Category Archives: Dream Group

Everything Dreams

Don’t Scare Those Images Away!


The Dreamer Owns Her Dream: Or, Why Dream Images are Intrinsically Resistant to Psychology . . .

It is a fundamental feature of most contemporary groups that the dreamer owns her experience of the dream. We may have ideas, we may think we see things, and at the same time we are, like the dreamer, only witnesses of a process. And as witnesses, we are removed one step further. The Dreamer is the original observer or participant in the dream; privy to al the senses engaged in the dream: The sounds, the tactile sensations, the smells – even the felt sense of the dream. Sometimes the running narrative of the dream – itself removed a step from the experience – is merely a play-by-play of the visual cues in the dream. 

Often, very specific or leading questions of the dreamer sometimes take away from the experience of the dream aTibetan Lanscape in Santa Fe NMnd may reveal more of a fantasy on behalf of the listener(s) than an accurate “interpretation” or psychologizing of the dream by the listeners. Dream Images hate that! We can scare them off with our own biases or with stupid questions! It is as though you are with a friend who says, “The Lost Puppy in your dream? That is so you. Just think about it, you’ve been looking for yourself in everything lately!”  You might reply, “I’m not sure that feels right,” to which your friend might say, “Of course it’s you. That’s the problem, you’re so close to it you can’t see it.” A different response might be, “Does the Lost Puppy seem familiar to you?” You might answer, “You know, it does look like a dog I had when I was 14” or maybe “Funny as it sounds, it looks like the new guy at work!” These are two completely different conversations; the one in which the listener imposes meaning and the one in which the listener supports the curiosity and the point-of-view of the speaker.When we ask open ended questions, things open up. And when things open up that resonate with the dreamer, many other positive things can happen that disappear when our questions become narrow, diagnostic, or conspiratorial!

"A Dream Loves to be Met in the Way of Dream!"
“A Dream Loves to be Met in the Way of Dream!”

So it is with dreams; as Steve Aizenstat often observes, “A dream loves to be met in the way of dream”  (bookmark above carefully stitched by Kathryn Lea for her father’s birthday!) Occasionally in a dream group I will hear from someone a feeding frenzy of staccato point-blank questions, fired off with machine like precision: “Was the man in the corner like your that guy who stalked you at the street fair yesterday?” or “Why were you in that forest to start with?” or “Did the hallway seem like it was concrete blocks?” I can tell from questions like these the listener has some specific notion about the dream that may be very far removed from the dreamer’s experience of the dream. Let us remember a few points about the experience of the dream and its retelling that set it apart from staccato questions of dream-killing specificity! 

  • Dreams have a “felt sense” that rejects interpretations that miss the mark; most often when people offer suggestions, those on target will evoke a ‘hit’ inside the dreamer as a point of connection;
  • Dreams have their own ready-to-hand knowledge; and by that I mean you can instantly have an understanding of years’ worth of information contrary to waking experience, (like that 18 months you spent as a CIA operative in Lisbon undercover with an Italian supermodel . . . And a dog named ‘Strega…’ ) 
  • This special body of knowledge, unique to the Dreamtime, may be one-off events of nearly infinite detail or may be a rhizome-like web from dream to dream, like a house or structure to which you return on successive nights, or a special power like flight, invisibility, or levitation that occurs in more than one dream, or a repetitive them like always being in airports but never actually getting on a plane in dream after dream. This inner architecture builds on itself, and a single dream auditor can never know all the dreamer has knowledge of in this way
  • As “the body is always dreaming”, there is often carriage of affect in the body in the retelling of the dream; dreams are not merely an event occurring on a small stage in the brain, but engage the breath, the sweat glands, and the polyvagal network of afferent and efferent nerve signals and the chemical reactions and messages that occur throughout the body. Gesture in the retelling becomes important, as this is how the body may tell the story of which the mind or memory is not fully aware. Therefore it is not always just the words, but the embodiment of the dream that presents in the retelling. 
  • Everything Dreams
    Everything Dreams! Dreams Are Happening Now! [DreamTending Coffee Cups honor the work and the dream practice of Dr. Steve Aizenstat, Chancellor of Pacifica Graduate Institute]

Also, I have noticed there are times during which a group that knows the dreamer well sees something in the dream that the dreamer cannot see. I believe this to be different (and surprisingly rarer) than the case in which a group fantasy of perceived meaning runs wild. In the case of this blind spot on behalf of the dreamer, many things can happen. The dreamer may have the option to consider the feedback and to reject it, in which case the wise and patient group will not press any points. Also, the group may meet the dreamer in the dreamer’s own perceptions and curiosity; and when that happens the dreamer almost always arrives at a moving and insightful point, whether or not it encompasses all of the content perceived or imagined by the group. Clearly, nothing is gained by pressing a point, even if accurate, that is outside of the Dreamer’s awareness or ability to integrate. In these cases, as in most every other circumstance I can imagine, the most helpful tack is to let the image be the teacher. Images are dynamic: the information they carry lives and changes with the dreamer’s capacity to recognize or internalize different lessons or tasks. Images are autonomous; they do not require us to decode them, to psychologize them, or to toggle between manifest meaning and some latent, St. Colmans Cathedral in Cobh, 2“real” meaning. In other words, we do not have the right to superimpose our understanding onto an image which is inherently wiser that are we. That is just as much a form of colonialism as bringing our band of religion to “save” a people while robbing them of their rain forests, their natural resources, or their way of life. We think we are so smart . . . until we bump up against a stronger, a wiser, or a more patient force.


