Issues in Group Psychotherapy. Journal of the Group Department of the Postgraduate Center for Mental health, Vol 5, No 1, Fall 2001

An Atheoretic Bidirectional Experiential Group Approach to Working with Dreams

Montague Ullman, M.D.



Despite their universality, interest in dreams has focussed almost exclusively on their clinical usefulness. Until recently there has been no serious attempt to make dreams available to the general public. Any such attempt would have to be consistent with the basic phenomenological features of dreaming consciousness and would have to take into account the vulnerability of the dreamer. The group process to be described is bidirectional. It is particularly useful in the training of clinicians for dream work, but is equally applicable to anyone with an interest in what their dreams have to say. The process is structured to generate trust and maintain the safety of the dreamer. The dreamer and the group interact in a variety of ways to facilitate the flow of relevant associations without ever being intrusive.


Key Words: Dreams, Group, Experiential


Perhaps it's time to take a look at the path our understanding of and experience with dreams have taken since the publication of Freud's classic volume one hundred years ago. That path led exclusively to the clinical use of dreams, generally by someone with a psychoanalytic background. That clinical application was inextricably interwoven with metapsychological theoretical considerations, predominantly Freudian, later qualitatively modified by Jung, and more recently by ego theory and adaptational views. Mid-century saw a dramatic increase in our knowledge of the neurophysiology and ethology of sleep and dreams through the study of sleeping subjects in the laboratory. This research, coming at a time when growth centers and consciousness raising groups came into being, stimulated considerable public interest in dreams.

Is there something missing here? I think there is, but the answer to the question depends on whether or not you can envisage a significant place for dreams in the fabric of society. In preliterate societies today, for example, there is a niche for dreams as an important intermediary between cultural, religious, and historical entities and everyday life. In antiquity, notably the classical period of Greece, this interest in one's dream life was also noted. In both instances, there was a certain symmetry between the personal and the social that served a unifying, cohesive function. The situation began to change in ancient Rome as monotheism took over and the link was finally severed in Western Europe in the middle ages with the occurrence of two historical developments, the invention of the printing press and the consolidation of the power of the Church. The first made dream books, mostly oriented to mantic practices and divination, available to the laity. The second disparaged even to the point of proscribing the circulation of such books. In the eyes of the Church, mystical visions and dreams were linked. Both could be the work of either divine or satanic influences. Since the laity could fall prey to the latter, it was felt that both dreams and visions should remain under the domain of the Church as the only power that could vouch for authentic divine influences. This concern with the vulnerability of the laity to demonic influences ultimately led to the persecution of witches.

The Industrial Revolution was the last blow to any hope that our dream life would find its own natural haven in society. Objective mastery of the external world far outstripped any realistic social investment in the subjective mastery of ourselves. Dreams had no significant social valence. With Freud the universal phenomenon of dreaming found a limited place for itself in a profession dedicated to the art of psychological healing. The public was left to shift for itself with regard to their dreams. Universal accessibility to something so insistently a part of everyone's life has remained a mirage for all but a handful of oneirophiles. In the laboratory we have learned how to deprive people of dreams by keeping people awake from the onset to the end of the successive stages of the dreaming cycle. Without giving it a second thought, we have managed to live out our lives in a dream-deprived society.

The closing decades of the last century witnessed the appearance of a truly new phenomenon, namely, people gravitating toward dream groups led both by professionals, including a scattering of psychoanalytically trained therapists, and laity. While at this point these groups are only barely visible dots on the landscape, there is every indication that this movement will grow. That growth will depend on how safe and effective these groups turn out to be. Currently, there are more people seeking such groups than there are groups to accommodate them.

The process I am going to describe began in 1974 as an effort on my part to teach candidates in training about dreams experientially rather than indirectly in a clinical seminar where only the dream and not the dreamer was present. While this was helpful in elucidating the transference and shedding light on how the dream could further the therapeutic line, there was no opportunity to demonstrate how to actively engage with the dreamer in so focussed a way as to facilitate the retrieval of the associative matrix of the dream. To speak of active engagement and focussing in relation to free association may sound like an oxymoron. It is not. As you will see when the stages of the process are described, it is simply a way of working toward relevant associations by linking that effort to a background understanding of the unique features of dreaming consciousness.

The task before me in setting out to teach dream work experientially meant transforming what is ordinarily a clinical situation into a pedagogical one with the goal of orienting the students to the richness and healing potential of their own dreams in a way that would prepare them to work with patients in individual or group psychotherapy. What I have to say about the transformation is premised on my belief that there is an art to helping a dreamer lower defensive maneuvers enough to identify what the dream is saying. It is an art, separate and distinct from any theoretical formulations. When the latter is relied on at the expense of the art, the result is intellectual rather than emotional insight. Art involves the connection of talent and craft. Only craft can be taught. Talent is innate. We are all, perhaps in varying degrees, endowed with a creative talent capable of speaking the truth to us while we dream. The experiential dream group provides us with the means to learn and master that craft. The carryover of that mastery provides tools that are useful in any form of formal therapy. This transformation from a clinical to a pedagogical stance involved a clear change in roles for myself, for the group and for the dreamer.

