DreamTime Vol. 24, No. 3, Winter 2007, pp 8-11, 29-35.
"The Time-Release Capability of Dreams -- Part II: The Ordinary Dream as Numinous"
by William R. Stimson, Ph.D.
Montague Ullman believes that in the modern world dreams function to monitor our relationships and keep them healthy. A dream might focus on our relationship to the body (health), to the self and significant others (psychology), to society and culture (sociology), to the Earth and its environments (ecology) or to our work and leisure (creativity). A given dream can operate on any one of these levels, several at once, or all at the same time. It can also operate on a higher level still. From the earliest times it has been known -- there are religious dreams. Montague Ullman confided once to a group of us in training with him that he never understood what people meant by the word "spiritual" until he began working with people's dreams and came to see that deep inside every person there was an "incorruptible core of being" -- pure, whole, and radiant.
When barely eleven I had a dream in which I was astonished to find myself in the presence of God. To my surprise he was a small man with a frail body and a large head, very much like an alien in some science fiction movie. I was so astonished that God should look this way that I awoke. I'd reached an age where the religion I'd been taught no longer made sense. God in this dream, though, was very real. He awed me. I was left with the conviction religion was real, though not in the form I'd been taught it.
The core creative function of dreams and dreaming in humans in my view is a creative one -- to redefine on an ongoing basis what we know so that outdated ways of framing it won't interfere with our continued adaptation to reality. Dreams don't just remember who we really are when we ourselves forget. In dreams the particles of our experience, the items of cognition, the feelings and sensations that make us up, are continuously being snipped and re-connected in different and unique ways so that in a very literal sense we are being "forgotten" and re-"membered" - put back together again in a new way with our body, intimacies, relationships, society, culture, planet, environment, work, and creative endeavor. Montague Ullman stresses that dreams are healing. They make whole again what has been sundered. One relationship that gets sundered as much as any other is the one with our "incorruptible core of being." In dreams we are constantly being re-"membered" or put back together again with that.
In my thirties I dreamed an explosion destroyed my apartment. I quickly became aware that the blast was bigger than I had thought and that the entire building was blown away. Then I saw the explosion was bigger still. The whole neighborhood was obliterated. At that point I realized the blast was, in fact, a nuclear explosion. I saw the mushroom cloud vaporize all of New York City. But the explosion didn't stop growing. It turned out to be larger still than a nuclear bomb. The entire United States was blasted to bits and ceased to exist. I looked on as the blast grew still larger. I saw the entire planet Earth explode. Then there was nothing left, just empty space. As I looked upon this emptiness I was surprised to notice that I could perceive it for there was nothing left of me either. I had no body and there was no place where I could have stood if I did have one. There was nothing, anywhere around. Yet, there I was, fully conscious, looking out at the nothing all around.
During that period of my life I studied kung fu and Zen meditation under an arrogant and authoritarian Korean master who paraded his own enlightenment and his ability to get his inner circle of students enlightened. Not being wealthy enough to contribute to his building fund, and not being useful to him in any other way, I was not in that inner circle, so of course never got enlightened. At that time I also attended yoga classes and the Satsangs afterwards where a succession of young yoga instructors with super-pliant bodies talked about states of divine consciousness they'd never experienced and never expected any of us to either. I had this idea of some big thing called enlightenment that I was running after and trying to achieve for myself. I go to bed one night and a simple dream explodes into awareness and blows away every lesser identity I have until there is no place to stand, nowhere to be, except in the "incorruptible core of being." And there I am, not God, not enlightened, not anything big and fancy like what I thought, but just plain ordinary me -- at the center of everything -- without a body, without a mind, the immortal self that also resides in every other human being, in the same sense that the flame that flickers on one burning candle is the same flame, the identical substance, fire, that flickers on every other burning candle. This dream presented to me a very different concept of what the spiritual traditions are really about than what I was getting from that megalomaniac martial arts / pseudo-Zen "master" or from the supple young yoga teachers. As we grow, or as our culture grows, we reach a point where we have to shed outdated patterns of faith and engender creative new ones that fit better because they are more true than the half-truths that sufficed to get us up to that point.
This aspect of dreaming, the re-"membering" of us in ever creative new ways with our "incorruptible core of being" is marvelously expressed throughout the work of C.G. Jung. Jung's own dreams were so amazing, though, that his writings tend to leave the impression that the dreams that operate on this level are not those plain ordinary ones filled with humdrum images from everyday life but special "Big Dreams" that have the archetypal imagery found in myths, alchemy and the world's religions. In a dream group it's easy to spot the spiritual pride with which a dreamer presents one of these big dreams to the group; and how comparatively sheepish the same dreamer can be when she has nothing more to come forward with than some inconsequential little dream built up around goings-on from daily life.
