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Dream Work & Collective Trauma - Unconscious Elements In Public Debate

Jeremy Taylor 


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Taylor, Jeremy (2001 Dec). Dream Work & Collective Trauma - Unconscious Elements In Public Debate. Electric Dreams 8(12). Retrieved December 28, 2001 from Electric Dreams on the World Wide Web: http://www.dreamgate.com/electric- dreams  





1st Principle: There Is No Such Thing as a Bad Dream

The most important thing that I have learned in the course of more than thirty years of professional work as a community organizer and dream worker is that ALL dreams come in the service of health and wholeness and speak a universal language. Even the most terrible, gut-wrenching, heart-stopping nightmares come to give us urgent warning that there is something going on that threatens our authentic lives. The nastier the experience of the nightmare is, the surer we can be that the warning it brings is urgent and important.

If we remember the dream, (and who can forget the worst nightmares? - they force themselves onto our awareness whether we want to experience them or not), then the fact that the dream has been remembered at all means that we, the dreamers, have the ability to deal creatively and effectively with all the issues that the dream presents in symbolic form. In other words, no dream - not even the worst nightmare - ever comes to anyone to say, "Nyeah, nyeah - you've got these problems and there's nothing you can do about them...!" If the nightmare is remembered, then the dreamer(s) can do something positive about all the issues that the dream(s) raise.

This general truth about the symbolic, metaphoric world of dreams applies equally to our collective nightmares of history and current events, as well as to the more personal nightmares that disturb our individual sleep. All nightmares, both individual and collective, present us with the ironic gift of forcing our attention to crucially important things in our lives that we have ignored or overlooked - things that threaten our individual and collective health, safety, and essentn the collective nightmare of terrorism, particularly the terrorist attacks on America fueled by fanatical, Wassabist Islamic fundamentalism. The possibility that Al Qaeda, or the Islamic Jihad, or any of a number of other fundamentalist terror organizations may gain possession of a nuclear device - perhaps a black-market bomb from the nuclear arsenal of the collapsed Soviet Union - makes the nightmare menace of terrorism even greater.

The world-wide proliferation of nuclear technology makes the possibility - alas, the likelihood - of nuclear attack and/or nuclear industrial safety failure, either through terrorist sabotage or simple industrial planning error, an abiding and pervasive dread for us all. The clearly demonstrated world-wide consequences of nuclear disaster, as the winds carry the lethal fall-out around the globe, eventually spreading it from pole to pole, make the inescapable point: we are all equal - equally vulnerable and equally at risk - in the shadow of the radioactive cloud. Ironically, in the short historical space of fifty-six years, the nightmare of nuclear menace has succeeded where four thousand years of religious and spiritual teaching and preachment have failed - it is now recognized as a concrete, hard-headed, inescapable truth: the people of the world are one folk. We are one family, sharing one house. What used to be seen as pious rhetoric and liberal wishful thinking has been transformed by the nightmare of nuclear menace into an inescapable reality that must be taken into account in all our strategizing and long range planning.

This is always the way nightmares deliver their paradoxical, coercive messages of health and wholeness, even as they point down the road to misery and death. The nightmares come to warn: "Do not continue down this path! You can see more clearly now where it inevitably leads...!"

What Hidden Message of Health & Wholeness
Could Possibly Lie Hidden in the Terrorist Attacks?

There is, I believe, a similar incongruous but crucially important message hidden in the horror on the September 11th terrorist attacks. For several generations there has been a growing sense in the West, and the world in general, that the acts of ordinary, anonymous, individuals are relatively insignificant, and that the economic and geo-political forces that shape history are so vast and complicated that they are beyond our ability to comprehend, let alone our ability to shape and influence. The terror attacks of September 11th demonstrate beyond question that the acts of relatively ordinary and anonymous individuals can shape history - albeit in a horrifying. destructive way. The task that faces all of us now is to search out the corresponding creative and positive acts of courageous individuals that will serve as the counterbalance to the perverted ingenuity of the fanatical, suicidal hijackers.

Once again, paying attention to our own and others' dreams is the single best way I know to access and stimulate the archetypal creative impulse that resides in our unconscious depths. We human beings have blunderingly created this situation where suicidal fanaticism endangers the peace of the world - we can also search into our unconscious depths to find the innovative and creative solutions to these problems as well.

Unconscious Forces Influence & Shape Our Conscious Actions

The ways we respond to the major events of our lives, both personal and collective, are shaped by the symbolic quality of those events. We respond to happenings and events in the outer world with the same pent-up unconscious emotions and energies that are associated with our own personal lives and struggles, the same emotions and energies that shape our dreams. To the extent that outer events, both joyous and tragic, evoke and share the symbolism of our own evolving, internal issues and dilemmas, we "see" those external events in a particular light, and interpret their meaning in particular ways. This is the main reason why different people respond to the same or similar situations in different ways.

