Something Good #71: Harnessing the Power of the Unconscious Mind
About a decade ago, I was invited by my friend Sheila Heti (who has appeared in these pages before) to present a lecture at Trampoline Hall, a long-running Toronto speaking series founded by her and Misha Glouberman. I was at a crossroads in my life, and it seemed that the best way forward was to explore that great mystery, the unconscious mind, in hopes that it would help me find my path again. I decided to experiment on myself.
It did not go well.
The results, however, were instructive. I present the lecture in question to you here anew in newsletter form, a little spruced-up but with all of the defunct “period detail” of my life circa 2011 intact.
Due to the important presence of an audio clip embedded at a key moment in the story, I suggest clicking the title above and reading this post in a web browser.
I want to talk about harnessing the power of the unconscious mind.
Specifically: how I tried to harness that power, and how I failed spectacularly.
I picture my unconscious mind as a sort of giant bakery: a big industrial complex with a little shop out front. Mysterious things happen in this bakery. There's machines going and gears turning, and employees running around in and out of billowing clouds of steam, and I'm not really sure what's going on in there.
But every once in a while they'll deliver a little pastry, or a loaf of bread or something to the shop out front, where a hapless employee will try to sell it to passersby.
Now, in this analogy, I am the hapless employee—or at least, “Mark,” my conscious mind, or at least the part of my mind that is self-aware, is there out front, trying to manage the shop, with very little control of what exactly it’s producing.
I don’t really know what’s going on back there, but occasionally, I’m handed something fresh and hot to deal with. As in a bakery, it usually happens overnight, and I wake up with an idea in my mind, or a solution to a problem. Sometimes, as I’ve written here before, an entire movie script appears in my head fully formed. What a gift it is when that happens! Writing, I have learned over many hard years, is much easier when you don’t realize you’re doing it.
More often than not, though, I receive the dubious baked “gift” of a bad pun, or a joke that an hour later, after coffee, I realize makes no sense at all.
Once in a while, though, a big life decision occurs while I sleep. Like last month [as of 2011] I woke up and I realized I had to leave my job of 10 years. I was a film critic for a Montreal newspaper and I liked the job very much, but my unconscious decided it was time to go, and I went, and it was the right decision.
In fact, even the idea for the experiment I’m about to relate to you came to me that way. My ex-job had a going-away party for me, and my boss had instructed my erstwhile coworkers to try and get me as drunk as possible, because that was sort of his thing.
Well, they succeeded, although ultimately I was the only drunk one, as it was a Tuesday night, and they all, by their very definition as my ex-co-workers, had jobs to get back to the next morning.
I got home and fell immediately into terrible drunken sleep. I had this dream that I was walking around New York City with my cat in my arms desperately looking for a glass of water. (You know how it is when you go to sleep having had a few drinks and you get really thirsty and, but you’re too incapacitated to rouse yourself to do anything about it.)
I was woken up early and unexpectedly the following morning by the guy from the power company, who was there to install a new digital electricity meter. As I I stood there, totally hungover, in my underwear, listening to him drill and scrape and install the damn thing, I started thinking about that idea that ideas can come to you in your sleep.
And I thought—wouldn’t life be easier if I could harness that power intentionally? It would almost be a superpower, especially as a now-unemployed writer/filmmaker! Sometimes it could be months, even years, between a decent “pastry delivery” from the big bakery in my head. What if I didn’t have to wait patiently on the caprices of these mysterious pâtissiers? What if I could consciously place an order?
And what that led me to was thinking about Einstein—Albert Einstein, I guess I should specify—and how he was said to perform this mental exercise that I’d always found fascinating.
(Although it might not have been Einstein, because I mentioned it to Sheila while I was developing the idea and she thought she'd heard the same story about Salvador Dalí. I googled it for five seconds and couldn’t find anything, so I just decided to say both1.)
When Einstein was wrestling with a particularly difficult physics problem (or art problem, if it was actually Dalí), he would sit in a comfortable chair in his home, holding a metal ball in his hand. This would usually be late at night, and he’d let himself drift off into what is called the hypnagogic state; that is, the state somewhere between wakefulness and sleep.
