Taoist Mystic Dreamwork and Oneiromancy

Psst…these are not pics of the underworld. These photos are from Lava Beds National Park in California. You need to visit there sometime.

Someone in my “I Ching and the Practitioner” course asked about Chinese dreamworking. Though delving into the subject fell a bit outside the scope of the I Ching, I thought it’d make an interesting closed-circuit blog entry.

My mother’s specialty is dreamworking and oneiromancy. She works primarily through the realm of dreams. Allegedly. The lawyer in me, I think, or maybe it’s just the enduring skeptic, feels compelled to add “allegedly.” This rambling does not come from a place of personal expertise, because I’ve always been the opposite of my mother. I am not a dreamworker. I would say I don’t dream at all, or at least I rarely remember my dreams. I don’t receive prophecies, divination, or forecasts of any kind through my dreams. No–that’s not entirely true, but it’s true enough for me to assure you that I am no expert. So I’m speaking from a point of neutral, outsider observation, as the daughter of a shamanic dreamworker.

By the way, she would never identify herself as a shaman. She doesn’t use anything to identify herself. Others, however, when she isn’t around, or when describing my mother, may use certain terminology. But she would never call herself anything other than “wife, mother, daughter” those kinds of titles. I’m the one taking the initiative to say “shaman” because it’s descriptive of what she does. You’ll see what I mean.

Mom’s energy is…oh man, I don’t want to say it’s darker than mine, because that’s definitely untrue, but I have to confess that “darker” would be the first word that pops into my mind even though immediately after I am self-aware enough to correct myself and say that’s not entirely accurate. What does “darker” mean anyway? If anything, it’s more revealing of my mindset and my biases.

Let’s start with some generalities about Mom’s background. She comes from the deep south of Taiwan, the heartland of Taoist magic, witchcraft, sorcery, shamanic work, and honestly, who knows what else. She grew up in abject poverty, the youngest daughter of a peddler who sold tofu, rice cakes, and local Taiwanese perishables from a crate pulled behind a bicycle, along with herbal medicines and magical healing remedies he concocted himself. I used to joke to Mom, “So he was engaged in the unlicensed practice of medicine. Got it,” to which I’d receive a dirty look. Grandma would from time to time support Grandpa’s work by crafting other talismanic remedies and amulets. Somehow, Mom managed to get herself married into one of the wealthier families in Taiwan, the son of a tea plantation owner in the north, someone who, despite coming from the same island, came from a diametrically different culture. That would be Dad. Mom was never accepted by Dad’s family for pretty obvious reasons. (I talked a bit about Mom and Dad’s hookup in the final video module of the “Tarot and Shadow Work” course, for those who are enrolled in that class and are interested in more details.)

In stark contrast to Mom’s background, since Mom married Dad, I was born into a world of privilege. For all of my formative years, I was kept in a perfect, comfortable bubble, so I’m not going to have the grit that Mom has. Any grit I have at all comes later, from, you know, growing up and having to learn how to adult. Mom, on the other hand, had to learn grit from the moment she entered this world.

Mom has a heightened sensitivity and awareness to what we Asians refer to as “hungry ghosts.” Throughout her girlhood, she suffered from night terrors and nightmares. When she was in high school, her older brother was believed to have become possessed by demons, and he had called out to her in desperation, saying they (the demons) were afraid of her, so she needed to come closer. She went closer and instinctually, began ordering them (the demons…) to leave. Apparently, they left. From that point on, she realized her connection to what she perceives to be an underworld.

After people die, Mom says she can see them in her dreams, or go to where they are. She is particularly connected to those who weren’t very good while they were living and so have now gone to somewhere dark or cold. She works with those who died in an untimely manner, who had a difficult passing, those who think they still have scores to settle, those with unfinished business. It would be much easier to dismiss her stories if she didn’t then come back with information for the deceased’s relatives that Mom had no way of knowing. Including prognostications of future events. On the bright side, Mom knew how to help these souls out of their murky predicaments and get them to move onward, err…toward the light. As it were.

Mom is deeply religious and deeply superstitious, surrounding herself with what I might best describe as Buddhist love and light, because I think it helps her manage the fact she sees and feels the shadow. Yet oddly, for all that love and light, when I was a little girl, she complained about my gentle, docile nature (baby Bell was very not Queen of Swords, or even Page of Swords…). She worried about me, I think. For those who are into energy work and believe in the portfolio of beliefs Mom buys into, you’ll understand what I mean when I say she was obsessed with shielding me and drilling into my head how to shield myself.

