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A fascinating strand of the human potential movement of the 1960s involved the dream mystique of a previously unknown Malaysian tribe, the Senoi, first brought to the attention of the Western world by adventurer-anthropologist-psychologist Kilton Stewart. Exploring the origin, attraction, and efficacy of the Senoi ideas, G. William Domhoff also investigates current research on dreams and concludes that the story of Senoi dream theory tells us more about certain aspects of American culture than it does about this distant tribe.
In analyzing its mystical appeal, he comes to some unexpected conclusions about American spirituality and practicality.
Everywhere we turn, the strange and sometimes frightening picture stories of the night called dreams are seen as somehow significant, as somehow meaningful. In many cultures, and in times past, dreams have been treated with awe and regarded as a mystery. As we know from the Bible, dreams are often a source of prophecies. In other places, they have been seen as a key to the elusive secrets of life that people persist in believing must exist somewhere. Some sages even see dreams as a way out of those universal human feelings of restless dissatisfaction that lead theorists to create such grandiose explanatory concepts as original sin, repression, and alienation. There is, in short, a mystique about dreams, an attitude of mystical veneration, and a feeling that they can be comprehended only by those who have gone through an initiatory process into a cult of deeper understanding.
Historically, dreams are one reason for the belief in a soul that is separable from the body; some of our dream adventures seem so real that we feel they must have happened even though our bodies were asleep. Dreams also contribute to the notion that there is a life after death-deceased relatives and other loved ones sometimes reappear with such a stunning reality in our dreams, talking with us in animated fashion or showing great emotion, that it is hard to believe, even when we know better, that their presence is merely the product of our imaginations.
The mystique of dreams plays a formative role in the widespread human belief in mental telepathy or thought transference. In some surveys, as many as 60 to 70 percent of those who say they have experienced mental telepathy do so on the basis of a dream, usually a dream in which a friend or relative dies, becomes ill, or has an accident in the dream-only to have the dreamer awaken to find that this event actually has occurred or occurs shortly thereafter.
The mystique of dreams is enhanced by the pivotal role dreams can play in times of transition, whether those transitions be cultural or personal. Dreams, for example, are often crucial in times of cultural crisis, when a society is facing attack or disintegration. At these moments, there will invariably arise new prophets or culture heroes, and their new preachings will be based on a dream or something closely related to a dream in popular thinking-a vision. For individuals, dreams are sometimes seen as critical turning points, particularly in the transition from youth to adulthood in tribal societies, where one's future calling may be decided on the basis of a dream, often a dream that is sought through physical isolation, fasting, drugs, or meditation. Or dreams may be very important when a person becomes ill, whether physically or psychologically. Shamans and other primitive healers often use dreams in a very dramatic way to diagnose illness or attempt a cure.
Western societies of the last century have tended to downgrade the importance of dreams, but even they are no exception to the claim that dreams everywhere and always have been seen as somehow significant and meaningful. What differentiates these societies from all others is the belief that dreams reveal the hidden aspects of our personalities, that their meaning can be found in the pattern of secret wishes and fears underlying the benign personas we try to present to the rest of the world.
The idea that dreams contain unconscious wishes and fears began in 1900 with the publication of Sigmund Freud's monumental The Interpretation of Dreams. By listening to his patients say whatever came into their heads about each part or element of their dreams, a process he called free association, Freud came to the conclusion that dreams were the "royal road to the unconscious." That striking metaphor has dominated educated commentary on dreams ever since, and a long series of rigorous quantitative studies by the psychologist Calvin Hall on dreams collected all over the world has tended to substantiate that metaphor.
However, for all the interest in Freudian psychology and its many offshoots, dreams have not enjoyed a position of esteem for the great majority of educated Westerners. Dreams are most frequently viewed as bits and pieces of random nonsense tossed off by a brain that is working at half speed, or as untrained fingers running randomly on a piano keyboard, as Freud characterized the dominant view in 1917. More recently, with the ascendance of the computer as the latest metaphor for mental functioning, dreams have been characterized as the processing of irrelevant information in order to clear the mind for the next day's work, as mere "glitches" in the computer programs that are analogized with our mental processors. Thus, interest in the meaning of dreams has been confined to those social scientists who study neurotic personalities or mental telepathy and to those in the general public who still use the stylized symbolic codebooks that have been around for centuries to play the numbers, bet on horse races, or foretell the future. Such unsavory associations do not lead to a general mystique about dreams.
