Infinite Possibilities of Social Dreaming

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Social Dreaming was discovered in the early 1980s at the Tavistock Institute in London. Its focus is on the dream and not the dreamer. It is done with a set of people who come together to share their dreams. This goes against the accepted belief, even dogma, that the study of dreaming can only be pursued in a one-to-one relationship, where one of the participants is a trained psychoanalyst. The chapters in this book on Social Dreaming indicate the endless possibilities of free association and amplification in social dreaming. Although each writer has conveyed this, there still exist in their texts more detailed connotations and possible meanings of particular dreams. In a sense, their chapters are only beginnings for the reader to expand, as none, is in any sense a complete, final version of the potential meanings of dreams in a particular Social Dreaming Matrix.Examining recalled dreams with many others in a Social Dreaming Matrix leads to the transformation of the thinking embedded in the dreams. There are infinite meanings to a dream by regarding the dream as an unconscious product of cultural knowledge, not as an expression of the psyche exclusively, opening new possibilities of thinking. When the individual unconscious resonates, or reverberates, with others in the Matrix the infinite becomes accessible. Being in the infinite is the mental space where new thinking happens. It is the space in which the dream is regarded as an object by taking a global perspective, and giving one's total attention to it, as if it had never existed before. All the finite knowledge of civilisation begins from having the experience of being in infinity, through the awareness of the unconscious with its time-less and place-less qualities, its symbolism, and its paradoxes.

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1: Infinite possibilities of Social Dreaming


W. Gordon Lawrence

Social Dreaming was discovered in the early 1980s at the Tavistock Institute in London. Its focus is on the dream and not the dreamer. It is done with a set of people who come together to share their dreams. This goes against the accepted belief, even dogma, that the study of dreaming can only be pursued in a one-to-one relationship, where one of the participants is a trained psychoanalyst.

Social Dreaming devised a method whereby dreaming could be pursued by a set of people working together. This collection of people was termed a Matrix. The Social Dreaming Matrix mirrors, while awake and conscious, the “matrix of the undifferentiated unconscious” (Ehrenzweig 1967) which operates during sleep. Since dreams arise from the unconscious, the hypothesis was that the configuration, or setting, to receive dreams had to render unconscious thinking salient. The idea of “group”, which was an obvious choice, was rejected. If “group” had been chosen, the conscious, inter-personal relationships of the dreamers would, inevitably, have become more important and interfered with the dreaming process. The idea was that dreams were to be the currency of the configuration, not the relationships, nor the feelings about the authority (transference) of the people dreaming. As it is, transference issues are to the dreams, not to any individual.


2: “There is nothing more worth fighting for”: Social Dreaming with social democrats in Austria


Burkard Sievers

This is a description of a Social Dreaming Matrix held with a group of Austrian Social Democrats in 1999, who were local council members in one of the federal states. The idea of holding the Matrix came up at a workshop on Organizational Role Analysis (cf. Krantz &Maltz, 1997; Lawrence, 2006; Newton, Long &Sievers 2006; Sievers &Beumer 2006), that I had organized in Vienna. One of the participants approached me during the coffee break to ask whether I knew someone who could do a workshop with him and some of his colleagues on the presence of “the occult” in social democratic factions of local councils in the federal state of Austria, where he lived.

Even though I was quite astonished, indeed nonplussed, about what might be meant by “the occult”, I got into a conversation with him. It soon became obvious that what he had in mind—even though he did not quite use that “terminology”—was to address the unconscious aspects of the politics of the local council's factions. He was concerned that it had proven again and again that even the best results of meetings and retreats remained only on paper and could not be put into action unless personal and structural “blocking mechanisms from the occult” were taken into regard. When I told him about Social Dreaming, he soon took it as an appropriate and fascinating frame for our collaboration.


