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Guidelines for Teaching Dreamwork

by Montague Ullman

Dreamtime and Dreamwork - Decoding the Language of the Night. Edited by Stanley Krippner, Ph.D. Jeremy Tarcher, Inc., Los Angeles, 1991

In recent years, a great many books about dreams have appeared that are addressed to the layman and that offer a diverse array of viewpoints and strategies describing how to work with dreams. Their number seem to be growing exponentially. My goal is to provide readers with what I think they will need if they are to make an informed judgment on a particular book.

Two preliminary questions have to be raised first, if only to dispose of them. Should dream work be taught to the general public? The answer is an unequivocal "yes" as far as I am concerned, although I can hear dissenting voices among my psychoanalytic colleagues. Freud certainly felt that, while dreams were of interest to the public, interpretive activity was best left in the hands of the psychoanalyst. Jung released this stricture a bit but still felt that a guide knowledgeable in the ways of the unconscious (personal and collective) was needed.

The next question is, can it be taught? Again, the answer is "yes," but with a caveat or two. Teaching implies learning and learning implies commitment, the mastery of certain skills, experience, and, in the case of dreams, a bit of risk-taking. It is not possible to explore that deeply personal domain where our dreaming self resides without on occasion coming across material difficult or painful to handle.

With the growing interest in dreams and in working with dreams by the general public, the question arises as to what extent the public is prepared to pursue this interest. For those of us who write books about dreams for the public, how well are we succeeding in getting across the principles of dreamwork and how successful are we in teaching safe and effective strategies necessary to carry them out? At least two serious problems can be anticipated. There is the danger that dreamwork may be pursued in a cultlike fashion, with one or another approach that promises more than it can produce being sold to the public. The public is often gullible when it comes to whatever promises instant relief, instant solutions, or instant healing. Then there are those who may be swept up in the dream movement who need more than dreamwork alone can give them. These people are in need of therapy, but have not or do not wish to face up to that need and seek a compromise solution through dreamwork.

In what follows, I have formulated a number of questions readers might keep in mind as they pursue their reading about dreams.

How well does the book provide information about the nature of dreaming and the nature of the dream? The first need of the newcomer to dreamwork is to have some understanding of the basic phenomenon that is dreaming and of its connection to the recalled dream. The distinction is important. Dreaming is a biologically instigated phase of sleep that recurs periodically - approximately every ninety minutes throughout the sleep cycle. It is the way we think while asleep. This thinking takes place predominantly in the form of uniquely crafted imagery that is related symbolically to feelings and experiences in our waking life. In most instances, they can be regarded as potential visual metaphors in which the metaphorical meaning becomes obvious when the link between image and feeling residues from waking experience comes to life. Dreaming may occur at other stages of sleep, but it most characteristically occurs during the rapid-eye-movement, (or REM), phase of sleep. Meaning is expressed in dreaming in the form of puns, play on words, double entendres, and symbolic imagery.

What are the specific features of dreaming that make it worthwhile to work with the remembered dream? There are three essential features that account for the potential healing power of the imagery. The first important feature of dreaming is its relevance to our current life. Freud provided the clue to this feature when he identified the dreamer's day residue as the starting point of what occupies the dreaming psyche. The feeling residues of recent experiences surface when our brain gets the signal to start dreaming. Those residues continue to linger because of their connection to earlier emotional residues from our past.

The second important feature is our ability to gather more information relevant to a current issue than we can readily do while awake. We bring a historical perspective to our thought processes while dreaming and seek out residues of experience from our past that, in a feeling way, are related to whatever the current issue may be.

The third important feature of the dreaming psyche is the profoundly honest way in which it reflects our subjective state. There is an honesty to our dreaming psyche, as if, in its naivet´┐Ż and innocence, it had no choice but to tell us the truth about our life, regardless of our waking interest in knowing that truth.

The dream is what we bring back to the waking state from this repetitive dreaming phase. It is not identical with the dreaming state, because it is no longer being experienced in that immediate, spontaneous, involuntary way. In the recall, it is exposed to the vicissitudes of the waking ego doing the recall. We now engage with the memory of the dreaming episode through language. This, in turn, transforms what originally was experienced in a sensory form (predominantly visual), often in a disjointed fashion, into a narrative form, with some attempt to smooth out the illogical and ambiguous wrinkles.

