Friday, July 24, 2009

Dream reading and research assignments

Dreams set us research assignments. In my dream life, this often starts by picking up a word or phrase in a language I don't know - or know only imperfectly - but can nonetheless research. This may lead me deep into new territory, ranging from quantum mechanics to Islamic mysticism to the ethnography of New Guinea. Quite often, it is something I am reading in a dream that mobilizes me, after waking and writing my initial report, to follow up with focused research. I do a great deal of reading and writing in my dreams, as in my ordinary life. Sometimes, as I read in a dream, I hear a voice reading the text aloud, as if to help me imprint those pages in memory.

Unfortunately, I am rarely able to transcribe more than a few lines on waking. However, even a single phrase can hold an important clue. And when the traction of the dream is strong, I am sometimes able to go right back inside, review my dream reading material while fully conscious, and transcribe page after page with a pen and pad. Some of the pages I have brought back in this way have been published in my books, both fiction and nonfiction. This is an example of "writing as a state of conscious dreaming", the theme of a creative retreat I led recently and will lead again next year.

I am always bemused when I read in an academic study - and I've seen many such - that we don't read in our dreams. For as far back as I can remember, my dream life offers contrary evidence. I have the impression - though I can't say this for sure - that as an infant, I was learning to read in my dreams before I mastered the art in the nursery, which I did rather young. And hundreds of other dreamers have shared reports with me in which they are reading while in bed with the lights off.

Here's an example from the past week of reading in a dream and accepting a research assignment suggested by that dream:

2009 7.21 (rose at 5:00 AM)

Studying Ethnographers of New Guinea

I’ve been doing a lot of anthropological research. In the early morning, on a city sidewalk, I am reinforcing pencil notes already made in the margins of an article in a book with yellow highlighter. The article draws a contrast between Dutch, Anglo and French approaches to classifying customs and beliefs in indigenous societies. The author disses the writings of Levi Strauss but gives a favorable review of ethnographic fieldwork done in New Guinea when the western part was under Dutch administration.

A woman I recognize parks her car down the street. I buss her on the cheek and protest, in a teasing way, that we don’t see each other often enough. She has dark brown frizzy hair, and is wearing a gray cardigan over a simple dark print dress. She looks like an academic.

Feelings: Cheerful, curious.

Reality check: I often annotate books in pencil but would never in ordinary reality deface a book with a yellow marker! At the conference of the Association for the Study of Dreams in Hawaii in 1998, I met an Australian anthropologist (Michele Stephen) who had lived with a New Guinea tribe and written about their dream practices. As I recall, by her account, this tribe believes that dreams are journeys of a dream double or “hidden self” but is cautious about dream travel, believing that the double may be captured by sorcerers or malicious spirits and that damage caused to it can damage the physical body.

Action: I start by locating Michele Stephen’s book, A’aisa’s Gifts in my personal library. It's an excellent study of dream practices among the Mekeo based on her extensive fieldwork among that people, which included mastering their language and earning the confidence of female dream diviners and male sorcerers, or "men of sorrows".


The Mekeo of New Guinea are about as unlike the Senoi of Malaysia(at least as romanticized by Kilton Stewart and those who borrowed from him) as you can imagine. While the Senoi encourage dream sharing, the Mekeo are very guarded about their dreams, and did not mention them at all during Michele Stephen's initial fieldwork. This could say something about the difficult dynamic between indigenous peoples and Western anthropologists (there's a saying in the Pacific that “when the anthropologists arrive, the spirits leave”) but it also reflects the Mekeo belief that dream telling can make you vulnerable and that dreaming itself is a dangerous business.

Like other indigenous peoples, the Mekeo believe that dreaming is traveling. The lalauga or dream double journeys outside the body, and a dream report is a memory of its nocturnal adventures. This dream self goes ahead of the ordinary self, scouting out things that will come to pass in the future, which is why dreams are often called “omens”.

This dream double can get into trouble. Any injury it suffers will rebound on the physical body. Worse, it may not be able to come home to the body. The lalauga may be lured into the realm of underwater spirits. These spirits are great flirts and seducers but conduct their conquests into holding pens in their underwater villages, which used to be just thatched huts but are now – it seems – equipped with all the mod cons. The dream double can also fall prey to wild bush spirits and taken to their lodges among the high tree tops. Illness and lack of vitality are commonly diagnosed as signs that the dream double has been snared; the treatment is to engage the services of a powerful dreamer who can travel in the hidden reality to where the double is being held and bring it home to the body. For the Mekeo, dreaming is powerful, but it's dangerous. You'd better recruit some spirit allies, and you'd better learn how to look after yourself on those wild roads of the night.

I'm not enamored of the fear-ridden Mekeo model of dreaming, which is darkened by the widespread practice of sorcery and fear of the "men of sorrows." Still, it may be a corrective to the New Age-ish misconception that all dreams come in the service of health and wholeness. And it does reflect a key element in "paleolithic psychology" that we forget at our peril. We are not just body and mind, or body and soul. We have an energy double, or dream self (that Egypt called the ka ) that makes excursions beyond the body during life and survives it after death, with a different destiny from the higher spirit-self. These are matters I explore in some depth in my book Dreamgates.

