Dream Network Journal Vol. 25, No. 3, pp 32-35. 2006 .
Photo by Shuyuan Wang
"The Time-Release Capability of Dreams -- Part I: Personal Reflection"
by William R. Stimson, Ph.D.
A central dogma of dream work, expressed in different ways by different authors, is that a dream doesn't come to us unless we are ready for it. After working in depth with my own dreams for thirty years, training under Montague Ullman in the experiential dream group method off and on for two decades, and leading countless dream groups in New York and Taiwan, I wish to address this dogma.
I am not a professional psychologist or psychiatrist and don't do that kind of work with dreams, on myself or with others. Neither am I an academic specialist or dream researcher. What I know about dreams comes not from the literature or the lab but from working with dreams, mostly my own, over a long period of time. If I'm good with dreams it's not because I've learned fancy techniques to trick them of their secrets or because I follow, to the letter, guidelines laid down by some professional association. It's because I deeply respect dreams and the act of honest inquiry into them. Dreams respond to that. It's because I have a reverence bordering on awe for the nature and the depth of insight that emerges from such inquiry. Dreams respond to that. And, finally, it's because I have developed a long and close working relationship with my own dreams. Above all, dreams respond to that. What I know about dreams, and the guidelines that I follow, dreams themselves have taught me -- my own, mostly. For this reason I wish to introduce what follows not with the standard literature review, and the pretense of being a scholar, which I'm not -- but with a simple little dream and the reflections that ensued.
A quarter of a century ago, in the 1980s when I was in my mid-thirties, I had a series of dreams that I revisited the Isle of Pines, Cuba where I spent the golden years of my youth. In the dreams, I was distraught to encounter a bulldozed landscape of bare earth, knocked down trees, and destroyed forests. The wilderness I'd loved so dearly and spent my childhood exploring was being bulldozed out of existence. I never formally worked with the repeating dream. Every time I awoke from it I knew immediately what it meant.
At that time in my life, deeply impressed by the understandings I had gained by working with my own dreams, I was seized by the vision that if people everywhere who worked with dreams could only come together with a united voice, the message might get out that in dreams lies a vast and renewable resource for personal, institutional, and societal transformation. Free of charge and available to the illiterate as well as to the scholar, they carry within them the deepest educational transformation possible -- a knowledge of the self, and of reality. At the time I had never heard of Montague Ullman and wasn't aware that he had already put forth all these ideas (Ullman and Zimmerman, 1979) and implemented them in Sweden.
In my ignorance I saw myself as a pioneer in this area and went ahead to organize weekly dream groups in my Manhattan apartment. I invited everybody and anybody I could find who worked with dreams in any way. This weekly gathering turned into The Dream Community of New York. "A community needs a newsletter," insisted Cerina Becroft. Thus was born the Dream Network Bulletin. It began as a small newsletter of 8 pages. Cerina handled the layout. I ended up editor. The moment I had the first issue in my hands, I began laboring night and day to bring together dream workers internationally. I contacted a psychologist behind the Iron Curtain before the collapse of the Soviet Union. I connected with a Maori in New Zealand who worked with dreams. I reached out to whomever I could find, around the world. My phone bill was enormous. I supported all this with the tips I earned working part time as a waiter in an Italian restaurant. I tracked down a number of others around the country interested in joining in and, against all odds, we took turns putting out successive monthly issues of the dream newsletter. Sally Shute, then from Hackensack, N.J., put out "Lucidity and Beyond" which focused on lucid dreaming, her interest. Others put out their versions. The Dream Network was a very open and free thing, inclusive of anyone who wished to join. A grass-roots dream movement seemed in the making.
In order to make sure that this happened, I sent out copies of each issue of the newsletter to national magazines, newspapers, and TV stations with long letters about the importance of dreams and with examples I'd discovered of individuals or groups around the country who worked with dreams in different ways. Articles started coming out about dreams in one national magazine after another. The word began to spread across the nation that there was a "dream movement" afoot. This happened even before there was one. In the beginning it was just me, a waiter in an Italian restaurant, slaving away night and day, spending every penny I had, to make it happen.
It was amazing how many individuals there were around the country well positioned, when they got wind a "dream movement" was afoot, to do the Bill Gates thing -- see where the pack was headed, chase after it, push themselves up front, and pose as leader. They all had vastly more experience with dreams than I did and knew more about them, they were professionally trained psychologists (I never took a psychology course in my life), and they had considerable material and institutional resources at their disposal. I had a telephone, the post office, and an old portable typewriter. This was just before the personal computer emerged on the scene.
