March 10, 2017 § 3 Comments
“Magic is the technology/psychology of immanence, of understanding that everything is connected.”
~ Starhawk, “Dreaming the Dark: Magic, Sex & Politics.”
Before advertising stole our souls and scientific materialism denied its existence, dogmatic religious institutions held our souls hostage. The result has been a continually morphing and adapting form of systematic soul erasure in the Western world.
Author & activist Starhawk calls this “removing content.” She notes that it allows for power relationships in which human beings are exploited, and for a worldview that results in the exploitation of nature, because the inherent value of being has been denied.
“I call this consciousness estrangement,” Starhawk details, “because its essence is that we do not see ourselves as part of the world. We are strangers to nature, to other human beings, to parts of ourselves. We see the world as made up of separate isolated nonliving parts that have no inherent value. Among things inherently separate and lifeless, the only power relationship possible is manipulation and domination.
“As we become separate, and are manipulated as objects, we lose our own sense of self worth, our belief in our own content, and acquiesce in our own exploitation.”(“Dreaming the Dark.”)
In this worldview emptied of spirit, a tree becomes merely timber to be measured in feet, given value only by its profitability; not its being, its beauty, or its part in the larger ecosystem.
Considering that Western society sees virtually nothing as sacred, it’s easy to see why we are poised on the brink of collective self-destruction.
And so an effectively soulless society is created, inhabited by shells who struggle to see their own value beyond doing & having. A sense of nonreality permeates our lives. As my dear poetry mentor, Barry Spacks, once phrased it: “Waiting to arrive, we’ve been here all along.”
“We live our lives feeling powerless & inauthentic—feeling that the real people are somewhere else, that the characters on the daytime soap operas or the conversations on late-night talk shows are more real than the people and conversations in our lives; believing that the movie stars, the celebrities, the rock stars, the People Magazine-people live out the real truth and drama of our times, while we exist as shadows, and our unique lives, our losses, our passions, which cannot be counted out or measured, which were not approved, or graded, or sold to us at a discount, are not the true value of this world.”
Starhawk notes that estrangement permeates our society so strongly that to us it seems to be consciousness itself. Even the language for other possibilities has disappeared or been deliberately twisted.
“Yet another form of consciousness is possible. Indeed, it has existed from earliest times, underlies other cultures, and has survived even in the West in hidden streams,” Starhawk notes.
“This is the consciousness I call immanence—the awareness of the world and everything in it as alive, dynamic, interdependent, interacting and infused with moving energies: a living being, a weaving dance.”
“Magic is a word that makes people uncomfortable,” notes Starhawk, “so I use it deliberately, because the words we are comfortable with, the words that sound acceptable, rational, scientific, and intellectually sound, are comfortable precisely because they are the language of estrangement.”
She details that magic can be very prosaic—a leaflet, a lawsuit. Anything that changes consciousness at will. It can also be esoteric—inner work, interacting with the cosmos at large. At its heart, magic is moving energies.
“Ironically, as estranged science and technology advance, they have begun to bring us back to a consciousness of immanence. Modern physics no longer speaks of separate, discrete atoms of dead matter, but of waves of energy, probabilities, patterns that change as they are observed; it recognizes what shamans & witches have always known: that matter & energy are not separate forces, but different forms of the same thing.”
Starhawk defines: “To say something is sacred is to say that we respect, cherish and value it for its own being.”
In a world stripped of sacredness, it is a revolutionary act to see the innate beauty and value in being—one’s own and others’—to cherish & respect, to view life with reverence. When we remove the veil of Western materialism, the world comes alive again; and anything is possible.
This paradigm shift—from viewing reality as composed of separate, isolated, nonliving parts; from seeking power-over-–must be replaced by a worldview that acknowledges the living ecosystem of our dynamic inter-connectivity, to seeking power from within.
It’s no exaggeration to say that the survival of our species depends on it. And change starts within. Like seeds, we dream in the dark earth, but inside us we hold a blueprint for blooming.
So let us feel into our own aliveness today, let us expand our attention to include our own being; let’s look for it in others, in animals and plants. The world is shot through with immanence… for those who care to see.
If you liked this post, check out:
January 2, 2017 § 6 Comments
“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” ~Audre Lorde
A great many New Year’s resolutions revolve around exercising self-discipline, which may in the moment yield less pleasure, but will create a better outcome in the future.
Recent research reveals that the part of the brain responsible for self-control is the same area that allows us to feel empathy.
The human brain perceives the future self as if it were a stranger.
Tests reveal that when we think about ourselves in the present, parts of our prefrontal cortex light up that remain dim when we think about a stranger—or try to imagine our future self.
“Empathy depends on your ability to overcome your own perspective, appreciate someone else’s point of view, and step into their shoes,” remarks science writer Ed Yong.
“Self-control is essentially the same skill, except that those other shoes belong to your future self—a removed and hypothetical entity who might as well be a different person.” (“Self-Control Is Just Empathy For Your Future Self.”)
In the early 20th century, German philosopher, Robert Vischer, adapted the word to create the German term Einfühlung—literally “feeling into”—which was then translated into English as empathy, defined as “the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within the other being’s frame of reference.”
Research has uncovered the existence of “mirror neurons,” which react to emotions expressed by others and then reproduce them.
This is why we get caught up in the emotion of art & performance, as well as the reason we feel a twinge of discomfort when we witness someone else experiencing pain.
Some people—a case notably examined on the podcast “Invisibilia”-–have an overactive level of empathy, known as mirror-touch synesthesia, wherein they experience a debilitating level of physical empathy for any reaction witnessed in others.
“The capacity for empathy seems to be innate,”relates Jane E. Brodey, “and is evident even in other species — the adult elephant that tried to rescue a baby rhino stuck in the mud despite being charged by its mother, as recounted in “When Elephants Weep.”(“Empathy is Natural, But Nurturing it Helps.”)