She has always been totally okay with me not buying into all of her beliefs or hierarchy of worlds, just so long as I kept up with my meditations, shielding recitations, and continued to do good in the world. Oh, she has always been obsessed with doing good and good karma, too. To laughable extents, really. I mean, she named me “good.” Or benevolent. In case you’ve never read my “About Me” page. That’s where Benebell comes from. Benevolent. My Chinese name is literally Good. And so is my sister’s and other sister’s. All of our names begin with Good. That’s how obsessed she is. In third grade, for a birthday party I got to throw, where all my classmates would be invited, Mom ordered these pens with customized messages written on them for party favors. She wrote on the pens: “Be good so that your soul can always find the light.” Something to that effect, which raised more than one eyebrow. For Pete’s sake, Mom, it’s a birthday bash for nine year olds. In suburban New York and it’s the 80s. Ease up with the fire and brimstone multiple underworlds damnation speech.

Dreamworking, as defined by someone who is not a practitioner of dreamwork but just a lifelong observer of it, is when your astral body or consciousness (or something) journeys to other nonphysical realms where spirit entities to the effect of either angels or demons reside, using the terms “angels” and “demons” quite loosely and broadly here. It’s premised on a belief system or cosmology of a whole hierarchy of spirit realms, some celestial and some more in line with what we might think of as underworlds, hell, Hades, or purgatory. Mom’s primary journeying is into the underworlds or purgatory and meeting departed souls there. Her connection to the celestial realms and Light is only when she acquires knowledge that a soul has transitioned on into that Light.

Mom doesn’t love to talk about this stuff, kind of the way–I noticed–Asian elders who’ve lived through one of the major wars don’t like to talk about that period of their lives. They talk enthusiastically about their childhoods before that war, discretely skip over that block of time, then talk about their life experiences after that block. Or like how when you, the grandkid, are young, before meeting Grandpa, Mom and Dad will stoop down to your level, look you dead in the eyes, and say sternly, “Whatever you do, do NOT ask Grandpa about the war. (or “the famine,” or “the Cultural Revolution”…take your pick based on region of Asia)”

The way she can recount descriptions of these underworld landscapes is also incredible. The way she does it reminds me of me returning from a vacay visiting the Grand Canyon, or Macchu Picchu, and telling a friend about the scenery and experiences.

From my observations, people who do dreamwork don’t want to do dreamwork (or do it reluctantly) and can’t wrap their minds around why others would go out of their way trying to learn how to. That being said, once the ability that is there is recognized, it’s better to study up and get yourself armed with knowledge so you know how to navigate that terrain.

Sample Chinese Dreamworker’s Protection Talisman

Talismans can be crafted, kept under the bed, slipped into the pillow cover, or worn as a necklace, or kept in the pocket of a nightgown. Why should you keep one on you when you dreamwork? Being a living soul in a world of the dead (or undead?) is a bit like walking down an alleyway of a dangerous neighborhood in the middle of the night blinged out with loads of gold jewelry and designer wear. You’d be drawing too much attention to yourself. A living spirit in that realm is going to be like you walking down that alleyway blinged out. So talismans help to keep you lowkey, kind of like cloaking mechanisms.

The above is my digital illustration of a sample dreamworker’s protection talisman. I go a bit into using the I Ching for spell-crafting in my “I Ching and the Practitioner” course. If you’re enrolled in that course, then you’ll have the background information you need for that center hexagram. This would be a double-sided medallion that has been enchanted by a practitioner (so it’s much more than just doodling that and calling it a talisman). As for what those three vertical lines of calligraphy say, that’s actually explained in detail in my book, The Tao of Craft. I address those three specific lines and the meaning in one of the passages in that book.

Dreamworking means you’re fast asleep. So it’s after nighty-night time, often late in the night. Actual dreamworking takes place by the practitioner around 2 am, 3 am, 4 am, around there, while the practitioner is fast asleep. Those born with dreamworking abilities but who haven’t yet actualized those abilities might find themselves chronically jolted awake or plagued with insomnia through those hours, due to their own subconscious mind’s defense mechanism of keeping you awake so you don’t inadvertently go to those underworlds, where your mind knows can be dangerous. They’re also typically plagued with night terrors and nightmares, which sounds bad but are actually another one of your mind’s defense mechanisms. Better a silly nightmare to keep you pinned to this physical world than your mind entering that other world. Night terrors might also be those from the underworlds sensing out that you can sense them, and reaching out to try to get your attention. So those are just some common indications that one might be a born dreamworker.