3: The dreaming soldier


Hanna Biran

This project grew out of my cooperation with Wolf Werdigier, an Austrian painter who lives in Vienna, the son of a JewishPolish Holocaust-survivor father and a Christian-German mother. His complex and unique identity led him to deal with the conflict in our region, in an attempt to build a kind of bridge between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Wolf produced an exhibition called “Hidden Images”, following interviews in which he asked Israelis and Palestinians to explore images of the other nation and images of conflict.

The source and inspiration of his project was a quotation from an essay by Raffael Moses:

When we do not wish to face a hostile resort within us, we ascribeit to “the other”. The other looks different, is an historical enemy,etc. The result is demonization and dehumanization. We aremembers of a cultivated society, the others are barbarian (Moses,2002).

Wolf Werdigier painted the images he collected and created an exhibition with paintings that arouse strong emotions. These paintings point out a deep connection between images of the Holocaust and images of the condition of the Palestinian people today.


4: Life in Israel 1988–2004: associations, thoughts and reflections on Social Dreaming


Verred Amitzi

For me, the magic of Social Dreaming Matrix is the same exciting and thrilling magic I found in Charlotte Beradt's collection of dreams from the Third Reich period (Beradt, 1968). The challenge is daring to look at dreams, finding something new, even forecasting the future from a present perspective.

There is a great fascination in the dialogue with and between dreams and associations. Reality is intensely coloured, hidden parts of the mosaic of life interconnect, understandings and insights emerge and enlighten us. We are dealing with a link between dream sleep and wakefulness, of cause and effect.

The possibility of deciphering contents and messages from the unconscious layer in dreams and transferring them to the conscious is both nourishing to our way of thinking and critical for our actions.

Yet forecasting, like prophecy, is always uncertain, as the famous proverb claims: “Since the Holy Temple was ruined, prophecy has been given to the fools”. And who wants to be a fool? Furthermore, we are all acquainted with the phenomenon of a “self-fulfilling prophecy”, as we are all “guilty” of projecting our emotions and beliefs on the world around us. We impose our expectations on our environment, and then interpret “reality” accordingly.


5: Social Dreaming and the birth of South Africa’s democracy


Herbert Hahn

Tree that writes roots
In earth and water
Branches where it will
To touch air and be
Touched by fire.

(Hahn, J. D., personal communication—see appendix)

Social Dreaming, as developed by W. Gordon Lawrence, in revealing strands of the social unconscious may also be an adjunct to social change (Lawrence, 1998, 2000, 2001). The aspiration is to facilitate revelation. The spirit of cooperative enquiry which develops during the process, together with the experience of what is unveiled, may also, by bringing out hidden connections between warring peoples, result in a wondrous transformation of thinking.

This is the way a South African participant wrote about a first experience of participating in a Social Dreaming Matrix:

At first when told about the Dream Matrix, I was very reluctant about doing it given that it is so different from what I am used to. I am not only talking of the process but also the way we sat —its purpose is for you to see as many of the participants as possible.

The process for me was about looking for connections. At times I felt unconnected but not left outside because of the arrangement of the chairs. Rather, I felt myself being held by a process which is bigger than my own issues, but it simultaneously allowed me to address my own issues. The manner in which very real links and connections were made with so many issues was surprising.


6: “Vous êtes embarqué”: Social Dreaming with a group of political refugees in Italy


Donatella Ortona, Eleonora Planera, Laura Selvaggi

This experience in Social Dreaming with a group of women seeking political asylum in Italy took place in December 2003 at a First Shelter Home for political refugees situated in a small town south of Rome.

Created in 2001, the Shelter Home welcomes a maximum of 22 persons, only women and their children, for a period which varies between six to nine months. During this transitory time they are offered training in skills which will facilitate their future integration in the host country, such as language, domestic chores, and the use of computers.

Having heard of the Home and its activities and having experienced Social Dreaming with W. Gordon Lawrence at Rome University, one of us (E.P.) considered the possible utility of Social Dreaming as part of the centre's integration project following Claudio Neri's (2003) suggestion that Social Dreaming might be useful for immigrants in their task of building an image of their new social reality.

