[My second “Dream Alchemy” column, first published in DreamTime magazine in 2019, is concerned with transformation and also the sharing of gifts. The dream I share here was certainly a gift in my own life—in fact, only a few days ago, this dream came back to me and the memory of it helped me through a long night when I was feeling ill and disconnected. The dream reminded me that I belong to a human lineage, and that belonging carries both responsibilities and blessings. I hope that the “bread” of this dream will nourish you, as it nourishes me.]
In keeping with the theme of “Dream Alchemy,” I’d like to consider some of the transformative processes at the heart of both alchemy and dreamwork. Alchemical change occurs when something ordinary is subjected to various procedures (heating, cooling, distilling, coalescing…) until something extraordinary happens. The remarkable result of alchemical experimentation is the transformation of a dark heavy substance (prima materia, like lead or feces) into a substance of great value (usually gold), or into a potion with special properties, perhaps an elixir of immortality. Alchemy breaks the rules of our predictable lives, and, metaphorically at least, shows us that true value may be found in unlikely places when various elements (people, circumstances, natural forces, chemical compounds) combine to become more than the sum of their parts. When these components come together in the right way, even time itself can be suspended or reshaped so that, in a sense, we might live forever.
Dreams experiment with these same elements, stretching the bounds of what we believe is possible and offering us infinite abundance, while reminding us that authentic treasures are not to be kept, but to be shared and passed on as wisdom. Here is one such dream:
The Dalai Lama’s dearest friend is dead. He weeps openly. I’m escorting him through the crowd of mourners. He needs to return home, to sleep, but he’s barefoot and there’s snow on the ground. I intend to go get a car to drive him, but I realize that he has become a small, crying child. I can’t leave him alone, so I must carry him. As I lift him, he transforms—becoming an infant, then an adult corpse stiff with rigor mortis, then both simultaneously. I have difficulty carrying him, so I drop all my personal belongings and devote myself to the task completely.
Later, alone, I’m standing in line for the bathroom. The Dalai Lama as a tall young man emerges from the crowd with his retainers. He’s reserved and distracted. I don’t expect him to recognize me. But then I feel his hand on my arm. He asks me to get him a snack—a packet of cookies—from a nearby bakery counter. I get the cookies; he thanks me. This seems to complete the process I began by carrying him earlier. I feel deeply honored to have had a small part in the reincarnation of a holy one.
(I wake from this dream in awe, wondering whether the Dalai Lama has actually died. Outside in the dark, it begins to rain—a downpour—the wind blows hard, the wind chimes ring. There’s lightning, thunder. It’s magical. I return to sleep and the dream continues…)
Now I’m indoors and the whole building fills with people: the Dalai Lama’s entourage, plus a crowd of followers, gathering for the closing ceremony of his visit. A woman from his inner circle brings me a gift. It’s a carafe filled with a thick, yeasty liquid that looks like sourdough starter, with a thin red ribbon tied around the neck of the carafe. She hands the potion to me, saying that it is “for you”—but when I ask if I’m really supposed to keep it, she says “no.” I try to give it back, but she won’t take it, repeating that it’s “for you.” I ask, “Is it mine?” and again she says “no,” but won’t take it back. She leaves. I’m bewildered about what to do with the gift. Holly [my partner] explains that it must be like yeast: we should take some of what I’ve been given and add flour and water so it will grow. Then I can return the original carafe and keep growing more. I can’t “keep it” for myself, but I must “keep it alive.”
For me, the Dalai Lama represents profound wisdom and extraordinary leadership, manifested through an authentic, gracious, humble human being. He is said to be the reincarnation of the Bodhisattva of Compassion (Avalokiteshvara/ Kwan Yin/ Chenrezig). Having passed through many forms, suffered death and rebirth over and over, the bodhisattva returns endlessly, serves willingly, until all beings can come to full awakening. In my dream, I find myself in the role of literally carrying this awesome loving presence through the transformations of a lifetime. Perhaps this is the true meaning behind all of our lives: we are part of a lineage, carrying forward the awakened potential that is our inheritance, manifesting that potential through all of our actions in this world.
The compassionate grief that the Dalai Lama feels for his friend, and the sense of tender responsibility I feel for the barefoot, crying child provide the energy, the life force, the fire that sets the crucible boiling and makes birth and death and rebirth unfold. The passage of a lifetime is both a difficult task, and a mutual dance of love and blessing.
The dream becomes more ordinary when the Dalai Lama is a young man preoccupied with his responsibilities, and I am just another person waiting my turn to tend to my own physical needs and ablutions. What’s asked of me here is simple: to provide a snack for someone I respect, to offer him a respite in the midst of his daily business. Nothing more is required, yet the “cookies” I offer are a kind of sacrament. The Dalai Lama accepts them matter-of-factly, yet there’s a tacit acknowledgement that the very ordinariness of the gesture has confirmed my part in the whole miracle of compassionate love, passed from one person to another.
I awaken briefly to experience the wonder of the natural world, to participate in it just as I have been participating in the miraculous dream world. Rain, thunder, lightning, wind, windchimes… The music of the spheres, the bubbling of alchemical potions and preparations, the transformation of lifetimes, all offered up as easily as a midnight storm passing through—as I slip back into sleep and return to the dream.
As always, the reward for service to others is ambiguous, and invites new questions, offers new challenges to learn, share and change. The red ribbon around the neck of the carafe is like the red thread that people of many faiths wear as a bracelet, as a reminder of our life-blood and the circular, braided path of our interconnectedness. And what about the liquid inside the carafe? What is this frothy stuff that’s been given into my care? It’s “for me,” but not “mine.” It’s “to keep alive,” but not “to keep.” It’s my very life, and its only value lies in allowing it to develop, to expand, to provide for others, to return to the giver with gratitude but still have plenty left to pass on. What a dream this is! It’s the loaves and fishes, it’s the circle of life, it’s every cliché that conceals a real truth. With such yeasty stuff, we bake the bread of heaven, each tearing off a warm, crusty piece as it’s passed around.
The alchemy of the dream completes itself when the dream is shared. The ordinary becomes extraordinary; the finite becomes infinite. Indeed, the elixir of immortality can be concocted through the deep work of dreaming.
[This article was originally published in the Spring, 2019 issue of DreamTime Magazine. If you enjoyed it, please consider subscribing to DreamTime by joining the International Association for the Study of Dreams ]