Empathy is a skill that can be learned & developed. The more we practice imagining what it feels like to be in another person’s circumstance, the better we become at doing it—and at giving our future self gifts, not grief.
“Think of [it] as a kind of temporal selflessness,” notes Ed Yong. “It’s Present You taking a hit to help out Future You.”
But for all the buzz empathy is getting these days, it’s possible that its sister state, compassion, is the more constructive practice to cultivate.
Buddhist Monk & French writer, Matthieu Ricard-–known as “world’s happiest man”—reflects that while empathy can lead to emotional burnout, the mood of compassion for another being is nourishing, energizing & empowering.
The French monk details:
“The cerebral networks activated by meditation on compassion were very different from those linked to empathy. In the previous studies, people who were not trained in meditation observed a person who was seated near the scanner and received painful electric shocks in the hand. These researchers noted that a part of the brain associated with pain is activated in subjects who observe someone suffering. They suffer when they see another’s suffering.
“When I engaged in meditation on altruistic love and compassion, [the researchers] noted that the network linked to negative emotions and distress was not activated, while certain cerebral areas traditionally associated with positive emotions, with the feeling of affiliation and maternal love, for instance, were.” (From Matthieu Ricard’s book, “Altrusim: The Power of Compassion To Change Yourself & The World.”)
Empathy fatigue can breed avoidance of the distressing emotions that can accompany resonating with another’s pain, but cultivating a focus on compassion is affirming & fortifying.
“When altruistic love encounters suffering it manifests as compassion,” Ricard tells us. “This transformation is triggered by empathy, which alerts us to the fact that the other is suffering. One may say that when altruistic love passes through the prism of empathy, it becomes compassion.”
French psychologist Christophe Andre writes, “We need the gentleness and the strength of compassion. The more lucid we are about the world, the more we accept seeing it as it really is, the easier it is to accept that we cannot face all the suffering that is encountered in the course of our lives unless we have this strength and this gentleness.”
We can apply this same philosophy to those “strangers” of our future selves.
June 7, 2016 § 4 Comments
“It was when I stopped searching for home within others and lifted the foundations of home within myself I found there were no roots more intimate than those between a mind and body that have decided to be whole.” ~ Rupi Kaur
What does it mean to be grounded? We say it when we wish to describe someone who is very present, who seems steadily rooted in what is real—not flying off into some obscure mental space.
There is a spectrum of disassociation. On the one hand, we have Disassociative Identity Disorder, and on the other we have the common occurrence of zoning out for ten minutes of freeway driving, or losing ourselves to internal thoughts while someone is talking to us.
Groundedness is contagious. When we speak to someone who is very present, we find our own roots deepening.
Learning how to ground ourselves—and remembering to dip into our toolkit—is the most immediate respite from anxiety. It is essential in the mad rush of modern life. And it can be just a few centering thoughts away!
I would like to share with you a video blog post by my inspiring friend, trained transformational coach Alisha Westerman—she’s got some fantastic tips on the subject!
April 12, 2016 § 11 Comments
“Your visions will become clear only when you can look into your own heart. Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes.”
“The sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light in the darkness of mere being.”
I have noticed the same thing about the highs and lows of my emotional life: my unhappy states all seem to have a wide array of causes, while my happy, high, in-the-flow states all seem to sing the same tune, as it were. The same insights flash back at me like familiar road signs. An invisible river of energy seems to flow through me, carrying treasures on its back in the form of ideas, inspirations and connections.
Apparently I’m not alone. Author, speaker, researcher & founder of the “new existentialism” movement, Colin Wilson shares related thoughts in a fascinating recorded talk at San Francisco’s City Lights bookstore:
“I began by writing this book, The Outsider, which came out in 1956. My basic interest then was the problem of certain romantics of the 19th century who had experienced tremendous feelings of ecstasy & insight, and then wondered the next morning if the whole thing had been a total illusion, so that we got this tremendously high suicide rate among the romantics.”
“I became preoccupied with this because I had had the same kind of feelings ever since I was a small boy. It wasn’t until I read Wordsworth—who talks about this time in childhood when everything seems wonderful and then how, as you get older, the shades of the prison house begin to close—that I began to see this is a problem that all human beings experience.
“What I wanted to know was: is there some fundamental gap between these moods of ecstasy and the ordinary reality of the physical world in which we live? Is it totally impossible to reconcile the two of them? In a sense, you see, I couldn’t really believe that it was so. Because whenever I experienced moods of intensity or of total relaxation I always had the same insight, as if I had gone to a kind of hilltop and seen precisely the same vision, exactly the same landscape below, which made me feel that it was, in a sense, objective. It must be solid or else it would be different every time.”
“On the other hand, in what you might call ‘the worm’s eye view’ moods, things are bad in a different way every time. And you suddenly feel that it’s only the bird’s eye views that are true. It’s the big that’s true, not the small. Close-up-ness deprives us of meaning. I’ve always felt this is the basic truth of life. Somehow you’ve got to get that trick of pulling back & seeing things through a kind of wide angle lens. As soon as you do this, you go into this state of intense optimism.”
In Zen Buddhism, the high feeling-state of satori, which literally means “to understand,” is the goal of meditation practice. A brief but clear glimpse into the awakened state of satori is known as kenshō, which translates as “seeing into one’s true nature or essence.”
This is always how it feels to me when I am in the flow & feeling good: things feel like they are back on track, as they should be, aligned, harmonious. Like Wilson, I have often wondered which state is the more accurate reflection of the nature of things; both seem to negate the validity of the other.
And I’ve come to the same conclusion as Wilson, that the low mood generally lies while the high mood informs. Although a low mood tries to paint our previous high states of awareness as the purely illusory fantasies of a fool—while portraying its own staunch negativism as the only reasonable, realistic assessment—there is another clear giveaway that hints at which of these two opposing states is more to be trusted:
a low mood feels very uncomfortable, while a high mood feels very right. In fact, it is characterized by a feeling of rightness. When we tell a lie, we feel our body contract. A sense of wrongness permeates our being to various degrees. When we say something that is keenly true, we feel that too. It’s a feeling of empowerment, harmoniousness, rightness.