For myself that meant becoming a teacher pure and simple rather than a psychotherapist teaching the application of psychoanalytic theory and technique to dream work. It involved a dual responsibility. I was there to teach the process while at the same time to participate in the process in the same way that the members of the group did, including the sharing of my own dream. This is the first significant difference from formal therapy, where dream sharing is generally a one-sided affair. Dream work flourishes in a less hierarchical arrangement where everyone becomes known to each other on the level revealed in their dreams. To the extent that level of sharing is established defensive mechanisms, including transference and resistance, diminish.

For the group it means they are there as co-dreamers to create and maintain an atmosphere of trust and safety and to interact with the dreamer in a way that is helpful to the dreamer without ever being intrusive. Each assumes the responsibility for managing his or her own personal process as the focus remains on the dreamer's struggle to make contact with the dream. That help is offered in different ways at different stages of the process. The group tries to be sensitive to where the dreamer is at any given moment. It is only the dreamer who opens areas for exploration. There is further discussion of the group's function in the sections on Skills, Milieu and the Process.

It is in connection with the role of the dreamer that the process differs even more sharply from formal therapy. While the leader is there to maintain the integrity of the process, it is the dreamer who is in charge of the work being done with his own dream. If he shares a dream, he is in control of the level of sharing he feels comfortable with and is not under any obligation to go further. It is that control of the process, which also includes stopping it at any point, that is fundamental to allaying the dreamer's anxiety and defensiveness. The freedom to share is directly proportional to the lowering of anxiety. The various stages of the process unfold at the invitation of the dreamer. The group follows and never leads the dreamer. That means they don't go into areas that have not been opened up by the dreamer. The questions they put to the dreamer are to be looked upon as instruments for the dreamer to use in exploring his psyche. Leading questions take the control away from the dreamer and are taboo. You will learn more about this in the headings noted in the previous paragraph. I will say more about craft at a later point in connection with the process.

To set the stage I am going to offer a number of axioms. Axioms are propositions that appear to be self-evident. Time has wrought changes in Euclid's axioms upon which he built the structure of plane geometry when a more complex math was needed to deal with the strange quirks of gravity and sub-atomic particles. Just as plane geometry continues to hold for the ordinary dimensions of waking life, I think the following axioms hold for the mental life we lead asleep. Further axiomatic changes may occur as we learn more about dreams and their application to healing.


1. Dreams begin in the present. Freud referred to the day residue as setting off a series of events that led to the subject matter of the dream. I prefer to seek out this triggering effect by exposing what I refer to as the Recent Emotional Context. This covers a longer but still recent period out of which feeling residues arose and lingered long enough to surface the night the dream occurred.

2. Dreams go beyond the present to link up with more remote feeling residues from the past. This linkage addresses unresolved issues that continue to influence current behavior. This connection of past and present brings together more information than is immediately available to the dreamer when awake.

3. Dreams tell it like it is. Dreams have an intrinsic honesty. They seem to come from an incorruptible core of our being that registers the truth when it sees it. Both Freud and Jung saw dreams as containers of the truth, but they looked upon the fate of that truth in different ways. For Freud that truth underwent censorship in the interest of preserving sleep and maintaining a pre-existing emotional status quo. Manifest content was the disguised representation of whatever truth was surfacing at the time. Jung saw manifest content as the psyche's way of revealing rather than concealing the truth.

4. The neurophysiological analog of dreaming consciousness is common to all mammals thus far studied in the laboratory. This arousal mechanism is associated with cyclical bouts of dreaming and is part of the life cycle from birth on. There is indirect evidence that in other mammals it is associated with some prototypic form of consciousness (Morrison, 1993).

Based upon these axioms and integrating them with my clinical and group experience with dreams, I have come to the conclusion that dreaming consciousness is a natural healing system in a way similar to the various bodily systems. Certain assumptions underlie this point of view. While axioms command a certain consensual agreement, the following assumptions depart in various ways from the prevailing canon.