This prejudice against the plain and the ordinary is silly. The great Zen adepts of old always stuck to the plain and ordinary, when they spoke at all. In the same way, Jesus held up an ordinary Roman coin to get his point across, and the Buddha plucked a plain roadside flower and held it up before his disciples, without a word. Little dreams are big.
The paper goes into great depth with such a dream. The dreamer presented it during the morning on the first day a two-day dream workshop in Taiwan. By the end of the session she understood it. Something happened that afternoon, though, as she worked on the next dreamer's dream that caused her to come forward the following morning with an understanding of her own dream that was opposite to the one she'd arrived at the day before. The same had once happened to me (Stimson, 2006), although it took me much longer. So I was interested to sketch out afterwards the events that led the dreamer to her second realization. What came into focus for me as I did this was a surprise third level of meaning to the dream. This grew out of the previous two and even more thoroughly accounted for the facts the dreamer had given us. The three levels of the dream functioned in unison as thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. The third level was religious.
In the Ullman experiential dream group method, only what the dreamer herself finds in her dream can be said to be its meaning. The dreamer did not arrive at this third level. It is thus a projection, much like those graphs of past and current warming trends that project with a dotted line into the future. It is a projection also in the psychological sense, as in "it's my own projection," i.e. I'm projecting something that would be true for me if it were my dream onto a dream that is not mine and that doesn't have to do with me. Where would anyone experienced with dreams get the audacity to do this? Well, in the first place, on the level of surface personality that dreamer and I may be quite different people, in almost every respect; but down on the level of the dream there is a certain collective humanity being expressed that I share in, and in which I am one with her, in almost every respect. And so in the sense that she has dreamed a human dream, I also am human and can find a basic human meaning in her dream. What I can't do is impose my understanding on her or pretend it's valid for her. I can only find meaning in her dream much in the way Joseph Campbell or C.G. Jung might in the myth or archetypal symbol of another culture. Monte calls an understanding like this, which comes after the dream group is over, a "delayed orchestration."
The second reason for being so audacious as to suggest there's a level to someone else's dream that they themselves might not have noticed is that I know perfectly well it can happen --for it happened to me. I am embarrassed to say that I didn't arrive at the further understanding of that dream of mine until a decade and a half had elapsed. It stands to reason that the deeper realizations suggested by a dream may take time to emerge and require some development of the person -- development perhaps not so much in the sense of education or maturation as in the sense of "scarification." This is a term botanists use for certain desert seeds that need to be knocked about sufficiently among the stones and rocks for their impermeable seed coats to get scratched and abraded. Water then seeps in and the seed can germinate. It shouldn't surprise us that, in an analogous way, it may be the surface wounds our self-concept suffers over time that give our most creative aspect the cracks it needs to shine out through our dreams with its divine truths.
Whether this third level of meaning I find in the dream will ever be applicable to the Taiwan dreamer I could not venture to say. I have no way of knowing. It's really none of my business. I can say, though, that it's applicable to me -- and it's applicable to this age in which we now live. Here in this "little dream" of an ordinary person, framed in everyday imagery, we find presented an entirely new way to grasp an age-old understanding that can set straight a relationship to religion that has gone wrong in our time. That information of value to a whole age can be found in the dream of a single individual is not unexpected. The personal problems of every generation mirror exactly those of the times in which it lives. In today's world what has become dysfunctional is the personal and collective relationship to what, as a species, we must hold sacred if we are to survive. This deepest dysfunction is at the root of all our other dysfunctional relationships. Our health suffers, as does our psychology, our social harmony, creativity, the very sustainability of our civilization, and the survival of our planet. Like every age before us, we must find a way to re-connect with what is deepest in ourselves to set everything straight again. It behooves us to take the time to look deeply into this one single dream because I believe it shows how simply this might be done.
The method used in working with the following dream was the Montague Ullman experiential dream group procedure shown in Figure A1. The stages of this process are described in detail in Ullman, 1996 and summarized in Stimson and Wang, 2004.
In the Fall semester of 2004, Dr. Shuyuan Wang and I conducted a program at Chaoyang University of Technology to train professionals in Taiwan how to lead the Montague Ullman style experiential dream group. The training stretched over four weekends spaced a month apart. Most of the applications we received were from mental health professionals who'd already participated in our dream groups. One application came in from a Taiwanese woman who, for purposes of confidentiality, I'll call Jen. She had no prior experience with dreams, had never been in a dream group, and knew nothing of the Ullman method. She wasn't a psychologist, counselor, or social worker but a professor of English at a national university. She applied not for the whole program but only for the first weekend. I was about to reject her application when I came to the very last item. Under "Please describe your interest in dreams," she wrote, " I wonder if dreams explain a part of myself that is not known yet." I admitted Jen into the program.
