The theme for this year’s Anti Bullying Week is ‘Choose respect.’ I don’t think there’s ever been a time when we’ve needed this message more than we do right now.
Respect is the bedrock of a civilised society. We don’t have to like everybody – we may not be able to help disliking some people – but respect is a choice. We can always choose to behave respectfully.
Most people have always made that choice because incivility was not seen as socially acceptable, but the social norm is slipping because those at the forefront of public life – politicians and the news media – are no longer modelling respectful behaviour.
Leading politicians on both side of the pond are deliberately stirring up and sanctioning the abuse of minorities and the weak for their own ends. Leading news reporters aren’t interested in hearing reasoned argument, but instead choose to bombard interviewees with interruptions and aggressive questioning.
This is the culture our children are growing up in, but if we want them to turn away from bullying they need role models – rules are not enough.
Bullying isn’t just a problem among children in schools. It’s increasingly a social problem for us all, and the key to tackling it is not just focusing on bullying incidents but nurturing a non-bullying environment by making a positive decision at all times to behave with thoughtfulness, kindness and civility towards other people, irrespective of our differences.
I hope the theme for this year’s Anti Bullying Week will be a timely reminder to us all.
We were discussing the Senoi method for tackling nightmares in last week’s session of Writing in the House of Dreams, when someone said, ‘We ought to be teaching this to children in schools!’
The Senoi technique is described by Patricia Garfield in her fascinating book, Creative Dreaming – that’s where I first came across it. When you go to sleep, you intend that if you have a bad dream you will confront the difficulty, face down the enemy, and claim a reward.
If you wake before your dream has reached a positive outcome, you either go back to sleep and continue the dream or else complete it in imagination.
You don’t need to be lucid within the dream, so it’s a very easy practice that anyone can begin, and if you always bring your dreams to a positive outcome you set a track in your mind that your dreams will soon automatically follow, resolving themselves before you awake.
It’s obvious that not having unresolved nightmares is a way of making your dream experience better, but the goal of Senoi dreaming isn’t just to make your dream life better – it’s to make your waking life better as well. So how does that work?
When you deliberately face up to challenges and create positive outcomes in your dreams or imagination, you experience yourself as an effective and courageous person. Then when you’re faced with challenges in waking life, that’s the person you know you can be – someone whose first response to difficulties is ‘I can sort this!’
I shouldn’t think we’ll ever see creative dream skills in the national curriculum but I believe children could get the same benefits from learning to write stories.
The Senoi approach is basically the Hero’s Journey. The hero crosses the threshold into the unfamiliar world, meets enemies and falters, before finally facing up to them and claiming her reward to bring back to the ordinary world.
This story is the mythic template for all our stories. Every new experience starts with crossing the threshold into the unfamiliar and making the hero journey, from starting a new relationship or job to small things such as making a phone call or trying a new restaurant.
In the past, creative writing was part of the school curriculum – I don’t mean analysing styles and all that kind of thing, but properly diving into imagination, every child different, every story unique.
Writing stories is joyful, exciting and empowering. I wish we could have more truly creative writing on the curriculum because, in my view, it wouldn’t only make children’s experience of school better – it would, like creative dreaming, make the rest of their life better too.
Today is publication day for my latest children’s book, The Binding.
I started thinking about the idea ten years ago, after witnessing an unsettling incident in a remote part of Scotland.
I was walking past a ruined crofter’s cottage when I heard a commotion inside and went to see what was going on. I found four children, out of breath and flushed with excitement, the biggest one grasping in his fist a baby bird.
They flashed each other a guilty look, before the big boy rallied, took the chick to the nearest window and opened his hand. It fell to the ground.
‘It was stuck in here,’ he said. ‘We were trying to catch it so we could help it to get out.’
We all knew that wasn’t what they were doing, but the bird was free now, and I stayed there watching it limp away to the nearest cover while the children ran back towards their houses.
I got to thinking, how would it be for a child to live in a place where there were few other children, and virtually no adult supervision?
Then, in the wonderful way that fiction works, that little nugget of an idea began to layer up with other ideas. It resonated with memories from my own childhood, particularly the secret club I had with my three siblings, which we called ‘the meeting.’
My big sister was in charge of the meeting. She it was who made the box which contained all the secret business of the meeting. She decided the tasks and set the penalties.
On the less serious side, we had the mischief club, where I was in charge, being the second oldest, but it burnt out long before the meeting because it didn’t have the same magic and I lacked the power to hold it together.
My own childhood memories, stories other people had told me and new fantasies were called into my mind by this seed idea, and transformed in imagination to fit into it.
I love this process. It makes me feel energised and happy. And when, as occasionally happens, it also grows into a publishable book, well that’s just the icing on the cake.
The creative writer does the same as the child at play. He creates a world of phantasy which he takes very seriously — that is, which he invests with large amounts of emotion — while separating it sharply from reality ~ Sigmund Freud
Over the years, several people coming new to writing workshops have remarked that they feel like they’re in playschool, when they had been expecting something much more difficult and demanding. ‘It’s very enjoyable,’ they say, ‘but when are we going to get to the nitty gritty?’