Animal Dreams, and Dreams with Animals

Animal Dreams, and Dreaming with Animals

Like many other things in the world of Dream, the research is in, and few experts can fully agree on what it really means. Dogs dream. Horses dream. Pigs dream. Cats dream. What role do we play in their landscape? We cannot be certain. Poetry may be ahead of science in this regard:

Dog Dreaming

by W. S. Merwin

The paws twitch in a place of chasing
Where the whimper of this seeming-gentle creature
Rings out terrible, chasing tigers.

Visions of Sugarplums?
Visions of Sugarplums?

The fields
Are licking like torches, full of running,
Laced odors, bones stalking, tushed leaps.
So little that is tamed, yet so much
That you would find deeply familiar there.
You are there often, your very eyes,
The unfathomable knowledge behind your face,
The mystery of your will, appraising.

Such carnage and triumph; standing there
Strange even to yourself, and loved, and only
A sleeping beast knows who you are.

“Dog Dreaming” by W.S. Merwin, from Green With Beasts. © Knopf, 1956.

 Humans Forget

Humans forget that we are also of the Animal Kingdom. Often, we want to think of Animal, Vegetable, Mineral, and then us – more along the lines of a combination between a Benevolent Monarch and an infallible supercomputer. Humankind has adopted the position of superiority, or a privileged status, with regard to other animals. Somehow this seems tied up with Original Sin, the Fall, getting kicked out of the Garden, and being God’s favorite. The story runs that man was given dominion over the animals and therefore, can pick and choose which ones become extinct, which ones work for our economies, which ones we eat, and which ones we entertain in our homes like third world princes. What we forget is that we share the planet – really an interdependent ecosystem, instead of thinking that each of the 7 billion humans is Lord and Master of all other species. The notion that this dominion is harmful is not a liberal ecology position: It is currently playing out as a management issue, and the planet is failing at the ultimate MBA comprehensive exam. Even if you do not believe animals are endowed with soul, most of us must grudgingly admit that people are animals, too. That’s what we forget. We think at times we are gods, or worse. We think we are God. Not you and me, of course, but People do. So easy to forget in these times we are still part of Creation, and not mini-Creators.

Animals carry the Collective Unconscious

Now there is some psychobabble if ever I heard it!  We may dismiss Ken Keyes’ Hundredth Monkey Theory, but observation of the trends animals exhibit toward humans shows that definite patterns exist. The loyalty of a dog. The independence of a cat. The slyness of a fox. The mistrust by birds of man. Now, some of these traits are so matter-of-fact they come down to us through fairy tale and idiom. And people also have their individual conceptions about animals such as Horse, Lion, Tiger, Eagle, Mouse, and the hundreds of other animals that surface in dreams. So an encounter with an animal in the dreamtime can carry the collective unconscious – say, the opinion of the average person of snakes – or they may represent a different element to persons who have their individual connection to the animal represented. Maybe the dreamer has or had a pet snake. Maybe as a child they were part of Guernicareligious worship involving snakes. Maybe they had a pet killed by a snake. Or maybe they were once captivated by the behavior of a snake in a zoo, in the wild, or in the home of a friend. The process of individual association is so important in determining the dreamer’s view of the animal. But what about the animal’s view of the dreamer?

Many views of dreamwork start with the common cultural or “universal” association of the animal and work from there. The animal is reduced to what may be found in a dream dictionary, and the part of the dreamer that quality represents. Sure, I have done this and still do. There are at least a couple of things I dislike about this. One, it is taking the animal out of the context of the dream and reducing it to be an aspect of the dreamer.  This is the common “intrapsychic” approach many of us counselors use and it achieves helpful results, but it may reinforce, with clients recovering from trauma and from addictions, ego defense mechanisms which no longer serve the dreamer. Secondly, it robs the dream image of its own wisdom, perhaps missing an opportunity to unfold to the dreamer something she does not already know. So in a way, both therapist and dreamer harness the image in service to the ego, in something of a colonization of the image. I prefer to engage the image; recognize its autonomy, allow it to develop and to speak from its own realm. This is what dreams do for us; they bring us wisdom we cannot access through waking consciousness. And with animal images, the wisdom is embodies with its own will, it’s own consciousness, and its own affect.