In my study of this phenomenon, I have concluded that while the low mood may have something to tell me about myself or my life—revealing an uncomfortable truth that I must face in order to become who I truly want to be, (see“Navigating The Dark Night Of The Soul,”)-–there is no benefit to remaining in this place, because it becomes an energy-sapping, self-feeding loop of defeatist thinking.
Unfortunately, once we are out of step with the sensation of rightness, that high state can feel a world away. It’s helpful to remember that it is, actually, only a few flow-inducing thoughts away.
Personally, I think these two states are better described as “connected” vs. “disconnected.” Connected to what? To yourself. But how can I be disconnected from something I am? The answer can be summed up in a verse from the East Indian sacred texts, the Upanishads:
“There are two birds, two sweet friends, who dwell on the self-same tree. One eats the fruits of the tree, and the other looks on in silence.”
The bird who eats the fruit represents our worldly nature, our everyday “smaller” self. And the witnessing bird is our larger aspect (called the Atman in Vedanta, meaning soul self) which remains connected to Brahman (ultimate reality), even when the small self has lost sight of the bigger picture.
According to the Vedanta (the East Indian philosophy based on the Upanishad writings), Atman is the true self, beyond identification with phenomena, the essence of an individual. In order to attain liberation, a human being must acquire self-knowledge, which is to realize that one’s true self (Atman) is identical with the transcendent self (Brahman). (Traditionally achieved through meditation, wherein the distinction between these two selves becomes increasingly evident.)
I’m not one to care about religious dogma or what some ancient text says—unless it puts a language to experiences I have had myself already, for which we have poor working vocabulary in English language & culture.
I do think the Vedanta framework establishes a helpful concept of what is going on when we feel low, which, by my way of thinking, is essentially a state of disconnection, when we are overly identified with the “small self.”
When we are connected to our essence or greater self (which is connected to the broader sweep of larger reality), it seems we receive intuition freely, we are in sync with the rhythm of life and other people. We receive inspiration more easily, which in turn lights us up and “turns us on,” fueling our sense of optimism, curiosity & movement.
Our world seems to expand. We notice subtle “shimmers”—little beautiful moments that add to the textured richness of being alive. When we are open to these nuances, we become more easily inspired and interested. Which creates a sense of possibility & engagement.
When we are disconnected, our world seems to shrink. It is like we have run out of gas. We feel sluggish and everything takes a lot of effort to do. This induces a feeling of depression and futility, which feeds upon itself until we can feel quite locked away from that “Atman” self.
In this emotional state we seem to forget all of the insights which once gave us a sense of hope and possibility. We are entirely identified with the “bird who eats the fruits” of the world, and completely dissociated from the “sweet friend” who looks on, waiting patiently to be remembered & reclaimed.
Colin Wilson dubbed this “small self” aspect of human personality “the robot.” He elaborates in the following interview:
“We have inside us what I call The Robot, a sort of mechanical valet or servant who does things for you. So, you learn something like talking French, or driving a car, or skiing—painfully & consciously, step by step. Then the Robot takes over and does it far more efficiently than you could do it consciously.
“The Robot does all these valuable things—like talking French & so on for us. The trouble is, he also does the things we do not want him to do. We listen to a piece of music, it moves us deeply the first time. We read a poem, we go for a country walk, and it moves us. But the second or third time you do it, the Robot is listening to the piece of music, or going for the country walk for you. I’ve even caught him making love to my wife! This is a real problem, that the Robot keeps taking us over and doing the things that we would rather do.”
“The secret is to keep your energy so high that [you avoid being taken over by] the robot, who’s a bit like the thermostat on the wall, which turns on quite automatically when your energies drop below a certain point, and then suddenly without even noticing it, you’re living mechanically, robotically, instead of as the real you. And the interesting thing is that it’s only a matter of one degree. Therefore if it’s just one degree to turn onto the Robot, it’s only one degree of effort to turn the Robot off.”
I have found that simply being aware of this dynamic initiates a ripple effect of more expansive feelings. Think of it as a thought experiment. I’m not advocating the removal of cynicism or discernment, only for the suspension of its mechanisms for long enough to collect the necessary data to really decide what’s what. If we decide something sounds too good to be true before launching a thorough investigation, we aren’t really giving ourselves all of the information necessary to make an assessment.
Just imagine, what if it were true that our sense of an isolated small self is not the whole picture, and, when we feel into a larger, more expansive & connected being-hood we are actually more fully embodying who we are? What if that self did have wisdom beyond our acquired knowledge & access to universal perception?
And what if there was a force of energetic support available to us, waiting for us to tune into a more expanded sense of self? What if the darkness & pain of the world is simply the result of a widespread belief in the smaller, isolated self—a collective disconnection from the expanded essence?
The only way to know for sure…is to explore it.
Unless we investigate the possibilities within ourselves & our relationship to reality with an open mind, we may never experience ourselves as we might become.
October 18, 2015 § 9 Comments
Loving ourselves is a daily practice.
We often think of self-love as a state of being — either we have it or we don’t. But I have learned through much struggle over the years that self-love is actually a verb, an action. It is a choice we make anew each day to take care of ourselves, to believe in ourselves & to treat ourselves with dignity, kindness & respect. When we see the dignity in ourselves it is easier to see & honor it in others.
In my life I have loved—and at times been obsessed with—perfection. Like so many who appreciate & feel moved by beauty & art, I become easily attached to symmetry & consistency.
In the Platonic tradition there is a realm of ideal forms. This mental plane is a source of great inspiration & imagination, a place of pure potential. Yet when fantasy meets reality, we often feel disconcerted by the discrepancy.
We judge our lives, ourselves as ugly.
