Politics From Two Sides, Part 2


But that night, it became clear that simply being open wasn’t enough.

In the dream, I’m in a room like the living room of my old house in M—, lying on the floor. A man is outside the window—it’s a large one, taking up almost the entire wall— trying to get my attention. I pretend to be asleep, but he still seems to know I can hear him. He’s insulting me, challenging me to a duel with him, which has some connection with events in the past. Damn. If that’s the way it’s going to go, I don’t have a choice.

I get up to arrange things with him. Tomorrow morning, maybe, so it’ll be over before my class at 11:00. That works for him too, although I was sort of hoping it wouldn’t. I know this is a fight I’m unlikely to come out the better in, especially after having gone through the surgery. But this man isn’t an enemy—he seems to be a sympathetic person, although a little dangerous, too. He also seems familiar in a way I can’t place. When I think of him later, after waking up, I find that he reminds me a little of a couple people, but I can’t put my finger on why… (November, 2016)

The thing about arguing with yourself is that you always know which buttons to press.

In the past, I’ve thought that there’s no practical reason to be up on politics if you’re not directly involved with them. The only reasons to do so are because being well-informed is considered a social virtue nowadays and for the sake of winning arguments, and I don’t seek arguments out—but my opinion is out there now, and that’s something that does tend to invite them. And now I’ve got to do something.

I’m right to think I’m unlikely to make a difference by doing so—nobody can promise success to me or to any cause I choose to champion— but that’s not the point. You choose the side you think is right, not the one you think is going to win, even if it means standing alone. Yes, I’ve insulted him, but it’s an insult to all reasonable people for him to be sitting up there issuing executive orders. And I’m not going to take that lying down like some kind of goddamn consequentialist.

It’s hard to take up anew something that you thought you’d given up, I think as I look over my notes. It’s hard to pursue such an unappealing subject when you already have a lifetime’s work ahead of you waiting to be realized, and all you lack is time. It’s hard not to turn away in disgust after the first glance. But once I start, it shouldn’t be difficult. I have a good foundation to build on—and it’s precisely because I chose to ignore things like politics for so long.

And after all, my interest in philosophy was first sparked by a work of political philosophy—Plato’s Republic. I remember being fascinated by that metaphor of his—that a person is like a city-state on a smaller scale, with different drives like the various groups of citizens working together to create a harmonious whole—and that’s what justice is.


And I know all that’s still in there somewhere. My dreams have used the metaphor many times since then. It seems to be common for people to use houses to represent themselves in dreams, but ironically, I seem to be more civically minded than most in that respect. There have been times when I was practically using political analysis to understand myself—and if it got me as far as it did, then maybe it’ll work in reverse, too. Maybe spending all that time in the smoky back-rooms of consciousness where the decisions get made will prove useful in ways I never imagined.

That evening, I receive a text message from my father—the first one this month. He wants to know how the Liberal contingent in the household is handling the election results. Following his inquiry are seven crying emoticons and a broken heart.

I understand that all cats are libertarians, I type, and so the majority of the household is presumably quite content. We’re celebrating by replacing every litterbox in the house.


Of course, any major endeavor will have to wait until the semester is over. But that won’t be long now. It’s already December, finals are just a couple weeks away.

On the third night, I had another dream which seemed relevant, though not as dramatic as the ones preceding it. I was taking a test, written in German. It was the second test I had to take that class period—everybody had done the first one, but I had to make this one up from some previous occasion when I had been gone. I was tired out and could hardly focus, but I had just one question left to answer—something to do with Hermann Hesse.

And certainly, the question I’m dealing with now is one that most of my peers have already dealt with long ago, with more or less satisfactory results. And it may not be a coincidence that the test concerns someone who was more interested in his inner life than in combatting the political abuses that characterized his time. He felt accomplishments in that realm were far more enduring than those in the ephemeral world of politics. And it’s true that his have proven enduring—but his silence has earned him criticism from later generations.

Is it fair to implicitly compare the current trends to the ones preceding the Nazi era like that? It would be nice if I could dismiss it as exaggeration, but if so, it hasn’t been earning me any subconscious criticism. Which doesn’t necessarily mean that it is fair. Maybe I’ve just spent so much time among philosophers that even the deep-down parts of me care more about being consistent than being correct. But my dreams are so consistent in discouraging me from taking an overly negative view of things that it would be odd for them to let it pass without comment now. This may be a case where the pessimistic forecast is the realistic one.

In any case, that seemed to be the end of that particular exchange. It has now been a week since it began:  it’s Friday night again, and I’ve just finished making a more successful attempt on the metaphysics of color.

But as I walk down the street, I don’t sense so much anger the way I did last time. Something else is in the air—something much harder to define.

Some teenage girls wave goodbye to one another, each heading off in a different direction. Two women are selling hot chocolate by the street corner next to the ice cream shop, which even on this cold December night has a line so long that some people have to stand outside. A group of children is comparing the Christmas ornaments they must have purchased in one of the shops that’s still open. I catch scraps of conversation as the people go by.

“You’re not allowed to step on the cracks, Mommy.”

“Someone farted in yoga today.”

“People realize, but, like—it’s just—it’s just—“

But I’m past before I get to hear what it is.

Two men are walking a few steps ahead, but one turns and walks back the other way. The other mutters to himself, makes gestures—he’s clearly under the influence of something. After a little while, he turns to me. “I try to hold myself back, like I used to, but it irritates me,” he explains. I nod as sympathetically as I can without committing myself to a social interaction. I stop at the street corner as the light turns red, but he keeps going and is soon out of sight.

On a porch, a homeless man is sleeping, a pizza box lying beside his head. Did someone buy him a pizza, I wonder?

