Archive for November, 2009

And how to remove it

I’ve nearly fallen for this one a few times: You click on what looks like a legitimate link – your anti-virus software may even have approved it with a little green tick – then up pops an ominous Microsoft panel telling you your PC is infected with all these nasty viruses and trojans and worms and things and you need to “click here” to get rid of them. The more computer savvy  among you will sense something isn’t quite right. If you’re lucky you will have realised that official-looking Microsft window is actually a  fake and what you’re about to do as your mouse hovers over the “click here” button is install a peculiar piece of Malware that’s going to annoy the hell out of you.

Number two son fell for this one yesterday evening with the result that my main PC was temporarily home to the dreaded Cyber Security malware program. The payload for this particular beast is that at random intervals it will kid you thinking you’ve got all these nasty files on your computer, it will even simulate a “blue screen of death” PC crash, telling you it was due to one of those nasty files.

The only way to get rid of these so-called infected files, it says, is to upgrade to the full version of Cyber Security. But the chances are the only nasty files you’ve got on your compter are those that comprise the many-headed hydra that is Cyber Security. Cyber Security is not a virus or malware scanner at all. It’s sole purpose is to panic you into “upgrading” Cyber Security, which costs you money. In other words it’s a scam – don’t do it.

Once it’s on your PC you cannot uninstall it directly – it will evade you. It will even prevent you from resetting your computer to a “last-known good” position. You basically have to kill it with a proper Malware scanner.

If  you’ve got Cyber Security on your computer, don’t panic – go over to the bleepingcomputer website and follow the instructions there. It’s quite straight forward. You download three separate pieces of software, the main one being the Malwarebyes – anti-malware scanner. It can stake several hours for the scan to complete, after which time your computer should be clear. Mine was, and I can recommend this solution.

There are lots of Malware scanners around, but they don’t all come in a free version.  They’ll say they’re “free to download”,  which isn’t the same thing of course, and what seems to happen is they’ll say: “yep, you’ve got Cyber Security all over your PC, but if you want to get rid of it you’ll have to pay us some money first”. The solution outlined at Bleepingcomputer, won’t cost you anything. This is a very interesting and informative site all round, and I’m sure I’ll be visiting it again if there’s anything at all I’m not sure about regarding my computer.

While it seems there are many clever people out there using their brains to concoct dastardly traps for the innocent and inexpert computer user, there are others working to thwart them.

Once it’s on your PC you can’t uninstall it. You basically have to kill it with a Malware scanner.

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I went a little crazy in the summer – found myself indirectly caught up in the UK Crop Circle scene, becoming something of an armchair expert, glued to websites like Crop Circle Connector, also sites put up by people like Lucy Pringle and Colin Andrews, for news of the latest goings on. I live a long way away from the epicentre of the mystery, which is mainly the sublimely lovely counties of Wiltshire and Hampshire, but it didn’t prevent me from appreciating the fact that it was quite a summer – the complexity and the beauty of the circles, also the madness of the post-hoc analyses put forward by their various  interpreters, seeming to surpass anything that has gone before.

Personally, I think there’s a little bit of a mystery here largely obscured by what’s become  a massive man-made social phenomenon, a sort of contemporary myth, but that doesn’t detract from the fact the Crop Circles, however they’re made and by whom, are fascinating – and I’m already anticipating the coming spring and the first circle of the season.

Anyway,  I wrote an article about crop circles here. And I recently put up a short story, based upon the phenomenon, here and here.

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The dangers of and the reasons for keeping a private diary.

There’s a touching scene at the end of the Bridget Jones movie where Darcy and Bridget have finally declared their love for each other but, just when you think you’re within reach of this long-awaited happy ending,  Darcy chances across Bridget’s diary in which he reads unflattering comments about himself. Horrified, poor Bridget tries to explain that diaries are “full of crap”, and fortunately for her Darcy is wise enough to understand that. He does the gentlemanly thing and buys her a new diary. Cue happy ending. Ahhh!

But why does Bridget risk it? Why does she feel the need to commit potentially damaging material to such a notoriously insecure confessional as a paper diary? Does she have a self-destructive streak? Does she enjoy the constant danger that her diary may fall into the wrong hands, or is there something else going on here? Why do people ignore the risk of embarrassment, and keep personal diaries?

I’ve kept a private diary since 1974. I was fourteen and I can only say my excuse at the time was there’s a lot going on at that age. Your emotions are being pulled in all directions and your head feels like the inside of a pressure cooker. Throw in a mix or two of unrequited love and a school environment that’s incomprehensible no matter how hard you try to appear normal in it, and sooner or later you’ll end up looking in the mirror and feeling like there’s an alien staring back at you.

Until you write it down.

Writing it down is like opening a safety-valve.

You’re still aware of the mad mix of life, but keeping a diary is a vital means of subduing the occasional demons who are bent on eating us. It is as if by the simple writing of their names, they are rendered less substantial. Diaries are also where you can explore the incomprehensible by writing down what you think about it – without the inhibitions you might normally feel if you thought someone was going to be reading your words later on and tut-tutting at your stupidity or your depravity. You put it all down, you write around it from all sides, and even if you never actually get to the bottom of things, the diary has a way of at least clarifying what it is you think about a subject because certain words resonate – they feel right, or they jar awkwardly, and then you know they are wrong, you know you are being stupid.

We explore ourselves in diaries. They are a meditation. They are cathartic. Diaries do not solve our problems, but they do grant us a means of rising above them. If you’re being really clinical and condescending about things you could say diaries are a useful coping mechanism.

When I look back on my first diaries however, I wonder where all the emotion went. The prose is not quite as purple as I remember my thoughts being at the time. My entries were merely suggestive of the emotional turmoil of my life, while being descriptive more of mundane events. None of those names, either heinous or precious to my memory, are mentioned. All is carefully rendered deniable. It is as if I were writing with someone looking over my shoulder. I dared not say what I really thought, or felt. I was devious,… and wise, because paper dairies are not the secure things they ought to be. They are bombs waiting to go off in other people’s faces. And they’ll get you into trouble as well of course because not all peekers at other people’s diaries are as wise and magnanimous as Bridget Jones’ beau.

So,… how can a diary be cathartic if you’re not saying what you feel? It’s a good point: for them to be really useful, you need to be able to express yourself freely, without fear of censure. You need to be able to say the stuff you’d never confide to anyone.

In my later teens and twenties, I became more open in what I wrote.  Those diaries were subsequently compromised by individuals who read the crap, saw only the crap, and were hurt by it. I was hurt too, by the break of trust – that someone I trusted, could ever read my diary. But that’s life. You live it, and you learn.

Paper diaries are not safe, unless you lock them in a strong box whenever they’re not actually in your hand. If you keep them under your pillow, you might as well be sharing your most intimate secrets with the whole world. This is a shame, because the confessional nature of the diary allows us a measure of control over our emotions. We write down what we feel: I hate him/her. And then we think: how childish, that’s not true at all, I’m just upset because such and such has happened – I really, really love him/her. However, we don’t always put the good stuff in the diary, because it’s the good stuff we’re looking to get at and carry away with us, so all we leave behind are the dark traces: I hate! I hate! I hate! But even if we do put the good stuff in, the fact that we ever thought or felt the bad stuff is sufficient of itself to hang us.

He/she comes along and sneaks a peek at your diary. The darkness shocks them. It morphs into a  spike with a poisoned tip, and springs from the pages to pierce your thought stealer between the eyes. Rest assured, they will never see you in the same light again. Of course it’s not your fault. We all think dark things, silly things, things we don’t really mean. Diaries catch them and keep them safe, that’s all – better in the diary than carrying them around with us all the time! But that’s no comfort when your girlfriend/wife/significant other is heading up the road and your relationship is in tatters on account of something indiscreet, or shall we say “emotionally exploratory”,  that you wrote in the supposedly sacrosanct confessional of a private diary.

Got kids around? Rest assured they’ll make it their life’s ambition to get a peek at your diary if they know you keep one. Is that something you’d be happy with?

At the risk of repeating myself, that paper diary’s going to hang you. Get rid of it! Burn it. Shred it now! Never ever keep a paper diary! We are not politicians, we do not write for posterity, nor the future calculated embarrassment of our peers. We’re different. We write only for ourselves.

What about a coded diary then?

Already been there. Samuel Pepys, the seventeenth century diarist wrote in an obscure form of shorthand, which kept his words pretty safe from casual scrutiny. Such codes are easier to master than you might think, and I developed my own, which I still use occasionally in my notebooks. However, while it’s possible to eventually write flowingly in an obscure, self invented code, I found it was far more difficult to casually flick back through entries and read them, and reading them is an important part of the process.

No,… coded diaries are fun, but a laborious thing to peruse and if a coded diary’s discovered, it doesn’t matter what your code is obscuring it’s all going to be interpreted as dark – otherwise why cover it with a code? Also you should be careful of taking a coded diary abroad, say on holiday, in these terribly paranoid times, as it might get you into trouble at the airport if the security people get hold of it! And you could really do without the embarrassment, or the rubber gloves – right?

So what do you do?

Well, if you’re reading this on my blog, the solution is already at hand. Computers! Computers are ubiquitous and cheap these days. Old ones get thrown away when they’re still useful, or they can be purchased off eBay for very little money at all, and sooner or later they’ll be giving them away free with bags of potatoes at the supermarket. So, write your diary on a computer, but keep it on a memory stick because computers sometimes go wrong and lose everything. Most important of all though is that you get some freeware encryption software off the internet, and secure your diary under a password. Welcome, dear scribbler to the cyber age. Samuel Pepys, would have loved it!

There are, of course, a lot of diary programs you can download, some of them for free, and I’ve experimented with a few, but I find I end up fiddling too much with the software instead of simply writing stuff down. Personally  I prefer a simple Rich Text Format file – along with the encryption software – the simpler to use the better (I like the free Encrypt Files by Pow Tools)

If you’re particularly paranoid and afraid of cyber-snoopers and those dastardly key click capture devices, then don’t write your diary on a computer that’s connected to the internet – though if you’re at this level of paranoia you’re either a conspiracy theorist, or you’ve got something on your computer you really shouldn’t have!

