Collective Dreams


The personal is political and a free society necessitates a shift in the interpersonal power structures that govern our daily lives. Since we need power to govern our lives, politics is personal. Another charge levelled against dream work by well-intentioned men and women is that it is "navel gazing," or just another way to avoid the demanding reality of waking life through a "dream realm" of reckless, self-centered withdrawal. We are living in dangerous days.

A list of our mutual ills and woes will fill a book several times the size of this essay. We are on the verge of extinction, not only of the human race, but also of the vast majority of the other diverse animals with which we share the earth, and we have purposefully created these awful dangers for ourselves. We live in the shadow of nuclear, chemical, and biological warfare, technological incompetence and planning failure, industrial ecocide, economic ruin, civil unrest, and the mental and emotional attitudes that allow those horrors.

Indeed, our common conditions are so ominous that most people would rather suppress their anxiety and feeling of helplessness in the face of these issues by not thinking about them at all, however we must think about them. We must summon the courage to investigate them objectively and devote our brightest and most imaginative efforts to their transformation and resolution. Let me suggest a quick mental experiment to begin this necessary endeavor of gazing intentionally at our deepest and most wicked individual and collective potentialities: Imagine the world as it is, but condensed, without a human intervention.

Imagine the night and day rhythms, the sky, clouds, and changing weather, the endless ebb and flow of the tides, the changing seasons, and the myriad of creatures and organisms living in the sea, on land, and in the air—all existing together in a web of intricate, subtle, invisible, impartial natural forces—creating a single, delicate, evolving ecosystem, this wholistic ecosystem. Both suffering and death lose their terrifying and "evil" characteristics in this imaginary world.

The cycle of life and death, the drama of predator and prey, the pain of human animals, and even the disappearance of whole species are all accidental and normal, completely innocent because they are completely unaware and therefore incapable of premeditation or guilt. We are standing in a metaphorical "Garden of Eden" as well as the biological environments that current research indicates contributed to the evolution of human life. It's ironic that amid such broad metaphorical consensus, the discussion between "evolutionists" and "creationists" is so acrimonious.

When he studied the various evidences of evolution, Teilhard de Chardin tried his whole life to be faithful to both the rigorous demands of scientific inquiry and his own profound intuitions of theological significance. He came to the conclusion (as had Hindus and Buddhists before him) that time is a useful illusion, and that “God” is the ultimate end toward which evolution is groping (but, since time is ultimately illusory, it is possible to think of all events as occurring simultaneously, and in this sense, God can be understood as existing always, in the fullness of time, drawing evolution toward itself).

The endless debates about "evolutionism" vs. "creationism" can be seen for what they are in the face of those ideas: the products of prematurely closed processes of thinking and belief. Consider the world as it is now, but without the influence of humans. Anything that is genuinely “evil” (including all the horrifying prospects of environmental catastrophe and personal suffering that we have wrought for ourselves) is the product of human consciousness and human interference in the “natural order,” according to this “thought experiment” (as Einstein called such efforts of mind and imagination).

In this essential context, it is possible to understand that human consciousness is the "true sin," the root of all our anguish and pain, metaphorically speaking. “Separation from God” has been described as “sin” by all world religions. Separation from God can be interpreted metaphorically as a blueprint for the separation of individual human consciousness from the overwhelming universal unconsciousness of the natural universe. This is the species' and all conscious human beings' initial existential state.

Indeed, consciousness is the one element that “separates” us from the spontaneous, universal cosmos, though consciousness is still our main way of knowing and reconnecting with it. When Judaism, Christianity, and Islam both argue that humanity's predicament is the inherent product of original sin, this is merely a summary of the obvious divergence of individual human consciousness from the universal unconscious on one basis. At all, our dreaming, lucid, "objective" human experience is fragmented and transient.

Our perception vanishes into realms of "unconsciousness" in all ways at once, even though we are mentally clear and emotionally elevated. Allow me to suggest another mental exercise. Try to be as conscious of the whole experience in this moment as possible. Try to be aware of all the unconscious bodily processes, such as your breathing, the food digesting in your stomach and intestinal tract, the blood coursing through your veins, the various states of tension in your musculature, your thoughts, your emotions, your visual perceptions of this page and the scene beyond, the sounds in the air around you, the meanings of these perceptions, and the constant tug of a constant tug.

