Tami Simon: You’re listening to Insights at the Edge. Today my guest is Oriah Mountain Dreamer. Oriah Mountain Dreamer was given her name by the elders with whom she studied shamanism. A writer, teacher, mentor, and group facilitator who has been guiding others in a process of spiritual exploration for over 30 years, Oriah is the author of the international bestselling books The Invitation, The Dance, and The Call. With Sounds True, Oriah has created an audio program called Your Heart’s Prayer, in which she details the way to narrow the gap between how we want to live and how we’re actually living. In this episode of Insights at the Edge, Oriah and I spoke about asking the question, “Did you love well?” at the time of death. We also talked about a group of guides that work with Oriah through her dreams, a group that she calls “the Grandmothers,” along with a grandfather, and what the role of these guides are in her life. We talked about vision questing and Oriah’s experiences on vision quests and how those vision quests have changed her. Finally, we talked about what it might mean to have faith in our longing. Here’s my conversation with Oriah Mountain Dreamer.
Oriah, I want to start by talking about some of the themes in your writing and teaching work. And I thought a good way to begin might be to ask you, what do you think are some of the central themes that you see weaving through your writing and teaching?
Oriah Mountain Dreamer: Well if I look at the big arc, there’s always been the theme around intimacy—intimacy with self and with others and with the world—both the longing for that, the struggle with that, the movement toward it, the movement away from it, the things that undermine it. And it encompasses things like being fully present to ourselves and the world and how easy or difficult that is, and ways that we might do that. I use the word “intimacy” because it has a very personal feel to it, and the sense of how each of us struggles with that in some ways is common, but in other ways is different—it’s very unique from person to person. The longer I do this, the older I get, the more it becomes more a question for individuals than necessarily for all of us at once.
TS: What do you mean by that, a question for individuals?
OMD: I think—just this week I was working with somebody who is struggling with her meditation practice, and we were looking at what does and doesn’t work for her. There’s the theory—and we understand pretty well from experience and from teaching what the theory is—and there was what was happening for her, and whether or not she was going to remain true to sort of an ideal of how she thought it should work, or was going to adjust things a little because of things in her life at the moment; which allowed her to then be more true to the spirit of what she was doing in the meditation of trying to be fully present.
So I guess what I would say is that in that kind of looking for intimacy, it includes a kind of understanding of both a structure that can hold, but [also] be flexible enough to adapt to the realities of our life at the moment.
TS: Now in my own experience with intimacy, it seems like there’s a big difference in being intimate, let’s say with flowers or sunshine or even the moment, and being intimate with other people, which is where it seems it really gets hard. And I’m curious what your view is of that.
OMD: [Laughs] Yes, I would agree. It’s easier to love the world and humanity than it is to sometimes, not so much love another individual, but come together in away where each can be seen and be who they are. That is, in a sense, where the real spiritual rubber hits the road. In our culture, we tend to focus a lot of that on primary romantic, sexual relationships, which is certainly one of the places that happens or doesn’t happen depending on how things are going, but I think it’s more true that we realize in our interactions with friends and colleagues and relatives, and it is the place where it becomes hard, it just becomes really difficult. Often.
TS: Now I know in your book, The Invitation, you wrote that at the end of your life, you have an image of yourself with the question, asking yourself that question, “Did you love well?” and that this for you might be the most important question, at least at the time of the writing of the book The Invitation, the most important question that you thought you would hold in your heart at the end of your life. I’m wondering, is that, first of all, still true for you? Is that the most important question?
OMD: Yes, I think it is, although I have a changing understanding of what that means. The difficulty with love, to borrow from Martin Buber, it’s an overburdened word. So what it looks like to love ourselves, others, particular individuals, the world as a whole—my own understanding of that becomes more and more refined, again both in a general sense of that great sense of how love is our “ontological glue.” I’m borrowing from a—I just finished a wonderful book this morning, and one of the characters in it asks, “What’s our ontological glue?” You could answer “love” to that, I think, but then the question becomes, how do I live that? How do I live that as the particular human being I am? Because my way of loving the world and others is going to look a little different than your way.
TS: Now just to clarify something, what do you mean by “ontological glue,” that love is our ontological glue?
