Dreams and Elder Initiations

Editor’s note: Harry R. Moody, Ph.D., is Director of Academic Affairs for AARP. Before coming to AARP, he served as Executive Director of the Brookdale Center on Aging at Hunter College and Chairman of the Board of Elderhostel. He is the author of many articles and several books on the humanities and aging, including Aging: Concepts and Controversies (now in its 6th edition); Ethics in an Aging Society; and The Five Stages of the Soul: Charting the Spiritual Passages That Shape Our Lives, translated into seven languages worldwide.

“Is this all there is?” Peggy Lee asks in her famous song. Whether we have fulfilled our hopes in life, or realized that we never will, the question is still the same. “Is this all there is?”

That question invites us to begin a journey. It is the Call, the first of what I have described as the “five stages of the soul” in which the Call is followed by Search, Struggle, Breakthrough, and Return.1 Though this initial invitation may come to us at any point in our lives, in later life, it often comes with particular power and urgency.

The Call is an awakening, the moment when this inward dimension we call soul comes to life — that moment when we “come to ourselves” and ask the perennial questions: Who am I? Where am I going? What is this life all about? These questions prove painful because, as James Hollis puts it, by midlife what we have become — the strong ego we have built — is frequently our chief obstacle to listening to the Call.

The inner voice demands to be heard — demands we begin the journey. Jung warns us of the price we pay if we ignore the invitation: “Only the man who can consciously assent to the power of the inner voice becomes a personality.” Everything around us, however, conspires to keep us from hearing this “still small voice.” We avoid looking inside ourselves because:

Looking in will require of us great subtlety and great courage — nothing less than a complete shift in our attitude to life and to the mind. We are so addicted to looking outside ourselves that we have lost access to our inner being almost completely. We are terrified to look inward, because our culture has given us no idea of what we will find. — Sogyal Rinpoche

In ancient Shamanic traditions, the Call was recognized as an opening to initiation into the world of the spirits; this Call to initiation would often come through our dreams. The potential shaman who hears the call through his dreams ignores it at his peril: “Most shamanic traditions take the position that refusal to follow the call will result in a terrible accident, a life-threatening sickness, or insanity.” — Stanley Krippner

Do we dismiss this warning as just an ancient superstition? Or is it an all-too-accurate description of what happens when an entire culture, a global civilization, ignores the invitations of the soul seeking actualization? Today, as we see the world around us plunged in such collective insanity, we must wonder: How many around us have ignored the Call or dismissed its message? How many have ignored their dreams?
The cry

The great Jewish theologian Martin Buber begins his book Between Man and Man by telling about one of his own dreams, a classic dream of the Call. This dream came to him again and again, sometimes after an interval of years. In the dream he finds himself in a “primitive” world, in a vast cave or a mud building, or “on the fringe of a gigantic forest whose like I cannot remember having seen.” Perhaps this “gigantic forest” is the same “dark wood” where Dante found himself at the beginning of his own spiritual journey. Here is Martin Buber’s dream:

The dream begins in very different ways, but always with something extraordinary happening to me, for instance, with a small animal resembling a lion-cub (whose name I know in the dream but not when I awake) tearing the flesh from my arm and being forced only with an effort to loose its hold. The strange thing is that this first part of the dream story, in the duration as well as the outer meaning of the incidents, always unfolds at a furious pace as though it did not matter. Then suddenly the pace abates: I stand there and cry out.

Buber goes on to tell us that, in terms of waking consciousness, he might suppose that his cry could be joyous or fearful, depending on interpretation. But when he remembers the dream in the morning, “the cry” is “neither so expressive nor so various.” Instead, he remembers that “each time it is the same cry, inarticulate but in strict rhythm, rising and falling, swelling to a fullness which my throat could not endure were I awake…” The cry becomes a song, and “when it ends my heart stops beating.”

But then, somewhere, far away, another cry moves towards me, another which is the same, the same cry uttered or sung by another voice. Yet it is not the same cry, certainly no echo of my cry but rather its true rejoinder, tone for tone, not repeating mine… so much so, that mine, which at first had to my own ear no sound of questioning at all, now appear as questions, as a long series of questions, which now all receive a response.