1. Dreaming Consciousness as a Healing System. All bodily systems face in two directions: internally to meet the needs of the organism in its relationship, and externally to a world experienced as extended beyond its border. Each has a unique structure and function. The endocrine system is made up of glands, the function of which is to secrete the hormones necessary to both maintain an optimal internal milieu and respond to emerging demands. Our dreams have a neurophysiological substrate at both a cortical and subcortical level. The interplay between these two levels modulates the level of arousal. Where there are adequate resources to deal with the tension involved, the state of arousal terminates naturally and sleep continues. Where the stress or tension is too great, awakening occurs. The secretions of this nocturnal organ of consciousness is the imagery that results. Most bodily systems function at an unconscious level. So do our dreams. They arise out of an unconscious domain and function in an involuntary spontaneous manner to meet normal and abnormal organismic needs. We don't command our digestive systems to respond to our food intake, nor do we consciously direct red blood cells and platelets to do their thing when bleeding occurs. Analogously, our dreams "digest" residual feelings triggered by recent events and evaluate them in regard to their significance for our future. It does this by opening up our remote memory bank and exploring the degree to which a current concern links up with unresolved tensions from the past. Dreams arise spontaneously and involuntarily. No one can consciously design the opening scene of a dream.

In the course of becoming symbol-making animals, we have transformed a basic imaging mode into a vehicle for expressing in a most wondrously condensed form the tensions that arise in our more complex symbol-driven lives. After all, a single picture can capture more than a thousand words.

Regardless of how the presentational mode came about, the more interesting question is how the imagery now serves as a healing organ and in that way relates to the survival of our species? At night, while dreaming, we are in the business of manufacturing visual metaphors. Metaphor is our uniquely human way of expressing feelings that are rising up within us but are not yet clearly conceptualized. We are expressing feelings in their continuity with the past. The images of the dream are not static. They are metaphors in motion. They tell a story which, in a very creative way, speaks to where we are subjectively at a given moment in our lives. That is all they do. They are not there to argue with us, tell us what to do, make us feel good or bad about ourselves. It is the task of our waking ego to free up the feelings embedded in the imagery and thus spark across the metaphorical gap between image and reality. Feelings released in this way are authentic and authentic feelings are the connective tissue supporting the fabric of our existence. They deepen our bonds to each other. Awake we often play games with feelings. We brush them aside, suppress them or express them in ways that are inappropriate to the situation. They then become manifest in what I refer to as inauthentic feelings. They maintain distance rather than furthering closeness ( e.g. neurotic guilt in contrast to genuine remorse).

2. Dreaming consciousness and survival. What dreaming consciousness as a system would then have in common with all other systems is that it serves the survival needs of the organism. Dreaming then is just as essential to our psychological life as the enzymes secreted by the gastro-intestinal system are to digestion. We don't accord it that degree of importance, but that is our problem. Earlier societies were more respectful of the dream. Even in the current era, where we have turned our attention to fine tuning our knowledge of the anatomy and physiology of dreaming, there has not been a commensurate advance in the depth of our understanding of the dream. It is as if in the discovery of the insulin-secreting function of the pancreas all our attention was focused on the Langerhan cells where the insulin was formed and very little to the functional importance of the insulin itself to the organism. The secretions of our bodily organs work their magic in their own way and can be explored chemically. The magic of the dream is the production of symbolic imagery which can be explored by uncovering their emotional content. The point is that, as in the case with any other system, our dreams operate in the service of the survival of the individual which in turn is the precondition for the survival of the species.

3. The dreamer needs help. Some dreams are transparent. More often a dreamer needs help. The dream does not yield its secret easily. Wherever there have been dreamers there have always been others around who could be of help. The reason is twofold. The dream speaks to us in an imagistic language that differs in its logic and content from waking discourse. It is an emotional logic not constrained by time, space and causality. Furthermore, it often carries an emotional valence that has not been fully acknowledged in the waking state. We have transformed that primitive imaging capacity into highly creative symbolic forms that address specifically subterranean emotional currents at play. Our difficulty thus arises in two ways. The language is different from waking discourse and the content has often been held at arm's length when we are awake.


The Milieu: A certain atmosphere has to prevail in a dream group if it is to serve its purpose. The dreamer seeking to discover what the dream has to say is like someone diving off a cliff into water the depth of which he does not know nor does he know what he is apt to find. The group is there to insure his safety (the Safety Factor) and provide him with the instruments he needs to locate whatever it is that is lurking in the dark (the Discovery Factor). The first task is to generate a level of trust that makes it possible for the dreamer to risk taking the jump. The second is for the group to enter into a unique dialogue with the dreamer by posing questions to the dreamer to be used only as instruments by means of which the dreamer can light up the murkiness of his underwater search. The milieu best suited to accomplish this is one that is flat, non-hierarchical and totally nonviolent. If there is a leader, she is there to maintain the integrity of the process. In all other respects, she functions as a member of the group and has the same option as the others to share a dream or not. The sharing of a dream is a voluntary act. No one person is ever under any pressure to share a dream; whatever pressure there is shared equally by all. The leader has no hidden agenda. The rationale for each stage of the process is known to all.

Certain principles guide the work of the group.


