Larry Dossey: Answers to questions posed the night before

From Larry Dossey’s latest book:

Exploratory Dives into the Unconscious

The dream experiences of physicians, inventors, mathematicians, and scientists reinforce the image of the One Mind as a repository of information and intelligence that can be put to practical use.

This view was sanctioned by Arthur Koestler in his brilliant exploration of creativity, The Act of Creation. Koestler called dreams an “essential part of psychic metabolism…. Without this daily dip into the ancient sources of mental life, we would probably all become desiccated automata. And without the more spectacular exploratory dives of the creative individual, there would be no science and no art.”

A spectacular “exploratory dive” into the unconscious was taken one night by Elias Howe. For years Howe had struggled unsuccessfully to perfect his sewing machine, but he was plagued by problems with the needle. Then one night he dreamed he was captured by savages who dragged him before their king.

The king issued an ultimatum: if within 24 hours Howe did not come up with a machine that could sew, he would die by the spear. As time ran out, the menacing savages approached Howe, their spears raised for the kill. Holding up his hands to ward off the inevitable, Howe noticed that each of the spear points had an eye-shaped hole near the tip.

He awoke full of excitement, realizing that the hole in the sewing machine needle must go at the tip, not at the middle or the bottom where he had been trying to place it. He raced from bed to his workshop, filed a needle to the proper size, drilled a hole near its tip, and inserted it in the machine. The rest, as they say, is history.

In his monumental book Our Dreaming Mind, Robert L. Van de Castle, former director of the University of Virginia Medical School’s Sleep and Dream Laboratory, cited several instances in which the minds of scientists frolicked nonlocally during dreamtime, with stunning consequences.

He reported that early in the 20th century, researcher Edmond Maillet sent a questionnaire to a group of mathematicians who had worked in their profession for at least ten years. Four of his respondents described “mathematical dreams” in which a solution actually occurred during the dream; eight acknowledged finding the beginnings of a solution or useful idea while dreaming; and another fifteen described how on waking they had achieved complete or partial solutions to questions posed the previous night.

Srinivasa Ramanujan, the 20th-century mathematician, is considered a giant in his field. Certainly Ramanujan enjoyed an advantage over his colleagues: his dreams included an otherworldly mentor. In a 1948 article in Scientific American entitled “Mathematics and the Imagination,” he reported how the Hindu goddess Namakkal would appear in his dreams and reveal to him mathematical formulae that he would verify on waking, a pattern that continued all his life.

A world-changing dream occurred in 1869 to Dmitri Mendeleyev, a professor of chemistry at Saint Petersburg, after he went to bed frustrated by his attempts to categorize the chemical elements according to their atomic weights.

“I saw in a dream,” he reported, “a table where all the elements fell into place as required. Awakening, I immediately wrote it down on a piece of paper. Only in one place did a correction later seem necessary.” The result was the periodic table of the elements. The dream also enabled Mendeleyev to predict the existence and properties of three new elements, which were discovered within the next 15 years.

Perhaps the most famous example of a dreaming scientist is that of Friedrich A. von Kekule, a professor of chemistry at Ghent, Belgium. Kekule was attempting without success to determine the structure of the benzene molecule. He fell asleep while sitting in a chair and saw atoms flitting before him in various structures and patterns.

Soon long rows of atoms formed and took on a twisting, snakelike pattern. All of a sudden one of the snakes seized its own tail in its mouth and started to whirl in a circle. “As if by a flash of lightning” Kekule awoke and began to work out the implications of the dream images. This led to the idea that benzene was a six-carbon ring structure, which revolutionized organic chemistry.

In an address to a scientific meeting in 1890, he concluded his talk to his colleagues by honoring his process of discovery: “Let us learn to dream, gentlemen, and then we may perhaps find the truth.”

One of the legendary discoveries in modern medical research, insulin, is dream related. Frederick Banting, a Canadian physician, was conducting research on diabetes. Awakening from a dream one night, he wrote down the following words: “Tie up the duct of the pancreas of a dog. Wait for a few weeks until the glands shrivel up. Then cut it out, wash it out and filter the precipitation.”

This procedure led him to discover the hormone insulin, which proved lifesaving for millions of diabetics. It also led to Banting’s being knighted—an interesting word, considering his nocturnal revelation.

The list of scientific discoveries influenced by dreams is quite long—James Watt’s discovery of how to make spherical pellets that could be used as shot; David Parkinson’s discovery at Bell Laboratories of the all-electric gun director known as the M-9 device, the precursor of guidance systems used later in antiaircraft and antiballistic missiles; Ernst Chladni’s invention of the euphonium, a new musical instrument—on and on.