A dream like this cannot be translated into rational discourse: “The response is no more capable of interpretation than the question. And yet the cries that meet the one cry that is the same do not seem to be the same as one another. Each time the voice is new.” Though the rational mind cannot grasp the meaning of this Cry, Buber still comes away from the dream with a sense of certitude: “A certitude, true dream certitude comes to me that now it has happened. Nothing more. Just this, and in this way —- now it has happened.”

Martin Buber had this dream over and over again, until the last time just two years before he spoke about it in his book. Of the last instance of the dream, he wrote: “At first it was as usual…my cry died away, again my heart stood still. But then there was quiet. There came no answering call. I listened, I heard no sound.” Buber, surprised by this absence, waits, in vain, for the response. But then something happened to him, a change of awareness, as if his senses had suddenly become magnified. “And then, not from a distance but from the air round about me, noiselessly, came the answer.” Rather, the answer was already there, was present even before his cry: “When I laid myself open to it, it let itself be received by me.” What he received at that moment he received “with every pore of his body.” Once again, he experienced profound certainty, “pealing out more than ever, that now it has happened.”

What Martin Buber has so beautifully described in this dream is the powerful, overwhelming reality of the Call. It is what the poet Rilke speaks of (in the Duino Elegies) when he tells of listening to the call of “the Angel” and realizing that to have lived on earth, “To have been here once, if only for this once, can never be cancelled.” In essence, it has happened. The Call is a moment of certainty, but not a dogmatic conclusion that can be put into words. On the contrary, it is a hunger for the Infinite.

Rilke put it beautifully in his Letters to a Young Poet: “Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions.” The Call, then, is different from some “religious experience,” or any sort of “conversion” that gives us clear or definitive conclusions. Quite the contrary. The Call is an encounter with emptiness, with our own deepest questions, now no longer experienced as doubt but as certainty: It has happened.

But to listen to the Call we must learn to listen to an Inner Voice.
The old men in the cave

Initiation into elderhood need not come only in later life. On the contrary, in world mythology, we find repeated pairing between the young hero and a hero who represents the Elder Ideal. The following is the dream of a young man who was seeking direction in his life. He had gone alone to camp on Mt. Shasta in California where he was practicing nightly “dream incubation,” a custom familiar to the ancient Greeks. On the fifth night on the mountaintop he had the following dream:

I am in a cave with a group of old men. They are drinking water from an old bowl that is being passed around. As the bowl comes closer towards me I realize that this must be a dream. An old man with dark skin and dark hair sitting next to me hands me the bowl. I take it and drink the water. I suddenly hear a humming sound and as I look up the men have disappeared and a beautiful white deer is walking in the light in the far distance. I awake feeling ecstatic.

The dreamer considered this lucid dream to be an initiatory experience. Apart from the dreamer’s individual psychological associations, key features of this dream are important for understanding the place of dreams over the life course.

In every respect, “The Old Men in the Cave” is a dream of initiation during youth. The dreamer goes alone out into the wilderness, as would be the custom for a Native American shaman seeking dream initiation. Among the Plains Indians the dream was treated as a significant event, occurring on different planes of reality. Thus, among such groups the “vision quest” was also known as “crying for a dream” and was found especially among the Lakota. Among the Iroquois it was understood that the spirit world could communicate with individuals through these “Big Dreams.” The Mohawk word atetshents means, simply, “one who dreams,” the same word used for a shaman or healer. A Big Dream could be a healing for the whole community, conveying revelations or warnings to be heeded.

Though the young man who dreamed “The Old Men in the Cave” was not a Native American, the condition and the imagery of his dream have lessons well beyond him. The psychological journey into the self is, in many respects, a path toward aloneness. Each of us must learn to be alone with ourselves. The journey into the wilderness is also a passage into an unknown world, to discover something in us that is wild and untamed. The dreamer here has actually gone to a mountaintop in order to incubate his dream; and the mountaintop, too, is a significant symbol: It is the point where earth touches heaven. Recall that Moses went to the top of Mt. Sinai to receive revelation, and Muhammad went into a cave atop Mount Hira, where he received the revelation of the Quran. Yet the setting of this dream has another curious feature. It is not only on the mountaintop but also in an opposite direction: that is, downward, into a cave, as if suggesting, in the words of Heraclitus, “The way up and the way down are the same.”

