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Image courtesy of the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts
Our leaders had placed the chairs in a spiral shape, like a nautilus shell. They told us to be seated. They told us to share our dreams.
They told us to share dreams we’d had before, and also, dreams we were having right then and there, as in daydreams, or visions, or musings, or mental wandering, or hypnogogic flashes, or whatever name you might care to give them.
They told us not to “finish” others’ dreams, but simply to volunteer our own.
They told us to close our eyes, and to begin.
So we did.
We burst out with our dreams remembered and new in a sort of organized chaos. We didn’t talk over one another, though. In fact, sometimes there were silences between our talking. We started off a bit shy, but we warmed up to the task.
One lady recalled flying like Superman with her dead father in the air beside her. Another woman saw herself walking along a street in Rome. One man shared a dream about a co-worker he didn’t like who suggested they go on a ski trip together. The first lady said she had gone swimming with her significant other in a pond with huge, man-sized koi. Another woman imagined a giant skull rising from a lake. I shared some of my own dreams, too -- walking through an abandoned railyard at night; and another, involving flying low over a landscape of suburban roofs while feeling a palpable loathing for the humanity below.
Then, another man shared a dream that would prove to be different from every other dream that was offered up to the group. He recalled being outfitted in bandolier straps packed with bullets and weapons, walking through a shopping area, and “shooting ugly people.” He said he was enjoying himself.
The silence that followed his dream was pregnant with judgment.
A violent dream. I have those sometimes. I certainly can’t be alone.
His dream – the sharing of his dream, that is – had crossed a line. There are dreams with violence, with sex, with unspeakable darkness and tragedy, but no one had descended quite so deep as to reveal this level of disturbing imagery in our group. Was he a courageous man? A sick man? A guilty man?
Well, aren’t we all sick? And guilty? Surely we’re all guilty of “sick dreams,” now and again. Personally, I was glad he’d been so bold. Somehow, I think, a dream-sharing session would have played as a little light without violence or sex. He’d simply popped our collective cherry.
His intense contribution faded into our temporary “dream matrix,” and soon, someone else piped up to share yet another dream.
Thirty minutes after we started, our leaders asked us to open our eyes. The sunlight streaming through the windowed room on the second floor of the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts assaulted our dilated pupils.
Who were these dozen dreamers sitting in the spiral? How strange, to commune with strangers at such an intimate level. Did we know each other now, really know each other, from having shared the codes of our dreams?
Our leaders told us it was time for the next phase of the Social Dreaming Matrix activity: we would now be making art.
We trooped over to the adjacent Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis. We ascended to a second floor boardroom. A table was filled with every imaginable elementary-school art-room supply: markers, stickers, construction paper, scissors, tape, glue, magazines for collages, watercolors and brushes, and so on. They were ready for us.
And then, something remarkable happened.
Only later did I realize that our leaders knew what was going to happen; it’s only we inexperienced social-dreamers who did not.
There was a silence in the room. It was broken by a little chit-chat between us, but there was no mistaking the intensity of this quiet, and what it meant.
It became apparent as each of us grabbed art-making materials of various kinds and took them to the long boardroom table to begin using them that the quiet was one of serious intent.
We were so very ready to express ourselves. We greedily selected pens of particular colors and uncapped them and started to draw. We attacked old magazines and art catalogs with scissors like we were hunting for the perfect image. We dipped brushes into watercolor paints and cut construction paper into geometric shapes with a fervor we couldn’t have understood if we tried, but we all felt it just the same.
We were like children from an impoverished Eastern bloc nation who’d never seen crayons, going outside just in time to find an airlifted package containing the entire contents of a pre-school art closet landing on the front lawn. We positively exploded with the pleasure of creating.
One woman made a collage from a world map and swatches from various other sources. One man made a sculpture that involved foam-animal stickers cavorting in a brightly hued playland. I made a collage of construction-paper shapes that wanted to expand beyond the borders of its frame, so it did.
Each of us was lost in creation, heading out greedily for parts unknown. Something about the act of sharing our dreams had unleashed the drive – the need -- to express ourselves, with a fury. What we wound up making wasn’t really so important. It was, as they say, more about the process than the product. And the process, for some reason, felt like some kind of holy, inevitable mission.
Just what had happened to us?
Our leaders were, you might say, professional dreamers. Nita Turnage and Hap Phillips organize the annual Artica freeform art-fest down in a sort of industrial-wasteland area by the Landing. (Artica can feel like a much smaller-scale version of Burning Man, the 50,000-strong festival of art, freedom, nudity, and “enhanced consciousness” that takes place in Nevada’s Black Rock desert each summer.)
Turnage said the magic of dream-sharing is nothing new.
“Since the beginning of written history, we’ve seen that people do often share dreams, and some tribes even sit down together and get into a dream state with each other to work out ‘dream solutions,’” she said.
And, as we saw in our brief exercise, the dreams of a group of strangers are often eerily similar to one another—something that Carl Jung is famous for exploring in his work.
“Sometimes in the dream matrix somebody will start talking about a flying dream, and then others do the same,” said Turnage. “Everybody has flying dreams or teeth-falling- out dreams, and if you look into Jung, they call it the collective unconscious. The social dreaming matrix reveals the same kinds of imagery. It’s called the matrix because it’s the space where all these dreams are held.”
And what was happening to us when we “entered the matrix”?
“People relaxed into it and allowed their dreams to come up and expressed them, and then we did something creative,” she stated. “We don’t judge the dreams, we don’t analyze them, but we use them to open up our creative centers. It’s very simple.”
“As a creative person,” she added, “I think it was beautiful.”
Dreaming on your own or via this sort of quasi-dreaming in a group are not the only ways to generate the powerful surge of alpha waves we experienced, said Turnage.
“I feel that going into a meditative state allows you to be creative, too, but some people don’t know how to clear their minds,” she said, “so maybe focusing on something abstract allows a similar release.”
And as potent as that release was, Turnage says there is a greater horizon to consider.
“We would hope [through social dreaming] not just to make a little art, but that the participants’ creativity has been opened up for other aspects of their lives, too.”
What with the busy, busy, busy rush of this modern life, it’s hard to imagine the meditative release of a single afternoon’s activity breaking through the frantic pace of daily living to confer lasting grace. But every impulse, no matter how quixotic, has to start somewhere.
There are two more Social Dream Matrix activities you can attend at the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts, at 1 p.m. on both May 14 and June 11. Admission is free. In addition to Turnage and Phillips, art therapist Shelly Goebl-Parker directs the group. While you’re there, you’ll want to check out the Pulitzer’s compelling Dreamscapes exhibition on the mystery and the power of dreams, featuring works by Rene Magritte, Girogio de Chirico, Paul Delvaux, and others.