|©1999 Linda Lane Magallón
(Psychologist Abraham Maslow created a scale of needs to describe the human condition, from basic existence to optimum potential. The scale can be used to take the temperature of your dreams.)
Chapter 4: The Hero’s Journey
Somewhere above us, in elusive ether,
Waits the fulfillment of our dearest dreams.
There’s a path up from the underground and headed for the heavens. We can hitch our hearts to our starlit desires and rise to become the heroes of our own lives. We can build dreams less violent and more growth-producing in which our latent talents are developed and appreciated. We can graduate from victim to victor of our lives. We can strengthen ourselves, encourage a new kind of emotional toughness and self-protection that yet honors the ability to connect in friendship with others. We can become self-actualized.
The process of self actualization means the development of existent or latent potential. But in determining self fulfillment, Maslow went far beyond what the average person considers excellent physical and mental health. He said, “The human being needs a framework of values, a philosophy of life, and religion or religion-surrogate to live by and understand by, in about the same sense he needs sunlight, calcium or love.”
Maslow's idea is close to what Carl Jung called “individuation” in which you become an individual self. Finding, recovering, integrating or growing your true self is the role of actualization. Jung's individuation process uses dreams in a series for proper interpretation. When dreams are linked, they begin to form a story. Rather than snapshots of a day in the life of the dreaming self, they become pieces of a larger movie film. To describe this ongoing life story, Jung used the term “Hero's Journey.” The hero's journey displays the ups and downs, the unfolding of the inner self. It shows how we are restored to the path of self-actualization and development along the lines dictated by our inner nature.
Self actualized dreams push back the inner horizon that defines the limits of who we are and what we can be. During such dreams, our dreaming selves are at the top of their form. Not bored or indifferent. Not struggling or turning tail. Exercised, harmonized, integrated into a balanced whole. Acting with a strong sense of purpose, with energies galvanized to the task at hand, a task fully invested with meaning. And, since acting is life, there is significance in the life in the dream. To perform as a fulfilled and complete individual brings exhilaration and joy. It’s also great fun.
However, the self-actualizing person knows that he can and must accept responsibility for his actions. So he is not immune to feelings like fear. But he does not ignore or repress or run away from them. He stands up to these feelings until they do not overwhelm and paralyze him.
Maslow knew that human beings are not perfect. He said that self-actualized people “are *not* free of guilt, anxiety, sadness, self-castigation, internal strife and conflict” during their daily lives. He realized that even psychologists sometimes find it hard to distinguish between neurotic sources and honest response to true troubles. Between pseudo guilt and real guilt, for example.
In addition, Maslow agreed with Victor Frankl and Rollo May that self-actualization is not just a yearning from within. It involves a calling to service in the day-to-day world. He was concerned about mystical or exotic experience divorced from ethics. He stressed the importance of moral behavior.
And he knew the problems of being good or healthy in an imperfect culture. He realized that it takes a combination of inner autonomy and realistic appraisal of the outer life. Such a course was possible so long as the culture was tolerant of being detached from complete cultural identification, in order to stay healthy. It would be difficult in a society where Big Brother was watching to see if you goose-stepped to the same tune as everyone else.
Vertical and Horizontal Development
Maslow’s scale is a hierarchy. His presumption is that our journey of growth and development is vertical, from base to peak. In order to make progress, you move step by step from the bottom to the top of the scale:
1. You have nightmares or mundane dreams.
2. You analyze your dreams and discover that the average dream (plateau of health) is at the Basic Needs level.
3. Your dreams perplex or disturb.
4. You do dreamwork at the base of the dream tree to interpret or resolve them.
5. You do dreamplay at the heights of the dream tree to induce extraordinary dreams.
6. They are creative and enjoyable, rather than disturbing.
7. They are clearer dreams, easier to interpret and understand.
8. Your plateau of health shifts upwards towards the Growth Needs level.
I tend to agree with the idea of upward movement, but not totally. While overall progress might be made, each new type of challenge in the Hero’s Journey can involve setbacks, great leaps forward or starting all over again. At it’s best, the Hero’s Journey is actually a zigzag path, a mandala, a spiral, a web we weave of our lives. It may be balanced, it may be loaded in one place or another.
Dreams At the Base
The dream tree, with base level, mid-range and growth level dreams is a measure of the psyche's health. A dreamer can dally in the treetops, the trunk or the roots of the dream tree. In each place, we can expand knowledge and experience of a particular dream symbol or type, such as having a series of dreams about the relationship with our family. I know an artist who dreams repeatedly about her lost sister, a legal assistant who induces dreams of going to the light and an architect who builds as many homes in his dreams as in his waking life. We can specialize according to our particular interests, challenges and assets.
