There is a world behind this world. The old cultures used to be in constant conversation with it through the sacred practices of storytelling, dreaming, ceremony, and song. They invited the Otherworld to visit them, to transmit its wisdom to them, so that they might be guided by ancient momentum. But as we succumbed to the spell of rationalism, the living bridge between worlds fell into disrepair. As fewer made the journey…we forgot how to find the Otherworld…Though we often think of materialism as the drive to consume, purchase, and accumulate stuff, these are really just the symptoms of an underpinning rationalist belief that nothing exists beyond the physical world.
From “Belonging: Remembering Ourselves Home” by Toko-pa Turner
Since I was a really little girl, I’ve had powerful dreams that helped me understand myself and the world around me. Like many folks, I didn’t grow up in a family that held dreaming as an important skill, yet I knew that my dreams were giving me vital information. I paid attention to them in my waking hours and endeavoured to decode their meaning. Many dreams containing similar symbolism reoccurred throughout my childhood. Some, like nightmares, came back with dismaying stagnancy; I could do nothing to change the outcome I knew was coming. Others were prophetic, giving me news of what was to come. Though sometimes the messages were joyful, other times it was clear my psyche was preparing me for major transitions in my life. This was wondrous and mystifying to me as child. I remember wishing I could talk to someone about my experiences without sounding “crazy.” I feared that If I shared all of this openly, I might be committed to a hospital of some sort. Instinctively, I knew there was nothing wrong with me. It wasn’t until I became an adult that I discovered other cultures and communities that valued dreaming as I did and studied it seriously. I too wanted to commit myself to this work. In a prayer session during a full moon, I asked Spirit to help me hone my dreaming skills even more.
Around 2004, I kept having dreams of animals that came in groupings of the same number. In one particularly potent dream, I saw four dogs of different colours in a race passing the baton from one to the other. When the fourth went to pass it on, four horses appeared behind the dogs in the same colours. I awoke feeling breathless. The dream came again and again. Knowing how much dreaming was revered in some indigenous communities, I finally plucked up enough courage to talk to a friend’s dad who happened to be the sitting chief of a local nation. I graduated high school with his son and though I knew this gentleman, I wasn’t sure what he would make of my request for advice. He was patient as I relayed the dream to him. Then, he shared that this dream was of a well-known prophecy among some indigenous communities. Although he couldn’t tell me why these dreams were coming to me, he gave me some instructions for how to find out by working with my High Self and Spirit. Stunned, I left his office and sat outside looking at the ocean trying to make sense of all he’d told me. I felt validated and relieved that someone in a leadership position was showing me how to apply dreaming technologies earnestly in the waking world. This helped me feel less weird and alone.
I continued with the practices the chief shared with me for a year and learned much more about my own dream symbology. Although I’d used popular dream books to initiate some ideas for the archetypal meanings of symbols and found them valuable to some extent, their usefulness only went so far. You see, each dreamer has their own multi-layered system of meaning-making that is particular to the individual. This is why someone else cannot analyse our dreams for us in many shamanic dreaming traditions. For years, I participated in dreaming and drum journey circles where I gleaned much knowledge about how to engage the dream world in various ways. Although I still didn’t know why the indigenous prophecy came to me, I was so grateful to finally be among people who could help me train in these skills. I felt like I was coming home.
In 2005, I received an invitation to attend a sweat lodge ceremony–my first. Honoured, I accepted. The ceremony began with a teaching by the elder where she shared her culture’s medicine wheel. As she talked about the four colours and their meaning to her people, I noticed that they were the same ones in my dream. After the transformative power of the sweat lodge, I again found the nerve to speak to this elder about my dream. To my surprise, she too corroborated this information and I went on to spend many years studying with her. In this community, I was able to hone my dreaming to the point that I could change my dreams while I was in them. (This is called lucid dreaming in the field of psychology–a term originally coined by Dutch psychiatrist Frederik van Eeden.) By working with traditional knowledge of dreaming, I was finally able to learn how to control nightmares–changing the narrative while I was sleeping and even standing up to my tormentors in order to take my power back. This, of course, also impacted my waking dream positively. I ceased being an easy target for the aggression of others, developing the ability to identify and create solid personal boundaries.
