August 27, 2014

Dreams and Visions: Part II

As barnacles to pilings, we often grasp at our notions of things with a fear that letting go of them could only end in annihilation. What if the ideas we take as ultimate truths are flawed, or only partially true, or even altogether false? What if the anchor of security we seek from our beliefs is nothing  more than our own personal illusion?

Signs of Individuation (The Hummingbird and Other Themes)

If it should chance that an idea be wrongly ticketed, if a dream or a fancy is mistaken for reality, or if a memory is taken as a present fact - then there is aberration, and, if continued, insanity . . . Here is the root of our trouble; first of all, the mistaking of wrong knowledge for right knowledge, by regarding the non-eternal, impure, painful, and foreign constituents of body and mind as the Self, which in reality is eternal, pure, and happy."
- Ernest Wood

As barnacles to pilings, we often grasp at our notions of things with a fear that letting go of them could only end in annihilation. What if the ideas we take as ultimate truths are flawed, or only partially true, or even altogether false? What if the anchor of security we seek from our beliefs is nothing  more than our own personal illusion?

We hesitate to ask such questions.

Zen begins with letting go: giving up the attachments created and maintained by the mind. Rather than trying to control the mind, we work to free it from itself. This process of detaching mind from object is also the process of integrating ourselves, of realizing our true nature as human beings, a phenomena C. G. Jung terms individuation.

The key to understanding this, is that what we perceive naturally exists independently of any meaning, or interpretation that we might assign to the perception. The dreaming mind does not have an awareness of the waking mind, nor does the waking mind know the reality of the dreaming mind. Though it may retain some memories of a dream, the wakeful mind loses the immediacy, and hence the reality, of the dream.  If left to our own mental devices, we may assign the dream inappropriate values. When we begin to project an external-reality from an internal-experience, it helps us to remember that "dreams have only the pigmentation of fact." (Djuna Barnes, from Nightwood)
Latches of the psyche
Latches of the Psyche: We instinctively separate perception into imaginary, or dreaming states, and wakeful states. The effort of integrating these diametrically-opposed realms of mental-consciousness is, in essence, the effort of spiritual labor (blue curve). If we ignore one realm in favor of the other, the psyche experiences dis-ease (red curve) and we may have stress, depression, anger, fear, or even some form of psychosis. Our True Self, our Buddha Nature, knows of no such artificial distinctions and exists apart from this or any other model. The work of the Zen practitioner is to dwell in that place of uncertainty between the two realms, allowing for all possibilities of what is Real. As our Zen deepens, the distinctions between conscious and unconscious mental states diminishes until we eventually enter the void - a state of pure consciousness where mentally-created dualities of "thee and me," of subject and object, of archer and target, vanish. The process of accomplishing this is also referred to as "individuation".

From early childhood we separate, or Categorize, perceptions into two types: the "real" and the "imaginary" or "dreamlike." We perceive reality as belonging to those perceptions which are non-illusive; and we regard dreams as belonging to those perceptions which are illusory. The red, green, and blue lines of the graph refer to the three possible psychical latches: psychosis, stasis, and individuation. Since they are an integral part of the conscious and unconscious alike, and are unbridled by cognitive distinctions, they are depicted as mirror images of one another. In this model, the plane of the mirror is the central axis depicting pure consciousness.

Spiritual labor (our Zen regimen) is essentially the process of individuation, the integration and reconciliation of unconscious content (the blue line). During this process, wakeful states become more dreamlike and dreamlike states become more real. The more we assimilate, the closer we approach a unity of conscious and unconscious - known and unknown - until eventually we may be guided into the Void.

We experience psychosis (red) when we have trouble distinguishing the real from the imaginary. We may imagine dreams to be reality and reality to be dreams; for example, we may be inclined to project a vision onto an external subject. We may become convinced that a dream-image is someone visiting us from the "great beyond," remaining blind to the fact that the imagery is coming from within. This type of psychosis is more common than we like to admit. In varying degrees it is fostered and exploited by the many "new-age" and "alien invasion" cults and ideologies.

Between these two extremes is the unstable state referred to as "stasis" (the green line) in which there is a tendency to drift. If we apply a spiritual practice, such as Zen, the psyche moves toward individuation; but without this systematic control, it may drift toward psychosis.


Throughout history, images from the collective unconscious which arise in nocturnal visions or during meditation have occurred to all human beings regardless of their religious or ethnic backgrounds. These images, and the dramatic events surrounding them, follow universal mythic motifs. A typical "universal" mythic theme is easily identified in the following visionary encounters. This example will serve not only to illustrate mythic universality but will also provide a useful method for determining the significance of a visionary encounter. The first of these accounts was experienced by myself.

I was standing in the center of a large bright room. From an opening in the cathedral ceiling high above, a bright white light shone, illuminating the white walls with a numinous radiance. Just below the spire, a  small silvery-gray hummingbird was perched on a twig. It suddenly darted off and flew playfully through the room, coming to rest on my left shoulder. Gently but firmly, the hummingbird tugged at my left earlobe with its beak and made tiny sounds in my ear. After a few moments it rubbed its small body against the side of my neck affectionately. The whole vision was strangely erotic and lingered for well over a week.
 
