21: A Smiling Journey in Darkness

21: A Smiling Journey in Darkness

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Dreams and Premonitions

A Smiling Journey in Darkness

Live your dreams, not your fears!

~Albina Hume

I was scared to death of death. I suppose everyone is scared of death in some way, but I avoided thinking about it at all costs. When my significant other decided she wanted to get a dog, I loved the idea — except I knew that one day I would have to see it die, and so I resisted as long as I could. We ended up with two dogs, and when the first one died, I happened to be 3,000 miles away, which was a great relief to me. I felt like I had dodged a bullet. The thought of being there when this thing happened was anathema to me. When my grandmother died, I cried for days, and then I talked myself into not going back for the funeral. I couldn’t deal with it.

I was a death-chicken. But I am also a dream worker: I explore individuals’ nightly forays into the realm of the unconscious. I work extensively with people’s nighttime dreams, run workshops at international conferences, have private clients, do occasional radio shows about dreams, and lecture on the subject.

When it comes to talking about death in the context of dreams, I am totally open to it and gung-ho about working with it. Death comes up often in dreams, and in my lexicon it is usually about transformation. Dreams speak a symbolic language, and death is an iconic symbol that may indicate change in one’s life, often a radical change. We get shot, beheaded, flattened by an elephant, fall and go splat on the concrete, shoot others, suffocate, get struck by lightning, have our bodies ripped open and all the organs pulled out, and—two of the most common—we drown in a tsunami or we fall to our death off a cliff.

It’s an old wives’ tale that if you die in your dream, you will actually die. I have died countless times in my dreams. I have willfully plunged into a vat of acid and felt myself die, I have been shot through the heart with an arrow and turned to stone, I have ridden across the river Styx with the ferryman into Hades, I have been eaten by a bear and died, and then woken up inside the dream realizing that I was inside the smelly bear.

It is odd that I was perfectly fine dealing with death in dreams, but in the waking world, I shrank from that reality. I became numb and distracted and made jokes and excuses when the subject came up.

That was my world until I had a pair of dreams that changed the way I saw death forever.

In the first dream, it is a warm afternoon and I am cruising on the Ventura Freeway. I get off at my exit and I just miss the light at the bottom, so I am the first in line for the next light. There is a sign that says “No turn on red” so I wait, but I have this strange feeling—something is not quite right. The light turns green, but my foot won’t step on the gas. The people behind me start beeping. I hesitate a second longer and then lurch forward. As I do so, a giant truck comes screaming at high speed across my path, blaring its horn and just missing me. “Oh my God, I would have been flattened for sure if I hadn’t hesitated,” I say out loud.

I woke up from that dream and didn’t think much of it. After all, we spend a lot of time driving freeways in Los Angeles, so it stands to reason we’ll dream about them.

Two months later, I was crawling east along the Ventura Freeway and I finally got to my exit and just missed the light at the bottom of the exit. I was first in line, and there was a sign that read “No turn on red.”

“Hmm…” I thought. “This reminds me of that dream I had!” And there was a red car on my left, just like in that dream. How odd. “But wait,” I told myself. “Big deal. I have been in this spot hundreds of times.” However, the feeling persisted that this was exactly like that dream I had. The light turned green. I started forward, but stopped suddenly, and sure enough, the horns blared. I still hesitated. I looked and didn’t see anything coming. I thought, “This is just silly. Go, you dummy!” I stepped on the gas, and a giant rumble shook my car as the exact same giant truck I dreamed about came screaming through the intersection. He missed me by inches! My heart was racing and I was yelling “Oh my God! Oh my God!” over and over.

I moved out into traffic, but suddenly an odd thing happened. My left arm started shaking uncontrollably, and so I pulled off the road into a parking space. Still shaking, I started talking to my body, as if I were working on a dream. “What’s wrong with you? We have had close calls before and you have just shrugged and moved on. What’s wrong with you?” And then my body really betrayed me — I started bawling. I sat there for twenty minutes, with NPR yammering on the radio in the background, as for some unknown reason I broke down in tears.

