LIVING BY DREAM was published in the inaugural issue of Dark Matter: Women Witnessing, edited and published by Lise Weil. http://www.darkmatterwomenwitnessing.com
Dark Matter publishes writing and visual art created in response to an age of massive species loss and ecological disaster. It is a home for dreams, visions, and communications with the nonhuman world…especially those with messages for how we might begin to heal our broken relationship to the earth.
A Map to the Next World
In the last days of the fourth world I wished to make a map for
those who would climb through the hole in the sky.
My only tools were the desires of humans as they emerged
from the killing fields, from the bedrooms and the kitchens.
For the soul is a wanderer with many hands and feet.
The map must be of sand and can’t be read by ordinary light. It
must carry fire to the next tribal town, for renewal of spirit.
In the legend are instructions on the language of the land, how it
was we forgot to acknowledge the gift, as if we were not in it or of it.
Take note of the proliferation of supermarkets and malls, the
altars of money. They best describe the detour from grace.
Keep track of the errors of our forgetfulness; the fog steals our
children while we sleep.
Flowers of rage spring up in the depression. Monsters are born
there of nuclear anger.
Trees of ashes wave good-bye to good-bye and the map appears to
We no longer know the names of the birds here, how to speak to
them by their personal names.
Once we knew everything in this lush promise.
What I am telling you is real and is printed in a warning on the
Our forgetfulness stalks us, walks the earth behind us,
leaving a trail of paper diapers, needles, and wasted blood.
An imperfect map will have to do, little one.
The place of entry is the sea of your mother’s blood, your father’s
small death as he longs to know himself in another.
There is no exit.
The map can be interpreted through the wall of the intestine—a
spiral on the road of knowledge.
You will travel through the membrane of death, smell cooking
from the encampment where our relatives make a feast of fresh
deer meat and corn soup, in the Milky Way.
They have never left us; we abandoned them for science.
And when you take your next breath as we enter the fifth world
there will be no X, no guidebook with words you can carry.
You will have to navigate by your mother’s voice, renew the song
she is singing.
Fresh courage glimmers from planets.
And lights the map printed with the blood of history, a map you
will have to know by your intention, by the language of suns.
When you emerge note the tracks of the monster slayers where they
entered the cities of artificial light and killed what was killing us.
You will see red cliffs. They are the heart, contain the ladder.
A white deer will greet you when the last human climbs from the destruction.
Remember the hole of shame marking the act of abandoning our
We were never perfect.
Yet, the journey we make together is perfect on this earth who was
once a star and made the same mistakes as humans.
We might make them again, she said.
Crucial to finding the way is this: there is no beginning or end.
You must make your own map.
People lived according to the dream spirits in the old, old times. Then the Church, the State, and later Science taught the people to distrust and disregard them. Attending the dreams in the old, old ways was prohibited and the priests and secular rulers persecuted dreamers. Learning to live by dream again restores the ways that honor the spirits and realigns human activity within a web of relationships.
The sacred ritual of the Eleusinian Mysteries was practiced in Greece for 1500 years until 396 CE, when the Christian/Roman empire suppressed them. (See Birth and Rebirth in the Eleusinian Mysteries on my website The Mysteries were extensive ritual and narrative events that were prepared for rigorously in March of one year, and then enacted eighteen months later in September. During the Mysteries, as many as 1500 people at a time walked the nineteen miles from Athens to Eleusis, engaging in complex activities on the way. Much of what we associate with rites of transformation was practiced here: purification, fasting, dietary restraint, rites of endurance, meditation, theater, sport competitions, and visioning. Women and men, citizens, slaves and foreigners were all able to participate if they prepared for and committed themselves to the beautiful extremity of the event.
