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Dreams and the Politics of Connectedness

By Montague Ullman, M.D.

Dream Appreciation Newsletter Vol. 1 No.3, Summer 1996

Perhaps the most important challenge we face is how to connect our individual lives to the now obvious reality that the survive of humankind is at risk. Contributing to the mounting nature of the risk is our own failure to significantly impede the degradation of the environment and the equally significant failure to forego violence as a means of settling disputes.

There is a common factor underlying both these trends. Even more than gradual pollution of the natural world has been a more insidious and infinitely more dangerous form of pollution - the pollution of the human soul. The population at large has been conditioned to be taken in by lies, big and small, and not to see what is clearly there to be seen.

While Nazi Germany is often singled out as an instance of a level of social blindness that left an entire nation impervious to the Big Lie, the possibility for tragedy on this scale or on an even larger scale is still with us. The underlying dynamics have never been completely rooted out. This is the formidable task that still confronts us. Are we capable of creating a citizenry that is able to see through the tissue of lies that obstructs its vision?

We will each have to find our own way to political truth (seeing through the lies our leaders tell us) and personal truth (the lies we tell ourselves), neither of which is easy. In regard to political truth, Anthony Lewis put it very well when, in an article in the New York Times in December, 1991, dealing with the vicissitudes of free speech in America he noted, "Speaking truth to power is never going to be easy, not even after 200 years."

There is a connection between the scale of deception sustained by lies, big and small, and the way power is deployed in the management of human affairs. Only the cultivation of both social and personal honesty will enable us to discern the difference between the operation of power in a way that victimizes others (referred to by Abraham Maslow as asynergic power) and power that benefits all involved (synergic power). The former dehumanizes both the wielder of power and the victim. The latter nurtures the capacity of both parties to be fully human. In this it is somewhat akin to love.

At this point in our history we seem to be generating situations that are getting messier and more and more resistive to anything our current generation of leaders seem able to do. So far there do not appear to be any effective answers to the increase in violence at an individual, societal and international level and to a growing level of ecological damage that outstrips our efforts to contain it.

We seem to be caught up in what might be called the disastrous politics of disconnectedness, a politics that has led to alienation, cynicism and resignation. The social systems that should bring order and harmony into our lives generate unbelievable disparity between rich and poor, along with various other forms of destructive fallout resulting in a general state of moral slippage.

Having said this, it may seem unrealistic - or at least overly optimistic - to suggest that a greater understanding of and concern with our dream life might play a constructive role in providing us with insight into what is wrong at both a personal and social level and that through dream work gain the courage to do something about it.

As a psychiatrist my concern is with personal truth One road I have taken in pursuit of this has been to attempt to demystify dreams in a way that would make the personal honesty embedded in the metaphorical images of our dreams available to all. Dreaming is a universal phenomenon. In my opinion there should be universal access to the benefits that can accrue from them. For too long the public has been taken in by the prevailing mystique that serious dream work had bed be limited to the clinical domain.

As members of the mammalian evolutionary line we share two basic forms of consciousness with our fellow creatures: waking consciousness and the distinctly separate form of consciousness that accompanies the REM stage of sleep.

Our dreaming psyche arises out of an incorruptible core of our being that, in contrast to our waking ego, has never lost sight of the fact that we are members of a single species. Our ability to endure as a species may depend on taking that fact more seriously than we have in the past. Dreams reveal the site of connectedness of the individual to his or her past, to others and to the supports and constraint of the social order. Is it too much to hope that, as we move into a postindustrial society, the intrinsic honesty of dreams can be harnessed to this effort?

Remarkable as our achievements have been with our waking consciousness, they have been at great cost and have thus far failed to unify us as a species. We have separated ourselves from each other along every conceivable line of cleavage. We do not know where our dreaming consciousness might have taken us had our dreams been given, if not star billing, at least a featured role in the unfolding of the human drama. There are faint signs that dreams are becoming more than anonymous bit players. The past several decades have witnessed a growing public interest in dreams.

Dreams are a tool that can expose the impact of social inequities on the individual as well as reveal creative resources at our disposal to confront and repair the resulting damage to personal and social moral integrity. This ability to bring us closer to both personal and social truth arises out of an innate resonance we all have to the moral and ethical overtones of the truth once that truth becomes clear to us.