First Principle:

Respect for the privacy of the dreamer

The dream is the most personal communication of which we are capable. It is a very private affair and this element of privacy is respected at all times. Each stage of the process I use is designed to be non-intrusive. The dreamer controls the process throughout the session and works at whatever level of self-disclosure she feels comfortable with in the group. There is no pressure to go beyond that point. What the helping agency has to keep in mind is that when dreams are worked on outside of the consulting room, the dreamer's ability to reach into herself with the required degree of honesty is contingent on how safe she is made to feel. The only way of achieving that goal is for the dreamer to remain the guardian of her unconscious through her control of the level of self-disclosure.

Second Principle:

Respect for the authority of the dreamer over his or her 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 validate. It is only the dreamer who can judge the effectiveness of the help offered. She alone has that resonant gut feeling when a truth strikes home. There is a distinct difference between intellectually accepting something that comes from the group and the spontaneous and richly generative response to a true fit.

Third Principle:

Respect for the uniqueness of the individual

Everyone's life experience is unique. Any symbolic image can be used in a highly idiosyncratic way. No a priori categorical meanings are assumed. One has to have a certain humility to do dream work and realize that there is more to learn from the dreamer than we have to offer to the dreamer. The reason is simple. Nothing in our prior learning and experience is a substitute for the work that has to be done to discover how these particular dream images emerged out of the idiosyncratic life experience of the dreamer and why they came together to shape the dream on that particular night. The work we do together uncovers the answer.

The Craft of the Dream Worker

To my knowledge, craft is not a term generally thought of in connection with dream work. To orient the reader to the sense in which I use the word, let me draw an analogy to the craft of the actor. In a way, the actor is faced with the same problem the dreamer is. Both have to bypass their waking persona to get to where they want to be. The actor's goal is to identify as closely as possible with the character she is portraying. The dreamer has to do the same with the dream characters that appear in her dream. Both need help in doing this. To some extent they can provide that help. The actor does it by the research she engages in to learn as much as possible about the life of the character, her life, her habits, her idiosyncrasies, her appearance, her vulnerability. The dreamer does it by the associations and memories she can consciously relate to the imagery. Both need more help than they alone can come up with. The actor needs the help of the many others who create the setting in which the action is to take place, and above all of the co-actor. The dreamer needs the help of the co-dreamers in the group to help her find the way back to the dream. Actors speak of "being in the moment," when with the help of the co-actor the character comes fully to life and speaks in her own true voice. For the dreamer this is known as the "aha!" response. For both actor and dreamer, it is a moment of truth. For the actor the essence of her craft is to learn how to listen and interact in a way that makes that moment happen. The art of listening and the art of interacting are also the two essential skills involved in dream work.

I will discuss in greater detail the various aspects of the dream-worker's craft as they come into play in the various stages of the process. For the moment I would like to focus on the two essential skills. Both can be conceptualized and taught but like all skills, they require practice.

Listening: Listening is a complex skill which requires not only listening to everything a dreamer says but also listening to the way it is said, listening to the accompanying feelings, listening to what is not said and, above all, listening without an a priori bias as to what is or is not important. What might seem at first like an incidental or trivial comment could assume importance as more information emerges. The dream comes out of the unique life history of the dreamer. The more one is in tune with that, rather than on foregone conclusions as to the dream's meaning, the more likely it is that the dreamer will be helped. For the neophyte this means more listening and less temptation to yield to the impulse to superimpose a ready at-hand interpretation.

Interacting: This involves the art of putting questions to the dreamer that are not invasive. By that I mean that they are not an attempt to lead the dreamer in a particular direction. A leading question has the effect of taking over control of the process and raising the anxiety level of the dreamer. Questioning should never go beyond the limits set by the dreamer. The more open-ended and simple the question is, the more effective it is in eliciting relevant information. An open-ended question points to an area to investigate and leaves the dreamer free to investigate it or not.

The Process

A more complete account of the stages and their rationale is given in the author's book (Ullman,1996).

Stage IA: The Sharing of a Dream

The process begins with someone volunteering to share a dream. Only the manifest content is shared. No associations or ideas about meaning are given at this point. Occasionally the simple act of telling the dream aloud to the group results in a sudden insight. The act of volunteering implies some readiness to lower one's defensive structure and this, in turn, results in seeing more.

Stage IB

This is the opportunity to clarify anything about the dream that was not clear and also to question the dreamer along the following lines if the information was not explicit in the dreamer's account: Are any of the characters in the dream real persons in your waking life? If so, tell briefly what the connection is (friend, relative, etc.) Are there any feelings that you were aware of in the dream? Any colors? Were you your present age? Note that no questions seeking out the dreamer's associations are asked at this point. The reason will become clear in connection with the next stage.

Stages II A & B: The Projections of the Group

This is an exercise or game where the group makes the dream its own and attempts to do two things with it. Group members share with each other the feelings they associate to the imagery of the dream (II A) and then go on to explore the metaphorical possibilities of each image (II B). It is understood that whatever is said is their own projection into the dream. At this point they are neither looking at nor talking to the dreamer. The dreamer listens without actively participating and is free to accept or reject anything coming from the group. The point of the exercise is to help the dreamer begin to move closer into the dream under circumstances where it feels safe to do so.

