Sunday, November 27, 2011
Tuesday, November 22, 2011
Send the dream via email to me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I will
Monday, November 14, 2011
In systems theory, this is called a runaway dynamic. It escalates until the system breaks down. We've all experienced it in various relationships in which two parties hold on to their respective positions, while the situation only gets worse. In theory, it's based on the premise articulated by Einstein, who defined insanity as "doing the same thing over and over, and expecting a different result."
This is not only a dynamic between people, but it's a familiar dynamic WITHIN the psyche and in the confines of the dream. Indeed, we are often fighting battles to resist the expression of some legitimate urge or awareness, and only making it worse, because the "solution" that we impose only resists the expression of something that will not cease and desist. Finally, our efforts go bankrupt, and things usually get better (after the crisis is over!).
In co-creative dream theory, upon which the FiveStar Method is based, the dream is, simply put, a relational field, in which the dreamer interacts with a variety of aspects of self and others toward eventual integration, as the positions expressed by both clash, enter into dialogue, and eventually synthesize into new identity. Hegel is known for his elegant formula for the evolution of consciousness: "thesis, antithesis, synthesis." One can observe this process occurring in all areas of life, especially in dreams where unfinished business, orphaned aspects of self, and legitimate others (of indeterminate origin) enter into our psychic field and clamor for attention in the spirit of enlarging our perspective on life. Fortunately, the tide keeps rising no matter how committed we are to "non-solutions," that is, the repetition of self-preserving actions meant to end the conflict.
In our relational work with dreams, (See Step 3 in the FSM), we become sensitized to runaway dynamics, and thereby coach dreamers toward adopting more adaptive responses to the challenges presented. If the dreamer in the above dream had stopped building the seawall, she would have never faced the prospect of a cataclysmic collapse. The water would have flowed over her boundaries at a lower level of intensity, and she may have even enjoyed it! But dreamers tend to repeat old patterns which simply make the situation progressively worse.
Most of what we resist would fulfill us if we let it. That's the good news that we can bring into to our work with dreamers, who tend to view challenges through the narrow aperture of the ego's status quo. Fear and habit keeps us from receiving the gifts the dream brings us. Until we shift our perspective, the dream will do us a favor by ramping up the intensity of the encounter until we see the light of a new way of responding. The FSM is designed to encourage dreamers to perceive the oft-unacknowledged gifts of our dreams, and to welcome them.
Sunday, November 6, 2011
I turned 60 today, and the dream is a beautiful statement of existential issues that face any aging person. Am I lost? Can I find my way? Will I be united with the ones I love? Will I have help? Do I have enough left to make it? Dream provide a beautiful centerpiece to the discussion about meaning, destiny, and love. There is no better way to preface a depth conversation than with a dream that captures all of the issues, and alludes to mysteries not yet plumbed, such the identity of the wayshower, the kindness of the train conductor, the choices that will insure reunion with one's companions.
Saturday, November 5, 2011
In an attempt to consolidate some of my website assets, I have moved my old blog into my websites, and will begin to blog more regularly on dream topics, spirituality, and psychotherapy. I hope you will make comments to my postings. I will be monitoring my blog, so I will respond to your comments and questions. Thanks -- Scott
Extracting a dream theme is a powerful technique in and of itself. Indeed, some people have developed entire dream work approaches around the dream theme, even though there are slightly different ways to approach this method. Robert Gongaloff and Paricia Garfield have focused on universally occurring dream themes, and have tried to create an encompassing list of such themes. Mark Thurston and I were probably the first to write about dream themes back in the 1970, myself in a little article that was published in the Sundance Community Dream Journal, and Mark in a book that he wrote a year later. But Mark probably deserves the main credit for devising this simple, but powerful analytical method.
