Dreaming – the Message and the Medium, Part 5

VIII.

I hope that what I’ve written so far has been helpful in clarifying the question of dreams as communications, but now it’s time to actually try to answer it. In order to do that, we need a good idea of what communication is—something that sounds as if it ought to be straightforward, but on closer inspection turns out to be an intractable philosophical inquiry on a level with questions like “What is meaning?” and “What is knowledge?” What follows will be a very rough sketch of ways that such an inquiry might lead.

Phenomena like the ones I’ve been considering fit some dictionary definitions of communication better than you might expect, but always with reservations. Merriam-Webster defines it as “a process by which information is exchanged between individuals through a common system of symbols, signs, or behavior.” But we are considering something that may only involve one individual—the internal evidence doesn’t preclude the possibility of something on the other end, but it doesn’t support it either.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines it a little more broadly: “the successful conveying or sharing of ideas and feelings.” But what constitutes a success, and how do you recognize it?  Whether something counts as communication when you’re on both ends of it is still a point at issue— but being on both ends of it seems to be the only circumstance in which you could be absolutely sure that ideas and feelings were successfully conveyed.

But while the methods of interpretation and incubation I’ve described are clearly different from the communication we take for granted in our everyday lives, they fit some philosophical conceptions, like Quine’s. Quine would have denied that exchange is a feature of communication—it makes a handy metaphor to think of meaning as something we can toss back and forth like a ball, but to take that view of communication too literally is to completely misunderstand what takes place. What we have is not a process of exchange, but a process that gets patterns of associations to match in the right way. Whether or not it was the right way is something that we test rather like a scientist tests a hypothesis:  by seeing how well our subsequent observations match the predictions we made on the basis of the message we received. In this case, for “observations,” read “dreams,” and so long as you consider the “message” in general terms rather than in terms of particular dream-elements, you have a statement that most experienced interpreters could endorse.

You might notice that, unlike the dictionary definitions, this view allows us to completely bypass the problem of identifying someone at the other end. This was probably not because Quine wanted to extend the notion of communication to cover unusual cases like the one I’m concerned with here, but rather because he was concerned with capturing the dynamics of learning and using words, and the dynamics can be understood without considering either end in more than formal terms. And, perhaps in part, it was in recognition of the fact that proving that someone is on the other end is fiendishly difficult, even in the ordinary instances. This is called the problem of other minds, and philosophy doesn’t seem to be a step closer to solving it than when it first occurred to Descartes to problematize other minds 350 years ago.

This is something to take note of if you believe that it’s ridiculous even to entertain the question of whether communication could be taking place through dreams since there’s nothing you could possibly be communicating with. If you’re going to take up the skeptical position, you have to be consistently skeptical, which means being willing to deal with things like p-zombies, evil geniuses, and brains in vats. I would like to point out that even Descartes was not as radical a doubter as he might have been, as it is quite possible to question whether the “I” in “I think therefore I am” lasts longer than the thought does.

Brain in Vat - Memory
(Image Source)

If, on the other hand, you’d prefer trying to be a consistent materialist, you get to define communication entirely in the language of the physical sciences. I would like to point out that materialism is no better at accommodating the concept of identity than skepticism is, and so it would have to be done without reference to discrete entities of any sort, including individual beings. Have fun.

Once again, this does not suggest that there is anything on the other end—e.g., gods, spirits, or other/higher/true selves, the usual candidates who are invoked when it is claimed that dreams are communications designed to help us. What it does suggest is that there is something distinctly fishy about treating identity as a fundamental fact of reality rather than a perceptual convenience—no matter how you look at it. If so, then the question of intra-personal communication hinges on a distinction that does not have a firm basis in reality, and the question of whether dreams might sometimes be communications has more to do with how comfortable one is with a non-standard use of the word ‘communication’ than with metaphysics.

The notion of identity and its limitations have come up a few times throughout this essay already—it’s one that you can’t avoid for long once you start exploring dreams. It is especially salient in lucid dreams, when you are exploring the landscape of dreaming as the dream is taking place. In such dreams, you are constantly encountering mental phenomena you yourself did not consciously create, and which often seem at least as real as waking life. You are also encountering beings who act as if they have their own mental lives, which gives those p-zombies and other paraphernalia of skepticism a significance far beyond their usual role as fodder for thought experiments. The more intelligent and well-informed the beings you encounter, the more pressing the question becomes.

