Goodbye Self-esteem, Hello Self-compassion – Part 3: Real Love

In my last post I argued that focusing on self-esteem is an unhelpful approach to feeling good. I leaned heavily on the ideas of Kristin Neff in that post and will in this one too. Neff combines insights gained from meditation retreats with her background as a research psychologist to investigate and share the benefits of self-compassion. Her book on the subject offers a clear distinction between self-compassion and self-esteem, one that I think can be of tremendous service in helping people better support their own and others’ well-being.

Shifting our paradigm from self-esteem to self-compassion isn't a day's work. But like Gertrude Stein, we can begin, again and again.

Shifting our paradigm from self-esteem to self-compassion isn't a day's work. But like Gertrude Stein, we can begin, again and again.

As Neff points out, self-esteem isn’t a good way to go because it’s based on judgemental thinking, which will never capture the miracle of our unfolding lives. Self-esteem is like a narrow, barren ledge that’s all too easy to topple off. That is, unless you’re a flaming narcissist. But in that case, friends would soon sicken from your constant self-involvement and withdraw from you—a different kind of barren ledge. One I guess you’d never fall from since you’d be so solidly convinced of your own greatness. But you’d still be lonely, right? And maybe start sending out barely coherent, poorly informed, offensive and downright scary tweets at 3am. Or whatever.

Neff makes the case that self-compassion is a more effective motivator than self-esteem because “its driving force is love not fear.” (SC 165) In her view, self-compassion comprises kindness toward ourselves, an awareness of our shared humanity, and mindful presence. Instead of puffing ourselves up by telling ourselves how wonderful we are, or dragging ourselves through the mud because we didn’t live up to our expectations, we’re with ourselves, the way a friend or a loving parent would be. When something goes badly in our life, instead of either denying it or pummeling ourselves, we acknowledge what happened and the pain we feel, remind ourselves that mistakes happen and are part of what make us part of the human community, and think about how we can do better next time.

Neff and others have conducted a number of studies that prove the efficacy of self-compassion. In one, she and researcher Roos Vonk proved that self-compassion was associated with steadier feelings of self-worth over time than self-esteem. Self-compassion was also found to be more independent of particular outcomes such as social approval. And it was associated with less of what the Buddhists call “comparing mind,” in which we constantly measure ourselves against others’ achievements and advantages.

Like Neff, I’ve spent years attending meditation retreats stressing the importance of compassion toward self and others. So I’m right there with her when she gets all spiritual and writes, “When we’re mainly filtering our experience through the ego, constantly trying to improve or maintain our high self-esteem, we’re denying ourselves the thing we actually want most. To be accepted as we are, an integral part of something much greater than our small selves. Unbounded. Immeasurable. Free.” (SC 158)

Shifting the paradigm to self-compassion isn’t easy, because our society is so oriented toward its sorry substitute, self-inflation. But with patience and practice, we can begin. And begin again, and yet again, like Gertrude Stein did. At every faulty tumble, every flash of envy, pausing to give ourselves real love.

Goodbye Self-esteem, Hello Self-compassion – Part 2: Mirror, Mirror

So just to review, self-esteem is “a confidence and satisfaction in oneself.” On the face of it, that sounds like an ideal way to be, right? It certainly aligns with Western culture’s emphasis on competition and individuality. It’s a cutthroat world (so the thinking goes); you’d best give yourself a pep talk in front of the mirror each morning about all your fabulous qualities so you can go out there and beat everyone else at whatever game you’re playing. Eat instead of getting eaten.

The problem, as Kristin Neff explains in her book Self: Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself, is that on both the macro and micro levels, our nation’s obsession with self-esteem has let us down.

On the macro level, there’s the correlation I mentioned earlier between the widespread emphasis on raising self-esteem and an increase in narcissism, or egocentrism. Mass egocentrism unravels the social fabric—if we’re busy staring at our reflections, we’re not available to connect to and support one another. Actually it’s even worse than that—narcissistic people tend to get mean when their inflated sense of themselves is punctured. Egocentrism also contributes to a surreal atmosphere in which many people are more impressed with themselves—and convinced that others are too—than is actually the case.

Another serious problem resulting from our obsession with self-esteem is grade inflation, which actually disinhibits striving to do one’s best. American students lag behind students from other countries in most ways, yet operate under the delusion that they’re the brightest on the planet—and when a kid gets an A for lifting her pinky finger, who can blame her?

A third problem with wide implications is that self-esteem is strongly influenced by the judgments of strangers. That means we’re allowing people who don’t know us at all to determine our self-worth. Our culture’s emphasis on self-esteem aligns with the high value we place on individuality—yet ironically, self-esteem leads us to want to fit in. And that makes us vulnerable to forces investing vast resources in figuring out how to shape our preferences and behaviors in a creepy sci-fi way.

