Friday, May 23, 2008

Speech of the Swallows

Years ago I dreamed:

"Two swallows are sitting on a telephone wire, chattering. I understand what they are saying. In addition, I am able to SEE their speech, in the form of colossal stone letters. It is obviously an archaic language, older than any human writing. As I look at the letters and listen to the simultaneous English “translation,” I realize that I must remember what I am witnessing. In the process of trying to decide whether to remember the shapes of the stone letters or the English translation, I wake up." [End of dream]

This dream is especially important to me because swallows are one of my favorite birds, running a close second to the Great Blue Heron. To me, both creatures -- herons and swallows -- are particularly potent carriers of a great mystery. They stitch the boundaries between “this world” and “the other world” -- however you might wish to conceive that otherness.

Not surprisingly, both birds were regarded as sacred in ancient cultures. The heron, also known as the “bennu bird” in ancient Egypt, presided over the moment of sunrise on the first day of creation. And the swallow was regarded as sacred to Aphrodite in ancient Greece. Their joyful presence in the sky must have been felt as a palpable manifestation of the beauty of the Goddess of Beauty.

Dylan Thomas recognized this sacred quality in his poems: "the heron-priested shore" or "herons spire and spear" or "herons, steeple stemmed, bless."

I know for a fact that there are many people today -- probably millions, if not billions -- who dream of animals. I also suspect that surprising numbers of people at one time or another have understood what the animals were saying to them in the dreams. In fact, this may well be an important characteristic of dreams, at least for those who pay attention to them: In dreams, our understandings often far exceed our waking abilities. 

The loss of dreams today may be as great a catastrophe as the loss of animal species. But however one chooses to apportion value between the two, both losses derive from the same deep division within ourselves. And in each case the “cure” is to be found in a revitalization of our capacity to imagine. At bottom, this amounts to what Russell Arthur Lockhart (Words As Eggs, Psyche Speaks) calls a "rediscovery of dreams." By that I mean not that we should all indulge in “mere fantasy,” but that we should restore an awareness of the degree to which our lives are grounded in and dependent upon an autonomous, imaginal field out of which dreams approach us like mana from heaven. It is up to us to find ways to bridge the gulf between dream life and waking life.

Any dream, of course, is a good place to start. But pay special attention to the animals that visit you as you sleep. One way or another, they will offer up their wisdom. Occasionally, they may even talk to you. If they do, listen carefully. 

And if in the process someone ends up regarding their dream animal as sacred, or as an angel, or as a daimon, or guiding spirit, I wouldn’t have any problem with that.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Animal Spirits

You have to be a little different to spend much time thinking about what I'm calling "animal spirits." This is because Western civilization -- and therefore increasingly, most of the planet -- has been whipsawed for several centuries between the antagonistic Leviathans, "science" and "religion." At a time when we should be re-calibrating our ethical relationship to the earth, and figuring out what to do about the global environmental crisis, instead we're re-hashing the Scopes Monkey Trial in the so-called debate between evolution vs. creationism. In such a context, the notion of animal spirits sounds positively archaic, pagan, superstitious, outdated. We take pride in having "evolved" beyond such primitive nonsense, yet we scarcely bother to ask ourselves why, if we are so evolved, the Earth is in such a precarious state.

But I believe we threw many babies out with the bathwater, in our March of Progress, and that we must recover at least some of the insights that informed the better part of human existence for hundreds of thousands of  years. This is not a call for a regression to a Biblical Eden or a Stone-Age paradise. It is rather an invitation to re-enter some of the pathways of experience that have forever been open to us, in the hope that we can heal at least some of the terrible wounds that rend our souls, and which we in turn inflict on the planet and our fellow creatures.

I take it from experience, then, that there is profound value in the idea of animal spirits -- and even more in the phenomena and the experiences surrounding them. I think it is high time we recover that archaic sense of animals as sacred, knowing presences that grace our lives and enable our better, creative selves. 

On one level, animals reflect and reveal to us the evolutionary precedents that still inform the deepest sub-strata of our bodies and psyches (cf. the vestigial tails and gill slits in our embryos, the mysterious "reptilian brain" that underlies all our conscious functions). On another level -- spiritually, imaginally, psychologically and mythically -- they may well carry messages to us from "higher" or "deeper" realms, functioning in effect like "angelic" bridges to the creative wellsprings of the cosmos.

That's a lot to expect of dogs, cats, birds, bears, beetles, fish, snakes, etc. But in the posts that follow I hope to put forward arguments and examples that, at the very least, will provoke stimulating thoughts and perhaps even release some healing images from the depths.