I turn off onto the street where my car is parked. It is much quieter here—just two men walking in front of me and another man standing some distance off. When they reach him, they stop. But I don’t hear any conversation as I walk past—only the jingle of coins.

The rest of the street is deserted and silent. This is a residential street— the only place people have to park their cars is along the street in front of their houses, and the competition is fierce. I once saw a man here get out of his car and set an orange traffic cone in the spot where it had been parked before driving off. But I’ve found that there’s always space down at the other end, in front of the cemetery.

The line rises up out of memory: “You had such a vision of the street as the street hardly understands….” T.S. Eliot. A conservative in politics—which meant something rather different in his time—and a steadfast opponent of simplistic ideologies of every sort. And he understood better than anyone how it is that you can catch only fragments and end up feeling like you’ve grasped so much more—perhaps even the whole thing.

-To Be Continued-

Politics From Two Sides


It’s another Friday night down at the neighborhood bar, but there’s something that isn’t right about the atmosphere this time. There’s an undercurrent of fear and anger running through the conversations at the neighboring tables, and every single one of them is a political conversation.

It’s been like that all day. The lawyers at their conference couldn’t talk about anything else either. It wasn’t just a forecast of legal changes, the way you might expect in the weeks following a presidential election:  it was preparing for a storm. Even the traffic this morning seemed angrier than usual.

I am listening to the conversations—just listening, and thinking things over. I’ve been able to get by with ignoring politics up until now, but I wonder whether that’s still going to be possible. It isn’t that a piece of legislation has never affected me personally—the Affordable Care Act did, and especially the period of uncertainty in the months before its passage. If it had been passed a few months sooner, there’s no saying what kind of a life I’d now be living.

That would have been the time to take up advocacy, I suppose, but I was tired of having my future tossed around by forces outside my control. I surveyed the forces that for all I knew held my life in balance—it had taken many of them, working at cross-purposes, to get me into a mess that big—and thumbed my nose at them. I chose instead to focus on what I knew I could change—myself. If I only live fully, I thought, and pursue my ambitions wholeheartedly, and be happy in spite of everything, then I am the one in control—not the political system, not the health care system, not any system. That was a strange, chaotic time. It was as if I were standing on a sinking ship, having to cast things overboard, and political engagement was one of the things that went.

I hadn’t missed it, either. In the time that followed, there were entire months when I had to walk 10 Kilometers for an internet connection, when I only picked up newspapers in order to line birdcages with them—and when I finally did catch up with the world, I found that I hadn’t missed a thing. The same old arguments, exaggerations and misinformation were still being bandied about. And all of it just confirmed what my studies had already brought home to me. In music, when we shift around in a predictable way, repeat ourselves a few times and end up exactly where we began, we call it progress—and that seems to be the way it happens in history, too.

But I really should be focusing on my studies right now. The book is lying open in front of me on the table next to my glass of cider. It’s a book on the metaphysics of color, possibly the most pointless branch of philosophy there is. Actually, the author himself would agree—he’s writing in the tradition of Wittgenstein, he doesn’t even think it’s possible to practice metaphysics. The book is quite good for what it is, but right now it’s a little hard to care. Where else but philosophy do you find people writing books on subjects they don’t believe it’s possible to know anything about?

I think back to class a couple weeks ago. That afternoon, the professor had announced to us that we would get out early because he had a conference to attend. But, he added, color might be a sore spot today anyway. We knew what he meant. All of us had seen the solid wave of red sweeping the maps from east to west last night. Not our state, of course—it was never contentious the way we were going to go.

But even in a decidedly blue state, in our tiny, four-person class—I can’t imagine why so few people wanted to take a course on the metaphysics of color—there was dissent. I got into an argument after class with a fellow student. He seemed to think that since neither of us found either candidate appealing, we were mostly in agreement, but I didn’t see it that way at all. For him, Trump represented the lesser of two evils. As for me—well, perhaps you could find a candidate who represents the greater of two evils when set beside Donald Trump, but I’m not sure where you’d have to go to look. Maybe in Innsmouth. All the rest are just politicians—nothing better, nothing worse—but he’s something far worse. The night before election day, I dreamed about Hitler. Hitler with a bullwhip. I may not be a political person, but I am concerned with the way things are looking.

And my father was there, too—I had hoped that having his lifelong dream fulfilled would have halted his transformation into a reactionary, but that hasn’t been the case so far. Everybody who doesn’t hold conservative views is now an enemy, including me, even though I’m not actually a liberal either. I’m not anything. If there were an award for being the least political human being within a thousand miles of Washington, D.C., I would be a good candidate for it, and every time I see him he still tries to pick fights over politics. I saw real hatred there behind his words—which is why it’s so alarming to see so much anger here now, on the other side. Everywhere around me, people are trying to make themselves into strawmen.

“I wouldn’t wish the man on anybody,” I had said towards the end of our conversation, “but perhaps this will help us all figure out what’s important.” In every ordeal, there’s an opportunity to grow stronger, to remake ourselves. It’s something I learned myself, back when things were bad. I don’t see why it shouldn’t be applicable on a national level, too.

And yet—what can I do? Self-conscious group affiliation of any kind is a concept that’s never made emotional sense to me, which is one reason I don’t have a political affiliation. I never felt like I belonged to something larger than myself until I became a Buddhist—which, being based on a shared sense of non-identity, doesn’t help me much there.

And in spite of having spent the years often referred to as formative here in the States*, very little of the culture rubbed off—or, rather, any of the cultures. None of the standard political positions makes sense—all the lines that I see others defend so vehemently seem to be drawn in strange and arbitrary places. And what’s good for one person is always bad for another—how are you supposed to choose? Self-interest? But no, that’s one thing I am sure of—the sum total of people’s self-interest will never add up to something that’s good for everyone.