As part of her dissertation for her degree in psychology, E.P. formalized her offer of a Social Dreaming experience with the women of the Home. In addition to many bureaucratic obstacles, E.P. had to face up to the protective resistance of the Home's Director, M.T., who feared that the fragile balance of persons such as political refugees (whose “nightmares are probably best forgotten”) might be threatened by Western psychologists’ approach to dreams, and also questioned whether Social Dreaming would lead to any benefit for the women of the Home, other than just contributing to an interesting research project.


7: Icons of the social dream: experiences at the University of L’Aquila, Italy


S. Marinelli and R. Girelli

Co-authors in the recording and elaboration of the experience: V. Cesarini, C.
Ciotti, L. Lepidi, S. Marzolo, V. Nanni, S. Panella, M. Pizzuti, and V. Seccia,
members of the degree course in psychology, Faculty of Education Sciences,
University of L’Aquila

Anyone exploring the social dream, i.e. the connections made by individuals between themselves and the context in which they function, probably experiences the context itself as both being generative and revealing dreams. There are also the oneiric fantasies belonging to the dimension of social experience, and to a person's experience of society as an individual in relation to others.

It is difficult to say how the depth of the unconscious as described by Freud could be located in a shared psyche; how that depth could originate in a Matrix that, while preceding individuation, at the same time can be part of it and be revealed within it. After all, the objects we examine take on different forms depending on the model we use in our exploration. The setting Freud created for dream interpretation is associated with a combination of psychoanalytic elements. As opposed to the Matrix, it has a fixed space, a longitudinal timeframe, and rigorous rules, and is applied exclusively to an individual subject in such a way as to form a bond with the mind of the analyst and thereby reveal the latent content of the dream.


8: Shedding light on organizational shadows


Helen Morgan

Social Dreaming was first conceptualized in the early 1980s by W. Gordon Lawrence, then a member of London's Tavistock Institute of Human Relations. Social Dreaming programmes have since taken place in many countries including Britain, Germany, Israel, Sweden, Australia, and the United States. It is a pioneering methodology that addresses the unthought and unconscious dimensions of the social world. It is based on the assumption that we dream not just for ourselves, but as part of the larger context in which we live. This perspective regards dreams as more than the private possession of the dreamer, but as also relevant to social reality. This idea has an ancient lineage. Long before Freud and Jung began to study dreams, dreams and dreaming had great significance to people in societies such as the Australian Aboriginals, Native Americans, African groups, etc., as they attempted to understand the meaning of their lives and the world in which they lived.

The Social Dreaming Matrix is a special kind of container which is set up and maintained in a manner that maximizes free association to the images offered by the dreams. It seems to take away the emphasis on the individual ego and allows us to let go a little of the need to perform and the problems of persona. By “losing” the ego in the Matrix, proper attention can be paid to the dreams and, hence to the unconscious of the group. Thus a deeper, more democratic dynamic can emerge.


9: Social Dreaming at the Jung Congress


Peter Tatham

In 1995, the International Association for Analytical Psychology held its 13th triennial Congress in Zürich, Jung's hometown. Seven hundred analysts and students attended. My colleague Helen Morgan and I had offered to convene a Social Dreaming Matrix as part of the programme, which offer had been accepted. We led the Matrix, for an hour, each morning, before the beginning of the day's more formal offerings; and had been given a large ground floor hall, with floor to ceiling windows of plate glass to work in. It looked out onto a busy street and Lake Zürich as well. We sat on metal stacking chairs, and since we had not expected as many people to attend (about a hundred), latecomers had to take more chairs from the stack, with much noise. That, as well as the heavy entrance door, banging shut whenever someone entered late (which many did), made for a noisy start. One person asked angrily if we couldn't lock the door so that latecomers could not enter and disturb us. However, since the title of the congress was “Open Questions in Jungian Psychology”, Helen wondered aloud if such an understandable wish to close and lock the door also expressed the general difficulty with keeping all sorts of other things “open”—such as the “questions” of our title—that we had come to Zürich to think about, together. At the end of that first session, I inexplicably closed the Matrix ten minutes early. Amid laughter we agreed that even convenors could have difficulty in keeping things open.


