DREAMS OF SOCIAL TRANSFORMATION
-KELLY BUCKELEY, Ph.D.
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Kelly Bulkeley, Ph.D.
Dreams have proven to be valuable aids in promoting the healing, growth, and wholeness of individuals. But can the study of dreams do anything to help society? Can dreams be of any use in addressing social problems like sexism, crime, ethnic and racial conflict, environmental degradation, and the worsening education of under-privileged children? The question I would like to pose is this: what, if anything, can we in the field of dream studies contribute to the process of social transformation? The most common answer to this question is that studying dreams helps society by helping certain individuals learn more about themselves; the growth and maturation of these individuals then ripples through society, promoting the welfare of all. This answer is legitimate, but inadequate. It smacks too much of psychological Reaganomics, of "trickle down" social activism, especially when we notice that the majority of people involved in dream studies are middle to upper-class whites. Is this really the only answer we can give? No, it's not. There are a number of specific ways in which the study of dreams can make direct, practical, and effective contributions to the process of social transformation: fundamentally changing our society so as to create a more just, more balanced, more humane community.
1. Dreamwork as Social Action. Modern Western society is sufering from so many crises and problems that we often feel overwhelmed by them all. How, we wonder, do we even start trying to resolve all these crises? At a certain point, we must simply face the ethical challenges posed by our society's problems and act as practically and effectively as we can to end these problems. Many people in the field of dream studies have shown that dreams and dreamwork can make real, substantive contributions to social action. Jane White Lewis has demonstrated that dream studies can deeply enrich efforts to improve the education of inner-city children. She taught a class on dreams at a public high school in New Haven, Connecticut. She found that by encouraging the students to bring their dreams into the classroom space, she was able to stimulate, deeply and powerfully, the development of the students' imaginations. Given that social critics frequently lament the feelings of despair and hopelessness that plague underprivileged children, Jane's work is powerful social medicine.
Another example of dreamwork as social action comes from Marion Cuddy and Kathy Belicki, who have shown that the study of nightmares can help society respond to the horrors of sexual abuse. Not only does dreamwork aid in the therapeutic treatment of abuse victims; it also provides society with important information on this deeply disturbing and heatedly debated problem. Marion and Kathy have found that the victims of sexual abuse suffer from nightmares with distinctive images, themes, and emotions. Their research on the strong connection between nightmares and abuse is directly relevant to the debates raging through our society about whether sexual abuse is "real" or just a product of "false memory".
Two other examples of dreamwork as social action range into terrain even farther removed from the conventional bounds of psychology. Herb Schroeder, a researcher with the U.S. Forest Service, has pointed to the practical relevance of dreams for addressing the environmental crisis. He argues that we should not always interpret dream images of animals, trees, lakes, etc. as symbols of our "inner nature"; such dream images may also be reflecting the outer wilderness, and may be telling us about our (often troubled) relationship with the natural environment. To the extent that the environmental crisis has been caused by humans forgetting their vital connectedness to nature, Herb's work indicates that dreams with nature imagery can be valuable means of renewing that connectedness.
(See also Kelly Bulkeley, "The Quest for Transformational Experience: Dreams and Environmental Ethics", Environmental Ethics 13 (1991), 225-234.)
Bette Ehlert has revealed the potential of dream study to aid in the reform of prison inmates and criminal offenders on parole. Bette has led dreamwork groups in various New Mexico correctional facilities, and she has found that dreams bring forth very clearly the symbolic context of the offender's particular crime, its roots in the person's usually trauma-filled life history, and its meaning for his or her potential growth and rehabilitation. Bette's work promises to deepen our understanding of why crime occurs, to help criminal offenders keep from committing more crimes, and perhaps even to suggest ways to prevent crimes from occurring in the first place.
These examples prove that the study of dreams can help move us beyond what Martin Luther King called "the paralysis of analysis" and towards truly practical, concrete responses to society's most pressing troubles.
2. Dreams and Dialogues with "Other" Cultures.
One of the major challenges facing Western society as we enter the new millenium is learning how to live in a multicultural world, a world of extremely diverse races, religions, and social systems. The study of dreams can play a powerful role in helping us understand and relate better to "others". I put "our" culture and "other" cultures in quotation marks in order to emphasize the highly relative nature of these terms. Dreams provide an ideal bridge for cross-cultural communication. On the one hand, dreaming is a universal experience that unites all humans, no matter what their cultural background. On the other, dreams are intricately shaped by the dreamer's particular cultural world, meaning that to study other people's dreams is an excellent way to learn about their society.
Many dream researchers have begun journeying across this bridge, sharing dreams with people from different cultures. Jayne Gackenbach's fascinating work with the Cree Indians of Northern Alberta teaching them about Western dream theories and, in turn, being taught by them about their own Native dream theories, shows that dreams can be a wonderful means of reaching out across cultural differences. Jayne's experiences raise the hope that cross-cultural dream-sharing can be a means of healing some of the conflicts that have arisen between "modern" and "native" cultures.
Along the same lines, Anthony Shafton's thought provoking studies of the role of dreams in African-American culture raises important questions about subtle racial biases that are built into our major dream theories and practices. He finds that African-Americans tend to express, share, interpret, and apply their dreams in ways that "deviate" from the norms established by leading dream psychologists, most of whom are white. If we become more conscious of these biases, Shafton suggests, we may discover the power of dreams to promote greater interracial understanding.
