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Insights for dream group leaders

By Montague Ullman, M.D.

Dream Appreciation Newsletter Vol. 2 No. 2, Spring 1997

In the spring of 1990 I held a special three-day workshop at the suggestion of Jenny Green, someone who had worked with me over the years and who had been leading groups of her own. Since she lived in Vermont, isolated from other dream group workers, she felt the need for some kind of networking arrangement to keep in touch with others who were leading groups as well as for supervision of the work she was doing. I felt she was raising very timely issues.

By this time there were a number of people who were competent to lead groups and were doing so. I informed 10 other dream group leaders about Jenny's suggestion.

Eight responded favorably, so that along with Jenny and myself the group of 10 met for three days with an agenda that was to consider the general and specific problems they faced in doing group dream work, to how best pursue supervision and, finally, what further steps could be taken to provide a supportive and helpful networking system.

The agenda we worked out was to devote the first day to the questions they had and to the issues they wished to explore. The second day I would lead the group with the goal of exploring some of the problems they might face at each stage of the process. We then would do the same with a member of the group taking over the leadership, leaving sufficient time at the end to plan for the future.

It was a rich and productive three days and, in retrospect, I regret that the discussions were not taped. What follows are summaries from my written notes, modified by contributions and changes noted by those present.

Day One:

The question was raised about how one goes about getting people to join a dream group.

Among the strategies used were:

- Advertising in local newspapers

- Getting involved in local adult education programs

- Writing articles for loci publications.

For those who work in institutions there is the possibility of including experiential dream group work as part of an in-service education program. An example of this is the course I gave over many years in a residency training program.

Another suggestion was to begin by offering free introductory sessions. There was some discussion as to how effective that would be. People tend to place more value on what they pay for.

There was general discussion of the problems that stood in the way of attracting people to dream groups. Those who are most likely to be interested are inundated with New Age ads and literature that often caters more to magical expectations and instant gratification than a serious commitment to dream work. The process we use does demand a certain level of maturity, and an ability to attend to the needs of others. It is real, not magical.

The question came up of using my name in ads or fliers as a way to attract participants. Here I urged some caution. In the past there have been instances when my name has been misused and implied either certification by me or competence in the method I use. I do not certify anyone as a leader in dream work. This is a matter of personal responsibility and conscience. There have been instances where people may have been in a group with me for a short time or have had a single leadership workshop with me and then have advertised using my name to imply competence.

I have no objection to using a reference to their work with me in the context of a proper presentation of their credentials and in a way that doesn't imply certification, and providing they have had sufficient training in the method to in good conscience present themselves as competent to lead dream groups, particularly if they seek to do it as paid professionals.

The next set of questions had to do with the make-up of the dream group. Linda and Roberta were co-leading an all women group. From time to time they thought of making it a mixed group but so far had decided not to. They felt that in working with dreams, specific women's issues came up and they felt this added to the feeling of unity in the group.

Jenny comes from a small town where people tend to know a good deal about each other. There are assets and liabilities connected with this familiarity. When the group is too incestuous there may be a tendency to take liberties that will turn the process in the direction of becoming a therapy group. On the other hand, people who know each other outside the group may have an inhibiting effect. On the positive side, the knowledge that one or more members of the group have of the dreamer can result in bringing their projections in Stage II and later in the orchestration closer to the mark.

When people who do know each other in prior circumstances and do find themselves in the same group, pre-existing tensions and even animosity may be felt. In one instance which Jenny described that involved herself and another person in the group, the process of dream sharing led to a natural resolution of these feelings. The work evoked compassion and an ability to identify with the human frailty of the other. In some instances there is a natural weeding out of one or the other person involved in the problem in the course of time.

The next issue discussed was whether a group should be open or closed. Linda and Roberta were reticent at first about bringing others into their ongoing group. For practical reasons (people leaving) they had to. Soon they found themselves looking forward to new people joining. "Looking back, I liked the new energies. It was like letting others share in a growth process," one said. Since both had at one time participated in my weekly group which was an open one, I asked them how it felt. The comments were generally favorable. There was some initial anxiety about the new person changing the atmosphere in the group, but this soon dissipated. It is the responsibility of the leader to see that the new person has had an orientation to the process to make it easier to work within the structure.

Next we turned to some of the specific questions and situations that arise in the course of the work.

Can material shared in the group in connection with earlier dreams be included in the projections of Stage II, the Playback and the Orchestration of a current dream?

The answer is yes, if all currently present were privy to that material.

Can you tell a person who missed a session about the dream presented in his or her absence?

It is better not to since the dreamer should be the only one free to break the bond of confidentiality about their own dream. It is also conceivable that the dreamer might have handled the situation differently had the missing person been present.

How do you call a group member's attention to something they are doing wrong without their taking offense? For instance, a group member seeks out the dreamer's association right after hearing the dream in Stage 1.

Explain that the dreamer's associations are of vital importance but if we started with the associations before Stage II, they would inevitably track and limit our projections when we make the dream our own. Besides, when we return the dream to the dreamer and invite her to offer associations, they are usually much richer by virtue of the work the group has done with the dream.

