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.
“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.
“I don’t use drugs: my dreams are frightening enough”. M. C. Esher
Nightmares. We’ve all had some version of them, from a single mild disturbance to all out panic and repetitive horror shows. This next series of blogs will begin to address the “full catastrophe” of this ubiqitous phenomenon. (to quote one of my favorite characters Zorba, who is in turn quoted by John Cabot Zinn).
What causes nightmares? The whole range of things that influence our dreams (remember those layers from the last blog?) contribute to nightmares as well. Yes, that spicy pizza we ate last night can be an influence. More to the point though, they are usually generated by upsetting encounters or life circumstances that we’ve had over the last few days, stuck emotions or unsatisfied places in our life that we haven’t figured out what to do about yet, or long term unfinished business from our childhood or beyond. That “beyond” includes sensory and image memories that have not been encoded into language, or scenes from other lifetimes that seep through the thinned veil of our consciousness when we are asleep. Repetitive nightmares are an SOS from our unconscious- something is not right in Mudville, and our dreaming self is trying it’s darndest to get us to sit up and figure out what it is, and what we need to do about it.
First, a few words about kids and nightmares. Kids dreams are also affected by what is going on in their lives, but it is also important to know that having nightmares is a normal developmental stage for many children. From about 4 or 5 until about 8 or 9, many kids are just beginning to recognize that their previously “infallible and all protecting parents” are not perfect protectors, and that the world can be a scary place. This comes as a shock! “What do you mean that you can’t make Joey my hamster alive again?!”
It seems that this dawning consciousness that parents can’t do it all, and that they (the kids) will have to leave the nest for increasing periods of time, make this age span a common time of nightmares. They have to come to terms with how to negotiate and stay safe in the world, and anxieties can seep into sleep. For many kids, the nightmares resolve by themselves, with just a little TLC and good parenting techniques. For others, some of these tried and true methods may help restore them to feeling competence and power in their worlds.
Here are a few techniques that are helpful for kids to gain some power over their night monsters: (ps- they can work for adults too!)
Vanquishing the Nightmare
1. Never underestimate the power of a good nightlight to chase away the scary dark.
2. In addition to an actual nightlight, some kids love to have a “monster vaporizer” in the form of a flashlight, that when pointed into all the dark corners and under the bed, will automatically vaporize any lurking dangers.
3. Have them tell the story of the dream out loud, and join them in deciding what objects, other people, or magical/spiritual beings they want to bring with them into the dream or into the room to keep them safe.
4. Draw a picture of the nightmare, and then change the picture around by making it humorous (i.e., put a funny hat on the monster), or adding the magical safety items from #3 to the picture.
5. Talk back to the monster, once it is safely contained (i.e. put it in jail, or a cage, or behind a fence or a force field). Even “Na na na na na – you can’t get me!” can be very powerful for a certain age set.
6. My daughter’s personal favorite when she was that age: Draw the dream monster or bad guy, then scribble over it with a heavy black magic marker until it is completely obliterated. Then, if that is not yet enough, rip the paper into tiny shreds. Then, if that is not yet enough, burn the shreds of paper safely in a big pot or container. Then, if that is not yet enough, flush the ashes down the toilet! (part of this method is adapted from “Gentle Reprocessing”, developed by Diane Spindler as a variation on EMDR using imagery.) Keep going until you get to until you get to “Dayenu!” (from the Passover Haggadah, meaning “It would be enough!”
7. Have a conversation with the dream monster or bad guy: Find out why it is there, what it wants, and how to appease or befriend it. Feed it a cookie. See what gift it has brought for the young dreamer. (A great book you can read to young readers, and older ones can read to themselves is “The Wizard of EarthSea”, the first book of “The EarthSea Trilogy” by Ursula Leguin. This great allegory/story closes with the young wizard Ged learning how to face his monsters.)
8. Don’t forget about Native American dreamcatchers: hung over the bed, they “catch” the bad dreams, and the hole in the middle lets the good ones come through.
9. And, of course, hugs, and lullabies, and cuddling, and the power of true and loving presence.
Next time- adults and nightmares: the long and the short of it: methods, techniques, ways to empower yourself, when to seek professional help.
Von Franz reminds us that when Jung spoke of the transforming nature of dream work he said, “It is not understanding the dream that brings about transformation, but the intensity with which we engage the images.”
