The tarn lies among mountains. A rabbit enjoys the grass near the water’s edge. A slight breeze wrinkles its surface in which is reflected a hawk hovering in the pale blue sky. The landscape is deserted – not a soul in sight. The deep green of the tarn’s bed is lost in shadows.
This dream of thirty years ago has stayed with me. I am not present as a person on the bank or gazing down from a nearby hilltop. In some strange way I am part of the landscape. What I see is me.
I am the lake, the rabbit, the sky and the hawk – possibly even the breeze as well. I could unpack for you now all the implications of this dream that have occurred to me over the years. However, it’s much more interesting to ask: ‘What would the dream mean if you had dreamt it?’
‘How am I supposed to know?’ you might well ask. ‘I haven’t the faintest idea how to puzzle out the meaning of my own dreams, let alone yours.’
There are many methods proposed by many writers and therapists working in all sorts of different traditions, from the Freudian through the Jungian to the Gestalt and beyond. Ann Faraday’s book The Dream Game gives a pretty good approach to working a dream.
I don’t propose to go into the details now. I wanted simply to demonstrate that the human mind creates realities out of nothing every night. I wanted to point out that the human mind, though locked in language a lot of the time, is a weaver of images as well. We think in symbols for huge portions of our sleeping time and most of our waking time too, under the surface of our conscious mind’s dazzling play of light and shade.
When wide awake and conscious, we may be baffled by our dreams. In executive mode, busy with the practicalities of life, we may read a poem and experience it as nonsense.
Is that how it has to be? Are dreams and poems pointless games the mind plays with itself? Do they deserve to be dismissed with a contemptuous shrug? Is looking more closely at such things a complete waste of time?
Indeed. O Brother, if we ponder each created thing, we shall witness a myriad perfect wisdoms and learn a myriad new and wondrous truths. One of the created phenomena is the dream. Behold how many secrets are deposited therein, how many wisdoms treasured up, how many worlds concealed.
If we take Bahá’u’lláh’s words seriously I don’t think we can dismiss dreams, poems, imagery and symbols.
Pusey explains (page 51) that at the threshold of modernity Habermas sees three modes of relating to the world becoming increasingly differentiated: there is first the ‘instrumental’ approach, then the ‘ethical’ perspective and thirdly the ‘aesthetic’ take on reality. These need to be in balance and integrated. We have increasingly privileged the instrumental (ends/means or rational/purposive) at the expense of the other two (moral and expressive). This mode has ‘colonised’ what Habermas calls the ‘lifeworld.’ Values and subjectivity are seen as second rate, on no objective basis whatsoever.
In previous posts I have dealt a lot with values, partly through discussions about our ideas of God. I have tended to neglect the area of art, beauty, imagery, poetry and the like – the means with which we build bridges between what we experience directly and think we understand and what we can’t and don’t. It’s often how one person explains her take on the inexplicable to someone who doesn’t really get it. It’s usually a man who doesn’t get it and goes back to fixing his motorbike.
Bahá’u’lláh tells us that every atom in the universe has been given us for our training. He also conveys much of what He wants to tell us in picture language. So does Jesus in His parables and metaphors. ‘Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not neither do they spin.’ The words echo down to me clearly still along the corridors of memory.
I know them by heart – such an interesting metaphor itself. They are part of my core being, internalised – we would not lose such treasures in a shipwreck though we fear burglary by such ruthless intruders as Alzheimer’s because they seem able to break into our very heart and pillage it. Baha’u’llah and ‘Abdu’l-Baha assure us though that the soul remembers even if the brain forgets.
A Tale of Three Kingdoms
What exactly is going on when the Founder of a great world religion speaks of His ‘Father’s house’ having ‘many mansions’ or tells us that the ‘pure heart is as a mirror’?
A good place to start is a statement from Erasmus: ‘In the country of the blind the one-eyed man is king.’ Divorcing it from its context, we can play with this idea.
