First nobody dies / Then somebody dies / Then everybody dies. That's life.
— Ron Schryer
When I was in my late 20s I started having these incredible flying dreams. I could take off from a standing start and find myself sailing over some abstracted landscape. It was nothing ludicrous like flapping my arms like some flying nun or donning a cape and rescuing some female reporter in distress. I would be soaring over a distorted map of San Francisco Bay looking down at the Oakland harbor as I headed towards the San Francisco skyline.
I wasn't a passive passenger on these trips. I had a sense of going somewhere, though the purpose of my flight might be murky. I could feel the ground under my feet until I willed my body off the ground, gaining altitude and then directing my flight to this place or that.
In these dreams, though I encountered situations and places and people of a vivid stripe, the flying was often the most interesting and sustained part. A couple of times I tried to see how high I could go and left the earth miles below.
I began to look forward to these dreams. They were never frightening, though they could be frustrating if I happened to fly towards some obstruction. The dreams would end then, usually after I tried to fly through a maze of electrical wires or some such. But that was rare. Most of the time I would simply take myself off the ground and head off to some other part of my dream narrative. And in my dream I was the only one who flew. I never ran into some annoying flying nemesis or monster while I was up there.
My flying dreams were so vivid and so filled with pleasure that they seemed to have a life of their own. I started paying attention to them. With one exception I had never considered that my dreams might have any value beyond a depiction of the usual unconscious yearnings and fantasies. But that one exception had a dramatic and long lasting effect on me.
A few years before the flying dreams, when I was 22 or 23, I was taking an afternoon nap and woke from a daylight nightmare with the unshakeable feeling that I had killed someone. The feeling persisted for several seconds or a minute, it was hard to tell. Reality gradually seeped into my sleep-induced stupor. But even as I realized that what I felt wasn't true, the feeling persisted. So this is how it feels to have killed someone, I thought. Eventually instead of being merely haunted by this experience (which in a way I was) I was finally grateful for having experienced the feeling of having killed someone without having committed the act.
Grateful because I knew that I could never live with that feeling if it were true. I could never live with myself if I was ever tempted by madness or circumstance to indulge in homicide. And the dream itself was murky, some night scene of a rain slick street in some suburb with parked cars. At least that's all that I remembered. But the feeling I awoke with was a great gift, a blessing in disguise. I'm only human and I've hated at least two people in my life enough to want to see them come to a bad end. But not by my hand.
Both were drug dealers, by the way, and I despised them and myself for the terrible power I gave them over my life. What made it worse was that both of them were friends of mine before dealing and the change that the drugs put us through perverted their lives, their character as much as mine. One died a virtual suicide in a head-on collision while passing a car on a highway. The other is living out some Willie Lohman life selling greeting cards instead of nose candy. Life has a way of working things out on its own if you let things lay.
So when the flying dreams began a few years later when I was 28 or 29, I knew dreams could have power. But the vividness of the flying dreams astounded me. At the time I was working in a small press distribution company located in the industrial section of Berkeley. And being Berkeley and the tail end of the 70s, there was no shortage of “new age” books on the warehouse shelves. I easily found a mass-market paperback on dreams that was matter-of-fact enough to fit my new interest in dream symbolism and interpretation.
At the same time I was flying in dreams my waking life was spiraling down. Though I was to lose many things in the next few years to carelessness and expediency, I always managed to hold on to that dream book. It was my secret embarrassment, a private indulgence, a guilty pleasure. For many years I would admit to no one my attempts to analyze my dreams. Any more than I would admit to reading my horoscope in the Chronicle or going to a palm reader in Emeryville, if I did that sort of thing.
In late 70s and the early 80s I was in the final stages, the last four or five years, of my drug and alcohol abuse. And there is no question in my mind that the use of chemicals contributed mightily to the flamboyancy of my dreams. But as I know that now, I didn't realize it then. And I have to wonder if all the cocaine and brandy and ale and wine and weed didn't crack open some inappropriate portal between my conscious and unconscious life. All of the flying was just some expression of that. To fly on your own like a bird is an old dream of mankind and the drugs and alcohol certainly seemed to give the dream a desperate power.
I was a hard case and went the limit before I admitted I was powerless over all drugs, especially alcohol. Long after I left the book distribution company, I was living in Marin county, high up on the ridge above Inverness and Point Reyes Station. I lived in a two-room cabin with a wood stove that belonged to my boss who had the big house up the trail. At night I could see the fog roll into the end of Tomales Bay and the loudest noise you could hear usually were the birds calling or the Bishop pines rustling in the wind.
