In his article Dream Theory in Malaya,* the anthropologist Kilton Stewart described his study of the utilization of dreams in Senoi society. The Senoi were an isolated tribe of the Malay Peninsula at the time of his writing and research, in 1935; his interest in them was piqued by the fact that they seemed able to keep other tribes at bay without the use of violence, simply through a reputation for witchcraft: he thus set about to study the way that they used lucid dreaming and dream interpretation as a major part of that perceived power to manipulate the world around them.
Their response to dreams of falling struck him particularly, as it did me:
“The simplest anxiety or terror dream I found among the Senoi was the falling dream. When the Senoi child reports a falling dream, the adult answers with enthusiasm, ‘That is a wonderful dream, one of the best dreams a man can have. Where did you fall to, and what did you discover?’ …The child at first answers, as he would in our society, that it did not seem so wonderful, and that he was so frightened that he awoke before he had fallen anywhere.
‘That was a mistake,’ answers the adult-authority. ‘Everything you do in a dream has a purpose, beyond your understanding while you are asleep. You must relax and enjoy yourself when you fall in a dream. Falling is the quickest way to get in contact with the powers of the spirit world, the powers laid open to you through your dreams. Soon, when you have a falling dream, you will remember what I am saying, and as you do, you will feel that you are traveling to the source of the power which has caused you to fall.
‘The falling spirits love you. They are attracting you to their land, and you have but to relax and remain asleep in order to come to grips with them. When you meet them, you may be frightened of their terrific power, but go on. When you think you are dying in a dream, you are only receiving the powers of the other world, your own spiritual power which has been turned against you, and which now wishes to become one with you if you will accept it."
The astonishing thing is that over a period of time, with this type of social interaction, praise, or criticism, imperatives, and advice, the dream which starts out with fear of falling changes into the joy of flying.”
This struck me as the perfect description for passing through Borges’ mirror to the other, less automatic, more alive (terrifying, unknown) universe; a passing which I have also depicted as the plunge into an underwater universe as taken by the people following St. Fevronia under threat of annihilation by the soldiers of Batu Khan. Falling comes somewhere between floating and flying, and in this lucid-dreaming version is a perfect abandon.
In that post-painting haze, as I was trying to organize my thoughts about this plunge-float-fall, I stumbled upon a book with an intriguing title: Time Distortion in Hypnosis, by Linn Cooper and Milton Erickson. The sensation of floating, like the sensation of falling, carries with it a suspension of time, and it is somewhere in that suspension that we can find the ‘source of the power’ Stewart was referring to in his study. In their book, Cooper and Erickson detailed the studies they had managed in which they taught their subjects to greatly distort time, a difficult concept to grasp mentally, for which they gave the examples of dream-time and those expanded moments of fear for one’s life:
“Thus, a young man who very nearly ran his car over a cliff while taking his fiancee for a drive, reported that the time interval during which they were in danger seemed to be very long. In analyzing certain other aspects of his experience, he told of doing an amount of thinking and reflecting that was appropriate to a long interval. In other words, the seeming duration was long. However, on considering the number of feet which the car had slid with locked wheels and its probable speed when the emergency occurred, he was able to calculate that the clock reading during the emergency was but a few seconds.”
You have a lot of things going on internally at all times, most of which you are unaware of—including not only things like breathing but also things like the decision about what to see —but in moments of intense focus, like the above car accident, you can more actively take in all those details that some part of your brain is always filing away somewhere: for example, the minute movements of facial muscles, subtle clues in body language, calculating your opponent’s next swing, the precise amount you should turn the wheel to avoid oncoming traffic, remembering to relax your body before impact and focusing on the breaths you are taking, how loud they might be if a predator is present, and how they are affecting your body’s ability to move and process information. A person who has this focus at all times would have immense communicative abilities, as well as a fantastic control over the ability to pull opportunities towards him and dangers away from him. As noted, we usually only experience that focus during those moments of intense terror or danger, but aren’t meditation, hypnosis, and lucid dreaming exactly this sort of pausing and stretching of time?
What all that suggests is this: what’s important is not how long a second takes, but rather how much you can consciously extract from that second.
