Three Questions for Daniel Love’s “Are You Dreaming?” Part 3

V.

Well, yes, but have you thought about it this way?

In spite of his interest in everything to do with lucid dreaming, Daniel Love doesn’t seem to think much of dream interpretation. I found this rather puzzling in someone who’s closely involved with his dream life and has surely had plenty of opportunities to weigh the claims of various interpreters for himself. Perhaps it’s only through lack of interest in dream interpretation – but  then why mention it at all?

So what’s his case against it? Well, it isn’t really his purpose to make a case against it in “Are You Dreaming?” which is, as mentioned previously, a guidebook on lucid dreaming. This is probably why the case isn’t a very good one.

In the first place, he claims that dream interpretation is not so much about dreams as it is “a review and analysis of events after the fact.” Actually, I largely agree with this:  when you look at dreams from the perspective of waking life, it’s understanding your waking self and the events of waking life that concern you. Waking life is where your center of gravity is, so to speak.

Analysis isn’t a word I would have chosen myself— it often turns out that way for me, but I’m an analytic person, and my interest in dreams is theoretical as well as practical. If I could choose a term from scratch, with no regard for what’s come before, I’d probably call it explication. The word seems to imply a more holistic process than ‘interpretation’ does, as well as staying closer to the source material—here, the dream. But interpretation is fine, too.

Many techniques of dream interpretation can be productively applied to waking life (or, for that matter, borrowed from literary analysis). But waking life is so familiar to us, so taken for granted, that it’s much more difficult to achieve the same level of insight. Simply to  see ourselves in new guises—in the context of a dream-narrative, or an exotic metaphor—can provide a fresh insight into our habitual thought, habitual conflicts, and the other patterns that characterize our lives and personalities. In extreme cases, it can even serve to break such patterns.

Like many lucidity induction techniques, dream interpretation involves developing awareness in your waking life. It makes you aware of where you are and what you feel and whether there are possibilities you haven’t considered. I also agree with Daniel Love when he writes that dream interpretation does not make you an expert on dreaming. Rather, it makes you an expert on you. I would be the first to admit that there are other ways of getting to know yourself, but this one is a natural for people who are already involved with dreams.

Actually, this is the only argument Daniel Love offers. What follows is just an expression of his opinion, a rather uncharitable analogy in which he compares interpreting dreams with interpreting food. Which isn’t to say it’s an analogy completely without promise, mind you. But his treatment of it is problematic.

Here is the way I understand it—and I’ll try to put it as simply as I can. Dreams don’t exist the way a cup of coffee exists. Meaning doesn’t exist the way a cup of coffee exists. I find the experience of drinking coffee meaningful.* It is no less meaningful if others don’t, but if they do, it can provide the grounds—no pun intended—for a meaningful shared experience.

Sometimes, I experience my dreams as being meaningful in a similar way as I do coffee. I like dreaming about beautiful places simply because of the quality of the experience. I like dreaming about places I used to live and about my old friends because it assures me that although they’re no longer a part of my life, they’re still a part of me. No one would ever go to the trouble of learning how to lucid dream if they didn’t experience dreams as meaningful in this way.

But there is another way in which a dream is meaningful, which can be compared to the way that thoughts are meaningful. Thoughts have history, thoughts have context**, thoughts often have a motivation behind them. If a thought seems meaningless, it’s probably because you’re considering it as if it were isolated from these. The same goes for dreams. A large part of dream interpretation is simply recovering the dream’s history, context and motivation– and a large part of the dream’s history, context and motivation is your waking life.

It’s this kind of meaning that it surprises me to find Daniel Love rejecting. He states in chapter 4, in the section on dreamsigns, that dreams are the result of our “thoughts, expectations and mood.” These are all things that I’d certainly hope we would experience as meaningful while awake, and it would be odd to suppose that they decrease in importance for us when we’re isolated from external stimuli.

This is a kind of meaning that every system of dream interpretation I have ever encountered is concerned with. It’s not esoteric, it’s not incompatible with the scientific humanism that characterizes Are You Dreaming? It’s just part of human experience. (Of which esoterica also make up a portion—but let’s not get into that now.)

I wonder now whether there hasn’t been a split developing among dreamers—whether it’s growing more common for people to be interested in interpretation, or in lucid dreaming, but not both. Or, more likely, that interest in lucid dreaming has been mushrooming among folks who haven’t yet devoted much attention to what else is being done with dreams.

It’s a little worrying, seeing as dream studies already suffers from fragmentation. By and large, therapists and other dream-workers don’t compare notes with scientists, who don’t compare notes with those whose focus is primarily spiritual or religious. My own outsider’s impression is that, therapists aside, there’s very little serious interaction going on even within groups. Worse yet, this is so much taken for granted that nobody notices how selective they are in applying their scrutiny.

Daniel Love has stated that he wants to help build a sense of community among lucid dreamers. One doesn’t have to look far for convincing reasons that this sense of community doesn’t yet exist. Dreaming is something that every human being does—but it’s something that every human being does alone. At least, that’s what almost every  member of such a proposed community would believe, and so the paradox of a community of dreamers is not one that can be easily got around.