She was the first to walk through the door on the opening Saturday morning. She was an attractive Taiwanese woman in her early forties. Except for the professional maturity and sophistication of her bearing, she looked ten years younger. When the others arrived and the group was assembled, I invited each to tell their name and say whatever they wished about themselves and their interest in dreams. One individual after another gave their standard pat self-introduction. "I'm so-and-so at such-and-such an institution and I've had this training and that." Shortly before we came to Jen, a woman I'll call Ting threw aside her social façade and spoke out in a deeper more truthful way:
I'm Ting and am a professor in the Department of Early Childhood Education. I'm very well educated. But actually in the past few years I don't love myself very much. In school they didn't teach me anything about looking back inside myself. I feel like all my life I've only been using half my brain. You use your left brain or right brain but you don't use the other one. I'm a very rational person - I was. And I don't have any intuition at all. And that's a loss, a very great loss. Even in my academic work, I don't know what I'm interested in, I don't know what I want to do. I'm very happy to have this opportunity to really look inside myself and to learn how to be a ... -- I don't know how to say that -- ...to be a real person. I think that's the way to say it. This is a very good experience for me, so I'm very thankful for Bill and Shuyuan to have this opportunity to do this.
Next it was Jen's turn to speak. She began confidently and with assurance. "I am a university professor and have a lovely family -- a husband and two sons. They are away in the United States at present, which is the reason I am free to attend this weekend." That was perhaps all she'd meant to say. But something more was brewing. Tears suddenly filled her eyes.
"I am very nervous," Jen confessed. "This will be a chance for me to reveal myself." She proceeded now in a different, more intimate voice:
Probably just like Ting. I try to be very perfect. I give myself a lot of pressure. I'm trying to do everything very good. I try to look good. I try to be perfect. At the university I'm seen as a very capable and popular teacher. But I don't know what I really feel. I just want to meet other people's expectations. I don't like that.
Recently I'm practicing Falun Gong, which involves doing meditation and trying to be a better person. I'm trying to be myself, to become one with my divine aspect.
I know, I mean, there's some part inside me that's hid. I've been waking up in the middle of the night with terrible dreams. When Bill accepted me to this workshop he suggested I write down my dreams in the morning and then look at them later in the day to see if I could find any meaning in them. I started doing that. During the day, between classes when I have a few extra moments I've been reflecting on these dreams and trying to analyze myself. I have some things that are bothering me. I should calm down. The meditation relaxes me a bit and makes me less nervous, even though deep down I know the fear is still there.
And I'm here to ask you for help, to analyze what's wrong with me.
I made it clear to Jen that this was not a therapy group; and that, though the circle was full of clinical psychologists, social workers and counselors, none of them would offer her advice, counseling or help. If any of them did, it would my job, as group leader, to stop them. In an experiential dream group the help comes from the dream, not from us. Her own dream knows her better than she knows herself, and certainly better than any of us could ever possibly know her. Our only function in the group is to provide an environment where the dream can better speak to her.
I also made it clear that I am not a psychologist and have had no psychological training. The way I work with dreams is not to find out what's wrong with someone, but what's right. To connect deeply with a dream is to be put back into contact with what's truthful, healthy, and creative in oneself. It's the part that cannot be conditioned or corrupted. No matter what happens to us on the surface, it's always there, underneath all the rest. Different traditions have different names for it and define it in different ways. Montague Ullman simply calls it the "incorruptible core of being." To the extent a dream puts us back into touch with that, we come away a little truer to who we really are. That's what the experiential dream group can do. For anything else it's best to consult someone who's been professionally trained in psychotherapy.
After the remaining members of the circle introduced themselves, I asked if anyone cared to volunteer a dream for the group to work on.
Jen's hand shot up.
"Anybody else?" I asked, looking around the group.
Two others raised their hands.
I sat back while the dreamers decided amongst themselves which one felt the most pressing urge to do her dream. Jen seemed taken aback that she might lose out on the chance. "I did what I was told," she blurted. "I got an e-mail from Bill suggesting that I write down a dream and bring it in."
At this, one of the other dreamers immediately backed down. "I can do mine later," she said.
The remaining contender addressed Jen, "I sense you have the stronger desire to do your dream."
"O.K. Why not?" Jen said. "Since I'm new here."
Jen told her dream:
It was a sunny day. The sun was so strong. But I still had to go out to tutor a student. I had my sunglasses on. But suddenly I realized I forgot to bring my umbrella. But I told myself, "It's O.K. It's O.K."
