Depressive Hedonia

Transcript of Episode #204 of the OEITH podcast, Depressive Hedonia, exploring a form of depression first identified by Mark Fisher, its dynamics, the challenges it poses to magical practice, and a possible antidote discovered through the tarot.

In one of the Pali suttas, the one known as the Brahmajāla Sutta, the Buddha mentions the following: “Some ascetics and brahmins,” he says,

remain addicted to attending such shows as dancing, singing, music, displays, recitations, hand-music, cymbals and drums, fairy shows […] combats of elephants, buffaloes, bulls, rams […] maneuvers, military parades […] disputation and debate, rubbing the body with shampoos and cosmetics, bracelets, headbands, fancy sticks […] unedifying conversation about kings, robbers, ministers, armies, dangers, wars, food, drink, clothes […] heroes, speculation about land and sea, talk of being and non-being… (cited in Maté 2018: 213)

So, even back in the far-flung, ancient world of the Buddha there was no shortage of things and activities to distract us, to draw us in. And this passage from the suttas is one that Gabor Maté includes in his book, In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts (2018), which is an exploration of addiction.

Maté suggests that if the buddha was teaching today, maybe some of the things he might have included on that list would be: sugar, caffeine, talk shows, gourmet cooking, right or left-wing politics, aerobic exercise, crossword puzzles, meditation, religion, gardening, golf… The point that Maté extracts from all of this is the following. He says:

In the final analysis, it’s not the activity or object itself that defines an addiction but our relationship to whatever is the external focus of our attention or behaviour. (Maté 2018: 213-4)

In other words, what he’s saying there is probably what the Buddha was also saying, which is that it’s possible to get addicted to absolutely anything. Anything that gives us some modicum of pleasure has the potential to be engaged with in the form of a relationship where whatever this thing is, it begins to assume the status of something that we feel that we cannot do without. We find ourselves turning to it as a retreat from unhappiness or distress that we might be feeling in other parts of our lives. These things may not be worthy of the attention that we find ourselves feeding into them. That’s certainly what the Buddha was highlighting, and what I’m going to try and talk about in this episode is perhaps one of the greatest enemies to our magical practice, our spiritual practice – whatever that happens to be.

The words that the Buddha used to describe it get translated into English as things like “sloth” and “torpor”. Other words used for it are things like: “lack of motivation”; “languishing”; the French word ennui; “nihilism”; “apathy”. It’s something quite nebulous to describe, quite difficult to get hold of and – for something that takes the form of such a deadening, blank feeling – it’s remarkably nuanced. But the name for it that I’m going to adopt as my reference point is one that was coined by the late political writer, Mark Fisher, who called it “depressive hedonia”.

A kind of paradox. A kind of oxymoron. “Hedonia”, of course, is the source of the word “hedonism”. “Hedonia” means “pleasure”, “enjoyment”, and there’s also its opposite, “anhedonia”, which refers to states in which it’s impossible to gain pleasure or enjoyment. “Depression,” writes Fisher,

is usually characterized as a state of anhedonia, but the condition I’m referring to is constituted not by an inability to get pleasure so much as by an inability to do anything else except pursue pleasure. (Fisher 2009: 22)

What Fisher is describing there is a feeling, an emotional situation, which is a tormenting mix of needing something, of wanting something, of taking a fix from something, and having that thing close at hand, having it available, yet that feeling of needing a fix never, ever entirely goes away, and I think this is a feeling that many of us have become more and more familiar with.

I’m thinking of things like scrolling through social media: that sensation we can have that we’re gaining from it some kind of distraction, but a kind of distraction that remains as a distraction and never really tips over into providing enjoyment.

Fisher encountered this state of mind in the students that he was teaching: sixteen to eighteen year-olds. Teenagers. One example he gives is of a boy who was wearing headphones in class. So, Fisher challenged him and the student’s response was that it didn’t matter that he was wearing headphones because he wasn’t playing any music through them. And then, another time, the same student’s headphones were lying on the desk and, very faintly, music was coming through them. Fisher asked him to turn it off, and the boy’s response was: “Well, what’s the point in turning it off?” because even he (who was sitting closest to the headphones) couldn’t hear the music because it was on so low.

The conclusion Fisher drew from this is that there’s something here about finding ourselves drawn into relationship to things because they hold the promise of fulfilment and connection rather than delivering that. The boy, it seemed, felt compelled to wear the headphones, to have them on the desk, not because they enabled him to listen to music that he liked, but because they just seemed to comfort him with the possibility that he could do that, or could have that.

These are states of mind that can exert great power over us. They have the potential to destroy our motivation, to distract us away from our true will; take us away from what we might consciously want for ourselves and lead us into these blank, numb spaces where our concentration is dissipated away by something that doesn’t even fulfil us, but often only promises to do so, or does so only partially. This state of mind, it has mixed elements: on the one hand (as we’ve seen so far) it has an addictive element to it. But there’s a depressive element here as well. At the same time, I think, there’s something here that’s about loss.

When we’re scrolling through social media, maybe we’re looking for something maybe that we feel is missing and Mark Fisher’s student with the headphones: perhaps a sense there that he needed those headphones to be present to give him a sense of connection with something, maybe, that otherwise would feel as if it was missing.

Perhaps one of the most challenging things that can happen to us as magicians is when we realize that we’ve slipped into a state of mind like this with regard to our magick. We can quite possibly fall into a relationship with magic where, instead of it becoming the means to realize and fulfil our desires and motivations, instead it becomes an impediment to them. We end up doing magick as a comfort, a form of consolation. The rituals of our magick cease being a means of experiencing something but become subtly, instead, a means of not experiencing something.

If we find ourselves scrolling endlessly, aimlessly, disinterestedly through our social media, I think it’s true to say that although we may not feel we’re benefiting much from that, somebody is. The owners of these platforms are profiting from our distraction. Suppose we imagine ourselves back to the days of the Buddha, and we think of one of these brahmins or ascetics that the Buddha described, who’s overly preoccupied with their headbands or their fancy stick. What would the impacts of that have been? If someone had lost their motivation or was getting overly interested or distracted by something or other, then the impact of that is likely to rebound upon the person themselves and their immediate family, community, and maybe – back then – the community would have been a far more powerful corrective than it is today to help that person motivate themselves onto a more productive track.

Fisher makes the point that the nature of education has changed down the years and, these days, students are regarded as consumers of education. The way educational bodies are funded, they can’t afford to exclude students or fail students because then they won’t receive any funds for them. So, students are aware that they can’t fail the course that they’re on. In that case, where’s the incentive to focus in the classroom when you could be snacking, or scrolling through your social media, or listening to music on headphones?

The students are consumers in a marketplace of education. There’s not an educational community there, as such. The power of teachers like Fisher is eroded, negated, and there are parties – invisible, absent parties – who are profiting from the students, regardless of whether they pass or fail.

What Fisher was seeing in his students he felt was partly natural teenage languor, but also something more than that: an attempt at resistance.

“They know things are bad,” writes Fisher, “but more than that, they know that they can’t do anything about it” (Fisher 2009: 21).

In a control society, you’re supposed to motivate yourself. You’re supposed to apply your own punishments to yourself. But if you don’t want to go in the direction that the control society is pointing you – what do you do? It seems the only alternative is to resist motivation, and desist from punishing yourself, and it’s this that perhaps accounts for the strange paradoxes of depressive hedonia. On the one hand, we find ourselves restlessly seeking pleasure. On the other hand, that pleasure never arrives, because we’re not going where we want to go.

