Hijacked by a Dream by Paco Mitchell

“There is strong archaeological evidence to show that with the birth of human consciousness there was born, like a twin, the impulse to transcend it.”                        —Alan McGlashan[1]
In the dream, I wield the bow in my left hand and the arrow in my right. It’s not exactly an arsenal, but it will suffice. Besides, I’m not really hunting in the strict sense; this is more of a quest, though I don’t really know what my target is. I’m here alone in a deserted cityscape, definitely seeking something.I begin by fitting the notch to the string, raising the bow and letting the arrow fly. It sails a distance and falls to the pavement. I run after the arrow, retrieve it, and shoot it again. I do this three or four times. Then the arrow lands near a dead heron that is lying on the ground. I run up to the arrow and see yet another dead heron, not far away. Then another. I run from heron to heron as if following a trail, soon arriving at an opening in dense shrubbery. It is a narrow tunnel, in fact, but tall enough for me to stand upright. I enter the tunnel.

Two more dead herons lie in the tunnel, as if still marking the trail. There is no doubt that I must follow it. The further I advance into the depths of the tunnel, the closer and narrower it becomes, until I am close to crawling. Then the path widens and I enter a kind of gallery, such as will occasionally occur in deep caves. Ahead of me I see a formal doorway, on either side of which stand two fierce and resplendent herons. They are quite alive, exuding vitality and shimmering with iridescent, peacock colors. I also notice that, paradoxically, these live herons are also statues or sculptures—like icons, perhaps, or living patterns.

As I face the doorway I am filled with an intuition—“knowledge”—of what lies on the other side of the threshold: a realm of Absolute Reality, or Pure Possibility. I realize that, if I were to open the door and step across to the other side, I would in some sense die. I notice the thicket surrounding me magically coming alive, like the sentient brambles of a fairy-tale, closing in on me. I flee the shrinking tunnel and the dream ends.

The Autonomy of Dreams . . .

I have presented this decades-old dream because the dream itself demanded it of me. As I mulled over which dream to consider for this essay, it claimed my attention by pushing its way to the front of the dream-queue like an alpha-animal insisting on being fed first. When unconscious contents behave like insistent persons or creatures in this way, I listen, for I have long-since learned to respect the autonomy, even the superiority, of dreams.

After thirty or so years of considering this dream, I have not reached any sense of finality about it. Would the doorway at the end of the dream have led me into the beginning of something larger—a glimpse into future potentials? At any rate, I was a neophyte at the time—witness my flight from the tunnel and therefore the dream. But the dream continues to reverberate in my waking life like a cannon-shot from a dreadnought, fired across the bow of my intentions. Decades later, I can still feel its portentous echoes.

There is not enough space here to treat this dream exhaustively—it extends in too many directions and on too many levels. I would like to comment, though, on a few of its aspects.

The Bow and Arrow . . .

When I first awoke from the dream I didn’t realize what a powerful archetype the bow and arrow constitute in the human imagination, but I would soon find out. That’s one of the benefits of dream study, for dreams demand of us an unusual degree of cultivation. They compel us—if we take them seriously—to learn something about cultural and religious history, mythology, symbols, how things work, the many levels on which images operate, the relationships between different phenomena, the subtle, poetic correspondences, etc.

The bow and arrow, it turns out, have probably been in use for at least 60,000 years.[2] That’s

sixty millennia of playing, tinkering, fiddling, observing, shaping, teaching, refining and practicing—not to mention all the life-and-death uses to which bows and arrows have been put. This kind of activity over millennia—like striking sparks for a fire or wearing an animal skin for warmth—is bound to etch deep grooves in the human imagination, a phenomenon that is central to Jung’s theories regarding archetypes. So we see the arrow-like solar rays on the golden crowns of kings. We see Cupid and his love-darts, passion made visible. We admire Bernini’s voluptuous depiction in marble of St. Teresa of Avila in her ecstasy, the angel lovingly brandishing an arrow with which he pierces her heart, filling her with Divine Love. Examples beyond number abound.

