…another mechanism used by some organisms… is that of dormancy, during which an organism conserves the amount of energy available to it and makes few demands on its environment. Most major groups of animals as well as plants have some representatives that can become dormant. Periods of dormancy vary in length and in degree of metabolic reduction, ranging from only slightly lower metabolism during the periodic, short-duration dormancy of deep sleep to more extreme reductions for extended periods of time. ~ Encyclopedia Britannica
I spent the summer in a state of pleasant dormancy, following the Lethargian’s schedule:
At 8:00 we get up and then we spend
From 8 to 9 daydreaming.
From 9 to 9:30 we take our early mid-morning nap
From 9:30 to 10:30 we dawdle and delay.
From 10:30 to 11:30 we take our late early morning nap.
From 11:30 to 12:00 we bide our time and then eat lunch.
From 1:00 to 2:00 we linger and loiter.
From 2:30 to 3:30 we put off for tomorrow what we could have done today.
From 3:30 to 4:00 we take our early late afternoon nap.
From 4:00 to 5:00 we loaf and lounge.
From 6:00 to 7:00 we dillydally.
From 7:00 to 8:00 we take our early evening nap and then for an hour before we go to bed at 9:00 we waste time.
~ Norton Juster, The Phantom Tollbooth, pp. 26-27
Actually: I attended and presented at two conferences, I began volunteering my easy, instinctive labors with a new (to me) non-profit organization, I attended a children’s summer camp that is under the auspices of that organization. I did a little work compiling contacts for a benefit committee that is honoring a friend of mine. I watched a lot of Korean dramas filled with beautiful actors in lovely clothes wandering through gorgeous apartments. I read the Adventures of Sherlock Holmes out loud with my family. I stayed up late. I slept in. I went on vacation.
I met with my clients. I took care of my children.
Here is what I didn’t do: I didn’t read anything longer than a magazine article, I read no psychoanalytic theory. I didn’t write more than a single essay. I didn’t challenge myself, I didn’t worry or strain. I didn’t recall or record most of my dreams unless they felt big and vivid and clear and even then I’d let it slide for a few days. I didn’t see my analyst. I didn’t meditate much. I couldn’t run or practice bagua because I injured my foot, so I walked when I felt like it, and didn’t calculate or worry overmuch about how I was going to get “enough” exercise.
I didn’t try to get better at anything. I didn’t practice anything or try to learn something new. I didn’t challenge or press myself. And I didn’t think about anything that I didn’t have to.
“No one’s allowed to think in the Doldrums,” …. “It shall be unlawful, illegal, and unethical to think, think of thinking, surmise, presume, reason, meditate, or speculate while in the Doldrums.” ~ Norton Juster, The Phantom Tollbooth, p 24
Growth and challenge are not always sustainable. And sometimes self-care means not having to think so hard about caring for oneself. Sometimes it means switching off, and staying that way for a bit.
And if not, the switch can flip on its own, a fuse blown protectively and there is nothing you can do about it but bide your time and perhaps even learn how to enjoy the wait.
I went proactively, contentedly dormant. But when dormancy takes over without volition, we often fret and fuss, strain and thrash about, fearful that we will never ever be “productive” again.
A fallow period is has come to mean a period of shameful unproductivity but it actually refers to field that as been plowed but unsown. The ground is in a state of active waiting, resting in service of eventual generativity.
A plateau in the vernacular may be a “stage at which no progress is apparent” But it is also a flat, clear highland. A leveling, a tableland which requires no ascent or descent. In the Americas such mesas are sacred spaces that put humans close to the sky, near to where Coyote dwells – and other supranatural entities of the Navajo – Changing Woman and the Hero Twins return to restore themselves every dozen years under exposed skies.
The doldrums has become a phrase associated with depression and lethargy – but it is in fact a low-pressure area around the equator where the prevailing winds are calm. A zone where sailors dependent upon moving air for income and livelihood pass through a state of enforced stillness.
“The Doldrums my young friend are where nothing ever happens and nothing ever changes.” ~ Norton Juster, The Phantom Tollbooth, p 23
Seeds will germinate again in fertile soil, the grade will steepen, and the winds will pick up in good time.
But there are times when there is nothing to work at. when the hamster wheel stops spinning. When the most natural thing is to disengage, to shut off the motor, and drift, rolling along in neutral, without burning any fuel.
“We don’t want to get anything done, ” snapped another (Lethargian) angrily: “we want to get nothing done, and we can do that without your help.” ~ Norton Juster, The Phantom Tollbooth, p 24
What is happening when we pass for months with unrecalled dreams? What goes on when we are stalled, bored, or blocked in our march toward our chosen goals or estranged from our creative force?
We still dream. Even if our dreaming self is simply doing its work without our awareness or involvement. Unproductive periods may ultimately be more life-enhancing and generative than you can imagine.
I hear this all the time:
“Um, nothing much is going on… same old shit I suppose”
“Everything is good. Fine. Hmm, what to talk about…”
“Nothing wrong really. I haven’t had any dreams. Work is fine. Nothing new there. Stuff is okay at home. This is going to be a boring session I guess…”
“And if he wasn’t entirely happy, he wasn’t unhappy, either. Rather, he found himself inhabiting the vast, empty plateau where most people live, between boredom and contentment” ~ Jess Walter on Pasquale Tursi, Beautiful Ruins
Many in my field are trained to pathologize unproductivity in life and in psychotherapy as defense or resistance. But a pathologized “defense” can be viewed instead as an adaptive “security operation.” And resistances can be respected and honored, rather than confronted.
What if, periods without words, without intense self-scrutinty, without probing active exploration or self-examination were treated as valuable rather than problematic? What if conscious productivity is only a small and culturally, economically over-emphasized part of life and not the most important bit?
