Last week, I recalled a dream that was prompted by my learning of a friend’s diagnosis with late-term cancer. The dream was transformational as it called me to reorient my attitude toward reality, and I was unusually wise to take that message seriously. This week, after several questions from readers about my process, I decided to describe my way of playing ball with my dreams and other promptings.
From early on, during college, I began a process of journaling each day. It be began when a professor walked into class and put a simple question on the blackboard: I am…… He asked us to spend the next fifteen minutes to write down whatever came to mind. He tellingly used the world “invest” as it conveys the sense of value implied in setting aside one’s limited time to look within. Back then, time seemed cheap. Like my peers, life seemed unlimited, time would go on and on. Later, when winter comes, the notion of time takes on a new dimension of scarcity. There is only so much to go around in this wild, crazy life. “Invest” takes on an urgency in tone.
But the professor was trying to lead us with his words as a tonic against our careless notions of time: he implored, invited us to “invest”. This time was to be a reflective process of thinking about one’s self. He asked this group of mostly freshmen to ask a basic identity question, writing down identifiers of who one thought one was. He offered some direction in terms of setting aside time to think about how you see yourself, how other people see you. He encouraged a type of free-association, jotting down whatever floats to the surface of consciousness, not judging them as good or bad, just writing on the page in front of you.
This proved to be a method I have used all my life. I call it journaling. Although I have evolved a process after years of research and practice, encountering the rigorous discipline of Ira Progoff and his Intensive Journal method, and the free-wheeling style of writers who use their journal to surface fresh material, it remains, at heart, a simple process. This journaling, which I have written about here in South of God, primes the pump as it situates one between the conscious awareness and the inner world of the unconscious. Between those two worlds that are within each human being, there is a threshold that is permeable in some of us, and quite segregated, even highly defended in others.
Tending to the connections between the inner world and the outer world is the overarching topic of a book I pulled off my Jung shelf. It is called Balancing Heaven and Earth, which is the memoir of noted Jungian analyst and writer, Robert Johnson. I have been moved by his transparency in relating his life journey, his insights, his blindspots, and his wonderings. Most fascinating to me are the moments of life he names as “slender threads” where connections are made that seem to come from the “beyond”, moments that seem to be guided by some transcendent force. In my early work in South of God, I termed these moments as “twists of fate” as opposed to the defining moments in which we have to decide our course. Most of those moments for me seem to only be seen in retrospect, or in the rear-view mirror of reflecting on one’s life. I tend to make those assertions of “guidance” much more slowly than Johnson, but he was older and wiser when he was writing. Perhaps there is hope for me yet.
One of the things Balancing Heaven and Earth does is relate actual dream content, a dream that one has that is a message from the inner world with some symbolic hint as to what may be going on. Johnson has a rich dream life and is generous in sharing elaborate dreams with his readers. I have had some rich dreams as well in times when decisions were on the line, dreams that I took seriously in determining my path for the future. I will be sharing a few of those in the next few weeks in the hopes it might prompt you to begin paying attention to these messages from your inner world.
But first, let me give you what I promised: a method.
I keep a journal, which I keep dated as I go, writing a time stamp at the top of the page. both the date and time of day. In my swirling world, I like to keep my journaling in one volume so I can 1) get to it quickly and 2) know exactly where this soul material is. I began by using those composition books used in college, easily picked up at the drugstore or office supply. I’ve gone through some elaborate models with formats built in. And I’ve built my own using the latest from productivity purveyors. These days, I am back to where I began, a simple composition book, in homage to T.S. Elliott.
In the journal, I simply record my thoughts in the present moment. I try to note what is happening in my life, so that I can refer back to how I reacted to events in my life, trends of mood at certain times of day. If I had a dream the night before, I will record that first, trying to get a bare-boned description of the dream, capturing the narrative in its most basic form. Later, I can fill it out with dimensions that I missed, forgot, or avoided.
I record in the journal in my first few moments after waking, and then throughout the day, ending with a kind of recap of the day’s event. This free-flowing schedule works for me and my personal quirks, but others seem to find a much more structured method more productive. Here, my pragmatism kicks in. Whatever works is the way to move forward.
In times of intense decision making, or emotional turmoil, I have been known to be much more intensive in my journaling method, going back to the Progoff method. If you are looking for that intensity and careful structure, I recommend the books Progoff produced in order to get a ready framework.
In my everyday journaling, after a significant dream, I will set aside a time to focus on the content and the feel. Either in the flow of the daily journal or in a set aside section dedicated to expansion, I will play off the dream content, with free associations, musings, wondering, with no notion that it will yield anything but additional thoughts. Every so often, the image of Alice chasing the proverbial rabbit enters my mind, and most times, I get a small chuckle, if not a full guffaw. I frame this whole enterprise in the words that my teacher gave to me: playful seriousness, serious playfulness. The implication is both balance, intention, and joy. Wrapped in a spirit of exploration, it works for me.
And so, why not use this Fall, for me always an inviting time of beginnings, to begin a practice of tending to your inner life. It begins with the act of the simple “pause”: to stop in the middle of the action of your wild, crazy life and reflect. To gaze both inside at what is going on within your person: your identity, your roles, your hopes, your fears. Take time to write flowingly or jot quickly the things that come to mind.
Then, pause for another moment, as you reflect on your context: your relationships, your community, what’s going on in your world and note how you are thinking and feeling about the world you are living. Again, it can be a fluid flow of descriptive words or a spackling of words and phrases. Inside and outside, what is going on? What does the surface of your soul look like: calm and serene, choppy, or stormy?
Finally, could this be a time to attend to your dreams? Could you prompt yourself to dream by quietly inviting your dreams to come as you go to sleep? Would you be attentive enough to record your dreams upon awakening? And can it be worth your time and energy to reflect on what you inner self may be trying to tell you? Like my early professor prompted, might you invest?
I’d love to hear your response and decisions. I will be relating to you a few dreams that have come to me in the past in hopes it might be helpful.
Brave journey as you cast off from the safety of the summer harbor, and move into the deep waters of the Fall.