On the other hand, despite its cultural status as a niche interest, dreaming itself is not a niche anything. The problem isn’t that there aren’t enough interested people to form a community, or that its divisiveness encourages the splintering of groups, but that dreaming is too vast a subject to provide the foundation for a specialized branch of inquiry, much less a hobby.

Psychologist Harry Hunt states that “dream psychology, in its haste for its own Darwin, has bypassed the necessary foundations of a Linneaus.” In my opinion, dream psychology doesn’t need a Linneaus half so much as it needs a Jane Goodall. But why stop there? Let’s have a Shakespeare of dreams, a Tesla of dreams, a Magellan, a Mozart. What point is there in scientific folks studying dreams if we don’t do something worth studying with them?

With all that in mind, establishing a community of lucid dreamers almost seems too modest a goal. But it’s as good a place to start as any.

*After writing this and searching my archives, I was astonished to find that I never drink coffee in dreams. I sometimes buy it, or think about having some, but the closest instance I could find to actually drinking coffee was a synaesthetic experience in which a piece of music triggers the taste of it. I guess coffee must belong exclusively to the world of wakefulness.***

**So does coffee—and yes, it does add to the meaningfulness of the experience. If you’ve ever had a meal made entirely with things you’ve grown and prepared yourself, you’ll know what I mean.

***Apologies for the involuted footnotes. But a further development has required the addition of an…

Epilogue

The place is a little hole-in-the-wall cafe, a small room with a couple tables and a counter wedged between two doorways. From where I’m seated, I can see through one into a larger room where a stage and some chairs are set up. I don’t ask myself whether this is a dream because I know it is.

Prague, my brain tells me– which is something I probably wouldn’t be able to infer from using my senses. The streets outside seemed familiar the way dream-Prague usually does, in spite of not matching up with the Prague that exists. Oddly, though, it seems to be consistent over time, to the point where some of these unaccountably familiar places actually do become familiar – the opera house by the harbor, the back streets full of little cafes like this one-  as if they weren’t distortions of a city, but a parallel city existing in its own right. Here in my dreams, at least, Bohemia does have a coastline.

Somebody brings me my coffee. It doesn’t look quite as I expected it to – for one, I’m fairly sure I ordered a macchiato, and this seems to be an espresso. And instead of a cup, the coffee is pooled at the bottom of a wide ceramic dish shaped like a leaf.

I drink it – and it’s good coffee. And oddly enough, when I finally wake up, I feel much better-rested than usual.

Three Questions for Daniel Love’s “Are You Dreaming?” Part 2

IV.

Why not?

The remark on the uncooperativeness of dream characters – as mentioned in Part 1 – follows an account of a lucid dream that Daniel Love believes to be one of the oldest written accounts in existence, recorded by Augustine in 415 AD.

In a letter to a priest, Augustine reports a dream that was told to him by the dreamer, a Christian man experiencing doubts as to whether an afterlife exists. One night, this man dreamed that a beautiful youth was guiding him through a city where beautiful music was being sung—“the hymn of the blessed and holy.” But upon awakening, he dismissed it as nothing but a dream. On the following night, he once again found himself in the company of the youth. But this time, the youth engaged the dreamer in a philosophical discussion, convincing him that he was dreaming and that there was indeed an afterlife, which he could experience without a physical body just as he could this dream.

Daniel Love is skeptical of this account, even suggesting that it is more likely to be a philosophical parable than an actual dream. But I find this reasoning a little odd. Does it really make sense to dismiss a dream as implausible? A dream? You know, those things that happen to our minds when we’re asleep, in which time, space and the laws of physics apply selectively, if at all?

After everything I’ve experienced in working with dreams, I wouldn’t dismiss anything out of hand. This has a lot to do with my own dreams, which is full of things respectable theorists say we only dream about rarely, including some that are apparently used as markers for identifying made-up dream reports among those submitted to studies. But dreams being what they are, all I can say to that is yes, I did make them up— but I was asleep at the time.

The question I would be asking in this case is, how plausible would such a dream be for someone who spends significant portions of their waking lives engaged in philosophical enquiry? (Daniel Love doesn’t actually say whether this is the case for the dreamer, but given the content of the dream, and who’s reporting it, there’s a pretty good chance.) And this, too, has everything to do with my own experience. For me, a discussion such as the one between the dreamer and the youth would be completely plausible.

Plausible, but still out of the ordinary—they probably happen less than half a dozen times a year, if I include dreams which aren’t incontestably lucid ones. But they’re extraordinary experiences, and they all have features in common with each other and in common with the account passed on by Augustine.

In all of them, it’s the other person—almost always someone unknown to me— who leads the discussion. This person seems to have incredible analytical abilities as well as a comprehensive understanding of me, and to know exactly what’s going on.