Now  you’ve finally got a diary that’s safe from everyone except perhaps a  state salaried cryptanalyst, so you can write down anything you want, no matter how icky or potentially embarrassing. At last! A private diary you can really trust.

But how do you use it?

Well, that’s up to you of course, and it doesn’t matter, so long as you do use it. I’m a compulsive writer, and perhaps my scribbling habits are different to others, but I’ll describe how I’ve come to use my cyber-diary and where it fits in to the greater scheme of all things literary.

The way I see it the modern scribbler has three levels for self-expression nowadays: We have the private diary, and what we put in here is basically not for human consumption, on account of its occasionally poisonous, unguarded or explosive nature. Then we have the blog, which is a sort of publicly available diary, carefully sanitised and smiley-safe. And then we have the work itself.

The work is the ultimate expression of the cyber scribbler’s imagination. It possesses no personal details. It is informed by the person that you are, but anyone reading it can have no clear idea of the state of your mind, nor the whereabouts of your front door. The work is what you basically do,  what you turn into an e-book, and put up on Lulu or Feedbooks or Smashwords or any of those other means of self publication. The work is the fruit of your labour as a cyber scribbler.

Now we go down a level to the blog:

All right, the blog contains a little crap from time to time, especially if you write it when you’ve been drinking, or within 24 hours of an emotionally upsetting incident. Trust me – never do either of these things! Although sanitised, the blog is a more personal expression of the mind behind the work. It’s a sort of journal – it captures events, or thoughts,… things that catch your eye and which put you in mind of a certain other thing that you feel compelled to share with your mystery reader, but for all of that it is still impersonal. There is no way by reading it your reader can unlock your state of mind, nor again the whereabouts of your front door.

Down another level now, and back to the personal diary.

The diary is the melting pot of your daily experience. It is the confessional, the personal account, the dirty washing, the crucible of your pain, grief and anxiety. It is the repository of the stuff that will hang you, the stuff that will get you into trouble with the girlfriend, neighbour, colleague, boss, policeman, wife and so on. Here you can name names, call names, swear and rant and drip all the poison you like. Here you can tear your hair out in private and you can cry tears of bitterness. When all else fails and the words won’t come, you will always be able to turn to the diary and write something – even if it’s only that the words would not come today.

Can’t make sense of the story you’re working on?… Maybe you can say something on the blog instead, some wry observation, something that caught your eye that day and made you think. Can’t even blog? Wonder what the hell you’re doing even keeping that blog in the first place? My, aren’t we low today? Don’t despair! Settle down somewhere quiet, brew yourself some coffee or crack open the whiskey bottle,… and dig out the diary.

The diary is your best friend.

It’s always there. You can fill it with crap, and it won’t mind. In return, it will point out your stupidity, and you’ll take it better coming from your diary, than from someone else.

My cyber diary goes back to 2002. It’s interesting to read back now over those years, and also to be able to use the search function for finding specific words that haunt me. You’ll be surprised how often things come back at you. You write about them in passing, when they crop up, then forget them and when they crop up again you have this odd feeling of deja-vous  – well the diary will reveal these things to you, like loops in the code of your life. But the diary’s not a place I go to for inspiration. I think its function is more indirect, more mysterious, and therefore best left alone. Just write things down in it. Flick back through it from time to time. And between times,  keep it encrypted.

An encrypted cyber diary is both useful, and deniable. What diary?

The paper diary is highly visible, vulnerable and potentially damaging.

Get rid of it.

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I wrote in an earlier post that Michael Graeme had decided to break with his long-standing resolve, and try to get something published in the printed press this year.  His reasons were obscure. His free online offerings had received positive reviews from his readers, and the download rates were beyond his expectations, which is as much as any writer can hope for, but a residual part of him still wanted the approval of that most mythical of creatures: an editor,… so he thought, why not?

He sent a couple of stories out, one of them back in April, which he’s still waiting to hear from – the other back in October. The latter was rejected by e-mail this morning, while the former seems to have been sucked into a black hole, which has happened before and is a sort of implied rejection, a bit like the regular variety, but without the punchline.

Rejection is a funny business. As a writer, I think you tell yourself to expect it, but as time passes following the moment the post box swallows your submission, you eventually allow yourself to harbour vague hopes, warm feelings, spurious intuitions. You watch the mail, though you tell yourself you’re not watching, or waiting, while at the back of your mind you are.  You’ve enjoyed writing a story, creating characters, watching them develop a relationship over successive drafts, and then you send it off, expecting others to be equally warmed, enthused or whatever.

And they reject it.

Editors never go into detail. Why should they? They have to read hundreds of stories every week. So, the writer never knows what it was they didn’t like about the story. Was it completely unintelligible? Were you so caught up in the story you forgot about the basics of grammar? Was your punctuation alarmingly eccentric? Or was the story basically okay, but not quite the right sort of story for the type of magazine they’re running? To be honest you will never know. Take my word for it, you can read the publication guidelines all you like, but  you’ll need to be psychic as well to really know what it is they want.

So,… even though you’re half expecting your story to be rejected, you’re also half expecting it to be accepted, and the result, when it comes – no matter how hardened, how achingly old, or embittered a scribbler you are – is a kick in the balls. Michael Graeme actually felt a bit glum this morning, and that’s something his writing hasn’t done to him for a long time – it was also childish and pathetic and trust me, he chastised himself for it.

So. You’re a writer. It’s happened to you. What do you do about it?

Well, I stripped the beds, put the covers in the washing machine, then swept the kitchen floor and mopped the counters after number two son had made his porridge. I washed up, dried the pots and put them all away. Then I emptied and cleaned out the fridge after number two son had somehow managed to spill milk all over it. And between chores, I sat a bit and thought a bit – had a jug full of very strong Java coffee, did a bit Qigong,… then, on a whim, tried to decipher the Chinese writing on my practise sword,… read some poetry,… the usual things really.

Then, by mid-afternoon, my thoughts were turning to the novel I’m currently writing – the one I’ll never submit to an editor in a hundred years, and know damned well that even at this early stage in its genesis it will be going straight up on Lulu.com. Why? Well, I have a choice now – I can either spend the next twelve months finishing it, then the next three or four years hawking it round the print publishers, before giving up on it and feeling bad about it, or I can let people read it straight away, feel good about it, and move swiftly on to the next project. My last novel, “Push Hands” is achieving about three hundred downloads a month.  It’s being read. And really that’s the whole point!

It’s just that it’s taken me since April, and that first submission to remember this very old lesson.

So, the editor didn’t like my story, but what would it have changed if the editor had liked it? A cheque for fifty quid? What ‘s that? The price of a week’s petrol? Forgive me Michael, but that’s not enough reason to be feel miserable over anything! Is there a touch of ego there, I wonder? A touch of attachment?

Let it go.

Writer’s write. That’s all there is to it.

As for you, dear reader – you must forgive this temporary aberration. Also, check out the Rivendale Review and  Feedbooks for updates – there’ll be a couple of new short stories appearing soon – well three actually if I can resolve the ending on the last one!

So, how do you deal with rejection? It depends on you, the writer, and what sort of writer you are, but I’d say you should allow yourself the luxury of no more than ten minutes disappointment.

Then get over it.

And get on with it.

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This afternoon I walked to Aber Bach,
With summer hung about me,
In the deep lanes,
Sluggish with a heavy green,
All slick and dripping with warm drizzle.

My mind felt dull,
Unwilling to engage the world,
Or even less to wrest dim meaning,
From the mystery of its shadow places.
Instead I sought only silence,
Somewhere to float a while,
In the silken luxury of nothingness,

This lonely bay, where solitude,
Availed itself on a wet Monday afternoon,
Granted me a wordless sympathy.
And in the rhythm of the sea,
Washing upon the shingle shore,
I entered a realm of complete detachment.

Great tide lined cliffs,
Weather worn, meadow topped,
And pathways zig zagging,
To blue-grey streaks of sky,
Formed the bowl in which I sat,
Snug while the summer rain dripped
From the brim of my hat

There were no thoughts,
No wisdoms written,
In the code of ages here,
But something of greater value:
Brief sanctuary, and freedom,
From the debilitating need,
To understand.


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As pirate attacks continue to wreak havoc on one of the world’s major shipping routes, my researches into completely unrelated matters have turned up this fascinating nineteenth century account of piracy off the western coast of Africa, and how it was efficiently dealt with.

On the morning of the 14th of September 1828, a 500 ton copper clad East Indiaman, armed with six carriage guns, slipped out of Portsmouth harbour, bound for Bombay. The vessel, the Sesostris, was a regular trader between Britain, Cape Town and the East Indies, carrying freight and passengers.

Two of the passengers were a young couple by the name of John and Margaret Wilson.  John a newly ordained Church of Scotland Minister,  was bound for what would become a lifetime of work in India as a respected missionary. His wife, Margaret, was to become a devoted teacher,  establishing among others “the Bombay school for destitute girls”. As the Sesostris neared the equatorial region, Margaret, in typically understated fashion wrote in her diary:

We were once or twice alarmed by the appearance of piratical vessels. The captain ordered the large guns to be loaded, while muskets, swords, and pistols, were all in readiness for an attack. I do not doubt that one of these vessels was what we took her for; but we looked so formidable, that she kept at a distance.*

To disgracefully mangle an Ambrose Bierce quotation: “There is nothing new under the sun, but a lot of old things we have apparently forgotten!”

*From “A Memoir of Margaret Wilson” by John Wilson (1844)

Margaret died of fever in Bombay , in 1834.

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Let’s take a tour of Linden Labs’ Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game, Second Life, and ask the simple question: what is it?

I need to own up here and admit to a continuing fascination for Second Life. I’ve been messing about with it since 2007, dipping in and out and wondering what to make of it. I finally created my own little office in there about a year ago, in order to shamelessly advertise my scribblings and I’m currently getting about fifty visitors through the doors a week. All right – there are places in here that get more than that in an hour, but every potential reader counts, and it was great fun setting it up. That’s where we’ll start this little tour, at the inworld offices of the Rivendale Review. Here it is:

That’s me in the suit, though I should say I’ve never like the cut of it and the least said about these flared pants the better!

