Bookmarks, Night Visions: Dreams Can Free Us from the Constricting World of Rationality

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Bookmarks By Richard Handler

Night Visions Dreams can free us from the constricting world of rationality

A History of Last Night's Dream: Discovering the Hidden Path to the Soul Rodger Kamenetz HarperOne. 256 pp. ISBN: 978-0-06-057583-0

Throughout history, humans have tried to make sense of the baffling, nonlinear fleetingness of dreams. For shamans, mystics, and sages, dreams have provided a pathway to transcendent power--call it God (or myriad gods). In the Holy Bible, dreams were often seen as prophetic. Abraham's grandson Jacob dreamed of a ladder into the heavens where angels journeyed up and down, as if on some celestial highway. Later, Jacob's son Joseph dreamt dreams that were the envy of his brothers, who sold him into slavery in Egypt. There, Joseph used his gift for dream interpretation to gain the Pharaoh's favor. If you really understood dreams, Joseph's accomplishments seemed to demonstrate, you could parlay your skills into real power right here on earth.

Even though Sigmund Freud dismissed religion as an infantile fantasy, he appropriated the oracular nature of dreaming into his new "science" of psychoanalysis. For him, dreams were psychic puzzles, but instead of containing signs from some transcendent realm, they offered a royal road to the deepest riches of hidden and repressed conflicts. When Freud's disciple Carl Jung picked up the gauntlet of dream interpretation, he harked back to the older, oracular tradition. Jung's whole schema of archetypes and his idea of the "collective unconscious" gave dreams a pronounced spiritual flavor. In a sense, Jung's approach to dreams was a return to prophecy--it was designed to help us integrate ourselves into a transcendent drama.

Of course, in these pragmatic times, clients have long since ceased to bring their dreams into their therapists' offices. Further, most neuroscientists today seem to have concluded that the function of dreams may be little more than that of a neural detergent-- flushing out useless, clogged thoughts from our overloaded consciousness. For these hard-science empiricists, analyzing dreams for their psychological or philosophical content is about as useful as using Drano to analyze the hidden messages in your kitchen sink.

Nevertheless, in A History of Last Night's Dream, author Rodger Kamenetz invites us to reconsider the meaning of dreams as conveyors of psychological and spiritual meaning. A professor of English and religious studies, Kamenetz is best known for his 1994 book, The Jew in the Lotus, an account of his meeting with the Dalai Lama. Throughout his life and work, he's been a spiritual seeker.

He believes that dreams can help us feel more deeply and awaken more fully to ourselves and the life around us. For Kamenetz, dreams, spirituality, and therapy are all interwoven. He believes the power of our dreams resides in the ability of their startling imagery and mind-spinning irrationality to jolt us out of our everyday, word-bound trance.

A good left-brain intellectual, preoccupied with words and his own analytic awareness, Kamenetz seems driven by the hope that his dreams can open up his world and expand his psychic landscape. He wants his reason to step aside and allow the world of irrational emotion to start bubbling up. It's an old pursuit among the seemingly civilized: to come in contact with primal elements in one's own consciousness. Simply put, the good professor wants to break the hard shell of language that imprisons him and allow his inner psychic riches to burst forth, so he can genuinely feel again.

In large measure, this book is about his quest to enter the world of his own dreams through his encounters with two charismatic dream teachers. By definition, dreams are slippery, nonlinear, and nonsensical, so it doesn't hurt to have a guide to help you navigate their sinewy landscape. Kamenetz, the spiritual pilgrim, travels to Jerusalem and Vermont to meet two guides as different from each other as they are from him. …