In those dreams, the discussion is more focused and intense than would be possible in a waking-life discussion of that length. This intense focus – and being in the company of someone who seems to know exactly what’s going on – makes it difficult to say with certainty whether they’re lucid dreams or not. It’s not like normal waking consciousness, but it is rather like a flow state. Self-consciousness is simply not a part of it.

And—something characteristic of my experience, but which the account doesn’t mention—I myself seem to have mental clarity far superior to anything my waking self has experienced. This, as you might imagine, effectively takes the wind out of your sails, should you want to reconsider your conclusions once awake.

(I’ve had other experiences that have some features in common with these – such as intense intellectual focus and examining important questions – though without the dialectical context. There’s no reason to go into them here – I’d just like to point out that these dreams, even if they are a distinct type of experience, exist on a spectrum.)

But as for the experience in the account:  I find it very plausible that someone who would dismiss the first dream after waking up might just be convinced by seeing proofs worked out in the second. Simply having choirs of celestial beings sweep away your doubts is a much more common scenario, if the literature is indicative, and it’s actually rather humorous that it struck this dreamer as a little too convenient.

I won’t comment on the interpretations of the dream or the substance of the argument. I’m not a Christian, and while my own mysterious interlocutors hold positive attitudes towards religion, they don’t seem to be affiliated with one. But none of that is relevant to the plausibility of the experience, and I don’t find it difficult to believe that those dreams happened as they were reported.

Which, again, is why I’d like to see large numbers of lucid dreamers get together and compare notes. I’m sure I’m not the only dreamer who’s experienced conversations like this, but I hadn’t actually heard of any other cases until I encountered this one.

If nothing else, it would bring it home to all of us that plausibility is relative. If you overhear people having conversations in which somebody is speculating about the objects in various hypothetical worlds, or on the likelihood of all ravens being black, or whether their gloves exist, you may feel it’s safe to conclude that you’re dreaming. I’d probably just conclude I was walking through the Humanities Department.

 

To be continued…

Three Questions for Daniel Love’s “Are You Dreaming?”

I.

By the time I return home, it’s already dark out. I flip on the lights as I enter my suite of rooms—a generous name for what is in every respect an attic, and a rather rough one at that. But someone is here to greet me, and as usual, she’s very happy to see me:  Emmie, the little black cat.

I walk over to the desk, set my mug of freshly-brewed Sumatra coffee down and turn on the computer. Emmie jumps up onto the windowsill, above a row of books, and instantly becomes indistinguishable from the dark window behind her—all but the yellow eyes. The books are mostly philosophy texts I was using for reference last semester, but also a couple volumes of poetry, a couple Buddhist texts, and some miscellaneous notebooks. Someone’s homemade desk organizer, picked up at a garage sale, doubles as a bookend—although it’s a little odd to call it an organizer when all it seems to be doing is reorienting the clutter vertically. In front are a stack of notebooks, an hourglass, an incense burner, a jade bracelet, a bottle of ink, a light bulb full of paper clips, all presided over by a lamp colored an ugly eraser-pink. I generally prefer to keep things neat, but right now it’s just a couple skulls short of a still-life.

Directly to my left are the shelves. Several months ago, I cleared them off so that a wall could be built behind them, but as usual, construction has been delayed indefinitely. Since then, they’ve become the spot for everything that doesn’t have a better place to be. Library books, green coffee beans, some newly-sprouted cat grass, a 10-pound box of dates. Beside the shelves, Christoph, my air purifier, is humming away.

The computer is fully awake now. I open Word. But before I can begin, I hear the garage door opening—manually, of course, since the garage door opener is another of those indefinitely delayed projects. Before long, I hear voices, one of them very loud and very peevish. I reach over and change Christoph to his ‘turbo’ setting. Whoosh! No more voices. What I could really use is a more figurative way of clearing the air around here—but right now, this is the best I can do.

Could it be that all this is a dream? It doesn’t feel the way a dream does—an imprecise way of putting it, but the feeling itself is distinct once you’ve experienced it enough times. Everything around me is normal, everything is in order—or, rather, in its usual disorder. It’s all very detailed—but so is a dream, when you pay close enough attention to it. In the time I’ve lived in this house, I’ve only actually had one dream that was set in it—so it’s not likely. But that one dream was a lucid dream—so definitely worth a check.

My computer’s clock states that it’s 8:47. I look away, look back— still 8:47. Emmie’s eyes are still looking down at me from the darkness, the steam is still rising from the dark coffee. Okay, then. Time to write.

II.

Daniel Love’s book, Are You Dreaming, is a guidebook for learning how to lucid dream—that is, how to recognize that one is dreaming while the dream is still going on. It was published in 2013, and so it wasn’t around during the time when I was learning how to induce a lucid dream myself. I say this because, having not actually used the book for its intended purpose, I’ll be focusing on parts of it other than the ones that people are going to be reading it for. This is neither a review nor a critique—okay, it sort of will be a critique— but I’ll mostly be considering a few of the interesting questions it raises but does not dwell on.