“What must be discovered,” suggests Fisher, “is a way out of the motivation / demotivation binary, so that disidentification from the control program registers as something other than dejected apathy” (Fisher 2009: 30).

It seems that depressive hedonia can be a form of resistance, but it’s an immobilizing one. It’s one in which we put our desire on ice. It’s my suspicion that depressive hedonia at the moment is endemic. Depressive hedonia, I’ve suggested, is what arises when we feel we’re confronted with a situation to which there’s no alternative. In a control society, as ours seems increasingly set on becoming, the source of the discipline and punishments that’s regulating our behaviour as consumers, supposedly comes from inside ourselves, so if we’re being forced in a direction that we don’t want to go in, even though it’s presented as the only alternative, then the only option we have is to resist disciplining and punishing ourselves.

Within a kind of outer case of depression there’s an inner sanctuary of a kind of addiction, where we resist motivating ourselves to do something we don’t want to do by resorting to pleasure instead. But that pleasure never really delivers satisfaction, because it wasn’t our choice to go seeking it in the first place.

More of us, I think, and for more of the time: we’re being confronted with a situation like this. Take the ecological crisis, for example. The overriding aim of capitalism is to make a profit, so it just keeps on consuming resources. Capitalism is the cause of the current ecological crisis, yet we’re told there’s no alternative to this. The solution, we’re reassured, is more capitalism, using green technologies. Somehow we, as consumers, will need to discipline ourselves and consume more wisely. Therefore, if the planet gets trashed, that’s because of the choices we’ve made as consumers within capitalism. So, again, this structure, this idea of a course we have to pursue, because there’s no alternative, and yet we are the ones supposedly responsible for making that course of action we haven’t chosen work. If it doesn’t work, it’ll be our fault for not doing the recycling, or choosing a green energy provider.

It’s there again, maybe, that same structure, in the effects of the covid pandemic. We’re assured we have to get back to normal. There’s no alternative to this, even though one of the things the pandemic has done is expose the inequalities in our society, and there are many of us, I think, who would dearly love not to get back to normal, not to go back to how things were. So, we get our jabs from the big pharma companies – and those, of course, are effective to a considerable degree – and then: that’s it. That’s done. It’s up to us now to get back to normal. It’s up to us to find a way to do precisely what we were doing before.

I think that during the pandemic I did a lot of mourning, a lot of grieving. I’m still doing it, I think. Over the past couple of years I’ve been battling constantly against depressive hedonia. It was interesting how, after the first lockdown, my magical practice seemed to dissolve almost completely away. I wasn’t even meditating. Sometimes weeks would go without me sitting. What I found myself doing instead was distracting myself with work, drink, food, watching crap on television, listening to occult podcasts, making occult podcasts…

I’m still struggling with the idea of going back to normal, because I never liked normal anyway. The thing about the pandemic was it exposed how shit normal really was. It’s been a huge struggle getting my magical practice, my spiritual practice, back online, and it’s an ongoing struggle. Over the past couple of years, I would start getting things back again, only for it to collapse, and having to do it again and again.

It’s felt like the last two years have been a kind of bouncing along the bottom. One of the things about depression is it can feel as if all the meaning has drained out of life, but the pernicious thing about depressive hedonia is we keep finding things that we can disappear into, that do seem to offer some sort of refuge, a kind of meaning, a kind of pleasure. Yet, as we’ve seen, these never provide full satisfaction. We can perhaps find ourselves constantly realizing that we’re putting our energy and our interest into the wrong thing. That perhaps accounts for this feeling that I described: “bouncing along the bottom”. We feel that we’re back on track only to discover that actually we’re just hiding away in a different refuge.

We’re not immune to this as magicians. In fact, I wonder if we’re perhaps even more vulnerable to it because, of course, we’ve got this wonderful treasury of practices, traditions, yet these – as I was suggesting earlier – can function themselves just as further forms of refuge. A subtle, maybe imperceptible shift can occur in our practice where we’re no longer practising magick in order to change our reality, but we find ourselves practising magick because we can’t change our reality.

One of the forms I noticed this taking in my own life – and it was really quite strange when I noticed it – had to do with exercise. That was another thing that dropped away during the pandemic. Suddenly I just lost all impulse to go out running. One day it dawned on me that the feeling behind this was: if I got fit again, then it would mean that it would be easier for me to return to the kind of routine I had before the pandemic started. It was odd. It felt almost as if my body wasn’t mine. It felt almost as if being fit didn’t benefit me. I was feeling as if going out for a run was doing Boris Johnson more good than it was doing me. It was really strange! Of course, Boris Johnson doesn’t care whether I go out for a run or not, but I think that feeling was pointing to a subtle shift that had taken place: that where my will was, where my desire was, was not so much in the place of wanting or creating something for myself, but wanting to deny or destroy something good in myself so that it couldn’t be taken away by something outside of me. It was indeed an impulse that was trying to mount some kind of resistance but, like all psychological defences, these tend to bolster the ego, fortify it, whereas in magical and spiritual practice, of course, what we’re generally looking to do is to open it up, loosen it, increase its participation in something beyond ourselves.

The thing is, I think, misery, pessimism, gloominess, this too can be an object of addiction. There is a grim delight in revelling, enshrouding oneself in the horribleness of things. Suffering is something that we don’t always want to get away from, but it too can also offer a form of retreat.

First off, I think it’s important to appreciate that element in depressive hedonia which is a form of resistance, an attempt to hold steady and fight back to some degree. It’s a response to feeling forced down a path that one doesn’t want to go down, and that needs to be recognized and given some respect and compassion.

Over the months, somehow I managed to start up again and struggled to maintain a daily magical practice, but it was tough, and it was also very tenuous. Sometimes I’d lapse again and have to start again from scratch. It was a struggle and it was difficult, and this is another thing that it’s important to acknowledge and respect: difficulty and struggle is part of the magical path. It’s what we sign up for. The cost of doing something that’s difficult and that not many people do is that probably inevitably you’re going to get lost and stuck at times. It reminds me of something Fisher himself says. He wrote:

Some students want Nietzsche in the same way that they want a hamburger; they fail to grasp – and the logic of the consumer system encourages this misapprehension – that the indigestibility, the difficulty is Nietzsche. (Fisher 2009: 24)

He was noticing his students wanting to be able to understand something that was complicated, abstruse, difficult, and then becoming distressed when they found that it wasn’t easy. But, of course, the fact that they are becoming distressed and aren’t finding it easy shows that they’re on the right track! They’re actually engaging with Nietzsche, or whatever it is that they want to understand. The same is true of the magical path, and probably it’s true also of any serious endeavour that we undertake. Struggle is a sign of progress, not of failure.

So, eventually, I had some kind of daily magical practice up and running, and one of the things I decided to add into that was a daily divination using the tarot. One of the things that quickly became interesting was how frequently certain cards seemed to be turning up, but not necessarily the ones I might have expected.

A bat-winged demon on a podium to which are tethered by collars two smaller demons.
Arcanum XV The Devil.

If we think of the major arcana and which of those cards might best represent the state of depressive hedonia, it’s got to be The Devil, hasn’t it? The devil is often taken to represent ideas such as addiction, restriction, duality, materialism, overwhelming instincts or drives; the state of being dominated by some sort of force that it’s impossible to overcome. But that wasn’t the one I noticed turning up when I did a three-card spread every morning over the weeks, and that’s interesting because if The Devil had been the card turning up, I probably would simply have assumed that I knew what it represented – that it represented simply the feelings of depression that I was battling against.

