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The Experiential Dream Group

Montague Ullman

Handbook of Dreams - Research, Theories and Applications. Edited by Benjamin B. Wolman. Consulting Editors Montague Ullman & Wilse B. Webb. Van Nostrand Reinhold, N.Y., 1979


An experiential dream group is one in which people come together for the purpose of helping each other work out the feelings and metaphors conveyed by the imagery of their dreams. It is best thought of as an exercise in dream appreciation. It is analogous to the appreciation at a feeling level of the metaphor of a poem.

There is no a priori theoretical base in experiential dream work that guides the response to the images. There is only the general assumption that the images convey meaning to the dreamer through their metaphorical construction. The concept of dream appreciation places the emphasis on the feeling response that comes with the recognition of the connections between the metaphorical image and the relevant life situation of the dreamer. There is an opening-up quality to the experience which goes beyond any specific meaning that can be assigned to the image. Once these connections are made, the dreamer's relationship to the image changes from one of mystery and estrangement to one of relief and appreciation at the way in which levels of personal meaning are so creatively expressed.

Although the analogy to poetry is valid, there are significant differences between a dream and a poem. The poetic metaphor is a communication that can be understood and appreciated by others without knowing anything about the personal life of the poet. The visual metaphor of the dream, on the other hand, is a purely personal communication of the dreamer to himself. It cannot bee appreciated in its separateness from the immediate life context of the dreamer. The dreamer and no one else is the proper audience to the dream. The process in experiential dream work involves the group as a catalytic agent which supports the dreamer in the role of expert in relation to his own dream.


From time immemorial people have shared their dreams in the hope of penetrating their meaning. Perhaps they merely have sought solace in the sharing of an awesome experience. In some preliterate societies there is still much social support for dream sharing. This is so, for example, among the Senoi-indians of Malaysia and the Hopi Indians of Arizona. For the most past, however, activities around dreaming in Western societies have followed a pattern, also laid down earlier, of bringing a dream to an expert who offers an interpretation. The psychoanalytic context is the current version of this earlier model.

Some degree of interest in dream sharing has persisted and has erupted into greater prominence in the past decade as part of the general interest in consciousness-raising activities. Growth centers have promoted small-group dream sharing, spontaneous and sponsored dream groups have sprung up, and a literature on the benefits and technology of dream work has addressed itself to the needs and interests of people who wish to work with their dreams. The Gestalt approach to dream work has become increasingly popular. It stresses the advantage of role playing the elements of a dream in the company of another or others (Perls, 1969). There have been notable efforts to demystify dreams to make them accessible to the nonprofessional (Faraday, 1973, 1974; Ullman and Zimmerman, in press). A number of doctoral theses on the subject of dream sharing have appeared in recent years (Randall,1977; Sabini, 1972). A new publication, The Sundance Community Dream Journal, has appeared and is devoted to the encouragement of dream work, particularly in group settings. An excellent review of these developments appears in a recent volume, by McLeester (1976).

We know that dreaming is a universal aspect of human existence, and we also know that dreams contain significant personal meanings. It is all the more surprising that dreams have been accorded so low an order of social priority and have remained so little valued and appreciated. We suffer from a syndrome that I term dreamism, signifying an irrational prejudice against dreams. It seems that two kinds of social influence sustain this prejudicial attitude. On the one hand there is the emphasis on the mastery and control of events and forces outside the individual, with human subjectivity and potential subordinate to achieving these ends. Since dreams have no commercial value and simply reflect our subjectivity, they rank relatively low among things that count in our society. Dreams are not worth bothering about.

An opposite message comes to the public from the psychoanalytic profession. Here dreams are elevated to a very special place in human affairs, a place so special that highly technical psychoanalytic knowledge is necessary to penetrate their mystery. Here the message is that dreams are valuable but that dream work should remain in the hands of an expert because the factor of disguise requires psychoanalytic decoding and because of the potential danger of tampering with the unconscious.

There have been two unfortunate consequences to this socially reinforced estrangement from our dreams. We end up less sophisticated about how to relate to the expressive potential of our dream imagery than might have been the case if dream sharing and dream work had been an integral part of our lives from early childhood. But more important, we lose out on an important need to share intimate and private aspects of ourselves in the context of an interested and responsive support system. Outside of structured therapeutic situations, there are few arrangements in life where that degree of honesty in self-disclosure can be risked in the presence of others. It is precisely this level of honesty that must be reached if one is to move beyond the constraints of one's personal emotional limitations. People in a dream group seem to sense this, a fact that opens the way to greater and greater freedom in self-disclosure. Sharing of oneself at this level is a basic unmet need in our society.

The followers of Freud tended to perpetuate the idea that dream work had best be left to professionals because of the risks involved and the special theoretical knowledge that was needed. Jung's notions about dreams could be more readily understood apart from any particular psychoanalytic orientation to personality conflict. Dreaming experience stood in a complementary relationship to waking life, and the elements that made up the manifest content of the dream could gain meaning through a process of amplification rather than through efforts to get at a disguised latent content. Jung meant by amplification allowing the images and the qualities and properties connected with them to come into focus as expressive and revealing statements about the dreamer's life. This emphasis on the revelatory power of the manifest content has been the leverage used to move dream work from a restricted professional setting to a more general public setting.

