The Party of Hungry Ghosts: What Reveals the Origins of Our Thirst So We Find the Water that Fulfills Us

The political situation we are in today reminds me of a frightening dream I had as a teenager. I was outside, at night, on a mist-filled city street and felt something calling to me. I didn’t know what it was, but I followed it anyway to an old storefront, the kind with a door set between two showcase windows, which were empty of everything but darkness. The door was partly open, so I stepped inside.

 

The dark and emptiness continued inside the front room. But the call grew stronger as I walked. I followed it to an even darker back room where I could feel but could not see. And the room was not empty. The call was ringing in my mind, emerging from one corner filled with what I thought were people standing eerily still. I approached one, then another, tentatively reaching out to identify them. They were not breathing, not alive. I started searching more frantically, to find the source, the being, the life that was calling out for me.

 

And then I felt it, there, before me. A powerful, child-sized mannequin with a voice. But it had no head.

 

Teenagers can easily feel a type of solipsism, a fear that they are alone, isolated, or afraid that what they feel, no one else feels. That they are, in a way, the only human, or only human like them. Their need calls out for them, but they fear no one will be there when they respond, so they don’t. Adults can, of course, feel something similar. It is too easy to lose touch with the rest of the world.

 

Zen teacher Katsuki Sekida, in his classic book Zen Training: Methods and Philosophy, said we suffer when we don’t understand the reflecting action of consciousness. Although the world is always whole, never divided, we don’t always experience it that way. We first sense the world, then have thoughts about or reflect on what we sense, then reflect on reflections.

 

This goes on moment after moment. We reflect on what has already gone and can mistake the reflection for the reality. Consequently, we are always rushing to catch up. The reflection can be powerful; but it is so much smaller than the total reality that gave birth to it.

 

Out of such thoughts self-consciousness is born. Self-consciousness can mean “aware of oneself” or distant from oneself and uneasy about it. We separate the object of awareness from the act of being-aware and create this distinct being, with specific characteristics and history who has thoughts. We fashion an ego and then try to pin it down, give it life, and maintain it, but we can’t. Because it’s an apparition. It’s more like a suit of clothes we put on than the body that wears them.

 

One of the key battles of human history is to feel the life of the world, the life that resides in all of us. To feel that the world is alive, not dead ⎼ not a machine, not just dead matter. So much of the world breathes and feels. We struggle as a species to even feel the reality of others and thus to come alive to the reality of ourselves….

 

*To read the whole article, please go to The Good Men Project.

 

The Well of Ancients: We Live in a Universe, Not A Room

Have images of someplace you have never been, or of a time or situation you have never lived, ever appeared in your mind masquerading as a memory?

 

Years ago, my parents lived in Atlantic City, New Jersey. One night we were driving on Atlantic Avenue, the main street of the city that runs parallel to and often just a block or so away from the ocean. It was raining and the yellow lights reflected off the wet street. The houses on a long section of the avenue are large, expensive dwellings, some old and going back to the 1930s or before. And suddenly I felt we were back in the 1930s during prohibition when some of the homes were owned by mobsters. The whole mood had changed into a feeling different from any other I have ever felt. This happened two or three times.

 

My great aunt Fanny, sister of my maternal grandmother, died when I was in my thirties. When I think of her apartment, I get something closer to a dream than a memory, and just pieces, not the whole. And those pieces are not from the second half of the twentieth century. They are from sometime earlier⎼ with dark hallways, a bedroom with a wall of ornate glass doors which she didn’t have, a window that looked out not onto modern streets but gray mists, people in dark clothes in a village of wood homes, in the “old country” of Eastern Europe from where my relatives emigrated.

 

And from where do our interests come? Why do some subjects, seemingly from before we were born, excite or shake us up, turn us off or get no response at all? I love the art of Japan, Tibet, Indigenous North America, Central Africa, Ancient Greece, and the Middle East, but other places less so or not at all.

 

Twenty years ago, I was on sabbatical from teaching, and my wife and I went to Greece. I taught philosophy to high school students and looked forward to visiting the birthplace of Western European philosophy.