Instead, the card that kept turning up, again and again, was the card that precedes The Devil in the sequence of the major arcana: number XIV, Temperance. And each time I noticed it appearing, it was never the right way up. It was always Temperance upside down. Because it felt a little out of place and its meaning seemed a little difficult to grasp, that was what caused me to reflect more deeply on what this card could possibly be pointing to and what it might represent.

I started getting interested in the tarot for the first time when I was about thirteen years old, and I remember reading at the time a book – I can’t remember which one – in which there was something that always stayed with me. The person who wrote this book suggested that in the major arcana of the tarot what we have there is a pictorial representation of the nature of change itself. This person was arguing that in a universe where the only thing that doesn’t change is change, then a map of what change is and how it works would be something that offered dependable information. They seemed to be making the case that all oracles to some extent work on this basis. Every oracle – most obviously, most clearly, I think, the I Ching, but any oracle – the runes, the tarot, the different patterns of dots that you get in geomancy – what it is that all these pictorial oracles present is a model of the way change works in a form that we can consult.

So, thinking about that sequence in which Temperance and The Devil appear in the major arcana, we’ve got number XIII Death, the tarot card that represents sudden, dramatic change; and then following that comes Temperance, which is about finding equilibrium; and then number XV, The Devil, becoming locked in dominating, restrictive, influences; and then after The Devil, number XVI, The Tower, which is all about the status quo being blown away and a new perspective revealing itself, something hitherto inconceivable blowing everything away.

Those are just a few cards in the sequence, of course, and I’ll leave you to think about how or whether the other major arcana feed into a map of the nature of change, but just taking those few cards, numbers XIII, XIV, XV, and XVI, maybe it is possible to see how the processes of change itself are mirrored in that sequence.

Thinking about historical events, very often there will be a sudden revolutionary change that sweeps things away, in the manner of the Death card, and when that happens there is often a moment when equilibrium is restored, and there’s the possibility of some new kind of harmony to take shape. But often what generally happens after revolutions – just thinking of the French Revolution of 1789, or the English Civil War in the seventeenth century – yes, radical change comes and there is a moment of euphoria when a new harmony seems to have installed itself upon Earth, only for that to be followed by some new form of oppression, whether that’s Napoleon or Oliver Cromwell, both of those perhaps acting to some extent as the figure of The Devil in the tarot suggests. Then, in due course, The Lightning-Struck Tower makes its influence felt, where the actual outcome of all this revolutionary change finally comes home to roost, but in a form that couldn’t have been predicted at the beginning; that’s entirely from out of the blue.

It’s an interesting idea to play with, maybe, and perhaps to some extent the covid pandemic we can take as the Death card: sudden change. Maybe those archetypal images of Temperance and The Devil are both in play at the moment, some of us seeing opportunities for a new harmony; some of us seeing new forms of oppression taking root in the world. But I think it’s almost certainly the case that the upshot will indeed be The Lightning-Struck Tower, a change of a higher order altogether that no one will probably have seen coming.

So, The Devil is maybe a good depiction of the state of depressive hedonia, but the card that kept turning up was Temperance, and it was reversed. The sense I got from that was maybe what I was being shown was not so much what was present, but perhaps something that had not yet come into being. So, what I did is what I’d recommend anybody to do in this sort of situation, which is to take a look at the book Meditations on the Tarot.

This book is a series of esoteric Christian essays on the twenty-two major arcana. It was published anonymously in around 1967, and although we do know who the author is, it was clear that the author wanted to be anonymous, so the polite thing to do, I think, is always to refer to them as “Anonymous”. But suffice it to say that the author was an anthroposophist, a follower of Rudolf Steiner, although he eventually split from the anthroposophy movement and found a home apparently in something more along the lines of Catholic mysticism.

As I read through Anonymous’ chapter on the fourteenth arcanum, Temperance, which is rather lengthy and quite dense, and does contain a few digressions into points of Christian doctrine, some really amazing insights seemed to jump out at me.

Whereas arcanum XV, The Devil, shows us what depressive hedonia is, it does indeed seem as if in the idea of Temperance there’s perhaps something really incisive on how to deal with depression and depressive hedonia.

Anonymous starts off with the basics. So, what we have in this card is the figure of a winged angel and the angel’s gaze and our attention is being drawn to the two cups that he or she is holding, and between which liquid is flowing. But there’s something quite odd going on here, because the liquid is kind of floating in the air. Something otherworldly is happening here, something that defies earthly gravity.

A winged angel pouring liquid between two cups.
Arcanum XIV Temperance.

To delve deeper into the question of what an angel is, and what this particular angel might be doing, Anonymous takes up a couple of ideas from St Bernard: the idea of “the divine image” and “the divine likeness”. These both come out of Catholic theology. The divine image is that part of us that is made in the image of God, which is in some sense eternal and partakes of the nature of God. But the divine likeness is that other aspect of human nature, which in a Catholic context is regarded as fallen, as being prone to sin and degradation.

Anonymous suggests that the angel in the Temperance card is not just any old angel, but the guardian angel: an angel that every human being has watching over them. He suggests that what the function of the holy guardian angel is, is to act as the ally of the divine image.

So, the guardian angel is a spiritual being that serves and strengthens the impact of the divine image upon how the human being expresses itself on Earth. Now, the relationship between a guardian angel and its human might not be as straightforward as it seems at first. Anonymous points out that although our angel protects us, it doesn’t shield us from temptation or difficulty. As I was suggesting earlier, difficulty, struggle are signs of progress, not a failure. It’s out of difficulty and struggle that growth can come, so our angel won’t protect us from that. This means that we can’t look to our angel as a means of salvation from difficulty. If we’re depressed, then the angel is not going to take that away. The angel is not a means of avoiding depression but, instead, the depression is working as a signal that we need our angel, that we need its protection, but evidently not in a straightforward sense.

Another aspect of the function of the guardian angel that Anonymous mentions is the way that the angel screens us from the divine. When we mess up, when we do wrong, that can call down upon us all sorts of unpleasant consequences. The angel doesn’t punish us in the way that we might conceive of God as punishing us (or reality itself inflicting upon us the consequences of our behaviours). The angel always defends us against the divine, a bit like a mother defends their child. Even when the child has done something manifestly wrong, the mother will still protect her child, even whilst acknowledging that wrongdoing has been done. Anonymous suggests that this is why angels often take a feminine form although, of course, they’re beyond gender.

Again, a bit like a loving, caring mother, the angel leaves us alone to do our own thing. If we’re not in need of or calling upon our angel, then it doesn’t come. It leaves us alone. You have to be in need; you have to be calling out to it, in order to benefit from its presence. So, the angel is the representative, the ally of the divine image in the human, and it’s there to watch over that other aspect, the fallible part, the divine likeness in the human. If you remember, the divine likeness is the aspect of us that lives on Earth, the earthly aspect that’s prone to evil and messing things up, and does the best it can.

Anonymous seems to be suggesting that this is what we see in the Temperance card. The water flowing between the two cups represents circulation, the functioning, the activity of the human being: the divine likeness. The angel is standing there, watching over, carefully concentrating upon this circulatory process between the two cups. The angel is the protective representative to us of the divine spark, and they’re watching over, regulating, carefully monitoring the everyday, functioning, living aspect of us which needs to be kept in balance, needs to be carefully maintained. That’s why, Anonymous suggests, that the angel in this card takes the name Temperance: that balancing, regulating, homeostatic aspect is one of the chief characteristics of what it takes to keep going in everyday life.