Mark and I have always thought that the dream should speak for itself; that is, the theme or process narrative (as we have called it in a recent paper that was published in the Journal of Creativity in Mental Health) should emerge from the dream structure, not be imposed from some predetermined list, however encompassing it might be. So our approach is to simply describe what's there--the action devoid of content. This approach is very similar to what family therapists do when they analyze the interactional dynamics of a family system. They believe that the specific content of a family's presenting problem is far less important than the way the family members are relating to each other. Not every family who struggles with, for example, a sexually active 15-year-old ends up in family therapy. Many families find ways to deal effectively with such challenges. So it's not the specific problem that causes the family's distress, it's the way they relate to each other around the problem. So a family therapist will observe how the family relates, rather than focusing on the content of their complaints, believing that the solution lies in changing how they are relating, rather than specifically addressing the content of the problem. Indeed, structural family therapists believe that the family will be able to address the problem effectively if, and only if, the family changes the way they relate.
Back to the dream theme. Dreamers are often "caught in the headlights" of the specific dream content. They are alarmed, intrigued, and otherwise preoccupied with the "what" of the dream, and thus do not see the underlying relational dynamics of the dream drama. For instance, if I dreamt that my boss was chasing me with a book, trying to hit me in the head with it, and I was able to avoid him by reciting his favorite poem, I might spend a great deal of time trying to figure out what a book meant, and what the particular poem meant. By focusing on the content, I might overlook the process narrative, which might reveal more to me than any association to the dream images might produce. The theme, "someone is trying to avoid someone else's aggression, and finally resolves the problem by appealing to his interests," could greatly expand my associations to the dream by temporarily diverting my attention away from the imagery. Not that we want to avoid the imagery, but unless we look at the underlying process at first, we may never see this dimension at all. When you effectively formulate a process narrative, sometimes the dreamer will immediately see one or more parallels in the waking life. It's a powerful intervention, and one that decreases the chances that the dream worker will project his or her biases onto the dream.
One other thing: You can state the process narrative from different perspectives. You can describe from the dreamer's perspective (i.e. someone is trying to get away from someone else...) or you can describe it from another dream character's perspective (i.e. someone is trying to catch up with someone else...). By stating the process narrative from other perspective, you help the dreamer get beyond a narrow view of the dream's deeper meaning, and look at his or her own behavior through the lens of another dream character. This multidimensional approach will support Gestalt dream work when you get around to working with the imagery (in Step Four of the Five Step Method).
Students of the FiveStar Method often ask me how to apply the FSM in a therapeutic or personal growth group. Interestingly, I originally conceived the FSM as a group dream work method, probably because I received some training years ago with Montague Ullman, whose approach to group dream work is well known and highly effective. But after using the FSM in group and individual work, I’ve discovered that it doesn’t depend on a group for its effectiveness. That being said, it can offer a group that is lead by a seasoned leader a very dynamic interactive process, which can enhance personal insight, faciliate interpersonal learning, and deepen intimacy.
The problem, as most therapists realize, is that a group of inexperienced group members will often make precipitous and invasive interpretations that effectively short-circuit the process of slower and surer discovery, and override the dreamer’s role as the ultimate authority. This is partly due to the age-old belief that dream analysis involves figuring out what the dream is saying, or what it means. Within this tradition, dream workers focus on dream images or “symbols” as the carrier of meaning, and may set about to “solve the puzzle,” rather than viewing the dream through the lens of cocreative or relational dream theory, which treats the dream as an interactive process between the dreamer and the dream content that unfolds in real time–like any real relationship. As the first systematic approach to relational dream work, the FSM focuses prinicipally on the dreamer’s responses to the dream imagery–his or her feelings, thoughts, and reactions in response to what manifests “out there” in the dream. The FSM also views theses responses as “cocreative” of the dream’s outcome, because the dreamer’s reactions clearly affects how the imagery behaves, and so on, in a synchronous feedback look. Until a group becomes familiar with this relational reorientation, they will operate according to the old model, and they will focus on interpreting the images rather than helping the dreamer see how he or she is interacting with, or relating to the dream content.