OMD: Well, I am truly borrowing this, just because I’m tickled by the phrase. It’s from a novel called Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann. One of the characters at the very end of the book wonders about the ontological glue, meaning the thing that gives us a sense of being in our lives. When I read it—I mean, I was a philosophy major, so questions of being and what is real and what has existence and what doesn’t, these are things that I love to play with. But I think the other reason why it struck me is that I’m a lover of stories, and you know, one day on Facebook, somebody said, “Well, it’s our memories that hold us together.” I think many people, including myself would have a sense of that, the stories of my life; but both of my parents have Alzheimer’s, and so I’m watching two people who are very much still here in existence, but if memory is their ontological glue—stories that they remember—then they’re becoming unglued because that’s no longer possible for them to access in the same way.
And that raises questions about a being-ness that’s not dependent upon remembering stories. I bring up stories because I have a particular love of stories, and I have learned in my life to love myself and the world largely by writing stories, even if only in my mind. In much the same way other people might see light in a certain way and paint things, and that’s what brings them intimately into contact with the moment. For me it is about story.
TS: Now you mentioned that this idea of loving well has changed for you over the years. I’m not quite sure I understand how it’s changed, maybe you could tell us what it was and what it is now.
OMD: I think probably when I was younger, it was a game more in keeping with the cultural sense of that being focused around a primary intimate relationship. So I think it has broadened, not to exclude that, but to include what it looks like to love, in an appropriate way, the people we work with, the people we meet on a daily basis wherever we meet the world, meet the other, the people I share this apartment building with, which I may have a cursory contact with or more knowledge of as neighbors. So it has broadened a great deal in terms of ways in which I think we bring who we are to each other, to the world.
So in that sense it’s not as narrow, as that kind of focus, I think at a younger age, when I sort of focused on how I did that in one primary intimate relationship. Now I had two sons, so that broadened it a great deal, and that also broadened in terms of the sense of what happens between parents and children, or caregivers of a wide variety. What I would say is that the longer I live, the bigger the sense is of who is encompassed in that loving well.
TS: Now I can imagine [the] people listening thinking, you know, asking myself that question, “Did I love well?” Yeah, that is the question. I want to be able to answer that with a strong ‘yes’ and I want to be able to say yes to all of the people and beings and events in my life, but I forget that again and again and again. Every day I’m constantly forgetting it. I’m wondering how you Oriah, keep that idea central in your life? Are there techniques or approaches? How do you keep that focus alive?
OMD: Well I want to say first of all that I think the older I get, the more I’m pretty resigned to the fact that often the answer to that question is going to be “no,” in the sense of any kind of ideal of what it looks like, because I am going to forget over and over again. But having said that, that doesn’t mean that I throw up my hands and go “Oh well, there’s no point.” Really, I think it’s the daily practices that I have that are way of sort of resetting my intent again and again and again, bringing me back to remembering what matters.
It amazes me how far field I can go in between, say, my morning practice meditation and my evening practice, how far astray I can go about remembering about what matters and what doesn’t. But there are touch points in my day on a regular basis that I come back to, and come back to my breath, and come back to what’s going on within my body and mind and all of that, and I remember again and again.
TS: I wonder if it’s OK if we get personal? Is that alright?
TS:Which is, while you and I were speaking briefly before we began this conversation, you mentioned to me that since the last time we saw each other, that you had both gotten married and divorced, that you were in a 10-year marriage that ended three years ago. And in the first answer to the question about the themes in your work, you talked about intimacy and how it can be defined in many ways and broad ways, but also including intimate relationships. I’m curious to know how going through that divorce, how that was for you, and how to keep loving well even through a divorce? Is that possible?
OMD: Well, I mean how it was for me—the short version is, horrible. [Laughs.] In terms of the divorce. You know, I’d reached a point in my life where for lots of reasons, I felt like my commitment was complete and I certainly wasn’t going anywhere and to have the marriage, it felt really like the marriage exploded—I’m not sure that’s accurate, but that’s how it felt—and that there had been a real failure of intimacy in many ways. The thing about loving well, is that when we draw that circle at any given moment of where we’re placing our attention and energy to loving well, we need to make sure that we’re on the inside of the circle with all [the] others that we’re including in this moment. Sometimes we don’t do that. Sometimes we end up outside that circle.
