Pacific sunset (Photo by Gary Newman)
Do we dream about the earth? We dream about our friends and family, our work and creative projects, so why would we not dream about this planet we call home? Perhaps because its scale is too big. We live in a certain town, a certain neighborhood, a certain hut or home. We Homo sapiens are rather small creatures, more comfortable when contained in proportionately small geographies. As a child, I used to stand under the night sky and wonder why I didn’t fall off the earth; it doesn’t take much to awaken that sense of fear and marvel, even now. Unless you happen to be an explorer seeking the source of the Nile or a world traveler frequently crossing borders from one continent to another, the globe itself would not be your daily landscape.
But something is happening today that challenges our former identification with a tribe, a culture, a country, inviting us to recognize the ways we are part of a larger interconnected whole. We now know, for instance, about the rain forests and ozone hole, the polar ice caps and loss of species. Whenever there is a common threat, our sense of identity tends to expand so that we can come into relation to the shared problem. Therefore we might expect dreams about the planet to be on the rise.
Our Western view of dreams itself has been too small, too confined by the dominant egocentric notion that we dream primarily about ourselves, a view not found in other cultures. We also refer to “having” dreams. I want to introduce a different possibility: that dreams come to us. We might speak about receiving dreams, witnessing dreams, being instructed by dreams. This shift in perspective will come into play when we look at dreams about the earth.
Meredith Sabini, Ph.D., a Licensed Psychologist in the field since 1972, is founder and director of The Dream Institute of Northern California. She practices living sustainably, teaches Ecopsychology and Evolutionary Psychology, and is editor of The Earth Has a Soul: Jung on Nature, Technology, and Modern Life.
Some years ago, friends and I were looking for land in the country where we could settle. We’d had it with the modern world and sorely needed to live in a more natural locale, at a more natural pace. In addition to homes for ourselves, we were thinking of starting a retreat center for those in the helping professions. We looked at both vacant land and at properties with dwellings we could convert. After almost a year of searching, we found a place that seemed right: several forty-acre parcels on a remote mountainside two hours from the central Bay Area. No services were in yet. We drove out a dirt road, then hiked around. It was lovely.
That night I had a dream, in words: “This is how Western civilization spreads.” I woke from it in shock. In the inimitable way of dreams, this stated the simple truth. By purchasing this land and building homes on it, we would be doing the very thing that we abhorred: extending the reach of civilization further into a wilderness area of the planet, fostering the cancer that has eaten up pasture land, open plains, and forested hillsides like the one we’d seen. I called my companions and told them the dream. I reaffirmed my preference to only buy something with existing structures we could remodel, and thus preserve.
Is this an “earth dream”? Surely it is. It is about the earth itself, about our attitude toward land, and how we live on it. The dream did not make any value judgment; it merely held up a reflective mirror in which the actual situation was depicted. The judgment call was mine to make. I could have said to myself, Well, it will be okay because we will build by hand, use soil from buildings’ footprints to make adobe, put in solar, and not spread civilization as others have—or some such noble-sounding rationalization. But to do this lacked integrity.
The dream about spreading Western civilization could have come to others as well; it is what C. G. Jung called a “collective” dream. In a 1931 interview for the New York Sun, Jung gave an account of how collective concerns express themselves in dreams:
We are awakening a little to the feeling that something is wrong in the world . . . We are suffering, in our cities, from a need of simple things . . . These things are being expressed in thousands of dreams. Women’s dreams, men’s dreams, the dreams of human beings, all having much the same collective primal unconscious mind—the same in the central African Negro I lived among and the New York stockbroker—and it is in our dreams that the body makes itself aware to our mind. The dream is in large part a warning of something to come (McGuire, 1977, p. 49).
Jung was far ahead of the times by recognizing that dreams are not limited to our individual lives but arise out of the cumulative experience of our species, which has been millions of years in the making. Based on contemporary neuroscience, it is now established that REM dreaming is a 140-million-year-old function in all mammals and associated with survival via the development of the nervous system and long-term memory storage. (See Parman 1979; Revonsuo 2000; Snyder 1996; Stevens 1993; Winson 2002.) Jung put this very clearly when he said,
Dreams … are pure nature; they show us the unvarnished natural truth, and … give us back an attitude that accords with basic human nature when our consciousness has strayed too far from its foundation and run into an impasse.