So it’s important to put the group on notice from the outset that they will first have to learn how to contribute the dream work process, and that means the leader must be willing to control the process in a disciplined way until everyone gets the hang of it. You don’t have to be a stormtrooper in providing corrective feedback, but you do have to intervene immediately to redirect wayward projections.
It helps to break down the five steps of the FSM into clearly delineated stages, and announce beforehand the focused tasks assigned to each stage. Much of your work will be to keep the group members from getting ahead of the process, so you can intervene with messages such as, “That’s about the imagery. We’re not there yet, so hold onto those ideas until we get there.” Also, you can encourage savvy group members to help you “police” the process until everyone has adjusted to the requirements of the FSM. Some client/members will catch on quickly, but some will find the shift in worldview to be quite difficult to negotiate. But remember, controlling the process is very important, and if you’re inclined to be overly polite, you will lose control of the process, and the dream work will quickly deteriorate into a trivial guessing game. So before you introduce the FSM to a group, you need to take stock of your readiness, as well as your group’s capacity to adopt a very advanced and powerful therapeutic intervention.
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.
A 49-year-old woman dreamt that she was driving a car in which there were two other people, one male and one female. She was trying to get one of them to a place where they could get some treatment. She wasn't on the main road, yet, but was a road that would take her to the main road. As she drove, they were talking to her, and she was a bit irritated and distracted by that. Suddenly, she came to a hairpin curve, and lost control of the car. As the car went over the edge of the embankment toward a body of water below, she was unafraid and just witnessing the event.
We talked about her feelings and my own as well. There was a sense of urgency or anxiety about having to transport the people, and some annoyance that preceded her accident. In terms of theme, we decided that it was something like, "Someone is trying to help someone get somewhere, but it distracted and is not prepared for a surprising development that causes her to lose control." As we formulated the theme, the dreamer could relate to the dream immediately as a theme that often unfolds in her waking life. We discussed the responses that she made to the situation--first of all to the distractions, and then to the loss of control. We decided that she could have been clearer about her needs to stay focused on her goal rather than try to two things at once. Refusing to engage in conversation may have left her free to anticipate the hairpin curve. She was able to relate to the dreamer's behavior, because she often held back in letting people know what she needed, and thus lost a sense of her own priorities. But when it came to the loss of control, both of us were impressed with her calmness. We both felt that she typically adjusts well to setbacks, and this was an example of that resilience.
Everyone seems to be aware of a central problem that arises in dream analysis or “interpretation.” That is, dream workers often overstep their boundaries, and effectively invade the dreamer’s autonomy by making precipitous conclusions about the meaning of the dream, or its images. Jung was the first to announce that the dreamer was an essential part of the analysis of any dream, and that the dreamer’s unique experience had to be taken into account for any interpretation to be valid. He introduced amplification as an effort to obtain the dreamer’s unique associations to the dream imagery, and amplification survives today in many forms. Boss believed that the dreamer’s experience was not so much to be interpreted, but to be treated as just another experience in the life of the person. He adovocated a very careful, dreamer-centered process called “explication” that probed into every significant detail of the dream so the dreamer could grasp its implications. But you know what? Both Jung and Boss were known to break their own rules, and assume a rather heavy-handed role. In more recent times, disciplined approaches like Ullman’s group method, and Delaney’s Interview Method, endeavor to do an even better jog in protecting the dreamer from arbitrary projections. Taylor joins Ullman in trying to protect the dreamer by having group members precede their comments with, “If this were my dream,…” But beyond that, Taylor believes that projections are inevitable, and thus takes a less restrictive approach to the dream process.
Some would say that human nature, or ignorance of countertransference, accounts for the difficulty in keeping our hands off other peoples’ dreams. But I think that the problem doesn’t reside as much in the dream worker as we have previously thought. I believe that projection arises as a consequence of our view of dreams. By believing that dreams are their content, we set in motion a process of trying to discern what the images mean, or what they are saying. This is same approach taken by art critics who try to analyze the statement that the artist is making. Critics comment on whether the artist succeeded in conveying the presumed message, or not, and whether the message itself is valid. This preoccupation with the meaning of the content, and the intention of the creator, influences dream analysis, as well. For as I have pointed out elsewhere, the ancient Greeks set this whole project in motion by treating dreams and art as representative of something else (our waking life).
