Jeremy Taylor On Dreams As A Tool For Social Change
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LAST NIGHT I HAD THE STRANGEST DREAM
JEREMY TAYLOR ON DREAMS AS A TOOL FOR SOCIAL CHANGE
By Karen Karvonen
March 30, 2006 Issue
Jeremy Taylor was in his seventh year studying culture and myth at the State
University of New York at Buffalo when he got his draft notice. It was 1969,
and U.S. troop levels in Vietnam were at their peak. An active opponent of
the war, Taylor obtained conscientious-objector status and was allowed to
perform community service in place of military duty. He went to work with
the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, and was given the job of
retraining white volunteers who had encountered problems serving in a black
neighborhood: well-meaning volunteers who had offended African Americans,
Taylor says, with their "extra-nice, deferential, and unconsciously
condescending attitudes and behaviors." To unearth their subconscious
racism, Taylor tried an unorthodox method: bringing volunteers together to
discuss their dreams. Though the participants were initially skeptical, the
idea proved highly effective, and Taylor realized that he had stumbled upon
his life's work.
Inspired by the work of pioneering psychologist Carl Jung, Taylor believes
that our dreams can not only connect us to our authentic selves, but also
foster healing in society. After completing a master's degree in American
studies at SUNY Buffalo, he worked for ten years with schizophrenic teens at
the Saint George Homes, a residential treatment facility in Berkeley,
California. He led dream discussion groups for patients and found that, even
for psychotics, talking about dreams fostered emotional and psychological
After his ordination as a Unitarian minister in 1980, Taylor continued to
meld dream exploration and social action. He also taught at universities and
went on tours to promote his brand of "dream work" with his wife, Kathryn.
He delved further into theology, obtaining his doctorate from the University
of Creation Spirituality (now Wisdom University), which was founded by
renegade Catholic priest Matthew Fox.
Now sixty-three, Taylor estimates that he has helped people work with more
than a hundred thousand dreams in his thirty-five-year career. A founding
member and past president of the Association for the Study of Dreams, he has
written three books on dream interpretation and mythology, including Dream
Work (Paulist Press) and Where People Fly and Water Runs Uphill (Warner
Books). He has appeared as a guest expert on such television programs as The
Power of Dreams (Discovery Channel) and The Secret World of Dreams (NBC). In
the midnineties, Taylor pioneered Internet dream work as host of America
Online's innovative Dream Show.
Not everyone who has heard Taylor's message agrees with it. In fact, some of
his more vocal opponents are Jungian analysts. (Taylor is a self-taught
student of Jung's ideas, and not an accredited analyst himself.) "There is
always a little flurry of controversy when I show up to speak at a Jungian
society," Taylor says, "in part because Jung said some pretty scornful
things about doing intimate psychological and spiritual work in groups."
Taylor has a website <http://www.jeremytaylor.com> and recently founded the
Marin Institute for Projective Dream Work, which trains people to practice
dream work in their communities. He still considers himself a social
reformer, only instead of organizing around specific issues, he says, "I am
organizing around the evolutionary strategy of becoming more conscious and
more responsible for ourselves and our society."
I first heard of Taylor in the eighties when a friend attended one of his
workshops. That friend and I subsequently started our own dream group, and
eighteen years later, we are still sharing dreams using Taylor's principles.
I finally met Taylor in person in 2004, at a three-day dream-work retreat in
Loveland, Colorado. A large man with kind eyes and a full white beard, he
wore a T-shirt printed with a map of the galaxy. I began to interview him
over breakfast, and the conversation carried through into lunch.
I caught up with him again more recently by phone at his home in Fairfield,
California, and I questioned him on how his early interest in myth, the
unconscious, and social change had grown into a dream ministry.
Karvonen: Why did you initially turn to dream work to heal racism?
Taylor: It was out of desperation. I was training a group of Unitarian
Universalist volunteers who'd been rejected by the black community they were
trying to assist. I'd held some traditional discussion groups with the
volunteers, and it had seemed like a success, because people felt better
after telling their stories. But all the talk did little to address the
underlying problems. Here we were, strong believers in civil rights and
equality, and we had failed to overcome our own unconscious racism.
