Say to Wisdom: Thou art my sister, and call Prudence thy friend: for to meditate upon her is a most natural and subtle understanding, which bringeth her to perfection. And they that constantly watch for her shall quickly be secure. For she is clear to them that have understanding, and shall never fade away nor fail; she seemeth easy to them that have knowledge of her, for she goeth about seeking such as are worthy of her and showeth herself cheerfully to them in the ways and meeteth them with all providence; for her beginning is the most true nature, whereof cometh no deceit.
Marie-Louise von Franz, Aurora Consurgens, pp. 39-41
Adding Consciousness to Wisdom
According to the Aurora Consurgens, Wisdom is readily available for anyone who is willing to listen. Yet it also says that to be receptive and open to her is not enough. One must “bring her to perfection” by meditating on her essence.
This means that even if the first impulse is provided most naturally (and without deceit!), man must add his ordering consciousness to make Wisdom whole—a remarkably strange achievement given her inherent superior nature.
In this article, I will outline and articulate how I understand this process of cultivating wisdom (i.e., of making Wisdom whole): from dealing with raw information, extracting insights to applying them until they are part of one’s character. I will use the context of dream interpretation to illustrate its practical dimension.
Step 0 – A Willingness to Listen
Though wisdom is always seeking company, one must learn to be receptive to her ways. We can emphasize three aspects of this receptiveness: 1) a willingness to listen, 2) paying attention, 3) noticing things that call for self-reflection and self-knowledge.
- A willingness to listen. Being willing to listen means putting one’s ego and worldviews aside, at least temporarily. If we are to listen, we are giving up being right and focusing on learning something new. This requires the acceptance that our system of beliefs is necessarily incomplete and always subject to revaluation. From this abyss of not knowing, listening means to engage with a different perspective on life, to try it on for size.
This detachment can be approached at first as an intellectual exercise but one quickly learns that it has an emotional dimension, most specifically in cases where one cannot stand the opposite position. In short, being willing to listen is a presence, a state of being.
- Paying attention. Paying attention is not forcing attention: things happen by themselves constantly, all the time, as if uninvited (or are they?). To pay attention means to agree to see the nonverbal layers of communication: a nervous laugh might be an expression of distress, arrogance might hide powerlessness, silence might say more than words, etc.
To pay attention means to accept the limitation of words and that there is nothing straightforward in communication: do you remember using the “I am doing fine” when it wasn’t the case?
- Noticing things that call for self-reflection. Has something happened to you recently that was out of the ordinary? Maybe you got a strong gut feeling, a sensation in your body, a terrible nightmare, a fleeting vision? Maybe it even occurred more than once? Maybe something stranger is at play: unlikely events are piling up and you don’t know why. Maybe you are getting a sense that reality is conspiring for or against you.
“To notice things that call for self-reflection” is to stop when an unlikely event happens. It is spending time on the things that should not have happened but did anyway. It’s to approach the irregular and the unusual as if it was meaningful. It’s looking at a sequence of events as if it was a symbolic language, as if it was a form of communication that is trying to reach us, to teach us something. It’s to ask oneself “Why is this happening to me? What is it trying to teach me? What do I have to learn from this?” instead of moving on with the busyness of modern life or claiming to be the victim of circumstances.
“Don’t listen to what I say. Listen to what I mean.”
While receptiveness is seemingly an easy prerequisite that anyone should be able to achieve, it is no easy task to put into practice.
The source of renewal of the personality is found in things that we necessarily don’t understand, are unaware of, or refuse to learn. This is the reason it is hard to be receptive: the most important messages appear where we least want to look at.
To be receptive is to step off the podium of self-righteousness and start to look at all the things that we have ignored, that we have dismissed, that we have condemned and to enter the realm of the damned and listen for the first time.
“In filth, it will be found.”