To concern ourselves with dreams is not our ego-consciousness reflecting on itself; rather, it turns its attention to the objective actuality of the dream as a communication or message from the unconscious, unitary soul of humanity . . . the trunk from which the ego grew (Jung 1970, par 317-18).
In it attempt to maintain homeostasis, the evolved dreaming mind will point out when we are out of balance with ourselves or at risk of jeopardizing the balance of other living systems, as it did in my dream of spreading Western civilization. It was as if the dreaming mind said to me, “You have a contagious disease and are about to introduce it into the new environment you’ve found.” The dream placed me and the earth in an active and interconnected relationship, as if the earth were an extension of my body and I a part of its body.
I once met a woman who founded an environmental center and school where people could learn permaculture, survival medicine, tracking skills, integrated pest management, rainwater collection, urban food forests, and the like. My book of Jung’s nature writings, The Earth Has a Soul, had just come out and she invited me to give a talk at the school. We met so she could show me around; she kept me waiting a moment while she finished a cigarette. Sitting face to face with her over lunch, I noticed the pallid, dry texture of her skin, evidence of the contraction of blood vessels that accompanies nicotine addiction. She alluded, embarrassedly, to her smoking. I responded, “This too is earth,” touching my chest. She looked surprised, even puzzled, so I said more. “Everyone thinks nature is out there. But we’re composed of the same balance of elements as the earth. Our bodies are our own small portion of earth.” She admitted she’d never thought of it this way. Two years later, I learned through a mutual friend that she’d died of lung cancer.
I tell this story because it illustrates the dilemma I have: where does the “earth” end and the human being, I, begin? Stated like this, we can see the fundamental error of this kind of dualistic thinking. This is the theme of Jung’s 1927 essay, “Mind and Earth,” in which he gives this wonderful definition:
archetypes are . . . the hidden foundations of the conscious mind, or, to use another comparison, the roots which the psyche has sunk not only in the earth in the narrow sense but in the world in general (Jung, 1970, par. 53).
Do we dream about the earth in the narrow sense of the rocks and trees and soil? Perhaps, but not too often. We do dream about the earth in the broader sense of the world or life in general. Jung came back to the danger of dualism in his final essay for Man and His Symbols, saying that if we have only an image, “it is merely a word-picture, like a corpuscle with no electrical charge.” But when the image—or dream—is charged with numinosity or meaning, “it is a piece of life,” because the full archetype is “living matter” (Jung, 1976, par. 589).
One of my favorite earth-dreams features mushrooms as the main character. I don’t have these dreams very often, but they always have the same form: I come upon a huge blooming of ’shrooms, not a single variety but many, though not species I recognize; sometimes the crop is as large as a field of poppies and other times they are tightly packed into a planting bed or around a tree trunk. The feeling in the dream is always the same: I am surprised to encounter the mushrooms and astonished they could grow so prolifically. The dreams have the combination Jung alluded to—a universal image plus a vibrant, meaningful emotion.
I have been an amateur mycologist—mushroom aficionado—for thirty-five years, initially having gotten intrigued during the daily route from my San Francisco apartment to a bus stop, which took me through a wonderfully unkempt urban park where, to my astonishment, I spotted lavender mushrooms! (They were Blewits.) Like termites, mushrooms occupy the unique and vital ecological niche of being recyclers. They do their job in the interstices of the living and the dying earth. By consuming the latter, they make possible the former. Mushrooms you see on a rotting log on the forest floor, for example, are transforming that decaying wood into humus. Most mushrooms are the fruit of an underground root system known as mycelium. The largest known organism on this planet is a mushroom, many miles in diameter (Paul Stamets, TED Conference, March 2008).
