Non-suicidal self-injury

I think that one of the most baffling phenomena in the repertory of human behavior, to people outside the mental health field, is self-mutilation. Most of us fear and avoid physical pain and disfigurement, and it’s hard for us to understand why anyone would intentionally hurt themselves of self-mutilate. Over the course of my career as a psychologist, I discovered that there are a variety of motivations and explanations for self-harm.

Some people harm themselves because they are in a psychotic state of mind. It may be that voices nobody else can hear tell people to hurt themselves, or that self-harm is the result of delusional beliefs. I’ve known a man who gnawed off several fingers and another who gouged out his eyes for incomprehensible reasons, while psychotic. Other people injure themselves impulsively, because their distress impairs their judgment and they don’t know what else to do; so they bang their heads against the wall, or punch through a pane of glass.

Yet others learn from experience that cutting, or otherwise hurting, themselves provides immediate relief from overwhelming emotional pain; and it becomes a habit. The brain often responds to pain by releasing endorphins, whose molecules resemble morphine. (I recently learned that one reason some people enjoy eating really hot peppers is that the pain gives them an endorphin high.) This substitution of physical pain for emotional pain is hard for many of us to understand, but it reliably meets a need for some people. It can be viewed as a kind of masochism, with the distinction that it’s not done for pleasure, but rather for relief from pain.

What I would say to a client when I learned that they were self-mutilating was something like, “I believe that if you knew better ways to cope with your emotional distress, you’d use them, instead of hurting yourself. So let’s work on finding better ways.” Non-suicidal self-injury (NSSI) is a pathological behavior for many people diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder, and its elimination is one of the first goals of the most effective treatment available for people with that diagnosis – Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT).

DBT is the creation of Dr. Marsha Linehan. She designed it to help people who feel like they’re living in Hell, as a way out. Each patient in a DBT program is assigned an individual therapist, and is required to attend skills training groups twice a week. Two of the skills modules that are geared to the elimination of  NSSIs – or parasuicidal behaviors – are distress tolerance and emotion regulation. Borderline traits and symptoms are characterized by emotional imbalance. In learning to tolerate distress and regulate emotions, the clients learn how to achieve emotional balance. They no longer have to rely on the endorphin rush they get from cutting or burning themselves, once they’ve found better ways to cope with emotional distress.

The most extreme instance of self-mutilation I ever encountered in my career, not involving psychosis, was a long-considered and carefully executed self-castration. I speculate that the man’s motivation was related to either or both fear of a strong sex drive and/or disturbing sexual fantasies and urges. A fundamentalist Christian, he believed himself to be tempted by demonic “powers and principalities,” in a battle over his soul. He was quite intelligent and had a rationale for his agenda.

When he’d asked a surgeon to castrate him, he’d been told that no doctor could ethically accommodate his request, as there was no medical reason for the surgery. So he studied books on surgery until he felt confident that he could operate on himself. He decided to castrate himself in two  separate surgeries, coached his wife to serve as his surgical assistant, and set up a surgical suite in their home. The first surgery went off without a hitch. I never would have encountered the man if he hadn’t botched the second surgery. When he and his wife couldn’t stop the bleeding after he’d severed his remaining testicle, they had to call 911.

The local hospital contacted me to evaluate him. He was medically stable and ready for discharge, but his doctor wanted me to make a recommendation regarding any possible suicide risk. The man showed no signs of either depression or psychosis. He was pleasant and cooperative, explaining his rationale for castrating himself and answering all of my questions. He seemed somewhat embarrassed by having been found out, but seemed to have no other regrets about his actions. He persuasively denied any suicidal thinking, and he didn’t meet the criteria for involuntary psychiatric commitment. So I recommended that he be discharged. I gave him my card and told him that I was available if he wanted to follow up, but he never contacted me.

As an adult, I’ve never referred to mentally ill people as “crazy” – only behaviors. This was an example of how a legally sane person can do a carefully-considered, but crazy, thing.

Who is a psychologist?

I have a masters degree in psychology, and was trained in the profession by doctoral psychologists. I worked for over thirty years as a clinical psychologist in the public sector, but there are psychologists with PhDs and PsyD degrees who would have you believe that I’m not a “real” clinical psychologist. That’s because I can’t be licensed as a clinical psychologist in South Carolina – as in most states – with a masters degree.