First, though, I should at least say a word about the book in its intended capacity. Are You Dreaming? presents a number of techniques for inducing lucid dreams, all with in-depth explanations, and with a strong focus on the rationale behind them. I think this is a good thing –it gives a beginner choice, but it also leaves them with less of an opportunity to sabotage their efforts by jumping from technique to technique without addressing the reasons they’re experiencing a lack of success. A beginning lucid dreamer could perhaps wish for more, but the fault is with the lack of research in the field rather than with Daniel Love’s generous selection.

I do think he could have placed more emphasis on motivation, which is the sine qua non of attaining lucidity rather than one factor among many, as the book seems to imply. You have to be motivated to keep a dream journal. You have to be motivated to spend time awake that you would rather be sleeping, and, depending on the methods you use, to sleep during hours that you’d normally be awake. For a while, you essentially have to plan both your day and night around attaining lucidity.

Yes,there’s always the odd person who, the night after learning that lucid dreaming is possible, immediately recognizes that they’re dreaming and blasts off into the ether. But they’re the exception, and they wouldn’t have much use for a guidebook, anyway. For the rest of us, it requires not only heaps of motivation, but no serious competing motivations from other areas of life. I don’t think it was a coincidence that the time in my life when my own breakthrough in lucid dreaming happened was one of the most boring ones.

So yes, the book is practical, it does what it claims to do, and in some areas, it goes above and beyond. But I was mainly interested in where it could have gone farther.

III.

Is that what it’s like for you?

We dream our own dreams, not other people’s. Even if dreams are not the purely subjective events that most Westerners, including Daniel Love, believe them to be, they are certainly no more accessible to others than the private experiences of our waking lives.

This is why it is never safe to generalize from our own dream experience, lucid or otherwise. The features that characterize our own lucid dreams may simply be absent from those of other people’s. At this stage, we don’t even have statistics to tell us which one, if any, is the outlier.

In one of the lucid-induction techniques Love describes—the anchoring technique—he describes how, when listening to music as you fall asleep, the music seems to become more distant as the dream begins. This isn’t a technique I’ve ever intentionally experimented with, but I have practiced it accidentally a couple times. On one of those occasions, I fell back asleep while listening to a recording of The Well-Tempered Clavier in bed. Rather than fading away, the music completely pervaded the dream—which was indeed a lucid one— and I could hear it loudly and clearly the entire time. If someone had had me hooked up to a machine, I’m sure I could have signaled whether I was listening to a prelude or a fugue.

Before reading Are You Dreaming?, I had no idea people practiced this intentionally – at least, outside of shamanic contexts. If, after this experience, I had tried it intentionally, I would have fully expected to still be able to hear whatever I fell asleep listening to in the dream that followed. Maybe if I had tried again, it would have been a different experience—but maybe not if I had brought that expectation along. Who knows?

Another instance of this happens in an aside on the behavior of dream characters. Daniel Love writes that dream characters often discourage the dreamer from realizing that he is dreaming. Since my own lucid dreams are often completely devoid of characters, I haven’t had many opportunities to observe this. But on the occasions when I have asked a character if I was dreaming, they’ve always confirmed it for me. Not once have I had one try to convince me that I wasn’t.

And then there are ‘dream guides.’ I don’t have any personal experience with them, but I’ve read a number of accounts of lucid dreamers calling up a character specifically to help them become lucid or to change the dream in certain ways, sometimes with stunning success. And then there are people who have had dream characters cooperate with them, as mine have, or even had characters spontaneously clue the dreamer into the fact that they’re dreaming.

And, of course, the big, unanswerable question here is “why?” Why do such enormous individual differences among dreamers exist? Why is each individual’s experience so consistent over time? It’s as if you’re reading travel guides for a hundred different cities rather than one big city called ‘dreaming’. “Oh, the service here is terrible.” “No, the locals here are famous for their hospitality.” “What, you didn’t sign up for the tour when you arrived?” “What tour?”

This is one reason why I’m interested in Daniel Love’s newest project, The Lucid Dreamer’s Guide to the Cosmos. Each book of the series will consider lucid dreams in relation to various areas of science and culture, and I’m hoping it will provide an impetus towards answering questions like these, and put an end to futile arguments over what’s typical for lucid dreams and what isn’t.

Not only do we not have statistics on almost any aspect of lucid dreaming you can name, but we don’t even have case studies. As far as I know, nobody has even made any serious efforts to collect and organize anecdotes. If enough lucid dreamers come together, perhaps we can come to learn more about these differences and why they exist—and once we know, we can put the knowledge to use.

To be continued…

There Are Too Many Metaphors in this Mixed Drink, Part 3

IV.

In the dream, it was as if I were watching a movie and simultaneously playing a part in it. The movie starred a Swedish man who was in charge of running a movie theater. He wasn’t a very pleasant person to be around. At one point, I had to deliver a message to him, but when I was about to say it, I started laughing and couldn’t stop. It was my real reaction, but it fit into the movie that was being filmed, too. I was on the way back to my seat when I asked him, “What distinguishes a Byronic hero from the regular sort?” which wasn’t in the script. He answered me in a way consistent with his character, and I responded, “Is it always so clear?” This tied into some events that would take place later. (May, 2010)

No two people dream in exactly the same way. We all have our quirks, our individual patterns that, while typical for us, may strike other people as unusual— even un-dream-like or downright aberrant, if your dreams don’t match their prototype very well. It is hard even to know what’s typical for dreams, especially for matters of form, like sudden transitions and inconsistencies. They don’t lend themselves as well to statistical analysis as dream-content does.

