Kyoto Journal, Vol. 80, pp 190-198. 2014.
William R. Stimson
Books, Dreams, and Brains
In my younger years I went through a period where I read a great many books on dreams, until which point I came to the realization it was far more fruitful to learn directly from dreams than to learn about them. I went on to spend the greater part of my life working with dreams and showing others how to do this. Over the last decade, especially, I became more and more aware that something of profound importance was making itself known through this work with dreams; and that it needed to be said, for it stood to make a really big and a really positive difference in the world. As I was beginning to organize my findings into a book, I came across Iain McGilcrist’s The Master and his Emissary - The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. Page after page, sentence after sentence, of this masterfully researched and written work showed me everything I thought I alone had in me to say about dreams - only Iain McGilchrist said it better. What most fascinated me, though, was that he wasn’t saying it about the mind that dreams vs. the mind that governs us while awake. The entire book only mentions dreams in one or two spots. McGilchrist’s study was of the right and left hemispheres of the human brain. He expresses his central finding in terms of a story told by Nietzsche about a wise Master who governed a prosperous and peaceful country. This Master’s most gifted emissary came to see himself as Master. He ousted the real Master, made himself ruler, and thereby drove the country to ruin.
This narrative of two different kinds of intelligence, of course, is the same one we encounter all the time in the Ullman dream group. Awake, we are governed by a lesser intellect, the conceptual self, which doesn’t have direct access to our real source of wisdom, creativity, intuition, and spiritual enlightenment. This is the part of us that education dotes on today. Only when we fall asleep and dream do we happen to fall into the realm of our true mastery, which in my writing I’ve purposefully called any number of names; because, in truth, we can’t know what it is. Montague Ullman called it our incorruptible core of being. We don’t understand the intuitive genius we encounter in dreams, or the godliness, even though it is our own deeper self, because it expresses itself in a language and a mode of thought alien to the one we’re schooled in, and because what it tells us contradicts so much that our logical waking intelligence holds to be true. The metaphorical language and thought process of dreams is that of McGilchrist’s right cerebral hemisphere. In fact, we recognize in dreams every one of the features of the right hemisphere he describes in his book. This is the rightful master of human intelligence that primitive superstitious cultures have always had access to, by means of their rituals, myths, or religions. Today’s supposed scientific enlightenment has robbed us of this connection with our inner core, pulled us away from the kind of intelligence found in dreams, and set us up under a fake master that has us, and the planet, on a dangerous course.
McGilchrist argues that we need to right the imbalance that currently exists between these two ways of knowing in us for today what is favored is increasingly the lesser, parasitic, part - and not the main, core, part of our intelligence. I couldn’t say it any better. I urge every reader to run out and buy his book. I certainly have neither his intelligence as a researcher nor his gift as a writer. What I do have, though, is a lifetime of working closely with the dreams of a great many individuals in the East and in the West. What I do have is a simple and effective way to do this, the Ullman dream group class, that fits seamlessly into the university curriculum, and that I have found in Taiwan during these past ten years can set right what McGilchrist so accurately shows to have gone wrong. Dreams are the way to the rich trove of right brain aptitudes that need to come forth and express themselves in our lives if we are to prevail in these times.
Our Metaphor Mind
By means of metaphor the dream can find in one thing, which is new and unknown, the reflection of another, which is already familiar and which is known. Metaphorical thought is the raw growth of intelligence, seen in action. We see again and again in the Ullman group how every dream, and every dream image, brings forth new intelligence by means of metaphor. The reality we find reflected in a dream is astonishing for the richness and newness of its information. It feels like we are suddenly plopped down into the world of the Zen master, the poet, the artist, the religious mystic. This is the realm of direct access to the growing bud of intelligence. Things here aren’t reduced to what will fit into our concepts of them. We experience the entity itself, in all its raw “presence,” with all its unfathomable “mystery,” which is in actuality an overflowing richness of original intelligence, not yet subjected to some old way of understanding or conventional usage - it hasn’t been messed with, it is virgin and unsullied, pure and whole, not yet reduced to this or that. We find a very different picture of what we think we already know - and can see it suddenly as something we don’t yet really know, or are only in the process of coming to know. So much turns out to be different from what we have supposed. The simple genius of the dream is that it frames and presents data in ways that make known the unknown, and make felt the unfelt.