Susan Sontag, the writer and critic, is known for many things, but her essay “Against Interpretation” is probably her most famous essay. She makes an impassioned and masterfully crafted statement that the interpretation of art is driven by an unexamined and trivializing assumption:
“The fact is, all Western consciousness of and reflection upon art [and dreams, too, according to the Greeks], have remained within the confines staked out by the Greek theory of art as mimesis or representation . . . it is still assumed that a work of art is its content. Or, as it’s usually put today, that a work of art by definition says something” Sontag, S. (1966). Against interpretation and other essays. New York: Picador
So how does this relate to my topic today? Consider this possibility: that to the extent that dream workers believe that dreams are comprised of content to be interpreted, they will almost inevitably offer their own conjectures based on their own experiences and assumptions. A content focus thus encourages invasive projections. In contrast, a process orientation the dream analysis–in which the dreamer’s feelings, thoughts and actions are seen to influence the dream’s outcome–focuses on what actually transpires during the encounter. This focus does not encourage invasive projections, because it is based almost entirely on what is clearly evident in the dreamer-dream interactive process.
So why do dream workers overstep their roles? Even the great teachers of our time? In my opinion, it is because in spite of their stated positions, they were wedded to an underlying culturally embedded view of the dream as content rather than interactive process, and thus infected the dream work with their own subjective pronouncements. The solution to this problem, therefore, is not having a more disciplined approach to dream content, but having an altogether different view of the dream, in which the dream worker’s responsibiltiies have virtually nothing to do with interpreting dream content. Again, I refer you to the FiveStar Method as an example of an approach that makes the dream process the centerpiece of the analytical work.
I have spoken and written about how cocreative dream theory transforms the way we think of dreams, but I have devoted just as much time to developing a dreamwork methodology based on the theory, which is surprisingy easy to learn and to use. While I began developing this method over 35 years ago, only in the last decade has it has matured into a systematic dream work approach, which has been called the FiveStar Method.
Rather than presenting this method in great detail, I will only summarize the five basic steps. Copies of complete papers and articles can be found on the DreamStar Institute website at www.dreamanalysistraining.com. Please note that in contrast to Ullman’s or Delaney’s efforts to insulate the dreamer from the dream helper’s projections, I believe that a more open dialogue represents a tolerable risk in a client-centered, one-on-one setting. Moreover, I have found that the FSM protects the dreamer from excessive projections by restricting the dream helper’s comments to descriptions of dream process, at least in the first three steps.
Step One: Sharing the Dream in the Present Tense and Sharing Feelings.
Rather than considering the imagery from the outset, the FSM takes some time developing the affective and relational context of the dream. First of all, the dreamers share the dream in the present tense (as Perls recommended), and then the dreamer and the dream helper share their respective feelings that arose in the course of retelling the dream. This is the first step (or “star”) in this method.
Step Two: Summarizing the Dream Theme (or Process Narrative)
The FSM’s second step is to analyze the dream theme, or process narrative. Unlike some dream experts who have come up with a list of “universal” dream themes, the FSM prescribes a phenomenological distillation of the dream’s observable process, and nothing more. So, an appropriate process narrative might be, “Someone is trying to get away from something and no matter what she tries, she does not succeed until she asks for someone’s help.” Once again, the FSM keeps the focus entirely on what is observable, and emphasizes action over static content. Indeed, any mention of nous (names, places, colors, etc.) are discouraged in the formulation of an effective process narrative.
Step Three: Identifying and Troubleshooting the Dreamer’s Responses
The first two steps establish the affective and process context of the dream experience. The third step is the “crown jewel” of the FSM. In this step, the dream work focuses on the dreamer’s responses to the dream, which includes assumptions, beliefs, thoughts, and behaviors. Since most dreamers are unfamiliar with this emphasis, these responses have to be accessed outside the original dream report. But as client/dreamers become familiar with the FSM, they begin to incorporate these dimensions into their initial dream recollections.