Self-esteem disappoints on the individual, subjective level as well. One cause for this has to do with the fact that self-esteem tends to be tied to things we value. If I’m driven by self-esteem, I’m motivated to work on endeavors I care about and avoid ones I don’t. But there might be some things I don’t care about that would be good to work on anyway, like getting good grades or being on time. In this way, self-esteem can limit me. On the flip side, I might waste my time struggling to achieve something I value but that I’m not suited to, like being a supermodel. (Although I’m sure if I really decided to become a supermodel I could do so … this is all about moi, right?)

Because self-esteem is dependent on external measures, it keeps us on a roller coaster of elation and dejection, depending on the feedback of others and on how well we achieve our goals. The successes we experience can become addictive—when I achieve something, I get a rush of good feeling, which pushes me to strive in order to replicate the rush. No time to smell the roses in this scenario.

People with inflated self-esteem often end up lonely. Others may be initially attracted to a narcissist only to realize that the individual doesn’t really have energy for them (except to the extent that he tries to keep them around to reflect back his greatness).

Lastly, self-esteem is based on narrow, static self-judgements, not a rich, nuanced appreciation of our constantly evolving nature. We radically shrink our perceptions of ourselves and reality when we depend on self-esteem to feel good.

Are you sufficiently primed to hear about self-compassion and why it's so preferable? Coming up in Part 3.

Goodbye Self-esteem, Hello Self-compassion – Part 1: Bashing Vasco

In case you haven’t heard, self-esteem is out, and self-compassion is in. The science supports this development and so do I.

Merriam-Webster defines self-esteem as “a confidence and satisfaction in oneself.” Self-esteem got a big boost in the '80s when California State Senator John Vasconcellos created his now infamous task force to promote it. A repressed Catholic who worked hard to heal himself through therapy and self-help books, Vasconcellos came to believe that inculcating high self-esteem in everyone from children to gang members would heal many of the ills that ail society.

In spite of all that self-healing, he screwed up. As author Will Storr documents in The Guardian, Vasconcellos recruited university scientists to research the benefits of self-esteem, but the results of the study were mixed at best. “Vasco” quashed the negative findings, twisting and exaggerating the positive ones. He did this so successfully (thanks to his hard-earned self-esteem!) that he won over everyone from Bill Clinton to Oprah Winfrey and helped influence a few decades of misguided efforts on the part of school administrators, law enforcement officials, CEOs, parents, and others to boost the population’s self-esteem. Gold stars were handed out liberally, regardless of actual performance.

Photo by MarkBernard/iStock / Getty Images
Photo by MarkBernard/iStock / Getty Images

Speaking of liberals, Storr points out that leftie Vasconcellos’ focus on self-esteem fed right into the neoliberal agenda of Maggie Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, pitting puffed-up selves against one another other in the alienating and aggressive ‘80s race of my Me against yours.

A race that hasn’t stopped, BTW. Narcissism in Western culture is on the rise. And thanks to the ubiquitous smartphone, the Me Generation has morphed into the Selfie Generation. I love tech like you do, people, but I don’t love how it has fed our ever-greater tendency toward self-absorption. (That’s “greater” as in “worse and worse,” not “greater” as in “better and better.”)

But wait. I remember sitting around a table in the mid-80s with fellow administrators of nonprofit programs for underserved kids. We’d just gotten news about Vasconcellos’ project. And we were thrilled. We were doing all we could to help kids muster the inner resources to go up against incredible odds, to contribute and succeed. Vascencellos was clearly on the same page.

And wait. Speaking of pages, I remember sitting around a living room in the mid-80s with my book group discussing Women & Self-Esteem by Linda Tshirhart Sanford and Mary Ellen Donovan. We were young, earnest, insecure women trying to gather the courage to speak up, set high goals. We treasured the book’s support and tips.

I’m all for taking Vasconcellos (who died in 2014 at the age of 82) to task for his task-force sins. And in my next post I’ll talk about the distinction between self-esteem and self-compassion, and why it’s way better to shoot for the latter. But for now I’ll simply point out: Yes, he was misguided and he lied and he contributed mightily to further shredding our social fabric. I’m unhappy about that. But did Vasco’s passion for self-healing contribute to the ongoing scientific study of self-worth and the growing cultural awareness that the way we treat ourselves is integrally related to how we treat others?

I’m guessing the answer is yes.