The ability to be playful is the nitty gritty – it’s the key to creating the dreamlike fantasies of fiction, and it’s an ability that many of us lose as part of the natural process of growing up and engaging with the ‘real’ world.
Freud says we actually distance ourselves from the fantasies of our inner lives to the extent of feeling fearful and ashamed. The writer’s gift may be that in being able to sustain the playful attention and emotional attachment that children do to their dreams and fantasies, he or she provides an acceptable way for readers to indulge in the same activity vicariously.
And there’s more.
…our actual enjoyment of an imaginative work proceeds from a liberation of tensions in our minds. It may even be that not a little of this effect is due to the writer’s enabling us thenceforward to enjoy our own day-dreams without self-reproach or shame ~ Sigmund Freud
In overcoming their ‘grown-up’ rejection of the dreams and fantasies of their inner world, writers may also be giving a kind of permission for readers to explore and engage with their own.
When I interviewed Brenda Mallon here in the House of Dreams a few weeks ago, she touched upon the way that dreaming about a lost loved one can bring great comfort for the bereaved.
These dreams happen when a person is most in need of comforting, but dreams can bring comfort in less extreme times too.
When I was about five years old, I dreamt I was riding along my street in a horse-and-cart, on a lovely summer day. The horse was trotting happily, and the cart was full-to-overflowing with gold coins which jumped and jingled, and sparkled in the sun.
Everyone came out of their houses to wave as I went by, and I knew I ought to throw pennies to the poor, but I didn’t. That gold was mine, all mine!
I liked that dream so much I used to deliberately go back into it every night, as soon as I closed my eyes. It made me fall asleep with a smile on my face.
I used to think that dream showed what a horrible person I was – it was a guilty pleasure. But looking back now, I see it’s just the dream of a child in a large family with little money, where clothes were passed down and everything – even the bath water – had to be shared. It was the pure pleasure of experiencing something which was completely my own.
You can re-enter enjoyable dreams any time you like, by simply closing your eyes and imagining, in the same sort of way as you might revisit pleasurable fantasies in waking life.
It isn’t the only function of dreaming and imagination, but bringing comfort and pleasure is one way these experiences can enrich a person’s life.
Have you ever deliberately imagined your way back into a pleasurable dream on subsequent nights?
I met Brenda Mallon at a conference of children’s authors and she kindly agreed to read the MS of my book, ‘Writing in the House of Dreams’ and to be interviewed for this blog.
Brenda has over thirty years experience of working with dreams as a researcher, teacher and therapist. She has written 18 books on the subject, presented a Channel Four series ‘In your Dreams’ and sat on the board of directors of the International Association for the Study of Dreams.
Could you tell us a bit about your own personal journey in dreams, Brenda? How and why did you start to remember them, and how has your relationship with dreams developed over the years?
I can recall dreams from my childhood that have stayed with me. I was probably influenced to some extent by my mother. She talked about her dreams and had dreams which were precognitive. She didn’t call them that but would say, ‘You watch, it will happen.’ I think she was psychic in many ways and dreams were just one aspect of that ability. So, over the years I was fascinated by dreams . When I was completing my Diploma in Counselling I based my dissertation dreams. I recorded and worked on my dreams over a sixth month period and was amazed by what they revealed. After that I wanted to focus on working with and researching dreams and to find out what other people’s dreams meant to them, so when I wasn’t working in my full time job in the Child Guidance Centre, I was sending out questionnaires and interviewing woman about their dreams. Over 900 woman took part and the findings were covered in my first book ‘Women Dreaming’ which was published by Harper Collins.
I greatly enjoyed your Channel 4 series, ‘In your dreams.’ Could you talk about how you work with dreams as a therapist?
Thanks, I enjoyed working on the series and meeting such a variety of people who were not coming for therapy but to discuss their dream life in general.
As a therapist, my role, I believe, it to accompany people as they seek to find a way to resolve issues that are distressing and to help them find their own way forward. I generally ask clients to write down their dreams when they recall them and to bring them to the sessions. I should add here, that not all clients do remember their dreams so I work in other ways if that is the case. When a client talks about a dream I ask them if they can make a connections to their waking life and explore the emotional aspects of the dream as well as the symbolic significance of the content. Sometimes, I ask the client to draw their dream and use that as a basis for our work. These techniques, including recording your dreams, using metaphors and symbols, taking the dream forward and dream amplification are detailed in ‘The Dream Bible’ (Godsfield/Octopus)
I like working with dreams because they empower the client to work on their own dreams once they get used to the techniques. This can take just a few sessions and it is something they can access on their own for the rest of their lives, if they wish to. Also, I have specialized in working with people who have been bereaved and, in many cases, dreams can bring great comfort. They form part of the continuing bond we have with those who have died. In ‘Dying, Death and Grief: Working with adult bereavement’ (SAGE) I show how valuable such dreams can be.
As a children’s author, I’m interested in your work with children’s dreams. What would you say are the main differences between talking with children about their dreams and talking with adults?