My boss had a makeshift wine cellar under his house. That's also where he kept all of his hard liquor, the gin, vodka and bourbon. Before I left his employ I managed to drink all of his hard liquor twice and replace it once. I reached a point where I didn't so much sleep as pass out. This crisis point was reflected in my dreams as well. In fact they weren't so much dreams as sleeping hallucinations. I remember two especially. In the first I'm in a street demonstration, I don't know what for, but I'm carrying a sign and in a crowd of people. The demo becomes a riot and at one point I'm hit in the back of the head with what feels like a brick. I wake up and with a terrible headache.
In the second dream I wake up in a hospital room, lying in bed under cold bright florescent light. I seem to be restrained, at least I can't move. There are a couple of nurses and a doctor in the room. They notice that I've woken up and I speak to them. It's difficult for me to convey how terribly real it all seemed, that my presence in that room and in that bed before these white-uniformed strangers was as real to me as any conversation I've had before or since.
“What am I doing here?” I asked. “Did something happen?”
“Well, you see Mr. Campbell,” replied the doctor, “you've been here since 1966.”
After I woke up from this dialogue I had to consider that perhaps that hospital room was the reality and my miserable alcoholic life was the dream. It was that real.
I quit drinking on October 23rd, 1984. In AA terms I have just celebrated my 15th birthday as a recovered alcoholic. Long before my last day of misery 15 years ago I had stopped using virtually everything else. How I stopped using cocaine is a little miracle in itself. And after I stopped drinking and drugging I still kept dreaming, but my dreams began to change. I didn't fly as much. First not as high and then not so fast, or with so little effort. It was getting hard to get off the ground and often I would settle back on my feet. Or if I did get off the ground more often I would run into those damned electric wires.
Flying was replaced by other remarkable things, remarkable to me and my dream state. I still had that dream book. And it could have been any dream book. It's just the one I happened to pick. As I looked things up over the years and flipped through the pages, the book became by default the common language between me and my unconscious. A general agreement of what symbolic images or situations would represent to the person who I am when I'm awake and the person I am when I'm asleep. The other remarkable thing is that the nature of these dreams, their relative clarity of content and observability, began to sort out. I have the usual miasmic dreams that I regard as a rehash of the events of the day. But beyond this incoherent chronology there are other dreams, vivid, almost concrete, much like the flying dreams and often of epic proportions.
Sometimes these dreams approach the level of “other-reality” of my alcoholic hallucinations, though I know I'm dreaming whether these are horrific or pleasurable. I may wake up startled or wistful. And then sometimes (and this is rare) a dream seems to have a curious life of its own. It’s hard to explain what it’s like, but these dreams go far beyond wishful thinking or instruction. It is after one of these dreams that I find myself agreeing with the native American presumption that the dream state may constitute another separate life. I really don't know. I'm too much of a doubter to ever embrace this idea completely.
I do know that by examining my dreams I have been able to acquire some rational, some intuitive insight into aspects of my life and its relationships that might have escaped me in the hurly-burly of the everyday.
What I wanted in the first place was some meaning for my dreams, but in the process I also learned something about my waking life. That's what I mean by instruction. Plus there is an interactive component to some of my dreams that has become gradually stronger the last few years. In these dreams I am aware of my sleep state and I am able to deliberately pick up objects, reading words and numbers, see myself in a mirror and talk to and touch people. The first time it happened I was stunned. I've since learned that there is an ongoing study of this kind of dreaming at Stanford University.
I would say that in sobriety my most profound dreams involve family members who have died during the last 14 years. Unfortunately I've reached that point in my life between “then somebody dies, then everybody dies.” My father, mother, older brother, my grandmother and many aunts and uncles have all passed on since 1985, starting about a year after I got sober. Before then no one had died for almost 20 years, until my Uncle Bruce died one day of a heart attack while jogging. And since that day someone in my family has died about every two years. In the case of my most immediate family, death has left me the oldest surviving male, in a family where the males don't seem to survive very well at all.
These deaths were unexpected and often there was some unfinished business between the person who died and myself. This was certainly true of me and my father; we had a stormy relationship and we were often at odds over family issues. After he died I often found myself arguing with him in a dream. Other times I would see him and he would simply look sad and stand mute. I think he left a lot of things unresolved in his life and whether or not his appearance in my dreams is literal or symbolic (it could be either), I think the way I saw him for several years reflected that. The last time I “saw” him, though, he looked young and happy. Something had changed over time. Was it me?
My older brother died about a year after my father. He and I were just getting closer. He was struggling with some sobriety issues and with the overwhelming nature of his own success, professionally, politically and socially. But his private life was a bit of a mess and he neglected some warning signs that lead to heart failure. Later, I found myself sitting and having a conversation with him. In some room, talking over things in a dream that was as real to me as waking. That is until suddenly I was struck by how impossible the whole thing was. “But didn't you die?” I blurted out. And he vanished. And I woke up. It was sad.