This Thing I Found: Teens Teach Us How to See Freshly

Recently I returned to an earlier incarnation, teaching a couple poetry classes at the high school in New York Mills, a town in upstate Minnesota where I've just completed a writing residency. I taught poetry pretty intensively for a number of years but that was a while ago. I loved re-entering “the classroom.” (As if it’s the same classroom, wherever one is—and that’s true, in a certain way—and not, in others. But I digress.).

Kasey Wacker, the teacher, had informed me that her 11th graders had all written poems, but not many, and not in quite a while. I chose a lesson built around an excerpt from Wallace Stevens’ poem “Someone Puts a Pineapple Together.”

Like his “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” each line in this poem asks the reader to look at a pineapple in an entirely new way.  The second stanza, for example, reads:

4. The sea is sprouting upward out of rocks.

5. The symbol of feasts and of oblivion . . .

6. White sky, pink sun, trees on a distant peak.

As I held a pineapple aloft, we discussed Stevens’ strategies for waking up our powers of perception. Not only does Stevens give us a new image in each numbered line; he also changes up the syntax (a whole sentence followed by two fragments), the use of punctuation, the music of the language, the scale (from a rock to a mountain), and the type of figurative language employed (metaphoric in lines 4 and 6; symbolism in line 5). The vocabulary too is full of surprises, like the word “sprouting” where you’d expect “spouting”—so you get the spouting action of water but also the sense that the water is alive, growing up out of the rocks.

And that’s just one stanza!

I then gave the students each their own fruit or vegetable and asked them to employ some of Stevens’ strategies to write their own poems. With remarkably little experience in the genre, they dove right in.

My coachy takeaway? Find some teenagers to hang around with. They are coming into their full power as interesting individuals with big brains. Yet their curiosity and permeability can remind us older humans to break out of our ruts and responsibilities, give ourselves fully to life, receiving life’s goodies in return.

Kasey sent me all 40 poems afterward. Part of me wants to publish all 40. Instead, I'll tantalize you with a smattering of the great work Kasey's students did (see below). Even in this sample there's a range of forms and tones—enjoy!

What (brussels sprout)

Round like a watermelon, yet small.

The fresh smell, a Sunday morning in May.

Each layer barely over the next.

 

Like the veins in a heart.

They go towards the center.

The whole is nothing without the center.

The center is irrelevant without the whole.

 

Each layer a limb, each piece a muscle.

With more power in than out, the body develops.

One day it stops, and the Sunday morning turns to Monday.  —Jake

 

This Thing I Found (brussels sprout)

Green and round,

this thing I found.

With veiny leaves,

and no fleas.              —Maddie

 

The Things You Can See  (small yellow pepper)

1.  The bulb hung alone on the tree.

2.  The tiny pot held the most beautiful upside down flower.

3.  Would they ever pull the sword out of the stone?

4.  Can you hear that bell . . .

5.  Look! That bird has no legs.

6.  The mushroom was covered in bumps.                        —Kaitlyn Dykhoff

 

A Cherry Pulled Apart (ground cherry)

1.   The dark green rivers within

2.   The tail of the taut mouse slips away

3.   An egg inside a frail shell

 

4.   Wrinkling away as new arrives within

5.   The brightness within the dark

6.   Veins of the animal show through battered skin

 

7.    A hut of darkness with life within

8.   The old man hardened with kindness in his soul

 

 

Poem (reaper pepper)

The wrinkled red reaper is as hot as the summer

days    gives you chills like the winter nights.

Red as blood, vivid as a memory, exotic as a bird.

Its thin hide reveals the tasty beauty inside.

 

At Peace (potato)

The bird, plump and bald

perches; bathing in the light,

in a deep slumber.

 

The Hand (ginger)

1   From the swallows of the tomb

2   came the hand

3   crawling creepily, steadily

4   it emerged

5   into the dawn, the light

6   it wrinkled, decaying

7   twisted, crisped, squirming

8   dying in the rays

9   from the bitter son

10 so back to the swallows

11 it retreated

12 sobbing, anguished, lifeless

13 gone

Dream On - Part 6: Dream Analysis Example

Here's an example of Gestalt dream technique in action, using one of my own dreams, from a period when I was experiencing uncertainty about my next steps in my professional and creative life. I start by recounting the dream (no dream is too short—even a fragment can yield rich results). I describe the overall mood or atmosphere, then inhabit each significant part, animate and inanimate.

Dream: I’m driving into a city with my mother and some kids. I see dark, ominous clouds of various shapes and levels amassing right over the city. As we drive over a bridge into the city, I see a black cloud in the shape of a boot drop down. It seems to hit the head of a swimmer. This action has a sense of gangster warfare—the old-fashioned Italian type—menacing. But there’s also a sense that these gangsters carrying out this aggressive battle are not interested in us ordinary folk.