We as humans are conceptual architects. We are constantly constructing our relationship to reality—and thereby reality itself—with the story we tell ourselves. We build frameworks & points of reference. But we must watch not to build prisons.
I find my negative judgments & consequential emotional pain most often centers around where the real meets the ideal & falls short. But I am beginning to suspect that, rather than conflicting opposites, one is the spirit of the other.
The ideal is the grandest possible vision of a thing, but how it shows itself in physical reality is what makes it interesting. It becomes the wabi-sabi ideal, a beautiful expression of organic process, the real in its most thrilling sense: alive.
We must learn to love the real because we are real. And when we are kind to ourselves we are kinder to others.
Aneta Ivonova, “Hannover.”
October 25, 2014 § 1 Comment
“In flow, concentration becomes so laser-focused that everything else falls away. Action and awareness merge. Our sense of self and our sense of self-consciousness completely disappear. Time dilates.” ~Steven Kotler
“When a person invests all her psychic energy into an interaction—whether it is with another person, a boat, a mountain, or a piece of music—she in effect becomes part of a system of action greater than what the individual self had been before. “ ~ Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
Flow is that feeling of being in “the zone,” when every choice you make lands perfectly, gaining momentum & feeding itself. The musician in the groove, the surfer united with the wave. The great conversation in which you lose track of time.
Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi—who first pioneered the concept of “flow” as a study—has observed the commonality between all these states of optimal performance. Steven Kotler, author of “The Rise of Superman,” summarizes flow as a state of “near-perfect decision-making.”
Csikszentmihalyi performed the largest global happiness survey to date. “He talked to everybody that he could possibly imagine,” relays Kotler.
“From Detroit assembly line workers to Japanese teenage motorcycle gang members, elderly Korean women, Navajo sheep herders, expert dancers, expert neurosurgeons. Everybody agreed that when they felt their best and were at their best, they felt flowy. Every decision, every action led perfectly, seamlessly, fluidly to the next. That’s where the term comes from.”
Neurobiolgically, it is possible to pinpoint exactly what is happening during flow states: the prefrontal cortex temporarily deactivates. This is the area responsible for executive functioning or self-monitering. Management of cognitive processes like the judgement of good & bad/better & best, as well a social control—like the ability to regulate urges that, if not suppressed, could lead to socially unacceptable outcomes. We become less self-critical & more courageous.
The brain—taking up just 2% of our body weight & using 20% of our energy—is required to be extremely energy efficient. When resources are needed for concentration & attention, it performs an efficiency exchange & switches to subconscious processes, which bypass the inner critic & draws on a larger reservoir of knowledge.
During flow the brain releases a cascade of pleasure-inducing, performance-enhancing neurochemistry. Large quantities of norepinephrine, dopamine, endorphins, anandamide & serotonin flood our system. These chemicals—the most addictive cocktail the brain can produce—have considerable impact on creativity.
“Both norepinephrine and dopamine amp up focus, boosting imaginative possibilities by helping us gather more information,” details Kotler. “They also lower signal-to-noise ratios, increasing pattern recognition or our ability to link ideas together in new ways. Anandamide, meanwhile, increases lateral thinking—meaning it expands the size of the database searched by the pattern recognition system.”
When the brain encounters the overwhelming complexity of a starry sky or a grand canyon, “reality seems to pause, if only for a second,” relates Kotler. “The conscious mind—what’s technically called the ‘explicit system’—can only hold about seven bits of information at once. This is why phone numbers are only seven digits long.
“But the subconscious mind—the ‘implicit system’—has no such limit. Thus, when we encounter overwhelming complexity, we trade conscious processing for subconscious processing.” (“The Rise of Superman.”)
Flow state can be broken down into a four stage cycle.
The first is struggle. Though it feels like the opposite of flow, this is the brainstorming stage, the period of pushing, reaching, training. Overloading the brain with information or taxing the body with new challenges.
“Most people never push this first stage far enough,” notes Kotler, “which is why they constantly miss the doorway to the flow experience.”
Relaxation is the second stage.
“This is when you take your mind off the problem entirely, taking a break, going for a walk or doing something physical,” remarks Kotler. He notes that it’s not the same as watching television or some other distraction that keeps your brain busy. “It’s about relaxing the brain so the conscious mind lets the subconscious mind take over. Many people miss this break and as a result are constantly in overload and burnout, missing flow altogether.”
The third stage is Flow—that blissful, much-sought state of being. This is the experience of optimal performance. Self & time disappear. The inner critic takes a break. Action & awareness become one. Preparation meets relaxation & expresses itself almost magically. Inspiration takes over.
Consolidation concludes the cycle. Learning & memory are amplified, synthesizing the experience of flow & folding it back into your subconscious in preparation for returning to stage one. As the feel-good neurochemicals of flow recede, it can be easy to “go on a down,” Kotler notes, which leads to an emotional reaction—& often self-sabatoge—in an attempt to regain the flow state.
“The key here is not to let this stress block the learning or reverse the results of being in flow, but to move smoothly back to the next phase of struggle and repeat the cycle.”
Part Two Coming Soon!
May 10, 2014 § 15 Comments
“Whenever there is a strong lock used there is something extremely precious hidden. The thicker the Veil, the more valuable the jewel. A hoard of treasure is guarded by a large snake; do not dwell on the hideousness of the snake, contemplate the dazzling and the priceless things you’ll discover in the treasure.” ~ Rumi
“Men may rise on stepping-stones of their dead selves to higher things.” ~Alfred Lord Tennyson
“Be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind.” ~ Romans 12:2
Just like a snake, we must periodically shed our outgrown psychic skins.
During a time when this need is pressing, the snake becomes uncomfortable. From the outside he may appear sick—his skin dull & ragged. He feels— he knows!—something is wrong & has to change. Something must be done! Intuitively, he begins the shedding process by rubbing his deadened dermis against rough surfaces. It is painful, but he feels compelled. When he is finally free of the outdated layer, he is more luminous & vital than ever!
