One night many years ago, while sleeping on a ship, I became lucid within a dream. The usual tingly rush of excitement — I am awake, inside my dream! — flooded through me. But to stay anchored in the lucid state, I knew I must calm myself and observe:
My consciousness is divided into two screens of awareness. On one side is my sleeping body, tucked in a bed on a ship. On the other side is a small, lively dog called Little High Top. I find I can slip my attention directly into his mind. Inside his thoughts, I know all about him. I live with a family: a mother, a father, an older boy and a young girl. I am happy and peppy and love to play. I am called Little High Top because I am only as big as a hightop sneaker. This is a joke in my family. When I first came to live with them, they sat me inside the boy’s red hightop sneaker and took my photo, and that is how I got my name.
As the dreamer, I’m fascinated by this dual awareness and how I can shift so easily between the two worlds. I know I am Dawn, on the ship, dreaming this dream, but so also can I become Little High Top by sharing his consciousness. Even more fascinating is that I understand he is aware of me — he knows I am a dreaming human watching the events of his life from within his body. He seems welcoming of this connection, excited even, to share in this way.
Urging myself to remember every detail of the dream, I cough. In the same instant, Little High Top barks. It seems deliberate in a humorous way, and I feel compelled to try again, and again. Whenever I cough as Dawn, Little High Top barks. (Or, as I shall later consider, whenever Little High Top barks, Dawn coughs.) Is this synchronicity of sound some type of dream technique? But to what end? What does it do? My thoughts race, enthused with the many possibilities.
Time speeds up, and I watch Little High Top’s life passing by. He is older now, his girl has left for college and he is taken to an old uncle’s house to live. The uncle is an artist whose small house sits on the side of a mountain cliff overlooking a rocky ocean bay. Perhaps the house is in Italy or Greece. The uncle paints and draws at a wood table beside a large picture window. Little High Top sits on the table across from him. Together they look out over dark blue water as the old man creates his art. I watch Little High Top’s life pass as the old uncle dies, followed shortly by Little High Top. It was a good life filled with play and happiness and service. It was a life well lived.
I wrote the dream in my journal and recounted it to several people who shared my enthusiasm for the creative wonders of dreams. At the time I was writing a book about shapeshifting with animals, focusing on what it is like to experience the world through an animal’s perspective. The dream symbology of two screens of awareness along with the dreamer’s ability to shift between them accurately portrayed my experience of shapeshifting or, as I often thought about it, the ability to shift the ‘shape’ of one’s consciousness and thus perceive in a different way.
I found it remarkable that Little High Top knew I was a dreaming human watching his life events from within his awareness. In this sense, he seemed very much his own dog — not just a representation of some part of me, but rather a sentient being visiting my dreamworld. The cough-bark connection was also intriguing. The sound came from our throats, possibly indicating the importance of creative expression and voicing oneself to the world. That we cough-barked simultaneously represented a deeper link between us, perhaps a joining of expressive abilities. I loved the dream; it held a playful, perplexing quality that spoke to me.
Time passed, however; other dreams were dreamed. Thus Little High Top might have simply remained an interesting journal entry, an unusual lucid experience sometimes recalled on special occasions — if it wasn’t for a second dream that occurred about a year later:
I am in a small airplane flying from Juneau to Anchorage. I am sitting in the window seat, the middle seat is empty, and an older, distinguished-looking gentleman is in the aisle seat. He tells me he is a visiting professor of Dreamology and that he has come to Alaska to teach a special type of dreaming. There is something Old World and charming about the man. He exudes a humble, unassuming presence, yet I sense he knows secrets.
During a lull in our conversation I lean my forehead against the window and look outside. When we left Juneau it was dark, but now we are flying above billowy white clouds tinged early morning gold and pink. The effect is magical and my thoughts start to drift. I imagine what it would be like to float among the clouds, or even to become a cloud. It strikes me how easily my consciousness can travel to the world outside the plane. And how such a different world — one of subdued lighting and sleepy travelers and my physical body — remains inside the plane. Isn’t it odd that two very different worlds can co-exist so close together, separated only by a pane of glass? Isn’t it peculiar how easy it is to move between them and yet most of the time we don’t acknowledge this, or even believe it possible?