Mood: Ominous but intriguing, like a quickly evolving film that turns cartoon-ish. In making this shift it becomes almost funny in an edgy, hysterical way while at the same time becoming even more concretely menacing—a boot falling from the sky and kicking someone in the head appears as a surreal cartoon but is at the same time more substantive than clouds massing and swirling.

“I”: I wonder if we’re insane for barreling along right into the storm. I wonder if we should be pulling off to the side. I know I’m the only alert adult present—I can’t count on my mother to make decisions in this situation. I wish to be passive but I feel I should be active. But I don’t know what to do, and I feel pulled forward by the momentum of the car, of the unfolding scene.

Mom: I feel placid. I hate driving. I’m so glad my daughter is driving so I don’t have to take responsibility. I can just be, gaze, observe, think my thoughts. My daughter can handle everything.

Kids: The grownups are acting like it’s OK to be in this situation. So we guess reality is supposed to be this frightening. It’s also exciting, watching ourselves roll right into this vision. It’s like a film or even a cartoon. It’s real and unreal, troubling and wildly entertaining. We’re just drinking it all in, no filters.

Clouds: We are angry and nothing can stop us. We move through the air like we own it. Out of ourselves we form a menace people might laugh at. But watch us form into a huge hard boot that kicks a swimmer hard in the head. Now we are this boot. We form from air but we become hard mass, a weapon. Call us cartoon, but you wouldn’t want to be that swimmer. We will dominate this war with the other dark powers.

Swimmer: I was just swimming and got totally socked with pain. This is what I get for letting down my guard. I have enemies who want to destroy me—I can’t relax ever.

Bridge: I provide access to the densely populated, magical, energetic city. I can’t keep people in or out but if they decide to come, I’ll be their passageway. Once you’re on me you can’t get off because I’m over water.

Water: In me, both pleasure and danger can happen. Beings can swim skillfully through me or drown. I separate the city from the rest of the world. In that way I’m like a moat, something that must be crossed over in order to enter the action, the center.

City: I’m where the action is. I’m what humans have created. I’m all artifice but at the same time I’m where the great human party happens. I’m the place of the least and the most contact. I hold promises that I deliver and foil. In a storm, like now, it’s dangerous to be in me with my tall buildings that could be hit and fall, crushing denizens.

If I were to continue working with this dream I would take one or more of the parts that seem most "not-me" and demonstrate their energy physically. For example, I might become the clouds massing in the sky, and the boot falling and hitting the swimmer. I might then "speak" those parts as "me, Sarah" to help integrate them into my conscious psyche.

I could go even further, representing the dream or an aspect of it in an artistic medium (skills not necessary!). Or I might prefer to move on to analyzing another dream. Either way will yield insights.

Dream On - Part 5: A Dream Analysis Technique (cont.)

Hey, dreamer, in my last post I addressed three of the six basic principles you need to grok dreams the Gestalt way:

  • Everything in the dream is an aspect of the dreamer
  • The dreamer reenacts the dream in the here-and-now
  • The dreamer sticks to the scenario of the dream, instead of generalizing based on waking life

In this post we'll look at the remaining three principles :

  • The parts that are not “I” are emerging consciousness
  • Dreams are embodied consciousness
  • Only the dreamer can discover the dream’s meaning

Zooming in a bit closer:

The parts that are not “I” are emerging consciousness: The elements of the dream that are not the “I” are seen in Gestalt theory as emerging consciousness—present but not quite ready to be “owned” by the dreamer. By inhabiting the point of view of each element in turn, the individual sees the dream scenario from new perspectives that often yield surprising insights. (Even elements that seem destructive or in some way unacceptable from the perspective of the “I” can have revelatory messages when inhabited in the retelling. A tornado might be seen as terrifying by the “I,” but when inhabited, can reveal excitement.) The dreamer becomes conscious of what is on the edge of consciousness—so this is a growth experience, custom-designed for this individual at this point in her development by her own deeper self. According to Kenneth Meyer,

The point of dream work is not necessarily to discover something totally new, but to sharpen the existential dilemmas we find ourselves in, to strip away the details and circumstances that mute the felt-sense of our situations.

 

Dreams are embodied consciousness: Gestalt theory views dreams as embodied consciousness. Our dreams aren’t abstract thoughts—they are bodily metaphors. A person might dream of swimming in a pool and finding all the water draining out, leaving him sitting alone at the bottom of the cold, empty pool; this might be pointing to the way he has felt “let down” by others in real life, and to a “sinking” feeling he felt when he realized he was being “let down.” Perhaps when this experience occurred in real life, he did not directly deal with it. His dream shows up to give him a chance to face this “unfinished business” (a term coined by Gestalt theorists).