This natural process reflects our own need to periodically embark upon an inner journey of self-renewal.
When it’s time for a sloughing off of psychic weight—outmoded belief systems, behaviors, situations—we are alerted by a sense of palpable emotional discomfort.
Unfortunately, we live in a culture of distraction, where the numbing of emotional pain is par for the course.
Television, comfort food & alcohol are some popular forms of socially acceptable self-numbing. However, those modalities are at least straightforward, in that they are acknowledged as being distractions.
More insidious, because it is rewarded & ennobled, is the “busyness” phenomenon. Because productivity has tangible positive results in one’s life, it’s also an extremely good cover story for not doing much needed inner work.
If we feel emotionally uncomfortable within ourselves & dive headlong into (outer) work, we may feel temporarily better because we are not engaging with the difficult emotions pressing at our awareness. When we come home, we’ve worked hard & are, understandably, tired. The last thing we want to do is engage with challenging questions & uncomfortable emotions. So the “I-worked-hard-I-deserve-it” syndrome sets in—we flip on the TV or the computer, grab a beer—& maintain a vicious cycle of almost unrecognizable escapism that can go on for years.
“For many years,” relates blogger Gabby, in her post “Escapism As A Lifestyle.” “I worked two and three jobs at a time to make ends meet. A few weeks ago, I quit my regular weekend job. It was such a relief to know I wouldn’t be working weekends anymore. I did not expect the panic that would invite itself to my table and have coffee with me in the morning. For me [it had been] a means of escaping. Being so busy I didn’t have the time to look at myself and think about what I really want out of this ‘one wild precious life’.
“I panicked and started filling up my life with other things, just to keep me busy. It took only about two weekends of this before I realized what I was doing. Which is good, because not all that long ago, it may have taken me years to figure out what I was doing.”
Unshed psychic skins begin to take their toll. We feel a vague sense of discomfort that may be hard to name. Perhaps we feel anxious or disconnected from a certain aliveness we recall having once felt, but we’re not sure how to get it back.
“Numbing vulnerability is especially debilitating,” notes Brene Brown, “because it doesn’t just deaden the pain of our difficult experiences; numbing vulnerability also dulls our experiences of love, joy, belonging, creativity and empathy. We can’t selectively numb emotion. Numb the dark and you numb the light.” (“Daring Greatly: How The Courage To Be Vulnerable Transforms The Way We Live.”)
Everything living requires renewal. Our cells shed automatically, but our emotional life requires more intentionality. If we don’t consciously process our feelings—heal our old emotional wounds, address our pain & pressing questions—we begin to suffocate under their weight.
Unfortunately, the signs of needing self-renewal mimic the symptoms of depression & anxiety—human experiences which modern psychiatry is all too eager to label a condition, prescribe pills & call it a day.
The blogger of “Spiritual Emergency” writes about her experience of what a traditional western worldview would categorize as schizophrenia, which she processed through a mystical-transformative-shamanic lens. Noting that this approach empowered her to find her true self & center, she observes:
“Mainstream reductionist psychiatrists […] by and large presume that if an experience (such as chronic depression) is unpleasant, it must be stopped or band-aided, but because an experience is painful or difficult, it doesn’t necessarily follow that’s it’s not valuable, or therapeutically worthwhile as a ‘wound which heals’.”
There are many times in my own journey when, if I had regarded my feelings of emotional discomfort—or “anxiety & depression” as we commonly define them—as simply a chemical imbalance & not the voice of a buried aspect of myself trying to come through & tell me what was untended in my life, I would never have found that next “trapdoor” into a deepened, expanded level of being.
In our lives, we periodically come across what appear to be ceilings in our personal-growth & sense of wellbeing. They always, however, contain trapdoors. You just have to keep feeling around for where the door to the next level is hidden…
Releasing old pain is an essential aspect of the art of self-renewal.
For me, finding that trap door has involved radically honest self-reflection & the willingness to face & experience my unresolved emotional pain head-on. We have to keep in mind that having emotional pain does not make us defective, it makes us human (at least, humans of this current un-enlightened age of Earth).
“Grieving is an intrinsic part of the healing process,” notes psychotherapist Daniel Mackler in “Grieving The Ultimate Loss: Your Imperfect Parents.” “Everybody suffers loss, right from the beginning. The primary loss is the fact that no parent, at least no parent who is not fully enlightened, is perfect. Grieving is long, painful, and confusing, but richly rewarding. Life is not complete unless all traumas are unearthed, grieved, and thus resolved. Those who fail to complete this process live forever in a limbo of partial misery, stuck unconsciously in the past and unable to escape […]
“Most believe that a healthy life feels no pain. This is why the majority are insane. Avoiding all pain is not healthy. Grieving is horribly painful, and totally necessary. Grieving is beautiful.”
A heart-healing excercise I’ve found helpful is to, in a manner of speaking, go to my heart & “knock there” to see what needs processing. This involves first finding/creating a peaceful, meditative & relaxed state, then putting one’s attention on the area of the heart.
How does it feel? Often, our first response is that we feel nothing. Don’t let this deter you. We live mostly with protectively blocked heart chakras, because our world is harsh & our culture does not encourage inner excavation as the essential part of life’s journey that it is. Keep inquiring. Meditate on the heart & eventually you will begin to receive impressions. What psychic swords are still stuck there?
Using symbolic imagery like this is useful. Just as our subconscious communicates with our conscious mind in symbols, so, too, the heart speaks.
Try mentally pulling a psychic sword out of your energetic heart. Who, or what experience, put it there? Asking yourself these kinds of questions can be very useful in identifying the areas of one’s emotional life which need attention. By attention, I mean simply confrontation (identifying & feeling the emotion). This alone will start the process of release & consequently, healing.
The idea of the heart as the locus of man’s emotional life is not accidental. Mystical traditions of both East & West have long embraced the idea of a heart chakra. In today’s climate of materialist cynicism, it’s all too easy to see the heart as simply an organ whose function is to pump blood to the rest of the body.