 

We were on the island of Crete, not far from the city of Chania, driving through the mountains after visiting the ancient City of Aptera. The city had come to an end possibly in 1400 CE due to an earthquake. We stopped at the ruins of a Minoan palace, and Roman and Byzantine structures. My wife saw a herd of sheep grazing on the side of the road and asked me to stop. The sheep were not fenced in but moving freely about.

 

We stopped, got out of the car, and walked over to the sheep. I happened to look down, and there, partly exposed, were ancient bricks, Roman, maybe 2000 years old. An archaeological site was close by unearthing a Roman villa from that time, with sculptures, lintels and other artifacts just lying on the ground. We continued our walk and found ruins of a Roman cistern. Overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, we saw a German bunker from World War II, and later, an Ottoman fortress.

 

What is it like to live in a place where we literally step on thousands of years of human history? …

 

To read the whole article, please go to The Good Men Project.

 

**The photo is of what might be the oldest road in Europe, from Knossos, Crete.

Living with the Unknown in Ourselves

I was watching the Ken Burns documentary on Ernest Hemingway last night. In the second hour of the program, the narrator was describing the difficulties Hemingway had beginning his first novel, The Sun Also Rises. He had already published a critically acclaimed book of short stories, where each sentence was a work of art. Suddenly, he needed to shift to the length and breadth of detail a novel required. Hemingway told himself, write one true sentence. Then another and another. Which is what he did.

 

Hemingway was both a great artist surrounded by friends and family, as well as a solitary narcissist. There is both a loneliness and a luminosity to words. They can be used to mask as well as unmask, to torture or heal. We have to be totally alone in ourselves to write. Yet, words can fill us with a sense of connection and ecstasy. We might try to hold them to us as if they could warm our bodies with their heat. But when we do so, the words dissolve into air. It’s not the words themselves that warm us but the breath we give them as we speak and listen, and the paths to others they might reveal.

 

Two days ago, in the woods near the top of our hill, maybe 25 feet from a road, my wife and I came upon two circles in the earth. We had never seen these before. The bigger one was about 12 feet across, with a moss and stone foundation and one young oak tree growing inside it. Maybe it was once a silo. And the smaller circle, now a depression in the earth lined with rotted leaves and stones, was maybe once a well.

 

The more we looked, the more we found. There were stacks of old boards, maybe an old wall or roof. Further in the trees was a wood railing on an old porch attached to nothing and leading nowhere. It was like someone had built an entrance without knowing where it led. Even in a forest that we think we knew well, we were surprised. There were histories hidden here we had no knowledge of. What we didn’t know was way more prolific than what we did.

 

The night before we discovered the ruins, I had a dream. It started out understandably enough. I was outdoors at a party, a celebration, but no one was wearing a mask, not even me. I felt naked and more and more afraid. Everyone was acting as if there had never been or wasn’t now a pandemic raging in the land, or maybe they had somehow forgotten. Occasionally someone, usually a former student from when I taught secondary school, called out to me, inviting me to sit with them and talk. I waved and walked on, intent on getting out of there as quickly as I could. But I couldn’t. There were people everywhere.

 

Then everything changed. I was in a new dream, or the old one had transformed itself. I was watching a play, also outdoors. A young, attractive, strong looking woman came on stage. She looked Tibetan. The crowd heard her words, maybe the dream me also heard her. But me, the dreamer, did not. I heard no words, just saw her lips move.

 

Then she left the stage, to return wearing a huge mask….

 

To read the whole article, please go to The Good Men Project.

Improv Dreams: The Silence of Birds and Trucks

Last night I had an interesting dream. I can’t remember the exact setting, only that it was before the pandemic, or maybe timeless, because no one was wearing a mask. There was a stage outdoors. The color of the background was dark and orange-yellow, and there were several people present, most of them women and middle aged. I am a retired secondary school teacher, and some of the people were parents of former students of mine and neighbors. My Dad and, for a second, my Mom, were visiting me. They have both passed.