Note that Gestalt theorists see metaphors not as the results of verbal thinking, but as the source of language. The dream comes first; then we describe it in language. This accords with the perspective of linguist George Lakoff and philosopher Mark Johnson in their book Metaphors We Live By:

Metaphor is for most people a device of the poetic imagination and the rhetorical flourish—a matter of extraordinary rather than ordinary language. Moreover, metaphor is typically viewed as characteristic of language alone, a matter of words rather than thought or action. For this reason, most people think they can get along perfectly well without metaphor. We have found, on the contrary, that metaphor is pervasive in everyday life, not just in language but in thought and action. Our ordinary conceptual system, in terms of which we both think and act, is fundamentally metaphorical in nature.

Only the dreamer can discover the dream’s meaning: Gestalt theorists believe that only the individual can discover the meaning of his or her dream. In a longer dream workshop we would extend this this to include a practice whereby an individual whose dream is up for discussion can decide whether or not to invite group members to offer observations using the sentence frame “If this were my dream.” This frame, along with other discussion guidelines, ensure safety by making it clear that the individual is the owner of the dream and its meaning, and keeps us from giving advice. However, for today, we will not offer our own observations of others’ dreams.

In my next post, I'll demonstrate Gestalt dream analysis using one of my own dreams.

Dream On - Part 4: A Dream Analysis Technique

Approaches to dream analysis abound, including Freudian, Jungian, shamanic, culture dreaming, and problem solving techniques. One method I’m especially fond of is Gestalt dream analysis.

Gestalt psychology was developed by Fritz Perls (1893–1970) and Laura Posner Perls (1905–1990) in reaction to traditional psychoanalysis.

Instead of focusing on past trauma, Gestalt focuses on the here and now. It uses experiential techniques, including dream work, to help individuals safely and directly confront and work through difficulties. In addition to Fritz and Laura Perls’ early studies with leading psychologists, theologians, philosophers, and developers of bodywork approaches such as Feldenkreis and Alexander technique, Laura Perls was a student of movement and dance and an accomplished pianist, and Fritz Perls had a strong background in theater. Their artistic training is easily evident in the approach they developed, and this is in turn helps make Gestalt dream work particularly well suited to developing our creativity.

Basic principles of this approach include:

  • Everything in the dream is an aspect of the dreamer
  • The dreamer reenacts the dream in the here-and-now
  • The dreamer sticks to the scenario of the dream, instead of generalizing based on waking life
  • The parts that are not “I” are emerging consciousness
  • Dreams are embodied consciousness
  • Only the dreamer can discover the dream’s meaning

Let’s take a closer look at the first three of these principles:

Everything in the dream is an aspect of the dreamer: The German word gestalt, as used by Fritz and Laura Perls and other German psychologists who inspired their work, means “something that is made of many parts and yet is somehow more than or different from the combination of its parts; broadly, the general quality or character of something.” When applied to dream work, the word points to the fact that dreams include various characters, objects, forces, settings, and moods, and that all of these elements are aspects of the dreamer’s mind. These elements combine to reveal something the dreamer is working through. Gestalt dream work stays focused on the meaning of each aspect of a dream in the context of that particular dream. As Kenneth Meyer (President of the New York Institute for Gestalt Therapy founded by Fritz and Laura Perls) puts it,

A horse within a dream is not any horse, but a specific horse, in a specific setting and in a specific relationship to the other figures. Associating to “horse,” or even acting out one’s general idea of a horse, will not give insight to the motivations and interactions of this particular dream-horse, at this particular time and in this particular context.

The dreamer reenacts the dream in the here-and-now:  Gestalt theorists see experiential here-and-now reenacting of a dream as much more powerful and effective than intellectual analysis. The individual slowly retells the dream as if it’s happening now, beginning by establishing the dream’s mood. To appreciate the gestalt of the dream, the individual inhabits not only the “I” of the dream but every other prominent aspect of it, knowing that every aspect is part of the dreamer. Jack Downing, a founder of the Gestalt Institute of San Francisco, describes it this way:

… If I am driving along a dream highway, the car, the road, the passing automobiles, the distant mountains, the unseen dread, all are me … The car in my dream isn’t my actual car, it is my impression, my memory trace of that automobile, having attributes and opinions and attitudes coming from me, not the vehicle.

