04/17/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Dreaming On The Edge of Survival

There is no shortage of dire news these days. Even Paul Krugman is fond of quoting Yeats: "Things fall apart; the center cannot hold." And when respected economists start quoting Irish poets in their daily columns, you know something is not right.

In this time of economic upheaval, the question on everyone's mind (to quote another great poet, David Byrne) is, "How do I work this?" How do each of us manage to find the next step, and the next, and the next, to make it through?

Something caught my eye recently in a book I am reviewing by dreamworker Robert Moss. Talking about indigenous dream customs, Moss writes:

"Let's be clear about this: for peoples living on the edge of survival, dreaming is a highly practical matter. A good dreamer is also a good hunter or fisher, one who finds the game or the catch ahead of time."

This is the skill that most of us want to draw on right now: the ability to find the catch ahead of time, to be ready for the next move before it happens.

To develop this skill we need to do two things. We need to stay aware of events as they unfold during the day, and pay close attention to what goes on in our dreams every night. This sounds easier than it is. We may think we are staying aware, but in reality we tune out information all the time that brings up strong emotions--and what subject is more emotionally charged than money?

Consider all the ways we try to maintain our equanimity by ignoring or postponing difficult tasks. Are you even now avoiding some unpleasant phone calls to your bank or credit card company? Maybe you and your spouse are not discussing what might happen if one or both of you got laid off. But just because we are hiding doesn't mean the crisis won't find us. So step one is to be courageous and face our fears.

Step two is to listen more closely to our dreams. I have written before on the different kinds of information we can access in dreams. For financial and work issues, I start by looking at the places where a typical dream narrative suddenly changes, or something new appears.

If you have fairly realistic dreams of driving to the office and talking with co-workers, notice any details which depart from the ordinary. Do you see someone there who is not part of your regular work environment? Are you called on to perform a bizarre task unrelated to your job?

In any sort of dream, pay attention to where an element from your waking life butts up against something completely different. The juxtaposition of the odd and the ordinary is more than just coincidence. It is through these "cracks" in the narrative that new information is able to slip in.

Once we have identified curious details, it is time to work with them creatively. Whether it is through artwork or brainstorming with a friend, we need to engage with the dream material in some way to uncover its practical benefits.

The good news is that each step enhances the other. Confronting conflict in waking life has a powerful effect on the information we are able to gather from dreams. If we are stuck in patterns of avoidance, our dreams will keep coming to remind us--sometimes not so gently--that we need to knock it off. Yet once we make an honest effort to meet our challenges, our dreams will change tone and show us all the possibilities that are opening up.

Maybe it is a good thing that Krugman invokes Yeats from time to time. After all, my main point here is that we must use our logical and intuitive capacities in tandem if we are to get through this storm in the best shape possible. Yet if we are going to attach poetry to the current financial forecast, we would do well to consider which anthem we really want to get behind.

I would argue against using Yeats's "The Second Coming" as a guiding principle for what is happening now. Instead, consider this clip of the Talking Heads singing "Once In a Lifetime" if you are meditating on how we got into this mess. It is a great song for waking up from our stupor and taking those steps to keep up with the changes.

And finally, for tracking the way forward right now there is no better song than Leonard Cohen's brilliant "Anthem." Especially when our first instinct is to retreat and hide away, it is always good instead to:

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in.

This is not a great quality concert clip, but his performance is a lovely testament to the power of gratitude in the face of fear. We are so fortunate that Leonard Cohen is touring right now--if you have any money left, go hear him!