He found, and I find this as well, that it was a very useful mental state for creative problem solving. The only problem is, if you’ve ever been lying in bed and had a great idea and thought, This is a great idea, I’ll remember it in the morning!, you never actually do.
This is where the metal ball comes in. As Einstein (or Dalí2) sat there in a state of pensive semi-slumber, his hand muscles would gradually relax. Just as he was on the precipice of falling into true sleep, at the precious moment when his mind was truly free to explore the idea-space unbound by the constraints of consciousness, his hand would release its grip on the ball, it would drop to the floor. The sound would wake him up, and he would have a few precious moments to write down the ideas he had gathered before they drifted away forever.
So I proposed an experiment to myself: for several nights running, I would perform the Einstein exercise myself, and I would see if it helped with my life at all. I’d just left my job, but at the same time I’d taken on all these other responsibilities, I was in a confusing place relationship-wise, and there was just a whole bunch of shit going on, many knots to untangle. Most pressingly, I had a talk—this talk—to prepare, and I had no idea what the subject was going to be yet. In less than a week I was going to be speaking in front of a sold-out crowd of hard-to-impress Toronto literary types and I did not want to fuck it up.
I needed my unconscious mind’s help, and frankly, I wasn’t willing to wait.
I want to emphasize again that this experiment was a failure. But let me explain how it all went down.
I had a comfortable chair in my “study” (a corner of my living room) but I didn’t have an appropriate ball. All I could find was a pétanque set, which is sort of like bocce; they’re very heavy, round metal balls. I thought they would dent the floor or break my toe when dropped, so they were out. I ended up finding an empty Altoids tin on my desk, filling it with loose change, and scotch-taping it shut.
That night, I sat there in my chair, holding that tin of Altoids. I tried to let myself go; let myself float free into that hypnagogic idea realm so long denied to my conscious mind. It was difficult, because I was trying to be self-conscious, to observe my own thinking, while at the same time trying to be in a state of no-mind at the same time.
Mostly I couldn’t stop thinking about the tin and whether I was going drop it or not, but eventually certain images did begin to visit me. At one point I pictured myself in a jungle with a tribe of people who were trying to abandon me or ditch me somehow? (Perhaps there’s a metaphor in there for what I was trying to do.) Then I imagined that I was back in my living room, but there was a dog in there that kept coming up to my face.
I didn’t really get anywhere else on that first go, besides those random images, but it was only 10PM and I usually [used to] go to bed pretty late, so I tried again couple hours later. Again, I did get some sort of light near-hallucinations, but I found that that they were, instead of great ideas or solutions to problems, mostly just kind of montages of images of things I’d been thinking about or doing in my everyday life.
For instance, at one point I thought I was on an exercise bike pedaling really quickly while a rabbi in full Hasidic regalia stood next to me and egged me on while holding out a tray of chocolate cakes. I think I remarked to the rabbi that the reason why I was doing so well on the bike was because of the cake.
And the rabbi said, “It’s not the cake, it’s your soul!” Somehow that was a perfect distillation of whatever it was I was pre-occupied with that week, while I was in pre-production on a short film I was making about Hasidic Jews in my neighbourhood and my extremely weird relationship to them.
I never did drop the tin that night. So I went to bed and resolved to start again the following day.
I did so the following evening, and again, it was frustrating. I felt like I was swimming in an ocean of consciousness, and I would dive down and grab something from the deep, and swim back up with it. But as soon as I got to the surface, it had dissolved in my hands.
Any thoughts I had at that point seemed made of the same mind-substance as dreams, which are just so hard to remember, falling apart like wet newspaper.
I kept trying, though, every night. At one point I even brought out the pétanque balls and tried to hold one, but I couldn’t figure out how to hang onto it without dropping it right away, and it was pressing against my hand comfortably, and it was just terrible.
The talk—this talk—was just days away, and I was desperate and frustrated, up every night until four or five in the morning and not getting anywhere.
So finally, with just a couple of days to spare, I thought, OK, time to try a more direct approach. Instead of trying to, like, mystically meet my mind in some friendly shared netherworld, I was going to just give it a direct order. I was going to order up a pastry, if you will.