What about when in Stage IIA a group member proceeds to deal with the symbolism of the dream rather than focus on the feelings?

Ask the person, "As you reflect on what you just said, can you say what feeling you might have about it?"

What about when a group member asks a leading question?

Clarify this by saying something like, "You undoubtedly feel there is something more to be explored in this area. Can you rephrase your question in a more open way that leaves the dreamer freer to go in any direction rather than the direction you're suggesting?"

What if there are sexual themes that seem to be suggested by the imagery that the group is refraining from talking about?

The reticence can be broken by the leader taking the initiative and projecting sexual meaning into an image that appears sexually suggestive. A little humor may help. I may remind the group that, after all, someone well-known thought that dreams have something to do with sex.

How do you handle someone presenting a dream who may tend to approach it in a one-sided way, e.g. exclusively in spiritual terms?

Our only instrument is the dream itself and, by confronting her with what the dream is actually saying, help her focus on gathering more relevant associations needed to build the connections of the imagery to concrete life events.

What if one person in the group keeps handling the dream images in a very literal way and seems incapable of grasping metaphorical meaning?

Occasionally it takes a good deal of time and seeing others develop metaphorical possibilities to help alleviate what a colleague of mine, Jon Tolaas, refers to as "metaphor blindness."

Can you reorient a group involved in group therapy to feel at ease with the structure of the experiential dream group process?

Once a group has consolidated into a group psychotherapeutic format it may be difficult to reorient it to the experiential dream group process. In group therapy people are used to expressing their thoughts freely about each other and what is going on in the group at every moment. They are not used to a structure that orients them solely to the dreamer, imposes on them the responsibility for managing their own process and which may very well take up the time of the entire session.

In Stage II where people are offering their own projections, they sometimes get on a roll and it is hard to stop them. Sometimes I feel they are trying to cover the entire dream and do it in a competitive way. How should this be handled?

This may require some delicate handling as you don't want to inhibit the spontaneity people can bring to their own projections yet, at the same time, the leader must see to it that everyone has the opportunity to offer their projections within the limited time available for this stage of the process. Without singling out any particular person the leader, at some appropriate time, may point to the need for projections to be as concise as possible so that everyone has a chance, emphasizing that, since they are our own personal projections, we are not in competition to see who can say the most about the dream. It is one of those occasions where tact will be needed.

Someone asked if he could call the dreamer after the session to offer an additional orchestration. Is this appropriate?

It is better to refrain from doing this until the next meeting of the group. This is the only way its appropriateness could be evaluated.

If the dreamer seems satisfied with the work done on a dream, is it appropriate for someone in the group who has later had some additional thoughts about the dream to offer a delayed orchestration?

Yes, but only at the invitation of the dreamer.

Often it seems people use the opportunity to offer orchestrating projections to give reassurance to the dreamer.

We are all susceptible to rescue fantasies. It should be pointed out, repeatedly if necessary, that the only valid reassurance comes from the success the group has had in helping the dreamer come into contact with what the dream is saying.

After offering their orchestrating projection, some people tend to get into a discussion with the dreamer, often in an attempt to get their point across.

The leader should intervene. Any effort to engage the dreamer in a discussion to validate the orchestration should be avoided. All that should occur following an orchestration is a moment or two to see if the dreamer wishes to respond before going on to the next orchestration.

Sometimes there is a problem with people who have done a lot of reading, superimposing on their orchestrating comments broader theoretical ideas not warranted by what the dreamer has shared. There is a tendency to involve Jungian archetypes or Freudian formulations that lead to generalizations that go far beyond anything the dreamer has said.

It is up to the leader to caution those involved not to go beyond areas delineated by the dreamer.

Sometimes a member will refer at some point in the dialogue to a projection he had in the second stage and to which the dreamer made no mention of in her response. Are they free to carry over at will projections offered in the second stage into the dialogue?

Definitely not, unless in her response she has acknowledged the projection as helpful. Once we return the dream to the dreamer it is no longer our dream and we let go of our own earlier projections.

Sometimes the orchestrations go on for too long or are monopolized by just a few in the group.

Again, there is only limited time for the orchestrations and the leader has to intervene so as to arrange time for everyone to have a say. People will respond to the request that they make their orchestration as concise as possible.

Other points

Other important points of emphasis that came up in the course of discussion were:

- The fact that the dreamer is in control of the process doesn't relieve others of their responsibility, e.g., to confront the dreamer with every image in the dream.

- The mark of a successful group is when group members themselves assume the responsibility to correct others who may be misusing the process.

- Humor is important - at appropriate moments and handled in an appropriate way that is not at the expense of the dreamer.

- Avoid asking "why" questions since they tend to put the dreamer on the spot. In the playback, for example, instead of asking "why do you think you put a cat in your dream?" phrase the question in such a way as to help the dreamer explore the image e.g. "Do you have any further associations to the appearance of a cat in your dream on the night you had the dream?"

Note: This was based on an supervisory workshop. Please contact Monte if you are interested in the next one.