I don't think the truths that emerge in the dream spring de novo at the time of dreaming. I believe that we are sensitive at all times to the truth but that awake we have learned how to use a number of defensive maneuvers (the so-called mechanisms of defense) to play games with what we don't wish to see about ourselves. The emotional dissonance set up by these maneuvers can be brushed aside but never quite disappears. It remains as background noise, hardly audible during the day, but loud and clear at night.

At the risk of idealizing our intrinsic human nature, I have come to feel that as members of the animal species we share a sensitivity to what is real. In the case of our own species, that takes the form of registering the truth when we are confronted with it registering it not necessarily consciously, but somewhere in our bodily tissues.

Dreams zero in on areas of disconnects between ourselves and our past and ourselves and others. Anything that continues to interfere with that quality of connectivity in our lives, be it trivial or life-threatening, becomes the organizing focus of the dream context. This is not to say that our dreams cannot be positive, full of fun, and openings to treasures within us that we have hardly been aware of. The important point is that, in order to enhance our connectivity to others, it is time to connect with our dreams.

Our dreams reflect this concern with connectivity through both personal and social metaphorical representations. We are all familiar with the personal referents of the dream and in the way they conjure up visual metaphorical representations of personal issues. Dreams also contain social referents metaphorically depicting the way social issues impinge on our lives.

In a sense, all dream imagery is social in origin. As cultural creatures we have a vast array of images available to use. While dreaming we reshape and combine them to reflect the emotional currents at play at the time. We speak of the image as a social metaphor when it seems to tell us something about the unsolved problems of society while, at the same time, relating to an unresolved issue in the life of the dreamer. Dream imagery makes the relationship of the social to the personal more explicit.

Here are two examples of what I have in mind. The first is from a remarkable book, The Third Reich of Dreams, by Charlotte Beradt (1966)[1] and the second from a participant in one of my dream groups.

A dream from the Third Reich

Beradt's book is a collection of dreams that occurred during the rise of Nazism and were smuggled out of Germany. They reveal dramatically how fear and paranoia take root and become internal agents of self-control. The victims further victimize themselves and become unwitting pawns in the consolidation of dictatorial power. Beradt writes:

The instruments used in manipulating the human mind, from headlines to radio, in short propaganda of all sorts, emerged in dreams to pursue the intended subjects of totalitarian rule, just as they were pursued through countless dreams by Storm Troopers, the instrument of physical terrorization.

When, however, a middle-aged housewife dreams that the Dutch oven in her living room is acting as a medium of terrorization, this clearly is terrorization of a different nature.

"A Storm Trooper was standing by the large, old-fashioned, blue-tiled Dutch oven that stands in the corner of our living room, where we always sit and talk in the evening. He opened the oven door and it began to talk in a harsh and penetrating voice (again the Voice, reminiscent of the one heard over the loudspeaker during the day). It repeated every joke we had told and every word we had said against the government. I thought, 'Good Lord, what's it going to tell next - all my little snide remarks about Goebbels?'

'But at that moment I realized that one sentence more or less would make no difference - simply everything we have ever thought or said among ourselves is known. At the same time, I remembered how I had always scoffed at the idea that there might be built-in microphones, and still didn't really believe it. Even when the Storm Trooper bound my hands with our dog's leash and was about to take me away, I still thought he was joking and even remarked, 'You can't be serious - that just can't be!"'(pp.45-46)

Beradt notes:

The housewife recognized the cause of her dream - a particularly revealing one in this instance - and brought it up of her own accord. 'While at the dentist's the day before, we were talking about rumors, and in spite of all my skepticism I caught myself staring at his machine, wondering whether there wasn't some sort of listening device attached.'

Here we see a person in the process of becoming fashioned by a very elusive and even today not fully understood form of terrorization, a terrorization that consisted not of any constant surveillance over millions of people but rather by the sheer uncertainty about how complete this surveillance was. Although our housewife did not actually believe there were built-in microphones, she did catch herself thinking during the day that it just might be possible after all, and that very night dreamt that 'simply everything we have ever thought or said among ourselves is known.'

What dream could better suit the purposes of a totalitarian regime? The Third Reich was not able to install such devices in the homes of every single person, but it could certainly profit from the fear it had implanted in the hearts of those people who then began to terrorize themselves, turning themselves unawares into voluntary participants in this systematic terrorization in that they imagined it to be more systematic than it actually was.

