The Mētis of Dreaming
Does the creative, cunning, defiant mētis ever rest or sleep? Not in ancient Greek thought, according to Detienne and Vernant in their 1978 work, Cunning Intelligence in Greek Culture and Society. The intelligence of mētis is associated with a vigilant wakefulness for all the complex and shifting challenges of the world that demand attention. Think of Odysseus sailing at sea – to sleep at the helm is to perish. Two feared deities bind mētis: the twin brothers Húpnos (sleep) and Thanatos (death). Húpnos masters all but Zeus, because having swallowed up and integrated his wife, the Titan Metis as that “divine food . . . which imparts the ultimate intellligence and cunning, the true phármakon of everlasting sovereignty” (126), Zeus exhibits mētis like the fish whose eyes never close – “being silent and ever on the alert, remaining invisible, missing nothing, constantly on the qui-vive” (29). “Mētis is a living eye which never closes or even blinks” (31).
Note for the curious: Detienne and Vernant comment that “the question of whether fish ever slept was a much debated one among the ancient writers, to such an extent that in his Historia Animalium, Aristotle spends a long time attempting to show that they do sleep, and moreover very deeply” (31-32). Thus the praise of the fisherman, who catches the fish-who-never-sleeps through an even greater cunning (even if that’s a garden rake).
So the wise Zeus never sleeps – a mark of his sovereignty. Not true of the other gods and mortals, whose wakeful mētis is “eclipsed,” “dulled,” and “enfeebled” by slumber.
Sleep, Húpnos, is a powerful and daunting divinity. He casts his magic net over every living creature, over even the swiftest thought and the most agile mind. . . The exceptional vitality and mobility of the gods does not enable them to escape the paralysing power of Húpnos. They too can be caught in his nets and there they remain for as long as he wants them to, diminished, enfeebled, with their earlier vigour extinguished and their vigilance eclipsed. During these moments of hiatus, when their métis is dulled, it is possible to take them by surprise. (Detienne and Vernant, 114-115)
Thankfully in contemporary times, with a fuller understanding of the phenomenology and neuroscience of consciousness, there is no longer cause to restrict métis to wakefulness. Húpnos (alternatively, Hypnos, as in hypnotic) does not bind but rather releases métis from our noisy, distracted orientations during wakefulness into other forms of consciousness. Consider what happens in dreaming or meditation, trance or intoxication, day-dreaming or memory-tracing, trauma flashbacks or psychosis – in all, our creative meaning-oriented métis is released into alternate spaces of exploring, puzzling, watching, playing, listening, witnessing, dancing, suffering, laughing and loving. Even those states associated with terrible suffering and pain, as is psychosis or a trauma flashback or a “bad trip,” can be engaged with respect for its content of consciousness even while ease is sought for the distress and terror of its unbidden dissonance.
I suggest we set aside the Greeks’ suspicion of sleep as enfeebling and engage an aspect of Detienne and Vernant’s scholarship on oceanic navigation as metaphor for consciousness. The métis of Odysseus navigates and divines the open seas – the póntos. Consciousness is its own distinctive póntos for our métis exploration.
Póntos means the great, unknown open sea, the expanse of sea where the shores are lost to view and where all that can be seen are the sky and the water which, during starless nights or in misty storms become indistinguishable, forming a single dark, indistinct mass where there is no point of reference to help one find one’s way. (152)
In this chaotic expanse where every crossing resembles breaking through a region unknown and unrecognisable, pure movement reigns forever. Disturbed by the winds which blow across it and by the flux and reflux of the waves, the sea is the most mobile, changeable and polymorphic space. Pontos, which is described apeirón, no doubt because it is impossible to cross it from one side to the other, has its counterpart in póros . . . a ford, a passage through a stretch of water, and it thus came to mean the route of path that the navigator has to open up through the póntos and across the sea. (222)
Póros . . . means the strategem or expedient invented by métis so as to open up a path. . . It is divination which reveals to the pilots the shining signs on the basis of which they will ‘conjecture’ their itinerary, by recognising signs and choosing guide-marks in such a way as to construct a bridge between the visible and invisible. (288-289)
It is the creative métis of our defiant human spirit which charts a path to discern, divine, and even assign the symbols and structures of meaning in the dark yin-depths of dreams and trance. In consciousness, métis is “recognising signs and choosing guidemarks in such a way as to construct a bridge between the visible and invisible,” the latter of which some call the unconscious. That this creative métis persists in its work whether we are awake, asleep, in trance or any other altered state betwixt and between reinforces not only the continuity of consciousness as its open sea, but also the importance of navigating a póros – a passage – through the depths to illuminate what matters and is meaning-full. Practicing contemplation and meditation, dream-analysis, hypnotherapies, yoga nidra, and immersion in the creative arts (among so many possibilities), not only soothe those who are wakeful, fatigued, and perplexed, but also offer entrancing illumination. How often (and with both a sense of mystery and relief) does a dream or trance-state reveal the solution to that frustrating puzzle or conflict that has been lapping at the edges of our wakeful consciousness? “Mētis makes light appear in the midst of darkness” (Detienne and Vernant, 218).
It is then a comfort that “mētis is a living eye which never closes or even blinks,” as its work continues in consciousness even when we are bone-tired and close our eyelids to sink into needed rest. During my hypnotherapy training, one of my mentors liked to induce trance through a script like this: “Close your eyes. Now . . . visualize that behind your closed eyes there is another set of wakeful and watching eyes. Perhaps this is your mind’s eye. Invite these eyes to also drift close for a deeper state of relaxation.” We can invite creative mētis to untether from our overly-directed intentions of real and figurative gazing for its deeper navigation of our existence, both conscious and unconscious.