But quite apart from their obvious uses in hunting and warfare, the bow and arrow also symbolize, in my mind, the presence of something deeper still, more fundamental and primary, even, than the terrible paradox of killing to live. I see in the simple-but-sophisticated Stone Age technology of bow and arrow an archetypal symbol of the evolutionary groping of the universe, where darkness itself, embodied in all its creaturely forms, reaches toward the light. I can also see in this same forward longing a simultaneous bending back of eros toward its divine source. In elevated spiritual terms we could call this the longing of the Creature for the Creator, like an erotic instinct toward life, an impulse flowing in all directions and on which entire religions and cultures are based. To me, this evolutionary instinct, at once physical and spiritual, underlies all the killing and mating and feeding. It is the gist of McGlashan’s quote in the opening epigraph, his intuition that “with the birth of human consciousness there was born, like a twin, the impulse to transcend it.”

There is a passage in Jung’s essay “The Psychology of the Child Archetype”[3] that echoes this subtle insight. Referring to the symbolism of the divine child motif, Jung calls it “the deepest, most ineluctable urge in every being, namely, the urge to realize itself.”

Self-realization, in this sense, is equivalent to a rapprochement with the divine, a coming face-to-face with, or at least a sidling toward, God. Hence the cryptic biblical assertion that “man was made in God’s image.” And, indeed, Jung’s psychological and cultural researches have shown that, at certain levels of psychic depth, one can no longer distinguish between Self-images and God-images.[4]And in a resonant cross-cultural parallel, Zen archers understand that the spiritual, contemplative aspect of their discipline of archery amounts to a paradoxical letting go of the ego—no thoughts, no illusions—in order to hit the larger target of oneself.[5]

This fundamental impulse—let’s call it a longing for the light—is in everyone. But it is not given to everyone, putting it mildly, to spend their lives chasing after it, following the arrow over hill and dale in search of the divine. That is the province, it would seem, of questing spiritual pilgrims like me and, perhaps, you.

The Trail of Dead Herons . . .

The arrow of my dream led me to a trail of dead herons, a series of hints planted in my path like Easter eggs—evidence of some fertile mystery to come and a confirmation that I was on the right track. The fact that the herons are dead suggests that I am traveling away from the day-world of normal life toward some other kind of paradoxically awakened state. That was not my reaction when I first woke up with the dream, however. I was frankly alarmed by the image, since I regard the heron as my soul-bird. I had to pause, reminding myself that in dreams death is symbolic. Furthermore, it is relative. What dies in a dream can come back to life. And death, of course, is always a pre-condition of re-birth—the essential significance of the archaic Easter rites.

Nevertheless, it was not for me to decide, death or no death, because the dream, on its own cognizance, had constructed this trail of death-images. It even intensified the trail, for the number of dead herons rose, as I made my way deeper into the dream. In following the trail I was being led away from this life, toward some kind of death. And how could I follow the dream’s own trajectory if I allowed myself to be dissuaded by fear of the image of dead herons? This is something that often occurs in dreams: We reach a crucial point where our progress depends on how we relate to the obstacle raised by our own fear.

Entering the Tunnel . . .

I would have to persist, then, if I wanted to stay with the dream: I would have to enter the tunnel—the point at which the path becomes excruciatingly narrow, the razor’s edge of the mystic. For the more conscious we become, or the closer we get to God, or to the Self, or to the Philosopher’s Stone, or to the Doorway, the less leeway there is for error. This tightening process, paradoxically, loosens the ego from its own restrictions, at least for a time.

The tunnel also required a no-turning-back decisiveness, like the moment in the Holy Grail myth when Parsifal the Fool plunges into the dark forest. The proud knights, mounted atop their impressive chargers, hesitate to take that plunge. They are wary of the humiliation of dismounting and proceeding on foot. In that case, ego-pride is the obstacle.

The Doorway . . .

The tunnel led me to the doorway, with its two heron guardians. This is the threshold, the boundary, on the other side of which lies a different order of reality. According to the dream, it was “absolute reality,” and I have no reason to doubt that. It’s just that getting to the other side would require dying.