In its own way, the Dream of the Talking Oven demonstrates how insecure the fine line between victim and victimizer can become. In any case, is shows what boundless possibilities exist for manipulating man. (pp 47-48)

A woman's dream

The gender issue comes to life in the following dream of a successful professional woman (Ullman, 1988)[2]

She is in her late thirties and is about to embark on a new relationship. She senses some hesitancy on her part and has a dream that displays some of the roots of her ambivalence. At one point in the dream she sees her father sitting on a swing with four female relatives, all in their heyday, dressed almost like can-can girls.

What emerged from the dream work were two powerful images that surfaced from her childhood to influence her approach to a new relationship. One was that of the male, derived from the image of her father, as privileged to flirt and play around with other women. The other image was that of the female as victimized by the profligate male, as her mother was. These are images that she is still struggling with. In a larger sense they relate to the residues of sexism, a social issue not yet disposed of. The privileged male and the victimized female are still available social stereotypes. (pp.282-283)

A sociology of dreams

Perhaps what is needed at this time is a sociology of dreams. The late Roger Bastide (1966)[3], a distinguished French cultural anthropologist who studied dreams in the primitive societies in Brazil and Africa, noted in particular the effect of acculturation on dreams and made a number of observations not yet given their full due. He was critical of the way sociologists ignore "the other half of our life" and envisage man "standing and sitting but never asleep and a dream."(p.199)

In contrast to primitive society where dreams are institutionalized and serve many different functions, contemporary civilization refuses "to accept any institutionalization whatever of the dream's social function, considering such an institution a 'waste product' not within the competence of a sociology worthy of its name - a kind of social sewer service." (p. 201)

The metaphor of a social sewer service is an apt current reference to the way social waste finds it way into the unconscious of those who are victimized by it. The true nature of the social inequities that generate the waste goes unrecognized. The responsibility is shifted to the victims, lodging in the individual unconscious domain where the only sign of its presence may be intimations of guilt. Personal guilt replaces social guilt and the status quo remains unchallenged. Social deceit is more difficult to face and more dangerous to deal with. Look at what happens to whistle blowers.

Dream sharing groups

There are aspects to my experience with dream sharing groups that are relevant to the idea that there can be broader social and political overtones to our dreams.

1. Dream sharing can and should fill an unmet social need. Over two decades of group dream work have convinced me that all of us have a need for a place to begin to explore and undo unresolved residual tensions and begin to free ourselves from the constraints they impose on our present behavior. No one grows up perfect. Dream work can lighten the emotional load we carry from our past and lead to a greater degree of freedom in our relationships with other.

2.   Dream sharing furthers growth and relatedness in a number of other ways. When mutual sharing goes on in the framework of a supportive, non-hierarchic structure there results:

a)   An empowerment of the dreamer who remains in charge of his or her own unconscious and controls the flow of the process according to the degree of self-exposure he or she feels comfortable with

b)   An empowerment of all the participants in the group as they master the skills needed in becoming healers for each other.

c)   A heightened regard for the dream as a spontaneous, creative and profoundly honest display of our own subjectivity.

d)   A sense of communion that arises out of deep-level sharing in an atmosphere of trust, support and the helpful concern of others.

Dreaming and connectivity

Our goal is clear - to make known to the public that, since dreaming is a universal experience, our dreams should be universally accessible. We have the responsibility to make known that the skills needed are teachable, and to continue our educational efforts to cut through the mystification that has enshrouded our dream life.

If we continue to track our dream images in regard to their social referents, a new kind of competence will emerge. It will be based on the ability to see in these images both the corrosive and healing aspects of the social structure of which we are organic members. We will become more expert in detecting the destructive fallout of power imbalances, and ultimately move a bit closer to the politics of connectedness.

[1]Beradt, C., (1966). The Third Reich of dreams. Chicago: Quadrangle Books.


[2]Ullman, M., (1988), Dreams and society. In M. Ullman and C. Limmer (Eds.) The Variety of Dream Experience, New York: Continuum Publishing Co.


[3]Bastide, R., (1966), The sociology of the dream. In G.E. Von Grunebaum and R. Caillois (Eds.), The Dream and Human Societies.