There have been many anthropologists whose scientific work has been disputed or at least doubted. The disappointing part is that often we would love their findings to be true. Sadly it seems that certain anthropologists who have wanted to conducted research into magic have ended up writing magic themselves. The fun part is that nothing can be proven with any certainty, so the reader can turn away from the need for scientific facts if they so wish and choose to believe that magic exists somewhere in the world, among some people, in a culture far away.
Maybe one of the most beautiful works based on anthropological research done in the highlands of Malaysia is the book Pygmies and Dream Giants, by anthropologist Kilton Stewart. He wrote about the Senoi, a group of people that he encountered during his trip in Malaysia and their dreaming culture. Stewart first wrote on the subject in his doctoral thesis in 1948, in which he presents an argument about the Senoi’s ability to control their dreams and how they educated their children to master the same ability.
The Senoi are a tribe that lives deep in the highlands of Malaysia and can be reached only by a helicopter or a boat. Along with the Negrito and Orang Malayu Asli, the Senoi are one of the three main Orang Asli groups, which are the oldest people of the region, the indigenous of Malaysia. Almost any written source about the tribe discusses the Senoi with dreams, so quite often they are mentioned as “the dream people.”
Every morning, a Senoi family would gather for breakfast and the children would start telling their dreams to the elders, and together they would analyze them. They didn’t have an established system of symbols according to which they would interpret the dream, but rather, they would analyze the plot and the story of the dream.
Their “dreaming rules” were very simple. First of all, children were taught to confront and conquer danger because in the dream it would most likely have a positive outcome. For example, if they dreamed of a dangerous animal, they were taught not to fear it but to confront it to see what would happen. If they needed help, the children should look for their dream friends rather than wake up.
If a child dreamed of falling down, the elders encouraged him to fall rather than escape from the dream. They taught the children to fall, knowing they wouldn’t be hurt, and to climb, to travel, or fly to unknown places, to unknown cultures, to learn new things. If they woke up instead, they would be advised not to escape from such dreams the next time they occurred.
During their teen years, the Senoi already had the practice of confronting any discomfort in their dreams, so dreaming for them was a process of learning. They were told they should always bring something back from their dreams to share with the group that listens to their dreams. If they fly, they should fly as far as possible and bring a song, a poem, or music from that place.
They were taught and encouraged to advance toward pleasure and so if they dreamed of making love with some dream lover, then they should go through an orgasm and ask for a “souvenir” from their lover, such as a sentence or a poem. Later, the whole experience would be discussed and analyzed in the group. Aside from individually, the Senoi grew collectively through their dreams and dreaming practice.
Also, if a dreamer dreamed that he had been mistreated by a friend in his dream, that friend should be notified so that they could repair their behavior next time. The whole group was concerned with individual dreams and they tried to improve their experiences and lives based on their dreaming. They exercised lucid dreaming as well as collective dreaming, and there is an account saying that they even built their houses in accordance to their dreams.
Later, other researchers, inspired by Stewart’s ethnography, made further studies of the Senoi. It was claimed that, among that group of people, mental illnesses such as neurosis and psychosis were non-existent. Twenty years after Stewart published his book, the Senoi and their dream culture were publicized again in Patricia Garfield’s book called Creative Dreaming. As a psychologist, and later an authority on dreams, in 1972, Garfield spent some time at the aborigine hospital in Gombak, Malaysia. There, she encountered members of the Senoi tribe who told her their dreams. She used these dreams for her book in 1974.
However, the claims about the controlled dreaming among the Senoi people were disputed after some academics who traveled to Malaysia to study them faced the disappointment of discovering that, although familiar with the concept of lucid dreaming, the Senoi didn’t remember any dreaming education within their group. Additionally, professors such as George William Domhoff claimed that the Senoi didn’t have such a culture of controlling their dreams.
Stewart wasn’t the only one who lived among the Senoi; there were many anthropologists after him. Whether they exaggerated the group’s concept of dreams and techniques of lucid dreaming or if the Senoi really were, in fact, as the Westerners described them, at least there is a story that keeps our faith in magic. Whether it is true or not, these dream practices do exist and they are said to have great health benefits for any individual or group who practice them.