The cute thing about being the child of a dreamworker is when you as a child say you’re scared of the dark, rather than get an adoring but patronizing nod with a “now, now, there are no monsters under your bed, go to sleep, child,” your mother will take it seriously and drill you with a dozen questions to try to figure out whether you’re just being a kid or whether it could be something else.

A key purpose for dreamworkers is to help those who have died and are not in a good place to get the deceased’s loved ones to engage in liturgical or ritualistic measures Mom’s peeps believe will help purify that soul’s karma and clear a path toward the light for that soul. (So by extension, along with the actual fast-asleep-dreamworking, dreamworkers also know all the things about purifying karma and helping souls move into the light and all that hullabaloo they do while they’re fully-awake.) Dreamworkers help end the suffering of recently departed souls who have found themselves in the underworld. Those who die with unfinished business and can’t seem to let go of their physical lives end up in an underworld or purgatory of sorts. She helps them to connect with those in the living world to help get that unfinished business finished, so that the soul can finally feel a sense of resolution, and move on. Dreamworkers also handle ghosts who are haunting the physical realm, or who are stuck in the physical realm.

In Taiwanese culture, routine dreamworking might be left to the “professionals,” but to an extent, everyone does it, especially after the passing of a close loved one. Within the culture, you often hear about someone who has dreamt that her recently departed parent’s soul is seen somewhere dark, cold, and that parent is hungry, begging the dreamer to bring food and warmth. That person then wakes up and immediately tells everybody to burn more incense and offerings at the ancestor altar. Or if she feels at a loss for what to do, a priest, priestess, witch doctor, or shaman is called in.

Now, to the Westerner, perhaps one thing should be made clear. This underworld isn’t hell from the Abrahamic standpoint. It’s not evil and it’s not always terrible, even though sure, oftentimes those trapped there are suffering and some serious dangers lurk there. People in this physical form also suffer here on earth. But what can be said is when the dreamworker is called in to intervene, it’s usually because a soul is stuck somewhere that soul “shouldn’t” be. I put “shouldn’t” in quotes because it’s complicated. The underworld, or underworlds, represent part of an afterlife belief system that’s found in the culture I’m from. To be clear, it’s an ancient belief system that only those who still hold on to the old religions believe in. Your common 21st-century city dweller in Taipei, Taiwan is not going to know anything about dreamwork, demons, or underworlds.

Also not a photo of the underworld. This is my backyard.

I told my mother that someone had asked a question about Chinese dreamworking and since she does it, it only made sense to get a quote from her, right? I asked her if she had any tips, advice, insights, anecdotes, anything at all she’d like to voluntarily contribute.

Her exact words: “Why anyone want to know that?”

Me: “Mom, they’re interested. So, what would you say to someone who is interested in learning more?”

Mom: [long pause] “Don’t do it. And don’t learn about it. It’s not for you.”

Alrightey then. See? I told you she and I have totally different personal energies and vibes.

14 thoughts on “Taoist Mystic Dreamwork and Oneiromancy

  1. Hi. I’m in your I ching course and would Love to read this. Can I have the password? Incidentally, thanks for all your generous offerings. No good deed goes unpunished, as they say. I am loving the I ching course! Blessings, Jennifer Heath

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  2. Anita Perez

    Fascinating! Some of this sounded very familiar to me, like descriptions of levels and localities of what is sometimes called the Astral plane.
    Thank you for sharing this.

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  3. richpalm

    Thank you for this most interesting insight into the shamanic tradition as seen from the Eastern point of view. It seems to be more passive than the western practice of the art. If your mother ever volunteers more information, I hope you will be able to share it on your blog as I, for one, would be very interested in learning the specific techniques of the eastern art.

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  4. Ambergris Gold

    Dear Benebell,

    I am a regular reader and a sometimes client, and have purchased a couple of readings and courses.

    Please would you send me the password to your blog/site.

    Best Regards,

    Anne-Marie xx

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Matthew P. Williams

    I was totally with you from the beginning, then the paragraph about being jolted awake 2-4 in the morning struck me like a bolt of lightning. First, some background…

    As I child, I was “overly sensitive” and definitely afraid of the dark. I have always had vivid, terrifying nightmares. I have good dreams too, sometimes fun lucid dreams, but my default dream state is bizarre and often terrifying. Sometimes dreams disturb me so badly it takes three days for me to return to normal. It has always been like this.

