“We talk to the spirit-child before a baby is born,” naturopath and traditional healer Burnham Burnham explained it to me. If the father-to-be is a dreamer, he is frequently the one who first meets the spirit-child in dreams. These dream encounters often unfold at places of water that exist in the natural world — a billabong, the shallows of a river, a waterfall — where the spirit-child plays with its own kind and is not confined to a single form. It can appear as a kingfisher or a platypus, as a fish or a crocodile. The dreamer may have to negotiate with the spirit-child, giving it reasons for coming into a human body. Finally, the dreamer plays soul-guide, escorting the incoming spirit to the mother’s womb.
On the way to death, the soul-guide appears from the other side. Departed loved ones and ancestral beings who are at home in the Dreamtime come calling, in dreams, to prepare a dying person for his or her journey. When the spirit leaves the body in death, these guides from the Dreamtime escort it along the roads to the afterlife, which may involve a sea crossing, descent through a cave, and/or the ascent of a magical tree whose roots are in the World Up Top.
Aboriginal dreaming is an antidote to Freud, who wrote that the dream “has nothing to communicate to anyone else”. The first Australians know that dreaming means everything and is a highly social activity. We meet other people and other beings when we go dreaming, and sharing dreams is not a matter of puzzling over obscure “texts” but a source of wisdom, community guidance and grand entertainment. Among nomad communities, listening to a dream by the camp fire, or over a morning cup of tea, is better fun than going to the movies, and may run the whole gamut from romance to horror, from Star Trek to soaps.
The 500-plus Aboriginal tribes of Australia share this understanding: a dream is a journey. When we dream, “the spirit goes on walkabout”, says Nungurrayi, a wise woman of the Kukatja, a people of the Western Desert. A powerful dreamer, she explains, is a person who knows how to travel in spirit to interesting places, and bring back a “good story”.
If you know that your dream is a journey, or a visitation by another dream traveler, then you are unlikely to be interested in the kind of analysis that reduces dream experiences to a list of symbols and then interprets what the symbols mean. When traditional Aborigines share dreams, they want to know who, when and where. Who was that sorcerer I saw pointing the bone at me? Who was that person who came to my camp and wanted sex with me? Where is the cave where the dream ceremony took place? When will the car break down?
When you know that a dream is a real experience, then you want to get the information clear in order to figure out what to do with it. Maybe you’ll want to tell that dream of the sorcerer all over the camp to scare away the actual sorcerer, as anthropologist Sylvie Poirier saw done in the Western Desert. Maybe you’ll get together with your dream lover (if the experience was pleasant) or find a way to prevent that person from intruding on your psychic space (if it was not). Perhaps you’ll travel to the dream cave, and celebrate a ritual to confirm and honor what has already taken place, in the Dreaming. Maybe you’ll get your car fixed before it breaks down.
Aboriginals look to dreams as the place of encounter with spiritual guides and sacred healers, who often appear as totem animals but may come in many other forms.
Aboriginal Australians are well aware that dreaming can be active; you can decide where you are going to go, and you can go consciously. You can travel across time and space, or into other dimensions. You can rendezvous with other dreamers, and embark on shared journeys. Shamans receive their calling and much of their training in this way.
The first Australians do not live under the illusion that it is necessary to go to sleep in order to dream. They dream with a living landscape in a way that baffles urbanized, deracinated people. Everything in that landscape is alive and conscious, every place has its Dreaming.
“Nothing is nothing,” as they say in the Cape York peninsula; everything means something.
Let’s be clear: there is The Dreaming, or the Dreamtime, the realm of gods and ancestral beings, and then there is everyday dreaming. The two interweave, but are not the same. The Kukatja, in common with many other Western Desert tribes, use the word Tjukurrpa for the ancestral Dreaming, but a different term — kapukurri — for personal dream experiences.
Dreamtime is creation time, and stories of the Dreamtime often tell us about the origin of things. But Dreamtime is not long ago; in Dreamtime it is always now.
Aborigines call Dreamtime the “All-at-Once”. Dreamtime is the seedbed of life, the origin of everything that is manifested in the world. It is not separate from the physical world; it is the inner pulse of the land. Our personal dreams may open portals to the All-at-Once.
The science of the 21st century may help us to grasp the Paleolithic science of the Earth’s oldest ongoing tradition. Dreamtime may encompass the six (or seven) hidden dimensions of the physical universe posited by superstring theory. Dreamtime is the multidimensional matrix in which 3D reality floats. By entering Dreamtime, we may be able to reach into the quantum soup of possibilities from which the events of the 3D world bubble up.
Graphic: “We Say This Is the First of All Creatures”. Dream-inspired drawing (c) Robert Moss