Wednesday, March 25, 2015

To practice death is to practice freedom

We do not know where death awaits us, so let us wait for it everywhere. To practice death is to practice freedom. A man who has learned how to die has unlearned how to be a slave.

This wisdom comes from the great French essayist, Montaigne, and I count it as one of the essential rules for living.
    To live today to the fullest, we want to be ready to die. When we approach life in the knowledge that Death is at our left shoulder, we find courage and clarity that may otherwise fail us.
.    I have known this since I was a child, when I died and came back, as the Melbourne doctors put it, not yet possessing the term “near-death experience”. In my books and workshops, I encourage people to make Death their ally rather than their dread, and to be ready to meet him on any day, on any corner.
     What does it mean, to “practice death”?
     An art of dying adequate to our needs and yearnings today must address at least these five key areas:

1.   Practice in dream travel and journeying beyond the bodyBy practicing the projection of consciousness beyond the physical plane, we settle any personal doubts about the soul’s survival of physical death. This is not really an exotic or esoteric assignment. Every night, in your dreams, you travel beyond the body quite naturally and spontaneously; it’s a matter of waking up to what is going on and learning to use your natural gifts as a dreamer,

2.      Developing a personal geography of the afterlife. Through conscious dream journeys, we can visit the deceased — and their teachers — in their own environments. We can explore a variety of transit areas and reception centers, adapted to the expectations and comfort levels of different types of people, where the recently departed are helped to adapt to their new circumstances. We can tour the “collective belief territories,” some established centuries or millennia ago, where ex-physicals participate ins hared activities and religious practices. We can examine processes of life review, reeducation, and judgment and follow the transition of spirits between different after-death states. We can also study the different fates of different vehicles of consciousness after physical death.

3.      Helping the dying. We can use dreamwork and the techniques of Active Dreaming – including vision transfer, which means growing a dream or a journey map for someone who needs one – to help the dying through what some hospice nurses describe as the “nearing death experience.”In many of our hospitals (where most Westerners die) death is treated as a failure, or merely the loss of vital signs, followed by a pulled-out plug, a disconnected respirator, and the disposal of the remains. As we recover the art of dying, many of us in all walks of life — not only ministers and health care professionals and hospice volunteers — will be able to play the role of companion on the deathwalk, helping the dying to approach the next life with grace and courage and to make the last seasons of this life a period of personal growth. The skills required in this area include the ability to communicate on a soul level with patients who are unable to speak or reason clearly. A vital aspect of this work is facilitating or mediating contact between the dying and helpers on the other side — especially departed loved ones — who can give assistance through the transition. Dream sharing and dream transfer are invaluable tools in helping the dying to prepare for the conditions of life beyond the body.

4.      Helping the departed. We pray for our dead in our churches and temples, and no good intention is ever wasted. However, you may have a hard time finding a priest who is willing to take on the role of psychopomp, or guide of souls, and provide personal escort service to spirits of the departed who have lost their way and gotten stuck between the worlds, causing pain and confusion to themselves and sometimes to their survivors. Yet the living have a crucial role to play in helping to release earthbound or troubled spirits. For one thing, some of these “ex-physicals” seem to trust people who have physical bodies more than entities that do not, because there is comfort in the familiar, because they did not believe in an afterlife before passing on — or quite simply because they do not know they are dead. Sometimes our deceased need help from us in dealing with unfinished business, passing on messages to survivors, and getting their story straight. I have become convinced that an essential stage in the afterlife transit is the effort by the departed to understand the full story of the life that has just passed, in order to be ready to choose the next life experience.

5.      Making death your ally. Finally, we are challenged to reach into the place of our deepest fears and master them: to face our own death on its own ground and re-value our lives and our purpose from this perspective. When we “brave up” enough to confront our personal Death and receive its teaching, we forge an alliance that is a source of power and healing in every aspect of life.

