Dreamwork has an ancient and rich history, with the Hebrews, Indians, Chinese, Japanese, Native Americans, Christians and Muslims all engaging with dreams particularly as a channel to God. Today, with science unable to come up with definitive answers about why we sleep and dream, dreams and dreamwork still have a somewhat mystical edge and the call for dreamwork is still strong.
Dreamwork became part of the therapeutic culture at the beginning of the 20th century when Sigmund Freud began to use dream interpretation in psychoanalysis. Both Freud and Carl Jung, who developed Freud’s ideas in a different direction, believed dreams were an outworking of the unconscious and through free association one could learn about one’s deep desires and drives.
Following Freud, there has been a lot of scope in the psychoanalytic tradition for the analyst to interpret the dreams of clients. I feel uncomfortable with that power dynamic. I believe that the dream is the dreamer’s and whatever work is done in therapy, whatever tools or frameworks are used, the meaning given to dreams is for the dreamer themselves to give. However, I do think there is still a place for dreamwork and dreamworkers. I think we need to be able to take our dreams, whatever they may be – delightful, frightening, confusing – and unpack them with someone who will look at them with us and be curious alongside us.
In terms of dream theory in today’s therapeutic settings I have found Ann Faraday’s ideas the most useful. I like Faraday’s ideas as she allows for both the practical and the mysterious. She believes some of our dreams are quite straightforwardly about the events and needs from our everyday life and that they need little decoding to understand. For example, I know I have to get up early so I dream about sleeping in and having to rush to work or, I dream about having an argument with my friend, this seems uncharacteristic of that relationship but on further investigation I realise I am angry with her. However, Faraday also believes there is another level to some dreams. Dreams where it is not obvious why we have dreamt them. Dreams that seem more complex and mysterious, dreams where we might need to take time and space to decode them.
Whether practical or complex and mysterious, psychotherapy offers many ways of engaging with your dreams and perhaps decoding them.
I trained in gestalt psychotherapy founded by Fritz Perls. He believed all parts of the dream, people, objects and mood, were projections of the dreamer. He offered a way of working with dreams that would help a client to integrate those different parts, especially those parts that have been alienated or rejected.
The method he developed to aid integration was to get the client to tell the dream in the present tense for immediacy. Then to be the different parts of the dream by speaking from the first person and describing their experience – ‘get every person, every thing, every mood,’ he said, ‘and then work on these to become each one of them. Ham it up, and really transform yourself into each of the different items.’ He believed the next step after that was to have an encounter between two opposing items/people in the dream and get them to dialogue so a reunion of the self can take place.
Perls liked to do this quite dramatically, ‘ham it up’, but there are many ways to use this idea. Maybe drawing the dream or using objects to re-enact the dream, or simply talking it through and thinking about how each bit could be a part of you.
Sharing your dreams in therapy might also be a way to unfold and gain insight into the stories you carry within in you from your family and your culture. Carl Jung spoke about archetypes and how when we dream we may be using commonly held symbols and myths as ways of processing ourselves and the world. Whilst I don’t think we can presume that certain images mean certain things generally, they may mean certain things to you in your context and working with them may open up new areas of thought and development.
Sometimes dreams may just be a starting point in a session. You may begin with the dream’s narrative and then the session may move away from the dream itself. But the dream has been an initiator allowing us to look at other things going on either internally or externally in your life.
And sometimes, even after we have engaged in dreamwork, we might not get to the bottom of what a dream means. It may remain a mystery and Thomas Moore thinks there is value in this too: ‘The shedding of heroics in the process of therapy allows for unexpected enchantment. Dreams uninterrupted and unexploited remain in memory like jewels whose sparkle and beauty give life charm.’
Reading that inspired these thoughts:
Cushway, D. and Sewell, R. (1992). Counselling with Dreams and Nightmares. London: Sage.
Freud. (1995). On Dreams. In: Gay, P. The Freud Reader. London: Vintage. p.142-172.
Hustvedt, S (2013). Living, Thinking, Looking. London: Sceptre.
MacKewn, J. (2009). Developing Gestalt Counselling. London: Sage.
Moore, T. (2012). Care of the Soul. London: Piatkus.
Moore, T (1996). The Re-enchantment of Everday Life. New York: Harper Perennial.
Perls, F.S. (2009). Gestalt Therapy Verbatim. Gouldsboro, ME: Gestalt Journal Press.
Polster, E. and Polster, M (1974). Gestalt Therapy Integrated. New York: Vintage.
Zinker, J. (1978). Creative Process in Gestalt Therapy. New York: Vintage Books, 1977, 1978).