In the world of dreams, even a mundane laundry basket can communicate something out of the ordinary. When I dreamt of a slick yellow cobra coiled in the jumble of my daughter's laundry basket, it woke me up with a sense of foreboding. In a literal sense, cobras do not hang out among dirty T-shirts and thongs. Nor are they yellow. But in my dreams, yellow is a signal that means, "Pay attention. Watch out!"
In my private practice, I have been showing individuals how to navigate the inner landscape of their dreams for nearly 20 years. Not only can we interpret these night riddles, we can also learn the art of lucid dreaming in which we become the observer, aware that we are dreaming while we are asleep. I don't remember how I found the key to unlock my own. I do know that it pays to pay attention.
The cobra was up to no good. But I hesitated at telling my 22-year old daughter about the dream. In my mind's eye, I could see her rolling her eyes. "Oh mom, you're so weird," she would say.
It shouldn't bother me. As an author, journalist, and psychotherapist, my shtick is helping others overcome fears of trusting their intuition. On the corporate education circuit for 7 years, I showed CEOs, executives, scientists, and business owners how to define, identify, and choose to act on information received through their sixth sense. You would think I would walk my talk by now. But something held me back.
I couldn't help but wonder what was stopping me from telling her. Was I worried that her sarcasm would upset me? Her father and I divorced when she was 8 years old. As a single mother, I managed to survive her adolescence and those vacations from college when she regressed to a 15-year old version of herself. So what if she called me weird? It's not as if I was afraid of the "W" word. I have a standard retort ready to fly: "When the going get weird, the weird turn pro." (That's from Hunter S. Thompson, in case you're wondering.)
A few days later, it came to me. I had been a guest on Oprah when my book Sixth Sense came out in the early 90s. The title of the show was "Premonitions." A man on the panel described a dream he had about two dead children lying in a ditch. Even though he had dreamt it five years earlier, and he had followed through by telling a Nassau County detective who used the information from his dream to find the children's murdered bodies, this man could not talk about his experience without flushing red with shame. He reiterated several times that nothing like this had happened to him before or since. It creeped him out.
"Isn't it interesting that it's easier for people to talk about incest on TV than it is to acknowledge an intuitive dream? In our society, we are embarrassed to say that we have had a psychic experience," I said to Oprah during our 30-seconds of face-time after the show. She said that her goal was to open up public discussions on subjects that were off-limits and moved on to thanking her next guest.
What I did not say to Oprah was that I was embarrassed about my own psychic experiences. Even though I had written a book explaining how intuition is a natural mental ability like musical talent; and even though I had interviewed more than 100 fascinating and accomplished people (Note to ed: including Arianna Huffington) who attributed their success to trusting their hunches and gut feelings, I was secretly ashamed of the events that had startled me out of complacency and onto a path of research and exploration that was both scientific and spiritual. Writing Sixth Sense was, in a sense, a passport issued in the Twilight Zone that allowed me entrance to the mainstream.
When I was 26 years old and working as a reporter for the United Nations news agency, I rented an apartment that was haunted. Obviously, I didn't know it was haunted when I signed the lease. But when I pushed the bed against the closet where previous tenants had kept a Murphy bed, I was unable to sleep. I kept hearing an old man's voice talking about how everyone he knew had died and he was going to die soon and nobody cared and nobody would find him. This went on the first and second nights that I lived there. The third night, I moved my bed across the room so that it was underneath the window. I heard nothing but the soothing sounds of traffic outside. As an experiment, I moved the bed back to its former position and once again was kept awake by the cranky presence of what I assumed was a former occupant.
I knew nothing about ghosts, entities, or the paranormal but I had certain seen enough movies to guess that something bad had happened to someone in that corner. I moved the bed across the room and figured that would be the end of it. ( I later learned that the previous tenant had a psychotic break and a neighbor had called 911 to have him taken to a psychiatric facility. The tenant slept in a pull-down Murphy bed in that very closet.)
About one month after hearing the voice, I was sitting on the bed with my boyfriend one morning when a red light appeared on the door of the Murphy bed closet. We watched together as the red light expanded and brightened until it became a giant red eye, glowing like a mandala. It stayed in place for about 15 minutes and then faded.
I became unglued. Hearing an old person's voice was disturbing but seeing a red eye on the wall in bright daylight? That was nuts. Or maybe I was nuts. (I was big into technical terms at the time.) The nearest psychiatric hospital was Bellevue but common sense told me that if I wasn't nuts, a trip to Bellevue could take me over the edge.
As synchronicity would have it, a few days later, I was introduced to Dolores McAuliffe, a publicist with Hawthorne Books. Hawthorne specialized in books by professional mediums and clairvoyants. When I told her about the voice and the red eye, she directed me to the American Society for Psychical Research, an organization founded by William James in 1885 to conduct studies about sixth sense phenomena.
"A red eye in broad daylight? How wonderful!" the researcher at the American Society for Psychical Research said. "It means that your own sixth sense is going to open."
"I'm not going nuts?" I asked.
"This is perfectly normal for the paranormal. It means that something or someone from the other side is trying to communicate with you."
"Can't it use Western Union?"
I was serious. No one in my immediate family heard disembodied voices or saw lights. If they did, no one was owning up to it. If I was smart, I wouldn't either, so said my literary agent and at least half a dozen scientists whom I interviewed for Sixth Sense. If I confessed to having a direct encounter with the paranormal, it would discredit the science.
So I kept most of this stuff to myself. I have often wondered what could have happened if, instead of asking why it's easier to talk about sex than publicly discuss our psychic experiences, I had been fearless and come out to Oprah about the haunted apartment and the red eye on the wall. I have no doubt that it would have made it much easier for me to let my daughter know that I had seen a cobra in her laundry basket and she needed to watch her back.
The more I ruminated on that cobra dream, the more selfish it seemed for me to withhold the content from her. Ever since she was a baby, I had paid attention to intuitive warning signals that concerned her welfare. Now that she was living on her own, was it any less important?
With email and a phone call, I described my dream and offered this interpretation: "Someone very close to you may attack you all of a sudden. It could take the form of someone lying about you or gossiping behind your back."
"Mom, you are so weird," she said.
About ten days later, there were 6 messages from her on my voicemail. (That never happens.) "Mom, call me." Ten minutes later: "Mommy, you haven't called me back." With each message, she sounded younger and more vulnerable. It took a few rounds of phone tag before we connected. "Mom. That dream. The snake in the laundry basket. You were so right!" she said.
"The thing is, if you had not told me about the dream, it would have really shocked and hurt me. This way, I wasn't surprised and I didn't take it personally," she said. "You're still weird but you're my mom."
"And thank you for warning me. That's why I love you."