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Wholeness and dreaming

Montague Ullman, M.D.


Essays in honour of David Bohm. Edited by B.J. Hiley, Birkbeck College, University of London and F. David Peat, Ottawa, Canada. Routledge & Kegan Paul, London and New York 1987, pp. 386-95

It is a decade since my first encounter with David Bohm and his way of thinking about reality. My concern then, as now, is with the nature of our dreaming experience. His views set up a certain resonance that subtly, but insistently, helped me move to a new way of looking at dreams. I say new because it departs radically from the views I held as someone brought up in the psychoanalytic tradition. To mention one such radical departure, to which I will come back later, I no longer look upon dreaming primarily as an individual matter. Rather, I see it as an adaptation concerned with the survival of the species and only secondarily with the individual. I refer to this as the species-connectedness aspect of dreaming. In this presentation I will try to relate two aspects of Bohm's thought to dreaming; namely, the notion of unbroken wholeness and his concept of the implicate order.

Bohm postulates an underlying order, not directly knowable, but constituting the ground of all being, the implicate order[1]. Out of this a manifest order arises. Through the way we perceive this manifest order we ourselves create a perceptual order, otherwise known as consensus reality or middle-order reality[2]. As a result of long conditioning our perceptual order takes discreteness as the primary given, despite our ever-deepening understanding of field interrelationships. Bohm suggests, and I think rightly so, that this approach to understanding the nature of reality has played an important role in fostering the degree of alienation and fragmentation that now exists among the members of the human species.

Bohm's contributions offer some leverage to set in motion a counter-force. What if we were to turn things upside down - and emphasize connection and wholeness instead of discreteness? And if each of us were to re-examine the givens in our individual disciplines? Might the perceptual order we arrive at then move closer to the manifest order and, in so doing, become more attuned to the implicate order? In what follows I will try to illustrate what I mean by reformulating a way of looking at our dreaming existence.

There are two ways of knowing the world and our relationship to it. They are quite different and serve different needs of the organism. The first is the way of scientific knowledge, with its down-to-earth counterpart, common sense. This is knowledge of the world as object. Its function is to separate, compartmentalize, fragment, analyze the world into bits and pieces small enough for us to handle and use for our own ends. This mode of knowledge has resulted in mastery but not wisdom. It is incomplete and therefore false. Despite the heroic proportions to which it has evolved it can no longer stand alone as the measure of man's potential

Whatever dreaming is, and we are far from understanding its true nature, it is a regular feature of the sleep phase of our existence. Properly appreciated, our dream life can be seen as an example of a second mode of knowledge that stands, not in opposition to, but in a complementary relationship to what we ordinarily regard as knowledge. I am referring to the aesthetic-creative approach to knowledge which is probably older than our strivings for mastery. It seeks to create and maintain meaningful contact between men. It helps man to transcend himself and experience himself as part of a larger whole. In the formulations of Andras Angyal[3] it serves man's homonomous need, the need to connect with a larger supporting environment just as the mastery over objects serves his autonomous need, the need to maintain ones own boundaries. In its manifestations it is immediate, sensuous, ineffable and infinite. It is the wave counterpart to the particulate notions of science. It serves man's need for unity, togetherness and harmony. When scientific knowledge is developed in a one-sided way it results in the separation of subject and object and becomes divisive in character. When the creative-aesthetic way of knowing is misapplied it results at best in the cult of an aesthetic élite, at worst in impractical arrangements. Regardless of which mode is used, a poor fit between the mode of knowing and the context to which it is applied will result in misfiring and unintended consequences. We are all familiar with the unintended ecological consequences of the indiscriminate application of the first mode of knowing and the misuse of art for political purposes in the case of the second mode.

Our dreams relate to the aesthetic-creative mode and in that sense have something in common with art. The task of the artist is to enter into the life of another human being and, working with the residual plasticity that exists, to come up with the most aesthetically pleasing result. The fund of knowledge in the world has not increased objectively but the world has become a better place in which to live.

Before I examine this question of fit and context more specifically around the issue of dream consciousness I want to call attention to something we often pay lip service to but fail to appreciate fully; namely, that we are all much less separate than we think we are. The preoccupation with separateness has come about by the way our personal lives have been booby-trapped by the failures of history. We go about our daily tasks with a limited and often expedient view of our connection to all other members of the human species. Were we to allow a truer vision of this underlying state of interconnectedness we would be more inclined to remedy rather than increase the fragmentation and separateness among members of the human species that has been our heritage and that we so blindly perpetuate.


Our dreams provide us with an accurate and reliable way of monitoring the mishaps and difficulties we experience in maintaining collaborative and affective bonds with others. Throughout our lives we fight a war on two fronts. On the one hand are the personal assets and limitations shaped by our unique life history that we bring to this issue of connectedness. On the other hand we are caught up in the mix of both supportive and destructive fallout from the way our social institutions and arrangements relate to this issue.

