““In a swamp, as in meditation, you begin to glimpse how elusive, how inherently insubstantial, how fleeting our thoughts are, our identities. There is magic in this moist world, in how the mind lets go, slips into sleepy water, circles and nuzzles the banks of palmetto and wild iris, how it seeps across dreams, smears them into the upright world, rots the wood of treasure chests, welcomes the body home.”Barbara Hurd, Stirring the Mud: On Swamps, Bogs, and Human Imagination
I wrote most of the gist of what follows (edited) on this exact date in 2005, when I had slept 27 of the last 37 hours due to a cold. Coincidentally, I’ve been fighting a sore throat lately and sleeping a bit more than usual, so I can really feel what I felt then.
With all that bed time, I’d been sleeping fitfully and dreaming a lot. In the last dream I had that morning fifteen years ago, I was singing along to a song on a radio, but erroneously sang the wrong word at one point, then instantly corrected myself to the right word, the one the artist was singing on the radio. When I woke, I wondered, how does that happen? I wasn’t actually listening to a radio being played while I was sleeping. If my dreaming self had access to the correct words, which it must have as I put those words into the mouth of the singer, how and why does my dreaming self feed me the wrong words and let me know it’s done so? Where is the dream soundtrack or lyric sheet located? In the dream, I felt I was listening to music that was external (coming from a radio, not from my head), but on waking I know that it was all contained within me, both the mistake and the correct version.
I guess what interests me is that when dreaming, I have the experience of accessing information that feels for all the world as though it’s coming from outside of me — the correct version of the song was coming from another dream character in this case — but the information is not external to the dreamer, to the sleeper herself, though it may not be something of which she’s consciously aware. And though the dreamer — who has after all created all the dream’s entire plot, set, and all the characters herself — “knows” the correct information, nevertheless the dream character may not. I assume this experience is not unique to me. And it leads me to consider how consciousness interacts with the self, whether the “self” is a useful or accurate concept or whether it is misleading, and how our conscious mind (and perhaps un- and sub-conscious minds) may keep information hidden from us, both in waking and dreaming life.
Sigmund Freud talks about dreams as being made up the residue of daily life — things we observe, hear, experience, etc., without consciously noticing them and/or without processing them — and he posits that dreams are messages from the body that in some way fulfill our unconscious wishes and desires. Carl Jung talks of a collective unconscious, teeming with archetypes and mythological forms, with dreams being one gateway to this mindstream (or mind-swamp) that he saw as external to the self and yet at least partially accessible to it. Buddhism posits that there is no permanent, unchanging self; that both the cause and remedy of suffering come from the individual; and that the self is both an agent, i.e., one who acts and who through acting causes consequences, as well as an experiencer, i.e., one who notices, feels, and reflects on action and its resultant consequence.
At the time, I was reading both Sleeping, Dreaming and Dying: An Exploration of Consciousness with the Dalai Lama and James Alison’s The Joy of Being Wrong: Original Sin Through Easter Eyes, and was meditating on consciousness, awareness and self-awareness, the idea of the self, and not on just the ideas of a fixed self — on a recent train trip, I had overheard several times “It’s my personality” as an explanation for a behaviour or feeling — vs. a becoming self (in the Dalai Lama book, the philosopher Charles Taylor brings up the analogy of the self as a ship on which a plank is changed every year; in so many years, you could say it’s the same ship, even though all the pieces of wood are different), but rather the idea of an internal, contained, self-actuated self, formed (whether once and for all or incrementally) by my preferences, actions, genetics, choices, experiences, perceptions, etc., vs. that of an external self, uncontained, a self formed solely in and by relationship, in and by connection to what we each think of as “the other.”
Freud’s psychological theories and Buddhist thought both, it seems to me, see the concept of desire as key to understanding consciousness and the self, and therefore dreams, which are seen as arising from one or the other. Freud believed that we have desires of which we are unaware or only partially aware, and that they reside in a part of our consciousness that can be at least partly accessed by dreams, among other ways. Buddhism says that our primary concern in life is seeking happiness (we desire it) and avoiding suffering (we desire to avoid it), and further, that “certain desires arise from our consciousness. From such desires the motivation to act may arise, and together with this motivation to act comes a sense of self, of ‘I.’ Together with this sense of ‘I,’ a stronger sense of grasping onto the ‘I’ arises; and this may give rise to certain types of mental afflictions, such as anger and attachment. … I am persuaded that a strong feeling of ‘I’ creates trouble. However, the same mental feeling is something very useful and necessary. … In order to develop self-confidence and a strong will, this strong feeling of ‘I’ is necessary.” (p. 114, Sleeping, Dreaming and Dying)
It was then I began to wonder, and now to accept, that what I have long thought of as my self is really only a well-crafted illusion; an ingrained and habitual way of differentiating “me” from “you;” a way of maintaining the belief that I am original, an originator, that I am the chooser, decider, maker of my own life and that “you aren’t the boss of me,” as most children protest at an early age. James Alison says that what Jesus was trying to change when he spoke with the disciples and others was “the constitution of our consciousness in rivalry and the techniques of survival by exclusion of the other.” And that after the resurrection, the disciples could finally see that Jesus’s “human awareness was simply not constituted by the same ‘other’ as their own.” Maybe my belief that I have a self, and my defense of it in various ways, is in itself an exclusion of the “other.”
Perhaps one function of dreaming is to give us the opportunity to loosen our grip on our strong sense of “I.” We can play other roles, inhabit other bodies and times and places, peek safely behind the façade we’ve crafted as our selves and experience something more whole than that, something more full and alive than who we think we are, than who we hope we are.
As Barbara Hurd says about swamps (above), in dreams our “mind lets go, slips into sleepy water” and we’re given a glimpse, for a few minutes each night if at no other time, of how elusive, insubstantial, and fleeting are our very identities.
Featured image: swamp, Highland Hammocks State Park, Sebring, FL, Feb. 2007