At the same time, try to keep everything within the field of conscious awareness. There will always be a feeling at the edge of consciousness that there is more, no matter where the mind is focused. We have the impression of being "separate," of being "once separated" from the harmonious movement and rhythm of the natural world only because our consciousness is still partial. Our first human ancestors (the "Adam and Eve" of Near Eastern tradition) were "once separated" from the "Garden" of socially unconscious natural existence in this way.

The "expulsion from the Garden" often represents the birth trauma on another, similar metaphoric level. - of us was ejected from the Garden of the Maternal Womb into the experience of independent, "sinful" life and toil at some stage. It's important to note that we're all exiled from the Garden, into the Garden in this sense of biological metaphor. The natural world's natural order, harmony, power, subtlety, elegance, and unification is the religious imagery of the Garden of Eden's root metaphor. In this essential context, consciousness is the initial detachment from unconsciousness that enables one to look about and understand that we are closely linked in a self-aware way.

The entire body of contemporary physics data confirms this ultimate interconnectedness. Our own atoms were first formed in the furnaces of the "Big Bang," in the pure energetic cores of the stars, as Carl Sagan points out, and our ultimate and personal relations with all life stretch far beyond the universe, out into the vastness of inter-galactic space. Despite the fact that all of the challenges we encounter are the consequence of our own actions, we humans interfere in the natural world in ways that are both good and poor, harmful and constructive, aggressive and altruistic, knowledgeable and dumb, imaginative and habitually uninspired.

In this way, I've come to see cultivating the artistic instinct to self-expression, development, and transformation as a morally valuable and important practice, one without which evil will still threaten to consume us. (At the same time, that's far too serious and foreboding—nurturing the artistic instinct is, at its heart, a metaphor for play, an action done for its own sake, for pleasure.) We believe that we "know it all" as we prematurely close our minds and memories, as we attempt to draw utter and final lines between "our own best interests" and the needs of everyone and all else.

When Yeats talks of the horrors of everyday life, he specifically means this kind of premature closure: “...the best lack all conviction/while the worst are packed with a passionate intensity...” Both “the passionate intensity” of the wrong we do—the bigotry and hypocrisy, the stupidities and cruelties—is characterized by this simple mindset of premature closing.

The attitude of openness to new thinking and practice, as well as as-yet-unconceived potential, which is at the center of all artistic endeavor, stands in contrast to the premature closing from which these evils arise (including dream work). We indulge in the delusion that we have it all worked out, that we can draw absolute comparisons between our own desires and the interests of "others" and the world in our less imaginative moments.

We act or, more often, fail to act on the basis of these prematurely closed notions, then flee with astonishment and horror as the consequences of these actions/inactions reverberate in ironic metaphors of self-destruction, as they always do, for all is interconnected in both obvious and subtle chains of cause-and-effect, structural interdependence, association, and causality.

This is known as "the Law of Irony": irony is unavoidable if consciousness is partial (so one might as well cultivate a taste for it). The Rule of Irony is at work in our collective lives, as demonstrated by our present global perils. We are the ones that have brought these horrors upon ourselves, and we are the ones who must work out how to disarm and reconnect with our environmental neighbors and the ecological realities of our utter interdependence. Only by opening our minds and hearts to new experiences and opportunities will we be able to respond in ways that will prevent us from destroying ourselves.

The acts we take can only be fruitful if we grasp the real essence of our predicament, our "original sin" in being conscious human beings in the first place. In the same way as our partial consciousness triggers all of our personal and social challenges, the best way to fix them is to widen our spectrum of consciousness and take innovative, creative steps.

The growth of this growing self-awareness is the first step toward the change we must affect—both in our own lives and in the face of our mutual dangers. Dreams can be very illuminating in this kind of attempt to cultivate the artistic impulse and create practical methods for saving human life on the earth.

When I first came to dream work, we began sharing our dreams for the sake of curiosity and enjoyment many years ago. We learned that dreams caused tremendous energies of development and transformation in us. As we worked to conquer sexism's oppressions, our aspirations were more useful and valuable in exposing the self-deceptions and hidden agendas that rendered the fight more challenging, and that made the improvements and development more satisfying until they were accomplished.

During a racism-awareness lecture, I had the opportunity to suggest that we all share our visions in which black people appeared and center our attention on them. Even I was astounded by the amount of energy released by this work for personal development and change, as well as latent attitudes and fears. Since each of us was compelled to “own” both the negative and positive depictions of black people in our visions as manifestations of facets of our own identities, the dream work was successful in bringing deep-seated latent ambivalences to light, and the work was further effective in changing them.

