Strong Medicine Dreams

The Craft Shop in Arden.

I turn seventy-five next week. That means that I have spent close to twenty-five years (one third of my life) asleep. For many if not most of those twenty-five years I’ve been fully immersed in the swirling world of dreams. Having grown up in a dream-demeaning culture, however, it wasn’t until I was twenty-four years old and living with a woman for the first time that I became aware of that world.

The opening happened in Arden, a small experimental village founded by my great-grandfather at the turn of the twentieth century. Joyce and I had known each other as children there. But my family had moved away when I was in grade school and we hadn’t seen each other again until we both returned to Arden as young adults.

I was working as the storeroom manager at the Memorial Division of the Wilmington Medical Center. My draft board had finally approved my status as a conscientious objector. (This was in 1969 and the war in Vietnam was rapidly escalating.) The hospital job was my two years of alternative service.

Joyce was driving across the country and had stopped by Arden for a brief visit with her father. While waiting for Poppa Joe, a nuclear physicist at DuPont, to return from work, she decided to walk around her home town. I was on my way to see a friend. We met at the corner of Millers Road and Walnut Lane. After saying hello, we looked at each other.

“Don’t I know you?”

One thing led to another. Before too long, Joyce’s brief visit turned into two years. We lived in a small room in the Craft Shop, a large building that had once housed the Arden Forge and my grandfather Don’s furniture-making workshop.

Delivering supplies to the hospital’s gift shop one day, I noticed a small selection of paperback books on a revolving metal display case. I gave the display a spin and my eyes were immediately drawn to an unusual title: Edgar Cayce on Dreams. Acting on impulse, I bought it.

That evening Joyce and I started to read the book together. Soon we were remembering and recording multiple dreams each morning. Joyce had a natural talent for dream recall, while I could sometimes discern where a dream might be coming from.

The book was so captivating that I brought it to work so I could study it during my 30-minute lunch hour. In a hospital, everybody is always needing something from the storeroom. I therefore took to hiding out in an unused room on the second floor, filled with storage boxes and old furniture, so I could eat my sandwich and read my book in peace.

I learned that it had once been a birthing room. When the city hospitals had consolidated, labor and delivery were moved to another division. Now it had become my lunchtime refuge. My connection to it deepened appreciably when Joyce told me that she had been born in that room.

One Sunday morning Joyce awakened from a nightmare about being held prisoner in a concentration camp. Her feelings of horror and hopelessness were still raw as she shared the dream. We wondered what could have triggered such strong nocturnal emotions.

We stayed in bed for well over an hour in a vain attempt to answer this question. Finally I got pencil and paper and asked Joyce to sketch out a map of the concentration camp. We studied her drawing for a while, Then it suddenly came into focus.

“You just drew a picture of where we live!” I said in amazement.

Our little corner apartment, the path in from the street, each of the neighboring houses – they all corresponded exactly with her quickly sketched map of the concentration camp. We were stunned. Then Joyce made the key association that unlocked the dream. All at once she knew why her nightmare had taken place in a concentration camp.

We had recently become interested in meditation. A good friend, however, told us that “you can’t meditate if you can’t concentrate.” So we bought a book called Concentration. The author was Mouni Sadhu. His initial exercises clearly revealed the unruly nature of our untrained minds.

This hit Joyce in a particularly vulnerable place. She had grown up with the foundational belief that a bright mind and academic excellence were essential identity markers. Both of her parents were PhDs and her older sister was brilliant. It was a family matter of faith that Joyce would follow in those rarefied footsteps.

During her junior year in college, however, she decided to get off the ultra-competitive academic treadmill. But then she had to tell her parents that she would not be getting an advanced degree. That had been stress-inducing, to say the least. Even though she had graduated magna cum laude and had picked up a Phi Beta Kappa key, the shame of being perceived as an academic under-achiever had been almost unbearable.

Mouni Sadhu’s exercises therefore triggered deep subliminal anxieties. Joyce’s unresolved fears of being judged unworthy caused her latent performance anxiety to flare up, which in turn caused some simple concentration exercises to mutate into a hyperbolic nightmare of being imprisoned in a concentration camp.

Dreams like this made us believers. To use the vernacular of the day, we came to believe that dreams could “tell it like it is.” This telling wasn’t pedantic, though; nor did it come across as an in-your-face diatribe. Instead, it was storytelling. Just as young children love to hear myths and legends and fairy stories, even scary ones, so did Joyce and I look forward to the bedtime stories we awoke with each morning.

