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A Dream Odyssey
(c) 2003 by John D. Goldhammer, Ph.D

"Dreams have a poetic integrity and truth. . . . These whimsical pictures, in as much as they originate from us, may well have an analogy with our whole life and fate." --- Ralph Waldo Emerson

Sometimes a dream animal becomes the canary in the mine shaft, showing us the consequences of some dangerous exterior influence or circumstance.

During the time I belonged to a particular spiritual group, I started having recurring dream encounters with elephants. It was not until I left the group that I began to understand the meaning and intent of these dreams. Over and over, the presence of these magnificent animals, their strength, their playfulness, their anger, and their magic would leave deep tracks in the landscapes of my dreams. In retrospect, these dreams dramatically portrayed the effects of immersing myself in the group's belief system, which disconnected me from my own nature and from the qualities the elephant represents.

One of my first elephant dreams occurred about six months after I joined the group:

In the dream I was riding a gray elephant when he suddenly collapsed and died. I felt a deep sadness.
This dream, although I did not realize its significance at the time, was a clear warning shot fired over the road I had chosen. If I am that elephant, something is terribly wrong.

Another dream followed:

I was traveling in a group and there were two, small white elephants with us. We sat down to eat and one of the elephants was under the table and kept licking my face and bumping into my legs. It was very friendly but a nuisance.

For me, the "white elephants" were small but growing problems, soon to be big trouble, classic "white elephants," conspicuous endeavors that turn out to be burdensome failures. Another warning perhaps, of something going on "under the table?" When I think of "white," I relate it to spirituality, purity, perfection, and a certain one-sided view of God--a God with no color or passion.

In another dream, I was in a boat with the minister and other members of our church going down a water fall. A large elephant was in front of us and was in the way. I'm afraid we're going to crash into it.

Now the elephant presents itself as an obstacle in our path, that is, the spiritual path I was following, all of us in the same ideological boat.

In the next dream a chase unfolds:

I'm in a multi-storied theater with a large group of people. I explain to someone how to get out without getting caught by the elephant. A large elephant is loose and coming after people. Some people were avoiding the elephant in a cowardly way and I knew this was wrong.

Now "we" are being chased by a "loose" elephant, implying that this elephant has escaped from somewhere. It's a common dream motif of an aspect of our essential nature that is after the dreamer. It would seem that my dreaming ego is becoming adept at avoiding elephants.

Five years after joining the group, my elephant dreams began to feel a lot more threatening. This next dream is an example:

I saw a man in a rugged mountain area go into an animal pen for elephants. I watched in horror as he was dragged around the pen and slammed into the wall by an angry baby elephant.

My elephants are evidently losing their patience and this one is angry and dangerous in spite of being a youngster--probably not happy at being penned up. Some other part of me is trying to keep my "elephant" nature locked up, walled off. In the next dream, I had somehow provoked several elephants, they were chasing me and they were angry! By now it's apparent that I'm not going to get rid of these elephants.

At a Conclave, a weekend church gathering in Carmel, California, I had another encounter with an elephant:

I encounter an elephant trapped in a large, red, iron box-like container. Somehow I manage to set him free, but I know he's going to come after me. Then I set out to kill him with a knife. In the dream I am aware that this is a repeating dream.

As this elephant, I'm definitely removed from my natural environment; I'm contained inside an iron box, a red iron box. Red, for me, represents blood, vital life force, and passion in contrast to iron's cold, unyielding, unfeeling hardness--something once comprised of natural elements extracted from the earth, but refined, shaped, and manufactured. Maybe my "will of iron," my absolute adherence to the "teachings" and my one-hundred-and-ten percent dedication to the "spiritual path" had manufactured my red iron tomb. Looking back on this dream, I was caught in-between all that the elephants represented and what I was subjecting myself to by conforming to an exterior ideology. My "save the world" spiritual ego trip had to keep the elephants at bay, "in irons." No wonder I found myself, my dreaming ego, at times trying to kill the elephant.

More dreams followed of elephants dying. Then, nearing my tenth year of following my spiritual teacher and guru, I noticed some doubts creeping into my psyche. Some distant part of myself was beginning to question what I was doing with my life. Now, a different sort of elephant appeared:

I saw one of the church leaders and their family, all dressed in long mink coats. In the dream I knew they represented the money and luxury in which the ministers lived at the expense of the members. Then I was holding, very tenderly and affectionately, a baby elephant in my arms. This elephant then turned into a young boy about nine or ten years old. He had dark hair and an Asian or oriental complexion. Next we had come to a deep ravine in the earth, which I knew I had crossed before. I also knew that now I had to jump over it again, somehow get to the other side.

