I am with a friend in some place, very familiar to me, but one I
can't identify. We have been given a mission, but nothing is clear,
neither what we are to do, nor where we are to go. I walk out in
the street but feel very scared. My friend is no longer with me.
The dreamer is a very intelligent professional woman in her early 60's, with some notable accomplishments behind her. And, yet, sometimes she feels seized by fear, afraid she will be overcome by her anxiety and fall into shame and ridicule because of some mistake she might make. Her religion has brought great comfort in the past, enabling her to carry on. But because she is bright and curious, she wants to understand her dilemma and has moved into practices of meditation and dreamwork. Which led to our discussion of how, from my psychoanalytic practice and insight, we might approach her work with dreams and meditation with even more depth, understanding, and focus of practice.
So let's think about what her dream may be communicating and what implications -- if any -- the dream may have for her and us as well. When I asked her about the context of the dream, what had occurred around the time of the dream, nothing stood out. This suggested that the dream, as is often the case, did not refer back to a specific experience in waking life, but was formed in childhood and which might be continuing in her present life, taking the form of a mood, a feeling tone, or what we might call a psychological complex.
So I asked how that kind of drama appeared in her childhood. In other words, did you have times when you felt confused about what was expected of you, or how to do things in an approving way, or how to make sense of what the parents said and did. This is an important part of a child's life: to understand what is going on, what one is expected to do, how to do it, how to deal with so many things like acts of violence that make no sense to a child; second, to be given support with tasks and with coping when feeling overwhelmed; third, to be nurtured through the challenging stages of development and performances of schoolwork, tests, as well as the onslaught of social expectation; and lastly, to be guided not only by words but by actions toward adult ways of modulating scary experiences.
Of those four major ways to care for children in their interactions with conflictual situations in life, the dreamer could recall very few instances during her childhood when she received such care. It was not that her parents were sinister and mean. In fact, they would have insisted that they loved their daughter and told her that her family was "a loving family." But that was not so. The mother and father wanted to be and tried to show "love" in buying things, taking trips, and maintaining an obedient relationship with their parents who, it turns out, were abusive in their methods of discipline and general absence of showing affection, respect, and safety.
So, it was a family drama. And, or in the dream, we could see the parts of the drama as they circled through the generations: fear, not feeling safe, not fully understanding what was going on and what to do, not witnessing healthy modulation of conflict and fear, feeling alone with no one to talk to and no one to be counted on for protection.
Thus, although nothing specific came to the dreamer's mind as a situation that may have prompted the dream, upon closer questioning the dreamer did bring to mind a situation at work in which she did not feel safe psychologically, a situation in which she may have felt ashamed at her level of "performance" and all alone in dealing with her feelings. But note that this situation was not noted as significant! Why, because it is the way of feeling and experiencing life that has become habitual for the dreamer. It is the "soup" she swims in regularly and expects nothing else!
How does this occur? And how is this pattern changed? For these are the fundamental questions in psychotherapy. But not only are these the questions, they are the first stage of a recovery and further realization of the fulness of one's life -- one's Original Self brought into consciousness through the process Carl Jung called individuation. This means that whatever may have thrown us off our path of personhood that is unique, productive, and meaningful, it is still possible to overcome those dysfunctional functions and develop healthy ways of being in the world in line with our particular potentialities. This is our human potential realized.
Why can I say that? Because of the feature of the brain that is referred to as its "plasticity." Old patterns of functioning depend upon the circuit established between the amygdala and cortex of our brain. The signals picked up in the environment set in motion the process in the circuit of cortex/amygdala interaction that allows for feelings of danger to prompt cognitions and actions that result in a replay of the originating drama. In the case of the dreamer, she is in a situation that demands some level of performance, of which she is insecure; from there she feels "exposed" (on the street) and alone with no one to help her. That drama is encoded within her brain and any threatening situation with similar circumstance that could be perceived as the same basic condition will activate the old pattern.
That is our bio-neurological heritage, and it was a good one. It helped us survive over many centuries when we had to cope with wild beasts, a shortage of food, a small band of supporters, and a threatening environment. The brain enabled us to identify danger, remember the situation, and take quick action to survive. I jump when I see a limb lyingh on the ground in my backyard at night, thinking it is a snake, and only after taking the action of jumping back in fear, do I realize it is only a limb.
The brain assists us, but now we must assist the brain. Note how it does two things that are especially significant. First, on the bio-neurological level, it encodes situations of urgency for survival and well-being. Second, extending the bio-neurological to the psychological level of processing, images are sent to us via our dreams. As with the person whose dream we have been considering, each of us receives such messages nightly. And as with her, we can glean very valuable information from our dreams: We can identify those "states of mind" that describe distressing, dysfunctional ways of thinking, feeling, and acting. In her case, we have identified a sequence of dynamics as they occurred in childhood, repeated in her daily life, and now told in the story of her dream.
What do we do with these dreams? This is the point where dreams and meditation come together. This is, one may say, a meditation that might be described of as preparation for entering the "field of conflict." In this case, we are intentionally bringing the mind to focus on entering the very kind of situation that has brought fear to the dreamer.
These are the steps:
1. Begin by practicing meditation as learning to relax and training the attention to hold
the one point. This is crucial because in the childhood experiences where one's
attention was fragmented by being overwhelmed by fear, there was no way the child
could hold her attention, concentrate, and modulate her feelings. So the basic
meditation of relaxing and training the attention is the beginning point.
2. Next, the meditation uses desensitization to enter the field of conflict. Holding the
attention with the steadiness of a sword's one point, insert yourself into the situation
that causes fear. Coordinate the deep breathing, remain relaxed, and envision
yourself entering the field of conflict with calm, power, and focused attention. If the
situation becomes too frightening, leave the scene, recompose yourself, and re-enter
again. Do not worry if this takes days, weeks, months. You have spent a lifetime living
in the shadow of the fear, so do not expect that you will quickly overcome that old
fear. Pace yourself and feel your determined resolve.
3. Call upon your allies. Actually, you are not alone! Whether your psyche is the ally,
someone you have seen in your life, or movie, or literature -- someone who has faced
a situation like yours. Call upon that person, or a religious figure who inspires you and
gives you strength such as Jesus, the Buddha, St. Paul, Krishna, or some present-day
individual who brings calm and a sense of reassuring power to your mind when you
think of them. Remember, the psyche makes possible the presence of persons and
powers that accompany you and are available for counsel and support. Draw upon
that inspiration. Have their words, a picture of them, a story about them, and let
them enter the scene with you when you meditate on entering the field of conflict.
It is here at this point within us where dreams and meditation intersect that we find who we really are and what really matters to us. From this point, our lives take on renewed meaning.
Once upon a time, several knights rode their horses into the dark woods, in search of a very valuable message with healing information for the world that had been stolen and was reported to be located in a castle far beyond the woods. A young aspiring knight observed each of the knights departing, but each entering at a different point in the woods. Feeling anxious for the knights, the young man in training turned to his teacher who had trained the knights. "How can they possibly find the castle?," he asked. "The woods are very deep and dark; they may die in the woods because they do not know where the castle is. Aren't you scared for them?" The master replied, "No, I am not scared for them." "Why not?," the young man asked. The master looked compassionately at the trail of the knights now hidden by the woods and said, "They do not know where the castle is, but they know where they are."