The third step also considers what the dreamer could have done differently, and would like to do differently if a similar dream should ever recur. By considering alternative responses to the dream scenario, the FSM promotes the view that the dreamer can alter the dream memory and its effects in the here and now, and can rehearse for future dreams of a similar nature. The assumption that the dreamer is free to change grows out of the lucid dream literature, but is strengthened by the belief that I have espoused earlier that all dreams evidence some degree of dreamer reflectiveness.
Step Four: Imagery Transformations and Associations
The fourth step of the FSM finally addresses the imagery, and may involve noninvasive imagery work such as Jungian amplification and Gestalt dialoguing. But rather than treating the imagery as static, the dream worker focuses on the ways that the imagery may have changed in the course of the dream, and raises the question of how these changes might mirror changes, or the lack thereof, in the dreamer’s responses to the dream. So instead of asking, “What does a growling black dog mean to you?” the dream worker might ask, “How did the dog’s behavior relate to your response to it, and what do you think would have produced a more desirable response from the dog?” In the context of this process-oriented analysis of the imagery, it is, of course, important to discuss the dimension of life to which the dog might be alluding (e.g instinctual urges, dependent people, etc.). But the FSM discourages a direct one-to-one bridge between the dream imagery and a waking situation, because such narrowing, however appealing, effectively locks the imagery into place, thus ignoring the possibility of transformation.
For example, I had a client who literally dreamt that he was floating above a growling black dog that was barking and jumping up at him. My client flapped his arms and continue to float just above the barking dog. By focusing on his responses in therapy, my client was able to see how he was remaining aloof from his feelings, for fear that they would overwhelm him. A month later, after trying to trust his feelings, he dreamt again of floating just above a beautiful woman, who playfully tried to grab his foot and bring him down to earth. While he again remained aloof throughout the dream, he awoke feeling playful and desirous of her affections. By focusing principally on his reactions to the dog, and avoiding a hard-and-fast connection between the static image and parallel waking concerns, my client was able to alter his relationship to the dream imagery, thus freeing it to transform and evolve alongside him.
The Fifth Step: Applying New Responses
The last step of the FiveStar Method involves having the dreamer identity a life context in which he or she can practice the new responses that were identified in the dream work. This commitment to change one’s response prepares the dreamer to transform his waking relationships as well as to prepare for future dreams of a similar theme. At this point, the client may or may not adopt a lucid dream induction strategy in order to leverage the therapeutic benefit of the dream work.
In the final analysis, the FSM treats dreamer awareness and imagery analysis as equally valuable components in a larger framework that values, above all, the evolving relationship between dreamer and dream as the centerpiece of a dynamic, relational approach to the dream experience.
A client of mine once dreamed that she was lying in bed. A man dressed in a robe, with a hood covering his face, walked up and stood beside her bed. He said, “I want your heart.” Visualizing the man ripping her heart from her chest, the woman awoke in terror.
She asked what countless people have asked upon awakening from such a dream, “Who was that man? What does this mean?” If she had posed this question to a frequent lucid dreamer, he or she might have disregarded the dreamer’s preemptive search for an interpretation, and said, “Too bad you didn’t become lucid. Then you could have realized that it was only a dream.”
A therapist, looking at the dream as an indication of past trauma, or unrealized potentials, or both, might have asked in classic noninvasive fashion, “What are your associations to this figure? How might he serve as a metaphor for some aspect of your life?”
If the dreamer had simply become lucid, she could have responded fearlessly, or simply woke up. Her fear might have subsided with the realization that the man and his disturbing words were only part of a dream. Or, if the dreamer had acquired in retrospect the insight that the man portrayed, for instance, the dominating, Apollonian quality of maleness, she may have realized that her sense of self was feeble in the presence of such strength, and she may have associated her fear with actual past events and relationships.