Caves symbolize what is deepest and oldest in the psyche. “Before humans built shelters, the earliest sacred places were caves,” writes A. T. Mann: “The connection of cave to underworld remains a primary ancestral memory for us, and thus, caves remain formidable places.” Joseph Campbell says: “The cave has always been the scene of initiation, where the birth of the light takes place. Here as well is found the whole idea of the cave of the heart, the dark chamber of the heart, where the light of the divine first appears.”

The oldest art works of humanity — the cave art at Lascaux or the even older cave of Chauvet in France — are cave drawings from our remote ancestors. Cave dwelling evokes a primordial condition which can be understood as the context for this dream. The dreamer at first is not alone in this cave but is with a group of old men, as if to suggest that the process of initiation itself is a connection between youth and age. As in the ritual of the Eucharist, in “The Old Men in the Cave” a bowl is passed around and, just as the dreamer is about to drink, the dream becomes lucid. The image of an old man with “dark skin” and “dark hair” suggests an element of darkness or shadow belonging to the dreamer, who has now drunk from the initiatory bowl. From that moment on the old men in the dream disappear, and the dreamer is once again alone. The circle of aloneness is complete. As philosopher Alfred North Whitehead once remarked, religion is what each of us does with our aloneness.

The cave drawings at Lascaux and Chauvet depict magical animals, and in “The Old Men in the Cave” the dreamer now sees another magical animal: the “white deer walking in the light in the far distance.” This vision of an illuminated animal symbolizes the distance this dreamer has already traveled and must still travel in the process of initiation. The dreamer has now been granted a holy vision, and he wakes up ecstatic. The word ek-stasis, in Greek means, literally, “standing outside oneself,” as this dreamer has gone outside himself.

“The Old Men in the Cave” is the dream of a young man seeking guidance. But where can youth find guidance today? In a society like ours where age is devalued, young people are left adrift. Not surprisingly, they crave some kind of initiation or viable path into adulthood. Because we lack any journey into the wilderness, or a genuine ritual for reconciling aloneness within society, we end up forcing young people to behave in ways disconnected from the adult world and from the self they might become. And so they join gangs to find solidarity and a viable path to adulthood. The image of the elders in “The Old Men in the Cave” expresses a longing for such guidance and direction in life — a longing that too often remains unfulfilled.

This challenge of initiation is not limited to young people. At every transitional or “liminal” stage of life we need guidance. “There persists in all of us, regardless of gender, an archetypal need to be initiated,” as Jungian analyst Anthony Stevens writes, even though “our culture no longer provides rites of initiation, except in training members of the armed forces and providing examinations for students.” So we turn to stories, myths, fairy tales, and dreams that respond to our hunger for a “rite of passage” that will help us move during critical or transitional points in the life course — marriage, death of a parent, and so on — to the next stage of life.
Meeting the Sage

Our culture’s marked impoverishment when it comes to offering initiatory symbols or experience make the need for guidance urgent. The Search — the second stage of the soul, the stage which follows the Call — is in fact a search for guidance. This dynamic may also appear in dreams, as in the following dream experienced by the late Brugh Joy, a physician and spiritual teacher, when he was age 45. In the dream, which took place three days before Easter, a date predicted as his death in an earlier dream, the figure of the guide makes an unexpected appearance:

I am sitting in a pastoral setting, watching a strange event take place. A white, triangular tent, covered at both ends so I can’t see inside, is in an open area. I hear a small boy’s laughter coming from inside the tent. Long, multicolored sashes, tied together and forming a multicolored snakelike pattern, are being pulled into the tent through a sphincter-like hole at one end. Suddenly, seated next to me, appears an East Indian Sage, about forty to fifty years old, with a radiant face. He, too, is laughing. He is dressed in orange saffron robes, which he wears comfortably and casually. He has a graying beard. The Sage informs me that I need a teacher to help guide me into my next initiation. He suggests that I go to the bookstore and see what strikes me as interesting.

He then tells me to lie down on my stomach. He places one hand on the back of my head and the other on the lower end of my spine. I suddenly feel a current of energy, as though I were plugged into an electrical outlet. I begin to cry tears of appreciation. The Sage tells me he is healing my body… and I awaken.