The last few years I've been talking about dreams to others. Not because I believe what seems to work for me will work for anyone else. I'm not an advocate in that respect. All I can talk about is my personal experience and how much (or how little really) I've learned over the last 20 years. Only once before did I ever share one of my vivid dreams and it was as much an act of defiance as an act of sharing. I felt the implications of the dream were too profound to keep to myself.
It all started when my grandmother died. I spent the spring and summer of 1987 at Green Gulch zen monastery, a working farm near Muir Beach in western Marin county. Someone told me I had a message at the office. It was tacked onto the bulletin board. When I opened and read it I was staggered, the earth seemed to move right out from under my feet. I fell back slightly. After years of decline in the convalescent section of her Oakland highrise seniors residence, my grandmother had died.
She was my good friend while I was growing up. I would travel by bus to her house in Oakland and spend the weekend, helping her to move furniture and do the heavy work. She would pay me very well and then we'd spend time playing gin rummy. As we played cards I heard a lot of stories about my father and my two uncles I wouldn't have heard otherwise. And about my grandfather who died when I was young. You might say I became privy to some family secrets. I had reasons for wanting to know why things are the way they are and were the way they were.
During her decline I had neglected her, failed to go see her very often. I had all the usual reasons: work; I was back in college; Oakland seemed a long way from central Marin county.
Now I was angry. Why hadn't someone told me she was so close to death, so I could go say goodbye? I called my parents and my father made some excuse. And he said there would be no funeral, maybe a memorial service later on. And why was that? I got the impression that her death was somehow shameful, something to be hidden away. I noticed that when Bruce had died two years earlier it was suddenly as if he'd never existed. No one wanted to talk about him. Was that going to happen again?
Undaunted, I took matters into my own hands. I believe that when a person leaves this earth they deserve to be memorialized, celebrated, a gathering is to be held in their name. I spoke to the Soto Zen Buddhist priest who led the morning services at Green Gulch and asked that a memorial to her be part of the next morning's ceremony. The following day, after the sitting and walking meditation, after the chants and the bells and the incense, I listened as the same priest read out my grandmother's name, Ethel Letitia Campbell, as one of the honored dead.
On her behalf I placed her picture on the zendo altar, a picture of her as a young schoolteacher in Davenport, Washington. I listened as the priest mispronounced her middle name: lah-teh-tee-ah. I knew he wouldn't get it and it was an nice light moment that helped sweep away some of the feeling of loss.
The zendo is a powerful room. The long term guest students and many of the residents stay in rooms located just outside the zendo, but in the same building. And Green Gulch is a very rural setting. The night after the ceremony, a warm still summer night, a skunk sprayed one side of the building near my room, making it impossible to sleep there. Zen students are welcome to sleep in the zendo if they wish, on a mat using a zafu (a sitting cushion) as a pillow. So I retreated there with my sleeping bag as a blanket. The room was empty except for me. I went to sleep. And I had the most amazing dream.
I was a child again and I was in a room semi-lit by a glow emanating from the center of the room. It looked like there was a glass box full of light. But it was hard to see. I was so small. My way was blocked by a crowd of adults standing in silhouette around the light. I couldn't get through. I realized that this scene looked just like the way I remembered my grandfather's funeral back in 1958 when I was only seven. I had no idea what was going on then. I always remember my grandfather as a large man taking a nap on a long green couch. The crowd held me back and I turned and looked in the other direction. And there, instead of a semi-darkened room, stood my grandmother as a young woman in a natural light, wearing a small hat and a fashionable woman's suit from the thirties. She was just putting on a pair of gloves. She looked up at me and smiled and waved and then walked out the door, shutting it behind.
I woke up with a deep feeling of peace, like I had been able to say goodbye. And had helped just a little to get her over to the other side. Wishful thinking? Wishful dreaming? I don't know. What I do know is the service at Green Gulch was the only one ever held in her name.
Later on I told this story to my father. After all she was his mother and I hoped it would give him peace. And I wanted to let him know that in some way her life had been celebrated. I can't tell you what effect the story had. He wasn't the kind of person to indicate one way or another. Less than three years later he was gone and of course I never knew, even as I stood up and spoke for him at his memorial, the kind she never had. And so it goes.
Dreams. They are as mysterious as deep space and as commonplace as people. Nobody knows for sure why we have them and they have been as misinterpreted as often as they have been helpful. My methods are helpful to me but they may be useless to you. I can't regard them as superfluous, but if you want to use dreams I think you have to pay attention and find your own way of relating. Are they part of us or a separate place? After 20 years I've just barely begun to understand my dreams, my days and the flight between understanding them both.