And to top it all off, there’s nothing that annoys me more than having people try to convince me to adopt their views, unless it’s having them try to do it in sneaky, subliminal ways. Debates are okay in philosophy, where people are trained not to identify themselves with their arguments and nobody changes anyone else’s mind anyway. It’s all okay if there’s some actual state of affairs to be discovered that’s one way and not another. But goals, values, how others should live their lives—that’s another matter. I’d make a lousy advocate because I’d be doing it with a bad conscience.

Am I a fatalist? Probably. But it really seems like there’s nothing I can do here, and if that’s the case, then there’s no reason to feel bad about it. Maybe just trying to keep hold of a comprehensive, unaggressive perspective and living from it in the midst of a difficult time is the best I can manage.

It’s clear that I’ve done all the studying I’m going to do for the night. I pack up my book and notebook—the latest page of which has far more musings over politics than metaphysics— put the tip on the table and leave. Instead of heading straight for my car, I take a walk along the street—the poster child of revitalized downtown areas for miles around, although you don’t have to go far to find the streets it’s better not to walk down.

I recall another dream from the week after the election. In that one, I was in a classroom for some kind of math course, and sitting next to me was none other than the president-elect. I asked him a couple questions. He paused, trying to figure out whether I’d just insulted him. He determined—correctly—that I had, but he just laughed, brushed it off.

Then I’m in another room, with a couple classmates. They’re having a conversation in German about the election, and I join in. “Guess who was sitting next to me in class today?” I ask. “It was like a bad dream…”

-To Be Continued-



Two men stand by the cliff’s edge. Ahead of them and down, the most desolate of landscapes, a stark, dry wasteland continuing unbroken on either side as far as the eye can see. But on the other side—a few hundred meters away, perhaps—it ends abruptly in another cliff face, this one too tall and sheer to be believed. They are looking into a canyon.

It would be better not to have to do this—but there aren’t many options left at this point.

It has been decided. Something is precipitating, taking a more definite form—a boulder now stands beside the men. One is holding a large hammer. With a powerful swing, he sends the boulder tumbling down into the canyon below. It picks up speed as it barrels across and slams against the opposing wall with a blow that can be felt throughout the whole landscape.

The wall reverberates, dust falls—but something more is happening. A column of dust-filled air is separating itself from the cliff face, from the bottom all the way to the distant top. It is a long, thin tornado, but more than a tornado. It is a snake—a cobra with its hood spread, standing and watching. Waiting.

To challenge a god to a contest of skill, I know, is hubris; to challenge one to a game of chance is merely disreputable. Unless, of course, you happen to share monsieur Pascal’s opinion.

Below the serpent lies the boulder. It has become pocked and sharp-edged from its rough journey—practically cubical. It is, in fact, a six. That was its roll, and it means there’s about an even chance of doing better. The scene fades out—elsewhere, the world is in chaos, and I’m out there somewhere, fighting, gathering people together, trying to figure out what’s important. Things look bad—and yet there’s something I did back in the very beginning, before any of this started, that will soon prove very helpful.

I can’t remember what it is after I wake up, but the feeling is still there. Confidence—happiness, even. Deep down, I know something that keeps this drama from being as terrible as it appears. Maybe I was witnessing something that has already been played out to the end; maybe it’s just that I never had anything to lose. Maybe it’s because, one way or another, a chance is all anyone ever gets—or at least anyone who’s made an enemy of fate.  But one way or another, I know there’s nothing to be afraid of.


Any comprehensive discussion of dreams will have to turn to their religious significance sooner or later—even if you’d rather it didn’t.

Religion is an awkward topic in today’s multicultural society. It isn’t just that it requires people to admit to someone’s face that the most fundamental thing in their life means nothing to you—or, perhaps, requires you to speak of the most fundamental thing in your life to an indifferent audience. The very words we have available to us practically guarantee misunderstandings. They all implicitly endorse one viewpoint or obscure others, and their inadequacy  is not often acknowledged, possibly because it requires admitting that some of the disagreements between viewpoints are not only real but incommensurate. It doesn’t mean we can’t all still get along—that’s a matter of good will and tolerance, not agreement—but it does mean that we need to be aware of the language we use and what it hides before we do anything important with it.

Consider:  if you look at the population of people who are interested in dream-interpretation, you’ll quickly discover that they are not representative of the population at large. If you wanted to put a name to the differences, you might say that they tend to be introverted, conscientious, sensitive, imaginative, emotionally-oriented, spiritual people. And the ‘spiritual’ does not seem to be an independent trait so much as an umbrella term implying the rest of them to some degree. It’s a nebulous sort of word that doesn’t respond well to conceptual poking and prodding. Even in context, it’s often difficult to tell whether it describes a person’s beliefs or their temperament.

This seems to suit most people fine—not making distinctions seems to be a big part of the spiritual attitude—but the dark side of that is that the temperament, the easier of the two to observe, often seems to be taken as shorthand for the rest. And if it’s absent, you are stuck with the antonyms of “spiritual,” which are without exception words that you would never choose yourself.

And consider the word “religion.” It’s not much better. It may look okay in the dictionary, but it too is an umbrella term, and it is often unclear how far the umbrella extends. A religious studies class will probably cover at least a few, but a religious bookshop will probably cover only one—the religion that, prior to the last 100-some years of Euro-American life, was synonymous with “religion.” When William James wrote The Varieties of Religious Experience, nobody would have found it curious that a book promising variety should step outside a Judeo-Christian context so rarely.