I’ve written a lot about my early engagement with this place on my website, here, and reading back over those notes I’m struck by a continuing ambivalence towards it. I am by turns seduced, repelled, puzzled, horrified, and amazed,… and I suppose that’s the reason for its fascination. Anything that makes you think, is potentially important and useful because it’s by the basic engine of thought that we learn. We also like a good enigma. It’s simply human nature. I suppose the biggest enigma of them all is life itself – real life, that is. And if that’s true, then a close second has to be, well, Second Life because the latter is very much an expression of the former.

I think a lot of people try Second Life but tire of it quickly because they can’t see the point of it. They expect it to be some sort of game where they score points and enhance their status over other players, but really there’s no more point to it than there is to real life. There are areas of the game where role-playing scenarios exist, but these are like dressing up parties played long certain rules agreed by the players themselves. These things come and go like fashions but Second Life remains nad much of what goes on here is more open ended and anarchic.

There’s a craze at the moment where others will offer you an attachment that basically renders your avatar helpless while someone else’s avatar pretends to take a bite out of your neck – a sort of vampirisation. You either refuse the attachment or if you make the mistake of accepting it, you simply throw it away. There’s also a craze for dummy avatars dressed to look like novices – in the sorts of basic clothing you’re kitted out with in the beginning. These dummies are then shown impaled on spikes or suffering all manner of painful, bloody death, as if there’s an intimidating in-world vendetta against newcomers. Whilst sinister, rest assured, your avatar – new or old – cannot be killed – and I only mention these dark fads, not to frighten off potential visitors, but to illustrate the humanness of the behaviour you will find in here, which is sometimes very silly, but as I hope to demonstrate this evening, mostly harmless and potentially liberating.

The point of real life is a metaphysical question, and one cannot ask the same question of Second Life without again wandering into metaphysical territory.  Of course, you don’t have to explore the nature of reality in here, but that there is sufficient scope and depth in Second Life to enable you to do so, is a testament to its potential as a medium of human expression. In short, Second Life is not really a game at all. If that’s what you’re expecting, then you will tire of it very quickly. It’s more than a game. It’s an experiment in collective expression – in all its forms,  a place where cutting edge information technology and collective art meet.

So, to recap, there’s this online thing, and there’s no point to it, yet as I write it’s 8:30 in the evening, (GMT)  and there are 70,000 people all over the world engaged doing whatever it is they do in this pointless place. So, what are they doing? Well, let’s start with what  I’m doing.

Here I am now:

As you can see, we’ve left the office and we’re standing in a gallery of sorts, waiting for pictures to resolve. This is known as rezzing in SL jargon. You teleport into a place (another bit of SL jargon) and then you wait for everything to rezz in. The place assembles itself one bit at a time, and then the textures come gradually into focus.

This is one of the biggest problems for users like me: Bandwidth. Second Life runs on computers sitting out in California, and my existence within their virtual world is determined by the amount of information I can squeeze down a copper wire, here in rural England, so it’s a small miracle I can get in here at all. If you’re living in a metropolis; say London, Manchester, Birmingham or whatever, you’re probably getting a decent proportion of our recently much hyped 20 megabits per second – maybe even as much as half of it – and your experience is going to be much slicker than mine. However, if you’re like me, living in the second tier of the broadband hierarchy – even though you’re paying the same as everyone else, you’re lucky if you’re getting a tenth of that 20 megabits per second, and consequently, you’re going to struggle with things like Second Life.

Okay. So, we’re in a gallery, the SL Literary to be precise. What’s this place about? Well, it’s art you see? And that’s a funny thing in itself because it’s art based upon and created entirely within this place without a point called Second Life.

The models in these pictures are Second Life characters, dressed up and posed in Second Life scenes. The pictures are then composed and captured entirely within Second Life. Like much of this place when it’s at its best, they possess a dream-like quality. I can’t say why, but I particularly like the picture on the far left, the one with the girl looking through the telescope. My thanks to Elysium Eilde the Second Life  photographer, fashion blogger and clothing designer, for giving me permission to use her images. For more of her incredibly sexy work visit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/ely_eilde

Other artwork here consists of dynamic – i.e. moving – textures, so I can’t really do them justice in a still frame, but the other interesting thing to me is that this is not a virtual recreation of a real life gallery. Its virtual nature defines its only reality.  Not long ago, the technology to achieve any of this was impossible. Now though, it’s moved rapidly beyond the possible to the point where artistic individuals have taken hold it – and they don’t care how any of it works – they just want to know what they can do with it.

If we move on a little now, go up the stairs and to the left, we come across this  poster for the SL Literary magazine. This in-world publication carries poetry and fiction inspired by Second Life, as well as testing the interesting boundary between Second Life and Real Life. The pieces are thoughtful, inspirational and psychologically probing. So far as I’m aware, computer games do not inspire poetry. Second Life apparently does.

Now – what’s this? We’ve got some posters advertising plays (in Second Life?) What’s this one? The Globe Theatre? They’re putting on some Shakespeare? Now that sounds interesting! Lets go and take a look. Where’s the landmark? Click the teleport and,… Whoosh!

So, now we’re standing outside as something that looks remarkably like the Globe Theatre assembles itself plank by plank. We’ll just give it a minute or two, then go inside. My radar tells me there’s no one else here, so I’m guessing we’ve missed the performance – which is just as well because if I get more than a dozen people in the same room it tends to crash my connection (bandwidth problem again). Okay – so, here I am sitting in  the theatre, directly above Her Majesty’s chair (yes, really!)

The view of the stage is excellent, not that it matters, because I can use my remote camera to go right down on-stage in the middle of the performance if I wanted to. The blurb tells me there can be as many as two hundred people in here when there’s a play going on. That would be very interesting to see, and photograph for you, though completely out of the question, because it might melt my telephone wire.

My point in all of this is to perhaps challenge your preconceptions, or even your misconceptions about Second Life. Even if you’ve never been in here, you’ve probably read about it in the press, and the press seems so universally negative about it, though in my opinion, without good reason. If you’re an ordinary, well balanced human being, your experience of Second Life will be similarly well balanced and you will attract like-minded Second Lifers to you. If, however, you’re an obsessive misanthrope, you’re not going to be any different in here, are you?

The newspapers tell us it’s a place peopled by sad, geeky losers: as well as pornographers, terrorists, money launderers, and all manner of bogey men out to steal our children. The truth is, they don’t know what it is any more than I do.  You might ask the question though, why am I in here, on a Saturday night, pretending I’ve really been somewhere? What’s the attraction? Well, my only excuse is that the telly’s rubbish, and Second Life is often much more interesting – also less predictable because you never know who you’re going to bump into.

And on that note, let’s zip over to another place I know and see if we can find some other Second Lifers we can actually talk to. Let’s go dancing! Yes you heard me: Dancing!


Welcome to Midsomer – Puck’s Garden to be precise. This is a favourite little place of mine. It’s a great, sprawling, beautifully landscaped domain. It’s been here a while now, and that’s a good sign because there’s often something ephermeral about Second Life – interesting little haunts coming and going so that a sense of permanence can be hard to attain. I generally drop in here to read the profiles of others, and if they sound interesting and sane, I’ll say hello. There’s also a fair chance someone else will say hello to me first.

One thing you’ll notice about Second Life very quickly is that the girls in here are all very good-looking. And before you ask me, no, I’m not on the pull. I’m married in real life, but it doesn’t stop you from chatting.

The clothes people wear are another way in which Second Life enables its members to express themselves – sometimes in ridiculous ways but also, it must be said, in ways that take the breath away. I mean, just look at this :

This elegant lady’s dress is a computer model, painstakingly hand textured, and it flows in diaphanous waves as she moves. Isn’t she gorgeous? Already I’m forgetting there’s a real life person on the other end, pulling my avatar’s strings. I have become immersed. I really am in Puck’s Garden, listening to the music and wanting to dance. I think we’ll say hello – I’m interested in finding out if she made that dress herself: Oops, too late. She’s grown bored and blinked out in a little cloud of stars. That dress really was something!

Okay. I’ve just spotted someone I know – or rather she’s spotted me, and messaged over. It’s a fellow scribbler who’s been gracious enough to say nice things about my work, following a previous introduction we had on a virtual beach, back in the days when we were both campers (another bit of jargon, but I’ll leave you to puzzle over it). I don’t think she’ll mind my saying she behaves, as mysteriously as a character from one of my most convoluted stories, but this makes her interesting to talk to. I’ve promised her a role in one of my stories, if I can find one that does her justice – but hang on – she’s already a sort of fictional character isn’t she? How does that work, then? A fictional character based upon a fictional character? It’s getting a bit late to work that one out now! She’s messaged over again and asked us for a dance, and she’s waiting so we’d better get over there. Okay, here we go.

She’s the good-looking one, by the way:

So,… dancing! How does that work?

Well, let me explain. Curiously enough there’s a popular dancing program on the telly right now. Indeed it currently fills our Saturday night schedule on the BBC. If you’ll allow me a moment’s digression, I used to be a keen ballroom dancer, so you’d think I might be interested in the dancing on the telly, since they make such a big fuss about it, but to be honest it bores the pants off me. Why? Well, apart from me seeing it as mainly yet another a vehicle for celebrity adulation, there’s really no interaction with it.  You just sit there and it comes at you, and you don’t have to do or say anything.

It’s not like that in Second Life.

So here I am dancing. By contrast with the technical perfection my real life instructor once insisted upon, the dancing I’m doing here is rubbish, because at the moment there’s only so much you can do with an avatar, and you obviously can’t feel the dance because you’re just sitting there in your armchair – but for all of that, I find it infinitely more interesting than watching it on the telly, because you never know who you’ll end up dancing with, or where your conversations are going to take you.

Now, I don’t just come here to talk to girls – there are plenty of guys who drop in as well, looking for girls, and they’re interesting to talk to as well -though us guys tend to be a bit more reserved – it’s the girls who really know how to converse. If you’ve had a trying day, and you feel your little bit of the the real world is about to tip itself over to the dark-side, I challenge you to come in here, talk to six random strangers, and not start feeling better. Some of your encounters will be no more than polite, and your conversations will be stilted, but I guarantee at some point you will “connect” with someone and your mood will be lifted.

