QUESTIONS & ANSWERS:
Dreams Department

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Question

My friend told me about a primitive tribe called the Senoi who used to share dreams every morning and this kept the members of the tribe from ever being sick. Have you heard anything about them and is there more information I can get about them?

Answer

The Senoi are one of the great debates in dreaming, and I would like to spend a little time with this good question. The controversy has a long history and the debate still rages at dream conferences.

The Senoi are (were) a Malaysian hunting and gathering tribe brought to the attention of the West by Kilton Stewart. His descriptions of this happy tribe, free of disease and mental illness due to their morning dream sharing and techniques of dream control, were first described in the early 1950's though the research itself took place before the Second World War.

But outside of the isolated references by the dream content psychologist Calvin Hall, the information was relatively unknown. Then Charles Tart (or a friend of his -- Charles can't remember) rediscovered Kilton's writings and made them available at Esalen, the experimental retreat center in Big Sur, California. The ideas became part of a larger program to find the best in self development and consciousness raising techniques which were to be distributed into the mainstream education system. The program floundered, but Tart and George Leonard, a journalist/educational theorist, both wrote popular books that included information on the Senoi.

With the growing frustration with urbanization, technology and Western values arising out of the Vietnam War conflict, the appeal of more earthy, simpler paths arose and with it the valorization of native and primitive cultural patterns and living styles. In the early 70's both Ann Faraday and Patricia Garfield used the Senoi as models in their popular books and Garfield even had a chance to talk with some Senoi that were working in a hospital she visited in the area. The dreamwork principles are summarized by Domhoff: (via Stewart and Garfield,1985, pg 9) and still valuable and worth repeating:

1. Always confront and conquer danger in dreams. If an animal looms out of the jungle, go toward it. If someone attacks you, fight back.

2. Always move toward pleasurable experiences in dreams. If you are attracted to someone in a dream, feel free to turn the attraction into a full sexual experience. If you are enjoying the pleasurable sensations of flying or swimming, relax and experience them fully.

3. Always make your dreams have a positive outcome and extract a creative product form them. Best of all in this regard, try to obtain a gift from the dream images, such as a poem, a song, a dance, a design, or a painting.

Later researchers could not find any evidence of that the tribe practiced this morning ritual and by the early 1980's other critics left the reality of the Senoi in question. The most critical of these researchers was G. William Domhoff, and in his 1985 The Mystique of Dreams he "debunks" the whole affair and argues that the Senoi people show no signs of having practiced these techniques. He also argues that the whole program, as adopted by Westerners, only promotes the very control and manipulation of the environment that it is ardently meant to be an alternative for in the first place.

But the critiques have not caused much despair. Most have felt that the Senoi are an important inner metaphor of our desires and valid as such. For an example of this creativity, see Strephon Kaplan Williams' Jungian-Senoi Dreamwork Manual, the culmination of a myriad of wonderful approaches to the dream inspired by Jung, the Senoi, and his work in areas of healing and wholeness.

Recently some, like Jeremy Taylor, feel the criticisms of the Senoi to be exaggerated and feel that the evidence against them came from the tribe after it had been destroyed by contact with the modern world. They had been pretty much decimated by the Japanese occupations of Malaysia.

The controversy continues, as is evidenced by the very heated discussions found in 1996 issues of the Association for the Study of Dreams (ASD) newsletters between Taylor and Domhoff. The discussion continued in a 1996 panel discussion at the ASD convention in Berkeley, which included Allen Flagg. Flagg married Stewart's wife after his death. Flagg has plans to bring the work more into the public domain, following the lead of Kilton and Clara Stewart who also taught classes on the Senoi dream control techniques and talked about plans of creating an institute.

2/20/98

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