But the real trouble is that “religion” often extends so much farther than the person using it knows that it ends up meaning “Christianity, those other monotheisms, and whatever it is you other people do.” If we can talk about them all using the same word, they can’t be too different, right? They’re all the same kind of thing—maybe even identical at some level (say the spiritual folks).

And actually, many rational, scientific folks seem to believe that, too. How else could you justify trying to disprove all of them in one swoop? But “I have an argument against religion” usually means “I have an argument against Christianity that also works pretty well against the other monotheisms, and all you other people can consider yourselves refuted as well.”

It is also problematic in that the people who are “spiritual but not religious” are so laissez-faire about definitions that nobody has figured out what the Venn diagram looks like. Does spirituality encompass religion, or overlap with it, or represent something distinct? I don’t think anyone who identified himself this way would, if asked, deny that religious people can be spiritual—but nevertheless, the word in its actual use often seems to imply a hard distinction.

Perhaps that is why people now like to talk about faiths instead of religions. “Faith” does not imply that one belongs to an established religion, but it clearly applies to those who do, and it also has a generally nice feel to it. But this one also has a downside:  faith isn’t actually a big part of some religions. And, surprise, the only ones for which faith is central, the only ones for which it makes sense to be used as a synonym for religion are—Christianity and those other monotheisms.

Okay, then. What about truths? Everybody has truths—some of them are religious, some of them are spiritual, some of them are neither. The word doesn’t imply whether you hold them from faith or experience or habit—it doesn’t imply that you hold them in common with anyone or that you don’t—it doesn’t even imply that you personally think they’re true when you attribute them to another. This is so clearly inconsistent with its customary usage that there’s no mistaking what is meant by it, even if the dictionaries haven’t quite caught on yet.

But this is also the problem. It implies a relativism that does, in fact, alienate those who belong to a religion of truth—which is another way of saying a religion of faith, which is—well, you know the drill by now. If you imply that the truths they put their faith in are relative, subjective truths, then you’re calling them lies, which is presumably something you went out of your way to avoid by using this particular term.

And for those of us for whom truth is relative, whether we’re religious or not, it’s a little strange to give it the centrality the expression implies. The word may pick something out, but not what it’s supposed to. For that matter, I’ve also heard the expression roundly criticized by a room full of philosophy students— possibly because for them, truth is something you search for rather than something you have.

Whatever you want to call it, we as a culture clearly don’t have a good way of talking about it yet. It’s only a small minority who actually try to offend people in a different camp (although the military connotations of the word may surreptitiously imply otherwise). But even mutual good will doesn’t stop every attempt to inquire about others’ religion from being as awkward as when Gretchen posed the question to Faust. Or maybe it’s just me.

In any case, there are real differences between viewpoints. This is something that’s especially clear when you come at the question from a Buddhist perspective—when you’re a practitioner rather than a believer, and when all the language in common currency was never meant to convey what you’d like to say with it. Of course, the most important things aren’t the ones you talk about most, but communication and compassion are too closely intertwined for you to simply give up and leave the misconceptions unchecked.

And because there are real differences, there are also real choices. This is something I’d especially like to stress to those coming from the “spiritual but not religious” camp. I’m really coming from somewhere different than you. Yes, it is possible. Sorry. If it’s any consolation, I’m going to be offending just about everybody by the time this is done.

But this is an essay about dreams—and here too, sooner or later, you have to make choices. You can only work with dreams for so long before you find yourself with a practical question that can only be resolved through adopting a definite metaphysical stance. Depending on your religious, spiritual and philosophical background, it may be the first time such a question presents itself to you this way—a practical question, a question of how to act rather than a “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” kind of question.

Our culture disposes us to view such questions as matters of truth. This implies that a satisfactory answer can be reached through the testimony of an appropriate authority, or faith, or rational inquiry. But your dreams are uncharted territory. The familiar landmarks aren’t there. The familiar logics don’t seem to apply. You are going to come up against situations—possibly important ones— where you don’t know but still have to make a choice.

But there are better ways to explain—ways that don’t rely on questionable concepts that were never meant to communicate what I have to say. Instead, I’m going to tell a story.


(Image Source)


To Be Continued (someday)

Making Connections, Part 5


Buddhism uses a similar image to describe the interconnectedness of all phenomena. It is called Indra’s Net. When Indra fashioned the world, he made it as a web, and at every knot in the web is tied a pearl. Everything that exists, or has ever existed, every idea that can be thought about, every datum that is true… is a pearl in Indra’s net. Not only is every pearl tied to every other pearl by virtue of the web on which they hang, but on the surface of every pearl is reflected every other jewel on the net. Everything that exists in Indra’s web implies all else that exists.

-Timothy Brook

The first thing I’d like to clarify in wrapping these posts up is that, in providing the background of my example dreams in a way that others will be able to follow, I’ve probably made the interpretation process appear more analytical than it is in practice. When you sit down to consider a dream of your own, you’ll already know all the background information, and so it will feel more like following hunches than reasoning. If you haven’t reached a point where it does, it probably means you’re still missing something important.

Association turns up all kinds of things:  facts, figures, hopes, fears, song lyrics, quotations, memories of the recent or distant past. Somewhere among the shifting contents of your mind are those that can help you understand your dream. In a way, all of it can because all of it is connected. If you know your own mind well, you’re already more than halfway there because you have the big picture in front of you, and you know that the dream fits into it somewhere—you’re the one who dreamed it, after all. It’s just a matter of figuring out where.