So, the divine image and the divine likeness are both parts of being human, and they both meet in the human being. Anonymous suggests that there is an experience associated with this meeting, this contact between them, and he describes this as a kind of “inner weeping”, inner crying. This is how he describes it:

The fact that there are tears of sorrow, joy, admiration, compassion, tenderness, etc., signifies that tears are produced by the intensity of the inner life. They flow – whether inwardly or outwardly is not important – when the soul, moved by the spirit or by the outer world, experiences a higher degree of intensity in its inner life than is customary. The soul who cries is therefore more living and therefore fresher and younger than when it does not cry. (Anonymous 2002: 388)

Tears come from emotional intensity. Anonymous suggests that the liquid that we can see flowing in the Temperance card is tears. The two cups represent the divine image and the divine likeness, and the liquid flowing between them are tears of emotional intensity, tears of inspiration.

Consider this in relation to what we’ve talked about, with regard to depressive hedonia. When we’re depressed we lose any sense of emotional intensity, and we find our attention leaking away into things that don’t deserve it. I was struck by how, in contrast to that sense I’d noticed in myself of the idea of somebody watching over me who was making me do something deathly that I didn’t want to do, here, in the Temperance card, we’ve got the exact opposite: there’s an angel watching over us who cares deeply about us, and is regulating us in our best interests, and is actually raising up our emotional intensity by making the tears flow between the two cups.

What Anonymous is directing us to in the Temperance card is an image of inspiration, emotional aliveness, and intensity. Depression, depressive hedonia, as we’ve explored it here, seems in contrast to this like the shadow side of that, almost like a dark inverse of what’s going on in this card. What is lacking, what is needed in depression is inspiration. Anonymous is drawing on some of Rudolf Steiner’s ideas here. Steiner had this notion of the three spiritual faculties, which he listed as: imagination, inspiration, and intuition.

I’m not going into that too much here, except to say that a way to approach these is to see them as analogous to our everyday faculties of perception, emotion, and thinking. So, imagination is the spiritual counterpart of perception, because through imagination we get to perceive things that don’t exist. Likewise, inspiration is the spiritual counterpart of emotion, because through inspiration we have feelings for things that don’t exist, or don’t yet exist. And intuition is the spiritual counterpart of thinking, because it allows us to recognize things that otherwise we would have absolutely no basis for being able to think about them.

What’s being depicted in the Temperance card, Anonymous suggests, is the spiritual faculty of inspiration, and what the tarot seemed to be showing me personally was that this was missing. This was what was needed. The antidote to depression is inspiration.

Now, as Anonymous goes on to discuss, just knowing that, just recognizing that isn’t an end to the problem. Inspiration is a tricky thing to arrive at. You can just wait for it to arrive, but in all likelihood you’re going to be waiting for a long time. You have to do something to get inspired. Yet, if you’re doing something then there’s the possibility that we’re getting too involved in that, rather than letting something come to us, which is an essential part of what inspiration is: something comes to us.

Anonymous points out that to put ourselves in the way of receiving inspiration, you kind of have to be active and passive at the same time. We have to be humble, on the one hand; we have to put our egos out of the way so we can open up and receive something. But on the other hand we’ve got to be keen, we’ve got to be willing, we’ve got to be energized and up for doing the work, when whatever it is finally comes along.

Again, it’s striking and curious how depressive hedonia is the exact mirror image or shadow of this. We’re not willing to give up our energy because it feels as if what’s being demanded of us is something that we don’t want to do, and we’re not humble we’re not compliant. In this situation we’re defiant, we’re resistant, we’re taking a stand against the power that’s being wielded over us, it feels. It’s as if the whole thing needs to be flipped around somehow

With regards to how that’s done, Anonymous draws our attention to how children behave. On the one hand, children are aware that they don’t know as much about the world as adults do, but on the other hand they’re not afraid to ask about things; they’re often not afraid to want to know, and he suggests that we can use this as the basis of our model for how we go about gaining inspiration.

“Dear Unknown Friend,” he says,

say to yourself that you know nothing, and at the same time say to yourself that you are able to know everything, and – armed with this healthy humility and this healthy presumption of children – immerse yourself in the pure and strengthening element […] of inspiration. (Anonymous 2002: 395)

This, of course, is something that magick enables us to do. On the one hand, it confronts us with our limitations as human beings, and at the same time – on the other hand – it confronts us with what we’re capable of: connection with the divine through that spark of the divine that we carry in ourselves. That simultaneous humility and presumption are both there.

Anything can become a crutch, a hiding-place, when we’re depressed, and magick is no exception to that. Sometimes it becomes a bit of a comfort blanket. The aim of the magician has been described famously as being “to dare, to will, and to know”, and perhaps when these are more apparent, then we can be more confident that our magick is on track.

So: depression, nihilism, boredom, desperation. These are states that can be real magick-killers. Depressive hedonia, as we’ve seen, is something that is perhaps really pervasive at the moment, and has a structure to it that can really lock us into these states and make them difficult to escape from.

The psychoanalyst Adam Phillips famously described boredom as “the desire for a desire” (Phillips 2017). Boredom comes about when we find ourselves in a paradoxical state where we want to want something enough in order for us to find ourselves doing something. I think depression’s similar in some ways. I think depression also, in a sense, is the desire for a desire, but in depression – for whatever reason –whether it’s something inward or outward – there’s a heightened hopelessness, a despair that desire is ever going to come along. In depression, desire itself feels futile, even if it were to arise.

Inspiration, as depicted in arcanum XIV Temperance in the tarot, and as revealed to me by the tarot and by Anonymous as the antidote to depression: this could be described in similar terms. Inspiration is not the desire for a desire, but perhaps the desire of a desire.

Boredom and depression, the desire for a desire, is a negative feedback loop. The very act of wanting is destroying the prospect of attaining. But inspiration as the desire of a desire is the opposite: a positive feedback loop. We want to desire, and we are already desiring, and in that act we actually generate more of what we already have. Out of this kind of desire comes no sense of lack at all, but a plenitude.

This is, I think, what inspiration really feels like, when it comes.


Anonymous (2002). Meditations on the Tarot, translated by Robert Powell. New York: Tarcher.

Mark Fisher (2009). Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? Alresford: Zero.

Gabor Maté (2018). In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction. London: Vermilion.

Adam Phillips (2017). On Kissing, Tickling and Being Bored. London: Faber & Faber.


Transcript of Episode #104 of the OEITH podcast, Healing Dreams from the Temple of Asklepios, exploring the nature of dreams, their potential for healing, the diversity of mental life, and the ancient Greek god Asklepios and the practice of ritual sleep.

