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Dream Work and the General Public

Psychiatr J Univ Ottawa, Vol 12, No. 2, 1987

Montague Ullman, M.D., Clinical Professor of Psychiatry Emeritus, Albert Einstein College of Medicine, New York, New York, U.S.A.

Presented at the Association for the Study of Dreams Conference III. June 23-29.1986, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.

This presentation examines the current dream scene from the point of view of the public's growing interest in dreams and the factors responsible for the public's current lack of sophistication about the nature of dreams and lack of competence in doing safe and effective dream work By virtue of the prevalence of psychoanalytic ideology dream work has remained largely in the hands of professionals. This has resulted in a certain mystification about dreams and a perpetuation of the notion that dream work will remain either superficial or dangerous unless carried out by an expert. It is true that the dreamer is in need of help in fathoming his or her own dream. It has been the author's experience that the skills necessary to provide that help can be identified and taught and that a small group arrangement offers the best vehicle for extending dream work beyond the consulting room and out into the community. A small group process can be structured to meet the needs of the dreamer for safety (The Safety Factor) and for help in making discoveries about the imagery that are difficult to make alone (The Discovery Factor). The skills involved include learning how to view the dream image as a visual metaphor, learning how to listen to all that a dreamer has to say, and learning how to put questions to a dreamer that help elicit relevant data without being intrusive. Finally, over a decade of experience in creating a community base for dream work in Sweden a summarized briefly.

The movement now under way to stimulate dream work is testimony to the public's interest in dreams and, more importantly, to its capacity to work with them safely and effectively. This interest and this capacity have been seriously underestimated in the past. The new look being given to dream work comes up against deeply ingrained attitudes and expectations that stand in the way.

The psychoanalytic superstructure that has been erected around dreams has caught the public in a double bind. People have been deprived of personal authority over their dreams and are then judged by the same professionals to be too unsophisticated psychologically to deal with them. Dream work has come to be associated in the public's mind with professional skills and theories. This has resulted in some degree of mystification so that the dreamer tends to look up to someone (or some book) for the meaning of the dream. In order to offset this insecurity and still find a way to work with their dreams, people often latch onto one or another category of symbolic meanings (usually Freudian or Jungian) or to one or another therapeutic technique (generally Gestalt).

Adding to the problem is the lack of broad social support for dream work. Dreams have no utilitarian value. As a consequence, there are no socially sanctioned provisions for dream work except for those who need psychotherapy. There is no place for dreams either in the family or, until recently, in the educational system. Dream work is not in the mainstream of personal development nor is it regarded as an event of social importance. Over and above this social deficit there is widespread misinformation about the nature of dreams and how to go about doing dream work. We, therefore, have a dual task on our hands - to remedy the deficit and to disabuse the public of erroneous notions that are antithetical to dream work.

The general public can bring to dream work their curiosity, their interest, and their potential for emotional growth. A word about this so-called curiosity. Having been involved in finding an outlet for this curiosity, I have come to the conclusion that it is only the surface manifestation of a deeper awareness, namely, that a natural healing mechanism is at work. What we pass off as idle curiosity is an unwitting impulse to seek out the social context necessary for this healing tendency to gain expression. This is connected to another underlying reason for seriously considering the extension of dream work into the community. There is an unmet need for everyone to have a safe, supportive social milieu in which aspects of their emotional heritage can be held up to the light and then modified or discarded with the aim of relating more freely and more deeply to others.

The first step towards moving dreams into the public domain is an educational one. The nature of dreaming consciousness in regard both to form and content has to be clarified. This can be done without weighting it toward any particular metapsychological point of view. Anyone who embarks on dream work should be knowledgeable about the basic phenomenological features of the dream, namely, its ability to bring a historical perspective to the present, the profoundly honest way the emotional issues are set forth and the use of creative metaphor as the predominant mode of expression.

Meaning somehow finds its way into the imagery we create while dreaming. The form it takes and the way it can be used are different from the way we express meaning while awake. Awake, we turn the dream to our waking purposes. We do this by exploring the metaphorical potential of the imagery through a process that gradually helps the dreamer get more in touch with that part of his or her psyche that has been the object of the nightly reverie. What we do with the dream in the waking state has exciting possibilities for socializing aspects of ourselves not yet socialized and, thus, expanding the freedom and honesty of our personal behavioral repertoire.

