By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
You can take a story like this any way you want to, as testimony or allegory, memoir or myth. More than anything, however, Aizenstat considers it inspiration, a textbook example of what he calls "ancestor dreaming," which is, in turn, a significant part of "world dreaming," a theory he has been refining for more than 20 years. Drawing on everything from Freud and Jung to the work of Joseph Campbell and his own clinical experience, world dreaming seeks to take into account dreaming at every level, from the directly representational -- "A lot of dreams," Aizenstat admits, "are fairly straightforward, arising from our experiences in the last 48 hours and our need to deal with them" -- through the archetypal and beyond, into a realm he characterizes as "eco-psychological," in which dreams do not merely explain us, but enlarge us, putting us in touch with something like a global soul. For Aizenstat, this has less to do with metaphor (although, as he says, "It is the genius of the psyche to speak in image") than mythology, in which the most essential notion is that "Dreams are alive." When we sleep, he believes, we enter not only the limited interior space of our imaginations, but a collective dreamscape where our reveries mingle with those of other entities. "Everything we see in dreams," he declares, "is a living, breathing creature of the dreamtime, and it tells its stories from the inside out."
Ideas like these, as one might expect, have their detractors, especially among researchers who think that dreaming is a byproduct of cognitive thinking, and requires an active (read: human) intelligence to occur. "Dreaming is a cognitive achievement," insists William Domhoff, "and develops gradually in human beings. It takes the ability to imagine visually to have a dream." What this means is that children younger than 2 or 3 may not dream in any way we recognize because they lack the necessary cognitive development, part of which involves language skills. According to Rosalind Cartwright, "We know there's a lot of REM in utero, although it probably has an entirely different function. But we also think some early screaming at night may have to do with a single frightening image." Still, if dreaming is so deeply connected to cognition and language, how do we make sense of, say, the REM sleep of animals? For Aizenstat, the issue isn't that animals (or anything else, for that matter) dream as we do, but that in dreaming as themselves, they become participants in an animated landscape where "dreams are not just part of our personal complexes, nor even a collective human psyche, but also of all creatures and all phenomena of the world." It is his deeply held belief that "everything dreams" -- which means animals, buildings, flowers, oceans, the very ground we stand on, anything that has a physical presence in the world.
In that sense, Aizenstat's theory may be most appropriately interpreted as a contemporary extrapolation on the aboriginal dreamtime, albeit mediated by modern psychology. Indeed, lest we lose sight of what's most important, Aizenstat stresses that there's little point in even thinking about all this if we aren't able to use it to make sense of our dreams. When I solicit his thoughts on my childhood death dream, he asks about my grandparents and my feelings toward Connecticut, and it seems to confirm something after I tell him that, for me as a child, both represented a zone of comfort, equally nurturing and serene. What I've experienced, Aizenstat suggests, may be less a nightmare than a dream of reconciliation, a kind of psychic journey from a place of fear and anxiety to one that's more receptive to my needs. As for the death part, this is just a matter of transition; the whole dream, in fact, can be read as an expression of what Aizenstat calls the "angelic imperative," a new sense of self-awareness, as embodied by the moment that I see myself. The most important element, he says, is the way the dream has lingered. "The dream is an announcement of your own autonomy," Aizenstat tells me. "And it is as alive now as it ever was."
It is this merging of the theoretical and the practical that, for me, gives world dreaming its weight. At the Association for the Study of Dreams conference in Santa Cruz, in a speech titled "Tending the Dream Is Tending the World," Aizenstat recalls a patient, a lawyer of Mexican descent, who, in a dream, had seen a church crumbling, "as if there is a kind of assault that is happening to the structure." Aizenstat tried several approaches to analysis, but the dream recurred -- until the man revealed that the church reminded him of a village in Mexico. At that point, Aizenstat began to consider the dream in terms of "the world psyche," in which "The interpretation of the dream may be indeed the act of doing something on behalf of the dream rather than only understanding a psychological meaning of the dream." Eventually, the man learned that his grandmother had lived in a village much like the one he was seeing, and he decided to go in search of the dream. "He took time off," Aizenstat says, "and he went to that village, and he asked around, and do you know what he discovered? His grandmother had died, and there was an assault on that place going on. There were developers right outside the village, and what do you think was being condemned? Yes, the church was being condemned. And he said, 'No. These dreams are demanding something of me, and I am asked to be here and do something on behalf of this village, on behalf of these people, and on behalf of this church. This is ancestor dreaming now; this is place dreaming now.' And he spent the next six months applying everything he knew, legally and in other ways, and brought to it all the resources he had, and he talked to all kinds of people about getting architectural resources, and he made that his life's work for the next six months, and he is still doing it to this day . . . Dreams from the world. Yes! As if walls could talk -- and indeed they do!"