My books that explore these themes in greatest depth are Dreamgates: Exploring the Worlds of Soul, Imagination and Life Beyond Death (New World Library), The Dreamer's Book of the Dead (Destiny Books) and The Boy Who Died and Came Back (New World Library).

Photo: Nurse stump at Mosswood Hollow (c) Robert Moss. The dead tree giving life nutrients to a new one is a great metaphor for death and rebirth. 

The Dervish House

I read the last lines of The Dervish House and said, “Wonderful!” out loud. I want to read the book again to savor all that is in it and to understand more fully some of the intricate description of nanotechnology, hedge fund operations, the history of Sufi lodges, the legend of the Mellified Man, the geography of Istanbul.
    Ian McDonald is astonishingly deep and diverse in his knowledge. He writes about everything with exact and fine detail and vocabulary and – amazingly! – this is never wearisome, though it makes the book a slow (but always fascinating) read. I never doubted that his six main characters, sharing apartments in a converted dervish house on the Asian side of Istanbul, are Turks (if we include the elderly Greek “experimental economist”, Georghios Ferentinou, as we must).
    There are no concessions to the non-Turkish reader. Every Turkish word is given with the Turkish spelling and necessary diacritical marks. The sole concession is with jinn, rendered djinn, no doubt at the publisher’s insistence. Even Shams of Tabriz becomes 
Çams with the cedilla under the C.
     Just when you think the author can’t possibly trump himself, 
we read this on the penultimate page, where the focus is on Necmet, who has been turned into a shayk who sees djinn and talks to Hizir (the guide of those who have no earthly guide, called Khidr in Arabic) by a nano-pharmaceutical exploded in a terrorist suicide on a tram:

The army doctor...told him a story about the Mevlana, the great saint whose order built this tekke. The Mevlana has a friend, Shams of Tabriz, a spiritual friend, the other half of his soul, one spirit in two bodies. Together they explored the depths of God in ceaseless conversation. The dervishes grew jealous of the one-in-twoness and quietly killed Shams of Tabriz. When the Mevlana was unable to find his friend, the only possible conclusion was that they had merged and Shams was now part of him.

Why should I seek?
I am the same as he.
His essence speaks through me.
I have been looking for myself.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Designing your personal tarot cards

One of the fun assignments in my tarot workshops is for everyone to produce a sketch of a personal tarot card, based on discoveries and imagery that came to them during the program. There is no shortage of material, since our Tarot for Dreamers playshops include theater and performance, journeys through the doorways of the cards, monologues in the voices of both major and minor arcana as well as readings for ourselves and each other in many different styles.
     In my tarot workshop last weekend, I produced sketches of several cards, including a Priestess inspired by the snake journey I described in my last article here. The card that demanded my closest attention was the Four of Swords. In a Celtic Cross spread, it had come up in the position of my Hopes and Fears. I had seen it in the same place before, in another recent reading, and realized that I needed to explore why this number card - a benign one in the sometimes scary and clanking procession of the Swords - might speak to me of my Hopes and Fears.
     My personal name for the Four of Swords is Rest. My catch phrase for it is "Time Off". Weapons are laid down or hung up on the walls. We have moved beyond the pain and grief and possible self-laceration of the Three of Swords; we are not yet menaced by the terrible mental strife of the Five of Swords. A period of calm and relaxation might certainly figure among my hopes; why would is also be a source of fear?
     In one of our exercises, I drummed for the group, inviting our participants to step through the frame of a selected card, as through a door, to learn more about the character of the card within its own realm. When I let my mind travel through the frame of the Four of Swords, I saw metal pens hanging on a wall. They were the Zebra F-402 pens, inexpensive but elegant, that I generally use. I strolled from a writing nook through an open doorway into a rather Hawaiian scene with a sandy beach, palm trees, a lounger near the water. A great place for rest and relaxation, imagined or physical. Then why the fear? I looked back into the writing space and saw one of my pens lying on top of an unfinished manuscript. Ah, yes. Now I saw it. The writer in me - who might be the creator and producer in other contexts also - fears rest periods because he knows that starting up a project that has been left for a while requires overcoming the heavy weight of inertia. 
     So I produced a personal version of the Four of Swords with the hope of delightful R&R, but also the implied fear of that pen laid to rest across the unfinished book.