I am only just embarked on the research assignment I was given by my dream self who was reading about the ethnography of New Guinea. The ethnographers recommended in my dream text lived and worked in an earlier era, in the days of Dutch New Guinea (which ceased to exist in 1962, when Indonesia took over what is now called West Irian). So now I'm reading W.H.R. Rivers, the pioneer British psychologist and anthropologist who regarded his studies of Melanesia as his greatest work and commented favorably on the work of early Dutch ethnographers reporting on New Guinea belief in "soul-substance" and a traveling dream soul. Rivers is best-known today for his work with "shell-shocked" soldiers during World War I, brought to life in the novels of Pat Barker and the movie version of Regeneration ("Behind the Lines") in which Jonathan Pryce plays Rivers.

Now I'm remembering a family connection. My father served, as an officer with the Australian commandos, against the Japanse invasion forces in Dutch New Guinea in World War II.
The photo is of Mafulu women in a mountainous area bordering on the Mekeo, from the work of an English solicitor-turned-anthropologist: Robert W. Williamson, The Mafulu: Mountain People of British New Guinea. London: Macmillan, 1912.


Barbara Butler McCoy said...

Hmmm ... If this were my dream I would ask if I am meant to see some parallels between this dream and the one you shared last Friday ... Dutch, WWII, Asia, 'dream double' loosely translated ... How old was your father when he helped defend Dutch New Guinea from the Japanese?

Robert Moss said...

Hey Barbara - Yes, there may indeed be a connection here; my father was in his 20s when he was fighting the Japanese in New Guinea.

I suspect there is also a link to my renewed study of what I call "paleolithic pyschology" in connection with preparing the new edition of my book DREAMGATES that will be published next year, and a probable sequel.

fran said...

Robert, I'd love to see your library! Heck, I'd love to just have a list of the books, can we send someone to photograph all of the titles?

I recall reading about Kilton Stewart when Jon Hassell used the title "Dream Theory in Malaya" for one of his recordings back in the early 80s. Years later I read that essay and recall a few odd and ends of it. But I am curious how far off the mark he was. Is there a good article or book that would bring one up to speed about the Senoi and other dreaming cultures?


Robert Moss said...

Hey Fran - You can get a taste of what is in my library from the rather extensive notes and bibliographies I publish in my books, including my historical fiction. On the Temiar-Senoi of Malaysia, I have a few pages of my own in my "Secret History of Dreaming". My favorite book on the Senoi is by the American anthropologist and musicologist Marina Roseman, "Healing Sounds form the Malaysian Rainforest" which comes with a CD that includes dream-inspired shaman songs, for which the local term ("norn") means "a roadway".

On Kilton Stewart and the question of fabrication or idealization in his well-known essay, the most excoriating book-length critique is Bill Domhoff's "The Mystique of Dreams". Use that with care, because one thing that needs to be said about Senoi "dream theory" as described by Kilton Stewart is that whether or not it is practiced in the Malay rainforest as described, it WORKS!

Wanda Burch said...

You provide a valuable dream lesson for all of us when you say that often you are able to transcribe only a few lines upon waking when you dream into a culture and/or language that you have not previously explored in depth. This is probably something many of us can identify with, even if only in a simple dream with a word or phrase unfamiliar in our waking life. But then the lesson - you follow the few lines or the page left imprinted by your dream voice who is assisting your reading the text. Your waking research then not only catches up with your dream but takes you deeply into a new dreaming culture and often into the discovery of concepts in dreaming that you had not previously explored.

We could all learn so much more from our dreams if we followed the words and lines and scenes that we do not understand and spent time exploring them in every possible path opened to us within the dream - a study of a new landscape, a people or culture unfamiliar to us in waking, pursuing the nature of a plant presented to us that might prove useful to our health and well-being or expanding our creative gifts in painting or composing from the gift of a dream image or word or sentence - or an entire song if we write music.

Our dreams are a phenomenal resource tool for further exploration, much like a good book that presents us with new ideas for more in-depth personal exploration. Your writing about the research paths your dreams open to you is a life chapter for all of us on what treasures await us in our dreams.

Robert Moss said...

Thanks, Wanda. Another point worth noting is that when our dreams deliver clues we can check out successfully we acquire objective verification that the dream self travels beyond the limits of of personal knowledge and discovers things not previously accessible to our ordinary senses. This helps to quiet the necessary skeptic in the left brain by giving him hard data to consider. The skeptic in me is armed with the investigative skills and critical requirements of the scholar and journalist, and I don't want them bound and gagged, but actively on my side, assisting the quest for deeper knowledge of the multiverse.

fran said...

(Smacking heel of the palm to forehead) Duh! Yes, obvious! I totally forgot about the notes and bibliographies! I was reading the blog entry saying to myself that I had read more on the subject but couldn't recall where. It was in The Secret History of Dreaming. I'll do a little browsing there and in the notes and bibliographies, thanks, Robert!

I agree with you about the effectiveness of the Kilton Stewart material. Long before I encountered your works on dreaming I was taken by those techniques. When people casually ask me about dreaming I often use a few items from there to get their attention and give them a few simple techniques for starting to look at dreams in a new way. For me they were perfect preparation for Dreamgates as I wanted to expand on what I had learned. From my perspective, Dreamgates was a great big toybox full of wonders and just right for this time and place.


Katie said...

you are one fascinating individual, and here I thought the symbol of the frizzy haired woman dressed as an academic was symbolic of instinct being lost to intellectualism.