Practical Mystic: Robert Moss: On Book Families, Jung and How Dreams Can Save Your Soul

formerly on Wild River Review

by Kimberly Nagy

A 2010 Harvard Medical School study found that nappers who dreamed about test material scored ten times higher than non-nappers. Other dream researchers connect dreaming (and remembering dreams) to creativity and problem solving. In April of 2013, The ATR Computational Neuroscience Laboratories in Kyoto, Japan used Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scans to provide visual proof for the images we see in dreams—and our ability to remember them with a surprising degree of accuracy.

None of these studies would surprise Moss, who coined the term, “Active Dreaming,” after a series of dreams literally “knocked on his door” and led him to his current vocation, for which, as he points out there is no career track in the West, as a dream teacher.   Moss introduced his Active Dreaming method, which combines dreamwork with shamanism, to an international audience at the conference of the International Association for the Study of Dreams at the University of Leiden in 1994

Over lunch, I talked with Moss about how dreamwork (or play) can heal, creativity and dreams, why Jung was the shaman of the West, as well as Moss’s former careers: lecturing in Ancient History at Australian National University, working in investigative journalism for the Economist, a tenure during which he travelled to 35 different countries and interviewed presidents and other foreign officials; and as a writer of bestselling spy novels.

It’s difficult to imagine that the robust man with a wide grin and seemingly encyclopedic memory struggled with pneumonia twelve times as a child.  Born in Melbourne, Australia, Moss nearly died three times before the age of 11. “I think of myself as a boy who died and came back,” says Moss about his early childhood years, experiences that led Moss to an understanding “beyond death, not as a matter of theory, but as a matter of firsthand experience.”

Since his childhood, Moss has been fascinated with the liminal space of dreams and learned the ways of a traditional dreaming people through his friendship with the Aborigines.  “The aborigines of my native Australia say the big stories are hunting the right people to tell it. All we need to do is place ourselves where we can be found. How do we do that? By getting outside the picket fence of ordinary habits of understanding… on the edge of wildlife, where the big animals, the big stories can find us.”

To Moss, dreams not only offer us a chance to study more effectively for tests or open ourselves up to creative thinking but they also offer a self-authored roadmap to living richer and more fulfilling lives. “It’s about waking up to the fact that at every moment in life, we have a choice about where we put our energy and attention,” smiles Moss.

A “practical mystic,” Moss has led seminars at the Omega Institute, the New York Open Center, John F. Kennedy University and many other centers and institutions–and in every corner of the globe.  Some of Moss’s bestselling books include Dreaming the Soul Back Home (New World Library), Dreaming True (Gallery Press), Dreamways of the Iroquois, The Interpreter and The Dreamer’s Book of the Dead, as well as his recent book of poetry, Here, Everything is Dreaming.

Everything is Dreaming

“The greatest contribution of the ancient dreamers, of shamans…to our medicine and healing today is the understanding that in the course of any life we are liable to suffer soul loss–the loss of parts of our vital energy and identity—and that in order to be whole and well, we must finds the means of soul recovery,” writes Moss in Dreaming the Soul Back Home. (New World Library).

WRR: The health of the soul might be seen as an indulgent concept disconnected from physical health. How would you describe the term soul? And why is healing our soul useful in a pragmatic sense?

Moss: Well, the word “soul” is widely used in our culture now; it’s not necessarily used very effectively or precisely although I have sympathy for imprecision because “soul” is a slippery concept. But the idea that, in order to mend the body, to mend a life, we must heal the soul has a very ancient pedigree, even in western literature. Here’s the statement, in paraphrase: you cannot heal the body without healing the soul. That statement is first committed in western literature, in an ancient dialogue of Plato.

Active dreaming is also a program for conscious living. For waking up to the fact that every turning in life, we have a choice about where we’re putting our energy and attention, and according to how we exercise that choice, we generate certain results. The phrase “conscious living” has been so simplified, perverted and corrupted in its use that I don’t like it as much anymore so I call it “spiritual magnetism,” a 19th century phrase, which Emerson explored in his writing, about the magnetism of different thoughts and energies.

So I think of this process as spiritual magnetism and one of the things I do as a teacher is I help people to wake up to how magnetism operates, which means how our thoughts and intentions attract or repel different people in circumstances in life.

And I operate everyday in the consciousness of that, reading the world around me as a set of signs or dream-like symbols. So dreaming for me is also about paying attention to the way the world is speaking in everyday life;  it’s a shamanic approach; it’s an ancient approach. I think all of our ancestors understood important things about this, but our culture virtually lost its connection to these ways of seeing and healing. And we’ve done that at our peril of our health, we’ve done it at the peril of being able to guide our communities towards a worthwhile future.

