As I walked my dog near the faculty housing complex at Taiwan’s National Chi Nan University, two other dogs came running up. Their owner wasn’t far behind – the woman who’d just moved into the house behind ours. Her English was excellent and she seemed interesting. I invited her to the Tuesday night dream group I lead at the campus English Corner. She said she was busy but promised to come the following week. I rang her doorbell later and gave her an article that explained the Montague Ullman experiential dream group method we use.
Next week she showed up in the group late. Those of us sitting around the circle had just finishing introducing ourselves. I asked if she’d care to say something to the others before we begin.
“I’m not staying,” she announced. “I only came by because I promised. What you do in this group goes against what I teach my students about dreams.”
“What is it you teach?” I asked.
“The research shows that dreams have no meaning and should be forgotten.”
“I would like to invite you,” I put it to her, “To put aside what you’ve read about dreams just long enough to experience for yourself what actually happens here in the next hour and a half between a dreamer and her dream.”
She rose to her feet. “No,” she said. She walked out of the room.
I removed her empty chair and had everyone close the gap in the circle. Besides myself, eight individuals remained: undergraduates from the Departments of Social Policy and Social Work, Applied Chemistry, and Chinese Literature; a graduate student from the Department of Teaching Chinese as a Foreign Language; a faculty member from the Department of Information Management; a 12 year-old girl from the local elementary school; and two women from outside the university, whom we’d never seen before. They drove over from a nearby mountain town to practice their English. Neither had any idea what a dream group was. When I called for a dream the elder of the two raised her hand. Her name was Yi-San. She taught Chinese at the junior high school in town.
“You have a dream?”
“Yes,” she said in a soft voice. “But I’m afraid my English is not good enough.”
“Don’t worry. Not good enough will work fine in this group,” I said. “When did you have this dream?”
She thought a moment. “Oh… When I was about ten or eleven.”
The professor who had just walked out told us dreams should be forgotten. I wondered how she and her scientists would explain those that are unforgettable and stay with us for a lifetime.
“Tell us your dream.”
“For a week I had the same dream every single night…” she began.
“Don’t tell us anything right now except the dream itself,” I cautioned. “Say it slow so we can write down every word.”
Yi-San told her childhood dream:
I was in a place and that place was my house, around my house area. And there was some Indians ran after me. They run after people who live there. I was in that area because that was my home town. I ran and ran and ran. Every time when Indian almost get me I fall down and pretend I was die and then I escape to be catched. I was nervous and scared in that situation. And then when that Indian cross me, he thought I was dead, and he cross me to find someone else to catch one, I run again. Very soon, another Indian run after me again. Over and over I pretend fall down and die to escape to be catch up till I awake.
Yi-San told us the place was real – the area around the house where she lived at that time. She called her attackers in the dream Indians because they looked every bit like American Indians, with painted faces and feathered headdresses – but in the dream she knew them to be the aboriginal people of Taiwan. She’d never seen one of these aboriginal tribesmen and so in the dream pictured them as Native Americans. Her feeling in the dream was, “I thought I would be killed.”
Members of the group took the dream as their own and brainstormed about its feelings and metaphors. Then I invited Yi-San to come forward and tell us what she could make of her dream.
“I remember that the house [we lived in when I had that dream] was dark– so I ran in and ran out without light.”
“My family, we just moved in a few months before. I didn’t like that house because it’s far away from town. There are fields around the house and we didn’t have lots of neighbors. The neighbors were not nearby.”
“I couldn’t forget that dream until I grow up. One day I decided to go to Peru to find an answer. In Peru there are Indians. So I went for two years. I didn’t find any answer.”
“I went back to Taiwan. I got married with an aborigine.”
“That dream is always in my mind. How to make it clear, or find the answer. I dreamt the same dream every day in that week. I dreamt it the first night. Then the second night dreamt it again. Then I went to bed the third night and dreamt it again.”
We set the dream aside and questioned Yi-San about the little girl who dreamed it.
“That house was our second house.”
“We had a house from the time when I was born until I was 4 or 5 years old; but it belonged to my father’s family. When my father’s brothers split the property amongst themselves we lost the house. We moved to another place. We moved about 1 or 2 times after that to houses that weren’t ours.”
“Then my father had money to build a house and we moved when I was 10.”
“We all didn’t like that house – including my brothers, sisters, and me. (I’m the eldest) – except my father; because he chose that place and built the house. The land was cheap because it was far away from town.”
