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Fleeing Kampuchea

Dreamed recurrently, early 1990s? by Laura Lawrence, as told to Marc Ian Barasch

I first met Laura Lawrence when she got up to speak--hesitantly at first, but then with mesmerizing conviction--at a medical seminar. A psychiatrist with graying blond hair and calm, slate blue eyes, she convincingly recounted a personal healing she attributed to a vivid dream. Years later, a scrap of paper with her phone number surfaced from a pile of notes, leading to a series of extraordinary conversations that detailed the life history of a modern shaman.

As far back as she can remember, Laura's dreams have been filled with unseen presences she often refers to as "the We" because of their characteristic first-person plural style of address. She can think of no other term for this "intelligence beyond mine," which she says "taught me the rules of empathy" as early as kindergarten. "My mother tells me that I might be upset if a kid was mean to me, but if he was cruel to other kids, I was inconsolable. I felt their pain more than my own." Her acute sensitivity caused her emotional turmoil: "I remember thinking about suicide when I was five, only I didn't know how." Then one afternoon, lying on her back gazing at the sky, she had a transcendent experience. "I was no longer my body. There was just this sense of the vastness of universe. I felt I was completely connected with everything around me, yet at the same time, just a little speck in this enormous creation." (Hers is as good a description as I've heard of what scholars of mysticism term the mysterium tremendum, absorption in the grandeur of the cosmos.)

In keeping with the life story of many shamans, Laura suffered a serious illness: "They thought I had leukemia when I was a teenager," but she claims her blood-test markers mysteriously normalized after several powerful meditation experiences... Laura's own cycle of suffering and healing, she says, solidified her connection with "the We," giving her a sense of being "part of something much bigger. The pain was happening for a reason that would unfold one day, though I didn't know when."

It helped lead to her career as a doctor of the mind, though she is hardpressed to find normative descriptions of her dreamlife in psychiatric texts. She describes a special category of dream in which she seems to inhabit other characters. "I'll experience firsthand the different viewpoints of these 'dream people;' I'll feel their personalities, even have their memories--as if I am them."

She cites a repetitive dream that unfolded in growing detail over a period of months, in which her central identity was a twelve-year-old Cambodian girl in a small, poor village. "I am living a wonderful life," she recalls with a small smile. "My family is close, we have relatives in the neighboring village." In the dream, she returns from a visit to her aunts and uncles to find her town burned to the ground, her family murdered. "It's pure devastation. I feel such an intensity of feeling, such horror, that I want to die of grief."

She sees village children emerging from the forest where they had hidden during the massacre, all younger than she, crying and terrified, begging her to help. She feels an unfamiliar sensation arise from deep within her twelve-year-old selfhood, an iron resolve to get them all to safety. As the dream unfolds, she and her small retinue are captured by enemy soldiers and forced on a death march. Twice, late at night, they try to escape, and twice they are caught and threatened with instant execution. But they make a third attempt, fleeing into the woods, shaking with fear as the soldiers' boots clomp through the grass by their hiding place.

Finally, the frightened young band straggles toward an isolated farmhouse. At first the farmer wants to turn them over to the soldiers, but the wife argues, and finally, with much misgiving, he yields to her. The farmwife contacts a charity group that has been spiriting refugee Cambodian children out of the war zone. They are taken to a European city and finally to America and safety.

Laura had this vivid dream over and over again. She would wake up to hear "the We" audibly telling her, "We will send you this until you pay attention." Then it stopped. She had no idea what to make of it. It had seemed so real, but she could extract little personal meaning from it and laid it aside.

Six months later, a Cambodian engineer was referred to her practice. A mother with several young children, she had developed carpal tunnel syndrome and could no longer function at her job. She had begun to feel suicidal. When Laura asked her to recount her life history, the psychiatrist was stunned to hear the very story she had been dreaming, reproduced in every detail.

Typically, Laura does not recount this as an amazing anecdote of the occult, but in terms of how it assisted her in diagnosis and treatment. "It was helpful to have, in a sense, experienced her life from the inside, to be so aware of her personality, her strength, her survivor's guilt. I got her to open up to the horrible grief at seeing her home and family destroyed, which had added so much sadness to her current situation. Her remorse had deep roots."

Laura let nothing slip of the foreknowledge that had magnified her empathy a thousandfold. But inevitably, a moment came when the woman stopped in midsentence, stared at her hard, and said, her voice trembling, "I know you know all about this. How can you?" Only then did Laura tell her about her dream, right down to specific people she'd seen thrown to the ground, bayoneted or kicked to death when they could no longer keep up with the parade to a killing field. The woman listened, her hand clamped on her mouth, eyes welling with tears. When Laura told of a man who had been murdered in a particularly agonizing way to dissuade anyone else from considering escape, the two women wept together at what was, in effect, a shared memory of a season in hell. Laura had been "told," at the end of her dream, that the young woman had decided to become an engineer to honor her slain father. Here was the key to unlock the deep despair she felt at being unable to function in her chosen profession.

Source: Marc Ian Barasch's Healing Dreams (2001; p.195; excerpt untitled in the original). The best book I've found on the subject; highly recommended--Chris Wayan



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