The commonality of the different aspects of receptiveness is a conscious practice of humility. Humility here must be taken in its largest context. It’s not that we don’t know everything—that is an obvious statement—rather we don’t know that we don’t know. We think we know what we are doing but the reality is most likely that our current way of life is based on a specific form of insanity that we have trapped ourselves into. We see our ideologies and automatic habits as common sense because we don’t know that we don’t know.
If we don’t know that we don’t know, we are necessarily right and everything else is wrong. How does one assess the need for change if self-deception has become a norm, if we are delusional about our delusions, if we have forgotten that we forgot, if we live in a box that is inside another box? Insanity of the known might be preferable to trying to find sanity in the unknown. That would be risking a dissolution of our points of reference, of our values, of our identity. The unknown is the land of the cursed and of the idealistic losers. There are of course a few victorious people but that’s not us.
We mistakenly identify our small parcel of reality as a territory to master. Yet it cannot be mastered because, beyond our local and intimate view, there is a greater picture, an ever-changing and infinitely complex landscape whose simple contemplation can make us dizzy. Therefore we stick to the local territory, play the local competition, and attempt to become the local victor. This is how, even without wanting it, we murder the transcendent.
“The local incites men to competition. The prizes are local prizes, but by no means unimportant or trivial: status, dominion, material possession, charisma, sexual potency and value.
Local victory is admirable in the local environment, but victory, as the father of pride, blinds the victorious to the transcendent, the source of peace.
Outcome is a virtue in the local environment. Product is a virtue in the local environment. But outcome and product are not necessarily virtuous in the transcendent environment that surrounds the local.
Predictability is a virtue in the local environment, but integrity is a virtue in the transcendental domain from which peace descends.
Clarity of vision is a virtue in the local environment, but justice itself is blind.
Self-regard is a virtue in the local environment, but a vice in the transcendent.
The rules that apply in the transcendent space that surrounds all local environments are not the same rules that apply within those local environments.
Trapped by the fact of his own local victory, [the local victor] can only see the reality of what he knows, and does not know that there is also a reality he does not know.
Possession of the knowledge that local victory is insufficient makes the individual who can tread strange waters the enemy of the local victor.
Humility, in the traditional sense, rather than pride, signals victory in the transcendent, but defeat in the local.
Rationality, axiom-predicated in the local, must give way to something less conditional, in the transcendent.
Curiosity is more important than knowledge, in the transcendent environment that surrounds the local.
The peacemaker threatens, with the threat of peace, because peace means change. The local victor may not win again, when change comes about.” (Selected extracts from Peacemaking Among Higher Order Primates)
Stuck in the local environment, we apply what we know, sometimes with minor tweaks. But we forgot that the local territory depends on the transcendent space. Once we remember that the transcendent space is always in flux, we are painfully aware that what worked once might never work again. Thus we must abandon the well-trodden path and risk the unknown unceasingly.
Step 1 – Registering What Happens
In the context of this article, to have a dream journal is to accept to listen to the unknown, to take guidance from it. If we are necessarily bound to our local territory, the dream can provide a view from the other side. And so every night we await if it has anything to say.
Waking up in the middle of the night, strange fragments are floating in our minds. We briefly think about them and it’s all so … distasteful and incomprehensible. Tiredness takes over and we’d rather go back to sleep. But, aware that dreams can fade from consciousness at any moment, we write it down anyway.
Registering a dream is mining the unconscious, or more accurately, letting the unconscious do the mining for us. It doesn’t provide us a to-do list or a three-point action plan, that isn’t how it expresses itself. It provides a narrative structure made of raw material (usually symbols charged with emotions) and leaves us alone, showing respect that can be misunderstood with coldness.
And so we record the dream. That is going to be the wisdom to meditate upon.
I hold a bookshop on my uni campus. For some financial reason, I own only half the room I am renting, the other half is empty. In that space, half of it is dedicated to books about psychology, and the other half to some other books I’ve received from my father or family. The bookshop is not doing great but I don’t mind too much.
