Access to Dreams

Montague Ullman



Edited by Benjamin B. Wolman and Montague Ullman

Chapter 17. (pp. 524-552)


The viewpoint expressed in this chapter is based on the premise that, because dreaming is a universal human experience, our dreams should be universally accessible. Since most of us grow up quite ignorant about the nature of our dream life, the question of accessibility involves a certain amount of preliminary learning. This would include a knowledge of the basic facts about dreaming, the problems faced by the dreamer on awakening, the needs created by these problems, and the way that others can be of help in meeting these needs.

Many books about dreams have been addressed to the general public. They have either stressed the psychoanalytic theory of dreams and the special knowledge needed to interpret them (Freud, 1921), or, while seemingly explaining the nature of our dream life, implied that a special knowledgeable guide was indispensable (Jung, 1933) or offered a more readily understandable account of one or another theoretical approach to dreams (Hail, 1953; Mahoney, 1976). Two writers of distinguished psychoanalytic backgrounds (Fromm, 1951; Rycroft, 1979) have sought to denude dreams of some of the awe and mystery that classical psychoanalytic theory enshrouded them with in the minds of the public. Fromm, critical of both Freud's and Jung's view, tried to project the dream as an expression of the self in a natural but forgotten language. Rycroft further delivered the dream from its instinctual casing by his emphasis on the dreamer’s use of the language of metaphor.

A Swedish writer whose work is not well known in this country also disassociated himself from psychoanalytic theory and wrote of the dream as a natural healing system (Bjerre, 1933). A strong aesthetic sense and a broad range of clinical experience brought Bjerre to a view that broke with the classical notion of the dream as regressive in nature and enabled him to grasp what he felt to be the essence of our dream life, namely, that dream images are healing images.

In recent years there has been a spate of books that encourage a more widespread interest in dreams. They stress the value of dream work and offer one or another technique for acquiring skill in understanding one’s dreams (Sanford, 1968; Faraday, 1972, 1974; Delaney, 1979; Taylor, 1983). These books are addressed to the individual dreamer, and the techniques offered are those that generally could be applied by the dreamer him- or herself.

My own point of view (Ullman and Zimmerman, 1979), which I did not find sufficiently developed in the literature, departs in three ways from the way that the public was being informed about dreams. First, while the dream is a most personal and private communication, the dreamer has to go public with it in order to appreciate its fullest meaning. Second, a small-group setting is the most favorable arrangement for dream work. Third, the skills necessary for a group to provide the special kind of help the dreamer needs are skills that can be developed by and shared with anyone, regardless of background.

Three questions arise: Why is a public setting necessary, why is the small group the public setting of choice, and what are the skills that have to be shared?

The Need to Socialize the Dream

I think it is important to distinguish between offering a technique that may be of help and actually getting across to the dreamer the importance of socializing dream work by providing a structure within which such socialization can be pursued safely and effectively. As a social creature in his own right, the dreamer alone can socialize the dream up to a point with any one of a number of techniques. However, more can be gained through a properly structured socializing process. While most techniques offered to the public take as their end point what the dreamer can do by himself, this should be seen only as the beginning of an adequate socialization of the dream. It has been my experience that, regardless of how far the dreamer can get on his own, an effective social context can offer a surprisingly richer yield.

What is meant by a public setting, and why do I consider the small group the public setting of choice?

By a public setting I mean sharing a dream with at least one other person. Depending on the degree of intimacy of the two people involved, it will be more or less public in the ordinary sense of the term. The two-person situation prevails in individual psychotherapy or whenever another person is available to help the dreamer. More will be said about the former at a later time.

When a number of other people are involved in helping the dreamer, the question of the safety of the dreamer is paramount. While the dreamer may have a greater sense of safety in working within a single close relationship, a small group can, if the process is structured properly, also provide the safeguards necessary for the safety of the dreamer. In addition the group can help the dreamer make discoveries about himself that are difficult to make alone. The collective imagination of the group can produce a richer array of metaphorical possibilities relating to the dream imagery than a single individual can. Details of how this is done are given in the description of the process.

Working on a dream in a group enables the dreamer to move in two directions at once. It allows for the exploration of the immediate personal issues and, at the same time, fosters empathic contact with others through the reciprocal sharing that goes on between the dreamer and his helpers. The collective way of working with a dream facilitates a feeling of communion with others. The greater the degree of self-disclosure, the greater will be the responsiveness of the group and the deeper this feeling of communion. This is generally contrary to the expectation of newcomers, who often fear self-disclosure as possibly alienating others from them.

A further discussion of the significance of a group context will be given in the section comparing the experiential dream group and formal therapy.

While the foregoing are some of the reasons for the need for a social context in dream work, there are other factors at play of a more subtle and speculative nature. Our dreams confront us with the order and disorder that exists in our relationships with others and tell us something about their origins in earlier experience. Engaging in dream work in a social context provides the support we need to understand where we are as individuals in regard to this broader issue of "connectedness." While awake we engage individually and collectively in many acts that unknowingly impair, limit, hurt, corrode, corrupt, or destroy possibilities of connection. Our dream life addresses itself to the maintenance and repair of these connections by its capacity for honest display. It is as if that part of ourselves out of which these images flow is always in touch with the basic truth that, despite the fragmentation that has taken place among members of the human race down through history, we are still ail members of a single species. As individuals we can survive and even thrive regardless of the level of dishonesty in our lives. Confronted as we are now with the difficulty of managing our enormous destructive power, the question is: can we survive as a species without a greater investment in honesty and honest connectedness among nations?

Speculations along these lines make me wonder if dreams are linked to a greater need, namely, that if we are to survive as a species we must do better than we have up to now in repairing the many ways we have ruptured connections between people. By unloading excessive and obstructive emotional baggage, by allowing ourselves to become more known, we achieve a greater freedom in human relationships and a greater respect for and tolerance of others. This need to share of ourselves is a natural human need that "civilized" cultures pay little attention to. Socializing our dreams is one wav toward this goal. As we begin to deal more and more with the truth about ourselves, we increasingly recognize and discard self-deluding facades. I propose that what appears as collective dream work geared to the needs of the individual may, in fact, be linked to a deeper mechanism of species survival. If this is so, it is a fact of some importance, considering the precarious state of survival in which our species now finds itself.

Dreaming and the Dream

Those who engage in dream work for the first time need an orientation to the nature of our dream life and its derivation from the dreaming experience during sleep. The approach I follow is based on the following:

1. Consciousness in whatever form integrates afferent input and regulates efferent output.

2. Dreaming is that form of consciousness that occurs during sleep and is most characteristically, though not exclusively, associated with the rapid eye movement (REM) stage of sleep.

3. The input under the conditions of dreaming is internally generated out of recent and related remote experience.

4. The input is integrated not at a conceptual-linguistic level but at a sensory symbolic level, usually in the form of metaphorically expressive visual imagery but capable of employing any sensory modality.