The work of Jayne, Anthony, and the many anthropologists now studying dreams all illustrate the extremely valuable discoveries that can be made by the cross-cultural study of dreams. These discoveries are directly relevant to our society's task of learning to understand and relate better to people from different ethnic, religious, and political backgrounds.
3. Dreams, Spirituality, and the Modern World.
Many social commentators have said that modern Western society is suffering from a deep crisis of values, what can only be described as a spiritual crisis. For example, see MLK, Bellah, Ricoeur, Rieff, Berger.
The spectacular rise of modern science has undermined many people's faith in traditional religious values, but modern science has not provided any alternative values to give people moral guidance and spiritual sustenance. The spiritual vacuum created by the "triumph" of modern science over religion has, ironically, prompted the ominous upsurge of religious fundamentalism. What our society desperately needs is a "post-critical" spirituality, a spirituality that can provide rich existential meaning and purpose without rejecting the legitimate virtues of science and rationality. Here again, the study of dreams offers excellent resources. People like Morton Kelsey, John Sanford, Louis Savary, James Hall, and Jeremy Taylor have demonstrated that the study of dreams can give people exactly this sort of spiritual guidance and orientation. Dreams can reinvigorate the beliefs of people already in a religious tradition, and they can offer valuable new spiritual insights to people who are not conventionally "religious". But exploring the spiritual dimensions of dreams does not mean that we must abandon the findings of modern science. As I argue in The Wilderness of Dreams, modern scientific dream research actually supports and legitimates the idea that dreams have spiritual meaning.
(Kelly Bulkeley,The Wilderness of Dreams: Exploring the Religious Meanings of Dreams in Modern Western Culture(Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, in press)).
Dream researchers like Calvin Hall, J. Allan Hobson, and Harry Hunt have shown that the meaningfulness of dreams stems from vivid metaphorical images that are generated in the process of dream formation; this discovery fits perfectly with the view of leading scholars of religion that religious or spiritual meanings first emerge in the form of vivid metaphorical images. See, for example, the work of Paul Ricoeur, Don Browning, Sallie McFague, David Tracy, and George Lakoff. Thus, scientific research supports what the world's religious traditions have taught throughout history, that dreams are a primary source of the metaphorical images (what I call root metaphors) that inspire, nurture, and sustain human spirituality. The study of dreams opens the way to a spirituali¬ty that may, by transcending the old "religion vs. science" debate, help guide us through the confusing, frightening years leading to the close of the 20th century.
4. Dreams and Critical Reflections on "Our" Culture.
Working to overcome social problems requires practical action, but it also requires an analysis of the deep-lying cultural assumptions, biases, and prejudices that have generated those problems. Without this kind of cultural analysis, efforts at social reform only attack symptoms instead of root causes. The study of dreams can promote such analysis because the particular ways in which modern Westerners have approached dreams reveal a great deal about our culture's basic values and assumptions, what Fredric Jameson calls "the political uncon¬ scious". Thanks to Carol Schreier Rupprecht for directing my attention to Jameson's work. For exam¬ple, Johanna King has shown how a kind of "narcissism" pervades Western dream research, leading us to focus on internal, "subjective" meanings in our dreams and to ignore those meanings that refer to external, "objective" aspects of reality. Johanna's analysis raises important questions about the narcissism of modern Western culture as a whole questions about our culture's tendency to reduce complex social problems to matters of individual behavior. E.g., the tendency to see AIDS as caused by gay sex, the drug crisis as caused by people failing to "just say no", unemployment as caused by laziness, and sexual harassment as caused by provocative clothing. Similarly, Carol Schreier Rupprecht has examined the often hidden but absolutely devastating effects of gender and class inequalities on dream education in American colleges and universities. Her findings give us new insights into the pervasive influence of such inequalities throughout modern Western society. And my study of people's dreams during the 1992 Presidential election enables us to see the complex interplay between the "personal" and the "political" realms of life. While our society tends to split the private world of the individual from the public world of the community, I found that people's dreams revealed an intimate relationship between their personal experiences (e.g., involving marital fidelity or a change of jobs) and their political attitudes (e.g., regarding the trustworthiness of politicians or a possible change of administrations). The analyses conducted by Johanna, Carol, and myself are all evidence of how the study of dreams provides an excellent window onto the "political unconscious" of the modern West. These, then, are some of the ways that the study of dreams does have social relevance and can contribute to the process of social transformation. None of this means that dreams are "the solution" to the world's problems, however. Indeed, this is the unsettling reality of the post Cold War world there is no one great, universal solution to our social problems. Not the free market, not the Bible, not computers; the yearning for a single magical solution must now yield to creative new efforts to devise a multiplicity of tools for overcoming society's problems. The study of dreams has already provided some of these tools. We can hope that the future development of the dream studies field will bring forth still greater contributions to the process of social transformation.
Kelly Bulkeley, Ph.D., is the editor of Dreams of Social Transformation: Essays on the Future of Dream Studies (State University of New York Press: forthcoming). This essay is adapted from the introduction to that book.
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