The Zen of Frank

As a student in the 1980s I had a Critical Analysis teacher who rarely turned up on time for lectures …

In fact, he often didn’t turn up until the very last moments of a session but always managed to hush his students’ chorus of criticism by turning the negative comments back on his accusers. 

In his first term of teaching me, I was as indignant as any other student. But as the months went by I observed his behaviour. With his educational conjuring, this quiet and charismatic man began to gain more and more of my attention. It seemed to me that Frank wasn’t skiving or avoiding teaching; he was watching us individually and as a class – sometimes from a vantage point elsewhere in the college. He enquired of us why it was we wasted the time he was ‘giving us’. Why did we ‘generally loaf around, smoke in doorways or hang out of windows’, especially as there was obviously so much still to learn?

It was the final term of the first year before Frank began to attend as many classes as we, his students, did. Several of us were still some way off working with the set texts our course was supposed to be about. And yet those same classmates were now engaged in infantile battles with Frank over whether he really did know the meaning of every word in the Oxford English Dictionary (from memory, he was never foiled). 

Youth and naivety potentially led us to waste a lot of our time along with projecting onto others the blame for our individual lack of performance.

The last time I saw Frank was, appropriately, a few moments before I left college for the final time. It was a hot summer’s day – the sort many small boys enjoy because of the huge numbers of flying ants building up to their nuptial flight. As I walked through the gates and headed for my motorbike, I caught a glimpse of Frank kneeling on the ground observing insects with more of an amused look of a young boy than a 60 year-old man.

I ambled over to him and we began to converse. A few sentences in, I delighted in telling him that I thought I’d probably learned more from his non-lessons than I had from all my other subjects combined. He smiled, and I continued: ‘And I think I understand what you were trying to do for us. It was all about taking responsibility for our own actions, doing our own work, seeing things how we see them and making use of that knowledge.’

I stopped and smiled back at him. He put out his hand, I accepted it, and we shook with vigour. ‘Keep thinking; keep watching; keep looking,’ he said. He turned away and got back down on his knees to continue his insect observation.

Almost 40 years on from the lessons of Frank, I suppose he will certainly have passed on from this mortal coil. However, his facilitating approach hasn’t. The unconventional methods deployed during those Critical Analysis lessons would be impossible to use in a teaching role this century – and yet from a therapeutic chair they still look deeply valuable. Frank’s style was rooted in creating informed, personal growth. For some of us at least, the approach lay good grounds for the development of complex grey thinking in a world of blacks and whites, but there was much more in it than that. 

These days, when Frank crosses my mind during a session I can be pretty certain that the work of growth is deeply in play – the focus in those moments will so often have turned towards becoming truly, richly, deeply the person they were looking to become before everything else got in their way. Frank didn’t appear to care for the ego of attribution of knowledge, only that you learn and find the things you need for your journey. But once in a while I like to mention his name, to tell others of a great teacher who has stayed with me – as relevant in therapy as he was in the arts. 

Duncan acknowledges …

… with thanks, a recent session where he saw the growth of another and was reminded through this the roots of his own continuing development.

All rights reserved © Copyright Duncan E. Stafford 2021. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author of this post is strictly prohibited.

The virgin executive

DESHeadshotBS-1I know I’ve left it late in the session – but I’ve got to start working on this dream with you …

Patient:      … it’s definitely part of the sequence.

Therapist:  We can always make a start. It’s important to capture the energy while it’s fresher; we can come back to it then.

[The therapist’s eyes close to listen.]

P:               I walk into this huge organic building. It’s like it’s made of pushed-up earth but it towers above me – not like a skyscraper – although it’s tall. I get this strange essence that it is alive. It has a heavy ring towards the top – like some form of viewing platform or an escape route. Before I enter the building I’m in a clearing. I don’t know if it’s some sort of jungle that I’ve walked through? Tall, overpowering grasses sway in the perfect temperature.

T:               Perfect temperature?

P:               Yeah, sunny but not hot; cool, not cold. Like those wonderful spring days when the world hints at what summer will bring. That first day when you slip off your winter clothes. You feel the world on your skin after all that insulation.

T:               Le Sacre du printemps?

P:               Sacred spring?

T:               Yes.

P:               There’s an air of real danger outside. I can hear an old woman’s voice that carries across the clearing. She is singing a song I know. I can’t sing it though; I know that I mustn’t sing the words.

T:               What might happen if you did?

P:               I don’t know … but, as always, there’s something very dangerous about stepping into the building. I can see the vestibule is open. It’s not very big. I’m a bit concerned I could get stuck if I start to walk in. It’s like that claustrophobic feeling I had when I went caving as a teenager. Then I realise something bad will only happen if I step in knowing the words. I try not to hear the song; I cover my ears. I try not to sing the words in my head. I know the song foretells the future and the future that waits in the building could change my life in big ways. My heart’s beating really heavily; I feel drenched in sweat. I’m just about to turn back as a group of young women flock around me and push me through the entranceway. The instant I’m inside the building, the women fall to the floor.

[There is a long silence. The therapist doesn’t move. The sound of water being gulped and swallowed invades the space.]

T:               Are the women dressed or naked this time?

P:               Bound in cheesecloth. Full-length dresses. Like they’re in some sort of shroud. I run my hand over one of them expecting warmth, a subtle smoothness beneath the material, but I realise she’s made of sand or perhaps salt. I can’t swallow.

[A glass chinks just before the gulping sound enters the room again.]

P:               I look round the white inner space. All the people have divided into two separate groups.

T:               Are they doing anything? Saying anything?