10: “You must not be dreaming!”: how Social Dreaming may help us wake up


Thomas A. Michael

Changing organizational behaviour is difficult regardless of the technique you employ. So much of the culture is hidden from the consciousness of its own inhabitants. We use actions to manage unpleasant experiences, and then we forget what we have done. It is as if we have had an unpleasant dream and upon waking cannot quite recall the dream. Social Dreaming appears to be a way to identify elements of experience that we have buried in our cultural assumptions, and to make these experiences available for work.

I undertook to use Social Dreaming in a consultancy at a private non-profit community mental health centre in a mostly rural county in a mid-Atlantic State in the United States. The centre provides a range of services for children and adults including outpatient and residency services for the mentally ill, homeless mentally ill, families in need of support, sexual assault victims, children and youth, and those with emergency crises need for support. The services are provided mostly for the poor and those on public assistance. The county government does not have its own facilities for such services, so that most of the work of this mental health centre is undertaken under contract to the county or the State government.


11: “Don’t explain, just go”: the creative process and Social Dreaming


Ali Zarbafi, John Clare, and W. Gordon Lawrence

In May of 2003 we placed the following edited invitation in the Hay-on-Wye Festival catalogue of events:

The Hay-on-Wye Festival is a cultural space waiting for dreams to be dreamt …. People will gather together to focus on the novel, the poem, the performance. This focus will mirror the political and cultural … . pre-occupations of the contemporary world … . .

The response of the audience develops and elaborates the creative process. This echoes the Social Dreaming Matrix where participation is a way of speaking freely and thinking out aloud … . and create … . the stimulus for more dreams … . .

What is dreamt during the festival will create different metaphors and fresh ideas. … . not in order to make the language fit the world but as an invention to experience our own contingency.

There is no indisputable truth to be gleaned, the thing is the experience itself.

Like the matrix, the Festival is a container for reverie, just as a poem is a promise, evidence of things not seen.


12: The organization as a container for dreams


Alastair Bain

Istarted this article with the title “The organization as a container for dreams”. As I wrote it, at different times, it felt awkward and box like. I rewrote it with the aim of making it less box like. It wasn't until I finished what was to be the final draft that I realized what the underlying problem was. I was writing about one part of a two part relationship, as though it was the only part. What I was omitting was the organization being contained by dreams. With both aspects of container and contained present—the organization as container, and contained; and dreams as container and contained— there is a dynamic quality to the relationship between organization and dream, rather than the static, box like notion, the organization as a container for dreams.

This realization has led me on to thinking about dreams as mediating, or being intermediaries, between “poles”. One of the poles is the Individual. The other pole is the circumstances of the Individual, which is defining identity and being, within a field at that time, for example, a book that is being written, a relationship with a psychoanalyst, or one's lover, or to God, or being at work, or living in a particular society. I suggest that there is a potential energy between these poles that occurs as a result of waking life, and that dreams balance this relationship.


13: Dream Reflection Group


W. Gordon Lawrence

Social Dreaming offers a method of penetrating the multidimensional, complexity of systems by releasing the creative potential of the role-holders in the organization, it is hypothesized. This is made possible by providing the opportunity for role-holders to temporarily “step outside” the organization of the system in their minds, to address the puzzles, or impasse, of the organization by looking at it from the dreaming perspective. The added-value of the Social Dreaming Matrix comes through the Dream Reflection Group which is the subject of this chapter.

Social Dreaming is simple to use but its results are profound. It has the following qualities:

•  speed in accessing the unconscious and the subliminal thinking of the system;

•  simple to learn and apply;

•  surprising in its discoveries;

•  self-managing for all participants;

•  systems orientated

Most importantly, for the purposes of this chapter, is that it allows us to discern the emergent qualities of systems.

