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 DREAM DOUBLE AND ITS DANGERS IN NEW GUINEA
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.