Friday, June 21, 2024

Dreams Are Real Events: An Anthropologist Breaks the Glass in New Guinea


For the Barok people of New Ireland, Papua New Guinea, dream events are no less real than waking events, and may be more real, in the sense that "big people" - people with powerful magic - may act in the dreamspace to generate what follows on the physical plane.                

I draw these insights from a fascinating report by an anthropologist whose assignment among the Barok was to study their spiritual hierarchy and rituals up close. Marianne George developed a relationship with Kalerian, the “big woman” of the community, that spilled over into the dreamspace, or vice versa. Kalerian was very old, almost blind, and big in stature as well as status, finding it hard to walk because of her swollen legs. She could not get up the ladder into Marianne’s dwelling but would sit outside and chew betel nut with her.
     One morning two of Kalerian’s sons, Alek and Bustaman, visited Marianne early, while she was making tea. Alek looked her straight in the eyes, and asked, “Did you understand her?”
    Alek said that his mother spoke to Marianne the night before, and had sent him over to make sure Marianne understood the message. Marianne protested that she had not spoken to Kalerian the previous evening.
   Alek corrected her, saying that Kalerian “came to her in the night”. He used the word
griman, which means “dreaming”.
   The anthropologist felt slightly queasy. She now recalled vaguely that she had seen Kalerian in a dream and that the big woman had wanted her to change her mind about a financial decision. Marianne had not mentioned this decision to anyone. 
    The sons recounted the full conversation Marianne had supposedly had with the big woman as if reading a transcript – or as if they were present. As she listened, Marianne became convinced that everything had happened exactly as described. She asked the sons if they were always able to communicate in dreams like this. Of course. They seemed surprised that she was surprised. “If our mother wants to talk to us, she does” – no matter where we are.”
    It shook the anthropologist to realize that for this family, stepping in and out of someone’s dream space was as easy as stepping in and out of a room – easier, since the big woman did not have to get her awkward body up a ladder. Four people had met in  the same dream, sharing the same conversation..
    “I wrote about what happened in my journal — in code, just in case anything happened to me. I did not want anyone to end up reading about it and thinking that I had gone nuts in the field. I knew that there was nothing wrong with me. I had simply come across something unexpected, and I had no explanation for it except for the one they gave me… there was no getting around the fact that four people had shared the same dream with me.”

It took years, and more dreams – which Marianne usually had trouble remembering – for the anthropologist to recognize she was being educated in the dreamspace. This became hard to ignore when Kalerrian appeared to Marianne in a dream after her death to reveal the exact location of an ancient clan hearth that she and a colleague were trying to excavate – and to warn of danger of a landslide if anyone stood too close to the cliff beside the site.
     It took even more years before Marianne was ready to go public with what she learned at the dream school of the Barok. She feared that colleagues would think she had gone nuts, or at any rate, gone native. In a courageous personal account of her experiences, she wrote that she learned from Barok big people that “in order actually to do something important, one dreams about it first.”
     It had been demonstrated to her that dreams may be transpersonal as well as personal. "I learned that spiritually skilled people are able intentionally to communicate with and empower others in dreaming. This kind of dreaming had transcendent meaning and objective effects on my waking reality… In my dreams I was directed, provided, warned, and shown things that were important to me and to others in reality.”
     Marianne was able to break with models of reality that deny that people can dream together and reject the idea  that dreams may create, as well as rehearse, the future. Her ideas about causation had changed profoundly. She could now state that "t
he intent of spiritually powerful persons [acting in dreams] was what determined non-dreaming reality, rather than ordinary reality determining dreams."
     In her own life, she added, dreams became "a sort of spiritual experience that has provided more real creative opportunities than any other activity."

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