The issues and dramas that are working themselves out in both our individual and collective psyche are always reflected in our dreams, remembered from sleep. These interior dramas shape our waking world, and to the extent that we are unconscious of their deeper meanings, we feel "trapped" and "helpless" in our waking lives. Our dreams give us an exquisite symbolic picture of what is going on inside, and how this on-going interior drama reflects and projects itself out into our waking opinions and actions.

Attention to our own and other peoples' dreams at times of national crisis can be particularly useful in bringing to light the unconscious emotions and energies that are distorting and twisting our waking perceptions and decisions. Because our unconscious feelings and ideas inevitably shape our waking attitudes and behaviors, we need to be as honest with ourselves as possible. particularly in these moments of national crisis.

If we are to make our way through the maze of conflicting emotions and harsh collective pressures to find some sort of real and productive response to this concerted attack on us and our way of life, we must look within at the very moment when the shouting crowds are demanding that we look only outside ourselves. The best way I know of to do this is to listen to the counsel of our own dreams, and listen with renewed attention to the dreams of others.

Responding to the Horror of September 11

Events like the recent terrorist attacks on the East Coast of the U.S. on September 11th invite us to ignore, or even forget this vitally important fact about the interior source of our inevitably distressed and violent emotional responses to these outer events. Instead of being encouraged to look within, we are encouraged to plunge ourselves into a comforting "puppy pile" of collectively sanctioned ideas and emotions, most of which simply do not stand up under honest emotional and intellectual examination.

For example, we are invited to believe that we can frighten and coerce our fundamentalist enemies into changing their behavior, (if not their ideology), by military threats and violent actions. At the same time we band together and say loudly that WE will not be coerced or threatened into giving up our way of life or beliefs by their threats and violent actions - clearly implying that we believe that we are fundamentally different kinds of human beings than "they" are. At very least, this is racist nonsense, and at worst it is "projection" - a naive attribution of our own unacknowledged fears and trepidations out onto our enemies in an effort to deny that they exist in ourselves...

Are we going to allow ourselves to be coerced into giving up our most deeply held convictions, and the behaviors that grow out of them, by these acts of violence that are being perpetrated against us? Of course not - and it is counter-productive insanity to believe that the "terrorists" are any different from us in this regard. Our current actions in Afghanistan simply will not have the effect we desire. In fact, one of the only reliably predictable consequences of our military attacks on Afghanistan will be to recruit many new supporters for the fundamentalist, terrorist "jihad" or "holy war" against us. Alas, we are expending vast amounts of our national resources, to say nothing of American lives, on a very effective, world-wide recruitment campaign for Al Qaeda and the other violently fanatical Islamic fundamentalist organizations.

Even if our military actions manage to drive the Taliban out of the major cities, (the current standard for "victory" in this "war"), they will simply regroup in the mountains and the caves and await their next opportunity.

It is not just pious rhetoric, or naive theorizing that "violence begets more violence" - it is a social/psychological fact, demonstrated over and over again throughout world history.

We Are Not That Different...

We should not forget our own "terrorist" history. In the late 1700's we Americans disguised ourselves and formed secret commando cells; we attacked commercial shipping and dumped stolen tea into Boston Harbor. Later, when the fighting became more intense, we did not stand in close ranks, out in the open, exchanging volleys of fire with massed British troops, the way self-proclaimed "civilized nations" conducted war at the time. Instead we hid behind trees and took pot shots from the cover of stone walls and ditches, and for this reason at the time we revolutionary Americans were excoriated in the world press of the day as "cowards", "terrorists", "barbarians", and "destroyers of civilized society..."

We Need a Better Metaphor

This "war between civilized nations and terrorist nation states" is simply a symbolic analogy that we are being asked to accept without criticism or dissent, in the name of "patriotic solidarity". It simply does not match the facts. The events of September 11th are acts of international organized crime, not an attack on us by another country... It really makes no more sense to attack Afghanistan and bomb Kabul and Kandahar in order to oust the Taliban and al Qaeda organizations than it would make sense to bomb Palermo because the island of Sicily "harbors" the Mafia, or to attack Ireland and bomb Dublin in an effort to neutralize the terrorist bombers of the Irish Republican Army.

