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Discover Your Sacred Dream

Her Big Day by Elisabeth Ladwig

A shaman’s journey from the nightmare to the daydream to the sacred dream.

After decades of working as an anthropologist and a shaman, I learned that enlightened seekers—what I call “Luminous Warriors”—know three kinds of waking dreams: the nightmare, the daydream, and the sacred dream. Of these, only the sacred dream can help you fulfill your mission here on Earth. To live within a sacred dream requires that you understand that daydreams can feel pleasant but will turn into nightmares as the circumstances of your life change. As for the nightmares we all wish to avoid, they always begin as daydreams, but they are daydreams that have reached their expiration date and gone bad, like cheese left in the refrigerator for too long.

The daydream that turns into a nightmare can be the relationship or job that was so enticing and seductive but that now has become a dark hole you cannot climb out of. A friend once told me, “My job is like a bad dream. I would like to wake up from it, but I need the sleep.” The nightmare does not offer you much hope for things to be different. When you are trapped in it, you begin to believe that the poor health that you are experiencing is just part of getting old and you may as well get used to it, or that the boredom and frustration of your job or marriage is the price you have to pay for security. Or you might believe there is nothing you can do to change the divisive political climate or the violence happening in the world. The nightmare keeps you paralyzed. When you have a friend who is depressed, you can be nearly certain that they are caught in a nightmare that they do not know how to wake up from and that they are mistaking for reality.

If we are trapped inside a toxic relationship, we begin to fantasize about what it could be like if things were different, and we start to use all our powers of concentration to create a new reality. We imagine someone light and cheery coming into our life, another chance to live the life we have missed out on. Then, one day, we run away with our new love, only to discover that this new daydream also has a stale date.

A Daydream Keeps You Looking for Something Outside Yourself to Make You Feel Complete.

The next daydream can masquerade as your hope or your aspiration, as your goal for getting your life in order. Writing down your success list, planning to improve your relationship, or strategizing about creating circumstances you tell yourself will be good for you and make your life better—all these seem promising and yet can turn into a nightmare. When you change the job or the partner, when you buy the house or the car, you might well find that you are still not happy or fulfilled. All that list making and hard work led you right back to unhappiness.

The daydream keeps you searching out of the corner of your eye for your true soul mate even after you are in a relationship. It has you continually looking for a new guru, a new diet, a new health regime—and wondering if there may be something out there in the world that you might be missing out on.

From Daydream to Nightmare to Daydream

I have lived this daydream turned nightmare. In my 30s, I met a woman, and we thought we were in love. We believed love would make us happy and solve all our problems. I thought, When I find my soul mate, then I will be happy. I believed that she was the one I had been waiting for all my life. Then, one day, I woke up and asked myself, Who is this person in my bed? It’s certainly not the one I married, is it? The daydream had turned into one of my worst nightmares. Fortunately, there were no children involved, and we parted ways grudgingly, holding the other responsible for the failure of the marriage. Perhaps you have experienced your own version of this nightmare.

The daydream may seem benign, or even quite pleasant, but is almost always a formula for disaster. And while daydreams sometimes do not turn into nightmares, they can keep us comfortable but not growing—and soon our lives feel stale and purposeless. Sometimes, daydreams fool us, mimicking yet forestalling the courageous dreams that are most rewarding. We think we are leading a life of meaning, but then, one day, we realize it has been drained of meaning.

The sacred dream will not come knocking at your door: It requires that you leave the familiar and embark on a quest.

How Do You Recognize When You Are Living under the Spell of a Daydream?

Daydreams always contain a contract or agreement that you make with life that goes like this: “When … then.” 

When I have more money, then I won’t be anxious.” “When I am happy, then I will be grateful.” “When we have new leadership, then we will be able to have a truthful conversation.” Or perhaps, “When I find my true love, or my true calling in life, or the perfect house, or job, then I will _____” 

A few years ago, I received a challenging medical diagnosis. In my travels through the Amazon I had picked up a dozen varieties of parasites. Until then, I was convinced that other people got old or got sick, but that surely this would never happen to me. Now I was sick and in danger of dying, and I was feeling like an old man. In my prayers I said to God: “When I get well, then I will dedicate my life to being in service and helping others.”

But life does not favor these bargains. I began to wake up from the daydream when I turned the “when … then” agreement around. 

I discovered that:

“When I am grateful, then I am happy.”

“When I dedicate my life to service, then I become well.”

“When I speak truthfully, then I become a true leader.”

I had to rededicate my life to a mission greater than myself before I could recover my health. I had to transform the nightmare of ill health to discover my sacred dream that would allow me to experience a sense of purpose and meaning, even though I had no guarantee that I would survive this illness or knew how long I would live.

A sacred dream launches you to a greater destiny beyond simply not dying or living a reasonably happy life as you strive to avoid discomfort. It encourages you to explore the mystery of life and of love, to glimpse a reality beyond death, and to discover a timeless truth for yourself. It demands that you act boldly and courageously, and eschew the consensual—what everyone agrees on and no one questions, the popular stories that trap us in daydreams that become nightmares.

How Do You Know When You Have Found a Sacred Dream?

You will know because it is much larger than you and will seem impossible to accomplish. A sacred dream launches you on a mission, as it did with Martin Luther King and Gandhi. “But I am not Gandhi,” you say. True, you do not have to set a goal to lead a billion people to freedom. But what if your destiny is to do something far greater than you have imagined until this moment?

When you are ill, or depressed, it is hard to think of finding a sacred dream. Your dreams are smaller then. Getting back to where you once were seems good enough. I remember when I was in my healing crisis and could not take more than 50 steps before becoming exhausted. My dream then was to be able to walk around the block without feeling spent. Yet I was called to the greater dream, to be of service to others in whatever small way I could. How would I do that when I could hardly get out of bed, and my doctors told me I would never hike in my beloved Andes again? I discovered that when you hold a sacred dream, the universe begins to conspire on your behalf to make the impossible doable. It offers you energy and skills that you never had available to you before. Soon, I was able to walk around the block, and today I travel around the world bringing a little more beauty to everyone I meet—practicing the giveaway of beauty.

Discovering the sacred dream requires courage. You can no longer be a passive (and anxious) bystander watching others have a meaningful life. The sacred dream will not come knocking at your door: It requires that you leave the familiar and embark on a quest. It demands that you do not compromise your integrity. It challenges you not to be seduced by the easy path. It calls you to fight the lie that your daydream is adequate and will continue to keep you comfortable.

This is why it is called the Way of the Luminous Warrior.

This piece is adapted from Alberto Villildo's latest book, The Heart of the Shaman: Stories and Practices of the Luminous Warrior.