I’m thankful to the American Psychological Association (APA) because I got my first job as a mental health counselor as a result of  a job interview at an APA convention. (I was subsequently certified by the state of Alabama as a psychometrist – qualified to administer, score and interpret certain psychological tests.) But I’ve since come to view the APA as a professional guild, as well as a professional association. It serves to protect private practice psychologists with doctoral degrees from competition by masters-level psychologists. There’s no established scientific basis for excluding masters-level psychologists from licensure, if they can meet the other requirements.

The central issue is demonstrated competency, but the APA contends that a doctoral degree is the established educational standard for licensure. No body of scientific evidence exists which demonstrates that doctoral-level psychologists achieve better outcomes in the provision of psychological services than masters-level psychologists. But the APA doesn’t want the competition, and has opposed all efforts in various states to allow masters-level psychologists to be licensed. In South Carolina, a hard core of doctoral psychologists even tried to “trademark” the prefix psycho (as in psychotherapy, psychological testing, etc.) for the exclusive use of doctoral psychologists.

I know this because I was the acting chairperson of the South Carolina Association of Masters in Psychology (SCAMP), a state chapter of the North-American Association of Masters in Psychology (NAMP), when the licensed psychology establishment proposed legislation that would exclude any psychologist without a doctoral degree from the possibility of professional licensure in the field. To insure passage of their “practice act,” it was written for them by one of South Carolina’s most prestigious law firms, and they hired a lobbyist to promote it in the state legislature. SCAMP didn’t stand a chance.

But it didn’t stop us from trying. We did research on the availability of psychological services throughout the state, indicating that South Carolina was underserved, and that masters licensure would make psychological services available to more people. We argued that only those masters-level psychologists who could achieve the same scores on licensing exams as the doctoral-level psychologists should be eligible for licensure. We were even open to an initial period of supervision by licensed psychologists, leading to eventual licensure for independent practice. Perpetual supervision of masters-level psychologists in private practice would have been a new revenue stream for licensed psychologists, but a period of supervision leading to independent practice was unacceptable. The psychology practice act only affected private sector psychologists. In the public sector, masters-level psychologists routinely did things that they’d been deemed unqualified to do in private practice, by the practice act.

SCAMP had some significant support when testimony was presented in legislative subcommittee hearings. A publisher of certain widely-used psychological tests testified that masters-level psychologists were competent, with appropriate training,  to administer, score and interpret their tests. Dr. Logan Wright, a former president of the APA, testified in support of masters-level psychologists being eligible for licensure as psychologists. In spite of this, the South Carolina Psychological Association got the legislation they wanted. The law didn’t  prohibit appropriately -trained masters-level clinicians in private practice from doing any testing; you just couldn’t call the service “psychological testing.”

For years I worked as a mental health counselor, but routinely did psychological testing as part of my job. I eventually got licensed as a professional counselor; but for most of my career, I was hired as, and performed as, a clinical psychologist. My colleagues who were licensed psychologists always treated those of us with masters degrees as peers; and although we couldn’t be licensed as clinical psychologists, we did essentially the same work as the licensed psychologists. For legal reasons, our psychological evaluations were co-signed by licensed psychologists; but in all my years of doing testing, I never needed to have my work corrected, and never got critical feedback from my licensed colleagues. Whenever I was hired by a psychologist, I was supervised by licensed psychologists, and always got excellent performance evaluations from them.

So, although I “work like a clinical psychologist, talk like a clinical psychologist, and have frequently been seen in the presence of known clinical psychologists,” I can’t be licensed as what I am: a competent, experienced clinical psychologist. I never regretted not getting a PhD, as I was able to do all of the things I was trained to do, as a public sector psychologist. My last clinical supervisor – a licensed clinical psychologist –  explicitly told me that I knew as much about psycho-diagnosis and psychotherapy as any licensed psychologist he’s ever known. Shortly before I retired, he nominated me for an award honoring the outstanding clinical service provider in the state of South Carolina.

Although SCAMP is just a footnote in the history of psychological practice in SC, NAMP is still going strong, advocating for the licensure of qualified masters-level psychologists. Nine states now allow masters-level psychologists to practice independently in the private sector, although usually with a qualifier like “Psychological Associate” in the title. All this to say that you don’t have to get a PhD or PsyD in psychology to be a “real psychologist.” The central issue in determining who is a psychologist is demonstrated competency in the profession, not one’s academic degree.