The plan: to give my unconscious mind a job to do overnight, as I slept, when it historically had done its best work. I don’t know why I thought of this job specifically, but I decided to have my mind produce a dirty limerick for me. I’m not a limerick guy or anything, but it just seemed like a do-able task. (I was also very low on sleep at this point and flailing around for a solution.)
So I went to bed late that night, and I was thinking to myself, Limerick, limerick, limerick. Just give me one. That’s all I want. I need this to work.
I finally passed out and I had just the worst, most fitful, terrible night of sleep. I woke up and I felt like absolute shit. It was as if I was hungover. My brain felt completely exhausted. But I was committed to it. I ran to my tape recorder and I just sort of… blurted this thing into it.
And I’m just going to say right now, this was not a gift from my unconscious mind. This was me pathetically trying to salvage this experiment. What it was, was the saddest, most desperate, most pathetic limerick I’ve ever heard, and I’m sure you’ve ever heard. And I still to this day, in 2022, have the original audio recording, and you’re going to listen to in a second.
I was tired. It’s bad. Just really bad.
You really need to actually hear it to get the full effect, but if you can’t for any reason, I’m putting the text in the footnote at the end of this sentence3. But please try and listen to it. OK. Here goes:
That’s it. I’m sorry.
As I stood there, completely humiliated, completely self-owned, completely ashamed of myself, I realized that the entire premise of my experiment had been false.
I can no more harness my unconscious mind than a sock puppet can harness the hand inside it, or a shoe can harness the athlete that wears it (if I may be so bold). My conscious mind, what I think of as my “self,” it occurred to me, is just a layer between my unconscious and the rest of the world. It’s the guy out front at the factory. A representative, a go-between, with no real power of its own, whatever its own deluded sense of grandeur.
The real action happens in the back, and that is a party I’m not invited to. To put it another way, the DJ doesn’t take requests. We all take what we are given and we should be grateful for it.
I am at the mercy of my brain, and any attempt to harness its full operational power is foolish and doomed to failure.
And as if to drive that point home, my mind gave me the worst migraine of my life.
It lasted three days.
Thank you very much.
This week’s #nojacketsrequired comes to us via reader Aleh Suprunovich, and features a Yiddish-Belarusian dictionary, something that might have been handy to my forebears, as the circled town in the map on the inside cover may make clear. Thank you Aleh (who also noted his own hometown on the left there). As always, send your de-jacketed discoveries my way at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Movie news—You Can Live Forever plays Rainbow Visions in Edmonton, this Friday, November 5. We wont be there, but we will be in Vancouver this weekend to attend the DGC Awards, for which we are nominated for Best Director—wish us luck (we will lose to David Cronenberg and be honoured to do so). Next weekend, though, Sarah and I will be in Madrid for LesGaiCineMad for a preposterous 49 hours. Expect a newsletter on this whirlwind adventure. If you are anywhere nearby, please come say hello!
But perhaps most excitingly for us, we finally have a hometown premiere! We will be playing at the venerable Image+Nation festival on November 19, and we hope to see all local readers and friends there. Tix are on sale now, and will probably not last long.
Every once in a while I will send you Something Good. If you want to actually listen to the above talk, an audio recording of the original is episode 10 of the official Trampoline Hall Lectures podcast, under the original, unbelievable title, “Letting My Balls Drop,” but the sound quality is a bit dicey. There is a Q&A at the end though! Thanks to Sheila and Misha for welcoming me to their stage so many years ago. Talking of podcasts, this newsletter received a completely out-of-the-blue recommendation from Colin McEnroe on the October 25 episode of Here’s the The Thing With Alec Baldwin, and hearing Baldwin say my full name was a rare, once-in-a-lifetime thrill.
I’m running out of space here, so next time please remind me to tell you about the science fiction novel written in Orkney verse I have been enjoying. If you like what you read here, please tell a friend, and/or subscribe below:
Midway through the original talk, an audience member interrupted me to say it was Thomas Edison. I really don’t know.
There was a young boy named Peru / Who didn’t know what to do. / He looked around / All over the town / And didn’t know what to do.