Then I really got it: “That dream saved my life! I would be dead right now if I hadn’t had that dream.” This was not like any close call I had ever had before, for a dream stepped in and saved me! But why all this crying? It slowly dawned on me that this had to do with the connection between dream death and real death. The easy but very deep, even comfortable, way I had dealt with death in the dream realm had suddenly come alive in waking life and smacked me hard across the face. If death in dreams was transformation, perhaps death in life was also transformation. This was a moment of epiphany. I knew that I had to use this to help me deal with my extreme fear of death.

After that, I started reading about death. I trudged through the Tibetan Book of the Dead, and various other texts about death — a real investigation into death. But more importantly, when death was mentioned around me, I turned my soul toward it instead of away from it. I let death in.

And then the second dream appeared.

In this one, I am at a seminar with the Dalai Lama. It is a lively discussion with great minds and great humor. We are in his living room, which is round, with a Tibetan feel. We finish the seminar, and I fall asleep standing in the doorway while I am waiting for the group to leave. I then have a dream while asleep (a dream within a dream) and when I wake, I ask the Dalai Lama if I can tell him my dream, and he says, “Sure, come to the temple with us and tell your dream there.” The dream inside the dream is about my future. How cool that I might have the answer to what my life is about!

Now the strangest image appears. At the bottom of a path that leads to the high mountains sits an enormous vehicle that looks like one of those metal spinning tops that I had in my youth — the type with a handle that you pump up and down and the thing spins madly. Only this one is twenty feet across and has rockets on the sides. It is muted red and black and copper, and it has tassels and filigree work on the side, and gold Tibetan writing. The Dalai Lama and the group climb into this strange vehicle and it starts to spin as the rockets spray fire everywhere. As it whirls, there is a clanging and the sound of Tibetan horns. I am wide-eyed as the spinning top climbs the mountainside up to the temple.

I am going to go there also, but there is something I have to do before I go to the temple. I have to help a woman load a car. The car is a station wagon, much like the one my family used to take on summer vacations. The woman is both herself and at the same time she is also a child, a small child who is dressed like the Dalai Lama with those woolen striped clothes and a woolen striped hat with earflaps.

The child/woman is very hungry and she needs to eat before we go to the temple. She goes over to a taco truck and stands in line. While we are waiting for the food, I grab the child/woman and dance with her. “Holy, Holy…” We sing as I swing her about. This is fun and we both smile.

I notice that the spinning top vehicle is returning now, black and singed from the flames, returning empty to take its place for the next journey. It is late, and I am upset because we have probably missed the ceremony at the temple.

As I ponder this, a realization comes over me and shifts my whole mood. My body softens and relaxes. “The Dalai Lama wants to hear my dream and he will wait patiently at the temple. There is no rush to get there. It is totally guaranteed that my dream will be heard,” I say to myself.

I am suddenly aware that there is another place that the Dalai Lama and his group have to go. They leave the temple at the top of the mountain and they go to the end place, the place of death — which doesn’t feel like death at all. They are clearly going to death, but there is no fear and no dread. This is my answer, I think. Oh my God, this death thing is not death at all as we think of it! It is just a smiling journey in complete darkness that ends up at another temple. I mean, the Dalai Lama and his kin are headed there and it is no big deal. How cool is that? Death is just another place.

I woke up and recorded this dream, and when I got to the part about death being just another place, I had some sort of awakening that has stayed with me ever since. It is difficult to explain, but if you have ever had an experience like this you know how the soul can spend endless time searching for something and then the unexpected answer hits you upside the head like a huge truck. I live with death inside of me now, and it feels fine.

Oh, and when the second dog died? Well, I held him gently as they administered the drugs that caused his life to ebb from him. And I was fully present and tuned into what was going on. I saw his tiny spirit rise gently and leave the room. Some day mine will also, because I get it now. Death is just another place, a smiling journey in total darkness.

~Walter Berry

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