But association isn’t a skill that has to be learned:  it’s just what the mind does, if you let it. The only thing you can do wrong is second-guess yourself. The thought you dismiss as ridiculous the moment it occurs may very well be the one that would have led you where you want to go.

As useful as it is in some cases, though, there are others where association lets you down, and they tend to be the most fascinating ones—the ones that are farthest from everyday thoughts and everyday life. If this is the case, the failure will quickly become apparent. Instead, you might try treating it like a great work of art. Analysis often fails there, too; all you can do is appreciate. Let it work on you, rather than the other way around.

“To paint is not to copy the object slavishly, it is to grasp a harmony among many relationships.”  –Paul Cezanne

So much for the practical side of the matter. However, I’ve left any number of theoretical questions hanging. For instance, when does association work? When it does work, why?

The most likely answer, given what we’ve seen, is that it works when the original dream was formed through association—i.e., the brain in neutral. This is because the process can also work backwards, and thus we can follow the same paths the dreaming mind took in the opposite direction. Like Freud posited, the process is not free of intentionality, although the intentions may be more diverse than he thought possible.

All three of the dreams I examined appeared heterogeneous and disconnected on the surface, with semi-familiar or totally unspecified locations, a mix of familiar and unfamiliar people, with an occasional animal thrown in. Some improbable things happened, but nothing that was physically impossible. Nothing numinous or violent or profound— on first inspection, at least— and not even anything striking. In short, they are average dreams, and we can assume for the moment that they can also pass for representative—not of all dreams, but for other average dreams that don’t fit a recognized type, which is the largest group of them. (Keeping in mind that averages and types are relative, and vary among cultures.)

All three dreams responded well to the method I used—convergent association—which was, of course, why I chose to use them as demonstrations. And a method for finding the unity behind multiplicity is clearly only useful when there’s multiplicity.

Associations to the first dream led to recent memories and a present concern of purely personal importance. The second dream led to what you might call a back-burner concern—something not pertinent to the immediate present, but of personal importance, and relevant at a cultural level as well. The third led to a mythic image—and, again, to a present concern, which in this case can only be described as a fundamental human concern.

It is interesting that the last dream did not seem significantly less aimless in form than the others when it led to content that is more ordinarily associated with big dreams. For one thing, it implies that content alone can’t decide the dream’s appearance.

Even more interesting:  the long detour of the last dream itself may be be pointing up the inadequacy of the expression, the failure of the surface to reflect the essence. The fact that the first one begins with aimless wandering may also reflect the kind of thought process that went into forming it.

All three dreams had something else in common:  they incorporated philosophical ideas—in all cases neither on the surface nor at the bottom, but somewhere in the middle. The dreams are not about these ideas, but they seem to be playing an organizational role – or maybe not quite organizational enough. One gets the feeling that the role they are playing here is one that something else could have played just as well—or perhaps they could have been bypassed altogether, resulting in a different type of dream whose significance was apparent on the surface.

We can easily imagine a situation where this is the case:  metaphors. In waking life, these often serve in place of abstract, conceptual material, and they get the point across much more quickly and directly. They can also illuminate areas of life that would otherwise elude language altogether; when we speak about our own mental processes, for instance, we can only speak in metaphors.

This suggests that knowing your own mind well might result in dreaming in an associative fashion less often, and so not having to use a method such as this one as much. Mind-wandering is only necessary if you don’t a map of where to go. Once you do have the lay of the land down, you could start thinking in terms of large, structural features, and drawing on similarities to where you’ve already been—which, again, suggests that metaphors might come into greater prominence. (Although, being more ubiquitous than you might think, they may have been there from the beginning without your being aware of it.)

In the end, we seem to have bridged the gap between Freud and Jung after all—or, rather, half-confirmed Freud while finding no fault with anything Jung said, which amounts to the same thing since Jung left his end of the bridge extended. When a dream was formed through association, it requires a kind of decoding to understand. And, as in code-breaking, the simplest way to understand it is to examine the “device” that was responsible for the encoding—your own mind.

But as Hume wrote, spotting a metaphorical resemblance is itself a variety of association— one doesn’t have to posit two distinct kinds of mental process at work.

And what about freedom? What sort of freedom is possible when everything in the mind is linked and interdependent? Is this a question it’s possible to answer through examining dreams? Or through dreaming?

These are questions too big to try to answer here. But there is at least one way in which examining dreams is of practical importance, even if the philosophical question remains unanswered. In a government, one of the safeguards of freedom is transparency. If freedom is possible in the metaphysical sense, it could only be for someone who is transparent to himself.

Making Connections, Part 4


“Since everything then is cause and effect, dependent and supporting, mediate and immediate, and all is held together by a natural though imperceptible chain, which binds together things most distant and most different, I hold it equally impossible to know the parts without knowing the whole, and to know the whole without knowing the parts in detail.”

“If man made himself the first object of study, he would see how incapable he is of going further….”

–Blaise Pascal

Back in Part 3, I had left off partway through examining a dream. I started with the first half of it and looked for connections among the elements of the dream, among that dream and others from around the same time, and between the dream and my life. In the process, I turned up some rather interesting things, but I hadn’t yet considered the part after the sudden transition.

Here is the dream again:

I had a friend who had a huge, insect-like creature as a pet.  I went over one day to have him help me with something mechanical.  He didn’t end up helping, though.  It was around that time that the creature began to act strangely.  It soon died—there was a special term for how it happened that literally translated as ‘self-devouring’.  Then it was as if that friend was Katya, and we were communicating by mail—we were both concerned over what had happened. I was sitting at the kitchen table at my K— house, looking at a package I had received from her. It had gone far out of the way—a label on it showed it had been routed through Königsberg…. (March, 2010)

The first thing I might note about the second half is that my friend Katya appears there—the only familiar person in either part of the dream. The appearance of somebody familiar is always a reason to ask yourself the question:  does this dream have to do with that person, or is she standing in for something else? This could be some demographic or area of life they make a good representative of, or another person who’s like them in some way. It could also be some particular aspect of you—some character trait or area of interest or the like.