Once you get to that point, the only possible explanations that allow you to keep thinking of yourself as a distinct, unified entity involve positing other distinct, unified, possibly non-physical entities with the ability to enter into your mental space uninvited. There is only one way to simultaneously maintain the belief that you yourself are such an entity and deny the existence of that other sort, and that is to ignore your dreams.

It’s interesting to speculate:  how many of the characteristic assumptions and attitudes of the modern world could only have taken root in a society where paying attention to your dreams is atypical? Most people in the West nowadays do not consider dreams important. Most of them do not consider it important that they don’t consider dreams important. And yet, if this attitude towards dreams were to start changing—which actually seems to be happening!—there’s no way it could fail to bring along a cultural revolution.

But to return to the main point, there is yet another angle of approach for understanding the question of dreams as communication:  communications theory. This discipline offers some interesting possibilities. It was founded in a time when the traditional notion of communication was having to be redefined and widened in order to capture a type of communication that had never before existed—mass media—and so it may be able to handle an unusual case of a different type.

One theorist—an early and an influential one— was Marshall McLuhan, whose central idea has provided this essay with its title. The medium is the message—but what does that actually mean?

McLuhan was one of those thinkers who wrote in his own idiom, and so it’s possible to find any number of interpretations of what he meant by it. For an outsider to communications theory, it’s rather a lot to pick through. But the important point seems to be that, when considering what is conveyed by a medium, what people are trying to convey through it is far less important than what the medium is communicating simply by existing and being available to us and changing the way we live our lives. And a medium is anything that is capable of communicating in this way—not just what we would ordinarily consider a channel of communication. Television is a medium, according to McLuhan, but so is a light bulb.

What happens if we consider dreaming as a McLuhan medium? Actually, something fascinating happens:  we are led to consider the form of the dream itself as communicative. Could the formal characteristics that have earned dreams a reputation for being random, for being meaningless, for being brain static—static, in communications theory, signifying something that impedes the reception of a message—be themselves communicative, simply by virtue of what they are? If so, then dreaming as a medium would tell us exactly what my chocolate mustard bio bun dream told me:  leave nothing out.

Out of all the claims that have been made about the benefits of dream interpretation, one of the most common is that it is a path to personal wholeness—and the typical characteristics of dreams do seem to provide an unexpected reinforcement for the “path to personal wholeness” view, while simultaneously raising a serious question as to whether it’s the interpretation that’s the beneficial part. By failing to observe the barriers we place between the various times and places of our lives, between ourselves and our emotions, between illusion and reality— even between the present and future, or between one person and another, if the more unusual accounts are to be taken seriously—dreams are already communicating a message of wholeness to us, even if we don’t take the trouble to interpret them. And no spooky metaphysics whatsoever are required. All we need to do is to tune in.

IX.

In the dream, the dog’s barking has just woken me up. I’m in bed (read:  floor mattress) in a room very much like the one I actually fell asleep in, and someone’s at the door. It turns out that someone has sent me a postcard. Strange, I think—who would be sending me a postcard when I’m on vacation in—

Greece, my brain nudges me.

Right, Greece. Thank you. The picture on the card shows a cemetery,with rows of what look like war graves, and a colorful sky in the background. I turn it over and see that it’s written in German—which narrows down who it’s from, anyway. I’m terribly curious, but I decide to read the card through before looking at the name at the bottom. The card folds out, becoming larger, and then it’s like I’m watching a movie. A room full of people are talking in turn, many of them wearing fancy, old-fashioned clothing. But my alarm wakes me partway through, and I never do get to find out who the postcard was from. (March, 2017)

So, in the end, it looks like we can’t say one way or another whether something other than ourselves might be trying to communicate to us through our dreams—something that those with an appreciation of Occam’s Razor might take note of. If you believe that dreams are by nature expressive and that our dreaming selves have access to various kinds of mental content that our waking selves do not, and that human beings tend to be concerned with their own well-being no matter what state they’re in, then helpful messages from dreams should come as no surprise.

But even if you’re hesitant to call this process communication, you could do a lot worse than treating it as if it was. I spent practically all of the time in which I practiced dream interpretation deliberately withholding judgment on the ontological status of the various beings I encountered in my dreams, and it doesn’t seem to have done any harm. It may even have been helpful:  leaving a question open effectively prevents us from getting so attached to our own theories that we’re tempted to distort our experiences to obtain additional support for them.