Suddenly, I remember the dream of Little High Top. I feel the same sensation of dual screens of awareness — which now causes me to realize: I am awake! Within my dream!
The familiar rush of excitement courses through me. Here I am, dreaming that I am sitting in an airplane — next to a Professor of Dreamology! — observing the way we separate different worlds of awareness, as well as remembering a dream in which I moved between two such worlds. The moment is filled with heightened possibilities. But it is fragile, too, and I know I must not lose myself in my own excitement. Still, I can’t help blurting out to the professor, “I just remembered my dream!”
He turns to me with a smile and nods. Settling into his seat, he closes his eyes as I recount the dream of Little High Top. I explain how I awoke within that dream to dual awareness, and how I ventured into the dog’s consciousness to learn of his life, reliving key events with him as he grew older, leaving one home for another, until both he and the old uncle died.
When I tell the professor that’s it, the end of the dream, he opens his eyes and looks into mine. “Is Little High Top real?”
“It was a dream,” I say. (Alas, I am no longer lucid. At some point in relating the dream to the professor the edge of lucid awareness dissolved.) But he continues to question me in a good-natured way, encouraging me to consider the reality of a dog called Little High Top who lived such a life.
I begin to feel nervous. On the one hand it was just a dream, but I feel a growing sense of unease. Because a Professor of Dreamology persists in asking me if a dream dog is ‘real’, I am nudged into feeling something more must be involved. Suddenly he coughs and, quite involuntarily, I laugh. The actions trigger my memory of the cough-bark connection within the other dream. And I almost remember something very important.
The professor leans forward and digs out a battered, dark brown leather case from under the seat in front of him. From the case, he pulls a packet of photos held together by a red rubber band. Riffling through them, he hands me one. It’s a picture of a small dog — perhaps a terrier — who looks very much like Little High Top. I nod yes, this is the same type of dog, and he indicates I should turn over the photo. On the back, in a loopy handwritten script, are the words: Little High Top.
Is this a trick? My heart pounds faster, my thoughts race. How could this man — is he really a professor? of Dreamology? — who just happened to be sitting next to me know I would even remember this dream or recount it to him? He shows me other photos: the family, the hightop sneaker, the uncle, the table and the window that overlooks the sea. He taps the images repeatedly with his forefinger, as if to say, See? This is real! He tells me he is returning from his brother’s funeral — that his brother was the ‘old uncle’ in my dream, his niece the mother in Little High Top’s family.
The professor then tells me I did well in recalling the details of the dream, except the uncle did not live in Europe, but in Juneau. Did I not remember the spectacular mountaintop view of the bay?
For the second time in this dream, I realize I am dreaming. I tell myself: I am in a dream and, within this world, all the professor is telling me is true. Still, there is part of me that wants to question: How is this possible? Is my dream really real? Am I connected to this dog? What does this mean? As if reading my thoughts, the professor holds up his hand and stops me with a look.
Just then — in that fast-forward way of dreams — we have landed. Everyone is bustling about, reaching into the overhead bins, gathering belongings. I stand beside the professor, who reaches into his pocket and hands me an ivory-colored card.
The paper is thick and elegant, folded crisply at the top — an invitation. I understand it is my recollection of Little High Top that allows the professor to present me this card. I understand it is a special invitation, one that involves a challenge which I am free to accept or not. As I open the card and begin to read, the professor moves closer.
"Dreaming with Polar Bears," he whispers in my ear.
~ *** ~
There are dreams, and then there are dreams. As I scrambled to record the details of this dream in my journal, I marveled over its intricacies: the engaging story line, the humor (a Professor of Dreamology?!), the recurrence of the dual screen of awareness, the lucid memory of a dream within a dream, and the invitation — the challenge — to dream another kind of dream. I was amazed how one dream could so cleverly build upon another, making use of dream symbology that was over a year old.