The combination of these three features of our dreaming psyche endows the remembered dream with its potential for healing. Dreamwork, by capturing the felt relations of the image to our life, present and past, brings us in touch with more of the determinants of our behavior and does so in a way that has the ring of truth.

Does the book emphasize the fact that most dreams do not yield their secret easily and that real work is involved in the pursuit of that secret? We use a different language when asleep and dreaming than we do while awake, and we say different things about ourselves. For both these reasons, the dreamer awake may have a difficult time distinguishing what the dream is saying. One must become familiar with a new language, that of the visual metaphor. Our dreams may accentuate the positive or expose the problematic. In either event, their language and their message strike an unfamiliar note. It is not always easy for us to lower our guard and let what is new and unfamiliar upset a pre-existing equilibrium. All of us approach unknown truths about ourselves, good or bad, cautiously. Awake, we often are working against certain built-in resistances. It takes motivation and commitment to do the work necessary to retrieve the information we invested in those images while asleep.

Does the book clarify the nature of the work that must be done by the dreamer and the extent to which the dreamer can do it alone? On awakening, a dream may seem obvious, somewhat apparent, or completely obscure. There are a number of steps for a dreamer to take to bring life and feeling to the imagery. One generally speaks of freely associating to the images in the dream. This is certainly a basic instrument, but it is not a sufficient one in addressing the dream. In order to fit the dream into one's life one must zero in on the recent emotional soil on which the dream took root; explore the full range of associations that come to mind in connection with each image in the dream; and then work with the information now available to capture the metaphorical quality of the dream, with the images as one pole of the metaphor and the associative data unearthed as the other.


Dreams start with the tensions and preoccupations we bring to bed with us at night. To what extent can we reconstruct the recent past to shed light on these emotional currents? What aspects of our recent past left us with emotional residues? What feelings or thoughts surfaced in our mind just prior to falling asleep? The dream is a continuation at night of feelings stirred up during the day. Any technique that professes to work with a dream without stressing the importance of identifying the recent emotional context will fall short of embedding the imagery in the concrete life situation of the dreamer and will run the risk of superimposing theoretical or speculative ideas on the dream to fill in the gap.


The next step involves bringing to each image in the dream, and to each detail of each image, whatever associations occur to the dreamer. What contact, past or present, has the dreamer had with that image? What might that image mean?

The important thing about the work at this stage is that it be done systematically. The goal of the dreamer is to recover information first and, in so doing, lay the basis for linking the dream to his or her life. The most effective way to do this is to begin by breaking the dream down into its various scenes, consider each scene first as a unit, and then work with the individual elements in that scene.

Consider the first scene as a whole. Are there more things you can say about it? Are there more things you can say about the individual images or elements (such as numbers and colors) that appear in that scene? Play back your thoughts about the scene against what you have noted about the recent emotional context of your life. Do any further associations occur as to why you chose those particular images that night? Do this with each succeeding scene. The work you do on each scene enables you to bring a richer network of associations to the next one and often sheds light on why one scene follows another.


In most instances, as more and more associations are brought to light, the dreamer will begin to make the connections between image and reality and catch on to the way the image reflects metaphorically a certain feeling, trend, or life situation. For a dreamer working alone, this may not be an easy matter even after doing one's best to elaborate the associative matrix. There are many helpful hints in the literature to overcome this block. One is for the dreamer to take an objective point of view about a particular image that remains puzzling, without regard to this particular dream. Sometimes in doing this, the dreamer will come across a message that suddenly feels right in its application to the dream.

Having done this work, it can sometimes help to let some time elapse; then, on coming back to the dream, the dreamer may be surprised to find some meanings emerge that escaped him or her the first time around. This is most likely to happen if enough groundwork has been done at the time the dream occurred. It can't be overstressed that dreams have a current meaning. Although they engage with our past, they start in the present.