5. The integrative process links present experience with related experiences from the past. Dreaming starts in the present with a recent residual feeling tone or memory that lingers on and surfaces during sleep to trigger the content.

6. The present experience, having this triggering power, has the quality of an intrusive novelty.

7. In response to this intrusive novelty, there is an information search to assess the significance of this event for the future of the organism. The residue is explored in its connections to emotionally related though temporarily separated bits of the historical past, which are then woven into the imagery.

8. The moving pictorial display allows for the presentation of considerable information ail at once.

9. The result of the information search is that the imagery contains a greater fund of information relevant to the current issue than is immediately available to the dreamer awake.

10. To assess the impact of the intrusive novelty for the future, this information has to be as accurate and reliable as possible. For this to be so, the imagery has to metaphorically reflect the actual impact of one’s individual life experience on a current issue, in contrast to the way that issue may have been judged by the waking ego. Reaching into deeply felt aspects of one’s life, dreaming thus provides a reliable portrait of that part of the dreamer’s life that is under self-scrutiny at the moment.

11. Based on the imagery produced and the resulting feelings, the REM period may continue undisturbed until its natural termination, or, if the feelings are too disturbing, wakening may occur.[1]*

What we refer to as the dream is the waking remembrance of the dreaming experience. It is not only a remembrance but also a transformation from a primarily pictorial to a primarily linguistic mode of expression.

In summary, the phenomenological characteristics pertaining to the content of the dreaming phase of the sleep cycle are:

1. The significance of a current tension as the starting point or focal issue around which the content will develop.

2. The ability of the dreamer to mobilize and include in the imagery relevant data from different epochs of his past.

3. The observation that the information so obtained is rooted in the emotional reality of the dreamer’s life.

It is these features, along with an explanation of the metaphorical nature of the language of the dream, that should be stressed in orienting a layperson to dream work.

Skill Sharing

The identification of the skills that are needed in group dream work and how the sharing of them takes place will be presented in connection with a description of the group process I have been using. Suffice it to say that, if one teases the dream away from the metapsychological context that usually envelops it and stresses only the phenomenological aspects, those aspects define the skills necessary to engage the dreamer in effectively working with his dream.


Certain underlying premises and principles have guided my work with dreams. These have arisen out of my earlier clinical experience and have been further validated by the group work I have been doing in recent years.


First Premise. Dreams are an intrapsychic communication that reveals in metaphorical form certain truths about the life of the dreamer that can be made available to the dreamer awake.

Second Premise. If we are fortunate enough to recall a dream, then we are ready, at some level, to be confronted by the information in that dream. This is true regardless of whether we choose to do so.

Third Premise. If the confrontation is allowed to happen in a proper manner, the effect is one of healing. The dreamer comes into contact with a part of himself that has not been explicitly acknowledged before. There has been movement toward wholeness.

Fourth Premise. Dreams can and should be universally accessible. Skills can be developed to extend dream work beyond the confines of the consulting room to the interested public at large.

Fifth Premise. Although the dream is a private communication, it needs a social context for its fullest realization. This does not mean that helpful work cannot be done working alone but rather, that a social context is a more powerful setting for the type of healing that can come about through dream work.


It bears emphasizing that dreams are an intrapsychic communication. Any process that is geared to their explication must respect that fact and the constraints it imposes. The process to be described has evolved with this in mind. It is geared to the expectations and needs of the dreamer as the one to whom the dream is given. Communicating the dream to a group is a secondary affair, necessary only to help the group make its contribution toward clarifying the original communication. It is in this connection that the following principles obtain.

First Principle: Respect for the Dreamer's Privacy. Since the dream is a most personal communication, the element of privacy is respected at all times. Each stage of the process is designed to be nonintrusive so that the group follows rather than leads the dreamer. The dreamer controls the process throughout the session and works at whatever level of self-disclosure he or she feels comfortable with in the group. There is no pressure to go beyond that point.

Second Principle: Respect for the Dreamer's Authority over His Dream. Dream images arise out of the unique life experiences of the dreamer. The fit between image and meaning is something that the dreamer alone can evaluate despite the possibility that he may accept or be led to accept something less than a true fit.

Third Principle: Respect for the Dreamer's Uniqueness. Everyone's life experience is unique. Any symbolic image can be used in a highly idiosyncratic way. No a priori categorical meanings are assumed.


The remainder of this chapter will be devoted to a description of a small group approach to dream work, its rationale, its relationship to more formal psychotherapeutic work with dreams, and the extension of dream work into the community. The emphasis for the purposes of this chapter will be on the latter.

What follows is a description of an approach to dream work in which dreams are considered as potentially healing encounters with ourselves and where this potential is most fully realized in a social context. The social context most conducive to dream work is that of a small group, generally consisting of six to eight participants. The process unfolds in four stages, three that involve the group and the fourth involving the dreamer alone, sometime after the experience in the group. There are two substages in each of the first three stages.

Stage I

Substage IA: Sharing the Dream. The leader asks if anyone wishes to share a dream. A recent dream is preferable to an older one because the relevant context of the recent dream is more easily recalled than the older one. The decision to share a dream is the free choice of the dreamer. At this stage the dreamer limits himself to the details of the remembered dream and does not divulge associative data.

Substage IB: Clarification of the Manifest Content. The group is then given the opportunity to ask questions in order to clarify any parts of the dream that are not clear. At this stage the concern of the leader is to make sure that the dream comes across clearly to everyone and that the dreamer does not go beyond the manifest content.

Stage II

In this stage the group is asked to engage in a game-playing exercise with the dreamer listening but not actively participating. The intent is to mobilize the collective imagination of the group in order to come up with an array of feelings and metaphorical potentialities that the members of the group might connect to the dream if it were their dream. It is made clear to the group that, at this stage, they are not in a position to make statements about the meaning of the dream to the dreamer but rather, that they are working with their own projections in the hope that some may prove helpful to the dreamer. They speak of the dream as their own, and they speak to each other, not to the dreamer.

Substage IIA: Eliciting Feelings. As members of the group make the dream their own, they are asked to sensitize themselves to any feelings or moods that the imagery elicits or that they might imagine having if they had created the images. They are free to include in their projections any feelings they imagine the dreamer may have had or that they think they may have picked up from the dreamer as the dream was recounted. It is the creation of possibilities and their expression as self-projections that are the important thing, rather than their source in either the personal life experience of the group member or what may be felt to be coming from the dreamer.

