QUESTIONS & ANSWERS:
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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?
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
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
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
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
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.