In June of 1988 I had a dream in which I took a hold of a book entitled GILGAMESH. I looked at the title for a long time, then I heard the words, “You are wounded and re-wounded in Gilgamesh.” I woke up and recorded the dream.
The next day, as I reviewed my dream journal, I was confused by the dream. I had never heard of Gilgamesh, had no clue as to what it was. I wasn’t sure if there was even a book entitled GILGAMESH. Then I vaguely remembered having seen a small paperback book entitled GILGAMESH that Naomi owned. I’d seen it, once, about ten years prior as I was packing books into a box preparing to move. I remembered asking Naomi if we should toss the book, and she said it was a classic and that we should save it. At the time, I concluded it was probably a 19th century Victorian novel. My vague recollection of the book notwithstanding, the dream had felt important. I decided to look for that old paperback, but couldn’t find it.
So I went to the library to find out what GILGAMESH was all about. I found an abstract in the reference section of the library that gave brief descriptions of hundreds of books. I found GILGAMESH: “The story of a man who wanted to be a god-king, but instead finds the bitter wisdom of mortality.”
How appropriate to my circumstance. My dream was providing me with an explanation of the chronic physical pain I had endured for the past six years. While I was never grandiose, my earlier life as a practitioner of karate and mystic had given me an almost mythical sense of being. I half expected to waltz through life, living more or less self-sufficiently on some metaphoric peninsula pursuing art and the spirit indefinitely. I really thought I had achieved a sort of illumination that would escort me effortlessly through life – like the Taoist saying: doing without doing. According to the dream, the wounding and re-wounding of my physical body was not intended to break me, but to teach the lessons of mortality – the bitter wisdom of what it means to be human, what Castaneda called the terrible beauty. I was connecting with the Buddhist notion of impermanence, accepting both my body and the world with their inherent limitations. Understanding and compassion for the human condition washed through me. Lesson learned, so perhaps now I could be healed of pain forever. Wounded and re-wounded. Living the mythic life, for me, was going to involve pain.
As I let the dream sink in, I was impressed that the dream knew more than I did, instructing me with a book that I knew nothing about. It felt like a new awareness was entering my body, which properly it was. I was slightly more prepared to let my pain teach. After several days of soaking in the feeling, I decided to look for the missing paperback. With surprisingly little effort, I found it.
What really struck me in reading GILGAMESH was my identification with the hero, Gilgamesh, King of Urak. Now, GILGAMESH is written as myth, so by definition the characters are archetypal – making them broad enough for identification by a diverse number of individuals. But I didn’t know that when I had my dream. Only my Dream knew that.
GILGAMESH is the oldest written epic. It is the story of the Sumerian god-king Gilgamesh, who begins the tale basically believing he can do as he pleases. After all, he is 2/3 god and is therefore above the human condition. Of Course, the gods see him as 1/3 human and ripe for a lesson. They engineer a series of quests with a wild man named Enkidu. Enkidu and Gilgamesh form a deep bond. Now the gods can kill Enkidu; it was their intention all along. Mortality, grief, and pain are the teachers in this story. Gilgamesh is shattered with grief and humbled into the realization that he is less of a god and more of a man. Once you understand you’re human you become vulnerable.
The illusion of youth and immortality vanishes. Gilgamesh decides to go on a quest for immortality beyond this world. He manages to secure immortality in the form of a magic plant. But as he tries to bring the plant back to his world he falls asleep, and the plant is stolen by Snake. So Gilgamesh returns to his city empty handed and writes his story onto stone tablets, which is all that survives him.
In many ways this story is depressing. We’re born, pay taxes, and die (OK, as king, Gilgamesh was paid taxes, but you get the idea). However, I did not find the story depressing. I was filled with wonder. My dream had provided me with a description of the human condition – sometimes because of our pain we are driven on a quest for knowledge. Gilgamesh teaches by his failure. Whereas he grieves because he knows he won’t live forever, I’ve feel more motivated to make the best of my time, because I know I won’t live forever. And in case I forget, I have the human condition to remind me.
And I identified with both the opportunity and limitations of Quest. I’m uplifted that the gods enter my dreams, and that I can take shamanic journeys to seek their guidance. Like Gilgamesh, I have traveled beyond the boundaries of this world. But for some reason, I cannot bring back all that I have found there.
Note: This essay is the second in a series of five posts addressing the topic of chronic pain or conditions from a spiritual/non-material perspective.