Clients work with their dream animals is experiential and unique. Descriptions in writing never do service to the emotion of a meeting with a dream animal; the making of eye contact; viewing the animal in her element and allowing the trading of places, to allow the dreamer to see the dreamer through the eyes of the animal and to share that bond; these are the things that can neither be extracted from a dream dictionary nor well relayed in a dream blog. Poetry serves better then than does description. Yet few things in dream group tend to dissolve the fears of the dreamer, and few things seem to reinforce more that we are all in this together, than an experience with a dream animal. It is more that they are dreaming us into existence than the other way around.

Even the dream Joseph interpreted for Pharaoh of the seven lean cattle and seven fat cattle seems to reinforce man’s desire to have mastery over the dream images. Joseph learned from the dream the need of managing the Pharaoh’s wealth, furthering man’s dominion over the animals. But wasn’t the message of the dream also that the abundance of the earth, a gift from God, is finite and requires wise stewardship? The more I do this work, the more reverence I have for the images themselves. Just like the dreamers, these images have their own rights to privacy, their own wisdom, and their own emotions and insights. I will close with a verse from an engaging children’s book published this year on dream animals by Emily Winfield Martin:

These creatures are the reasonKathryn Packer Roberts

Dreamers get where dreamers go

Dreamland is too far to run

And sleepy feet, too slow.

Sweet Dreams!

What Dreaming Women have Taught a male Therapist

What Dreaming Women have Taught a male Therapist

Diego Rivera
Diego Rivera

In an early meeting with Count Vronsky in Tolstoy‘s classic novel, Anna Karenina,said, “if it is true that there are as many minds as there are heads, then there are as many kinds of love as there are hearts.” As a younger therapist, armed with an advanced degree and no shortage of opinions, it was my thinking that people could easily fit archetypal patterns as defined by their dreams. Perhaps they would fit into one of Carol Pearson’s dozen in “Awakening the Heroes within: Twelve Archetypes we live by” or her earlier work featuring six archetypes. And in truth, these were helpful tools in finding the proportion of different qualities that seemed to be afoot in the dreams of the patients participating in dream groups during the 1990s. Using Pearson’s Heroic Myth Index, which is now sold separately as the Pearson-Marr Archetype Indicator or PMAI, (*) the patterns of patients dominant and repressed archetypes made a lot of sense.  Yet it quickly became apparent that the complexity of the human spirit and the multiplicity of dreaming contexts made it seem ridiculous for dream “interpretation” to reduce people to the shell of someone else’s archetype. And echoing Anna Karenina, Carl Jung wrote that there are “as many archetypes as there are typical situations in life.” Each dream encapsulates one or more of those situations in life in which we find ourselves, and the pattern may resonate with other patterns, but is unique to the time, place, and individual.Jung

Carl Jung:There are as many archetypes as there are typical situations in life.” 

So here is a top ten list of things I have learned through the dreams of those I have worked with in therapy. This is separate and apart from what I have gained from my own dreamwork, which merits a different article:

10) How we receive a dream may say as much about us as the telling of one of our dreams:

Sometimes when someone is sharing a dream, a member of the group cannot contain laughter. This is often the nervous laughter (like me laughing at my grandfather’s funeral visitation with my sister in a way that my mother never forgot or forgave!) It is important to make the detting for sharing a dream as safe as possible, and yet that unconscious laughter may indicate that the dream content is touching deeply – and in a frightening way – a member of the group. It also happens from time to time that the dreamer cannot access any feelings about the dream, but someone listening who cares about the dreamer may have an emotional reaction. So themes of codependency or transference surface repeatedly in dream group, one one does not have to be the “protagonist” to gain therapeutic benefit.

9) Relationships with others are “such stuff as dreams are made of:”

Freud decided our purpose in life is “to work and to love,” but I think the Beatles were closer in their summary: “and in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.” The adage rings true: few people on their deathbed regret that they did not put more time in at the office. Dreams make clear our interactions with people: A woman two years from a divorce dreaming of her ex-husband, recently remarried, as an angel; another woman who dreamed of her abusive ex-boyfriend as the Pope; these are not mistaken images. The dream suggests these women over-idealized their former mates to a saintly point that was unrealistic. Behind each of these images there is a female dreamer whose capacity to love and to bond is admirable – and more a statement about themselves than about the undeserving  object of their affection. Deb Leinhart, a local therapist of high regard, recently commented her belief that “99% of recovery work is boundary work.” Dreams offer rehearsal and experimentation with choices about boundaries – leading to more ownership on the part of the dreamer regarding their life decisions.