Exposure Therapy

Most everybody knows what you’re supposed to do if you’re thrown by a horse. If you want to keep on riding, you get back up on horseback right away, to overcome your fear of being thrown again. The only way to get over your fear of drowning, if you swim in the deep end of the swimming pool, is to leave the shallow end and swim in water over your head.

The clinical term for this principle in psychology is exposure. Exposure is the antidote to avoidance, our very human tendency to reduce anxiety by avoiding activities and situations that tend to trigger anxiety. Avoidance is like a drug that immediately and reliably reduces anxiety or fear. For example, Tom is attracted to his high school classmate Jane, and wants to ask her out. He’s told himself that today’s the day he’ll get up his nerve and approach her, but he avoids doing it as the day goes by. As the end of the school day nears, he gets more and more anxious. But the moment he decides to postpone it until tomorrow, his anxiety dissipates. Avoiding and postponing work in the short-term, but serve to entrench our anxieties and fears in the long-term. Avoidance is one of the defense mechanisms  identified by Freud.

According to Dr. Marsha Linehan,  whose Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) treatment of Borderline Personality Disorder has been empirically shown to be highly effective,, exposure is a necessary component of all effective cognitive behavior therapies. Two of the skills training modules in DBT, emotion regulation and distress tolerance, help to prepare clients for exposure to things they typically avoid.

Exposure therapy can be effective in treating Generalized Anxiety  Disorder, Social Anxiety Disorder, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and phobias – irrational fears. It involves habituation to the feared stimulus/situation. Imagining exposure to successive approximations of the stimulus/situation (imaginal exposure) and teaching heightened awareness of physiological responses such as heartrate and muscle tension (interoceptive exposure) can be accomplished in the therapist’s office. Exposure to the actual stimulus/situation “out in the world” (in vivo exposure) is often the third step of exposure therapy. Being aware of the thoughts, emotions, and physiological responses involved prepares the client for in vivo exposure. Gradually working your way from the shallow end of the pool to the deep end involves exposure to “successive approximations” of the thing most feared. Jumping – or being thrown – into the deep end is an example of “flooding.”

The therapeutic method known as systematic desensitization was pioneered by South African psychologist Joseph Wolpe. After doing a behavior analysis of thoughts, feelings and physiological responses involved in a phobic reaction, he did relaxation training until the client felt some degree of control over his typical responses. Then he worked with the client to develop a hierarchy of fears, from the least fear-inducing to the most fear-inducing thoughts/experiences. Using this hierarchy, he would work with the client on relaxing as they went through successive approximations, leading up to the thing most feared.

Here’s an example of how I might use this method with a client who had never flown in an airplane, due to her phobia about flying. (Because flying is statistically much safer than driving, fear of flying is considered  an irrational fear, or phobia.) Having assessed Louise’s typical thoughts, feelings, and physiological responses/anxiety symptoms, and having trained her to relax, I might start a session with a relaxation induction, leading to a guided fantasy based on her hierarchy of fears. Louise has been instructed to close her eyes, to raise her right index finger whenever she felt an increase of anxiety, and to lower it when the anxiety decreased.

“You’re in your apartment and you’re packing for your flight . . . . Now you have your bags packed and you’re waiting for a taxi to the airport . . . . And now you’re at the airport and you hear the boarding call . . . . Now you’ve stashed your carry-on and are seated, buckling your seatbelt, etc.” Whenever Louise would raise her finger, I’d switch from the guided fantasy to the relaxation induction: “And as you breathe slowly and deeply, you can feel your muscles relaxing, and your anxiety is replaced by a calm feeling . . . . ” When the finger went down, I’d pick up where I left off on the guided fantasy.

Over time, Louise learns that she has increased control over her response to fearful thoughts, getting gradually closer and closer to the thing she fears most. Once she can imagine herself staying in control as the airplane takes to the skies, we might go on to in vivo exposure therapy, which might involve me accompanying her – at least at first. Some private practice therapists specializing in the treatment of phobias might even accompany his client on his first flight, coaching and encouraging him.

People with severe OCD often engage in compulsive rituals to reduce their anxiety. Exposure therapy can help them to learn that they don’t have to rely on these rituals to reduce their anxiety. People with anxiety disorders can use the principles of successive approximation to gradually desensitize themselves to stimuli/situations that used to trigger anxiety. Exposure therapy can similarly help people with PTSD to control physiological arousal in response to stimuli/situations that used to trigger fear. But in order to overcome an irrational fear, you have to eventually face it.