There remains an intrinsic reason why a dreamer working alone may have difficulty in grasping fully all that the dream has to say. This can, perhaps, be best understood by viewing dreamwork as involving a series of steps designed to socialize the dream. In effect, dreamwork is the socialization of a part of the psyche that has not yet been socialized, a part that has had a kind of underground existence. "Socializing" it is making it a felt and viable part of our waking social existence. We are introducing a relative stranger to our inner circle of friends (all that goes into perpetuating our self-concept). At the outset, we can never be quite sure how the stranger will fit in.

The preceding outlined the first two stages in the socialization process that any teaching technique has to address. The first has to do with the transformation of the dreaming experience into the dream: On awakening, we are once again active social creatures, and the remembered dream now becomes an item on our waking social agenda. Most books outline some of the many helpful techniques to aid recall.

The next step in the socialization of the dream is to use the instruments of waking consciousness, such as language, associations, feelings, and memories, to explore the basis for the dream's connection to our lives. As we do this, the dream becomes more deeply embedded in our ongoing social existence. The orientation of many current books is focused on the dreamer working alone and stops at that point.

It has been my experience, based on the work I have done on my own dreams as well as my work with patients for thirty years and with groups for fifteen years, that sharing and working on dreams in a supportive and stimulating group setting is the most natural and effective method. It is as if our dreams require this level of socialization to bring out their full healing potential. Nor should that be surprising. Confronting the message of the dream alone, regardless of one's degree of sophistication, is to do so with all one's defensive apparatus ready to spring into operation should one get too close to an unpleasant truth. One is more apt to risk that confrontation in a supportive social context where trust has been established and where, through the sharing that has taken place, our human frailties have become known to each other. Our dreams cry out for this level of socialization.

Many books do encourage a group approach. There are certain minimum requirements for such an approach if it is to be effective. The atmosphere has to be that of a learning experience in which dreamers have the freedom to learn at their own rate and to the extent they feel ready. A leader should be there to teach whatever process is being used, not to confront the dreamer as the expert on his or her dream. The basics of group dreamwork should stress the following factors:

The safety of the dreamer. The dreamer who shares a dream should be in control of the process. The dreamer has the responsibility to set his or her own limits and is never to be pushed beyond that. In its effort to provide assistance, the group should always follow the associative track offered by the dreamer and never lead him or her. Leading questions take the control away from the dreamer. They arise from a concern with issues in the mind of the questioner that have not been opened up by the dreamer.

To maintain the dreamer's control, certain constraints on the group are necessary. In addition to avoiding leading questions, the group must respect the privacy of the dreamer at all times. That means, in effect, that however one conducts the dialogue between dreamer and group member, the questioning is never intrusive - that it never goes beyond areas opened up by the dreamer.

Respect for the authority of dreamers over their dreams. This entails never superimposing an interpretation on the dreamer. All interpretive ideas, be they right or wrong, should be considered as projections on the part of the person offering them unless they are accepted as meaningful by the dreamer. In my opinion, group work with dreams is best carried out in the absence of a single ideological metapsychological system. Working within the framework of any one system will constrain the imagination of both dreamer and group members to what is consistent with that system.

Both Freud and Jung endowed us with very powerful metaphors that are often, but not necessarily always, applicable to particular dream images. One should be free to draw upon them when indicated but, at the same time, remain aware that a dreamer may use any image in a highly idiosyncratic way. This accords true respect for the dreamer's individuality.

An atmosphere where all the participants, including the leader, share their dreams. This flattens the structure, lessens dependency on the leader, and diminishes his or her role as an authority. The only authority is that of someone teaching the particular process being used. In all other respects, the leader should be a fully participating member of the group.

The time factor. It takes a good deal of time to work through a dream in its entirety. It is not always possible to capture the meaning of every element of a dream, but there should be time to work on each element. If the dream is not treated with the thoroughness and care it deserves, it is best left alone.

All of the above can be summarized by saying that group work is best carried out in an atmosphere that generates safety and trust and that respects the dreamer's privacy, authority over the dream, and control over the work being done with it. The dreamer is left to manage his or her own defensive structure. The safer one feels, the more open one will be to explore the message of the dream.