This opening strategy which, on the face of it, seems quite random, is, in fact, very powerful. Aside from the fact that the group may come up with a feeling or give a meaning to an image that feels right on target for the dreamer, there are a number of other features that operate more subtly to further the dreamer's grasp of the dream. After going public with the dream there is the reassurance that others are taking the dream seriously, are applying it to their own lives and coming up with meaningful connections to it out of their own experience. By sharing their projections with the dreamer they are sharing a bit of their psyche with the dream just as the dreamer shared a bit of her psyche with the group.

Craft: The task of the group members now is to mobilize their own imagination to create a pool of feelings and meanings in the hope some of them would be helpful to the dreamer. We all swim around in the same social sea so that feelings or metaphors from the group might strike home for the dreamer. If they do, they have the effect of priming the pump. When they don't fit they may still bring the dreamer closer to a true fit by defining what the image is not. The art here is to be free enough to bring a wide range of feelings and metaphorical possibilities to the imagery. The dreamer's associations are, of course, the ultimate foundation for the understanding of the dream. Had the dreamer offered associations in Stage I they might have tracked and limited the spontaneously empathic and intuitive responses of the group.

At the end of this exercise the dreamer is invited to respond.

Stage IIIA: The Dreamer's Response

The dreamer is free to shape the response in any way she chooses. This is the dreamer's opportunity to offer associations and ideas about the dream's meaning as well as the impact of the group's work. There is the freedom to go to whatever level of sharing feels comfortable, with the assurance that no one will exert any pressure to go beyond that level.

In this initial strategy the group's work will occasionally have helped the dreamer clarify the dream to the point where she feels satisfied and decides to stop. Further work, however, is generally necessary providing the dreamer wishes to go on.

The various strategies that follow are all designed to help the dreamer get in touch with the data that shaped the dream. These strategies are not automatically invoked but unfold at the behest of the dreamer.

Stage IIIB(1): The Search for Context

This involves a dialogue between the dreamer and the group designed to clarify the source of the recent emotional residues that triggered the dream. It consists of direct questions designed to help the dreamer explore the emotional context of her life during the period immediately preceding the dream.

The dreamer is instructed to consider these questions as instruments to use in exploring her psyche. They are not questions that demand an answer. The dreamer has the freedom to respond or not. If work with the question is productive, it is the dreamer's decision to decide how much to share with the group. As the dreamer begins to trust the process, she soon learns that the more that is shared with the group the more help the group can be.

Craft: There is an art to helping a dreamer reconstruct what is in effect a diary of her emotional past. It involves a structured approach to the questions put to the dreamer and careful listening to the response. The goal is to elicit the thoughts, feelings and concerns that surfaced just prior to falling asleep as, for example: Can you recall what thoughts or feelings you had on falling asleep? Can you recall what feelings the day left you with? Did anything else happen in the recent period before the dream that left you with any particular tensions or feelings? This period may extend from a few days before the dream to one or two weeks. What we are looking for at this time are clues to whatever felt reaction may have triggered the dream.

Dreams don't come out of facts. They come out of feelings. Questions have to go beyond the facts the dreamer has disclosed in an effort to get at the feelings involved. The dreamer, for example, may have mentioned the fact that her mother called the night of the dream. The next question should be: Is there anything you can say about the feelings that call left you with?

This involves the knack of listening to any hint of where further feelings might be and helping the dreamer explore them by simple open-ended questions, e.g.: Is there anything more you can say about those feelings?

Listening carefully to any hint of where the feelings are and, when appropriate, asking follow-up questions, are skills that have to be mastered.

Stage III B(2): Playback of the Dream

When the exploration of the context is over, and should the dreamer wish to go further, the next effort at eliciting data is to read the dream back to the dreamer, one scene at a time, while inviting the dreamer to say anything more about the imagery in each scene. The dreamer now has at her disposal the data that came up spontaneously in the initial response plus any additional data elicited about significant recent events and feelings. Having more data on hand, and given the opportunity to play back the imagery against all that has come out so far, the dreamer is often able to add further associations. There is another more subtle factor that tends to increase the yield. When someone other than the dreamer reads back a scene, it evokes a different feeling in the dreamer than when the dreamer deals with it privately. What may have been seen as a somewhat ephemeral creation comes back as a more real, more palpable, and now a more public creation. More of the dreamer's psyche is stimulated by experiencing it in this objectified way.

Craft: There is an art to reading a dream back to the dreamer. The dreamer may or may not have additional associations on hearing a scene read back. This is where listening and putting questions to the dreamer again come in. Has every image in that scene been clarified in its meaning for the dreamer? If not, there are several ways of helping a dreamer go further with it. One is to suggest looking at the image abstractly rather than literally and see how many metaphorical ideas may occur to her. Another is to call to her attention everything she may have said about the image previously. This gives her more to work with in her search for meaning. Finally, help her explore the image in its possible connection to what immediately preceded it and what immediately followed it.