Don’t forget, Second Life transcends national, religious and ethnic boundaries, so you might find yourself talking to anyone in the world – and you know what? It doesn’t matter where people are from, they’re all just like everyone else? Isn’t that amazing?

Now, as a married man there’s only so much one can get up to in here. A dance and a chat, and that’s old Cuchulain’s limit. Some married men have no such scruples of course – I know because I’ve talked to them. They’d think nothing of a bit of pixel dipping, (use your imagination) or even setting up virtual house with one of these pretty ladies, and they’d excuse it as “just a game”. Personally though I’d find that difficult to reconcile, psychologically, because I have not severed the link between my real self and the persona I present in here. I sit at the interface between the real and the virtual, and am careful not to slip too deeply in. Besides my wife would kill me, and I wouldn’t blame her.

Anyway, my dancing partner this evening says she’s English. She travels and writes poetry and she’ll forgive me for saying I think she knows a little more of the dark side to this place than she lets on. Her profile suggests she has “sapphic” leanings, though I don’t know if this is genuine, or if it’s to discourage what she calls “propositions from teenaged boys who want to pixel dip with her”. Nor do I know for sure of course if she is really a “she” and not some hairy arsed bloke, just as she doesn’t know if I’m really a “he”. And to be honest once you’ve been in here for a while such definitions begin to lose their meaning. You fall over the edge, so to speak, into a kind of pure soul, into dream soul, free of gender, nationality, or any of those other labels we collect. You become whomever or whatever you want to be. That’s when Second Life can become,… well,… shall we say psychologically dynamic? Damaging, or liberating, you take your choice. It depends on your politics, I suppose. Already we’re exploring boundaries here. We’re asking questions of identity and self – you simply can’t help it.

Anyway, my acquaintance is telling me of others she’s met recently who are engaging too deeply with the place, and are basically living in it. They never log out. They put their avatars into their jim-jams of a night, put them to bed, then get them up again in the morning. I find this disturbing, and I hope she’s having me on, but it’s a tale I’ve heard before, so I’m wondering if it’s true. I have, on occasion, wandered around the residential areas looking for these sleeping  avatars, but have yet to find any, so it could just be a myth.

For an adult, the role-playing aspects of Second Life are like going back to childhood and playing make-believe. Millions of real lifer’s come home from work, switch on the telly and slob out in front of two hours of soap opera every evening. They tell me it’s relaxing, and I don’t doubt that it is. But others come home and slip into Second Life. They become someone else, and trust me, make-believe is relaxing. Have you forgotten how you used to lose yourself for hours in make-believe as a child? It’s just that the make-believe here is very realistic, and on any one evening you have a potential 70,000 playmates.

Now, I can’t be as informative a guide to the darker side of Second Life because I don’t go there often enough, and if you’re interested in this aspect you’ll have to find your own way with it. The dark side raises other questions of course and we quickly realise the main difference between childhood and adult role-play is that some of the adult role play can be of a sexual nature.

So,… it’s about now you’re probably going to ask me about all that sex you’ve heard of that supposedly goes on in Second Life?

Well, yes – there really is a lot of it  – Strip Clubs, BDSM clubs, Orgies – escort girls – really! You name it. But it’s like real life: you know it goes on, but it’s up to you if you want to partake of it or not – and I won’t be including it in this little tour, because I’ve no way of knowing if you’re old enough. Perhaps understandably, this was an area of Second Life that came in for a lot of criticism in the early days because anyone could sign up and straight away be exploring the underbelly of the place in a way they perhaps would never have dared in real life. That’s okay if you’re an adult – but what about the kids who managed to bluff their way in?

It used to be easy to set up a Second Life account, lie about your age and therefore begin exploring the adult side of things, before you were old enough not to be damaged by them. Things have changed however. Nowadays, it’s still easy to set up a Second Life account, without giving away your name address and credit card details, but unless you have credit card payments recorded “in-world”, or you can otherwise verify your age, say with a driving license number and a real world address, the assumption nowadays is that you’re not an adult and the really naughty side of things is placed off limits.  I have to say it’s a major improvement, and must have taken some of the bite out of the anti-Second Life lobby’s teeth. You can still go over to that side if you want, but if it’s not your cup of tea, you’ll no longer find yourself stumbling over it on every street corner.

This also demonstrates another interesting aspect of Second Life: it’s very much a work in progress, and nobody really knows where it’s going. Linden Labs keep the computers running, and act as a sort of benign overseeing techno-deity, but the direction is very much up to those 70,000 or so people who log in every night, and play make-believe.

So, going back to our original question: what is Second Life? Is it life? Well, the best we can say is: sort of, but definitely not as we know it!

Okay, busy night, eh? Let me invite you back to my place for a cup of tea before we say goodbye, and hopefully I can entice you to download one of my free novels or short stories while you’re there?

Here we are. Have a seat. Relax. Do you take sugar? Just kidding. You’ll never find a decent cup of tea in here! Will coffee do instead?

Now, if you’ll excuse me I’d better get all of this scribbled down and uploaded to my real-world self, before I forget who he is.

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hexagramsFor any amateur writer considering using the Lulu print on demand publisher, here is an objective review by an amateur writer who has already had his work “published” by the service.

Okay. You fancy yourself as a writer. You feel passionately about a subject, be it a piece of fiction or a factual topic that you have researched deeply and you’re sure will change the world. You also have a day-job and you’re working at this as a labour of love in your spare time. It absorbs you – it is your raison d’etre. Finally you submit it to the mainstream publishers, but to your surprise it bounces back every time – time after time after time after time. It’s taken you years to write, and yet already more years have passed just trying to get the damned thing published!

Incredibly, the publishers do not share your enthusiasm. They seem indifferent. Your manuscript comes back a little more dog eared each time. You freshen it up, then send it out again, and again, and again, but you’re increasingly discouraged and eventually sickened by the whole process. You have something you feel compelled to say, but it seems no one will let you speak!

I can assure any novice writer that you will get through this stage, because one of three things will happen:

1) You will give up writing altogether because you decide it’s a total waste of time.


2) You will suddenly be discovered by a mainstream publisher and all your efforts will have been worthwhile.

Or, more likely:

3) You will labour on in obscurity, and simply become more philosophical about the rejections.

In days gone by writers in the third category were easy prey for the “publisher seeks manuscripts” adverts – in other words the so called vanity publishers. With vanity publishers, you get a letter saying how wonderful your manuscript is and that they’d love to publish it. You pick yourself up off the floor and read on, only to discover that you’ll have to contribute to the printing cost (i.e. all of it). If you’re desperate enough and rich enough to go ahead, you’ll eventually get a couple of crates containing your printed books which you then have to hawk around yourself if you want to “sell” any.

My advice? Don’t even think about it! There is an excellent “how to write a novel” book, written by the great British novelist John Braine (Room at the Top, Crying game, One and last love, Stay with me till morning), back in the 1970’s, (still in print) in which he said he didn’t need to advise any writer against publishers asking for money because he wasn’t writing for idiots. Heed him well. John was the unknown author’s hero, a Yorkshire librarian plugging away in complete obscurity, with an impressive back list of rejected work who finally made it with a vengeance. But what would John, God rest him, have thought of Lulu?

Well, while Lulu, at a pinch, could be called vanity publishing – it actually doesn’t cost you anything, so there’s no risk in it at all for the writer, so I don’t think John would have minded, though he may have scratched his head a bit. I’ve tried the service, and I would recommend it, but it depends on what sort of writer you are. If you are an unknown writer, Lulu will not suddenly make you famous. For that you still need to tackle the unassailable edifice of the commercial publishing world. So, the chances are you will still be unknown, but at least your book will be available in printed format and attractively bound – and you will sell some copies – just not many, and certainly not enough to give up the day-job. singing loch book cover

My own “first” novel “The Singing Loch” was written in the 1990’s and regularly rejected by every publishing house I could think of sending it to. This is a disheartening business, and what tends to happen is you eventually give up on it and move on to the next project. Consequently the Singing Loch gathered dust in a drawer for many years, but then some bright spark invented the internet, and I started a tentative online presence called the Rivendale Review, where The Singing Loch was able to reside in digital form. Then Lulu came along, and in 2005, the Singing Loch finally became a “print” reality.

If you are a writer who wants to write, have grown out of your early fantasies of giving up the day-job, and you don’t care about the money any more, I think Lulu is the best thing to have happened since the Gutenberg printing press. Thanks to Lulu, anyone who has something to say now has a voice and unlike internet-published material your work won’t simply disappear when your webservice decides to pull the plug on you. A printed book has a life of its own, whether its come off Lulu’s printers or out of a “real” publishing house.

Sounds good? Well, it is, but don’t get too excited: your book won’t appear in a publisher’s catalogue, or on the shelves of your favourite book store. It won’t be available from your local library, nor will you be considered a published author by any of the conventional standards -but standards are changing. We’re on the wave of a print revolution, and if you’re a writer you should be involved.

If you have a manuscript in electronic format, it’s not that difficult to upload it to Lulu’s server, add a cover, and publish. You can either use one of Lulu’s many standard cover designs, which are all very good, or if you’re fussy you can design your own. I designed my own, but it didn’t come out quite right on the early copies so you find yourself buying your own book, just to check it looks okay – if you’re wise you also go through the text yet again to check for typos – then buy another updated copy and check through it all again. Other than this, it really won’t cost you anything, but you aren’t going to make much at it either. Why? Well, the problem is one of basic economics.

The Lavender and the Rose book coverThe cost of printing your average novel length book alone is around £5.00 – the printer takes that. Then there are delivery charges of around £4.50. Already then, the customer has had to fork out £9.50 for a novel by a writer no one has heard of. And remember: you can go to your local supermarket where you’ll find a cracking novel by a famous author for less than £4.00. Now, if there’s a novel for £9.50 by someone I’ve never heard of – even if it has an interesting title, and I liked the blurb – I’d still be drawn to the famous author whose book costs less than half as much and sounds just as interesting.

