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The long read
An article on dreaming wisdom,
the I Ching and African Dream
Root, first published in Caduceus
This post is an expanded version of an
article published in Caduceus, issue 92.
The starred images are my illustrations of I Ching ‘hexagrams’. These are six-line figures made up of two ‘trigrams’, out of eight alternatives: ‘Earth’, ‘Thunder’, ‘Water’, ‘Lake’, ‘Mountain’, ‘Fire’, ‘Wood/Wind’ and ‘Heaven’. When these eight energies interact to form each of the I Ching's 64 hexagrams, an illuminating essence is transmitted that helps the reader align to the flow of their lives.
Sketch of the I Ching hexagram wood/wind under fire with an Undlela flower
Becoming a person of the plants
I’ve just had an experience with the dream plant Silene Capensis/Silene Undulata which has been so profound and far reaching I feel an account of it could help others who have an interest in such things. I hope to give a sense of how this beneficent plant teacher worked with me by sharing the very specific details of our interaction. (The rough sketches included are ones I did at the time to understand my dreams more fully and are included as such rather than as Art.)
I write as a westerner with no previous experience with African traditions ~ but as one who approached this sacred plant with great respect and a genuine desire to learn from her wisdom.
As well as having undertaken a sixteen-year creative exploration of the I Ching, or Zhouyi, I’ve been working with my dreams on and off for decades ~ and virtually every day for the last few years.
So at the beginning of this year, when my work on the Zhouyi was reaching a culmination point, I sought out a plant spirit to help me deepen the process. I was led me to Silene Capensis, otherwise known as African Dream Root, with the response of wood/wind under fire, transformation.
Illustration for wood/wind under fire, transformation, with its hexagram lines
I found out that this is known as an ubulawu, with the power to induce visionary and prophetic dreams and to communicate with ancestral spirits. It’s sacred to the Xhosa people who call her undlela ziimhlophe: ‘white ways’ or ‘white paths’. I’ll call her undlela from now on.
I began on the first night of the Balsamic moon, the three days prior to the New Moon which are the most visionary and mystical of the month. Undlela is said to have little effect on waking consciousness, flowering instead in the sleeping mind...but as soon as I’d absorbed the foam whipped up from her sweet, liquorice-like roots I felt a shift; a subtle but distinct feeling of expansive radiance.
A feeling of expansive radiance...
That first night, my consciousness responded immediately with a dream revealing a tendency to sink into an old pattern when faced with a particular challenge.
The next day, my Zhouyi reading was Grace, fire-under-mountain which ‘represents a flowering plant, which means brilliant, luminous, ornate, bright, decoration, to honour.’ 1
Illustration for fire under mountain, grace/harmony, with its hexagram lines.
When consulting the Zhouyi, each of the lines of the hexagram has the potential to 'change': when it does so, it draws ones attention to a particular aspect ~ like a shaft of light in a landscape which highlights one part of it over another.
I had a changing line, the fifth, which read ‘There will be rejoicing. You are now asked to become a formal member of this group and present a sacrifice at the ancestral graves. You must offer something at the shrine, the marriage gifts, but you have very little to give. Go through with this, even if you are embarrassed, for it will open the Way. Soon you will have great cause to rejoice.’ 2
This then changed to Loving Family, fire-under-wood/wind, confirming the immediate resonance I felt with Undlela. The fact that this is a plant rooted in another land, with which I have no ancestral connection, felt like it was addressed with ‘you have very little to give.’
But this was alright, was the message. The humble offering of my sincerity and integrity was enough for me to be accepted as part of the family.
Illustration for fire under wood/wind, loving family, with its hexagram lines
There was also another synchronicity: when I looked up the symbolism of the white campion, part of the same family ~ Silene Latifolia ~ I only found one reference. This talked of the three Graces in Botticelli’s Primavera, and how the central Grace’s flower is a white campion plant, symbolic of human love.
Primavera by Botticelli
These days taking Undlela were hugely joyful and productive. And whenever I stopped doing and really felt what was happening in my body, particularly as I lay down to sleep or woke in the night, I felt a vibrant, humming energy coursing fluidly through me, as though a layer of obscuring density had dissolved to reveal a naturally harmonious flow. Another quote from the Zhouyi about Grace reads: ‘Medically, this process clears away stagnation of yin energy and opens the yin channels.’4
If I could see auras I would have been surprised not to have seen myself as illuminated as that’s just how I felt. I continued to be aware of this beautiful, luminous flow throughout these three weeks I took Undlela each day.