As with everything, there is an exoteric function to the heart & an esoteric one. The invisible life of the heart is a very real thing. It is truly the compass for our life’s direction. And too often unhealed emotional pain—like a snake’s unshed skin—blocks our connection to our greatest resource.
Clearing the emotional cobwebs, which block connection with our internal compass, is a key step in self-renewal.
I am also a strong advocate of art therapy & the cathartic value of creativity. It’s a myth that some people are creative, while others are not. Creativity is inherent in human nature. Some people may have nurtured specific modalities & refined their skills for particular crafts, but everyone can self-express if they simply allow themselves the space to play.
Creating a painting, song, collage, poem, short personal essay, etc. expressing the feelings you’ve unearthed in your heart work is richly rewarding. It’s as though one has coughed up one’s pain & caught it in the butterfly net of art, wherein it is transmuted into something positive. Transmutation is a powerful act.
It can be particularly rewarding if you continue to craft a piece from a rough, private catharsis to a polished, artistic offering. My book of poems, “Pollen,” is largely a result of processing my father’s untimely death & the consequent existential crisis that ensued. When readers write to tell me that the work has moved them & helped them with their own process it is doubly rewarding. Like oysters, we can transform our painful sand grains into luminous pearls. Thus is the redemption of art.
Once the initial malaise has begun to clear through processing, intentional visioning—identifying meaningful goals—is a helpful step to continue momentum.
Vision boards are popular these days for a reason…They’re fun! Compiling representative images of your goals in an inspirational collage is a greatly constructive form of play. More tangible & exciting than a list.
Another method is to work “backwards” by writing down the ways you wish to feel, and then making note of what actions & activities promote this feeling.
So if you’re feeling stuck, don’t worry! It’s simply time for an internal house cleaning. And Spring is a natural season for it.
If you’re feeling lost, do not lose heart. While it’s true life does not, as is commonly bemoaned, come with instructions, you come with a compass—your own inner guidance system, the heart. The connection has just likely been muted & clogged with unprocessed emotion. A little catharsis & honest self-reflection, followed by constructive action, will do wonders.
If you’re feeling depressed, don’t buy the hype; our society is so afraid of unpleasant feelings, it has instilled in us an unhealthy fear of challenging emotions. Depression, like physical pain, is just our system alerting us that something requires attention. Modern culture is pathologically fixated on happiness, with an equally pathological rejection of unhappy feelings. This is a recipe for disaster! Ironically, the only way to reach true inner peace & wellbeing is to traverse the psychological labyrinth surrounding the proverbial treasure.
These are all simply symptoms of the need for self-renewal, rejoice! And enjoy the journey.
March 3, 2014 § 11 Comments
All men whilst they are awake are in one common world: but each of them, when he is asleep, is in a world of his own. ~Plutarch
All the things one has forgotten scream for help in dreams. ~Elias Canetti
The general function of dreams is to try to restore our psychological balance by producing dream material that re-establishes, in a subtle way, the total psychic equilibrium. ~ Carl Jung
[CLICK HERE TO READ ~ PART 1] A fascinating number of scientific discoveries, inventions & creative breakthroughs have been made via dreams.
Those who dismiss their nocturnal inner journeys as meaningless mental meanderings may not know the extent to which dreams have assisted the progress of humanity, examples that bolster the weight of dream interpretation as a study.
Influential 19th Century chemist August Kekule, for example, discovered the empirical formula for benzene when, dozing in a chair, his subconscious presented him with an image of a snake biting its own tail. Startled, he jumped up & worked out the mathematics of the molecule—which we now know has a ring rather than a long string structure, as previously thought.
Dante reported that the entire story of The Divine Comedy was revealed to him in a dream. Even more fascinating, when part of the manuscript was lost after his death, his son Jocoso recovered the manuscript after his father showed him where to look in a dream.
Nobel Prize winning 20th century physicist Neils Bohr developed the model of the atom from a dream. After working on many different designs, which weren’t quite right, he dreamed of sitting on the sun with all the planets whizzing around him. When he woke up, he knew that the sun symbolized the nucleus & the solar system represented the electrons. This was the model for which he had been searching. Further testing proved his hypothesis correct.
Nobel Prize winning medical scientist Frederick G Banting, who discovered the insulin-link with diabetes & developed our modern treatment of the disease, went to sleep frustrated one night, after a long day of working on the problem, & woke up having dreamed the experiment he needed to confirm his theories.
The inventor of the sewing machine, Elias Howe, found the defining concept of his design in a dream that he was being hunted by cannibals & thrown into a pot. He kept trying to climb out, but the natives kept pushing him back in with their sharp spears. When he awoke, terrified, he went back over the dream in his mind & realized that each spear had sported a hole at the tip, just like a long needle. All at once, he saw that this was the solution to his problem. (Lisa Shea, “Famous Inspirational Dreams.”)
“Father of Neuroscience,” Otto Loewi discovered the secret of nerve impulses from not one, but two dreams:
“In the early 20s, [Leowi] was working on how nerves transmit impulses…night and day with little result. Then one night he fell asleep and had a vivid dream. He scrawled down some notes but was unable to read them the next morning. Frustrated, he waited until the next night. Again, he had a vivid dream, showing him the style of experiment that would help him in his nerve transmission work. Sure enough, he went immediately to his lab to try the experiment. It worked, and as a result, Otto Loewi was awarded the 1936 Nobel Prize for Medicine.” (Lisa Shea’s “Famous Dream Inspirations”.)
Clearly there is a level of useable insight to be found in dreams—the implications for the hidden wisdom of the subconscious are huge!
It’s worth noting that all of these “discovery dreams” involve symbolism, decoding & the following of an intuitive hunch regarding interpretation…
Kekule dreamed of an ouroboros & applied the image to his work. Bohrs dreamed of a solar system & applied it to the atom.