My next "Tarot for Dreamers" workshop is at magical Mosswood Hollow, 45 minutes from Seattle, over the weekend of May 9-10, 2015.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Astral projection and bilocation in the early Renaissance church

In the mid-15th century, the monks of San Francesco, in Borgo San Sepolcro in Tuscany, allotted 510 ducats - a fantastic sum at that time - for a double-sided altarpiece. The lead artist was Stefano de Giovanni, known as "Sassetta", already recognized as the master of the Siena school. The altarpiece was constructed over the grave of of the Blessed Ranieri Rasini, and a series of panels on the predella depicted scenes from his life.
    The Blessed Ranieri (just short of sainthood) was revered locally as a miracle maker with the ability to project an energy double that could work wonders while his body was engaged somewhere else. Thus he ranks as an all-but-patron-saint of dream travel and astral projection.
    Anyone interested in the history of dream travel would do well to look very closely at two surviving paintings of the Blessed Ranieri, by the great Sassetta. The one above is titled "The Blessed Ranieri Freeing the Poor from Jail", and it is in the Louvre. It shows Ranieri whizzing around like a rocket man.

The second painting shows Ranieri appearing to a cardinal in a dream; this panel is now in the Staatliche Museen in Berlin. It depicts Ranieri floating in mid-air above the sleeping body of a well-fed cardinal, pointing to a flask containing a healing balm.
     It was a good thing for those who saw the Blessed Ranieri (d. 1304) flying about in this way that they were living in a Catholic country where bilocation and astral projection were welcomed, at least when practiced by the religiously correct. In the Puritan theocracy of colonial Massachusetts, a couple of centuries later, a snitch who claimed to have seen you flying around in your dream body could get you hauled into a Salem witch trial.

I'll be interested in further information on the flying holy man in Sassetta's paintings. His aerial visit to the rotund cardinal is mentioned in Sassetta: The Borgo San Sepolcro Altarpiece, edited by Machtelt Israels, but it seems that the identity of the cardinal is a matter for speculation.
    A pleasant legend survives in a later account (1622) by a printer named Giovanni Antonio Castiglione, according to which the monks had emissaries sent to a certain cardinal to request balm to preserve the Blessed Ranieri's body after he died "in the odor of sanctity." The flying Ranieri got to the cardinal first, offering a deal: balm for his body in return for healing for the cardinal. So, in the painting, he has gone in ahead of the emissaries waiting outside the cardinal's bedchamber. Ranieri was the subject of a religious play that was popular in Tuscany.


"The Blessed Ranieri Frees the Poor from a Prison in Florence" (c.1440) by Sassetta, in the Musée du Louvre, Paris

"The Blessed Ranieri of Borgo San Sepolcro Appearing to a Cardinal in a Dream" (1444) in the Staatliche Museen, Berlin.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Turning guns into quinces

Kalani, Hawaii

In a dream last night, I parted company with a group of soldiers, carrying a rifle. In my hands, it turned into wooden gun that started dividing like a branch of a tree. I clambered with it through a passage.
    On the other side a woman, seeing what I was carrying, shouted in high excitement, "It's a quince!" I looked and saw, on leaves that had sprouted, little golden fruit and seeds. They seemed to be pulsing and vibrating, ready to burst into new life. The woman took one on her tongue and swallowed it with pleasure. "We must plant them at once!" she exclaimed, leading me up to a place on a hill. 

I woke happy and excited. I must now look into the history, mythology and uses of the quince. I know some think that the apple of Eve, in the Garden of Eden, was really a quince. I recall it is generally thought that the golden apple that Paris threw to Aphrodite - starting the Trojan War - was a quince.
    I have heard of turning swords into plowshares. Turning guns into quinces is an interesting fresh version.