Psychiatry: pro and con

I write this as someone who had a career as a psychologist in the mental health system, working within the scientific/medical model of psychiatric treatment. So, I’m not writing to reject psychiatry outright, but to examine its efficacy. I’ve written about the value and limitations of models in previous posts, and about what I call the “model muddle.” Models are just maps, helpful only to the degree that they’re accurate. No one model is demonstrably superior to all other models, in all situations. Every model has its limitations.

First, I’d like to distinguish between psychology, psychiatry and psychoanalysis. Psychology is the study of human behavior, and provides the basic theoretical structure for psychotherapy. Sigmund Freud came up with the concept of “the talking cure,” the notion that dialogue with a caring professional could help to resolve symptoms and treat psychopathology. Psychiatry is a branch of medical science, based on the concept that the accurate assessment of symptoms of mental illness can lead to an accurate diagnosis, which will result in an appropriate treatment. Psychiatrists are medical doctors who specialize in the treatment of mental illness. Freud was a psychiatrist, and psychiatrists who are trained in the system of Freudian psychotherapy are called psychoanalysts.

While I believe that psychiatric (medical model) treatment has helped a lot of people with debilitating metal and emotional symptoms, like any model, it has its limitations. Since the 1960s, the efficacy of psychiatric treatment has been questioned – with good reason. A primary critic was psychiatrist Thomas Szasz, who wrote The Myth of Mental Illness. Another psychiatric rebel was R.D. Laing, and yet another psychiatrist, David Cooper, coined the term “antipsychiatry.” Critics of psychiatry argue that mental illness/madness is a social construct and not a medical condition, and that psychiatry is a process of coercive social control. This core of criticism has led to the current antipsychiatry (alt. recovery) movement.

A primary criticism of psychiatry is that psycho-diagnosis isn’t rocket science. It’s imprecise relative to the diagnostic precision for most common physical medical conditions, and can be selective and subjective in its diagnostic criteria. Unlike with physical medical conditions that can be diagnosed by tests and procedures that reveal “markers” of a specific condition (i.e. pneumonia vs. tuberculosis), there are no such markers that distinguish schizophrenia from schizoaffective disorder or bipolar disorder. I’ve known many people with chronic mental and emotional disorders who have gotten a wide range of psychiatric diagnoses, over years of treatment. Ideally in the medical model, an accurate diagnosis results in appropriate and effective treatment. This is less often the case in psychiatry, because there’s more “educated guesswork” involved.

Proponents of the antipsychiatry movement contend that psychiatric treatment is all too often more damaging than helpful to patients. Extreme treatments such as prefrontal lobotomies haven’t proven to be effective; and the negative side effects of some psychotropic medications and mood stabilizers seem to outweigh the benefits for some patients. The term “iatrogenic effects” refers to treatments that do harm.

Another valid criticism of psychiatry is that it’s over-reliant on pharmaceuticals, and that the psychiatric profession has had incestuous ties to Big Pharma. I believe that, as a culture, we’re too dependent on medications as a panacea for health problems related to bad lifestyle choices. Drug company ads suggest that we can eat whatever we want and take pills to control any gastro-intestinal symptoms that result from a poor diet.

Having said that, psychopharmacology has its place in the treatment of what we call mental illnesses. I believe that in some instances there’s no effective substitute for the right dose of the right medication at the right time. But I also believe that other interventions can mitigate the need to rely primarily on drugs as the default treatment for psychopathologies.

The concept of recovery from mental illness doesn’t necessarily mean full and permanent remission of symptoms, but suggests that psychiatric treatment isn’t the only route to symptom control or remission. There are recovery centers in cities around the country that offer alternatives to traditional psychiatric treatment, recognizing that community and peer support can be important components of treatment. Such programs don’t preclude psychiatric interventions, but don’t rely on them as the default mode.

Factors such as physical health, stress, social stigma, chemical dependency, poverty, homelessness and nutrition can all play a role in mental health and mental illness. We need to embrace a more holistic treatment model for what we call mental illness, and to provide a range of services that give people who have been labeled as mentally ill more autonomy and more options for resolving their problems.

You can find out more about the antipsychiatry movement, the recovery model, and alternatives to traditional psychiatric treatment at <madinamerica.com>.