The fall of Kabul to the forces of the opium smuggling war lords, (now called the "Northern Alliance" for propaganda purposes), on November 12th makes it even clearer: we are taking sides in an crudely organized criminal gang war, and no matter which momentary coalition of brutal thugs is victorious at one point or another, our terrorist problem remains essentially the same.

Sicily is totally corrupted and terrorized by the Mafia in almost exactly the same fashion that Afghanistan is terrorized and corrupted by the organized criminals who grow poppies and sell heroine, who are opposed at the moment by the rival gang of organized criminals who prefer to hide behind rigid, fundamentalist interpretations of the Koran. It is worth remembering that "Taliban" is simply a generic Arabic noun for "seminary student". the Southern part of Afghanistan is currently being run by a gang of criminals who like to think of themselves as "pious students". (I have to say that as a seminary professor who has worked with theology students most of my adult life, the idea of a bitterly poor nation run by militant, armed seminary students is truly horrifying...!)

Bombing Afghanistan will not do anything more than ultimately strengthen the grip of Wassabist Islamic fundamentalists on the populace of Afghanistan, and increase their influence throughout the Moslem world, any more than bombing Palermo could be expected to loosen the Mafia's death grip on Sicily. Sadly, both these criminal organizations have long since jumped the boundaries of the countries that gave them birth and are now truly international.

What Else Can We Do?
(We Can At Least Stop Shooting Ourselves In the Foot...)

What we have to do now - what we have had to do all along - is to figure out how to deal with international organized crime - something we have been unable to do with any effectiveness for several generations. It's so much easier to bomb somebody, to invade somewhere with a tremendous show of force and determination and technological might.... The only problem is, it doesn't work... The current "war on terrorism" is, alas, just another in the long line of inadequate, failed metaphors of "war" against "evil", like the "war on drugs" or the "war on poverty"... The problems are very real - the proposed military analogy and the strategies and "solutions" that flow from it are not...

"Kill 'Em All and Let God Sort 'Em Out"

Whenever military people talk about "collateral damage", and "inevitable civilian casualties", they are simply uttering the currently fashionable jargon for the most ancient, oppressive military command of all: "Kill 'em all and let God sort 'em out!" It is the order that Herod gave to his household troops when he was informed of the birth of Jesus. The 82nd airborne had those very words emblazoned on an illegal shoulder patch during the Viet Nam war. It is what the forces of the dominant paradigm, (whether it be the waking ego at a personal level, or the government of the supposedly superior and more economically and technologically society at a collective level), always says when faced with "peasant revolts and uprisings". The current wave of gruesome techno-terrorism is just the inevitable evolution of guerilla war tactics adopted by the militarily weak and under-financed forces of people who perceive themselves to be systematically exploited and oppressed.

The effort to "stamp out terrorism" by carpet bombing and special forces raids is the concrete, operational consequence of the attitude of overweening pride, what the ancient Greeks called "hubris". Whenever the blanket order to kill everyone who looks vaguely like our enemy or appears sympathetic to our enemies is issued, no matter what vernacular form it takes, no matter what moment in history it is issued, it always announces the failure of the old established order to respond to the creative challenges of the new, insurgent, and rebellious forces of psyche and society.

Militant fundamentalism, (of all sorts: religious, political, economic, or otherwise), always looks surprisingly similar. It tends toward fanatical merger of church and state in a single entity, repression of all dissent, all freedoms of speech, assembly, education, and worship. It also tends toward cruel suppression of women and minorities, along with general disregard for the truth and value of human and ecological diversity.

All fundamentalisms are anathema to me. However, the Christian, Jewish, and Moslem fundamentalist critique of contemporary Western industrial society as "godless", hypocritical, systematically oppressive, and cruel rings so true in my experience that I can only hang my head in shame for so many of the things that we "civilized" Westerners have done over the millennia in the name of "cultural superiority" and "progress".

If the terrorist disruption of our complacent way of life causes us to re-examine our deepest and best convictions and commitments, and to reaffirm them with renewed energy and action, then we may come out of this a wiser and better nation. If we allow these attacks to cause us to act out of fear and to abandon our most cherished freedoms and tolerance of wide diversity as "too expensive", and "too threatening to our survival" - then, alas, we simply will not survive.

The Shock of Being Forced to Look into the "Magic Mirror
That Never Lies"

One of the best metaphors of the introspection demanded by us by the present world comes from folk lore: it is gazing without flinching into "the Magic Mirror That Never Lies". What we see in the ever-truthful "magic mirror" of our dreams is also a symbolic picture of what we bring forth into the reality of our waking lives in projected form.