My consciousness was reawakened to the old ways of dreaming through the means of a play I was writing that drew increasingly on the spiritual context and intent of the Mysteries. As has happened to me many times, the writing of the play revealed the nature of dreams far beyond what I had understood until then. I don’t remember why I started studying the Mysteries, only that they pulled me down into the sacred underworld as they were meant to do. I was immediately ‘entranced’ when I learned that the underworld had been a destination in the Mysteries, a place of wisdom and transformation. (Pluto, the Roman name for the equivalent god, Hades, means ‘treasure.’) Christianity, to gain hegemony, had demonized the ritual event, declaring Hades to be hell, Dionysus/Pan to be Satan. A ritual required by the ancient world on behalf of soul-making was forbidden. Soul, as the ancients would have warned us, began to disappear and was increasingly replaced by secular materialism.
In the late 70s, I was working with an improvisational theater group. Our work led to the development of different characters who became important to me and to the actors. Unexpectedly, the characters began to create relationships among themselves in my imagination, and the play Dreams Against the State was born. Each of the contemporary characters was based on a figure from the Mysteries and, in the first draft of the play, there were entre-acts in which the Gods – Demeter, Hecate, Persephone, Hades, Hermes – appeared. Later, their roles were incorporated into the characters so that the audience could see that we can each live the intensity and passion of divine energies if we allow ourselves our real lives.
In the play, the contemporary characters were drawn together ‘underground’ through the power of dreaming at a time when dreaming was illegal. The dangerous upper world was inhabited by police and other forces of conformity and repression who sought to stifle all vital and individual life energies. When one of the dreamers was captured and incarcerated, the dreamers had to develop the ritual means to retrieve her and restore her body and soul.
Theater director Steven Kent and I re-enacted the Mysteries in 1980 (and twice again in the 90s) for the first time since 396 CE. We began the long ritual at the Cave of Dicte where Zeus had been born on the isle of Knossos. As we descended the narrow spiral of stone stairs, each myste carrying a lit taper to illuminate the way down into the dark, I knew that we had found the entrance into the ancient way of the dream. We were stepping into another world, not only the underworld from which we would emerge ritually, but into the old, old world whose ways would continue to guide and sustain us from that time forward. Rising quietly in the morning, telling dreams before speaking and before breakfast, and using the dreams to enhance and understand our experiences was our way then of beginning to live according to our dreams.
More than forty years later, the necessity is even greater to live the dream, to live by dreams and the values they teach when the dreaming community is aligned with spirit. The centuries since the Mysteries have ricocheted between a search for spiritual consciousness and increasing cruelty. An age of unprecedented brutality is upon us as on-going violence is directed against humans, animals, the earth and the spiritual life. One can argue the many reasons for the agony of these times, but the phenomena of urbanization, militarism, media saturation and control, and the forces of economic, political and social domination have left few, if any, safe havens for any beings. Perhaps there have been people who have suffered some of our ills before, but never has such pain, suffering and dispassionate cruelty been the fate of so many, if not most of the world. If the imperium of technology and power has its way, everything may die.
But as we grieve this time on earth, we also see that there is a parallel return of vision, dream and spiritual presence, which, if attended, may save us. This vision, these visions, are the reasons we gather together to see how we can sustain the future.
At the time when the Eleusinian Mysteries flourished, Greek citizens, then others, were enjoined to participate once in a lifetime in order to gain a soul in this life and the next. It may be that we are being similarly enjoined to gain a soul by listening deeply to our dreams and living according to their sometimes very demanding wisdom. Since the advent of psychology, dream analysis has been a familiar process designed to help people improve or heal their lives. Living by dream on behalf of community and the future is quite different. It is not important to tell our dreams or to understand them unless we are willing to live accordingly. Dreams received in this way, fully respected and honored, can teach us how to live. To live by dream is to change one’s life and mind entirely.
In the old days, dreams came to an individual on behalf of the community. Such dreams have the potential to reveal and drive the essential shifts of consciousness and behavior that can save the earth. To invite such dreams again, to open ourselves to the dream spirits, to accept the dreams as wisdom-givers, to gather in community to ponder their instructions and to live accordingly, are ways to live on behalf of the future.
