“Authors, the scene ends
with a rule of theater:
In the beginning was the mask.”
The Magikal Mirror
“Writing, I think, is not apart from living. Writing is a kind of double living. The writer experiences everything twice. Once in reality and once in that mirror which waits always before or behind.”
—Catherine Drinker Bowen
Keeping a journal and performing a magical ritual might seem worlds apart, but there may be a common intent to both these activities. In the same way as we can bring aspects of our psyche to consciousness through writing, a ritual magician assumes certain roles with a desired outcome, embodying the god Mars in preparation for conflict or the goddess Venus in anticipation of love. By such archaic practices, the ceremonial magician is awakening parts of his (or her) psyche which he wishes to embody and integrate into his persona. In a similar way, a shaman dons animal skins as a means to summon “spirits” which “dwell” in his psyche and in that of his audience (or client): he or she is invoking (and evoking) the primordial forces by acting out a specific part of the group psyche, as a means to integrate it. This is analogous to group therapy also, when a ritual space is created within which normal social rules are suspended. This ritual space—be it the journal, the therapy room, the shaman’s hut or the magician’s circle—allows “the inexpressible to be expressed.” As already described, communicating with ourselves in this way develops our ability to communicate with the world. Then, as we begin to bring this new awareness and maturity into our interactions with others, so communicating with the world deepens our relationship to ourselves.
There is a well-known magical oath: “I pledge to treat every phenomenon as a particular dealing of God with my Soul.” While based on the metaphysical belief that the Universe is a “magical mirror” which constantly reflects back at us the internal conditions of our souls, this oath also sums up the tenets of existential psychology, as encapsulated by Carl Jung’s statement: “When an inner process cannot be integrated it is often projected outward.” On the individuation journey to self-knowledge, there are inevitably aspects of our consciousness which we are either unable to see or unwilling to look at in isolation. Just as there are gods which the magician is careful not to invoke until ready, there are subjects which we choose not to write about in our journal, often because we aren’t ready to even think about them. Once we enter into interaction with other people, however, these are the very aspects that get stirred up. They are the rough (and blind) spots which sooner or later are going to trip us as we begin to engage with our environment in new ways. It is this pressure of interacting with other people that brings home the discord in our psyches and allows us to work it out. This tension provided by “the other” is essential to individuation, and it is why, “beyond a certain point, the whole universe becomes a continuous process of initiation.”[i]
Between the Lines: Induced Trance States Via Reading & Writing
“Telepathy, of course. It’s amusing when you stop to think about it—for years people have argued about whether or not such a thing exists, folks like J. B. Rhine have busted their brains trying to create a valid testing process to isolate it, and all the time it’s been right there, lying out in the open like Mr. Poe’s Purloined Letter. All the arts depend upon telepathy to some degree, but I believe that writing offers the purest distillation.”
—Stephen King, “What Writing Is.”
Increased self-awareness equals maturity, making individuation an exponential growth curve. Maturity and self-awareness increases our capacity to observe ourselves, not only in others but in isolation, and this capacity for self-observation further increases self-awareness. The tension created within us by the presence of the other then allows for a new seeing within ourselves, because the other is always reflecting something we can’t or won’t see about ourselves. That newly gained insight is what we bring to our next relationship, and so on. The paradox of individuation is that, as we deepen self-awareness, it is as if we are cleaning the universal mirror within which we are gazing, so life reflects back at us ever more sharply our internal condition. The result is seemingly counter-intuitive: we become not less but more (and more) sensitive and vulnerable to both internal and external triggers the more we mature, because as we continue to integrate the contents of our unconscious, it begins to seem as though the whole world is happening inside of us. It also becomes harder and harder to distance ourselves from others, because we are taking responsibility not only for our own thoughts, feelings and actions, but for everyone else’s too—though only in relation to ourselves—and so everything that happens lands at our doorstep. The closest parallel to this ongoing initiation would be that of a lucid dream state, because in dream states isolation and interrelationship co-exist: we are both alone in our “head-space” and interacting (telepathically, astrally, or by means not yet understood) with the world outside us. This is why it is possible to unravel psychic knots while dreaming, which provides a direct parallel once again with both reading and writing, since both activities (when immersive) recreate a waking dream state.