Once we’ve formed a false opinion of something, confirmation bias has a tendency to block off the flow of new impressions that might lead us to realize it’s false—and a true but overly narrow opinion can be almost as bad. If we do not find ourselves surprised by our dreams every once in a while, it is almost certainly because we don’t want to be surprised. And if wholeness is the message of our dreams— even if an uninterpreted dream is not very much like an unopened letter after all—it’s one that can easily be missed if we’re selective about what we take to heart.

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Dreaming – the Message and the Medium, part 4

VII.

In the course of the last few posts, I’ve had to consider:  a chocolate mustard bio bun (with bogus trading cards), jellyfish soup, Welsh stereotypes, ponies and the exercitus Romanus. I’ve also had to address a number of questions regarding dreams:  dream incubation and the factors that contribute to its success; the weight one should give to a dream’s connection with memories of the previous day; the emotions and moods that characterize dreams; the fact that your memory is often much better than you think it is; and what to do on the occasions when something seriously weird happens—although I still haven’t fully addressed that last one yet. But the main point is the question of dreams as messages, and in spite of all the detours, I haven’t lost sight of it.

You may have noticed that none of the dreams I’ve considered so far contains an unambiguous message. This is because, in my experience, this is normal for dreams. When we take advice from dreams, what we’re usually doing is reevaluating our waking-life conduct based on the new perspectives on it that the dream brings to our attention. This often has to do with our dream-self’s conduct, in recognition of the fact that we are not a different person when asleep than while awake—something I don’t think anyone would deny when it’s put in those terms.* It may also include things like setting and ‘plot’— features that we may not feel responsible for in the same way, but which certainly didn’t come from nowhere.

This is good; if my experience is representative, it is possible to receive explicit advice from a dream, but it only happens when you’ve been ignoring the subtler kind for a while. During a few months in 2009, I saw a progression from dreams giving this sort of implicit advice to dreams which deliberately twisted the advice I was getting from people around me—either portraying them as obviously wrong or showing them advising exactly the opposite of what they had actually said. Eventually, I did get explicit advice from a dream character who was explicitly represented as an oracular figure. But these were unusual conditions, and not the sort you’d find yourself in if you could possibly avoid it.

The idea of having your own personal oracle might be appealing, but I doubt that dreams can function in that way for long. It’s something that occasionally happens rather than a more-or-less constant function of dreaming, or something that you can train yourself in. I actually found it happening less often as my understanding improved rather than more– possibly a tacit recognition that my conscious, waking-life judgment is up to the task, but it’s also possible that being a person who values independence has something to do with it. I wouldn’t want someone just stepping in to tell me what to do—even if it was me on some level—even if it was something spooky and metaphysical. Especially if it was something spooky and metaphysical. And that may very well explain why even the implicit advice I find when I consider my dreams normally has to do with what factors to consider when I make decisions rather than advice on what option to choose, which seems to be what most people are after and what they receive when they consult their dreams for advice.

I would be curious to compare others’ accounts with mine, but unfortunately, most of the literature seems to showcase single instances of dreams offering advice rather than longitudinal accounts. A part of me suspects that this is because such accounts would fail to support the right kind of narrative, but who knows? Maybe the people who have experiences like that just have better things to do than write about them. I couldn’t say what would happen for someone who had more than their own personal well-being in mind—whether raising the stakes in that way would also result in more pronounced results. But I would suppose that the factors that make for a successful incubation would still apply.

It is still a little surprising to me that I received as strong a response as I did regarding the dreams in part 3 since they concerned what was, in the grand scheme of things, almost certainly a minor decision. I’m inclined to attribute it to being sick, or, rather, the circumstances entailed by it—lack of food, lack of company, relatively few distractions. It may have functioned as a sort of natural incubation ritual.

This may also go some ways towards explaining the remarkable coincidence at dinner that evening—not using ‘coincidence’ as a half-assed attempt at an explanation, the way it is often used colloquially, but simply to express the unlikelihood of such a thing happening without any causal relationship at work. Again, if my own experience is representative, the weird stuff is more likely to happen under unusual bodily conditions, even those within the range of normal experience.