Not every dream is of portent for the future. Not every dream contains ethical instruction or direction for the community. Dreamers may be involved in nightly narratives, but only some are essential guides. Over time, often with a teacher, elder or companion, or in dream circles, we learn to distinguish them. Sometimes it takes several dreams over time to reveal where we are being led. I will consider several dreams together, as they constitute a field of consciousness that has guided me, with increasing intensity, over the years. Contemplating the dreams, sometimes for years, I have also chosen at times to offer them to others so that we might be guided as a community to incorporate the wisdom being transmitted. Because we are not grounded in a dreaming culture, not everyone who hears such dreams can take them to heart. But increasingly, as we consider the state of the world, as we grieve together and dream together, we are awakened to ways of supporting each other and the possibility of change.
When these dreams came to me, I recognized them as significant, even urgent, and offer them to you to contemplate in that spirit.
Spain. Around the time of World War II, of Franco and Hitler. A film is being made. The first scene is of a young woman too poor to become a great dancer, though she is gifted. The second scene is of a street festival becoming a riot. A man pulls down his pants so a demented king can anoint his penis with firewater. Joy turns into debauchery. The third scene is a group of men who will kill anyone. We look for a place to hide from the coming blood bath. Scene four shows a parade of polished sedans. The wealthy class, young men and women in formal dress, are aloof to the dangers around them.
At the end, Brown Shirts are marching down the street, filling the roadway, ten abreast. I climb a steep wide flight of stairs, as steep and broad and narrow as the stairs to the top of the Mexican pyramids, but these are European stairs. There is nothing at the top. No structure. From above, I see the Brown Shirts approaching. There are not that many yet. They are not the majority yet, but they are very dangerous. One scene leads to another of increasing dehumanization, soullessness and violence.
We must leave Europe today. If we stay longer, it will be too late. We have twenty-four hours to leave Europe.
In 2001, I brought this dream to Daré, (Council) the community healing event that has been meeting at my house for fifteen years. The last lines translated quickly into urgent instructions: Twenty-four hours to leave European mind.
Over the last years, EuroAmerican mind and Western civilization have come under great scrutiny from non-Western people and developing nations. European mind is associated with the hegemony of the Church, the military, science and materialism that set out to conquer the peoples of the Northern and Southern Hemispheres in 1492. In that year of the Inquisition, Jews and Moors were expelled from Spain. This same mind prohibited dreaming, the inner life and earth-centered, spiritually-aligned, indigenous wisdom traditions wherever they were encountered. That legacy of persecution exists to this day across the globe.
As I am well acquainted with World War II, I didn’t think the dream was giving me a history lesson. It was asking me to see where I was carrying the destructive qualities of Western mind without realizing it. I was being asked to consider where I and my peers are unconsciously aligning with power and riot. I was being asked to scrutinize my life so that I do not inadvertently invite fascistic thinking into the world. The dream was asking me to scrutinize my soul.
The stairs in the dream resemble the pyramids of pre-Columbian peoples. They link the Holocaust implied by the presence of the Brown Shirts with the holocaust against the Native people in North and South America which began in 1492. The dream invokes the global European occupation: a history of violence, brutality, burning, slavery and torture, land and resource appropriation, exploitation, pollution and all the possible ills of war and conquest. The dream awakens me to the urgency of changing my/our minds.
In the dream, the Brown Shirts, Nazi Germany’s Storm troopers, the SA, are returning. Observing from the sacrificial altar at the top of the stairs, I see the return of such violence as led to World War II and the Holocaust. I see what led to the Inquisition and the Conquest of this country. I have twenty-four hours to end my identification with the values, all the values, that led to those times and which are threatening to reassert themselves.
When I had breast cancer in 1977, I knew I had to change my life in order to be healthy, and I did. I moved out of the suburbs to a very simple house at the end of a dirt road. I gave up community college teaching and taught writing at home. I tattooed my chest instead of having reconstruction. I began speaking and writing about cancer as silence, as a particular affliction of women, as a metaphor for our political lives, and a consequence of our increasingly violent relationship to the environment. Having created the Writing Program at the Woman’s Building and the Feminist Studio Workshop, I was very sensitive to the fact that our EuroAmerican culture treats women and the earth in similarly brutal ways. I lived as closely as I could to the values I held dear, trying not to compromise on anything that was important. And as the title of one of my books suggests, I practiced Writing For Your Life.
