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The art of helping the dreamer

By Montague Ullman, M.D.

Dream Appreciation Newsletter Vol. 1 No 1, Winter 1996

I am grateful to Wendy Pannier for initiating this newsletter. When Wendy first proposed the idea, it struck me as a most timely way of keeping in touch with those who have worked with me over he years and who share the point of view about dreams and dream work as first set forth by Nan Zimmerman and myself in our book, Working with Dreams many years ago.

Although the principles have remained the same, the process itself has evolved over time and hopefully will continue to evolve. In referring to this process as Dream Appreciation I am emphasizing the fact that it is a non-clinical way of teaching the art of helping the dreamer engage with his or her own dream. From the very beginning the process has been bi-directional. It has pointed to the general community and has provided an interested public with a safe and effective approach to a deeper understanding of the healing potential of dreams. It has proven equally effective in providing psychotherapists with a "hands on" approach to working with the dreams of patients.

Reachingout to dreamers

Having a regular way of communicating with each other through this newsletter can meet a number of needs. It will enable me to share with you what I continue to learn about dreams and how to work with them. It will also provide a forum for sharing your experiences with dreams, particularly if you have gone on to organize dream groups of your own.

During the two decades I have been working with dream groups in this country, several hundred people have had at least one three-day leadership training session with me, some have had many more and a certain (unknown) number have gone on to conduct groups of their own. Others have put their interest in dreams on the back burner because of other pressures and new pursuits.

By reaching out to those who have worked with me, I hope this newsletter will help keep their interest alive and, should they be conducting groups, provide them with a vehicle for sharing the problems they have encountered.

Growing popularity of dreams

Over the past 10 yeas or so there has been a resurgence of interest in dreams by the general public. More so than ever in the past the current scene is characterized by the plethora of books addressed to the public, efforts at networking stimulated by The Network: A Journal of Dreams and Myth, and the appearance of a new organization, the Association for the Study of Dreams, with membership open to anyone.

There is also a beginning educational thrust in the form of college courses on dreams, increasing popularity of dream workshops at the various growth centers and, finally, a relatively new phenomenon - the proliferation of dream sharing groups. The only surprising thing about all this is that it has taken so long, in western society at least, for dreams to come out of the closet.

This is all the more remarkable when you consider the pictorial metaphorical language of the dream is the only language shared universally by every member of our species. For too long we have lost sight of the reality that the healing potential of our dreams extends beyond the confines of the consulting room. We have remained unaware of the creative core within each of us that under cover of darkness, gives rise in our dreams to images that speak so specifically and often aesthetically to significant issues in our lives.

There is still much mystery as to how all this came about. An unfortunate consequence of Freud's monumental volume on dreams, which was so original and so all-encompassing at the time, was that it seemed to offer a theoretical approach to dreams that denuded them of their mystery. The experimental studies beginning the 1950s on REM sleep raised new questions about the nature and function of dreams and their phylogenetic origin. About the same time, the gestalt approach of Fritz Perls and the writings of Carl Jung and other theorists opened refreshingly new lines of inquiry and practice.

Value of group dream work

Whatever the underlying social factors were that formed this development, it has come at a most opportune time. If group dream work helps us unload some of the constraining emotional baggage we all carry, as I believe it does, we become all the better for having gained a deeper understanding of ourselves and others. After all, it's people and what they do to and with each other that shapes and reshapes the world we live in.

Without underestimating the enormous obstacles to be overcome; our dreaming consciousness, were we to become better acquainted with it on a larger scale, might edge us closer to the goal of a better world. By socializing our dreams through dream sharing, incremental changes, both large and small, ultimately result in changes in our social behavior. When we become more tolerant of ourselves we become more tolerant of others. As barriers dissolve, a deeper sense of connectedness emerges.

When we share dreams we engage in a most spontaneous and profoundly honest exposure to others. As we become better known to others we became better known to ourselves. It takes courage to present ourselves to others in this way. It's amazing what this kind of courage can do for self-esteem. It more than makes up for any warts that are exposed in the course of doing so. Becoming known to others in this way is the essential ingredient to emotional healing. In dream sharing groups we become healers for each other. It's a very satisfying feeling.

Reader participation invited

Our communications through this newsletter can go in many directions. Expect some period of experimentation before we come to the most useful format. The participation of our readers will greatly benefit its effectiveness. I have much to share and much to learn from the experiences you are having as you work with dreams in groups, on your own or in clinical practice.

Using a question and answer format, I will try to address any questions concerning the process and your experience with it.

I also intend to contribute regularly and to share thoughts that come from my ongoing experience and reading. Most of that experience has to do with the way the personal psychological domain of our lives surfaces in our dreams. Our dreams, however, have access at times to the other three domains of our existence:

-     the biological domain where dreams may reflect bodily changes before there is conscious awareness of them;

-     the social domain where the institutions we have created continue to impact our lives and how the imagery we create reflects such influence;

-     and finally, that most mysterious dimension, the one that goes beyond the biological, personal and social. This last has no agreed upon name (my favorite is cosmic but transcendental or spiritual would do as well). It addresses the most mysterious aspect of our existence -- our role in the universe, how it all got started and where it will end. There are times when our concerns and aspects of our experience seem to touch on this domain.

What are the markers that point to each of these domains? There is still much to learn about the first two - the biological and the personal. The social is almost virgin territory. How do we recognize the social referents in a dream and even more important, how do we put that knowledge to work in a practical way? I would also like to share my continuing interest in the paranormal dream - the telepathic dream where we seem to pick up non-inferable information across space and the precognitive dream where we similarly pick up information across time.

These are some of the items on my agenda. As you see, they touch on the continuing mysteries of our dreams. Each of you is invited to draw up your own agenda as to where your interest in dreams has taken you.

Dream awareness our goal

I assume our common goal is to raise the nearly nonexistent priority of dreams in our society to a more visible level. After spending much time teaching about dreams in Sweden over the past two decades, I am happy to report that it is beginning to happen there. There are now dream groups in most of the major cities, a national society which trains future dream group leaders and interest even on the part of a member of the Swedish Parliament in the preventive aspects of dream sharing groups. More about this in future issues.