I was confronted at the ASD XIII conference with
the notion that dreams are too dangerous to be shared on the net. The general
idea was that there is something about dreams which makes us so vulnerable, so
helpless, that in the wrong hands serious psychological damage may occur.
I started to dismiss this as the speculation of those not familiar with
online dream sharing. I receive a lot of e-mail from psychologists & others
who don't like the _idea_ of dream sharing online - but haven't actually tried
it themselves. Generally these concerns dissipate upon a trial experience. A
example of this is the account by Jeremy Taylor which he made public in
DreamNetwork Journal 15(1) as well as Electric Dreams 3(3). I'll also have more
to say later about why this occurs and how dream sharing on the Net might draw
on the experience of face-to-face group sharing experience, yet in the final
analysis constitutes a fundamentally different environment and ecology.
But wait a minute. One of the self assigned tasks in my life is to bring our
culture into a relationship with dreaming that moves in a different direction
than, for example, telling our children upon awakening, "Oh forget it, it
was just a dream". Simply dismissing the arguments about the potency of
dreams would be counter-productive.
Now to be fair, the main arguments made were about the assumption of
authority, the potential damage of telling other people what their dreams mean
rather than letting them come to find this meaning with their own inner
Dangerous material and dangerous uses of the material are not the same, but
do come together, just as with the issue of gun control and substance abuse.
But be it danger of the dream material itself or the uses of the material,
there are some implicit assumptions I would like to explore.
A question. Would an interpretation of a short story by O'Henry draw the same
concern, and if not, why? If I were to tell O'Henry what I thought his story
means, wouldn't he simply take it or leave it like all other literary
criticisms? Even if O'Henry was personally offended by my interpretation, would
the story itself be seen as dangerous? Probably not, and those who see the dream
text as dangerous would most likely say that we are not assuming to be
authorities over the life of O'Henry and tell him how to lead it according to
the story he wrote. Part of the danger lies in the dream material itself, I'm
told, but the other lies in the approach to the dream material.
But there are also similarities and similar risks of exposure in putting out
any text, be it a dream story or a short story.
I take a risk when I put my creation out to be judged and critiqued and
analyzed in the public sphere. If we were talking about a short story, the risk
might have something to do with my self-image and self-esteem. Was this story as
good as my last story, do people hate my writing style, maybe I really am a bad
writer. Part of this has to do with the responsibility felt by the writer, the
aspirations and hopes of what public acceptance might entail, and the risks
associated with self-revelation, what I might be letting people know about
myself, my identity. This identity and self-esteem that might be fragile and
suffer humiliation, embarrassment, chastisement, abandonment, isolation and
scapegoating if the public hated or criticized my work.
Given all of these risks, we still continue to write and put our writings out
publicly to be interpreted, even though we know that our intentions will often
be misunderstood. As a matter of fact, it is now part of the Post-modern
aesthetic to release the text once it is written. That is to say, that we no
longer demand that the meaning of the text be the one the author intended. Each
reader may find his or her own relationship with the text and it will be as
valid as any other. Whether the subjective interpretation is relevant to the
culture at the time or not is another matter.
Its been my feeling for sometime that dream texts are somewhat similar.
Certainly the technique of taking the dream "as if it were your own"
moves in this direction. In this technique we approach a dream as if it were our
story, not the dreamers, and then talk about the ways it is relevant to us, how
the imagery moves us, how we give it meaning and how it returns to us its
significance. The author of the dream is decentered. Each person in the
participating group *has* the dream. This de-centralization of the ego is
furthered in the work of James Hillman, a archetypalist who would like to see
the dream as having *nothing* to do with the dreamer. That the dream gains it
power from just that fact, that it is centered around archetypal rather than
Are dream texts riskier and more dangerous than say, a short story we write?
I think the answer lies in the direction of "For those who have ears, sound
can be painful". But let me unpack this quote by looking a century long
fantasy that our culture has purchased.