While cure is instant, healing is ongoing, a practice. In 1986, nine years after I had breast cancer, I developed a program called Personal Disarmament, which calls us all to self- scrutiny. Participants were asked to examine their own inner governments. Are we living under the dictates of an inner general? An inner war machine? Are we armed? Are we developing the equivalent of chemical, biological or nuclear weapons? Did we stockpile weapons? Do we have armies? Will we agree to no first strike? Will we disarm?
Writing the scenario of our inner governments was like writing and living in a dream. I was shocked to discover that my inner government was a theocracy that denied full citizenship to its creative members, confining them on reservations. I had thought I was a free spirit. I discovered I was not. I discovered I ruled by force. I set myself the task of changing again.
Years later in 2001, the dream of the Brown Shirts emphasized an inner system of repression and also dramatized the global danger to all life. The dream’s critique of how we live went far beyond the personal or psychological. The earth, its peoples, the natural world, all are endangered.
First I had had to learn what is making me and others so ill. Then I had had to learn what is destroying our communities. Now I had to learn what is killing the earth. Stepping out of European mind became the focus of my intellectual, ethical and spiritual work.
Again in 2006, I dreamt the Nazis were coming. I could easily interpret these as precognitive dreams warning me/us about the developing fascism in the U.S. and globally. We can, foolishly, use such dreams to confirm our fantasies that we are innocent and the others are the enemy. But I prefer to understand them also as a reflection on our lives and our history and so as instruction, as an increasingly urgent call to awareness and living in different ways, both for myself and the community.
In 2007, another dream:
There is an occupation in the works. It isn’t clear in the dream whether it is a foreign army or a home army. This seems not to matter, for the army is dangerous in ways I once associated with the Nazis, but which are now rampant across the world. This is happening here and we are in danger. We are trying to pack the car that is in the room of the apartment where we are living. The room is dark and the images are vague. There are children in the car, lying down in the rear behind the back seat and we are packing food, clothes, supplies for the dogs, between the children. I have no sense of the personalities of the children or the people in the car, only the fear that we will not get out in time, that we will not find the route to avoid the soldiers or police, that they will recognize us as among those to be arrested or killed, that we will not be able to cross the border or find a place to hide.
This dream came just after I led a Circle, The Council of Possibilities, in Oakland, CA. A conversation about water boarding was occurring in the public sector. Michael Mukasey, who supported enhanced interrogation techniques on al-Qaeda suspects, had been approved by the Judiciary Committee to be U.S. Attorney General. Accordingly, protesters had been demonstrating water boarding in the streets in Washington, DC. It was clear that Cheney and Bush approved and ordered torture; Rumsfeld had just been indicted in France for torture, as Kissinger had been earlier for his role in fomenting the brutal golpe against the democratically elected government in Chile, in 1973. Neither can now travel abroad for fear of being arrested. Extreme unwelcome changes challenging all our democratic values were taking place in the United States.
The dream made it clear that we had to give up innocence. We are all endangered. Fascism is here and we are its vehicles and its victims. There is no place to hide.
These dreams indicate momentous changes in our culture and society and in the world. They call us to action.
In 2009, I had another dream, set in Europe and in America. It challenges the belief that some can be safe while others are endangered because the rich or powerful can successfully negotiate with evil to protect only themselves and their loved ones. The dream starkly emphasizes the need to leave the European mind that creates privilege:
This is another time. Central Europe. Early twentieth century. A candelabra appears like a heraldic symbol on a shield in the sky. A miracle. Words in red are inscribed beneath the shield. 100 days.
She, the old woman, or my mother, warns us: There are smugglers outside. We go back into the European manor house. Our rooms are above the wide staircase that, as in the first dream, resembles the stairs of an Aztec pyramid.