WRR: `In your chapter about myths about dreams from all over the world, you write:  “Like all practical dreamers, the Hawaiians recognize that there are big dreams and little dreams…and ones you don’t want to pay attention to “wild goatfish dreams” caused by something you ate. 

You are often on the road and have travelled all over the world. Tell me about how cultural research and international relationships feed into your research and writing?

Moss: When we study the vocabulary of dreaming, cross-culturally, we come alive to ways of seeing and experiencing the larger reality that I believe were shared by all our ancestors. For example, for the Makiritare, a dreaming people of Venezuela, a dream is literally a “journey of the soul” (adekato). In ancient Assyria, a dream is a “zephyr” slipping through the crack between the door and the lintel to breathe in your ear, like a puff of wind. In ancient Egypt, a dream is an “awakening” (rswt); for me, that is the best of all definitions.

In good Old English, a dream is “merriment” and “revelry” of the kind you might encounter from downing too many goblets in a mead-hall. But by Chaucer’s time, the same word, with a different, Northern derivation, can also imply an encounter with the dead. As in Northern Europe (German Traum, Dutch droom etc) the word “dream” we have inherited is linked to the Old Germanic Draugr, which means a visitation from the dead.

The old Iroquoian word katera’swas means “I dream” but implies much more that we commonly mean when we say that phrase in English. Katera’swas means I dream as a habit, as a daily part of my way of being in the world. The expression also carries the connotation that I am lucky in a proactive way—that I bring myself luck because I am able to manifest good fortune and prosperity through my dream. The related term watera’swo not only means “dream”; it can also be translated as “I bring myself good luck.” One of those early Jesuit missionaries,  Father Jean de Quens noted on a visit to the Onondaga, that “people are told they will have bad luck if they disregard their dreams.” If you want to get lucky, in this conception, you had better learn to dream.

My understanding of what is possible through dreaming was deepened immensely when I dreamed of an ancient shaman, also the Mother of the Wolf Clan of the Mohawk people, who used the term ondinnonk, which took some decoding. I discovered—after studying Mohawk and some Huron—that the term means “the secret wish of the soul, especially as revealed in dreams.” This, I learned, was the key to an ancient practice of dreaming for soul healing, in which a community task is to gather round the dreamer and try to help her understand what the soul wants, as revealed in dreams—and then to help her take action to satisfy the soul (rather than the ego) and keep it in the body where it belongs. 

WRR: You write: “In dreams, our higher or Greater self comes stalking us, giving us the chance to forge a connection that may bring more of soul or spirit into the body that was there before.” How can dreams help us recover our Greater and our “whole” selves?

Moss: In my native Australia, the Aborigines say that the big stories are hunting the right people to tell them. The very practical implication is that we don’t need to go seeking our bigger story, or the Greater Self; all we need do is to put ourselves in a place where we can be found, in a liminal space outside the walls of our consensual thinking.

Many years ago, there was a knock on my door in the middle of the night. When I opened the door, I found a smiling man, his round face bright under the moonlight. He seemed pleasant enough, but perhaps a little simple-minded; I wondered if he was peddling Jesus and if so why he was doing that at 3:00 a.m. He introduced himself by one of my father’s Scottish family names. Then, after some desultory conversation, he asked me, his eyes now keen as a hawk’s, “What is your contract with God?”

I woke from that vivid dream feeling I had been slapped in the face—by someone who did that to bring me awake. The question implied that I had a contract with God. If that was so, then how could I possibly have forgotten it? These questions sowed a kind of divine restlessness. Now it is my purpose to fulfill my sacred contact, as I remember and understand it, and to help others to find theirs, and live with the courage we find when we know ourselves to be connected to a greater story.

If we need further encouragement to look in dreams for contact with  Greater Self, we can go back to Dante’s Purgatorio. Our traveler has been through all the cycles of hell. Now he’s hopeful he will meet the beloved of his soul inside the mountain of Purgatorio. The soul of the soul (as the Sufis say) presents itself in the guise of the beautiful young woman Dante once loved and lost. In her eyes he sees reflected the terror and the glory of the griffin. And what is the first thing this Higher Self says to Dante? She rebukes him sharply for all the years that were wasted when she sought him again and again in his dreams, and he would not listen. If we learn from this not to make the same mistake, maybe we can skip some of those cycles of hell!

WRR: I’m interested in this idea of dreams as places. You’ve talked about the tendency for dreamers to keep going back to a childhood homes or special places that spark something for us. 

Moss: Most of our dreams don’t play out in a formless void, or some Cloud nine. We were with our dream lover in a certain house, the tiger chased us (or licked our face) in a certain landscape, we lost or found our luggage at a certain airport or train station.