But that doesn’t strike me as a very balanced or well-rounded approach, if one specializes too soon. I know a dreamer who never attempted to have a second lucid dream because her first one was boring. She only experienced lucidity at the mundane level of dreaming. I know a woman who is frightened of her psychic dreams, because they are dreams of death and disaster. She’s been dreaming just basic, survival level psychic dreams.
When I observe their dreams, it seems to me that people can get stuck in ruts. A person caught in the lower realms of the scale may be suffering a sort of dream poverty consciousness. At the level of trauma, the focus is on struggle and survival.
I recall listening to the life story of a dreamer who had reach the edge of death not once, but three times. Each time she beat back the demon of disease. A great story of healing, was it not? I might have agreed, until she told me yet the third experience. By then, the tale sounded like a repeating nightmare. Furthermore, she had deliberately decided to become a healer. Was that her true calling, her mission, her destiny? Or was that all the life she ever knew? If you only have basic level needs, it's time to raise your ceiling of expectations and grow upwards towards the heights of inspiration and creativity.
The Jonah Complex
The opposite of the urge for actualization is the regressive, self-diminishing tendency. Many people choose the lower road rather than the higher. They choose to avoid truth, virtue, beauty. They choose to hide from their further development, like Jonah in the whale. What Maslow called the Jonah Complex more than a simple fear of success, though. It's an almost willful failure to develop full potential.
Why? There are benefits from staying where you are. You don't have to work against the current, you can float round and round in the eddies of life. It's comfortable, or at least the discomfort is a known rather than an unknown element. The current situation seems to solve your troubles (whereas actually it does so only temporarily...it's just a coping measure). You fear that instead of going upwards, you'll go downwards, revealing not your best but your worst self. You enjoy the stimulus, the excitement that trauma and drama. You fear that moving on will mean you'll have to lose something crucial, like fun and enjoyment or meaning and significance. You're ignorant of the fact that those things can be attained on the other levels. And maybe even better. Certainly healthier.
Mid Range Ruts
In the mid ranges the rut can be a focus on the mundane, surface of things. Looking neither up to their potentials nor down to the roots of their problems, these folks have blinders on to their fuller life existence. They walk straight ahead, but don’t dig deep nor launch to the heavens. Their dreams are mostly a rerun of daily events.
If you only have mundane dreams, you may need to expand your repertoire to appreciate or incubate dreams at the extremes, for a wider understanding of the entire dream tree.
By using personality tests, Maslow discovered that persons who tested sure of themselves (at the level of self-respect) could nevertheless be arrogant and smug (they hadn't achieved growth at the level of safety and security). He pointed out that "The person who is high in self-esteem and is also insecure is interested not so much in helped weaker people as in dominating and hurting them." He understood that it is possible to be satisfied at one level and still have weaknesses at a lower level that add up to an immature, unbalanced personality.
I have come across folks who ignore dream trauma and only record their mystical dreams. They drift ethereally as disembodied intellects or intuitionals, reporting bliss experiences without making reality checks. Their dream reports are like a happy face balloon, but never reaching the earth. Ungrounded in waking life, they are oblivious to underground influence.
One such dreamer I knew never interpreted his dreams. They were humorous and complex, such an unlikely combination of things that he would sometimes wake up into another level of consciousness. It was as if his dreaming self were playing with ideas in the theater of all possibilities. But he dreamt of jumping from one leaf to another, leaves that were detached from any trees. His dreams reflected the fact that, in waking life, he used humor as a way of avoiding things. Humor was his protection from engaging in the deeper challenges of existence. He wasn’t grounded in the realization that he had problems that needed resolution.
Maslow described them as "multitudes of starry-eyed dilettantes - big talkers, great planners, tremendously enthusiastic" who disappear in a puff of smoke as soon as a little hard work is required. He called them "Looky-Loos."
Maslow didn’t agree with their "big bang" theory of personal transformation.
He said, "It seems that they have in the back of their heads some notion of self-actualization as a kind of lightning stroke which will hit them on the head suddenly without their doing anything about it...they all seem to want to wait passively for it to happen without any effort on their part. Furthermore, (they) have tended unconsciously to define self-actualization in terms of getting rid of all inhibitions and controls in favor of complete spontaneity and impulsivity... (they have) no stubbornness, no persistence, no frustration tolerance.”
The Peak Experience
At the top of Maslow’s scale is the peak experience. Maslow discovered that self-actualizing people tend to have such experiences.
Peak experiences are moments when the individual feels at his very best: moments of great awe, intense happiness, surprise or bliss. There is a sense of clarity, exhilaration and openness. A sense of fuller vision extending to apparently limitless horizons. An experiential sense of “Being.” It might be an aesthetic perception, intense sensuality, a loving perception, a mystical experience, a creative moment, a flash of insight.
