Dreams of magic (Adventures in dreamland part III)

[FWIW WordPress is not good at inserting footnotes, so I'm putting some in brackets.  Apologies in advance for the interruptions they may make.  Like this one.]

So here’s three things that have been rattling around in the attic of my mind — I mean I have never found the time to think too seriously about it, nor to gather much evidence/research, apart from a few links interspersed in this post.  The three things are yoga, magic (should I spell it “magick”? ack!), and lucid dreaming.  Starting with lucid dreaming:

I became interested in lucid dreams about twenty years ago in college (and apparently there has been a resurgence of popular interest in this topic lately).  I’d been having a number of strange dreams, and began keeping a journal of them, and my casual interest in interpreting dreams led me to references to lucid dreaming and the idea that lucid dreaming could be a learned skill, rather than just a random event.  I’d had a lucid dream or two, and began looking into how others cultivate them.  It turns out it is a lot of work and at the time I had too many other interests to pursue it seriously, but I did take some notes that are probably lying around with my other college papers somewhere.  Two interesting things I learned about lucid dreaming were (1) an exercise that is supposed to help make them occur (there are others, but I found this one very simple), and (2) a reason some people seriously work on lucid dreaming.

One exercise used to cultivate lucid dreams is to continually interrupt your waking day, perhaps every fifteen minutes or half hour with an alarm on your digital watch [yes, that dates my source!], and ask yourself: Am I dreaming or awake?  The idea is to make a habit of questioning your state, so that your mind will continue to do so at night in your dreams.

But what would be the purpose of lucid dreaming anyway? If you believe dreams have hidden meanings that your brain (or some higher power like God), is trying to communicate to you, it doesn’t make much sense to interfere with the dream; you should probably just try to be receptive to the message, right? Maybe you could ask follow-up questions of the things or people in your dreams, or intentionally recreate partly-forgotten but significant details, and so on.  So in that case lucid dreaming might be helpful, but it’s not something you’d want or need to do very often.

Another reason to try lucid dreaming would be entertainment — using your dreams to realize fantasies, or just try flying, walking through walls, and other things that might happen in dreams.  I’m not sure if it is true, but I read that your dream experiences could only recreate actual sensations you’ve had in real life, so for example if you try to dream about flying, your sensations in the dream will have to be based on similar feelings you’ve actually had (amusement park rides perhaps or jumping on a trampoline?).  So in principle you couldn’t really use lucid dreaming to have completely new experiences, but perhaps you could recombine past experiences into chimerical new experiences.  It’s pretty hard to imagine that anyone would put in the effort required to learn to dream lucidly when they could use that time to actually have new experiences instead though.

So what else do you have to gain from having a lucid dream?  Some sources mentioned using lucidity to interrupt nightmares or other unpleasant dreams, and that might be important to someone plagued with bad dreams.

But the most interesting take on lucid dreaming was attributed to Tibetan Buddhism.  I’m not sure if this is an unusual esoteric teaching or mainstream to Tibetan Buddhism, but the thinking is: there is a parallel between the phenomenology of recognizing wakefulness vs. dreaming and the phenomenology of recognizing the illusion of individuality vs. the reality of oneness.  In a lucid dream, one might have an experience of  “Aha! This is just a dream!”; in meditation, one might have an experience of “Aha! This is just a life!”  So, becoming aware that one is dreaming (and perhaps seizing control of the dream) would be an experience analogous to enlightenment. The idea is that both Buddhism and dream work place importance on recognizing different states of consciousness; perhaps lucid dreaming would be useful as a sort of spiritual exercise.  In fact there is a tradition called Mi-lam (or Milam yoga, or simply dream yoga) in Tibetan Buddhism that utilizes lucid dreaming as step toward enlightenment.

If we stretch this analogy (perhaps to the breaking point), it gives an interesting take on the ‘siddhis‘ of Tantric Yoga (the alleged supernatural powers attained by enlightened yogis). A lucid dreamer gains control over dream reality; if Tantrism is correct, an enlightened mind gains some control over waking reality.

