A friend Troy reports a lucid dream to me. In the dream vision, Troy is floating above his body and viewing an accident scene where his body is lying prone not far from his scooter. His body is all bloody and still, with cops and medical attendants on the scene walking about, but with no sense of urgency. Wondering to himself why no one is acting fast to help him, Troy overhears a cop on the scene mutter something like, “stupid guy—he should have been wearing a helmet,” at which point Troy realizes he’s deceased; in the dream.
Troy wakes up in a slight sweat, remembering vividly the details of the dream. He’s so shaken by the experience that he stays off his scooter for two weeks. Then, through the layered process of recollection, as time would have it, he shrugs off the lucid dream as ‘just a dream’ and scooters his way to the YMCA. While en route, a fellow approaches a red light while looking down at his cell phone. Troy sees this in the moment and realizes he has two options: collide with the car and almost definitely die or slide himself off the scooter to the ground and severely scrape up his body. He chooses the latter, saving his life. And he didn’t have a helmet on.
Before commenting on this dream, I want to mention that Troy and I have known each other for almost three years through our evening workouts at the YMCA, especially the men’s sauna where we’ve had many a conversation. I mention this simply to vouch for his sincerity and sanity, if you will.
As I see it, Troy’s dream infused his body and psyche with a hyper-alertness. True, his conscious mind eventually shrugged off the dream as a mere dream, but even the fact that he withdraw from scooting for two weeks shows that his body and mind took very seriously the real threat this dream intimated. Put simply, the lucid dream prepared him for what was to come, directly helping him avoid the worst-case scenario while also revealing how stubborn human beings can be – get a helmet Troy!
It’s quite possible that, were it not for the dream, he may have been scooting just a little more causally that day, perhaps 6 miles faster than the 25 miles he was going (fast for a scooter, but exactly the speed limit on the street), or perhaps he might have been more relaxed with his gaze and slower in his response as he approached the intersection, thus reacting too late. In this situation, a few seconds could have been the difference between life and death.
While there are countless premonitory dreams and super strange visions that people have the world over, the simple lesson here is as follows: visionary experience allows us to tap capacities, such as premonition in Troy’s case, that directly relate to our care of the self, in Foucault’s phrase, and that can deepen our insights into spiritual life, into reality itself, and human nature in general. Troy’s dream is a great example, because it’s rather straight forward, though a careful examination of it speaks volumes.
Now I want to share a more philosophical reflection on Troy’s dream, a riff on the sheer potency and wonder of the cosmos evoked variously through dream visions like Troy’s, visions that I believe each of us can access and even cultivate through our spiritual life and visionary experiences.
The sphere of vision reveals extraordinary possibilities of human consciousness and embodied awareness of creaturely existence. Visionary moments like Troy’s point to an intimate human capacity not just of premonitions in the midst of life, but of entirely new ways of seeing, all of which exceed the boundaries of a static Newtonian universe and any logic construed out of current rational and empirical worldviews—what Charles Taylor calls the “closed world structures” of contemporary secular life and public knowledge. Further, visions like Troy’s reveal possibilities that evoke not just wonder and mystery and some sense of the sublime, but real capacities at work in bodies and psyches; concrete and enlivening glimpses of what’s possible, here in the form of prophetic warnings and bodily signs of things to come.
Taking seriously the power of vision, I suggest that we must learn to reconceive the flesh itself as an open and embodied sphere of being, one that contains unimaginable sentience, subtlety and depth of awareness. Put differently, our trillion-celled body is as much a fragile phenomenon (all too human) as it is marvel and even miracle (all too divine). Our flesh is interconnected with the cosmos and life in ways that transcend all biological and empirical models for investigating reality and life’s possibility. To go on a slight tangent, it turns out that Carl Jung was not so off the mark with his ambitious psycho-metaphysical view of the unconscious, with his notions of synchronicity and deeper archetypes structuring the field of possibilities. But he ultimately fell madly in love with symbols and myths revolving around his own identity, proclaiming their universal import and transcendent meaning in misleading and hasty fashion, while conveniently advancing his own Jungian legacy in the process, a legacy still well-received today by so many New Agers, western therapeutic culture in general, yogis, and meditators alike. But that’s another story.
The main insight I take from Troy’s dream is that the mind-matter interaction—in this case, between self-aware bodies and their environments—is vibrantly real and potent, that the body never was and never will be reducible to the status of a “meat robot,” that we are never only finite matter delimited to the scope of essentially dead flesh.
Further, the implications of a visionary experience like Troy’s call for a sober but radically open-minded acknowledgment of what we might call the realm of spirit (Geist), pointing to something intimately close to us (closer than our juggler vein as one Sufi mystic put it); something vibrantly connecting our “insidesphere” to a presence - we might technically call this a nonhuman potency, intelligibility and sentience; something that is not reducible to the empirically verifiable entity called Mark, or Troy, or “clever animal” or mechanistic universe; something not adequately encompassed in explanations of human nature that rely solely upon objective states of affairs, which we develop with complex schemes of knowledge and rigorous understandings of how reality works and what constitutes its scope of possibility and realization.
In this way, visionary experience will always exert considerable force and appeal, glimpses of vibrant, living potential in the human life-world, precisely because it is so intimate and potent, even as it discloses something transcendent and compelling beyond what Max Weber once depressingly called the “Iron Cage” of modern society.