When I imagine being this boy's age, my father's death in an automobile accident when I was nine immediately comes to mind. We were very close and his death altered the course of my life. Overnight I changed from an extraverted, happy, confident child into an introverted, shy kid, profoundly grieving and furious with that Methodist God who let my father die. I retreated into myself and life was never the same for me. That "deep ravine" seems to me to represent that terrible wound, and I had to somehow "cross over it."

Thinking about this latest elephant dream, I resolved to begin taking care of that very hurt little boy, re-parenting him and giving him space in my adult world, letting him out, letting him play, dream, and have fun again. I also realized that this "baby elephant" was missing a parent! I could feel walls collapsing. I felt like a parent who had just found a lost child. And it dawned on me that the group had become a pseudo family for this hurt little guy, complete with a charming, charismatic motherly woman/guru/teacher who was also a powerful, domineering woman with rules and answers for everything. No wonder someone in me felt warm all over every time she greeted me with, "Welcome home, John." I could hear the church walls crack, the earth starting to shift under my feet. My dreams were desperately trying to save my authentic life.

Then I had a dream in which...

I saw an elephant lying down as if dead, I knew he wasn't really dead so I decide to get some water to revive him.
Now I'm consistently connecting with the elephants and trying to help them. But just as I was reconnecting with my elephants and during the last two years of my involvement in the group, I meet an elephant "trainer." Here's the dream:
I'm watching a man who had once been with the elephants, training them. Now he had come back and they were unruly: one elephant chased him up a tree.

I can't help but identify with the elephant trainer, that part of my nature that can be so self-disciplined and strong-willed that I could force myself to do anything, just like I had been doing for years to keep myself in a religious cult. But the elephants, fortunately, are not putting up with this old "trainer," and instead chase him up a tree. The elephants were winning this epic battle. But my ego, intent on maintaining my spiritually superior status as a member of the church, had other ideas, was not so willing to roll over and play dead. And it was frightening to imagine walking out on friends who I had known for years and who now felt closer than family. I found myself fast approaching an existential encounter with "non-being," the loss of my group-defined sense of self, a death of my old identity. If I leave the group, then who am I? Hence, a little setback for the wild side. In the next dream, I encounter a much more dangerous elephant:

I'm observing a huge, rogue elephant, loose and knocking down buildings. I (guess who) got a high-powered rifle with one bullet: a "235 Magnum," to kill the elephant. Someone told me I couldn't kill that elephant with my size gun, but I replied that I could by shooting him in the eye and hitting the brain.

Now there's big trouble afoot. Someone's survival is at stake. My dreaming ego is out to kill that "Rogue" elephant, literally meaning a "vicious, solitary animal that has separated itself from its herd." I had separated myself from who I was, from my writing, from really understanding my dreams, from living my own life. There was a "rogue" in me that was pissed off, "knocking down buildings," collapsing the ideological, egocentric, structures my ego had built in the group. In India, many rogue elephants are teenagers who have lost their parents and have become separated from other family members.

And that dreaming/waking ego was messing with my mind taking aim at the eye and hitting the brain, perhaps killing my ability to think for myself? That was exactly what had happened as a result of saturating myself in the murky waters of a religious system and brainwashing myself with group-think.

That ideologically bound, plastic visionary was done for--those buildings could no longer stand up against the emerging elephant, my emerging life. It now made sense to me why I had been feeling so angry, depressed and even found myself occasionally thinking about suicide, which was a real shock. If I'm in such an enlightened spiritual group, then why do I feel suicidal?

Moving forward: still months before I left the church, I had another dream of an elephant in an unusual setting:

I'm in a large room high in the mountains of what seems like Tibet. I could see tall mountains through the window and was thrilled with their beauty, struck by how exquisite they were! Then I'm with someone and we are sounding tones that could bring dead animals back to life, which we did. I remember specifically an elephant. Then I'm pulling his tail to get him moving forward through a mountain tunnel.

This dream gets straight to the point, awakening the dead--that being me of course, who had been efficiently executing the instinctual, authentic members of my inner nature for years. In this dream, the "me" experiencing the dream feels very different, still the dreaming ego, but far removed from its familiar group terrain. Internally, I had made the decision to leave the group and I now found myself high in an exotic, mysterious land. I was returning to my real life, to new vistas and to new possibilities that make our lives an adventure, a creative mystery. The dream says that we need to "get through" something, which it portrays as a "tunnel." I finally was moving towards the "light at the end of the tunnel," as I approached that immense door, the threshold into my own life at last.