I was at the old house, in the lounge, and a young white cat suddenly walked into the room and was heading towards the fireplace where there was a lit fire. It was not our cat, and I found myself throwing cushions at it, but then I realised it looked so weak and frail that I was worried that if I hit it with a cushion, you know, it might hurt it. And it was still heading towards the fire, and then I was worried that the flames might kill it, if it walked into the flames. So I got up, and I tried to catch it before it could come to any harm, but then I saw that somehow it had wriggled past the flames and had got into a room behind the fireplace, a forgotten room, an old, musty kind of space which somehow I half remembered, and then it felt as if somehow I’d known all along that that room was there, so I wriggled past the fire as well and got inside. But then I realized, completely unexpectedly, that there was even more here. Even more space beyond this little room. Vast areas. And by kind of going around a corner and twisting around a bit, suddenly I found myself in the open air in this great big place: massive places, looking as if, somehow, they were in a process of being renovated, or being prepared for something. They were public spaces, and they looked as if they’d been designed for many people to assemble there for some purpose or other.  In particular, I saw a large, open, rectangular arena, which had a boundary but not walls. It was some kind of strange, floating barrier made of very fine, dark wood. And then I remembered the white cat, which was the reason I’d found myself in this place in the first place, and I didn’t know where it had gone, but I was sure it would be okay. I was sure it could look after itself. So, I returned back the way I’d come in – went back into the forgotten room, and then through the fireplace, and then back into the lounge, and then I went into the kitchen. And my mother was there, and she was getting ready for a long journey that she was about to take, a long journey away from home, and I mentioned the secret room to her and the spaces that lay beyond, and I asked her was she aware that they were there. And she carried on getting ready. She didn’t really look at me when she replied, but she just told me that it had to stay a secret – the rooms needed to stay secret, the space beyond needed to stay secret, until the work on the façade at the front was finished and everything was then properly joined up and ready. Everything had to stay secret, until all that work around the front had been done and only then could the public spaces and the secret room be used once again.

As you might have guessed, that was a dream.

In common with a lot of people at the moment, I suspect, things have felt quite difficult. I’ve been feeling pretty low, and the thing about that dream was when I woke up from it, suddenly it felt like everything had changed. I felt really lightened, energized, full of motivation, and feeling hopeful, in complete contrast to how I’d been feeling in the days before. So, what I thought I’d set out to explore in this episode is the healing power of dreams.

Sometimes a dream feels important. Sometimes a dream feels huge. It can have an impact on us and no matter how we choose to look at that, perhaps it shouldn’t be underestimated, because if there’s a change in mood then that can have real knock-on effects and suddenly all sorts of things can become possible and all sorts of things might change. Dreams sometimes enable us to arrive at a particular experience of truth, and because it’s a dream that truth is not necessarily vested in consensus reality. In that sense, then, there is a magical dimension to dreaming. Being aware and focusing on our dreams becomes in itself a magical practice.

How is it that a dream could heal, though? How is it that a dream could change our state of mind for the better? I could think of plenty of arguments that would run counter to that point of view. The consensus view on dreams is that they’re fantastical, insubstantial. Dreams are often placed in contradistinction to reality. So, consequently, assigning any weight or value to something experienced in or arising from a dream is regarded with suspicion. You could even argue that dreams aren’t experiences at all, because we’re unconscious when we have them and, generally, unless we’re having a lucid dream, we only become aware that a dream is a dream in retrospect. In a sense, you could say that we only really dream when we’re awake because that’s when we recognize that whatever we were aware of was a dream. What you could argue is that whatever you might take from a dream is not based in actual experience; it’s not deriving from an actual experience, so therefore it’s absurd to assume that a dream provides us with anything beneficial or anything non-beneficial. But as you probably suspect, none of those views which I hold.

Before that dream that I reported at the beginning came along, I think a number of things had contributed to feelings of depression. First of all, there was stuff around work, and the other issues playing on my mind (and again I don’t think I’m alone in this) to do with the general state of the world these days, and not having any realistic hopes of change. It was all feeling a bit pointless and, likewise, the difficulties these days that surround trying to have any kind of debate or conversation. It’s become very difficult for people to disagree with one another, without one or both sides perceiving that as hatred, as a kind of existential threat, so I’d ended up feeling as if there was nowhere to go nowhere to turn and I was just going to have to endure it, with no hope of change.

But thank God, that dream came along.

So, in the dream I’m back in my parents’ house, as if I’d never left, and that strange, little white cat walks in and I can’t get rid of it by throwing cushions at it, because I might kill it, it’s so frail and it’s walking right towards the fire. So, I think I’ve got to get up and save it. But maybe it’s not as puny and helpless as it looks, because it knows a way; it gets around the fire and goes into that secret room, which I kind of half-knew was always there. It’s nothing new. It’s familiar from childhood. It’s basically the personal unconscious, full of repressed, old mouldy stuff from childhood and the puny little white cat is my depression, I think, and it has led me into this space beyond the fire.

But beyond that secret room is where things get really interesting: a vast, open public space. This is maybe an image of the collective unconscious. But it’s in an odd kind of state in the dream: there’s nobody about; there’s this sense that it’s being renovated or prepared. It’s an odd kind of collective unconscious that doesn’t have anybody in it, or anybody around inside it, but it was nevertheless built on a huge scale, and it had a kind of classical air about it. And the thing I loved about it most was it was a civic space, but not commercial space. It was built on the scale of a shopping centre, but it wasn’t a shopping centre. There was nothing capitalist going on here. It was all about shared social spaces where people could come together for cultural events, for art, for lectures, for discussions, and it was on a massive scale. That rectangular arena that appeared in the dream: it was like a kind of football stadium, but not for sport. Imagine a football stadium for lectures! It had that kind of an atmosphere about it. Well, the cat’s entirely vanished by this point. Given the scale of this space the cat vanishes into insignificance, and it will be fine. It can wander around. Its needs will be met.

So, I make my way back into the house and then go into the kitchen and meet my mum. She’s 80 now, so she knows a thing or two, and in the dream, she tells me the way it is. Maybe that collective space will be ready one day, but now’s not the time. That space, it was non-commercial, non-capitalist, it was for people to come together and do cultural things and have debates. When that happens that’s going to be really amazing, but there’s no chance of that happening anytime soon. That is a space that our civilization in its current state is in no sense capable of making use of, like my mum says in the dream. It’s going to have to stay a secret until the work on the front has been done. When the work on the front is finished then, yes, people will be able to go in.

That doesn’t really make sense. That huge space is there and waiting and it doesn’t really require work on the facade of the building to be completed for that space to be used. But that’s just the way it is. Everything will have to be joined up at the front before everybody can enter into that space freely, but I know the way in there. And now, you know the way in there too, because I’ve just told you. We’ll just have to keep it a secret for now.

What the dream was basically showing me was that that wonderful space behind the fire cannot be inhabited by our civilization in its present form. It’s not going to happen. Work at the front needs to be done first, and there was no mention of a deadline for that. But that’s absolutely no barrier to someone who knows that space is there. Everyone who knows that space is there is free to go in it, and you don’t necessarily need a white cat to show you the way in.

I hope that this podcast and other things like it might perform the same function and save you the trouble of having to get depressed and having to have a dream point you in the right direction. Now, I’m aware that what I presented just there was an interpretation of the dream, and although an interpretation can be useful to give our intellect some kind of a handle on what a dream is doing, working with dreams, encountering dreams, I think, doesn’t hinge upon always needing to provide an interpretation. Whatever the dream is doing happens perfectly naturally and fully without an interpretation being given, and that’s the thing that struck me most of all about that dream I had, that it did something to me without me understanding. That feeling of lightness and optimism and renewed motivation was there as soon as I woke. I didn’t need to reflect on the dream or understand its symbolism in order to get to that place. It gave me that. It did that for me, and that’s why I think it’s possible to have healing dreams, and that’s why I disagree with those positions that I described earlier towards dreams: the idea that they’re just mental noise or that they’re not really experiences, they’re just narratives that we form after the fact.

I think a better way of looking at dreams is some kind of psychical process. I think I view them as a kind of movement of the soul, like the soul shifting itself into a more comfortable position, maybe, and perhaps that is something that we can’t experience in any way, but maybe that doesn’t matter.

