A series of essays on how dreams can increase vision and certainty in business and in life.
Remember the tenacious magic and poisons and dreams — you wanted to see, you bound your two eyes shut so as to see, without knowing how to open the other. –René Daumal, Memorables, 1942
I have always been a seer. I spent the first half of my career as a futurist, the business world’s term for a strategist with a bit of soothsayer thrown in. These days I’m hired less for prognostication, and more for my ability to facilitate and guide entrepreneurs and organizations to a coherent and compelling vision. Both jobs have required me to call on and cultivate an active imagination. It’s my competitive edge.
To do this, I’ve spent a lot of time mastering my outer attention; staying present to my surroundings, and the people with whom I’m interacting, to my body’s cues and sensations. I avoid unnecessary distractions in the culture, consume very little media, and keep agitating behaviors like drinking alcohol and empty socializing to a minimum. I’ve also worked hard to develop an inner attention. I meditate, practice yoga, ecstatic dance, and regularly write in journals to sort out the fluctuations of my mind and behavior. In the process, I’ve developed a close relationship with my intuition.
While much of the work I do to hear myself above the din of contemporary culture happens during waking hours, for me one of the strongest channels for accessing the subtle world of my own creativity, imagination, and intuition, has been dreams.
I’m not talking about hopes and dreams, or Hoop Dreams, but actual dreams: those unexpected, sometimes shocking, and altogether unpredictable narratives that emerge behind closed eyelids to illuminate the darker stretches of our psyche and the collective unconscious. These dreams, as mysterious as they may be, are full of meaning, insight, instruction…full of medicine.
While I’ve looked to dreams for a long time to guide me personally and professionally, I’ve only just recently begun to feel that business culture is ready to hear about this. Five years ago I wouldn’t have thought of talking to a client or colleague about a decision I’d made based on information provided by a dream. Today, I do. And I think more people should. Here’s why…
A facility with navigating and translating spaces of uncertainty is something we need desperately now as we lurch forward towards a collective evolution. Reason is wonderful, but it’s only one tool for conscientious and courageous action. The other (dare I say, better) tool for these times is intuition. In dreams we get to know the source of intuition, we learn to recognize the voice(s) of our inner being. We gather messages from a place beyond conscious thought and in the process, dive into the primordial intelligence of the reptilian mind and the collective unconscious.
In this series of essays, I’ll explore the role of dreams in self-knowledge, creativity, and innovation; as well as dreams as collective tools of healing and evolutionary growth. I’ll share a personal account of my experience waking up to the power of dreams and learning to work with the material in them to make better and more confident decisions. And finally, I’ll paint a picture of the future as it is already surfacing in dreams — my own and those shared with me by some other dreamers. My hope is to bring dreams into the conversation that is happening now around cultural, economic, and sociopolitical (r)evolution; as a means of opening us up to more non-linear, non-rational, modes of problem-solving in life and business.
“Just as your dreams are composed, so your whole life has been composed by the will within you. Just as the people who you met by chance became effective agents in the structuring of your life, so you have been the agent in the structuring of other lives. And the whole thing gears together like one big symphony…It’s as though our lives were the dream of a single dreamer in which all of the dream characters are dreaming too.” —Joseph Campbell in conversation with Bill Moyers
In contemporary Western culture, we tend to see dreams as personal projections and we hold them close to the vest. But, this hasn’t always been the case. There was a time when dreams were believed to hold messages for the community as a whole; where dreams were handled with reverence. Native American cultures considered dreams sacred material and many great visionaries, including Black Elk, received instruction in dreams for rituals that would help their people heal through tumultuous times. Even today, the Achuar, a group of indigenous peoples in the Amazon, demonstrate for us how dreams can form the foundation of all aspects of daily life for the individual and the tribe.
More and more, our waking and working lives are geared towards transparency, collective intelligence, and community. In my circles, the talk of a single, unified planetary culture is discussed frequently and seriously. The artificial boundaries of geography and socio-economics disappear in this vision…which is really already in effect virtually. It’s also already in effect in the dream world. This is a lawless world, one that doesn’t conform to manmade ideologies and hierarchies; which makes it an invaluable resource as we struggle to rise above our entrenched ideas for a better view, a bigger perspective. Anarchist, Hakim Bey describes the primal, elemental nature of the dream world beautifully. Written in 1985, his words resound today as we re-examine capitalism and democracy, foundational ideologies:
“In sleep we dream of only two forms of government–anarchy and monarchy. Primordial root consciousness understands no politics & never plays fair. A democratic dream? A socialist dream? Impossible. Whether my REMs bring vertical near-prophetic visions or mere Viennese wish-fulfillment, only kings and wild people populate my night. Monads & nomads.” — Hakim Bey, T.A.Z, The Temporary Autonomous Zone, Ontological Anarchy, Poetic Terrorism, 1985
Monads and nomads: the One that is all of us indivisible, plus the essence of unconstrained flow as lifestyle. We are one, and we flow. This feels like where things are headed to me…dreams offer us an opportunity for practice, experimentation.