As I tried to think of another approach, I recalled what my wife, Kathy, and
I were going through in our relationship. Though we were both committed to
ridding ourselves of society's sexist conditioning, we still drove each
other crazy, even dreaming about the fights we'd had. Every time dreams
entered the conversation, the discussion got deeper and more interesting,
and it became possible to imagine what a relationship free of sexism might
actually be like.
It occurred to me that the volunteer group was having the same problem with
regard to racism: we were absolutely convinced it was wrong, but we were so
subject to the unconscious patterning we'd been raised with that all our
efforts failed. I thought maybe discussing our dreams about racism would
help in the same way that sharing dreams about sexism had helped heal my
relationship with my wife.
When I first proposed the idea to the group, there was surprise and a
certain amount of consternation. But, being liberals and Unitarians, they
were willing to try anything once.
At the next meeting the group began talking about dreams that, on the
surface, were filled with racial sentiments. Not surprisingly, virtually all
of them were nightmares in which the dreamer was menaced by figures of other
races. At another level, everything in the dream is a reflection of the
dreamer's own psyche: these menacing characters are in fact representations
of repressed aspects of the dreamer's own self. While the dream is
occurring, I might be absolutely convinced that these unpleasant figures are
"not me." But the fact that I am creating the dream means that it is all me.
The more I think of figures in the dream as "not me," the more likely I am
to be projecting my own problems on others in my waking life.
When I consciously accept the possibility that these figures in the dream
are me, it allows me to begin withdrawing the projections I make in my
waking life as well. Specifically, when I can acknowledge that this gang of
dark-skinned youths who are threatening me in the dream are the disowned,
despised, and often dangerous parts of my own being, I am then less likely
to project my fears onto the next group of dark-skinned youths I encounter
on a real street. Instead I can see them for who they are: kids coming home
from school, laughing and talking.
That's what happened with the Unitarian group. With the release of our
neurotic self-deceptions came increased mutual respect in our interactions
with people in the African American community. The volunteers were able to
relate to these people based on who they really were, rather than as
representations of unconscious projections. Authentic likes and dislikes
began to replace ritual "politeness," patronizing blunders, and repressed
fears. And we were finally able to do something of value for the community.
Karvonen: What effect did this experience have on you?
Taylor: It opened my eyes to the potential of working with dreams as a tool
for non-violent political, social, and cultural change.
I saw that if you can touch the unconscious directly, hearts and minds can
The primary reasons for terrible race and class oppression at home and
perpetual war overseas are not rational but unconscious.
We have this unconscious belief that there are parts of ourselves that are
not us, perhaps not even human: our aggressiveness, our murderous urges, our
jealousy, and so forth. As we deny those traits in ourselves, we start to
see them as the exclusive property of other people. These others are so
unlike us, in our view, that we begin to question their humanity. This is
what allows us to speak so casually about "collateral damage": we don't
really believe that the people suffering are human beings like us.
The moment we set ourselves up as the moral arbiters of the world, engaged
in a battle between good and evil, then projection has become public policy,
and it leads to disastrous results. What heals these profoundly destructive
behaviors and promotes real change in society is awakening a sense of
rapport with the rejected and despised aspects of ourselves. You can tinker
endlessly with the laws and level the playing field all you want, but if you
don't change the way people relate to each other face to face, the law of
unintended consequences will simply recreate the problem all over again.
Karvonen: What is the "collective unconscious" that Jung spoke of, and how
are dreams connected to it?
Taylor: Jung theorized that below the personal unconscious, which is
connected to a certain individual, there is a vast unconscious that forms
the foundation of our common humanity. From a spiritual perspective, it is a
realization that we are one family. All my experience tells me that Jung's
theory is correct. Dreams give us a more immediate and direct access to that
deeper level of the unconscious.
Karvonen: But we usually think of dreams as personal messages from our own
unconscious. Aren't our dreams about us?