The on-going terrorist attack on America is a "collective nightmare", and like all nightmares, it has the potential of forcing us to look at what we might otherwise have preferred to ignore. Horrible though the attacks on us and our way of life are, they also force us to examine our own worst energies and actions. We have grabbed a grotesquely disproportionate share of the world's resources and we refuse to share them with any real openness or generosity. In an effort to hold onto our ill-gotten wealth, we have pursued a policy of supporting vile and brutal dictators abroad who rule without the consent of their citizens - a policy that has misfired and failed to protect our interests over and over again.

The main complaint of Osama Bin Laden, that uniformed U.S. military forces occupy and "pollute" the holy lands and shrines of Islam in Saudi Arabia, solely to ensure our access to cheap oil is, alas, accurate enough for any honest person to admit it. It is also true enough to inflame the passions of Moslems all over the world.

The Saudi "royal family", and any number of other Arab and other Middle Eastern "monarchs", were installed by Western military force after the end of World War II to protect and ensure our access to the oil fields in that part of the world. One of the things that we must do now is to look more honestly at our history of military intervention in the Middle East and elsewhere, and to forge new policies that reflect our national commitment to the things that really mark America as a world leader: separation of church and state, freedom of religious practice, freely elected democratic government, universal public education, and constitutional protection for the full range of human diversity. In the long run these "exports" will serve our national interests much better than guns, (or even butter.)

Cherishing the Right & Responsibility of Independent Thought

It is often said that "the first casualty of war is the truth", but in fact, the first casualty is the easy ability to think, imagine, and act independently. These are the basic activities that form the foundation of democracy. American patriotism demands a great deal of us. True patriotism for Americans who believe in democracy and freedom demands of us that we continue thinking for ourselves, and that we demand that our elected leaders do better than make up "wars" that are essentially misguided and un-winnable. We must demand that they do the difficult work of devising strategies to deal with the horrifying rise of organized crime fueled by religious fanaticism. The tired old plan to "kill 'em all and let God sort 'em out" simply will not work. We all must do better than that.

A Modest Proposal

Although I don't believe it is necessary to provide "an alternate plan" to shooting ourselves in the foot - (simply saying "Stop It!" in these circumstances is a perfectly adequate first response) - it is also important to think of ways to resist and overcome the operations of international organized criminals. Once way to achieve this would be to separate the organized criminals of Al Qaeda and the Taliban from their widening base of popular support, particularly in Afghanistan.

One idea that might work to achieve this goal would be to air drop large sums of counterfeit Afghan currency into the poorer parts of the country, particularly in the South. It would be even more internally divisive, (and therefore more likely to achieve the goal of de-stabilizing the popular support for the terrorist criminals), if the counterfeit currency were to come it two varieties: one relatively crude and easily identified, and the other a very sophisticated counterfeit that would be very difficult to identify. This would allow poverty stricken people who found it to turn in the crude counterfeits in a public show of solidarity and support while hiding the more sophisticated fake money for later use. Such a campaign would have the advantages of being non-violent and not causing "collateral damage", as well as cooling and diverting the ire and passions of the populace. It also has the inestimable advantage of offering all the individuals who find the fake money an enticing reason to think for themselves, ff only just for a moment, instead of simply mindlessly mouthing a fundamentalist "party line". From such small seeds, mighty changes can be grown...

The Spiritual Necessity for "Alchemy" -
in Our Lives & in Our Dreams

Finally, I would like to return directly to the question of paying attention to our dreams in periods of crisis such as we are currently experiencing. All such moments of crisis and stress call forth difficult spiritual questions. from our depths. "How can an All-Powerful and All-Good God allow such evil horrors to happen?" is certainly one of them. Another one is: "How can I maintain a cheerful, active, creative belief in the inherent worth of the good and the just when evil, violence, and criminal stupidity seem so much more powerful than the gentle, intelligent truth?" (In my view, these are simply slightly different ways of asking the same thing...)

A universal, archetypal answer to these perennial psycho-spiritual questions has long been found in "alchemy". The great symbolic truth of alchemy is that "base matter" can (and must) be transmuted into "gold". In this archetypal symbol drama, "gold" is an image of deeply felt, reliable spiritual perspective, and "base matter" (often appearing literally in dreams as excrement or "shit" - the "worst" in ourselves) is an emblem of the worst things - the worst things that we have ever experienced, either directly or vicariously. It is precisely these "worst things" that must become the center of our psycho-spiritual efforts to grow and mature.