A cartel of these individuals moved forward to co-opt what I felt was on the point of turning into a real grassroots dream movement. They channeled the momentum instead into what I saw as another special-interest organization that had more to do with their personal career needs and ambitions than with making dreams really available to people everywhere for their own use in transforming their own lives and institutions. Nothing could have expressed the depth of my feelings about this better than the image in those dreams of my beloved forests being bulldozed down on the Isle of Pines, Cuba. The repeating dream perfectly expressed what I felt those careerists and their professional association were doing to the grassroots dream network that I had labored so to patch together and that I believed in with my whole heart, mind and soul. Like the delicate tropical forests, the flimsy little network couldn't defend itself against the powerful professional machine. And like the landscapes in the dreams, my life had become a wasteland.
I was overextended as it was, financially, emotionally and spiritually. I'd labored so hard during these years to make the network happen that I didn't devote any time to my own dreams or to the things that nourished and sustained me. It broke my heart to see the organization marginalize the network and to be powerless to do anything to stop it. The development crushed me. I ended up a broken and disillusioned man. I passed the newsletter to Chris Hudson, and the Dream Community to John Perkins. I backed progressively away from people and in the decade that followed struggled alone through my own private dark night of the soul. It became impossible for me to believe in anything anymore, even myself.
Then one day I received a phone call from Montague Ullman, M.D., the originator of the experiential dream group process. He invited me to lunch. I met him at a restaurant in my neighborhood. "Bill," he said to me out of the blue, as I was trying to get some pasta onto a fork, "You were right in what you tried to do with dreams and they were wrong."
I looked up into his eyes with astonishment. I saw this was the reason he'd invited me to lunch, to tell me this. That act of kindness on his part changed my life. Monty invited me as a guest to an upcoming experiential dream group leadership training in his home. Over the years he kept inviting me up to his training sessions as his guest. Even when I could pay, he refused to accept my money.
Gradually I crawled up out of collapse, turned back to meditation, yoga, dreams and writing, and sent some initial feelers into the world again. One of the first took the unlikely form of a trip back to the Isle of Pines. It was still illegal then for an American to travel to Cuba. I slipped in through Cancun, Mexico. In Havana I asked the custom's official in Spanish not to stamp my passport. The husband of an old schoolmate took me to the Isle of Pines. We were stopped again and again by police or machine-gun toting soldiers. It was then forbidden for a Cuban to take an American outside specified tourist zones. The man got me through by passing me off as a German.
When I stepped off the plane and set my feet again, for the first time since I was a boy, on the soil I loved, it astonished me that I could see from the airport clear across to the part of the island where we had lived. The forests were gone. The land was barren. Even the palm trees were no more. When my friends drove me out to the place where our small farm had been, it broke my heart. Every vestige of nature had been bulldozed flat and collectivized into a Communist agricultural area. Part of it was planted in grapefruit. Most was left barren and empty of life -- a desolate wasteland. The Communists had even taken pains to turn the beautiful forested stream near our old house into an ugly denuded gully, straight as an arrow. In a literal sense my dreams of the bulldozer and the forest turned out to have been true. It was as if I had stayed inwardly connected with my Cuban home in such a way I could feel inside myself what was happening there. Or, at least, this was the first explanation that came to me.
After a few days I couldn't stand to witness any more the damage the Communists had done to my beloved island. I returned to Havana. My friends drove me into the part of that old city I'd known from my childhood. The buildings, once so stately and ornate, were moldering to ruin. Chunks and piles of rock and brick, crumbled from their facades, lay uncollected in the streets. The place was a wreck. The inner lives of people who'd been my friends in childhood were also. "The revolution was an experiment," one confided to me. "We believed in it. We gave our lives for it." Then she sadly added, "We were wrong. We've wasted our lives."
As I surveyed the surreal landscape of ruin and decay in once-beautiful Havana, a sentence from the movie "Willow" I'd rented recently back in New York popped into my mind. "A curse has been put on this place." The film's protagonist uttered those words when he entered a castle and found everything inside frozen in time and fallen to ruin. The feeling fit Cuba. In a sudden epiphany I saw it also fit me. The devastation that lay all around me in Havana and that I'd witnessed on the Isle of Pines, I suddenly recognized as the same long dark period out of which I myself had so recently crawled. Only, in Cuba it afflicted an entire nation, and the nation was nowhere near escaping from it like I had. With amazement I realized what had happened to me hadn't been an individual thing at all, like I'd thought. Unknowingly, all these years I had been connected with my homeland, not by any paranormal or supernatural means, but simply by being myself a particle of that place that had been flung far away. In a sense, I could now see, I'd never left, so deeply had I been attached to Cuba, and to the heady dreams of revolution, and of changing the world to be a better place, that my friends and I had lived through in our youth. A world away, in New York City, unknowingly I'd brought the same dark curse down on my head as I saw everywhere around me now in Havana.
