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Posts Tagged ‘personal development’

Vogeler - DreamsAs we age we undergo a process of emotional development. Obviously we do not possess the same outlook in our middle years as we did when we were children, but what is it that drives us to change? Is it merely that we come to inhabit a progressively older body? Is it the experience of life itself that changes us, or is it that are we subject to influences from the unconscious mind that would have us seek those experiences out as a medium for change?

Life can provide any number of varied environments enabling us to grow in all manner of positive directions, but it can just as easily arrest our development if experience of life is at odds with our aspirations. So where does the aspiration, the imperative, the drive come from? Abusive relationships, personal misfortune, global upheaval, even financial ruin, all present challenges to health and well being, subverting a life’s path and running it onto the rocks. Yet in spite of misfortune some people suffer no injury beyond the initial trauma, while others are maimed for life. To avoid lasting scars appears to require an agile frame of mind and a deep intuitive sense of one’s abiding value in the face of all rational evidence to the contrary. Where does such strength, such resilience come from?

With bad experiences, what usually happens is we push the memories out of range of our emotional radar and get on with things as best we can. We are all good at this, at removing from conscious awareness those things that are most painful to us, and anyway we cannot always react to hurt in the way we would like, and in which our instincts are urging us – like punching the other guy on the nose. In the course of life, there is a lot we simply have to swallow, but the unconscious never forgets a slight. It remembers everything.

It even knows what I was doing at half past three on Wednesday afternoon, December 28th 1978. I can no longer consciously recall this moment of course – it is lost to my every day awareness but well documented cases of spontaneous and total recall suggest the memory of this moment still exists, somewhere, and if, during that moment, I was experiencing an emotional upset that was never healed, my unconscious will offer it back. And it will keep offering it back, until I deal with it.

It does this through the dreaming process, using a symbolic language in which the objects, the people, the situations we encounter in the dream world are emotionally charged in ways reflective of our life experience, including the things we’d rather not acknowledge. And the dream is saying, here, look, take this back this and then we can move on. But if we have fallen foul of a culture that devalues the dreaming process, if we never take notice of our dreams, the process of “dealing with it” can be a problem. And stuff mounts up. Some of us incubate hidden, forgotten traumas, combine them, allow them to breed, then hatch them into inexplicable and stupendously debilitating neuroses. At such times as these it seems our unconscious is overrun with demons out to do us harm. We might feel that to go poking around in there is the very last thing we should be doing, but paying attention to our dreams helps defuse things. It puts the unconscious mind in a better mood for dealing with us, if it realises we are receptive.

We all dream, every night, though some people dispute this, claiming never to have dreamed at all. But the thing with dreams is they play out in a part of the mind that bypasses the way we normally acquire memory. If we want to remember our dreams we have to make a conscious effort to do so. We have to remind ourselves, when we lay down to sleep, we would like to remember our dreams. Then, on waking, in the first seconds of awareness, we have a fleeting opportunity to drink the dream down whole, sufficient at least to recall it well enough to record it later on. But even then we must make haste, or the memory will fade to nothing like an imperfectly processed photograph. Reading my dream journal now, accounts of many dreams I had years ago are like reading the fantasies of a complete stranger.

So we have our dream. What now? Well, the best we can do is sit down and ponder upon it. What might it be showing us? What emotions does it provoke? It does not matter if we cannot understand the dream. It seems to be the conversation with the unconscious that’s the important thing. If we fail in the first dreams, to understand what it’s showing us, it will try other ways of illustrating the same thing, until we finally get it.

We can forget those dream dictionaries. What they fail to point out is that the dream is a personal thing and that, for example, a rabbit in my dream might mean something entirely different in yours. You can forget also asking advice from others because they may react to your symbols differently. Thus, slowly, respectfully, and with an attitude of genuine enquiry, we approach the unconscious, preferably on bended knee.

I worry about self-help dream techniques that sound more assertive, like a battering down of a door into unconsciousness in order to plunder its contents, in an effort to turn us into mega-star celebrities with millions in the bank, and perfect teeth. The lesson of a century of psychoanalysis tells us we are only a small part of who we think we are, that we are not entirely in charge. We can be part of the solution to the mystery of our lives, which involves being a good listener and a willing partner in the adventure, or we can remain for ever a part of the problem.

I suppose the bottom line is we do not need to be ill to take an interest in our personal development, in the rounding out and the maturation of our soul. True there are grown men and women as emotionally well developed as four year olds, or for that matter wildebeest, and for whom all talk of the dreaming process will sound ridiculous. But for those who seek meaning beyond the normal watering and rutting of the species, the dream is nature’s own gift to aid us on the path to a greater self awareness.

