Posts Tagged ‘Calvin Hall’

My recent re-reading of Antonio Machado, which continues to be rewarding but slow work given my sluggish Spanish, has reminded me of how important working on dreams has been in my personal and professional life.

Among the most resonant of his poems about dreaming is the one that begins this way (Antonio Machado Selected Poems translated by Alan Trueblood – pages 90-91):

Anoche cuando dormía
soñé, ¡bendita ilusión!,
que una fontana fluía
dentro de mi corazón.
Di, ¿por qué acequia escondida
agua, vienes hasta mi,
manantial de nueva vida
en donde nunca bebí?

And ends.

Anoche cuando dormía
soñé, ¡bendita ilusión!,
que era Dios lo que tenía
dentro de mi corazón.

Alan Trueblood’s translation reads:

Last night I had a dream –
a blessed illusion it was –
I dreamt of a fountain flowing
deep down in my heart.
Water, by what hidden channels
have you come, tell me, to me,
welling up with new life
I never tasted before?

. . . . Last night I had a dream –
a blessed illusion it was –
I dreamed it was God I’d found
deep down in my heart.

Dreams were obviously important to him at that stage in his life. Why were dreams so important to me? I’ll try and explain this now by drawing on material from an earlier sequence of posts and adapting it slightly to present purposes.

Daniel Kahneman

Why Dreams?

I have come to believe, as Machado implies, that dreams sometimes connect us not just with the subliminal, but with the transcendent.

I am, in the first two parts of this treatment of dreams, going to keep as best I can within a framework of evidence that does not draw on the transcendent while plainly proving that we have modes of thought which cannot be reduced to Kahneman’s  System 1 (instinct) and System 2 (intellect). It also provides an area of experience that every single one of us can test out for ourselves if we are prepared to give it enough time. It’s far too tempting for me to add that if you are not prepared to test this out yourself over a period of months, at least resist the temptation to assume it’s valueless.

My main line of argument for now is that we can consult with our dreams. What does this mean in practice?

Dreams clearly come from a different part of our beings than our usual daytime conscious thoughts. Visual elements predominate. Even verbal ones are often tinged with the surreal. The best way to conceptualise dreams for our present purposes is to see them as originating from a level of consciousness that is usually below the threshold of our awareness – subliminal in other words. None of this is incompatible with the generally accepted view of dreams as being involved in a process of consolidating memories from short-term to long-term store. This function gives them a special role in alerting us to the meaning of what is called ‘day residue.’

I am writing this in full awareness of Matthew Walker’s recent book on sleep, which, while it explores the scientific support for the importance of dreams in consolidating memory, processing traumatic experiences and producing creative solutions to hitherto unsolved problems, is profoundly sceptical about the value of dream interpretation. As I will discuss at points later I am equally sceptical of the value of his prime target in this respect, Freudian theory.

Walker’s scepticism about examining one’s dreams is slightly qualified by what he adds, not quite as an afterthought (pages 202-03):

I want to be clear, as this all seems dismissive. I am in no way suggesting that reviewing your dreams yourself, or sharing them with someone else, is a waste of time. On the contrary, I think it is a very helpful thing to do, as dreams do have a function… Indeed, journaling your waking thoughts, feelings, and concerns has a proven mental health benefit, and the same appears true of your dreams.

So, undeterred, I’ll blast on!

Once you accept the idea that dreams come from below the threshold of normal consciousness, it becomes possible to see how useful they can be in problem-solving. This is because they come at a problem from a completely different angle from Kahneman’s System 1 and System 2, and it will also become apparent that they can bridge the gap between the material and spiritual aspects of consciousness, drawing therefore in my view more easily upon the transcendental. I have chosen to focus on dreams because not even the most reductionist scientist would deny we dream, even if he never remembers one, and because I have personally experienced the power dreams potentially have to unlock doors in the mind resistant to ordinary unassisted waking consciousness.

Also, dreams highlight a key problem, which permeates this whole area of human life: there is a world of difference between an experience and the interpretation of that experience. Nevertheless, it is not good science to dismiss the experience just because you don’t like the explanation that someone has pinned to it. Dreams undoubtedly exist. They are an unusual state of consciousness. What they mean and where they come from is open to interpretation. As such, therefore, they are potentially perfect illustrations of what I am hoping to convey.

At the most basic level you have the possibility that they can bring to our attention purely physical factors that were below this threshold of consciousness during the day. One such example is of the man who had a recurrent dream that a tiger had its claws in his back. After several frightening nights of this he asked his wife to check the skin there where he couldn’t see it. She found suspicious blemishes which a visit to the doctor and subsequent tests confirmed was a form of skin cancer. By paying attention to his dreams, he had been alerted in time and was cured.

One of my own experiences was less dramatic but none the less helpful for all that. I dreamt that I had been electrocuted by my turntable. When I checked the record player the following day I got a slight shock from the metal arm and, when I looked at the plug, I discovered that the earth wire was disconnected. During the previous day I had presumably had a shock from the arm but not noticed it consciously.