None of the above considerations support the notion, however, that this is what the dream is dreamt for. It is most likely that what we do with the dream awake has no direct connection to whatever adaptive function gave rise to dreaming in the first place. Much of what we read about the function that dreaming serves is derived from notions about its function or usefulness for the waking state. This bypasses the really important question of what it is that dreaming does for the sleeping organism.

To illustrate one possible adaptive function through the use of analogy, we might say that, during the REM state, some aspect of ourself has remained on sentry duty. Every recent, intrusive residue of waking experience has to be checked out against its connections to our past. Only in this way, i.e., by mobilizing reliable information, can we evaluate its implications for our future. Like the soldier on guard duty we are not trying to keep the camp asleep. We are trying to decide whether or not it is necessary to sound the alarm to awaken in the light of the information being uncovered. The pictures we paint contain or fail to contain the feelings evoked by the intrusive feelings that have come to our attention and the information search that ensues. In the former instance we remain asleep; in the latter we awaken.

If I were to offer any generalization as to the object of our explorations while dreaming, it would be along the following lines; in a general way, our problem stems from the fact that, in creating a social order in parallel with the natural order, we have overstepped the bounds of decency. Lacking sufficient respect for the natural order, we have produced disorder in our relationship to it. Lacking sufficient respect for each other we have produced disorder within the social order. We have failed to check the ever increasing fragmentation of the human species, a fragmentation that has resulted in the potential confrontation of two armed camps, each of which is capable of annihilating both the natural and the social order. Our dreaming self addresses this disorder as we experience its destructive fallout in the vicinity of our own lives. We are reactive to our own contribution to it, to the contributions that significant others in our lives are making to it, and, in greater or lesser measure, we register the disorder that results from the less than human social arrangements that constrain our lives.

Dreams make visible emotional lines of force between people near and far when such lines of forces are distorted by influences that stem from the self, from others, or from intrusive social arrangements. The honesty with which our dreams reflect these influences arises from an uncorrupted core of our being, a core capable of reflecting, without compromise, the subjective impact of both the outer and inner worlds in which we live. It is by no means the only such core but it is one that is universally available and available when we need it.

It is a truism that the dreamer awake needs help with the dream. The dreamer is doubly handicapped. Awake, his thinking has shifted from the creative metaphor-making mode of the dreaming state to the discursive mode of the waking state. With that shift the way of looking at himself becomes causal and logical rather than metaphorical and perceptual. As a result, it requires effort on the dreamer's part and help from others to reconstruct the emotional residues, recent and remote, that are being expressed through the visual metaphors of the dream. A second and more difficult problem presents itself. Awake, the dreamer is once again an actor on the social scene and well-worn defenses are again activated. We are all clever at finding ways of avoiding personal and social truths. As a consequence it is difficult for the dreamer awake to take as honest a look at himself as he did asleep. This is where the role of the other or others comes in. If the dreamer really wants to take such a look he or she will generally need help. It has been my experience that small group work with dreams can provide this help and in so doing generate a sense of communion with others, a feeling of solidarity and a greater tolerance of self and others.

The case for sharing and, thus, for socializing the dream rests on the following in the order of their importance:

-     The relative unfamiliarity of the language of the dream to the dreamer awake. This, of course, is something the dreamer can quite readily overcome with time and experience.

-     The relative honesty of the view the dreamer has of himself asleep compared to the view he reverts to once awake. This poses a difficult problem for the dreamer to handle alone and is the main reason that help is needed.

-     In contrast to physical healing, emotional healing takes place outside the boundaries of the skin and requires a supportive and helpful social milieu.

It isn't as if there are two ways of doing dream work - by oneself or in a group - but, rather, that the group represents the social base for more effective work. In working alone, the dreamer has only the life context he or she can relate spontaneously to the dream. Working with others helps to recover more of the relevant context. Sharing the dream paves the way for a different view of oneself. How different this view will be depends on the freedom with which the dreamer gives himself or herself over to the task in the presence of others and the skill with which others can help the dreamer move into existing blind spots. Dream work that is socialized in this way results in greater openness with others. When dream work is restricted to the self this remains untested.

