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Saturday, November 27, 2010

A Sufi dream.... and some of you

This should please Joan, given her abiding interest in dreams. Today I had a dream.

I have to sleep at some stage through the day, every day. Tracey describes me like a wind-up toy; I go along just fine for a while and then it come to a point where everything slows down, gravity increases incrementally till I just shuffle along, my brain goes into a fog and I must sleep, as there’s no point at all in my being awake. 

I don’t mean rest, I mean sleep. Zeds, lots of them. Or Zees, for some of you over the Equator.

I go to sleep almost instantly and don’t remember any dreams, usually. Sometimes I remember that I had a dream that was fascinating while it lasted, but, frustratingly, I don’t remember anything about it except that it was interesting. I don’t have nightmares. I just know if I could grab one corner of the dream into memory, I could get it all on board. But that almost always never happens, in spite of your advice about these matters, Joan.

That wasn’t the case today. I woke up and everything about the dream was crystal fresh – so much so that when I got up, I came straight to the computer and wrote down some keywords. No, my darling, I know I haven’t taken my anti-seizure tablet and it’s overdue and I know I haven’t been Clexed yet and it’s overdue too, but if this disappears I’m going to be disappointed.

So I did that first, then had my injection, ate a fresh fruit salad of apple, grapes, strawberries (homegrown from Maureen and Bruce), blueberries and red grapes, and here I am to relate it.

I was lecturing in Room A3 at the University of New England, just as I have done for 30 years. Just after I retired, they gave the room an entire makeover and it looks very classy now. (Classy? That would have been quite a clever pun if I’d thought of it, but was purely accidental!)

But in my dream, I was lecturing in the old A3, not the new one totally rearranged – it had lecture chairs fixed to the floor in rows, the back of the chair in front doodled on by generations of bored students, even the classic FOO WAS HERE…. I know this as I’ve sat at them myself at times when guest lecturers were imparting their wisdom. A3 and I understand each other, or at least we did before the makeover. It’s not A3 any more as far as I’m concerned.

The surprising thing was that in my dream, this room was populated by an absolute galaxy of my best students, some of whom read this blog and have far surpassed my modest achievements in academia, and others who will before they are done. I was on the podium as usual, and my lecture was about the coming of Islam to India.

But the difference was that the room was darkened except for the old fluorescent light above my head, and all around the spaces beside the students in the lecture room seats were tiny candles, all lit. It seemed in my dream that I was near the end of the lecture, when student interest usually flags - after all, 50 minutes is a long time to maintain concentration, but these were my best students ever, and they normally saw it right through, even without the tricks I would use to get average students to refocus, if I saw that their eyes were glazing over.

One of the advantages of having been a primary school teacher even in the distant past is that you learn from experience to know pretty much what each student is doing mentally at any given time you are teaching them. I hope that makes a couple of the blog readers squirm to read that!

I noticed that almost every student’s attention was being drawn away from me to one side, even though in my lecture one of the Turki-Afghan Sultans was doing something quite interesting to the residents of Delhi.

So I paused. 

A pause can be a very effective device to centre students, especially when it is two of them softly whispering to each other at length about something of more immediate importance than what was coming from the podium. In that case, I would just pause until they wondered why there was no background droning, stop talking and look up at me. I just ask them politely if they’ve covered their topic of conversation or would like to slip outside and get it sorted out, and we all smile and normal service is resumed. The break in the atmosphere is good for everyone in the room.

But this was different. In my dream, these were my best and brightest from across 30 years, all looking exactly as they did when I saw them first. People who hold personal dialogues in the back rows usually are not the smartest cookies in the barrel.

‘What’s got your attention?’ I said after the pause. 

Usually students are a bit sheepish when they’ve been caught in some other world during a lecture, but I don’t seem to recall anyone being like that. A woman who I didn’t recognise - the only person in the room I couldn't put a name to - volunteered the information. ‘I was looking at that candle.’ 