Dreaming remains one of the most common pathways of entering the One Mind. As the collective nature of consciousness becomes more fully appreciated within science, skeptical scientists will understand that to be called a dreamer is a high compliment indeed.

From One Mind: How Our Individual Mind Is Part Of A Greater Consciousness And Why It Matters by Larry Dossey.

Did you catch this phrase above?

“… on waking they had achieved complete or partial solutions to questions posed the previous night.”

This is a reminder to us all — creatives or otherwise — to pose questions. Especially in the night! Pose a question to an issue that’s vexing you when you go to sleep. Try it a few nights to see what the deep recesses of your mind comes up with.

I’ve had good results with this method — and regret telling you now how often I’ve used it to good effect and yet had forgotten about the process. This method had fallen out of my repertoire for problem solving.

It’s like mislaying the key to a treasure chest.

Now, thanks to Larry Dossey, it’s back.

You might give it a whirl too. If something has been gnawing at you, something unresolved, what can you lose?

Steep yourself in the issue shortly before sleeping — then ask for a clear solution.

Keep a notepad handy . . . .



Note: Your time


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Sprezzatura: Ignoring the weight of life’s burdens

There is a term for those who live vitally, with passion and humor: élan.

Italians give special praise on people who ignore the weight of life’s burdens, and live with its lightness. Sprezzatura (roughly translated as nonchalance)

Sprezzatura is the signal trait of successful people.

From Derek Sivers’ review of You, Inc. by Harry Beckwith. Check it out here.

Harry was that guy

When I was young and first hit New York City the pay was decent for being literate. Proofreading was an easy freelance gig for educated ne’er do wells still casting about for their Big Thing.

You sloshed around from industry to industry. From magazines to law firms to investment banks to the dingy back rooms of businesses you had no idea what the hell they did until you got there. Some you left hours later still wondering what they were up to.

Sometimes a freelancer would enter a building and never leave. Ten years later they were still there. Working their way up the ladder at NBC or in the same job, proofreading every boilerplate document sifting through the organization.

In the proofreading world no one was a proofreader. Maybe it’s the same with the pole dancing world. All had their sights set on the horizon. You met artists and musicians and pirates and belly dancers and body builders and outlaws and historians and writers and chefs and . . . so many aspirations tucked into that freelance community.

Harry was that guy. A slightly older 30-ish man of good looks, charm and indeterminate background. He had a law degree but didn’t practice law. Beyond that, any questions about his past were batted away laughingly, vaguely.

Max: So Harry, you’ve got to have a Mom. What’s she like?

Harry: She’s in prison.

It always came back to prison. Maybe he’d really been there he mentioned it often enough.

When I texted my friend Russell for Harry’s last name, he responded: “Harry ____, international jewel thief.”

Someone else: What did you do before proofreading?

Harry: Prison

Harry exemplified sprezzatura. You felt he harbored commitment, deep thought somewhere in the recesses of his being — but he wasn’t going to share any of it with you.

The 20-something women leaned coyly in his direction. We 20-something males admired his ability to remain unknown. It’s as if he’d ingested the Don Juan dictum to cultivate mystery. Don Juan is the Toltec medicine man mystic warrior at the heart of the Carlos Castaneda books who advocated looseness. Undefinability.

You know who else embodies sprezzatura?

Will Smith. Cary Grant. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Bill Clinton. Ronald Reagan. Starlord. Tony Stark. Han Solo. Michael Jordan. Richard Branson. People who make it look easy. Like you on your best days.

Young Elvis. Definitely not fat, bloated and prescription drug-addled Elvis.

The term sprezzatura sprang from an observation about what made for a successful courtier. (An attendee of the court. When royalty was also the seat of governance, courtiers were the powers and functionaries behind the throne. Had media existed then, they would have been the unnamed sources behind many a leak.)

Successful courtiers cultivated jaunty effortlessness. They may have spent hours in rigorous training, but it was the offhanded and casual way they displayed their skill set that impressed.

Among the accomplished of today the sprezzatura stand out. They are not the bitchers. They are not the ones wearing the weight of their responsibility heavily. There is no sense of burden. They are unpanicked.

The sprezzatura are fluid and gracious. They are effective with the exact right amount of effort. And no more.

Like an athlete whose years of practice has eliminated superfluous movement, the sprezzatura waste not. Excess motion, excess emotion, undue concern, a sense of struggle . . . these impurities have all been burned off.

