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How to engage a client in dream work using elements from the group process

Montague Ullman

Dream Appreciation Newsletter Vol. 1 No.3, Summer 1996

I have often been asked what can one learn from my group work with dreams that can be helpful to a therapist working with the dreams of a client.

The group approach I use was actually initiated and developed as a way of teaching dream work to therapists in training. To trace the origins would take us back to the early 1950s when for several years I co-directed a clinical seminar on dreams for second-year psychoanalytical candidates at New York Medical College.

I began teaching it the way I had been taught which was to have the candidates present an hour in which a dream was worked on and to give a brief resume of the course of therapy up to that point. Based on the data available, the discussion centered on whatever light the dream shed on the dynamics involved, with particular reference to the transference.

This was all right as far as it went but it did not go far enough. Without alive dreamer in the room there was no opportunity to engage in a dialogue with the dreamer in the hope of retrieving data that were obviously missing. Reliance on the spontaneous associations of the patient was not sufficient to clarify the felt meaning of much of the imagery. Nor did it adequately explore the recent events in the life of the dreamer that might account for why the dream was dreamt that particular night.

Even more important was the candidate's unawareness that more data were needed. No amount of theoretical knowledge was a substitute for the retrieval of the information about events in the life of the client that led to the choice of specific imagery to tell a certain story on that particular night.

I did not at the time fully come to terms with my dawning sense of the inadequacy of this way of organizing a dream seminar but I did, against much resistance at first, introduce one innovating component. I suggested that we begin the class with no prior knowledge of the dreamer other than sex, age, duration of therapy and the dream itself with no associative data at this point. The other members of the class were asked to use their imagination and share with the dreamer whatever ideas they had of the possible metaphorical meaning they connected with the images.

The class was quite vocal in their opposition to a procedure that was so contrary to the dictum that one always starts with the associations of the dreamer. What happened, however, was that the candidate who presented the dream reacted in a way that soon melted the resistance. He or she felt a distinct benefit from the wider array of ideas that emerged, many of which were directly applicable to his or her felt sense of the dreamer's predicament at the time of the dream.

A gap of about 15 years[1] occurred before my return to a teaching role with respect to dreams. Along with another psychoanalyst I was invited to teach psychodynamically oriented psychotherapy to a group of young therapists-in-training in Gothenburg, Sweden from 1974 to 1976. This gave me the opportunity to further explore the possibilities of a group approach to teaching dreams. Although there were subsequent refinements, the essentials of the process evolved during this period.

My aim was to work out a structure that would serve these students as a guide to the essentials of dream work. This meant transforming what had usually been a clinically oriented teaching arrangement to one that taught the skills involved in working with the dream of a client and a structure in which to safely and effectively apply them.

In general, it provided a hands-on approach that went beyond the free associations of the dreamer by means of a dialogue with the dreamer to fully explore the emotional context that shaped the dream and to stimulate in a focused way the further retrieval of relevant associations.

To insure this taking place in a teaching mode rather than as group therapy focusing on a dream, I formulated a set of principles and premises (discussed in Dream Appreciation Vol. l No. 2) emphasizing the group's responsibility to maintain a safe environment for the dreamer as the guardians of his or her own unconscious. The basic premise of dream work - and I believe this to be true under all circumstances - is that only the dreamer can lower his or her defenses and that this will only occur under circumstances where the dreamer feels both safe and curious about the dream and when help is forthcoming in a nonintrusive way.

What evolved was what I call basic dream work, basic in the sense that while it is devoid of any particular metapsychological theoretical system, as a procedural process it applied to them all.

Now to come to the heart of the question that has been raised. Once having experienced this group approach to dream work, what aspects of it are directly applicable to the one-to-one therapeutic situation? In therapy, of course, one starts with the client's free flow of associations. An active role on the part of the therapist is needed if one is to flesh out the precipitating emotional context and work through as much of the imagery as possible. This can be done in a fairly systematic way by shaping an ensuing dialogue with the client along the lines outlined in the group process.

The first stage involves framing questions to the dreamer designed to focus his or her recall on the emotion residues of recent experiences and preoccupations leading to the time of the dream. The questions are simple, open-ended and serve as instruments to help the dreamer probe his or her psyche. Examples:

What was in your mind at the time you fell asleep on the night of the dream?

Anything happen recently in your personal or work life that left with you with residual feelings?

If necessary, the questions can become more specific, calling attention to responses to telephone calls, books read recently, or to reactions to anything in the press or television that may have had an impact.

The next step, known in the process as the playback, is one where the dream is read back aloud to the dreamer, one scene at a time, in the hope of stimulating further associations and facilitating the dreamer's own insight into the dream. It is an extraordinarily powerful technique but as far as I know, rarely used by therapist. The dreamer brings to this effort all the information he or she spontaneously connected to the dream and the additional information gathered in elaborating the recent context. The result is that, as he or she is confronted with the concrete reality of the dream as it is read aloud by another, a second look is often quite productive. As each succeeding scene is read, more information is forthcoming.

The final stage in the group process and equally applicable in individual therapy is what I have referred to as the orchestrating projections. Here the member of the group offer their own ideas about connections between the imagery and what the dreamer has shared that the dreamer has not yet seen. They are offered as projections by the group's members in the hope they may be of help. In therapy, as Walter Bonime has noted[2], the more felicitous form "interpretive process" is preferable but the idea is the same. If it doesn't elicit a felt sense of being true, it isn't.

In effect the group process works toward linking the metaphorical power of the imagery to the ongoing emotional current in the life of the dreamer, and does so in a series of logical steps involved in bringing these emotional currents out in the open and thus facilitating the dreamer's grasp of what the dream is saying. To the extent I have noted, the same systematic approach is equally applicable in therapy.

[1]The time I spent at The Maimonides Medical Center involved in the development of a department of psychiatry, a community mental center and a dream laboratory.