    A few years ago I developed in interest in cultivating lucid dreaming ability. The objective here was to take control of my dreams, to be more confident about falling asleep, because sleep anxiety/fear of the inevitable terror would keep me from falling asleep. I worked on it a bit, but making it a dedicated practice was challenging. Keeping a dream journal was really challenging, mainly because I’m so groggy when I wake up in the morning, and if I wake up in the middle of the night, logging a dream is a sure bet that I won’t get back to sleep. Also, most lucid dreaming books are too materialist to really grab me (“this is what happens to your brain chemistry when you dream” or “this is what the brain looks like in an MRI when you dream” – okay, interesting, but missing what’s important). Still, getting my feet wet did help me develop some confidence and made it easier to fall asleep at night. Now, falling asleep isn’t the problem – staying asleep is.

    More background. My dad passed away when I was 17, two months before I graduated high school. Part of lucid dream instruction is to look for your trigger images, the things that indicate to you that you are dreaming. These can be pre-existing, or you can cultivate them with practice. My dad is an obvious dream trigger. He has been gone for 15 years now, I’m very used to it. If he shows up in a dream, I know I’m dreaming and it signals me to go lucid. Sometimes I have conversations with my dad. One of the more memorable ones… He was sitting at the computer (as it was in my home ~2001) playing solitaire. I asked him “okay, what happens when we die?” He said “I’m not supposed to tell you,” still looking at the screen. I said “alright, but who’s in charge?” He said “God……….s” as he turned to look at me and raised his eyebrow, almost with a wink. Classic dad! Still, if I ever find myself talking about lucid dreaming and my dad I say something like “do I really think I’m talking to me dad? I don’t know. Does it really matter?”

    A medium who is a friend of a palmist friend of mine told me during a reading “your dad shows up in your dreams… you’re an astral traveler in your dreams, and he helps you out with that.” It didn’t really faze me because it was something I knew unconsciously but never really verbalized or conceptualized consciously. I just shrugged, nodded and said “yeah you’re right.”

    Back to the chilling paragraph… My trouble now is not falling asleep, it’s staying asleep. I almost always wake up between 2-4, depending on the time of year. My palmist friend calls the ~3am time “the witching hour,” and I tell her “for me, it’s the pissing hour! I’m always up to pee.” Whether I have to pee or not, I’m up at this time. But there’s something to the peeing too… per TCM, I have ongoing kidney yang deficiency, which causes nighttime urination, but… the acupuncturist I had when I lived in SF told me “the kidneys are the organ of fear.” I know that one of the root causes of my kidney yang xu was fear and anxiety of working in a very public job where people literally sucked the life out of me, whether they knew it or not, and my ignorance of it and inability to do anything about it… this is going back to my being “overly sensitive.” Anyway, maybe TMI here, but being awake during that time, a tendency to pee, and pee associated with fear, defense mechanisms against dream terror.

    It all adds up. So now… I have some work to do. Thank you for bringing this to light.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hi Matthew! Wow.. I think you’ll discover some incredible personal revelations if you give this dreamworking a try. If nothing else, it’ll at least help you to control some of the physiological night and sleeping symptoms. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Matthew P. Williams

        I think you’re absolutely right. Working on dreaming did help me fall asleep easier because I had that conscious awareness of cause/effect. Now the other side of that coin is visible, and I wouldn’t have gotten to it by myself. Motivation is one of the biggest precipitators of lucid dreaming, and now I’m more motivated than ever to pursue dream working. Many thanks!

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  6. Bell thanks so much for this! It so resonated with me. Since I am a child I have been highly intuitive and have super vivid dreams. Moreover, lucid dreaming come naturally to me.
    When I was little I was so afraid of what I called ‘vampires’, I felt so strongly I had to cover my neck and shoulders. Even in the middle of the Barcelona hot Summer, I had to protect those parts of my body or I wouldn’t be able to fall asleep. I have had insomnia for as long as I can remember. And I developed my own little ritual of covering my feet with rosemary oil that I think someone gave my mum for my trouble sleeping. I don’t remember if my fear to ‘vampires’ wasn’t taken seriously or I never share my experiences. My mum confessed to me later on, always knew about me being super intuitive. Even as a toddler who could barely speak I would go to my mum and tell her someone was lying or shouldn’t be trusted.