McGilchrist cites a study suggesting that during REM sleep and dreaming there is greatly increased blood flow in the right hemisphere; and another indicating that EEG coherence data point to the predominance of the right hemisphere in dreaming. Whatever parts of the brain might produce dreams, or be active during dreaming, doesn’t really matter for our purposes. Anyone can see in an Ullman group, the kinds of awareness manifested by a dream reflect those that neurologists associate with the right brain.
The matter is blindingly simple: to act on the intelligence that we have, indeed, to be who we are, to own the fullness of our unique individual and collective human capabilities, we need to have access to what we know, including our very latest intuitions; and we need to be aware of what we feel, including those nagging nuances of feelings that sometimes come running along behind us biting at our heels. An education that does not afford us this capability, in matters of general importance as well as in matters of particular personal urgency - an education, in other words that teaches us the left brain’s kind of knowledge, but does not afford us a glimpse of that other, very different, way of knowing, that we obtain from the right brain - is not only defective, it is dangerous.
When we neglect the intelligence of dreams we have knowledge but not wisdom, technological progress but not human improvement, accumulation of wealth and power but not a fertile and productive distribution of those commodities, control of nature but not a healthy environment, expansion of the economy but not in a sustainable way. We diminish ourselves and the world in which we live to such an extent that we end up bequeathing to future generations a frayed tapestry of despoiled environments, foolish fundamentalisms, thieving economies, corrupt hierarchies, unfair societies, broken families, and lost selves. The single most important task facing educators today is to provide students a way to go back and pick up the dream’s way of knowing and being, so that they can develop this and bring it into play in ways that today we cannot even imagine. This, students can’t get from the Internet or from all those nifty new applications on their cell phones. We give the young more than anything else we could give them if only we introduce them to what’s to be found in their own dreams. For by doing that we empower them in ways that render them uniquely suited to the world in which they already live, the one we ourselves have no way of knowing about.
A Simple Matter of the Heart
The dream we will now look at is small and simple, the group didn’t get enough time to go into it very deeply, and the dreamer could barely fumble out her meaning in English. Yet, it illustrates with astonishingly clarity what it means to be of two minds about something of absolute personal importance - and how simply it can come about that one mind has no idea what the other is thinking. Christine’s dream shows with great simplicity and startling clarity what all dreams show when approached with the Ullman method - that it is the rule rather than the exception for the mind that makes our waking decisions to be strangely inferior to the mind that frames our dreams, and for it to be largely ignorant of the kinds of things the dreaming mind knows.
I chose Christine’s dream to present here because it doesn’t deal with anything big and fancy, but with a simple matter of the heart; and shows how easily a dream, when opened up in an Ullman group, can show a student what she actually feels, which is usually enough to put the master back in his rightful place and set right what has gone wrong with her world.
A Horrifying Nightmare
At National Chi Nan University I ended up during the 2010-2011 school year relegated to giving the dream group as an extracurricular activity in a Language Center program called the English Corner, which the university runs so students have a place where they can practice speaking English. The venue was far from ideal. Instead of the three hours needed for the dream group class I was only allotted a 1 hour 50 minute time-slot. A different hoard of new students crowded in each week at the behest of some English professor or other, and so I had to explain from scratch to the newcomers what we were doing as we did it. Under these conditions the core of committed on-going group members was vanishingly small, and even that constantly changed. It would be hard to imagine a more unsuitable environment for the Ullman dream group class. One week a student told such an exceptionally long dream that it took us almost the whole time just to write it down. We had to stay over an hour later to finish up the work with it. The Language Center gave me hell for that. The following week was a bleak and chilly December evening and, as I biked across campus a half-hour early to arrange the room and set up the circle of chairs, I composed in my mind the e-mail I’d decided to dash off to the Language Center when I got back home, informing them I didn’t want to do this anymore.