The dreamer sticks to the scenario of the dream, instead of generalizing based on waking life: Approaching dreams in this way takes practice, because it’s tempting to think of elements in the dream in the terms one usually thinks of them in waking life. Just as the dream car isn’t the actual car, people from our waking lives who show up in our dreams aren’t the actual people. When Aunt Minnie appears in a dream, it’s important in the retelling to stick to what she is doing, saying, and feeling in this dream, not get caught up in describing her typical behavior in waking life. And Aunt Minnie’s appearance in last night’s dream might have a completely different import than her appearance in another dream.

Up next: A closer look at the remaining core principles of Gestalt dream work.

Dream On - Part 3: Recording Dreams

On the verge of leaving Providence, where I’d attended college, to head out to San Francisco and start inventing adulthood, I met a woman who was deeply involved with dream work. Sitting on a sunny deck with a couple other recent grads, she described how her Jungian analyst was having her write and draw her dreams.

This creative approach to self-development intrigued me. A couple summers later, when I backpacked around Europe for six weeks, I carried a small sketchpad and fine-point markers. I wrote my dreams in detail and then, when I had the time—sitting in the 300-year-old stone house of a friend of a friend amongst olive orchards outside Lucca, or in the garret of the home of childhood friends in Paris’s 16th arrondissement, or in a cramped bed-and-breakfast in Bloomsbury, or on a bench in Munich’s Englischer Garten—I’d select a prominent dream image to illustrate.

I embraced the Jungian approach of plunging into visual art low on technique and high on commitment to dream life—I allowed my drawings to be primitive, knowing skill wasn’t the point. And I liked the way the drawings complemented the words while making their own claims on my attention. Over the years, though I’ve rarely looked at them, I’ve never forgotten them. They have carved their own grooves into my neural pathways.

That summer was the only time I regularly drew my dreams (although writing about it here makes me want to do so again). But I’ve continued to write my dreams. In the process I’ve discovered things about the mechanics of doing so that I’d like to share with you.

Writing in the dark won't earn you high marks in penmanship—but with practice, it's legible.

Writing in the dark won't earn you high marks in penmanship—but with practice, it's legible.

  • Pay attention to even vague images and sensations that seem like part of the dream, and describe them as best you can.
  • Some people prefer to write out their dreams fully upon waking, to capture as much detail as possible. However, if you’re short on time—and who isn’t—even briefly jotting a few phrases or words describing the most vivid images or events very often allows further recall later.
  • As we practice dream recall, it’s common after some time to begin waking with such vivid memories of our dreams that we think it’s impossible to forget them, so we forgo or delay writing them down. But even vivid dreams can disappear easily into the unconscious the longer we’re awake. Discursive thinking—a very strong habit—suppresses our dreams. So keep pen and paper handy and remind yourself that even a minute of jotting upon first waking will give you permanent access to your amazing dream.
  • If you live with others, you might wish to explain to them that you’d like to remain in silence until you’ve jotted your dreams. This may feel odd at first but it can become very comfortable and allow a new way of relating—mutual silence in the service of doing something important. This is a cherished practice at silent meditation retreats where people live in silent community for days, weeks, even months on end.
  • If you share a bed with someone, think about how to record your dreams in a way that doesn’t disrupt their sleep, for example turning journal pages quietly. If you choose to jot at night, training yourself to write in the dark eliminates the problem of waking others up by turning on lights. Or you might experiment with an inexpensive LED book light. I like writing in the dark. I fold down the corner of the next blank page and place a ballpoint in the journal at that spot. When I wake from a dream in the wee hours, I grope for my journal and, eyes closed, do my sleepy best to write legibly. Generally I fall asleep again right away, happy that I’ve caught the dream by the tail before it has slithered back into my unconscious.
  • Some people like discussing their dreams with friends and loved ones. This is the basis of rich conversation and a great means of deepening intimacy. On the other hand, if you’re using dreams to stoke your creative process, you may find that relating to them privately supports that process. Experiment and see what feels right.

Happy dreaming!

 

Dream On - Part 2: Dream Recall

We dream multiple dreams, every night. No matter how entrenched our habit of not remembering dreams, our dream life is willing, even eager, to make itself known to us, provided we prepare for it—and approach it with an attitude of invitation and respect. This is a matter, not of hocus pocus, but of lessons learned from many experiments with what does and doesn’t work. Here are some tips for encouraging dream recall:

  • Place a journal and pen by your bedside. Choose a pen that doesn’t have a tendency to leak; simple, smooth-writing ballpoint pens work well.
  • Alternatively, you might wish to speak your dreams into a small recorder, and transcribe them later. However, for the writers in the house, I recommend writing, because even the way you record your dreams as you emerge from them can be, or evolve into, a form of creative drafting.
  • Before you go to sleep each night, make the wish that you’ll remember your dreams.
  • Make a plan for how you’ll record your dreams upon waking. For example, you might say to yourself, “I plan to take three minutes before getting out of bed to jot the strongest images I remember, and another five minutes to flesh them out while eating breakfast.” Or you might say, “I plan to jot my dreams when I wake during the night. Just knowing I’ve fulfilled my commitment of remembering and recording my dreams will help me go back to sleep easily and restfully.”
  • Upon waking, during the night or in the morning, before moving or speaking, gently inquire internally whether there are any dream images coming to you. Even the slightest sensation or fragment is worth attending to. If at all possible, jot down whatever comes the moment you recall it. Don’t judge yourself for not remembering more. Gradually, over time, your recall will improve.
photo (2).JPG

At first you may feel that you are the single human failure who is incapable of remembering a dream. Despite careful preparation and invocation, morning after morning you draw a complete blank. Don’t despair. If you persevere, it’s almost certain that you’ll begin to remember your dreams. Remind yourself to invite, not demand. The subconscious is like a small child or an easily frightened animal—it simply will not come out to play unless and until it feels it is being treated gently and respectfully. Impatience makes it run for cover. Respect and curiosity for this mysterious, fragile yet powerful creature will eventually draw it into the light.

As you continue to practice, the act of recording will bring more details to your awareness. In my next post I’ll provide more support for recording your dreams.

Dream On – Part 1

I recently heard the author Robert Glück read from a memoir-in-progress called About Ed in which he incorporates dreams. Bob likes to fold in matter written by others and in this case the dreams belong to former lover Ed, an artist who died of AIDS. The dreams demonstrate, among other things, that the dreamer knew a thing or two about striking visual imagery, and, poignantly, that he knew he was going to die. As I leapt and shimmied from scene to scene along with the dreamer, I was intrigued to glimpse how the dreams simultaneously frame and are framed by the story of the two men’s relationship. I am looking forward to reading the memoir in its entirety.

I’ve always loved Bob’s writing, and felt especially close to this work because of my own involvement with dreams. My mother used to comment that the simple fact of dreaming boosted her self-esteem. Depleted by the demands of parenting four kids while teaching high school French, her dreams reminded her that she was an interesting person with an interesting mind, someone bigger than the sum of the items on her endless to-do list. Her comments must have programmed me to appreciate dream life. I still remember dreams I had as a child, and I started recording them when I was about 12. In my early 20s I saw a therapist who taught me dream analysis based on Gestalt principles. I still love this approach and the surprising insights it inevitably reveals.

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In my late 30s, as a grad student in the MFA in Creative Writing program at San Francisco State University, I encountered William Carlos Williams’ prose poem “Kora in Hell: Improvisations.” It includes diaristic entries Williams wrote at the end of long days working as a doctor, passages that allow the drift into sleep to modify his musings. This poem opened a door and I walked right through it—into my dreams. I’m completing my third full-length creative book and all three make extensive use of dreams.

But in addition to employing dreams for artistic ends, I also continue to record them, often several a night, with no particular goal in mind. Why, exactly? In a sense, just because. Because one of my favorite things about being human is the fact of imagination. As much as it gets us into trouble, it’s also one of the things that’s amazing about us. And dreams are the imagination at work every single night, in all its wild, vivid glory (and sometimes in its mundane, practical aspect—dreams leave no stone unturned). Even if I record a dream and don’t do anything in particular with it, I feel better knowing I’ve honored it by writing it down. I enjoy feeling the remnants of the dream cling to my day, coloring it with a vision from the beyond.

You might be saying, Well, Sarah, you dream, but I don’t. Dear reader, fact is, practically everyone dreams, every night. That’s just how it is. Even cats dream.

Or you might be saying, OK, I’ll take science’s word for it that I have dreams, but I don’t remember them. Never fear. In future blog posts, I’ll provide tips I give coaching clients who want help with dream recall and dream recording. I’ll also write more about the many benefits of dreams and various approaches to understanding them.

Enjoying the Ride of Serendipity

When I first heard of Julia Cameron’s book The Artist’s Way, I disdained it. Self-help books were for losers and wannabes. At the time I had just received my MFA in Creative Writing. Suddenly adrift without the structure provided by grad school, I suffered serious writer’s block—but I did so, nobly, in silence. Then a gifted poet I was coaching told me he found the book useful. And a PhD candidate at MIT’s Media Lab said the book was helping him write his dissertation.

Guess I needed permission! I started working with the book. One day I mentioned to a fellow poet what I was up to. “Sarah, do you have ‘writer’s block’?” he asked, the air quotes weighted with derision. Clearly it was wrong to be blocked, or say so, or seek a remedy. I had an ugly afternoon, contending with a cranky inner critic reawakened from its temporary slumber. But next day I went back to The Artist’s Way. Not long after, I completed my first full-length book.