The professor’s persistent attempt to prove the reality of a dog called Little High Top was also impressive. I remembered that dream and how, from the dog’s perspective, I sensed he was aware of me as a dreaming human. But did this mean the dog was real in the same way I am real? Was he asleep somewhere in our world, dreaming about a human sharing his awareness? If the other dreamer was a person I knew, I could call her up and ask, Did you dream this dream too? And we could laugh, or marvel, at the chances of this shared dream ability. But how would I ever find this dog — and did the dog actually have a waking world outside the dream? Was he dreaming me? How could I know? Where does one reality end and another begin?
Such questions are not new. Over two thousand years ago the Taoist philosopher Chuang Tzu dreamed he was a butterfly, flitting and fluttering, happy to do as he pleased. Then he awoke and there he was, a man called Chuang Tzu. But which experience was real? And how could he know? The mystery of consciousness he posed is this: Am I Chuang Tzu who dreamed I was a butterfly, or am I butterfly dreaming I am Chuang Tzu?
I have always been interested in such questions. Peering through my dreams — especially lucid dreams — lurks a dreamer filled with both wonder and incredulity. Sometimes I think my dreams deliberately play with my consciousness, poking fun at my skepticism and self-doubt, urging me to consider other possibilities, to try on new ways of being.
As with most anything in life, the more attention we focus on our dreams — remembering them in the morning, recording them, telling them to others, sketching or painting them, acting in some way upon the wisdom or messages received — the more our dreams respond. We establish a dialogue between our waking and dreaming worlds, a dialogue rich in images, intelligent in symbology, helpful in insight, encouragement or healing, and uniquely suited to our particular needs. A gateway opens.
For me, that gateway opened as I was handed the invitation. Dreaming with Polar Bears — even the phrasing seemed an entryway, a mysterious, poetic portal. For while it is one thing to dream about polar bears or dogs or dolphins, to dream with another species conveys something quite different, indeed. How does one dream with polar bears? And why polar bears? Why not continue the canine connection already established within the dream? Although I live in Alaska and certainly admire the great white bears of the far north, I had never seen a polar bear in the wild. Why not ravens or moose? Why not Chuang Tzu’s butterfly?
In my imagination, it is at this point the dream professor once again holds up his hand and stops me with a look. Such questions will not take us far. To interpret, analyze, or question a dream can seem helpful at times, yet we remain strangers to the dream. To know a dream, something more is required of us. All that a dream offers in the way of ingenious hints, puzzles, visions, challenges, messages, secrets — all manner of invitation — pales next to the question: Do you accept?
I did. And I began to dream of polar bears. The dreams consisted of one simple, repeated scene: I am in the high Arctic, walking beside a polar bear. Although the land, sky and seascape changed from dream to dream, the core event remained the same.
The dreams continued for almost a year, though sporadic — from two or three times a week to once every three or four weeks. Unlike my other dreams that sprawled with action and events and colorful characters, the polar bear dreams felt like hard little seeds. They held a unique quality, though what this quality was I could not exactly say. I was not lucid inside the dreams, but I sensed a growing awareness within.
In waking life, I worked with the dreams. I wrote them down; I drew sketches; I retold the dream as if I were the bear, the landscape, a disinterested observer. I tried to re-enter the dream in meditation, to question the dream bear, to engage the help of a dream guide, or to find some symbolic clue or pattern as to why this particular dream was recurring. But it was as if the dreams were encased by a protective coating, a barrier not easily yielding to any of my preferred dream techniques, nor any I found in books.