 

We (not including my parents) were doing an improvisational theatre exercise. People were standing around the stage area and would spontaneously walk across it and do and say something in response to a theme. For example, if the theme had been friendship, we might walk across the stage holding the hand of a missing friend or dance around with our arms outstretched. But the theme was never stated, although everyone seemed to know what it was. The same with the improvised responses⎼ they were heard and seen with the heart more than the ears or eyes.

 

I sometimes felt like I was the teacher or leader, sometimes a participant or a bystander. One of the subjects I used to teach was theatre. But in the dream, I never joined in, although I had that familiar feeling of wanting to do so but fearing to look foolish.

 

Was the dream proclaiming, “all the world is a stage”? Was it reminding me that when we don’t take action, we might regret it? Was the presence of my own parents, as well as the parents of former students, a message of how we’re parents to ourselves? Or was it saying that we create the sense of the stage we act upon? Or maybe it was something else?

 

Because of my direct focus in the dream on the image of myself, I lost sight of the fact that my mind was creating the whole scene, the people on stage as well as the audience and the stage itself. Every aspect of what I saw was me.

 

The next morning, early, I sat outside on a bench, intent on meditating for a short time. Immediately, everything went silent. It surprised me, totally.

 

Silence is not an absence of sound, just an absence of noise or consuming or unwanted chatter. But how full it is….

 

*To read the whole article, please go to The Good Men Project

What Do You Do When There’s a Bear in the House? – Getting the Grizzly of Ignorance and Malignancy Out the Door

Last night, in a dream, a black bear was somehow in our apartment. We were a bit freaked and didn’t know what to do. I had an idea of opening the sliding glass doors so he could get outside. Of course, we don’t live in an apartment and we don’t have any sliding glass doors⎼ but it’s a dream. After I snuck around the bear toward the doors, I realized our dog, about the size of a Lab, was asleep by the doorway and I feared waking him. I didn’t know what he would do. Then the bear noticed the dog and jumped up on top of the bookcase near me. By the way, we also don’t have a dog, although I have been wanting one.

 

Suddenly discovering we have a bear in our home would definitely constitute a dramatic change in our daily routine. But a black bear is one of the smaller, less aggressive bears. I always thought they were cute until I saw the mangled mess one of them made of our bird feeder. But let’s imagine it was a grizzly in our home, a truly dangerous creature. What then?

 

And we do have a dangerous creature in our homes now or are afraid of one. Or afraid of two. There is a meme going around that we are faced with two pandemics, COVID-19 and ignorance⎼ the virus and the ignorant, incompetent and malignant response to it by DT. Most people facing a bear in their dreams, or awake, would hopefully avoid panic and open that door, push the dog out of the way, and let the bear out. But right now, many of us are afraid and feel powerless and don’t know how to get the grizzly out the door. But maybe we can simultaneously take care of ourselves  as we take care of our world.

 

The Pastor Martin Niemoller wrote a prose-poem just after World War II about the Holocaust. Many of us know it. It was a confession of how German intellectuals and the Church stood by as one group after another was murdered by Nazis. “First, they came for the Communists, and I did not speak out because I was not a Communist… Then the trade unionists…then the socialists… then the Jews…Then they came for me.” The Nazis were the grizzly in the house of the Germans and instead of forcing the grizzly out, they invited it to stay. And millions were killed.

 

Today, DT is acting with almost as much evil as the Nazis, and the GOP is supporting what he does. But about 52% of us or more are quite aware of the malignant grizzly in our nation. Almost three years ago thousands, or hundreds of thousands spoke out when the GOP tried to end the ACA and destroy our health care system. We demonstrated in the streets and Congressional offices and called Congress. And we stopped that legislation. Of course, the pandemic greatly limits what political action we can take today to oppose him. But how many of us are calling Congress now?…

 

DT wants us to forget and feel powerless. We can’t give him what he wants. When we don’t act, we feel burdened by what we don’t do. When we act out of care and compassion, we feel strengthened. We protect not only ourselves but others. We push the grizzly of ignorance and malignancy out the door.