Then I got into a house. I saw my son talking to somebody on the phone. I was wondering why my student looked so much like my son. He was very happy talking. And when he saw me he stopped. And then he hung up the phone and went upstairs. I followed him. I saw my aunt sitting on the couch. My son was standing beside her. And she blamed me for giving my son food that is harmful to his health. She said "Why did you feed him this kind of food?" She didn't actually say poison, "Why did you try to poison your son?" but I had the feeling she was accusing me of my bad cooking, something.
Then I woke up. I was worried. I was eager to clarify, to explain to her, "No. That's not true."
THE DREAMER ARRIVES AT AN UNDERSTANDING OF HER DREAM
Before the group could begin work, it needed clarification about the dream. In response to the group's questions, Jen elaborated on the feelings and people in her dream. As regards feelings: (1) She felt the sun was shining so strong in her eyes that she couldn't open them and she felt she didn't want to expose herself too much to the sun because of the danger of cancer and skin damage. (2) She felt shocked to find it was her son when she had been on her way to meet her student. And (3) She felt misunderstood by her aunt and felt her aunt's accusation wasn't true. As to the people in the dream, Jen told us (1) The son in the dream was her younger son. And (2) The aunt, a nice person with whom Jen had had a close relationship in her youth, had passed away of cancer three years before.
Jen sat back now while the group took the dream as its own and explored its feelings and metaphorical images. When this stage was completed I invited Jen to respond if she wished. In addition to the feelings she'd already reported having in the dream, Jen added that in the dream she felt she was shining and that she felt that in real life people see her as very responsible and capable, and as exceptionally fortunate. She compared herself now with the sun in the dream. Earlier she told us the sun's light was so bright that she couldn't open her eyes. Now she expressed the need to protect herself from the eyes of other people and even to hide and get out of the spotlight so that she can attend to something else than the kinds of things they're concerned with. She talked of her Falun Gong practices and how other people in her life don't understand them. She said she feels different from these other people but not in ways they can see. Rather it's in an inward way. What matters to her are higher goals. She mentioned the Falung Gong goal of connecting with another world.
The group set the dream temporarily aside now and turned to the events in Jen's life that might have triggered the dream. It began by looking into the moments immediately before she went to sleep the night of the dream and then worked slowly backwards. Jen told us she is very busy with her work at the university. Before going to bed the night of the dream she stayed up until midnight drafting a professional paper she's writing. She was tired and went immediately to sleep. She couldn't recollect what might have been going through her mind as she dozed off but reported that much of her thoughts of late have been about Falung Gong and the warnings people have given her about its practices being dangerous. They can't understand why she's involved with such a thing at all. Jen herself has doubts and is afraid. She wishes she could have the blind adherence to doctrine that she sees in the way a certain Buddhist woman she knows approaches her religion. She wishes she could be a true believer like that woman but it's difficult because she's a person who likes to think things through and dialogue with herself as she takes walks and during private moments. She has a lot more time to herself to do this now because her husband and two boys are away in the United States. Even though she's constantly hassled by all the work at the university, with its deadlines, with its evaluations -- she has come to the stage of her life where she's transcending profession and social position and embarking upon a journey of real inner personal transformation and developmental maturation. Hence her strong interest in and commitment to Falung Gong.
Jen has looked into her dream and she has looked into the events and feelings of her life that might have triggered the dream. Now, in what Montague Ullman calls "the playback" phase, she connects the two. A member of the group read the dream back to her slowly, scene by scene, and invited her to look at the images anew, in light of the real life events leading up to the dream. It now came out that the prospect of this upcoming dream group weekend was a precipitating factor in the dream. Jen said she feels ready to face the light. She feels she has enough protection, she's good enough. She feels that she's the son in the dream. The son represents that aspect of herself that is still learning, still a student, and that is reaching out to experience new things. The aunt in the dream, she feels, represents the voice of authority she has inside herself, which is telling her that doing the kinds of things she's doing to nourish herself, like practicing Falung Gong and coming to this dream group, are an indulgence and that she should throw all her effort instead into her work at the university. The fact that she argues with the aunt in the dream means to her that she's doing the right thing and that what the aunt suggests is wrong for her. She notes that that aunt died of cancer and that the image of the aunt in the dream is thus a warning that if she works too hard and tries to be too good, like that aunt was, then she'll meet the same fate and, in the end, get sick too. Jen pointed out that she's very conscientious about her job, meets her deadlines and sticks to her principles. Everybody knows that and she has a good reputation. Now it's time for her to pull back a bit out of the professional limelight and give herself the nourishment she needs for the spiritual transformation that's important to her at this stage of her life. This is the meaning that Jen has found in her dream.
