When I started writing this blog I always thought of it being read sequentially by a very small number of people who know me or once knew me. Three years later and with the benefit of a (paid for) improved search engine for readers, there are more readers than I ever dreamed of. However most of them are highly selective and search for the stuff that piques their interest regardless of when it was written. I do my best to categorise and tag the posts and I work hard to write eye catching titles now because I’m almost certain that I’m the only person in the world who sees the Potwell Inn as a kind of journal. Pretty much everyone else must think of me (if they think of me at all) as that old bloke who writes completely random stuff about cookery, allotments, philosophy, climate change and living in Bath. So what better time than a warm bank holiday Sunday when sensible people are doing anything but reading blogs – to write a piece about dreams and how they’ve helped me? It’ll sit somewhere up in the cloud, possibly for years before it meets its only reader who’s been looking for something on exactly this subject.
So here goes. Most people probably think that when you go to see a psychoanalytic psychotherapist you tell them about your dreams and they – because they’ve read Freud or Jung from cover to cover – will tell you what the dreams mean and you’ll experience a lightbulb moment and find yourself miraculously cured. Well that’s absolute tosh. In around four years of intense therapy Robin – my therapist – only explained a dream once, and that was by way of a joke. I’d explained to him how I’d dreamed I was walking down Hotwells Road, separated from the harbour by a row of houses, and I kept glimpsing a pair of elephants walking alongside but on the far side of the houses. “What’s that all about?” I asked, not expecting an answer. “Well I’m a Freudian“, he said, “They’re obviously sex and death!” He was far too modest a man to laugh at his own joke, but I thought it was hysterical.
After four years on the couch – well three and a half because the first six months were spent sitting rigid with fear in an armchair facing him – I had learned that dreams really are the royal road to the unconscious mind, but it’s the dreamer’s work to embrace them. No one else can tell us what they mean, if indeed they mean anything at all, and if by that you mean discovering a one-to – one relationship between a dream and an interpretation.
As an example, and don’t worry there are no cringeworthy moments in what follows; as an example I’ve just completed what I think is a long cycle of dreams that came to me over many months. They were all anxiety dreams, some of them nightmares, and they would wake with me and occupy my mind for the whole of the next day. They were all furnished by the ghostly remains of the more traumatic events of the past decades. Clergy work is almost by definition traumatic because its currency is life and death. Too much exposure to raw grief and anger can cause tremendous psychological damage if it’s not dealt with, and it’s not just the people whose lives I briefly entered and left; there were the authorities and the congregations to deal with – and they could be, without doubt, pretty poisonous in the pursuit of their personal agendas. But there was never time and rarely the support to deal with these issues before they were pushed to the edges of consciousness and then stored deep in the unconscious like little timebombs.
The grace of dreaming thoughtfully only showed up seven years after I retired and four years after I left therapy. I can never express my gratitude to Robin enough because by the time we parted company I was so infused with his forensic questions, I felt brave enough to embrace whatever came along; however painful or frightening. One recurring dream in particular haunted me for years; leaving me in sheer terror. Then, out of the blue, instead of waking in fear I walked through the circle of my tormentors and they made no attempt to stop me. The dream still occurs but I know that I survived and that neutralises it completely.
So after a while I realised that this long sequence of dreams was regressing into the past. The subject or the trigger was moving back further and further in time until I seemed to have processed a whole stack of bad memories, thoughts and fears that just needed time and only a little courage to allow them to emerge and then be dismissed. I haven’t interpreted them in any way but just allowed them to say their piece and go. The grace – and I’m sure it qualifies as a grace -is a conscious sense of peace that comes from the fact that the long delayed embrace of bad memories was accomplished through dreaming. The events of the past are not erased, they never could be, and they’re so much a part of me I’m not sure I’d want them to go, but there’s no thought of confrontation or revenge.
There’s a Jungian idea which I’m happy to rehearse here – the last thing we need is sectarian counselling! – and it’s based on a metaphor that comes from growing things – so it suits me perfectly! Jung suggested that new growth always emerges from the wound. In the pursuit of eudaimonia or flourishing, we can’t learn to thrive or be compassionate or love justice; to be brave, temperate, truthful or generous or embrace and live out any of the virtues if we simply ignore, repress, or lock out the wounds and knockbacks we have received through life.
And so I’ll press the send button and this post into the cloud in the hope that someone, somewhere, will find it a help.