The simplest version involves fascination, concentration or absorption in anything which is interesting enough to hold the attention completely, to detach from time and place and exist in the present moment. Some words to describe a positive peak experience are poignant, emotional, climactic, unifying and meaningful. They involve feelings of wonder, loss of fear, rapture or ecstasy. This state of consciousness contains more of what dreams are: visual, spatial, emotional, kinesthetic.
Self-validation of such an intense phenomenon was not enough for Maslow, though. He believed that validity of the peak experience is measured by what happens to the person subsequently. It is possible for a great insight to be mistaken, the great love to disappear, the poem to be thrown away when read in the light of day. Checking, choosing, confirming and rejecting the fruits follow from the cornucopia experience. Not all products of the psyche are equally practical. Not all fruits are equally sweet.
“Creation of a product that will stand up feels subjectively the same as the creation of a product that folds up later under cold, objective critical scrutiny,” said Maslow. “The habitually creative person knows this well, expecting half of his great moments of insight not to work out.” The dreamer who habitually pays attention to his dreams will discover that, whatever his dreams support–intuition, insight, cognition, psychic abilities–are never 100% accurate, because none of we humans are perfect.
The peak experience tends to come at times of intense physical effort and mental concentration. William James called it the “mystic experience,” Freud called it “the oceanic feeling.” Athletes call it “the zone.” Those athletes who can enter “the zone” most easily tend to be the best in their fields. They attain a state of being that allows them to be “in the moment.” It frees them from performance anxiety, negative thoughts, fear of mistakes, inner criticism, harsh judgment and over-analysis that can lead to inferior results or defeat.
However, the athletes do not achieve success without time and effort. In order to shift into automatic, the mind and body must learn the prerequisite performance elements, then practice, practice, practice to get them right. The trance-like state allows the mind and body to do what it has been trained to do. Peak experiences don’t “just happen” to anyone. Even if they seem to be spontaneous, they “happen” to a mind, body and spirit that is capable of receiving them.
In general, I’d call a peak experience dream, your favorite energetic type of dream, that is, the one with the most positive energy. If your favorite energetic type dream is one in which you sing, a peak experience would be one in which singing is effortless and pleasurable. A peak experience dream could be a more colorful dream, a dream with more pleasure, a dream with more tactile sensations. It’s one in which the quality of your dream grows, visually, mentally, emotionally, aurally, kinesthetically. That’s why it’s referred to as “expanded consciousness.”
The special sense of reality and significance inherent in peak experience dreams is quite distinct from the simple knowledge that you are dreaming or have just had a dream. The dream means something, as is, just by itself. The felt meaning is expansive, not reductive. It is rich in significance, crammed to overflowing.
Maslow denied any supernatural or theocratic connection with the peak experience. As a humanist, he insisted that they rise out of human nature itself. Nor did he believe that peak experiences meant spurning or repudiating or losing the individual self. Rather, the end products were the development of greater autonomy and the achievement of identity...a real sense of self. In peak experiences, the complete self is more fully present. These experiences seem more real because there is more of us to be present to them.
The God experience and its spiritual cousins are common destinations for the Hero's Journey. Unfortunately, a royalist on this road tends to ignore and devalue the human experience. I've concluded that the path that travels the width and breadth of Maslow’s Map is more holistic and mature than climbing a hierarchical stepladder.
The Plateau Experience
Towards the end of his life, Maslow developed the notion of Plateau Experience. He proposed that the true mark of a sage or self-actualized person is not just the presence of intense moments of joy or ecstasy. He finally understood that even people living at the basic level of existence can have peak experiences in their lifetimes. The great dream or insight can occur whatever your average level of consciousness. No one level has a unilateral claim to wisdom, enlightenment or practicality. Rather, he realized that a self-actualized person could live an extended period of serenity or vitality.
Furthermore, these plateau experiences could be achieved through conscious, diligent effort. Maslow was developing exercises to help individuals attain the plateau state of consciousness. Many of them had to do with learning to perceive the world in a new way.
Do your dreams bounce up and down, or do you tend to favor one end of the scale or another? Maybe you hug the middle ground, never reaching to the extremes. Consistent recording will reveal your plateau of life, as no single dream entry could ever do. This is why I strongly suggest you keep a dream journal, with all your dreams gathered in one place for review.
In the end, self-actualization is not a momentary high. Our health is determined by how we live and dream on a regular basis.
*Hoffman, E. *The Right to be Human* (Los Angeles, CA: Jeremy P. Tarcher, 1988).
*Maslow, A. H. *The Farther Reaches of Human Nature* (New York: Penguin Books, 1976).
*Maslow, A. H. *Future Visions: The unpublished papers of Abraham Maslow/editor, Edward Hoffman* (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 1996).
*Maslow, A. H. *Motivation and Personality* (New York: Harper & Row, 1970).
*Maslow, A. H. *Towards a Psychology of Being,* (New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1968).