In light of these facts, what might dreams about mushrooms symbolize? I believe they represent the capacity of life to renew itself from unseen sources, from the ground up. My dreams about mushrooms seem to coincide with new phases in life, and I have come to think they signify emergence. Looked at with a limited lens, mushrooms are simply part of the earth in the narrow sense; but looked at more broadly, they take on the archetypal significance of a dynamic process of renewal found in the world in general.
There are other common dream motifs taken from nature that depict various life processes: flowing rivers symbolizing the force of life that carries us along; rains that wash away our mental fog or haze; earthquakes that coincide with a deep emotional upheaval. Tornadoes, floods, lightning, freezes, and other manifestations of nature may appear in dreams as metaphors for the ebb and flow of our emotional, mental, and spirited aspects: our tumultuous outbursts, gushings, sudden shocks of energy, cold withdrawal.
Here is a dream about water that was shared at an annual dream retreat I lead: “I am at an artesian spring. I forgot to bring my camera, so I just try to sketch a picture of it.” To understand the dream, we had to find out what distinguished this kind of spring from others. We learned that an artesian well is made by drilling through a dense layer of rock; the water below then rises to the surface like a geyser. The dream contains the classic storyline about how, at times, we have to dig down deep and penetrate our own dense layers in order to release the waters of life trapped below.
A recent earth-dream of mine concerned the melting of the ice caps. It was a plain, unelaborated scene of a polar bear standing on a tiny floe of ice, looking at me with helpless appeal. Is this an outward-facing dream about the actual melting of the ice caps or is it a subjective picture of some aspect of my own nature that has previously been frozen out of life, and now wants to join in? This question has to be asked about any earth-related dreams we have; we cannot assume they refer only to outer situations we are already familiar with.
The dreams cited so far—about mushrooms, artesian springs, and ice floes—seem to be most meaningful if they are viewed and interpreted subjectively as relating to the personal life of the dreamer, even though they do draw on motifs from nature that are factual and objective. In 1917, Jung distinguished between dreams that were subjective, or purely personal, and those that were objective and could be interpreted without the dreamer’s own associations (Jung, 1966, par 130). A historically important objective dream that can speak to all of us comes from The Lichtenberg Reader (1959, pp. 118-21), an anthology of the writings of Georg Lichtenberg, an eminent scientist and philosopher in the 1700s who was a Professor of Mathematics and Astronomy at the University of Gottingen. His work combined a religious sensibility with a passion for empirical investigation. Though no longer well known, Lichtenberg was admired and quoted by Kant, Goethe, Kierkegaard, Wittgenstein, and Freud. His dream, from around 1780, foreshadows the way Western science has come to treat the physical world and is stunning in its relevance to the state of our planet today. It is lengthy, so I paraphrase sections but quote the central dialogue between Lichtenberg and the invisible figure who speaks to him.
The dream opens with Lichtenberg soaring over the earth. He encounters an old man whose glorious appearance fills him with awe. The man hands him a mineral, saying, “You love to investigate nature. Here you shall see something which can be useful to you … Test it and tell me what you’ve found.” It is a bluish-green sphere an inch in diameter, and nearby are all the instruments Lichtenberg will need.
“I shook it and put it to my ear. I raised it to my tongue. I wiped away some dust … rubbed it on my sleeve to test for electricity. I checked it against steel, glass, and a magnet, and determined its specific gravity… All the tests showed me that the mineral wasn’t particularly valuable, not very different from marbles I’d bought at the Frankfurt Faire for a farthing.”
Lichtenberg finds it to be composed of clay, iron, silica, salt, and some unknown elements. As he finishes, the old man appears again, and asks, “Do you know, mortal, what it is you tested?” “No, Immortal, I do not know,” Lichtenberg said, casting himself at his feet. “Then know: it was, on a miniature scale, nothing less than—the whole earth.”
“The earth? Great, eternal God! And the ocean and all that dwell within it—where are they?”
“They hang there on your cloth, you wiped them away.”
“And the sea of air and all the glory of the dry land?”