The next night, my Zhouyi reading was wood/wind-under-mountain, which I call healing as it refers to addressing states of corruption which have their roots in the past.
Illustration for wood/wind under mountain, healing, with its hexagram lines
The first line was changing for me ~ this states that ‘rigid adherence to tradition has resulted in decay.’ 5
The outlook is very good, if one can ‘take on the responsibility like a son or daughter who redeems the ancestors and go through it to the end’. 6
This becomes heaven-under-mountain, accumulating integrity, which speaks to the great spirit which can arise within when ancestral wisdom is honoured and embodied.
Illustration for heaven under mountain, accumulating integrity, with its hexagram lines
So I affirmed my Dreaming intent “...to heal all ancestral wounds and distortions it is my Karma to transform. For this sacred task, I humbly request guidance from you, Undlela.”
I’m responsible for disposing of a dead body by chopping it into little pieces, Tibetan sky burial style. Though this isn’t the most pleasant job I’ve ever done, I completely accept doing it without feeling a strong emotional charge or reaction about it.
Later in the dream, I find a beautiful natural woodland by my home, with a particularly striking ‘ancestor tree’ with a vast hollow trunk.
Journal sketch of the hollow ‘ancestor tree’
From this tree, I climb up to a Buddhist temple on a steep hill which has just appeared, where I find out that a girl had just lost her mother, while a younger boy had just lost both his parents. I feel this unbearable loss as though it is my own, and grieve intensely for them.
The next night, I asked to clarify my vision of learning from Undlela.
I’m setting out on a big journey down a river with a swift current out into the open ocean. Though this could have been scary and stressful, I’m part of a small crew ~ a family ~ so there’s the feeling of knowing I’m supported, with a skilful captain in charge who has a deep understanding of the journey before us and how to ensure a safe passage.
We’re using the boat as a bodyboard, and also navigating it sideways, neither of which make logical sense. But, I realize only as I write this now, using a bodyboard sideways was exactly how I saved my son from drowning years ago when he was out of his depth in powerful ocean waves.
Journal sketch of the bodyboard boat heading into the ocean
The following night, I didn’t go to sleep, staying up solidly to complete the first draft of my book. The night after, I had a dream of the waterfall where I live being on a vast scale...
Journal sketch of the vast waterfall
And the following night, I dreamed of reclaiming my power:
After a Zhouyi reading the next night, of mountain-under-water, overcoming obstructions which advised me to stop pushing, I let go of any dream intentions.
Illustration for mountain under water, overcoming obstructions, with its hexagram lines
I then had another dream which sounds horrific, but wasn’t.
I’m on my way to meet up with some friends in a town when I see a beautiful green dress on sale in a shop window. My friend encourages me to try it on so I do, in a changing room full of personal bits and pieces. I remember looking at myself in the mirror and being amused at how blubbery my lips are; like Mick Jagger’s, I thought.
Then the view shifts and I’m watching events unfold like a film. The next scene shows me, after I’d inexplicably been murdered in some bizarre way, strung up by a complex web of strings high against the ceiling.
The style of the film is more of a classy thriller than a horror, though, so when the point of view changed and I saw my chopped-off head sitting on the floor, I just thought
“Really, that’s totally over the top; they’re not staying true to the spirit of the film!”
Journal sketch of myself as a ghost
I’m then back in my body ~ or my spirit, rather, as I’m now a ghost. I see the shop attendants come and see what had happened and exclaim over it, though very mildly ~ certainly not running off to call the police.
I don’t feel anything except slightly bored, and wander over to look in a display cabinet before going upstairs, where, in classic ghost style, the floorboards creak beneath me. I hear a girl in one of the bedrooms react fearfully, and wait ‘til she opened the door to ask her curiously “Can you see me?”
When I woke, I considered what I was being told. I’d been asking Undlela to guide me down the White Paths for a few nights now, and this was my response. My first reaction to becoming a spirit myself ~ a future ancestor ~ was to go window-shopping, which felt like clear counsel to purify myself and my intentions more deeply first.
The next night, I asked Undlela to ‘guide me down my path with a heart.’