Yes, the visionary egalitarian ideals that fired Cuba's revolution had been co-opted by an ambitious leader and his cohorts more interested in their own power and advantage than in the common good. And, yes, maybe my vision of a dream network and a grassroots dream movement had been betrayed, co-opted, and turned into something that served the few instead of the many. But there are always forces poised to co-opt anything new that arises. That can't be called a curse. That's business-as-usual. That's reality. That's the way things happen. I had been naïve to assume otherwise. The curse, I now saw, I had brought down on myself, in the same way my friends in Cuba had, by serving a wrong vision. Not the clique in Havana nor the one in San Francisco, but I myself and my friends in Cuba, and the vision that I harbored in my heart of the Dream Network, and the one they harbored in their hearts of a proletarian paradise -- had been wrong. Such things as we tried to bring about don't happen by making them happen. They come about spontaneously by themselves as a natural course when all the necessary conditions fall, one by one, into place. Like the Cubans trying to force through a program of social equality that would have come anyway, as an inevitable and necessary consequence of Cuba's socio-economic development, I had tried to make a dream network happen when, as I now realized (Stimson 2003):
... work with dreams cannot be networked. There is a network, yes. But it completely changes instant by instant. Always it's alive, always it's happening, but we ourselves never know quite where it is or what it is doing. We think we have it, then lose it. When we find it again, it's popped up in the strangest of places. Always it's more real than we could have suspected. We know we're in the network when the work we're doing with our own dreams is real and when it transforms our life and the lives of those around us. So much of the rest, that seems to be going on, is fake -- an illusion, a fancy facade with nothing whatsoever behind it. This is what I've found out after twenty some years.
The professional association had been a perfectly natural development, the logical next step. I could see that now. I couldn't before. Back then, I was only capable of seeing the dream of the bulldozer destroying the forests as being about those careerists and the wrong they were doing. Now I could understand that on a higher level it was about me, and the wrong I was doing. Back then, I'd identified with the forest. Come to find out, I was, of course, also the bulldozer. When later I actually went back to check my dream journals, I found I'd been having those dreams even before the careerists and their professional association came upon the scene. The initial meaning I found in the dream might have been correct on one level, and at one time in my life, because it was the only one I was capable of seeing then. It did fit the facts. But the meaning that now emerged for me, some fifteen years later, fit more facts and was more correct on more levels. It was the meaning of the dream that stood the test of time and held up the best when all the evidence came in.
One hardly constructs ideas about dreams on the basis of one single example, especially when that example is a dream never formally worked with and from a period in one's life that was tumultuous and problematic. In the Fall of 2004, however, I came upon a second instance of a dream correctly interpreted which subsequently yielded an even more correct but essentially opposite interpretation. In this instance the second interpretation didn't take fifteen years to emerge, but less than twenty-four hours. I had detailed notes of the work. It occurred to me it might be useful to write this example up, as it so clearly illustrates what might prove to be an under-appreciated feature of dreams -- the extent and power of their time-release capability. Yes, the dogma of dream work tells us dreams don't come unless we're ready for the truths they bring. What that simplistic dogma doesn't hint at, though, is that dreams can come with so many more levels of truth than might at first be apparent. Some of these we might not be ready for and might not be able to see, until some time has passed and outside events have prodded us along a bit. The most important implication of this is that any of those methods of working with dreams that achieve a grand and impressive but premature closure around initial interpretations may be missing the greatest gifts that dreams have to offer. In both my case and the one I will present in Part II in the next issue of this journal, the understandings late in coming turned out to be the ones most distant from the dreamer's unquestioned waking presumptions. In other words, they turned out to be the most subtle and highly useful ways in which the dream realigned the dreamer with reality.
Taken together, my bulldozer dream and the example of dreamwork to be presented in Part II of this paper provide a potent hint to those of us who work with our own dreams that we are not always finished with a dream when we think. There are dreams with additional layers that open by degree. What's most amazing to me about these sorts of dreams is that they suggest the extent to which even the most enlightened understandings we need in life are already in place within us. They wait patiently there -- for hours, weeks, or even decades -- for us to see what we already know and wake up to who we really are.
Speaking only for myself I can say it's definitely my experience as I've grown older now, that throughout so much of my life a good part of what I've thought at the time was wrong. Even a single time-release dream like mine of the bulldozer can be a tremendous boon in a life snapping back on course when it has fallen so badly off track because of mistaken perceptions. I hope that other dreamers, in future issues of this journal, will come forth with examples from their own lives of such dreams for herein may lie further evidence of the deepest, most transformative potential of dreams.
Stimson, William R. (2003) ["Where is the Dream Movement Going?"] Dream Network Journal 22(2): 6-7.
Stimson, William R. and Shuyuan Wang (2005) "The Usefulness of Dreams and Dream Groups in Taiwan: Working With A Dream Fragment" Dream Network Journal 24(2): 15-18, 47.
Ullman, Montague (1996). "Appreciating Dreams -- A Group Approach" 274 pp. Sage Publications. Thousand Oaks, California.
Ullman, Montague and Nan Zimmerman (1979) Working With Dreams Dell Publishing Company, New York, NY