Dream-notes to bring the Real close
How seemingly random events and seemingly independent agents help to give a shape to the story of our lives.
A little over 50 years ago, my father had a dream in which my mother had cancer. He trusted the dream and took my mother to a gynaecologist, but the gynaecologist found nothing, and nothing was done. Three months later the first symptoms appeared. An operation was done, but by that time the cancer had spread too far and could not be removed. A few days after this unsuccessful operation, the tumour spread to her kidneys and she became unconscious. Radiation therapy was started but the oncologist was not sure whether it would work. The prognosis was bad.
I was not with my parents when this happened. I had taken 6 months off from my medical studies at the University of Amsterdam and was travelling through Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and India, learning the basics of Indian philosophy, yoga, and meditation. In those days, it was possible to travel overland between India and Europe, and so when it was time for me to return, I took first a train from Delhi to Amritsar, then a bus to the India-Pakistan border, another bus from there to Lahore, and so on, one bus-ride at a time, passing through Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iran. Half-way Turkey, while travelling on the back of a truck, I fell asleep and had a dream. In the dream a woman was coming out of the front-door of a large somewhat old-fashioned, red-brick hospital. The dream was very vivid, the picture perfectly clear, except that I could not make out who the woman was. I woke up with the sense that she was a close relative and that her medical problem was serious, but that, at that moment, she was not in any immediate danger. I told the dream to a co-traveller who got quite panicky and insisted I book a call to my family from the very next town we would pass through. It would have made sense to do so, but since, according to the dream, there was no immediate danger, I did not make the call.
After that incident, it took me ten more days to reach my parents’ home. When I entered the house, I was surprised to find a large number of family members in the sitting room. For a moment, I thought they had gathered because they were somehow expecting me, but they were as surprised to see me, as I was to see them. In reality, everybody was there to welcome my mother back after a dramatic illness and an unexpected recovery at a nearby hospital.
It took me some time to figure out what had happened. When my mother became unconscious, my father feared she might not survive and made desperate attempts to reach me. It was on that day that I had my dream. But the radiation therapy did its work, at least to some extent, and after a few days my mother regained consciousness. She returned home from the hospital just a few minutes before I returned home from India.
In other words, I got the dream when my father made his attempt at reaching me, but what I dreamt was not what my father was thinking at that moment. What I dreamt was what would happen 10 days later when my mother would be released from the hospital. Stranger still, at the exact same moment when she came out of the hospital, I was standing, only a few blocks away, at a bus-station, waiting for the short, last stretch of my 9000 km journey from India to my parental home. Since my bus made a few stops on the way, and because I had to walk from the bus-stop to the house, I entered a few minutes after she did.
When sometime later she was once more admitted to the same hospital, I went to visit her, and the main entry was exactly as I had seen it in the dream, as if I’d seen a photograph.
So, how could this happen? It was not “just” telepathy, as I saw what nobody knew would happen at the time that I saw it. It was not “just” an image of something random that would happen in the future either: what I saw was a picture of what for me was the single most significant moment in a long series of events. A picture of my mother five minutes earlier in the hospital or five minutes later in the car would not have conveyed all the relevant information. And the underlying reality the dream depicted is even more strange: how did we manage to arrive at exactly the same moment at exactly the same spot? I had taken a boat ride, spent random time sightseeing in Istanbul, joined people building a multistory house of cards in München, got bizarrely fast lifts (in a Mercedes) and bizarrely slow ones (in a pickup truck). And how did my mother get her timing right? Her physical recovery; hospital procedures; doctors, nurses, admins all doing whatever they needed to do at exactly the right time in exactly the right speed; and all this for the three of us to come together at what for us would be one of the most significant moments in our lives... If you would write a story like that, people would say “come on, great story, but reality is not like that”, but it is.
In their basic nature people are closer to poems than to stacks of cards, so .... the ability to enjoy poetry should be considered indispensable for psychologists.
In their basic nature people are closer to poems than to stacks of cards, so while it is not bad for psychologists to have some basic idea of statistics, learning how to understand and write poetry should be considered indispensable for psychologists.