P:               They form up a procession that leads out of the space. They pass some sort of holy metal object or relic along the line and I’m forced to follow it right out of the building.

T:               Atmosphere?

P:               It’s incredibly powerful … spiritual. I’m laid to the ground by the procession. I feel very free. When I look up there is a sage woman looking at me. She rests her hands on my head and then, with an opening of hands, I’m thrown high into the air, floating on a passage of energy.

T:               Any other signs or symbols from the dream series?

P:               Just those obvious recurring ones …

[The patient pauses.]

P:               When I look down the young women have begun to draw circles on the ground. I can see one particular fire-haired woman. She gets lost in the action and is suddenly abandoned in the main circle.

T:               Do you know what’s about to happen at that point when you’re in the dream?

P:               I do. I know exactly what’s going to happen next. But I wake up before she starts to dance.

T:               You want to see it?

P:               No, I don’t want to see her die this time.

T:               Not even for the elements – the soil, the flame, the drops of water or the breeze?

P:               No, not to appease the gods. It’s changing. For once, in the dream, I realise I want my life. I don’t want to be reborn a young woman, no renaissance life. I want to be anima rising. To use my life.

[Her eyes move towards the clock. He smiles at her warmly.]

T:               Well, the outline’s told. I think we can pick up on it next session. Perhaps we can reflect on the sand/salt women and the change to the sacrificial dance?

Duncan suggests …

Reading Man and His Symbols by C G Jung, since knowing when things are a sign and when they are a symbol of something else is one of the most important things we can learn.

All rights reserved © Copyright Duncan E. Stafford 2020. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author of this post is strictly prohibited.

 

You know the answer

Portrait_002In June 2018 my dream book came of age. During ‘our’ journey together over the last twenty-one years I have discovered a rich, individual and personal internal language of signs and symbols – from good-willed kingfishers to impossible Escheresque staircases leading to the summit of the world.

There is a humorous statement in traditional psychotherapy that says people in Freudian therapy have Freudian dreams and those in Jungian therapy have Jungian ones. While this brings a smile to my face it’s good to notice that Jung never claimed, as Freud did in 1895, that he had ‘discovered the secret of the dream’.* In fact Jung stated he wasn’t sure that his way of dealing with dreams should be called a method at all.**

Humankind has sought to understand dreams for many millennia – the psych professions are just one of the most recent to get involved. Dreams have been of interest throughout various civilisations including Indian, Chinese and ancient Egyptian cultures. Dreams were seen as important in Babylonian and Assyrian texts and, in early Mesopotamia, there where comprehensive and sophisticated explanations for dreams.

If we move away from the ancient or exalted views of dreams, what is left? A succession of internal pictures, feelings, sensations? Simple, individual stories that happen to us and us alone when we close our eyes? Or, perhaps a defence against our own awareness or fear of the aloneness at the centre of all human existence?

Neurobiology brings more concrete information about brains while dreaming. For instance, brain activity during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep – when the majority of dreaming occurs – is most like waking brain activity. But, when science leads us towards a reductionist view, we don’t often gain much succour.

Over the twenty-one years I’ve been taking an interest in my own dream life I have come to realise there really is a personal exposition going on. When I ignore my dreams, I am switching off from a health-creating audit.

I used to cycle along a quiet riverbank, lined with trees, twice a week to get to my therapist’s office. Over the years I did this, I often noticed an amazing turquoise flash of feathers as a kingfisher worked the bank and stream. Over time I began to associate seeing the bird (or not) as a sign of what was to come in my session.

In a quite revelatory dream about a big decision I needed to make, the kingfisher began to show me the way along a very difficult route. He would temporarily perch and wait for me to reach him. Then, he dipped his head as if to acknowledge me and flew on. Repeating the process many times together we ascended a stony wooded rise. As we neared the end of the tree cover, he settled on an old stump and knocked his beak like a woodpecker. To my amazement the tree stirred into the form of a wise old Jewish man who ‘smiled’ but said nothing while radiating an exceptional and acceptable warmth.

I make no secret of the fact that depression first brought me into my own therapy. What I have rarely spoken about is the way that depression lifted. From the moment I realised that the kingfisher was an individual, personal symbol for my wellness, showing me the way forward, twenty years of depression began to lift.

During a long running series of dreams spanning almost two years, the kingfisher delivered me to a series of places where the old Jewish man could be found; very often the old man, in turn, led me to a shining pearl that I would pick, like a berry from a tree.

During the final dream of the series the bird delivered me to a complex house set over five storeys. On the top storey a wooden machine of cogs and levers was shown to me. Disappointed that I hadn’t found one of my pearls, I began to wind the wheels with the help of the Jewish man. As the light poured in through the opening roof it became darker in the attic. Once fully open I looked up into the now dark sky just at the moment that the aurora borealis began. Instantaneously I understood the symbol of the pearls. Since that dream I have never again experienced proper depression.

The kingfisher began to visit my dreams again recently. He tapped out in Morse code a German phrase, Du kennst die Antwort (You know the answer) … I expect that exciting times are just ahead.

* Freud, S. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Words of Sigmund Freud, Vol. IV, First part, The Interpretation of Dreams (1900).

** Jung, C.G. (trans. 1966) The Practice of Psychotherapy, from Collected Works of C.G. Jung, Vol. 16.

Duncan recommends …

… to reach your inner dream world and begin finding your own answers, you might like to read Carl G. Jung’s Man and His Symbols widely available online and in book stores.

 

All rights reserved © Copyright Duncan E. Stafford 2018. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author of this post is strictly prohibited.