The Consciousness Question

Nature, nurture, and the hundred billion neurons in between

Dreams—Big and Little

What dreams can tell us about our life.

I am, of course, referring to night dreaming—(day dreaming when one simply goes ‘off the air’ and continues one’s daily routine on ‘automatic pilot’, so to speak, is an aspect of consciousness which I will discuss at some future date). At this point I want to talk about the significant role our night dreams play in bringing us to become aware of the course our life is taking.

Over the weeks and months that Carl Jung would devote to the dialogue with his patients—a form of therapy designed to bring them to a higher degree of self-knowledge—he would question them about their night dreams, and bring them to distinguish between those that were significant as Big Dreams—and those which were relatively insignificant as Little Dreams: (terminologies and distinctions also long employed by Australia’s Aboriginal peoples.)

Big Dreams are those that remain clearly in the waking memory for days, weeks, or even years… and evoke events, time-periods, and places—usually bizarre and surreal—that are absolutely foreign to one’s experience of conscious, normal reality in wakeful life. Little Dreams, on the other hand dissipate quickly and are, in large part, forgotten on waking—are relatively topical, taking place in relatively familiar surroundings… yet where ‘normal’ things happen randomly without rhyme or reason.

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It was the Big Dreams in which Jung was interested, for he saw them as purposive: not simply the random ‘flutterings’ of neurons failing to succumb to the natural periodic suspension of consciousness we call ‘sleep’… which are more likely responsible for Little Dreams. Instead, he saw Big Dreams as emanating from a subliminal resource of dream-imagery known to psychologists as the Unconscious: a significant region of our psychical powers that does not regularly contribute to our matter-of-fact daily pattern of awareness, and is seen by Jung, to constitute a deep well of intuitive cognizance—‘felt-thoughts that can influence the course of one’s usual ego-directed, five-senses response, to the world and its happenings - for good or ill. (The Unconscious as an important force in consciousness is discussed at length in my book, What The Hell Are The Neurons Up To?)

Jung regarded the Big Dream as a kind of ‘wakeup call’: as a means of alerting one to psychological imbalances in character development that are working against one’s wellbeing, and are therefore injurious to one’s positive and meaningful psychological growth. He also pointed out that such important dreams were not to be taken literally; could only be understood if ‘read’ symbolically.

I believe it to be true that dreams are the true interpreters of our inclinations; but there is art required to sort and understand them. Montaigne: Essays III. xiii.

Let me provide an example of a Big Dream and the ‘art’ of symbolic interpretation that gives it meaning. Over 50 years ago I had such a dream… and it brought me to recognize the psychological dangers of the life I was currently living in the process of writing a book called Form, Space and Vision. The chapters, as I submitted them to my editor at Prentice-Hall, were being returned smothered in blue pencil corrections. There was a deadline and I was working against the clock. For many weeks I rarely left my study until late at night. All family involvements were put aside. I became an inconsiderate, self-absorbed recluse.

And then I had the dream. It is as clear today, in every detail, as it was then. I was positioned at the stern of a naval ship holding a long rope attached to a raft with a person on it, floating about a hundred yards out on the port side. The captain was on the bridge, while on the prow of the vessel was a sailor also holding a rope attached to the distant raft. The captain, using a megaphone, told us that the exercise on which we were engaged was to gently pull in the raft until it was directly amidships, thus allowing its occupant to board the vessel through a hatch just above the waterline. All went well on the first try until I started pulling too hard, over compensating for the forward motion of the ship and pulling the raft close-in to the propellers. We hove-to and the raft drifted away. I performed even more assertively on the second attempt. The ship stopped. The captain came down to me. “Look”, he said, “there are four of us involved in this survival exercise. We must all pull together. Watch me on the Bridge, keep your eye on your companion at the prow, and pay close attention to the position of your friend on the raft.”

On the third attempt all went well. I waited on the captain’s instructions; coordinated my rope-pulling with that of the man on the prow, and the raft and its occupant came aboard through the hatch amidships

And then… I suddenly found myself looking down from a point high above the ship to see the vessel turning in the bright blue water, its white wake forming a perfect circle. I lay awake for some time, absolutely relaxed, unworried about the wretched book. During the next few days I realized that there were not four different members of the ship’s company involved in this labored rescue attempt. Just one. Myself. There in the stern stood the ‘I’, all existential ego. The crewman in the prow represented my intuitive self, constantly trying to moderate ego’s impetuosity. The captain represented the transcendent powered of spirit. The one on the raft was a very lonely and lost soul…

Now ‘in one piece’ again, so to speak, I became acutely aware of the most important values life offered: love of family, loss of ego in caring for others, and presence of the forces of intuition and spirit.

Graham Collier, author of What The Hell Are The Neurons Up To?, is an exhibiting landscape and portrait artist in Britain, an artist-philosopher in America, and a frequent Antarctic voyager. more...

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