April 19, 2021
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Gordon Lawrence’s ‘Social Dreaming’ Techniques To Define Our New Normal

We can sublimate our anxiety through a concept of that Gordon Lawrence called in the 1980s as 'social dreaming'– gathering together with positivity to manifest a way out of the pandemic.

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Gordon Lawrence’s ‘Social Dreaming’ Techniques To Define Our New Normal
People stand in queue outside a place of worship in Kolkata during Unlock 2.0
Representational Image/ PTI
Gordon Lawrence’s ‘Social Dreaming’ Techniques To Define Our New Normal

It’s been a year of the twilight zone. When the Covid-19 pandemic was declared around last Holi in March 2020 many people headed home to shelter in place and expected that they would return to their office in a few weeks. None of us could have imagined how different the world could have looked a year later.

More than 2.5 million people around the world (with more than 500,000 of those deaths being from America) have died from complications of Covid-19. Along with the physical toll of the coronavirus, the pandemic’s economic and social consequences have caused a “second pandemic” of mental health concerns as people all over the world have dealt with lost jobs, lack of childcare and social isolation and the illness and death of loved ones. No one in the world has been immune to the stress, isolation and challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic. Among the symbolism of “coping behaviours” some creative solutions have been stress baking, the nostalgic feelings of old movies and TV shows, music from our childhoods and sights, sounds and memories of the pre-pandemic past. While coping with Zoom fatigue and the exhaustion of technology, the “fake commute” has put in some structure for some by punctuating the start and an end of the work day.

While we continue to struggle to deal with something that none of us were ever prepared to for this long, we wonder how we can collectively sublimate the “what if this never ends?” anxiety through a concept of that Gordon Lawrence called in the 1980s as “social dreaming”–gathering together with positivity to manifest a way out of the pandemic.

A concept of sublimating anxiety, social scientist Gordon Lawrence suggested “social dreaming” in the 1980s as a collective disruption, trauma and overhaul (such as the trauma that Nazis imposed on the Jews in Germany and in a vastly different sense the present imprisonment of Covid-19 fears) to collectively “manifest” a way out of the darkness. Can we create a better world by collectively meditating towards a better reality away from the high anxiety images and thoughts fed through our subconscious?

Can we learn to tolerate uncertainty better and make better sense of the world at this time through Lawrence’s coined sessions? Social dreaming sessions involve creating an excuse to “gather” and to realizing that there is a social and political context to people’s dreams similar to the moment we are currently in with a global pandemic. Lawrence was heavily influenced by German journalist Charlotte Beradt, (published in 1968), who asked her medical friends in the 1930s to collect the dreams of patients who consulted with them. All these patients were Jewish.

The dreams were telling them of their horrendous future to be had in Nazi Germany. In her book, Beradt said that the totalitarian regime of the Nazis generated paranoia in the German population, particularly Jews. Gordon saw that it was possible to dream socially, to dream not about himself, but what is happening to the human condition. He created the concept then of weekly Social Dreaming Sessions to surface the unconscious and bring up creative thoughts about the preoccupations of disparate groups about social issues which are stalking the thoughts of participants. In the spring of 1982, with a psychoanalyst friend, Patricia Daniels, he began holding weekly “Social Dreaming Sessions” at the Tavistock Centre in London - these sessions were called ‘A Project in Social Dreaming and Creativity’.

The Covid-19 pandemic has brought a set of images and associations that appear and reappear as symbols of our feelings of fear, dread, loss of hope and despondency during this period. The X-ray of the pandemic resulted in a collective outrage over George Floyd’s death that sent a globe spinning out onto the streets chanting and protesting. Previously existing gender equity gaps were exposed through meaningful conversations that have come to light through many including Melinda Gates– pointing to women bearing a disproportionate burden of unpaid labour/childcare during the pandemic with no respite during the time that schools have been closed.

Our realities have been marked by masks, sanitizers, six feet distances and greater physical distances to cope with lockdowns and shutdowns. We hoarded toilet paper & held our breath in grocery store lines. The vaccine has now given us a roughly 75 per cent surety to tackle the virus and some form of variant, but can the “vaccine” also be symbolic against greater societal ills exposed during this “kalyug” of the past year? Covid-19 has exposed inequities of race, gender, class and power structures globally. What if in our “vaccinated” world we can use “social dreaming” sessions to narrow the divides and see greater degrees of social justice all round to create a more equitable world? Despite the uncertainty of how long the efficacy of the vaccine will last along with now being haunted by strains of variants, can we still “collectively dream” of greater social equity for the socio-economically disempowered and communities of color? What does it mean to be “vaccinated” against social-inequities? Can we have deeper empathy for our migrant workers, our unorganized labour sectors as well as the loss of lives amounting to Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, the Asian-American women in Atlanta and countless others who are being attacked for their socio-economic context, race or class?

Yet, what have we gained before we’ve actually vaccinated our minds through “Social Dreaming”? We have gained gratitude in how we have come to re-evaluate the importance of relationships with friends, family and co-workers. Family over “things” - the things we realized that we could do without for a whole year. We’ve become more intimate with co-workers – we work more flexibly and take time to address things in the middle of the day – no longer thinking that work is “supposed” to be a certain way. Zoom has imposed a discipline on us with blurred lines of intimacy – kids walking in – plumbers at the door –side conversations with spouses in the middle of work calls within our technology fatigue. Despite the large-scale vaccine hesitancy that exists, vaccines are providing some hope for the light at the end of the tunnel. Will it ever be the same? Probably not. But in the meantime, in Lawrence speak, we can create good reasons to gather, socially dream and architect the best version possible of the New Normal’s way forward.

(Isheeta Ganguly is a Tagore fusion singer, playwright and filmmaker. She has also done Bio-medical Ethics from Brown University and her Masters in Public Health from Columbia University. Views expressed are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of Outlook Magazine.)

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