During the last days of the 19th Century, Freud was putting the final touches
on his favorite book _The Interpretation of Dreams_. This book was written in
the middle of a cultural horizon that was participating in the idea that with
just a little more knowledge and reason, the whole universe could be rationally
understood. Freud's ideas on the role of the irrational not only shocked his
Victorian Peers, but eventually swayed them to acceptance. But it was a special
kind of acceptance. This was pre-chaos theory days. The irrational was accepted,
but only as the province of psychology. The Natural World was still safe and
would eventually be fully understood by the rational mind.
And so dreams became aligned with the irrational and, this is my point,
aligned with psychology. (There is also a hidden ethic in Christianity about the
natural and the irrational being the same, but that's another topic).
What Hillman and other are saying is that psyche is larger than psychology -
and so too are dreams. Yes, there are innumerable debts and long traditions and
a whole host of clinical practices that involve dreams, but they are not only
the province of psychology.
Since 1953 and the first REM experiments, the scientific community has know
this. Even around Freud's time there were a host of natural scientists observing
and studying dreams outside their clinical uses. Many famous writers have drawn
upon dreams not for psychological insight, but for inspiration in writing.
Artists have always know the value of dreams for inspiration. The Surrealist
took dreams beyond the psychological and aesthetic into the political, showing
how dreams can be used to move us past repressive habits into the marvelous.
Lucid dreamers and extraordinary dreamers, group dreamers and dream flyers enjoy
dreams for the sake of the experience itself.
None of this is meant as evidence that the dream is or isn't dangerous. It is
a statement saying that the dream is not owned by psychology and psychologists,
nor by clinicians or the board of behavioral sciences.
I haven't yet been able to understand the arguments that dreams in and of
themselves are simply too psychologically toxic, too revealing, to apt to cause
major psychological damage in and of themselves. The damage theory seems to come
more from how we approach dreams, what people think and feel they are doing when
they share them with a qualified or unqualified individual or group.
I will guess that those who are concerned about the danger of the dream are
more concerned about people coming to share dreams and expecting some kind of
psychotherapeutic effect or environment. The explanation of the danger here will
vary according to the psychological perspective. From the perspective of the
innocent dreamer, the problem is that they have *already* given over the
function of the creation of meaning and value to a supposed authority. In a
sense, we are all kind of in this position with dreams as we feel any need to
interpret them at all. I don't feel the need to interpret my going to work in
the morning (well, most mornings) but there is a call I have imposed upon myself
Is this more dangerous than simply going along with the rest of my culture
and society and saying, "Well, it was just dream" and forgetting it? I
suppose it is - in that my path now includes the dream text and my explorations
of it. Going through it, with it, are then more dangerous than if I had just
left well enough alone.
But it hardly justifies the position that dreams and opinions about dream
should not be shared. Even if we grant that dreams hold some potential for
danger, just what is the actual frequency that we can expect, let's say a
borderline, to go off the edge from discussion of the meaning of his or her
dream? It seems to me that if the frequency of such incidence is equal to or
less than, say, that of a discussion of other parts of one's life, that we are
really making the environment way too restrictive and safe for any particular
There are a few life practices I am not yet willing to hand over to the
*exclusive* use of the psychotherapeutic encounter. One is self exploration,
another is the investigation of the meaning and value of life, and another is
the significance of events in my life, including dreaming. What about the
discussion of the meaning and value of your dreams? Do I have to choose a
category to make relevant remarks about them? Do I have to say, "Now I'm
being spiritual" "Now I'm being psychological", "Now I'm
being artistic", "now I'm being humorous?". Granted, the
dreamworker has been cross categorical and a problem for a long time. Every
major religion began with the core folks being into dreams - and every major
religion eventually banned dream interpretation. Why? The current thought on
this is that dreams tend to question and play with things, and one of the things
they play with & question are structures of repressive authority. I guess
the Orthodoxy would say that since there can be no authority on dreams, no one
should be allowed to make meaning of them. The Christian church has historically
make exceptions for saints.
But I'm moving a little off the track. Let me shift from the exploration of
how dangerous dreams and dream interpretation may be in general to the venue
specific ecologies of Cyberspace dream sharing.