Here I stood in the dream, then, at the brink of a revelation, like an initiate into a mystery cult. The fact that I did not cross the threshold in the dream says something about my state of readiness at the time of the dream: To wit, I was not yet ready. Perhaps I was still dragging unconscious childhood fears with me; or perhaps it was the lingering trauma of having already tasted the proximity of physical death in a severe auto accident years before the dream. Even when crossing the border between the conscious and unconscious, as in dreaming, the ego-body seems to remain protective of its own substance and fearful of its demise. Years of experience crossing the bridge between the conscious and unconscious, working in the terrain of dreams, would elapse before I was consciously prepared to pass over to the other side. When I finally did so, it was not in a dream but in an active imagination.

Crossing the Threshold . . .

It happened just a few years ago. For some time, I had been thinking and reading about lucid dreams, active imagination, shamanic activities and such topics. One day, as I was reading, the bow-and-arrow dream suddenly came to mind and I decided at that moment to cross the threshold. I put the book down and closed my eyes.

Soon I was back in the tunnel, in the clearing, standing before the heron-guardians and the doorway. Without hesitation I opened the door and stepped across.

I immediately found myself flying at great speed through the blackness of outer space, into vast distances. At one point some black birds flapped toward me as if trying to frighten me off, but I brushed them aside and kept on zooming. Then the thought occurred to me: Why am I zooming through outer space? I want to go back to the doorway and look through it again, only this time I want to look through it from this side.

As many out-of-body accounts testify, no sooner is something thought than it is done. So it was with me. I found myself back at the open doorway, but still on this other side. I received a shock, however, when I looked back through the opening, because what I saw there was myself—still at the threshold! There I stood, the questing pilgrim in all his imperfect glory—his sincerity, his doubt, his weaknesses and strengths, his intense desire to communicate with the divine.

I crossed back over the threshold and took him in my arms. I felt an immense love for this person, and always had. I put my hands on his shoulders, turned him around and began walking him out of the tunnel, back toward the waking world. We walked step for step, he in front, I behind. Then I began to float above him, where I knew I had always been and always would be, accompanying him wherever he went.

I emerged from the fading vision, in tears.

The Other Side . . .

The outcome of that unplanned, imaginal experiment confirmed what I had intuited in the dream about the other side: I had entered some unqualified state or realm, and the notion of pure potentia that had come to me in the dream, suited it quite well. Should I call what I experienced in the active imagination an epiphany, a theophany, or an angelophany? Any one of them will do. But by whatever name, the experience has altered my views about the nature of reality, even touching on the relations between life and death—a topic for another essay. But an intriguing question remains to this day: Who was I, when I stood on the other side looking at myself?

Hijacked by a Dream . . .

I said above that I chose to write about the bow-and-arrow dream—or did I capitulate?—because the dream itself demanded it. I want to emphasize that, because dreams so often behave as if they have a mind of their own. I would even say that dreams are more intelligent than we are, they see more than we do and they know more than we do. They come to us laden with intentions—despite Freud’s disparaging statement that “the unconscious can only wish”[6] and they seem to encompass aspects and potentials of our future before we have even lived them. In this regard dreams conform more to Jung’s hypothesis regarding the prospective aspect of dreams[7] than to Freud’s hypothesis of wishing.

The images and motifs in dreams weave in and out of the threads of our waking lives, like warp and weft, creating a mysterious tapestry whose larger, panoramic and visionary images fully reveal themselves to us only over time. And I cannot separate the dream from the active imagination that, however belatedly, seemed to complete the dream. Dreams elucidate and reflect our feelings, emotions, impulses, desires, thoughts, ideas and attitudes before we are even aware of them, bundling them into meaningful, purposeful packets of images soaked in history and culture, biology and anatomy,[8] philosophy and religion—even humor, puns and etymologies.

A dream, due to its dynamic, symbolic nature, never yields to final analysis; it maintains its elemental mystery to the end. This particular dream—the bow and arrow leading to a doorway to the absolute—is one of those. Decades old, it came back to me with surprising force, hijacking my attention as soon as I addressed myself to this essay. It is my responsibility, in this essay and beyond, to continue my efforts to catch up with the dream, which has been way ahead of me all along, and still is.

