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Working with the dream group process

By Montague Ullman, M.D.

Dream Appreciation Newsletter Vol. 1 No. 4, Autumn 1996

The part of the process that requires the greatest skill and is most difficult for the beginner to master is the dialogue that begins at the dreamer's invitation following his or her response to Stage II where the group has worked with the dream as their own. There are three substages to this stage, namely the:

- search for content

- playback

- orchestrating projections

I will consider the first two in this issue. The questions to be put to the dreamer are instruments we give to the dreamer in the hope they are useful in exploring his or her psyche and in that way can begin to close the gap between dream image and waking reality. The cardinal rule is that all questions are framed in the simplest open-ended way possible and that leading questions are taboo. The main thing to remember is that the imagery arises out of the unique life history of a unique individual and it is our task through the questions we ask to facilitate the flow of thoughts and feelings of the dreamer in a way that culminates in a full sense of the metaphorical power of the image to capture the emotional currents in play at the time of the dream. These principles pertain even though the types of questions asked in each of the two substages are quite different.

Search for content

In the search for context our goal is to help the dreamer recreate to the extent possible, given the amount of time that has passed since the dream occurred, what might be called the recent emotional diary of the dreamer's life. By that I mean we try, by our questions, to help the dreamer recall the concerns and preoccupations that surfaced the night the dream occurred. We are trying to uncover what experiences that day, that night, or the past several days before the dream left any feeling residues in its wake. This includes anything in his or her private life, work life, exposure to the media, etc.

At this point our questions are asked as if the dream didn't exist for us, the members of the group. Our questions are not based on the imagery of the dream. The are not asked so we can satisfy our curiosity about why a certain image was used. They are designed with the single goal in mind of focusing on the dreamer's inner life and recapturing feelings and concerns arising in the days before the dream.

The dreamer, of course, is free to go anywhere with the questions, including a concern with whatever light a question sheds on the dream. The error group members tend to make is to start with an image in the dream and ask if anything happened that night or recently that might explain that image.

The playback

Our concern with helping the dreamer connect to the dream imagery comes into play in a focused and systematic way in the next substage, the playback. Here the dream is read back aloud scene by scene by various members of the group. This is when the dreamer is confronted with the imagery of the dream and is now invited to review what has thus far been shared with the group to see whether or not any further thoughts or associations occur that might shed light on why a particular image was chosen to appear in a dream that night.

This sounds easy but it takes skill to help a dreamer recall not only the facts of a given experience, but to also search for the feelings associated with that fact. This is the time when we are focusing on the dream and on every detail in it. It is a kind of quiet but firm confrontation of the dreamer with the dream in the hope we can jog loose a further flow of associations.

The most frequent error here is to ask leading questions to confirm one's own feeling about a connection between something the dreamer said and an image or scene in the dream. We leave the question of making connections (at least at this stage) up to the dreamer. Again, our goal is to help the dreamer focus as freely and as openly as possibly on what spontaneously comes forth once a simple open-ended question is asked pertaining to the images in the dream.