Creativity, Community and Transformation: Treasures Discovered through Dreams
By Sheri D. Kling
A practice of group dream work holds treasures for individuals; might it hold treasures for leaders and organizations as well?
Creativity. Community. Transformation.
These treasures can be discovered in doing dream work as a spiritual practice within groups. As I write this, individuals are gathering regularly all around the United States and beyond, sharing their nightly dreams and mining their content in community to find treasures within. What kind of treasures do dreams reveal?
Not long ago, in my role as director of a program center within an institution of higher learning, I hit a snag with one of my employees. Actions we had both taken while at a distance from each other had resulted in miscommunication and frustration. I was aware that we shared certain tender spots left by early life wounds, and I could see that our emailed communications were inadequate. I was left feeling hurt and angry, and I knew those feelings were mutually held.
The night before we next met, I had the following dream:
I am at my desk and circumstances at the University have required a public event to be held in my office within a matter of minutes. I am anxious about this, because my desktop is a mess, and I try to clean things up. The main presenter is a foreign leader from Europe. I realize at one point that someone has left a paper bag full of dog poop under the table where he is sitting! I feel like someone there has tried to sabotage me. I am very unnerved and call security to report the transgression, even though I don’t know who is to blame. Despite my feeling vulnerable and embarrassed, the event proceeds and all ends well.
The next day, I began our meeting by sharing openly the anxious feelings the employee’s actions had triggered in me and connected those feelings to my early life experience. I wondered if our similar histories might have left us prone to jumping to unwarranted conclusions and said that I’d like us to assume that we were both seeking for the best. In other words, I led with vulnerability rather than anger or frustration. The employee followed suit, and we had a very healthy conversation. Though I had not reflected on my dream prior to the meeting, I later wondered if it hadn’t shown me unconsciously that being willing to be vulnerable and imperfect without blaming might lead to positive results.
In 2014, I conducted a pilot study in which I interviewed five Christians who use Jungian dream work in a spiritual way and who frequently attend the Haden Institute Summer Dream and Spirituality Conference in Hendersonville, North Carolina to find out more about their experiences. As I describe in my upcoming book, A Process Spirituality: Christian and Transreligious Resources for Transformation, five themes emerged:
- All described experiences that we might call mystical, such as feeling God’s presence;
- All claimed dream work to be significant in their spiritual lives and dreams to be carriers of valuable meaning;
- All saw dreams as divine communication that provides insights, guidance, support, and healing;
- All believed dream work positively changed their experiences of self, often increasing self-acceptance and personal growth; and,
- All believed dream work positively changed their relationships with God and others, allowing them to broaden their spiritual perspectives, deepen their friendships, and heal past hurts.
The rise of psychology has introduced many to the value of dreams. Carl Jung saw dreams as natural expressions of the unconscious psyche that carried purpose and higher wisdom. In the 1970s, psychiatrist Montague Ullman, Unitarian minister Jeremy Taylor, and others began teaching and writing about the power of dream sharing groups, leading to the formation of many such groups around the United States.
A method they pioneered called Group Projective Dream work is still used widely today. In this method, group members “project” their own associations onto the images a dreamer shares, saying, “if it were my dream…” or “in my dream…” In this way, boundaries are respected, and psychological safety is maintained while possible meanings of dream images are brought forth and connected to group members’ waking life concerns. Dreams can even reflect job concerns, as researcher Robert Hoss has discovered in his work with people who have dreamt of new career opportunities in times of crisis.
While psychologically, dreams are primarily seen as a window to the individual psyche, many cultures understand that dreams sometimes speak to entire communities. This is true because dreams tap into our collective lives as well as our personal lives. For example, just prior to the outbreak of World War I, Jung had three dreams of rivers of blood and frozen wastelands blanketing Europe.
How does this relate to open and relational theology?
What can this possibly mean for people in leadership roles?