The Questing Pilgrim . . .

The fate of the questing spiritual pilgrim, it seems, is to follow the arrow where it leads, to resist panic when confronted by images of death, to squeeze through the narrow passage of the tunnel, to stand at the threshold of the doorway to the Absolute and, sooner or later, to cross over to the other side and bring back a report. Freudians might see in this entire progression—all the images of tunnel-entering and squeezing-through—a return to the womb, chalking it up to infantile impulses. I disagree.

But, to an extent, the dream-trajectory does resemble, metaphorically, a reversal of the birth progression, in the sense of going back to the source. As such, it touches on the secret of re-birth. For the spiritual pilgrim, home is in the orient, the point at which the rising sun appears, the place where we all originated, where we were born, where we began. Symbolically speaking, then, knowing where home is, in that spiritual sense, is to be oriented. Think how disoriented our culture has become, over the past few centuries, for having lost touch with this primal truth.

The visionary experience of myself in two different forms, standing face-to-face on either side of the doorway, amounted to a radical re-orientation for me. By finally opening the door and crossing the threshold, I came to know something about the other self who seems to belong to that other side. It was as if my earthly and celestial selves had finally met face-to-face. This is one way to interpret the Zen archer’s intention of aiming at the target of himself. There are many other traditions, metaphors or narratives that describe this kind of experience. For now, let it suffice to say that they exist, and that anyone who casts a net in these mythic waters is likely to bring them up.

Each of us must decide how far we will go in the process of tracking our images back, down and in, re-tracing them through their deeper layers, to their original, higher valence and their ultimate source—a process Henri Corbin calls ta’wil.[9] Whether we think of ourselves as psychological or spiritual seekers, or both—are these modalities so different, in the end?—it is for each of us to file our report on what we find in our individual quest—to bring back an offering, as it were, a strand of Golden Fleece.


[1] Quoted in Loren Eiseley, The Star Thrower (New York: Random House, 1978), p. 297. For a biography of McGlashan see Wikipedia: Alan McGlashan – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.

[3] See “The Psychology of the Child Archetype,” in C. G. Jung, C. Kerenyi, eds., Essays on a Science of Mythology, Princeton University Press (Bollingen Series XXII) 9th ed., 1993, pp. 70-98.

[4] For a sympathetic discussion of the God-Self conundrum from a Christian perspective, see Jerry Wright’s essay, Christ: A Symbol of the Self (Jung Society of Atlanta, 2001). http://www.jungatlanta.com/ChristSelf.html

[5] Eugen Herrigel, Zen in the Art of Archery (NY: Random House, Vintage Classics Edition, 1999), p. 4.

[6] For an informed critique of Freud’s comment and of psychoanalytic theory in general, see C. G. Jung, The Theory of Psychoanalysis (New York: Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 1915).

[7] See C. G. Jung, Two Essays on Analytical Psychology, CW X (New York: Bollingen Foundation, Princeton University Press, 1966), paragraph 197: “The unconscious is continually active, combining its material in ways which serve the future. It produces, no less than the conscious mind, subliminal combinations that are prospective; only, they are markedly superior to the conscious combinations both in refinement and in scope. For these reasons the unconscious could serve man as a unique guide, provided that he can resist the lure of being misguided.”

[8] For an excellent description of Jung’s diagnostic analysis of a dream in terms of anatomical correlations, see Russell A. Lockhart, “Cancer in Myth and Dream,” published in Words As Eggs: Psyche in Language and Clinic (Dallas: Spring Publications, 1983), pp. 60-62. (This text is currently being reprinted and made available in both digital and print versions through Amazon.com.)

[9] See Henri Corbin’s essay, “Mundus Imaginalis, or the Imaginary and the Imaginal,” at: http://hermetic.com/bey/mundus_imaginalis.htm

Having studied dreams and depth psychology since 1972, Paco Mitchell has practiced as a Jungian Therapist, operated his own art bronze foundry as a sculptor and performed as a flamenco guitarist. He holds advanced degrees in Romance Languages from Stanford University, and Counseling Psychology from the University of Oregon.