The play of these forces provides the battleground that appears in our dreams. Failures and frustrations in maintaining positive bonds form the subject matter of our dreams. It is as simple as that. It becomes more clear if we disengage from the way we have been taught to look at our dreams and review them with freshness and curiosity. The little knowledge we have acquired, in its emphasis on the personal, has obscured the essence of what dreaming is all about. If we were to take dreams seriously we would have at hand a reliable monitoring system that informs us in a precise way just where our unifying trends were at. Few of us are fortunate enough to fulfill our creative, loving, relating needs in the course of our day. Our failures and shortcomings, as well as our successes in these areas, are what we dream about.

Dreaming is an example of the sensuous, immediate, embracing mode of knowing that we spoke about earlier. Dreams are expressive, visionary and ineffable. They lead us from the present to infinity without seeming to traverse either time or space.

Our dreams arise out of recent and remote feeling residues. That part of us which is linked to others through feeling is more real, more enduring and more significant than other dimensions of our existence. It compels belief. It dissolves distance, creates unity and links us to the real world. This is the stuff of reality. On the surface our dreams are a seemingly anarchic play of images that descend upon us uninvited. As metaphorical expositions, however, these images reflect the core of our being and the place we have made for ourselves in the world. I use the term descend advisedly because, for too long, we have been misled into thinking that dream content ascends into consciousness from a primitive substratum of our personality. I believe the opposite to be the case.

We live our lives as fragmented individuals, seeking self-realization through our connections to a larger whole. By the feelings they generate and by the information they contain, our dreams can further our effort to live in harmony with a universe of which we are only a very small part and to which we are connected or disconnected by very small acts. Dreams come to us uninvited and unannounced. They involve us whether we want to be involved or not. They are to be reckoned with, providing we allow ourselves to recognize their importance and do the work necessary to transform information mobilized while dreaming into information useful to us in the waking state. Our waking mentality sometimes finds it difficult to encompass certain truths about ourselves, about others and about society at large. When awake our need for security and concern with our discreteness sometimes results is a protective cocoon that obscures our vision. Dream work can prod us into facing issues a bit more honestly. Such work has a way of confronting us with our blind spots and enhancing our capacity for involvement.

Dreams deal with facts, but facts of a most particular kind. They can be recognized later as facts, even though they are expressed in a strange language that is borrowed from the realm of our visual experiences. This can best be illustrated by a simple analogy. If you were working with an array of colours and wished to convey the impression they made to someone else and had the choice of describing them in words or presenting them visually, the likelihood is that you would choose the visual form as the more effective. The dreamer is in much the same position. He deals with an array of feelings that have not yet been clearly sorted out and that defy verbal expression. They do lend themselves to visual display where their source in life experience and their connections can be seen at once. The visual metaphor is a most natural and effective mode of expression of feelings. For the dreamer the visual metaphor is best suited to his need to say a great deal in the limited time available during active dreaming.

What is the agency that provides this unending source of unerringly apt visual presentations? I think that we honestly do not know the answer. It is easy to gloss over our ignorance by attributing the source to some reified internal demon variously known as primary process, the unconscious or, simply, the Id. The basic question has to do with the nature of the process involved in the selection and organization of the visual images with which we build the content of our dream consciousness. If we look at this without allegiance to deeply embedded theoretical biases we seem to be involved in a rather intriguing process. We bring together a selected array of bits and pieces of past data pertaining to our lives. We rearrange these in a spatial and temporal ordering that bears no relationship to their original time-space frame of reference. The rearrangement enables us to express precisely, dramatically and effectively the particular interplay of feelings mobilized by a current unresolved life situation.

Socially available images provide us with the special kinds of building blocks needed to capture and express one or another aspect of our subjective life. It takes a rather high level of creative and organizational ability to tap our internal computer for the appropriate bits of information with which to achieve this end and then to rearrange them in a way that can be used as emotional templates to highlight a current significant aspect of our life. In this respect the powers displayed by our dreaming selves seem to exceed the scope of our waking faculties. The comparison is unfair, of course, since each is supreme in its own domain. Each is a useful way of grasping different aspects of our existence. However, we do tend to pay more attention to the one than to the other.

This view of dreams suggests that we are capable of looking deeply into the face of reality and of seeing mirrored in that face the most subtle and poignant features of our struggle to transcend our personal, limited, self-contained, autonomous selves so as to be able to connect with, and be part of, a larger unity. As someone once remarked, our eyes are the instruments that nature created in order to see itself. So may dreams be seen as an instrument that enables us to view our human nature and the vicissitudes it has been subjected to in the course of our unique life history. In the interest of reaching out toward a sense of unity each of us tunes our psyche to an exquisitely sensitive pitch in order to store and use what we have seen, heard and learned about the world and our place in it. At night we draw upon this store and shape it to our immediate purposes. There is a level and range of creativity in our dreams, which for some of us come out only at night, but for all of us are more discerningly honest at night.