I think that some aspects of what we might call “soul” are things that aren’t experiences, but that doesn’t mean that they’re not processes that have an important bearing upon our lives, and what shape our experiences might take within that. The mind, the soul, is an incredibly diverse arena. I think it embraces all sorts of different things. Sometimes there can be a tendency to regard the contents of our minds as made of all the same stuff; “it’s all mental stuff”: you know, that classic Cartesian dichotomy between mind and body, as if there’s only those two sorts of things.

When we look into our mind we find a kind of zoo, I think; of all sorts of highly diverse phenomena: perceptions, images, sensations, experiences, thoughts, memories – these things are all very distinct from each other, or can be, sometimes, and all seem to be performing different functions and presenting in massively diverse ways, and appreciating and understanding that diversity can be really important work, magical work, because it can shift our understanding of the reality of what’s really going on in our minds and the relationship we have with it.

Just a few examples to illustrate, maybe. Intrusive thoughts. People experiencing intrusive thoughts. And sometimes, when you really look at this with somebody, what’s actually being experienced is not really thoughts, but feelings. There’s a lot more variety in thinking than there is in feeling. It’s possible to think of absolutely anything and to be creative in thinking, but that’s not so much the case with feeling. You can’t invent an emotion, for instance, and it’s not very easy to feel things at will in contrast to the way that it’s possible to think whatever you want to think at will, to a good degree, so if we find ourselves having thoughts that feel that they’re coming not because we’ve willed them, and if there’s not much variety to those thoughts, but it seems to be the same or similar thoughts coming back again and again, then we might label those intrusive thoughts and we might start to feel that there’s something not quite right going on here. But you don’t really hear people talking about “intrusive feelings”, do you? It’s accepted that feelings to some degree force themselves upon us, and we don’t regard that as pathological. Thoughts and feelings are very different things. They both appear in the mind and yet they’re very distinct, diverse, and appreciating the nature of that difference enables us to start to get a handle on what might really be going on.

When someone’s experiencing so-called intrusive thoughts, these might not be thoughts at all. They might be feelings, or they might be thoughts that form a kind of surface to feelings. The same feelings are coming back again and again and they’re triggering certain thoughts, but we’re only really aware of the thoughts, or maybe what we have here is some kind of complex combination of thoughts and feelings that are arising together, or maybe it’s even some sort of hybrid of the two. But in any case, if it can be recognized that these thoughts are actually feelings, or mixed with feelings, then what can be helpful is to start to deal with them as if they were feelings rather than thoughts.

If we arrive at a thought that we don’t like then one way of counteracting it is to think it through and arrive at another thought, but if what we’re dealing with is actually a feeling then we won’t be able to think it through, because it’s a feeling. You can’t talk yourself out of feeling something. Thinking something through requires bringing attention to whatever it is that you’re thinking about, which gives the thoughts energy. But if you’re dealing with a feeling instead, and you’re having a feeling that you don’t much care for, probably the worst thing you can do is to give that attention. When we’re dealing with feelings that we would prefer not to have the best thing to do is to withdraw attention from them, to the extent that we can, and usually they pass, and it seems counter-intuitive at first, when dealing with intrusive thoughts, but often the best thing to do in the face of intrusive thoughts is nothing. Just do nothing. They can’t be reasoned with or thought through, because their nature is to a large extent the nature of feelings.

Thoughts are interesting things. Thoughts have all sorts of strange qualities of their very own, and there’s maybe a bias within our culture to regard everything that arises in the mind as some form of thought, and maybe there’s something in the nature of thinking itself that tends us towards this. As a contrast to thinking, let’s think about imagining for a moment. So, suppose I asked you to imagine Sigourney Weaver, for instance. Now it’s possible that instead of imagining Sigourney Weaver, you might bring up an image of Susan Sarandon instead, let’s say. If we’re imagining something then it’s possible to confuse one thing with another: that we might intend to imagine “a” but we end up imagining “b”, and we realize this later. The weird thing about thinking is that this doesn’t apply in the case of thoughts; a thought always hits its mark without fail, and this is something we take for granted we probably don’t notice it much of the time. But it’s a really strange thing. So, although you might imagine Susan Sarandon when you were trying to imagine Sigourney Weaver, you can’t think about Sigourney Weaver without actually thinking about Sigourney Weaver. In the same way you can’t think about the number five, for instance, without actually thinking about the number five and not accidentally thinking about the number six.

When you think about something, that thought always hits its mark. Now, that’s not to say the lines of thought or the conclusions that we draw from thoughts might not be wrong sometimes. Of course not. But the thought of a thing is always actually about that thing, whereas other types of phenomena we encounter in the mind don’t have that infallibility about them.

Images, as we’ve seen, can fail to hit their mark. Memories, of course, are fallible. Perceptions can mislead us. But if we’re thinking about something then we know it is actually that thing that we’re thinking about and not something else, and because of that this gives thoughts a certain objective quality about them. This characteristic of thoughts almost makes them seem as if they’re part of the objective fabric of the world. In a way, there’s an actuality about them, which makes it seem as if human beings thinking are, through their thinking, making the fabric of reality. Sort of like termites building their mounds.

There’s a sense that thoughts construct, create, build, and endure, in contrast to feelings, perhaps, which, like we said, pass away more readily and lack variety or creativity. They do, however, make life worth living – or not – so don’t go thinking that I’m privileging thoughts over feelings! Not at all. The point I wanted to make from this digression is that we often tend to look at human existence as a dichotomy between material and mental, body and mind, and it’s easy to be seduced by that into the idea that mind stuff is all one kind of stuff, but actually it’s lots of different kinds of things, and I think it’s useful to take this approach into our exploration of dreams.

Now, the example of a dream that I’ve been discussing: I gave an interpretation of it, and that interpretation was a Jungian interpretation that included Jungian terms: the personal unconscious, the collective unconscious. And I’ve presented it as a healing dream, and that’s quite a Jungian approach to dreaming as well. I suggested that I was feeling depressed, and the dream had presented something that compensated for that depression, and that’s a very Jungian notion of what dreams do: this idea that, originating in the unconscious, they present something that’s in opposition to or counteracting whatever our conscious attitude might be at a given moment.

But other types of interpretation of that dream are possible, of course, because there are lots of different ways of interpreting dreams and different writers, thinkers, have adopted different approaches to dreaming.

Freud, of course, has been very influential in his approach to dreams. He regarded dreams as the disguised fulfilment of a repressed sexual wish. And then there was Fritz Perls, the gestalt psychologist, who took an approach to dreams seeing each element in a dream as a representation of a part of the self. I think it’s evident that these theories of dreams are in conflict with each other. They contradict each other. But at the same time, over the years, I’ve come to the conclusion that all of them are true, in one way or another, and the reason that they can all be true to some extent, even though they’re often at odds with one another, is this diversity of the inner world. It’s my impression that you get different types of dreams, that not all dreams are alike, that they’re structurally quite different, that they perform different sorts of processes, and for that reason sometimes a Jungian interpretation is more illuminating than a Freudian one, and sometimes vice versa.

The dream I’ve presented, I’ve suggested, was transformative. It did something. It changed me. It healed me. The Freudian approach towards dreams, on the other hand, is very, very different. As was mentioned, a Freudian dream is an unconscious repressed sexual wish that’s been dressed up in a way that enables it to come to awareness. In the dream, at night, we’re asleep, we’re unconscious, the defences that we use to protect our ego during the daytime are less active, and a dream is a way in which parts of our self that we’d rather not acknowledge find a means of expression.

