Flying Dreams

And the Evolution of Human Consciousness

I am a dreamer! By that I mean more than the fact that I dream like everybody else or that I fantasize. I dream, yes, but I have also developed a discipline of dreaming over a period of twenty five years, while living in the USA. I returned to Australia in 2003 where I continue on a daily basis. My discipline of dreaming includes the usual practices of dreaming, recording, and recalling. I also strive to bring my daily life into relationship with the dream. This effort includes developing new habits of thought and giving up others – often very difficult to do. For example, during the course of the day, if I feel weighed down and depressed, I recall my dreams and explore whether my current mood or feelings are more related to them, than say, the observable facts of my outer life.

This one example requires wrenching away from the cultural habit of “explaining” everything in terms of our positivistic bias which states that the only reality we are embedded in comes through the senses. Dreams therefore are commonly understood as only reflecting some aspect of our external, daily lives. This habit is reinforced by another habit of clinging to the familiar at the expense of the unknown. For example, if I dream of an encounter with an old friend who is driving his car to my house, we interpret the dream in terms of my actual relationship with my actual friend, who may in fact own that kind of car. In this way we assert that outer reality (positivism) is the prime reality and we also cling to the familiar aspects of the dream. With these two habits in place we tend to ignore any unfamiliar aspects of the dream e.g. that my old friend never had driven to my house in actuality, and we strengthen the belief that our existence is determined by one reality only, the reality of the senses.


These two habits have consequences!

Positivism is the philosophical stance that asserts that the only reality that determines our lives is the one that can be verified by our senses. It is the basis of the sciences and our knowledge systems. Today we have taken these formal aspects of positivism much further. It has now become common sense, meaning that a habit of thought has developed and become unconscious so that we lead our lives in a way that is determined by the habit of thought. For example, if we cannot verify or give positive evidence for an assertion, that assertion is dismissed as “unreal”. This has the effect of undermining the truth value of assertions made by speculation, intuition, imagination, memory etc. Segments of our population are then downgraded to the marginalized, or worse, the insane.

Clinging to the familiar is a habit that is institutionalized today in the forms of our legal system, insurance companies, politics, and financial systems—all of which deal with risk-taking, or going into the unknown, by a fear reflex, aggression, or punishment. In this way our fears of the future have firm soil from which to grow quickly into paralyzing terror and knee-jerk reactions that can be devastating to individuals, communities, and nations, as we so often see today.

As habits of thought, positivism and clinging to the familiar are not seen as such of course. They are simply “buried” in our ordinary every-day conduct. Common Sense!

Changing any habit requires at least two conditions: an experience that contradicts the habit and which cannot be denied; and conscious cultivation of a new habit that is born from the new experience and which can, over time, replace the old habit. Dreams can become such a vehicle for change for individuals and culture and I want to illustrate this with an example from my own life. Over the years of my dreaming, I have had a long series of dreams of flight, which include passing through walls, ceilings, as well as flying in the form of birds, butterflies, or human. Here is one, to give you a taste:

I feel myself floating up and realize I have come out of my body. I move around the room and then expand out over the country side, above. I feel free and unafraid: This is the fruit of all those years of effort where I had entered these states before, each one with its own teaching. All those years of preparation! I freely fly around and see an intense white light below that attracts me. I want to go there but also not yet as I want to play. I am filled with delight and playfulness.

I now see a strange city that is full of prosperity-order and beauty, bustling with life.

I go to a bar and notice that I can go through walls, etc. My body is transparent to solidity. As I swing my arm through a wall, electric light playfully emanates. I playfully swing my arm through a Bar Tender’s belly. He notices a feeling and acts like Mr. Messenger from City of Angels: “I can’t see you but I know you are there.” I laugh gleefully.

I am happy playful; and delighted. Ascending again I begin to get concerned that I have wandered too far afield. As I have this fear, I gently come back to my body in bed and wake up with the memory of having been on a flight.

We have a huge difficulty in understanding these “flying” dreams today because they are so unfamiliar and because of our incorrigible habit of considering reality only in terms of solidity— “things” being separate from us in every way (positivism). But, as I said, part of my discipline of dreaming is to challenge old habits of thought. Such dreams as this one can thus become initiatory. Let’s explore this a little.

You can see in the dream description above some hints of what I actually experienced in my flight. Two qualities emerge that today are ordinarily in conflict—playfulness and fear! We can only play if fear is absent. Now of course fear can be present as part of the play. For example a “monster” can rush at me and I get a real fright, but the soul delights in this fear. It is delicious and sought after by the soul. We can see this quite easily in children’s play. They seek situations that induce fear and we can hear the secret delight in the squeals and shrieks that are quickly followed by, “Let’s do that again!”

