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Dream work and healing

By Montague Ullman, MD.

Dream Appreciation Newsletter Vol. 2 No. 3, Summer 1997

Dream work is not an exercise in a vacuum. The group dream work I engage in has as its endpoint behavioral change. Change, in turn, is related to one's capacity for self-healing. Dreaming consciousness is potentially a natural healing system in a way quite analogous to our immune system. Ever available, our dreams respond to the resurgence of unresolved issues in our lives.

The notion of healing can be applied appropriately to dream work in a number of ways. These relate to the nature of dream content, the way in which dream work is carried out, the altered relationship of the dreamer to his or her own dreams as a consequence of dream work, and the changes that take place in relationship to others.

The content of dreams

All of us continually rework the emotional heritage of our past. Our dreams help us do this in rather remarkable ways. When some vulnerable area is exposed in the course of our daily life, the dream takes the initiative in tracking it down to its historical origins. Our dream seems to have access to deeper informational sources than are ordinarily available. Since we are always honest with ourselves while dreaming, the information we come up with is reliable. Jung spoke most movingly about this feature of our dream life when he wrote, "So flowerlike is it in its candor and veracity that it makes us blush for the deceitfulness of our lives."

The dream's relevance to our current life situation, the historical perspective it affords and the honesty of the self-scrutiny that ensues are the qualities of the imagery that makes their explication a healing experience. The result of dream work is a movement toward greater clarity and openness, not about a trivial aspect of our life, but rather around an issue from our past that has intruded into the present in a way that has set up an unresolved tension.

The process of dream work

Consciously or unconsciously, there is a tendency for people to seek out emotionally healing experiences. One way that it can happen is through dreams. There is something curious about the curiosity everyone has about dreams. It is more than idle curiosity. I believe it hides a deeper awareness that dreams speak to hidden truths about our nature.

With the dream comes an insistent urge to get at those truths. It is as if, at some level, we all recognize the validity of the Swedish author, Poul Bjerre's characterization of the dream as a "natural healing system." Quite early in the century Bjerre took issue with Freud and saw dreams as readily available routes to healing. His writings demystified dreams and showed how the understanding of dreams could be helpful to everyone in their every day life. Jung, who was more intuitive and insightful about dreams that Freud, pursued the same path.

In contrast to physiological healing, emotional healing takes place outside the physically defined limits of the person. It happens because of changes that occur in an interpersonal field. Other people are an essential component of emotional healing. Emotional difficulties start with human beings and are resolved through human beings.

Dream work evolves best in the context of an interpersonal field. The process I have described is so structured as to elicit and maximize the ability of others to function in a healing way toward the dreamer. This effects the release of the dreamer's own self-healing potential. Accompanied by, supported by and stimulated by the group, secrets are shared and a truer version of the self emerges.

In group dream work there are general and specific factors that contribute to the healing effect. The general factors include:

1.   The rapid generation of trust in a non-intrusive atmosphere created by the structure.

2.   The concern with and respect for the dreamer that are built into the process.

3.   The sense of mutuality and commonality of experience that is generated by the way the group members, through their projections, share aspects of themselves with the dreamer.

4.   The lack of hierarchical structure. The leader assumes no special professional role and has the same option to share dreams as everyone else. In all other respects he or she functions as one of the group members. This flattening arrangement makes for greater sharing.

The specific factors involved arise in connection with the way the group facilitates the occurrence of metaphorical responses in the dreamer to the various elements of the dream. The group's ability to open the dream up for the dreamer begins first with the range and virtuosity of their own projections and later is furthered by the skill and effectiveness with which the dialogue is carried out.

The dreamer and the dream

As dream work develops there are changes in the relationship of the dreamer to the dream. From being accidental, intrusive, strange and sometimes frightening visitations, they are transformed into useful communications which contain information of value to the dreamer. Dream work becomes demystified. There is a sense of the potential accessibility of the dream and an awareness that, when the dream is pursued in a supportive social context, the dreamer becomes better known to himself or herself and to others in a way that has elements of release and a sense of greater wholeness. The freedom to let oneself be known to others is also the freedom to be oneself.

One learns not to judge a dream on the basis of the immediate reactions it produces. These largely reflect the set and bias of the waking state. To judge a dream by the standards of the waking state, e.g., whether it is deemed interesting or not, is also misleading and prejudicial. Such judgments are irrelevant to the nature of the dream. The dreamer soon learns that the only thing of importance is the connection the imagery has to a larger and more truthful version of the self. Regardless of the waking impression it produces, the dream comes to be looked on as an available and helpful private resource.

The dreamer and others

Healthy changes occur in the dreamer's own interpersonal milieu. The dreamer has been given privileged glimpses deep into the souls of other people and has seen there the same mix of vulnerability and strength that he or she has come to see in themselves.

The dreamer has had the rare experience of witnessing people coming together as healers for each other. The dreamer has learned how to participate in healing others as well as himself or herself. There is a deepening appreciation of self and others and a growing sense of communion. There is a greater awareness of the circumstances under which other people live, a greater sensitivity to the struggle that is part of being alive and a greater interest in and tolerance for others. There is a healthier expansion and deepening of the social field and, as a consequence, a greater openness to new experience and competence in interpersonal relations.

The dreamer benefits not only from what the dream says but also from how it is said. Dreamers come to recognize and appreciate, sometimes for the first time, the range of their own creativity and how it keeps them supplied with an unending source of useful imagery. When so motivated, the dreamer can channel this creative resource into artistic and aesthetic outlets in the waking state. Nighttime imagery is experienced as a hidden creative resource which is there for the dreamer's benefit and which can be called upon when needed.

Reprinted in abridged form from "Closeness in Personal and Professional Relationships," Edited by Harry A. Wilmer, Shambala, Boston, 1992, with the kind permission of Dr. Wilmer.