Substage IIB: Eliciting Metaphorical Meaning. Every image in the dream is now approached as conveying metaphorical meaning. The image is regarded as one of the two terms of a metaphor. The life context giving rise to this image is the other term. The group, of course, does not know the dreamer's specific life context. Regarding the image as expressing a metaphorical identity with some life context, they then get involved in searching for possible life contexts that they can somehow relate to the images. Their task is to attend to every detail in the dream and to come up with as many possible meanings as they can. Again, it is the exploration of their own experience and use of their collective imagination to create possibilities rather than the derivation of these possibilities that is important. The source can be the past of the group member, what he thinks he may be picking up from or about the dreamer, or simply the play of his imagination on the assortment of images. Everything the group comes up with, regardless of how much certainty there may be that it is based on a true perception of the dreamer, is to be understood as a projection of the one offering it until, and if, it is later validated by the dreamer. The leader seeks to evoke the maximum range of responses from the group and to ensure that these responses are taking place in an "as if" atmosphere (as if the dream were dreamt by the respondent) rather than being offered to the dreamer as an interpretation.

During the entire second stage, the dreamer is both listening to the productions of the group and working along on his own. He is engaged in feeling the relative fit or accuracy of each response he hears, while under no constraint to respond. He is completely free to deal with his own reactions as he experiences them in the privacy of his own being.

Stage III

The second stage proceeds randomly as the interaction among the group members stimulates more and more responses. There is no way of knowing at this stage how helpful, if at all, the group has been to the dreamer. Actually, in practice, it is surprising to see how often a dreamer is deeply moved at many levels by what the group has come up with. But it is only a game. It comes to an end, and the dream is returned to the dreamer.

Substage III A: The Dreamer's Response. The leader now invites the dreamer to respond to the impact of the group's work. He is free to organize his response in any fashion he may wish, starting either with his own ideas and associations or with what he got from the group. He is given as much time as he needs and engages in as much self-disclosure as he feels comfortable with. How the dreamer handles this will vary greatly, depending on the dreamer, how much he got from the group, how easily he is in touch with inner processes, and how familiar he is with the metaphorical language of the dream. In most instances, he has moved a considerable distance closer to the dream. There will be a few who get very little and a few who, with the help of the group, bring the process to an end by the depth and comprehensiveness of their response. For the latter no further work in the group will be needed. In most instances, however, many gaps and puzzling aspects remain that require further work.

Substage IIIB: The Dialogue. The dialogue is the most difficult part of the process and the one that requires the most skill. As my experience with the process has developed, I have attempted to structure it in a more detailed way so as to offer as much help as possible. The goal of the dialogue is to effect a sense of closure between the dreamer and the dream. By closure I do not mean the working through of every element of the dream in elaborate detail or tracking every associative trend to its most private historical source. The goal is a more limited one. The point of closure is reached when everyone, especially the dreamer, has a felt sense that the dreamer recognizes the issues raised by the dream, their source in his or her present life situation, and their connection to the past, and when the group leaves the dreamer feeling competent to explore some of the more private ramifications of the dream on his or her own. In most instances, closure of this kind does occur.

There are two important aspects to the dialogue. The first is that control over the level of self-disclosure must remain in the hands of the dreamer. For this to happen, the dreamer is made clearly aware that he has the right to deal with any question in any manner he chooses. He can respond to the questions as well as he can or as well as he wishes. He can express the wish not to respond.

The group serves in a kind of advocate position for the dream. It is their responsibility, through the questions they ask, to see that every possible aspect of the dream has been covered. This includes all of the visual components, the situational components, and the feelings evoked in the dream. The following way of structuring the dialogue helps to achieve these ends:

1.      The first part of the dialogue is devoted to clarifying the present context that led to the dream and to supplying the answer to a most important question: why did the dream occur when it did? The answer is pursued most readily with a recent dream, preferably one that occurred the night before the dream is presented. Toward this end, the following kinds of questions are helpful:


- What were your last remaining thoughts, feelings, or preoccupations just before you fell asleep?

 - There is a feeling of anger (fear, shame, etc.) in the dream. Can you think of any recent situation that bears any resemblance to that?


If the dreamer seems to come up with any relevant information when questioned along these lines, it is sometimes helpful to ask him to review the events in his life for a 24- to 48-hour period prior to the dream. Often, recounting the experiences of the previous day will trigger a meaningful memory or bring forth data that can be used to clarify the image.


2.       After every effort has been made to establish the present context, a systematic effort is made to call the dreamer’s attention to every detail of the dream that has not been addressed or has not been dealt with sufficiently. Through its questions the group moves back and forth between the dream and the dreamer's responses in an effort to build a bridge between all the images in the dream and the life of the dreamer. The group members are always working with what the dreamer has given them, and care is taken to follow rather than lead the dreamer.


3.       Up to this point, the group has been asking what I refer to as data-eliciting questions, the "what" and "why" types of questions. What were you thinking of when you fell asleep ? Why did your wife (relative, friend, unnamed character) appear in your dream? Usually this type of systematic exploration of the content of the dream leads to a correlation with the waking life of the dreamer and is sufficient to bring about felt contact with the imagery, and finally brings the dreamer to an appropriate point of closure. However, there are times when this fails to happen and when further questioning would be to no avail. All of the data that can come from the dreamer at that moment have been elicited. If the dreamer has been seriously interested in making use of the group and uses its questions to deepen his or her own understanding of the dream, then the chances are that sufficient information has been elicited. But it may have come out in so random a fashion that it is too disorganized to be of much use to the dreamer. In these instances a further step, referred to as orchestration, is indicated. It is now up to the leader or anyone with sufficient experience to attempt an organization of the data in such a way that they correlate with the sequential arrangement of the imagery in the dream. This is really a playback of the material the dreamer shared, in an effort to shed light on the dream as a whole. It is most important for the person who attempts the orchestration to make it clear to the dreamer that this represents a selection made by that person from what the dreamer shared. It is that person's projection of how he perceives the metaphorical evolution of the dream and its connection to the life of the dreamer. Although not put in question form, it remains, in fact, another, but more integrative question for the dreamer. The dreamer is free to take out of this offering what, if anything, may be helpful to him. If done properly, this replay is not based on the introduction of new projections by the person doing it, as is the case in the game playing of Stage II. It should be limited only to what has been validated and shared by the dreamer. What is new for the dreamer is the way it is correlated and put together in its relation to the sequential movement of the imagery. To do this properly, one needs experience in how to listen to the dreamer as well as a sense of how the use of visual imagery lends itself to the metaphorical expression of feelings.

Stage IV: The Dream Revisited Alone

Sometime between the dream's presentation before the group and the next time the group meets, it is recommended to the dreamer that he review the dream in the light of all that came out in the group. Working alone, he sometimes can find other connections to the dream and permit himself to see more of what the dream may have been saying than he could while in the group. Usually he has been given enough leverage to go further with the dream. At the next meeting, he is offered the opportunity to share any of these additional thoughts, though he is under no obligation to do so.