Dream theorists agree, there are different levels of dreams in terms of their depth of insight. Often, dreams which carry important messages feel & appear more vivid than your run-of-the-mill nightly jumbles.
They often simply feel significant.
Author & dream scholar Theresa Cheung notes: “Although different types of dreams can blend and merge, modern dream researchers tend to break dream types into one of the following categories.”
Amplifying dreams put a magnifying lens up to certain life situations or attitudes.
Cathartic Dreams “evoke extremely emotional reactions, when the unconscious is urging us to relieve pent-up feelings we may feel unable to express in waking life. For example, you may find yourself bursting into tears on a packed commuter train in your dream.” (“The Dream Dictionary From A to Z.”)
Daily-Processign Dreams are factual dreams in which you “go over and over things that happened during the day, especially those that were repetitive or forced you to concentrate for long periods. These kinds of dreams don’t tend to be laden with meaning, and most dream theorists think of them as bits and pieces of information your brain is processing.” (“The Dream Dictionary From A to Z.”)
Dreams of Childhood may reflect a childhood dynamic which hasn’t been worked out yet and requires a resolution,” notes Cheung. Although it can also simply represent a touchstone of extreme familiarity; even a place where your inner child lives.
False Awakening Dreams occur when you dream you’ve woken up, but in fact are still dreaming—particularly trippy from a philosophical standpoint.
If you can appear to wake while still dreaming, it’s logical to assume there is the possibility that even now, when you think you exist in waking reality, further states of awakened awareness might yet exist.
“It is thought,” details Thereasa Cheung, “that many reported sightings of ghosts are caused by false awakening, which occurs when you are actually asleep but are convinced in your dream state that you are awake.”
This bleeds into the so-called “old hag syndrome,” characterized by one’s mental awareness coming out of the sleep state before one’s physical body has fully woken up, creating physical paralysis (and sometimes a pressure on the chest) often attributed to ghosts and alien abductions. Though sleep researchers have identified it as a physiological phenomenon.
Inspirational Dreams contain creative seeds and ideas for the dreamer. Many great works of music, literature and art have been conceived in the dream state. William Blake reportedly found much inspiration for his visionary epic poems in dreams. Mary Shelley dreamed the premise for Frankenstein.
Lucid Dreams, perhaps the most exciting category, describe the circumstance of realizing you are dreaming while you are dreaming. Once you become aware that you are dreaming, you can start to determine the course of your dream with your mental focus. Whenever I realize I am dreaming, I try to fly. It usually works with a few jumps and some active willing of my dreamself off the ground.
Methods vary for increasing lucid dream activity. One way, which has worked for me at times, is to periodically ask yourself throughout your waking day if you are dreaming; this sets the pattern up in your mind to ask the question, and eventually your subconscious will ask it of your dreaming self.
In The Art of Dreaming the Yaqui seer Don Juan instructs Carlos Castaneda that when you can look at your own hands in a dream, then you will realize you are dreaming and be able to control the course of your dream’s content.
I have not personally had luck with the hand method.
The best way to increase one’s likelihood of lucid dreaming, in my experience, is to simply focus on your dream life. By spending the first few minutes of your morning mentally going over dream recall, and jotting a few notes in a dream journal, you will start a process of increased awareness surrounding your dreams, which, in my experience, often culminates in lucid dreaming.
Nightmares, of course, are dreams which cause us extreme distress. It is not uncommon to dream of being chased or pursued by a malevolent person or being…While nightmares typically reflect an anxiety or sense of helplessness in waking life, they are also a natural and healthy way for our minds to process and explore fears without actually jeopardizing our safety.
Night Terrors are nightmares which occur during the deepest level of sleep (stage four) from which we awaken without memory of the dream’s content, yet having a lingering feeling of dread.
Physiological Dreams reflect the state of your body, from the simple pursuit of water in a dream when you are, in real life, thirsty, to the more profound reflection of physical needs or conditions. Problem Solving Dreams occur sometimes when we are mulling over a problem and receive the solution presented in some form during ensuing sleep, as did our previously sited great inventors
Wish Fulfillment Dreams are simply an expression of one’s desires…usually the ones not given full expression in waking life.
Sexual Dreams of course are common, sometimes a source of embarrassment. But sex can be symbolic of intimacy in dreams…according to dream analysts, dreaming of sex with an unlikely partner can often be read symbolically as a desire to be closer with the person, or to integrate ideas they represent into your life. Cheung notes that sometimes a certain person will show up in a sexual context in one’s dreams simply to get our attention.
Precognitive dreams, as one might expect, reveal glimpses into future potentials, only confirmable after the fact. These do, indeed, seem to occur, if rarely. President Lincoln had a precognitive dream foretelling his own assassination.
In Lincoln’s own words: “…There seemed to be a death-like stillness about me. Then I heard subdued sobs, as if a number of people were weeping. I thought I left my bed and wandered downstairs. There the silence was broken by the same pitiful sobbing […] I kept on until I arrived at the East Room, which I entered. There I met with a sickening surprise. Before me was a catafalque, on which rested a corpse wrapped in funeral vestments. Around it were stationed soldiers who were acting as guards; and there was a throng of people, some gazing mournfully upon the corpse whose face was covered, others weeping pitifully…
“‘Who is dead in the White House?’ I demanded of one of the soldiers “The President” was his answer; “he was killed by an assassin!” Then came a loud burst of grief form the crowd, which awoke me from my dream.” (Famous Dreams.)
This was apparently a recurring dream for Lincoln, one he had again the night before he was assasinated.
In conclusion, when attempting to decode a dream, it is best to ask yourself: how does this situation make me feel? What does this person, animal, place or action represent to me?
Does it seem to be a simple processing dream, or did it have a deeper charge, worth examining?
Part 3 will explore the concept of aboriginal dreamtime as well as further explore the phenomenon of lucid dreaming!