This point of view is congruent with the basic phenomenologic aspects of dreaming. Put simply, these have to do with our ability, while dreaming, to realign our waking view of ourselves and others to bring it more in line with the reality of our historical existence. Our dreams confront us with what is. They offer us a deeper insight into the truth about ourselves.

This approach to knowledge gives us powerful tools with which to effect change and transformation. Any system, including a given personality system, becomes more than it conceives itself to be when, in fact, it is shown to be more by the exposure and identification of these connecting channels to a larger reality.

Dream work

What I should like to consider next are those features of dreaming that I have come to know and appreciate through the group dream work I have been engaged in since the mid-1970s. A description of the process has been given elsewhere[4]. In brief, it consists of structuring a small group arrangement so that it can be of maximum help to the dreamer without being intrusive. Eschewing the theoretical and technical strategies of formal therapy, its sole purpose is to help the dreamer appreciate, to the extent of his own readiness and desire, all that the images can convey about the current emotional context of his life. The members of the group are oriented to meeting the two basic needs of the dreamer. The first need is to feel safe. In order to feel free to share the dream with others and to engage in the self-disclosure necessary, an atmosphere of trust and safety has to be generated. This is brought about in a number of ways. The control of the process lies completely in the hands of the dreamer. No one in the group assumes the role of the therapist and the dreamer is the final authority as to what in the dream fits into the context of his life. The process respects the dreamers privacy as well as his individuality. There is no imposition of any a priori system of symbolic meanings so that there is respect for the dreamer's ability to use any image in highly idiosyncratic ways. Trust is further generated by the sharing that goes on at several different levels. In the course of ongoing dream work everyone, including the leader, has the option of sharing a dream and, in due course, everyone becomes known to each other at this deeper level of communication.

The dreamer has another need which the group must fulfill; namely, to help him make discoveries about himself that are difficult for him to make alone. Various strategies are pursued toward this end. The first involves the group members making the dream their own, projecting their own feelings and thoughts into the images and thus creating a reservoir of possibilities in the hope that some may have meaning for the dreamer. At a later stage the group, through its questions, helps the dreamer reconstruct the emotional climate that led to the dream. Then, working with the context thus elicited, they help the dreamer build further bridges between the images in the dream and his life situation. The questions are put in an open-ended way that leaves the dreamer free to deal with them in any manner he chooses. The dreamer is helped to contextualize the dream, i.e. to relate the imagery to those aspects of his life and personality that they metaphorically point to. The group is functioning as a catalytic agent in trying to make explicit what is implicit in the imagery. The reality captured in the dream is explicated into the waking mode through a social process that offers both support and stimulation to the dreamer. This leads to significant and helpful readjustments in the perceptual order. By sharing their own projection, the group adds to the mutuality of the process and deepens the feeling of safety and trust.

Dreaming and wholeness

Dreams offer an opportunity to set in motion a natural healing process, providing the dreamer has a supportive, stimulating and non intrusive social milieu in which to explore the connections between dream imagery and life context. The essence of this natural healing potential derives from the dreamer's ability, while dreaming, to produce imagery that reflects recently exposed areas of dis-connection with others or with himself. By this I mean that the dreamer concerns himself with any ongoing events or experiences that, in significant ways, impinge on his felt sense of connectedness to others. Some vulnerable area is touched off by a recent happening. This, in turn, sets off reverberations at different levels. It is the recent event that defines the issue to be explored in the dream.

The quality of connectedness emerges clearly in the course of group dream work. In the presence of a safe atmosphere generated by the non-intrusive nature of the process, social defenses melt away or, at any rate, don't interfere with the deep-level sharing and sense of communion that is generated. Group members are able to respond at a feeling level to someone else's imagery. This is understandable in terms of sharing a similar social milieu, but it may also point to a deeper way that imagery has of linking people together, something more akin to a shared aesthetic response.

While dreaming we affect a figure ground reversal. Awake and tied to the perceptual order we allow ourselves to see things in their discreteness. The important part played by connectedness, Bohm's notion of the unbroken wholeness, is like an insistent Greek chorus, dimly heard or not attended to at all. The reversal that takes place while dreaming brings aspects of that unbroken wholeness, at least as it applies to our relationships with others, more closely to our attention. We confront ourselves with the state of our connections, the strategies we use to undermine these connections and the social pressures that place obstacles in the way of connections.