That last year before finally leaving the church, I was walking a tightrope smack in the center of a furious storm of doubts about my life and the choices I had made. I was reading several books on philosophy by Eknath Easwaran that restored my spirit because, to my surprise and delight, they totally contradicted the teachings of my church. Here was another, entirely different approach to life. The spiritual life was not, after all, my group's exclusive property.

A retired English professor from the University of California at Berkeley, he spoke about world religions, meditation, and living a spiritual life. In 1960, he came to the U.S. from Kerala in South India on the Fulbright exchange program. A scholar of religions and the author of twenty-four books, including a biography of Gandhi, he believed a spiritual life meant living a life that somehow helped others in the world. When asked once what religion he followed, He replied, "I belong to all religions." It probably comes as no surprise that going to hear "another teacher" outside of our church would have been seen as a terrible betrayal of our teachers, the "ministry, and the "spiritual path."

Inspired by Easwaran's books, my wife and I began secret, weekly road trips from Los Angeles to Petaluma, a small coastal town about forty miles north of San Francisco. We went to hear Easwaran's evening lecture series. A slender, quiet man, then in his mid-seventies, dressed in an immaculate Indian suit and with his ever-present cup of herbal tea at his side, he would launch into commentary on Gandhi, the Upanishads, the Bhagavad-Gita, the environment, how to protect the elephants in Africa from poachers, which was a special project of their group.

I know what you're thinking: Hey John, here's yet another "spiritual" group and you are right. A large group of followers had sprouted up around Easwaran and with many all-too-familiar group dynamics. But no matter, we were not about to "join" any other group. We wanted only to immerse ourselves in the clear, cool water of different ideas, other ways to look at life. And how curious: here we were--my wife and I along with all my battle-weary dream elephants--listening to someone whose pet project was helping to save the elephants from becoming extinct! That's when I had another elephant dream but this one was a horse of a different color:


I was in the audience carefully listening to a very wise man, a philosopher, give a lecture. I knew he was Eknath Easwaran. I had followed him from city to city extremely interested in what he had to say about life, its meaning and purpose. He was on his way back to his homeland. At the last city, I noticed three elephants had been quietly following him also. An exquisite fragrance from a bouquet of Night-Blooming Jasmine he was carrying in his arms had attracted them. The elephants were homesick and the aroma from the Jasmine reminded them of their home.

Easwaran represented an open, non-dogmatic spiritual perspective, a view suggesting that we fill our life with meaning and purpose by doing something meaningful with it--very simple and straightforward. My wife and I loved the freedom and openness he expressed.

Looking back on this dream, I realized that at last my elephants were on their way home, back to where they belonged, drawn by the fragrance of a plant that blooms in the night, perhaps dreams blossoming in the night, in the unconscious.

We didn't realize it at the time but our adventures to hear those lectures about life and philosophy and elephants became our exit door, our way out of the prison compound, our "setu" (Sanskrit term for the bridge between this life and a new life).

A few months after finally leaving the church, my elephant dreams went through another transformation. One dream in particular stands out as a powerful catalyst that helped me to connect to the elephant as a dream daimon and symbolic mentor:

It was a clear night and I was flying high above the African continent. I began dropping slowly toward the earth and eventually landed on my feet in front of a strange scene: A colossal, black, African bull elephant lay sleeping about ten feet in front of me. On either side of the elephant's head stood a dark, native warrior with a spear, like guardians of the elephant. One began to pull on one of the enormous tusks and I thought, uh-oh, they're going to wake him up! He did wake up, and then stood up, a tremendous, striking figure silhouetted against the night sky. The next thing I know, I'm riding on this elephant and we're moving across the continent in giant, effortless, bounding strides. I feel a tremendous connection and exhilaration--we are finally on our way! This creature knows where he is going.

Now I had an elephant "to live with," and I knew that somehow this great animal who had been sleeping while I was busy "saving the world," slogging through a religious swamp, was now awake and would be a powerful part of my destiny and my attempts to live authentically.

"If the great beasts are gone, man will surely die of a great loneliness of spirit." ---Chief Seattle of the Nez PercÚ, 1884
John Goldhammer is a psychotherapist in Seattle, Washington. He is author of "Radical Dreaming: Use Your Dreams to Change Your Life" (Kensington Publishing / Citadel Press, July 2003), from which "Following the Elephants" is adapted.
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