But a new mystique of dreams has nonetheless taken hold in the United States over the past fifteen years, a mystique that is as old as the human race in some respects, but very new and very American in others. It is a mystique that sees dreams as a source of creativity and imagination and as a basis for interpersonal closeness and social insights. It is a view of dreams that came into popularity as one small strand of the human potential movement of the 1960s, but since then it has grown to the point where it is now a separate movement with its own in-group vocabulary, books and bulletins, and even workshops, institutes, and meeting places. Books on "creative dreaming" and "dream power," often invoking the wisdom of other cultures and classical Greece, have sold in the hundreds of thousands, and science fiction stories like The Kin of Ata Are Waiting for You and The Word for World Is Forest, based on mythical nonaggressive cultures that spend most of their time dreaming, are widely read and discussed.
Several different theories and traditions have contributed to the growth of this "dreamwork," as the movement is usually called. They include the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung's theory of dreams as a source of wisdom and personal growth as well as the Gestalt therapist Frederick (Fritz) Perls's belief that the emotional experiencing and dramatization of dreams by members of encounter groups can lead to the creative integration of the personality. The beliefs and practices of various Native American groups, as well as the general use of dreams in spiritual healing by tribal peoples all over the world, have also been a starting point for the new dreamwork.
Moreover, the movement has as its backdrop research on dreams that emerged from physiology laboratories in the 1950s. This "new biology of dreaming" linked dreams to a particular stage of sleep and to numerous behavioral and physiological changes, including eye movement patterns, that suggested dreams are often "watched" by the dreamer even as they unfold. This dream stage of sleep was found to occur in a regular pattern throughout the night, and some studies suggested that people become nervous or upset if deprived of it. These studies gave a material reality to what hitherto had appeared to be an ephemeral and irregular phenomenon and reinforced the inclination to believe that dreams are somehow of deep and fundamental importance.
In addition to these established theories and such objective research, there is one aspect of the new mystique of dreams that is particularly fascinating and compelling to those caught up in its spirit. This is the aspect known as "Senoi dream theory," said to derive from a small tribal group by that name. According to this dream theory, the sharing of dreams can lead to heightened creativity, improved mental health, and even a more peaceful and cooperative culture. Moreover, the dreams themselves can be shaped or controlled to bring about these benefits. These were indeed powerful new claims to be made about dreams; they stirred up the age-old feelings of mystery and wonderment about them that so often have led to their veneration.
My first aim in this book is to explore the origin, appeal, and efficacy of Senoi dream theory as a principal ingredient in the new mystique of dreams. I draw upon the findings of both anthropologists and dream researchers in order to understand Senoi dream theory and its applications. I use biographical sources and describe the spread of these new ideas in order to explain their appeal. I analyze the ways in which this new mystique of dreaming corresponds to fundamental American beliefs about human nature, and I examine independent sources of evidence on the usefulness of Senoi dream principles.
However, I have a second aim as well. The story of Senoi dream theory provides a springboard for consideration of more general issues in the study of both dreams and other cultures. This is an inquiry into the sociology of an idea. It looks at the intersection of biography, history, and cultural beliefs and provides an occasion for assessing what we really know about dreams.
Just what is this Senoi way of dreaming, and who are the people who are said to practice it? According to the literature of the Jungian-Senoi Institute in Berkeley, one of the many expressions of the new mystique of dreams: "Senoi dreamwork emphasizes the deliberate alteration of dream states, the resolution in dreams of problems encountered in waking consciousness, dream 'rehearsal' for activity while awake, and the application of dreams to creative individual and community projects." It is a theory, then, that sees dreams as an open and positive phenomenon that can be shared and shaped for maximum human development.