 

 

More about shamanism

In my last post I wrote that learning to journey in Dreamtime has profoundly influenced my philosophy. It made me reconsider my understanding of reality. My primary shamanic teacher, Michael Harner, described shamanic journeying in Dreamtime as “another reality that you can personally discover.” He said that shamanism is closer to science than religion, because it’s empirical – based on direct experience. If Dreamtime is “real,” this has implications for science in particular and philosophy in general.

Nowhere in his writings does Shakespeare use the word science in its modern sense. Science is a branch of philosophy, and in Shakespeare’s time what we call science was called philosophy. So, his famous quote about reality, translated into modern English, would read, “There are more things in heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your science.” I agree. Science is very good at what it’s good  at, but it’s only one of several lenses we can look through to examine phenomena. Science can tell us things about consciousness, but it can’t definitively explain what consciousness is. That’s why we have another branch of philosophy called metaphysics.

What is “real” can’t be determined objectively, without taking consciousness into account. The term “altered state of consciousness” presupposes that there’s a standard, or ordinary, state of consciousness. I’ve come to believe that there is a range of “ordinary” states of consciousness. Our mental state while solving a math problem, meditating, playing a musical instrument, debating, or dancing are all examples of ordinary states of consciousness. But there are other states of consciousness that only some people experience in their lifetimes, either by ingesting mind-altering substances, or by engaging in activities or practices that induce non-ordinary states of awareness. Some of these are sleep deprivation, sensory deprivation, prolonged pain, pranayama breathing, prolonged prayer or chanting, shamanic journeying, and vision quests.

William James, “the father of American psychology” wrote in Varieties of Religious Experience, “Our normal waking consciousness . . . is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it . . . there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different. . . . No account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these other forms of consciousness quite disregarded. . . . At any rate, they forbid a premature closing of our accounts with reality.”

I believe that everybody wears cultural blinders of some kind, depending on what they were raised to believe, or their rejection of what they were raised to believe. As I’ve written in previous posts, none of us can escape living in a “reality tunnel” – a mental map of reality – although we may convert from one reality tunnel (e.g. Irish Catholic, Amish, Inuit, Mormon, atheist Bohemian, gay activist, political revolutionary, etc.) to another, one or more times in our lives. I reject the idea that there is any belief system that is objectively and demonstrably superior to all others. That’s why I consider myself to be a “guerrilla ontologist” – agnostic about most things.

There are some reports in shamanic lore of shared hallucinations/visions – like several people reporting having seen the identical sequence of spirit animals presenting themselves around the ceremonial fire in the sacred circle, after a ceremony involving the ingestion of vision-inducing substances. Michael Harner told the story of taking a vision-inducing drug in the Amazon, under the supervision of a local shaman. When he later told the shaman that he’d encountered lizard-like creatures who had told him that they were the true rulers of the  universe, the shaman laughed and said, “Oh, they’re always saying that!”

The implications of this worldview are radical in light of the common belief in Western society that there’s only one reality, which we can all apprehend and comprehend: consensus reality. It addresses a central question in espistemology – how do we know what’s real? We all have to believe in some fundamental premises (e.g. is there a God?) that undergird our worldviews and life choices. We can be rigid or fluid, dogmatic or agnostic, when it comes to interpreting the evidence of our senses. I agree with Saint Augustine, who said that we must believe in order that we may know, and know in order that we may believe.

According to shamanic lore, spirit animals (shamanic allies) inhabit a different plane of existence than our own normal reality, and have knowledge to impart to shamans about healing and magic. What shamans receive from the allies they bond with in Dreamtime and bring back to the waking world with them is sacred knowledge and personal power. What the spirit animal gets in return is the experience of seeing our world through the shaman’s eyes.

Dr. Harner did a lot in his lifetime to teach people about ancient shamanic traditions, and to keep shamanic studies alive in this country and in other countries around the world. You can learn more at the website of the Foundation for Shamanic Studies, at http://www.shamanism.org.

 

Shamanism

Most of what I know about shamanism I learned from Dr. Michael Harner, an internationally renowned anthropologist and author – and a practicing shaman, himself. I’d read his book, The Way of the Shaman: A Guide to Power and Healing. I was just embarking on a career as a psychotherapist, working in rural Alabama, when I learned that Dr. Harner would be presenting a one-day shamanic training workshop in Birmingham. I signed up right away, and that one day has had a profound influence on my philosophy.