Taylor: Dreams carry personal meanings related to our individual experience,
and at the same time reach down into the collective unconscious, that vast
foundation. One or the other may be of more importance to a dreamer at a
particular point, but the dream is working on everything simultaneously
-- from personal issues like our jobs, our health, and our relationships to
larger issues like nature, the cosmos, the divine, the whole psychic and
spiritual evolution of human beings on this planet.
To a great degree we human beings have lost our intimate connection with
nature. We grow out of nature just like anything else, and the health and
harmony of the biosphere is absolutely essential to our health and harmony.
But through the various barriers of language and culture -- and particularly
technology -- we have created the illusion that we are not connected to
nature anymore. The conscious mind tends to function as if this illusion
were true, but the unconscious knows better. We pollute and destroy the
environment because of the uneasiness and mistrust that we have toward our
own unconscious. If we do not bring this unease up to the conscious level,
we will continue to project it out onto nature and burn the natural world
down and pave it over.
Karvonen: Jung also said that the collective unconscious is made up of
"archetypes." What are archetypes, and how are they related to dreams,
myths, and folklore?
Taylor: Archetypes are recurring symbolic forms or patterns that carry
essentially the same meaning for all people.
For example, all human beings are predisposed to associate the direction up
with light, consciousness, and goodness, and the direction down with
darkness, unconsciousness, and evil.
Part of achieving emotional, psychological, and spiritual maturity is
recognizing that the divine resides just as much in the darkness as in the
light, because the divine is everywhere. In fact, we can discover more about
the divine by exploring our dark side, because we are unconscious of much
more than we are conscious of. So God is proportionately more present in the
darkness of the unconscious than in the light of what we already know.
Even though I am predisposed to mistrust and fear the darkness down below,
it is precisely in that place that everything I don't know about myself --
and, therefore, everything I don't know about God -- resides. So if I want
to become a healthy, mature human being, I must overcome my fear and explore
the underworld. For that reason, characters in myths and folk tales often
must descend into dark, fearful caves or labyrinths and grapple with evil
forces there in order to become enlightened and whole.
A great symbol for this archetype of darkness and light and their
relationship to each other is the yin-yang. If you were to wrench the symbol
apart into two halves, the black half would still have a white "eye," and
the white half would still have a black "eye." So we see that even in the
midst of the light, the dark is present, and vice versa.
Another example of an archetype would be the image of blood, which is
related to family and the obligations of relationship. "Are you of my blood
or not?" we ask when determining family. So when blood shows up in a dream,
one important question for the dreamer is "What is my relationship to my
relatives?" -- and not just the ones who are living, but also the ancestors.
Though the particular cultural expressions surrounding family, ancestors,
and obligations will differ from culture to culture, there will still be
this symbolic archetype of blood.
Of course women, because they menstruate, have an experience of blood that
men don't. So archetypal symbols can have different levels of meaning. Some
of those levels are gender-specific.
Karvonen: You've said that there is no such thing as a bad dream, that the
more horrific a nightmare may be, the more significant it is to the
dreamer's health and wholeness. Why is this?
Taylor: From an evolutionary survival standpoint, we are hard-wired to pay
attention to threats. So when a dream has information of particular value
and importance to us -- especially if that information runs counter to our
cherished beliefs -- the dream is likely to dress that information up in an
upsetting, threatening form to make us pay attention. A disturbing dream is
a wake-up call that tells us some change in awareness or action needs to
occur. Over and over again my work with dreams has demonstrated to me that
the worse the dream appears to be on first encounter, the more important and
valuable is the information it conveys -- if we have the wisdom to recognize
All dreams, not just nightmares, are trying to guide the dreamer directly to
"roadblocks" in the psyche: childhood injuries, current self-deception,
repressed desires -- in short, all the things that separate us from
spiritual health and wholeness. One of the hallmarks of greater emotional
and spiritual maturity is that the more gut-wrenching, nightmarish dreams
subside. As we pay more attention to our dreams and attempt to follow their
guidance, they no longer need to frighten us to get our attention. So the
way to handle nightmares is to explore your dreams more, particularly the
horrific ones. It's not easy, but it is doable, particularly in the context
of a caring, supportive group.
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