Having said that, my own view of this is that we are often drawn to people where the soul recognizes, the psyche recognizes—on a fairly unconscious level, quite frankly—a place where some healing that’s not been done yet can happen. That’s not necessarily because it’s all going to be wonderful, but because in fact there may be an echo of an old wound that’s going to reoccur—which is what happened in this for me—that gives us another opportunity to bring this to completion. But that’s not usually fun. [Laughs.] It’s usually pretty painful.
That’s a big piece of what happened there for me. In the course of that marriage, we did several years of marriage therapy and we went to several of the Imago weekends. I want in no way our divorce to cast aspersions on the Imago method, which I thought was very useful. But one of the things that fascinated me is that at the beginning of those weekends, they ask people to describe the first time they saw and connected with the person that they are there with. A lot of people are there in some difficulty in their relationships, and what struck me most, was how many times people said things like, “I saw the back of her head across the room at the party and I just knew that I had to go over to her.” It would be something like that. It wasn’t like she was—it was the back of her head, or I heard his voice. It would be something quite small that clearly resonated, and my own sense is that there is something that [our] soul recognizes, and we move toward it. And as painful as the outcome may be at some point, I do trust that. Still.
TS: Now I know many people who have had relationships of long standing—10 years or more—when it ends, there can be often for people some sense of, you used the word, of failure, some sort of failure of intimacy. And I’m wondering what you might be able to say to people who have that experience of a relationship ending and feel that somehow both of the partners failed, or one partner failed in some sense—this idea of failure.
OMD: Well, I guess what I would send is that I don’t think ending or continuing is necessarily the criteria that lets you know whether or not the relationship is succeeding in being a place of a lot of where people are loving well, where there’s a lot of intimacy or not. So a relationship can be failing to do that and people, for lots of reasons, can decide to stay together. For me, the failure, as I would see it—and this was fairly unconscious most of the time—was that I kept carving off pieces of my essential self to keep trying to fit into a place where I probably needed to leave probably much earlier than I did. So the failure of intimacy was largely with myself. I just kept carving off pieces and my energy just kept going down and down and down, and in fact, I was becoming physically very ill.
OMD: So what I would say to people is that every relationship has times of success in loving well and failure in loving well, and you can’t tell much about which is happening simply on the basis of whether people are staying together or separating.
TS: Now Oriah, you mentioned your meditation and prayer life and how important that is both morning and evening. I know that you write about working with a group of guides, I guess you could call them—I’m curious how you would describe them— that you call “the Grandmothers” and I wonder if you could tell us more about, who are these Grandmothers?
OMD: That’s a really good question, and I have no definitive answer. [Laughs.] I’m always curious because people will write me and tell me who the Grandmothers are, which fascinates me. For a very long time, since I was 30, I have had dreams—night dreams, sleep dreams—of a circle of elderly women who I call the Grandmothers and also of one man, actually, who I call Grandfather. Initially, these figures appeared in my night dreams, and then when I would meditate, at times they would also appear there, sometimes saying something, sometimes not. So as the years have gone by, a sense of that presence has gotten stronger.
What I would say is I think there are two things about it. There are many things they could be in terms of the tradition—the shamanic tradition I was trained in would say that they are what’s called okalodayhey [ph], enlightened masters who have chosen to make themselves available to me. That sounds nice, but I don’t know if that’s true or not. I do think that the Sacred Mystery makes itself available to us in ways that suit who we are. And certainly, it doesn’t surprise me—that, one, that would be in dreams for me, because I’ve always been someone who remembers a lot of dreams—and also as a circle of elders, particularly of grandmothers, that that’s a relationship that I would be open to and gravitate toward and feel comfortable with.
It reminds me of a piece in the Bhagavad Gita where Krishna reveals himself to Arjuna as Krishna and he says, “I love those best who love me in this form.” I’m not doing justice to the entire piece, but part of what I take from it is that although I can speak of the Mystery as just the Mystery, or clear/light mind, or the life-force, or in many ways—and there are times when that is equally vivid to me—there are times in my humanness, (and I think that’s what that passage was about) when human beings love in the particular and in form, and so for the Mystery to appear to us—in my case in dreams— as these particular forms of elders who love me, is something that really nourishes and supports me in times of difficulty. That for me is the sense of why that would happen in that way.
