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.