There are a number of ways to interpret what happened—and importantly, at least two that don’t require positing a metaphysical agent with a pressing interest in how I spend my winter break. In the interests of not going seriously off-topic again, I’ll leave it at that.  This project depends on being clear on where the boundaries of my knowledge lie, and so there’s not much I can say when the phenomenon itself makes a mockery of the attempt.

If I were to offer an opinion, though, I would say that there are two important things to keep in mind in cases like that:  first, that they do happen, and second, that by themselves they do not actually prove anything—except, perhaps, that the world is a stranger place than you thought.

funny-donut
Pleasant dreams.

 

 

-To Be Continued-

* Well, except for John Locke. But he had to deny it in order to keep his theory of personal identity from being inconsistent, so he doesn’t count.

 

Dreaming – the Message and the Medium, Part 2

III.

Dream incubation is the practice of trying to influence one’s future dreams while one is awake. This can involve anything from elaborate rituals to simply focusing on one’s intentions during the day.

Once again, the degree to which the dreamer is personally invested in the attempt seems to be the key variable for its success, but in an experimental context, this is very difficult to control for. To give a group of people a common intention for a dream incubation is like giving them a list of New Year’s resolutions to follow. You wouldn’t expect as high of a success rate as you would in people who were dedicated enough to make their own. And even when researchers have dreamers choose their own intentions, as some have, successes are rare—which is understandable, as people aren’t always as dedicated as they think they are.  The success itself is the surest measure of how strong the intention was*, but that doesn’t pass muster when the influence of intentions on dreams is what you’re trying to investigate in the first place.

But even if the circumstances that make for success are compatible with laboratory conditions, there’d still be a problem:  the response would probably not be comprehensible without interpretation. It might not even be recognizable as a response—if not to the dreamer, whose privileged relationship with his own dream often translates into a privileged understanding, then certainly not to a researcher who is duty-bound to ignore hunches of this sort.

Interpretation is considered even more dubious than incubation in scientific circles, and indeed, it may not be possible to demonstrate success using quantitative methods. Philosophers have considered a similar problem –  how to judge the accuracy of translation and, more generally, interpretation – but haven’t found a satisfying solution. It seems that there’s no way to prove that someone isn’t talking nonsense when they’re speaking a language you don’t understand. All you can do is trust that something meaningful is taking place—philosophers call this the principle of charity— and use the process of elimination to figure out what it might be. Success results in a fluent interaction – but there is no independent standard that can be appealed to.

This is no small concern within philosophy. In America, and, I would suppose, in other places where analytic philosophy is the dominant tradition, the principle of charity might be one of the first things that a student learns about in an introductory-level class. Professors know that it’s easy not to understand a book when you start with the assumption that it’s going to be nonsense; making sense of something is an active process for a which a null-hypothesis attitude constitutes a refusal to engage with a work beyond a superficial level. It’s basically an intellectual form of passive-aggression. Consequently, they try to keep students from falling into that trap. But scientists don’t seem to be as charitable as philosophers:  in a scientific experiment, trust as a condition of success automatically introduces the problem of confirmation bias—a problem it is far easier to avoid dealing with than to resolve.

But my own fieldwork, at any rate, suggests that there is more to dream interpretation than the confirmation bias at work. Once I had started working intensively with my dreams, I soon figured out that what I wrote in my journal often provided the impetus for dreams, and my notes on those dreams provided the impetus for yet more dreams. Such exchanges took place spontaneously, and I found what I wrote being corrected more often than I found it being confirmed. I learned a great deal about dreams from books, websites and various articles, but after a certain point, I was mainly learning from the dreams themselves.

This is why it is difficult to deceive yourself for long when you regularly engage in dream interpretation—at least, if you want to understand more than you want to see your beliefs confirmed, which is always going to be the sticking point. It is possible to interpret dreams incorrectly, but the process is self-correcting if you’re willing and able to receive corrections. This doesn’t remove the possibility of confirmation bias in any given case, but it strongly suggests that there are other factors involved—in other words, that finding meaning in dreams is not itself a species of self-delusion.

But it is unreasonable to expect either confirmation or correction from your dreams unless you’ve already made a fair start at interpreting. If you’re sifting through dozens of dream-reports for the occasional thing you understand, it’s just not possible. Without a certain level of precision, there’s no opportunity for correction, and no way that corrections could be conveyed to you anyway.