Stage III B(3): Orchestrating Projections

When the playback does not bring the dreamer to the point of closure, there is a final strategy which the dreamer may invoke, namely, an invitation to the group to offer what I refer to as an integrating or orchestrating projection. The preceding two strategies had as their goal eliciting the information needed to bridge the gap between dream image and waking reality. As more information comes to light, there is more of a chance that connections will occur to the dreamer. There are situations, however, where the information has surfaced but has not come together in a way that is sufficiently helpful to the dreamer. The final group strategy addresses this. If anyone in the group now sees a connection between what the dreamer has said and its metaphorical connection to one or more images in the dream or to the whole dream itself that the dreamer has not seen, it can now be offered to the dreamer as an orchestrating or integrating projection, orchestrating because the group member tries to bring the diverse elements together and a projection because it is the group member who makes the selection and fits it to the imagery. It may just be her projection or it may be validated by the dreamer, in which case it can be very helpful.

Craft: Based on careful listening to all that the dreamer has shared, can the group members guess what question is being unconsciously addressed by the dreamer's psyche and how the imagery and the story being told depict the answer to the question? The skill to be mastered is how to come to an orchestration that is meaningful to the dreamer based only on what the dreamer has openly shared. In practice this is not as easy as it may sound. There is often the tendency to enhance the orchestration by gratuitously adding information from one's own life or falling back on theoretical preconceptions. There is also the tendency to reframe a response to the dream so as to offer reassurance to the dreamer. The only true reassurance is the degree of contact the dreamer is helped to make with her dream. When a dreamer has fully engaged in the process, she has, in my experience, provided all the building blocks necessary for the group to be able to help her reassemble them into a meaningful fit.

Stage IV: Additional Comments by the Dreamer

There follows a final stage to the process, one that no longer involves the group. After a dreamer has presented a dream, and sometime before the next meeting, the dreamer is encouraged to take a second look at the dream. Being alone and not under group pressure a dreamer may sometimes see connections that were not apparent during the group session. At the next meeting the dreamer is invited to share any additional thoughts.

Craft: There are times when, at the end of the session, there is the general feeling that while all of the material is out in the open, our efforts at putting it together fall short of satisfactory closure. Anyone in the group who is so inclined can review the material and the next time the group meets offer the dreamer what I refer to as a delayed orchestration. To do this effectively often requires note-taking. This is optional. The only note-taking I insist on is to have the dream down on paper in the dreamer's own words so that it can be read back during the Playback. I use my notes to rearrange all that a dreamer has said in their relation to the succession of images. Matching associations and images in this fashion often suggests new insights.

A Session:

It is not easy to capture all that goes on in a dream group in the course of an hour and a half devoted to a single dream. I try to write down as much as I can of what the dreamer says and to a much lesser extent some of what else is occurring. Exchanges between members of the group and the dreamer are often too rapid to get down.

Adam is a fifty year old teacher. He had been in the group about three months at the time of the dream. He had many years of analysis before joining the group. Adam had shared a number of dreams earlier. His tight rein on his feelings made him avoid closeness with others. Aside from his love of and success with teaching, he seemed to glide through life as the "invisible man."

Adam's dream on awakening on a Wednesday morning was presented the following Saturday, August 14, 1999.

In the dream I am about fourteen years old. I am in my parents' house. There is a knock at the front door and a current member of my department is at the door. He is delivering a paper that he typed for me. I did the writing of the paper. He told me I had forgotten to put my name on the paper. At that point, my father emerges and tells me I am not allowed to have visitors. I become angry and tell him he is unfair.


The person from my department is a real person. My father is dead.


(Feelings in the dream?) I felt constantly controlled and hemmed in by the atmosphere around me. I felt silly I had forgotten to put my name on it. I was pleased he had brought it to my attention. It was important that my name be attached to it. My father was being intrusive again and butting in.

The Group's Projections

Because the dream was short, the group members, as they made the dream their own, were invited to share their feelings as well as their ideas about the imagery.

"Part of me was not recognized and wants recognition."

"I feel controlled by my parents. They interfere with my need to express myself."

"It's frightening to be known and connected to the paper although it's something I really want."

"I do this to myself as well - not letting myself be known." "Fourteen was when I was just beginning to develop myself." "I feel torn between the good and the bad father."

"Another man did something with my work. Can there be others who can be of help?"

"There is a sense of who I am in the paper."

"I'm exploring the relationship between creativity and egoism in contrast to being egotistical. My father was egotistical."

"It has something to do with what is a part of me."

"It's difficult for me to discover my talent. I need consensual validation with regard to my ability?"