When I look through my own dream records, it’s actually quite difficult to find instances of sudden transitions and inconsistencies, especially after the first couple years. Why might that be?

Could it be that this phenomenon—the sudden shift in settings, characters, points of view, etc—is not as common as we believe? Many of the features we think of as characteristic of dreams—dreams of flying, falling, finding new rooms in your house, etc— actually aren’t statistically common. They’re just notable departures from the logic of waking life, which makes it surprising to us that they happen to the extent that they do.

But there is another possibility: looking in my journal around that time, I find dreams with a shift of that type—but my dream self notices the gap in time, the gap where memories would be if it were waking life, and is puzzled or alarmed by it. This is definitely uncommon. Filling the gaps of memory with imagination isn’t something our dreaming selves usually have trouble with. Or our waking selves, for that matter.

This is something that people who train themselves to notice when they’re dreaming learn to catch in progress, but I wasn’t doing that at the time—which is why the conclusion I came to was not the right one, that I was dreaming. Perhaps these unpleasant experiences led to a kind of negative conditioning, and so the dreams began, of their own accord, to take on a less disturbing form. The gaps began to behave like narrative cuts between scenes—and perhaps by fitting that paradigm so well, they don’t stick out to my dreaming self as much as the others did. (And perhaps mixed metaphors, enacted or otherwise, just weren’t to my taste.)

My first efforts at interpretation were inspired more by literary analysis than by dream theorists or dream dictionaries, and so I found it easier to understand my dreams when they behaved like coherent narratives—and they did so more and more as I gained experience. What might otherwise have been disjunctions into something unrealistic became excursions into the realm of art. The dreams became increasingly layered and complex, and my dreaming self was, as often as not, in the curious position of knowing that my surroundings were unreal without being aware that they were a dream. I was simultaneously actor and observer. How is that even possible? I don’t know. Maybe my brain just runs on parallel circuits—whatever that metaphor means.

But once I did take up lucid dreaming, I did sometimes manage to catch the shift in progress—though I get the impression that it was harder for me than it would have been for someone with a less convoluted inner life. But at any rate, a junction can be a place for a lucid dreamer to board as well as an interpreter, if they’re timely about it.

I was in a car with my old friends Katya and Nina, and a man who was a friend of ours in the dream, though nobody I knew in waking life. It was late out, and it was snowing so hard that we could barely see the road in front of us. We could only drive at a very slow pace. After a while, I got out to make sure we were still on the road. I continued to walk in front as the car drove, indicating where it was safe to go as the snowstorm blew around us.

But suddenly, the snow and the car vanish, and I’m standing alone on the road on what looks like a beautiful spring morning. For a moment, I feel surprised—then threatened. I think: someone is trying to separate me from my friends.

But no sooner have I thought that that I realize: no, that makes no sense. I’m dreaming. That’s what’s happening.

I keep on walking in the direction we had been driving before. Maybe I’ll find out where we were going.

Off to my right, down a short incline, are gently rolling fields covered in mist. I see a couple of large, manor-type house out there, in the distance. It’s all incredibly beautiful, almost like an impressionist painting— colorful, blurred, with intense touches here and there.

I’ll make some fireflies, I decide, just like I used to do. I wave one hand over towards the fields, and little lights appear—not at all like the yellow-green of fireflies, curiously, but like little golden sparks flashing in midair, like a firework might give off.

Coming up on the right, just off the road I’ve been walking along, is another house, this one much smaller than the ones I had seen before—a narrow but tall building, black in color, with a red tile roof and all kinds of interesting architectural details. Behind a fenced-off area to one side, I can hear children laughing and playing. There’s something about this house—especially about the color, that deep purple-black—that makes it almost viscerally attractive to me—intrinsically inviting. A young girl peers over the fence at me as I walk up the steps…. (April, 2015)

There’s more to the story than that, but suffice it to say that this one has a happy ending—or it would, if there were ever a true ending outside of a story. But the most unrealistic thing about fiction is always that it comes to an end.

V.

Thanks be to God now that the wine-shop door
Is open, since it’s there I’m heading for;

The jars are groaning with fermented wine,
With wine that’s real, and not a metaphor…

Hafez

Actually, there is one other lesson to be taken from the story this essay opened with, when I answered the teacher’s question: it is possible for something to be a metaphor without being only a metaphor. We should never forget that dreaming— despite the metaphors, wordplay and various verbal associations we can trace back to our waking lives and thoughts— is a living experience in its own right for as long as it lasts. You can call a dream a metaphor, certainly—but if you did, you would be using a metaphor yourself.

(Total Metaphor Count: 50)

The Ship has Arrived

I.