8) The soul has a longing for wholeness and repair

A woman I’ll call Ellie recently sat with me trying to put into frail words a dream experience she had. “It was more emotional than verbal.” As she went through step by step in the dream, Ellie accomplished the hard work of translating the images of the soul world into the framework of spoken English. A woman with a horrific abuse history, Ellie was able to relate the peace and serenity that came from elements of her dream, never fully able to comprehend the where or the why. Like many patients report, Ellie awoke wanting to return to the peace and the calming sense of the dream. So many of these dreams occur, leaving us in some way more tranquil, often without our notice of them, and certainly without our deconstruction of them for how to translate the message of the dream into action.

Certainly, dream analysis and homework from dreamtime may be helpful at times, but just as often I have to be comforted by James Hillman‘s view that the images of the dreamtime are not there for us to wrangle them into the daylight, where their message and their power is muted by solar consciousness. “therapy, or analysis, is not only something therapists do to patients;” writes Hillman in Re-visioning Psychology, ” it is a process that goes on intermittently in our individual soul searching, our attempts at understanding complexities, the critical attacks, prescriptions, and encouragements we give ourselves. We are all in therapy all the time insofar as we are involved in soul-making.” Dreams are part of that soul-making, even without our permission!

7) Dreamtime is patient:

Marie Louise von Franz wrote a fascinating book On Dreams and Death which conveys through case examples how the life’s work of the dreamtime continues into life’s final stages – and arguably beyond. There are some women I have had the privilege of working with for two years or more in dreamtime, and the evolution of their dreamlife can be amazing. Just as amazing is the gentle recurrence of dreams in similar or various forms until the life lesson is incorporated.

6) Lessons are repeated gently until the meaning is brought forth:

How true in the recurrent dreamscape. The other day, I checked in with a former client about her recurrent “tornado” dreams. In each one, she was giving instructions to her family about how to survive the tornado, and in each dream, no one listened to her. Now nearly four years into her own recovery, she no longer tries to control her family, has no need to shout for attention, and her family regards what she has to say. The tornado dreams have been quiet for a long time. “Letting go” was the lesson; now she is free to dream of other things!

5) Everyone, including the beautiful, the young, the brilliant, the accomplished, and especially the brash, all of these are vulnerable:

For those who still struggle with envy, dreamwork reinforces the “grass is always greener” rule. People who seem to have it all, still yearn inside for some of the basic things that seem to elude others. People yearn to be known and to be loved; to hold onto people and to things as they are, and occasionally to want power and control over things beyond their grasp. Perhaps some of the most fragile people are those who on the outside push people away the most. There is a richness in their dreams of relationship and longing, and working with their dreams has a sweetness that sometimes softens everyone in the room in a completely unexpected way.

4) If it is not happening, do not force it.

Words sometimes fail. Silence clarifies. Whatever I think I know, there is more wisdom in the group and in the dream images themselves than a facilitator brings to the group.

3) The act of sharing a dream with another, or the act of listening to a dream, increases accountability and ownership for one’s situation in life:

“if it were my dream, I would be looking at  . . . ” So starts out feedback often in these women’s dream groups. Sometimes there is some cross talk contained in the feedback – overly directive or overly interpretive of what the listener is telling the dreamer they should do. But more often, this type of sharing allows all the group participants to apply the generalized lessons of the dream to their own experience. Robert Johnson in “Inner Work” suggests that we avoid interpretations that take responsibility away from the dreamer. What I will sometimes ask is, “What do you think the dream is asking from you,” or “What choice does this dream seem to present to you?” 

Montague Ullman, who probably did more in the 20th century than any other human being to make dream groups effective and popular, was quick to say, ” “Confronting the message of a dream alone, regardless of one’s degree of sophistication, is to do so with all of one’s defensive apparatus ready to spring into operation should one et close to an unpleasant truth.” (From “Guidelines for Teaching Dreamwork”, in Dreamtime and Dreamwork, Stanley Krippner, Ed.)

2) Dreams are as unique as fingerprints

Having only worked with less than a couple thousand dreams of patients, it is certain I’ve not run across everything. But as many dreams as I have encountered that signify pattern, each has a style and a variation that is specific to the dreamer. 

1) No issue is too large or too small to work its way into dreamtime:

One question I often ask people in workshops is whether they would agree that sometimes when sleeping on a problem they have an answer in the morning. Not everyone agrees, but even some of the most diehard skeptics will say yes. They do not always attribute this to dream wisdom, but to me it is evidence of problem solving on a small scale. Then there are the “Big Dreams” that deal not only with our major life crises but seem to answer larger riddles of the Universe. These dreams have a “numinous” quality. And the dreamer just knows. Knows what? It is hard to say. But whatever that knowing is seems to spread beyond the dream into the larger imagination of how to handle life on life’s terms.

(*) Note: Rather than purchase the PMAI, I would recommend the purchase of the book for each individual who might be interested in taking an archetype index. For less than the price of the test, you have a lasting guide to all the theory and context.