"There has to be a significant person to admire who and what we are. There is that person in the dream. My father took that away from me.

"I'm full of impressive ideas but not strong enough to follow through. My father exacerbates that by not validating me."

"The dream group is represented by the visitor. A metaphorical door was opened when he invited me to write my name."

"Both the father and the man are me. My father is the angry part of me.

The dream was returned to Adam.

Adam's Response:

"All the projections were amazingly accurate. They reached issues I am struggling with. Many memories came back. I have a friend I gave advice to. He also gave me some. It had to do with not signing the paper. I identified with him in his not being able to recognize his own ability. My father was a psychopath. I was afraid of him. I hated him and was always fearful of his violence. He had no control over his hands. He degraded any effort of mine to express myself or succeed. He was in violent competition with both my brother and myself. I really tried to be a good father to most of the younger people I meet. I have a better relation with other young people than I do with my daughter. She is not able to maintain a relationship."

"Part of me is absolutely amazed at myself. I am extremely self-destructive. I live my life as if I'm driving a truck full of dynamite. The only way to avoid danger is by keeping the hostility to myself."

Adam invited the dialogue.


(Can you recall any thoughts or feelings on falling asleep Tuesday evening?) "I was angry at my wife and blaming her."

(Anything more about Tuesday evening?) "I kept blaming my wife for my not being able to work. When we are together she wants my attention. She is needy about spending time together. Yet I am also dependent on having someone around."

(Can you recall anything more around the time of the dream?) "At the beginning of the week I judged the summer a creative failure. I didn't develop any of the projects I had in mind. I did give a talk on TV and that made me feel better. I watched it later on TV and felt as if I were waiting for myself to make a mistake. When I finished watching it, even though I got a feeling from others that it was a success, I felt a sense of being a fraud and felt it was of no value. I had seen the tape Monday."

(Anything more at the time you were watching yourself on TV and your anger at your feeling of self-importance?) "I wanted to run out of the room even though 1 was getting the attention I thought I wanted."

(Anything more?) "It shows how desperate I am for validation. I did get a positive reaction from others but it's something I can't accept."

(Anything more?) "It went well and I got good reactions. What I valued was a remark from one of the undergraduates there to the effect it was the only paper he understood."

(Any other feelings on watching the tape on Monday?) "I had two kinds of feelings. I wanted to destroy my image as I watched, saying to myself you're no damn good. The subject matter was an analysis of Huckleberry Finn. I felt self-important which made me even more angry at myself."

(Anything else happen recently?) "A friend of mine died and left me to handle his estate. I felt guilty about getting anything from someone else's death. It kept me from being able to work."

The Playback:

At Adam's invitation the dream was read aloud to him. Because it was a short dream it was read back in its entirety.

"I am getting very strong feelings as it was read back about the struggle between feeling powerless and feeling powerful. The feeling I had as a child was that I have to negate myself in order to be loved by myself. My father was an egomaniac. I don't want to be like him."

(Being fourteen in the dream?) "My feeling as a child was that I would never be able to get away from my parents' house. When I was that age my father ran away and joined the army. I never felt much older than fourteen."

(The current member of your department?) "I respect his work. He works well with students but he also bullies them. I used to do that but stopped. We work with ghetto kids. He physically threatened them. I thought that was silly. He wasn't capable of delivering on those threats. He is very productive. He does better than me with kids on standardized tests."

(You felt the need to bully?) A part of me identified with the way my father bullied. When I worked at a camp coaching baseball, I became my father and I carried that over to my teaching. It wasn't fun. I stopped trying to scare people."

(About your father in the dream?) "I accepted the fact that he was better at everything than I was. He tore down everything I did and I accepted it."

(The reference to no visitors?) "I feel I can't trust anyone or let anyone know what I was feeling. It was a way of staying out of trouble with him. A lot of my guilt is connected to wanting him dead because of the hatred I felt."

(Anything more about your father in the dream?)" He is saying any attempt to develop my work is not acceptable. The only way to keep him happy is to remain anonymous. That's what I've done. I deny myself help for myself as a way of fighting my father's battle for him. I keep myself down."

Adam invited orchestrating comments:

Orchestrating Projections:

Kate: "You yearn for your father to be different, but you identify with his view of you. You were neither creative nor worthy. In other words, you were no damn good. It was intolerable for you to watch your successful performance on TV. It's as if you were doing something bad. The fact that you were successfully communicating to and connecting to others was unbearable to you. It was as if you were engaged in something bad and forbidden. You weren't allowed to have others in your life. He needed you all to himself as an outlet for his sadism."

Nora: "Your guilt is connected to wanting him dead. Part of you identifies with your father. Part of you does not. When you do identify with your father your creativity is killed. You are sacrificing your life in order to survive. It's a no-win situation."