In this way, dream work had the potential to be much more critical than just one tool among many for raising racism awareness. It became clear that dreams could be used to enhance self-awareness and consciousness around any subject, and that dream work could also be useful in releasing dramatic energies for personal development and transformation. As this process progressed, it became apparent that one of the other outcomes of this work was the formation of strong and enduring ties of trust, reciprocal love, and admiration among those who shared the experience of collaborating with dreams.

Dream work could bring people together from all walks of life to participate in the work of transforming society, regardless of color, age, sex, or class. Dream work has the ability to be profoundly "extreme," not just in the original sense of radix, which refers to going to the "source" of things, but also in the political and social sense of dramatically changing mutual fears, beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors.

I've had the opportunity to observe the longer-term effects of dream work in people who are personally engaged in social and political action over the years after this initial encounter. I've seen dreamers' intracollective support networks evolve, and their coordinating efforts' efficacy, ingenuity, and maturity expand and deepen. Overall, I've seen dream work strengthen people's determination and resolve to progress, both individually and collectively. I've seen dream work help people resolve the unavoidable depression and sense of desperation that comes with wanting to bring about change in a society that hates and opposes change.

Person imagination and confidence, which are essential for collective transformation, are sustained and nurtured by the strong sense of identity that group dream work fosters. Dream work has also opened previously closed political and strategic ideas. I've seen "religious" people becoming more conscious of the importance of political and social activism, as well as "atheist" activists become more aware of a metaphysical component to their lives and jobs. I've seen the understanding that "the personal is national" evolve into more creative modes of action and conversation, awakening consciousness, and bravery in a growing number of people.

During dream work, I've seen people who thought they were "uncreative" discover their own imaginative and expressive abilities, transforming their lives and emotions. These experiences have kept me focused on visions and dream work ever since, while continuing to work toward social justice, healing, unity, and creative, nonviolent reform, which have always been at the forefront of my life. Dreams often come with the intention of encouraging wholeness. They have an underlying opening impact, bringing to consciousness facets of our own being that we had previously shut out of our waking experience.

All those theological and metaphysical practices that emblazon dream work (Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Freudian psychology, and so on) have all but forgotten the practical activity of paying careful attention to dreams, despite their recognized conventional significance. Even where dreams is the original catalyst for such beliefs and ideologies, sustained dream work often brings into question the set beliefs and ideologies of prematurely closed experience and thinking.

The continuing critique and artistic creativity presented by dream work becomes "heresy," and dreams themselves become suspicious, persecuted, and inevitably repressed and forgotten until a concept or theological intuition is frozen in a hierarchical structure.

The underlying challenges of human and collective existence have remained unchanged throughout history. The challenges we face in the twenty-first century may seem to be different from those of previous centuries at first glance, but a close inspection shows that they are merely the age-old problems of human consciousness itself—greed, malice, and stupidity—exaggerated to world-shattering proportions by the increasing strength and efficiency of our modern technology and social organization. We are the "sorcerer's apprentices," summoning forces beyond our control—the forces of consciousness itself.

One unavoidable, constructive outcome of our "sorcerer's apprenticeship" in consciousness so far is that we can no longer deny that our internal lives and external conditions are inextricably linked—that environmental ecology and psychology are inextricably linked—and that the answers to our personal and social dilemmas must be found simultaneously. The dream has been a key medium for the emergence and unfolding of human consciousness and growing self-awareness during our species' history.

We can no longer afford to disregard the imaginative capacity inherent in each individual—a potential reflected in our dreams and unleashed actively when we remember and work with our dreams—in the contemporary fight to develop ourselves, in this "battle between education and tragedy," as Bertrand Russell put it.

Our mutual dangers are true and immediate. We created them for ourselves, and we must examine them consciously and objectively to disarm ourselves, change our systems, and reconcile ourselves to our planetary neighbors and the ecological interconnectedness of all beings. By cracking down our prematurely closed biases, beliefs, philosophies, and world views, dream work will reinforce and energize these efforts.

Group dream work will also foster a sense of cooperation and empathy, which will help us persevere in our attempts to remake global civilization in a smarter, more compassionate, and just manner, as well as provide concrete new perspectives and ideas for achieving this critical goal.

Read more about Dreams here.