Both of these approaches — of the lucid dreamer and the dream analyst — have merit and can produce meaningful results, but what is lacking in both of these orientations is the balancing perspective of the other. In my experience, lucid dreamers can be too quick to go off in search of something more desirable. It’s their dream after all, so why not bag the old dream and go in search of a new one?
And therapeutic dream analysts, especially those of a psychodynamic bent, may remain stuck trying to discern the meaning of the imagery without regard for what the dreamer did, or could have done, to alter the dream’s outcome.
As an early lucid dreamer, I was passionate about the possibilities of experiencing higher states of awareness, and dream interpretation was initially not very important to me. My little book, Lucid Dreaming: Dawning of the Clear Light (ARE, 1976)––an outgrowth of my master’s thesis––went to the heart of what I considered the ultimate lucid experience: communion with the white light. I was largely uninterested in the unresolved conflicts to which dreams often alluded.
To give some sense of my priorities as a hot-shot lucid dreamer, I once told a psychoanalytically trained colleague the following dream:
I am on the streets of a Mexican town with my two best friends. We meet a beautiful woman, who could be a prostitute. We flirt with her, and them make arrangements to visit with her that evening. Just as we say goodbye to her, I notice my father standing nearby in the shadows. I know that he has overheard our conversation with the woman, and I can discern his disapproving look even in the low light. But just as we stand facing each other in silence, there is an explosion to the east. We both turn and see an orb of white light the size of several suns hovering 50 feet above ground. I look at my father lit-up face, and can see that he has forgotten the tension that was between us. I become aware that I am dreaming as the light begins to approach and pass over us. Then there is another explosion, and the light appears again to the east. This time, a strong wind begins to blow in its direction, and I am pushed along toward it until I lose my footing and fly up into the light.
When I shared this dream with my psychoanalytically trained friend, he immediately seized upon my relationship with my father, and understandably wanted to ask probing questions regarding my sexuality and my father’s values. However, I was shocked that he would trivialize such a profound experience. I grew increasingly irritated with his questions, and cut short our conversation.
Somewhere in my late 20s, however, I began to shift to the therapeutic side of dream studies. Not only was I encountering my own powerful unfinished business in non-lucid and lucid dreams alike, but I began to pursue a career as a psychotherapist, working with individuals for whom the prospects of having a lucid dream seemed as remote as winning the lottery.
At first, I was convinced that if my clients could achieve lucidity in dreams depicting their life struggles, the therapeutic process could be greatly accelerated. I tried on many occasions to introduce lucid dream induction as a therapeutic intervention. While some of my clients were successful in having memorable and therapeutic lucid dreams, the great majority of them were not.
A breakthrough came for me in the form of a realization about ordinary dreams. In working with clients on a day-to-day basis, I began to notice that dreamers already exercise considerable reflective awareness in their non-lucid dreams. In retelling their dreams, dreamers exhibit the kind of deliberate thinking that characterizes waking cognition, but everyone seemed to have overlooked that fact. Just because dreamers aren’t lucid, I concluded, it doesn’t mean that they are always passively uninvolved in the dream’s unfoldment and outcome. To the contrary. I wanted to shout from the housetops that dreamers were not merely “recording secretaries” in the dream, but were reflective and clearly influencing the outcome of virtually every dream!
It was right in front of our eyes, but neither the lucid dreamers who seemed overly focused on lucidity per se, nor the content-oriented dream analysts who remained devoted to analyzing the imagery, seemed cognizant of this feature of ordinary dream reports.
To me, it was an astounding fact, upon which an altogether new theory of dreaming could be developed. I was talking about this “revelation” 30 years ago, and have never stopped talking about it. It’s simple: If the dreamer is reflective and thus capable of exercising a wide array of responses, and if these responses actually alter the course of the dream as they seem to do, then all dreams can be seen as an interactive, relational process, and analyzed from the standpoint of relational dynamics.
So from this point of view, systems-oriented family therapists are probably better at analyzing the dream than psychodynamically trained therapists.