This confirmed my feeling of being assessed as not yet ready to go further, when I found myself at a checkpoint with bowls of drugs lying around and police going through people’s papers and possessions at length. This sounds like a paranoical situation, but it wasn’t ~ what I most remember is feeling a loving union with a kitten I held.
Journal sketch of a kitten at the checkpoint
As with my boat-crew/bodyboard dream, it’s the process of revisiting my dream images and descriptions in order to write this account which is revealing further insights ~ one reason that I believe journalling dreams both verbally and visually is so helpful. Though I saw the dream as ‘confirming my feeling of being assessed as not yet ready to go further’, I now see another reality: my attention is being drawn to the kitten, which, though I faithfully portrayed it in my image, I passed over because it was a kitten: no serious inner-quester is going to share a revelation that kittens are cuddly and adorable!
But, using my feelings as a guide, I’m being shown that the outer checkpoint isn’t the point; my own, inner feelings of love and resonance are my path with a heart.
The night after, I received water-over-mountain, overcoming obstructions, again.
This time it had a changing second line which highlights how it is now important to push through, for everyone’s benefit:
“There is one instance in which a man must go out to meet the trouble,
even though difficulty piles upon difficulty: this is when the path of duty leads
directly to it ~ in other words, when he cannot act of his own volition but is
duty bound to go and seek out danger in the service of a higher cause.” 7
This becomes wood/wind under water, replenishment, representing a wooden bucket drawing life-giving water up from a well to re-energize and restore all of life.
Illustration for wood/wind under water, replenishment with its hexagram lines
Thinking about how I’d just been stopped at a checkpoint, I felt more deeply into why I wanted to be shown the White Paths. I sincerely affirmed that this was my intent so that I could continue to deepen and strengthen my spirit connection in order to, in turn, guide others to better do so themselves.
And also that I understood I may need to change or realise something before that way could open for me ~ before I could be permitted to pass through the checkpoint.
That night, I had a big dream.
I’ve got a headstone for my dad, who died nine years ago. It’s a wide, fairground-style hippo, very brightly colored, wacky and playful. (Some of Hippo’s symbolic meanings include healing, accessing emotional depths, contact with spirit and protection of one’s family.)
The carnival-style happy hippo headstone I dreamed up for my Dad
Someone I know asks how this is going to work since in the dream my dad had died two years before. I casually reply that as far as I know, he’s still ‘on ice’, waiting frozen in a morgue ‘til he can be properly buried. My friend is so profoundly shocked by this that she goes away, looking like she’s about to be sick.
Later on, I remember that dad had in fact been buried, and I’m looking out for my friend to to tell them this. I’m uncomfortably aware, though, that this isn’t good enough: it’s still ‘not right’ for a daughter to forget whether or not she’s buried her father.
Throughout the day I turned over the message of the dream until I got it. And when I did, had a huge emotional release, allowing me to feel the depth and truth of this understanding.
When my dad had died (in waking life), it had been my responsibility to arrange the funeral ~ and to do so in such a way that respected both his esoteric beliefs and his mother’s Christian faith. Since he’d left no wishes, I put a lot of thought into it the best way to do it, and finally decided on a green burial in a beautiful woodland on the crest of a hill, with an interfaith minister who spoke inclusively to everyone’s beliefs at the graveside.
Though she had to shout them, as a sudden gale-force wind whipped up while the coffin was being lowered into the ground, there was a sense of completion and ‘rightness’ about it all.
I was being clearly shown that either my spirit or my father’s, or both, didn’t fully feel this completion; that something more was being called for to truly lay him to rest. Since it had been a green burial, I’d found out memorial stones were not allowed, so had let go of mentally designing a beautiful carved boulder for him. But now the fact that he’s buried miles from anywhere he knew in an unmarked grave felt unbearably sad.
I knew that to create this remembrance of him and put it by the waterfall he loved so much was still what I needed and wanted to do, and got in touch with a stone carver to begin the process.
Envisioning how a headstone might actually look
That night, after a Zhouyi reading that affirmed beautifully that I’d understood the message, I had a powerful dream of empowerment and completion.