The small group process I have found useful in dream work stems from an understanding of the dilemma the dreamer is in when he or she goes public with so private a part of himself or herself. Two basic needs arise from this predicament, and the various stages of the process are structured to meet these needs.

First and foremost is the dreamer's need for safety. Whatever else the group may offer it must provide an environment in which the dreamer feels safe, one that he or she can trust. I refer to this as the Safety Factor. It is my conviction that the only way to reach the required level of safety is to ensure that the control of the process is always in the hands of the dreamer. This means that dream work must be carried out in a non-intrusive way that respects the limits set by the dreamer. When we deal with the task of helping a dreamer move closer to the imagery of the dream, the group, by the way it functions, has to create that degree of safety that allows the dreamer to lower his defensive structures and risk taking as honest a look at himself awake, as he did while asleep. It is remarkable how readily social defenses dissolve once the dreamer experiences a sense of being in control and realizes that it is completely up to him to titrate the level of self-disclosure.

It is not easy for group members to be that non-intrusive in their eagerness to help the dreamer. Often there is the temptation to lead the dreamer in a direction that seems obvious. The important dictum is to follow, never to lead, the dreamer. Any effort to lead, regardless of how well intentioned, has the effect of taking some of the control out of the dreamer's hands.

A second responsibility of the group is to help the dreamer make discoveries about himself that are difficult to make alone. I refer to this as the "Discovery Factor." Without going into detail about the particular process I use since it has been dealt with at length elsewhere,1.z I would like to describe the various strategies the group uses to help the dreamer, particularly since the principles involved can find a place in any approach to dream work.

It is of interest to note that sometimes the simple act of sharing a dream with another or others may result in a sudden insight. The decision to share a dream rests on a willingness to lower one's defenses and take a certain risk. In the process I work with, the initial strategy takes the form of a game or exercise in which the group works with the dream as its own. They share with each other their own projections of the feelings and meanings evoked by the imagery. The members address each other, leaving the dreamer free to accept or reject anything emerging from the group. The Discovery Factor operates in a number of ways at this point. The group has placed its collective imagination at the disposal of the dreamer and, despite the randomness of the process, will usually come up with responses that touch the dreamer and stimulate his or her own thoughts about the dream. Aside from any direct hits, the atmosphere itself, with the group working seriously on the dream and sharing their own projections, seems to bring the dreamer closer to the imagery in a way that is not possible working alone. Sometimes this freewheeling play of the imagination is enough to bring about a sense of closure. Often, more work is needed to "contextualize" the dream, i.e., clarify the metaphorical relationship of the images to the actual life context.

There are three further strategies that can be pursued in a sequential order. The first is used to fill in the gaps left by the dreamer in his initial response and to further enrich the context. It is designed to bring the dreamer back to whatever aspect of his experience of the day prior to the dream that may have left any residual feelings. Metaphorical connections between dream image and actual experience may be apparent to the dreamer immediately but most often they are not. When we are awake we don't think in the exclusively metaphorical fashion we do when sleeping, and so we are unaware of the possible metaphorical implications of much that is happening to us. The dreamer can be helped to reconstruct his recent experience so as to have it available in the search for metaphorical connections to the dream. Questions that are helpful are those geared to jogging the dreamer's recall of the concerns, feelings, and preoccupations of the previous night. Can he reconstruct the thoughts he had on falling asleep? Were there any emotional residues? Anything he read, saw on television, anyone he spoke to on the phone? These are all simple, straightforward questions designed to help the dreamer retrace his steps back to the emotional context that shaped the dream that particular night. We avoid leading questions. We try not to ask questions that will validate a particular hypothesis we have in mind. The questions should remain information-eliciting ones based on the important premise that, before meanings can emerge, the relevant context has to be explored without bias. Neither we nor the dreamer know in advance which data may be relevant. This approach usually brings the dreamer further along in the amplification of the actual life context of the dream.