The dreamer awake may have greater or less difficulty seeing himself in an honest and penetrating light, compared to when he was asleep and dreaming. At some level he knows exactly what information he put into the images, but, awake, he is at a loss about how to regain that knowledge. The metaphor blindness that Tolaas (see Chap. 2) speaks of is most apparent when the dreamer attempts to decipher his dream. From a motivational point of view, two opposing forces are at work: a natural curiosity to learn what the images say and less conscious defensive maneuvers to protect one’s self-esteem. As a result partial scotomata occur that limit the dreamer’s ' view of the informational field in the imagery. The dreamer needs help, but that need places him in the paradoxical position of having to share in public something extremely private and trusting another or others with unknown or partially known aspects of himself.

In what follows we will consider the special needs of the dreamer and how the process meets those needs. In sharing a dream, the dreamer takes a risk. He shares a vulnerable part of his psyche and risks an encounter with disowned or unfamiliar aspects of his personality. No dreamer is apt to do this unless there are assurances, implicit or explicit, that he will be safe and that such sharing would make it possible for others to help him, assurances that I refer to as the "safety factor" and the "discovery factor."

The Safety Factor

In going public with a dream, the risk can be offset if control of what happens remains in the dreamer’s hands so that he is the one in charge of titrating the delicate balance between going forward and pulling back. Once awake, the dreamer re-engages with his own defensive operations. The lowering of these defenses will be contingent on the degree of safety that he feels in the group. The first and most important step to assure that level of safety is to place the entire control of the process in the hands of the dreamer. This is achieved by building the element of control into each stage of the process.

In Stage I, the dreamer chooses whether or not to share a dream. At no time is there any constraint about sharing a dream. The only constraint is the general one that being in an experiential dream group involves dream sharing. Some people will share more than others. I have not had the experience of anyone not wanting to share at all in an ongoing group.

In Stage II, the dreamer is in a most private and safe position. She is free to accept or reject the group's projections as they evolve. From time to time there will be automatically felt responses — sometimes of a very powerful nature — but the dreamer is under no constraint to do other than what she feels like with these reactions. Usually she feels safe enough to accept and use them as she works along on her dream, and grateful enough to the group to want to share them later. The gamelike atmosphere and the emphasis on the projective nature of the group's comments allay the dreamer's defensive operations. Once the process is known and experienced, enough trust is generated to keep those operations sufficiently lowered for the necessary insights to occur.

In Stage III, the dreamer and the dreamer alone controls the level of self- disclosure she wishes to engage in as she responds. In the dialogue she controls the answers to the questions being put to her. Finally, there is an explicit understanding that the dreamer can stop the process at any point she wishes.

With the process structured in this way it has been my experience that trust is generated very rapidly, leading to remarkable instances of sharing, even on a first encounter with the process.

The Discovery Factor

The discovery factor appears in a number of interesting ways. It begins to operate as early as Stage I. The simple act of telling the dream out loud can result in sudden insights into the metaphorical message of the imagery. It is as if the decision to share a dream results in some lowering of defenses.

In Stage II the game is played with only the manifest content available to the players. The reason for this is that, were the dreamer to offer his or her ideas about the dream, there would be an unpredictable mix of relevant and defensive data, both of which could constrain the free imaginative play of the group. The game is played in the hope that the group will come, quite unknowingly, upon things that the dreamer cannot see by himself. This is a reasonable possibility in that (1) dreams tend to deal with significant issues that are familiar to a greater or lesser degree to all of us; (2) we share much of the same social space so that it is not unlikely that a dreamer's metaphors may have some meaning for others in the group; and (3) since it is a game and the members of the group do not have to live with the implications of the dream, they are often able to be much freer than the dreamer in the imaginative range of their ideas. The discovery factor operates in still another way during this second stage. When a projection is on target, it furthers the dreamer's own effort to move into the dream and often leads to other insights. Even when the projections are not applicable, they help the dreamer define what the image is not. In so doing they bring him closer to what it is.

As the dreamer in Stage III organizes both his own associative data and what has come from the group, he often comes up with additional insights. In the dialogue there is an effort to further the discovery process through questions designed to clarify the immediate life context that shaped the dream and questions that can build additional bridges between the imagery and waking life experiences.

The orchestration is a final effort to be of help when necessary. It relies for its effect on the fact that when the information elicited from the dreamer is organized in its relationship to the sequential pattern of the imagery, new light will be shed on the dream.

In Stage IV, having benefited from the group’s work, the dreamer now has some leverage on the dream. His curiosity to learn more in combination with the privacy in which this takes place can bring about further lowering of defenses and a heightening of awareness.


A word about the way roles are played out in this process is necessary to point up important differences from formal therapeutic approaches.

The Dreamer

It is the dreamer’s choice to share a dream. If he does so, however, he is obliged to do it as honestly and as completely as possible. By the same token he is not obliged to answer the questions in the dialogue, but, if he does, his answers should be as close to the truth as he can get.

The Group

The group members create an atmosphere of trust in the way that space and freedom are given to the dreamer, in an atmosphere of mutuality by sharing their own projections, and in an atmosphere of help by placing their collective imagination at the disposal of the dreamer; and, through their questions, they help him discover the information he needs to bring the imagery to life.

The Leader

The leader has the dual role of moving the group through the process and being a participant at the same time. He has the choice of sharing a dream or not, just like any other group member. His role is to be an authority on the process, not on the meaning of the dream. As leader he is concerned with maintaining the integrity of the process. This involves both protecting the dreamer and facilitating the work of the group.


Basically, there are three skills involved: the art of learning to focus attention completely on what the dreamer shares spontaneously (see "Dreamer's Response," Stage IIIA of the process); the art of asking information-eliciting questions in a way that helps the dreamer to focus more closely on the immediate life context that led to the dream, and on the life context, present and past, suggested by the imagery; and, finally, the art of grasping metaphorical representation (i.e., how specific life contexts are being expressed as visual metaphors). All these skills have been noted in connection with the appropriate stage of the process. I want to stress here that each of these skills can be taught, and, with proper instruction, the serious dream worker without formal psychoanalytic or psychological training can learn to apply them in a way that is productive and safe for the dreamer. Once mastered, these skills become operative intuitively.


We have stressed throughout that dream work is healing. More needs to be said about this. The healing that takes place in the course of group dream work is a consequence of both the nature of what is worked on (the dream) and how it is worked on (i.e., how the process facilitates the communication of ail that lies embedded in the imagery).

With regard to the dream, we have alluded to three factors that are at the heart of its healing potential: its origin in a current concern or tension; its ability to recruit information from the past that provides a historical perspective on the current issue; and, finally, its ability to depict reliably and honestly the emotional realities of one's life.

What is to be emphasized is that the dream has its origins in the subjective realities of the dreamer's life, and that these realities are displayed in the dream for what they are, in contrast to the wav the dreamer may experience them in waking life. The point is not that we are no longer burdened by the strategic dishonesties of our waking life (our defenses), but instead that these are honestly depicted. Were it not for their intrinsic honesty, dreams would have very little value for us.