In this dream the Sage tells Brugh Joy that he needs a teacher to guide him toward his next initiation. The dream culminates with an intimation of the Breakthrough experience that is possible on the path.
When the time is right

We live in a time when unprecedented numbers of people are living to experience aging. Yet our culture lacks institutions to give guidance for those in the stage of the Search. Fortunately, efforts are underway to develop new institutions appropriate to our time and to the opportunity for initiation into Elderhood. The Sage-ing Guild, inspired by Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, is one example of such an opportunity for those seeking a path toward conscious aging. Ron Pevny, the founder of the Center for Conscious Eldering (see his article in this issue) is one of those working in the Guild. Pevny says he did not come to this work without going through his own Struggle, as shown in this dream he experienced when he entered midlife:

I am in my relatives’ home in Durango, Colorado. It is my birthday. There is a card table set up and covered with wrapped gifts, which are for me. In my eagerness, I rush up to the table and accidentally knock against it. One of the gifts falls to the floor, and the wrapping partially opens. I see that it is a beautiful agate ring or pendant or bracelet or the like. I know that this is representative of the beautiful gifts on the table, and that I am not supposed to open these gifts yet. I feel bad for having crashed into the table. I awaken with the words “All this will be yours when the time is right.”

Ron Pevny notes that this dream came on his first vision quest training. His life at the time was filled with doubt and “dark nights,” reflected in that Struggle: “I felt very flawed, stuck spiritually, and questioning whether these struggles would ever end. Finally, on the last night of the quest, when I was trying to stay awake all night, I just gave up struggling. It seemed nothing of consequence had happened on my quest, but I could no longer continue to work at making something happen. I let my eyes close, and was blessed with this dream which 30 years later is still alive in me and has helped me persist and stay on my path through many dark times since.”
No regrets

Eventually, “when the time is right,” more than 25 years later, Ron would have a powerful dream of the Return, which gave him the direction he needed to establish his program of wilderness vision quests, the signature program of the Center for Conscious Eldering:

An important mystery play is happening, and I have been chosen to represent human beings on their deathbeds in this powerful ceremony. I am not dying myself, but am experiencing the dynamics of being about to die and learning what is necessary to die a good, peaceful death, free of baggage and emotional encumbrances.

The ceremony has me being carried on a bier by several people. The only light is provided by torches and candles. The setting is one of great spiritual power and sacredness. I am carried to several stations where I experience specific teachings. One of these is a station where I am to make amends for anyone I have hurt in my life. I realize that I don’t have many such amends to make. Neither this nor the other stations (which I don’t remember as I write this) has a big impact on me in the dream.

Then we come to the final station. Here tremendous power becomes focused, the heavens seem to open up, and I am deeply shaken as I hear the words, “No regrets. You can have no regrets. You must teach no regrets.”

I awaken with these words vibrating throughout my being. I go to the bathroom still feeling enveloped in this dream with these words repeating in my head. I go back to bed and I’m back in the dream, with me trying to understand how I am supposed to teach “no regrets.” It seems this goes on for ages. Then, the scene shifts and I am with my rite of passage mentors from 30 years ago, Steven Foster and Meredith Little. They are teaching a large group who listen with rapt attention in an outdoor amphitheater. Then, when they are finished, they tell me that it is now my turn to teach “no regrets.” I try, but most of the people are leaving, the shape and acoustics of the setting change, and I find myself yelling just to be heard by a few people. Then Steven and Meredith tell me that before I can effectively teach “no regrets” I have to first truly understand and embody “no regrets” in my life. Then people will listen and no yelling will be necessary.

Ron Pevny commented about his dream: “This is perhaps the most powerful, impactful dream I have ever had. It has been pivotal in helping deepen my experiential and conceptual understanding of the inner work of conscious aging. It has given me a feeling of mandate for doing the work I am doing in the conscious aging movement. The inner work of transforming regret that helps people to die in peace and to enter the next life without negative karma — that is the same work that is necessary for dying to one’s previous self-identifications, those encumbrances that prevent us from moving into the life stage of elder free of our old baggage, attachments, and other energy drainers. Those who shine most brightly as elders live with “no regrets.”
Changing the culture — slowly

Note that more than a quarter of a century elapsed between Ron Pevny’s early vision quest dream and his dream of “No Regrets” which pointed him toward the practice that has become his distinctive contribution. The work of conscious eldering, as exemplified in the Sage-ing Guild, Second Journey, and other groups established in recent years, is not something that can be accomplished quickly. That fact seems to me all the more reason we commit our energies anew to the task of changing the culture.