“The sea of air? That is probably left over in that cup of distilled water. And as to your glory of the dry land, how can you ask such a question? That was the imperceptible dust; some is clinging here to your coat sleeve.”
“But I didn’t find a trace of silver and gold, which rule the globe!”
“Know then: with your blade you cut away all of Switzerland and the finest part of Sicily, and you completely ruined a whole stretch of Africa . . . ”
Lichtenberg was silent. He felt he would give nine-tenths of the life remaining him to restore his “chemically destroyed earth,” and begs for another chance. “Oh great immortal being, whoever thou art . . . enlarge a mustard seed to the thickness of the earth and allow me to examine the mountains and strata till the germ develops.” The wisdom figure answers that already on earth such a granule has been magnified; he informs Lichtenberg that “before your transformation, you will not reach that other side of the curtain which you seek.”
The Immortal then hands Lichtenberg a pouch and tells him to test what is inside. Lichtenberg pledges to be more careful. He is surprised to find only a book with a simple binding. Its language is not known, but the title page has the same command: “Test this, my son, chemically, and tell me what you have found.” Lichtenberg wonders what use it would be to chemically test a book, knowing that it is merely rag and ink: the contents of the book are its essence. He says,
“Suddenly, things became clear in my mind and an irrepressible blush of shame came over me. Oh! I called, more and more loudly, I understand, I understand! Immortal being, forgive me; I comprehend your kindly reproof, I thank the Eternal that I can comprehend it.”
Lichtenberg was indescribably moved, and awoke in awe. The dream report ends here with no further comment.
What was it Lichtenberg understood? That breaking down the visible world into its physical properties does not yield its essence? That dissecting can destroy what it studies? From high above the earth, Lichtenberg was shown a larger perspective. Referring to himself as a “man of feeling,” Lichtenberg was distressed over his destructive actions and wants to redeem them by tending a seed to germination. But the spirit guide or wisdom figure tells him that until he himself is transformed, he will not be able to see the spirit inside matter. But he is given a second chance. In examining the book, Lichtenberg realizes that the essence lies in its meaning, that is, its spiritual essence, not its physical composition.
This dream was three hundred years ago, at a time when the separation between heart and mind was not as severe as it is today. Like the visionary dreams Black Elk had as a youth, Lichtenberg’s seems to describe developments that would unfold in the coming centuries. Perhaps we are now historically at the close of the first scene of his dream, discovering just how destructive our handling of the world’s natural resources has been and hoping we have a chance to mend our ways.
I wonder what sort of dreams Audubon had as he killed hundreds of birds to make his fine drawings or the researchers today who infect chimps with AIDS to study the disease. Were there dreams that trouble the scientists who cloned Dolly or who developed the cell phones that have resulted in soaring rates of brain tumors in children? The Immortal who invited Lichtenberg to chemically test two objects and provided the tools for doing so was simultaneously testing the man himself. He failed the initial test, but his sense of morality led him to ask for another chance. He then succeeded in solving the koan or riddle put before him. In initiation rites, failing some part of a task is what activates shame, remorse, and humility in a seeker and can thereby serve to transform them into maturity. The hubris of our Western ways is finally being called into question; perhaps more humble ways of treating our globe will emerge.
C. G. Jung had a waking vision of the earth and a spirit within it, which I include here because of its immediacy and his reaction to it. Jung does not give the date or location, but merely says:
I once experienced a violent earthquake, and my first, immediate feeling was that I no longer stood on the solid and familiar earth, but on the skin of a gigantic animal that was heaving under my feet. It was this image that impressed itself upon me, not the physical fact (Jung, 1969, par 331).