The features of the process that facilitate healing include: (1) the sense of safety and trust that experience with the process generates, and which minimizes defensive maneuvers; (2) the response of the dreamer to the concern, interest, and supportive effort of the group; (3) the dialectical aspects of the process whereby the members of the group, through their projections, share of themselves with the dreamer; (4) the sense of commonality through the mutual and ongoing sharing of dreams; and (5) the fact that working within a flat structure with no one in an authoritative relationship to the dreamer adds to the feeling of freedom and mutuality.


Two examples of the process follow. In the first the dialogue itself was not sufficient to bring about a closure, and an orchestration was necessary. In the second the dreamer, stimulated by the group’s work in the second stage, arrived at the meaning the dream held for her, and no dialogue was necessary.

The sessions are reconstructed from notes taken at the time and checked later with the dreamer. They are a somewhat shortened account of what transpired.

Example 1

Doris is a recently married young woman. Her husband, George, is also in the group. This was the first dream that she presented. It had occurred the night before the group met.


"I am at my friend Betty’s house. I call Ann up to make an appointment to get my hair highlighted. 1 speak to the receptionist at the beauty parlor. I speak in a Russian accent. She asks when I can come. I say in a couple of days. I think that might be Wednesday. She asks, "Are you sure because we are changing things around here," implying that it won’t be good if I change my mind and cancel the appointment. After speaking to her, I realize that I don’t need to have my hair highlighted yet, because my hair hasn’t grown out yet. But George and I go on the 'A' train to the beauty parlor. It goes through a neighborhood that I have never seen before. The train travels outside. George gets out at a stop as if he nonchalantly is doing something. The train leaves without him. I wave to him and feel bad that he is not on the train."

In response to a question (Stage IB) Doris adds that Betty is one of her closest friends and chat she was at her house yesterday. Ann is a beautician whom she had just met once, at the beauty parlor to which she had been recommended.


"I feel pressure, feeling rushed."

"I feel as though I’m acting a role when I put on the accent. I like that role." "I feel hesitant."

"I feel challenged by the receptionist. She knows something about me."

"I wish I could make up my mind/’

"I feel annoyed. I wish my friend Betty would help me."

"I feel ambivalent."

"I feel better having George with me."

"I feel frightened being in a strange neighborhood."

"I don’t know what I’m getting into."

"I feel abandoned by George."

"I feel insecure and have to take George along with me."

"I’m indecisive."

"I feel constrained and limited by the attitude of the beauty parlor receptionist."


"I’m in foreign territory."

"Hair is the dominant image. I’m dealing with externals. Minor external changes seem important."

"I’m disguising myself."

"I have been rushing around lately."

"I’m trying to feel beautiful and loved."

"I want to be highlighted, a star."

"I do take the 'A' train to the Dream Group."

"I want to be above ground. My dream thoughts will be brought above ground. I have mixed feelings about it."

"In the Dream Group people will be messing around with my head."

"The hair represents my feelings, feelings that haven’t ripened."

"George is preoccupied."

"George nonchalantly gave a dream last week [which he did]."

"George shows feelings easily."

"I want some highlighting and not to be left alone."

"I want to draw attention to myself. I want some visibility/*

"I’ve been trained to stay on a certain track with my feelings."

"Ann is a stand-in for my mother."


"I rind it hard to talk about this dream. I’m embarrassed that it has so much to do with my hair. I knew I would do a dream tonight. It has to do with how others see me and how I want to be seen. I do like to put on accents and I’m good at them. It would be bold of me to pretend I was Russian with someone I didn’t know. I wouldn’t normally do that.

"I resented when the receptionist asked me if I was sure. I want to have the freedom to change my mind. The receptionist reminded me of my chiropractor's receptionist. I don't like her.

"Lately I have felt abandoned. George has been very self-absorbed. Perhaps the train is the train of my thoughts and my life. I feel as if I’m watching George's life and his concern over a profession more than usually.

"About my hair. It has been cut short recently. When I’m getting my hair cut I feel as if I have to give up control. I usually don’t like it immediately afterward. It is important to me how people see me. Maybe it’s too important.

"We do take the ‘A’ train here to the Dream Group.

"Yesterday was Wednesday. I was with Betty yesterday. I know her very well. She is very different from me. We are in the same profession. I don’t have to be embarrassed with her. I can admit that I want to look nice and not be embarrassed. There is no question of being judged by her.

"There is insecurity after the haircut, particularly at work where I have to meet others. I can't cut my hair myself.

"George has been self-absorbed and selfish. I felt angry at him for getting off the train. I certainly don’t want him at the beauty parlor. Lately our feeling of sharing together has been pushed aside.

"The strange neighborhood — perhaps new things that will have to be confronted.

"I have to encourage George to take an interest in his appearance. He is more able than me to express feelings. I let my feelings out in dreams.

"My feeling about the group is, I don't want to be judged. I want to be accepted.

"I am committed to inner growth."

When she had finished I acknowledged how much she had shared. There was still more work to be done, and so the dialogue began.


(What were your thoughts on falling asleep last night?)

"I was upset that George wasn't going to be around for Christmas. Betty’s husband was going into the hospital. I prayed for him."

(Anything more about yesterday?)

"Last summer my grandmother dyed my hair and it came out terrible. I felt terrible over it. I had just gotten my hair cut yesterday. There still were residues of what my grandmother had done. Why is hair so important? That bothers me. I don’t want to be so affected by that."

The above questions were asked in the hope of clarifying the immediate context of the dream. What follows now are questions addressed to elements of the dream not sufficiently developed by the dreamer.

(Your feelings about the chiropractor’s receptionist?)

"She had a chip on her shoulder. I did cancel my appointment yesterday. I resent her attitude."

(Why the Russian accent?)

"There is a store next to where I get my hair cut that is run by a Russian. He is a nice guy. He likes you no matter what you look like. He made me feel so good when I dropped in on him after the haircut. He likes me saying hello and goodbye in Russian."

(The beauty parlor?)

"I don’t feel trust. I have no control once I’m involved. My hair still shows what my grandmother did to it."

(Betty? Why was it important for her to be in your dream last night?)

"We talked about a lot of things. We just hang out. We talked about her past. She gets her hair colored. Hers is turning gray. She doesn’t feel about it the way I do, and doesn’t feel guilty about her physical appearance."

(Why the reference to changes going on?)

"I did cancel an appointment with the chiropractor yesterday. I had a job and didn't want to feel rushed to have to go back for the appointment. I’m changing. I look different. My work is going well. I’m concerned George may feel bad, as his work hasn’t gotten off the ground yet. Maybe that relates to being above ground, exposing myself more. There is ambivalence and indecisiveness, particularly around the time of my period. I feel less sure of myself then. I do feel self-critical. I know it's not rational, but I still feel that people will judge me negatively if they know I color my hair."