In the next phase of the process, members of the group who feel they have something to add tell Jen what they think her dream means. Of course nobody can know what somebody else's dream means and these are only projections. Whether they're right or wrong is immaterial. The point is, they might jog Jen to go deeper, to consider more possibilities, and maybe come up with further insight into her dream. Should some member hit the nail on the head, it gives Jen the rich sense that in the deepest way she's been heard and that some other person sees who she really is and what she's up against in life.
At the end, he dreamer has the last word. Jen is invited to respond if she wished. She said she felt she understood herself better for all our input. She said she's found a way to take a journey of self-discovery and sees now that the reason she felt scared is that she listened to what other people said about this, people trying to get her to forsake the journey. She concluded it's not such a great thing always to try to be so perfect in the eyes of other people and that there are things she must decide on her own. Nobody else can give her guidance in these areas. She feels she needs to trust. "My problem," she concluded, "is that I care too much about what other people think of me."
Jen came to the group asking us to analyze what was wrong with her. Now she tells us, "I care too much about what other people think of me." I made it clear to Jen at the beginning that we're not looking into the dream to find what's wrong with her, but what's right. Jen tells us that she has found in Falung Gong a way to take a journey of self-discovery. She concludes that maybe those people who have told her things that scare her about this venture are people who have not themselves been on the journey and are trying to convince her not to attempt it.
Thus we have here a solid piece of dream work, especially for a complete beginner confronted with a complicated situation involving things about which she has no knowledge or experience. All Jen's strong points and successes have to do with moving out into the world, climbing the challenging ladder of professional success, mastering the complex skills needed and performing according to stringent professional standards in an exemplary manner. Now she's reached the midpoint of life and is turning naturally inward for a completely different journey. The skills, talents and traits needed for this adventure are the opposite of those she's developed in the first half of her life. She is at a loss as to how to proceed and even envies individuals who can cling blindly to religious dogma and beliefs. The dream assured Jen she's doing the right thing with her falun gong endeavor and suggested she need not care so much what other people say, either people on the outside or inner authority voices. That's a big first step for someone setting out on the inner journey. A lesser person might not have gotten this from the dream. Jen proved herself fully capable of coming to the meaning of her own dream, just like the very last sentence on her application form indicated she would.
Jen wrote this summary of what she'd gotten from working on her dream in the group:
A Healing Process
Participation in Dream Group did help set free the part of me that has long been confined to societal values. It is a self-revealing and healing process. Members in the group listened, asked questions, took my dream as theirs, and expressed how they felt about it with sincerity. Their interpretations mirrored my dream differently but inspired me to put all the pieces (metaphors) together and make them connected to that unknown part of myself. I was delighted by the affirmation that I have found the happy self. But I was even more thrilled when I heard myself making sense out of the dream in the end. Thanks to this dream experience, I've realized that I AM in the journey of self-discovery.
I told Jen not to think that any meaning arrived at in the group is some final interpretation for her dream but to be prepared for subsequent realizations that might surface at any moment when she's least expecting them, like when she's driving, or in the shower. I told her we'd give her a chance the next morning to say whatever she wants about any further meanings the dream might present her. Little did I suspect that the deeper meaning to Jens dream would emerge that very afternoon while we were working on the next dreamer's dream.
THE DREAMER REVERSES HER INITIAL UNDERSTANDING
That afternoon the group worked on the dream of a woman who, for purposes of confidentiality, I'll call Kimberly. -- an American very gifted with dreams. She'd been in a group of ours the year before and had done many years of Jungian work with dreams in New York City prior to that. We'd reached a point in working with Kimberly's dream where she'd just made a connection between her dream image of ropes hanging down the side of the building she was in and the fairy tale of Rapunzel locked away in her tower, who lowers her long hair to the knight so he can climb up.
"Are you ready to be rescued?" Jen shot out at her.
I cut Jen off. "In the experiential dream group, a member can't demand information from the dreamer like that. You may wonder that if you want. You can keep it in your mind and even use the idea in your orchestrating projection at the very end. But you can not foist that kind of leading and information-demanding question on the dreamer."
Jen turned immediately to the dreamer and amended her question -- "Are you ready to be happy?"
"No," I stopped her again. "Remember how when you worked on your dream you talked so much about how you need to stop listening to what other people think you should do. The questions 'Are you ready to be rescued?' or 'Are you ready to be happy?' presuppose that the dreamer needs to be rescued or that she is not already happy, or even that getting rescued is the way for her to get happy -- when, in fact, her dream is clearly saying something else and offering a different way out for her. So by putting such questions to her you are twisting her dream and implanting a societal input into her mind. You are sticking something alien into her, something that shouldn't be there, that's not useful, that doesn't belong, and that might inhibit her real development."