 

To read the whole post, go to The Good Men Project.

Lucid Dreaming and Breathing, to Reduce Pain and Clear the Mind

Last night around 3 am, I woke up due to pain in my upper chest. The pain was a weight pressing down on me. I didn’t know what was causing it, so there was also a little panic. I was sweating and my heart started beating faster. I thought about trying to just go back to sleep but realized the pain was too strong and my worry too present. I got out of bed, put on warmer clothing, grabbed a book, and went downstairs to sit in the recliner in the living room.

 

But I didn’t feel like turning on the light. I was too tired. So I just focused on breathing into my chest. I felt my body expand as I inhaled, and relax, settle down, as I exhaled. I focused on the sensations and let go of the thoughts.

 

And when I breathed in, the expansion of the chest decreased the pain. The pain was no longer one solid block. And I noticed it was not as continuous as I first thought it was; there were gaps. Sometimes, my hand would hurt instead. Or I could feel my back pressing comfortably against the chair, or my stomach expand and contract. My breathing got slower and calmer.

 

I went deeper into the pain and remembered similar ones from the past. I realized I could feel a restriction in my esophagus. It was not a heart attack causing the pain but probably acid reflux.

 

And then I fell asleep. But the sleep was unusual, and in spurts. I would wake up mentally, check in on myself, while my body was largely frozen and asleep. I couldn’t move my arms or legs. At first, I felt very vulnerable and scared, but then realized this inability to move was normal. Normal sleep is called paradoxical because you are unable to move your larger muscles, yet your mind, especially while dreaming, can be very active.

 

What was not normal was that I was mentally awake while being asleep. I could see one of our cats sleeping under the nightlight in front of me. Another one jumped off the couch and went to eat from his bowl. I could hear him but couldn’t move my head to see him. This state is called lucid dreaming. In some cultures and traditions, it is taught as part of meditation or healing. I entered this state rarely⎼ usually to change or escape from a dream I didn’t like. I decided I could wake up if I needed to do so.

 

And then I relaxed and fell asleep again, only to awaken a little later. And then I fell asleep for about three hours.

 

It might seem counter-intuitive to mentally go toward a pain instead of trying to immediately cut off all feeling. Certainly, pain can set the mind to screaming, so this is sometimes impossible to do. But to actually go toward the pain can signal to yourself you can relax, you can face the situation, and this can often decrease it and stop the mind from imagining threats that aren’t there.

 

Calming your mind can also allow you to feel and think clearly enough to gather the information the pain is sending you. You can then close your eyes and imagine taking a certain medication and discern if the feel of that pill would be helpful, or if drinking a certain tea or walking around or eating would increase or decrease it. Or whether you should call an ambulance or ask your partner or roommate to wake up and drive you to the emergency room. You could feel out different courses of action with more clarity.

 

However, the time to practice how to be calm in emergencies is now, when you are not experiencing one. Practicing closing your eyes partly or fully and taking 3 slower, deeper breaths when you notice you are angry or feel threatened is a good way to start. Or practicing mindfulness each day.

 

Of course, sometimes you immediately need that pill or ambulance. But how you respond to pain can either increase or decrease it. Simply allowing yourself to be aware and to be calm can not only reduce the pain, but clear the mind so you know better how to act.

 

This blog post was syndicated by the Good Men Project.

How Wide Can We Open the Door to the Mystery of Ourselves?

The More Troubling the Social-Political Environment, the More Important It Is to Understand Ourselves (and Get a Good Sleep).

 

Last night, I woke up in the middle of a dream. And almost immediately, the world of conscious reality reappeared with only a hint of the dream remaining. Only a hint that I had dreamed at all and that there were worlds aside from this conscious one. This fascinates me.

 

When I was teaching secondary school, discussing dreams, as well as learning more about their own psychology, fascinated most students. They wanted to understand from where or why these crazy images or stories showed up in their lives. Many people, as they age, lose this drive for self-understanding or it is socialized out of them.