“Well if you can’t… think what can you do?” asked Milo.
“Anything as long as its nothing, and everything as long as it isn’t anything.~ Norton Juster, The Phantom Tollbooth, p 26
Jung’s conception of the Self places Consciousness – “ego” our identity, thoughts, recognizable feelings, known beliefs, accessible memories and chosen persona as the smallest capstone on top of a large pyramid:
(I know, I know. This attempted illustration is so so sad. Feel free to take a short break to laugh and mock my stunted graphic and technological skills)
Most of the Self, in Jung’s view is unconscious.
Preconscious perceptions and unrecalled memories are stored out of awareness, as is Jung’s Shadow – the repressed, rejected, or unknown aspects of our personality. Anima and animus energies are more easily understood as the realm of unconscious complimentary opposites the strengths which lie under our perceived vulnerabilities, and the weaknesses that live underneath our conscious capacities; the yang to our yin and vice versa; which we project on to our partners, and which assert themselves at mid-life and in our dreams guiding us toward wholeness.
And the Collective Unconscious: ancestral knowledge and the instinctive energies and archetypes which the human species organize themselves around collectively, in much the same way that migrating birds order themselves hierarchically and instinctively in V formation. This is also the transpersonal space – where we are in direct relationship to a whole that is larger than our individuality, to humankind, the Earth, to the Universe, or to the gods.
If most of the Self, most of our organism is operating underground, out of awareness, and without our conscious consent, then the unconscious aspects of our psyche must be quite busy – whether we know it or not – continuously making adjustments, metabolizing traumas great and small, preparing for growth and transformation, compensating and correcting our conscious course.
So whatever it is that we think we should be producing, is really just the smallest tip of the iceberg. We are mistaken, and in Jung’s view, and in a state of dangerous ego-inflation if we believe that the conscious aspects of the individual can control the whole Self. We can no more control our unconscious than we can urge our digestion to hurry along or will our eyes to never blink again.
“It is the almost universal mistake of the ego to assume total personal responsibility for its sufferings and failures. We find it, for instance, in the general attitude people have toward their own weaknesses, an attitude of shame or denial. If one is weak in some respect, as everyone is, and at the same time considers in ignominious to be weak, he is to that extent deprived of self-realization.” ~ Edward F. Edinger, Ego and Archetype, p 153
The Self has autonomic functions to perform. Processes which don’t require our conscious approval or interference. Hunger, appetite, craving and digestion are unconscious processes. Hunting, gathering healthy food, preparing meals, and eating are conscious acts. In healthy organisms these functions work together in mediated concert toward mutual satisfaction. In symptomatic creatures, the conscious and unconscious are operating at cross-purposes.
And egos that have no humility with respect to the totality of the Self will soon find themselves devoid of meaning. Imbalances in either direction will create symptoms: anxieties, despairs, depressions, neurosis – or external conflicts which are symptoms projected out, on to others, or created unconsciously and experienced as ill-fortune.
Just as there are times when we need to exert significant conscious effort to ensure our logistical and psychological survival, and some unconscious forces which need conscious channeling or restraint in order to uphold our part of the social contract – there are also times when our psyche needs our conscious agendas to get the hell out of the way.
While our ego may feel we’ve been stalled, it is oftentimes in service of deeper functions that our ego’s cannot fathom. Fighting against flat, fallow, and windless periods may be as disruptive and endangering to our psychological organism as insisting upon running a marathon with a high fever or immediately following a feast.
It is the ego’s job to be fit and strong enough to bring itself into alignment with and to serve the entire Self as an organism, as an individual and as part of a larger collective. Our unconscious purposes do not perform merely to satisfy our puny egos, or our personal, or culturally instilled “sense of accomplishment”.
In the fall just after the first frost – the North American Tree Frog freezes solid. It just has to touch one single ice crystal and its organism begins the process of sinking into a shocking and complete death-like dormancy.
I don’t know much about frog-egos, or frog-cortexes. Yet I imagine that there is likely a small piece of even a froggy-psyche that would – if given a choice – prefer to keep hunting down juicy crickets and enjoying the full-belly-rewards of its labors.
What does it feel like to the frog, whose body has begun to shut down its brain and bodily functions? First, a slowly mounting paralysis, and then complete gross and small motor shut down, a stoppage of neurological functioning, sight, smell, hearing and tactile senses fade. No heart beat, no respiration. No work of any kind.
Is there a little froggy panic? Any anxiety that it will go hungry if it doesn’t keep hunting? A sense of frog-failure for not living up to its summer-time work ethic? Is it frustrating? Terrifying to feel the pseudo-death begin? Is there an internal protest? Does it put up any internal fight? Or has evolution and Nature herself structured its dormancy so that it feels no discomfort, or maybe even pleasure as it falls into a hard, icy rock-like sleep?
I imagine that animals in their natural state are organized more efficiently than we are – and that some kind of neurological “acceptance” or systemic surrender is activated that is easier and more efficient than fighting against these extreme death-like life-preserving processes.
But we humans fight, fret and judge ourselves – usually without ever assessing the whys or wherefores of our systemic shut-downs. And although that frozen frog looks as dead as a doornail – as close to death as a still living thing can be – it has moved into this inert state to preserve its vitality, its ability to hunt and feed and do its frog work for another season.
Just because it is apparently lifeless and inactive, doesn’t mean that it isn’t still chock full of life, a seasonal clock still ticking, a system waiting for an external signal, a thaw, the opportunity and the conditions for activity and labor to begin again.
“To be aware of individuality is to realize that one has all that one needs. It also means that one needs all that one has, namely, that every psychic content and happening is meaningful.” ~ Edward F. Edinger, Ego and Archetype, p 168
And maybe what isn’t happening is as essential to us as anything that ever happens.