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 growth.
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 (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 nonviolent political, social, and cultural change. I saw that if you can touch the unconscious directly, hearts and minds can be changed.
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 it.
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.
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.
Karvonen: Can you give an example of a nightmare that helped someone heal?
Taylor: The single most common dream symbol of psycho-spiritual growth and change is death: a funeral procession goes by; someone gets murdered; menacing figures threaten to kill the dreamer. A dream like that means that I am unconsciously engaged in a process of profound growth and evolution, such that only the death of who I used to be, or some part of who I think I am, is an adequate metaphor of the process. Of course, someone who has a nightmare about being attacked by a murderous gang of thugs is unlikely to see it, without a little reminder, as a sign of profound growth.
A woman named Julia, who was attending a weekend dream workshop at a convent, brought to the group a terrifying dream in which she was standing in a closet watching a black bug chew holes in a sweater. The bug then turned into a snake. To escape it, Julia locked herself and a little girl — who had suddenly appeared — in the bathroom. But the snake crawled under the door, slithered up to the little girl, and bit her. Then Julia beat the snake off the girl.
In working with the dream, Julia surmised that spending the night in the convent had triggered the memory of having once been sexually molested by a priest at a Catholic boarding school. Julia’s strength and determination and her readiness to work with and face these repressed memories and feelings, as painful and horrific as they were, were a key factor in her healing. The dream brought down the barriers that had previously served to protect her by prolonging her amnesia about the trauma. Her spontaneous decision in the dream to overcome her fear and aid that hurt child in herself led to a renewed feeling of vitality.
Karvonen: How does the dream work you do differ from traditional dream analysis in psychotherapy?
Taylor: One difference is my egalitarian, shared-leadership approach. Virtually all other strategies for exploring dreams in groups have a leader, so the structure is authoritarian and top down. People have said that I’ve “democratized” dream work. That doesn’t mean we vote on the meaning of a dream [laughter], but rather that everyone gets to feel what they feel and say what they think about a dream.
I simply don’t believe that dream work is so fraught with psychological and emotional risk that we should practice it only in a therapist’s office. We are, in fact, much stronger and more resilient than most psychology gives us credit for. Some therapists fear that dream work may “unlock demons” and bring to light unacceptable or embarrassing truths that, if uncovered in a group setting, will cause other people to shun the dreamer. But these fears simply are not borne out in practice. In fact, the opposite happens.
I’m convinced dream work can help society, because dreams come to us in the service of health and wholeness and speak a universal language of symbols that erase the boundaries we think separate us in waking life. Dream work sweeps prejudice aside and provides a place where anxieties can be relaxed, hostilities treated with good humor, and fears relieved through play. If we could experience this often enough, with enough groups, society as a whole might start to change.
My desire to change society rather than just help individuals is why I eventually chose to do this work as an ordained minister rather than a therapist. Psychology focuses on the individual, but the ministry continues to allow room for the prophetic voice, the social gospel, and the transformation of society.
Karvonen: You ran a “drop-in” dream group in San Quentin State Prison for several years. How did that work?
Taylor: At that point I had a fair amount of experience to support my belief that the language of dreams is universal, but my clients had been mostly well-educated, polite, law-abiding people. So I went to San Quentin to see if this work had the same impact with people who were for the most part poorly educated and had little impulse control. And indeed I found that even major barriers like incarceration make no difference in dream work. We are all having the same kinds of dreams. We may respond to the dreams differently, but the symbolic information the dreams offer is essentially the same. The differences between the prisoners and others in society lie in behaviors, and the nice thing about behaviors is that they can be changed.
The most dramatic example was a prisoner who had been treated by all his fellow inmates as a fool they could manipulate. He was an unusually big guy, about six-foot-eight and very muscular, and his persona was that of a volatile child: physically fearless and emotionally immature. So whenever anybody needed to create a disturbance, all they had to do was say something to insult him, and he would fly off the handle. The rest of the time they placated him.
One night this prisoner came to the drop-in dream group and shared a recurring dream about eluding giants. These giants would want to imprison him or hurt him in some way, and he would run between their legs and escape. It turned out that several men in the group had experienced similar dreams. I told them that in dreams, giants often represent adults, who, from the point of view of a small child, are like giants.