Although this may seem rather odd, it is something rather common in dreams.  In order to dramatize inner conflicts properly—it doesn’t have to be conflicts, but they’re what tend to get dramatized the most— you need a cast to act it out. More often than not, that cast is drawn from friends, family and other people in your life. Media figures, historical figures or fictional characters can also play this kind of role—often even more effectively, since you already know what they stand for.

The guideline interpreters generally use is that when people who are absent from your current life appear in your dreams, they are usually standing in for a part of you. Dreams are mostly centered around problems – this one definitely is – and dead or inactive relationships don’t tend to be problematic. And when they are, the dreamer is aware of it because they occupy their waking thoughts as well as their dreams.

When people who are present in your life show up in dreams, though, it could go either way, or even both at once, so interpreting is not so straightforward. And in the dream I’m considering, there’s an additional complication: Katya doesn’t fit either case exactly. She is a long-distance friend, both present and absent.

In retrospect, that ambiguous position probably made my long-distance friends natural stand-ins for aspects of myself I wasn’t close to but wanted to be, even more so than the people who were physically present. That Katya was a theater person makes her an even more natural choice for this ‘role’. The fact that she seems interchangeable with the friend from the first part of the dream might also suggest that her presence there isn’t the key element, but incidental.

But more to the point:  can I connect this dream to my friendship with her at this time?—especially unresolved problems and issues? Not really. With long-distance friendships, the distance is the biggest problem. (Whereas closeness without conflict is found only in a cemetery—to quote one of Katya’s favorite sayings.)

In the dream, though, the problem isn’t the distance—at least not explicitly. It’s the insect, and perhaps the out-of-the-way detour. If there was a connection between these dream-problems and my real-life friendship, I was unable to find it then, and still unable to find it now. But the main reason to suspect that Katya’s standing in for some part of me is because the associations the first part of the dream stirred up—that’s intrapsychic stuff, not interpersonal issues.

So if Katya’s standing in for a part of me, all I know so far is that it must be a part I don’t know too much about. I could possibly figure out more, but not with internal evidence, as I’ve been doing here. It might be interesting, but it wouldn’t be dream-interpretation, and so I’ll leave off.

I’ve followed up on pretty much all the connections now, but there’s still one detail too specific not to be important. Why Königsberg?

The more precise a dream-memory is on any particular point, the more urgent the question becomes:  why this, and not something else? If there’s such a thing as generic mental imagery, dreams surely provide our best chance of finding it. On many nights, we consort with anonymous people in unspecified places over subjects of which we only remember the gist after we awaken. Even if this is just a trick of memory and not a quality of the dream itself, it still provides a striking contrast to those elements we recall with precision. We can still ask ourselves:  why this, and not something else?


The City of Königsberg

This example is interesting because there hasn’t been a city of Königsberg for 70 years. It is now known as Kaliningrad—and even though the two names pick out the same physical location, they don’t name the same city. The two have different associations. My dream named the city of the past—and that already tells me that it’s probably not the location that’s important, but something more abstract.

But, as you are probably well aware of by now, I study philosophy. I studied philosophy at the time of the dream, too. Does this, perhaps, have anything to do with Kant?

No, it couldn’t. I wasn’t familiar with his work at the time of the dream. Unless…

At which point, I had a conversation with myself that went something like this:

“The first part of this dream was concerned with time—the devourer of time devouring itself, and so on. That means it‘s likely that the second part has to do with time, too—and it just happens to name-drop the home city of somebody who had very influential ideas about the nature of time. There’s no way that “Königsberg” has nothing to do with Kant.”

“Well, there’s no question that back when I had the dream, he was one of the associations. For that matter, I also associated the city with Euler, and with amber deposits. It’s tempting to read him into it, but I can’t overlook the fact that I knew bugger-all about transcendental idealism back in 2010. And at the time, I settled on a satisfactory explanation without going into that at all. Modern-day Kaliningrad is in that little part of Russia that isn’t contiguous with the rest of it. Katya’s representing a part of myself that’s separated and out-of-the-way. It illustrates a problem in communicating with myself—that is, with understanding myself. Everything was still fragmentary.”

“But the package didn’t say ‘Kaliningrad’ on it—it said ‘Königsberg.’ Kaliningrad is a part of Russia, but Königsberg wasn’t. And doesn’t that seem like kind of redundant? You and Katya are already separated geographically. The fact that the dream was set in your house in K— makes that clear. The dream was very specific, yet you only got something general from it that you already knew. Is that a satisfactory explanation?”

“Still, the associations I’d need to make the connection wouldn’t have been there in 2010.”

“Didn’t you follow what’s-his-name’s blog?”

“Oh, wait, I guess I did. I’m sure he wrote some posts explaining Kant’s philosophy. I might have read those. But I guess what bothers me is that making the connection is natural now, but it wasn’t at the time of the dream.”

“If time is something your mind imposes on the world, and the first part of the dream is illustrating a breakdown of this process, why make the distinction? Maybe it was waiting for the future you who has the knowledge to understand it properly.”

“…hang on, let me think about that.”

“Do you think that the package being routed through Königsberg represents having to have a rational explanation for everything before you’re willing to accept it, thereby adding an arduous and unnecessary step to something that would otherwise be straightforward?”

“…goddamn it.”