I could see how the candle was alternating between almost being out for a fraction of a second and suddenly the flame would surge for exactly the same amount of time, on and off, almost hypnotically. Everyone who could see it was taken by the strobe lighting effect - you couldn't have ignored it. These were only small candles but the room was almost dark, and the flickering of this candle ceased after a few seconds. Then it resumed a steady glow like all the others.

‘This reminds me of a Sufi saying.’ The Sufis were the Muslim mystics who made an enormous impact on India after things settled down with the Delhi Sultans – starting just after the time I had been speaking about in my lecture, in fact.

'It's from a lesser known Sufi saint called Jan Fishan Khan,' I said.

‘The candle is not there to illuminate itself.’

Buddha-like flickers of understanding appeared on all the faces. ‘That candle gave us a chance to learn something worth knowing. And now, it’s time for this old candle to fade. We’ll talk more about the Sufis another time.’

Then I woke up.

It wasn’t such a bad dream, I thought. Two hours ago, I hadn’t even had it. Not in words or perceptions, anyway. Maybe it's always been there. It just has to be sent from subconscious to conscious, or somewhere in between.


  1. Well that has made me cry a lot. And I hope we do talk more about the Sufis another or anywhere.

    Also that saying is such a valuable one. It cuts through so much confusion about our place here in this life. And we must be the best brightest candles that we were made to be, in whatever way that is possible, no matter what the circumstances.

    I loved the old A3 -it was when the university really was about teaching/learning, and about people. I feel so grateful for you and for all of us here that you had this beautiful dream.

  2. The symbolism of a candle is a bottomless pit. Once, Carl and I sat in a room lit by a single candle and we watched it burn down until there was nothing left in the candle holder. And yet, the candle continued to burn. Just like in your dream, it flared up brightly, then went out. The room fell into darkness, but suddenly the flame leapt up and the room was lit. This happened several times, despite their being no wax apparent in the holder. Carl said, "That's the indomitable human spirit. Just when you think it's been defeated, it comes back to life."

    And then, of course, the famous parable of Buddha's answer to the question on reincarnation. If there is no soul, then what reincarnates? The Buddha held up two candles. One lit, one not. He lit the second candle from the first one and said, "Is this the same flame?"

    Denis, you certainly illuminated that old A3 lecture theatre for me. I hope I was in attendance in your dream. On one occasion, I got into the truck to drive to your lecture. The battery was flat. I had to drag the truck battery (not a light object) out, take it to the generator, hook it up, and put just enough charge into it to get the truck started so I could get to your lecture. I couldn't help but be a bit late. However, I wasn't going to miss your lecture if I could help it. I remember the look on your face when I told you why I was late.

    Dream work, like anything, takes practice. When I did my course on lucid dreaming, I had reasonable success as long as I practised the exercises every day. My lucid dreaming improved gradually, and it lengthened and became more lucid as the weeks passed. However, the exercises took up so much of my time that I eventually had to choose to drop them. The lucid dreaming came to an end, except on very rare occasions.

    If you want to remember your dreams, the best practice is to write them down immediately on waking, even the ones that seem meaningless. As you write them down, meaning comes out of them.

  3. Thanks very much for these comments. The odd thing is that they express things I feel have been interpreted at much greater depth than anything I thought I was saying, and I feel a measure of discomfort about that.
    I do know that our subconscious sews together things from the various parts of the mind that we don't realise have a correlation, and that symbolism is an integral part of dreaming. Yet I can't help being reminded of the artist whose abstract painting was being discussed by critics, and who confessed that he had no idea his painting was anything other than a simple exploration of one theme - and to his own mind had nothing of the deeper meaning the critics divined.

