Monday, August 6, 2012

If this were my dream...

For the last few days, members of the Board Operations listserv of the IASD have engaged in a conversation about the uses and abuses of Montague Ullman's famous phrase, "If this were my dream..." Those of you who know of this work, and the related work of Jeremy Taylor, are full aware of the importance afforded to this phrase, because it allows a dream worker to minimize the harm that can be done by simply saying, "I think your dream means..." Avoiding intrusive and harmful projections continues to be a concern for ethical dream workers, regardless of whether they are therapists or lay leaders. I wrote the following to the Board Ops listserv, but later discovered that it hadn't gone out. I was relieved, it is on my blog. Perhaps it will satisfy my need to weigh in on this important matter, while avoiding the possible escalation of conflict.
I recalled the time in 1977 that I studied with Ullman at his home in NY. I was developing a dream course for the Association for Research and Enlightenment, and the ARE wanted to take into consideration a variety of approaches in our final methodology. Toward the end of the first day of the group seminar, I asked him if he'd ever considered adding a step that would analyze the narrative structure, which Mark Thurston and I tended to call the "theme" back then (even though our approach to "theme" varied somewhat from the variety of excellent approaches espoused today). He said, "No." So I asked, "Why not?" He said, "Because I don't think it's necessary."

The night after I asked him the question about the theme, he had a dream about a young man who drove up to his house in a red sports car, and seemed to cause a bit of a stir. After we worked on his dream, he admitted that he thought our conversation had provoked the dream, and that the younger man was essentially I, or the part of Monty that I represented! He went on to way that I was the first person ever to challenge his method. I felt both honored and embarrassed.

Our interaction after that exchange was warm, respectful, and playful. I went on to develop a five-step dreamwork method for ARE's course and Monty gave me his blessing to use his method and to modify it as I thought necessary. He was an open-minded man, and his blessings meant a lot.

Regarding the way to use "if this were my dream..." I am reminded of when ARE got into a similar hair-splitting controversy over prayer, of all things. The chief experts on prayer (a group called the Healing Prayer Group that had been meeting weekly since the 1930s) decided it was a bad idea to pray for someone unless you obtained his or her permission. Some of us found that amusing, others thought it was a deadly serious matter.

Down here in south Texas, we have a saying in Spanish, "No sea mas papista que el papa." Don't be more papal than the pope.

IASD includes members from a variety of different dreamwork traditions, which represent different paradigms of approach. Take, for instance, the latest issue of Dreaming, which contains a paper by David Jenkins on narrative approaches to dream work. From Kuhn's standpoint, a narrative approach to dream work is a different paradigm, and thus opens up new questions and problems. The story line, and its climax or lack thereof, becomes more important than the component images. Similarly, my focus on relational or interactive processes in dreams focuses primarily on reciprocal dynamics that co-determine the dream outcome, rather than focusing imagery, and thus downplays interpretation and the potential violations that accompany a content-oriented model. So there are other ways around the particular problem of intrusive projections, but they may not appeal to everyone.

I am also reminded that Monty believed that dreams may have evolved to serve a social function. If so, the mere sharing of them brings us closer together. If this is true, then dreams have been facilitating social bonding way before any of us figured out how to do it "right." Not that we should give up and simply let whatever happens happen. But there's no need to get in the way of normal processes that occasionally cross the line. Even when people say too much, I think more good comes from it than bad. At least we get to know each other. Indeed, as a group therapist, I think that group is effective only when it is slightly less dangerous than real life. Without sufficient unpredictability in the real-life sharing of dreams, then the possibility of a "corrective emotional experience," in which the dreamer/client experiences something wholly unexpected--stressful but growth enhancing--could never happen. I'd rather think that allowing enough room for excess and error are the way that the dream can have the last word.


  1. The use of "if it were my dream" in a group setting has two purposes. First to blunt the possibility of overwhelming a dreamer with content they are not ready to handle by introducing a cautionary reminder for the participants. Second to also impede the over involvement and intrusion of a participant in a particular interpretation that has activated some complex of the participant. No rule will prevent either. Sensitivity to the dreamer can be supported by this but is not a substitute for it.

  2. Hi, thanks for your posting. I understand how this phrase has been immensely useful in mitigating the impact of invasive comments.


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