The Western medical lens focuses on pain, viruses, and germs, which it sees as “bad”, and then focuses on their elimination. The same approach is employed in Western politics: enemies are “bad”, eliminate them. In economics, eliminate that which isn’t producing – companies, products, or employees. In everyday Western life eliminate all fats, oils, and sugars from foods, eliminate germs using antibacterial soap and washes. These actions are reflections of an overall philosophy that trains the eye on finding the bad. See it mirrored in media – all critics search for what isn’t working in a play, film, novel rather than what is; talk shows and news thrive on the negative.
By contrast, healing arts such as osteopathy, acupuncture, Ayurveda, and other Eastern medical methods look for the health. Pain is recognized for the symptom that it is, a biological flag to cause us to pause and take stock, so that we can go deeper. These healing-arts approaches seek to find what is already working, stable, and succeeding in an organism, and then support the growth of that, knowing that as the health increases the healing occurs throughout. Rather than looking to eliminate, these approaches look to transform; rather than searching for the bad, these approaches look for the good.
So what does this have to do with dreaming?
A philosophy is, by definition, an overall approach for solving problems (1). Whatever philosophy we hold about life creates a perspective, a window, which directs our eyes to how we see every problem and how we see (or what we even consider to be) every possible solution. A philosophy that looks for the bad must find bad. A philosophy that looks for the good must find the good. Both exist. Both are options.
When I work with people, in talking with me they often reference this bad pattern, that bad trait, these bad memories, those bad emotions – all things they want to “get out”, “release”, “get rid of”… eliminate. There is a tendency to find the bad in all their dreams – in this weird moment, that bad character, ‘clearly this means that weakness I have’, and so on. It is true that there are patterns, traits, memories, emotions that no longer serve us, that perhaps have burdened us and that we no longer need to carry. However, these very things can be transformed into something useful. We can drown by swimming in the flood of self-criticisms, or we can dive down beneath the surface and find their treasures.
This week is Sukkot, the Jewish holiday of building a structure outdoors (Sukkah) in which we take all our meals for 7 days. It is considered one of the most joyful holidays, and it follows just 5 days on the heels of the most sober day which is Yom Kippur, a day of self-reflection and repentance. In fact, these two aren’t separate, but parts of one bigger holiday season. And the secret to why this is so lies in the instructions for building the Sukkah roof.
Sukkot falls during harvest time, just after bringing in all that we’ve worked so hard to grow in the last year (thus starting our New Year, Rosh Hashana). After that big harvest, starting the new year, we pause for Yom Kippur – to turn inside and employ the act of distinguishing – seeing which apples are fit to eat and which did not develop to fullness, separating wheat from chaff, finding what, in ourselves, we brought to fruition and what we did not. At this head of the year, culminating in Yom Kippur, we can then determine what we wish to continue to nurture in the coming months and what we can let go of. Then comes Sukkot.
In the ancient texts the roof of the Sukkah was to be made of ALL THAT REMAINED on the threshing floor; e.g. anything we determined non-nourishing and considered refuse, and what planned to leave behind. That “left-behind” we then re-purposed and fashioned into our shelter. Instead of throwing out or eliminating, we transformed it, raising it up to something higher. The only way to do that is to be able to look at what was at first considered unusable and see it anew through eyes willing to find its potential. In this philosophy we search, and stretch ourselves, to find the good, even to looking at what lies under our very feet. Thus we joyfully celebrate all that we’ve been able to see, and see anew, and transform.
In looking at dreams, there is often a tendency to see what is bad in the dream, to see all aspects of dreams as reflections of our “bad parts”. Students working with waking dreams often want to just “throw out” or “eliminate” elements of their dreams they perceive as “bad”. In fact, all dreams, even nightmares, show us potential – we just have to look for it. Sometimes the potential is an outright revelation, a mirror to a precious aspect that we didn’t know we had, for example; sometimes, the potential of the dream lies on the other side of the transformation, in the very act of transforming.
All aspects of dreams are aspects of our Self. Monsters and careening cars and classrooms staring at us in dreams are all energies within ourselves. If they are threatening or out of control or self-conscious they are just blocked energies that are actually treasure chests waiting to be unlocked to show what we can use, what we have available to us, once they are transformed. So, rather than just seeing these challenging aspects of dreams as “bad”, we can consciously look for the potential that lies within them; rather than wanting to “get rid of” (eliminate) dream elements, we can instead transform them.
Working with a dream, for example, instead of painting it all as “bad”, take a deeper look to see what was missed, consciously looking for the elements you can use. There might be a janitor-helper at your side that was overlooked because you were too busy focusing on the bat in the corner. Or you might notice that the car that is out of control is in fact a really nice shiny red car with a great engine – you just need to get behind the wheel to use it. Seeing these positive elements – finding the good – will then assist you in making the transformation (ask your janitor-helper help you!).
The same idea works in waking life. If I am working with anger, rather than kicking myself for “being an angry person” I can open a window for seeing that anger for what it is – energy, big energy – and to realizing what is possible when I find a way to use that energy productively, rather than letting it race out of control and trip me. If I have always been someone who is “too sensitive” I can transform that tendency into using this ability to perceive and feel acutely for helping others or for writing something that pierces to the heart of a matter that others haven’t been able to see.
Reflection and taking the time for distinguishing between what is working and what isn’t is important and necessary for our self-growth, but rampant and chronic self-criticism is a waste of time and a trap. Yom Kippur is one day – Sukkot is seven. We can use our eyes for seeing what is, and knowing what is needed (including the potentials!), then move from criticism to construction. The more quickly we do this, the more quickly we recapture the energy that was blocked and bring it back to being usable – as shelter, as something we raise up and are then able to celebrate. And the more we look for what is good – what is working and healthy – within us, our own lives, our families, our workplaces – the more that “good” increases.
So here is a Sukkot challenge: What can you find to transform rather than toss? When you spend a week to look for the good – in your Self, your dreams, your life – what happens? Does it grow?
Happy dreaming and Chag S’meach Sukkot!
1) Abraham Joshua Heschel, 1955. God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism. Jewish Publication Society.