrawn. When one’s partner dies the survivor always has much psychological work to do, and part of this for me was to learn from Hywel’s example, to be more outgoing, smiling at passers-by, stopping to chat with people, integrating all this into my present life. In this way, too, one’s partner lives on.
When one has a dream like this one should not approach it like a crossword puzzle, but take the dream for a walk, live with it and slowly its meaning will seep into life. As I have often said, there is within each one of us all the wisdom we can possibly need; we have only to LISTEN!
James celebrates his 90th birthday today. To mark the event we’re posting this additional reflection. Happy Birthday, James!
On November 11th I reach my ninetieth year. I find it hard to believe as there is still so much yet to be discovered. As I look back over my life, I am aware of a long avenue of people who have appeared, often at crucial moments, to point a way forward, or deflect me from some action that could have been harmful. And, importantly, there have been those who have not hesitated to hold up a mirror so that I might see clearly my mistakes and faults – one is indeed blessed if one has friends who are not afraid to speak the truth. I also marvel at how many of these encounters seem almost planned, as though part of an intended pattern.
I recall how, at the age of twenty-one, when I was in state close to a breakdown, I happened to be passing a Catholic church in Ogle Street in London, a church I had never before visited, and I chose to go in and make my Confession. The priest suggested I make contact with a psychotherapist in Gloucester Place. And so began many years of Jungian analysis. It was Dr Franz Elkisch who helped assemble the bits of my jig-saw so that I could discover the person I was meant to be. Time and again such meetings and encounters have happened. As Joseph Campbell expressed it so memorably, ‘One has only to know and trust and the ageless guardians will appear.’
Lest I seem complacent, all this needs to be set against a background of financial insecurity, some successes, some failures, betrayals, disappointments, doors slamming in one’s face … That also is part of the journey for each of us – how we deal with setbacks, pain and difficulty.
I have been re-reading Cicero on Old Age. At one point he says, ‘As I approach nearer to death I seem as it were to be coming to port at last after a long voyage.’ His words remind me of a painting by Margaret Neve, entitled Home-Coming. In the foreground are five robed figures, their backs to us, waiting. In the sky is an enormous full moon, its circle reflected on the surface of the sea, and in the centre of that circle of moonlight is a ship with many sails is approaching land, coming in to harbour. Is this Ulysses returning from his many voyages, or is it each of us returning home when our time comes?
Cicero followed no religion for he was a Stoic, but he seems aware of deeper possibilities beyond death when he writes,
The soul, in fact, is of heavenly origin, forced down from its home in the highest and, so to speak, buried in earth. I used to be told that Pythagoras and almost all natives of our old country, never doubted that we had souls drafted from the Universal Divine Intelligence. I used, besides, to have pointed out to me the discourse delivered by Socrates on the last day of his life, upon the immortality of the soul – Socrates who was pronounced by the oracle at Delphi to be the wisest of men. I need say no more!
For myself, however many more years I have to live on this earth, I have no fear of dying. How is this, you may ask? Many decades ago, in a dream, I was shown a boat that looked like a curled leaf. I was told that this was the vessel in which I had come to earth and that in it I would find a return ticket. I knew then that when the time comes I shall return to the place from whence I came. It was on telling this dream to Dr Elkisch that he declared, ‘Your analysis is now ended.’
Interestingly, some decades later, I experienced a variation of this dream. In it I was show oval-shaped boats, fragile as leaves, and I was invited to lie down in one. Then I was removed to a great distance and shown the whole earth, which appeared like a circle made of leaves – a complete mandala made up of the essence of all beings, inter-leaved and inter-woven. There was nothing solemn or portentous about the dream: everything in it appeared wholly natural and simple.
Joseph Campbell writes, ‘What is unknown is the fulfilment of your own unique life, the like of which has never existed on earth. And you are the only one to do it.’ Elsewhere he also writes, ‘Move, move, move into the Transcendent! Get rid of the life you have planned in order to have the life that is waiting to be yours.’
I am aware at this age of how far I have travelled; but I am also aware of journeys yet to go, for, as T.S. Eliot tells us in The Four Quartets, ‘ Old men should be explorers still.’
There is a series of paintings by an American artist, Thomas Cole, which depict the stages of life, from infancy to old age. In the first image an infant is seen in a small boat while at the helm stands a radiant angel who guides the vessel out of a dark cavern into a misty dawn light. In the next painting the infant has become a youth and the landscape opens up into a vast and exciting prospect. The youth now takes the helm while the spirit gestures farewell from the bank. In the third canvas, entitled Manhood, the boat is poised at the brink of a dangerous cataract. The helm is broken, the sky dark with menacing clouds, and the grown man now seems lost. Only in the upper corner of the painting can there be seen a faint light of hope where we can just make out the delicate shape of his angelic companion.
The final scene, Old Age, shows the stream of life reaching the ocean to which all life is tending. The now time-worn traveller recognises that his journey in life is ending and for the first time he sees the spirit who has accompanied him throughout, and the spirit is pointing ahead to a brilliant light.
In the Celtic tradition, as John O’Donohue reminds us in his book Eternal Echoes, there was a strong sense that each of us has an invisible companion who walks the road of life with us. The Christian tradition says that when we were sent here onto earth a guardian angel was chosen to accompany our every step, to watch over us and keep a circle of light around us lest any negativity damage us. Without our even knowing it our angel is always at work for us.
I learned this when I developed cancer of the thyroid some years ago. I was alone, my companion being in India at the time, and I was filled with fear. Then, one night I awoke with an interior voice saying ‘You are not alone. You have an angel working alongside you.’ And from that moment I ceased to have any fear.
Entering into meditation is like slipping into water and floating on our backs. Lying with the immensity of the sky above and the depth of the ocean beneath us, we float. We are at one with the sea and the sky, only a slight movement of the hands helping us to keep afloat, rather as, in meditation, we watch the breath coming in and going out.
And so now, as we each enter our meditation, let us allow ourselves to float in the Great Silence.