I tend to trust science when it’s done right, and tend to be skeptical when it comes to unproven supernatural or psychic explanations for things. But, as I’ve written about in previous posts, I’m ultimately an agnostic about most things. I tend to think in terms of probabilities, rather than certainties. But I’ve experienced some things that I consider real, that exist outside of the scientific paradigm. Shamanic “journeying” is one of them. Dr. Harner  was the founder of the Foundation for Shamanic Studies. He died earlier this year.

What initially drew me to explore shamanic practice was Harner’s contention that there was a core shamanism that existed in every known pre-literate, “primitive” culture. The similarities between shamanic practices, whether in the Americas, Siberia, Africa, Australia, etc. suggested that they existed and endured because they were effective as a means of healing. The shaman’s lore shouldn’t be dismissed as primitive, superstitious nonsense.

Think about the stereotypes of the “witchdoctor” or “medicine man” in popular culture. They paint their faces and bodies, they beat drums and dance to the drumbeat, they shake rattles, they sing or chant. Sometimes they eat or smoke sacred substances. There’s some truth behind these clichés. In many so-called primitive cultures, shamans have acquired detailed knowledge of natural substances that induce altered states of consciousness (ASCs). Shamans also know methods of inducing ASCs without using drugs. ASCs, or visionary mental states, are an integral component of shamanic practice.

Michael Harner taught me and a few other apprentice shamans to achieve what he called the shamanic state of consciousness (SSC), without having to ingest consciousness altering substances. He taught us that certain drumming resonances and rhythms can induce a “visionary” altered state of consciousness that enables you to journey in the eternal realm of Dreamtime, and encounter spirit allies. In most cultures that I’m aware of, these allies take the form of animals; in others, they manifest as ancestors.

Dreamtime has been regarded as an alternate reality in many ancient, pre-literate cultures for millennia, all over the world. The methods for entering Dreamtime seem to me to be universal. Certain kinds of shamanic wisdom are obtained by ingesting sacred substances such as peyote, psilocybin, and ayahuasca; but none of my experiences of shamanic journeying involved taking any drugs. On one level, I took a workshop taught by an anthropologist. On another level, a shaman taught me how to alter my consciousness and journey to, and in, a realm outside of ordinary consciousness. Just as there is no way to adequately describe how “psychedelic” consciousness is different from ordinary states of consciousness to a person who has never taken a hallucinogen, you have to experience the SSC to understand what it’s like.

Harner primarily used drumming to induce the SSC in workshop participants, and had an experienced drummer as an assistant.  He first had us dance to a slow drumbeat, eyes half-closed in a dimly lit room, instructing us to lie down on our backs and cover our eyes when we started to feel “heavy.” When the drumbeat became faster, he told us to remember and visualize someplace in our experience that symbolized entry into the “lower world” of our unconscious – a cave mouth or a hole in the ground – and to enter it. He had encouraged us to explore this other reality we would emerge into after passing through a tunnel. He had coached us on interacting with certain spirit animals we might encounter, binding them to us when we felt a connection, and bringing them back with us when we returned to ordinary consciousness. Animals that looked hostile or bared their teeth should be avoided.

Shamanic journeying is a vivid visual experience of walking, running or flying in a colorful world containing forests, meadows, streams, lakes, chasms and mountains. It’s different from dreams, meditation, guided fantasy or hypnotic trance. This world is inhabited by spirit animals, or allies as they are known in some traditions. The first task we were given in the workshop was to seek out our totem animal spirits – a bird, a fox, a bear, whatever -and, if possible (if it agreed to come),  bring it back with us after the drummer changed rhythms, signaling that it was time to return to the waking world.

After returning from our first journeys in Dreamtime, we talked about our experiences. All of us apprentice shamans had achieved the SSC, and reported similar experiences of encountering spirit animals in a vivid, colorful world. Some of us had brought back spirit allies we’d encountered. By the end of the workshop we’d made another journey, this time to the “upper world.” I bought a high-fidelity cassette tape of shamanic drumming, so I could continue to journey in the upper and lower worlds on my own. I’ve never claimed to have shamanic healing powers. All I know, through my personal experiences using an ancient technique to enter the SSC and explore Dreamtime, is that there are good reasons for shamanism’s universality in the ancient world, and for its endurance over time.

I’ll write more about shamanism in my next post.

The meaning of dreams

We spend roughly one third of our lives unconscious, and when we’re asleep we’re unaware of our immediate surroundings. But sometimes during sleep, we’re aware of ourselves in a realm of illusions. We remain ourselves in our dreams; but the people, animals, places and things we encounter may transform.  A dream has a sequence of events but, unlike a story, it has no contrived plot. So, why do we dream, and what is the meaning of our dreaming? It depends on who you ask.