Earlier, we were thinking about the difference between thoughts and feelings, and there’s a kind of analogy between thoughts and feelings and between Jungian dreams and Freudian dreams. Jungian dreams perhaps are a bit more like thinking: they are creative; they perform some sort of work; they have an objective. Freudian dreams, on the other hand, are a bit more like feelings: they’re a bit more affective; they are an outpouring of desire; and, from a certain perspective, they can seem quite monotonous. In fact, Freud suggests in The Interpretation of Dreams that, despite appearances to the contrary, dreams can’t create anything. They don’t reason. They don’t originate. They’re merely the expression of a wish.

One of my favourite dreams in Freud’s collection of dreams in his writings is one of a woman, a patient of Freud. She comes to Freud during a session one day, and describes this dream and tells him that she dreamt the previous night, of – I can’t remember what it was – but something like going to dinner with her mother-in-law. She doesn’t like her mother-in-law. Going to dinner there is the last thing she wants to do. So, she triumphantly says to Freud: “You tell me that dreams are expressions of wishes. Well, obviously not. Because I don’t want to go to dinner with my mother-in-law.” Freud reflects on this for a moment, and says to her: “Well, what can I do? You’re right. That’s what you dreamt last night, and we both know that you wouldn’t want to go there. However, what’s finding expression in the dream is not anything to do with you wishing to go to your mother-in-law’s. It’s about you wishing that I was wrong. You dreamt that dream because it’s a dream that proves I’m wrong.” And Freud mentions that there was material coming up in the analysis with this patient at the time that she would very much have preferred that Freud was wrong about.

I know that kind of Freudian reasoning drives a lot of people insane, but if you work with dreams for a period of time sometimes that approach does seem to be valid. Years ago, I remember, one night I had a dream. It was quite a strange one and it puzzled me for a while after waking. In the dream I saw an icy landscape: snow, ice, and a cold, cold wind blowing, and superimposed over this landscape was a grid of a crossword puzzle, and there was one of the clues that remained to be filled in, and the one clue remaining said: “Greek hero, eight letters”. And I looked at the grid, and immediately in the dream to my mind came the solution: Hercules. It was obviously Hercules, and when I woke up, I was struck by this because at the time I was reading Freud and thinking about dreams a lot, and his assertion that nothing creative happens in a dream. And I was thinking to myself, well, how was it that I could have a dream and, in that dream, work out the answer to a crossword clue and for that to be obviously correct? Surely, I’d worked that out in the dream. I’d done something creative. I’d engaged in a process of thinking rather than just the blind expression of a wish, and this puzzled me for several days until one afternoon I had to put some clothes in the airing cupboard, and it was a shared house I was living in at the time, and I went upstairs, and I put the clothes in the airing cupboard, and then I caught sight of the boiler. There was a brand name on the boiler, in big letters that I’d never really noticed before. And the brand name was: Hercules.

Now, like I said I was living in a shared house at the time and one of the guys who lived there was a bit of a tyrant and we always used to have arguments about putting the heating on. I mean, he was always quite stingy about spending money, and he was always very resistant when one of the rest of us wanted to turn the heating on. The night I’d had that dream, I realized, had been a really cold night, and again we hadn’t been allowed to turn the heating on and I hadn’t been warm enough in bed, tossing and turning a bit, because I was so cold. So, there was indeed a wish finding expression in that dream on a number of different levels. On the most surface level, the wish to be warm. The solution to the puzzle in the dream was Hercules and indeed Hercules, in the shape of the boiler, was the solution to the problem of being cold. And maybe, on a deeper, more unconscious level, there’s also something there about needing, wanting a Greek hero to overrule the tyrant in our shared house who prevented us from turning on the boiler. There’s other stuff in there as well. In Freudian dreams everything is rooted in the personal life of the dreamer. What appears in a dream is not so much mystical, universal symbols, but links between ideas that are often very mundane, very personal. As I mentioned, I was studying dreams and a psychoanalytic approach to them at the time, and there’s a famous quotation from the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, who once commented that people training to be analysts should do crossword puzzles as a way of getting to grips with how the unconscious works. At that time, I think, I was wishing and hoping that I could discover something that would indicate that dreams were something more creative than Freud suggests, and maybe that’s how the image of the crossword came into the dream, and the whole idea that in that dream I was accomplishing something. Something creative. Something original. In short, then, it seems to me that there are all sorts of different dreams, and all the theories that we have about them are true to some extent, because maybe different sorts of dreams are indicative of different sorts of processes, or different sorts of levels of consciousness maybe. An anxiety dream, for instance – those sorts of dreams where we’re worried about something and basically we lie in bed, not quite awake, not quite asleep, just reliving whatever it is that we’re anxious about – maybe something like that is a very low level of dreaming, hardly removed from daily experience at all, and maybe Freudian dreams come from a level beyond that, perhaps where we’re more asleep and there’s an opportunity for things that are beyond our daily awareness to come into the dream, but this tends to be fairly personal, mundane stuff, although that’s not to say that there isn’t material here that isn’t valuable to us. And maybe Jungian dreams come from a level beyond that, where we can connect with processes and ideas beyond personal experience, from a transpersonal realm. And, of course, there’s maybe many other types and levels of dreaming beyond this. There’s lucid dreams, of course, and out-of-body experiences, and things that we might describe as visions, intense immersive experiences that can seem like we’re transported to a different realm. You know, sometimes this can happen when we’re awake and meditating, or if we’re in trance states. It’s very important, I think, simply to be open to this idea that dreams can perform all sorts of processes and open up onto all sorts of different levels of consciousness, and that somewhere among all of these are dreams which heal, because maybe they affect some sort of shift in the structure or position of the soul that makes an adjustment to something that previously was causing us pain.

Thanks to Freud’s interest in dreams, dreams, of course, came to occupy quite a position in therapy and psychoanalysis. Dreams can bring into therapy issues that the client might not quite be aware of or look at in the same way when they’re awake, and in that sense, they can be useful and can lead to insights that might be healing, might be helpful. In my own therapy I’ve talked about my dreams quite a lot and when I first started working as a counsellor I was surprised and a bit disappointed to discover that clients didn’t seem to talk about their dreams at all as a matter of course. I found this quite frustrating sometimes. What I tend to do now, depending on the person and the situation, is just to ask outright if clients have had any notable dreams recently, and I’d say that probably seven times out of ten, if you choose the right moment to ask, that would actually elicit some interesting dream material that moves things along in some way.

The idea that dreams can provide us with something helpful, something healing, goes back way, way earlier than Freud, as you might guess. I came across an interesting book a couple of years ago by Guy Dargert called The Snake in the Clinic, and in this book, he attempts to trace the earliest possible origins of psychotherapy, and it seems to trace all the way back to the ancient Greeks and the somewhat beguiling and mysterious figure of the god Asklepios, who is also the god of medicine in general.

Asklepios was said to be the son of Apollo, who was the god of light, and the sun, and harmony, and reason. His mother was a human princess, and the myth is a little bit vague on what happened with Asklepios’s mother, but she died in childbirth or soon after his birth, and Apollo entrusted him to the care of Chiron, the centaur, who is another amazingly rich figure in Greek mythology. Chiron is the the healer par excellence, but he’s an ancient, chthonic figure. He’s not human. He’s a centaur. There’s something very nature-based about his approach to healing, something magical, and part of his healing power comes from the fact that Chiron himself is wounded. He nurses a constant wound. It’s almost as if Asklepios brings an extra dimension to medicine and healing, a human dimension that includes that Apollonian light and striving for harmony and reason, and Guy Dargert in his discussion of Asklepios mentions how statues of Asklepios would usually depict a figure that wasn’t distant and vengeful like the majority of the Olympian gods and goddesses, but usually had an expression that looked compassionate or full of emotion. He usually had long hair and a beard, and he was venerated for a long, long time. The Romans took up the figure of Asklepios and traces of him have been found all over the outposts of the Roman Empire, and it seems as if Asklepios may have been a strong influence upon the imagery and iconography of Christ.