This is a normal aspect of play, captured so well in fairy tales which were originally for adults who could thus feel fright, even horror, all belonging within the tale itself and which thus can be safely left behind when we return to ordinary reality. But there is another fear that is the enemy of play and the imagination. This occurs when the fear is so strong that it solidifies the object of fear and the natural fluidity of the child’s imagination cannot continue. We can see this when the play gets disrupted with tears and a refusal to go on, or maybe toys get destroyed. The “monster” threatens to break out of its “fluid image” status of reality and become a “solid thing” in ordinary outer reality.

We can see that the dream brings together play, delight, laughter, beauty, with flying (levity) and a kind of fluidity in the world where objects can therefore be penetrated (walls, bodies, etc.) Obviously, if we take this “pairing” literally then we lose the meaning. I can laugh, and be delighted, in positive reality without being able to penetrate walls or people. Neither do I fly. But in the dream I did! And it was very convincing. The dream had a compelling quality to it. I was not to equivocate about the experience while in the dream. While in the dream I really did fly and penetrate walls etc.

We can see in children’s play a similar quality of reality. Objects do fluidly shift in meaning, becoming this now and now that, without complication. And children often “levitate” during play, much to their shock when they step off the table and come crashing down. You can see that they were really flying in “play reality” and momentarily lost sight of their co-existence in ordinary outer reality. I think falling out of bed during a flying dream (“coming down to earth”) is very similar. In fact we can sometimes be jolted awake by a strong sense of dropping or falling, implying that we were flying in what we call the dream state.

If we take these facts seriously for a moment, then we can see that flying dreams, or the play state, when we are in them as one figure among many, are showing a different reality, one that is no longer available to us in ordinary waking life. Upon awakening we fall back into our normal self-awareness and the world also contracts into its normal state of solidity. Children appear to have access to this alternate reality in waking life through the “magic” of play, for a while, but as the velveteen rabbit found out from the nursery magic fairy, “When [toys] are old and worn out and the children don't need them anymore, then I come and take them away with me…”

So far then we know that to take such dreams literally violates our present reality of positivism and also that to regard them as belonging only to the world of childhood, is merely to generate nostalgia and little else.

There is another response, another way!

Flying dreams can teach us that there are other realities that we once inhabited (childhood, and as well, our deep past). This teaching immediately opens the question of whether positivism, our current reality, is as absolute as we might think. It is beyond the scope of this essay to explore the implications of this statement but we can say here that “flying” dreams, if taken seriously, open up the entire question of the evolution of consciousness and its corollary, of the world. It turns out we can conclude that positivism and its correlative world of solidity is not absolute but relative to history. Our present world of sharply defined objects and equally sharp self-awareness, separated from each other by a gulf is a historical development. They simultaneously emerged out of former statuses of consciousness and world. These considerations can have an effect of giving our present lives meaning when we realize we did not come into existence as psychological beings, out of nothing, but instead we emerged out of a long series of historical transformations in the structure of consciousness and world.

The second teaching from such dreams is that past forms of consciousness and world appearing now as “flying” dreams are not gone forever, but are still present to us as psychological presences. Our past is still present to us in our dreams and thus available to us in some way, in experience. We are not cut off forever from our past, i.e., from our past being. One reason this may be hard to believe is that “flying dreams” present themselves often in positivistic images, i.e., those forms that we associate with outer, waking life (my solid body, other solid, sharply defined objects).

So we tend to dismiss the reality of such dreams since they collide with what we know is real today, i.e., positive reality. This where the other habit I mentioned, of clinging to the familiar is relevant to “flying” dreams. If we see ourselves flying “in” our solid body form in a dream, we reduce the image to the familiar, i.e., literally flying, and are therefore forced to reject the dream’s reality (“flying”). What is necessary here is to overcome that habit of clinging to the familiar. It is the flying that is unfamiliar and it is the corresponding fluidity of the world that is unfamiliar so, if we focus on these unfamiliar qualities, along with our knowledge that we are dealing with a psychologically real state of affairs, then we can ask how we may wakefully and deliberately re-enter such a state, psychologically, i.e., in such a way that its reality gains the same status as our current ordinary reality but is not conflated or confused with that ordinary reality.

In asking this question, and putting it this way, we are entering the domain of art and creativity. There is a domain of creativity that artists, and others, are quite aware of and seek with deliberate intent—a domain that seems to contravene the laws governing our positive reality, yet which has great convincing power. Again, a huge topic, but perhaps the taste here may whet your appetite for more.

To summarize: "flying" dreams can teach us several things about our current existence. We can learn that our ordinary daytime reality, although determinative today, is not absolute. It was not so for all time. Evolution of consciousness demonstrates that other forms of consciousness and world are prior to our own, present form. These past forms are not gone forever but are still present as historical psychological presences and can be accessed as such by us modern people. To do so we have to overcome two insidious habits of thought, the first being our conviction that positivism is and was the only form of consciousness and world and the second being our fearful clinging to the familiar, which prevents the unknown from penetrating to our vitals and initiating us into wisdom.


To follow up on these implications see my web site:

See my book, Animal Soul, available on my web site or at


Posted on 29 September 2013 in - Temenos Journal - Dreams

John Woodcock

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