Thoughts About Dreamwork with Central Alberta Cree

A.   A Course in the Spirit for Indians

Consistent with my current clinical, research, teaching and personal interest in Natives I was recently asked by students at Yellowhead Tribal Council to teach a class on these extraordinary states of consciousness. This was a big move towards my first goal social action goal, offering this special topics class on Altered and Higher States of Consciousness to treaty status Natives. Here are excerpts from the course proposal I developed:

My professional area of inquiry for the past 15 years has been relating the personally meaningful elements of our lives to what has been called the "transpersonal" or "spiritual" aspect. That is, to that aspect of life which somehow seems to "transcend" our daily lives yet is intimately interwoven with them. The major way in which I have approached this work is through dreams. I facilitate workshops on dreams, do research on dreams and write books and articles on dreams as well as work on a regular basis with my own dreams. But the transpersonal/spiritual aspect is not restricted to sleep experiences (although a majority of many of these sort of experiences occur then). There are many experiences which occur outside of sleep which seem to have a spiritual meaning or element to them.

Despite the importance that most of the peoples of the world place on such experiences psychology as a discipline has largely, but not entirely, ignored them. Yet there are areas of psychology which have embraced these concepts. Specifically, central to the recovery movement is the concept of a higher power. Despite a ground breaking report by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences Institute of Medicine pointing out the apparent success of Alcoholics Anonymous 12-step program, for which a higher spiritual power is central, most mental health professionals and scientists still have difficulty with such ideas.

None-the-less there is a movement in contemporary psychology trying to introduce the psychology of religion, parapsychology, altered and higher states of consciousness, sleep and dreams, and related phenomenon/experiences into mainstream psychology. Towards this end over the last several years there has been an accumulation of research data, theoretical work, and clinical investigations on what has been called altered and/or higher states of consciousness (ASC/HSC) in various spiritual traditions. Terms such as pure consciousness, transcendence, enlightenment, mystical experience and flow have been used to describe these states of being referred to as "higher" while experiences such as out-of-body experiences, near-death experiences, dream experiences etc. have been included under the concept of altered states of consciousness. While most transpersonal psychologists today would reject the classical psychoanalytic hypothesis that these states of mind or experiences are regressions to an infantile narcissistic mentality, there is much less consensus on what they actually represent in terms of cognitive, affective, physiological, developmental, and sociological functioning. Enough research is now available to critically analyze the concept of ASC/HSC.

The course was approved and was taught as a three week, daily intensive. The first third of the class was devoted to dreams where I used Stanley Krippner's "Dreamtime & Dreamwork: Decoding the Language of the Night" as the text (1990) as well as many handouts. The second portion of the class was devoted to a survey of altered and higher states of consciousness using the reissue of Charles Tart's "Altered States of Consciousness: Revised and Updated" as text (1990). In the final third of the class I attempted to bring these western understandings of these concepts into the world of the Native using Roger Walsh's "The Spirit of Shamanism" as text (1990).

We had daily in-class activities to personalize the material in all three sections. These ranged from dreamwork to testing their ESP using Rhine's Zener cards. Although this was my first attempt to directly bridge the western scientific understanding of these states of being with people of a culture who traditionally deeply regard them, I am hopeful that I will be able to offer it again at Native colleges.

There were many moments of confirmation for the value of the class from the students but perhaps one of the strongest was from a mid-30's Cree man with tatoo's all over his arms. I knew his father was a medicine man and he had repeatedly made mysterious asides to me about the spirit world including warning me that I should be afraid of it. Yet clearly his gruff exterior could be daunting. At one point he told me a dream and was quite eager to hear what I would say about it. In our conversation about the dream he clearly experienced the "aha" which manifested as a startle response in him. I had approached the dream in a Native manner looking for the direct guidance it offered and he was shocked that I would suggest a direction for guidance that he had not thought of or that no one else to that point had suggested to him. I knew at that moment that I had gotten through to him in a way that all the lecturing in the world had not. He had told me in the past his own ambivalence, like Deb below, about going into the "family business" (medicine man). I believe that my western scientific support of the states of consciousness dealt with in his fathers work had a significant influence on him. This is but one example of what I believe is the potential impact of the proper introduction of this material to peoples who fundamentally hold a belief in these states of being but for whom white cultural influence has caused serious doubt. I accomplished with more depth then ever before my goal of supporting Natives looking back to their own culture for help and support.


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