The next effort to enrich the context is a more indirect one. The dreamer's attention is now called to each image in the dream not yet "contextualized," and the dreamer is asked to play that image back against the now more amplified context in the hope that further clarification may develop. This is done sequentially with each element in the dream used instrumentally to further develop the context. The group plays the role of advocate for the dream and asks the dreamer to examine each of his or her responses in terms of its congruence or lack of congruence with what is actually in the dream. The more the context is expanded, the more likely it is that the dreamer can give meaning to the image. Sometimes it takes several repetitions of the same imagery sequence before the dreamer finds a way to connect image and context. When this happens it sheds a richer and more rewarding light on the dream than when an interpretation comes from without. This way of replaying imagery against context often leads to closure. In those instances where it doesn't, a third strategy may be invoked. This is brought into play only after going as far as possible with the first two strategies. If there still are gaps in the dreamer's command of the imagery then it may be possible to offer this last effort toward greater clarity. If, on the basis of what the dreamer has shared, one sees a possible metaphorical connection to an image, a connection that the dreamer has not yet made, it can be offered as a question and as a projection of the person who offers it. Even though an attempt is made to base the projection on what the dreamer has said (in contrast to the projection in the game where the dreamer has not yet said anything about the dream) it is still offered as a projection. This leaves it up to the dreamer to accept it as valid or to reject it as the distortion or bias of the questioner.

A word about how I use the term closure and its relation to insight. In dream work there is a feeling of satisfaction that goes beyond specifically insightful reactions. When insight does happen, it is a marker on the way to a larger and deeper response that can't quite be captured in words. There is an aesthetic quality to what the dreamer experiences as he or she is helped to spark across the metaphorical gap.

Let me turn now to the skills involved in dream work. What are they and to what extent can they be taught? There are two basic skills and they can be taught

- The art of listening.

- The art of questioning.


The impulse to interpret someone else's dream is one that is almost impossible to resist. The hardest lesson for both laymen and professionals to learn is how to let go of one's own ideas about the meaning of the imagery while listening to a dreamer. Only then can one be free to listen to and absorb all that comes from the dreamer. This is the fundamental skill in dream work, namely, the ability to follow the dreamer back into the relevant context,, one which is unique for the dreamer having evolved from specific events in his or her life. I put listening before questioning in importance because it is not enough to ask questions. One must also know how to listen to the response.

Listening is not often thought of as a difficult skill. But it is. And once people disabuse themselves of the notion that listening is "just plain listening" and begin to realize it is an art, they can then make progress in mastering it. It is an active process and it makes many demands on the listener.

1.   It means listening to and taking seriously everything a dreamer says.

2.   It means being sensitive to what the dreamer indicates is important by what he or she emphasizes or repeats.

3.   It means being sensitive to the feelings the dreamer conveys.

4.   It means listening to what the dreamer is not saying. This means listening with two questions in mind:

a)   to what extent has the dreamer developed the relevant recent life context? Do we know why the dream occurred when it did?

b)   to what extent has the dreamer addressed all the elements in the dream, and to what extent have all the elements been connected to relevant life contexts?

5.   It means noting possible metaphorical connections between dream and waking reality that may have escaped the dreamer.

6.   It means listening to the attitude with which the information is given. Are there hints that some area may be too private for further exploration in the group?

This kind of active, focused listening can take place only if you set aside any preconceptions about the dream or any elements in it.

Which brings us to the second skill.


The dreamer needs to be stimulated by the group to build up the context to the point where understanding sparks across the gap between image and reality. This stimulation is provided by putting questions to the dreamer in a non-intrusive way that helps the dreamer externalize more and more of the context. This is the point at which the greatest difficulty may arise. It is an art to put questions that are useful to the dreamer in ferreting out relevant bits of the context without, however subtly, taking the control out of` his or her hands. The sort of questions that threaten to take the control from the dreamer are those that shift the goal of the question from one designed to help the dreamer explore the context to one that opens areas not yet touched upon by the dreamer, or questions that nudge the dreamer toward a direction the questioner wants to go. It is all too easy to ask a leading question: However intuitive and right the questioner may be, it chips away at the dreamer's control of the process. We must take our cues from the dreamer. We follow rather than lead.