When the details of this vision were recounted to a knowledgeable member of the sangha, another example was adduced:

A nurse in China had spent many years caring for her consumptive mother to whom she was completely devoted. Upon her mother's death, she took Buddhist holy orders and entered monastic life. Though she missed her mother intensely, eight years passed without her having a single dream about her. Particularly since so many other nuns and priests often dreamed about deceased loved ones, this omission began to depress her and she felt a deepening sense of guilt and remorse. On the ninth anniversary of her mother's death, she had a vision in which she entered a luxurious room and saw her mother gracefully reclining on a long chair. Her mother called to her and, as she knelt beside the chair, her mother cradled her head in her arms and whispered, "I will always be with you. I will be a little hummingbird perched on your left shoulder, whispering in your ear." When she emerged from the vision, the nurse was jubilant and her depression had completely vanished.

Now informed that this hummingbird theme could be more than mere personal experience, i.e., that it was another instance of 'universal myth', I began an investigation of the motif which yielded other examples of hummingbird encounters. For example, "Hummingbird on the Left" was the literal translation of the Aztecs' patron deity, Huitzilopitchli. According to their history, as the Aztec people first migrated South from northwest Mexico, their leader had a vision in which a hummingbird directed him not to cease migrating until he observed an eagle with a snake in its beak come to rest on a cactus. When this prophesied event did occur, he halted the journey and founded the city of Tenochtitlan, now called Mexico City.

I decided that the hummingbird, being such a herald of good fortune, would be a perfect logo for the Zen Buddhist Order of Hsu Yun (ZBOHY).

Other common subjects of visions include human forms such as the Wise Old Man who gives a needed solution or direction, and the erotic anima or animus who lures us to integrate our sexual opposites into a divine union. Various birds, animals, and sea creatures as well as plant forms such as trees, vines and roots are also common vision themes. Buildings, varying from dilapidated wrecks to marble palaces may house the dreamer or, if outdoors, meadows or forests may comprise the environment. Other common motifs include fire, visual displays of colors or of glaring white, numinous or imposing men or women,  repeating mosaic patterns, and powerful objects of transport, such as traing, horses and cars. Each person or object or setting carries with it a unique emotional-signature.

Artwork from diverse civilizations illustrate these vision-themes and demonstrate both their ubiquity and the powerful influence they wield over societies and religions. The snake is an example of one particularly prevalent theme. The pictures below illustrate, historically, the influence of the snake-motif in virtually all forms of human enterprise: worship, art, war, alchemy, and even commerce.

The chthonic triad as a three-headed snake. In this alchemical instruction for androgyny, one and three snakes represent the uniting of the One with the Three, or "Divine Union".
The snake is the fifth creature of the Chinese zodiac. Snakes were once commonly worshipped as gods in Chinese societies, especially along many of the great rivers.
Ancient Greek coins depicting the crucifixion and the serpent lifted up
Sketch of a numinous Agathodaimon serpent taken from an antique gem.
 
Cista and serpent, silver coin, Ephesus, 57 B.C.
The sacrifice of the snake deity, Sialesi (Eteonis), Boeotia. ~350 B.C.
Priapus with a snake, pointing to the "seat of consciousness" (the Svadhisthana Chakra)
 
The Serpent Mystery, Altar to the Lares, Pompeii
Marduk fighting Taimat - from an ancient assyrian cylinder seal

It is unfortunate that society focuses so little attention on spiritual growth. Religions are often as guilty of this neglect as are businesses, politicians, and the media. Each entity seeks to push the psyche toward intellectual and social schisms, toward the disparate goals of each respective agenda.

Spiritual growth requires that we first take control of our lives, for ourselves and by ourselves, abandoning old attachments to opinions and desires. Yet, this requirement is often ignored or even discouraged. Religious organizations, for fear of losing control of their congregations, often impose rigid rules and engender guilt and fear in those who disobey or disregard these rules. And businesses, for fear of losing market share, will spend millions hiring experts to cajole us into buying their goods and services. Again and again, we allow ourselves to be manipulated through the exploitation of fears and desires -- through the unquestioned desire "to belong," to be like everyone else, and to have what everyone else has. We mistake commonality for Unity and the joining of our egos to other egos for the melting of our ego into the One.

Our psyche is subject to many disturbances, but the most troublesome of these is the ever widening conflict between conscious and unconscious requirements.  Usually, we pay little or no attention to our inner life, and as a result of this neglect, we suffer depression, fear, and often constant anxiety. Then, weakened by our own spiritual neglect, we fall victim  to hucksters and false prophets, and squander our resources on drugs, clothes, doctors, lawyers, pets, cars, memberships, and whatever else we're told will fill the gap and alleviate our suffering.

Mired in desperation, we cannot see ourselves clearly; and so we give ourselves spurious identities and then attempt to make this identity genuine by decorating it with the symbols of power and prestige. To free ourselves from these foolish attachments we need courage and faith: the faith to enter the unknown -- to "let go the hundred foot pole" -- and to leap into what is seemingly absurd. We need to believe in qualities we cannot see or touch and to have faith in concepts that defy rational thought.

Our Buddhist Path is a good one, and if we follow it with conviction and love, it will deliver us to the sacred bliss of Unity, to that Cosmic source from which we were once differentiated. Achieving this state is the singular objective of spiritual work. Fortunately, it's joyful work, for journeying the Path to Freedom brings countless rewards along the way.

And since we regard with respect any and all things that help us with  our Zen practice, we give due attention to our dreams and visions.  Are we not, as Shakespeare said, "such stuff as dreams are made on?"

Articles by Chuan Zhi

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