I slept in late last Wednesday, and awoke naturally from a rather interesting dream. A great problem with modern living is the waking up to an alarm clock, which interrupts sleep before our dreams are completed. This denies us the opportunity to test and explore our thoughts and feelings and, in so doing, to gain the sort of insight and understanding that might enable us to progress beyond waking up to an alarm clock. This is just another aspect of being ‘trapped by the 9 to 5′.

The dream

In this dream, then, I was about 17 years old, and not much different from my current, adult self. I was perhaps in my final year at secondary school, in the rural hills overlooking Lake Geneva. On a clear day, it might have been possible to see the snow-capped Alps beyond the lake, but now the sky was clouded over, and the seed that had been sown into the bare but loamy fields had only just begun to germinate. I had a general feeling of being overwhelmed and out of control, assailed by timetables, assignments, deadlines, social pressures, and various incoherences and futilities, and so I arranged to see the school counsellor. I sat on a chair in her room and began talking about my situation. She however was not interested. She was lying on a couch covered by a quilt, and every so often she lifted the quilt to reveal her bare breasts. After some time, a friend or colleague of hers arrived; she stepped out to greet him and through the window I could see them bantering. I felt quite angry at the counsellor and, to pass the time, I began to explore her room and in particular her bookcase. Therein I picked up a large leather-bound volume, ‘The World as Will’ by Arthur Schopenhauer. Holding the book in my hands, I was struck with such wonder and amazement that I broke into tears. Without waiting for the counsellor to return, I stepped out of the room and onto High Holborn (London), at which point I woke up.

My interpretation

In this dream I was young and of an age to learn. The sky was clouded over reflecting my then feelings. The seed in the rich, fertile soil had begun to germinate, auguring my own growth and rebirth. I sought help from the person best qualified to help me, but, like many people, she turned out to be immature, self-motivated, and of no help at all. She was lying on the couch while I was sitting in a chair, suggesting that she needed therapy more than I did, or that I understood or was to understand more than she did. The book represented my salvation, which was not to come passively through the counsellor and by extension through society, but actively through the thoughts of the greatest minds and by extension through philosophy. The title of the book, ‘The World as Will’, was particularly significant because it connoted freedom of the will, which is the cure for helplessness and the particular gift of philosophy. The breaking down into tears represented a cathartic release brought about by sudden insight, which is an important goal of classical psychoanalytic psychotherapy. When I stepped out of the room, I was no longer trapped on school premises but liberated into the wider world. The name ‘Holborn’ (‘whole-born’) itself is also likely to be of significance.

NB: The school counsellor is not based on any real person, and is a pure figment of my imagination.

The Oracle of Delphi

Whilst no one can escape using ego defence mechanisms altogether, some ego defence mechanisms are thought to be more helpful or ‘mature’ than others. For example, if a person feels angry with his boss, he may go home and kick the dog (‘displacement’), or he may go out and play a good game of tennis (‘sublimation’). Sublimation is the channeling of negative feelings into useful activities such as study, sport, or art, and is thought to be a far more mature defence mechanism than displacement, which is the redirection of negative feelings towards someone or something less important.

There are a number of other ‘mature’ ego defence mechanisms like sublimation. Altruism, for example, is (contentiously) thought of as a form of sublimation in which a person copes with his anxiety by stepping outside himself and helping others. By focusing on the needs of others, people in altruistic careers such as nursing or teaching may be able to push their needs into the background. Similarly, people who care for a disabled or elderly person may experience profound anxiety and distress once this role is removed from them.

Another mature ego defence mechanism is humour. By seeing the absurd or ridiculous aspect of an emotion, event, or situation, a person is able to put it into its proper context and thereby to diffuse the anxiety that it provokes in him. If human beings laugh so much, this is no doubt because they have the most developed unconscious in the animal kingdom, and Freud himself famously noted that ‘there is no such thing as a joke’. The things that people laugh about most are their errors and inadequacies, and the difficult challenges that they face such as personal identity, social and sexual relationships, and death.

Further up the scale of mature ego defence mechanisms is ascetism, which involves denying the importance of what people normally fear and strive for, and so denying the very grounds for anxiety. The Austrian psychoanalyst Wilhelm Stekel (1868–1940) felt that ‘anxiety is fear of one’s self’; if the importance of the self can be denied, so too can the grounds for anxiety. If people in modern societies are more anxious than people from another time or people from traditional societies, this is perhaps because of the undue emphasis that modern societies place on the self. In the Bhagavad Gita, the Hindu ‘Song of God’, the god Krishna appears to the archer Arjuna in the midst of the battlefield of Kurukshetra and tells him not to give up but to do his duty and fight on. In either case, all the men on the battlefield are one day condemned to die – as are all men. Their deaths are trivial, because the spirit in them, their human essence, does not depend on their particular forms or incarnations for its continued existence. Krishna says, ‘When one sees eternity in things that pass away and infinity in finite things, then one has pure knowledge.’

There has never been a time when you and I have not existed, nor will there be a time when we will cease to exist (…) the wise are not deluded by these changes.

– Bhagavad Gita

Arguably the most mature of all ego defence mechanisms is anticipation. Anticipation involves finding self-knowledge and, like the blind prophet Teiresias, using this self-knowledge to predict or ‘anticipate’ our feelings and reactions. In the Ancient World the greatest of all the oracles was the oracle at Delphi, and inscribed on the forecourt of the temple of Apollo at Delphi was a simple two-word command.

Γνῶθι σεαυτόν

‘Know thyself.’

Adapted from The Meaning of Madness.