Recently, I’ve noticed a flurry of interest in the subject of dreams: apps like Shadow record dreams and make use of the data to illuminate collective social patterns, workshops on lucid dreaming and dream yoga dot the calendars of retreat centers like Omega Institute, and Sivananda Ashram. I’ve noticed art projects and music videos that explore the landscape of dreams and nightmares. I’ve begun to call this resurgence of the primal and instinctive, the New Surrealism; the Surrealists being one of the first significant modern creative movements to embrace the communicative power of dreams. All of this suggests that there is a growing interest in sharing dream content, in bringing dreams to light so that we may know ourselves…and our community…better.
In his beautiful book, Breaking Open the Head, spiritual anarchist, Daniel Pinchbeck, writes about the suppression of primitive thought forms and states of consciousness in the Modern Era, “The dialectical process that created the possessive mind-set of the capitalist and the ‘rational’ outlook of the technocrat required destruction of the premodern vestiges of communal and animistic beliefs…” He goes on to distinguish between two seemingly irreconcilable ways of experiencing the world: “The modern consciousness is awake to materialism, to the incorporeal ‘sense of having,’ to the mechanistic worldview and the scientific method of empirical observation. Its antithesis is the archaic mind, alive to the world of the senses, in close contact with the sacred as it is revealed through the natural world, through dreams and visions. For this kind of consciousness, as Henry Miller once put it, ‘The goal of life is not to possess power but to radiate it.’” The predicament we’re now in–standing on the precipice of the destruction of our planet, desperate for social and economic reforms, is in part, a result of our foolish choice to try and possess as much power as possible (usually in the form of money).
It was—of course—Einstein who famously said, “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” And it is going to be new modes of thinking, seeing, and experiencing reality that lead us successfully out of the current set of problems we find ourselves in.
As waking life gets more surreal, more chaotic, dreams may be the perfect place to search for answers to our most pressing questions–personal and collective.
Anyone who’s ever experienced the power of imagination or vivid dreams knows there’s a great deal of seeing to be done with the eyes shut; seeing that actually defies and transcends the appearance of things. The vision we have in dreams is similar to the vision we must activate if we are going to be truly visionary. The eighteenth century French statesman, Malesherbes, said, “We would accomplish many more things if we did not think of them as impossible.” Dreams can help us with this, by offering an opportunity to experience situations that might seem impossible in “reality.”
Another practical consideration for how attention to one’s dreams can help in waking life lies in the need today for quick and decisive decision making. In a world that moves at warp speed, there is no substitute for gut feeling. The ability to make decisions quickly and from a place of certainty, to move with courage, to hold multiple perspectives at the same time and still feel lucid, clear…these are the results of being in close contact with the voice of one’s intuition.
It seems to me that it is the “archaic mind” Pinchbeck references that we are trying to recapture today. Many of us have awakened to the fact that the neocortex is wonderful, but the reptilian mind still rules. In our return to the land (farm to table, eco-travel, living off-the-grid…), our turning inward (yoga, meditation, the consciousness movement…), and the rekindling of embodied experiences (ecstatic dance, psychotropic drug use, home birth…) we are reclaiming an aspect of what it means to be human that cannot be replicated, duplicated or imitated by technology. Dreams are an available resource for accessing this state.
We’re being called to innovate now quickly and intelligently in a new way. Innovation for the sake of growth, a gorging of corporate organisms (1980s — now), is being replaced by innovation for the sake of evolution…survival. An enormous body of writing and commentary about innovation and creativity in business has flooded the market as a testament to the imperative we have to invite these skills back into the boardroom. Firms like IDEO, have come to embody the “design thinking,” innovation ethos of the moment. Silicon Valley and the concept of the Lean Start-Up, have inspired hordes of young entrepreneurs and programmers to build a life from scratch. On the literati side of things, one of my favorite websites, Brainpickings.org, plies the creative class weekly with reminders about how to access the muses; a passing of the torch from creative people of the past. Typical articles include: Famous Writers on the Creative Benefits of Keeping a Diary, The Interpretation of Leonard Bernstein’s Dreams, and Albert Einstein on the Secret to Learning Anything. We’re calling on tools of inspiration that have fired up man’s imagination since the beginning of time; tools that have been undervalued to the point of extinction in many corners of the business world.
As a resource for problem-solving and inspiration, dreams have a well-documented legacy. It was in a dream that Paul McCartney heard the tune for Yesterday. A dream helped Elias Howe see his way to placing a hole in the end of the needle to complete his invention, the sewing machine. And after years of waking thinking, the theory of relativity came to Einstein in a dream, “like a giant die making an indelible impress, a huge map of the universe outlined itself in one clear vision”. (Einstein: A Life by Denis Brian p.159 (1996))
While Steve Jobs gets the credit in Silicon Valley for being a dreamer, Larry Page, co-founder of Google, in a 2009 Commencement Address at the University of Michigan told students how the idea for what is now one of the most powerful companies on the planet, came to him in a dream when he was 23. He said,
“I have a story about following dreams. Or maybe more accurately, it’s a story about finding a path to make those dreams real.