Wisdom is found in the deeps, so it’s a worthy expanse for our cunning. Viktor Frankl, for one, rejected the idea that the unconscious depths are merely instinctive, libidinal, or collective, arguing that the unconscious sources and supports the activities of a creative human spirit. In his work, Man’s Search for Ultimate Meaning (not to be confused with his classic Man’s Search for Meaning), he gives epistemic priority to what he called the “irrational” and unconscious workings for human wisdom: .
Depth psychology has followed man into the depth of his instincts, but too little into the depth of his spirit. Since “depth” refers to the unconscious, it necessarily follows that the person in his depth, the spirit in its depth, or for that matter, human existence in its depth is essentially unconscious. . . And this holds for each of its basic aspects, e.g., such human phenomena as consciousness and responsibleness. If these are to be illuminated, we have to transcend the ontic plane toward the ontological dimension. . .
Precisely at the place of its origin, the retina of the eye has a “blind spot,” where the optic nerve enters the eyeball. Likewise, the spirit is “blind” precisely at its origin- precisely there, no self-observation, no mirroring of itself is possible; where the spirit is “original” spirit, where it is fully itself, precisely there it is also unconscious of itself. We may therefore fully subscribe to what has been said in the Indian Vedas: “that which does the seeing, cannot be seen; that which does the hearing, cannot be heard; and that which does the thinking, cannot be thought. . . . That which decides whether an experience will become conscious or will remain unconscious is itself unconscious. (ibid, 35-36)
I imagine Frankl would approve of the previously-mentioned hypnosis script, inviting both the physical eye and the vigilant mind’s eye to drop into slumber in favor of path-discovery through the deeper levels of consciousness. Frankl names the aspect of the human spirit that navigates the meanings of existence as “conscience,” and notes that it is prelogical, premoral, intuitive, and essentially unconscious, and that its use makes possible the wakeful activities of ethics and aesthetics. Referencing Heidegger’s Dasein, conscience “has comprehended the concrete ‘whereness’ (Da) of my personal being (Sein) all along” (ibid, 42). Recall that Odysseus’s métis helps him navigate the depths and breadths of the Póntos sea; likewise, the métis of our conscience navigates the expanse of our consciousness, divining “where” we are in our being and existence. It should be no surprise that Frankl welcomed dream-analysis and the creative arts, bridging the work of wakefulness to its existential sourcing in other levels of consciousness.
For amusement, let me offer a little of my own métis play around the metaphor of creating bridges throughout the póntos of our consciousness. REM sleep (our dreaming sleep) and our involuntary breathing are both cooperatively regulated by the part of the brainstem called the pons. Phonetically similar but etymologically distinct – póntos from the Greek and pons signifying bridge in Latin – it was named by the anatomist who noted on dissection that this part of the brain looks like a bridge between the two sides of the brain. In function, however, it is a fibered bridge for multiple signals travelling to and from the cortex, brainstem, and cerebellum, including those that regulate activities of dreaming and breathing. As an adjective, we can say that both dreaming and breath are pontine – but not only because of the neural function of the pons, but also in the ways dreaming and breathing bridge in and through human consciousness in more senses than the strictly literal and physical. I think of this when we submerge into meditative breathing and invite altered ways of experiencing existence. Or when we go to sleep and invite our dreams to do their navigational meaning-work. These are our pontine movements of mētis.
When I was a medical student -and studying neuroanatomy among other things – I was so terribly worn-out and wrung-out all the time. It seemed every hour of a waking day was given to getting the facts of medical science into a form I could mentally retrieve on demand. I learned the hard way that I needed at least 5 hours of sleep the night before an exam. But in late nights, I was torn between the desire to to stay awake and study a little longer or call it quits and go to sleep. To ease my distress, a psalm became a prayer.
I will bless the LORD who has counseled me; Indeed, my mind instructs me in the night. (Psalm 16:7)
It may not have been exegetically fully accurate, but my muddled student-self would close the books, crawl into bed, practice gratitude and say this as a mantra: “My mind instructs me in the night.” I was hoping that there would be a near-magical process of ongoing learning and understanding during my 5 hours of sleep, and preferably of all the flash cards that I hadn’t quite mastered.
I’m not suggesting that sleeping rather than studying is a sound plan for surviving school, but I do feel an affinity to my younger self and her hope that dreaming would simply extend the possibilities for love of learning and knowledge-seeking. Our waking hours are often so vigilant, fatigued, fearful and strained. We need rest. What a wonder it is that our mētis continues to work out a path for us in those spaces we cannot hope to fully navigate with our wakeful mind, with the divination of the symbols and structures of meaning. This, a bridging of unconscious and conscious activities by the defiant power of our human spirit and its work through the póntos of our consciousness. Zeus never slept so as to preserve his mētis, but ours welcomes us back to dreaming and its friends for the wisdom we seek even in sleep.
- Marcel Detienne and Jean-Pierre Vernant. Cunning Intelligence in Greek Culture and Society. Translated by Janet Lloyd. New Jersey: Humanities Press, 1978.
- Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Ultimate Meaning. New York: Basic Books, 2000.
- Bible, New American Standard, accessed at https://biblehub.com/psalms/16-7.htm.
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Janēta Fong Tansey, MD PhD