    Of course we might be the worst people in the world at interpreting our own dreams. I understand the many symbolisms of the candle and in particular its relationship to the idea of non-soul in Buddhism, and I am reluctant to 'academise' a discussion like this. But it is certainly true that it's central to how I think about the world and the people in it. That to me is part of a new discussion, but I can see immediately why it was on your radar, Joan. I guess I thought I was simply saying that there's no point in just talking to oneself, especially if there are more interesting things close at hand! Yet

    'There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
    Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.'

    This is also very true.

    As to writing down dreams just after they occur, in my present state of limited mobility and one-handedness, you can’t begin to imagine what a sequence of physical events is required for that, even with something of the dream left in consciousness! I will have to take my chances with what is left.

    And yes, you and Julie were both there, of course…. And several others who just might read this!

  4. Well, only you can interpret your own dreams, and if someone says something that resonates, that is significant in the interpretation. If it doesn't resonate, then it belongs to the person who said it.

  5. So then Denis, how did you see the dream? I thought that the candle flame by each person just had to be their spirit (so to speak). I guess it could be that the world you had at the university is 'flickering' for you now that you have been gone for quite a while -becoming less important. Or it could just be a softly glowing space of memory! Anyway, that's your business. My mother believes dreams are just random stuff in your brain.

  6. Joan: agree 100%.
    Julie: to me the flickering was just attention seeking, but then you could rightly ask, 'For what reason?'
    I don't think dreams are just random stuff - they come to the surface for a reason. I have always felt that dreams were the subconscious trying to tell you something or work out a problem that the conscious mind hasn't been able to grapple with fully.
    I just wrote that dream down without trying to analyse it at all. Hence others saw things in it that hadn't occurred to me.

  7. There is always a certain amount of projection into someone else's dreams, that's why it's so important to note one's reactions to someone else's interpretation. If a comment hits a button, then meaning is there. If not, let it pass. It could be important later, however. I did dream work with Ann Moir-Bussy for a year, a one-hour session with her every two weeks. She kept telling me my dreams were exhorting me to give up university work, but I wouldn't believe her. When I finally did have to make a choice between that and what I'm doing now (couldn't do both), it became so obvious what the dreams were saying. She saw it clearly, but I was too caught up to notice. I had to reach a certain point before what she saw became relevant to my conscious experience.

    blah blah

  8. Wise words, Joan. I think it doesn't always apply only to dreams. People can often see things about us more clearly than we do, but we want to cling to fixed categories of thought. In our daily lives truth is always a relative matter, except if dogma controls our actions completely.

  9. I know you are probably not going to continue this conversation but I'm intrigued by it and not necessarily talking about dream interpretation now.

    Attention seeking -that's a completely different way of looking at it and very interesting. So everyone's candle is a sort of ego manifestation (ie the students all had candles too).

    The candle is not there to illuminate itself, hmm, true (partially at least). But we all have something to offer even if it is living in a cave in the mountains for years. In the case of the lecturer ( a word currently going out of favour in PC uni ideas! :)) you had some information to impart which you feel is of more importance than you yourself, right? True from one angle, but without the messenger the message would disappear. And not just any messenger can deliver the message well. Yet of course the messenger can also get in the way of the message.

    I once said you were my guru. I didn't mean it in any devotional sense, but you were literally my main teacher (apart from life, Michael, the world, books!!) It was because you had chosen to learn things I was very interested in myself, because you understood them so well, and because you understood what I was talking/thinking of in my work (not separate from my life). You had the right sort of personality to be approachable. The teacher polishes their own offering with the help of the student, of course, so it's a two way exchange!

    Well I won't go on. I have to pay some attention to some work :)

  10. A3 just isn't the same after its "makeover". The fancy seats aren't as comfy as the old ones, and the once-familiar smell is now all wrong.

    I'm disappointed that I didn't get the chance to take any of your units. I was too caught up on Sociology and Psychology. I did manage to squeeze in a minor in History, so for me A3 will always remind me of Vikings, early-modern European history and Eric Acheson's crazy story telling.