The second itself is apparently very, very relative. A good example of this relativity is given early on in the book with the task of picking cotton given to the subjects in two different ways. In the first test, the subject was hypnotized, placed in a mental cotton field, and asked to pick four rows of cotton, signaling the experimenter when the task was complete. It took her 217 seconds to complete the task, and she told the experimenter that she had picked 719 cotton bolls:
“She picked with her right hand part of the time, and with her left hand part of the time, shifting the bag accordingly. She picked only ripe bolls, leaving the green ones alone. Sometimes she stopped and brushed the leaves aside to make sure that she hadn’t missed any. She didn’t hurry, but she worked steadily. It was late afternoon, and the woods along the west edge of the field cast a shadow. She stated that she seemed to have been working about an hour and twenty minutes.”
Then the same task was given, but this time instead of the limit being four rows, the limit was one hour and twenty minutes. The subject was hypnotized, placed in the mental cotton field, and given three seconds—this fact was unknown to her. After three seconds, the experimenter had her blank her mind, stopping everything, then asked her to report. This time, she had picked 862 bolls, again without hurry. The felt time was an hour and twenty minutes. Asked to describe the experience, she remember detail, and she felt the time pass. The result suggests that the last second was actually decisive: at that point, the subject’s mind felt that the entire experience should be over, and it filled in the story, detail by detail.
Doesn’t that make you wonder where all your memories come from?
To further investigate, the doctors tried introducing sound to the test. Given a ten-second experiment, they would chime a knife against a glass 4 seconds in, without any warning given to the subject. The subject may have been preparing a meal as his or her task, and would then report a phone ringing or dropping a pitcher to the floor—his hallucinated experience would include a confabulation to make sense of the sound that his ears had picked up. The most interesting thing about that is how he managed to drop the pitcher before he heard the sound, so that the timing of it hitting the floor would match the sound of its contact. How did that happen?
What if everything, your entire life story, is happening all at once? What if all you think you have ever experienced is a pattern, which you are focusing on during this second, a pattern which explains world politics, the music your neighbor is playing, the proliferation of weapons at your local school, your food allergies, your preferences in a significant other, the quality of the education you have gotten, what you’re wearing right now? What if you’re really starting from that last second—the second right now—and explaining it all to yourself in high speed that feels like the normal unfolding of an entire life? What counts, what matters, if that’s the case, is the pattern, yes? Like a fractal, unfolding in each snowflake, each furl of a leaf, the placement of the planets. Like each bit of information contained in a hologram.
Cooper and Erickson worked with several musicians, and got some rather interesting results, exemplified in the reports of a professional violinist, who used her “special time” (what they called those gloriously long seconds) to review and practice violin pieces, describing them in a manner reminiscent of the eye-flickering it takes Neo to learn Jujutsu in the Matrix. She would play not just the entire piece, but also difficult passages over and over, strengthening her actual finger memory, her general technique, and her performance ability in the process.
The authors suggest that the reason musical subjects are able to both hear long pieces of music and practice them in such short periods of time is because “a piece of music is a pattern, extended in experiential time…” and another subject described her experience with this “special time” similarly:
“I can see the beginning and the end of everything I do in a trance. Like a dream, it’s a round thing—it’s not a progression. In music you have to begin at the beginning and play it through to the end, but in a painting you can see it all at once.”
I stayed up late reading all this, and the next morning in an incredible moment of synchronicity, I woke up with this poem waiting for me from Vesna, who had not seen or heard anything about this painting or the book I was reading, though everything in the poem, from its ‘all-at-once’ nature to the gradation of colors seems related, to me:
Where do I begin
If not from the end?
The breadcrumbs of memories will take me
Where I need to be
The Black will fade
Absorbed in soliloquy
Embracing the mystery
Where do I begin
If not from the end?
In the above painting, St. Fevronia has taken the plunge: she is relaxed, floating or falling towards another pattern, another universe entirely, in a moment of intense focus and need that somehow feels like joy. The blue (moonlit) hellebores are here again because it is all a matter of perception.
*Stewart later wrote Pygmies and Dream Giants , a book which wielded a great influence on the development of dream theory. Note that UCSC research professor G. William Domhoff (who was not there for the study) began around 1985 to argue that Stewart inflated and embellished his findings, and he claims that there is no evidence that this analysis of falling dreams belongs to the Senoi. Since my interest is in the idea the analysis itself provides, not who created it, I will leave that argument to others.