TS: In your experience in terms of receiving messages or guidance from the Grandmothers and from Grandfather, can you invoke that? Can you call on that, or does it only happen in dreams when it happens?
OMD: No, I certainly can call on it, especially when I’m in my practice, and I do. It doesn’t mean I’m always going to get a clear answer. In fact [laughs], I’m more likely to get a question in reply to a question, that sort of points in a particular direction but isn’t specific. And that’s gotten stronger over the years, where the sense of the presence of those figures in my own imaginable world and in my energetic field has gotten stronger. And I often will call upon them.
TS: And do you might getting a question back when you ask a question, or have you just become used to it?
OMD: After all these years [laughs], I’ve kind of come to expect that. Sometimes they will be there and they will be silent, which is unusual but it usually means I’m asking a question about something that’s literally unfolding in the moment and I simply need to pay attention to what’s happening and not ask a whole lot of questions about it right then.
TS: Now I know you’ve also gone on extensive vision quest experiences, and I wonder if you can tell us a little bit about your experience with vision questing?
OMD: Well, a vision quest is basically a time of fasting and praying in the wilderness alone. It’s funny, I once had an elder say to me, “Just call it that, just call it a fast in the bush. You don’t raise so many expectations that way.” Usually the shorter ones, and usually people start with one night out, are usually dry fasting. The longest I’ve done is 22 days and nights.
You know, it’s a process. The solitude itself and being in the wilderness is a process of paring away the aspects of self that I wouldn’t say are false, but aren’t critical to who and what we really are. Those kind of drop away, and some degree of physical deprivation—certainly no dire hardship or anything, but it helps us drop our kind of ideals of how we want to be. So inevitably as people enter ceremonies, it’s impossible—people would say don’t have expectations, and I would say it’s impossible not to have an expectation. But it will pretty shortly be taken care of by some of the rigors of the ceremony itself. It’s a lot of time. You know, 22 days and nights alone in the bush is a long time to be the wilderness.
TS: Now it’s a long time to be in the wilderness, but you were fasting for 22 days and nights?
OMD: I was. I wasn’t dry fasting. I was drinking water.
TS: I should hope so. I mean, I don’t even know if you can be successfully healthy for 22 days without drinking water.
OMD: The odd thing is I haven’t had particularly robust health in my life. So I am pretty careful in a lot of conditions. I’ve never, ever gotten ill during ceremony.
TS: Ok, so 22 days and you’re drinking water but otherwise you’re not eating. I would imagine that you would be quite hallucinatory, for lack of a better word, from like day 10 to day 22 or something like that, but I’m curious what your experience actually was.
OMD: One of the things I would say—I mean, we would call it dreaming and it could be hallucinatory. At one point, I do remember right near the end I was sitting out at night and I did have a little tent there because we did get rain, and I quite unconsciously was thinking, “I’m not going to be able to hear any guidance because the trees are so loud.” And I thought to myself, “Trees are so loud? What is going on here?” But I did have this sense of hearing almost this kind of music which I took to be from the trees.
There were some very strange things that happened, but I think one of the things that helps it a lot is that being out in the wilderness on the earth tends to be very grounding. You don’t lose track of your body. The other thing I did in those 22 days was I had built a sweat lodge and I did 22 sweat lodges. That meant I had to build a large fire. I had to gather the wood and the rocks, build a large fire every day, and do that ceremony. In many ways, that in itself was very grounding, although it did occur to me by the end of the first week that I might not be entirely stable on my feet by the end of 22 days. So I’d better get a real cache of rocks and wood collected, and kind of spent the next three days making sure I had enough for the full 22 days.
That in itself was a kind of grounding. One of the things about being in the wilderness and doing a physical task like that is that there’s this constant sense of grounding all the time, in the body. I’m sure I lost some weight—I didn’t weigh myself, so I don’t know—from not eating, but I also gained muscular strength, partly from the rigor of doing that each day.
