Reflection 327: Dream Talk

October 3, 2012

Copyright © 2012 by Steve Perrin

Where do words come from? We talk from the situation we are currently in—which shapes the vocabulary and syntax of the moment. And situations are the chief characteristics, not only of our wakeful moments, but also of our dreams. So when we part our lips to make sound gestures with minimum effort, in a sense we are speaking out of our dreams. Day dreams and night dreams—they are structured the same; it’s just that in one we can act and perceive, in the other we can’t.

Reveries (what we call daydreams) are a transitional stage of awareness in which we enter a kind of waking trance, neither perceiving nor moving while engaged entirely with our own thoughts. I remember watching a teacher of aesthetics stand apparently looking out the window for five minutes, but truly lost in his own thoughts, ignoring the class he was supposedly teaching. Then he snapped to, and out of the blue informed the class that he could go on indefinitely comparing and contrasting a cigarette with a piece of chalk. Was that what had held his attention for five minutes, that profound revelation? But here I am using that example thirty-two years later, so perhaps I learned something from his trance after all. He was dreaming, but was not asleep. I didn’t think in terms of situations at the time, but now I appreciate his distraction as an example of precisely what I am talking about in this post. My teacher was firmly situated in his thoughts, memories, and feelings, even though none of his students had an inkling what was on his mind until he spoke afterwards.

Situations are highly structured on three levels, the sensory, conceptual, and affective. The sensory level is based on impressions derived from ambient energy impinging on our receptive organs, more-or-less modified to emphasize qualities we recognize as being familiar because we have met them before. The conceptual level is draped over the sensory level by the meanings we assign to its various qualities, creating the illusion of sensory qualities and images being meaningful in themselves, even though they are fraught with our personal life experience. The affective level of a situation conveys how we feel about it in terms of our wellbeing at the time (generally expressed by such sounds as either “mMMm” or “yugk!”). If it promotes our subjective wellbeing we regard the situation in a positive light; if it degrades our wellbeing, we take it negatively. Either way, that affect spurs our engagement. If neither positive nor negative, we take a wait-and-see attitude and regard it as neutral.

Words, I now believe, flow from situations as we have put them together in our own minds by layering feelings onto meanings onto significant patterns of energy as translated into nerve impulses by our receptive sensory organs. It is the flow of those impulses through neural networks in our brains that generates what we experience as our unique conscious mind. Words are labels we have learned to put on recognizable arrangements of signals in our neural networks. The store of such labels we have available to us originated and developed in the linguistic culture we grew up in, but through selective use over many years we have adopted a personal lexicon from that store to be applied as serving a useful purpose in particular life situations.

We can assign various speech roles to different aspects of a particular situation. What we are attentive to serves as the subject of our thought on one or more of the three levels of situational structure—sensory, conceptual, affective—whichever combination is particularly salient or notable in our minds at the time. We use a verb to relate that subject to a particular object of significance, singling out the relationship between the two as worthy of notice and emphasis. We can qualify subject, verb, or object by inserting modifiers as suit our purposes on a particular occasion. And so on, the situation as we have constructed it in our minds serving as the deep structure giving rise to a particular utterance within a given occasion of special interest.

My situation right now is governed by my striving to put into words feelings and relationships I experience within myself in response to the question “Where do words come from?” with which I opened this post. It is something I feel and see within my mind more than something I know or have learned. I am in a situation of discovery more than of reliance on agreed-upon facts. There are no facts of life, only processes and events. I see dreams in my mind as represented by a horizontal squiggle cut off from the possibility of extension—of sensory input on one side or of physical action on the other. The dream is isolated between those two impossibilities, unable to act or be acted upon. 

Immediately above that dream line I see another squiggle representing a state of wakefulness with sensory reception and motor action restored as possibilities connected to my dream—now my waking—situation. Those revived connections on either side of my former dream situation make all the difference between being free and being trapped in my own mind. Free to receive sensory stimulation, free to act on the situation as I have constructed it from my mental raw materials. Open to the world on both sides, that now is the freedom of personal engagement with a world of my own choosing to which wakefulness invites me: freedom to write or speak, freedom to read or listen.

