[up] [home]

Basic Dream Work - An objective comparison of Dream Groups & Therapy

by Montague Ullman

Dream Network Journal of the Exploration of Dreams. Volume 9 Number 1, Winter 1990

I am often asked about the difference between the way I work with a dream in an experiential dream group and the way a therapist works with a dream in group or individual therapy. I refer to what I do as Basic Dream Work to contrast it with formal therapeutic work with dreams. The contrast can be outlined as follows:

In formal therapy the relationship is an unequal one with regard to the arrangements that are set. There is a therapist in charge of those arrangements and who operates from a body of knowledge and technique that the patient is not privy to.

In the experiential dream group no one functions as a therapist. If someone assumes the role of leader, it is only to insure the integrity of the process. In all other respects that person functions as a member of the group.

This means that the leader has the same option to share a dream as do the others, and generally does so. The group should be as knowledgeable about the rationale for each step as the leader. Once the process has become known to each member of the group, it is the group's responsibility to carry it out. An experienced group is essentially a leaderless group with each one in turn taking on the role of leader and moving the group through each stage of the process at the proper time.

The second important difference lies in the degree of control the therapist has over the process. The therapist is free to use a dream in any way s/he feels may further the therapeutic process. S/he is free to deal with transference issues, for example, that s/he feels are being pointed up by the dream. S/he is there to recognize and analyze any defenses or resistances that arise in connection with the presentation of the dream.

This is quite different in the case of the experiential dream group. Here the dreamer remains in control throughout. The dreamer is not under any explicit contract to share a particular dream if s/he does not wish to do so. The dreamer determines the level of sharing s/he feels comfortable with and is never pushed or challenged to go beyond that. The dreamer is responsible for setting his or her own limits which means, in effect, that s/he can keep his or her defenses as high as s/ he wishes. The other members of the group, including the leader, are there to be of help to the dreamer only to the extent that the dreamer wishes that help. They follow where the dreamer leads and never open areas not opened up by the dreamer.

In formal therapy, work on a dream has to be fitted into a more complex agenda where a patient has a good deal more on his or her mind than the dream. A therapist is often forced, because of this and the constraint of time, to engage in what Bonime* has called "headline interpretation".

In the experiential group process, the dream is the only item on the agenda and enough time is set aside to work on the dream in as complete a way as possible.

In formal therapy defenses, including those connected with dream work, are both stimulated and analyzed. The therapist can work with the resistances that may be apparent to them in connection with a dream or open up and pursue issues s/he feels are suggested by the dream if, in the therapist's judgment, s/he feels it is timely.

In the experiential dream group, reliance is placed on creating a degree of safety that, in combination with the dreamer's natural curiosity about the dream, results in the dreamer lowering his or her defenses and moving into the dream at his or her own rate and only to the extent s/he wishes.

The therapist attempts to deepen the patient's insight through an interpretation of the dream that goes beyond the dream in two ways. Often it is linked to past material that has come up in the course of therapy. Secondly, theoretical concepts are often evoked to use the immediate issue being raised by the dream to make a more generalized statement about the patient's behavior.

The goal of the experiential dream group is to bring the dreamer in touch with the dream, proceeding always at the invitation of the dreamer and never in an intrusive way. When conditions for the safety of the dreamer are met and the group works with the dreamer in a way that is nonintrusive, the effect is therapeutic. The dreamer has made contact with his or her own self-healing images, and the creative way they reflect his or her subjective state.

Basic Dream Work also involves a number of other features which, in my opinion, are essential to group dream work and should be part of the formal therapeutic effort as well but often are not. I shall make mention of only three. One is that the date of the dream should be established as accurately as possible and that through direct questions, every effort should be made to help the dreamer recapture the emotional atmosphere the events of the day left him or her with as well as any specific concerns on his or her mind at the time s/he went to bed. Another is that, in order to help a dreamer elicit the full range of associations relevant to the images of the dream, an active dialogue between the dreamer and the helping agency, be it an individual or a group, is necessary. One cannot rely on spontaneous free associations alone. Finally, when anyone other than a dreamer offers the dreamer a way of looking at the connection between the symbolism of the dream and what was going on in his or her life at the time it should be offered as a question - what Bonime* refers to as an interpretive hypothesis - and never as something superimposed from above.

In short, the emphasis on the experiential dream group is in respect for the dreamer's privacy and his or her authority over the dream. A therapist is often tempted to go beyond these structures in an effort to use the dream to further the therapeutic line. A mastery of Basic Dream Work can be of enormous help in the therapeutic endeavor.

*Bonime, W. (1982) The Clinical Use of the Dream. New York: Da Capo Press.

Dr. Ullman has encouraged the educational and cultural integration of dream-sharing for over two decades. He is the co-author, along with Nan Zimmerman of Working with Dreams, and editor of the Variety of Dream Experience, along with Claire Limmer.

Reprinted with permission from Dr. Ullman and the Montreal Center for the Study of Dreams Newsletter