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On Raising the Social Priority of Dreams


Dream Network Bulletin, volume 5, number 6, March/April 1987

At this time of frenetic tensions in the world and the near insuperable problems posed by them it might seem somewhat inappropriate, if not outright ridiculous, to suggest that a greater concern with our dream life may orient us a bit more faithfully to some of the underlying causes. To understand how this could be so we would have to shift our focus from the way that dreams are usually thought about and worked with in the consulting room and take a somewhat eccentric view that can highlight other remarkable features of our dreaming consciousness. Dreams are valuable to the clinician because they speak to hidden dimensions of our life which, when brought to the surface, put us more in touch with ourselves and in a more truthful way than we were before. What else can our dreams tell us?

Unlike the poet who rearranges words to achieve, through metaphor, the emotional tone he is striving for, the dreamer does something quite analogous by rearranging images instead of words.

Effortlessly and periodically throughout the night we are in the business of manufacturing metaphors, visual metaphors, to be exact. We find ourselves, for example, in a dream, driving downhill in a car with no brakes. Metaphorically speaking, some aspect of our life has gotten out of control.

Where does the raw material for this manufacturing process come from? The answer, of course, is from our individual lives, shaped as they are by our membership in a given society. The raw material that goes into the creation of these visual metaphors is free for the asking in the market place of images available to human beings down through the ages. The images we draw upon are a heritage of our evolution as social creatures hell bent on mastering the art of civilizing ourselves. We seem to know implicitly that our ultimate fate depends on whether or not we succeed in this project.

This raw material, transformed into the imagery of our dreams, betrays its social origin. Someone who doesn't know about the existence of computes is not apt to dream of them. In carrying with it these social traces the dream image, at the same time that it speaks to an unsolved problem in the dreamer, may connect metaphorically with an unsolved social problem in society. A young white woman who dreams of being attacked or raped by a black man is revealing not only an individual tension but a social tension as well. This is an image I have never encountered in listening to many hundreds of Swedish dreams and have not infrequently encountered in this country. Here in a country that has not outgrown its racism, it is an image that remains available for use by the dreamer. In being available it can, in its revelatory power, go beyond the immediate personal issue involved and confront the dreamer with where part of her psyche is in relation to a broader social issue.

While dreaming we concern ourselves with whatever is currently impinging on the fabric of our connections to significant others (in the Sullivanian use of the term, not the current idiom). We have been accustomed to seek out psychological causes within ourselves for such disruptions and to explore our past for clues as to their origins. What is commonly overlooked, however, is the social dimension to some of these disruptions. If this is allowed to come into view the dreamer can arrive at a deeper appreciation of how his or her personal responsibility dovetails with the responsibility of society as a whole. At times we are victimized by the way certain social arrangements and institutions constrain our lives. Where sexual inequality exists as a still unresolved social issue a woman may dream of herself as a cow, domesticated and used by the farmer. The individual and the social tensions come together in a mutually reinforcing way.

We concern ourselves in our dreams with these disruptions because our own humanity thrives best in an atmosphere of affectionate and cooperative ties to others. Dreams provide us with an opportunity to explore, understand and change whatever may be in the way of establishing such ties. In this respect I believe our dreaming consciousness goes beyond a concern for the individual and arises out of a more basic concern, namely, the survival of the species. One of the unfortunate byproducts of the historical evolution of human society is the enormous fragmentation that has occurred among members of the human species and the terrible tensions that have been associated with this fragmentation. We need only mention, as examples, religious, racial, sexual and economic class distinctions, in addition to accidents of geographical separation and differentials in cultural evolution.

While as individuals we may concern ourselves very little with the integrity of our connections with others, pursue an unsavory way of life, run roughshod over others and still live to a ripe old age, it is becoming more and more unlikely that we will survive as a species unless we can get our act together and learn how to surmount the historical fragmentation that has occurred. Dreams can provide us with one more tool in the struggle to repair and maintain that sense of species-connectedness so essential for our survival.

What is needed at present is some revision in our view of the importance of our dream life. Dreams are very low in the list of social priorities. We do not introduce dream work into the family or educational system. As adults we are left to our own devices in satisfying our natural curiosity about our dreams. The only socially sanctioned arrangement for dream world is the therapeutic situation where we pay someone to help us with our dreams. All of us are dreamers and not all of us need therapy. Where can the rest of us go? Dream dictionaries? They are more often misleading than helpful.

The knowledge and skills necessary for effective and safe dream work can be identified and taught to anyone with sufficient interest. There is a growing awareness that this is so and that the time has come for professionals to open the doors to the lay public. Were dream work to be socially upgraded and the proper arrangements made for extending it into the community we would not only provide the individual with a vehicle for personal growth but we might also catch a glimpse of the underside of our own social order and its emotional impact on each of our lives.