  11. Eric was one of the old school academics, Jen, who believed that the university experience was not spoonfeeding people who probably shouldn't be at a university in the first place, but making them think for themselves, throwing them challenges, and not being afraid of listening to a dissenting student voice based on something credible. Delighting in it, in fact. He also knew that 'history' was about 'his-story' and you will pardon the gender bias of that terminology - it was about telling a human story.
    I had the good fortune of teaching in the discipline of history in the area of cultural history of Asian peoples, so I could pick the themes that I believed taught us something that mattered. It was an enormous privilege for me and meant that most of my professional life was spent doing things I enjoyed, every day of the week. Life is way too short to spend waiting just for the weekend....

    Julie: when you were an undergrad, quite a while ago now, you always livened up a tutorial discussion by thinking (and talking) outside the square. It always helped enormously to have someone there who had thought and read in the area of discussion and was prepared to question the truth of conventional views. Joan was also like that, and several other men and women.
    All analogies break down at some point. The candle usually is lit to make sense of an area it is in, and if we focus on the candle then we lose the point. Otherwise we end up with Sei Shonagon’s tongue in cheek observation that ‘a preacher ought to be good looking. For, if we are properly to understand his worthy sentiments, we must keep our eyes one him while he speaks; should we look away, we may forget to listen. Accordingly an ugly preacher may well be the source of a sin…’
    It was always a two-way thing - or multi-way exchange. I learned a lot from Michael, and from Carl just the same, though of course they were never my ‘students’. I am still learning from Tracey.
    I hope in one of these little essays I write to talk about Damodar and Devahuti more than the fleeting reference I have given of them in another story because I understand the way you use the word ‘guru’.
    Maybe we’ll get to discuss them in another context. This one is too limiting.

  12. Well that's nice, but I only remember being too unconfident to say anything in those days :)

    Bring on Damodar and Devahuti!

    Jen, I agree totally about A3, you said it was very 'homely'. s for Eric, really wish I'd experienced some of his classes.

  13. For 30 years, I searched for the Tao.
    Then one night, as I prepared for bed,
    I lit the candle,
    and entered the dawn.

    Or words to that effect.

  14. Julie: you got better at speaking your mind once we stopped you from apologising for speaking at all! :)

    Joan: I like that one - though I suspect the problem was the 30 year search. As the very first two lines of the Daodejing indicate....

    To me it's a bit like a jigsaw puzzle. You get some bits immediately and just mess with the others until they slot in. You may or may not ever finish it but that doesn't matter so much unless after 30 years you still only have the corner bits in place and no idea what to do from there on. I'm not that keen on jig-saw puzzles, by the way! :) But I did like the fact that when people were waiting to be called in for their dose of radiotherapy in Melbourne, some would help complete jig-saw puzzles in the waiting room owned by no-one in particular.

  15. Well, it's a famous Chinese poem and describes poetically what others have taken volumes to express.

  16. I've just re-read your dream, and for some reason the woman you didn't recognise passed me by the first time. This is odd, because usually an unknown person in a dream, particularly one of the opposite sex, presses my Jungian buttons and very loud bells go off.

    The anima (female archetypal image) in Jungian psychology represents the soul. Jung said that men have an anima (female) and women have an animus (male), and to avoid getting complicated here, I will just say that he was a sexist bastard, typical of his era.

    Contemporary Jungians recognise that women, too, often have an anima in their dreams, and mine has short blonde hair, and sometimes looks very much like Tracey. When she appears, I know something important is going on, and to pay close attention to what she says and does. She is a kind of inner guide and understands the irrevocable facts of life, despite what we might think on our conscious level.

    So, Denis, an unknown woman in your dream who gives you a powerful message is a blessing, in my book.

    Sorry to prolong this discussion beyond its use-by date, but I can't help myself.

    No more need be said.

  17. There is no Use-by date if anyone is commenting. I at least always know if anyone comments on any posting, even if that original posting were months ago. So don't let that stop you if it is OK that it might only be me tuning in, or maybe someone digging back into earlier postings using the archive sidebar on the right!

