The unconscious mind works in strange and sometimes wonderful ways. The other night, I was awakened by a loud thunderstorm passing over the beach. I law awake in the dark room listening to the booms that echoed over us. Then I fell back asleep and dreamed.
In the dream my old friend Norman Lear was taping some segments for a TV show. He asked me on camera, "Why are so many classic fairy tales so violent?" It was a question I had never been asked, and had never really contemplated. But as a philosopher, you can ask me anything and I'll start thinking about it—even in a dream.
In my most confident dream demeanor, I spontaneously answered that the classic fairy tales, like the grim fables of the Brothers Grimm, and also like many ancient myths and modern superhero stories, serve to prepare young people as well as the rest of us for a world that's challenging, sometimes scary, and always uncertain. These stories are like flight simulators for pilots, who are exposed virtually to every emergency situation imaginable so that in real life, if ever confronted with one, they can respond more calmly and with prior practice as to how to act and what to do. Now, it's not as if we're likely to come across an old lady in the woods who bakes little kids into pies for her oven, or a frightening wolf that's just eaten a grandmother, or a fire breathing dragon. But we will have scares and difficulties and unanticipated challenges in our lives, and we need to be ready to meet and overcome them.
Many old stories prepare us for this. And some give us the assurance or inspiration that we can stand up to danger and prevail, even against terrible odds and awful scenarios.
I woke up from this dream and my answers to the camera amazed at how my unconscious mind had knit together a variety of disparate experiences I had gone through over the previous weeks. My wife and I had been watching a Food Network competition show called Food Network Star, where the contestants trying to get their own television show were often asked to explain something for the first time in front of a camera. Ah. I had also recently been in touch with my old friend Norman Lear, the great television producer and creator. And my wife and I had just watched, back-to-back the movies "Joy" and "The Martian" where individuals are challenged in scary and daunting ways and, against overwhelming odds, manage to prevail. I had just been invited to help out on camera for a television special on superheroes in American history. And I had also been asked to speak to a large group of physicians about dealing with the career stress that results from all the challenges and uncertainties of modern medical practice. And all these unrelated things managed to bring elements into my dream.
That's one of the powers of the unconscious mind—it can knit together apparently unrelated things into insights and ideas we can use right away. It's a great cauldron of creativity. But we have to give it time to work, and then a way to bring its treasures into our conscious minds. Sometimes sitting meditation is just the thing. Sometimes, a mindful walk down the street is all it takes. Getting beyond the chatter and beneath the clutter of our everyday thoughts, moving them aside, turning down the volume, allows the great inventions or discoveries of our unconscious mind to bubble up into consciousness in a way that can often offer great guidance.
Open the door to your unconscious mind, and you may find that you have treasures of wisdom that surprise you.