Doris responded quite openly and frankly about her concerns despite obvious feelings of embarrassment at times and the fact that George was present. Although she expressed some criticism of George's behavior, it was not done in an attacking way but in a spirit of honest sharing. George experienced it that way, and at no point was he defensive.

Taking stock at this point, my feeling was that Doris had been able to identify the two main emotional currents impinging on her the night of the dream. She was upset about herself and the extent of her preoccupation with her hair and her appearance, and she was experiencing a growing upset about George's decision to spend Christmas alone.

How all this fitted into the imagery of the dream was not yet clear. Her own reactions had not been presented in any organized way but simply as they occurred to her. I felt that some attempt to pull the threads together should be made. I introduced my effort at orchestrating the material as follows:

"I think you are in touch with the concerns that led to the dream. You shared your thoughts and some of the connections you had to the images in the dream. I have the feeling that you shared as much as you can, and that you have probably brought out most of the relevant data. The problem now is how to help you put it together in relation to the dream. I am going to make an attempt to integrate or orchestrate the data you shared.

"You have emphasized how important it is for you to be liked and how sensitive ^ you are to anything that could possibly evoke a negative judgment. For you the beauty parlor has a certain connotation of falseness, of adopting certain false values. Your hair focuses and symbolizes these concerns. It is a positive aspect of your attractiveness but also a source of concern, as if too much of yourself is tied up with externals and whatever connotation it is that dyeing one’s hair has for you. Now the question is: why were you thrown back on these old concerns last night? Several things going on in your life seemed to push you in that direction — the recent haircut, the still troubling job your grandmother did on your hair, your encounter with Betty, who can accept herself regardless of the state of her hair. In the dream you move away from the concerns around your hair and another issue comes into focus, the fact that George leaving you alone for the holidays.

"More specifically, let me try to play back what I think I heard you share with the group, but now I’m going to play it back in its relationship to the sequential arrangement of the imagery in the dream. Although I am going to try to base what I say on what you shared, it is being filtered through my psyche and so may contain some of my own distortions. Please consider it then as my projection being offered in the hope that some of it may be meaningful to you. Although not put as a question, it really is a question to you.

"You begin with a scene at Betty's house, and you’ve told us of your wish to be more realistically accepting of yourself, your hair, your wish to make a good appearance, all of which Betty does quite nonchalantly. What stands in your way? The next part of the dream, perhaps, speaks to the problem area. You try to make an appointment at the beauty parlor to have your hair highlighted, and you speak in a Russian accent. You have told us of the mixed feelings you have about coloring your hair, feeling you will be judged negatively, as there is something false about it. Yet your hair is an important part of your appearance and you would like to make the most of it — highlight it.

"You also told us of your talent at putting on a Russian accent, much to the amusement of your friends. As you said, you would never do it with someone you didn’t know, like the receptionist, but in the dream you do. So, speaking in a Russian accent is another way of calling attention to yourself, but again in a way that doesn’t call attention to your real self but a temporarily assumed self. In the dream you chose as the person to receive this ambivalent display an aggressive person whom you dislike. You’re expecting a negative judgment. The receptionist (perhaps your own self-critical judgment of this need to draw attention to yourself) sees through your ambivalence and warns you about changing your mind and not going through with the highlighting. Your first impulse is to back out with the excuse that your hair hasn’t grown out yet. But then an interesting thing happens. You find yourself with George en route to the Dream Group. You did reveal to us your hesitancy about sharing this dream with us, as we might think you vain or false and judge you negatively. But you overcame these fears and did decide to share the dream with the group. Perhaps your dreaming self was aware that this would be your decision, as you go on to indicate that you and George are going through territory that you have never seen before. In sharing a dream publicly you are bringing something unknown and underground above ground, and in the dream the train is traveling on the outside. Then comes the part about George leaving (as he does intend to do at Christmas) and your feeling sad.

"So what have you accomplished by having the dream and sharing it? You accomplished two things in relation to the two concerns that were on your mind. You risked sharing the first one about your hair with the group and elicited a supportive rather than a negative response. And, through your dream you conveyed to George the extent of the hurt and sadness you felt at his decision.**

Doris responded to this. She indicated that the dream that morning had led to an encounter with George, the result of which was that he had changed his mind, and they would be together for Christmas. Doris ended by saying, "I just had to hit him over the head."


"After I shared my dream with the group I felt better about myself and my desires to want to be with George and to look and feel beautiful. Sharing the dream helped me feel the universality of the specific ‘problem' I am working through, i.e., my femininity, my independence, and my relationship with George."

Comment. Inasmuch as this was Doris’s first experience as the dreamer in the group, help was needed in correlating the concerns she was expressing with the specific imagery of the dream. The orchestration was more detailed and systematic than is ordinarily necessary for a more experienced dreamer. It was rendered not only to be helpful but also to teach how our dreams come up with images that metaphorically reflect our concerns and our efforts to resolve them.

Example 2

Marie is an elderly Norwegian woman in a dream group for the first time and presenting her first dream. The dream had occurred four months earlier. It had a powerful impact on her, and she was anxious to share it.


"I am in an Indian bazaar where they sell lovely silk and brocade. I am in a very happy mood because I’m getting married and am collecting material for my dowry. Suddenly I am in a shop trying on a long black silk georgette dress. I look at myself in a big free-standing mirror. The dress is quite transparent. My breasts and nipples show through, and I feel very seductive and sensual. The dress is quite black, with a red embroidery around the neck and shoulders. I decide this is the dress I want, whatever the price might be."


"It feels somewhat unreal. There's no problem."

"The song ‘I’m So Happy, I'm Flying’ occurs to me."

"I feel strong."

"I have ambivalent feelings."

"I prefer the dress as a nightgown."

"I have a sense of narrowing, as if leaving things out."

"I feel my dream is very female-centered."

"I am worried. Where are the people?"

"It is my moment, just for me."

"Feeling of expectation and anticipation."

"I feel like Eve in Paradise."

"I’m worried about the black color."

"Where is my prince?"

"I feel reconciled but proud."

"1 have both a public and a private feeling."


"I want to show myself. I want to be seen."

"I like myself in this dream."

"I have all these possibilities."

"I'm dancing all by myself."

"I’m not used to seeing myself as beautiful."

"I really want to show myself."

"I'm sure of being welcomed by my groom."

"I provide my own dowry."

"The bride’s dress is usually white."

"I feel alive."

"These are the colors of the Indian goddess Kali."