Even an absolute beginner, though, might find it useful to see how the process plays out. And just as it’s easier to get a grasp on the grammar of a language when you can see mistakes and corrections as well as successful instances, there’s a lot to be learned by seeing how an interpretation goes amiss.

IV.

But first, the basic principle—what it’s like when you get an interpretation right.

One of the features of dreams that is hardest to define is mood— the emotional “connotations” of people, objects and events, or of the dream as a whole. Overlooking mood is one of the easiest mistakes to make when you’re trying to understand your own dreams—at least, I often find that to be the case.

But I have to think this one is particularly prone to being overlooked because it’s so individual, and often seems to be at odds with what takes place in the dream. We don’t have a very good vocabulary for talking about mood, either—statements like “the place had a melancholy atmosphere” or “he had a sinister air about him” are the best we can do without getting poetic. And if you jump to a conclusion based on preconceived notions of what a dream means, those subtle, hard-to-define qualities have a way of vanishing from consciousness.

Here’s an example of what I mean by mood, and why it’s so important.

A while back, I had a dream where I had gone to a vaguely work-like place and found that many of my co-workers were dressed in beautiful Roman military uniforms. (This would have been a good time to realize, “Hang on, I’m probably dreaming—“ but my response was more along the lines of “I guess they’ve finally replaced flannel Fridays with something interesting.”) During most of the dream, I felt rather dejected for reasons that weren’t clear—it was one of those dreams without much of a plot.

Once awake, it was easy enough to connect the dream with concerns involving my workplace. I work as a transcriber, and what I record there is almost always less interesting than what I spend my free time writing—blog posts like this one, among other things.

Transcribing is a job where uniformity is the all-important principle. It’s the nature of the work, of course, but on occasions, even correctness takes a second place to it. There’s often more than one correct way of writing something, but they want everything to be consistent, and so it has to be one way rather than another. And it kills me little bit inside every time I have to write a German word without the umlaut or the compensatory ‘e’ after the letter. Do they think they’re just there to look pretty, or what?** And the job is one that requires physical endurance for me as well as the prolonged concentration it requires from everyone: sitting for a few hours a day is hard on my back.

Both these factors make the military context*** an appropriate representation—particularly the Romans, whose soldiers were well-known for their mass efficiency and for virtues like loyalty and stoicism. As you might expect from a people who borrowed their entire Pantheon from the Greeks, they were not known for their originality– something else that makes them an appropriate representation.

Caesar at the Battle of Alesia
(Image Source)

So the connection is made—I know which set of concerns I’m dealing with—and at this point, it becomes important to look at the details. In the dream, I find the uniforms beautiful. They evoke positive feelings, and that makes it impossible for me to read the dream as a critique of the people who are wearing it. Just think of all the less attractive ways I could have represented a group of people with the characteristics I’ve just described. And although the reason for my unhappiness in the dream was not made explicit, the fact that there is obviously something off about my own attitude emphasizes the same point:  there’s something positive there that I’m not seeing.

Many dreams draw attention to things that we miss in waking life, and often it’s the things that we would prefer not to see. This dream a very mild example, but I still could have considered it and thought: “This dream is about my workplace, which I find unpleasant. Roman virtues are boring, and I like the Greeks better anyway. The dream is showing me that I’m out of my element there, and unhappiness is the natural consequence of that.” And I could have supported such an interpretation with every part of the dream—except the beauty. And except for the fact that I would be finding nothing there I didn’t already know, which ought to raise a red flag anyway. Dreams have the power to change the way we see things, but not when we filter them through our present way of seeing as we interpret.

-to be continued-

 

*I’m sure many readers will be quick to disagree on this point, especially those who have tried to incubate a dream or induce lucidity and not had it work, in spite of wanting it a lot. I don’t consider this a counterexample because I think there’s more to the self than the bit that you experience as you, and the other bits have to be on board as well.

**To their credit, this problem has actually been fixed since the time of the dream.

***I’m sure that every dreamer has his or own themes, settings and so on that recur for no obvious reason; warfare is one of mine. When you find yourself having to interpret dreams with, say, military settings time after time, and you find them leading you to quite varied sets of concerns, the recurrence itself eventually calls for explanation.

I’m sure there are non-obvious reasons for this, and probably very interesting ones— but considered practically, it doesn’t really matter where such patterns originate. The important thing is becoming aware of how they subtly push us to view matters in one particular light rather than others.  On the theoretical side, this is also of interest because you would not expect to find such patterns if dreams arose as a sort of deterministic response to waking-life input. Our preferred metaphors may be appropriate for our waking-life concerns, but others may have been equally appropriate.