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bearded man 2Men are not alone in suffering from mental illness, but the fact they do suffer is effectively suppressed by everyone in society, including the men who suffer. There is a stigma about it, the result being men deny the facts and are afraid to seek help. There are of course many forms and degree of mental illness, not all of which end in tragedy. But all mental illness, especially if borne in silence, will not only thwart the life chances others take for granted, but it will deny us even the basics of a happy life, one lived without the daily fear of some imagined calamity.

When we suffer from mental illness we become emotionally useless to those around us, also angry with ourselves for being “weak”. There is also a mysterious energy about it, and if we don’t take steps towards healing, it will form itself into a powerful vortex, sucking us down into an ever decreasing spiral, diminishing our chances of ever getting on with a normal life. We may begin to self medicate with alcohol or other drugs, self harm, manifest irrational, compulsive behaviours, and in the worst of cases begin to think suicidal thoughts.

It’s a remarkable fact that throughout all of this we will appear to be functioning well, turning up for work, doing a decent job, smiling, being nice, and bringing home the bacon. But it’s a mask. We are skilful at evasive tactics that get us through the day, avoiding the trigger situations we associate with our anxieties. All of this comes before we seek help, if we ever do – and 80% of us don’t. When we eventually stop functioning, we do so suddenly, catastrophically, and no one, including us, sees it coming. The really sobering fact here is that mental illness is not rare. It’s very common. One in five of us is suffering, right now. It’s just that nobody ever talks about it. How crazy is that?

So what do we do? Well, like all illnesses, much falls upon the sufferer to acknowledge the problem. Everyone experiences lows in life, but they pass. Mental illness is different. It settles in. If you’ve been feeling inconsolably down or on edge for months, let alone years it’s probably a good idea to talk to your doctor. That’s the litigiously-aware, super-sensible advice – go speak to your doctor, because what the hell do I know? But the reality of state primary healthcare services is that the time, sympathy and understanding one needs to sort things out properly will most likely be lacking. If you’re lucky you’ll get a hastily scrawled prescription for anti-depressants, and a referral to psychological counselling. The waiting time to your first session will be in inverse proportion to how much you managed to frighten the crap out of your doctor with what you told him, so don’t hold back because you need that referral, and you need it fast!

But sadly, again, the cash strapped reality of public mental healthcare is that it can backfire when you feel you’re not being given the necessary face-time with a competent or at least half way human counsellor, that you’re not being listened to, that indeed you never see the same counsellor twice in a row, that you feel you’re being fobbed off with drugs that aren’t right for you, that your regular sessions are broken up by spurious cancellations on their part, when, if you miss a session yourself, no matter what your excuse, you’ll be kicked into the long grass and left there to rot.

Then, those anti-depressants become your only hope, and are not to be sniffed at as they enable one to keep going without taking time off work, and more importantly having to explain why. Me? No, I’m fine! Just a touch of flu. But they don’t work in all cases, didn’t work for me, turned me into a zombie and robbed me of sleep for weeks on end. It also gave me pause how relaxed my GP was about putting me on them for life, careless of the risk of serious side effects and little or no supervision. But if you’re in a situation where you’re thinking of taking your life, they might just save your life and you’d be unwise to reject this option. It’s just that when we’re suffering from mental illness, we don’t always act wisely. We react instead to fear and to the isolation imposed on us by that illness.

Because of my  negative experience with mental health services, I’ve always been leery of the long term medication route, also guilty of labelling mental health care professionals (unfairly) as lacking empathy and being ruled by the same tick box culture as everyone else these days, merely there to fudge you off their books as a successful intervention with the minimum of time and effort, because time and effort costs money – and there isn’t any. Instead I became a lone survivalist, hunkered down in my flimsy home-made refuge with a handful of improvised weapons to keep the demons at bay. But they they bought me time, and time and effort is what it takes. There’s a lot we can do to help ourselves, and a lot of free information online these days to demystify those demons.

So ask yourself this: do I want to get better? The answer might seem obvious, but some of us are so benighted and so closely identified with our illness, we lack the mental focus to even understand the question. Once we accept the need for healing though, then proper healing can take place, but it won’t come solely through the intervention of a healthcare professional, or from out of a blister-pack. These are merely some of the tools at our disposal, to be used wisely and mindfully – mindful of the fact that even a doctorate in psychology does not give the other person a clear window into your head.

Mental illness is different to other illnesses; it does not attack the body directly, it attacks the soul and its methods are as unique as we are. Indeed it uses us to attack ourselves. It confuses us into thinking we are nothing more than the pain we feel. Unfortunately the defences we can deploy will seem as bizarre as the illness, indeed they will require the adoption of a frame of mind as irrational as the malaise under which we labour. Therefore, again, we encounter an internal resistance, because the possession of even the knowledge of such techniques is a tacit admission of the need to deploy them in the first place.