You know what it’s like to wake up in the middle of the night with a vivid dream? And you know how, if you don’t have a pencil and pad by the bed to write it down, it will be completely gone the next morning?
Well, I had one of those dreams when I was 23. When I suddenly woke up, I was thinking: what if we could download the whole web, and just keep the links and… I grabbed a pen and started writing!…When a really great dream shows up, grab it!”
When we hear stories like these, we tend not to identify. These people and their work seem extraordinary. The fact that they have the dream world on their side feels like just one more superhuman factor separating them from the rest of us. But, it’s not. They just happened to be receptive to the intelligence that can happen in dreams, open to alternate streams of information, and as Page points out, prepared with a pad and pencil! Some aspects of dream weaving are exceedingly practical.
Like any talent, vision can be exercised and cultivated. And dreaming is not something that happens to you…it’s a practice. Knowing how to see—not with the eyes, but with those other more profound and intuitive tools of imagination—is something we can get better at. And must, if we’re going to make a necessary leap into the next era of commerce. If for no other reason than it’s the key to developing courage. Finding proof outside oneself in data and empirical information is fortifying, but finding certainty within, is indisputable.
In dreams, we surpass the ego to experience things in a depersonalized way. We step outside the small “I” to inhabit our original self. Through dreams, we can make sound decisions, forecast and feel around in our own psyches for the truth of what must be done. We can also use dreams, like Martin Luther King, Jr. did, to bring people along on a journey out of one dimension and into another, paint a richer picture for them, help them feel connected to something greater. Whether we like it or not, whether we acknowledge it or not, dreams already have a direct effect on both our unconscious and conscious actions. Embracing this can lead to a better understanding of oneself, one’s motivations and one’s place in the world.
According to Swami Vivikenanda, ”The truth came to the Rishis of India — the Mantra-drashtâs, the seers of thought — and will come to all Rishis in the future, not to talkers, not to book-swallowers, not to scholars, not to philologists, but to seers of thought.” Seeing thoughts?…sounds a lot like dreaming to me.
We tend to keep dreams relegated to the night. We experience them while sleeping, but rarely consider the way they color and shape our waking experience.
I often wonder about the dreams I don’t remember (95%, it is said) and how they contribute to the ‘me’ that interacts with the world every day. Some days I wake elated, some days I wake sad for no reason I can think of…I blame this on the amount of sleep I had, the amount of wine, or what I ate…But, it’s possible that it was my forgotten dreams.
The Daumal quote that opens this essay has resonance because it describes precisely the process for accessing one’s inner vision, imagination, and ability to dream productively. There is a key hidden in its wording — a key to what is required to harness the power of the otherworldy forces that govern us; those energies and alchemies most of us only just understand superficially. It starts with desire: “you wanted to see.” Which is where many of us leave off. We contemplate the idea of developing a deeper understanding of ourselves, but don’t take it to that next critical step–action. Not just any action — action in the absence of evidence: “You bound your two eyes shut so as to see,” the rational, judging eyes we use to parse and organize our waking lives. These eyes assume sight, but as long as we accept this, we will remain blind to the true act of seeing Daumal seeks…we all seek. And it must be done before there is insight “…without knowing how to open the other.” What is this other? The third eye, ajna chakra, the pineal gland…the mind’s eye.
It is the mystery that resides in dreams that makes them the perfect antidote to the appearances we try to keep up all day every day; the masks we wear. Walking around, stuck in our heads–analyzing, judging, comparing, thinking, competing, talking without saying much of anything–dreams take us to a place beyond control, beyond reason and logic. And yet, they often make a whole lot of sense–not logical sense, but intuitive sense, deep sensing and feeling sense, mystical sense. This is precisely what we need more of in a world increasingly resistant to linear, rational sense.
What I’m interested in now are the ways in which we can collectively begin to use dreams to understand not just ourselves and our individual experience, but our collective experience on the planet.
And because my work is and has always been tied closely to the world of commerce, I’m particularly interested in using dreams to inform the creation and innovation, visioning and decision-making, that will guide us to a new and better paradigm of business. I have hope…
I teach weekly in a program called Design for Social Innovation at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. My students are graduate level students from all over the world who have come to the program to learn how to apply design thinking to the task of solving some of our most pressing social, cultural, and political problems. These are bright young people who want to change the world for the better. A guest speaker the other night ended his talk by asking the class what they most feared. Their response was–in so many words–that it’s too late. That we’ve already screwed up the planet beyond repair, that the distance between the haves and have nots is unbridgeable. Then he asked what gave them the most hope. One student shouted, “Go humans!” and others chimed in that what gave them the most hope for the future was the evidence of a return to nature, to instinct, to intuition and magic, a return to all that makes us distinctly and awesomely human. In business? Yes. In all of life. There is no separation, they said, between business and life. They want magic and connectedness and humanity in their work. They intend to get it. And this gives them hope...it should give all of us hope.
That sounds like a dream worth dreaming.