"We want to know what the dream is saying," Kimberly herself emphatically interposed, to explain to Jen what I was getting at.
"Exactly!" I said. "The question 'Are you ready to be rescued?' contains the presupposition that the solution to Kimberly's predicament has to come from outside herself, whereas in the dream she begins to find solutions on the inside. What's more, the question even presumes the problem is that Kimberly is in need of acknowledging her need to be rescued -- when this issue isn't in the dream at all and doesn't appear in anything Kimberly herself said. This dreamer is quite clearly a Rapunzel capable of finding her own way down from the tower. The danger of the question you asked is that it carries layer upon layer of societal suppositions and, under the guise of a harmless, or even helpful inquiry, functions like a Trojan horse to insinuate these foreign considerations into the dreamer's mind -- considerations that have nothing whatsoever to do with the dreamer's authentic process. To hit someone with a question like that is really a form of social control, group control of that individual's mind. It's a way of taking away that person's freedom to be and to become who they have it in them to be and make them what everybody else thinks they should be. In an experiential dream group no one has a right to do that to a dreamer."
I realized I overdid it with such a big speech and backed down. After all, Jen was new to the group. The mistake she'd made was one newcomers to the process frequently make. I try not to make a big issue of mistakes, except when I make them myself. Sometimes it's even a stupid mistake that opens up a dream. Little did we suspect that this one would do exactly that, but with Jen's own dream, not Kimberly's.
Jen withdrew her question and Kimberly went on a few moments later to tell the group in a very touching way how she felt that her mother had kept her sisters all these years in a kind of "cage" and how only she had escaped.
The following day, first thing in the morning, I offered the two dreamers of the previous day, Jen and Kimberly, each a chance to share with the group any further insights that might have come to them about the meaning of their dream. I jotted down what Jen said:
You guys helped me a lot yesterday. What has been bothering me a long time ago. The wrong questions I asked. How to ask questions...
I've been teaching for too long and I tend to impose my values on my students.
I'm trying to make them what I think they should be.
I'm trying to take off the clothes people have put on me. I don't think I'm really what they think I am.
Last night I didn't sleep well. I'm thinking about the purpose of my life.
My little son. I always think he's not doing the things I want him to do. I'm trying to make him the things I want to be.
I wasn't sure if Jen was finished. I waited a moment. She continued:
Another thing was the image Kimberly brought up yesterday, [turning to Kimberly] your mother actually put you and your sister in a cage, pushed you out of the ... what I was thinking I was trying to do this to my son ... because he's an artist, he draws and he sings and he plays the violin, he's doing this all beautifully, he has this talent but I am trying to get him to do schoolwork ... I'm still struggling.
Jen had offered the group the exact opposite "interpretation" (Figure 1) to her dream than the
one she'd arrived at the day before. The previous day she'd told us that in the dream the aunt was wrong and she was right. Now she was telling us the aunt was right and she was wrong. She could see, only now, she was "poisoning" her son, or at least forcing down his throat the wrong nourishment. This is a delayed meaning to the dream (Figure 2).
Jen's initial "interpretation" of her dream was that she listened too much to what other people said. But then when she was herself caught that afternoon firing a "loaded" question at Kimberly, she could suddenly see herself as another authority figure, doing to others what prior authority figures had done to her. Together with Kimberly's image of the mother placing daughters in a cage that emerged the next moment, Jen got shunted to a higher level of meaning in her dream (Figure 3). The
opposition of the "interpretations" was only apparent. As societal authority (1), the aunt was wrong and Jen was giving herself the right nourishment with the dream group and Falung Gong. But as spiritual authority (2), as the dream spiraled on up through the next level of meaning, the opposite was at the same time true -- and the deceased aunt, speaking as a revered ancestor, a denizen of "the other world," was right. Jen was indeed giving her son the wrong nourishment by placing undue emphasis on homework.
Recall that in the dream Jen felt shocked to find it was her son when she had been on her way to meet her student. She's been approaching the boy overly much as a teacher would a student. But to be hounded about homework might not be the best nourishment for a young artist. Something higher might be called for. Much more than the boy needs her to be yet another teacher figure, he needs her to be a mother who can lovingly nourish his creative potential by giving him the freedom to discover and develop it in his own way.
Jen later sent me the following piece of writing:
An Enlightening Moment
It scared me when I blurted out how I truly felt about myself. At first, I intended to talk about the questioning techniques I had learned and how I used to impose values on my students with leading questions. I realized it is the coat of authority and my profession that shaped my interaction of the world. I thought I was guiding and helping students, but I might teach them to think as I think, do what I believe is good, and eventually become my "shadows."