Jung was standing on the earth as it shook, but what image was he simultaneously seeing? A nature spirit? In a brief essay published in 1945, Jung lamented the loss of nature spirits and suggested that the banishment of incubi, succubi, wood-nymphs, melusines, and “the rest that terrify and tease mankind” has resulted in an unfathomable change in our emotional life. “It was the triumph of the Enlightenment that such things as nature-spirits did not exist,” he said. “But it was merely that what one imagined such spirits to be that did not exist” (Jung, 1976, par 1368). Jung brings a perspective to matter and spirit that brings them back into relation, as they have not been since the Enlightenment:
There is nothing without spirit, for spirit seems to be the inside of things . . . Whether that is our own psyche or the psyche of the universe we don’t know, but if one touches the earth, one cannot avoid the spirit. And if one touches it in a friendly way … the spirit of nature will be helpful … We never pay attention, so we probably offend the spirit of things all the time … (Douglas, 1997, p. 459)
In the 1957 Houston films, Jung adds that this is not his own idea but can be found in Democritus, who spoke of a spiritus insertus atomis, the spirit inserted in atoms. Jung said that psyche, or spirit, is “a quality of matter . . . it is simply the world seen from within” (McGuire & Hull, 1977, p. 303).
This interior aspect seems to be appearing in contemporary dreams with renewed force, as in this next example:
I see a face deep in the earth. It seems male and becomes female. I put my head down and hear a sound like an ancient chant, faint at first, it becomes louder as I listen. “I am the ancient mother, voice of wisdom buried in the earth. No one has heard me for so many years. My sorrow is deep. The time is now to return to the surface, to give voice to the wisdom. Can you hear me?”
The voice identifies itself as a maternal wisdom buried deep in the earth not heard in many years, which now will return to the surface. To the question of whether we, as the collective dreamer, hear this voice, the implied answer is no, truthfully, we have not.
In the next example, a young man dreamed of being immersed in the percolation of the particles we call soil:
I’m in the soil and am the soil, which is percolating. Tiny crumbs of dirt and air are in constant motion, mingling with each other. They are not building towards anything, but just moving around at a constant contained speed. I think, “This is what it means to be. This perpetuates growth.”
The dreamer had an experience of the molecules in their constant, steady motion. Does this depict matter per se or does it hint at the movement of the spirit, symbolized as air? The thought he has in the dream suggests the latter. In our modern Zeitgeist, being is often misperceived as laziness or inertia, in comparison with doing, which is the preferred, more active mode. He is shown the mystery that being is the basis of growth.
Can we say that these dreams are mainly subjective or mainly objective? This simplistic distinction no longer seems appropriate for these contemporary dreams in which the dreamer as the initiate is taken below ground and shown something of nature’s mysteries. Of course they carried significance for the dreamers; but they also have an emotional effect when shared with others, for they touch on universal life processes that we need to more fully understand. I think of such dreams as being in the postmodern mode we might call participatory or engaged.
The next dream is similar but involves a group of people participating in a mystery rite in which the earth is shown to be alive:
Friends gather at my house for a sacred purpose. One woman prepares red oxide soil, tenderly raking and patting it. I show others how to use the soil, which is alive, to imbue a stupa with aliveness. The stupa is built out of stones and sticks, triangular, like a teepee. The woman says, “The soil is about ready.” I kneel down and touch my face to the soil, like it is a dear, precious loved one. I prepare myself by gathering my energy. We take the soil and create the living shape. We shove the soil into the stupa from bottom to top. The soil begins humming, then the stupa, and then all of us are humming, connected together.
The dream identifies the group’s activity as a sacred ritual. Movement takes them not upward into transcendence over the earth but downward into direct contact with rich red soil. Through the caring touch of human hands, the soil is enlivened. Soon it starts to “hum,” and eventually the people too are humming, as if their aliveness has increased in pitch.
A stupa, traditionally, is a Buddhist monument, perhaps originally a burial mound, with a center pole that represents the tree of life or axis of the universe. Masses of earth are raised on a platform and then faced with stones. The structure is often surrounded by a processional path. Of varying dimensions and degrees of elaborateness, stupas are found in every country where Buddhism exists. The stupa in this dream is made with ordinary sticks, as if to suggest that in its “ur-form,” this sacred structure could be constructed by anyone, anywhere. The tending of the soil is the main focus, and through it the earth comes to life. The spirit in matter is revived.