Kate: "There is a destruction of your healthy expansiveness by leaving your name off the paper. You become your father to yourself"

Cele: "It is as if being effectively creative is experienced by you as letting some of your narcissism sneak out and be seen. It forces you to live through the accomplishments of others."

Monte: "The two significant residues were the emergence of the bully-father in you because your wife desired more time with you, and your response to the TV show where you were not open to something that might have enhanced your self-esteem. It was as if your father had taken possession of you, preventing you from daring to take possession of yourself. In a sense, he prevented you from taking full possession of yourself from the age of fourteen on. Every event from that time on was filtered through the template of that imprisoning grip of your father's possession."

Adam's Response:

"What you have said is amazing! I could not take issue with any of it. What Cele said about living through the accomplishment of other people is true. The idea of possession is accurate. I use the world to defeat myself and as a way of staying in contact with a terrible father. The sad part is that creativity is pleasurable and I don't allow it. I identify with my father in my masculinity. He had a very masculine image. Part of me still glories in that identification. That quality protects me. If I change, I have a fear I will lose my masculinity. It isn't masculinity. He was just sadistic. I protect my need to run away from other people. I felt you all knew my father in the sense that Cele did. He was omnipotent, god-like and sadistic. The problem is to move from explanation to transformation."

What follows is an amplification of my original orchestration written up in December 2000 in preparation for this paper. Adam was invited to offer a final comment.

Monte: "Two events preceding the dream precipitate the dream's depiction of the awesome internal struggle going on between your attempt to salvage any residue of self-esteem and the risk of a level of self-exposure that could threaten your very existence. The request of your wife to spend more time together evoked an attack mode (your identification with your father whom you hated and now hate in yourself) in lieu of a fairer appraisal of what was going on between your wife and yourself at the time. The other residue was your response to the TV program. You say you need consensual validation to value yourself. That is true to some extent for all of us. In your case, it really doesn't foster your self-esteem. In fact, it is counter-productive. Any genuine self-esteem would lead to a greater freedom of self-exposure and that would challenge your ability to remain invisible. It is as if you feel safer letting the self-esteem engendered in you by another remain in the other until such time as you will be in a position to reclaim it. It's as if you are a man driven to deposit all of the money you earn in a bank and then being afraid to withdraw any of it for your own immediate use."

Adam: The dream reflects the cornerstone of my problem. I don't want to be known, even for the positive things. However, that is not the entire story. I crave recognition. It is not adult approval that I want; I want the love children should get from their parents, unconditional love.

On some level I recognize that I can not get this form of love from intellectual work and therefore I have given up on it. That is why in the dream I do not sign my name. This is why I do not finish work I start. Part of me fears that I am seeking a regressed state. The work should get me love but that reduces me to a child's place.

There is also the rage I feel at the angry father in the dream. I want to destroy him and the only way to do that is to destroy myself by destroying my work. Hence I do not identify with my work or myself.

Application to Therapy:

There are a number of ways this group approach to dream work finds useful application to clinical practice. Perhaps the most important result is the demystification of dream work and the feeling of greater security in pursuing it. The process offers the therapist a more structured approach to the task. Taught to rely on the power of free association, the therapist often fails to realize that an active inquiry is necessary to evoke the relevant data. Before the dream is even told, for example, there should be clarity about when the dream occurred. This can be of help in alerting the therapist to possible contexts that may have given rise to the dream. Did the dream occur the night after the last session? The night preceding the present session? In therapy one begins, of course, with the patient's spontaneous associations and encourages the full play of associations to all the images. This is a necessary beginning but not sufficient by itself. Direct questioning is needed to explore more fully the recent emotional context related to the occurrence of the dream at a particular time in the patient's life. What can then also prove useful is to further follow the structure of the dialogue as described in the process to the extent it seems necessary. The patient is invited to take a second look at the dream as the therapist reads it back, scene by scene, with emphasis on the specific images that still remain obscure. The patient now has her spontaneous associations to work with as well as whatever additional light that has been shed on the recent context. The final stage of the process, the orchestration, is quite analogous to what Walter Bonime refers to as an "interpretive hypothesis," framing it as something to be considered and verified or not by the patient.


The process described in this paper evolved as a way of teaching safe and effective dream work to those who wished to use dreams in their clinical work and for those who are simply interested in their own dream life. The basic concepts can be taught and the skills can be learned by anyone. The process unfolds in stages, each of which is geared to maintaining both the safety of the dreamer while at the same time providing the help the dreamer needs to hear what the dream is saying. The inverse relationship between trust and defensiveness makes this possible.


Bonime, W. (1982) The Clinical Use of Dreams, New York, Da Capo Press.

Morrison, A. (1993) Animal dreams. In (ed.) M.A. Carskadon, Encyclopedia of Sleep and Dreaming, New York, pp. 37-38.

Ullman, M. (1996) Appreciating Dreams: A Group Approach, Thousand Oaks, CA, Sage Publications.