Charmaine Li reflects on what it means to dream by looking at the complex relationship between nocturnal images and waking life. Through exploring how dreamers bridge the personal and the public – inner and outer worlds – she asks what might be shared collectively across dreams.
Reading Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower for the first time, tremors of a distant fear pierced through my consciousness and caught me by surprise. “I had my recurring dream last night,” remarks Lauren Olamina, the book's teenage protagonist, “I guess I should have expected it. It comes to me when I struggle – when I twist on my own personal hook and try to pretend that nothing unusual Is happening.” There are dreams that unearth memories, metabolise experiences, reveal patterns of the mind. There are others that haunt us until we attend to them.
Lingering on these lines some years ago, I had a flashback to my early twenties, when I had recurring bouts of apprehension and then a nightmare impossible to ignore. In it, I’m in a glassy condominium tower, looking out at a city clouded with fog and smoke. Suddenly, a group of armed women in uniforms break into the flat and force us to sit in a circle and hold hands. The next thing I know, I’m on my knees with my hands tied back, staring at a window ledge. I feel the charged space between the muzzle of a gun and the nape of my neck—a shot of compressed air to “test” me, and then another blast. I see my limp body floating in a bathtub of blood from above, like a bird perched in the corner of a room. I shake into waking.
Beyond the physical terror upon awakening, I was astonished by how the nightmare expressed a dimension of my mental distress that I couldn’t coax into words. Only then did I become acutely aware of the need for change and to take action. Perhaps that's why this memory came to mind as I began seeing through the lucid and prescient prose of Parable of the Sower. Like its main character, I sensed that dreams could be a conduit for revealing lessons and facets of our selves swirling beneath consciousness. With rippling effects on my waking life, the nightmare set me on a path of inquiry about the nature of dreaming. Why do some dreams emblazon images on our minds, while others elude us with a flicker of movement? What are the neural processes behind dreaming? How do nocturnal visions shape the contours of waking life – individually and collectively?
There are two usages of “dream” that I encounter most. The first refers to the series of images, emotions, thoughts, or sensations during certain sleep stages. In a modern context, discussions about this kind of dream are often relegated to the individual and private realms. But humans across civilisations and cultures have long turned to nightly visions to negotiate their role in communities and the world at large, often sharing them to be deciphered or examined. Although dreaming is an inherently subjective experience, it is also steeped in the emotional currents passing through our relationships and the forces shaping our environments. “Dream-life, like so much of waking life, is preoccupied with finding a means to represent our physical and mental states,” writes scholar Sharon Sliwinski in Dreaming in Dark Times: Six Exercises in Political Thought. “But social and political matters also weigh on the mind, creating conflicts that demand to be represented and worked through, even in our sleep.”
The second use of "dream" I frequently come across describes a sequence of imaginative thoughts while awake, or an aspiration. In her 1988 Sarah Lawrence commencement speech, which is published in The Source of Self-Regard, Toni Morrison distinctly defines dreaming as “not idle wishful speculation, but engaged, directed daytime vision.” Acknowledging the messy state of the world at that moment, she endowed the mental activity, which is often deemed impractical and indulgent, with urgency and heft. “Unusual, clarity, order, significance, vividness. Undertaking that kind of dreaming, we avoid complicating what is simple or simplifying what is complicated, soiling instead of solving, ruining what should be revered,” she said to university graduates. Morrison saw dreaming as an act of “experimental, intimate” envisioning – a necessary prelude to the thinking, problem-solving, creating, and decision-making to contribute to a more humane and just world.
In both cases, the word is freighted with some alchemy between the private and public selves, the inner and outer worlds, the known and the unknown. A "dream" arises from the depths of the psyche and a pliable, attentive mind. It challenges habitual thinking and stretches waking fields of vision. It can be an organic form of instruction and a portal to a more expansive way of being.
In an episode of "Octavia's Parables" – a podcast dedicated to discussing Octavia Butler’s works – hosts Toshi Reagon and adrienne maree brown speak about the first chapter of 'Parable of the Sower.’ They touch on the complex dynamics of change and on the courage to confront difficult images or narratives that emerge in our sleep and in waking life. To close the episode, brown, the author of Pleasure Activism and Emergent Strategy, among other books, asked listeners to reflect on a series of questions: “Are there dreams that are coming up again and again? Are there patterns that are recurring in your life? Or patterns that are recurring even in your imagination, in your daydreams? Are there things that keep coming up? And with this idea, there's something that could happen at our collective consciousness, at the level of dreams, and that we should be paying attention to.”