I arrived at the darkened and empty classroom building and climbed the stairs. On a bench in the open-air hallway outside the locked door of the English Corner room sat a lone co-ed huddled against the chill mountain wind. The monitor with the key came behind me and unlocked the door. I turned to the student sitting out in the cold. “Are you here for the dream group?”
“Yes,” she said.
The monitor flipped on the lights. I went in and began arranging the chairs. He opened the windows, and went out to register the waiting student. I took my seat, and set out my pad of paper, pens, and clock. The lone student came in and sat down.
“What’s your name?” I asked. Most newcomers have no idea what a dream group is, no interest in dreams, and no intention of participating. They’re there because some teacher assigned them to go to the English Corner to practice English. To draw the students out, I try to get each one talking a bit as they arrive. With her, I was just going through the routine I went through with them all. But she seemed different.
“My English name is Christine,” she said. Taiwanese students are all given an English name by a language teacher somewhere along the way, and use it with foreigners challenged by Chinese names.
Next, Christine gave me the same line I get from all the first-timers, “My English is not good.” But she differed from so many others in that she seemed willing, even eager, to talk. I got the feeling she wanted to tell me something.
“Why did you come to the dream group?” It’s the question I ask them all. Far from being an American-style college designed to give students a broad liberal education, this Taiwanese university is organized into departments that provide training in such practical vocations as Leisure Studies and Tourism Management, Applied Materials and Optoelectronic Engineering, Public Policy and Administration, Teaching Chinese as a Foreign Language, and the like. To someone like myself from the United States it seems more a technical institute than a university. The bulk of the students flocking into the English Corner dream group are engineering majors. When I try to explain about metaphors or feelings, they look at me like I’m from Mars.
“I had a dream recently,” she said.
“Did you write it down?” I asked. I was still just making conversation. I never intended that she do her dream in the group that night. To reward students interested enough to return, and make the dream group actually work, I had hit upon the policy of only calling for dreams from students who had been to the group at least once before and were familiar with the process.
“I didn’t write it down,” she said. “I forgot most of it.”
“Keep a journal by your bed,” I said. “When you wake up with a dream write it down right away.” This, I told all the students.
“I had the same dream once before,” she said. I suddenly saw she’d come to the dream group to get help with a dream she’d had. Just then, flocks of newcomers came trooping in. I turned to each student as they sat down and tried to get them talking a bit in English. When the circle was full, and all the new students had had a chance to say something or other, and a good half of our time was already used up, I went out to tell the monitor we weren’t taking any more, came back in, closed the door, and took my seat. There wasn’t much time left for work with a dream.
“Does anyone have a short dream they’d like the group to work with?” I asked. It was the first time I’d ever put the word “short” in my request. I couldn’t let what had happened the previous week occur again.
An exchange student from Mainland China who’d come several times immediately raised his hand. “I do,” he said. He’d done one of his dreams a couple of weeks back. Because the time is so tight, I always snatch up the first dream offered by an on-going group member. This time I unaccountably paused.
“O.K. we have one dream,” I said. “Does anyone else have a dream?” I asked, looking around again. That I had to make an effort not to look directly at Christine made me aware my intuition was onto something - and that I was about to break my own rule of never taking the dream of a newcomer.
“I have one,” Christine said, raising her hand and leaning eagerly forward to catch my attention.
I turned to face her now. “Mine is very short,” she quickly added. I saw from her face she wanted help with the dream. That’s why she’d come early and waited alone out in the cold.
“Let’s give a chance to someone who hasn’t done a dream before,” I said to the exchange student from Mainland China. I turned to Christine. “When did you have this dream?”
“This past Monday morning.”
“Tell us your dream.”
From memory she said:
I dream that something that I can’t see is chasing me. And I feel it is going to kill me. I go to somewhere to hide but it still find me. That’s all. I wake up.
“Was the place in the dream a real place in your life?” I asked.
“No,” she said.
