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Three mistaken ideas about dreams — why they are wrong and what the real truths are . . .

By Montague Ullman

Dream Appreciation Newsletter Vol. 4 No. 2, Spring 1999

Mistaken Idea #1

Dream consciousness is an inferior, more primitive form of consciousness than waking consciousness.

Freud thought so.

Dreaming consciousness is every bit as subtle and creative in dealing with its own domain, our inner life, our subjectivity, as waking consciousness is in dealing with its primary domain, our way of interacting with the world we encounter in the waking state.

As they used to say about Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, when it appeared that everyone regarded Astaire as the maestro and that Rogers just followed him, someone once remarked, “She did everything Fred did, but in high heels.”  So waking consciousness has been regarded as the superior form of consciousness while dreaming consciousness has been its second-rate partner.

Freud dignified dreams with meaning, but never quite freed its instinctually tinged primitive representational form.  The imagistic form that characterizes dreaming is every bit as powerful in identifying and reflecting in creatively imaginistic ways the emotional cross-currents of our lives as our waking consciousness is in mapping the nature and structure of matter, living and inanimate.  What we have not yet succeeded in doing is to solve the mystery of the relationship of matter to consciousness.

Honesty has been the highest scientific value in the exploration of matter.  There is a good reason for that.  In contrast to dreaming consciousness, which always hits the nail on the head, waking consciousness in its effort to help us find our own place in the world is pulled in many directions in terms of the values that prevail.  They range from honest virtues to expedient self-interest.  Awake we are often taken in by the spurious at the expense of the authentic.  Asleep and dreaming we know of no other value than to tell it like it is when it comes to what is going on on the inside.  It is true we use a different language with which to accomplish this task (for the most part the use of metaphorical imagery), but it is just as elegantly suited to its task as ordinary discursive speech is to our waking situation.

Mistaken Idea #2

Dreams seek to protect us from certain truths about ourselves in the interest of not upsetting a given emotional status quo during sleep.

This has been the building block of psychoanalytic theory from Freud on, although minor adjustments have had to be made by revisionist theorists.  The latter have moved away from Freud’s heavily instinctual orientation to more integrative and adaptive orientations.  Even then the protective mechanisms of censorship and disguise are still there, diluted but still recognizable.  Frustrated childhood wishes are on the way out, as is the exclusive emphasis on wish fulfillment generally.

Even the most sophisticated of these efforts still do not extend full citizenship to dreaming consciousness.  Among psychoanalysts Jung was the first to question this prejudicial approach to dreaming consciousness.  His basic challenge to the Freudian view was his emphasis on the manifest content of the dream, that is the dream itself was to reveal rather than conceal any turbulence bubbling up out of the unconscious domain.

Mistaken Idea #3

Dreaming consciousness has not been generally noted as a natural healing mechanism.

We don’t make value judgments about the liver and the heart.  Both are essential to the maintenance of health.  The same applies to waking and dreaming consciousness.  We have an inside and an outside and both have to be kept in order to maintain a state of health.  We maintain a reliable waking consciousness through our ability to learn from previous experience.  In the interest of maintaining an authentic relationship to our insides, it is just as incumbent upon us to learn how to benefit from our dreams.  However, the dream-deprived society we referred to earlier has not yet done this.  Full citizenship for dreaming consciousness implies the full recognition of the dream’s natural ability to keep us posted on what we really feel.

It is this failure to accord our dream life full citizenship that is the most serious blunder we have made.  We talk about racism and sexism and have recognized the loss to society of such prejudicial attitudes and practices.  We have yet to be awakened to the insidious and pervading presence of dreamism - an irrational blindness to the contribution our dreams can, through their intrinsic honesty, contribute to the moral fiber of society.  There is a kind of hidden class structure at play here.  Our dream life has become ghettoized.  We have been lulled into thinking that only by escaping the ghetto and bringing a dream to an elite core of dream interpreters can we be sure of their proper management.  All dreamers should have a place in the sun, not only those who can afford therapy.  Dreaming is a universal experience and the benefits of that experience should be available to all.

For the past several decades, as a result of the consciousness raising push of the sixties following on the experiemental work of the fifties, the dream scene has been slowly changing.  Dream groups have been proliferating in recent years.  Books keep appearing, many written by professionals who are turning their attention to educating the public and describing one or another approach to dream work.  There is some hope on the horizon but as we all know, prejudices dies a slow death.