I said that if I had dreamed about eluding giants, I would take it as a sign of some kind of arrested development. The big prisoner was insulted and stood up so fast his chair turned over backward. But before he could make a scene, I reminded him that it was his dream, and only he could know what was true about it, and he sat down again. Later in the meeting, he made all sorts of insightful comments about other people’s dreams, producing ahas of recognition among his fellow prisoners. His position in the group shifted before my eyes. After that, the other prisoners who’d been in the group viewed him differently, and he saw himself differently. His behavior and the way he related to his fellow prisoners changed for the better. I talked to the prison administration, and they confirmed that they saw a positive change in him, though they wouldn’t ascribe it to the dream work.
Karvonen: So after he brought his repressed fear of “giants” up to the conscious level, this prisoner became less likely to react to other adults as if they were out to get him?
Taylor: Yes. It’s a good example of why I am so interested in using dream work as a way of dealing with collective social issues, as well as intimate personal issues. The waking imagination uses the same archetypes as our unconscious imagination. When we listen to someone else’s dream, we respond to issues in it that we share, whether we understand the archetypal symbols or not. If, in a group, a comment is made that illuminates the meaning of a dream, it is likely to give insight to everyone present, not just the dreamer.
Karvonen: Do all dreams have something to tell us, or are some just the flotsam and jetsam of the unconscious: a reaction to a fever, perhaps, or something we ate?
Taylor: My experience tells me that even the seemingly silly dreams have a larger purpose they are trying to fulfill. It doesn’t really matter which dreams we pay attention to. They are like reliable public transportation: if I miss this bus, there is another one coming along in fifteen minutes, and they all lead to health and wholeness. So though it would be erroneous to say that a certain dream doesn’t really mean anything, it doesn’t do any harm to ignore it. But the overall goal of dream work is to get me to pay more attention to dreams and open me up to the possibility that even seemingly silly and pointless dreams have meaning.
Karvonen: Why do dreams speak to us in the language of symbols and metaphors?
Taylor: Jungian scholar Marie-Louise von Franz once said, “Why do the dreams always speak Chinese?” I’m sure the Chinese say, “Why do the dreams always speak English?” [Laughter.] I’ve contemplated this question for decades, and the answer I like best comes from Sandor Ferenczi, a Hungarian pupil and colleague of Freud and Jung, who said that dreams are the “workshop of evolution.” The form we are growing into takes shape first in dreams, and we are always dreaming of matters that are beyond our ability to comprehend at our current stage of consciousness.
The reason we dream in symbols is that the symbol is simple enough on the surface to be grasped by the current state of consciousness, yet every symbol has multiple meanings and serves as an invitation for our consciousness to evolve and be able to understand it at a deeper level. If the dream were to speak to us in simple linear statements, then this whole evolutionary enterprise would cease, because we would be limited only to the language, concepts, and feelings that we already have. No dream comes just to tell us what we already know. It invites us to go past what we know. Symbols carry within them seeds of understanding that will later grow and blossom. In order to encourage the evolution of consciousness, dreams have to present us with what would traditionally be known as a riddle.
Karvonen: Is that similar to a Buddhist koan, like “What is the sound of one hand clapping?”
Taylor: Exactly. Every koan is seemingly nonsensical and irrational on its face, but when you give it all you’ve got, it breaks open like a seed and produces a lotus blossom. In that moment, the consciousness transforms. Religious practice is an archetypal drama where our collective spiritual growth is visible. Often the heretical offshoots give the first indications of what the next transformation in consciousness is going to be. For that reason I am very interested in the history of “heresy” in all the world’s religions.
Though I am not a Buddhist, I like the Tibetan Buddhist idea that our understanding of spiritual principles is limited by our language and culture at a particular moment in history. Tibetan Buddhists believe that the Buddha himself and Buddhist saints over the ages have hidden religious texts so that they could be discovered once the culture has evolved to the point where we can comprehend them. The Tibetan name for these hidden texts is terma, and one of the most famous is the Tibetan Book of the Dead.
Karvonen: What about people who prefer the here and now, who tend to trust practical explanations more than the abstract, symbolic ones? How can dream work engage them?