“Could you tell us what you felt in the dream?” I asked. We can, of course, perfectly well imagine what she felt and in a few moments we would all have a chance to do precisely that. But her feelings were a part of her dream, and might flesh her meager account of it out a bit more.
“I feel terrible, very scared, helpless.”
That was all we were going to get. I invited Christine to sit back and listen as each of us took her dream as our own and explored it first for feelings, and then for metaphors. I told her the purpose of this exercise was not to tell her what her dream meant but to get her neurons firing with her own intuitions and hunches. I said that these would likely come upon her quickly and vanish just as fast; and suggested she immediately jot down any important insights, along with anything anyone said that particularly struck her one way or another. I told her the notes would prove useful because when we finished I would invite her to say what she wished about the dream.
Back in New York City, dream group members fell eagerly upon a dream like a pack of hungry wolves on a downed elk, tearing feelings and metaphors from it left and right; so that by the time the frenzy was finished, the dream was all over them and they were all mixed up in it. It’s necessary to get inside a dream like this for a dream to get inside every member of the group, which it needs to do if their projections are to help the dreamer come up with her own ideas and make any sense of it. In Taiwan the students, poisoned by a lifetime of Confucian pabulum, sit passively around the circle and wait in silence for directions from the teacher. Instead of the wonderful creative free-for-all that exploded out from the group in New York, here in Taiwan I am lucky to get one group member who hesitantly offers an idea. So I, who am hopeless at mastering Chinese, have learned, when one person finally does speak up, to say in Mandarin, 下 一 位 which means “Next person…” With a hand gesture, I invite the one seated beside the one who spoke up, to speak next. Dutifully, to obey the teacher, the next person speaks up, sometimes with a brilliant contribution they never would have offered if I hadn’t invited them forward. I proceed around the whole circle like this inviting one student after another to speak. When we finish with feelings, I draw out from them ideas about the dream’s metaphors in the same way.
After the group had thoroughly examined the feelings and metaphors of Christine’s dream, I turned to Christine. “We’ve all said a lot of different things about your dream,” I said. “Only, we don’t know anything about it, or about you. But you do. So now is your chance to talk about the dream and why you woke up with it Monday morning. You can say anything you want and as much as you want. Nobody will interrupt you or ask you any questions. You can stop and think as long as you want. Just tell us when you’re finished.”
She began by elaborating on her feelings and then, perhaps because she saw me as the authoritative teacher, she skipped over the interesting insights others had offered and seized upon a comment I’d made to the effect that being pursued by what I can’t see might be a metaphor for being confronted by a part of myself I’m blind to and afraid to confront. What we fear most to confront in ourselves, I’d suggested, building on Nelson Mandela’s famous observation, is our superior aspect - which so frightens us when it comes upon us because it can mean the end of who we now are.
This is what Christine said:
I think I am confused, feel helpless, I don’t know what will happen next time, what to do, and where to go. No one will help me. I am alone. I feel in danger.
She’d swallowed my projection whole, which is easy because it’s comforting to see a fearful nightmare in a positive way. But it didn’t get her or us very far with the dream. For this we need her own insights, not mine.
I asked if she’d like to go to the next stage, which involved looking at her life before the dream. She said yes.
“Would you like to say anything about what you did the night before the dream?” I asked. I use this question to lead up to one about her last thoughts before falling off to sleep. What’s on her mind at that moment and what’s in her dream are often the same; only the one is brought about as a consequence of the rapid fading of the conceptual mind’s focal intelligence; while the other arises directly from what the bright glare of that intelligence hides from view while we are awake - much in the same way the bright daytime sun renders invisible to our eyes the infinite display of stars and galaxies that awe us at night.
I had an interview on Sunday. There is nothing special. It’s as usual. At night 7 o’clock.
“Do you want to say anything about the thoughts going through your head as you dozed off to sleep?” I asked.
I cannot remember.
We still had no inkling as to the context that gave rise to the dream. There had to be something more. Our time was running short. “Is there anything you want to say about anything happening in your life in the past weeks and months?” I asked. I didn’t know what else I could ask, how to make it more immediate. “This semester?” I added, “This whole semester, is there anything at all you might want to tell us about your life this semester?”