But hold on, you say. What about your profit? Well, you can add whatever profit you want on top of that £9.50, to which Lulu will add another 25% as their cut, but your novel’s already very expensive, so don’t fool yourself into thinking you can add very much. In my own case, I decided it wasn’t worth getting into a tangle with the inland revenue over what might not amount to more than a few pounds per year, so from the author’s point of view the Singing Loch was basically given away, just to see how it went.

It costs the customer over £10.00, these days, including delivery, but the author makes nothing out of it. Still, I have managed to “sell” several copies and I feel that’s more than I deserve at the price. To those readers who have purchased The Singing Loch, or any of my other books that now reside on the Lulu website, the author offers his sincere thanks and he hopes you weren’t disappointed.

Now, you can go a step further and purchase a marketing package. Your book will then get a proper ISBN number and be available on such websites as Amazon, for anyone whose search criterion pulls your title up. I’ve not gone this far, and frankly I don’t intend doing so at this stage. It may be that you’ll shift a few more copies, but you’ll need to balance this against the cost of the package.

My own advice is stick to the free version initially, and advertise it yourself if you can. Put posters up in shop windows, and on the notice board at your local library. If your book has some local interest, you’re sure to attract attention. If you have a website (another must for any obscure writer!), provide a link to your book and some sample pages so people can see what they’re getting. Don’t expect results overnight – if you sell one or two copies in a year, think yourself lucky.

I am by no means criticising Lulu, here. I think the venture is a noble one. The truth about writing is that there are a lot more people at it than you might think – millions upon millions of us, yet how many published authors are there in circulation at any one time? A few thousand? I don’t want to seem unnecessarily pessimistic, but the odds are stacked against the aspiring writer to such an extent that one can more or less say for certain that unless you’re already famous your manuscript will be rejected. But then what do you want? Do you want to be famous or do you simply want to be a writer who’s work’s available in printed form?

Here’s one author who thinks Lulu’s print on demand service is a good idea, and thanks all concerned.

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Dreaming our way to wholeness and happiness

Individuation is a process of personal psychological development that involves the assimilation of unconscious energies into the conscious mind. It forms much of the underlying thrust of Jungian psychoanalysis, but an understanding of it will bring important benefits to those who would otherwise consider themselves “sane”.  It’s not a simple matter however as it involves the seemingly impossible task of bringing things we are apparently  unaware of into awareness, and it also requires the willing participation of one’s ego – who is never an easy ally. It is also a lifelong work, rather than a quick fix that can be learned in a weekend seminar. Nor is it a process that can be fully completed in one’s lifetime, since the final stages of it will necessarily involve the experience of one’s own death.

Successfully following the path of  individuation in life, however, does result in a gradual change in the personality, bringing with it a heightened awareness of the world we live in, and a greater sense of connectedness. This in turn brings contentment by releasing us from the devil of perpetual angst, and all manner of attendant demons of neurotic handicap. Our lives on the surface may appear entirely unchanged. We may continue to live with the same people, do the same job we always did, but we find ourselves mysteriously able to transcend the problems that life once appeared to be hurling at us – we recognise that more often than not the cause of our troubled heart lies within our own minds and our approach to life, rather than in the outer world and the circumstances in which we find ourselves.

Those enduring a mid-life crisis will understand more what I mean, indeed this is a subject aimed at the more mature person. The young will  find it incomprehensible and should have no need of it anyway, or worse, they will see it as a means of acquiring something – be it Kudos, wealth or mystique, and will fail to realise that individuation, at least in the early stages, is more a question of letting go of something – that until we do, the important part of us that wishes to become known will be forever shy of introducing itself.

We learn early on which aspects of our personality we are most successful in exploiting in our daily lives. Once learned, we then formulate a set pattern of behaviour, favouring those same personality traits at the expense of others whenever we have to deal with the world. The result is one sidedness and a general stagnation in our outlook, and our aspirations. We can become pedantic, resistant to change, bombastic, bigoted, biassed, arrogant, withdrawn, or depressed,…. any or all of these things. The process of Individuation is one of redressing the balance, of building up the strength of those neglected aspects of our character, and getting things moving again.

Many of us hit a low-point in mid-life. For men, this is quite unlike the female menopause, which is biological and hormonal in nature. The male menopause is a psychological crisis. I write as a man, from the perspective of a man who has gone through – indeed is still going through this process – but the methods are equally applicable to the fairer sex. I’m sure men have no monopoly over feelings of existential angst.

As a mature person we’ve probably established ourselves in the world. We may have a steady job, and a family, a mortgage, a credit card debt, and a little money in the bank for a rainy day, but we are haunted by a feeling that there is something missing, and we don’t know what it is. It’s like an itch we cannot not scratch. We become obsessed by the search for it, determined not to have wasted our whole lives and not experienced this thing – whatever it is, because its promise, though incoherent, is none the less seductive.

This is the call of individuation, which is simply another word for the natural process of psychological development that all thinking feeling human beings go through. It has taken a back seat up to now, but is hankering to move on. However, there is something in the modern way of life that hampers the natural process and results in a log-jam of emotional issues in middle age.

Seeing our way through this crisis is not something we can manage with anything like a set plan, and the method we use is dictated entirely by our own unconscious disposition. It is the unconscious that decides what aspects of ourselves have been neglected, and it seeks to redress that balance in its own way, most obviously by drawing our attention to these things through the dreaming process.

A classic example of this would be dreaming of ourselves in our normal everyday environment, at work perhaps, or with friends, but finding ourselves inexplicably naked among them. The associated feelings of embarrassment and anxiety would suggest that, unconsciously, we are afraid of letting people see us for who we really are. This is normal of course – one cannot always speak one’s mind for fear of getting sacked, or at any rate giving offence – and perhaps the important thing is to be accepting of the fact that you are presenting a false face, if only so that you are able to recognise it and not be fooled by your own act!

Problems occur when one’s ego refuses to allow the assimilation of these “alien” ideas into consciousness. It rejects them. It holds fast to the personas it presents and truly believes they are representations of our authentic selves. It might even lead us to think that challenging these assumptions is a symptom of illness and we should go and see a doctor – or worse: that we are possessed by an external evil agency, or we are the victim of an invisible plot. We might lead an upright and morally superior life, yet be plagued by nightly dreams of drunken and sexual debauchery, and if so, such dreams would understandably cause us much anxiety, but we would do better to try to understand what the dream is trying to tells us about ourselves than to struggle on blindly in the belief that we are exactly who we think we are.

When we are totally unwilling to make conscious steps towards a reconciliation with the unconscious, the unconscious can overwhelm us. This can take the form of nightmares, or the actual breaking through of unconscious tendencies into consciousness. We begin to behave in a way that is “out of character”. We can also be tipped headlong into the pit of depression or we can be plagued daily by all manner of neurotic symptoms – irrational fears, phobias, panic attacks, phantom pains,…

In short, we break down.

The suppression of any emotion, or the denial of any personal trait will turn to poison and do us harm. Individuation is about leeching the poison out of our system, and is something we are all involved in to some degree, though we might be unaware of it. We all dream, even if we do not always remember our dreams. But the issues raised, even by our unremembered dreams remain with us, subliminally, and effect our emotional state throughout the day. It is better though, to accept the dreaming process as an essential part of one’s life, as the journey, the quest, indeed the very meaning of our lives, and to cooperate with it. We may be unable to comprehend the journey, but our ability to understand seems subordinate to our actual willingness to undergo the experience. In short, if we are willing, it is enough. This willingness involves rediscovering the art of dreaming, of making a conscious effort to recall our dreams and to think upon them.

The Meaning of Dreams

It’s unfortunate that most dreams are not so clear cut as the one’s previously mentioned. Indeed as we begin to delve into them we quickly despair that there can be anything sensible worth retrieving from them. Their language is strange and personal – dream dictionaries I’ve found are of little help and it’s up to us as individuals to interpret their meaning as best we can.

Dreams enable us to interact more directly with the unconscious, to listen more, and to respond more effectively to its wishes. It cannot be stressed enough, however, that this is not a process in which one can consciously dictate terms. The journey towards wholeness is entirely in the hands of the unconscious, and one over which we have absolutely no control, other than being accepting of the need to listen.

The difficulty for us as modern, rational people, is that the dream is no longer considered to be of any importance in the so called real world, that indeed there is no point in troubling the conscious mind with the meaningless puzzles that dreams present us with. They are trivia. They are noise generated by the sleeping mind on the borderland of consciousness. However, I think this is rather a biased and unscientific view, since so far as I am aware there is no evidence to support the hypothesis that dreams are meaningless, yet plenty of evidence, all be it anecdotal, to support the idea that dreams can exert a healing influence over the dreamer. Further, it’s plain to me that the human being has been equipped by nature with nothing that is superfluous to our function. There is nothing in our bodies that does not serve a purpose, or in the case of the appendix and the coccyx, has not served a purpose in our evolutionary past.

Likewise dreams have served a purpose – we have merely lost touch with what that purpose is,… namely individuation, the journey of a mind from its first spark of consciousness at birth, to its eventual reunion with the cosmos, at death. The dreaming process grants us a sense of connectedness with both the inner and the outer world, a notion that will be readily understood by many so called primitive, pre-technology cultures for whom there is less of a clear distinction between waking reality and the intangible world of the inner self, or the realm of the spirit.

The Religious Perspective

The goal of individuation, the reunion with the self, has echoes in the eastern philosophical and theological ideas of Buddhism and Taoism. In these traditions, God is thought of in an entirely abstract sense and is internalised. If we wish to get closer to God, these tradition teach us that we must look deep within ourselves. If we can do this, perhaps through the practice of meditation, then God can be experienced if not exactly described, as both a physical and a psychological sensation.

By contrast, Christianity Judaism and Islam externalise God and teach us to look outside of ourselves, look up to heaven, to project our prayers upwards or outwards to an external deity that presides over creation, thus rejecting in some ways the importance of the individual and the voices within, indeed teaching us to mistrust the inner world as a place of darkness and malevolent spirits.

Individuation then can be described as a form of spirituality, but one that might appeal more to the secular person, the person who has perhaps fallen away from any form of mainstream religious practice, but still harbours spiritual yearnings. The idea of individuation can also grant a formerly devout individual a way to reconnect with their own spiritual tradition.