We have all heard of other examples where complex problems were solved by dreams (see link for more examples):

Kekulé discovered the tetravalent nature of carbon, the formation of chemical/ organic “Structure Theory”, but he did not make this breakthrough by experimentation alone. He had a dream!

Working with Dreams

There are reported to be cultures which, when the community has a problem, encourage everyone to seek dreams that yield a solution. Apparently this works.

There are books that explain ways in which we can all learn how to tap into this subliminal reservoir of creative thought to find a way through our problems. We can for example, before we sleep, deliberately ask for guidance in our dreams. As most of us, until we have practised it, fail to remember our dreams it is advisable to have a notepad and pencil handy by the bedside to record any dreams we are aware of when we wake during the night or as we wake in the morning. They need to be noted down right then because they fade so quickly that by the time you have got downstairs to make a cup of coffee you will have forgotten them.

Different books have different advice about how best to understand what you have dreamt. Personally, I never got much out of any material that claimed to give me standard interpretations of dream symbols. Our imagery is too personal for that to work most of the time.

I found two approaches useful, the second more than the first.

Calvin Hall recommended recording sequences of dreams and looking for the meaning in the sequence rather than in any one dream. That is probably good advice but not very practical, though I did manage to keep a detailed dream diary for about a year, recording the dreams on filing cards. In the end though I tended to just look at one of the more striking and significant dreams and ignored the rest.

This caused me to abandon Hall’s method. I took an immediate liking to Ann Faraday’s approach once I found her book The Dream Game in 1977. I still have my very battered copy of her book in the Penguin Edition.

There are two stages to her method. The first is uncontentious for the most part, once you accept the importance of dreams. Stage 1 focuses on how to record your dreams. Stage 2 is concerned with how to understand what they mean for us as the dreamer. We are a long way from System 1 and a fair distance from undiluted System 2 already.

Stage 1 – Catching the Dream

There are nine elements to capturing what you need to hold on to about a dream. This is a brutally simplified summary (pages 48-54):

  • Have the means to record your dreams within easy reach at night;
  • Date it in advance;
  • Prime yourself to dream by suggestion or prayer;
  • Don’t delay. Record every dream as soon as you wake;
  • Don’t dismiss a dream as too trivial to record;
  • Record it as fully as possible;
  • Enthusiasts should invite the next dream before going back to sleep!
  • Transcribe your dream the following day; and
  • Relate the dream to the events of the day before or that period of time (this does not mean that it is only an echo of them).

Stage 2 – Recording the Dream

Much of the rest of the book concerns how to decode the dream. Rather than simply regurgitating what she describes, which can best be experienced and understood by reading her book, I thought it would be more interesting and helpful to share the approach to dreams I came to rely on during a difficult period of transition in my own life. Much, but not all of it, came from her approach. At the core is the belief that dreams are not couched in some esoteric and deliberately mysterious language of symbols. We may think we don’t understand images very well, but this may simply be an easily remedied mistaken assumption (The Dream Game – page 62):

When the dreaming mind expresses itself in movie terms, cutting out all the “as ifs” and showing us literally crossing roads and bridges when we are facing major life decisions, or literally being devoured when we feel “eaten up” by something, it is using the most fundamental of all languages, shared by men and women of every age and race.

1. Transcribing the Dream

After I recorded a dream, when I was transcribing it to work on, I would write it in the present tense. ‘I am sitting in my living room. The radio is on. Even so I hear the sound of movement from the kitchen through the open door. I turn and look and to my horror I see a large and shambling figure walking out of the full length fridge-freezer and turning to come towards me.’ And so on.

2. Noting the Possibly Related Event(s)

I would note at the bottom of the transcript the ‘day residue’ and any other previous or pending events that might have triggered or influenced the dream. I found that dreams are not just sensitive to what has happened the day before but also to what I am aware has recently happened or is going to happen, like a recent trip or a forthcoming job interview. Even the events of a week earlier can leave traces in a dream. It is all a question of whether their meaning is still alive in the mind in some way.

I would then spend a little time deciding whether simple implications of the ‘day residue’ probably exhausted the dream’s meaning, or whether there were other resonances. For example, the electric shock from the record player arm seemed to be the main point of the dream. It was a simple warning. I fixed the earth wire. There was nothing else to think about. However, even if my fridge had needed fixing, the figure stepping out of it was clearly not reducible to a loose wire somewhere, except possibly in my head.

3. Giving the Dream a Title

I followed the advice to do this even though it was inconsistently effective. Sometimes I was right about the key theme and caught it in the title I created. Sometimes, though, I was hopelessly off the mark. When it was close it helped: when it was wrong it could slow down the process of arriving at a true understanding of the dream.

Next time comes the really interesting part: decoding the dream.


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