She pondered what I had said. I feared we wouldn’t get to the root of this dream. Suddenly, she recollected something and spoke up:
There is a terrible thing happen this semester.
She stopped there. “Do you want to say anything about this terrible thing?” I asked.
My good friend fight with me, and we don’t get well anymore.
She stopped again. 你 要 說 多 一 點 嗎？I asked in one of the few Mandarin sentences I had mastered to use in the dream group. My instinct told me that asking the simple question in Chinese made it strike deeper - “Would you like to say a little more?”
She opened up:
I was disappointed and sad.
That was all we were going to hear from her. It was enough. We didn’t know the story. But in the dream group class what we know or don’t know doesn’t matter. The important point is that she now had what she needed to look at her dream with new eyes. An important and unresolved feeling complex has been raised a bit closer to the surface of her mind. We could have no idea as to exactly what happened. These Taiwanese students often say “she” when they mean “he.” In Mandarin there is only one sound, “Ta,” for the two words, though they are written differently - 她 for she and 他 for he. It might be that she lost a dear and best girlfriend. It might be that she broke up with her boyfriend because he found somebody else. It might be that her lesbian lover left her for another. We can’t know which is the case. We don’t need to know. We aren’t in the dream group to satisfy our curiosity and ferret out her secrets. We’re in the dream group to help her to discover something she needs to discover from her dream. That’s all. Whether or not we ourselves find out the particulars is of no import.
We had a context for the dream. We had no way of knowing if it was the context, but it was something of great emotional importance that had happened to her in the general period before she had the dream.
“Would you like to go on to the next stage, in which you look at the dream again, but much closer, image by image, to see if the images now make a new kind of sense to you?”
“Yes,” she said.
A group member read the first part of the short dream: You dream that something that you can’t see is chasing you. And you feel it is going to kill you.
I think maybe is because I don’t want to let go.
It seemed she was talking about the friendship she’d lost. If so, then something very important had happened here. The two near-identical nightmares she’s had were filled with imagery that suggested there was something she was not seeing. Given a chance to look at that imagery again, after telling us about the recent breakup with her friend suddenly revealed the obvious but overlooked connection between the dream and the signal event in her recent waking life. “Are you referring to your life when awake?” I asked, to make sure I understood what she was getting at.
Awake: I think maybe it’s my friend. I think she is my best friend in my life. I can’t accept about her do.
Yes, she had found the feeling connection between dream and life. She sees now that the terrifying but unseen danger pursuing her in real life, threatening the continued existence of the person she is [she’d previously said, “I become like another person.”] was that she had lost or let go of the best friend she’d ever had in her life because that friend had done something she can’t accept. Suddenly, I got a sense the dream was no longer so terrifying to her and that she was perhaps beginning to see her complex real life situation in a new light.
你 要 說 多 一 點 嗎？I asked again in Mandarin - “Would you like to say a bit more?”
The way she treat me. Her cold indifference to me.
From her scant words we can’t very well know exactly what she is beginning to see. But there can be no doubt that she is edging closer to the connection between the dream and her waking life - which is what matters. The rest of us in the group are there to help her find this connection.
I asked the group member to read the rest of the dream: You go to somewhere to hide but it still find you.
I don’t face the cold attitude she’s treating me but I still remind of it.
She seems to be saying now that what she hadn’t faced was how thoroughly her friend’s sudden coldness devastated her. That’s a little different than what she was saying before, if we got that right. It wasn’t easy to know. There was something larger here that I couldn’t be sure was exactly coming out into discernible focus, even for her. But the value of discernible focus can be overestimated and a good many things can work better to the degree they stay implicit, instead of being made explicit.
So we’re left in the dark as to exactly what the dream reveals to her that she didn’t know beforehand; and we suspect that she, also, may still be a bit in the dark; whether she knows it or not. But we’d finished reading her dream back to her and she had no more to say.