Emergence is the quality of decentralised thinking that every system experiences as its members take part in Social Dreaming. Alan Turing grappled with the problem of morphogenesis which is “the capacity of all life-forms to develop even more baroque bodies out of impossibly simple beginnings” (Johnson, 2001, p. 14). The emergent, self-organizing system is a way of understanding the behaviour of ants (the architectonic example), through the development of the city, to the phenomena of mind in the context of the Internet.


14: Creative Role Synthesis


W. Gordon Lawrence

The experiences of Social Dreaming Matrices have given rise to other events which had to be invented to make use of the thinking processes that dreaming engenders. What Social Dreaming does is excite the unconscious thinking processes. At the private, individual level, the experience of Social Dreaming will result in the individual recalling dreams of his, or her, personal past. Because of the primary task of Social Dreaming, these dreams will not be used. They will be kept private appropriately, except if they illumine the system under study.

The working hypothesis was that dreams could be used to illuminate the personal complexities of carrying out a role within a system. This would be to evoke the parallel mental processes which are alongside all the rational processes necessary for executing tasks in a system. This is the stream of unconscious thinking which, metaphorically, is the “white noise” that is part of the stream of consciousness.

A model of Organizational Role Analysis which had been devised by Irving Borwick, who pioneered the method by which managers, in particular, could analyze their roles (Borwick, 1997). This inter-vention was part of a larger programme, Group Study and Action Programme which had been used in a large number of international corporations. When Borwick invented this in 1976, the idea of role and system was not part of the discourse of organizational thinking, as social scientists were preoccupied with the relationship between the individual and the organization. Role was the concept thatidentified the fact that individuals managed themselves in their systems, screening out the private factors of their individuality which were not relevant for role performance in a particular system. The role of father, or sister in the family context, for example, will mobilize different parts of the psyche depending on whether the same individual is performing a role in an organization or serving as a member of the board of governors of an educational institution.


15: The sphinx looks at the individual: Creative Role Synthesis


Franca Fubini

Last summer I was crossing a stretch of sea at night on a sailing boat with a friend. During the long night we talked of many things and at some point I was trying to explain what Social Dreaming is. Inspired by the vast cosmos surrounding us, undisturbed by artificial light, I said that it is a bit like the starry sky above us: we, human beings, need to recognize the Big Dipper and to see the connections which create the constellations: it is necessary for shared communication and navigation.

But in the sky lit by an infinite number of stars, the possible ways of connecting them are equally infinite and we become more alive when we let some of that infinite inspire our life with a multitude of new patterns.

The infinite is one of the doors to access creative thinking, where unknown patterns and connections can be made manifest. Social Dreaming, particularly in the work of the Matrix, is a powerful way of coming into contact with the infinite.

I have experienced this over the years through a sustained practice of looking at dreams as they appear within a collective of people, by turning my focus away from the temptations of discerning individual stories and group dynamics, by keeping steadily to the task of “transforming thinking through exploring dreams by the methods of free association, amplification, and systemic thinking so as to makelinks, find connections, and to discover new thinking and thoughts” as stated at the beginning of every Matrix, when those words are repeated each time as a ritual for entering the uncharted space of our dreams.




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Aristotle, (384–322 bc). Poetica. Milano: 2000.

Armstrong, D. (1998). Introduction. In: Lawrence, W.G. (ed.) Social Dreaming @ work. London: Karnac Books.

Armstrong, D. (1998). Thinking aloud: contributions to three dialogues. In: Lawrence W.G. (ed.), Social Dreaming @ Work. London: Karnac Books.

Atkins, P. (2004). Il Dito di Galileo, Le Dieci Grandi Idee della Scienza. Milano: Cortina Editor.

Bain, A. (1988). Social Defences against Organizational Learning. London: Human Relations, Vol. 51, No. 3.

Bain, A. (1994). Social dreaming and organizations: the potential. Presentation at the AISA Seminar, July 2. Ms.

Balamuth, R. (2003). Childreamatrix: dreaming with preschool children—or, bootlegging dreams into the school years. In: W.G. Lawrence (Ed.), Experiences in Social Dreaming. London: Karnac Books.

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