Let’s pretend there are three neighbouring kingdoms: Forgedom where only blacksmiths live, Tandoorstan which is inhabited exclusively by chefs, and Pays de Jardins whose only citizens are gardeners. In each kingdom lives a one-eyed woman, trying to explain colour to her sightless fellow citizens. In Forgedom Cinders speaks of red as fire, Saffron in Tandoorstan describes red as chilli powder, while in the Pays de Jardins Violette uses the scent of the rose to help them understand.
Unfortunately, each country takes these metaphors literally and regards the inhabitants of the neighbouring countries as dangerously deluded. That, though, is not the fault of the one-eyed women. How else could they convey an idea of red to those who have been blind from birth? How could it be their fault if the people mistook the map for the territory?
Images of Eternity
This is the trap in which we all find ourselves.
We have to use what we know to give us a sense of the unknowable. It can work well if we don’t take it literally. It can give us something to carry in our hearts that works itself deeper and deeper into the core of our being conveying a sense of the sublime that might otherwise be completely inaccessible to us. This suggests that the images used by Messengers of God (and by poets as well of course) can affect us deeply, if we will only reflect upon them, immerse ourselves in them. Our very hearts are changed.
Immerse yourselves in the ocean of My words, that ye may unravel its secrets, and discover all the pearls of wisdom that lie hid in its depths.. . . ‘
(Bahá’u’lláh: Gleanings: LXX).
These processes, when the material we immerse ourselves in is speaking to our higher nature, are not the vain imaginings Bahá’u’lláh condemns as delusional but the proper use of the imagination as a spiritual power ( See ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in Some Answered Questions, page 210)
What needs to be done is to develop a sense that the world of finite things is able to express an infinite reality beyond and yet also infusing it. We need to learn to see things as pointing beyond themselves, as sacramental of a supreme reality and value, as visible images of eternity, in what I have called the iconic vision.
John Hatcher felt much the same:
. . . it is the Bahá’í belief that the physical world is, in reality, but the spiritual world expressed in concrete symbols. As such, the relationships among all the constituent parts of the physical world are expressions of relationships in the spiritual realm.
(The Purpose of Physical Reality: page 69)
(Incidentally, this has echoes of the medieval world picture which Habermas depicts as more unified in its understanding of the world, though perhaps unduly privileging the ethical over the instrumental and the aesthetic in ways that became intolerant and punitive. It did seem to leave a lot more room for the aesthetic than we have eventually come to allow. That we whitewashed over our icons and smashed our statues in the Protestant backlash against Rome has been adduced as one reason why our pictorial art lagged so far behind that of Italy and Spain who built on their medieval heritage. Instrumental thinking in its current form has its own prejudices in this respect and finds artistic modes of expression flaky, unreliable, even dangerous. We still have a long way to go before we get the balance right)
We human beings climb up the ladder of understanding on rungs constructed from the raw materials of our experience of the physical world. Keith Ward, followed by Margaret Donaldson, talks of how some of us at least, who practice very hard, become increasingly capable of grasping deep realities such as the spiritual more directly, more abstractly, floating rather than climbing further upwards – not using the ladder anymore. But most of us need a ladder almost all the time if we are to rise to new heights of understanding. In the same way most of us will never understand the abstract mathematics used to describe the universe’s underlying processes: we need analogies from our felt experience to bridge the gap in our understanding.
If we turn our backs on the ladder of poetic expression and close the door to the staircase of our dreams, we do so at our peril. The deepest and wisest aspects of our being communicate more often without speech – in intimations and intuitions that cloth themselves in poetic language and in dreams. This core, our essence, absorbs wisdom and seeks to share it with our conscious mind in this way.
Reality transcribes eternity into symbols the heart can read if we will let it:
‘That Beauty in which all things work and move’ can beam on us ‘[c]onsuming the last clouds of cold mortality.’
So, let’s make a bit more room for the poetic in our society and stop kidding ourselves as a civilisation that everything worth knowing can be said in prose.