    I also wondered about the unknown person and thought of something archetypal. Tracey was there, as I first knew her, sitting right at the front, not fazed by the candle at the back of the room... she knows me too well perhaps :), and we have candles every night at dinner, which is wonderful. (I only just thought of that!)

    Jung, like Freud, was very much a product of his era and his own upbringing. (I wonder how much each of them was aware of that?} I'll keep my eye open for any more unknown women lurking in my subconscious!

  18. Speaking of unknown women...we never did find out who the mystery hair band in the front seat of your car belonged to :-)

  19. Darlin' - I know I look exactly like Jon Hamm, but I think you've been watching too many episodes of Mad Men.... :) xox

  20. A late comment on your comment, Denis. I can't speak for Freud, but Jung was exceptionally aware of cultural differences and biases. He was good friends with Richard Wilhelm (of I Ching fame), and admired Wilhelm's transition from Europe to China, but was distressed when Wilhelm decided to return to Europe. Jung didn't think it was possible or advisable to try to change cultures, and warned Wilhelm that something dire could happen to him should he return to being a European. So when Wilhelm died soon after returning to Europe, Jung drew his own conclusions.

    He also felt that it was dangerous for Westerners to take up Eastern meditation practices. He felt they could lead to psychosis as Westerners were far too conscious and intellectual to safely open themselves to the unconscious forces that meditation unleashed. He believed that Asians were more intuitive and unconscious than Westerners, and this wasn't necessarily to the benefit of Westerners as it alienated us from our own inner selves. To some extent, he was right, but I think if he were alive today, he would change his mind about meditation. He actually developed his own technique of meditation, called Active Imagination, which I've talked about before. In many ways, it resembles Vipassana, but it incorporates the use of the conscious mind.

    So yes, Jung was aware of cultural biases, but somehow he never applied it to his attitude towards women. He thought men should be men, and women should be women, in a very conventional sense.

  21. Yes. Jung was also very aware of India's contribution to philosophy, especially Indian mysticism. He probably knew that western philosophy of his time was stuck in its western frame and wasn't to know that it would take the best part of 100 yrs from his time to be able to get out of orientalist mode. He could no more have changed his personal style than Muhammad could as far as gender was concerned. As to Wilhelm his is one of many enlightening translations of the Daodejing, which attracts me far more than I Ching [Yì Jīng] and I am a poor commentator on the latter.

  22. I'm a great fan of Wilhelm's I Ching, and it seems to be a fan of mine, too, as it is often so spot on that it is frightening. I audited a university course in the I Ching years ago in Canada, given by a Chinese scholar. It helped a lot with weaning myself from Wilhelm's comments only, allowing me to focus more on his translation of the Chinese aphorisms. That gave me a somewhat poet's view of the meanings, but Wilhelm's commentary is still profound.

    I think that Jung was actually frightened of eastern "mysticism". He refused to see Ramanamaharshi when he had the opportunity, saying basically, "you've seen one Indian sage, you've seen them all," and he drew more from his conversation with an ordinary Indian man rather than interview the sage.

    Jung believed that the experience claimed for meditation was not possible, ie. that one could be conscious and yet not conscious of anything. What we call pure consciousness or the Indians call atman or Brahman or turiya. He thought they were mistaken in their understanding of this experience, and that it had to be the experience of becoming unconscious rather than "super" conscious. So he didn't trust it.

    I think he was jealous. He wanted to be the guru of the West, and so distanced himself from yoga and devised his own form of meditation, more suitable to the western mind, so he thought. He had such a big ego that he actually said he used yoga to relax, but stopped at a point before he lost "himself" in the experience of its goal. Half your luck, mate!!!

  23. I just caught up with this story. Too wonderful, too profound!

    I should come here more often.