Such is the bind we find ourselves in! But anyway,…

As a first step we must dis-identify with our illness. The pain, the fear, the debilitating isolation, the strange compulsions, the damaging thoughts. These things are not who we are, they are just thoughts. Even if they threaten to kill us, they are still merely the things we suffer from. If we can find the space within ourselves to step back and say: no, I am not that, then we’re already moving in the right direction.

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drreamIn the biological sciences, dreams don’t amount to much. Bizarre and useless, we’re advised there is no meaning to be extracted from them. We dream of a rabbit, look it up in a dream dictionary, and learn the rabbit means we’ll have good luck. Hmm – seems superficial at best.

But wait!

What if we dream we’re naked among people we know – family, friends colleagues? Depending on which book we look this one up in, it can be interpreted as meaning we are afraid of showing others our true selves. In this case then, the dream appears symbolic of personal unconscious complexes, and that’s meaningful in that it reveals to us aspects of our selves in a potentially helpful way, prompting further questions like: what parts of myself do I not want others to see, and why not?

Maybe there’s more to dreams after all?

In fact dream interpretation has been an important part of psychoanalysis for over a century. Sadly though, for the layman, dreaming still languishes in the realm of simplistic dream dictionaries. Serious literature is more elusive,… but infinitely more enlightening.

We all dream, every night. It’s just remembering our dreams that’s the problem. But it’s actually not that difficult and consists merely of making a mental note as we lay down to sleep that we will try to remember our dreams. And in time, we remember them. And the more dreams we remember, the more richly we are rewarded with our dreams – the first foggy, disjointed fragments maturing into vivid dream canvasses resplendent in allegorical meaning and which leave us tingling all day in their numinous afterglow.

By interpreting my dreams I sought a new direction in life. The experience was wholly positive, but not in the way I expected. Most dreams remained inscrutable; life was unchanged; I did the same things, the same job, faced the same problems. However in retrospect, I realised the dreams had guided me towards the centre of a newly reconstructed self, one in which the same elements were present, but had been rearranged.

I had gained a different perspective.

Dreams, it seems, serve a potentially transformative function of the psyche, if we can only bring ourselves to take them seriously.

And now?

I admit I’m out of the habit of recalling dreams. My journal is rarely updated and what few dreams I spontaneously hold onto these days have lost their depth and their power. But I’ve been wondering if the time has come to make an effort to uncover my dreams again, or even to crank it up a bit,…

…and go flying in them!

In all my dreaming, I have simply let the dreams wash over me, so that like most dreamers, I do not know I am dreaming, when I dream. But dreaming can be taken further; we can train ourselves to dream lucidly.

In lucid dreams we are no longer passive observers of the dream, but self determining participants, capable of critical reasoning and intelligent engagement. We can shape our environment, talk to dream characters, and we can get about by flying. How cool is that?

Lucid dreaming requires a more advanced skillset, one I don’t possess, but one I’m led to believe can be acquired easily. The question is, should I make the effort?

The fictional characters in my current work-in-progress are adept at lucid dreaming. The dream space allows them a more flexible stage on which to explore the nature of their being, and I find the philosophical implications irresistible. But if one writes of Australia, how authentic can one be if one has never been there?

The tales of lucid dreamers have been like Siren voices for a while now urging me to make the push and become a lucid dreamer myself. But a wise old friend cautions me that to enter on this path is also to risk losing oneself inside one’s own head, becoming mired in a different kind of mud – one of self-generated and entirely hedonistic dream-content – none of which means anything.

Lucid dreamers talk of directly engaging with the unconscious, rather than being passively subjected to its whims, as in ordinary dreams. They talk of strange, paranormal things too, like precognitive dreams, healing in dreams, and even of meeting the dreaming selves of other people. But while such things fascinate and feed my hunger for interesting fictional scenarios, to actually bluster in and interrogate one’s own unconscious, seems an immodest thing to do. My wise old friend reminds me that when we travel the liminal zones bordering the Faery lands, we are always better going quietly, and on tiptoe.

I do need to move on from where I’m at. I sense a stagnation in my ways and in my thoughts. So, I have blown the dust from my dream journal, and made a few fresh entries, but the dreams I seek are strictly of the ordinary kind. I’m sure lucid dreaming can be a wild party, but I’m also thinking it’s better to wait for an invitation than to use one’s cleverness and egotistical wit to gatecrash a gathering where nobody’s quite sure what’s going on. Notwithstanding the extraordinary exploits of my fictional characters, to dream lucidly is perhaps to risk dragging the expectations of the real world into the realm of the Faery, to inform it, to shape it, and ultimately I fear, as with any other environment we seek to exploit for our own aims, to irreparably corrupt it.

So, while I may continue to appear, on occasion, naked and embarrassed in my dreams, my dreams at least are seeing me as I truly am, rather than how I would prefer myself to be seen. I think they prefer me that way.

And who am I to argue?

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