Social dreaming

Octopuses dream, and cuttlefish too. In sleep they scroll through the colour changes of the day, the equivalent of your dog’s twitching forepaw.

Trees communicate by neural networks in the soil, developing sophisticated relationships and nurturing allies.

Felt experience – consciousness – permeates the family of sentient life (by definition, really) and maybe even “brute matter itself”.


It really does seem these days that Science, in its plodding, methodical way is unpicking civilization’s last great taboo – the myth of ‘nature’, the myth of something non-human and other-worldly that surrounds but does not include us.


In the morning we might not all wake up at the same time, but those who woke up early would lie quietly, waiting for more people to awaken. And somehow as if by magic, we would find ourselves sitting in a circle, rubbing our eyes, stretching to get the kinks out. One person would say, “I saw a bird, a beautiful bird.” Someone else would say, “Yes, I too saw a bird.” “What kind of bird was it?” another would ask. And so we would create a story images from our dreams…[and the story] set the tone for the day.

This is dreaming as shared practice, described by Robert Wolff from the early 1960s when he periodically lived among the Sng’oi people of Malaysia and absorbed their way of knowing. A way of knowing which included “A sense that being human is part of the natural world; a sense of belonging that all the Sng’oi and many other people have, but that Western people seem to have lost.” By communal dream vision we weave our way back into the spiritual fabric of being, both animate and inanimate.

The Sng’oi’s morning exchange of imagery and incident from the dream world, and the collective interpretation that ensued, if needed, engaged everyone with the wholeness of their human and non-human community. A daily lesson, if you like, in how to sense, think, talk and act in ways which shore up the ecocentric self while keeping its egocentric twin in check. Ecocentric, as in awareness of our role in and obligations to our group and the wider family of Earth; egocentric meaning self-aggrandizement at the expense of that wider family.

The power of drawing on the dream world in this way, to cement a story of communal belonging to and love for Creation, is that – by Wolff’s telling – the dream world was for the Sng’oi the real world, and this world just its shadow. By night we visit the real world and dreams are the memories we return with, to share and learn from. Some of those memories carry no significance, some assist with practical tasks such as locating a tree in fruit, and some are prophetically potent. If there are challenges to face in this world, or a loss to be borne, or healing to be had, then it is the magical and spiritual reality of the dream world – unmediated by this world’s egocentric constraints and prejudice – that we look to for guidance.

A penetrating 2014 paper by Jonathan Gosling and Peter Case, ‘Social Dreaming and ecocentric ethics: sources of non-rational insight in the face of climate change catastrophe’, cites the prevalence of collective dream-visioning among traditional and indigenous communities, and posits a role for such visioning in forging a healthy, non-anthropocentric ethic for the community to live by. A “way of seeing that is not available in ordinary individualised waking consciousness…a method for drawing on resources that are less bound by current cultural norms and assumptions…[and] a ritual for engaging with the pre-acculturated sources of culture.”

The Gosling and Case paper cites the story of Plenty Coups, last great chief of North America’s Crow Nation, as recounted by Jonathan Lear in Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation. Plenty Coups, guided by collectively endorsed dream vision, steered the Crow through an externally wrought apocalypse which obliterated their way of life but which the culture, and hence the people, narrowly survived. The paper suggests that social dreaming may, by tempering civilization’s elevation of the rational, conscious self, and reviving collective, non-anthropocentric sensibilities in turn, offer a way of processing and responding to impending ecocrisis.

The way of life of the Sng’oi, as witnessed and experienced by Robert Wolff, has I fear gone the way of the Crow before the apocalypse. I don’t know how they fare today, but their forests – their land — the lands that Sng’oi people stewarded and cultivated for centuries possibly millennia, have, excepting a few pockets, been subsumed by first rubber and latterly palm plantations. I hope the culture clings on yet, though. A culture rich in animate and inanimate spirits who teach the people over and over that they are sprigs of nature itself, and that everything worth knowing stems from that one truth.

2 Replies to “Social dreaming”

  1. Thank you for this post and the link to the Gosling and Case paper, which looks like it makes some important points.
    I will alway regret not taking the time to go find Robett Wolff since finding out he lived here on the island . And then it was too late. But thank you for sending me that book.
    I think the social dreaming idea is a really useful concept.

    1. Hi Michelle, Wolff’s book is so simple and direct but I’ve found it a delight to go back to over the years. Social dreaming is one of the ideas in there that haunts me. It would be nice to hear from people who knew him on your island and ask how his insights may have manifested and been shared in later years.

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