So this is where the magic comes in.  In the occult revival of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, there was a great deal of interest in ‘rehabilitating’ occultism as a legitimate pursuit in the age of reason. Indeed one of Aleister Crowley’s magazines, The equinox, used the motto “The method of science, the aim of religion.”  Crowley is fairly infamous as magician/scam artist/seducer (and supposedly much worse), but he retains a certain amount of respectability among occultists as a pioneer in occult scholarship.  I found some of his writing interesting enough to read a fair amount of his stuff in graduate school; it’s fascinating and crazy stuff.  I’m neither spiritual nor gullible enough to take his writings at face value.  But some of his readers see his writings on magic as metaphoric explanations of his mysticism rather than literal claims about supernatural powers. The lines are pretty blurry really even if you take him literally.  I think that he was mostly pulling his readers’ legs, but may have been legitimately interested in mystical experience and enlightenment.

Going back to that little exercise for noticing dreams: there is an oddly parallel exercise recommended in the writings of Crowley.  It is not a perfect parallel, except that it involves interrupting one’s day periodically.  Crowley recommends that occult students use a sort of aversion therapy to overcome bad habits — but cutting one’s forearm every time you catch yourself doing it.  (I think the bad habit he was trying to break the student of was using personal pronouns like “I”, in an attempt to help annihilate personal identity… a very Buddhist goal!)  Anyway it was interesting to me that both exercises, while wildly different in degree (annoyance vs. self-harm) and different in immediate goal (recognizing the dream state, not thinking about oneself as a separate thing), were similar in that both might be aimed at attaining a sort of enlightenment, and both involve periodic rather than really focused attention.

But the most common prescriptions for attaining enlightenment involve deeply focused attention — meditation, yoga, and so on.  Could the ceremonial magic of the Western tradition, as described in various grimoires and masonic rituals, likewise be forms of focusing attention?

In an article in The equinox (v.1, no. 2)  titled “Postcards to probationers,” Aleister Crowley suggests that Western ceremonial magic, and Eastern yoga, are practices which correspond to one another.  He actually uses simple tables to suggest the identity of various elements of each system (listing first the four most widely-recognized methods for each and adding two more esoteric methods for each). I’ve combined the two tables here to focus on the fact that he’s correlating Eastern & Western methods.  I’m not sure to what extent yoga had been ‘seriously’ studied by scientists at the time The equinox was published (I think v.1, no. 2 would be the winter of 1909/1910), but there is certainly a long tradition of casting meditation and yoga as sciences rather than purely spiritual, religious, or occult practices.  I suspect Crowley hoped that some of the legitimacy of Eastern practices could rub off on Western occultism.

(Eastern practice)

(Western practice)

(Aim)

Gnana-Yoga.

The Holy Qabalah.

Union by Knowledge.

Raja-Yoga.

The Sacred Magic.

Union by Will.

Bhakta-Yoga.

The Acts of Worship.

Union by Love.

Hatha-Yoga.

The Ordeals.

Union by Courage.

add Mantra-Yoga.

add The Invocations.

Union through Speech.

Karma-Yoga.

The Acts of Service.

Union through Work.

I don’t think it is too much of a stretch to add a seventh line for dream work — assuming we take the leap that identifies the ‘goetia’ (the black magic described in Western grimoires) with lucid dreaming.

add Mi-lam yoga

add Goetia (Lucid Dreams)

Union through Dreamwork.

Many goetic texts are cataloged by A.E. Waite in his famous Book of Ceremonial Magic (originally published as The Book of Black Magic and of Pacts, and later republished as The Book of Spells, in many editions).  These grimoires often give detailed instructions regarding the proper smells, illumination, and other sensations that will help increase the effectiveness of the rituals, according to occult correspondences; in addition to preparing the mind with specific incantations and visualizations, instructions are provided to pinpoint the best times of day for specific invocations. These are almost always ‘dark hours’ of early morning or late at night, and this has led some (I no longer recall where I first saw this proposed) to speculate that the grimoires are actually providing instructions on lucid dreaming.

