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The foundations of dream work

By Montague Ullman, M.D.

Dream Appreciation Newsletter Vol. 1 No 2, Spring 1996

When I look back over my 55 years of interest in dreams beginning with my residency in psychiatry in 1941, and then through my clinical practice from 1946 to 1961, and now including my more than two decades of work with experiential dream sharing groups, there are certain principles and premises that appear to me to be self-evident. I offer them in the hope they also prove helpful to anyone, therapist or layperson, setting out to help a dreamer relate to a dream.

I consider the following to offer a sound foundation for dream work:


The premises outline what dreams have to offer - and the context in which we can hear what they have to say. They call attention to the fact that everyone can be helped to hear their message.

First Premise

Dreams are intrapsychic communications that reveal in metaphorical form certain truths about the life of the dreamer, truths that can be made available to the dreamer awake.


Dreaming consciousness serves the nighttime needs of the dreamer. The experience of dreaming itself is not intended to be a public communication. The dreamer awake can, of course, go public with it.

Dream imagery is potentially metaphorical. To realize that potential the dreamer is faced with the task of sparking across the metaphoric gap between dream image and waking reality. Our dreams have an incredible way of zeroing in on who we really are instead of who we would like to think we are or who we would like other to think we are.

Second Premise

If we are fortunate enough to recall a dream we are then ready, at some level, to be confronted by the information in the dream. This is true regardless of whether or not we choose to do so.


Freedom and truth are inextricably linked. The more accurate our perception of an issue is, the more freedom we have in coping with it. To experience freedom in that sense requires a level of honesty not always easily available to us while awake. Situations arise where, consciously or unconsciously, we act out of expediency. The dream offers us the opportunity to confront an issue with greater clarity and a deeper honesty. We get a bit closer to ourselves and a bit freer.

Third Premise

If the confrontation is allowed to occur in a proper manner the effect is one of healing. The dreamer comes into contact with a part of the self that has not been explicitly acknowledged before. There has been movement toward wholeness.


Healing is simply another name for being more in touch with our own historical past and its influence in our relationships with others. It is as if the dream furnishes us with the connective tissue needed to repair areas of disconnection with our past and with others.

Third premise

Although the dream is a very private communication it requires a social context for its fullest realization. That is not to say that helpful work cannot be done by an individual working alone but rather, that a supportive social context is a more powerful instrument for the type of healing that can occur through dream work.


The dream is the waking remembrance of the raw content of our night time dreaming consciousness. Once removed from its natural environment, it has to undergo a socializing process if the information embedded in the imagery is to play an explicit and active role in our waking life.

That process begin with taking the dream seriously and engaging in the work necessary to allow the metaphorical potential of the imagery to unfold. The ideal social context for this emergence is a dream sharing group.

Fifth Premise

Dreams can and should be universally accessible. There are skills that can be identified, shared and developed in anyone with sufficient interest. Dream work can be effectively extended beyond the confines of the consulting room to the public at large.


Although there is more interest in dreams in recent years, we are still a dream deprived society. These nightly gifts are largely ignored. There are no political, social or institutional supports designed to encourage and promote dream work in the community.

By and large those trained in the art of psychotherapy have not assumed any responsibility to enlist their skills and knowledge in the growing dream-sharing movement. That movement could be enhanced were there to be a serious collaboration between the professional community and the laity.


It bears emphasizing that dreams are intrapsychic communications. Any process that is geared to their explication must respect that fact and the constraints it imposes. The process I use evolved with this in mind.

From the beginning to the end it is geared to the expectations and needs of the dreamer as the one to whom the dream is being communicated. The communication of the dream to a group is a secondary affair, necessary only to enable the group to make its contributions toward clarifying the original communication. It is in this connection that the following principles obtain:

First Principle: Respect for the privacy of the dreamer

The dream is the most personal communication of which we are capable. It is a very private affair and the element of privacy is respected at all times. Each stage of the process I use is designed to be nonintrusive so that the group follows, rather than leads, the dreamer. The dreamer controls the process throughout the session and works at whatever level of self-disclosure he or she feels comfortable within the group. There is no pressure to go beyond that point.


What the helping agency has to keep in mind is that when dreams are worked on outside of the clinical arrangement, the ability of dreamers to reach into themselves with the required degree of honesty is contingent on how safe he or she is made to fee. The goal can be reached only the dreamer remains the guardian of his or her unconscious domain by maintaining control of the entire process, from beginning to end.

Second Principle: Respect for the authority of the dreamer over his or her dream

Dream images arise out of the unique life experience of the dreamer. The fit between image and meaning is something that the dreamer alone can validate.


The dreamer is the only one who can judge the effectiveness of the help offered. He or she alone has that resonant gut feeling when a truth strikes home. There is a distinct difference between intellectually accepting something that comes from the group and the spontaneous and richly generative response to a true fit

Third Principle: Respect for the uniqueness of the individual

Everyone's life experience is unique. Any symbolic image can be used in a highly idiosyncratic way. No a priori categorical meanings are assumed.


One has to have a certain humility in dream work and realize that there is more to learn from the dreamer than we have to offer to the dreamer.

The reason is simple. Nothing in our prior learning and experience is a substitute for the work that has to be done to discover how these particular images have emerged out of the idiosyncratic life experience of the dreamer and why they came together to shape the dream on that particular night.

The work we do helps the dreamer uncover the answer.