Doing dreamwork by yourself on your own dreams can be like trying to see the back of your own head without two mirrors.
If this post seems a surprise in the series on nightmares, that may be both true and not true. I had initially planned the next post on the big nightmares that often have a source in trauma. However, some challenging life circumstances got in the way of this intention, and I was happy to find that I had stored this post for a time when I needed one and didn’t have the time to write from scratch. In truth, it is perfect timing for a conversation about dream sharing with others. When we work with our most challenging dreams having a guide, a companion, or a group is an invaluable aide to help us stay grounded and centered as we journey through the dark nights of the soul. So here we are:
Dreams usually arrive in our consciousness as conundrums. We usually have to spend time hanging out with the dream material to unravel it’s coded messages. As we get more skilled in attending to our dreams, we can get pretty good at it, especially if we can catch our own puns and plays on words. Problem is, most dreams come to us fairly encrypted. Just as we can often see some one else’s issues or truth more clearly than our own (who among us can’t identify (ahem…) just what our spouse, child, parent, etc. should do to be a better person!). We often hit the same blind spot when we attempt to decode our own dreams as we do when we try to see our own “issues” clearly. Our dreaming self offers up it’s mystery into our conscious minds, but if we want more than it’s initial offering, we may need to enlist the help of others: from those who can see more clearly the backs of our heads and into our blind spots. (FYI, even Freud and Jung rarely considered their owns dreams completely analyzed if they worked on them alone.)
The flip side of this coin, as we discussed in a previous blog, is that only the dreamer can truly know the resonant meaning of his or her own dream. This is because only the dreamer has the first person access to their dream, and only the dreamer can say how it relates to their own life. Richard Russo quotes Jung as saying “…to truly understand (another’s) dream, we would have to know everything about the dreamers life- something only the dreamer is capable of.”
Jeremy Taylor, based on the work of Montague Ullman, designed what I call the “Code of Respect” for dreamwork with others: When we offer an idea about the meaning of a dream, we preface it with “If this were my dream…” “If this were my dream, I would wonder about the horse in the corner of the field.”… “If this were my dream, I would want to know the significance of that bright red color in her dress.” … “If this were my dream, I would wonder if that child in your dream was a younger part of yourself; it reminds me of what you said about your life when your parents got divorced when you were six”. You can be as specific or general as your insight takes you, but if you preface it with this phrase, then you are offering the option of your opinion to the dreamer, but not insisting that your explanation is correct. We can also receive our own insights from working on some one else’s dreams. What might catch my attention in your dream is something that has significance for me- whether or not it does for you. Thus, we get do a bit of our own dreamwork with other people’s dreams- what a nice benefit for sharing dreamwork. So, if you are working on another’s dream with them, pay attention to own your own projections!
The ultimate is dream sharing is being with a group- a dream circle. I have been in a personal circle of my own for almost 30 years. We know each other pretty well at this point, and on occasion don’t even get to the dreamwork if we have a lot to catch up on, but we have held the frame of dreaming together as bond and a structure to our monthly meetings. We’ve dreamed each other through births, marriages, illnesses, deaths, career changes, surgeries, milestone birthdays and now into the empty nest phase for some of us (not me yet though! – mine is the youngest of the group’s children at 15.)
I have also facilitated dream groups for over 25 years. Again, the bonds formed in the circle often extend out of the circle as well. If you chose to form a dream circle, be clear about whether some one is in charge, or you have a rotating leadership, or a “self help” model with no one in a leadership role. Set up a format and a structure that works for you, and then stick with it. So many groups without formal leadership devolve into “just chatting”, and then loose momentum and die out. As a group worker with training in group dynamics and group process, I know that these are some the biggest reasons for group failure: lack of a clear purpose, lack of clear goals, and lack of clear structure.
Choose your fellow dreamers as carefully as possible; it doesn’t have to be people you already know, but since dreamwork is such an intimate sharing, you do want to be able to trust the members to keep confidentiality and treat each other respectfully. One option is, that you can choose whether or not to share your “aha” with the group– it is always fine to say “oh’ I’ve got it”, without divulging the details if it feels too personal to share. When I teach large classes in dreamwork, I always give people this option. This creates more of a sense of safety to go as deep as you want, and still have choice and control over what you disclose.
Dream well, may your dreams bring you home.
“I’ve had dreams, and I’ve had nightmares, but I have conquered my nightmares because of my dreams.” Jonas Salk
Nightmares. There seem to be two main categories of adult nightmares. There is the uncomfortable or upsetting dream, and then there is the heart-pounding panic-stricken terrifying one. Some nightmares are so vivid that they seem real- we wake sweating, or screaming, or our partner wakes us up asking, “What were you yelling about in your sleep?” Perhaps especially with upsetting dreams, we need work with them, figure them out, and resolve what triggered them in order to have them transform and/or disappear. (Really. I’ll give you some examples over the next few blogs.)