    But no one supported my or my sis – who is also highly intuitive and a born astral traveller – how to deal with this. We have no ancestors, no tradition. It was after my son was born and I retook my spiritual path – no more numbness via drama, denial or partying together with a very strong daily practise – the downloads, the clairsentient experiences and night terrors came back. When you say: ‘Night terrors might also be those from the underworlds sensing out that you can sense them, and reach out to try to get your attention.’ that is exactly how I feel it happens! this seriously gave me chills because it is the first time I read someone describing this experience exactly as I have lived it. The enter the room, through my corners, I sense them in my sleep, when I sense them they sense me back and come straight to me, I wake up and I can’t move, I feel them pushing me while sucking my chi. You know where they attached themselves onto? my back and neck! The feeling they somehow pass onto me is loneliness, they feel lonely and lost and they are happy I recognise them. I did not know what to do the first time but one thing is clear, my strength and capacity to get rid of them is powerful even without ‘training’. I am not scared of them, except for one time when they were more than one and I would not call them ‘lonely’ they were downright nasty energies. But I have learnt, and I am still learning, how to shield myself from them. I know I am still not really ‘helping’ and living up to my… dreamwork abilities?. I am still waiting for the moment I am ready to fully develop this or to receive a teacher who will guide me. Your mum doesn’t take on any students? haha

    Since as long as I can remember I dream about visiting other cities, in other countries, in other places in time (even the future). The location is almost always different. I need to move into a house, that is normal but a bit creepy. With abandoned spaces or rooms full of crap. And then I find out is full of spirits and they all want something. The dreams have got less strong and less regular since I have gone back to my spiritual and Tarot practise. The same way I had the witchy hour insomnia Matthew describes for years and now I am not. In my personal experince I stopped having insomnia every day because I started my practise, and I finally I accepted who I am. Hypnotherapy and reading the ‘women who run with wolves’ also helped!

    Last time an experience like this happened I was fully awake at night. When I woke up the next morning my son climbed onto my bed and said: ‘mum please don’t go with the lonely people’ when I asked who are these lonely people -although I ‘knew’- he said: ‘ the lonely people who enter your room at night’.

    Again, thanks for sharing this! It is so useful xx

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Yes, I can see the I Ching course in my near future. Wow. This hit my soul. It was like hearing talk about my gramps. He was a bright soul, but his night journeys were dark at times. When I first started having what I thought were regular nightmares, my mom called him. He and I are a lot alike, which is why he ended up responsible for much of my early training. I miss him more when I read stuff like this. He’d be the first one to say, “Don’t tread this path. Protect the road above.”

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  8. Bre

    New comer to the closed circuit here ❤ Reading this about your mom gave me comfort. I never knew someone experienced things like this really except for me. My mother has told me countless times that I had night terrors even as a baby. I would suddenly wake up and start screaming bloody murder when I was just a few months old, and it hasn't really stopped since. I am terrified of being alone in the dark and going to sleep because I always have night terrors, nightmares, and am practically shaken awake at night (this has all led to me having severe insomnia). I've more or less just dealt with it (the religious background I grew up in doesn't believe in dreamwork in the slightest) I never have really given the idea of dreamwork a try. I'm conscious of me dreaming and can force myself to wake up if things get too wild, but for the most part, I'm just on autopilot. Dreamwork may be the way to go!

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  9. Wan May

    I have chills reading this. I have never related to anything more than your mother’s account of being a dreamworker. Reading this post literally consolidated all my strange experiences from childhood until now into something that make complete sense – all those nightmares, night terrors, the vivid dreams in elaborate and exotic realms interacting with different beings, a psychic sensing my astral experiences as a child, the unshakeable fear of the dark and even of just going to sleep. And most importantly, family members being possessed too in my childhood, as well as a nagging sense that I should be aiding lingering spirits even though I’m simultaneously terrified of anything involving that in general. Even now as an adult, I stay up until 2:00-3:00am (it’s 2:00am right now as I’m typing this) because I just don’t feel safe going to sleep. I’m scared of going to sleep. I realize as time goes on that I can’t keep running due to fear and that I need to step into whatever this is and learn more to empower myself, but I don’t know how other than keeping a dream journal to recall all my dreams and hopefully gaining more lucidity in the dream realm. Are there potentially any resources, any protective exercises or practices you or your mother can share with me? I’m really very, very desperate and would be beyond grateful for any guidance.

    Liked by 1 person

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