In regular life, we understand fairly well that if we have been to a place, we can probably go there again, even if we have lost the exact directions and may need to turn to GPS or an old-fashioned map. It is the same with dreams. If you were in a certain place in a dream, you may be able to go there again, by the technique I call dream reentry, which means returning to a remembered dream where you will travel, wide awake and lucid.

WRR: Why go back to our dreams?

Moss: For all sorts of excellent reasons. To understand your dream from the inside, by gaining access to the full experience of the dream, which is likely to go far beyond your initial memory of the dream. To dialogue with someone in the dream. To solve a mystery or brave up to a fear. To carry the dream onward to a place of healing, beauty or resolution. To go to the place where a part of your vital energy that has been missing can be found and reclaimed, so you can be whole and live a fuller, juicier life.

We dream of an old place—grandma’s house from childhood, perhaps, or the home we shared with a former partner—and those dreams may give us a way to connect with a younger self, or a series of younger selves, who parted company at the time we were living in that old place, maybe because of pain or trauma or disappointment or bitter frustration over life choices we made.  When we make that connection with a younger self, quite wonderful things become possible. We can bring vital energy and joy and imagination back into our life, with that “wonder-child” or that beautiful teen self we have discovered again. We can reach back across time and be the mentor and cheerleader for a younger self that person may have desperately needed in that time, speaking mind to mind across the years.

WRR: You wrote a blog about your love of books and book-hopping (and the stack of books that always piles up around you.)  I liked the term. And you refer to a quote from Montaigne: “He took up books as if they were people and welcomed them into his family.” Who would you consider as key players in your book family?

Moss: My book family is an extended one, and ever-growing! I am always ready to adopt superior novelists; Elizabeth Kostova (Swan Thieves) and Ben Okri (The Famished Road) are most welcome. There’s always room at my table for magical realists and masters of historical spy fiction and policiers; when I find we get on well together, I devour everything they have written at high speed, as I’ve done recently with Jonathan Carroll and Alan Furst.

Some members of my book family hold court for a time, then retire into a quiet space upstairs. In the late 1980s, when my dreams led me into the world of the Iroquois in an earlier time, my intimate clan, over many months, included the 73 volumes of the Jesuit Relations, an extraordinary collection of the reports of blackrobe missionaries in New France and New York in the 17th century. They are now resting in an upstairs library in my house and have not been consulted for some time, but may be invited down again.

I am a lazy linguist, but I like it when members of our book family speak their own languages because (as the Emperor Charles V said) to know another language is to live a second life.

Elders in my book family, often consulted, include William James, C.G.Jung, Emerson, Robert Graves, C.S. Lewis, Shakespeare, Swedenborg, Thomas Mann, Henry Corbin. Marija Gimbutas, the great Lithuanian scholar of the Goddess, has a place of honor in our book family, and I often call on Jane Roberts. Every three or four years I ask Joan Grant to tell me again (in Winged Pharaoh) about how Egypt dreamed, and I sit down again with Viktor Frankl, in a quiet corner, so he can remind me (through Man’s Search for Meaning) of how the imagination can get us through the most hellish conditions. I’ll smoke a cigar with Mark Twain, who reminds me that we must not approach anything serious without bringing a sense of humor, or have nightcap with Graham Greene, who is always good for tips on the writer’s trade and how to turn memories and dreams into plot and character.

When the poets speak, we all listen, especially when the poet is W.B. Yeats, who once declaimed to me, “What better guide/to the Other Side/ than a poet?” I open Rumi for daily inspiration, and walk with Baudelaire whispering in my ear that the world is a forest of living symbols that are looking at us. I go back again and again to the Odyssey and to Dante’s Divine Comedy.

Per tornar altra volta
La dov’ io son

So I may return again
To where I am 

WRR: You veer away from the term “dream analysis” or “interpretation” and prefer the term “active” dreaming. Can you elaborate on why?  

Moss: Dreams require action! If we do not do something with our dreams in waking life, we miss out on the magic. Real magic consists of bringing something through from a deeper reality into our physical lives, which is why active dreaming is a way of natural magic—but only if we take the necessary action to bring the magic through.

My term Active Dreaming is my preferred name for my whole approach, which is an original synthesis of modern dreamwork and ancient shamanic techniques for shifting consciousness and traveling in other realities. One of the most important and helpful practices I have created is what I call the Lightining Dreamwork game. It is a simple method that enables us to create a safe space where we can share dreams of the night or dreams of life with a partner, encourage each other to tell our stories well, give helpful feedback, and help each other to take action to bring energy and guidance from the dream into regular life. We do not “interpret” each other’s dreams. Instead, we help each other to become authors of meaning for our own dreams and our own lives. When we offer our thoughts and associations on a dream, we always begin by saying, “If it were my dream”, owning our projections and leaving the dreamer free to settle on their own understanding of the dream.