Believe it or not, nightmares come to us bearing gifts- even the really scary ones. We may not have been particularly desirous of this kind of a gift- and would just as soon “re-gift” it as soon as possible. However, if we’ve dreamed the dream, it means that some part of us is ready to receive these gifts: the gifts of information, of insight, of potential, and of direction that we may need in order to move forward in our lives.
This is part of what mythologist Joseph Campbell calls our “Hero’s Journey”. Part of the journey of every hero and heroine is to encounter obstacles, face seemingly impossible tasks, and then to figure out how to resolve and overcome them. Sometimes the task is to face up to and then overcome something: (i.e. Perseas and Medusa, where our hero Perseus has to cut off the Gorgon Medusa’s head, but since looking directly at her would turn him to stone; he figures out how to see her indirectly reflected in his shield and thus be able to slay her). Sometimes the work is to complete a seemingly impossible task (i.e. Hercules 7 labors; one of which included cleaning out the Elysian stables of the gods-and that’s a lot of horse-sh*t to have to clean up!). Sometimes the task is to journey to dark forbidding places for the purpose of redemption ( i.e. Orpheus and Eurydice where our hero Orpheus actually journeys to hell and back to reclaim his bride). All contain allegories for our lives, and our nightmares often include being threatened by something monstrous, an impossible task or dilemma, or dark forbidding landscapes.
Since we know that the language of dreams is usually through symbols, we have to figure out what these messages mean for us, and then what we need to do with the information we uncover. The final stage of dream work is the action stage- taking the dream information and connections into some form of action in our life. This is the part that is often neglected, which is why the nightmares may continue. Jeremy Taylor says that dreams come to us in the service of health and healing, but as Robert Moss points out on his website, we have to actually DO something differently in our lives to get us there. “…Dreams require action! If we do not do something with our dreams in waking life, we miss out on the magic…we (have to) take the necessary action to bring the magic through.” (Moss)
Moss calls his quick method of working with dreams “Lightning Dream Work”; it is one way to work with the milder form of the nightmares.
1. Title your dream: As mentioned in a previous blog, giving the dream a title can often allow the core message of the dream to “pop” in high relief. Don’t think – just go with your first gut response.
2. Describe the feeling narrative: Have the dreamer describe the various emotions that accompanied each part of the dream story.
3. Bridge to life: This is the reality check part. We ask the dreamer where in waking life this might be true? Do we recognize any of the people or places or events? Are any of them real now, or in the past, or potentially in the future? We may need to ask several questions here to tease out possible connections. Once you have the “aha” connection- what then is the message of the dream for you?
4. Bumper sticker: If you were to make a slogan, a pithy statement, a “bumper sticker” one liner out of the message your nightmare was bringing to you- what would it be? Again- go with your gut on this. What does your bumper sticker then mean to you?
5. Action plan to honor the dream: To change the dream, or your life, or keep it from becoming repetitive, you need to do something concrete in the world. Your action plan may also be to incubate another dream on what to do next, or to perform some small symbolic act.
Example: One client’s nightmare was “I stopped on the way home from work to buy a loaf of bread and when I got home I discovered that it was stale and crawling with bugs that I tried to pick out, but they were too numerous”. She titled it “Buggy Bread”. She had been having some version of this dream (sometimes sour milk, sometimes spoiled meat, sometimes in her office, sometimes on the way home) for several months. They were profoundly distressing and wouldn’t seem to dissipate.
The feeling narrative accompanying the dream story was “first calm, then tired from work, then I started to feel anxious, nervous, and when I unwrapped the bread I felt disgusted, sickened and upset.”
We played with possible bridges to life: Have you bought bread recently? Anything significant about the buying of it or having it be spoiled in some way when you got it home? How about the way home from work- how do you usually feel then? Are you feeling sick or disgusted or “bugged” anywhere in your life recently? Then, you might ask about the significance of bread- Sustenance? Staff of life? Money? Are you feeling “stale” or “bugged” or “disgusted” at work, at the place from where you are to “bring home the bread”? This last one resonated fully.
Possible bumper stickers she explored were: “Man does not live by bread alone”, “Call the exterminator” , “Change bakeries!” , “Time to go gluten free”. The bumper sticker she chose read “Change Bakeries”, and in doing so she realized that it might time to leave her current job, that the “bugs” in this one were too numerous to continue or risk getting “sickened”. The bumper sticker feeds the action plan. Her small symbolic act was to wash her hands before leaving work to (wash the office off) and then to start to send out resumes. Once she updated her resume and began sending them out she had this dream: “ I am making a cake, and I realize in the middle of it that I don’t have all the ingredients I need. I worry that it is too late to go to the store, but when I get there it is still open and I can get the rest of what I need for this project.” No more bugs, and it’s not too late! Although she’s not completely out of the woods yet (neither was Dorothy when she met the Lion), it’s clearly not a nightmare anymore.
Additionally, don’t forget that adult versions of some of the kid techniques in the last blog work as well. Next time I’ll address in detail the “Capital N” nightmares that may require other methods to stay grounded as you work on them, and introduce the GAIA* Method: “Guided Active Imagination Approach” for Nightmares and Trauma Dreams.
Till then, may your dreams point you Home,