As I enter the bookshop this morning, I see an old couple who now owns the whole space. They tell me that they are now taking over and I should move my stuff. The old man gives me a deadline, which I realize is in three days so I have to start packing the books in my car today.
Step 2 – Extracting Insights
Because the dream came outside the local territory, we can’t study it from our viewpoint. It must be approached from its own logic.
A dream shows what the unconscious is concerned about, what it sees, how it sees it, and all of that is expressed with his own symbolic language. Because this material comes from below the threshold of consciousness, it cannot be understood unless we attempt the perilous task of interpretation.
In the process of understanding a dream, there are many traps laid out in the open.
- The first trap is to do nothing and resume life, unconcerned.
- The second trap is to care about the dream but, lost in aesthetic contemplation or overwhelmed by its content, do nothing substantial with it.
- The third one is to work too much on it, refusing to let the dream speak and forcing our own viewpoint on it.
- Another one is to intellectualize everything (“This is my anima. This is my shadow. This is my mother complex.”) and never deal with the emotions of the dream.
- Yet another one is to take symbols literally (“I dreamt about my ex, this must mean it’s about my ex.”), as if the psychic nature of the dream was the same as material reality.
Let’s focus on the dream quoted above. It shows that an old couple has taken over a room I was renting without much success. It concludes that I should start to pack my things because something is happening very soon. There is a change in how I should occupy myself, maybe how I operate, and there isn’t much time to get ready.
Connecting to the emotions of the dream, I feel a gray, somewhat sorrowful situation followed by a surprising announcement. I feel shocked, taken by surprise, urgency, maybe a bit of sadness. I have to prepare for change, it’s happening soon.
Working with a dream should not be an intellectual exercise exclusively, that would be missing the core of the experience. It’s about being informed by the symbols, to feel what it means to be surrounded by them, to experience their transformations as the dream progresses.
One must let the dream tell its story. It’s true that it often requires filling in the blanks with spontaneous associations, personal context, and amplification (see my template for a step-by-step process) but there are dreams like this one that do not need it.
Putting together the insights extracted from the dream, we now have an interpretation. How does one know that the interpretation is the right one?
The interpretation must not feel aggrandizing, it must feel humbling. A good interpretation doesn’t make one float, but it drives one into the ground. Instead of inflating the ego, the interpretation should deflate it.
If you are connected to your body, the body will confirm or deny the interpretation. When one comes close to what the dream says, the body reacts with shivers, sudden gasps, some kind of cellular vibrations or activity, etc. We are naturally and spontaneously engaged; it feels like we are onto something. On the other hand, if the interpretation is incorrect, one feels hollow no matter how sophisticated it sounds. A lack of interest or emotional engagement is a reasonable reaction to something untrue.
Step 3 – Embodying the Wisdom
Once the interpretation is validated at an emotional level, one needs to act out the insights of the dream. Insights are not something to memorize, they are tools to apply in the world. If your course of action is not altered by the interpretation, the realization has not sunk in the way it should.
In my case, while I was contemplating the need to change, my first thought was about closing my website. That did not feel right, this felt like taking the dream too literally, without nuance. It felt too much like an exterior change, not an interior one so I let that idea go. Struggling with what to do or how to act, I waited for the next dream.
I am planning to leave a house through an underground tunnel. In the cellar, I see Murray Stein. I try to get rid of him: I kill him first then drown him in beer. Both times he survives. My actions are noncommittal, I don’t like what I am doing. I decide to carry his body out of the beer puddle and leave him on the side. Once outside the tunnel, I gain ten levels which grant me upgrades that make my life easier.
My association with Murray Stein is that he is an authority on analytical psychology, he represents the movement. I try to kill him because, in the process of separating, I am doing it too forcefully. This is the dream commenting on my attitude of wanting to close the website.
As killing doesn’t work, the best course of action appears to put Murray Stein aside and leave. By gaining levels and getting upgrades, the dream tells me that life would get easier that way.