Dreams are regarded as sacred and/or prophetic in some cultures, and the interpretation of dreams is an ancient and widespread practice. In many cultures the interpretations have been made by priests, priestesses or shamans, proceeding from the assumption that dreams mean something in our waking lives. Many modern sleep scientists would disagree, believing that dream content is the result of random neural  firings, connected to memory retrieval. One theory about why we dream is that it’s the way the brain sorts and edits new memories for later retrieval.

The history of modern dream analysis in Western culture starts with the 1899 publication of Sigmund Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams, in which he called dreaming “the royal road to the unconscious.” Along with free association, dream analysis was a component of Freudian psychoanalysis, used as a key for the unlocking of repressed thoughts and feelings. Freudian dream analysis has to do with themes such as wish fulfillment, unconscious desires, and anxiety related to conflicts in the dreamer’s life.

Carl Jung is perhaps best known for his concept of the collective unconscious. Jungian dream analysis is similar to Freud’s, in that it delves beneath the surface content of the dream as described by the dreamer (latent content), to explore the unconscious, symbolic meanings (manifest content). Jung’s system differed from Freud’s, in that Jungian therapists related the dream’s symbolic content to universal mythic themes in the collective unconscious, and archetypes such as The Mother, The King and The Hero.

While in grad school, I attended a leaderless gestalt dream interpretation group. Both theory and method were different from Freudian and Jungian dream analysis. The constant focus in gestalt therapy is staying in the here-and-now of your direct experience; and in the dream group you first related all that you remembered of your dream, in the present tense: “I’m walking on barren ground, in the middle of nowhere. I see a house in the distance and I’m walking toward it. As I get closer, I see that the house is deserted and falling apart. The wood creaks beneath me as I walk up the steps to the porch. The wood is rotten and I’m afraid I’ll fall through the floor, but I have to go inside. . . .” After the whole dream had been related in this manner, the dreamer would then take on the role of objects from the dream: “I’m a house in the middle of nowhere. I look good from the distance, but I’m actually falling apart. Nobody would want to live in me. . . .” After the dreamer finished, a group member might ask what it feels like to be this house, and the group would discuss possible meanings, before going on to the next dream object.

Things that happen to us  in our dreams often mirror circumstances that arouse our anxieties in our waking lives. Fear, anxiety, helplessness, frustration, and shame (e.g. naked-in-public dreams) are frequent emotional states experienced in dreams. Most of us have gone to school, and I expect that we’ve all had school dreams. I’ve done some stage acting, and I imagine that every stage actor has had some variation of a recurring dream theme from my acting days:  I’m onstage, the curtain is about to open on a full house, and I can’t remember what play I’m cast in, let alone my first line of dialogue. I’ve had very few nightmares as an adult, but a frequent theme in the dreams I remember is frustration, e.g. I need to get somewhere from where I am in a foreign city, but I’ve misplaced my luggage (or my car key) and can’t leave until I recover it. And then I can’t find my car, and the streets and buildings keep changing. It’s such a relief to wake up and realize that I’m right where I need to be, with no immediate problem to solve.

I’ve had some dreams that were so vivid, I’ve had to convince myself that they weren’t real. Researching the subject, I’ve come to believe that they were hypnogogic hallucinations, which occur in the twilight state between consciousness and unconsciousness, before falling asleep. Similar hallucinations that occur in the twilight state between sleep and wakefulness are called hypnopompic hallucinations.

Another unconventional dream state is lucid dreaming, where the dreamer becomes aware of being in a dream, and can control its content. I’ve had a few lucid dreams and have heard many claims that it’s a learnable skill. Some proficient lucid dreamers say that they can fly in dreams, overcome any adversary, and have sex with anyone they want. If you want to learn more about lucid dreaming, I highly recommend Richard Linklater’s 2001 animated film, “Waking Life.”

Dreams are but one of the mysteries of consciousness, and I believe that what they “mean” is ultimately subjective. Ancient shamanic tradition has it that Dreamtime is a real world parallel to our own, and that those who can “journey” in Dreamtime can heal people and work magic in the waking world. Whatever clues or signals dreams may hold in regard to our waking lives, their interpretation is culture-bound, and there are no authoritative answers to our questions about this mysterious, otherworldly phenomenon.