TS: And how would you say the 22-day vision quest changed you, if it did?
OMD: Well, it was quite a long time ago. I would say, I’ve been through something similar recently, not 22 days, not a whole vision quest thing, but what I would say is that when I’ve done ceremony like that, it brings me back to, in the moment, what kind of matters, and usually a sense of what the next step in my life is. Whether that’s about writing something in particular—you know, at one point I did a vision quest and I came back and I quit the full-time job I had to teach the shamanic work that I was doing full-time. And that came directly out of the vision quest. So each time, there’s been a kind of shift in how I’m living in very concrete ways, a shift in emphasis and an openness to often taking a new risk.
TS: If somebody wanted to experiment with a vision quest, do you think it’s safe for them to just design their own vision quest and try this for a couple days? Are there any guidelines you’d want to offer?
OMD: It’s not ideal to do this on your own, I would say, especially initially. You know, when I’ve taken people out to do vision quests, which I used to do a great deal of, I monitor them. All kinds of things can come up that people don’t expect to come up. It really is an exercise in trust because you don’t know what’s going to come up, and people’s shadow material, old wounds they thought they were done with, all kinds of stuff can be stirred. So it helps a great deal to be working with somebody who [can] kind of hold the space, can monitor your safety in some sort of way, and really hold the space for you. If you’ve done it a lot, that gets less necessary, but it’s not something that I would highly recommend [that] most people just sort of go out and do.
I should say that every vision quest has a structure to it, and different traditions have slightly different structures, but in terms of ways of building a medicine wheel, doing what they call prayer ties and flags and feathers and things. So you create a container on the land for yourself also, and that allows a certain kind of psychic safety. And the only reason why that is important is not because it’s particularly dangerous in terms of things outside yourself, but in most vision quests as people’s fear around something arises, one of the first places that human beings seem to go is, “Something must be after me, right?” And so it’s helpful to know that you have a way of creating a container that has a clear boundary that you can clear so you know you’re dealing with your own shadow, not with something from outside.
TS: Now, it’s interesting to me that you said after a vision quest that one of the patterns you’ve seen in your own life is that you’re readied or somehow inspired to take a risk that you might not have been ready to take before you went into the vision quest. What do you think is the relationship between spending time like that alone and taking risks?
OMD: That’s a great question. I think there are two pieces: one is that no matter what happens, it brings you to a kind of center of who you are. In fact, I will say that over the years as I sent a lot of people out, what I came to realize is that although people were frightened about bears or snakes or whatever they thought might be in the environment, what most people feared most is that if they sat alone in the wilderness, they either wouldn’t be with somebody that they liked very much (themselves), or that there wouldn’t be anybody really there. They feared a kind of vacuum.
So one of the things that happens is that you are truly with yourself. There’s simply nobody else there, and that in itself, being fully with yourself, nobody watching it, not mattering, you get out there and you know you’re going to do this ceremony and if you say, “Oh forget it, I’m not doing it, I’m laying down and sleeping,” nobody is there to say to you, “Wait a minute, that’s not what you’re here for.” You’re really with yourself, and that’s a pretty rare thing in our culture for any length of time, that people are really, consciously with themselves, no distractions. I think what most people find is a kind of rootedness in themselves and that really helps us take risks, because we have this sense of we are who we are and that won’t change no matter how that risky venture goes, whether it goes well or badly. So we become more and more familiar with that kind of sense of centering.
The other thing is that it is very rare for people not to have some experience of a greater wholeness than themselves holding them. Again, there’s a kind of essential quality to that and some people may frame it in one way or another, whether they would use the word “God” or “Mystery,” or a sense of the life force running through them, that’s running through everything around them. Whatever that is, that sense of interbeingness somehow makes the fears that we have about our small risks and how our bank account is doing and what not, seem far less daunting. You know, “What’s the worst that could happen? I’m connected to this wholeness, and I can come back to the center in myself,” and those two things make taking risks much easier.
TS: Now one of the themes—I began our conversation by asking you about themes in your work and you talked about intimacy and its many faces, and you also mentioned the word “longing.” That’s definitely one of the themes that I see in your books and in your teachings, that we might be able to follow the thread of our longing as part of the process of spiritual awakening. I wonder if you can talk more about that, what you mean by “following the thread of our longing.”