I think younger children are more open to talking about their dreams and less concerned about how others might view them. I remember, one four year old I spoke to told me that dreams were ‘pictures in my pillow’. His dreams were in his pillow which came into his head when he slept. (In fact, I later used it in ‘Children Dreaming: Pictures in my pillow’ (Penguin). So, small children feel they have little if any control over dreams and their content and are less defensive than adults sometimes are.
Children are usually happy to enter into the playful aspect of dream work. For example, a girl whose brother had died, had a distressing dream in which a lion came into her bedroom and wanted to eat her and her brother, who was alive in the dream, She talked about what frightened her and how she was sad that her brother no longer came into her room to play. She drew the dream, including the fierce lion. I asked her what she would change in the dream if she could change it. She thought for a while and said, ‘The lion could turn out to be nice and then it could go away. I could play with my brother again and that would be lovely.’ So, we talked about what they would play and games they used to play. She then did another drawing of herself and her bother playing as they had done in the past. She knew her brother was dead and would not return to her home and family but talking about him and playing with him gave her comfort and a chance to recall happy times in the past, which is part of the grieving and healing process.
Working with adults is also a pleasure. Adults however may have more pre-conceived ideas about dream interpretation which may lead to being more guarded about what dreams they share. However, once they understand dreams are powerful tools to help them through their crisis or distress, they truly value them, even those nightmare ‘wake up’ calls.
This blog is mostly about using dreams as a creative resource. I know you also teach creativity and writing workshops – do dreams feature in that work as well?
Artists, writers, scientists, musicians and actors speak of the importance of dreams as a source of creativity. I use dreams in my own writing and many members of the creative writing courses I teach use dreams as the springboard for their writing. Sometimes an image will be so vivid that the dreamer cannot get it out of their mind. This kernel of an idea then grows to encompass characters, plot, further imagery and a developed story line. In other cases, the whole story or song appears in the dream. Robin Gibb, of the Bee Gees, told me his song ‘Stayin’ Alive’ came in one of his dreams as did Paul McCartney’s ‘Yesterday’.
I include sections on creative writing and creative dreaming in ‘A Year of Creativity’ (MQ Publications) as I think dreams are central to our creativity. The more we pay attention to our internal treasure trove of dreams the more enriched we are.
Who is your favourite author on the subject of dreams?
I like the work of Kelly Bulkeley, Robert Van De Castle and Patricia Gardfield. All members of the International Association for the Study of Dreams who have made vitally important , accessible contributions to the understanding of dreams. Also, Carl Gustav Jung, who could leave him out!
And your favourite book?
This is a hard one to answer. Probably because it is one of the earliest books I read that introduced me to the significance of symbolism in dreams is ‘Man and His Symbols’ by C.G. Jung.
As an author yourself, which of your own books are you most glad to have written?
Another difficult question! As a therapist, I think ‘Dreams, Counselling and Healing’ was an important book because I was able to put down my experience of working with clients and to show how powerful working with dreams is and to share techniques so others could use them. My latest dream book ‘The Dream Experience: Your complete dream workshop in a book ‘, which includes a CD featuring exercises and inspirational music, is interactive and is, I hope, a guide to deepen awareness of the creative heart of dreaming.
When I decided to try and make a career of writing in my early forties my first stumbling block was that I had no idea what kind of writer I wanted to be. I’d written a number of adult novels in my teens and early twenties, and sent a sample of the last one to six big publishers, four of whom had asked to see the whole MS. They all went on to send me encouraging letters of rejection, the concensus being that my book was too ‘experimental.’
Like lots of writers dipping their toe in the market for the first time, I didn’t notice the encouragement, or indeed clock what a good sign it was that four out of six major publishers wanted to read my whole manuscript. I took the fact that they’d all rejected it as a sign that I wasn’t good enough.
In the long gap between those early novels and my decision to try and be an author, I’d also discovered a great enthusiasm for children’s books through reading billions of them to my own children. So I wrote an adult novel, a whodunnit and several children’s stories and sent them to several agents.
The agent who took me on said she thought I could be published as both an adults’ and a children’s author, but advised me to start with children’s stories. She stressed that it wasn’t easier to write for children but, purely because of the much shorter length, it was quicker. I might spend five years writing an adult book and then not find a publisher, which would be crushing, whereas I could do a lot of children’s stories in that time and, even if I got rejections, I might well still hit the market quicker.
I was happy with that. Writing shorter pieces was easier to fit into my daily routine of grabbing a few hours to write in the mornings when all the children were at school or playgroup. I enjoyed it hugely, but I assumed it was a phase – I thought the reason I could write children’s stories was because I had children at home, so I was kind of in the zone. When they grew up, my writing would surely grow up too.
But since my children have flown the nest, I’ve discovered that there’s this lively ten-year-old in me, and she’s the one I’ve been writing for all along. She’s both my reader and my protagonist, and she loves funny stories, with lots of action and chaos.
I don’t think it’s outer circumstances that make a children’s writer, but what’s inside. If you haven’t got that vocal, living inner child demanding and driving your story, you’ll get the voice wrong, you’ll speak down as your adult self and your readers won’t connect with what you’ve written.
In that case, I’d say personally that it would be easier to write for adults.