Because our waking and sleeping times are both regarded as “dream” times by many earth-based traditions, part of dreaming training is learning how to maintain a continuous thread of awareness regarding how the sleeping dream is feeding the waking dream and vice versa. Often, I receive messages in waking hours that heighten the meaning of those from the asleep time. That information helps me to respond to what occurs in my waking life in a way that is aligned with my life purpose and what I am here to learn. Recently, I had a dream that I was a fairy. My task was to clean massive cauldrons after a big feast. I was wondering how on earth a little being was going to accomplish such a thing when I realized I could use magic! When I awoke, I was able to apply this lesson to a goal I was working towards in my life–remembering to use my earth-based spiritual tools to assist me on my journey. It turns out that I was expending way more energy than was necessary in this endeavour.
The value of expanding one’s dreaming skills in modern times is brilliantly stated by fellow dreamer Toko-pa Turner in her inspired book “Belonging”:
Dreams teach us how to be wondrous by offering us endless ambiguity. Though it is our habit to always look for a bottom line so we can have certainty, dreams operate on many levels at once, forcing us to diversify our viewpoints…Ambiguity, or the willingness to hold many perspectives at once, is a core competency of dreamwork. It teaches us that there are many sides to a story, and as we grow more adept with it, we can hold an increasingly diverse number of perspectives at once…The initiated adult is one who learns to withstand uncertainty, embody ambiguity, and straddle paradox…[M]odernity is infatuated with binary thinking: we erect and uphold opposition in politics, religion, race, gender, and perhaps most insidiously, in education itself.
Dreaming helps humans to interpret the world through different lenses. Listening to the dreaming of others encourages deeper and more nuanced thinking. The Sufi poet, Rumi, put it beautifully when he said, “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing there is a field. I will meet you there.” Our world is too complex for us to abide extremist thinking. In order to really open our minds and hearts to evolve as a species, we need to learn how to navigate the grey areas without becoming fixed in our own egoic ways of viewing life. While it is important for us humans to live according to our own truths, this does not require us to negate the truths of others.
Dreaming shows us how to learn from our mistakes to make better choices. Dreams show us possibilities we might never have considered otherwise. The practice of dreaming helps us to see that there is more to the world than the consensual reality we’ve been conditioned to believe in. The world of matter is but one of many in the universe. Dreaming is part of our cognitive inheritance from our ancestors. Intuition, insight, and imagination are finally being recognized by scientists as vital parts of our intelligence as a species. The logical parts of our mind can only take us so far in our pursuit of knowledge. To gain wisdom, we must engage the creative, dreaming aspects of our psyches.
In rational thinking frameworks, seeing is believing. Via the practice of dreaming, I’ve learned that the other worlds open themselves up to us when we interact with and sense into them. It is, in fact, the opposite of the kind of reasoning found in science-based processes. That doesn’t mean that science is defunct in earth-based worldviews; scientific knowledge is simply another valid way of observing and making sense of the cosmos and our place in it. It’s often been said that the difference between humans and other sentient beings is our ability to invent systems and new tools. In other words, our ability to use our creativity to make novel, beautiful, and useful things from our imagination sets us apart from other sentient beings. Why were we given this gift? As a shamanic practitioner, I spend a lot of time thinking about that question. What Turner calls the “Otherworld” is always communicating. It is attempting to co-create the world with us. As we dream together, humans and nature exchange energy and learn from one another. Because humans have the gift of creativity, it is possible to work with the Otherworld to receive guidance and visions to help us design the sustainable future that is needed for all our relations–plants, animals, minerals and humans– to thrive.
*NB: The author is Canadian and therefore, Canadian spellings are used in this piece.
Pagan Pages Magazine Article: “Dreaming: An Essential Skill” by Jennifer Engrácio
Film: “InnSæi: The Power of Intuition”
Book: “The Woman in the Shaman’s Body” by Barbara Tedlock
About the Author:
Jennifer Engrácio has been a student of shamanism since 2005. Jennifer is a certified teacher who has worked with children in many different education settings since 2001. She is a certified shamanic coach, reiki master, and lomilomi practitioner; in addition, she runs Spiral Dance Shamanics. Originally from Vancouver, Canada, she now lives in Calgary, Canada with her life partner.
Engrácio participated in self-publishing three books that are now available:
“The Magic Circle: Shamanic Ceremonies for the Child and the Child Within”
“Women’s Power Stories: Honouring the Feminine Principle of Life”
“Dreaming of Cupcakes: A Food Addict’s Shamanic Journey into Healing”