OMD: Yes. I think you’re right, it’s probably the strongest theme in the book The Invitation, but it continues all the way through. And I do have incredible faith in our longing. Now the difficulty is, we have all these wants piled on top of the longing often. I mean, advertisers how essential our longing is. That’s what they try to speak to all the time. So the car ad where you’re driving down a coastal highway and there’s classical music and not another car on the road appeals to an incredible longing for peace, for a connection to the natural world, for a sense of freedom, all these things. Now, none of these are going to be gotten simply by buying a car, obviously, but they are smart enough to intuitively know that we share a lot of the same longings.
So the quest, in some ways, is always to drop below, drop into the essential kind of longing that we have—you know, what’s below our desire for security. It may be to take care of the people we love, and it may be even to compensate for feeling that we’re not loving them well because of our own human shortcomings. So we’re hoping we can provide some safety instead, which is a little delusional of course, because ultimately, life is a risky business and nobody gets out alive.
But the longing, I think, repeatedly is for—the more we dive down into it, there is this thread of longing which is about intimacy: with ourselves, with each other, with the Mystery, with God, however we describe that. One of the things that happens when I ask the Grandmothers and Grandfather a question is there are certain things that they will say over and over to me through the years, as if indicating that maybe I may be a little dense in getting these things. [Laughs.] But one of their favorites is, “Intimacy heals.” Intimacy is what heals, and I think that’s why we long for it, because whatever is broken in the world is mended when we are able to be really with it in ourselves and in other people and in the bigger sense of that. I do think that we long for that, and I trust that thread of longing. I can’t always find it or it may be obscured by some other immediate sort of tangible concerns or worries, but every time I kind of drop down, it takes me back to that place.
TS: Now it seems like the key here is this dropping down, meaning you can identify your desire or your longing, as you said, at a pretty surface level. How do people get down into what you’re calling the essential level of their longing?
OMD: Well you know, what’s funny is that when I wrote the poem, “the Invitation,” I was using a writing exercise that David Whyte gave out that was patterned on a poem of his called “Self-Portrait,” where he said, “It doesn’t interest me” —and he completed that— “what I really want to know,” and he used that as a writing exercise. One of the reasons the poem came out of that was [that] I often use it as a writing exercise starting with what I thought was my immediate concern. I actually use this often in sweat lodges, where I ask people to do a prayer for something that they felt they needed and wanted. And then to drop below it. So for instance, somebody says, “I need a job,” and then she says, “It doesn’t interest me whether I get a job, what I really want is to know that my children will be taken care of.”
So there are ways to peel back the onion skin and go to the core of both our deepest longing but also our deepest fear, because the two are often closely related. Even as I say that, if you were then to take that one more step, “It doesn’t interest me that my children are taken care of, what I really want to know is that I’m not causing them pain.” So you can see how that brings you down to both the longing to love well, and the fear that we’re not loving well someone who we love deeply.
Certainly the daily practices that I do, which are—and some days are better than others—but they are always an opportunity to come to some kind of stillness, and mostly what I would say is to bring some curiosity of some things. I was writing this week that I had come back from a retreat on Sunday, and Monday, I found myself in frenetic mode—you know, trying to catch up on everything instantly. Just truly driving myself crazy, doing two things at once and thinking of three or four others, and finally, I came to the time to do my practice, and I said, “What is going on?” And just the act of stopping—and with real curiosity, not condemnation, but real curiosity—asking myself what was happening, and I had this feeling in my body of some kind of hook.
As I went to that with curiosity and a sort of softening, I could feel all these kind of mental “shoulds” about, “I should answer all the emails today that have accumulated,” “I should get all this administration done before I go back to writing.” All these little should, and below that, a kind of bigger lie that was driving them, about, “You’ve just had a week’s retreat now you need to pay for that by really getting to it on these details.” So [there was] some question and iffiness about worthiness of having a week’s retreat. So that’s one of the ways that I would drop down is to just bring some curiosity to what’s going on, what’s driving this?