Unless we can develop spiritual understandings that deal adequately with finding meaning and spiritual communion in the midst of the worst things in our lives, individually and collectively, we will reach our death beds with the experience/memory of the "worst things" in one hand, and a spiritual perspective carefully crafted to avoid the worst things in the other... And the only possible result of such an impasse, (short of the operations of "grace", which is a very real force in the universe, and cannot be manipulated or predicted), is emptiness, misery, and despair. We must face the worst things with clear consciousness, and in that encounter bring the inherent, archetypal potential for psycho-spiritual transformation into waking reality.

When a person dreams of "shit", it is most often an indication that he/she is being forced to relinquish the illusory comforts of denial and self-deception in waking life. Being forced to admit consciously just how bad things really are is never pleasant in the short run, (just as the archetypal "shit dreams" are almost never pleasant), but in the longer run, giving up denial, facing and dealing with the "shit" of our lives as it actually is, is exactly what the dreamer has to do in order to forge an adequate spiritual perspective.

The on-going fundamentalist/terrorist attack on the West in general and the United States of America in particular is certainly at the top of the list of "worst things" that we must come to grips with these days. Hopefully, we can do this without losing our tenderest and best energies and possibilities. Our dreams are working over-time to wrestle with this "alchemical" question.

A Transformative, Archetypal, Alchemical Dream

The night of the terrible attacks of September 11th, a young woman of my acquaintance who was visiting in New York City at the time, and who stood that day, watching the World Trade Center collapse and burn, not knowing if her childhood friend who worked on the 32nd floor of Tower Two had escaped or not, had a dream:

"In my dream, I find myself in the midst of forest that has been clear cut - nothing but great big stumps in all directions as far as I can see... I am devastated. I am weeping. I walk through the destroyed landscape asking myself, "Who could DO such a thing?" Then I am drawn to stop and look at the spiral pattern in one of the stumps. I realize how very old this forest was, and it makes me even more filled with grief at the loss of this beautiful old forest... Then I begin to be drawn down into the spiral. As I sink down into the spiral and into myself, I realize that this is a part of the tree that I almost never get to see... I am drawn more and more deeply into the spiral - down into a place of myself that is so wise, and calm, and deep that it is simply greater than my intense grief and the horror... There is more, but I can't remember any more than that... I awakened from the dream with a sense of calmness and clarity that allowed me to get through the next day, even with all my friends freaking out..."

My in-box has been filled to the brim since September 11th with accounts of pre-cognitive dreams "predicting" the terrorist attacks. (These dream accounts, fascinating as they are, alas, of relatively little value as "research data", since they are all dated in my computer after-the fact, but I know from experience that we regularly "see around corners" in our dreams all the time. I have no reason not to believe that the vast majority of these accounts are true and accurate, and that many, many people were dreaming about these horrible events before they happened... ) With all of those fascinating dreams, this young woman's dream remains the most interesting and compelling dream I have heard thus far related to the terrorist attacks and the on-going threat to our collective way of life.

It is an "alchemical dream" - it turns the worst thing into an occasion for communion with the Divine; it "turns the shit into gold" before our very eyes as we imagine it... It is such a startling dream because it makes it clear that the (archetypal) spiral of the growth rings that serves as a pathway to the perception of the deepest truth and beauty would not be visible if the tree had not been cut down. At one level, it is a metaphor of doing the psycho-spiritual work necessary to be a person in whom such a metaphor of healing can rise to consciousness. At another level, it also implies that this experience of the Divine is possible by looking at the "spiral" revealed in the stumps of any of the clear-cut trees. This is not just an exclusive, personal revelation - it is a metaphor of collective transformation of feeling and understanding, potentially available to all.

This dream is a concrete example of the psycho-spiritual truth that it is often through our worst wounds and injuries, both individual and collective, that we are opened to the archetypal possibilities of healing, and of more direct communion with the Divine. One does not have to be wounded to be opened to these energies of transcendence, but for those of us who are deeply injured by life, our anguish itself opens us to these profound possibilities.

My personal conviction, born of more than thirty years of experience doing dream work, is that no dreamer would be able to remember such a dream if he/she had not done the requisite personal, interior, psycho-spiritual work to discover and awaken those same archetypal healing energies within. The metaphor the dream offers is so simple, so lucidly clear, even a small child could grasp the paradox without difficulty - the very thing that caused the horror - cutting down the beautiful old forest - is what makes this particular pathway to the experience of the Divine open up and become available...

This is a potentially healing and transformative dream for all of us. May each of us find our way to the recovery and reconciliation promised and implied by our own ability to imagine this dream for ourselves, if only for a moment... Let us all continue to dream our lives forward into the uncertain future with all the courage and creativity that is our birthright, both as Americans born to freedom, and as human beings living together as best we can in the one tragically beautiful world we all share.

Version: 11/15/01 Jeremy Taylor