Between the upper and lower squiggles as I imagine them, my situated mind stays much the same. It’s just that all sorts of enticements, checks, and balances exist on the upper one to lessen my isolation so that I feel included as a member of the world at large, not confined to my own mental cell. The urge to speak takes on new meaning in the presence of possible hearers (or in this case, readers). In thinking, there’s only me, so I can easily get lost without anyone hailing me back. In acting on both the urges to speak and to listen, I discover that my felt situation corresponds to a world inhabited by others similar to myself with whom it is possible for me to freely interact. That, now, opens me to a new world of possibility for social engagement.

What an awkward way to talk about an experience that many people enjoy on an intimate level through personal engagement with others! We just open our mouths and words pour out, cock our ears and words pour in. Why make it sound so difficult?

But it wasn’t easy in the beginning when we first learned to talk, and spent many years expanding our vocabularies and understanding. That was hard work. And perhaps the most important work of our lives in learning to engage effectively with other unique people different from ourselves. On that extended stage, a great many things can go wrong so that our engagements get muddled, our situations made more difficult to figure out.

I will speak personally. My father’s mother died the day after giving birth to her only child. Who was to hold him? To nurse him? To instruct him by example in the ways of possible engagement? Of mimicking, of responding, of taking initiative, of smiling and cooing back? For whatever reason, many a child has wandered off at that vulnerable age and never had the privilege of experiencing the primal situations leading to exactly what I am talking about in this post because that situation was disrupted in his or her case, and s/he had to be rescued or else lost to the world. Think infants in orphanages receiving minimal care, surviving, but rarely engaging, barely being taught to engage. Living in a gray fog of neglect as a primal life situation. Think abandoned children, abused children, neglected children.

As I understand it, when an infant, my father was nursed for a time by another woman in town, and within a couple of years his father married his dead wife’s best friend, a widow with three children of her own, so domestic stability was somewhat preserved. He was lucky—and I and my two brothers are lucky. But even so. Even so, I wrote in 1973,

Laura Gale Perrin died the day after giving birth to her son, my father. He never knew her, his mother. I never knew him, my father. Will my sons ever know me? [The original of these lines appeared in a grid of eleven lines of eleven letters each (without spaces or punctuation), producing a cryptic 121-letter grid in Elite type meant to hold tight to the substance of what it was trying to say.]

I see a progression here from dream to waking situations, and then from from felt to expressed situations. So does the self learn to know itself in stages by reaching deep into the unknown to grasp what then becomes known. My inheritance has been an acute case of New England reserve that perversely whets my passion to recognize and unreservedly understand my own mind, in the process becoming the adult parent of myself.

So by facing into the dream and waking situations behind our speech do we become our own woman or man, mature individuals bent on improving upon the world to which we were born. Where do words come from but our efforts to surpass ourselves in giving voice to the situations we create as expressions of our own minds?

It takes a village to raise one child because no single exemplar can do the job. We need many models to learn how best to present and conduct ourselves in the countless situations we get into in the course of living a full life. That is, how to engage as who we are in the act of becoming more than we dream we can be. Self-transcendence is the name of that game, and we’ve been at it every day since birth, no matter how mean our origins, accepting challenges, not limitations—dreams, not so-called realities.

That is an example of what I mean by dream talk. Dipping deep into the well of what life has given us to improve our felt situations day-by-day, and keeping at it, year-by-year. In the process whetting our curiosity and will to surpass ourselves in improving our personal situations, and beyond that—the world of nature and its scion, humanity.

It all begins with a dream of what might be possible, and then giving expression to that dream by acting it out in broad daylight, serving as an example for others desiring to do the same.

Thanks for listening. I invite you to leave a note. As ever, I remain y’r friend and brother, –Steve from Planet Earth

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