Friday, February 29, 2008

Recipe for a healthy psyche

These ideas come from my own “Jungian experiment,” and the writings of Jung, Marie Louise Von Franz, James Hillman, and Robert A. Johnson, among others. Try your own experiment and let me know what happens.

1. Get enough sleep and wake up slowly.
If possible, arrange your schedule so you can go to bed early and wake up without an alarm. I’ve noticed that when I’m able to sleep until my body wakes up naturally, I remember more of my dreams.

Studies have shown REM (dreaming) sleep is vital to psychological health. When experiment subjects were allowed to get non-REM sleep but were disturbed during the REM sleep cycle, they suffered from aggression, anxiety, and poor concentration. Scientists are finding that sleep is not only vital for physical rest but helps us maintain our emotional well-being.

2. Record your dreams.
Marie Louise Von Franz, Robert A. Johnson, James Hillman (and other Jungians I’ve studied) all maintain that recording dreams is the key method for enhancing or maintaining our psychological health. MLVF maintains that even if the dreamer doesn’t understand the images, the act of recording dreams has a powerful effect. I’ve found this to be true.

Several years ago, I began to capture my dreams with a digital recorder tucked under my pillow. After whispering them into the recorder, I would write them out. A few dreams were easier to interpret, but most were impenetrable to me. Still, after a few months of this practice, I began to have unexpected insights into my personality. I began to see myself in a new (not always flattering) light.

While I still can’t see into all my blind spots, having greater awareness of my inner dynamics, helps me make better choices.

3. Give yourself time to daydream.
Jungians believe that the unconscious part of our personality reveals itself during creative activities or when we daydream. Using “down-time” to let my mind wander allows my worries, ambitions, or hidden wishes to emerge and reveal themselves. Blink and
similar books have documented that much of our inner life occurs outside our conscious awareness. Quiet meditation or other introspective moments can allow us to catch a glimpse of these inner workings.

4. Question your moods.
Similar to dreams and fantasies, moods can give us great clues to our inner world. Paying attention to the fluctuations of our feelings (especially after a dream or upon waking) provides more input. Even if I don’t know why I’m anxious, or depressed, noting my feelings is an important first step. Asking the question “why” will lead to an answer. (I’ve found this to be true.)* The answer may come through a dream, a fantasy image, or just a sudden understanding.

Moods are our psyche’s tool to give us information about our inner and outer world. I may not know why I’m angry until I eventually replay the swift events at work and realize I was subtly flogged by a passive aggressive co-worker. Part of me registered the jabs and felt angry before my conscious self realized what happened. In the same way that we watch physical symptoms for signs of illness, paying attention to moods helps us stay healthy. The psyche tells me what is nurturing and what is not. If I give myself what my psyche craves (within reason) I’ll be much happier.

An obvious example: I love gardening, but hate accounting. A job in accounting would be disastrous for me. I know this because of my inner reactions when faced with accounting. This seems obvious, yet most of us ignore at least some of our inner promptings. What moods do you ignore?

*(Asking a question of the unconscious has also worked for artists and inventors. There are many
stories of dreams providing the solution to a creative problem. Jungians believe that our unconscious can provide lots of info—about our inner and outer world).

5. Engage the imagery/personalities that emerge in your dreams.
Draw, sculpt, journal, dance. Jung and his disciples have emphasized that building a bridge between your unconscious and conscious mind requires a willingness to engage in the imagery of your dreams and daydreams. No matter how confusing, frightening, or bizarre, we should creatively express these inner realities in an outer form. Artistic talent isn’t necessary. The goal isn’t to create art but to consciously engage with these images (in a playful way).

Yesterday I had a dream about snakes. They were plush-toy-bloated, sleepy snakes in iridescent colors. Despite their harmless appearance, I was frightened because I had to crawl over them.

I couldn’t decipher a message. Still, the imagery was powerful and stayed with me through the morning. Instead of taking the time to draw the snakes (drawing dream images is recommended. Jung himself kept a notebook of dream drawings.) I googled a description of them and found several examples. I printed these pictures and put them throughout my house so I could walk over them.

Seems silly, yes? But experiment. You’ll be surprised at how, over time, working with your dreams can increase your self-knowledge.

Another tool for engaging with the unconscious is “
Active Imagination,” a technique of having a dialogue between two archetypal parts of oneself. It isn’t easy and should be approached with caution. (For people prone to psychotic breaks, this method could be dangerous. For some, the boundaries between unconscious and conscious imagery is too fragile and active imagination should only be tried with a professional.)

But, if I’m psychologically stable, I can try more formal dialogues or at least begin to acknowledge the characters that consistently emerge in my dreams and fantasies.

If I have a dark, dangerous figure who is always in my dreams I might name him. I might write out our inner conversation. I might draw a picture of him and ask him a question. I If I do this, a new dream or daydream will come to give me more information and our dialogue can continue.

I’ve found these ideas helpful. Maybe you will too? Experiment on yourself and watch. These practices take time but have been powerful for many seekers.

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