Of course, there are also more prosaic types amongst us and even they have occasionally psychological problems or an urge for further development, so reading and writing novels and short stories could be included in the psychology curriculum as well.
Would it not be wonderful to curate selections of poems, novels, and short stories for different types of psychologists, clients, and specialisations within the discipline?
physicalism has been an unmitigated disaster for the humanities and for our understanding of ourselves...
The physicalism that is widely assumed to be an essential element of the scientific method and way of thinking, even by those who consider themselves post-positivist, is actually neither a necessary condition, nor a finding of science. It is no more than an assumption that simplified physics and chemistry to a level where they could flourish. And flourish they did, as is evident from the ever increasing speed with which our knowledge and practical know-how in these areas is expanding. But physicalism has been an unmitigated disaster for the humanities and for our understanding of ourselves, since in a purely physical universe there is no place for consciousness, nor for anything that is based on it. Our awareness of our own existence, of the world, of others, agency, meaning, purpose, love, joy, values, belonging, gratitude, awe – in fact everything that really matters to us as human beings simply evaporates when it turns out to be no more than an epiphenomenal side-effect of intrinsically meaningless brain-states.
Religion can mitigate the devastating effects of a physicalist world-view to some extent for those who still have faith in it. But religions typically depend on belief and on ancient scriptures which need a socially privileged class of priests to explain them. As a result, their role in society is inevitably conservative. The world’s scriptures — at least in the superficial exoteric interpretation that priests most typically prefer — tend to contradict not only science but also each other (and quite often themselves). All this becomes problematic for those enamoured by the progressive, self-critical attitude of science, which is so obviously right, given the social justice it seems to engender and the technical marvels it produces.
Interestingly, the Indian tradition has something that goes spiritually further than most, if not all religions, and that is at its best as open, self-critical and progressive in the domain of our inner life, as science is in the physical domain. It is there in the consciousness-based systems of yoga and meditation.
Unfortunately, they have their own difficulties. While the most popular schools are broad but superficial, others go deep but are narrow, encrusted in rituals and entangled in limited philosophies that can be as divisive as the religions based on them.
Fortunately, in the beginning of last century, several attempts have been made to distil the essence of all these different approaches to our inner truth. The most profound and comprehensive of them may well be Sri Aurobindo’s who not only made a synthesis of the psychological essence of the major schools of Indian spirituality, but combined this with the best that mainstream science has to offer: its rigour, intellectual rectitude, openness to innovation, and perhaps most of all, its idea of evolution and collective progress. The direct outcome of his broad, global integration was the idea of an ongoing evolution of consciousness, which in a fascinating manner adds a whole new dimension of beauty and purpose to our individual and collective existence on this planet. It can serve as an inspiring back-ground story for a new approach to psychology that integrates the very best of what West and East can contribute.
There are two distinct ways in which Indian Psychology can be applied. The first could be called instrumental or pragmatic, the second essential or paradigmatic.
There are two distinct ways in which Indian Psychology can be applied; there is a gradient between these two approaches, and many mixed forms are possible, but conceptually it is useful to distinguish them. The first could be called instrumental or pragmatic, the second essential or paradigmatic.
In the first approach, decontextualised ideas and techniques from the Indian tradition are used as adjuncts to existing ways of dealing with human beings that are standard within the present global civilization. Typical examples are the way yoga-asanas are used as fitness exercises that increase physical beauty and lower blood pressure; the rebranding of meditation as a relaxation response that helps to cope with the stresses of corporate life; and the use of vipassana as a stabilizing adjunct to psychotherapy. All these are, no doubt, for the good, but one cannot help but feel that they miss out on the essence, on the most beautiful, and in the end most important core of the Indian tradition.
Of the second, the essential or paradigmatic use of the Indian tradition, it is much more difficult to find good examples. One could perhaps think of the philosophical stance of some post-Newtonian physicists like Erwin Schrödinger, the educational experiments based on the work of Krishnamurti and Sri Aurobindo and, of course, certain developments in Transpersonal Psychology.