TS: Now I can imagine someone starting to tune into their longing, but you took it further, you said having faith in our longing. And I can imagine that being a bit of a jump. Like “I don’t know if I can trust this, my desire has gotten me into all kinds of trouble in the past. Really? Really, I’m going to trust my desire?”
OMD: Aha! Yes, well there may be easier pathways. All I know for sure is that when I go back to the longing beneath the desire, the longing reminds me of that great Rumi poem where he says there are love dogs no one knows the names of. Give your life to be one of them—where he talks about the dog that whines for its master—that kind of longing, that kind of essential longing. And he says, actually, that whine is the answer.
It’s not so much that the longing seeks to be satisfied, as to be acknowledged and used as a guidance system on, “Am I operating from the core of what I am or not?” Up above that is something way down in the depths; there are all kinds of desires that come and go, and of course on top of that, there are all kinds of cravings that are sending us running to the hills after stuff. That doesn’t work so well. There does have to be this constant dropping down, and it’s not so much the longing that seeks sort of satisfaction, as seeks to be a kind of beacon of what matters most.
TS: Would you say that there’s a way that longing feels in your body?
OMD: Oh absolutely! I can feel it in a kind of core in my body—at times in my gut, at times in my heart, but truly a core that runs through the trunk of my body. It has a sort of a kind of sweet ache to it.
TS: Now Oriah, in preparing for this conversation, I familiarized myself with some of your writing, and at the very beginning of your book called The Call, you talk about a recurring image that you had of getting into bed and seeing this image. It was startling to me as I opened the book and I read this—of seeing yourself actually with your wrists slit open, bleeding. You know as I said, it startled me at the beginning of this book, and I wonder if you can talk some about that and also how you learned to meet and work with this image.
OMD: Yes, it’s a very strong image, very disturbing in many ways because it didn’t come with an attendant feeling of “I want to end my life” or anything. It just was this kind of stark image, and my understanding of it over the years has really changed. I think my own sense of this whole journey we take and living deeply is that our bodies and our dreams are two of our biggest allies because they have a way of stepping around the rational mind. I would include in this—even though I was awake at the time, it was an image that came quite unbidden repeatedly. It wasn’t like I was sitting and made this image up or something. So I would think of it almost like a dream image.
What I came to understand was this was a major kind of arc in my life—for lots of reasons, in my childhood—of this kind of sense of inability to grasp my own life, which of course hands are very much about what we can hold, what we can grasp, what we can create. I found some mythologies like the story of the handless maiden helpful in that. Some parts of it I resonated more with [than] others, but mostly with images like that that come repeatedly, even when they disturb, I seem them as gifts from psyche, that’s trying to again step around the rational mind and all our ideas about who we think we are or should be, and offer something that has some essential truth for us in it.
Really it has been, although I don’t think it would look this way from the outside, but it has been a lifelong journey for me to come to the place of feeling I have the same right that every other human being does to grasp my own life with my hands, to create my own life. I was conceived as a means to an end: my mother wanted to force my father to marry her. She told me this very clearly that’s why I was conceived, and there was a sense that I was to continue as means to other’s ends and that [I] could only continue so long as I did that. So that sense of not having an agency of my own to grasp and create my own life was very strong.
TS: I’m curious what you would say to someone who has some kind of dream image like that, a recurring dream image and they’ve been not quite turning towards it, they’ve been semi-turning away. How would you suggest that they might work with that image productively?
OMD: Well, there’s so many ways. Sometimes people are turning away because they’re not quite ready to work with it, which is OK. So I’m always very cautious about not pushing through resistance—that may be an indicator that things may shatter a little if pushed. If people are inclined to do some kind of artwork that either literally depicts or even to depict the energy of that image, even though it may not literally depict it, or to write about it, or to do a guided meditation.
Often with dreams I’ll suggest to people that they do an active imagining where they step back into the dream and see where it goes from there, or ask some questions of the other figures in the dream about what’s going on. More than anything is to set aside some time and energy just to give attention there, just to be with it and see what happens, see what unfolds. My own experience has been that sooner or later it’s like a light bulb goes on and the image itself unfolds and starts to reveal what that’s about. Symbol is the language of psyche. It’s how our psyche, our soul speaks to us in that. The more that we work with it, the more we begin to get a sense of what our own individual language is.