A Co-creative Model for Dreaming
I wasn’t the first to articulate a cocreative, relational model of dreaming and dream analysis. I found a kindred spirit in the work of Ernest Rossi, who in his seminal work, Dreams and the Growth of Personality, announced that “there is a continuum of all possible balances between the self-directive efforts of the dreamer and the autonomous creation of the dream content.”
In this pithy statement, Rossi basically said that there are two systems interacting in every dream–the dreamer and the source of the imagery. (To those of you who are interested in brain science, you will probably think of the two prevailing positions on dream generation – but that is a vastly complex debate, which exceeds the scope of this essay.) By positing these two somewhat distinct co-contributing elements in the dream, he laid the groundwork for a view of the dream as an interactive, relational, and co-created event.
This view of dreaming makes full lucidity less necessary for good things to happen, and treats it as a special event within a continuum of awareness that is readily observable in ordinary dreams. It also suggests that the dream content, as a largely autonomous creation, may ultimately elude the understanding and control of even the highest states of lucidity.
A relational view of dreaming can also threaten the traditional clinical view that dream images can be analyzed as static content, unaffected by what the dreamer is feeling, thinking, and doing in the dream. What kind of interpretive conclusions can we draw if the dream imagery is in constant flux, tethered to and influenced by the dreamer’s responses? One can no longer say, “this means…,” but instead has to describe the dream process in such terms as, “this is what happens when you respond in this way.”
Although this approach can frustrate a person’s needs for “answers,” it underscores personal responsibility and unacknowledged competencies, as well as approaching the dream as an unfolding relationship.
A concept that grows out of cocreative dream theory, and is a useful concept in learning how to use the FiveStar Method is what I call “dream logic.” This is simply a way of understanding scene changes in dreams. If you look at content alone, a scene shift can appear unrelated to the original scenario. But within cocreative dream theory, we look upon each scene as an encounter that “plays out” between the emergent dream content, or agenda, and the dreamer’s response to it. If the response facilitates an acceptance or resolution between the agenda and the dreamer’s status quo awareness (ego), then the scene may evolve without shifting, or it may shift to a different scenario that reflects a new (more integrated) balance between the dream agenda and the dreamer. Similarly, if the dreamer’s response is “tainted” by assumptions, fears, beliefs, etc, that prevents an integration of the dream agenda, then the dream may deteriorate (into conflict, or less pleasant developments) or a scene shift may represent this new (lower) balance between the dreamer and the dream agenda. Now this may sound very abstract. But whenever a scene shift, think, “This is what the first scene becomes when the dreamer responds as he or she did.” Take for instance a dream in which I am walking along and a dog approaches barking. At first I grab him by the neck to strangle him, but then feel pity and let him go. He licks me in gratitude and we walk off together. The scene shifts and I am walking up a mountain path with June, my old girlfriend who cheated on me, and we are amazed that the views look like the grand canyon.
A dreamer might not see any connection between scene one and two because he will typically be focused on content, rather than on relationship process. But you can point out the significant shift from counteraggression to compassion, and how his kindness allowed him to come into a harmonious relationship with the dog, which then created the conditions for enjoying his time with June, who also had hurt him. You might point out that his clemency toward the dog seems to have transferred over to June, thus allowing him to enjoy the positive benefits of that relationship.
So do you see how connecting the scenes is an easy thing to do if you focus on what the dreamer does or doesn’t do in scene one to make the events unfold as they do in scene two? I call this dream logic, and you can get really good at tying dream “fragments” together into a complete picture once you shift to understanding the power of the dreamer’s responses.
A middle-aged man going through a divorce shared this dream: “I am watching ancient statues walk toward an opening in the ground. It is a well, and when they get to the edge, they are lowered into the water where they are reclaimed. It all seems very purposeful. Some of the statues are green with age, and broken. Some have to be carried.