Like water flowing from a pump that’s been primed, our dreams kept coming. We were intrigued by the creative use of puns; by the effortless translation of subterranean feelings into vivid images and scenes; and by a mysterious inner playwright’s gifted weaving of character, theme, and setting into compelling drama. We bought two finely bound, 300-page ledger books from a stationary store and started to record our dreams.

My first recorded dream.

I have continued to record mine, off and on, for fifty years. Of the several thousand dreams I’ve logged – many of which are fragmentary or seemingly mundane – a hundred or so have been remarkable, and two or three dozen of these are truly exceptional. I have, at different times, referred to them as cornerstone dreams, vigil dreams, and strong medicine dreams.

“Cornerstone dreams” is an allusion to Mark 12:10. Dreams were one of the stones rejected by the builders of our rational, secular civilization; but twenty or thirty numinous dreams have now become a cornerstone of my life. “Vigil dreams” implies that when my time of dying arrives, and if it happens to include some measure of grace and awareness, then I would want my best dreams – and a well-established meditation practice – to keep me company on my death bed.

Viewed from one perspective, all dreams are medicinal. Yet in the same way that Carl Jung and others differentiate between normal dreams and strong dreams, some medicines are more potent than others. That’s why I also call my collection of numinous dreams strong medicine dreams.

Starting next week, I will occasionally share one of these strong medicine dreams. Doing so will help me assimilate them. Many years ago I rescued them from being buried away in the dusty archives of my dream journals. I typed them up and gave each of them a name, just as one would choose a title for a song, a poem, or a play.

Then I recorded them on cassette tapes. Being able to listen to my dreams on a Walkman was way more powerful than just reading them. It returned them to their native form – the oral tradition of storytelling. Still later, in the early years of MP3, I laboriously converted those cassette recordings to the new and more useful digital file format. The process of preparing to post some of my strong medicine dreams to this website will provide me with another opportunity for assimilation.

My hope, of course, is that sharing them might also be beneficial to others. Perhaps some will come to see dreams as memorable plays being staged nightly in the magic theater of the mind. Or as one manifestation of a guiding presence that becomes accessible once our physical body and personal mind have been set aside in sleep.

Like stories, myths, and religions, dreams convey meaning veiled in metaphor. A palpable sense of meaning is a vital human nutrient. This is especially true during these trying times, when many of our prevalent cultural stories are getting threadbare and most of the new ones are still gestational.

Joseph Campbell once proposed that “dreams are private myths; myths are public dreams.” It’s an evocative observation and one worthy of contemplation. But his distinction between what’s private and what’s public can become ambiguous. A powerful dream that is deeply personal, for example, can also be transpersonal. Or to re-visit Joseph Campbell’s words, private myths sometimes become public dreams.

This is the working hypothesis we’ll be exploring when my strong medicine dreams start appearing on this website. Each will be accompanied by some brief commentary. I seldom ask what a dream means. Instead, I try to observe what feelings and associations it elicits. It therefore becomes a process of amplifying a dream rather than interpreting it. It’s not dream analysis; it’s dream appreciation – as in music appreciation, or art appreciation.

We’ll start next week with a dream from the morning of March 4th, 1984, just before our daughter was born. It’s called “The Advocate.” It’s about fathers, and father figures, and our Father. It’s about following charismatic guidance into the darkness.

May you, too, have strong and medicinal dreams. For as Eleanor Roosevelt said, “The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.”


Joyce’s Calligraphic Version

Strong Medicine Dreams
(A Provisional List)

Am I God?_1980-02-15
An Encounter in the Catacombs_1976_03
Ancient Fawn_1990-08-30
Archangels Pushing a Merry-Go-Round
Bellowing for Andrew_2002-01-27
Choosing a Physician_1995-09-10
Claimed by Ravens_1999-2007
Crying for the Beauty of the Earth_1997-11-28
Differing Perspectives on East and West_1994-11-21
Down Under_2001-02-04
Easter Sunday Yoga Nidra_1991-03-31
Every Night in Your Dreams_1998-05-08
God is Approaching_2000-12-29
Harvesting the Moment Points_1991-04-22
Keeping the Dream Alive_2003-02-20
Recruiting the Renewal Crew_2005-09-17
Sensation’s a Mother_1997-04-13
Speaking With My Son_1980-01-05
The Advocate_1984-03-04
The Awakening at Woodbourne_1992-12-13
The Dream Teacher’s Three Questions
The Heart of Darkness_1998-05-05
The Mysterium_1972-01-04
The Spiral Shrine_1996-09-29
The Tall Ones_1991-12-29
The Tunnelers_1984-01-17
There’s Something in Here!_2002-05-11

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