Asklepios, god of medicine. (The Glypotek, Copenhagen.)

According to Dargert, it wasn’t until the church had finally put an end to polytheism that representations of Christ showed him with long hair and a beard. Apparently before that he was often shown as a shaven youth with short hair, so it might be that the elements of Asklepios got transferred over into what we recognize today as the figure of Christ. Furthermore, apparently the supplicants of Asklepios would refer to him as “savior”, and in the Greek myths Asklepios finally meets his end when he’s killed by Hades, the god of the underworld, in revenge for Asklepios raising the dead.

Another aspect of Asklepios that has survived to the present day is his emblem: his staff. The physicians of Ancient Greece were itinerants. They used to wander around, ministering to the sick wherever they felt they were needed. So, the staff symbolized their wandering nature, and around the staff of Asklepios is entwined a snake. The symbolism of the snake, of course, is very ancient and subtle. Snakes have an apparent power to renew themselves by shedding their skins. They make their homes underground, which associates them with the element of earth, and perhaps their tunnels were thought to provide them with access to the underworld, to the subterranean gods.

Jung, in The Red Book writes about snakes and the way they move, the way they slither left and right, and the sense in which snakes represent transitions between opposites, moving left and right in order to move forwards. What the snake might be taken to represent in the emblem of Asklepios’s staff, then, could be ideas about regeneration, transformation, connections with the underworld, and deep animal and vegetative energies. And, of course, Asklepios’s staff is still the emblem of the medical profession to this very day although, curiously, the profession itself seems to have got a bit confused about its own emblem and often it’s the caduceus of Hermes that you’ll see on the side of ambulances or on doctors’ letterheads. This is perhaps ironic. As Dargert points out, Hermes was not the god of doctors and healers, but rather a trickster god sometimes associated with thieves and deceivers.

Some of the most intriguing passages in Dargert’s book are about what happened in the temples of Asklepios, of which there were many in the Roman world, in all sorts of different places. Supplicants would come to the temple of Asklepios when they were seeking to heal themselves. The temples would usually be in out-of-the-way places, so it would be necessary to make a kind of pilgrimage to get there. They would often be large, beautiful, impressive buildings. They would be away from the centres of population, where there was plenty of fresh air and pure, running water. Dargert suggests that we would probably now conceive of these places as a kind of combination of a hospital, a health spa, and a spiritual retreat centre all rolled up into one.

You wouldn’t be allowed in if the physicians thought that you were likely to die or be close to death, nor would you be allowed in if you were pregnant. So, the emphasis in these places was very much focused upon the self and upon self-renewal. There would be a theatre, and the plays that were put on were designed to elicit deep emotional responses, and they’d be presented in a specific order. So, first of all there would be tragedies, followed by farcical, rude, rough-humoured kinds of plays, and then finally in the sequence would come the comedies, the idea being to elicit from the supplicants a means of expressing and accessing a wide range of emotions. There was magnificent architecture and art and statuary in these places. Lots of statues of the gods. Devotion to the gods would be encouraged, perhaps as a means of connecting people with those sorts of archetypal energies. But after a period of physical and psychological purging, the physicians would decide at a certain point whether the supplicant was ready for the main feature of what happened in these places, which was an encounter with the god Asklepios himself.

You would be led into a place called the abaton, which translates as “the place not to be entered unbidden”, and here there will be a chamber in which there will be a larger than life-size statue of Asklepios. And also, in this place there would be snakes roaming freely, and dogs. The snakes that were used would be non-venomous varieties of a kind that grow to a big size, but aren’t poisonous, and you could make offerings of honey cakes to the snakes, and the dogs roaming around would lick wounds or be there for people to pet them or cuddle up with them – sort of therapy dogs, basically.

So, you’re in this space with the dogs and the snakes and the big statue of Asklepios, and it’s all dim and it’s all filled with incense and there are attendants walking around, dressed as Asklepios or as his daughters, and their attending to the supplicants. And then eventually it’s time for the ritual sleep. Everybody lies down in this temple space on a couch, and you sleep in this special, atmospheric, strange place, and you hope that the god will send you a dream. A special dream. A dream of healing. And this dream might take the form of an encounter with Asklepios himself, or one of his sacred animals – a snake or a dog. And in the dream one of these figures might tell you what you needed to do to heal yourself. The figure in the dream might prescribe a cure or a remedy or some other kind of message or advice, or you might have some other kind of dream, in which case one of the physicians on hand would try to interpret it as best they could and tell you what the meaning of it was and how you should proceed.

And after this dream you might feel cured straight away, or it might then be time to follow the advice in the dream, or you might feel somewhat better. But if you didn’t have a dream or if you didn’t feel better at all then the physicians might recommend that you stay a while longer and come back to the abaton and try again. And if you were feeling better then some kind of payment would be due at this point. This would generally be cash, depending on the means of the pilgrim. Apparently, a sliding scale of fees was operated, and additionally it was traditional to make a votive offering to Asklepios, to compose a song or poem in his praise, to write a little account of the benefit that you’d received and offer praise to the god.

These places lasted for centuries, which suggests they must have been of some use. They had all gone by the end of the fourth century, due to their suppression by Christianity. But, as we’ve seen, the figure of Christ perhaps owes an iconographical debt to Asklepios.

The ancient Greeks didn’t have the knowledge of anatomy, of course, that would develop later, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t know anything about healing. What happened in the temple of Asklepios evidently seems designed to address the psychological dimensions of illness, disease. They seem designed simply to transplant people into an unusual environment that would take them out of what they were used to at home, give them an opportunity to express strong emotions, connect them with images of the divine, and give them an opportunity to dream, to really connect, perhaps, with what was going on within themselves. The ancient Greeks may not have had the knowledge to fix illnesses to the extent that medicine can achieve these days, but it seems they did have some kind of handle on what could make people feel better. They couldn’t tackle illness to the extent that is possible today by tackling it through the body, but it seems that they were able to tackle it through the mind. No matter what kind of suffering or disease we might be facing, if it’s possible to affect some change, some helpful change, in our state of mind regarding that then some kind of recovery to some degree may become possible. That’s what the temples of Asklepios seemed designed to set out to achieve.

But after the temples had vanished it was hundreds of years before dreams would feature again as a possible means of relieving distress, when Freud turned his attention to them and started to use dream interpretation as part of the technique of psychoanalysis.

These days, if you’re in search of a healing dream you might find it in therapy, but there’s nothing to stop you from creating your own temple of Asklepios. It could be depression or illness itself that shows you the way in, although hopefully that won’t be necessary. The way in is past the fireplace, the centre of our everyday life that always consumes our attention. It seems that there’s no way around that without harming yourself, but there is. You can wriggle past or through it and then you’re into that half-remembered place, that mouldy, mildewy room full of all those issues from the past. But then, if you twist and wriggle about, again you’ll find yourself outdoors in that vast, collective space that puts everything else into perspective.

As the poet Rumi puts it:

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field. I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase “each other”
doesn’t make any sense.

From Rumi, “The Great Wagon”.