“This is all happening on the edge of an arena enclosed by high, white stone walls that have steps that go down to an the arena. I look down into the arena from above and sees two white cars racing around a track. I know that the cars are very expensive, and owned by a wealthy man, who allows people to drive them. The two cars collide, and I wince thinking that the accident will be very costly. But apparently the man has anticipated this problem, and has made the cars in such a way that they can be snapped back together, so that people can race around without fear of destroying the cars. I am relieved to see the cars restored to their previous state.”
When asked about feelings, the man replied “sad,” “somber,” “sober,” and “courageous” to describe the willingness of the statues to submit to the dissolving of their prior forms. But he went on to say that he felt “excited,” “competitive,” “afraid,” and “relieved” to describe the scene in the arena.
In formulating a theme or process narrative, the dreamer and I considered, “Some things are coming to a purposeful end without anyone expressing regret.” In the second part, however, he decided that the theme was something like, “Someone observes an apparently destructive process that can be easily reversed, because someone has anticipated it and made it possible.”
The dreamer related the first scene to his marriage, which had been coming apart for two years. He had given up thinking that the relationship could be salvaged, had fully embraced an attitude of letting go, and had recently welcomed the divorce. But the second scene seemed to capture the relationship dynamic in a new relationship with an old friend. At first, he was concerned that the relationship simply mirrored some of the conflict that he’d experienced in his marriage, and was considering ending it for that reason. But the surprising resilience of the white cars seemed to suggest to him that a wholly different process was unfolding–one that could be destructive, but not in any permanent sense. What’s more, the dreamer realized that the relationship was always playful, even if it times it seemed to be ending.
When we looked at the dreamer’s responses to the dream, there wasn’t much to consider, except that the dreamer initially concluded that the cars had been totally destroyed. Only later did he realize that they were made to absorb the forces of the collisions. He realized that he often felt fatalistic whenever he and his friend argued, and would sometimes speak precipitously and hurtfully about his sense of hopelessness. He decided that the dream accurately portrayed the conflict between him and his girlfriend, but revealed a deeper foundation that could weather the storm. In applying the dream, he decided to tell her about the dream, and to make a commitment to avoid fatalistic pronouncements in the midst of their arguments. She had always felt that it wasn’t as bad as he believed, so she was encouraged by the dream, and by her partner’s realization.
Most of this work was strictly process oriented and followed the FiveStar sequence of steps, meaning we considered the feelings, theme, and dreamer responses before we examined the specific content. However, the white cars captured the sense of newness and beauty in their relationship, and became a source of reassurance for the couple. Indeed, the contrasting imagery between the first scene and the second allowed the dreamer to see the vast differences in the two relationships: his marriage (old forms and memories as depicted by the statues) that had to be “reabsorbed into the earth,” and his new relationship could be embraced for its capacity for resilience and renewal. The wealthy owner of the car suggested the presence of higher power in their relationship–something that both of them had felt since meeting.
Therapists who use a psychodynamic model–and that means most of us from time to time–are often on a mission to help their clients answer a simple question, “What is similar and what is different between the new and the old?” Clients in distress often assume that when a relationship is superficially similar to an old, unhealthy relationship, that the two relationships are alike. This conclusion can be quite tragic, because a promising new relationship can be rejected on the basis of superficial similarities without appreciating the deep differences. This dream sets the stage for the dreamer to experience the differences between the old and new, and thus performs a profound service for the dreamer. Of course, a process-oriented dream work method will get to the heart of the differences, because the dreamer’s conclusions (i.e. that the old and the new relationships are both destructivce) will be called into question when the dream work examines first of all how these assumptions may reflect habitual reactions. Once the dreamer has to face the possibility that he has rejected the new unfairly, the dream imagery can be analyzed either to support or refute the dreamer’s conclusion. In this dream, the white cars are “proof positive” that the relationship process in the new relationship was, contrary to the dreamer’s reflexive assessment, more positive and resilient than he had thought. You need always to consider the subjective reactions of the client/dreamer alongside the “facts” of what is happening in the relationship as you search for an accurate and balanced answer to the question, “What is similar and what is different?”
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