"This was a very important dream. I have thought of it every day since it occurred. There were many important feelings in it for me. Some of you spoke to the point. I worked in India for seven years in my youth, and later, many times in my dreams, I experienced the strain of my work there. The present dream is the first one in which the pleasant and good experience of India came back to me. I felt very happy when I woke up. People knew me in the bazaar. A merchant selling cloth would call out: ‘Feel this, isn’t it beautiful?’ Happy, nice, and gay experiences were finally coming back to me in this dream. But why of all the colors did I choose black? For several years now I have worn black as my basic color. So did my husband. We both liked it. My husband died a year ago quite suddenly. Black is sorrow. The dream occurred at the end of May, five months ago, when I finally could really work more deeply with my sorrow. I could do this only after many practical matters had been taken care of. I had an important exhibition of my sculpture coming up just one week after my husband’s funeral and had to put aside my grief, make all the arrangements and meet people. Somebody here mentioned the absence of people in the dream and that there were only pretty things around. There I stood at the exhibition, feeling utterly alone inside, with my art work all around. After my husband’s death I had to empty his studio in town. It took so much of my strength.

"Someone mentioned the feeling suggestive of narcissism in the dream. It strikes me that that is a necessary ingredient in an artist’s way of life, to look into oneself and mirror oneself in a work of an brought out into the open. I make torsos in the shape of vessels. Sometimes I wondered why a draping I naturally would make over my left shoulder would appear over the right in the sculpture. After many years I understood. The sculpture was a reflected image. I was mirroring myself.

"The Indian goddess Kali was mentioned in the group. That I find very interesting. She is depicted as black and bloodthirsty and seemed very scary. But the more I understood of Indian thinking, the more I understood that the destroying aspects of Kali were as necessary as the other aspect of her as the Great Mate (Mother). Something must die to give room for new growth. We see it in nature. We see it in our life experiences — every crisis is a new possibility. When my former life went to pieces after my husband’s death, I changed my profession. Our marriage made us both grow as persons in an ever-deepening relationship. But now I am collecting material for a new start.

"There is also a spiritual aspect to the dream. When it occurred I was in a retreat. The very experienced leader had given two marvelous talks on the deeper opening of ourselves to the Divine Love. He also referred to Saint John of the Cross, the Spanish sixteenth-century mystic who, among other books, wrote The Dark Night of the Soul. I had a short talk with the leader that night. I told him I felt deeply moved by what he said and thanked him. Before going to sleep I thought of this encounter and of my whole life situation. I also recalled a meeting with an Indian wise man. a hermit who lived in a cave for forty years and who was also wonderfully accepting and made me understand that there are deep experiences beyond words.

"I wanted that dress, whatever the price. I was collecting a dowry for another kind of marriage, daring to go into another career and a deeper commitment.

"When I awoke, there was sadness. I was alone. But there also was a feeling of maturity and expectation. The basic emotion was very positive. I am really not afraid even with my heavy losses. Something has to die for something new to grow. My life is not yet ended. Darkness exists only when you no longer relate to the experience of youth, that is, understand and build on it."

It was not possible to recapture all that the dreamer said in her response, but it was so filled with hope, inspiration, and the courage to move beyond past losses that the group felt deeply moved. All I could do and all that could be done at that point was to acknowledge our appreciation for the openness with which she had shared so critical a period of her life. Even though the dream was several months old, the context was still fresh in her mind. She addressed each of the elements of the dream and was able to "contextualize" each one in a way that enriched her appreciation of the creative reserve that saw her through a most difficult period. The dreamer was content to stop at this point. A dialogue would have been anti- climactic.


Implicit in the structure described are a number of ways this process differs from any variety of formal therapy. Perhaps the most obvious is that there is no therapist present. The dream alone becomes the therapeutic agent. Given the proper circumstances, there is a natural tendency to reown the dream.

Some people, of course, need more than this approach can give. Someone who is trapped in a neurotic defensive structure will need something more, namely, the analysis and resolution of the resistances that block the capacity for emotional healing. I see dream work as an experience that should be available to those people who have an interest in their dream life. I see therapy in the formal sense as geared to the treatment of pathological blockages to growth.

When we compare the approach to dreams in a formal therapeutic setting and the approach in the process outlined here, differences can be noted that come from the way the two situations are structured.

The group approach is favorable to dream work for several reasons: (1) the dream is the only item on the agenda, and the time needed to deal with the dream in its entirety is available; (2) we are dealing with a flat structure in which everyone engages in self-disclosure either through projection, sharing a dream, or both; (3) the focus remains solely on the dreamer and the dream and not on the interpersonal processes set up by either; (4) the collective imagination of the group can come up with a richer supply of metaphors than a single individual; and (5) the fact that the process remains totally in the control of the dreamer is a powerful impetus to the lowering of defenses.

Features of a formal therapeutic arrangement favorable to dream work are: (1) greater ease in dealing with more private and intimate implications of the dream, compared to the group approach; and (2) the therapist's greater knowledge of the dreamer. A concise way of putting it is that in the group we do dream work; in formal therapy the therapist uses the dream for leverage in implementing the therapeutic approach he or she is engaged in.

In the case of group therapy versus the dream group differences in the ground rules result in profound differences between the two processes. In group therapy attention to the evolving interpersonal and group processes is all-important, whereas in the dream group these aspects remain in the background. Although a group session may match a dream session in time, it would be rare of the entire group session to be devoted to a single patient's dream, and even more rare for it to be given over to the dream of the therapist. If we substitute leader for therapist in the dream group, these are commonplace events. Other differences, such as control by the dreamer, also obtain. A more detailed description of the differences is given elsewhere (Ullman, 1979).


During the time I have worked with this process, I have seen a natural complementarity between the experiential dream group and individual therapy. There are a number of ways in which this complementarity can manifest itself. Perhaps the most rewarding way is for a dream to be presented to the group first. This will generally have the effect of opening the dream up for the dreamer, identifying the issue involved and some of the indicators of its source in the past. Then the dream can be explored further in therapy, where the dreamer may feel freer to deal with the more personal references than he would feel in the group. If the dream is introduced first in the therapeutic session, there may be insufficient time to develop it to the dreamer's satisfaction. In a group session the dreamer has the time to approach the dream in a more leisurely fashion.

Occasionally, work on a dream that is brought to the dream group after a therapeutic session reveals that counter-transferential difficulties have been the basis for an unsatisfactory result with the dream in the therapy session: and this discovery then has a salutary effect on the therapy. I do not know of any instances of the reverse effect, where the dreamer was misled by the work of the group and this was recognized in individual therapy, although I could imagine this happening with persons inexperienced in the process.


When we turn our attention to the community at large, we see a rather unfortunate state of affairs that seems to prevail throughout the civilized world. In spite of all we know about the intrinsic value of dreams, society fails to meet the desire of many people to learn how to work with their dreams. We have the limited arrangement of referral to therapy, but this leaves the ordinary mortal alone to fend for her- or himself among the many books and articles that keep appearing about dreams. Much of what is written stresses the virtues of our dream life but glosses over the difficulties and problems involved, and does little to teach the interested reader the kinds of skill necessary for its exploration.