Active dreamers are also active with their dreams in regular life. By sharing dreams the right way, we build and deepen relationships and community. No Active Dreaming process is complete until the dreamer has come up with an action plan. Among the possibilities

  • create from a dream: turn the dream into a story or poem. Draw from it, paint from it, turn it into a comic strip
  • take a physical action to celebrate an element in the dream, such as wearing the color that was featured in the dream, traveling to a place from the dream, making a phone call to an old friend who showed up in the dream
  • use an object or create a dream talisman to hold the energy of the dream: A stone or crystal may be a good place to hold the energy of a dream, and return to it.
  • use the dream as a travel advisory: If the dream appears to contain guidance on a future situation, carry it with you as a personal travel advisory. Summarize the dream information on a cue card or hold it in an image you can physically carry.
  • go back into the dream to clarify details, dialogue with a dream character, explore  the larger reality—and have marvelous fun! 

WRR: You write about the term, anamnesis, remembering. Can you define the term and how it relates to dreams?

Moss: As a child I learned in a dream encounter that all true knowledge comes through anamnesis, which is a word we have in English that translates as “remembering.” In Neo-Platonist understanding it has a special spin. Anamnesis is remembering what belongs to you on a higher level, the level of nous. For the Pythagoreans, anamnesis means recollecting your previous lives in exact detail, and operating with the knowledge of those many selves.

Dreams, when we catch them and work with them, are vital tools for anamnesis, which I want to translate as soul remembering. But the clues and souvenirs we retain from dreams are often mysterious, fragmentary or obscure. We may need help to grasp where exactly they come from and where we need to follow them.

WRR: You discuss Jung’s work in depth psychology in your book and quote him when describing the various locations in our dreams, likening our minds to apartment buildings, in which most of us only live on one or two floors and are quite unaware of the others. He wrote, “recognizing the shadow is what I call the apprenticeship. But making out with the animus is what I call the masterpiece that not many bring off.” How would you distinguish between apprenticeship and mastery for dreamers?

And how would you say Jung influenced your work? 

Moss: I devoured Jung’s Collected Works as an undergraduate. What fired me up most—as it did so many others—was the version of his life in the larger reality as he gave in Memories, Dreams, Reflections. Two statements from that work have lived with me, from my late teens, as precepts for living. The first is: “All day long I have exciting ideas and thoughts. But I take up in my work only those to which my dreams direct me.” I have lived most of my own life in precisely this way. And, again, Jung wrote: “Dreams are the facts from which we must proceed.” Exactly! Dreams are not texts, nor delusions caused by random neuronal firings, nor merely day processing, nor subterfuges of the guilty psyche to protect sleep: they are the facts of experience in a larger reality, and to work with them and let them play with use, we must seek to get those facts as clear and complete as possible, if necessary by going back inside the space where we encountered them, through conscious or shamanic dreaming.

Jung’s practice has inspired me more than his theories. For example, his way of consulting what was going on in the field—the wind on the lake, the fox in the woods, the scarab-like beetle at the window—in counseling clients. His famous essay on synchronicity is much less interesting than his personal practice of monitoring coincidence and symbolic popups from the world around him.

Jung, for me, is the model of what a real shaman of the West would be like. In indigenous cultures, the master shaman is a scholar and scientist, a poet and dramatist, whose vocabulary may be many times that of the average person. He or she is someone who can change a body, or an experienced world, by telling a better story about it, and entertains the lively spirits with “fresh words”, as the Inuit say. And the true shaman is a dreamer, one who dreams strong, one who can dream for others. So, if you want to see what a dream shaman of the West is like, look at Jung, who went to the Underworld and died and came back as true shamans are obliged to do.

As for the question: What is required for mastery, or excellence, in any field? The answer is always the same: practice, practice. Malcolm Gladwell has popularized the idea that it requires 10,000 hours of practice to get really good in any chosen field. If this is true, then dreamers have a long head start. All of us are dreaming every night, not only in sleep but in the twilight state of hynanogia.

And if we learn to read the world around us as a book of symbols and to navigate by synchronicity, we can put in our hours in this fun and magical way too, quite effortlessly. I’ll admit, there will be some effort involved to become a true master of the dreamways. I can teach you to swim, but you’ll need to grow your own courage and accumulate your own experience of riptides and what lives in the deep before you are ready for the ocean where shamans and mystics swim while madmen drown.

WRR Is there anything else you would like to add?

Moss: May your best dreams come true – and may you remember them!