Watching through the window, we see a group of men dressed in black taking things from the house at the corner. They will be here soon. I ask my mother to find something to give them. Silver, not her best but antique, good enough, is stored in an anteroom. We find a solid candelabra. It has not been polished in a long time, but is a fine silver piece that turns dark green- blue, like brass or metal that has aged. I know that she must give away something valuable. I know she wants to hold on to everything. I am trying to protect her and I am also hoarding her valuables, so she will have them, so she will have something for the next time, as if she could bribe them and remain safe.
I wait for the doorbell but the smugglers jimmy open the door and come up the large staircase into the house. Trying to find out who these smugglers are, I speak to them about the Mob in Brooklyn and the possibility of buying ”protection.” Even so, I understand that there is no guaranteed exchange and they will be back for more.
Through the window I see an old woman running. They have taken her things too, but things don’t matter to her. She yells to me that she left her doors unlocked. Nothing matters, as they won’t ever find her real house. She is running very fast, especially for an old woman, and I follow her, barely keeping up. We run through the entire country. A single red dirt road turns here and then there. We are no longer in Europe. We are in two time zones simultaneously—contemporary New Mexico and New Mexico before the Conquest. We enter a labyrinth of clay tunnels and stairs that lead down into a vast cave house, with a clay floor. The dwelling is essentially a workshop. A kiln occupies one area. She works in clay and silver. While there is no evidence of her work, this is the place where she works, where she is entirely happy, where the smugglers will not come, where her life is. Where I will stay.
When I awakened, I thought first of the number 100 in lights. I had recently read that several Native American tribes believe it is necessary to repeat an activity for a hundred days to make it a habit, in order to integrate it into one’s consciousness. I was being instructed that I had to do what was necessary so that the old, European mind would give way and the new way of thinking would become habit. It was clear to me that I/we must give up valuing things and possessions, the antiques and valuables we are clutching. The two candelabras indicate the difference between a sacred sign and a battered object that had value once. The 100 days of creating consciousness are heralded and the dangers of hoarding are revealed.
The teachings were clear: The old (European) world is a dangerous place. Making payments is a way of staying connected to the system. We must come to a new world. As with the Mysteries, it is necessary to go underground and return to the earthen ways.
Dreams are not linear events and do not yield to the kind of analysis associated with European mind. Rather, dreams often present a field of relationships in which images and events resonate with each other. Sometimes our lives are like dreams. The silver piece offered to the smugglers to protect my mother is a flattened version of the brass elephant that is by the door to the patio in my house in non-dream life. The elephant was a gift from Lisa Rafel, who came to Daré at a critical time and by her singing into the body of a woman who was ill, initiated our particular form of healing. Lisa’s gift of the elephant and her gift of healing is flattened in the territory where European mind dominates. In the dream, the silver candelabra has great value to those who adhere to European mind. In life, the brass elephant represents the sacred.
In 1998, I went to Zimbabwe with my then husband Michael Ortiz Hill, who introduced me to a Shona medicine man, Mandaza Kandemwa, a nganga. As I had become a healer, it was very gratifying to recognize that we worked in similar ways, though we languaged our work differently. Mandaza would say, “The spirits are heavy upon me” and I would say, “Illness is a path,” but we would mean very similar things. Within a short time, I was working with his community and patients as he worked with the people we brought from North America. By unspoken agreement, we initiated each other, exchanging our own teachings, ceremonies and ritual. From the beginning of our friendship, we entered into dream work together, each of us knowing from our own experience and teaching that attending the dreams is an essential form. These profound experiences altered me deeply and I was able, upon my return, to further teach and train others in healing ways.
Meeting Mandaza and his community, participating in his Daré, watching how he worked as an indigenous healer in an urban setting, revealed to me the depth and value of native healing ways. I began to ponder how equivalent healing communities might develop in the United States. In 1999, I was called to sit in Council with Mandaza’s community and also to sit in Council with elephants. I did not know what this could possibly mean, but several of us including Mandaza went to a wild animal preserve in Chobe, Botswana. There on the last day in the Park, I met and entered into a relationship with an Elephant in the wild whom we now call the Elephant Ambassador. I write about my history of becoming a healer, about my meeting Mandaza, and this remarkable exchange with the Ambassador in Entering the Ghost River: Meditations on the Theory and Practice of Healing.