I did what I do in a situation like this, where a dreamer has looked up-close at all the imagery in the dream, but still seems not to have gotten a clear enough picture of what the dream is saying to her. “Let me ask you if you can step back and look at the dream as a whole.” I said. “Do you want to say anything about what it might be expressing that you didn’t know before?”
She thought a moment, then said:
I think this dream told me that the friend treat me with cold attitude makes me feel sad, lonely. Even though I don’t want to face this question, think I’m good without her, but it’s not the fact.
So our first take on what she’d said was right. Although she’d thought she could live without the friend, the dream tells her she can’t. Although she’d thought she could let go of the friendship, the dream tells her she can’t. She’d gotten at the hidden truth expressed by her dream, the twinkling of a larger background reality that dwarfed the glaring conceptual brightness so close that it blinded her. This is what she wasn’t facing, what she was running from. She can’t let this friendship go. It is too important to her. She’d thought she could leave it behind, and she had left it behind, but deep inside she knew this was killing her. She wouldn’t face this. But her dream faced it. And when she had the same dream a second time and brought it to the dream group, the dream made her realize that she had to face it, for it was the truth of her own heart.
Various members of the group told her something to this effect during the orchestration, although it wasn’t needed because she’d already arrived at that understanding herself.
She’d told us very few words but she’d travelled to a new understanding of herself.
To discover the plain truth of her own feelings very obviously empowered her to do the right thing, whatever that might turn out to be. “It’s magic!” she kept saying, looking around at us all with big, surprised eyes, “It’s magic!”
I told her she had the last word.
I think it is magic - to explain my dream by everybody to make me know the dream mean. I even don’t know what it means before but now I can more know what I’m thinking.
The dream group ended on time. As I biked back across the night campus, a chill wind scudded dark clouds across the clear sky. A high full moon suddenly appeared from behind the clouds and shone bright over the mountain landscape. “It’s magic!” the words Christine kept repeating, when her dream suddenly made sense to her, popped into my mind at the same instant the serene beauty of the scene bathed my senses. It struck me how special it was for me, and how utterly unlikely, that I should end up way over here on the other side of the world on this campus enabling college students to make sense of their dreams and their lives. When I got home I didn’t send off the e-mail resigning from the English Corner. I still do the dream group there today. Now I have a wonderful professional room to work in, where we can sit around in a circle of backjacks on the polished wooden floor; and a full three-hour time-slot. I’ve made it known I don’t want the English professors to send any more of their students my way and they’ve stopped doing it. Instead, I made some posters and put them up around campus. Each semester I gather a small cluster of ongoing dream group members and have begun training the best of them to go out and lead dream groups themselves.
Christine never came back. But one bright and sunny day the following semester, as I walked absently across campus, a cheery greeting sounded in a friendly voice, “Hello Teacher!”
I turned around. There was Christine, all smiles, walking intimately, hand in hand, with her girlfriend. When she saw me notice her lesbian lover, her eyes sparkled to life with thankfulness and gratitude - making me know this girl was the one from the dream and everything between them had turned out right in the end. The following semester I saw her once again, with the same girlfriend, still holding hands and so tenderly intimate. She gave me the same happy greeting and her eyes beamed again with the same “Thankyou!”
Today not a single one of us can afford to, nor would we want to, reduce ourselves to the kinds of ideas that only one half our brain generates, acquires, or perpetuates. To create lives that work, and a world that is sustainable, we need the whole of ourselves, including the whole of our capacity for love and passion, the whole of our ability to feel and to connect, the whole of our talent to imagine and to invent, and the whole of our inner enlightenment or authenticity. Only thus can we set free and let out into the world the gift that is ours. This gift is the life we have in us to live, the person we have in us to be. It invents us, and enables us to invent our world. To do that, it needs to get out; it needs to be expressed. The dream group class is a first step. Imprisoned within, because a half of us is blind to it, it withers and dies. We do as well. So does our world. What is created by only half an intelligence doesn’t work. Christine walked into the dream group looking wilted and defeated, like her world had come to an end. Each time I saw her on campus afterwards, a light shone forth from within her that lit up her whole world, and mine too.