Truth is, I’m still critical. Not of The Artist’s Way but of the cottage industry it spawned. Several weaker spinoffs followed—a depressingly common practice in the self-help world. (That said, if the spinoffs have helped you, I celebrate that.)

But I value the first book’s core ideas and sometimes use them, or modifications thereof, with clients. The two most touted concepts are the Artist’s Date and Morning Pages. The first is a weekly solo date—arranging flowers in a vase, say, or strolling in a park, or visiting a gallery—that “fills the well” of creativity. The second is a daily free-write to override the inner critic and develop creative flow. But there’s a third that I treasure too: attending to serendipity.

Per Merriam-Webster, serendipity derives from a Persian fairy tale called “The Three Princes of Serendip” (love that!) and means “the faculty or phenomenon of finding valuable or agreeable things not sought for; also: an instance of this.” The Artist’s Way periodically enjoins readers to reflect on serendipitous events.

It’s weird: The more one pays attention, the more such instances seem to crop up, and the more significant they become. You start out hesitantly noting that when you rolled over in your sleep and accidentally thwacked your beloved, he happened to be having a nightmare he was grateful to be woken from. Pretty soon, you’re spotting God at the 7-11—where you never go but you got an inexplicable urge for a Slurpee. Even—or especially?—if you’re an atheist, bumping into God is pretty cool.

This serendipity exercise points to something mysterious and good about life. Call it God, call it spirituality, explain it scientifically like the Media Lab guy probably would. Regardless, attention to wonder creates more wonder. Noticing the way beauty arrives unbidden lifts the burden—temporarily, at least—of believing we’ve got to make everything happen. I think of it as life’s gentle reminder that we’re not the drivers we think we are. Sit back and chill for a moment, life is saying. Be a passenger. Enjoy the ride.

Agnes Martin: A Singular Career

After years of noticing references to the painter Agnes Martin in the work of other poets, I finally encountered her work in spades at the Guggenheim retrospective on view through January 11, 2017.

I knew little about Martin—partly my own failing and partly, I’m guessing, due to the short shrift she got for a long time. Why was she overlooked? Probably a combo of several factors including her gender, her resistance to the “star-making machinery” many artists embrace, and the fact that her work hasn’t translated very well online (that’s changing, though, thanks to improved video tech).

So I didn’t know that most of her works are paintings of lines and grids. Nor that she strove to provide viewers with states of happiness and joy, a sense of expansive, ego-emptied beauty such as we experience in nature. She gave some of her paintings names like “I Love the Whole World” and “Lovely Life.”

Cheesy titles, right? And how do they go with her restrained, abstract works? And while we’re questioning, how can she think grids are like nature?

These dilemmas slowly dissolve as you stare at painting after painting, experiencing the marked similarities and subtle differences between them. Sometimes you select one work for deeper communion, moving close up to see the meticulously drawn pencil lines and precisely applied paint, then further away till the lines fade like details disappearing out a window as a plane ascends. Through patient engagement (a mere smidge of the patience Martin demonstrated in creating this body of work) you start to experience a sense of meditative peace.

You begin to reflect (or I did) that ocean waves are so similar, arriving one after another, yet no two are the same. That an orchid or an oak has many systematic, predictable features, yet each can pull you into its particular universe. That there’s something about the necessarily imperfect striving for perfect form that feeds the human soul. You start to feel gratitude for this break from the daily grind of trying to be an important somebody, for the careful, deliberate markings made by this earnest, hardworking human, Agnes Martin.

There are so many facts about Martin and her creative process that inspire me as a poet and that I will no doubt draw on over time to support my clients in my work as a Life & Professional Coach. For example:

She suffered enormously (an emotionally abusive mother; paranoid schizophrenia replete with auditory hallucinations, spells of depression, and catatonic trances; shock treatment). But she found ways to cope. And to create.

She didn’t let others define her (the Minimalists wanted to claim her; she resisted).

She abjured fame.

As a queer woman in a male-dominated art world she overcame incredible odds to develop a successful career. (And she did that while abjuring fame!)

She was quirky as hell. (She claimed to remember the exact moment of her birth. She saw visions. She abruptly stopped painting for several years in the middle of her career; then resumed and proceeded at full tilt.)

She was a late bloomer (started painting at age 30) and a cool elder (painted her last work at age 92).

But the main thing is the work, and what it transmits, moving from deep inside Martin’s sensitive, introverted practice all the way over to now, to us.