But actually— experience with dreams can make possibilities real for you in a way even the best-formulated arguments never could. I’ve had dreams that seemed to go on for days on end, or longer; I’ve dreamed about being present at the end of the world—I’ve seen it happen a few times now, in a few different ways. Once, I stayed around afterwards and watched until all the stars had gone out.

And there have been dreams where time wasn’t even a dimension of my experience— some of the most extraordinary dreams I’ve ever had. But this also puts the experiences beyond the dimension of words, and so there isn’t anything more I can say about them. The best I can do is try to communicate from them and hope that others are listening closely enough to hear the echoes.

And to say that they’re dreams, that they’re all in the mind—they are, of course, but to say that they’re all in the mind does not give us the go-ahead to diminish or disregard them. Rather, it indicates that there’s more to the mind than we think, possibly a great deal more. And most of it runs orthogonal to reason. Refusing to rely on anything else to understand it means missing out on a great deal—or, in the best-case scenario, a longer and more arduous process than was necessary.

-to be continued-

Making Connections, Part 2


“There is a secret tie or union among particular ideas, which causes the mind to conjoin them more frequently, and makes the one, upon its appearance, introduce the other.”

-David Hume

Nowadays, especially among literary folks, free association often seems to be treated as a sort of cognitive randomizer, a way to inject chaos into something that would otherwise be predictable. But this is a rather strange idea. In the psychotherapeutic context where it originated, free association is used because it isn’t random. That’s kind of the point. The confusion probably arises from the word ‘free,’ which is itself associated not only with the absence of restraints, but arbitrariness—or at least the license to be arbitrary, should you feel like it.

Free association is only supposed to be free in the first sense. For that matter, it’s an open question whether human beings actually can be free in the second—whether we are capable of truly random behavior. We all do things for reasons, after all. And when we call others irrational, it’s not because we think they have no reasons for what they do, but that the ones they have are wrong.

But perhaps that’s just the conscious mind, you might say; the unconscious mind is irrational, and that is, after all, where free association is supposed to lead you. If this is so, then the people worthy of being called arbitrary would be those who are being strong-armed by their unconscious. In this case, arbitrariness would be possible, but it would be about as far from freedom as you can get.

The driving assumption here is that the mind is by nature chaotic, and order must always be imposed on it, whether by ourselves or from without. A human being, if given complete freedom and unlimited power, would be completely unpredictable—whereas there are other schools of thought, including that of Sigmund Freud, which posit that a human being would become more predictable under those conditions. And since Freud was the one who developed free association, we ought to at least consider what he thought of it.

It was a truly revolutionary idea at the time, and we still haven’t quite caught up with it. Our passing thoughts—the most fleeting phenomenon of our mental life, continually arising and fading, seemingly without pattern or logic—can reveal to us the depths of our minds. Not only are they not random, Freud thought—they are determined. Even more:  they are over-determined, through forces as exact in their operation as the physical forces that determine when an object falls or comes to rest.

What this means is that if we can set our tendency to hide things from ourselves to one side for a little while, the combined force of all our deepest concerns is free to produce the result—the only part of the process we are consciously aware of. Thus, those with a knowledge of how the psyche operates can deduce the original causes and gain an insight into the deeper workings of the mind—or so Freud claimed.

This is relevant to the present discussion because he also claimed that dreams—generally considered to be as insubstantial and arbitrary as our passing thoughts, if not more so—work on the same principle. That’s why free association is supposed to be a useful interpretive tool:  it leads us back to the thoughts that resulted in us having the particular dream that we did. And for Freud, the origin of a dream was its interpretation.

Of course, what I did in Part 1 wasn’t free association as a psychoanalyst would practice it. If I were to give it a name, I’d call it convergent association. Free association involves considering one image and following the train of thought wherever it leads, no matter how trivial or taboo it might appear. The psychoanalyst listens and stops you if it sounds like something has been skipped, or requires additional elaboration, or seems a bit fishy.

You can’t actually practice free association properly when you’re working alone:  if there’s no analyst keeping a watch on you, and you’re not supposed to be keeping a watch on yourself, then who will? You can write things down and analyze them later—or, I suppose, make a recording and then listen to it—but even then, you probably wouldn’t notice what a third party would. You can, however, try very hard to be honest with yourself and just associate to whatever draws your attention—or just experiment and try to find an approach that leaves less room for self-deception.

That’s actually what happened when I started exploring dream interpretation in earnest:  I experimented. I applied the processes of analysis I found natural and saw if they turned up any interesting results.

Sometimes, as I considered a dream, it would occur to me that there was a common link between two images. I’d follow it back from there until I hit something interesting—or, if that didn’t work, follow them through other dreams that seemed to show the same concerns or imagery, and then try to find the common link again. I tried to find the unity behind the dream’s multiplicity, which is the opposite of what Freud would have done.

Freud thought one of the basic processes by which a dream is formed involves multiple thoughts being combined into one dream-image—condensation, he called it. Thus, when you’re moving in the opposite direction, from the dream-images to the thoughts behind the dream, you turn up a great deal of material for every image you start with.

What I did was much more Jungian in spirit, and not just in treating the dream as an internally coherent entity rather than a piecemeal disguise. The basic method—beginning with many things and finding the unity in them—is something one sees a lot in Jung’s work. What is an archetype, if not the inevitable destination of this kind of thinking?

But in either case, the question may be raised:  does where you end up have more to do with the method you use than with the material you’re working with? Is it possible that both methods are valid? Even if they lead you to different places, do the results actually conflict? Freud certainly thought they did, but Jung seems to have considered them complimentary in some sense. Maybe an impartial investigation would back him up.