Spiritual yearnings are a natural part of living: Who am I? What am I doing here? What is the meaning of my life? The answers to such questions cannot be found in the outside world. They cannot be found in the night sky, or in the empty places of the earth, nor in extreme forms of physical experience, which can emphasise instead how small we are as individuals when compared with the natural world and the whole of creation. Instead, we need to turn inside of ourselves and in doing so, we find that instead of being dwarfed by creation, we begin to embrace it.

One does not consciously begin the process of individuation – that has already begun with our entry into the world, with our birth and our passage through the formative stages of childhood and puberty.  However, the pressures and systems of  society, misguided upbringing by parents and the sometimes damaging institutions of school, college or work, that we are subject to can easily subvert our natural development.

There has always been a tremendous emphasis on preparing our youth so that they might enter society well qualified to take up positions in the world of work, but conversely, they seem increasingly ill equipped, emotionally, to understand and respect themselves, or to forge adequate relationships with other people, with society, and the world around them. They become troubled adults, incapable of long term marriages, vulnerable to society’s many opiates: sex, alcohol, antidepressants, sleeping pills, and a disturbing array of easily available yet wholly illegal narcotics. This is the malaise of the western world.

And its killing us.

In a metaphorical sense the breakdown of western society is the result of our having  rejected the unconscious spiritual and emotional needs of human beings, and of shackling them to a strictly materialistic, secular and scientific philosophy that reduces us to nothing more than the sum of our parts. In the opinion of science, we are no more than a biological machine, and of no personal significance whatsoever. This is a shocking thing for us to have to accept, and a part of us rejects totally it because we each of us feel ourselves to be special. But  science will not listen to such irrational nonsense, and suggests we are merely in the grip of a harmful delusion that requires therapeutic druggery to exorcise, and to make us feel normal again – normal being de-humanised, but somehow accepting of it.

In a collective sense, a global sense, then, the unconscious has begun to despair of ego’s excesses and is in the process swallowing us up. The rational ego is becoming increasingly overwhelmed by nightmares of hell. Twenty years ago, the thought of an intelligent, articulate young man or young woman entering a crowded place and blowing themselves up in order to take as many innocent lives as possible, for whatever reason, would have been unthinkable,… but it is now an every-day reality. We have been incredibly successful at building  a world on rational values, but human behaviour is becoming increasingly irrational, and unpredictable, often in violent ways that seem bent on self destruction, rather than on building a meaningful and universally constructive dialogue.

Once this starts to happen, a part of me is left wondering if it’s not already too late, and those like me who write about such things are just a voice in the wilderness – tired old hacks writing it all down for posterity, before some idiot finds a way of turning the lights out for good.

It’s beyond the scope of what I want to talk about here to deal with the disturbing breakdown of human values, but at least on a person by person basis, I do hope to describe a way by which the process of individuation can be brought back on course. If you have a lot of money, then you might consider psychotherapy with a Jungian or Humanist slant, but that’s only for a handful of wealthy people, and unless you’re suffering from some serious emotional damage, it’s probably not necessary.

The art of dreaming is a simple and a natural process, and we do not need an expert. Each of us comes equipped with an unconscious mind, and it is our unconscious who will become our most reliable guide. All we need is a willing suspension of disbelief, and to begin reading our dreams. This is the natural way of reconnecting with the irrational side of ourselves, of immediately balancing out the overwhelming and destructive dominance of the rational ego.

Not all of us are vulnerable here. Some have no difficulty in embracing the irrational, spiritual side of life, but those of us brought up in an exclusively scientific or otherwise technical field, are more or less obliged to sneer at the irrational, to mistrust it. But there inevitably comes a point when the irrational will not be ignored. To many, like me, this reckoning comes in middle life, but whenever it comes, it must be dealt with.

Beginning to work with our dreams

We begin by writing down our dreams. Some people take pleasure from doing this for its own sake. Writers are fond of doing it because the scenes and situations presented by the dreaming process can inform and influence our work in delightful ways. Robert Louis Stephenson was a great dreamer and claimed his best tales were more or less dictated to him by his dreams.

Some dreamers are fond of dream dictionaries, and amuse themselves by looking up the various dream symbols (dogs, ducks, bats , swords, cups, clocks etc) to see what they mean. Serious dream work, however, does not concern itself much with dream dictionaries; they are too general for anything more than a bit of fun. Serious dream work involves looking at the dream itself and working out what it is saying to you personally.

Before we can write a dream down though , it is necessary to remember it. This can take a little practice at first, but seems to involve nothing more than reminding oneself before going to bed, that remembering the dream is what we want to do. It might take a few nights before we succeed, but eventually, we will raise the dream up into consciousness sufficient for us to commit it to memory.

Memorising a dream, I’ve found, is then a case of  running through the main events again in that strange semi-wakeful state before full consciousness returns. It is a state in which we know we have dreamed, and are not yet assailed by the chatter of consciousness, and so seem able to pour the dream directly into memory in order that we can then commit the details to paper.

Some people keep notebooks handy at their bedside, or even tape recorders, in order to begin recording right away, in the middle of the night if need be. This fine if you sleep alone, but otherwise a little inconsiderate on your partner. Personally, I find I can hold onto a dream until I’m washed and breakfasted. Then I can hammer it into a computer for safekeeping, a process that takes no more than five minutes.

Having begun to remember our dreams, and record them in our dream journals, what comes next? Well, the first dreams will give us a clue as to where we are up to in the process. We can think of it like this: we have opened a channel of communication with the unconscious, but it is a one way channel. We cannot talk to the unconscious. We cannot ask it to tell us what it wants. We can only listen, and do our best to respond. Strong, ego driven personalities will have difficulty with this because it implies that were are not ultimately in charge of our lives,… well we aren’t, and accepting that is the first step.

A dream can be thought of as a piece of  theatre. It can be strange and surreal, but profoundly meaningful, if you can grasp the underlying message. The dream reflects our conscious state, but in such a way that it compensates for the excesses of the ego. If for example we are drawing an egotistical pleasure from repeatedly humiliating someone else, the unconscious may send us dreams in which this person exacts a terrible revenge on us, or they may be shown to us in an incredibly flattering light,… something to make us think twice before behaving badly towards them in the future.

In the opposite sense, if we become too dependent on another person for our own good, the unconscious may send us dreams in which that person appears to us in a very unflattering light, making us doubt the image we have constructed of them. If we have made a conscious effort to reject certain aspects of our own nature that we fear others would disapprove of, say what we perceive to be perverted sexual feelings for example, these things will appear to us in dreams in a way that demands we accept this part of ourselves back – thinking what society might currently consider to be perverted thoughts, is not the same thing, as acting upon them – and what might be the issue here is one’s relationship with society, rather than any suppressed urge to do unspeakably vile things.

People who exhibit extreme forms of righteousness or demand unrealistic moral standards from others might themselves be plagued by dreams in which they indulge in all manner of debauchery. Such  dreams will understandably cause them a great deal of anxiety, but all the dream is doing is urging them to chill out. This is the hardest thing in studying one’s dreams – accepting that the occasionally dark maelstrom  of human experience is not something external to us. We are a part of it, and though we try to distance ourselves from certain aspects we find disturbing or a civilised society finds unacceptable, they do touch us all. We have a responsibility to accept that we are all capable of going over to the darkside (there but for the grace of God, and all that), and the worst thing we can possibly do is hear of something awful that someone else has done, and somehow think that we could never ever possibly do the same thing, under any circumstances. This would be like sticking yourself up on a pedestal and making yourself a target for all manner of unconscious energies to start teasing you.

But don’t worry, this is something we all do, all of the time. The thing is to be aware of it, and to be more questioning of our motivation when we are provoked into forming  moral opinions of our own supposed superiority.

Meeting the Shadow

When we do not understand what’s going on, when something has gone badly wrong, it is human nature to blame it on someone else and to think of ourselves as the innocent party, or to excuse our own bad behaviour on the necessity of having to deal with the even worse behaviour of others. We reject the notion that we are all capable of doing wrong, that we are all capable of the irritating personality traits we abhor in others. Denying such things, these traits become repressed, or hidden in the unconscious, where they begin causing us problems when we inadvertently project those same values onto others. We might for example take an instant dislike to a stranger. We do not know this person, yet we feel a sickly dislike of them –  we feel unable to deal with them, to talk to them even. It’s important to understand that the problem here lies not with the stranger, but with ourselves. We have begun projecting parts of our “shadow” onto them and this severely limits the development of our own personality. Unless we can address this issue and remain mindful of it for the rest of our lives, we’re really going nowhere.

The Shadow is the dark side of who we like to think we are are. It’s like a real shadow cast by sunlight shining onto our physical form. In the psychological sense, the physical form is who we choose to think we are, or who we choose to let others see us as. This is our Persona, and we may possess several of them, depending on whom we are with at the time. But the Persona always casts a shadow, at certain times more strongly than others, such as at times when it’s important we make a good impression, say at an interview or when delivering a speech. Under such circumstances, we become paranoid about showing any weakness at all and we attempt to present a persona that is flawless, or as close as possible to what we think is expected of us.

The better individuated person, however, accepts the weaknesses within himself as shared human traits, and consequently casts a weaker shadow. The shadow of a better individuated person will also fade over time as more weaknesses are discovered and accepted.

Nailing the projections

Initially, we can spot problems in ourselves without recourse to dreams. Being aware of “the shadow”, we might be able to spot those instances during the day when we project the shadow onto others, and this can teach us a lot about our own shortcomings. But the shadow is not the only unconscious energy, or so called psychic archetype, we will encounter. One of the most important archetypes we must assimilate is that side of us which maintains the balance of our gender.

At conception we possess an ambiguous sexuality, and it’s only later in the womb we become recognisably either male or female. But a male born child will possess psychological attributes that are feminine and vice versa. These lie dormant throughout childhood, but following puberty, teenagers, and indeed adults as well, begin to project these dormant sides of their natures (the Anima in men and the Animus in women) onto members of the opposite sex.