And so it was decided. I need to separate from that Murray Stein aspect of me without killing him. To progress, I must leave behind that authoritative part.
Put into practice, the perceptive reader might notice that this article (and the previous one) were written in a different style than usual, following the lesson of these dreams.
Step 4 – Feedback, Social Clues, and Synchronicities
After acting the interpretation in the world, we’re not safe from making mistakes, far from it. In fact, the whole process might be rubbish because of misinterpretations, biases, literal understanding, projections, etc.
So if we are going to risk an interpretation in the world, it’s safer to commit to a small action, a small change and see what happens.
When we commit, the world responds. This feedback can be found first in social settings, where people will react verbally or nonverbally to your actions. These social clues are the best confirmation (or rejection) for how the process is going until here. One must learn to catch these reactions, it’s an invaluable skill.
In fact, if you really got the right interpretation, things will flow with ease as if helped by an invisible hand. Similarly, if there was a mistake or the process is incomplete, you will find yourself being ignored, redirected, rejected, or stopped in your course, brutally if necessary.
“The world will ask you who you are, and if you do not know, the world will tell you.”
When one engages with the unconscious with the right attitude, we open the door to synchronicities. Synchronicities are events in the outer world that reflect what’s going on in the inner world. In practice, it means that daily routines become unpredictable and charged with numinosity. The following story is an outstanding example of this concept that is so hard to convey.
von Franz: Barbara Hannah and I experienced a case once: she analyzed an elder sister who tended to psychologically eat her younger sister and tried to dissuade her from Jungian psychology. The elder sister was a devouring mother type of person who dreamt that she saw three tigers in a barn. Miss Hannah said: “Yes, that is what you are doing. That is the devouring mother in you. You must take this seriously. You ‘eat up’ people!” Later she went with the younger sister on an expedition. They took a boat and went up the Zurich Lake. Soon they noticed a cow barn and lots of people looking inside. Out of curiosity they went over for a look themselves, and inside they saw three tigers sitting. Imagine – in a Swiss cow barn!
von Franz: Three tigers!
Drey: In a Swiss cow barn?
von Franz: Yes! Now it happened like this: they learned that the Knie Circus did not have enough cages to keep their tigers in and had hired a cow barn and put three tigers in it. Imagine walking in Switzerland and finding a cow barn with three tigers in it. And the elder sister had dreamed about that the night before. When this happens, one rubs his eyes arid says: “Am I crazy or is this just an hallucination? What is happening?” The outside is like the inside.
Barbara Hannah, Marie-Louise Von Franz, Lectures on Jung’s Aion, p.191
Cultivating Wisdom as a Process
Cultivating wisdom is a complete process composed of distinct steps: 1) being willing to listen, 2) recording what happens, 3) extracting insights, 4) acting in an updated way in the world, and 5) paying attention to feedback, social clues, maybe synchronicities.
This process is not reserved to dreams, it can be applied to books, art, movies, etc. anything that conveys a message that has a transformative impact.
For reading, one must 1) read in a charitable and open way, 2) take notes of the essence of what is being communicated, 3) reformulate it with one own’s words until it is fully understood, 4) try the idea in the world as if it was an actionable tool, 5) see what happens. One usually discovers very quickly the limitations of an idea, where it’s useful and where it’s not.
How to take notes according to Jordan Peterson; his essay guide
For movies, the steps are similar. As long as you manage to follow the emotions behind the plot, it is possible to learn what the main character is going through and how he comes out of it. Movies, the best ones at least, are not far from dreams so extending the process can be done quite naturally.
In conclusion, cultivating wisdom requires putting into practice ideas and insights until we learn their limitations. Once we gain experience with an idea, we have a unique story to tell about it; it has become part of one’s character. With personal experience about their proper use, ideas become more than intellectual knowledge. They become something at our disposal like a tool from a toolbox, and they shine like streaks of paint on the canvas of our personality.
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