“You become free the moment you recognise the legitimacy of your own reason.”
I’ve kept a dream diary for the last 8 years or so. Highly recommended as a practice (you can read a bit more about different ways of working with dreams here).
In a recent dream (I know other people’s dreams are boring, I’ll be as brief as I can), there was a group of ordinary, yet powerful men with psychic abilities who could make things happen, and make objects move, simply through the power of their will and intention.
They made a shelf fall on top of a policeman, killing him.
Worried that I was somehow involved and guilty, I left and was followed by a shadowy, edgy figure. I was not sure I could trust him. But he told me he could save me from being caught by the police.
Acting beyond social convention and external judgements
I initially investigated the role of these psychic men. Using my usual approaches to dream exploration, I revisited them, reflected on their characters, and pondered the importance of strong will and focused intention in my life at present.
Then today in a process work session, I explored the more edgy, ambivalent, shadowy figure. He said he could save me from being caught by the police. But could I trust him? He seemed rather dodgy.
Suddenly I realised that the two different figures – the psychic men and the edgy figure shared the same quality:
They both did exactly what they wanted.
They both trusted totally their own sense of what to do and how to do it.
Neither had any concern whatsoever for what they were ‘meant’, ‘expected’ or ‘obliged’ to do by some external figure, social convention or moral authority.
Both figures were a little dangerous, a little edgy, dodgy even. Yet in my body, I felt an undoubtable ‘yes’, an energetic coming to life arose as I pondered this quality, this way of being.
As someone with a historical tendency to seek external approval and avoid external judgement, this was a delightful and vital energy to connect to.
Understanding our inner police
Freud divided the psyche into 3 parts, the Id – our natural, physical impulses and urges; the Ego – our more conscious, conceptual sense of self, trying to navigate the tensions of life situations; and our Super-ego – which contains our sense of morality, obligation and ideals – the shoulds and oughts of our life.
The superego is an internalised version of the countless prohibitions, protocols and obligations we absorb from our parents, caregivers and teachers when young, and also from wider society. Without us realising it, it becomes the inner judge, jury, ideal saintly figure, and policeman* wrapped into one.
Eric Berne’s Transactional Analysis likewise divides our psyche into 3 states. The Child state is natural, free, spontaneous, emotional, and also sometimes rebellious. The Adult state is rational, in touch with present reality, unburdened by unconscious material from the past. Our Parent state composes of both critical parent – the strong judgmental critical voice that can be so painful to experience, and nurturing parent – still parental energy but a more friendly, warm, guiding presence.
To the extent that we are controlled by, or fixated on, these inner parental, super-ego, voices of correctness, obligation, morality, seeking to get it right, or achieve approval or perfection, we are not yet free to be, or to become, fully ourselves.
Instead, we are following and restricted by internalised injunctions from the past that don’t serve the flow of life that is possible NOW.
Noticing moment to moment inner policing
Then I went downstairs to have a snack. There were some crumpets. I put two crumpets in the toaster and noticed in a new, extremely clear and direct way, my inner commentary.
A voice expressing an opinion about the merits of crumpets, and eating wheat, and the importance of healthy diets for middle aged men who want to stay healthy.
You know the sort of thing.
You will have your own versions, I’m sure. Your own inner parent, teacher or judge expressing various opinions, evaluations, advice or suggestions regarding your choices in life.
A choice can be big – to stay or leave in a job.
To take or decline this business opportunity, or new direction in life.
Or they could be small – jam or marmite (reader, I chose marmite, and I am not ashamed).
But the underlying voice is similar. And it is well worth noticing, with as much clarity and awareness as possible.
For many people, this internal voice is critical, judgemental and heavy. It can also be somewhat lighter and more friendly – an inner instructor or guide directing us or advising between this and that.
Such voices are so every day and so familiar we often think nothing of them.
Yet as I clearly caught this thought, this inner commentary with its puffed up, unrequested opinion on crumpets and marmite, I thought about the dead policeman in the dream.
And it struck me that in order to fully own my inner authority – whether that be about mid-morning snacking, or about new directions for business, or composing music, revolution, or anything at all – the policeman does indeed need to be killed.
Inner oppression and the cops in the head
The Brazilian activist theatre director August Boal describes in more detail the role of the inner policeman.
He developed participative theatre techniques to help poor, oppressed people in South America develop their awareness and potential to change their practical situation. Moving the work later on to Europe and North America, Boal found that most people in the global north did not see themselves as oppressed.
