Kelly Bulkeley Ph.D.
Books Reviewed in this Essay:
Realities of the Dreaming Mind.
By Swami Sivananda Radha Spokane, Washington: Timeless Books, 1994. Pp. xviii + 358. $18.95
Funny You Should Say That...
By Chuck Coburn Redway, California: Seed Center, 1995. Pp. 238. $15.95
Every Dreamer's Handbook.
By Will Phillips Altamonte Springs, Florida: Kensington/Non-fiction/Self-help (NY, 1996), 1-800-221-2647. Pp. 203. $9.95
All books about dreams are, at some level, books about the author's dreams. There's really no avoiding it; the author's own dream experiences inevitably influence his or her work in countless (and frequently unexpected) ways. This poses a real challenge to anyone wanting to write about dreams. On the one hand, authors need to make an honest and reflective study of their own dreams; on the other hand, they need to speak clearly and empathetically to their readers, addressing the interests, concerns, and questions that the readers will be bringing to the book.
The three books under review here meet this challenge with great success. Swami Radha's Realities of the Dreaming Mind, Chuck Coburn's Funny You Should Say That..., and Will Phillips' Every Dreamer's Handbook are all outstanding examples of books written by people who have gained deep personal insights from their own dreams and who have managed to share and communicate their discoveries with other people.
Swami Radha was initiated into the sacred order of Sanyas in 1956, and is the first Western woman to become a Swami. After leaving India she came to Canada and founded Yasodhara Ashram, a spiritual retreat and training center in British Columbia. Over the subsequent years she founded more than a dozen urban training centers, called Radha Houses, in North America and Europe, and wrote numerous books, including Kundalini Yoga for the West and Hatha Yoga: The Hidden Language.
In Realities of the Dreaming Mind, Swami Radha focuses on the spiritual dimensions of dreaming, explaining the various ways in which dreams provide spiritual insight, guidance, and wisdom. She does not make it sound easy, however--she's not offering any "quick tips" for becoming enlightened through dreams. Rather, she gently and very patiently introduces her readers to the multiple dimensions of their dreams. She emphasizes that each individual must determine the meaning of his or her own dream symbols, and while she speaks in some detail about the personal/psychological aspects of dreaming she encourages her readers to become ever more sensitive to the potentially transpersonal energies and realities manifesting in their dreams.
The most compelling passages in Realities of the Dreaming Mind are the discussions of Swami Radha's own dreams, which have served throughout her life as a primary source of spiritual instruction. My favorite example is a dream she calls "The Queens Dream." One night she went to bed very tired from the demanding work of the Ashram, and despite having faithfully written down her dreams for many years she decided that for just one night she wanted to sleep right through until morning. Naturally, that night she had a dream that absolutely demanded her attention, but all she could manage to write down were two phrases--"the Queen of Bees" and "the Queen of England." She filed the dream away, and forgot about it. But several months later, through a number of coincidental/synchronistic encounters with information about queen bees and about the English Queen, the profound meanings of this fragmentary dream began to dawn on Swami Radha. The dream, she realized, was addressing the "cardinal question" of her life at that time, which was how best to structure and organize the on-going life of the Ashram, and how to reassure herself that by passing on responsibility to others she was not trying to escape her duties. Dreams such as this, she says, show "how the Divine not only works with us, but also works for us, sometimes in spite of ourselves." (99) As much a spiritual autobiography as an introductory manual on dream interpretation, Realities of the Dreaming Mind gives readers the opportunity to learn from a truly remarkable woman.
