Dogs Will Eat Anything
By Eric Greenleaf, PhD
Several months ago, I found myself in the midst of a terrible conflict. Two people, with whom I had close professional and personal ties, and with whom I shared a common project, fell into a serious dispute — one accusing the other of a crime. Worse than that, each party represented powerful institutions, with which I had important connections.
I attempted to mediate; offering a plausible solution to both sides, but was refused by both. To my dismay and discomfort, the more I tried to solve this dilemma, the more the two parties began to turn their suspicions and mistrust toward me. So I backed away, feeling uneasy, nervous, and despondent. The parties consulted lawyers — positions hardened; empathy dissolved.
For several nights I slept fitfully, thinking about what to do. Any ideas or strategies I settled on would be unwelcome by one party or the other – and lead to a dead-end. I felt awful.
One morning I awoke early, and my wife turned to me and said, “I feel a sense of dread.” I knew the emotion was mine, not hers, and realized I did not want her to feel that way, and that I must do something — but what?
That evening, I decided to give the problem to my unconscious. The next morning I awoke refreshed. Nothing had changed, but I felt happy, and the feeling lasted.
Later that day, out of nowhere, I had a thought: ’Dogs will eat anything. They will eat feces, vomit, dead insects and birds, etc., and then, often just burp and trot away without ill effect.’ Then I had another thought: ‘Lola, our wonderful Standard Poodle, must have eaten the whole mess. It didn’t affect her, and I was free of my troubled state.’
While teaching Ericksonian approaches, I’ve emphasized the metaphor of the benign unconscious mind as an explanatory concept, and
the utilization of the unconscious mind as a therapeutic means toward healing. I’ve asked many people in workshops and in my practice to: ‘Look at your unconscious mind, and tell me what it looks like.’ People often see marvelous things, from a hacienda to the cosmos, with colors, shapes, sounds, textures, movement, and also distinct emotions.
When I ask people to see their unsolvable problem as though they were in a dream, they often have unique visions. And when I ask them to put the image of their problem into their unconscious mind, they see and feel things that help them to change for the better. I never saw my unconscious as my dog, Lola, but she does provide excellent service with eagerness and good cheer; she is an avatar for my unconscious!
Conceptually, I think of the unconscious as comprised of the neurophysiology of the body, new learning, and the interpersonal emotions of three or more interrelated people. In trance, we relate to our unconscious, and so inviting, in a context of novelty and new learning, the improvement of our bodies and interpersonal relationships. From the earliest times, the small, extended family group has determined our unique sense of self. It is our evolutionary heirloom. This includes generations of stories known and stories never spoken — and secrets, which remain largely in the unconscious. The selves that the interpersonal atmosphere gives rise to, remain unselfconscious and feel (although cloudy) individual, decisive, and self-determined.
Dr. Erickson provided us with many examples from his own life in which he entered the unconscious in order to invite the resolution of insoluble problems. He said:
“You go to a doctor and he says, ‘I just don’t know what to do for this. But it does need some care.’ You’ve got a lot more confidence in that doctor than the one that tries to pawn something off on you that obviously won’t work. He says, ‘I don’t know what’s wrong with you but it obviously needs care. Now let’s see what we can do about it.’ And you see yourself in the hands of somebody who will make a penetrating research into an insoluble problem.” Seminars of MHE #1 1962, pp. 47-8. [my emphasis]
Dr. Erickson would often write letters to children about animals, real and invented, to help them, through stories, to learn, grow, and resolve troubles in life. I’m sure he would have loved Lola, as most people do. She is warm, smart, protective, affectionate, and fun, and will, if given the opportunity, eat nearly anything, including my problems!
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