In the next second, what I just said dawned on me that I was doing exactly the same thing, perhaps even more with attention, to my son. While I was picturing how my son was being caged and forced to fulfill my expectations, tears of remorse kept rolling down my cheeks. I felt so sorry for him and myself. He's a talented and considerate kid, enjoys drawing, singing, and always tells me he loves me. But I was hard on him, asking him to do his schoolwork as how I did mine before. I was demanding his attitude be like mine. I thought I was nurturing him, mothering him, but I was making him a copy of my sad self. Who knows if he might be hurt so much that it will take him time and effort to discover his true self some day.
That was a scary but enlightening moment.
This is the delayed meaning to this dream, which Jen reached within hours of arriving at the dream's initial meaning.
IS THERE A FURTHER UNDERSTANDING, STILL, IN THIS DREAM?
The second tier of meaning to Jen's dream tells her she's giving her son the wrong nourishment. Since she associated the son in the dream with the part of her that is still learning and growing, and since she also identified the nourishment she's giving herself with her practice of Falung Gong -- then we can discern a third tier of meaning in her dream (Figure 4), one Jen herself hinted at several times but didn't actually arrive at in the dream group or, to my knowledge, subsequently.
At one point Jen said she wished she could make herself approach Falung Gong in the way her Buddhist friend does Buddhism, by faithfully submitting to its beliefs and dogma. Could the dream be saying, on its highest level, that if she did this she would be giving the wrong nourishment to the new part of herself, the part she's trying to develop through Falung Gong? In other words, could it be telling her that the same creative and imaginative freedom to discover in his own way that she newly realizes her son needs in order to become an artist, she herself needs to bring to her spiritual journey and to her Falung Gong practice?
Can the meaning be there in the dream if the dreamer doesn't get it? Yes. We must remember that something happens when we socialize a dream in a group that is not unlike when an artist shows his work finally in public, or when a writer in the end publishes his novel. All of a sudden what before was private, belongs to a larger sphere and other individuals may find meaning in it that the one who produced it didn't consciously intend or hadn't noticed was there. It can be seen from that point on not to belong just to that one individual life, but to the age that produced it, or even to all people living in all ages. In other words, we are free to look at Jen's dream not only as her dream, but also as our own -- the dream dreamt by someone like us living in an age like this. In fact we are prone to look at it this way to the extent it tells us something new about ourselves or expresses in a novel or more vital way something we already have come to know in our own lives or through our own dreams.
When looked at in this way, Jen's dream can be seen to make a statement as profound and far-reaching as the one Stephen Batchelor (1997) puts forward in Buddhism Without Beliefs . Contrary to the narrow misconceptions of Jen's dogmatic Buddhist friend, who blindly plods along sticking to acquired beliefs, Batchelor writes:
Dharma practice is ... akin to artistic creation ... we are freed to create ourself anew...
...Instead of finding a voice that speaks to the unique contingencies of our own situation, we repeat the clichés and dogmas of other epochs. Instead of creatively participating in a contemporary culture of awakening, we confine ourself to preserving those cultures of a vanishing past.
Self-creation entails imagining ourself in other ways... The ennobling truths are not just challenges to act with wisdom and compassion but challenges to act with creativity and aesthetic awareness...
...the Buddha set out on a path that started from a vision, was translated through ideas into words and actions, and gave rise to cultures of awakening that continue to inspire today. This development is analogous to the process of creativity, which likewise starts from an unformed vision and is translated through the imagination into cultural forms...
The genius of the Buddha lay in his imagination. He succeeded in translating his vision not only into the language of his time but into terms sufficiently universal to inspire future generations in India and beyond. His ideas have survived in much the same way as great works of art.
Throughout the session of dream work, Jen consistently referred to "the other world" as if it were a place apart from and different than this one. Is it? Jen consistently spoke of this "other world" as some realm she hasn't yet attained entry to. Is this the case? Does her dream have anything to say about Jen's attitude on these two questions? I think, yes. The instant Jen can realize she needs to let her son be free to be who he is, Jen is exercising that same freedom herself. She has attained a new level. I think this is what the dream ultimately has to tell her -- and this, I feel, is the dream's full delayed meaning. Jen came to the dream group asking it to analyze what's wrong with her. Instead work with her dream brings out something that is very right about her. Jen is already in "the other world." It isn't a separate place from this world but, as Batchelor make clear in his book, another way of being in this same world that makes the place entirely different. The notion of two worlds is a metaphor. Jen, a past master when it comes to the outer domain of professionalism, is a complete beginner when it comes to the exploration of inner, or sacred, reality. Like others all over the world, she has reified the metaphor.