Chuck Coburn, author of Funny You Should Say That..., is not a Swami. He did not train with mystical adepts in India, or anyplace else. He was just another ordinary, hard-working guy making hi way through another ordinary, hard-working life: going to college, studying business, working in a construction firm, getting married buying a house, having kids, starting his own company, paying the bills, being successful. Then one weekend he attended, at the urging of a neighbor, a seminar on personal growth. During the weekend Coburn experienced a series of eerie events that defied rational explanation. But as unsettling as these events were, nothing prepared him for what was to happen at a restaurant on the evening following the seminar's conclusion. As they ate dinner together, one of the seminar's participants suggested that Coburn may be the unknowing possessor of psychic powers; she suggested that he try an experiment, right there in the restaurant, in which he would focus on a person in the restaurant, close his eyes, and ask a "spirit guide" to reveal something about that person. With a mixture of skepticism and anxiety, Coburn agreed. He chose a woman in a red dress sitting at a nearby table, then closed his eyes; soon he had an imagined visual picture of the woman in the red dress engaged in a struggle, with a man's hands grasping at her throat. In his visualization the woman fell to the floor, and a third person appeared and began punching her in the chest and upper body. Coburn opened his eyes, and asked his companion what would happen next; she said he'd just have to wait and see. About 15 minutes later, a loud shout came from the table where the woman in the red dress had been sitting--some food had caught in her throat, and she was choking to death. Her companion jumped up and grasped her throat, trying to dislodge the food; then another patron, who said she knew CPR, lay the woman in the red dress on the floor and began pounding on her chest to clear the blocked windpipe. A moment later, the woman in the red dress was fine. Coburn, though, was a mess. What began for him that night was a long spiritual odyssey, a quest to discover how such experiences can happen, where they come from, what powers cause them, and most importantly, why they were happening to plain old him. Coburn's questions led him to study various mystical traditions, to visit healers and psychics all over the world, and to plumb the depths of the dream world. Funny You Should Say That... is the very entertaining and thought-provoking story of Coburn's journeys (and occasional misadventures) into the manifold realms of metaphysical mystery. Of course, nothing that Coburn says in his book will persuade die-hard skeptics that such phenomena as spirit guides, channeling, power sites, ghosts, and psychic healing really exist. Those people will probably have to wait for their own woman-in-the-red-dress experiences before their skeptical world views open up a little bit. But for anyone who wants to read an engaging, genuinely down- to-earth chronicle of one man's voyage of spiritual discovery, Funny You Should Say That... should be at the very top of their list.
Like Coburn, Will Phillips did not begin his life with a decision to devote himself to dreams, spirituality, and the nether regions of the human psyche. After dropping out of college and living in Colorado for a time, Phillips and his family settled in central Florida, where he worked as a cabinet-maker. For some years, however, he had been noticing that his dreams were calling him to do something else; the urgency of the dreams was powerful, but the specific message, in terms of what that "something else" might be, was unclear. Before long, though, Phillips realized that the medium was the message--the dreams were calling on him to teach people about dreams. Despite feeling terrible insecurity about his lack of abilities and credentials for undertaking such a mission, Phillips knew he had to follow his dreams. So he arranged to teach a four-week workshop in his home, outlined the classes, printed up brochures, and arranged advertising.
That was eleven years ago, and since that time Phillips has become one of the leading voices in the grassroots dreamwork . He has taught numerous classes and workshops on dreams, has written articles for newspapers and magazines (in Dream Network Journal among others), and has now published an excellent book, Every Dreamer's Handbook. Phillips' approach to dreams emerged organically from his own experiences and from the dreams other people have shared with him. He draws freely on several psychological theories about dreams, but he is beholden to none of them, and he champions no particular ideology or school of thought. Rather, he concentrates on introducing people to some basic techniques for making sense of their dreams. His book offers a "Guided Interview" method, with a fourteen-item worksheet that provides a flexible, dreamer- centered approach to understanding the various elements of a dream's meanings.
There are, to be sure, lots of very good books on the market these days offering simple, straightforward introductions to dream interpretation (prima facie evidence, in my view, of the public's growing eagerness to learn about dreams). Most of these books are written by people with far more professional credentials than Phillips has. But looking at the contents of all these books, at what goes on between the often glossy, blurb-strewn covers, Phillips's work can stand proudly with the best of them. He writes in a clear, unpretentious style, and he has a wonderful feel for the practical, day-to-day concerns of his readers. When people ask me what's a good book for someone who's brand new to the subject of dreams, I immediately recommend Every Dreamer's Handbook.