The following is from Stephen King’s On Writing:
“My name is Stephen King. I’m writing the first draft of this part at my desk (the one under the eave) on a snowy morning in December of 1997. There are things on my mind. Some are worries (bad eyes, Christmas shopping not even started, wife under the weather with a virus), some are good things (our younger son made a surprise visit home from college, I got to play Vince Taylor’s ‘Brand New Cadillac’ with The Wallflowers at a concert), but right now all that stuff is up top. I’m in another place, a basement place where there are lots of bright lights and clear images. This is a place I’ve built for myself over the years. It’s a far-seeing place. . . . you are somewhere downstream on the timeline from me . . . but you’re likely in your own far-seeing place, the one where you go to receive telepathic messages. . . . And here we go—actual telepathy in action. You’ll notice I have nothing up my sleeves and that my lips never move. Neither, most likely, do yours. Look—here’s a table covered with a red cloth. On it is a cage the size of a small fish aquarium. In the cage is a white rabbit with a pink nose and pink-rimmed eyes. In its front paws is a carrot-stub upon which it is contentedly munching. On its back, clearly marked in blue ink, is the numeral 8. Do we see the same thing? We’d have to get together and compare notes to make absolutely sure, but I think we do.
“This is what we’re looking at, and we all see it. I didn’t tell you. You didn’t ask me. I never opened my mouth and you never opened yours. We’re not even in the same year together, let alone the same room... except we are together. We’re close. We’re having a meeting of the minds.”
Stephen King makes no mention of mirror neurons or brain states; back in 1997 no one was talking about such things. Yet he is essentially describing the same phenomenon: transference of thought via writing. It’s interesting that King takes the time to describe his brain state (his mood), even though it has no apparent bearing on the scene which he goes on to transmit (the rabbit in the cage), telepathically, in order to literally illustrate his point. The reason it’s interesting is that the science of mirror neurons argues that it is just such “between the lines” information that is transmitted via language—the writer’s mood and current circumstances—even when they are in no way inferred by the written or spoken material itself.
What King is describing here is more than simply a shared visualization, because the act of visualizing—being obviously linked to dreaming—is one that entails at least a minor trance state. We all know what it is like to get sucked into a good book. We get lost in the writer’s (and/or the characters’) thoughts and feelings, immersed in another world being created by a combination of words on the page and our own ability to weave a surrogate dream reality inside our skulls (or bodies, if you want to be holistic about it). One thing is certain: when we are carried away by a good book, fiction or non-fiction, we are only secondarily aware of reading words on a page; our primary awareness goes where the words themselves take us. And where they take us, as King points out, is not only into our own minds, but into the mind of the author. It is a matching of brains states, a shared trance. And (though this is trickier to prove) I’d wager that the closer the author was to deep dreaming when she or he wrote the book, the closer we can approach to such a state ourselves while reading it. This is what distinguishes great writing from not-so-great: the degree of immersion it induces in us is determined, at least in part, by the degree of immersion which the writer attained while writing it. This is what communicates—“between the lines.”
Reading James Joyce is a very different experience to reading Elmore Leonard, and Jean Baudrillard requires an alternate sort of attention to Stephen King. Some prose is harder to get “our heads around,” and while this may have to do with obvious factors such as dense vocabulary or labyrinthine phrases, it may also be dependent on how foreign or alien the brain state of the author is compared to our own. People who work hard to match Joyce’s brain state “get” what he is doing and consider him a genius. For the rest of us, he is incomprehensible and overrated. (Ditto Baudrillard.) The same is true of our dreams: the ones that more closely match our waking brain state are easier to remember, understand, and describe. Others are so “out there” that just thinking about them causes us a mild form of distress due to cognitive dissonance. (The Surrealists were all about creating cognitive dissonance, and their aim was to try and match dream states through their use of word and image.)
If you read the following sentence, allowing that forensic science has a relative ownership of the sort of cheese waffles which your mother baked, for the sake of literary analysis you will take the next number 5 bus and wind up looking for missing punctuation marks. On the other hand if I say simply that this sort of playful writing has a pleasingly disorientating effect on the mind, you will be then relieved to be back on safe ground, and that matching the author’s brain state does not entail coming too seriously unhinged from your own familiar worldview. Coherence is something we let go of only with a struggle. The point is, while you are reading this, you are going along with my own thoughts and as long as these seem to follow a linear sort of sequence common to waking logic, and to stick to ideas reasonably familiar to you, you can keep up and won’t have too hard a time of it. The moment I bring in salivating leprous homunculi and suggest that your mother’s panties are the secret to your wasted sex life, you will either laugh, become incensed, or try and figure out where exactly you lost the thread of my argument.
See what I mean?
Lucid Dreaming & Original Trauma
“Learning to think without resorting to images is indispensable to alphabet literacy. ‘Make no images’ is a ban on right-brain pattern recognition. All who obey it will unconsciously begin to turn their backs on the art and imagery of the Great Mother and, re-orientated a full 180 degrees, will instead seek protection and instruction from the written words of an All-Powerful Father.”