This ability to reflect the dreamer's concern with the maintenance of connections has led me to the speculative notion that, while asleep and dreaming, we engage with a much broader aspect of our human nature, one that goes beyond the concern of the individual. Group dream work discloses an agency that works against fragmentation. Trust, communion and a sense of solidarity develops rapidly in a dream-sharing group. This concern with connections links dreaming to a larger issue; namely, the survival of the species. There has been an unfortunate emotional fallout from the fragmentation of the human race that has come about historically, that continues into the present and to which we continue to contribute. It is as if, while dreaming, we are displaying this from our personal and immediate point of view. If unchecked this fragmentation carries within it the seed for the potential destruction of the human species. Only through constructive and effective bonding can this fragmentation be overcome and the species endure. It is in this sense that dreams may be looked upon as that part of our nature that is concerned with the survival of the species. The individual's concern with the maintenance of his sense of connectedness to others is part of this larger concern; namely, that of species-connectedness. The preservation of the individual is necessary, of course, for the preservation of the species but, while dreaming, we seem able to transcend individual boundaries to move toward our place in a larger whole.

How do these considerations about dreaming enter more specifically into the constructs emphasized by Bohm? In a general and analogous way the view of dreaming presented here is more intrinsically related to notions of inter-connectedness and unbroken wholeness than are dream theories designating reified psychic entities at war with each other. Awake we are mired in our own discreteness and, by the language we use, trapped by the seeming discreteness of all else about us. Asleep and dreaming, we forsake linguistic categories as a primary mode of expression and risk feeling our way back into an underlying connectedness. While dreaming we explore both internal and external hindrances to flow and unbroken wholeness.

Dreaming and the implicate order

The concept of the implicate order and the concept of other orders that follow from it provide us with some admittedly speculative ideas about the relationship of dreaming to the question of species-connectedness. The implicate order represents in a sense an infinite information source. The manifest order represents the way things are, free of perceptual and conceptual limitations and distortions. The perceptual order represents our limited grasp of the manifest field and, in turn, our indirect tie to the implicate order. Might our dreaming experience, with its capacity to zero in on a more real or truthful version of ourselves, be closer to the manifest order? Might it be, in effect, a bridge between the perceptual and the manifest order and be closer to the natural transformation of the implicate into the explicate?

As Bohm points out we need a new language to talk about these transformational processes. Might the language of the dream, its direct sensory approach as a way of expressing the nature of our existence at the moment, be closer to such a language than our reliance while awake on more abstract ways of talking about our relation to the world? Might it be a way of bringing us back to our connection to the manifest order? Our senses have the ability to bring us into direct contact with the manifest order but our personal and cultural conditioning have set up a perceptual screen separating us from the manifest order. The language of the dream is unique in that it is expressed in a sensory mode primarily but without any loss of our remarkable and creative abstract abilities. It is the language of the sensory (predominantly visual) metaphor. Dreaming may be a way of monitoring our distance from the manifest order, from the reality behind the way we look at ourselves, at others and at the social order in which we live our lives. When, awake, we invest the time and energy to retrieve the information in those images. We are, in effect, closing the gap between the perceptual and the manifest orders. We come closer to the actuality of our historical existence and, in that way, free it of some of the perceptual and conceptual distortions that have accrued to it.

When we realign an aspect of our perceptual order with its middle-order correlate, we are simply replaying this selected aspect of our life, using a different operator. The result is strange and unfamiliar to the program we are immersed in while awake. What makes dream work rewarding is the promise it holds for enriching that program through this exposure to the manifest order. It is as if our dreams have brought us closer to a deeper sense of connectedness than comes through in the perceptual order.

Using these concepts the task becomes one of defining where the position of the dreamer is in relation to each of these three orders of reality. What has been called condensation (the ability of a single image to have many references), for example, may be viewed as a superposition[5] arising in an order not directly comprehensible in the waking state. The ability of the dreamer to link past and present into a sense of the immediate present may also derive from the more temporal and spatial fluidity that characterize these more basic orders. Imaging is therefore not simply a primitive mode. It is a necessary mode of staying closer to manifest-order reality.

By bringing us closer to the manifest order our dreams may bring us closer to the mystery of the implicate order. It is interesting to further speculate about this possible connection and the light it may shed on the nature of paranormal phenomenon. But that is another story.

[1] D. Bohm, Wholeness and the Implicate Order, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1980.

[2] A. Comfort, 'The implications of an implicate', J. Social Biol. Struct., 4. 363-74 (1981).

[3] A. Angyal, Foundations for a Science of Personality, The Commonwealth Fund, New York. 1941.

[4] M. Ullman and N. Zimmerman, Working with Dreams, Delacorte/ Eleanor Friede, New York, 1979; reprinted J. P. Tarcher, Inc, Los Angeles, 1985.

[5] A. Comfort, personal communication.