 

But regarding sleep ⎼ teens get too little of it and tend to push the limits or even rebel against it. Each night we go to sleep ⎼ or should go to sleep. This is the rhythm of life. We sleep and wake. We forget our dreams in the daytime and lose or reshape the daytime world in our dreams. We might have no awareness that we dream at all or resist the very idea. Yet, we do dream. It is a necessity. Exactly what dreams do is not known. But when we don’t dream or don’t get enough sleep, we pay an enormous price.

 

Scientists say when we dream, we show rapid eye movements (REM) under our closed eyelids, as if we were watching a scene played out before us. But the rest of our body remains mostly immobile. Our brains are active; the large muscles of our bodies inactive (REM atonia). This is called paradoxical sleep.

 

According to Mathew Walker, in his book Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Dreams and Sleep, during dream sleep our brain is free from noradrenaline, which produces anxiety. At the same time, emotional and memory-related areas of the brain are activated. This means that, in dreams other than nightmares, we can experience emotional content without all the stress. We can process emotional experiences more openly and heal.

 

Walker discusses the negative health consequences of the consistent loss of even one or two hours of sleep including accelerated heart rate and blood pressure, an overstimulation of the threat response system, weight gain, and an increased risk of dementia…

 

To read the whole post, go to The Good Men Project.

Studying The Dreaming Mind At Home Or In The Classroom: Mindfulness And Dreams

Dreams have fascinated, confused, scared and inspired people probably ever since there were people on this earth. How can we not wonder about the often bizarre images and stories that fill our nights and sometimes wander into our days? The Epic of Gilgamesh, the tales of the Mesopotamian hero-king and possibly one of the first stories ever written, cites dream narratives. The Greeks had dream temples to help cure people of their ills. The German chemist, Friedrich Kekule claimed his discovery of the molecular structure of benzene came to him in a dream. Artists and scientists throughout history have spoken of the role of dreams in their work. The famed psychologist and theorist, Carl Jung, amongst many others, have explored and written about the role dreaming plays in the psyche.

 

When I was teaching, I noticed my students shared this fascination. Every time the subject of dreaming came up in a class, students became excited and engaged. Many students expressed their wonder about the cause or source of their dream images. Dreams can wake us up to realize there is more to reality, more to our own minds than we thought. Or as Hamlet put it: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

 

We dream every night, even if we’re unaware of it. Although neuroscientists still haven’t come to understand the full role of dreaming in human consciousness, many speak of the role it might play in integrating material from our lives and forming coherent memories. For example, how often have you gone to sleep with a question and woken up with an answer, or at least a clearer understanding of the question? We might think of dreaming as a phenomenon distinct and separate from other aspects of mind, but it is one part of the process we use to think about our lives and construct a viewpoint of the world.

 

In some of my high school psychology classes we left time to share dreams. I encourage other teachers to do the same—if students are interested. Or if you’re not a teacher, to do this with interested friends, or maybe parents when children wonder about a dream. Teachers should only do it if they take time to study methods of group dream work as well as study their own dreams. I don’t ask students to do what I won’t do.

 

For the last few days, instead of my dreams disappearing as soon as I woke up, like they usually do, some stayed with me. One question is why that is. Another is what the dreams are saying, if anything.

 

In one recent dream, I was standing by a bridge I drove over to get to the school where I used to teach and noticed a break in the metal under-structure. The exact problem changed as I explained it to people in the dream. The season changed too, as did the location of the bridge. In some renditions of the dream bridge, it was located in Queens, NYC, where I grew up. In that image, it was winter and there was snow on the ground. In others, it was in Ithaca, where I now live, and the season was a cool late summer.

 

As I tried to tell the dream people about the break in the bridge, there was a definite awareness in my mind of how others might take what I said. It was a little bit of lucid dreaming, or of conscious awareness while dreaming, and the present and past could change in one stroke.

 

In another dream, my wife and I moved our possessions into an apartment rented in some city that was new to us. When I went out to complete errands, I couldn’t get back to the apartment. I worried about my wife. Worried about what would happen to what I had left behind. And there were other dreams like this one. In one, I was back in college, trying to get to a morning class, but no matter what I did, I couldn’t get to the class. Things kept getting in the way.