I’m not from around here. In fact, this is my first time in this neighborhood. But I can tell a good neighborhood from a bad one, and this has the look of a good one. Rows of small, neatly kept houses; flowers in pots; a shrine to the Virgin Mary nearby. A historic firehouse with a painted bench in front. And importantly, all the cars look intact, so I won’t worry about leaving mine here and walking a few blocks through the dark.

It isn’t a dream—this is still waking life I’m writing about—but there is something dreamlike about it, about the whole night. All unfamiliar places are a little dreamlike—which is odd when so many of the places in my dreams seem indefinably familiar. But that’s a riddle I haven’t yet worked out.

It’s been a long and unusually boring day of work, but I feel energized anyway. Disjointed phrases still echo in my thoughts. The 1 to 4 family’s enhanced homeowner’s rescinded super lien jacket should be deposited into the seller’s septic system in compliance with Title V; article 209A of the mailbox rule says that a closing foreclosure must be disclosed within 10 business days in order to secure visitation rights for your three-legged dog. Which isn’t to say, per se, that legal education isn’t a serious matter. I just write things down for the people who are getting one, and then I don’t have to think about what I’ve written ever again. What a luxury! It almost makes up for the pay.

It begins to drizzle lightly as I turn the corner onto another quiet street of inconspicuous homes and businesses. A little ways on, I find the bar I’m looking for, and a few minutes later, I’m seated at a table with a glass of cider and a book.

The room isn’t large, but there’s enough space to where it doesn’t feel crowded. It’s plain to the point of austerity—clearly a deliberate aesthetic choice—and so it is the people who draw one’s attention, who provide the ornamentation. A human environment. Their sophisticated and down-to-earth air marks them out as locals of a city that prides itself on its unpretentiousness. They mostly seem to be groups of friends, talking, laughing, having a great time.

I’m having a great time, too. It’s impossible not to take in the atmosphere, to be a part of it, even though I’m reading rather than socializing. (And the book is Schopenhauer, no less. Could you have underscored your separateness more emphatically?) It’s not that I prefer reading to talking with people, but that I prefer studying in places where people are happy. It’s what makes this so much nicer than a classroom or library. It’s one reason I came here instead of going home.

And it’s fascinating stuff I’m reading. It’s about optics, about the way the world is constructed through the senses and by the mind, how the raw material we receive could never take shape without its cooperation; how the lines of vision reach out like hands to touch the surfaces of things.

During the couple hours I’m there, the room becomes fuller, the tide of voices grows. It is a Friday night, I recall. And since I have a ways to go, it’s time to go back.

I walk back to my car, but instead of driving off right away, I take my phone out to check the ongoing conversations on Telegram. All the people I’m closest to are far away, but with technology it doesn’t seem so far. These past few weeks I’ve been too busy to keep up with them, but I resolve to get up to date as soon as I can. I’ve missed them. I read a quotation that’s been posted: “No effort is required to define or even attain happiness, but enormous concentration is needed to abandon everything else.” Quentin Crisp.

It resonates. Today was a good day, and it didn’t require anything extraordinary to make it good. Happiness really doesn’t require much.

I put my phone away and turn the key in the ignition. The engine shudders a few times, but doesn’t catch. I turn it again. Still nothing.

Damn.

The third time I succeed in starting the car, but the engine light is on, and it’s not handling as it should. Every time I stop, there’s a moment where I’m afraid it won’t start again. And from time to time I hear the shuddering, but it keeps going. Unfortunately, It’s a long way back.

It’s a relief to finally pull into my street. But there’s still a problem: the driveway. It’s a long, narrow, hilly path running through a forest, and while I’m fairly sure I can get my car down it, getting it back out again is another question. The obvious solution: leave the car at the end and walk the rest of the way. I take my flashlight out of my purse, click it on—but the battery is dead. It looks like I’ll be taking another walk through the dark tonight.

It is very dark. The street from earlier tonight was nothing compared to this. It’s so dark the road is like a chalky smear on a curtain in front of my eyes, so dark that I can only trust that I’m moving forward and not in some other direction, so dark time and space bend out of shape. It’s a little unearthly. I recall what I was reading about optics not so long ago. World, I think to myself, did I ask you for a practical demonstration?

When I cross the river, it’s startling to hear it sounding so hard and clear through the obscurity— so much like it always does. A little farther, and I begin to see the pinpricks of light marking out the final stretch. I’m home.

It seems as if I’m the only one here. I get food and water for cats, I do miscellaneous chores. They could easily wait until morning, but I’m in one of those moods that gets things done. I’ve had to be unusually alert for the last couple hours, and it’s going to be hard falling asleep tonight. But when I do, I know, it’s quite possible that I’ll have some interesting dreams.

II.

I‘m at a harbor, looking out to sea while I wait for a ship to arrive. It’s a modern, open structure, partly enclosed in panes of blue glass. A canal separates me from a glass-enclosed waiting area on a small island, and an escalator is running somewhere behind me inside another glassy building. There are also piers further out.