Here we must weave together the threads of leadership, open and relational theology, and dream work. Let’s begin with three ideas at the heart of open and relational theology: 1) The present is always in process, change is inevitable; 2) Creative possibilities for new futures are always available; and 3) We are not independent agents but live in a web of relationship. Each of these ideas are important for organizations. And while most business leaders are acutely aware of the constancy of change, they too often place all the weight of generating visionary possibilities and creativity on only their own shoulders. Or they may include a core group of executives, seeing their broader employee base as peripheral to such creativity and vision.
First, in open and relational theology, life is not static but ever growing and ever perishing, always on the move. And since individual beings have agency and creativity of their own to express, we must always be ready to perceive—and adapt to—the sometimes-conflicting forces at work all around us.
Every leader today knows intimately the pace of change in our world. Whether it’s the action of a local competitor or seismic shifts on the global stage, we must respond to changing conditions as they occur. Rather than relying on only one or a few leaders to read and understand the environment, what if that role could be democratically distributed to organized groups throughout an organization?
Second, open and relational theology describes a God that seeks for us to enjoy zest and to create value—things that matter—in the world. Less complex entities, like rocks and amoebas, may not have much creative license. They may only be able to repeat their immediate pasts. But God graces humans with a much greater capacity for creativity. God lures us to novel futures that are greater than what is currently being lived. We may not always perceive God’s guidance—or we may choose to ignore it—but God always provides creative possibilities for zestier futures!
As leaders, we must know our people and know our environments. We must be able to get a sense of when things are shifting, where new opportunities lie, and in what direction we must go. If we make the mistake of only attuning to what is in our current world, we might risk merely repeating the dry and brittle past. That is why as leaders we must also attune to the voice of the future, the Wisdom of God.
What if leaders could embrace the idea that novel possibilities are not just forged within their own brains but are available from divine Wisdom in the flow of life? What if groups could form for tuning into that Wisdom, communicated through dreams and synchronicities?
Third, we exist in relationship. As individual persons, we are formed by, and live within, larger groups and ecosystems upon which we depend. We are not isolated individuals creating our lives out of whole cloth. We are inextricably bound to each other as members of a greater web of life. What we do, how we live, affects everyone in that web.
The isolated leader might create compelling strategic plans that can be imposed on the organization, but as Peter Drucker famously said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” In other words, a strategic plan will be dead-on-arrival if the group’s spoken or unspoken values, beliefs, and practices do not support the vision that plan describes. Adapting to change requires shared vision, vulnerability, and willingness to fail—qualities that can only be nurtured in communities that trust each other. What if organizations could build true teams that have fostered the qualities required for creative response to changing conditions?
Through my questions above, I have asked us to imagine how groups that work together to read current conditions and generate insight into possibilities for creative response while fostering trust, intimacy, and camaraderie could be invaluable to organizations of all types. Dream groups are such groups. People meeting regularly over time to share dreams and their meanings develop greater intimacy and trust and become more attuned to each other and to what is happening in each other’s lives. They seek each other’s wellbeing. They are willing to be more vulnerable and generally more open to possibilities.
I dream of a time when organizations might hire Directors of Dreamwork or create Offices of Soul Development. Of course, such ventures carry the same potentials for abuse that abound in human endeavors. Confidentiality must be protected. Personal boundaries must be respected. Within a group framework, applying techniques like projective dream work can help ensure everyone’s safety.
It may require a leap of faith, but the treasures of creativity, community, and transformation—and the leadership that arises from them—are there for us when we’re ready to dive down deep.
Sheri D. Kling, PhD, is an interdisciplinary scholar, educator, speaker, and dream worker interested in spiritual and cultural renewal through psychological and spiritual practices, ecological worldviews, and liberating theologies that foster wholeness and flourishing. She is also a singer-songwriter, guitarist, recording artist, and advisor available for consultations. Her website is www.sherikling.com.
To purchase the book from which this leadership essay comes, see Open and Relational Leadership: Leading with Love.