Healing from EuroAmerican mind means stepping out of hierarchy into relationship. Elephants have complex and developed social systems extending from their young calves back to their elders and ancestors, and from which we have much to learn. Indigenous people know this about the animals. They have great respect for other beings and live in a harmonic web of relationships and alliance.
Meeting an Ambassador from another species brought the understanding that the animals and the beings of the natural world are equal partners on the planet. (See The Language of Relationship on this blog). They are our peers, and the old, old ways teach us how to live in right relationship with them. I have met the Elephant Ambassador in the wild four times over twelve years. I have also met in dreams other elephants that I know in waking life. One we call:
Spirit Sister. In the first dream, she comes in from the forest and we nuzzle each other. In the second, she is living in the house as kin.
I believe she came in my dreams so that I would remember these truths about the nature of reality that are at the lived core of the old, old ways.
After the meeting in Council with Mandaza’s community and with the Elephant Ambassador, I introduced Daré to my community. Fifteen years later, that Council-based, spirit-led, dream-focused community healing circle continues. By 2001, I began to understand something of what might shift if we changed our relationship with animals and the natural world. By 2004, the Lakota wisdom mitakye oyasin, all my relations, became central to Daré.
There are many indigenous traditions that speak of the Fifth World or the Next World, a real place that we can access only if we leave our dangerous Fourth World ways behind. Joy Harjo references this world in her poem, A Map to the Next World, above. The next or Fifth World is ruled, as is this universe, by its own cosmic laws. To be able to live in this world, one’s entire nature and being have to be resonant with these intrinsic ways. This cannot be negotiated; one is aligned or one is not. In this instance, ethics, values and actions are as absolute as are the laws of physics. The values of interconnection and deep respect for the beings of the natural world and the spirits are fundamental.
To live in the Fifth World we must strip ourselves of our Fourth World qualities and become other beings. This activity is as rigorous as the imagined journey through a black hole into another universe. To enter the Fifth World means we change our ways entirely.
People often speak of dreams or other ways of knowing as being given to us. What we mean by this is that the understanding is not a creation of our minds, but comes from beyond us. Sometimes such gifts come in a single unit, like a dream or a story. Sometimes they come over time. As a teacher and healer, I have over time received or been given directions for transforming our lives that I call the Nineteen Ways to the Fifth World. These are a distillation of the paths we are called to take so that we can live in ways that serve the future.
It could well take a lifetime to understand and incorporate and truly inhabit any one of the Nineteen Ways. We don’t have lifetimes. I began to explore and teach them to myself and to others. The Nineteen Ways create a field. It is the field that creates the world. (See 19 Ways of the 5th World on this blog)
After receiving the Nineteen Ways, I had a dream that changed my life again.
I have won a contest that I have not entered. I have won it three times. The award is a trip to New York for a year, where I will be educated and trained. After the year, I will be an indigenous woman.
I understood this dream as a mandate. I am to apply myself to becoming an indigenous woman. I am taken back to my origins to begin again on a different trajectory. I must discover how an indigenous woman would think and act in these times. I have taken on these instructions far beyond 100 days. I have entered into a different way of living. Before I speak, before I act, in the face of any important decision, I ask myself: How would a wise indigenous elder, free of the great damage of the on-going Conquest, act? I model my life accordingly. Over time, I see my mind changing and my ways of living, as well. Living as an indigenous elder calls one to put the community and the earth before oneself. It means one is loyal to and committed to the future. It means we respond out of relationship, not out of self-interest. It means alliance, not competition. Harmony not conflict. It means we know the earth and all her creatures are alive. This has come to me from the dreams.
Let us return to the initial premise. In the old, old days, and now, once more, the dreams come on behalf of the community and these times. They are presenting us with the dilemmas we are facing and will face in the future and they are teaching us, as they once did, how to live. These dreams, then, are available to guide any one or all of us.
It is possible that the world can heal. Dreams are showing us the ways.