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The process of gaining insight

swan reflection

“The unreflected life is not worth living.”

Irving Yalom

The process of gaining insight isn't easy, because we tend to be frightened of our fears and ashamed of our embarrassments, leading us to unconsciously erect defences to hide our inner world from our own eyes. These defences enable us to pretend that we're not frightened, embarrassed, depressed, jealous or envious. This process of denying our feelings of guilt, cutting off from our anxiety and being out of touch with our depression is bad for our emotional well being. If we are blinded to our feelings and our internal world, we can't use our guilt to know that it's wrong to hurt someone or our anxiety to know that we are in danger or our sadness to know that we need to take time out to mourn for the death of a friend. Therefore it's handy to develop tools to help ourselves to break down these self imprisoning defences, these "mind forged manacles." (William Blake) By using these tools, we can get a better understanding of what's going on inside our heads and therefore make better decisions about our own lives and the lives of people around us.

Dreams, for example, are a useful tool in this process of getting a truer picture of our internal world. They're the royal road to insight and every night we dream and so potentially it's a very available resource - even though we are often unaware of our dreams and therefore need to do some work to capture them and then we need to do some more work on them to understand their underlying meaning. Other tools which we can use for exploring our internal world are; creative writing, painting, sculpture, photography, singing, dancing, music and Jung's methodology of active imagination. In this work with artistic expression we are trying to bypass what Carl Jung called "the mad mind", i.e. the everyday chatter, defensiveness and rationality of our conscious mental processes, so that we can access and work with disavowed feelings, half aware preoccupations, and long forgotten trauma. Forms of artistic expression are suitable for this work, because they are consistent with the way the unconscious works - spontaneous, symbolic, irrational and poetic. The following are some methods which can be used when trying to work with the unconscious;

1. Negative Capability

The poet, John Keats, in a letter to his brother, said that it is useful to have something which he called negative capability, "that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason." This mentality of allowing material to emerge from the unconscious and to openly listen to it is fundamentally important during processes of artistic creativity and it is also essential during the process of using art as a means of honest introspection and insight. If, in a top down kind of way, you are telling your unconscious what it needs to produce, there is no space for it to spontaneously present what is going on in the unconscious - what you are feeling, what your preoccupations are, what you are mulling over /- all those things which erstwhile have been hidden will remain hidden, unless there is an open space for them to have a voice. Therefore, for example, in using painting as a means of self exploration, it is important to have the internal space and freedom to enable you to paint what your eye likes, not what you think someone else might admire. In creative writing, it is important to allow a story to spontaneously emerge from dreams and imagination, rather than from a logically imposed plot or story line. In sculpture, it is helpful to allow the wood to suggest a form it might take and with dance it is handy to move in a way which is free and expressive and to dance to music which allows you to do this.

2. Reality Testing

When a poet or artist is creating or reviewing their work, they are listening to the muse / unconscious and also to rational and more defensive processes. Some of this material is about yearning after truth, some of it is sometimes defensive, self deceitful, ego aggrandising self deceit. It's very important during processes of personal developmental introspection to try our best to reality test any material which emerges. For more about this topic, click the following link click here.


3. Approaching an Understanding by Accessing the Subtext

In discussing dream interpretation, Freud distinguishes between the manifest and latent content of dreams. The manifest content of the dream is the surface story - the fierce captain of the ship is terrifying the little boy. The latent content is the underlying meaning - the subtext - the little boy part of the person feels intimidated by the violent father he had. There is a log trailed behind the ship. The manifest content is that this is a device to measure the distance the ship has sailed through the water in its voyage. The latent content is that the dreamer can use the log, i.e. the record or memory of what went on in order to process it. Also, the Greek word logos is about trying to discover and understand the meaning of things - to become reconciled to an irrevocable reality. Within Jungian therapy, the word logos is about the animus or the relationship with the male element which we all have, whether we're men or women. And so overall the dream is perhaps mulling over the area in relation to the dreamer's relationship with his father's aggression in relation to his own masculinity and masculine aggression - both in the conscious present, where it can be disavowed and projected into another person - the fierce captain - and in the unconscious, where it has perhaps been erstwhile buried in the detached, trailing stuff, way beneath the surface, but which now can be dredged up, owned and processed. The dream is therefore perhaps inviting the dreamer to remember, understand and process something about the feelings which he, as a little boy and now as an adult, has in relation to his father's cruel, fierce violence and also towards his own developing masculine assertiveness. It is therefore also perhaps saying something about how he can repair something within himself and allow himself to become a different kind of man and father to what his father was.This process of approaching an understanding of the subtext of the unconscious story is crucial in working with artistic introspection and insight - as exemplified by this dream work.

4. Working Alone or With a Therapist

In the same way that being an artist is a democratic process - we are all poets & artists and we can all express symbolic stories emanating from the unconscious, we are also all capable of learning to understand the subtext of this material. However, in learning how to do these things, it can be handy to have the guidance of a therapist. The secret police often don't research their own crimes with honesty, integrity and insight and we tend to be remiss with the truth when working with our own defences, so an external person who has knowledge and experience with regard to these things can be handy.