Can the skills developed in the course of clinical work be shared with anyone, regardless of background, who wishes to gain access to his or her dreams? From my experience of the past decade, not only is it possible, but it should be encouraged. The basic phenomenologic features of dreams can be as readily grasped as the notion of the visual metaphor. When a group comes together to do dream work and master the principles and rationale of the process, they not only will not harm the dreamer but will, from the beginning, help him. Of course, a skilled and experienced leader will facilitate the process and raise the level of work that can be done. But this does not belie the fact that this process can be placed safely in the hands of anyone, given the stipulations noted. Although there are risks involved when a professional skill is turned over to the public, the benefits to be gained warrant the attempt.


Anyone who is serious about dream work wants to know what a dream is saying, and with the help of the group will get deeper and deeper into its meaning. The result is a sense of greater honesty about oneself. Dream work becomes a natural way of doing some emotional housecleaning. Debris from the past comes to light, and its power over one's life then diminishes.

Perhaps the outstanding result is an appreciation of the self-healing aspects of the dream. Ordinarily we react with fright or dismay to dreams with negative feelings or content, and oppositely to dreams we like. Consistent dream work leads to the realization that dreams filled with fear, shame, or guilt are not dreamt to make the dreamer feel worse but instead offer him the opportunity, with the help and support of others, to find the courage to confront the negative content and to learn more about its nature and source. The issue does not dissolve magically, but one feels better for having allowed the confrontation to take place, and, as we indicated earlier, by bringing the issue into the open, we socialize it. It is no longer a private, shameful demon of sorts.

One gets over the strong but mistaken tendency to judge a dream by waking standards (i.e., a long dream is better than a short dream, a dream with drama and action is better than a quiet one, etc.). One gets over the tendency to refer to any dream, particularly fragments or very short ones, as insignificant or unimportant. I refer to this as "dreamism," an irrational bias that operates in relation to dreams.

More and more there is a sense that dreams can provide us with an in- depth projection of how we organize our emotionality around particular issues in our life. The freer we are to learn these truths about our lives, the freer we are in our daily exchanges with others. We not only become aware of our vulnerable areas, but we become aware of them in a helpful way. Along with this comes a growing realization that within each of us lies a creative resource that places pictures at our disposal, pictures that are uniquely crafted to our own emotional specification.

More specific life changes flow from work with dreams. Once in touch with this creative resource, people have used it to further their individual talent in art, in music, in the ministry, in political science. It has been found a place in an introductory course in computer science (Storm, 1983).


There are a number of practical aspects of group dream work, as briefly noted below.

The Group: Open or Closed?

In a closed group, either new members are not brought in, or, if they are. it is only with the consent of the group. An open group is one in which new members can join at any time. I have tried both arrangements and have concluded that an open group is more advantageous in dream work. A new person adds a new supply of potentially helpful responses to the dreamer. Since we do not focus on the interpersonal aspects of the ongoing group process, new members are not experienced as disruptive. They should, of course, have some knowledge of the process so that they come in as participants and not as observers.

Time Arrangements

I have found that an hour and a half is sufficient time to unravel a dream in a leisurely and unhurried way. At the start of each session, time is allotted for any further sharing by the dreamer who last presented (Stage IV). The remaining time is apportioned to work with a new dream so that the last 40 to 45 minutes is left for the dreamer's response, the dialogue, and any orchestration that may be needed.

Size of the Group

By its very nature, dream work, is an intimate experience that can best take place in a small group arrangement. The optimal size is from six to eight participants, with leeway for one or two at either end. Having less than four members places too great a burden on the dreamer to share a dream, and is too limiting in the number of people available to help the dreamer. If there are more than ten members, one must wait too long for an opportunity to present a dream.


Dream work involves sharing intimate aspects of oneself. Confidentiality is obligatory.


Here we come to a delicate question. Should the leadership of a dream group be in the hands of a professional, or can anyone be a leader? My point of view is that the process as I have described it is not group therapy or related to it. The leader is not the therapist for the group and is not in any authoritative relationship to the group other than by virtue of his knowledge of the process itself. The leader is an active participant who functions in the same way as any other member of the group. It is the leader’s familiarity with and competence in using the process that is the determining factor, and not whether he or she comes to the task with a professional background. Professional experience may enrich the proceedings, but that alone does not qualify an individual to be the leader.

The other possibility for a group starting out is for the participants, all of whom are at an equal level, to take turns at leading the group. If one decides to lead dream groups, it should be only on the basis of experience with the process and a mastery of the skills involved.


A number of difficulties can arise in connection with the effort to interest people in dream work. Inertia must be overcome. Why invest the time and energy to do effective dream work, especially if it involves organizing a group and mastering a time-consuming procedure? There is no simple answer. It can be approached in two ways. What I have been trying to do is to place a reliable tool in the hands of the public in the hope that the natural curiosity people have about their dreams will gradually draw more and more people into dream work. Another approach would be to try to get dream work started earlier through its introduction into high schools and colleges. That this is a promising area has been borne out by my experience as well as by Jones (1980).

Misconceptions about dreams and how to deal with them pose still another problem. The popular mystique that dreams may be handled only by properly qualified professionals has to be laid to rest. For the professional the dream is a powerful tool in the therapeutic endeavor. There the therapist, equipped with a body of technical and theoretical knowledge, uses the dream toward what he sees as a particular therapeutic end. For the person who is interested in dreams but not in need of therapy, the dream can be pursued for its own sake. Where the two approaches mesh is that, in both cases, the work is therapeutic. In formal therapy the therapist not only uses his knowledge to clarify the source of the dream through the dreamer’s associations but also assumes responsibility for dealing with defensive operations that stand in the dreamer's way. In dream appreciation groups, there is no therapist (other than the dream itself), and the group creates an environment in which the dreamer is free to deal with his own defenses.


There have been three traditions around dreams, none of which has encouraged a particularly active public interest. There has been a literary and historical tradition that has highlighted the aesthetic and dramatic qualities of the dream. There has been a clinical tradition, beginning with Freud, that has pointed to the unique contribution that dream work can make to the therapeutic endeavor. In recent years there has been an experimental approach that has made knowledge about dreams and dreaming more widespread but has not brought people closer to their dream life. The time is ripe for resurrecting a tradition found in primitive societies, namely, the existence of an everyday working relationship between dream life and culture. The problem has to be approached in two ways. From below, there has to be more general acceptance of the fact that dreams can be made accessible in a safe and effective way outside the consulting room. From above, dream work has to move to a higher order of social priority, a move that may someday come about when more humane solutions are sought for the disarray that now exists among people and among nations.



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[1] These thoughts have been further elaborated in various writings on the vigilance theory of dreaming (Ullman, 1961; Tolaas, 1973).