The people who are thought to practice this new way of thinking about and using dreams are an aboriginal people who live in the jungle highlands of West Malaysia. Numbering between 20,000 and 30,000 in all, they live up and down isolated river valleys in loose-knit settlements of fifteen to 100 people. They practice a form of slash-and-burn agriculture as they move from site to site every few years. They hunt small game with blowpipes, gather fruits and berries, and fish with traps and baskets when they are not taking care of their fields.
The Senoi are an easygoing and nonviolent people. Their ideas about dreams are so appealing because they are believed by many dream psychologists to be among the healthiest and happiest people in the world. There is said to be no mental illness or violence precisely because they have a theory of dream control and dream utilization unlike anything ever heard of in Western history.
The main source on the Senoi use of dreams is the work of the late Kilton Stewart, who first learned about the Senoi during a stay in 1934 in what is now Malaysia. His articles in Complex and Mental Hygiene provide the basis for the discussion of the Senoi in such widely read dream books as Calvin Hall's The Meaning of Dreams (1953) and Ann Faraday's Dream Power (1972) and The Dream Game (1974). Moreover, three different articles in Psychology Today, one in 1970, another in 1972, and a final one in 1978, discuss his work in a favorable light. Then, too, his 1951 article, "Dream Theory in Malaya," has been reprinted in such well-known collections on human possibilities as Charles Tart's Altered States of Consciousness (1969) and Theodore Roszak's Sources (1972).
The second source for these beliefs is the work of psychologist Patricia Garfield, author of the best-selling Creative Dreaming (1974). Although her book has chapters on the dream practices of Native Americans, ancient Greeks, and Eastern mystics, it is in fact built around her chapter on how to learn and utilize what are said to be Senoi principles for controlling dreams. Garfield visited with some Senoi at the aborigine hospital in Gombak, Malaysia, in 1972. Until Faraday stayed for many months with Senoi groups in 1982-83, Garfield was the only dream researcher besides Stewart claiming direct knowledge of Senoi dream practices.
According to Stewart: "The Senoi make their dreams the major focus of their intellectual and social interest, and have solved the problem of violent crime and destructive economic conflict, and largely eliminated insanity, neurosis, and psychogenic illness." Although highly cooperative, they are nonetheless individualistic and creative, with each person developing his or her unique personality characteristics. As Stewart puts it in a particularly well-turned phrase: "The freest type of psychic play occurs in sleep, and the social acceptance of the dream would therefore constitute the deepest possible acceptance of the individual."
Most of all, Senoi have near-perfect mental health. "Perhaps the most striking characteristic of the Senoi is their extraordinary psychological adjustment," says Garfield. "Neurosis and psychosis as we know them are reported to be nonexistent among the Senoi," she continues. "Western therapists find this statement hard to believe, yet it is documented by researchers who spent considerable time directly observing the Senoi. The Senoi show remarkable emotional maturity."
Those who write about the Senoi accept Stewart's claim that this unusual level of health and happiness can be attributed to the way in which the Senoi use and interpret dreams. "There are no well-controlled scientific studies to prove that peacefulness, cooperativeness, and creativeness, mental health, and emotional maturity are the result of the Senoi's unique use of dream material," Garfield admits. "However, there is much to strongly suggest that, at the very least, their use of dreams is a basic element in developing these characteristics."
For the Senoi, life is a veritable dream clinic. The concern with dreams begins at the break of day. "The Senoi parent inquires of his child's dream at breakfast, praises the child for having the dream, and discusses the significance of it," reports Stewart. "He asks about past incidences and tells the child how to change his behavior and attitude in future dreams. He also recommends certain social activities or gestures which the dream makes necessary or advisable."
The dreamwork continues after breakfast at the village council. "Here the serious work of dream discussion continues," says Garfield, picking up the story. "The men, adolescent boys, and some of the women share their dreams with the larger group. They discuss the significance of each dream symbol and situation. Each council member expresses his opinion of its meanings. Those of the tribe who agree on the meaning of a dream will adopt it as a group project."
The frank discussion of dreams is especially important in the promotion of social harmony.
Excerpted from The Mystique of Dreams by G. William Domhoff Copyright © 1990 by G. William Domhoff. Excerpted by permission.
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