Taylor: First let me explain how, in Jungian terms, these two ways of perceiving work. According to Jung, people prefer to gather information through either the senses or the intuition. People who prefer practical matters are “sensing” types, whereas those who prefer imaginary, abstract processing are “intuitives.” According to the Myers-Briggs Indicator, which tests various personality functions based on Jung’s concepts, approximately 75 percent of the U.S. population is sensing, with males and females equally represented.
Of course, everyone has the ability to use both the senses and the intuition. But, according to Jung, if I’m a natural intuitive, my sensing function will be less developed, and if I’m a sensing person, my intuition will be less developed. In order to become healthy and whole, regardless of what my preference is, I have to cultivate consciously the underdeveloped function. So sensing people have to turn their attention to the intuition, and their dreams will be full of that possibility. Intuitives will have dreams filled with invitations to celebrate the senses.
At times I work with Julia Landis, a wonderfully skilled yoga teacher, who adds what you might call a “sensing” aspect to dream work, offering the dreamer yoga postures that physically evoke certain archetypes previously discovered in the dream. Other ways of bringing dream work into the world of sensation and the body — which is where most people live — are drawing or painting a dream and doing dream theater, in which a person acts out the various characters and actions in the dream.
For sensing people, the pressure to develop their intuitive function grows significantly with age. As the body begins to fail, they face a greater crisis than intuitives. The motivation to understand the world in nonphysical terms is dramatically increased.
It doesn’t really matter which dreams we pay attention to. They are like reliable public transportation: if I miss this bus, there is another one coming along in fifteen minutes, and they all lead to health and wholeness.
Karvonen: Aren’t those who are drawn to dream work already more adept at identifying projections, whereas the people who could really use this work disparage and ignore dreams?
Taylor: I certainly have run into that over and over again. The interesting thing is that even those people who disparage dream work have dreams, and most have a deep desire to figure out what they mean. So the key is to create a situation in which conversation is possible. It doesn’t matter whether they share their own dreams or just listen to other people’s dreams. They can even be silent, disapproving observers. But whenever people illuminate the meaning of a dream, the skeptic will share in the aha. I have had quite a few experiences with rigid, hostile, sure-they-are-right individuals whose behaviors and attitudes changed entirely.
I’m confident that the direction of our evolution as a species is toward free will. And the primary limitation on free will is unconsciousness. The more we understand our dreams, the more conscious and self-aware we become, and the better we are able to exercise our free will.
Karvonen: Is it possible for everyone to remember dreams and remember them accurately?
Taylor: I think the primary reason most North American adults do not remember their dreams is that they do not have any social support mechanism that encourages them to do so. In my experience, even the most inveterate nonrecaller will start remembering dreams as soon as you create a social context for discussing them. So if I am a nonrecaller, and I have a standing monthly engagement to share dreams with a friend, I will start remembering one dream a month. And if we start meeting twice a month, I will remember two. This is another reason I am so partial to group dream work, because it creates a social setting and support system.
I do not put much emphasis on remembering dreams accurately. It’s inevitable that people will clean up the narrative and make the dream seem more coherent, but it still comes from the same unconscious place. The technical name for this is “confabulation.” In fact, I sometimes ask people who say they don’t recall dreams, “What would your dream have been this morning if you had been able to remember it?”
I’ve always found it interesting that the confabulations are as conducive to health and wholeness as the real remembered dreams. So even if I am shamelessly making details up as I go along and filling in the gaps, the quick, creative, preconscious choices that I make about what to put in will ultimately be as reflective of the deeper truth as the original dream. It’s just a little harder to get at the truth through confabulation, because it’s more shaped by what I think consciously about the world right now, and ultimately those preconceptions have to be dissolved away in order for the new experience of the world to come into view.
But the fact that I remember a dream at all, even just a fragment of a dream, means that I am fully capable of dealing with all the issues that dream raises. In all my years of working with dreams, even the dreams of schizophrenics, I’ve never known a dream to present a problem that the dreamer could do nothing about. If it comes into consciousness, then there is some creative response I can have — that the dream is inviting me to have.
Karvonen: What about those dreams we carry around with us and can’t seem to forget?