“At that time it was a hard time. Before we moved in that house my father was seldom at home. He worked in Japan. My mother worked hard. We often feel not safety.”
“I didn’t feel safety when I was child. My father always work far away.”
“I was eldest. Have to take care of brothers and sisters, support mother. I felt got lot of abilities on my shoulders to carry.”
“I thought that house had ghosts.”
“At night we didn’t dare to go to the bathroom alone. The others company, be a line waited outside the bathroom door for our turn.”
“My mother was not very healthy.”
“I was very shy but active inside. Appearance looks shy, thin.”
I asked Yi-San if she would care to say more about “active inside.”
“I had a lot of dream about future but nobody knew at that time. “
“I always wanted to fly away from home. Always look to the sky.”
“When I was a child my relatives tell me I liked to jump, to run, to speak a lot, always say hello to everyone.”
“When I get older I change. About 7 or 8.”
“I wanted to travel around the world, and do something great, be the great person. Know different kind of countries, people.”
Yi-San became choked up with feeling and fell silent.
The group waited.
The professor who had walked out told us dreams had no meaning. I wondered how she and her scientists would account for the tears Yi-San fought back. To reconnect with one’s deepest feelings is not meaningful? As a little boy I too had wanted to “be the great person.” Yi-San’s words brought an uprush of emotion in me too. How many of us can measure up to the big hopes and dreams of the innocent child we once were?
“I felt sad,” Yi-San apologized when she’d recovered herself and could speak. “I wanted to cry.”
I asked her if she’d like to go to the next stage of the Ullman process. She said yes.
I explained how the playback stage worked. One of the group members read the first piece of Yi-San’s dream back to her.
Yi-San didn’t know what we wanted her to do.
I explained again how the playback worked. The group member read the next segment of Yi-San’s dream back to her.
Usually in the playback the dreamer is able to connect each of the dream’s metaphors with her waking-life situation before the dream; and come to a much deeper, and often very different, understanding of herself and her life because of the dream’s unabashed truthfulness and its inclusion of much important information that escaped waking notice. But this is all Yi-San could say:
In the dream I was worried about how I could rescue those people. I can do nothing, just running.
I felt fear, nervous.
When I face to difficulty what I do is escape. I used to be when a child, if I didn’t do school homework well, I pretend I having headache or stomachache. But not now.
I think I heard from my grandmother, she taught us in ancient time have in Taiwan those aborigines that cut person’s heads off [some aboriginal tribes in Taiwan were headhunters]. Once my grandmother when a little girl she went to the forest and lot of aborigines run out. She with friends run and run and she drop into a hole and pretend she is dead. That aborigine cross her and she didn’t be killed but someone be killed at that time and cut head away.”
What I curious about: why did I dream that dream for several days?”
When Yi-San was finished I asked her if she’d like to hear what others in the group thought about her dream. She said yes.
The view of the group was that Yi-San was much closer to the various levels of the dream than she realized. On its simplest, most immediate, level, the dream expressed the fears she and her brothers and sisters felt living in this dark and (she feared) “haunted” new house their father built way out all alone in the fields, far from town and from any neighbors. The children dared not go to the bathroom alone at night. They feared for their lives. Yi-San, the eldest, was a responsible girl. During the day she helped out her mother with the younger ones. But asleep at night she was very much the little child again, and prey to her siblings’ same fears about being moved to a place so far away from town when the mother was not well and the father was frequently absent. That the fears take the form of Taiwan’s aboriginal headhunters is undoubtedly due to the grandmother’s tale of her own childhood encounter with aborigines one day when she and her playmates ventured too far from town.
Some members of the group also discerned a deeper level to this dream, as evidenced by (1) Yi-San’s lifelong concern with finding “the answer” to it – and her venture to South America, a place with Indians, in search of that answer; and (2) her marriage to a Taiwanese aborigine when she returned to Taiwan.
Yi-San said she never found an “answer” to the dream; but she herself, of course, was all along the dream’s “answer.” On its deepest level, the dream announces to her who she is. She had the dream at an age when her unique form of greatness was just beginning to wake up in her and assert itself. The terrifying images in the dream were a self-portrait – and a clue to the distinctive spiritual destiny that was to be hers.