Politics From Two Sides, Part 2

III.

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.

Republic
Politeia

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.

IV.

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

“No matter how thinly you slice a loaf of bread, each piece always has two sides.”

I.

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 aboard a sinking ship, casting 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 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…”

 

*It makes him American, you see.

II.

In the dream, I’m part of a class taught by Mrs. P, who was my English teacher back in high school. We’re in a loose sort of line in a hallway outside a large room with a chapel-ish feel to it. We are singing:  the song is “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Different groups of us come into prominence throughout it. As I sing, I’m reminded anew of how banal and stiff the tune is, just as it always has been—but I still try to put some real expression in it and give as good a performance as I’m capable of.

When we’ve been singing for a while, two men run out of the room—it seems as if they’ve been hiding there, but we flooded them out somehow. One is dressed in what I recognize as a Russian military uniform; the other wears some kind of priest’s robe. It strikes me as quite a funny situation. (November, 2017)

 

Spotting a connection between the dream and something that had been on my mind the previous day—check. Sometimes it really is that easy. The next step is looking at some of the striking elements. What kind of a feeling do I get from them? Where did I get them from?—a question that often resolves into: who am I plagiarizing this time? In this case, it’s been years since I’ve read the book, but I find the passage easily.

… I call it Russian fatalism, that fatalism without revolt which is exemplified by a Russian soldier who, finding a campaign too strenuous, finally lies down in the snow. No longer to accept anything at all, no longer to take anything, no longer to absorb anything—to cease reacting altogether. (Friedrich Nietzsche, “Ecce Homo”)

The soldier in the dream is a representative figure—specifically, a representative of fatalism. And with that settled, I don’t need to look far for where the priest came from. Nietzsche had a good deal to say about priests, very little of it kind. The associations are mainly:  passivity, asceticism, unworldliness, “etherealized abstraction,” “negation of the world”. One can find passages concerning priests very similar to the one about the soldier above, enough to make you wonder why he went out of his way to introduce a new figure. Probably because he was explicitly writing about himself that time.

Anyway, the gist seems to be:  don’t give up. Take part. Kick fatalism out the door. But actually, it isn’t quite so straightforward.

The dream is drawing from a source that, for me, belongs to the past. This suggests that the source is significant in its own right rather than just something that got caught up in a web of associations and dragged along. There was a time when I read a lot of Nietzsche— I’m sure that, even now, the traces of his thought here would be unmistakable to anyone familiar with his works. A chapel is a place set aside for worship, often for a minority sect; even though this philosophy is something that lies firmly in the past for me, the past always leaves traces. I know from reading imagery that this is also the case with Christianity, which lies even further in the past—and which the imagery here testifies to as well, while adding a heavy layer of irony to the whole thing.

The dream is a sort of correction, but a confirmation as well—the best approach is one that does not conflict with a past attitude, but is continuous with what was good in it.

Something else to consider is that these anti-fatalist figures were the creations of a professed fatalist. He just thought that there was a right way and a wrong way to go about it. The two figures show the wrong way to be fatalists—but my decision to sing shows the right way. I did not choose the song, but I still chose to sing it well. That’s what it means to be a fatalist—that’s the attitude the dream is encouraging.

Dreams do not always point us towards certain attitudes or courses of action—sometimes they only seem to reflect our own confused emotions. But this one is offering pretty clear advice, I think to myself as I look over my notes. And yet, I don’t feel any more certain. I won’t try to shut myself off from politics, but I still can’t see myself taking any kind of an active role. Most of my objections still seem compelling. Perhaps simply staying open to it and letting it be a dimension of my life is enough—for now, anyway.

-To Be Continued-

Vestigia

I.

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.

II.

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.

 

sidewinder
(Image Source)

 

To Be Continued (someday)

Making Connections, Part 5

VII.

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.

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“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 to work with.

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 the nature of the concern alone can’t decide a 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.)

But as Hume wrote, resemblance is itself a variety of association, and so one doesn’t have to posit a distinct kind of mental process at work to explain metaphors in dreams. They’re just a special instance 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. The more you explore it, the more reasons you find to suspect that it is, even at its most confusing, pseudorandom.

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.