The dreams we’ve looked at comment on the crisis of our times: whether we can live in balance with this planet, this earth, this globe. We are a very young species that has won over from the gods not only fire but information about nuclear, genetic, and psi processes—and we use this information often without adequate training, moral scruple, or guidance from a wisdom source. In the fossil record, it is very unusual that one single species would predominate during any given era. We assume we are the only species extant; empirical data spanning a hundred years concerning creatures variously known as Sasquatch, Big Foot, and Yeti—possibly other primates—is chronically ridiculed and marginalized (see Bindernagel, 1998; Shackley, M. 1983). What if we took the advice from Lichtenberg’s teacher and treated the earth as if it were a book to be read and contemplated rather than dissected? What if we ourselves are seeds that need proper tending in order to grow into our full and balanced humanness?
It’s risky to turn to dreams or any other source for omens about the future, but it’s understandable that we are looking for omens today, because things aren’t going so well on our home planet. I have chosen especially inspiring dreams to illustrate my thesis that this thing we call “the earth” is not unidimensional, as often assumed, but multidimensional. I have left out dreams containing more predictable themes of disaster and destruction, but, at our monthly Culture Dreaming program at The Dream Institute, we do hear them: dreams of standing amidst post-apocalyptic rubble, of wading through city streets submerged in melted ice, of running from black goop falling from the sky. With both the inspiring dreams presented here and the dark ones not presented, we always have to ask, what does a dream tell us that we don’t already know?
Having taken you high above the earth with Lichtenberg and below ground to the ancient mysteries of soil and water, I want to close with an exceptionally ordinary dream. We will go back in time not to the 1700s but the 1800s; the setting is the South during the era of slavery. The dreamer is Harriet Tubman, the brave woman who pioneered the Underground Railroad, a link of human hands, black and white, that joined to help those escaping the cruel and inhumane status of indentured servitude.
It was via dreams and visions that Tubman knew which routes to use for escorting her charges. It is conjectured that following a head injury inflicted by a slave-owner, she developed second sight; she often would fall into a trance for just a few moments and see a safe route. Once, Tubman was leading four men down a country road and fell into this brief sleep, during which she was shown a river to cross and a cabin in which to hide. Soon, they did come to a river, but it looked too deep to ford. Tubman walked right in, and found a shoal; the men followed. On the other side was a cabin where a black family was living; they took in the runaways, saving them from the men and dogs on their trail (Moss, 2009, p. 186).
This is not an ordinary night dream but a clear vision of the earth as seen from within, which Tubman had while lying on the ground in a trance. The problem it solved was how to get four people from one section of ground, where their lives were in danger, to another section where they would be safe. The dream-vision showed a route that actually existed. I called this an “exceptionally ordinary” dream; this is an intentional oxymoron. In exceptional circumstances, such as when someone’s life is at risk, dreams and visions may occur that show the way out. The dream-vision may seem exceptional at the time, but there is ample evidence that they often occur at such moments and therefore they are “ordinary” and even predictable (see Dossey, 2009; Eisenbud, 1970; Jaffe, 1963).
In 1997, I had a dream that repeated twice which said, in words, that the manic speed at which we are living today is putting our species at risk; it said, in words, that we are at risk of extinction. We have become “slaves” to a way of life that is unsustainable. Many of us are dreaming about this, dreaming about a new path we could follow. Tubman’s experience may be emblematic for our situation today.
It may be that we are unable to solve current environmental, societal, and health care problems because we’ve been drawing only on the limited range of our conscious, waking selves. The dreaming mind, millions of years older, has a much broader bandwidth and thus provides access to the full spectrum of our human capacities and to suprapersonal ones as well. Western civilization is entering into a phase of decay. Let us not be too afraid of the dying process; let us trust in our ability to compost former ways of living so that they are transformed into the fresh ground out of which new ways of living can mushroom.
“We should regard dreams as an endangered species, a casualty of technological advance … Dreams are an oasis of spiritual vitality … they represent our primordial habitat, our last wilderness … and we must protect them with as much fervor as the rain forests, the ozone layer, the elephant, and the whale.”
The Two-Million-Year-Old Self, 1993, pp. 122-23.