Dreaming in Taiwan

A guest post by Taichung dream expert William Stimson. Some great insights into what makes Taiwan such a unique and wonderful country.

by William R. Stimson, Ph.D.

Amazingly enough, Taiwan, which seems to have everything for the entertainment seeker, now also has a place for the deeper sorts — those rare spirits who care to probe the inner workings of the human heart through the exploration of dreams. Taichung’s new dream group meets on Thursday nights in an apartment a few blocks from the art museum. As might be expected, the group is small. Sitting around in a circle on the floor and working with dreams is not for the common crowd. Those drawn to this endeavor are that tiny minority who somehow are able to get beyond the ordinary reaction to dreams and glimpse in them instead the portal to a truer life, a fuller way of knowing and being.

To gain contact with the depths of their own spirit, so as to enrich and empower their life and the lives of those around them, rare souls since the dawn of history have employed all sorts of methods. The Sioux brave hung suspended through the night from bone hooks embedded in the flesh of his chest so that he might attain his vision and know himself. Shamans in the Mexican highlands today still ingest hallucinogenic mushrooms or cacti to obtain the same result. So as to induce the special dreams they desired, the ancient Greeks spent the night sleeping on the dirt floor of dark underground caves crawling with venomous snakes. The premise of all these extreme practices is that you have not become a man or woman, you’re somehow not yet truly human, and your life cannot be real until you touch its deepest vein and meet face to face, somehow or other, its ultimate source. If there weren’t truth to this, the practices wouldn’t be so ubiquitous in all indigenous cultures everywhere. Jesus Christ, in the secret Gospel of Thomas, re-discovered in Egypt in 1945, put it this way “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.” In this remarkable passage Jesus is not telling us what to believe, in the way the church does, but urging us instead to discover what lies hidden within ourselves. This is what all ancient wisdom traditions and religions are really about.

In modern times this mode of self-discovery was largely taken over by psychotherapy. It’s significant that Sigmund Freud always felt his greatest book was “The Interpretation of Dreams.” Working with dreams was central to Freud’s work because dreams are the one part of us that is totally spontaneous, out of our conscious control and, thus, utterly truthful. Dreams tell us the things we know about ourselves without knowing that we know. The premise of this work is that to know ourselves is healing and in one of his most famous cases Freud actually caused a woman who had been in a wheelchair for years to stand up and walk again. It was a miracle healing, something like what Jesus had done, and it was accomplished by working with dreams.
Freud’s most promising student, C.G. Jung, came to feel in later years that Freud took too narrow, and sexual, an approach to the analysis of dreams and to psychology. Jung rediscovered in dreams a spiritual dimension and probed ancient Alchemical texts, Eastern wisdom traditions, and early Christian motifs in order to understand the inner workings of modern minds. Significantly, he wrote a book entitled “Modern Man in Search of a Soul” and its very first chapter was “Dream Analysis and Its Practical Application.” Dreams had come back closer to their beginnings, to the intent of the Sioux brave hanging from the bone hooks, the Mexican shaman with his peyote buttons, and the teachings of Jesus Christ as contained in the lost Gospel of Thomas.

Yet, even with C.G. Jung, until only a few decades ago the dream remained squarely in the hands of the trained specialist. What happened then was that the American psychiatrist Montague Ullman, M.D. was invited to Sweden to help train psychiatric medical students in working with dreams. In trying to devise a way to do this, he developed the experiential dream group process. What he found, somewhat to his surprise, was that the process worked as well with laypeople as it did with the young doctors. In fact, in many cases it worked better because they had less dogma about dreams stuffed into their heads and so it was easier for them to come to an appreciation of what a dream was really saying.

Here in Taiwan, for example, a Taiwanese university professor came to a dream group Dr. Shuyuan Wang and I held at Chaoyang University with a dream that she stood watching children playing as adults talked seriously. The dream wasn’t easy for the group to work with until the woman mentioned in passing that the children were silent and had no expressions on their faces. Anybody who’s seen children at play in a playground can tell you they’re anything but silent and their faces are wildly expressive. The image in the dream now became alive and spoke to the group. In a few minutes the dreamer broke down in tears. When she could speak again, she recalled how earlier in the evening the night she’d had the dream she’d had tears streaming down her face as she watched a television performance of Taiwan’s acclaimed Cloud Gate Dance Company. The one thing she’d desired the most when she was a little girl was to take dance lessons. She begged her mother to let her take them. But soon after she’d started her mother objected that they interfered too much with her homework and so forbade her to continue. When she went to college she opted to major in dance. Her mother insisted she major in something “practical.” When she went away to America to graduate school she hoped finally to be free to pursue dance. Her mother intervened yet again and insisted she continue with her current major. Now she’s back in Taiwan, married and with a small girl of her own and has a position at the university teaching. She’s a gifted and popular teacher and delights in spending time with students. The people around her advise her not to squander her time that way. Instead, they say, she should be publishing research papers to move ahead with her career. She wants to travel and see the world. The people around her all tell her it’s more important to save her money to buy a house. In America she’d felt freedom. Returning to Taiwan for her was like crawling back in a tight little box where she had to do what others thought right for her. “Our Chinese culture…” she explained.