The dream occurred again and again, night after night, for a whole week because the dream’s scenario was supercharged, drawing its emotional impact from the two different levels on which the dream operated. The terror and the fear for her life, understandable from the lower and most obvious level of the dream, are even more pronounced on its higher, more subtle, level. We are all most afraid of what we don’t know. What always remains most unknown and unknowable to us is what we most deeply are. It’s our real greatness that terrifies us the most, because that’s the part of ourselves we least understand.
When a special and deeper, almost shamanic, nature first begins to emerge in the exceptional child, it asserts itself in ways that aren’t so easily comprehensible. Especially if coupled with outside fears or insecurities, it can strike terror into the child’s heart. When I was five, living in the bland Miami suburbs, I unaccountably had a nightmare that I hid under my bed in terror because there was a big wild bear at the window that wanted to get me. Among the Native Americans, a child might have an overpowering dream of an eagle, a wolf, or a bear – and thereby begin to be acquainted with the emergence of some deep inner aspect to its own individual nature. Yi-San’s inner nature was somehow akin to that of the aboriginal Taiwanese – an almost vanished people, very different from the Chinese. That this is the case is attested by her eventual marriage to an aboriginal man. My dream was of the great bear. Because the bear hibernates in the winter the bear spirit in some Native American cultures is said to be associated with sleeping, intuition, and dreams. Sleeping is indeed very important to my creative process, as is dreaming. I can only write early in the morning when I first awake and my mind is still not that far removed from its dreaming, or creative, mode. My way of working with dreams in the Ullman group is largely intuitive; and I have found that the unique value and importance of the Ullman dream group in the university curriculum is that it trains and sharpens the intuitive and creative powers of students subjected to a life-long education that is too narrowly intellectual. I have remembered that bear dream my whole life. It announces to me something I very much need to remember for it tells me my true nature and mission, which is different from the natures and missions of so many of those around me. I need to be me, not them. It’s the same with Yi-San and her wonderful aboriginal nature. The “answer” to her dream is to be who she most truly is and do what she does best, and what perhaps only she can do.
We always give the dreamer the last word.
“I’m glad I decided to come here.”
“What you give me really is the answer of my dream.”
“Some of you touch to my heart.”
“I never try to see myself so widely and deeply, and try to understand myself.”
“Thank you very much. It is a very good experience.”
So, what is the “meaning,” then, of Yi-San’s dream. What exactly does it “mean”? And, what specifically is it about this dream that, contrary to the dogma of some sleep researchers, should not be forgotten, but sorely needs to be remembered – not just by Yi-San, but also by us, who worked on it in the group, and perhaps even by certain individuals reading this?
The laboratory scientist claims dreams have no meaning and should be forgotten. But dreams don’t operate in the realm of science. They aren’t about science. They are all about art – naked specimens of the most basic artistic, intuitive, creative, and spiritual function at the root of human consciousness and culture. We don’t reduce a great painting, a masterpiece of fiction, or a profound religious enlightenment to mere intellectual or statistical understanding by asking “What does it mean?” and we don’t specifically dictate that it should or shouldn’t be forgotten. The fact is, it changes our lives and the lives of those around us and is unforgettable.
The meaning is not in the artwork itself but in our human lives. The power of the work of art is that it can touch us down to levels of meaning, being, human richness, and even divine compassion that we have forgotten, and perhaps left behind – and it can bring these forward again into our experience. This is also the power of dreams and we have never worked with the images of a dream in an Ullman group but what we have found that they do have meaning and they do connect with the dreamer’s life.
A ten or eleven year old girl in Taiwan dreams a dream that she never forgets. Some thirty or forty years later she is a junior high school teacher in a mountain town in Taiwan. She tells the dream in a dream group and finds herself close to tears to recall that as a little girl she wanted to “be the great person.”
One of the greatest persons I ever met was Mrs. Hankens, my Honors English teacher at Southwest Miami Senior High School. She touched something into my life that I never began even to suspect until decades later. Undoubtedly she did the same for quite a number of her students. As Yi-San sat there in the group with us working on her dream, I was again and again affected by her simple humility, openness, and honesty. I thought of Mrs. Hankens and knew immediately Yi-San was a teacher like that. She may not have risen up high in the world, but there was no doubt in my mind that seated before us in the dream group, working on her childhood dream, was “the great person.”
And this maybe is the meaning of the dream, and of dreaming in general. That it makes us remember what we most essentially are, and enables us to see that in each other.
Read Also: The Dream of a Murder
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