The dreamer is given to understand that questions are raised not with the expectation that immediate answers will be forthcoming, but are offered as probes for the dreamer to use to seek more information from within. Time must be allowed for this. A dreamer's immediate answer might be, "No, nothing more occurs to me." But what often happens, if given a bit more time and the dreamer continues to work with the question, is that a good deal more does come out.

In listening to the answer one has to determine:

-     Is the answer too general to have any immediate relevance to the dream? Is a follow-up question indicated? Perhaps more than one?

-     By the feelings expressed in the response, is the dreamer inviting us in to explore further or is the dreamer inviting us out?

-     As we listen, have we brought the dreamer to the point where metaphorical connections between image and life context become apparent? Should the questioning be pursued?

The questions we offer the dreamer are instruments with which to explore further the relevant emotional residues, all while respecting the privacy of the dreamer, his control of the process, and his final authority over his dream.


In my personal attempts to introduce dream work to the general public I have become convinced that this was something that people wanted, needed, and could engage with in a way that led to the mastery of the necessary skills. The curiosity I spoke of earlier as the surface manifestation of a deeper sense of the significance of dreams accounts for the near universal impulse to share a dream. It is also what helps people move into dream work so readily once help is made available to them.

In preparing a new group for dream work, the first several hours are devoted to an orientation to the nature of dreaming and the dream, the needs of the dreamer, the process, and the way the various stages of the process are designed to meet the needs of the dreamer. People catch on quite readily about how to offer their own projected feelings and meanings. The dialogue does present problems. For this reason I model the questions for several sessions, sharing my thoughts out loud so that it is clear why I ask a particular question.

With subsequent dreams I turn the dialogue over to the group, note the errors that occur, and discuss them at the appropriate time. When problems are pointed out, most people are quick to recognize and correct them the next time around. The problems center mainly around the inadequate pursuit of the context and the tendency to explore the imagery in an unsystematic way. Members of the group are quick to correct each other when leading questions are asked. They become aware of how important it is to keep bringing the dreamer back to the dream if the answers diverge from the dream or don't shed light on the particular image. Working within this structure, the dialogue becomes more effective in helping the dreamer enrich his or her awareness of the relevant context to the point where the metaphorical connections to the imagery spring to life.

Much of my work in recent years has been with groups in Sweden. My experience there has differed from that in the United States in a number of ways. I found that both the general public and the professions there were much more open to a process that was not rooted in classical notions about dream interpretation. There are several reasons for this. Psychoanalytic ideology never gained the same foothold in Sweden as it did in the United States and even in other Scandinavian countries. This process is also quite congruent with the Swedish character. Its emphasis on a non-intrusive approach and respect for the integrity of the individual, the non-violent nature of the group interaction, are all congenial with the Swedish way of life. There is a pragmatic streak in the Swedish character that is quick to show interest in whatever works, and, with due modesty, the process I use works. Another reason I enjoy working there is that, despite their outward reserve, the Swedes take their feelings very seriously. They have an appealing innocence and a deep honesty. They grow up in a society where participation in groups and concern for others play an important part in their lives. They move into dream group work rapidly and wholeheartedly. They have never lost their deep abiding sense of communion with nature, a feature of their personality which, I feel, (although I can't offer proof) makes them more open to dream work. An incidental fact of interest is that Paul Bjerre, an early figure in Swedish psychiatry, who was instrumental in bringing psychoanalysis to Sweden in the nineteen thirties, wrote about dreams as a natural healing system in books he addressed to the public.

Another factor making for the spread of dream work in Sweden is that, because it is such a small country, the professional community tends to be more in touch with one another and is more knowledgeable about what is going on outside the local area than might be the case here. Many professionals have become interested in the process I use and have gone on to leadership training sessions with me. They, in turn, have moved into the community and have initiated dream groups in over a dozen cities.

I cite Sweden as an example because my experience there has given me a concrete sense of what is involved in the effort to extend dream work into the community. Even in a small country as favorably disposed as Sweden, it is a slow uphill struggle. The task here is much greater for many reasons. These include the prevalent mystique about the dangers of dream work outside the professional realm, the lack of government and agency support, the many competing approaches that offer fast and less arduous approaches to self-betterment, the size and diversity of the population and the generally materialistic outlook of the American people.