For those who try to apply the theoretical core of the Indian tradition to their psychology practice in fields like education, psychotherapy, counselling, inner growth and self-help, it is useful to make one further distinction. This is the distinction between approaches that emphasize the outer, instrumental nature, and those that focus on finding the Self.
There is natural tendency to start with changing one’s outer nature, and in strongly structured paths like that of Patanjali, an extensive list of social and outward practices are mentioned as first steps that need to be taken up seriously before one can safely embark on the higher and more inwardly oriented steps of yoga. The reason for this sequence is that a certain harmonisation of the outer nature, even if not essential for finding the Self, is still likely to make the inner quest more safe and secure. But the argument should not be taken too far. It is true that too early, too exclusive a quest for the Self can lead to what the Americans call “spiritual by-passing”. But it is also true that too early and too exclusive a stress on outer perfection, if it succeeds at all, tends to lead to hypocrisy and to a hard to break spiritual ego. If it fails, it is likely to lead to endless and completely unnecessary frustration.
The fact of the matter is, that a real and lasting change of one’s nature is only possible once one has found a safe haven in one’s eternal Self. It is not for nothing that in the Puranic stories, the devas, the divine powers of the mind, only win their eternal battle with the asuras, the darker sides of human nature, once they have made contact with the Divine who then functions like a helper and a guide towards their innermost Self. On a more mundane level, this is the inner reason that mindfulness helps in CBT: even a little stepping back, moving just a tiny bit closer to one’s eternal Self, helps to face one’s inner demons more effectively.
It is a subtle balance and one of many areas where Buddha’s middle path may offer the safest option.
Imagine a group of young people entirely moved by Truth, Nobility, Light, Love, Beauty...
When I woke up, I thought the place was very well-known, that I had been there so many times, and that others had been there as well. But now I'm more fully awake, I wonder.... At least in my waking consciousness I’ve never been there, and I wonder how many others have. All humanity seems to know are the most bizarre deformations and distortions of it.
Now I am fully back in my waking consciousness, it is hard — if I'm fully honest, it is impossible — to imagine or even recollect that beauty. In my ordinary waking consciousness nothing comes anywhere near.
Try to imagine a spontaneous, completely “true” grouping of youth, with all the dynamism of youth, a spontaneous, collaborative union of young people who are completely luminous, without the least internal shadow or the tiniest impurity or darkness.
Perhaps it was something like what Mother describes of the people on the supramental boat [ADD LINK]. That joyous unity of youth was there, ready to do together the works of true nobility.
In my ordinary waking consciousness, when I hear or see words like “goodness”, “nobility” or “perfection” for a group, I immediately think of their opposites. Here “perfection” is always false. We need the graciousness and charm of imperfections. But there in that other, inner world there was the genuine reality of the complete perfection of nobility, light, goodness, the works.
Just before coming out of it, I saw it as a space in which there were a few rectangular blocks that differed in proportions, colour and radiance. The colours varied from a dark terra-cotta, a muted stone brown-red, through gerua, to yellow gold. The colours were not painted on the surface but through and through, and everything was self-luminous, radiant like molten steel, but neither hot, nor grainy. The shapes were all composed out of perfect rectangles — but who knows, the shape of these “visuals” might well have been a contribution from my mind’s sense of perfection.
The words, "golden youth cooperative” came after I woke up — in that world itself there were no words. The words came when I had come half-way out it but still could see it. Initially these words themselves were also true, gold and noble. “Golden youth cooperative” was full of energy, like what it stood for, enthusiastically doing what is noble, true, light and good in society. The block representing it was visually the most bright, the most intensely shining, the lightest in colour, like yellow-gold. The other blocks were a little darker, a little more towards brown-red, though still self-luminous. All so incredibly beautiful, so completely “filled up” with such genuine harmonious perfection; there was absolutely nothing remotely wrong or evil.
It now comes to me that that whole universe was built on perfectly pure, divine love, but when I just came out of the dream the word love did not come up, I guess because it has itself become so polluted… Though Love is no doubt the essence of the true reality, the word “love” needs thorough over-hauling, cleaning, re-conditioning before it can be used again.
I’ve never seen anything remotely as beautiful.