I didn’t understand what she meant. “The difference between you Americans and us Taiwanese,” a woman informed me, “is that you think about what the child wants, we think about what the parent wants.”
Those silenced expressionless children in the dream represented the muffled genius of this woman. No culture has the right to silence genius. The function of culture, indeed its mission, is the opposite — to bring it forth so that it might flower. Our native gift is the core and essence of what we are. If we don’t get at it and find a way to let it out into our lives, we ruin our lives and the lives of those around us. We ruin our children’s lives. Without knowing it, we do this. And, no matter how good our intentions might be, we poison the existence of everyone we touch. Our genius is not superfluous. It is essential. We need to live through it and let it live through us in order that we may do good and cause happiness all around.

This isn’t about mental illness or anything like that. There was no mental illness involved here. Any one of us, in the course of our busy lives and as a result of the complex demands placed upon us, may find our lives getting twisted in this direction or that. It happens all the time to the best people. The unique feature of dreams is that they contain the innumerable strands of information we take in all the time without even knowing it. The vast majority of learning is unconscious. Dreams simply present to us what we ourselves already know without knowing we know it. Hence, their tremendous usefulness.

In another one of our dream groups, a highly acclaimed Taiwanese university professor, and the loving mother of a gifted boy, presented a dream in which someone told her she was poisoning her son. She hotly denied doing anything of the sort. Work with the dream, however, brought out the extent to which she’d been forcing her son to conform to her own values as a scholar when the boy actually had the temperament of an artist. He painted. He sang. He played the violin so well. The dream, she saw in the end, informed her that her incessant nagging of the poor child about his homework and school performance was toxic to his creativity and damaging to his genius. With tears in her eyes, she realized what the gifted boy needed from her was not another scolding teacher, but a mother who could understand his unique gift and help him, in whatever way possible, to develop it. That little boy’s life will be forever changed because his mother worked through that dream.

This woman wasn’t a sick individual. She didn’t have a diseased mind. What she needed was in her own dream. All the group provided was a way to bring it out in a form that made sense to her and that she could understand. There is something truly revolutionary in this kind of work, which returns normal, healthy people to the power they have in their own hearts and enables them to transform their lives from within. It’s especially amazing to be doing it in a cultural setting such as Taiwan’s, which is traditionally coercive and authoritarian.

I sense, although I have little evidence except for the dreams we’ve worked with since we came here, that deep down in the lives of individual people here in Taiwan, Chinese culture is taking an important step forward. This island nation is a real hot spot, but not in the way the world thinks. The whole money-hungry world is greedily focused on the huge market potential of Mainland China. How much more fascinating are the creative, cultural, spiritual, and human developments underway in tiny Taiwan. This little nation that these people here have forged from nothing has the makings of a real world leader that can deliver the authentic genius of Chinese culture up out of the sad swamp of official corruption, bureaucratic rigidity and social tyranny that it has gotten mired down in.

In the dream group we see each individual life, under Taiwan’s new freedoms, move forward just a pace, maybe two. But the feeling that comes after working on dream after dream is that the cumulative effect of these individual Taiwanese steps is amounting to something really big. The world sees the economic Taiwan, maybe even the political one. But all that is only the tip of the iceberg. The biggest part of what is happening here on this island is below the surface. You see it when you get down into the dreams here. Then you know what an amazing people these are and what a really powerful country they are building.

* * *

William R. Stimson, Ph.D., a founder of the Dream Network and former editor of the Dream Network Bulletin, worked with dreams and dream groups in New York City for over twenty-five years. Dr. Stimson and his wife, Dr. Shuyuan Wang, who is on the faculty of Taiwan’s National Chi Nan University, both trained in the experiential dream group method under Dr. Montague Ullman himself. Before coming to Taiwan they led dream groups in New York City. Here on the island they’ve helped introduce this work into the curriculum of the prestigious National Yang Ming Medical University, Chaoyang University of Technology in Wufong, and Puli’s National Chi Nan University. At Dr. Ullman’s urging, they’ve also conducted programs to train Taiwanese professionals to lead these groups themselves in Chinese.

The Discussion: 2 Comments

Someone not Taiwanese finally wrote this. So overdue!

February 5, 2006 @ 11:39 pm | Comment

Would this be lucid dreaming they’re working on?

February 7, 2006 @ 9:44 pm | Comment

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