  24. Ingrid - please do. You are one of the most perceptive people in the world whom I have ever known in my entire lifetime, and your thoughts on any of what has been said, or anything new for that matter, would be most welcome.

  25. Joan: that was really interesting. I always look carefully at what the Chinese observers say about themselves and 'outsiders' - and vice versa of course. I suspect there's a problem both ways - some gap in communication between them that is probably cultural (and of course a product of the times). You're telling me things about Jung that I have never seen before, but then I could hardly claim any real knowledge of what he was like as a person. From the little I have read that has been attributed to him, I felt he was comfortable with mysticism as expressed in either the South Asian or East Asian forms so am surprised he made such comments. This may be my ignorance, but if he did say that, then to me his whole structure is word- and concept-bound. And that's placing limits on what's limitless.
    Again I say it - words are good servants but bad masters. Little discussions like this on the largest topics are fraught with word-traps! I suspect I've ended up making very little sense at all.

  26. Denis, you make perfect sense. IMO Jung was definitely concept bound, as we all are and is any "system" of thought (by definition). I'm a bit of a Jungophile, and perhaps border on being a Jungian at times as I feel he intuited great truths about the structure of consciousness and the behaviour of the human mind. But he had an enormous ego, and here's what he had to say in defense of his refusal to see Ramanamaharshi, despite Zimmer's encouragement to do so:

    "I studiously avoided all so-called 'holy men'. I did so because I had to make do with my own truth, not accept from others what I could not attain on my own. I would have felt it as a theft had I attempted to learn from the holy men and to accept their truth for myself."

    No one was asking him to give up his own views, but somehow he felt threatened, as though he be forced to change his mind about his view of the Self if he met RM face to face. As for not seeing so-called holy men, he had no compunction about talking at length with a Pueblo shaman, when he visited a Pueblo village.

    Further, "I saw that Indian spiritualy contains as much of evil as of good. The Christian strives for good and succumbs to evil; the Indian feels himself to be outside good and evil, and seeks to realize this state by meditation or yoga. My objection is that, given such an attitude, neither good nor evil takes on any real outline, and this produces a certain stasis.... The Indian ... wishes to free himself from nature... I, on the other hand, wish to persist in the state of lively contemplation of nature and of the psychic images."

    There's lots more, and anyone interested can read the section on "Travels" in Jung's biography, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, and his essays "The Dreamlike World of India" and "What India Can Teach Us".

    Jung was surprised to discover that the Indians had been exploring consciousness for centuries or millennia and had come to very similar conclusions to his own, ones that he had arrived at through his own inner journey (The Red Book) and his work with thousands of clients. The similarities are startling, but he was reluctant to take that final plunge. Beyond the known, there be monsters.

  27. I recently found an exercise book in which I wrote dreams as soon as I opened my eyes each morning. When written 30 to 40 years ago the meaning of each was not as obvious as it is now. Looking back on the events that were unfolding, the dreams are blindingly transparently predictions of the obvious outcomes. Denial was futile. Change of direction was simply deferring the inevitable. The path was there and I walked it much against my will some of the time.

  28. Our dreams reflect many things, but mostly they're the way our subconscious mind attempts to come to grips with problems and events in our lives, especially those that we can't sort out consciously. All the ports are open and receptive, and connections are possible that aren't otherwise, because they're usually ignored by 'rational' consciousness. To record past dreams and look back on them allows us to apply the wisdom of hindsight. We see in the dream things that weren't obvious before. That's what makes them a fascinating study – the way they reflect what's happening to us, our hopes and fears, and the changing pattern of interpretation of them as we relate them to everything in our lives.

  29. Well said! Thanks. Yes, we often ignore our inner knowledge, our so-called gut reactions and careen ahead regardless of what our mind and body is telling us.
    The dreams find the base of the challenge, illuminate the things we are ignoring and we can learn from them if we listen!

    Good luck with today XXX

  30. Joan - I like "The candle does not illuminate itself" just saying!


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