A woman I know will be on the ship: I am here to pick her up. Where will it disembark, I wonder? It departed from one of the piers, but last time I was here, it entered the canal and disembarked close to the exit, close to where I am now. Last time, I had also come to meet the woman. She had been zonked out on painkillers then. What will the meeting be like this time? I listen to some people nearby as they talk. They, too, are waiting for someone to arrive.

I wake up. But before long….

I am in a room, talking with a woman who is sitting in a chair. The ship from the previous dream is still on my mind. She has just said something about it, something having to do with e=mc2. I puzzle over it, talking aloud. C is the speed of light. Could it have to do with the time between seeing the ship and its arrival? But then I stop. I have just realized—the woman I’m talking to is me. Matter is energy. I am you. The ship has arrived. And suddenly, the ingenious back-tracing, reasoning and interpretation seems flimsy and insubstantial now that I’m talking with someone who knows.

We walk. Looking back, I can’t be sure whether I knew I was dreaming or not, but she seems to have complete insight into the situation, and complete control over it. We have a conversation, which completely faded from memory after awakening but before recording. It is odd how, even though she is definitely relying on me for support, she also seems to be pulling me along so fast it’s hard to keep up….

III.

Traditionally, you’re supposed to die after seeing a Doppelgänger. But if that were the case, I ought to have been dead long ago and many times over—seen them in dreams, I should add, although I do have people regularly approach me thinking I’m someone they’ve seen me somewhere else, which can be disconcerting.

Yes, many times—and even more if I count instances that aren’t mirror-images. Aristotle once wrote that “a friend is another self”—and when I see an old friend in a dream who isn’t currently part of my life, they’re almost certain playing the role of an alter ego. “What? You’re making your friends stand in for pieces of you when you dream? How self-absorbed.” Maybe, but most of us are self-absorbed in our sleep. It sort of goes with the territory. And there are many worse things you can do in dreams than make friends with yourself.

And since there’s a good chance that you’re at least half of the problem in your relationships, self-observations made in an introverted state may actually be a good way to improve situations that would normally be classed as external conflicts.

“In any case, it’s nonsense and superstition, even if you aren’t taking it as some kind of omen.” If I were to attempt a definition of superstition, I would call it “the dependence on cause-effect relationships one has no understanding of.” I think it is a good definition. It captures the blindness and ignorance that critics of superstition want to implicate when they condemn it, and at the same time it makes it clear that it is not a phenomenon exclusive to religion or to supernatural speculation. It’s something that tends to creep up on us in any decisive realm of life where reasoning lets us down—perhaps because of our own limitations, perhaps because it was out of its depth in a more profound sense. You can be superstitious and correct, but you can’t be superstitious and open.

As I’ve said, I’ve been dealing with Doppelgängers for a while now. It was one particular instance of this early on in my explorations of dreams that suddenly made many possibilities real to me that had only been empty words before. There is a part of you that watches and remembers, even if you don’t know it; the self is as simple as most of us assume. That I was now sure of, but everything else was a hypothesis to be investigated rather than a Truth.

I was excited rather than fearful, and more for the theoretical insight it offered me than any deep personal significance. I wonder now whether there wasn’t an error that took root at the same time, but it wasn’t one that experiments could confirm or deny.

“Perhaps that the self is something that can be divided without inviting negative consequences?” Well, basically. But the trouble is more that it can be, and that I never fully considered what that meant on a personal level. Perhaps it is divisible—but is that desirable?

But who am I talking to, anyway?

In the Unfinished House

 

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I.

“This is a dream,” I think. I’m not sure where the realization came from, but there is no doubt in my mind what it means: I’m going into the unfinished part of the house. I had been hesitating before, for reasons that don’t even seem worth thinking about now. Now, nothing is going to stop me.

I open the door and walk in. There it is. An empty room leading into other empty rooms, rough in places, none too clean. Like the rest of the house, it is familiar to me—familiar in a way things are when you wonder whether you’ve dreamed them before.

There is a large, square hole in the same wall as the door I just entered from. I walk over and examine it more closely. It’s full of power outlets and fiddly electrical switches, but otherwise empty. I take a few steps backwards, still keeping it in view.

Before my eyes, the hole is transforming, the colors shifting and swirling, forming a picture. It’s as if I’m looking at a crowd through the window of a moving tram, but the people I see are like the images on an attic vase, white and black over clay-red. They move like real people, pass by, and vanish from sight. I watch them, fascinated. One woman, as she comes into view, twists her whole body as she throws something towards me. Now the image is like one on a television screen, the object appearing almost stationary, although I know it means it is moving towards me. I need to catch it. But it’s going further to the right than I was expecting. I run and dive for it, but it’s too far. I can’t quite make it.

This isn’t good. I know what all this is about, this scene and that object, and I know what it is that I’ve lost because of it. But that isn’t quite right. There is no necessity here. If there were, I would know. I would be able to feel the fate in the air. It isn’t lost for good. But then why do I feel as if it was? I tell myself it’s not going to happen without my cooperation, but resistance, the loss, is there. This is a problem requiring more than determination to solve. The dream blurs into half-imaginary conversations, thoughts follow one another too fast for the images to keep up, as I consider what to do.