My conversation with Undlela brought to mind what I’d read of the complex hallucinatory plant Iboga in Daniel Pinchbeck’s Breaking Open the Head:
“By letting me perceive the shape of my past self, iboga also seemed to be
freeing me of the burden of that past. The action of the drug actually was -
as I had heard it described but wouldn’t believe - the equivalent of ten
years of psychoanalysis compacted into one interminable night.” 8
Undlela similarly empowered me to ‘perceive the shape of my past self’ and then transform it. It taught me this without the radical extremity of Iboga’s dramatic one-night ‘wake-up call’, feeling not at all like something out of my control which demanded surrender, but more like a teacher gifting me with ongoing transformational insights as a direct result of me also ‘doing the work’...just as the Zhouyi does.
The fifth line of earth-under-water, union, here put into the first tense, expresses for me this ‘feel’:
“Those who come to me I accept, those who do not come
are allowed to go their own way. I invite none, flatter none ~
all come of their own free will. In this way there develops a voluntary
dependence among those who hold to me. They do not have to be
constantly on their guard but may express their opinions openly.” 9
I don’t pretend to understand the mysterious inner workings of either Zhouyi or Undlela, of how of their wisdom forms a synthesis with our consciousness ~ and in this experience, with each other’s also. All I know is how it feels to me ~ like a gentle and compassionate step-by-step assessment or diagnosis.
Areas of blockage or weakness are simply reflected back to me, allowing me to bring them to conscious awareness if I’m ready and willing to do so, then transfigured within my body, now become a healing matrix. This is the nearest I can come to expressing how completely I felt ~ and still feel ~ held in a loving awareness. So different from the motivation-sapping cosy blanket feeling I used to feel when I smoked marijuana, and which I realized was ultimately keeping me stuck where I was, this is more akin to being enfolded within a field of vibrant, limitless potential.
What’s particularly striking to me is how rooted in the earthy reality of my own life are these insights. I realise that I came to this teacher plant, renowned for revealing spiritual truths, with the common cultural conditioning that the spirit is somewhere otherworldly, most likely to show its face in an ethereal ‘out of body’ experience...the very same myth of dislocation which has helped to justify such cataclysmic desecration of our sacred earth.
As John O’Donahue put it, “For too long, we have believed that the divine is outside us...If we believe that the body is in the soul and the soul is divine ground, then the presence of the divine is completely here, close with us.”10
In this way, the White Paths which Undlela guided me down led deep into my being, to a profound experience of being deeply, joyfully embodied.
1: Total I Ching: Myths for Change by Stephen Karcher, Time Warner 2003, p201
2: Ibid, p203
3: Seeds of Virtue and Knowledge, edited by Maryanne Cline Horowitz, Princeton university Press 1997, p111
4: Karcher, p200
5: I Ching or Book of Changes by Richard Wilhelm, Arkana 1989, p77
6: Karcher, p180
7: Wilhelm, p152
8: Breaking Open the Head by Daniel Pinchbeck, Flamingo 2003, p29
9: I Ching or Book of Changes by Richard Wilhelm, Arkana 1989, p39
10: Anam Cara by John O’Donahue, Bantam Books, 1997, p84
A local stonecarver was recommended, and I passed him the message that I was keen to commission a memorial stone for my father. I was told he would do it, but was extremely busy with other commissions at the moment. It seemed I was being shown I needed to be patient, so I was...for several months.
Then a friend suggested that I could carve the stone myself which, not having previously made marks in anything more challenging than balsa wood, I hadn’t considered. Trying a test piece of sandstone, though, I found the carving process completely engrossing ~ and then the right stone appeared.
I asked my dreaming wisdom to help me choose what to carve, having an idea of something like a bear, which my larger-than-life dad had been known as. Instead, though, I was guided to one of the last photos he’d taken ~ of a mother pheasant and her chick. Before he’d died, dad had become very close to this family of pheasants, who would sit on his knee and come into the house. The last thing he wrote was of the simple but transcendental beauty of this communion, describing the mother pheasant as ‘holy, holy, holy’. Along with the pheasants and a Rumi quote, ‘Love is the bridge between you and everything’, I carved these words onto the stone.
After I’d finished, I sat contemplatively in the dark, the ‘holy, holy, holy’ illuminated by a little Tibetan oil-lamp which had burned on a shrine while I worked. I watched its flame grow stronger and brighter as it sucked up the last of the oil, then shrink down into a tiny red and indigo-tinged ball of light and disappear.
It was a beautiful completion.
A year on, this is how I found the memorial stone; with a heart above the pheasant's head and between the gateway of crossed grasses.