TS: Oriah, I know in your latest book, What We Ache For, you offer teachings for people who want to create and who want to write specifically, and I’m wondering—I know it may be hard here briefly—but if could summarize for us some of the key lessons in that book for people who want to be more in touch with their own creative voice.
OMD: Well I think the essence of it is that you have to become pretty fierce on behalf of your own creativity, because life is busy and the world has many needs. And so to carve out enough space to do your creative work, and one of the catches here is it’s not like well, if you want to write or compose or sculpt, just put aside one day a month or even a half a day a week, because there has to be other kinds of things like empty time when the mulling is going on, when the creative juices are flowing. It’s not sort of like you can arrive from your busy day at a screeching halt at the hour that you’ve set aside and sit down and be creative. So there needs to be both some empty time in your week for you to meander a little, there needs to be time and place to do whatever your creative expression is, and there also needs to be an exposure to the things that inspire you.
When I read a great book, I want to write. I love words. Writers love words. Painters love pigment and color. You know? It’s not that I only get inspired by books—I go to the art gallery, and that begins to move story in me also. But it helps a lot. So it becomes a thread that kind of runs through your life, and I think that takes a very fierce commitment to the process itself, to set aside empty time and to guard that the same way that you would appointment time with other people, to set aside time to do the work, to set aside time to go and participate in the things that stir your creative juices and make you want to do your creative work.
But you’ve got to be fierce about it. It’s not just wanting to do it. It relates to wanting the way falling relates to after you jumped off the cliff. There’s no wanting about it. You have to find your center of gravity with it and give into gravity and guard that with some fierceness. I think the only reason we do that is because some of us don’t do well if we don’t. Truly for me, not to write is never a good sign: I’m separating from myself. But we also have to have a sense of the legitimacy of that. We don’t live in a culture that easily rewards forms of creativity that don’t have apparent utilitarian value. So it takes a lot of fierceness.
TS: It does seem to me that that’s part of what you’re really manifesting in your life, getting your hands from the dream image and really taking the time to be an artist and someone who puts their soul life at the center of their life. Would you say that’s true?
OMD: I would say that’s true. Absolutely. I would say that the most important thing I’d want to say about that is, I get that, and then I start to lose the centrality of it to me at times and I have to get it again. Certainly in the marriage, I lost the centrality of my own creativity in my own life. I started carving that away to do what I thought I had to do—not necessarily what my husband thought I had to do, but what I thought I had to do to keep that marriage going. Just recently I spent some time on retreat and I very clearly asked two questions about what was required to move forward into a deeper commitment with that creative work. So it’s not like I don’t have to go back there and see what it is right now that is causing difficulty with that, causing it not to flow the way that I know it can.
TS: I just have one final question for you Oriah. Our program is called Insights At the Edge, and I’m always curious to know what someone’s—in this case, your—current edge is, and what I mean by that is what you really currently are focused on in terms of your own growth, not so much [in] the outer world but in your inner world.
OMD: Well the last night of the retreat that I just came back from, I went up to a place called Dreamer’s Rock, which is a large granite rock, several hundred feet in the air. And it’s quite precipitous. And it brought me back to what is always my edge, which is to just tell the story, to trust the story, to tell the story. You would think that writing books would get easier, and in some ways it does, and in other ways it gets harder, you know the thinking mind wants to go “Well, now what is the purpose here and where am I going?” And for me, the edge is always going back to square one and trusting the story that comes. And letting it have its life through me to offer to me what it does, and letting go of any attachment of what it may or may not offer to other people but to just tell the story.
TS: I’ve been speaking with Oriah Mountain Dreamer. With Sounds True, Oriah has created a audio learning program called Your Heart’s Prayer: Following The Thread of Desire into a Deeper Life. Oriah, it’s great to talk with you again and be with you, and really to have for me at least, what became an intimate conversation. So I appreciate your openness and vulnerability and forthrightness. Thanks you.
OMD: Thank you, it’s been a pleasure.
TS: SoundsTrue.com. Many voice, one journey. Thanks for listening.