I wake up, and it’s a while before I manage to fall sleep again.

But when I do, I find myself in a different scene, with Katya, an old friend I haven’t seen for years. She has just lost someone close to her, a cousin, and is still feeling bad about it. The two of us are going to play a role-playing game, the way we used to. As we plan everything out, the characters, the settings, the plot, I realize that things are taking on the form they are because of her, her grief. It is now part of the game, and I know that the only way I can help is to enter into the game, to make it so that things take on a new shape, one that’s less painful—and through the game, reality will change.

II.

Actually, I live in an unfinished house in waking life, too. It’s been that way since before I was born, and it won’t be finished—well, let’s just say it certainly won’t be finished while I’m still a resident. This kind of thing happens for many reasons. People don’t know what they want when they start building, people change, people simply get used to it. Eventually, it doesn’t seem like something that anyone is responsible for, but one more feature in the landscape of a life that was long ago abandoned by its own residents. When they used to look at it, perhaps they saw it as if it were already completed; now they don’t see it at all.

I manage as best I can, even when I have to live out of suitcases as if I were still a traveler. I enjoy the view out the window, where foxes run past, the birds learn to fly, and the woods have no need of finishing. And I resolve to myself: I will never, ever let a project sit indefinitely unfinished  now that I know what it’s like to live in an unfinished project.

I don’t give a lot of advice on this blog, and when I do, it’s generally because I want to keep people from making the same mistakes I did. They tend to be such individual mistakes that I wonder whether there’s any point to it— but still.

Know what you can finish and what you can’t; and if you can, you have to live in the inconvenient, undivided midst of it, even while the construction is going on.

 

(Image from proteus.brown.edu)

A Difficult Book

I.
The dream begins in a room with many young people—children, mostly. I seem to be one of the older ones there, although my age in the dream isn’t clear. It’s a location from the past—as the age of the people there suggests, one that’s quite far back for me.

I‘m reading a book of fairy tales. They’re in German, a black-letter font set in colored borders. At the same time, some others nearby are talking, and one of them asks me to see the book. I had been telling her about a certain story I had been reading. I want to show it to her now, but as I flip through the book, I can’t seem to find it. She, too, looks through the book. She finds what looks like the same story in English, in a more modern format—but I’m sure that hadn’t been there before, that what I had read had been different.

Later, I look through the book again, on my own this time, but no matter how much I look, I can’t seem to find the story. There is another I had been reading, but not the one I’m looking for. Then it occurs to me to look at the book’s cover. There, I see its title: Trust. That explains it, then. It all makes sense. That’s why I’ve been having so much trouble with this book.

Everything is taking on a dream-like feeling. I now seem to be the protagonist of the story- the one I’ve been looking for- taking a ferry over a river that runs through a village. There’s something tantalizingly familiar about this place, especially about the way the sunlight sparkles on the dark, swiftly-flowing water. But I just can’t place it.

And now, across the river, I am climbing up a muddy slope. But as I climb, the dream-like feeling begins to resolve itself into a realization: this is a dream. I am dreaming.

I am now in a white-walled, open-air corridor that I recognize as a museum. It’s like a courtyard, walled in, but with no ceiling. I can see trees rising up over the wall of the room ahead of me, and further on, partway up the side of a building, a balcony with a table and chairs. Plenty of open space. There is a room on my left with a sign outside the door labeled PHIL 773. I walk past it, since the room looks rather bare and boring, but then decide to go in after all.

Inside are a chair and a TV, turned on, in one corner, some more chairs over to my left. That seems to be all. But then someone calls out to me. There’s a man sitting in one of the chairs with its back to the doorway. He is an older man, with white hair. I don’t recognize him, but given the sign outside the room, I wonder whether he’s a philosopher, someone whose work I’ve read. I ask him what his name is. “Professor Ziegler,” he tells me. I haven’t heard of him either, then—but I did once know someone by that name. Perhaps he’s a relative of hers?

But then, suddenly, I wake up.

(October, 2015)

II.

Nowadays, it isn’t at all strange for my first thought after awakening to be a question. Often, it is a question starting with “who”. Who was Eucleides? Who was Yuan Xi? Who was King George I, and was he one of the mad ones?

And sometimes, “who” is the wrong question. Eucleides turned out to be significant not because of anyone who had the name, but because it meant “son of Euclid”. But it’s always a good question to ask for names if you know you’re dreaming. It tells you something about the person you’re speaking with, as the sign outside a room tells you what to expect inside—and as the title of a book tells you about its contents.

A book of fairy tales, is it? Are you going to give the odd-looking stranger your hospitality? Believe the person who claims to be someone you know they couldn’t be? Take the apple? It’s rarely an easy answer, but so many times it does seem to be “yes”.

And then there are those names that you can’t trace—names that belong to a forgotten past, perhaps, or to the future. But you just don’t know—and so that’s where the trust comes in.