Clearly, there are times to persist and times to yield. I felt it best to leave the dreams be, to simply experience them, allowing them to unfold naturally. What else could be done? Then, soon after I let go, something happened inside the dream that changed everything:
As usual, I walk beside the polar bear. It is night and we are traveling across a wide, flat, silvery expanse of snow. The air is crystalline, sharp and clear. I notice a rhythm in our walk, something distinct and familiar. Slowly, realizations come to me, one by one: I have been here before. This is a dream. I have dreamed this dream before. I am dreaming now. The recognition is both obvious and amusing. With a laugh, I reach out to touch the bear’s shoulder and he turns his great white head to me. I realize I am quite calm, not overly excited as I usually am in lucid dreams. For a moment I want to question the bear — Why are we here? What are we doing? — but my awareness is now also within the bear. He is looking at me, into me, and I see myself through his eyes. He remembers me; he has seen me before, in his dreams. Then I realize: not only am I dreaming, he is dreaming, too. We are both awake — lucid and aware — within each other’s dream.
This is a book about dreaming with polar bears. It is about the many ways dreams speak to us at deep levels, urging us to awaken. It is about meeting polar bears in a different way, sharing a different reality beneath appearances. It is about how our impressions and assumptions about polar bears (or any animal) can teach us about ourselves, and how the presence of polar bears in our world speaks to something larger still. Finally, this is a book about relationship. It is about a meeting place between realities, an exploration of the dreamworld both created and discovered when two dreamers meet.
I continued to dream-walk beside the polar bear. But things were different now. I was usually awake within the dreams and so, said the bear, was he. Our shared thoughts flowed through the dreams, night to night, in seamless conversation. The polar bear claimed he was a specialized dreamer, a real bear living in the Arctic who had the ability to share dreams with other dreamers. I claimed to be a real human living in Alaska who was relatively new to this way of dream connecting.
Dreaming the dreams was like living inside a fantastic novel. The bear told me what it was like to live as a polar bear, describing his den, his mother, his life as a cub. He showed me how he learned to hunt, how to smell the snow and wind to know where seals were sleeping or when storms were coming. I met the Polar Bear Council, a group of spirit bears who served as guides, facilitating shared dreaming as part of planetary evolution. They spoke of special teachings that polar bears hold for the earth, what Native peoples call Polar Bear Medicine: the ability to consciously dream.
In order to understand polar bears, the bear said to me, you need to become a polar bear person. He encouraged me to visit other bears by sharing their awareness, to see and feel their life experiences as I had with the dog called Little High Top. And so I traveled in dreams and visions, shifting the shape of my consciousness from human to bear, and back again.
I experienced many dreams of shared awareness, often with lucidity, and became more adept at connecting with the polar bear while both asleep and awake. For dreams can occur anytime. Sometimes, while riding in a car, walking, or simply gazing through a window, I would slip into the shared dreamscape, viewing the vast frozen Arctic landscape shimmering like a translucent curtain over the Alaskan mountains and terrain of my home.
As time went on, my relationship with the dream bear deepened and the nagging question of Is this real? stopped yapping through my head. My questions were larger now, as was my way of seeing the world.
I began to consider: What if the reason for the dream is not mine, but the bear’s? Perhaps the bear has reasons to dream about me, to share his thoughts and life experiences with a human. Such thoughts take us outside our conventional framework of reality. To create a bridge that joins humans and polar bears in meaningful relationship is like trying to bring the full reality of a dream into waking consciousness — or the fullness of waking consciousness into a dream.
To know polar bears, we must first move beyond our idea of polar bears. Beyond the collective human concepts about polar bears — ferocious man eater, cuddly image for children, the worried face of global warming and extinction — is the bear itself, with its life, thoughts and dreams. To move beyond our idea of polar bears, we must be willing to move beyond our limited ideas about ourselves and our connection with others. We must be willing to allow a larger understanding of the world, a larger presence of who we are.
To truly know a dream we must feel it, breathe it, and, ultimately, allow it to live through us. When a dream calls to us, we begin with who we are. The dream speaks to us in a manner uniquely ours, whispering reminders, stirring awareness, nudging us, Wake up, Wake up!
This is a book about what happens when we accept an invitation from our dreams. This is a book about dreaming with polar bears.