Another Way of Knowing


There are many cultures that honor visions not only of their spiritual leaders, but also of ordinary people. For these cultures, such visions give meaning to their everyday roles and activities. In our contemporary Western society we feel uncomfortable with other forms of knowing although we read about them in our Scriptures.  Despite the fact that these do occur to ordinary people more often than we would imagine it is difficult to speak about them for we lack the language to describe them and they are not recognized as having value in our life cycle. Such occurrences create an opportunity to integrate our spiritual life with our everyday life, to reflect upon our daily experience, and also on meaning when we experience tragedy and loss.  They also help us to understand time in a society when work and responsibility can overwhelm our days. They happen when we least expect them, but also when we have developed a way of life that includes either meditation, periods of solitude and above all a return to stillness.

I have interviewed a number of people who have had spiritual experiences through visions and dreams and yet find that there is no social space for these. I am most comfortable discussing them with friends from Indian nations in the United States or with artists. A close friend of mine who is a Cherokee, Awiakta, refers for this aspect of life as “the numinous” and she often refers to the phrase, “Be Still and know.” The Indian and aboriginal peoples whom dominant cultures consider as somehow “primitive” or “lesser” in accomplishments have woven their spiritual and daily lives into a harmony that permits transcendental knowing.

Writing about the Crow People, in his remarkable book, Radical Hope; Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation, Jonathan Lear described the origins of this nation taken from the last leaders own words.  Our ancestors, the Hidatsa, lived along the Mississippi River at the beginning of the 16th century, and then migrated during that century to North Dakota.  One of the Chiefs, No Vitals, had a vision in which he received sacred tobacco seeds from the Great Spirit who told him to go west to high mountains top plant them There they would flourish. (Harvard U. Press, Cambridge, Ma, 2006). For 200 years their culture remained vibrant in their new setting in the Dakotas. Their life there was not only based upon their rare form of tobacco, but by hunting buffalo. In fact the leadership of the last chief, Plenty Coups, before the destruction of the Crow was predicted by his grandfather after having a dream-vision in which his grandson would have a long life filled with achievements valued by the Crow people.

Lear connects the coming of visions with “anxiety.”  In our own culture, we experience the greatest anxiety around the vulnerabilities of serious illness and death.

Writing about the African Bushman in the Heart of the Hunter (William Morrow, New, York, 1961) Laurens Van Der Post who spent time with them in the Kalahari desert recounts how a chieftain would meditate for hours before setting out on a journey. Like the Crow, they were nomadic people and subject to the harsh realities of nature. But the hours of meditation would give them visions to guide them on their perilous journeys. Van der Post concluded, We know so much intellectually, indeed that we are in danger of becoming the prisoners of our knowledge. We suffer from a hubris of the mind….As a result we are no longer sufficiently aware of the importance of what …..we must know in other ways, of the living experience before and beyond our transitory knowledge. In fact, Van Der Post dedicated his book to the great psychologist Carl Jung because of his reverence for the Bushman.

The world -renowned psychologist Carl Jung had his first vision in 1913. It was of a monstrous flood engulfing most of Europe and lapping at the mountains of his native Switzerland. He saw thousands of people drowning and then the water turned to blood. This vision was followed by weeks of dreaming of eternal winters and rivers of blood. He was afraid he was becoming psychotic. But on August 1 of that year, World War 1 began and Jung saw a connection between his visions, his dreams and that reality, a connection that would influence his life’s work.

In his research he identified different forms of knowing, such as sensing, feeling, and what he referred to as knowledge and the rational as simply one of many ways of becoming aware of the world around and beyond us, the many hidden layers of reality. Cultures differ in valuing ways of perception, which is why Jung studied many different peoples. However in categorizing ways of knowing he accounted for visions by referring to what he described as the collective unconscious.

I have found that artists, composers and poets, in fact all who are involved in creative endeavors have access to this kind of knowing. When the Cannon Devemy founded the church of Notre-Dame de Toutes Graces for a tubercular sanitorium in the French Alps in the early 1950s, he acknowledged this type of knowing. He shocked the Church establishment by calling upon modern artist of all faiths and political leanings to lend their talents. He made this decision because as is written in the entrance of the church, Every true artist is inspired, is already prepared for, predisposed to spiritual insight: why then would he not be predisposed to the coming of the Spirit itself which after all blows where it will.

Writing a poem or working on a painting is thus a way of seeing that is deeply spiritual. One does not will a poem into being, but as the Crow who went into the woods to experience the solitude preceding vision, an artist will seek out this solitude in order to be ready to receive either the poem, or the image. They cannot be willed into existence. At times, I have had flying dreams before writing poems and for me they are intimately connected in my mind. I have also on two occasions dreamed the process of the breakthrough that my artist friend Maddu Huacuja had in her studio. In one she was beginning a series of paintings about the aboriginal spirit in her native Mexico that has been almost obliterated by the Spanish conquest and industrialization. In my dream, a young man with black hair, naked to the waist, walked out of a lush forest. When he reached her, he leaned over, speaking to her softly. When I emailed this dream to her she had just began her series that she called Tigre, an intensely spiritual rendering of the Mayas and their relations to the animal world.

What we see around us is only a tiny fragment of the larger reality that surrounds us. Rebbe Nachmann of Bratislav the 18th century Jewish mystic has written about this so beautifully; As the hand before the eye conceals the greatest mountain, so this little earthly life hides from the glance the enormous lights and mysteries of which the world is full. 

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