Mental resilience is the ability to respond to crises calmly and swiftly and return to normal quickly afterwards. The current approach to mental resilience is a combination of a can-do attitude, perseverance, and self-purported confidence, which works well under normal circumstances. However, over the last year as the world fights an exhausting and prolonged battle against COVID-19, a new model of mental resilience is needed to overcome unprecedented, complex, and monumental challenges. An Octopus from a dream and an insightful encounter has taught me just that, which I would like to share with the world.
“Work hard, play hard.” was the motto I was brought up under and what I teach my kids to prepare them for the uncertainties of the future. All my life, I’ve considered myself a calm and resilient person. Having immigrated twice, worked in the highly competitive investment banking industry, married someone from a completely different racial/cultural background, run my own business while raising our kids and looking after my senior parents, I have encountered many life challenges and managed to keep everything under control with hard work, optimism, and grit, so I thought.
All was good until the COVID-19 pandemic hit. It has impacted everyone’s life on this planet in many different ways. For me, the challenges have been keeping my elders safe, homeschooling the children, shifting my business online with new protocols, and supporting my husband through a major career transition — all these unprecedented changes brought on a tsunami wave of stress. I responded with my usual approach of “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” and carried on positively and bravely, except this time it didn’t work.
I started noticing that my left shoulder was hurting a lot. The pain intensified whenever I felt irritated or frustrated, to the point I couldn’t sleep at night. Nothing looked abnormal on the X-ray, ultrasound, or blood tests. For over six months, I tried to alleviate the pain with massage, chiro, physiotherapy, and acupuncture, but nothing worked. Running out of options, I sought pain relief in hypnotherapy. While in a trance, I had a vision where I fell asleep on my left side, and an octopus-like creature fell out of my left shoulder into the bottom of the ocean and jetted upwards towards the surface where there was light. Soon afterwards, a spirit guide appeared and told me that my left shoulder was the doorway to a healing tool and that my soul mission was to heal the world with dreams.
Not knowing what to make of this vision, two weeks later, on a prawning excursion, I had an encounter with a huge Giant Pacific Octopus, the size of a small adult human. I saw it on top of one of our prawn traps pulled up from over 300 feet below the ocean. It had been inside of the trap feasting on prawns, one of its favourite foods. When the trap began to move up, it had to squeeze its gigantic soft body through a tiny opening quickly. When we saw it just below the surface of the water grabbing on to the outside of the trap, it looked bright red and angry, as if to say, “who the heck disturbed my lunch?” Nevertheless, in the next split seconds, while I looked for my phone to snap a photo and my husband wondered whether to bring it onboard, the Octopus let go quietly and disappeared into the deep water.
As I reflected on how the Octopus responded to its crisis situation, I began to appreciate its intelligent and decisive move of escaping rather than fighting to keep its lunch and dwelling on its anger. By softening and releasing, it avoided the ultimate doom of getting caught and possibly turned into dinner. This choice-making is infinitely smarter than many humans who cling to worthless things, fleeting ideas, and toxic emotions — myself included as I reacted to the pandemic with fear, stress, and worries, all of which did nothing except exacerbated my shoulder pain.
Is there a way for me to release my emotional burdens like the Octopus let go of its prawn lunch? And, was I really to heal the world with dreams? To seek answers, I booked another hypnotherapy session. This time, in my trance, I went into the deep water, and the Octopus swam out of my body. It slowly swam around me, grew bigger and translucent, and expanded into an enormous jelly sphere. I was gently pulled into this soft glowy bubble and found my energy body melting into the shimmery slow-churning jelly liquid as if I was in a lava lamp.
Indeed, dreams serve to consolidate memories and process emotions. I am well aware of this from writing a book on how dreams impacted my life just two years ago. I began experimenting with leading friends and family members inwardly into the dreamscape and experience my Octopus melting bubble using breathwork and visualisation, drawing from a combination of dreamwork, hypnosis, and yoga Nidra techniques. Because of the pandemic, I conducted most of my sessions online and found them just as effective as in person. The results have been overwhelmingly positive. After waking up from the guided dream, everyone looked younger, felt more relaxed, and reported deeper, more restful sleep afterwards. Some encountered unexpected dream elements, such as dolphins, a sea horse, and religious deities, which offer additional insights. These experiments affirmed my commitment to helping people with the healing power of dreams and propelled me to launching a virtual dream therapy practice named Dream Heals (dreamheals.com).
Perhaps the octopus’s most impressive skill is shapeshifting. Its soft body has no bones and, as it explores different terrains, can change into any shape, texture, and colour instantly to blend with the environment. Instead of a central brain, it has eight additional mini-brains in each of its arms, allowing it extraordinary ability to sense and respond. It moves fluidly in the ocean water and glides gracefully with waves, yet jets decisively out of sight when a predator approaches. Shapeshifting and responsiveness combined give octopuses extraordinary capacity in surviving and thriving in highly dynamic situations.
Life on earth originated in the oceans. Over millions of years, organisms have shapeshifted marvellously to adjust to life on land. Our hard defined physicality, building structures, institutions, and sociopolitical norms provide stability, safety, and comfort but have responded with resistance, stress, pain, and breakage when an unprecedented change like the pandemic happens. Our world has been coping with another prolonged, monumental challenge — the Climate Crisis. In addressing this extremely complex, unprecedented problem, both perseverance and flexibility are required to come up with solutions.
We have lived in the pandemic for almost a year, surreally wearing masks and physical distancing on a daily basis. Whenever a new stressor appears, instead of tightening and holding onto the instinctive nervous reaction, I remind myself to soften and let go. I may not get things done as quickly, but I do it in a more comfortable way and enjoy the process a lot more. Surprisingly, when I manage to face whatever challenge with this new outlook, the challenge loses its intimidation factor and becomes just another task at hand. This, I think, is the secret to mental resilience. Rather than meeting hardships with toughness and rigidity, respond with softness and flexibility. The emotional heaviness dissolves and melts away.
Can mental flexibility be taught? While shapeshifting in the physical world takes a long time, in dreams, anything is possible. One can shapeshift, fly, slay a dragon, or ride a unicorn. In my dream therapy classes, I guide people into the dream world where they can practice these skills and make their minds more open, pliable, and flexible. This mindset can then be applied to problem-solving, negotiations, and crisis management in the real world. It has definitely helped me navigate my current relationships and responsibilities while launching a new life path as a dream healer.
As for my shoulder pain, it has improved significantly. The pain hasn’t subsided completely but has become much more manageable. Whenever I feel its restrictions, I consciously take a deep breath, visualize the movement of the Octopus, and loosen the muscles around my shoulder. The pain fades away, and I gain more mobility. This shoulder pain used to hurt me, frustrate me, and make me feel defeated and hopeless; however, thanks to my Octopus friend, it has brought new insights and tools in dealing with life’s perils, not just for me but everyone with whom I share the story.