This piece originally published on Mac’s List
The pursuit of a college education may be a long-term blessing and a short-term affliction. A bachelor’s degree provides some economic freedom, but it does not always offer clarity on who you are or who you want to be. If you’re like most people who pursued higher education, you grew up with every stage of life laid out in front of you: kindergarten led to first grade and so on. It was not until the precipice of college graduation that you were expected to figure it all out on your own.
The desperate search for one’s own passion may be derided as a crisis of privilege, a “First World problem,” but the existential call to be the writer of one’s own destiny is deeply human. The urge towards the creative life is innate in all of us. When we are no longer chased by wolves or the threat of starvation, we are chased by ourselves.
The cries “be who you are!” and “know who you are!” are not easily silenced, and attempts to do so will only transform into addictions, foul moods, and physical complications.
So how do you figure out what you want and who you are? In the early 20th century, the poet Rainier Marie Rilke wrote to a despondent 19-year-old young man in “Letters to a Young Poet” with timeless counsel for job seekers everywhere: “There is only one thing you should do,” Rilke wrote. “Go into yourself.”
Esoteric? Sure. You cannot easily place this advice among a list of things to do. But if the advice is understood and heeded, the ultimate rewards are unparalleled.
Through self-inquiry and good counsel, answers to the tangible questions of life begin to make themselves heard. Your anxiety and confusion, your headaches and stomachaches, all have information for what may be off track, they’re not simply symptoms to be silenced in the pursuit of the more conscious goals.
If you can learn when you’re off track by how your moods and body respond, you can learn too where your path lies. This takes some degree of faith, to be sure, but it only takes a few synchronistic successes for you to discover that you have a personal GPS sitting inside your chest.
Mythologist Joseph Campbell’s famous adage echoes Rilke’s: “When you follow your bliss, doors will open where you wouldn’t have thought there were doors.” Campbell uses the word “bliss” as a substitute for instinct, a path not lacking in terror and uncertainty but ultimately providing the greatest payoff. Our wants often only become clear after listening to all the other stuff of life.
In fairy tales, it is the awkward third brother who wanders off in the least anticipated direction, listening to the animals and following the path of a windswept feather, who ultimately finds the gold and marries the princess. Going into yourself and following your bliss means learning to listen to who you are innately. Learning what you’re passionate about begins with discovering and acknowledging who you are, not simply what you are expected to be.
This piece originally published on Mac’s List – April 19, 2013
Does this photo make you want to smoke? I know, Don Draper is a particularly evocative individual, so it might be a trick question. But swagger or no swagger, does seeing someone smoke ever evoke in you the desire to smoke as well? If you saw a man on the street smoking, would you have any conscious response? Unconscious?
I was not thinking smoking last week, nor watching Mad Men, when I awoke one morning from dream and what seemed a relatively novel revelation. In the dream, something had occurred to me that I was sure was going to revolutionize everything: Just as society now readily accepts that second hand smoke kills people and states are passing laws to ban smoking in public places, it occurred to me that with the greater understanding of mirror neurons, just seeing someone enjoy a smoke can neurologically provoke a desire to smoke and, therefore, lead to death. I thought, in my dream, that the sight of someone smoking is paramount to the inhaling of second hand smoke, now that we understand the neurological response it evokes in us. Furthermore, it occurred to me (while dreaming), our increasing knowledge of mirror neurons can revolutionize cases against corporations and advertising, with scientific proof of unconscious manipulation that does not require study after study of the effects of advertising.
Now, I am not writing this to make a case for or against smoking. Nor is this a blog about neurology — despite my interest in it, I am ill-equipped to say much on the topic. This is about dreaming, and the clarity of insight that can come when we are unconscious. My insight, which arrived while I was in a deep sleep and was utterly unrelated to anything I had consciously been contemplating, is actually quite sound. (Perhaps not earth shattering, but certainly it has basis in reality.) But where does such an insight come from? If I was unconscious, if my thinking mind was theoretically in off-mode, what was it that was thinking?
There are endless theories about dreams. Most individuals today still discredit the psychic activity of sleep as amalgamations of daily activity, feelings, and nonsensical images. Without even exploring the vast reaches of dream interpretation (which could certainly be applied to my dream above), one has to question how individuals can wake-up with whole poems composed, dresses designed, or ideas for a new story or book largely developed. We hear these kinds of stories all the time from artists and authors, yet few people seem to then question how these insights are possible while we are unconscious, not engaging with the reverence of psyche nor seeking to understand what is happening in the dream world. If dreams are simply daily residue or wish fulfillment, how do we awake with original insights and ideas?
Carl Jung wrote,
The view that dreams are merely the imaginary fulfillments of repressed wishes is hopelessly out of date. There are, it is true, dreams which manifestly represent wishes or fears, but what about all the other things? Dreams may contain ineluctable truths, philosophical pronouncements, illusions, wild fantasies, memories, plans, anticipations, irrational experiences, even telepathic visions, and heaven knows what besides. One thing we ought never to forget: almost half of our life is passed in a more or less unconscious state. The dream is specifically the utterance of the unconscious. Just as the psyche has a diurnal side which we call consciousness, so also it has a nocturnal side: the unconscious psychic activity which we apprehend as dreamlike fantasy. . . . it is highly probable that our dream psyche possesses a wealth of contents and living forms equal to or even greater than those of the conscious mind, which is characterized by concentration, limitation, and exclusion.
(The Essential Jung, p. 176, from The Practical Use of Dream-Analysis).
Have you had insights while dreaming? Do share. (Or. . .are you headed out to have a smoke?)