I don’t plan on taking up that challenge personally. I’ll stick to claims I can test myself—and that also means sticking to my own dreams.

The dreamer doesn’t have to work alone, but he does have to be a part of the interpretation process—something they both would have agreed on. Many of the connections you need to make sense of dreams are ones that only the dreamer can make. Many of the connections in the dreams that follow are ones that only I know to make. But I hope that, once revealed, they will be clear enough to clue others into what they need to look for when they try to understand their own dreams, no matter how they choose to do so.

The dream:

I was attending a school… I met Saimi, who was there with some others.  We were part of a group that was critical of the school.… A school official wanted us to pay for food we had eaten, which we’d been told was free.  We had to pay six Euros each.  Saimi handed him some coins, I got out my purse and handed him a five and a one-Euro coin.  Also, something about an owl? (August, 2010)

There’s nothing really special about this dream, in form or content. At first glance, it seems to be expressing dissatisfaction with educational institutions—a common theme for me, as a glance around this blog will reveal. But then there’s the owl at the end. Where did that come from?

Actually, it was already there.


This is one reason why the dreamer is usually the best interpreter of their own dreams.  Not only do they know their own concerns—which are likely to make their way into the dream in some form—but they also know all the little facts that allow us to make connections between the dream elements. They may be purely personal associations—such as Leibniz and muffins—or they may be grounded in cultural facts, as this one is, in which case they will be transparent to some people but obscure to others.

In August of 2010, when this dream took place, I was living in Greece, and so Euros with owls on them were a part of life. For that matter, owls were also part of life, since I was a volunteer at a wildlife rehabilitation center specializing in birds. I hadn’t been a student for almost a year—despite what the dream might seem to suggest— and was not expecting to become one again anytime soon. But education was still a concern for me—in some ways, even more of a concern, since it was now completely in my own hands.

So the owl and the Euro are connected—the fact that the dream goes directly from one to the other isn’t actually all that strange. But actually, it’s just as natural to connect the owl to the earlier part of the dream. Why is it that there’s an owl is on the Greek Euro, anyway? Because the owl is associated with Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom. That certainly ought to have something to do with education. If not, you would have good grounds to be critical.


And at this point, you’re well on your way to an interpretation:  maybe a free education isn’t so free after all? Maybe this was something that only became clear in retrospect. Or could it be that I should be thinking of a different kind of freedom? And come to think of it….


Once again, because what one person takes for granted may be an esoteric fact to another, these connections are likely to appear arbitrary to everyone but the dreamer—and even to the dreamer, if they aren’t sure what to look for.

Not so long ago, I wrote that the sudden transitions in dreams weren’t as arbitrary as they seemed, either because the transition is between elements that carry similar meanings or because the transition itself is meaningful. But I couldn’t say that that was always the case because this is also a possibility. You might call it mind-wandering, keeping in mind that the mind seldom wanders with no purpose. It’s trying to find its way to something— and by finding the hidden connections, you might just figure out what it is.

-To Be Continued-

Making Connections, Part 1: A Little Owl, a Big Bug and a Long Detour



There are two kinds of free associations:  those that make sense and those that don’t. Your own associations belong to the first kind, and everybody else’s belong to the second.

“Muffins,” you say.

“Leibniz,” I reply.

See? This is what happens when you let the mind run free and loose. Sheer, unadulterated randomness. How else could you get from A to B in a single step?

But wait, I say. There’s a story here. Just hear me out.

Muffins – I made muffins a few days ago. While I was looking through the cupboard for a mix that would bake at the same temperature as the cheese tart I was making for dinner, I was explaining the philosophy of Leibniz to my aunt, who bore it patiently. After some searching, I found a muffin mix that not only cooked at the same temperature as the cheese tart, but in exactly the same amount of time. “I guess we really are living in the best of all possible worlds,” I said, more than a little sarcastically.

It may not be an airtight proof for pre-established harmony, but it does rescue the association from the charge of randomness. Muffins and Leibniz are linked in my mind for a reason:  not so long ago, they were both there at the same time. They were contiguous, you might say— if you wanted to drag another philosopher into this. That’s all it takes to create an association.

Even better:  now they’re linked in your mind, too. The beginning of this essay was only half a joke:  the moment an association makes sense to you, it becomes your association as well. It may even have happened before it made sense, without your noticing. Someday, if the circumstances are right, you might just answer the same way I did.

Now suppose this train of thought arose in response to this dream:

Something about going in and out of buildings aimlessly. Then I was sitting on a bed, talking with a woman. We seemed to live in the same house, which was like my aunt and uncle’s house in some ways. She wanted me to cook something. She said she had a few mixes out in the infirmary, and went to bring them in. I hadn’t known there was an infirmary there, much less that she kept food in it. I figured it must be through a certain doorway in the garage, since it was the only place in the house I had never been. She soon came back with a few mixes. I chose a muffin mix that made four muffins. (March, 2016)

Supposing it did arise in response to it, you would already be a good ways towards interpreting it. It might also help to know that my aunt likes to buy muffins in batches of four at the local farmer’s market from a man I find irritating, that while I don’t actually dislike muffins, there are any number of foods I find more appealing, that I feel the same way about cooking in general, and that the previous day, I had spent a couple hours looking at apartments for rent, convinced that I couldn’t stand living in that house for any longer. Thinking about the dream leads to any number of things—but in every case, it seems to be to be pointing me towards things I wouldn’t choose of my own accord—things that may be annoyances, but aren’t serious problems. It raises the question:  are things really so bad?

Funny, how often dreams get you to ask that kind of question. It’s almost as if – but maybe I’d better leave that one for another time.

-To Be Continued-