With Thanksgiving being so early this year, the holidays seem to have lasted longer. Yet how quickly another year arrives… One of my wishes for this new year is to pay more attention to night and dreams.
Our entire history is merely the history of the waking life of man; nobody has yet considered the history of his sleeping life. – Georg Christoph Lichtenberg c. 1780
Perhaps a contemporary exception to the idea that history is all about our waking life– that no one has revealed the history of their dreaming life– is Carl Jung’s The Red Book. It is noteworthy that he did not allow this amazing work, in which he writes and illustrates his dreams, to be published until 100 years after his death. The taboo of going into the dark was even stronger in the early 1900’s, especially as a professional. Carl Jung was a pivotal thinker in terms of bringing our focus back to night and dreams, in insisting that darkness, and our shadow self, our fears and our regrets, has a world of gold to offer.
My interest in night and dreams began early, cultivated by my loneliness in Paris as a young student. For a semester I spent most of my time alone at Numéro un, Rue du Louvre, reading. I devoured Carl Jung and Herman Hesse, and recorded my dreams. This is where I did my first painting, knowing nothing about art.
We are a culture obsessed with the daytime, with doing, and the language that accompanies commerce. Think of the word for getting things done on time: deadline. Did you know that in addition to the common use of the word: the latest time or date by which something should be completed, that historically, the word deadline comes from: a line drawn around a prison beyond which prisoners were liable to be shot?! The lethal words we use for getting things done capture a haunted, predatory feeling of being under the gun, of time running out.
Wherever dreams come from, they operate in another kind of time. It is similar to the kind of time that is most favorable to creating:
There are two kinds of journeys we all make. The first is a journey you can map. Your destination is clear, the map will show you the shortest way to get from here to there. The second is the journey where you go by instinct.
Not even a compass will help you.
We all want to work faster. At our backs we hear time’s winged chariot...
We set ourselves schedules...
But finding time isn’t enough. It must be the right kind of time, and the right kind of time is as difficult to find as truffles or wild orchids. The time by which the man in the winged cap and the shy sister in the forest live- that’s the kind I want. And that kind of time knows nothing about schedules. – Nancy Willard, Telling Time
When you are busy with daytime schedules, it is easy to forget that things of a different order are accomplished at night, and that your bodies are made to need sleep as much as they need daylight. Night is a time for magical thinking and restoration. Dreams are not constrained by the rules of rationality or time.
I remember as a child, when I had a test the next day, I put my textbook under my pillow before I went to sleep. This, I believed, was the real reason I did well on the exams. (And who knows, maybe it was…)
I enjoy playing with the idea that dreams can offer direction, and sometimes even practical answers. I think of myself as smarter when I am asleep, as the answers that come occasionally seem brilliant, and unlike anything I could imagine while awake. Here is a dream I had about teaching brush practice, with the following verbal instructions:
You must imagine that this brush has marks it wants to make. Being made from the mane of a horse and the wood of an elm, it has memory too.
Here is a challenge: How does one re-establish the boundary between night and day, when in most places, night has been made into a daytime thing? How many of us wake in the night to check messages, have lights or devices that never go off, and work that is never done? What was once a 9-5 office has become never ending work for many. We have stores that don’t close and people that want answers now.
Dreams are a powerful ally for activating your creative work, reminding you of what it is you are here to do, for entering the sidereal circle. You cannot make them happen on your own, but you can decide to make room for them. We must paddle against culture, bring back the night, and occasionally turn everything off. Why? For those of us who make art as a means to finding a connection to something larger, the making of art alone is not enough. We feel that something is missing when art, the product, becomes the end rather than the means. The connection with dreamtime cross-pollinates with sunrise, and enlivens the daytime work. Once in awhile, you get to feel the presence of something other, directing your work. This is what Christian Wiman refers to as:
“moments of mysterious intrusion, that feeling of collusion with eternity”.
– Christian Wiman, He Held Radical Light: The Art of Faith, The Faith of Art
It is winter, and a new year is here. I wish you all the treasures and guidance of the night, the stars and moon, and the numberless galaxies. May your hearts find comfort in what the night brings, and in this poem:
When I Go to Sleep (Hermann Hesse)
Now that day has exhausted me
I give myself over, a tired child,
to the night and to my old friends, the stars–
my watchful guardians, quiet and mild.
Hands–let everything go.
I am content to follow
where my senses are sinking.
Into the darkness, I swim out free:
Soul, released from all your defenses,
enter the magic, sidereal circle
where the gathering of souls commences.
Maya Huber & Frank Fath have just sent the original German version of the poem above:
Nun hat der Tag mich mued gemacht,
Soll mein sehnliches Verlangen
Freundlich die gestirnte Nacht
Wie ein muedes Kind empfangen.
Haende, lasst von allem Tun
Stirn, vergiss du alles Denken,
Alle meine Sinne nun
Wollen sich in Schlummer senken.
Und die Seele unbewacht
Will in freien Fluegen schweben,
Um im Zauberkreis der Nacht
Tief und tausendfach zu leben.
There is an invisible field that we all belong to, and an invitation to “enter the magic, sidereal circle where the gathering of souls commences”.
Have you tried putting something under your pillow that you wish to guide you through the night? Asked a dream to solve an unsolvable dilemma? You don’t have to believe it will work to try the experiment.
I’d love to hear from you.