Dreaming ourselves awake

Chagall dreamI’m going through a phase of dreaming a lot – experts will remind me that I actually dream each and every night; so its probably more accurate to say at the moment, I am more aware of my dreams. Sometimes I can remember the dreams in vivid detail, sometimes there are 3 or 4 a night each with a different “scene”, but which carry a similar flavour and feeling to them. It can be hard to catch my dreams, but generally the greater my intention to listen to the messages contained within, the more my dream world comes alive.

There is a general fascination with our experience of dreaming. Scientists range in opinion as to the function of dreams – from random brain activity to processing of information for storage. My own experience tells me dreams are not random: there is too much synchronicity and emotional affect in- and post-dream for me to ignore. Freud and Jung both pointed to how much dream material can reveal. Freud famously stated that “dreams are the royal road to our unconscious”. He considered that things appearing in our dreams could be read as symbols and can point to our very deepest wishes and desires. A reference to water would signify birth, or the undertaking a journey being representative of death as two examples. Jung read dreams in a different way – in contrast to Freud, he did not see dream material as indicative of repressed material that is not allowed in to the awake mind because of morality. Jung brought a perspective that allowed dream material to be looked at both objectively and subjectively – less reliance on interpretation, more emphasis on what the dreamer made of the dream. In effect, Jung saw dreams as the bridge between our conscious and unconscious mind.

In my own experience of dreaming, I am finding the ideas of Jung particularly helpful. If I view that my dreams are informing me of sides of Helen I never knew, understanding them can help me bring more of those sides (including ‘shadow’ material) in to my awareness. It is in my recent deepening interest and study of Jung that my dream world has opened up – when I was completing my dissertation research, it was in a dream that a mandala came to me and allowed me to understand my research findings in a new way. And, Jung’s way of respecting dreams fits with how I work with dreams in a clinical practice setting – as a Gestalt therapist, dream work is a key way to helping clients integrate new aspects of themselves as they move through impasse and towards wholeness…

“You are the maker of the dream…whatever you put into the dream us be what is within you” Fritz Perls

I have found this approach truly revelatory in use with clients. Rather than seeing objects or people in the dream as symbols with meaning (either imposed, or using the dreamer’s association), each is an aspect of the client’s psyche, their Self. A client might dream of a cat – I invite them to tell me the dream as if they were the cat: in the present tense, and using “I”. So, “I am the cat and…”. They might continue the dream and tell me there is a bench; so again the invitation to become the bench “I am the bench and…”. Understandably, clients can find this quite tricky to begin with, and many just want to tell me their dream as they remember it. However, it is only in telling the dream in the present tense and using the personal pronoun that allows the client to feel the emotion in the here and now, and own the parts of themselves that are trying to find the breath to express.

cat on a bench

Last week at the University where I teach therapist trainees, we discussed the use of dreams in counselling and psychotherapy. Dreamwork isn’t often on the curriculum of therapist training, and this, alongside the preconception that dreams are “deep and serious stuff” means that therapists can be a bit intimidated by working with client dreams. The experiential workshop therefore gave the trainees a chance to experiment with some ideas. All the students were training in the Humanistic tradition, but not all are interested in Gestalt – which is the modality where dreamwork is used commonly. I was encouraging those students with affinity towards Person-Centred, Transactional Analysis, and / or Existential emphasis to see how they might also bring this powerful resource in to their work.

Whatever a therapists way of working, we can consider some of the following as key ideas.

Always allowing the client to make meaning. However tempting (and clever!) we must avoid making interpretations and pointing out what each object or story in the dream signifies. We can simply ask the client questions – if there is a tower, “what does that tower mean to you? What do you think the dream wants you to know about the tower?”

Honouring the material. It is important to start dreamwork with an awareness of what drives a client to bring their dreams. They do so because of their effect, how it leaves the client feeling. Dreams can trigger emotional intensity and a client is wanting to share that, and / or might be confused by the why and what of the dream and what it reveals. As therapists, we need to hold our clients and remember how they are sharing their very depths.

Asking for connections to waking life. As the client re-tells the dream, enquire what feeling there is present; and whether that feeling is related to how they are feeling in life right now. Are the characters of the dream still present in their life? How? And if from a past time, what was going on in the client’s life back then?

Ways to work. As well as the power of the dreamwork, there is also an ‘ordinariness’ with it – we can listen to dreams as if they are simply the same as the stories clients bring about their everyday life. The students I was working with in the workshop last week experienced this – and it helped them overcome that anticipatory fear of dream work. In many ways, we ‘interrogate’ the dream just as we do the waking world. Certainly in Buddhist psychology, our dream world is no more illusory that what we consider ‘reality’ in our waking hours world. Specific ways of helping clients bring their dream world to life include:

  • Drawing the dream
  • Asking the client to tell the dream from the standpoint of each objects in the dream. This followed Perls view that each is simply a projection of a part of our self that isn’t ordinarily owned in waking life.
  • Dreams might leave a sense of “unfinished business”. We can invite a client to change / re-write the end of the dream. This can be a powerful aid to working with recurring dreams and nightmares.

Of importance in all of the above is using methods that bring forth the experience of the dream in the here and now. This is critical if we are to help clients move from trying to interpret the content of the dream, and instead notice the processes and feelings that are resonating – in both the experience of the dream, and in the experience of re-telling of the dream in your company.

These ideas are not exclusive to the therapist. If you are interested in working with your own dreams, try some of the above. You might also invite your dream world to come forth by:

  • Before going to sleep, bring to mind your intention to dream and the commitment to listen to it
  • Keeping a journal by your bed so you can scribble down key words, images, objects in the dream. And, don’t forget to make a note of the key feeling tone of the dream – what you are left with.
  • Later in the day, when you have more time, flesh out the key words etc and try to tell the dream in prose. Give telling it in the present tense a go; all the while connecting how it feels to write it (or speak it, as you could always try saying your dreams in to a voice recorder)

I invite you to get curious about your dreams; do you notice dreams with a common thread or a similar “feeling tone”? How useful have dreams been in helping guide your life?

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