Monday, December 15, 2008

Approaching Holy Stories: The Harlequin and the Burning Nandina

Steve tells me that I talk in my sleep. He goes to sleep hours after I do most nights. As a result, he gets to hear me babble one nonsense question after another, issue imperatives in fluent gibberish that seem to have shreds of sense about them, but which fracture the logic of our everyday lives.

I have no idea what I’ve said to him until the next morning, when he reports the utterances to me. He has to write them down to remember them. Last night, though, I had the rare experience of actually hearing myself sleep-talk. We had gone to sleep with Flora, the mother corgi, between us, Valentine and Crispen, her half-corgi pups, in their usual spots at our feet. Flora is not a cuddler. She normally spends a few minutes with us and then heads for her pallet at the foot of the bed or on the footstool off the bed.

It’s a corgi thing, apparently. Her predecessor Braselton aka Brassie did the same. They’re sweet dogs (well, Brassie was peculiar though lovable), but not gushy with their affection. They want you to be clear about who is really doing whom a favor, in this symbiotic human-canine relationship.

For reasons unbeknownst to us, Flora decided to grace us with her presence into the night last night. Until the sleep-talking incident. Which went like this, as well as I can recall it:

Me: Steve. C. is next to me with his head raised, watching F. She’s on the pillow.

Steve: Nmmhn.

Me: Steve. Are you awake?

Steve: No. Are you?

And here’s the strange part. Though I “heard” that conversation clearly, and can remember it word for word, I wasn’t awake—not, that is, until Steve asked me if I were awake.

At which point I shot awake with a vengeance, puzzled that “I” could have been talking in my sleep, have been aware of doing so, have heard what I said—and still have been asleep. A disturbing recognition, since it undercuts our—my—pretensions to control, my oh-so-assured sense that there’s a me inside, who knows, chooses, acts. Who controls.

What awareness of dreaming does for us, I think, is show us that there are others inside us. Others who do the controlling. And who are beyond “our” control.

There’s that capering harlequin self who inducts us into dreamscapes. His job is to outwit us, to outwit the self that wants to maintain the illusion of control. She or he has to do that subversive thing when the controlling ego self goes to sleep, in order to get us to see what we actually saw in waking (in “real”) life, but whose significance we didn’t catch.

Dreams force us to take another look at what we see with our waking eyes, and yet don’t see enough. The way he twisted his ring as he assured me of his love for me. The frozen, disdainful way she held herself away from the table as she told us she values our work. The mottled snake skin that covered half of her face as she lied to me, her face turning yellow with envy under the mottled snake covering.

The sly, capering harlequin dream master inside all of us exposes us, whittles away our pretensions, whisks the covers away. And forces us to see. To become aware. To choose awareness over unawareness.

Dreams are, it seems to me, another form of awareness. One that moves at a tangent to “real”-life awareness. One that takes the same material we encounter and process in our everyday lives, but whose significance we don’t adequately sift while awake, since that material often comprises recognitions we do not wish to entertain, and which would disrupt our "normal" lives with their revelatory import, if we let them inside our minds as we go about our business.

And somewhere inside these recognitions is, it seems to me, a key that unlocks the significance of holy stories. Holy stories are far less like descriptions of the flat realities we encounter everyday, and far more like the dreamscape to which the harlequin leads us when our ego-minds switch off.

Holy stories do not describe what is scientifically true. The do not say what is factually verifiable. Instead, they subvert the assurances of our everyday perspectives on the world. They force us to recognize what is going on all around us, but what we refuse to see, because our ego selves want to remain encased in a hard shell of illusory control.

To the extent that we approach holy stories—and religion in general—with the presupposition that holy stories and religion are all about reinforcing our dominion over the world, we will be disappointed. To the extent that we expect holy stories to mirror our need for control, to make us comfortable in a world of which we fatuously imagine we are the master, we will find ourselves perplexed. We will remain an outsider to the real significance of holy stories and of faith.

To the extent that we are willing to slip, fall, slide down the tunnel of dream vision into a landscape simultaneously familiar and totally alien, where we exercise no mastery at all, we will begin to understand what holy stories are all about. The mind is a terrible thing to lose. But it’s only in losing it—in losing its pretensions to understand and control—that we will begin to approach the holy burning at the heart of the holy story. Which peeks out at us everywhere in daily life, but whose fiery presence in the nandina we cannot acknowledge until we let ego sleep, because, well, fire burns.