We have all done this: fallen hopelessly, and sometimes tragically in love with someone we basically do not know. What we are really doing is projecting characteristics that are entirely our own onto someone else. What we are seeing, what we are feeling when we look at the host of our projection, is an image of something inside of us. We transform this person into an image of our own making, an image that bears no resemblance to reality. In one memorable incident from my own distant past, I created, from a distance, the most adorable and perfect angel out of a girl I later recognised, as being nothing more than a manipulative tart.

Before we can progress then, we have to withdraw these projections. We have to stop falling in love at a distance. This is not to diminish the value of human love, but true love can only be realised between people when we learn to see and respect each other for who we really are and not for whom we imagine the other person to be.

Anima development in men is a complex business, and I speak from experience. She wears many guises, sometimes mother, sometimes lover, sometimes the wise confidant, sometimes the goddess, sometime the prostitute, sometimes the witch and the crone, and it is wrong to assume that she progresses through each stage in tidy progression. She can be any or all of these things at the same time. Were I more of an expert I might be more adept at dealing with her. But I’m not. Sometimes the best I can do is paint her picture, or put her into one of my stories.

The anima as mother is a particularly strong influence and is dictated by the experience of our own mothers, in the case of men, fathers in the case of women. If that experience was a good one, men will be a reluctance to move on, to grow up. They find it unpleasant to be away from their homes for long periods, they become homesick and ridiculously sentimental about women.  Such men are prone to seeking women onto whom they have projected the anima as “mother”. They build homes and families that are replacements for the emotional havens they knew as children. Their wives become their mothers, they themselves try to become their fathers, and their children they try to mould as models of their own younger selves. This may work out, but if the woman you’ve married is looking to be more than just a surrogate mother, you’re on a hiding to nothing. And believe me, the last thing your children are going to want to be is just like you.

On the other hand, men with a bad experience of their mothers, will have little difficulty in flying the nest and “growing up”. They will become independent quite early in their lives and establish a place for themselves in the world. However, they may neglect their feminine side altogether and lead a predominantly ego driven life that can fail spectacularly later on when the inner woman demands recognition.

Perhaps the most emotionally crippling  projection we are prone to though, is that of the Shadow. The psychological shadow is another complex phenomenon that we encounter in dreams alongside the anima. Taken in isolation, when we find ourselves irrationally recoiling from someone, from a stranger, or a person, possibly of another race or creed, or sexual persuasion, or we feel ourselves deeply irritated by “something” about others we can’t quite define, it’s likely we are projecting qualities in ourselves we’d rather not acknowledge.

Shadow projections are responsible for a whole range of human weaknesses from mild prejudice and bigotry to full blown homophobia and racism. The shadow is a difficult issue to deal with and most of us will spend our whole lives wrestling with aspects of this particular devil, but it’s time well spent. Fortunately, shadow issues are a common dream topic and can therefore  be identified and addressed with a bit of patience and a willing heart.

The Shadow and the Anima or Animus in dreams

The Shadow appears to us in dreams as a character of the same sex as the dreamer and they are most easily recognised in dark, malevolent, or mysterious roles. Such dreams indicate the earlier stages of individuation, where substantial quantities of unconscious material remains to be addressed. The shadow presents aspects of this material to us and gives us the chance to accept it back as part of ourselves. Acceptance seems to involve only the withdrawal of specific projections onto others. We learn gradually then to accept other people, or other groups as they really are, and not for whom we perceive them to be. When dealing with others then we would do well to remember that, thanks to our shadow, our first impressions are not always reliable.

The Anima, the inner woman, appears in the dreams of men as an unknown woman. She will come in many guises and many roles, but essentially she is the same pattern of psychic energy. In women, this same balancing entity, called the Animus appears as a man, or a group of men. In either case, the manifestation of the anima or animus in a dream indicates a serious engagement by the unconscious, and we should pay particular attention to their actions, or any symbols surrounding them. Their actions in dreams can indicate underlying influences dominated by mother complexes but they can also act as our guides, spirit or inner guides if you like, along the road of Individuation. They are potent energies, and not to be trifled with, as anyone will know who has suffered from projecting them onto others.

This is very important, the animus, or the anima are not to be feared. They are on our side. When they appear in dreams, it indicates an important engagement with the unconscious. The term psychic energy can be misinterpreted but I mean it here as simply the impetus driving the stirrings of the unconscious mind – rather than its more woolly paranormal definition. If we therefore project our inner guides, our animus or anima onto members of the opposite sex, this psychic energy is wasted in useless or even damaging adoration. Withdrawing the projections, we take that energy back inside of ourselves. Similarly, projecting shadow issues outwards onto unfortunate members of society is wasteful and debilitating. Taking the energy back, it is possible for the unconscious to channel it in more beneficial way, through our dreams, and to guide us more towards wholeness, rather than psychological disarray.

Dreams in which our anima or appears to struggle against shadow characters tell us that significant shadow issues remain and hamper our progress, hamper our access to the wisdom of our natural ally, our other half, our anima, or animus. Shadow characters might seek to capture or harm our guides, or we might even see our guides pressed into service against us. Such things suggest our deeper natures, spirit guides, anima or animus, are trying to engage with us, but are hampered by something else in our selves that must be dealt with first.

We can also get clues as to how well we have developed our inner guides. In the case of a man for example, dreaming of an unknown woman locked up and in a state of duress – as in the case of many fairy tale princesses –  might indicate that he has not developed an awareness of his inner femininity at all, that he undervalues his feminine side and is therefore trapped. However you view it, dreams present themselves as a practical means of resolving emotional and psychological issues that are either doing us harm or  preventing us from achieving a condition of wholeness.

At the time of writing, I am playing a computer game called ICO. In it a young lad finds himself incarcerated in a mysterious fortress. He encounters a ghostly girl in some distress, who he decides to help, and the two of them try to make their way out – to escape. The girl is vulnerable though, needs leading, coaxing, taking by the hand, and each new stage brings perils in which shadowy creature try to suck the girl back into incarceration. ICO cannot leave without the girl, and must fight the shadowy presences off. I can think of no finer metaphor for the masculine relationship with the anima, the so called divine feminine, nor their journey through the labyrinth of the unconscious mind.

Working through our own inner stories of anima and shadow, we are sometimes granted intimations of our own destiny, our own wholeness.

Intimations of wholeness

Issues of wholeness are shown to us in dreams by characters of an altogether more mystical appearance, usually of the same sex as the dreamer. In men, these characters take on the form of older men, perhaps fatherly figures, or wizards, male gurus, or shamans – the Gandalfs and the Merlins of literature. In women the character manifests itself as a goddess or a wise and kindly queen, or an “earth mother”. The appearance of such characters tells us the process of individuation is well under way and we are encountering emissaries of the “self”

The self, if you like, is the core of our being. In psychological terms it is the successful eradication of all disruptive shadow elements and it is the assimilation of deeply embedded unconscious energies into consciousness. In religious terms it is touching God. Encountering the self is not without its dangers. Like any other unconscious energy, the self can be projected onto others, which means that humans have always had a natural tendency to deify other human beings, and so render themselves vulnerable to the malevolent intentions of certain charismatic charlatans. Secondly, the uncontrolled assimilation of the self into consciousness can  trigger megalomania, seriously damaging the individual by filling them with delusions of their own divinity or grandeur. This can happen when the power of the self falls hostage to a poorly adapted ego.

The Interpretation of Dreams

Having looked at the process of individuation and the sorts of things we might encounter in our dreams, we now turn to the analysis of our dreams themselves. The first and only rule of dream interpretation is that there are no rules. There is no set procedure for understanding dreams, something the rational mind finds infuriating to say the least. There are however some loose guidelines and these must suffice, but it must be stressed that the meaning of dreams only becomes apparent when the dreamer sits down and thinks on the dream. When interpreting dreams for others we must therefore be very careful to react in an impartial way to the dream’s contents, and generally the best we can do for others is help the dreamer to list their own associations with the images presented, and not to contaminate their dream with our responses to it.

The first step in dream analysis is simply to recall the dream and write it down, to present it in some form of narrative. One should pay attention to details here, describing the situations, the actions, the characters, and also the emotions we experience in the dream. Are we made to feel happy, threatened, guilty, or ashamed? Also dialogue is important, and numbers,… say the number on a bus ticket, or the time on a clock – though it has to be said, I’ve never fathomed the meaning of any of the numbers in my dreams.

More usefully, I’ve found that anything that can be represented by a noun i.e. cat, dog, fish, dagger, time, number, etc. is presented to us by the unconscious as a symbol for something else. Dreams are never literal. If we have an unconscious  fear of water, for example, the dream will not give us images of ourselves swimming happily in order to encourage us to overcome such fears. This quirk of dreams is likened to a censor, never exposing us directly to the thing we are hiding from, or the thing we most fear. What the dream does do is present us with symbols that allow us to arrive at a specific meaning by a more roundabout process of  association.

Once we have captured our dream as a narrative then, it is useful to go through each of the symbols and to write down our association with it. Say, for example, I dream of a shark, this is an emotive image, one that might reasonably conjure up a sense of fear or dread in most people, a fear of being bitten or eaten or injured when swimming,… but say I had viewed a TV program the day before that painted sharks in a sympathetic light as creatures responding to their natural environment,… my personal association with the shark image would be slightly different, it might not immediately provoke feelings of dread, but a more ambivalent response, because of my own recent experience.

The right association can be identified as the one that grants us an inner nod of understanding from the unconscious : a sort of inner “Aha!” Then we may reasonably suppose that part of the puzzle is now in place.

I hesitate to bore others with my own dreams but sometimes they are useful as illustrations. The following is an example from my own dream journal:

I have gone to Australia, alone, on holiday and am conscious that my family is on the other side of the world, though this does not appear to greatly trouble me. I am on a beach by a lagoon. The water is clear and I am rendered giddy by a feeling of euphoria at the sheer beauty of everything I see. I take a canoe out onto the lagoon and begin to paddle but my paddle is made of an inflatable material and keeps losing its air so that I am unable to make progress. What’s more, as I lose momentum, the canoe itself begins to sink. Repeated efforts to inflate my paddle all fail. I cannot keep it at the right pressure and the feeling of euphoria is lost in the confusion.
Later I receive a package from home, from my infant son. Inside is a small box containing items I would regard as rubbish, but which interest my son because he is very young – bits of silver paper, plastic bottle-tops – that sort of thing but nothing I initially recognise. His intention is for me to have something to remember home by, and to stop me from feeling homesick. But I am angry with him for having wasted the cost of postage in sending such useless items all around the world. But then I recognise an item in the box as a tyre pressure gauge.

