The Inherent Mystery of Dream Images

A common principle--and, I believe, misconception-- is that the dream images can be understood solely as aspects of oneself. This implies that the dream characters can, with some interpretive work, be identified as qualities that already reside within the dreamer, even though these qualities may have been repressed or overlooked. To some extent, Freud "set this up" by saying that every dream image refers to something in one's past waking life. Of course, Freud believed that we were resistant to this awareness, but nonetheless, the images always referred to known persons, objects and events, and always from the past. Hence Freud's approach to dreams was both reductionistic and retrospective. Freud wasn't the first to imply that dreams should be fully understandable. Plato believed that dreams were merely representative of waking life. The Greek theory of mimesis posits that dreams mimic waking life, and waking life mimics the spiritual or supramundane reality, such that dreams are twice removed from ultimate truth.

These assumptions underlie Western approaches to dream analysis, such that analysis has been traditionally regarded as an exercise in interpreting what the dream refers to in waking life, as if to say that the dream points to what is knowable, but perhaps not fully acknowledged. This culturally embedded, and largely unexamined assumption, overlooks the dreamer's experience of the dream imagery as essentially mysterious and autonomous. Dream workers tend to ignore the phenomenologically rich and inherently mysterious nature of much of the dream imagery.

A chorus of voices have intoned a different view in recent years. Jung was one who believed that dreams had a prospective function, pointing to higher states of psychological integration that the dreamer had not yet achieved. Consequently, some dream images cannot be fully understood, because in essence they point beyond the status quo structure of self consciousness.

If dream images cannot be fully understood, what should be our stance in working with them? Again, I refer you to the FiveStar Method, as one approach that places emphasis on the dreamer's responses to the dream, and to the quality of relationship that arises from those responses. By placing the emphasis on the dreamer, our focus is on what is known, not what is unknown. By helping the dreamer see how different responses could have precipitated a different outcome, we divert attention away from the question, "what does the image mean?" to "how can I respond to it in a better way?" Marriage therapists face the same struggle when they endeavor to divert a person's attention away from trying to figure out the other person's motives, and instead focusing on one's choices and the degree of control that one can exert over one's own behavior and attitudes. Indeed, if you ask a counselor what is the principal mistake that people make, the counselor would probably say, "focusing on other people." Other people are ultimately unknowable just as dream images are ultimately mysterious. We may try to reduce both of them to familiar categories of our own understanding, but in so doing we run the risk of trivializing the nature of interpersonal encounter, whether in the dream or in waking life. Do we really want to be able to fully "appropriate" the people in our lives, and the images in our dreams, into our own familiar frameworks? That may always be the ego's errand, but I think it promotes tension reduction over true development. When we view the dream as inherently mysterious, then our focus turns to where we can do our finest work: on improving our responses to the "other" with whom we can have a rich and unfolding relationship if we are willing to suspend our need to know everything about it. Indeed, intimacy is founded on an exquisite tension that arises from the realization that that the "other" offers something that we have never known, and perhaps never will.