I had a Eureka moment a few weeks ago. We’ve long known that working on our dreams can be therapeutic; we can get insights into our world and ourselves when we grapple with the images that we channel at night. What I recently discovered, however, is that the process of engaging with the dreams can actually be similar to the type of reprocessing work that is done in the body/mind modality of EMDR. EMDR stands for “Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing; a body/ mind therapy that helps people reprocess upsetting and traumatic events. What follows is how this works with dreams. I call the dream process “Title and Re-Title”- you will see why.
Titling the Dream
One of the best ways to capture what Ernest Hartman calls the Central Image (C.I.) of the dream is to give it a title. The C.I. usually contains the core of the dream: the center of the dream’s energy or power, or the main theme is held here. I advise dreamers to let the title emerge spontaneously, not to think about it too hard. Just let the title rise up from your unconscious as you put your attention on the dream as a whole. If the title surprises you; even better- that means you’ve tapped into something your deepest self knows, that is about to emerge into your consciousness as well. The title usually reflects this Central Image. Sometimes the place in the dream with the most energy is clear to us; sometimes less so. We often start our dreamwork by asking for the title; it then serves as a signpost pointing the way to something that we want to be sure not to miss in the dream.
While working on dreams in my own dream circle a few weeks ago, one member titled her dream “Things Are Unclear”. After we worked on it for a while, my friend Marcia asked “So, would you give it a different the title it now?” Sure enough- the title had changed from “Things Are Unclear” to “Diving”. The feelings in and about the dream changed too- from “I feel foggy, this doesn’t feel so good and I don’t understand what it means”, to “Oh, now I have a new perspective; I can dive down into that water and discover what is there for me”
Suddenly I had a Eureka moment: “OMG-This is like EMDR! The negative cognition in the first title got transformed to a positive cognition in the second title, and the negative charge is off the emotions.” So- what does that mean, for those not familiar with EMDR? The standard EMDR protocol has people identify the problem they want to work on along with the concurrent negative belief or cognition they developed about themselves. They then identify the positive belief about themselves that they would rather have be true, in light of the problem they are grappling with, but usually isn’t yet. The protocol continues with identifying the emotions, locating where in the body they are held, and what the level of distress is on a scale of 0-10. This discussion begins the desensitization process; taking the edge off the material by discussing and sharing it. Once this set-up is completed, a series of bilateral stimulation sets that activate the two sides of the brain are done: this adds the reprocessing part. The bilateral stimulation to the brain is usually done using eye movements, following some one’s hand or a light on a bar with the eyes from one side of the field of vision to the other (bilateral auditory tones or tapping can also be used as an alternative).
This accelerated form of therapy can often allow people to reprocess traumatic memories in a much shorter time than they otherwise would have needed to get the same insights, shifts in perspective, and relief from strong upsetting feelings. It is important to state that only professionals who have received specialized training can responsibly practice EMDR. (For more information on EMDR, see www.EMDRIA.org, or Francine Shapiro, the founder of the method.)
The Re-processing Re-titling in the Dream
Back to the dreamwork. We “reprocessed” her dream as we discussed it, offered ideas, and made suggestions, “aired it out” by using a number of different methods of dreamwork. (some I have already blogged about, like Gesault, associations, symbol meanings; others I will talk more about in upcoming posts) The energy of the dream shifted from a negative to a more positive stance. In EMDR speak, she had reduced her distress level in the dream, and felt more strongly about the new positive beliefs and options the dream work uncovered.. It is worth noting, I think, that REM sleep has been compared to EMDR in several scholarly articles, since both involve eye movements and unconscious processing. (if you are interested, you can read the research by Robert Stickgold in Nature Neuroscience, 2007 and in Journal of EMDR Practice and Research, 2008). Brain scans have shown that the same parts of the brain are used in both REM sleep and in EMDR.
I tried out this method of “Title and Re-Title” several more times in the dream circle I facilitate. Here are some of the “titling” shifts that occurred after the dreamwork (by “dreamwork”, i mean that the “aha” moments occurred, the connections with life were made, and the plans to address the issue raised in the dream somehow in waking life had been articulated). Watch what happens to each dream after only about 15-30 minutes of work on it.
Original title: “Broken Glass”
New title after dreamwork: “Picking Up the Pieces”
Original title: “Earthquake”
New title after dreamwork: “Rebirth”
Original title: “Dark Energies”
New Title after dreamwork: “Claiming My Power”
The original titles all contain the “Central Image” of dreams that were associated with distress for the dreamer, as obvious by the titles, while the new titles all reflect hope, opportunity, or some kind of growth. It seems that something powerful is at work here.
Try out “Title and Re-title” with your dream buddy or dream circle or therapist!