—Leonard Schlain, The Alphabet Versus the Goddess
Matching the author’s brain state is something that happens automatically with “easy” prose, but which we become increasingly aware of having to do when the prose is more innovative and challenging, or conversely, sloppier and less cunningly structured. Yet the awareness of the reader is finally the determining factor in how efficient the conveyance of information is. If a tree falls and no one hears it, there’s no sound, and a book that is never read does not exist as a form of literature, only an object on a shelf. Telepathy has not occurred: minds have not met. Compare this to our dream lives. How much of the material of our dreams ever makes it to our conscious minds? Yet it is there: book after book, story after story, just waiting to be tapped into and enjoyed.
In the common view, dreams are a way for our brains to “work off” excess stress or work out unresolved issues. In the jargon of our day, the dream state is a place where the unconscious “uploads” data—in symbolic language—about the condition of the “network,” our total psyches. This can be transpersonal as well as personal because the unconscious is collective as well as individual. While sleeping, we are in a relatively egoless state, and because of this, information that would otherwise be threatening to, and hence repressed by, our waking consciousness can be addressed and integrated. When I say “relatively egoless,” I mean that our everyday concerns no longer hold sway over our choices. Barring specific anxiety dreams, we aren’t worried about the rent or what the neighbor thinks of us, but tend to get caught up in symbolic enactments that make little or no sense in the context of our waking lives.
If we think of ego in its pure sense, however—that of an individual perspective with its own focus and drive—it could be argued that, potentially at least, we are more in our ego while dreaming, because when we sleep our ego and id (conscious and unconscious minds) are functioning much more as a unit. This becomes particular apparent in lucid dreaming, and once again the parallel with writing is clear: lucid dreaming is a way of taking control of the components of our unconscious and writing the dream. Like a scenarist, a novelist, or a scriptwriter, our intent is to arrange specific elements of our unconscious in a conscious or semi-conscious fashion, in order to discover how best they fit together and create a meaningful narrative. This is the similarity; the difference, of course, is in the medium employed. When we sit at a desk and write, we are using words to describe internal states and are willingly entering into mild trance in order to best midwife that psychic material into the new form, that of literature. When we dream, on the other hand, something else happens, and words are only incidental to that mysterious process.
When we write we are creating an external vehicle for ourselves as consciousness: a book, a poem, a short story, an essay. This is called self-expression, and it’s a process which most writers would say they have control over, if not total control then near enough. (Writers often say that when it’s working, the story or piece takes over; but never, I assume, to the point they would forget to eat and starve to death.) When we dream, such control is drastically reduced, to the point that most of the time we forget that we are dreaming. The world we create becomes all-embracing. When we dream, we are “projecting” consciousness outside of the “self” and creating an image, then stepping into the image and interacting with it. Anyone who has ever fallen asleep and entered into dreaming consciously (the hypnopompic state) will have observed that critical moment when ordinary thoughts begin transform into and appear before us as images. This is the act of creation stripped down to its essence, and the essence of the creative act is that (unlike writing) we have only a rudimentary kind of control over it. Falling asleep in this way can be extremely jarring (the trick is not waking ourselves up by reacting to the images we see); it is like tapping into a well of psychic energy that for the rest of our lives is turned off and unavailable to us. Writers—and all artists—attempt to tap into this wellspring consciously, while awake, and to direct it into a finished work which they can present to the world as “the product of their imagination.” Yet it may be that the product itself is almost incidental to the real mystery, that of the creative process itself. How does it happen and why does it take the form it does? What are these seemingly bipolar kinds of consciousness called waking and dreaming, and why is it so difficult (and so fascinating) a task to create—or locate—a working bridge between the two?
It’s been said that the original sin was projection[ii]: a split in consciousness between inner and outer by which we were cut off from the divine, expelled from Paradise. On the other hand, with no projection of consciousness outward, would there be anything for consciousness to interact with? Perhaps it wasn’t a sin until we mistook the projection for ourselves and got lost in the dream? Perhaps all of these practices—magic ritual, shamanic trance, lucid dreaming, meditation, psychotropic plant use, and writing—are ways to re-enact the original manifestation of consciousness into (and as) matter? Maybe they are tricks to remember how we tricked ourselves, as consciousness, into getting lost in a language-based reality construct? In which case, are they also ways to reverse “the Fall” by reenacting the primal trauma—what Philip K. Dick described as “a primordial split in the godhead”—and heal the rift between waking and dreams?