There are many problems to overcome. We have referred to the pervasive ignorance about dreams and the reticence that stems from the nearly exclusive relegation of dream work to the professional. There is a general, cultural lack of interest and even antipathy toward dream work as being either of little value or an indulgent, narcissistic pursuit. Finally, there is a lack of opportunity for serious dream work. If these problems are to be met, it will be only if professionals accept the responsibility for recognizing the need to do what they canto develop the knowledge and skill in others instead of allowing those skills to remain closeted within the confines of the consulting room.

How well equipped are professionals to carry dream work into the community? How motivated? These are important questions. While sporadic centers of interest may rise in the community, they are apt to remain localized unless professionals undertake the educational and training responsibilities that are needed. Professionals should be the best equipped for this but, unfortunately, they are the least likely to assume this responsibility. Their training provides them with a degree of sophistication but, at the same time, it tends to constrain their thinking and technique to what works clinically within the theoretical system they employ. Professionals are oriented to emotional breakdown, not to mental health maintenance. If professionals were to accept this responsibility a number of caveats are in order:

1    We can't achieve our goal by oversimplifying all that dream work entails, namely, the learning that is necessary and the skills that have to be developed.

2.   We will have to develop governmental and other sources of financial support for the effort, as dream work on any large scale is not apt to arise sui generis from within the community and endure without such support. In Sweden there are governmental and agency supports that underwrite such efforts.

3.   It is unlikely that governmental or other agencies will respond unless professionals assume this responsibility.

4.   If the professionals were to accept this as part of their professional role they would have to look upon dream work differently than they do now. In clinical work we are guided by a learned body of theoretical knowledge and employ techniques derived from that knowledge. These influence our view of the dream and the way we use the dream to further our particular therapeutic approach. In disengaging dream work from the clinical context, we have to jettison theory, or at least those aspects that separate us from the dreamer, and learn how to deal with the dream at a phenomenological level and surrender our role as therapist. This involves a commitment to an atheoretic approach in which we work along at the same level as other members of the group. Our goal is no longer to deal with what constitutes a major concern in therapy, the analysis of defenses and resistances, but now becomes one of participating in creating a safe enough atmosphere to enable the dreamer to lower his or her defenses and to allow the dreamer's curiosity to be the driving force in this particular effort at self-healing. The professional is there to provide an orientation to the nature of the healing potential of dream imagery and to teach the basic skills necessary to be of help to a dreamer. Aside from the responsibility for protecting the integrity of the process, the professional leader functions in the same way as do the other group members, having the same options to share a dream, etc. The listening and questioning skids acquired as a professional are positive and helpful attributes in the work. They raise the level of his or her contribution but do not alter the fact that one's unique therapeutic role is surrendered, along with the expert status it implies. The professional leader is there as an expert only on the nature and structure of the process, not as someone whose special theoretical knowledge will provide the key to unraveling the dream.


In conclusion let me leave you with these thoughts. The dream is our secret weapon against any constraint on our freedom. It is the urge to be free, not the sexual urge, that points to the deep animal roots of our dreaming psyche. Animals thrive on the freedom of their natural environment. Dreaming dips into the profound animal need we all have to be masters of our destiny, to be free to do what it is in our nature to do. Our task is to achieve this through (rather than in spite of) the civilizing process we are constantly exposed to and are creating at the same time. The only way that people can forsake animal freedom for human freedom is to gain, by cooperative relations, what is lost in the pursuit of individualistic goals. The story of civilized societies is the story of distrust in man's ability to do this. We have never rid ourselves of the burden of inappropriate individualism.

Delmore Schwartz once wrote a short story called, "In Dreams Lies Responsibility." Although the story itself is not particularly pertinent to the theme we are developing, the title is. My point is not that dream work will save the world but that dreams can be a reminder that it needs saving.


1.   ULLMAN M. Access to dreams. In: Handbook of States of Consciousness. WOLMAN BB, ULLMAN M.,(eds.), New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, pp.524-552,1986.

2.   ULLMAN M, ZIMMERMAN N. Working With Dreams. Los Angeles: J.P. Tarcher, l979.