But from his perspective they were – restricted, held back, constrained, not at all free.
Boal coined the phrase ‘the cops in the head’ to describe how we internalise our own oppression. He points out that oppression is not always external or outwardly obvious. Particularly so in materially well off societies. It is also an introjected, internalised set of beliefs, inner limitations, strictures, and protocols that lead us into impoverished, constrained lives.
Without us even being aware that this is oppression.
The underlying pattern and message remain the same as Freud’s, Berne’s and others.
To reclaim our own full authority and inner freedom, we need to go beyond the forces of super-ego, the inner parent.
We need to liberate ourselves from the internal oppression of the cops in the head.
But how do we do this?
In my dream the policeman was killed. Dream events have their own meanings and significance, and I take that dream gesture seriously.
But in the waking world, grappling with our own inner judges, teachers and police figures, is such an approach necessary?
Is it even a good idea?
Realising the emptiness of the inner judge
Whenever we are in opposition to an inner voice of judgement, guidance, and restriction, if we then seek aggressively or hatefully to ‘kill’ it, we are still caught. We remain in the world of shoulds, and oughts and judgement. One part of us has decided that another part, the inner policeman, should not be there, judging and condemning it as causing a problem.
Our attempt at a way out, then builds more of the way in – further division, splitting, criticism and judgement. This is unlikely to be helpful.
Instead, could we simply notice this inner police, judge or jury, this background commentary of guidance or judgement, with present moment awareness and clarity?
If so, we might glimpse that, surprisingly, it is actually nothing very much at all.
Can we perceive that something that feels and seems so heavy, so real, so true, so intransigent, is actually an ephemeral, present moment, fleeting experience? Nothing more.
When we catch that, then suddenly the prison bars dissolve all by themselves. The apparent authority of the policeman disappears entirely, and yet no one decided to do any killing. Because the authority, judgement or admonishment has no real basis in the first place. It was just an idea we’ve held onto, often with tension or fear, perhaps for our entire life.
Ultimately the policeman exists only in our mind. And the judgement too. As Shakespeare put it, in the words of Hamlet – ‘nothing is good or bad, but thinking makes it so.’
Inner freedom and outer anarchy:
With the inner policeman dissolved we become inner anarchists.
Anarchists get a pretty bad rap (of course they do, they are hard to govern, hard to tell what to do, so external authorities, and those with great faith in external authorities, do not like them at all!). But as a system of organisation, anarchy essentially means self-organisation without a central authority or government.
True anarchy is thus based on a profound trust in human nature, and a heartfelt belief in the possibility of natural, intelligent freedom.
Noam Chomsky describes the basis of anarchism thus:
“That is what I have always understood to be the essence of anarchism: the conviction that the burden of proof has to be placed on authority, and that it should be dismantled if that burden cannot be met.”
… the burden of proof has to be placed on authority.
Might we have the same attitude toward our inner judges, inner police and inner juries?
Instead of just believing them, and feeling pressured by them, could we place the burden of truth on them? Instead of just obeying, being driven by inner strictures, might we just ask, ‘By what right does this voice judge or direct me? Is this opinion, judgement or restriction really true? Is this simply some old, historical, parental or societal idea I am carrying around?’
At this point, with the light of direct awareness shining on them, many of them will dismantle and dissolve themselves.
Becoming free and taking responsibility
And then what?
Then we become free to trust the legitimacy of our own reason.
At this point we are free to be more fully who we are.
And we may then find this too is a little edgy.
The version of ourselves that has freedom, might even appear to us as a bit dodgy. (Just like the government’s view of anarchy! Surely nothing could come ever come of such freedom? Surely if we don’t police ourselves, we will cause all manner of trouble?)
Then the question becomes – do we trust ourselves enough?
What will we choose now beyond the protocols, obligations and strictures of our past?
Marmite or jam?
This move or that?
To challenge or collude, to laugh, rage or fall asleep?
Compassionate, heartfelt revolution, or continued cowardice and collusion?
We are free to choose. And also, therefore, free to take responsibility for that which we choose and that which we do not.
“What is an anarchist? One who, choosing, accepts the responsibility of choice.”
Ursula K. Le Guin
May our choices reflect our hopes and not our fears. And may we take responsibility for them all.
*In my dream it was a policeman, but clearly this sort of figure doesn’t need to be gendered in a particular way. It’s what they represent that is key.