The dream is informing Jen that her practice of Falung Gong has begun to mature. It isn't anymore what it was with her when she started out, approaching the practices in a rote "homework"-like manner (the part of her that is still like a student) -- but has already started to undergo a refinement, a change. It's not coming from the outside anymore, but has started to issue from within. It's become creative and alive; and if she is to follow this development she'll have to drop her old ideas about it and use her imagination and creativity (the part of her that is a budding creative artist like her younger son) to keep up with its dizzy progress. If she remains blind to this and continues to approach the practice in the old rote homework-like manner, she'll turn it into the kind of thing that can do as much damage to her own life and the world around her as millions of other dogma-fixated fundamentalists are doing in the world today. Her younger son in particular will suffer from having a mother like that. The dream came at the time in Jen's life that she needed it. It delivered a huge and hugely important message.
In a previous paper (Stimson 2006) I suggested that the subtler levels of meaning that can emerge from a dream over time argue against settling too quickly for initial interpretations. I used an example from my personal life where the quick and easy interpretation of a dream, true though it may have been to the dream and my own experience at the time of the dream, gave way over time to a more subtle and, in certain respects, opposite interpretation that turned out to be even more true to both my dream and my experience. I called this the "delayed meaning" of the dream and suggested it required incubation time and perhaps even the collusion of subsequent events to unfold into understanding. To the extent that this gradual unfolding is a feature of dreams in general, any approach to working with them that fails to take it into account risks missing the greatest gift dreams have to offer. The most challenging and useful feature of dreams in the end may not be psychological understanding at all but the open-ended truthfulness that they share with the sacred and creative domains, and the way that, like those domains, dreams challenge us to use imagination, intuition, and outright invention to bring into our lives, not understanding, but lived truth. The highest function of dreams, in my view, is to reveal to us in our ordinary, everyday conflicts and struggles, the functioning of an elevated creativity, and even a sacredness, that invents us over and over again in ways that are ever more true to who we really are.
In waking life Jen doesn't know the first thing about the inner journey and is approaching Falun Gong in the entry-level manner of someone following rules, doing what she's been told, doing her "homework" so as to get the reward -- a glimpse of this supposed "other world." But as I worked with her dream myself after the group was over, gradually there emerged a level in the dream which illustrates that in her depths she knows already, perhaps from her experience with her own profession or with her son, or perhaps just from some intuition emanating from the very core of her authentic nature, that the "other world" is not another place but a more creative and truer way of looking at this one -- and the terms on which this journey from the one mode of awareness to the other is to be undertaken are, in fact, the same as those by which her son approaches his creative endeavors. How remarkable that a woman with so little knowledge or real experience of religion can produce a dream that has in it an answer to the fundamentalist fallacy we see breaking out all over the world today.
To me this suggests that even the most enlightened understandings we need in life are already in place within us. They wait patiently there -- for hours, weeks, or even decades -- for us to see what we already know and wake up to who we really are. It is egregious that dreams, the most neglected creative and transformational resource on the planet still play so negligible a role in modern religious education and self-education and that we should instead have let dogma take over and wreck such mindless havoc.
REFERENCESBatchelor, Stephen (1997) "Buddhism Without Beliefs -- A Contemporary Guide to Awakening" Riverhead Books, NY
Jung, C.G. (Reprinted) "Dreams" from The Collected Works of C.G. Jung, Volumes 4, 8, 12, 16. Bollingen Series XX. Princeton University. New Jersey.
Maslow, A.H. (1968) "Toward a Psychology of Being" Van Nostrand Reinhold. New York.
Maslow, A.H. (1971) "The Farther Reaches of Human Nature" 423 pp. The Viking Press. New York.
Maslow, A.H. (1976) "Religious Values, and Peak-Experiences" Penguin Books. New York
Stimson, William R. and Shuyuan Wang (2004) "Working With A Dream Fragment - The Importance of Dreams and Dream Groups in Taiwan" Chinese Group Psychotherapy Volume 10, No. 1 p. 31-45.
Stimson, William R. and Shuyuan Wang (2005) "The Usefulness of Dreams and Dream Groups in Taiwan: Working With A Dream Fragment" Dream Network Journal 24(2): 15-18, 47.
Stimson, William R. (2006) "The Time-Release Capability of Dreams -- Part I: Personal Reflection" Dream Network Journal Vol. 25, No. 3, pp 32-35. 2006
Ullman, Montague (1996). "Appreciating Dreams -- A Group Approach" 274 pp. Sage Publications. Thousand Oaks, California.
Ullman, Montague and Nan Zimmerman (1979) Working With Dreams Dell Publishing Company, New York, NY
(1) The aunt was older and thus socially respected.
(2) The aunt was deceased and thus a member of the spirit world.