Graphic: Franz Eugen Köhler, Köhler's Medizinal-Pflanzen. Public Domain.

Monday, March 16, 2015

A secret tail wag from the universe

Hilo, Hawaii

As I waited for my first flight en route to Hawaii on Sunday morning, I was thinking about who I need to include in the Acknowledgments for my new book. It his me that I must express special thanks to the dogs who have shared my life, including the little dogs who take me on daily walks when I am at home in a small city in the Northeast, constantly bringing me to "sidewalk oracles". I sometimes journal my daily observations of synchronicity as my Dog Walk Chronicles.
     On the long second flight from Chicago to Honolulu, my rowmate told me she had left from the same home airport and - like me - travels far afield almost every week for her work. "What are the chances?" I reflected that when synchronicity magnets are operating, the chances are pretty good.
     "Tell me a story from your life," I invited her. I do this with strangers all the time. She thought for a moment, then beamed. "I got my husband a yellow lab puppy for his birthday." She told me how their beloved yellow lab had died three years ago and it had taken that amount of time to feel ready to replace her. She decided on a puppy because her daughter begged for a dog they could watch grow.
"It's extra work, but we are all so happy. My husband plays with the puppy like a little boy."
      I observed that dogs love you know matter what, and thanked the stranger on the plane for communicating a tail wag from the universe. Yes, I must start by thanking the dogs when I write those acknowledgments.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

The world as seen by the Queen of Swords

I pull a Tarot card for the day, drawing from a deck called Navigators of the Mystic Sea. I have drawn the Queen of Swords, In this deck, she is tagged with the word "Subversion". Instead of thinking about what she may represent for me today, I decide that I'll enter her perspective and try to grasp what part of me may be like the Queen of Swords, and what strengths and challenges come with that.

I am seated in a high black throne on the edge of a chasm. My robes are gold and purple, and I wear a gold helmet with a long back-plate that protects my neck. A huge solitary raven perches on the top of my throne, above my head. Though I am seated, my right arm, brandishing a sword, is vigorously outstretched, pointing to the far side of the abyss, as if am ordering an army to attempt the dangerous crossing – or warning off an unseen force on the other side. In my left palm, I am holding what may be an orb but could also be a pocket watch.
    Where my robes flow over the armrest of the throne, they burst into other colors – blue and lavender, teal and pink and gold again. The same colors stream like ribbons through the sky above the high orange peaks in the background, and – joining my streaming robes – along the edge of the abyss.
     In the distance, a strange brown dog (if it is a dog) is leaping over the chasm, from the far side towards my side. When I inspect his jump, I see that the far side of the abyss is higher than my side.

I remember that, in other images, I am represented as holding a severed head, and that I have been called the Mask Cutter. My sharp sword gives me the power to strip away illusion and pretension. But I know that the sharpness of my intellect can suppress my essential feminine gifts and that, misused, my sword can cut down the brightest hopes and ambitions. I cut deep.
     A solitary raven is not to be trusted. The raven you can rely on is one of a pair. The head is not to be trusted without the heart.
     I have come to the very edge. I may order others to take the jump, but do not take it myself. Yet I am barefoot, which gives me the ability to touch and feel the earth if I am willing to listen to my body.
     I am beautiful but cold and aloof and unforgiving. I place myself above others. The dog, jumping to my side, could help to soften me.
     There is a story to be written about me, and why I sit, with sword unsheathed at this high and wild and lonely border. My throne is also my prison, from which I can be released only with the help of the dog and the second raven, the one who does not appear on the card. There is a clue in the arrangement of the scene. I sit on the left side of the chasm, and on the left side of the brain.

Note: I first posted this piece a few years ago. I am posting again because of a friend's question about the significance of the Queen of Swords. Entering the perspective of this court card is as an example of how we can learn to meditate or journey with tarot. I am leading a "Tarot for Dreamers" weekend workshop involving this and other practices for active dreamers who are interested in tarot at magical Mosswood Hollow on May 9-10.