Why does it matter to you?

Because the sprezzatura are exemplars. They are way showers for the rest of us. They study the actions that give them the most leverage and focus there.

Before we knew the Pareto Principle — that 20% of our efforts yield 80% of our results — the sprezzatura lived it innately.

They also understand above all, lightheartedness. In the daily grind or under pressure, there is a diffusing power to nonchalance. To be calm and affable when a situation seems dire is to diffuse the energy of the obstacle.

I believe that sprezzatura is a visible effect of wei wu wei — a Daoist meme meaning effortless effort.

A master aligned with the Dao — The Way — takes action in such an efficient manner no effort seems to be required.

The way I take a nap. Yeah.

The way a trained butcher cleaves and parts the meat from the bone with nary an impediment.

The way a top bull rider glides atop the bucking beast.

If you’re interested, here are three quick posts on this Daoist concept that will help burn it in a little more:

Wu Wei and The Law of Attraction

Wei wu wei: A demonstration

Ease, flow, wei wu wei, grace and allowing

Though we’re tossing a term from post-feudal Italy into a spiritual concept developed during the Warring States Period in ancient China, it fits.

A courtier of note would have recognized that the essence of a job well done is to appear as though it were not work at all. That the task at hand is but a piffle. Impishness might be in the air.

Your work will appear to be non-work one day. To you and to those observing you.

It’s what we’re aiming for: wei wu wei. To be so at one with the work that it proceeds from itself, as though called from us.

It will dance from you. GeniusJoy will course through you — through your work — and others will feel it.


You will feel it too. The lightness born from deep immersion in your creative play.

In fact, you’ve felt it. It’s what compels you to continue the work you do. The work you’d do for free but are giddy the world pays you for it.

Do more of that. Do it again tomorrow. Do it again and again and again. GeniusJoy will find its way to you. You will be its conduit.


1.5 to 2 hours: The short sharp upward arc of focused time

Restaurant on the Savannah GA waterfront

I’m a writer, so my metrics are not only about creative practice time but also about production. An artist might be looking at work created. A musician at tracks laid down, or segments of a composition completed. A coder might be tracking lines of (elegant) code. Whatever your creative project, you have a sense of forward motion — or not.

When I’m creating something new, I average 250 words a day. That’s a decent result for the 45-minutes to an hour a day I was able to squeeze in. 

Then I began a 30-Day Challenge of waking up 2 hours early each day for creative work. I’m three weeks into that. I’m doing The Work for an hour and a half each day with another half an hour at the end that’s optional.

It’s not optional whether I work those final 30 minutes — I must. It’s optional whether I continue with writing on a book project or if I slide on over to a post for this website or working on my email newsletter.

Want to hear something that will galvanize you?

Doubling from 45-minutes/1 hour a day creative time to 1.5 hours/2 hours quadruples your result.

I wrote over 1,100 words each day in the first few days. To have my work soar to this new level was nothing short of a transformational leap.

I was doubling my average daily creative time. Some days it was more than that. If I went the full 2 hours focusing solely on The Work, that was more than 2.5 times what I normally managed. (45 minutes a day was my average before, when I was fitting it in after my time at the art gallery.)

Still, do the math. Two times 250 words would be 500 words a day. Another half again is 625 words. Instead my output increased by over 4 times!

One and a half to two hours is a magical chunk of focus time.

It allows you to go deep. Even if you never attempt 2-hour early morning sessions, if you wish to create meaningfully and productively, aim for 1.5 to 2 hours wherever you can lock it into your day.

To paraphrase Mark Twain in another context, it’s the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.

Here’s the thing. Going from 45 minutes or so a day to an hour and a half or two is going from not quite enough to perfect. From years of reading about peak creativity, it appears most creative individuals can sustain a high level of concentration somewhere between 2 to 4 hours.

Even creatives who make their sole income from creative work often find themselves maxing out after 4 or 5 hours.

California artist Nicholas Wilton noticed that his average creative day involved 3 to 4 hours of strong work. When he collapsed that to 2 hours a day he found the process invigorated him — and the work. He even installed a large digital countdown timer on his studio wall to serve notice: Time is evaporating! Keep at it!

Recently I read someone suggest that there’s no such thing as creative block — only too much time. When you constrain your focus to a duration allowing for real immersion, you get results.

It’s all about immersion — 1.5 to 2 hours draws forth your best work. It allows you to sink deeply into the process — and stay there long enough to be effective.



Note: Really


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