Some of the ceremonies even instruct the user to retire to bed before beginning the incantations, but this is unusual.  In any event, it is at least somewhat plausible to interpret the practice of magic as a form of dreamwork.  The fantastic appearances of demons and spirits, the preoccupation with asking where treasures are hidden and when it would be felicitous to remove them, and the preoccupation with having specific (or in some cases generic) people appear to the magician for “venereal experiments”  all make a sort of sense if we understand the ceremonies as preparations conducive to the sort of dream one desires rather than as effective methods of altering reality.  Granted this is a rather impoverished sort of rehabilitation of ‘magic,’ but at least it does not rely on supernatural explanations.

Tibetan Buddhism describes a number of “intermediate worlds” or “bardos”; the Bardo Thodol or Tibetan book of the dead can be read as sort of grimoire that prepares the dying for the dream-like intermediate world experienced during transmigration from one life to the next.  If you read some of the goetic texts, and then the Bardo Thodol, there are certainly some parallels in terms of each providing a sort of field guide for the fantastic — the grimoires describing fantastic demons and angels; the book of the dead describing Buddhist deities.  The imagery of each, though alien to modern sensibilities, would probably be quite meaningful to their audiences, who would understand the language of colors, animals, and other symbolism in them.

A couple of possibly supporting pieces of information I stumbled upon in Rickert’s book At day’s close rekindled this whole line of thought.

Item: witches in the early modern era often confessed to attending Sabbats and working their spells late at night, arising from their beds after their husbands were asleep.  On the one hand this is actually kind of disconfirming my theory about magic being dreamwork, since Rickert considered this an example of the sorts of nocturnal activities people got up to between the two “sleeps” each night. [Typically, people slept from about 9 PM to just after midnight, woke for an hour, and slept again until sunrise or just before it; this wakeful hour might be a time for prayer, sex, reading by candlelight, talking, smoking, or just laying awake.]  Even so, I can easily imagine the whole Sabbat being a realistic dream that begins with a dream that one awakens, especially since pre-industrial people were so afraid to go abroad at night.

The other bit is his mention of the Benandanti — a fertility cult that existed in Friuli, Italy, whose members claimed to battle witches in their dreams.  The battles were apparently to save their crops, and the witches fought armed with bundles of fennel as a weapon; the cultists used bundles of sorghum.  Wikipedia expands on this cult, which I’d never heard of before, and mentions similar traditions of demon-battling werewolves, vampire-hunters, and such; I should mention that I have completely neglected to consider shamanism, which of course is another very occult and very dream-interested tradition; even if you want keep things Euro-centric there are plenty of Western shamans, like Hungarian taltos and the Alpine shamans who can join the nocturnal feasts of the Nachtschar (phantoms of the dead who appear in dreams). ["Nachtschar" appears to be translatable as 'night phantoms,' however at least on source identifies the Nachtschar as the shamans Rickert mentions; others identify the Nachtschar as a sort of early modern survival of the legend of the Wild Hunt.  One relatively famous case was of a herdsman who testified against witches at their trial, saying he'd been shown their Sabbat by a guide-angel on a nocturnal ride; of course he found himself tortured and forced to confess that the angel, originally described as wearing white with a red cross, was really a cloven-hoofed devil.]

So my point, insofar as I have one, is just to suggest the possibility that grimoires and scriptures were intended to populate the dream world, rather than the actual world, with demons, deities, and — magicians!  And there is plenty of tradition populating the dream world with adversaries such as werewolves, demons, witches, and the undead.

So, dragging this back to D&D and such, suppose your game world worked this way: wizards have to first become powerful in the dream world, and then can begin to have these powers leak over into the real world.   Perhaps an apprenticeship is spent in drug- or magic- induced coma, dreaming away for months or years, and this accounts for the typically weak and frail bodies of wizards.  And of course the master occasionally shows up in the former apprentice’s dreams, for good or ill.  The time required to re-memorize spells needs to be spent in solid REM sleep (which helps explain the daily allowances of spells in the otherwise Vancian system).

Dare you sleep in a dungeon, perchance to dream … when who knows who or what else is dreaming, or haunting dreams, in that underworld?

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Published in: on November 12, 2012 at 11:07 pm  Leave a Comment  
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