January 23, 2014 § 4 Comments
“All human beings are also dream beings. Dreaming ties all mankind together.” ~ Jack Kerouac
“Yet it is in our idelness, in our dreams, that the submerged truth sometimes comes to the top.” ~ Virginia Woolf
“Dreams are often most profound when they seem the most crazy.” ~ Sigmund Freud
Bewildering, inspiring, sometimes horrifying, embarrassing, or just plain surreal—dreams have the power to recreate the rules of reality & transport us to places where we can fly, shift from one place to another instantaneously, converse with loved ones, long dead; or people we have never met. In a dream, a person can be simultaneously themselves & someone else.
These ever-shifting, quicksilver landscapes of the subconscious have fascinated humankind for time immemorial.
Dreams have been given mystical & personal significance throughout the world’s spiritual traditions for centuries—from the Bible to the Quran. A revered part of almost all indigenous cultures—from traditional African to Native American beliefs— the concept of dreams & “dreamtime” is particularly central to traditional Australian Aboriginal cosmology.
While initially considered divine messages from God or the spirits, the Greeks were the first to propose that dreams came from within—many a mystic would not see the difference.
Jung felt his contemporary’s focus was too narrow & contributed the idea of the collective unconscious—a universal pooling of archetypal figures or personified ideas, such as The Wise Old Man (which, incidentally, according to Jung, is the archetype that represents the collective unconscious.)
Most modern students of dream interpretation agree that, while certain symbols & their accompanying implication are universal—such as stormy seas indicating a sense of emotional turmoil in the dreamer’s waking life—the most important aspect of decoding a dream’s meaning lies in the personal significance of the symbol to the dreamer.
For instance, a serpent appearing in the dream of someone who likes snakes, or owns a snake, or considers snakes symbols of life force & personal power, (as is propagated by Hindu mythology, among others) will necessarily interpret a snake dream differently than a person who fears snakes or has a strong Judeo-Christian background, in which the snake is a classic symbol of evil.
(To extend this metaphor further, a snake owner with a strong Judeo-Christian background can determine the snake’s significance in their dream by assessing how the snake made them feel.)
The idea that the dreamer’s relationship to the symbols in question is the most important aspect of dream analysis was first proposed (in our known cannon of history) by diviner Artenidorus two thousand years ago, who wrote the first known book on dream interpretation.
In order to understand what dreams are, we must first dig a little into the idea of human awareness & its compartmentalization.
While the psyche is obviously made up of many layers, it can arguably be reduced to two basic components: the conscious & the unconscious mind—an intuitive, even self-evident idea. Though popularly connected with pioneering Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, the term “unconscious” was actually coined by 18th-century German romantic philosopher Friedrich Schelling—later introduced into English by the poet & essayist Samual Taylor Coleridge. Developed by Freud, expanded upon by the trailblazing Swiss psychologist Carl Jung, the conscious/subconscious split is the basis for all modern psychology.
The conscious mind, as the name implies, contains all the memories, feelings & beliefs—preferences, desires & fantasies— that we can easily draw into our awareness; essentially, what we “know” (or, if you prefer, “what we know we know.”)
The unconscious mind, by contrast, is composed of the remaining psychic terrain, of which we’re not consciously aware—all the feelings, desires & experiences we did not know how to process or reconcile with our lives, buried & hidden from ourselves until we are equipped to deal with them.
(The idea that we can hide knowledge from ourselves—like alcoholics hiding bottles throughout the house & then forgetting where they are—is one of the most fascinating aspects of psychology & the conscious/subconscious split.)
Not everything in the subconscious is emotionally charged. It also contains simple data deemed meaningless by the conscious mind, but non the less retained.
You could call these exiled & forgotten fragments “what we don’t know we know” (in some cases, too, “what we don’t want to know”). There is wisdom here, like buried treasure, along with the ghosts.
For instance, a person in a relationship with someone who is overly controlling might dream they are being suffocated. Later, after the relationship has ended & the dreamer has admitted the truth of the unhealthy dynamic to themselves, they can deduce the dream’s meaning. But if this reality was not acknowledged consciously at the time of the dream, then it will appear a meaningless night terror.
Freud famously likened the conscious mind to the tip of an iceberg & the unconscious to the vast hidden depth beneath the visible top.
For, like the hidden yet far vaster depth of the submerged half of an iceberg, the subconscious still exerts power over the conscious mind’s choices—no less powerful for its lack of “conscious” awareness, in fact, more so. The brain’s influential but hidden “shadow government,” if you will
This is one of the reasons why dream analysis can be an important part of personal development; dreams reveal the raw nature of the rejected, unprocessed aspects of our psyches & their accompanying life experiences. They also reveal the buried gems, creative talents & powers—like treasure at the bottom of the sea.
Dreaming is commonly described as the way the subconscious communicates with the conscious mind. Through dreamwork we can become more conscious of the lenses through which we view the world & better see which are serving us & which may need some polishing.
Why do we say that dreams are symbolic?
A symbol represents, stands for, or suggests an idea, visual image, belief, action, or person. Since we are not “really” doing the things in our dreams, but experiencing images & sounds as if they were real, the visual & audio cues “stand for” their real-life counterparts. This is one level.
The deeper level is that the subconscious mind is not a logical, tame beast that communicates neatly in language. It is a primal aspect, emotionally charged, which speaks in the symbolic universal tongue of images. It is the wild jungle-forest aspect of our psychic terrain which has not been colonized & farmed by the socially conditioned conscious mind.
So the unconscious uses symbolic language to express itself—presenting images & scenarios that may represents or suggest things or ideas beyond the thing itself. For example, a red rose symbolizing romantic love.
Jung popularized the now mainstream wisdom, “Everyone in the dream is you.” But many dream scholars, including myself, believe that there are many different types of dreams.
Different characters in the dream may in fact represent different aspects of the dreamer’s self. But it is equally possible that they represent actual people or circumstances in the person’s life.