 

So, what in my life is getting in my way? What new activity do I want to start that I can’t manage to do? And what is the bridge to doing it—and what is the possible “break” (or “brake”) in the bridge to my future?

 

Dreams can mean so many different things. One approach I like is to think of them as stories built from residues of my day floating in my unconscious, as partly completed expressions of who I was in a particular moment, a partly realized idea, or partly recognized emotion. And I carry them in my mind and body until somehow, in the dreaming world or in waking life, I recognize or complete them.

 

So, to complete the idea or emotion, I try to let them speak through me and listen openly, without reacting judgmentally. They might complete themselves when openly witnessed and then no longer demand I rent then mind space. When I hide them away, the energy of hiding animates them. The energy of the suppressed joins with the energy of suppressing and thus lives in me in a distorted way. But when I step back as an audience and let them act on the stage of my mind, I know what’s there. I listen for and learn from myself. Instead of living the act of suppressing, I live the energy of open listening.

 

When you have trouble understanding what’s true, or can’t solve a problem, or can’t understand someone’s motivation—step back, take a walk in the woods, meditate— or dream on it. When you first get up in the morning and your mind hasn’t filled with thoughts of all you have to do for the day, this is the time to create a theatre of mind, or a listening space for dreams or the unconscious to speak to the daytime mind. This is the space for what was unheard in ourselves to be heard and embraced, and let go.

 

You could write down whatever you remember of a dream. Even if you remember very little at first, the act of honoring by recording might allow more to be remembered. And after you write something down, look at the words from different angles, or as puns. What you mindfully listen to, you hear. What you hide away continues on as a mystery you never solve.

 

Although sometimes a dream has a message, other times the purpose of dreams is simply to be dreamed and experienced. And most dreams are not to be taken literally. As Carl Jung and others have pointed out, dreams speak in their own language, a language more symbolic than literal. And like other symbols, there is more than one way to understand their meaning.

 

All humans dream. Every time you do it, just like every time you open your eyes and breathe, you share an experience with countless others. You share an experience humans have had for thousands of years. The bridge you cross over, as well as your destination, is this very moment, both uniquely your own and shared with billions of others. Being aware of your dreams can help you be mindfully aware in your waking life (and when mindful in your waking life, it can help you be aware in your dreaming). It can wake you up to your shared humanity, if you’d let it.

 

 

** If you’re a teacher and want to discuss dreams with students, I suggest you first establish an agreed upon process. One book to help think about a process is Jeremy Taylor’s Dream Work: Techniques for Discovering the Creative Powers in Dreams. However, Taylor’s techniques need to be adapted to the classroom. I would not share more than one or two dreams a day. I wouldn’t ask even for whole dreams. The purpose of dream discussion in a class is, of course, more modest than in a dream group led by a professional. It is to help students learn from peers about dreaming and to be better able to hear what their own mind and body is telling them. Maybe they might also learn more about the power of metaphor.

 

Students should agree to confidentiality and not sharing the dreamer’s identity out of class. Talk with students about not interrupting the person who is sharing. Only the dreamer can know what a dream means, so take the shared dream as one’s own. Instead of students interpreting each other’s dreams, ask them to notice their own responses, feelings and thoughts. They can say, after hearing another dreamer speak, ”I felt this when you said that.” Adopt an attitude of curiosity toward the dream. In dreams when you’re pursued and run away, the pursuer grows in size. When you turn toward the pursuer and study him or her, she gets smaller in size.

 

**Another resource is an insightful, recently published blog by Elaine Mansfield called “9 Ways to Unpack a Powerful Dream.”

 

***And remember to vote this Tuesday, 11/7. In New York, I urge you to vote against the Constitutional Convention, and vote everywhere for local candidates who will protect the environment, health care, public education, voting rights, etc. and oppose Mr. T. Exercise what power you have or you, we might lose it.

 

****The photo is from a bridge near the village where I lived in Sierra Leone. It had to be reconstructed every year and crossed over a river with crocodiles in it.