I interpreted the dream in this way:

Australia is a foreign country for me, in a metaphysical sense it represents my own journey into the far away, something I do alone, and in isolation from my family. The lagoon of clear water and my attempting to float upon it I associate with feelings of trying to stay afloat in the peculiar world of the unconscious, trying also to make way, to understand, to progress. Losing the air out of my paddle needs no explanation,… I am stuck, lacking the means to go on, struggling even.

But then I receive a package from my son, whom I regard as being caught up in a world of his own delightful innocence and imagination, where a bit of twisted silver paper can actually be a dragon or a boat or an aeroplane. He sends me a box of things I do not recognise or understand, but significantly in that box is a means of checking the pressure of my paddle, of maintaining it at proper levels, as I do with my car tyres.

Following the dream I realised I was guilty of being impatient with my son. I had recently regarded his imaginative games as being rather childish and had found myself wishing he would grow up a bit. Once I’d written this down it immediately struck me as wrong, that it was obvious the only person who had a problem with his innocent games was me. Also, my impatience with him was hindering my own progress in some way. I had to see the world through my son’s eyes, become a child again myself in some regard and recognise the value in things the way he did. I had to respect his innocence and understand the joy he derived through his fascination for even the most trivial of things.

What this dream did was encourage me to let go of something. It was an issue that had been causing me some irrational stress in real life,  but I had been blind to it. Realising it, I was rewarded by a feeling of relief, a kind of euphoria, at something recognised, understood, and overcome. That sense of relief, of pressure eliminated at a stroke, was proof enough to me of the importance of the dreaming process, and the very real benefits that can sometimes be gained from studying them.

Others might interpret my dream in different ways, but it would be useless to do so, like consuming medicine for a malaise they do not personally suffer from. The best someone else could have done was to help me list the nouns and make the associations. We should always bear this in mind when helping others with their dreams because the mind is easily suggestible and false associations born out of someone else’s prompting, can easily become embedded and disruptive.

False Associations

Much controversy has been caused by professional psychologists poking about in the dreams of their patients, in particular for repressed memories of sexual assaults during childhood. A person may have no memory of any such event having taken place, for the simple reason that it did not take place, but dreams of inappropriate contact with others, can be easily twisted by a crusading clinician, causing the patient to suddenly doubt everything that they hold as the foundation of their being. In trusting others to help us therefore, we must always ensure they are worthy of that trust and not simply pursuing an agenda of their own.

My own agenda in writing all of this down is primarily that I believe it will help me to understand the process better myself – that’s simply the nature of my writing, and my own journey. Your trust need go nowhere beyond an appraisal of my methods. They will cost you nothing, and I can have no insidious influence over your inner world, because you do not know me, and we will never meet. At best, presenting my thoughts on this subject in this way may allow others to arrive at a view from their own perspective, whether that comes about by agreeing with me and finding some resonance, or by rejecting me as a crackpot.

Nor am I writing for those who would rather trust their fate to the guidance of others, rather I am writing for others like myself who believe in the sanctity of the inner partnership we form with ourselves. There is a line in the Anglican funerary rite that talks about us coming into this world alone and leaving it alone. But I no longer recognise this as being true. If the implications of dream work are correct, then we are never alone, at any point in our lives, for we are each of us born with an inner partner. If we are wise, we come to recognise this unseen partner as the reality behind the myth we have chased all our lives, the myth we have attempted to embody in others.

It may be that we will have a chance to meet this partner face to face during our last mortal dream, and that a kind of metaphysical union will take place between us – therefore we do not exactly leave this world alone either. This also seems to be the consensus among the various traditions of spiritual alchemy, either eastern or medieval European. It is a union that brings about a transformation of the mind, and a reunion with the inner world, with the subtle mind of the Buddhist tradition, the universal mind that exists independently of the physical world, also known as the Tao of the Taoists, that which pre-exists, which posits reality and shepherds the flow of its events.

For the majority of us, a knowledge of the Shadow and the Animus, or the Anima, is the best we can hope for. Shadow is not a bad phenomenon, it is not the devil, though as a shadow archetype, the devil is perhaps unrivalled. Yet the shadow is not intrinsically evil and requires us only to accept ourselves for who we truly are. If we can do this our shadow will reward us with inner peace and contentment, for we can never be truly happy if we are not fully accepting of who we really are. We will always be glancing over our shoulder, feeling Shadow breathing down our necks and threatening to expose us.

The same goes for Anima, for the divine feminine in man, or the Animus, the divine masculine in women. Here, like the shadow, the approach is primarily one of withdrawing our projections onto others – in the case of men, withdrawing the sense of falling hopelessly in love with female strangers,… fellow students, colleagues, the girl on the train two seats down every morning who never seems to notice us – and of seeing them instead for who they truly are. This alone will bring about the inner balance and harmony required before we can safely contemplate an encounter with the Self.

Encounters with the Self

In Western culture, we are driven to imagine the Self as being the thing sitting at the centre of our consciousness. We equate is with the ego, and as something we might recognise if only we could clear off all the clutter of our daily lives and find the time to think. But this is not true and in fact the only thing underlying consciousness is the chameleon like Ego itself with its multi-coloured cloak of various personas. The best we can hope to achieve in this respect, is a degree of balance and an awareness of the importance of those other aspects of the psyche that remain hidden.

It is believed that the Self is the gateway to what in traditional religious parlance might be called the Divine. The self is the route back to where we came from, and might be thought of in an abstract way as God. All religions, whether they profess a deity or not, teach us that the Divine is not something to be trifled with. It is a dangerous phenomenon that can overwhelm an individual’s consciousness. Only through consciousness are we defined as an individual. The Self, paradoxically, does not define us as a unique and separate entity, but as a part of the universe. The Self is the universal consciousness, and transcends the individual, being something we tap into, something we share.

The self will appear in dreams as a wise individual, an old man, a wizard, a guru in the case of a male dreamer, or a goddess, or an earth-mother in a female dreamer. It can also manifest itself as so called mandala symbols. These are symbols of wholeness, most often recognised when they appear circular, an arrangement of stones perhaps, or the face of  a clock, or a circular building. Dreams of this kind are highly symbolic, deeply intriguing, but I have to say in my own case, totally incomprehensible.

When approached by the self in such dreams, it is useless to look for projections of the shadow or of the animus or anima in our external reality. We have passed beyond the point at which we are required to physically respond to unconscious stimuli and are instead being given a glimpse of a sort of psychological end-game. Here, my first hand information is rather scarce because I’m still dealing with shadow and animus material,… beyond it I’m merely speculating, and must consult the works of Jung and Freud, for hints of the way ahead,… but this is the stuff of life and one should not be in too much of a hurry.

Life is a journey, not a destination.

You get what you pay for?

It strikes me that nothing in western society is considered to be of any value unless you’ve paid money for it, or it involves a set of exercises with rules and merchandisable apparatus. This applies to both physical and spiritual forms of self improvement. We are brought up from birth to be consumers of things, be they goods, services or ideologies. There are fashions and fads, our attention spans are short, we are used to demanding things, demanding progress, quality, satisfaction. And we expect it all to fit into our timetable. Expect results in two weeks! Or so the adverts tell us, gambolling on the fact that we’ll probably have grown bored long before then and moved on to the next big thing.

Self improvement however, involves first of all the recognition that such values are actually rather foolish, and that overcoming them is a major step in self improvement itself. If we practice yoga, for example, all we really need are to attend some classes to pick up the techniques – then spend our lives trying to perfect them. We do not really need the fancy mat nor the stretchy clothes, the fancy music or the aromatic candles. Similarly in dream work, we can all too easily rush out and buy an expensive notebook and a fancy pen for the recording of our dreams, hoping for fantastic encounters with the dark shadow, or deliciously erotic ones with a gorgeous anima, only to find ourselves recording months or even years worth of the most incomprehensible dross. We lose patience, become angry perhaps, and such emotions are reflected in the dream material, so we just end up going round in circles, looking for buried anxieties, when the anxieties we see evidence of are sitting on our shoulders the whole time.

The essence is in the doing of the thing, not in how it can be wrapped up and presented by the material world. Nor can we dictate the pace. If we find ourselves asking “how long”, or feeling impatient in any way, this is Ego talking, untempered by inner wisdom.

You have to learn to let it go.

Dream work is not a fad, and to call it “work” is also very misleading, for then we might begin view it as some sort of labour or “self-help” exercise. This would not be correct at all. The dream is like an old friend following us down a busy street where our attention is constantly taken by the bright and gaudy goods on display in the shop windows. Our heads are down, we are feeling impatient to make way, to find the one thing that will satisfy the ache inside of us, but we’ve found nothing. And there’s this old friend following, sometimes even tapping us on the shoulder, wanting to talk to us,.. but we haven’t the time.

The only thing we have to do is take a deep breath, stop, turn around, smile at our friend, so that he is assured we do recognise him, and that we want to listen, to become reacquainted. And that’s all there is to it.

We have begun!



My own understanding of dream interpretation comes primarily from the works of Carl Jung, and a book titled simply “Dreams” which comprises extracts from his collected works. In it Jung pays tribute to Freud’s earlier pioneering work “The Interpretation of Dreams”. Of the two, personally, I would say Jung’s writings will probably be clearer to the lay person. Freud’s work is authoritative, but considerably more voluminous , and possibly of more interest to the professional analyst. Another useful book I came across was “Learn to Dream” by David Fontana. But these are just my personal favourites.
Browse Amazon, browse the bookshops, and pick the titles that mean something to you. There are also many dreamer’s websites and blogs and it’s useful to browse these in order to learn from the interpretations that others come up with for their own dream material.
Sweet dreams!

Michael Graeme


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