The Ecology of Cyberspace.
I feel it is pretty clear to those both online and offline that if we were to
hold a dream group face-to-face and only allow people to write notes on a
bulletin board, it would be a very different group than one where voice and body
movements were allowed. Now imagine that everyone in the group had a mask on and
the message board was in a room that only one person at a time could enter, at
any time during a two week period.
As John Herbert has noted in an unpublished study on the difference between
online and offline groups, one of the main differences is the reflective quality
of the Online groups and the emotionally pitched quality of the face-to-face
groups. This emotional pitch picks up a bit in real time chat, but never quite
reaches the face-to-face pressure.
This is not a judgement of one being superior over the other, just a note
that it is much more likely for emotional instability to play a factor in
face-to-face encounters. (However, Herbert did note that online groups were
rated higher in self rating scores of insight gained). The point here is that in
cyberspace there is a time factor, a infusion of reflective imagination over
reactions. There is time to consider other people's reactions as well.
Another built in factor is the new mix of social and individual space, we are
anonymous and alone in a public space.
Fred Olsen, during the ASD XIII DreamWork in Cyberspace Panel told the story
of a man who during dreamwork session in a chat room reported that he touched
something and began to cry. It was a area of his emotional life he had tried to
contact in groups before but felt inhibited. By being both alone in his room,
and also being online with a group, he was able to access a realm previous
unavailable to him.
The other side of this social anonymity is the continual peer review. Yes, we
can say mean things and "get away" with it because no one knows who we
are, but that doesn't mean that 5 people won't immediately step in and point out
how cruel or inappropriate the remark was. For good or bad, there is always a
kind of self-monitoring that occurs online, part of the piece in progress idea.
With Dream interpretation on public channels, this means that someone may
interpret your dream in a way that is extremely undermining of everything you
value. But it also means that a lot of other people will be there to say that is
just exactly what is happening, and model approaches you may have never guessed
at or would have never experienced.
Along with this is the ethic of freedom of speech. Yes, we have to allow
Neo-Nazi's and other fanatics their say, but this is the price of freedom and
most of us still think it is worth it. In a culture where we practice telling
our children that "it was just a dream" I prefer to have lots of wild
interpretations flying around than repression. This means that to participate in
our society, the adult has to been able to handle free speech. To begin saying
that there are adult citizens who can't, is a serious theoretical and political
So, is dream sharing more like rock climbing, psychotherapy or literary
criticism? Are there approaches to the dream and context of dream sharing that
are not safe for most people and need to be mediated beyond the natural
mechanisms of the Net? My judgement, that it *is* safe, is still un-proven but
gaining experiential evidence. I talked to other dreamworkers at the ASD XIII
conference who have been exploring dreamworking online, including John Herbert,
Jeremey Taylor, Jayne Gackenbach and Electric Dreams community dreamworkers and
have yet to find *one* single case of an unhappy camper. Again, there are many
who find the process useless, and don't like the _idea_ of dreamsharing - but
not one bad experience has been reported in now what is about the 3rd public
year and several pre-public years of online dream sharing. If other adult
activities that are deemed dangerous can boast these statistics, I think they
would be hardly be called dangerous.
Still, I want to stay open to the potential dangers and encourage those who
do feel dream sharing is dangerous online to help us see this, and ways we might
avoid harming one another with our often frank and honest assessments of one
another's dream stories. As a matter of fact, I we now have a wide variety of
venues in which to discuss this. The first is the Electric Dreams E-zine itself.
While we hold some editorial discression and power, we are generally open to
publishing just about anything that is related to dreams. Electric Dreams also
has a Bulletin Board that can be used for this issue and we encourage
"Watch Dog Lurkers" on any or all of our dream groups. And now ASD,
the Association for the Study of Dreams, is also reviewing this issue and has a
public bulletin board to post relevant topics in this area. I would also like to
suggest the original alt.dreams as a forum for discussion as well.
Let's say that dream are potentially wonderful, and save the dangerous
warnings for a culture that hides away and represses dream discussions.