Taylor: If a person remembers a dream that took place months or years ago, or even in childhood, it’s an indication that that dream is still as relevant to the dreamer’s life in the present moment as it was when it first occurred. The process of remembering and not remembering dreams is not random, but relates to this larger process of personal and spiritual growth.
Dreams are the “workshop of evolution.” The form we are growing into takes shape first in dreams, and we are always dreaming of matters that are beyond our ability to comprehend at our current stage of consciousness.
Karvonen: How can we know we’re interpreting a dream correctly?
Taylor: There is always a danger that we’re wrong. Even the aha insight can be falsified, particularly by extroverts who are attempting to go along with the crowd, gain acceptance, and be part of the excitement. But the dreams themselves can be relied on to serve as a corrective, because if the dreamer continues to pay attention, later dreams will tell him or her that the earlier insight wasn’t the whole story. Dreams keep enlarging the truth for us.
Karvonen: Can someone become flooded with so many possible insights that she or he can’t make sense of them?
Taylor: That happens all the time, because dreams are so layered with symbols and metaphor and meaning. I don’t believe anybody grasps a dream totally. People simply stop at the point where they can’t get any more from the images. They’ve taken in all they can at this moment.
But suppose we really did unpack a dream all the way down; suppose we really did understand it all. How would we know? How would we recognize that we had reached the bottom? I believe the result would have to be a single, ultimate aha, a joyful, conscious appreciation of the dreamer’s inextricable connection to every other thing in the universe: past, present, and future. And I don’t know anyone who has experienced that wholeness. Sometimes there are testimonies from the mystics of the world’s religions, who do their best to describe what is beyond our understanding: that all is one. Dreams spring out of that wholeness, and they direct our attention back toward it.
Karvonen: Dream work is often viewed as a threat by organized religion. Why is this?
Taylor: I think at the center of all spiritual debates is the question “Is human language sufficiently powerful to describe the nature of the divine?” And it seems obvious to me that words are not capable of defining anything worthy of the name “God” or “Goddess.” Sooner or later, however, a religion gets frozen into dogmatic claims that its narratives and teachings describe the real truth. Then dreams come along with images that point to a different, more holistic view of the truth, one that’s not limited to certain language. This makes dream work threatening to all forms of authoritarian human interaction, be they religious, political, academic, or economic.
If dream work weren’t disparaged or forbidden, then any scruffy malcontent — and the archetype of prophets seems to favor scruffiness and malcontentedness — could speak up in the congregation and say, “I had a dream last night in which God told me . . .” This kind of dream revelation has particular authority, because all the sacred scriptures of the world give dreaming a privileged place. The Bible says that God communicated with Joseph in a dream and told him to get out of Bethlehem because Herod was sending in the troops.
Now, religious authority is always under threat from “heresy” anyway, even without people paying attention to their dreams. But the problem would escalate a thousandfold if contemporary dream revelations were given the same authority as the dreams of Joseph, Muhammad, and Solomon.
Karvonen: Does organized religion pay a price for relegating dream work to the fringes?
Taylor: The cost of denying dreams is the loss of a sense of immediate communication with the divine. This seems to me too high a price to pay, particularly now. As a species, we have gotten ourselves into a dire predicament with the environment and our ongoing wars. If we are going to change this, we need to access this creative impulse, this source of growth, this communion with the divine. We can’t afford to throw away this ancient method of tapping into deeper levels of meaning.
In fact, an extremely effective tool of human oppression is the disparagement of the native imagination. If I can convince you that the playful and spontaneous products of your imagination are worthless or trivial, then I can make you my slave, regardless of any accompanying economic and political oppression. Conversely, if I fail to persuade you that your imaginative life is substandard, then no matter how much economic, social, or political oppression I put you under, you will never be entirely enslaved. People who are in touch with the archetypal imaginative impulse are in a state of creative ferment and revolution, whether they are outwardly insubordinate or not. Such people are always behaving in new and unexpected ways that the authorities have not specifically prohibited, because the authorities have not thought of them. I think it is no accident that Mahatma Gandhi’s idea for a religiously inspired strike — perhaps the single most powerful instrument of collective, nonviolent social change that we know of — came to him in a dream.