My own experience with dreams and the role they play in our lives (Ullman, 1969, 1977, in press; Ullman and Zimmerman, in press) left me convinced that dream sharing in small groups is a feasible route to serious dream work. What one can do with a dream depends neither on professional credentials nor on one's mastery of psychoanalytic theory. It evolves out of one's interest in dreams and on one's readiness to engage in self-disclosure in the context of a supportive social response system. Resistiveness to dream work diminishes rapidly once a group gets under way. This is not to say that it melts away completely, but rather that there is a good deal of variation in the degree of comfort that people feel as they engage in the self-disclosure intrinsic to dream work and that for each person the freedom grows greater with experience.


There are certain axioms and principles that underlie the operation of an experiential dream group.


1. A remembered dream has a useful application to waking life.

2. The imagery of the dream is generated as part of an intrinsic self-healing process. Thus relates to the root-meaning of the verb "to heal," meaning "to make whole."

3. When a dream is recalled, the dreamer is ready to be confronted with the information it contains. There may be varying degrees of resistance to such confrontation, but, at some level, there is a readiness to come to terms with the issues presented. Our dreams are always efforts at self-orientation to our current predicament.

4. Dreams may appear mysterious, but they are not intrinsically inaccessible. Given a basic knowledge about the metaphorical nature of dream imagery and a supportive social context, the necessary connections can be made between dream images and the realities they express.

It is in the nature of dream work that it can be carried on most effectively in the presence of one or more other people. It seems somewhat paradoxical that this most private of all communications requires some kind of public airing for its message to be apprehended fully. This is so because of the resistance we all have to facing certain truths about ourselves. It is easier for others to recognize such truths and to offer the support needed to bring us closer to self-recognition. The dream is a remarkably honest reflection of who we are and how we react to situations. It is not easy to achieve that same degree of honesty about ourselves by ourselves when we are awake. We tend to ward off unpleasantness and fail into more expedient ways of seeing ourselves. The group relates to and respects the level of honesty displayed in the dream. This facilitates greater honesty on the part of the dreamer as he learns to trust the intentions of the group. Further trust develops in the act of trusting.

Principles. There are three main principles that govern experiential dream work:

1.  The dreamer remains in control of the process from beginning to end. The dreamer decides to share a dream, modulates the level of self-disclosure engaged in response to the group's input, sets the limits of the exploratory dialogue, and has the option of terminating the process at any point.

2.  The group is there to serve as a catalyst by stimulating and supporting the dreamer's effort to relate to the dream. No one, including the leader, assumes an authoritative stance vis-à-vis the dreamer. No one tells the dreamer what the dream means. The members of the group project their own feelings and content into the imagery in the hope that some of it resonates with the dreamer.

3.  The dreamer is respected as the expert in relation to his dream. It is the dreamer who experiences at a feeling level the correctness of the fit of what the group has to offer. The dreamer is the ultimate source of validation and has the last word in accepting or rejecting the contributions of the group. It is the dreamer who has to experience a sense of closure before the process can come to a successful end.


Emotional growth is contingent on the discovery of who we are and the real impact we make on others. It involves the gradual shedding of illusions as to who we are and what we think our impact is on others. Where there are illusions, there are vulnerable areas. Our dreams reflect back to us the tensions generated when events in our daily life expose some of these vulnerable areas. In our dreams we seem capable of assessing these events against the backdrop of our past experience and, in so doing, arrive at a felt sense of their importance and the impact they may have for our future.

Emotional growth also takes place by another route. Tension results when the novelty and strangeness of a reality event test the limits of our competence. When tension of this kind triggers a dream, we again resort to a backward scanning of our past to explore the possible resources we can mobilize to meet the challenge. Inventive and creative solutions may be the result.

In both instances the backward scanning makes available a rich memory store of experience out of which the dreamer culls whatever is needed to assess and cope with the immediate tension confronting him. When the resources thus mobilized are not adequate to the task, and the tension rises rather than abates, awakening occurs. From the point of view of an adaptive maneuver, this means that further waking experience is necessary before this particular issue can be adequately dealt with.

In sum, our dreams serve as corrective lenses which, if we learn to use them properly, enable us to see ourselves and the world about us with less distortion and with greater accuracy. It is in this sense that dreams may be said to serve a healing function. To allow oneself to be confronted clearly and honestly with an issue is the first step in coming to terms with it. Our dreams are a way of helping us take this first step.

These general ideas about the nature of dreaming are shared with the group. They represent a point of view about dreams that defines the essentials without a commitment to any particular metapsychological superstructure. They are developed in greater detail elsewhere (Ullman, 1973; Ullman and Zimmerman, in press).

Precipitating Event

I prefer the term "intrusive novelty" to "day residue" to refer to the event that determines the content of the dream. This term defines the two characteristics of the prior event that make it apt to resurface as the nuclear focus in a dream sequence. The event has the quality of novelty in the sense that it catches the person off guard. At the time it is encountered, there are no immediately available ways of coping with it. The event is intrusive to the extent that it is linked to earlier unsolved emotional issues from the past. Alternatively, it may be experienced as novel on the basis of its being truly new and outside the range of past experience. In the first instance the element of novelty lies in the unexpected exposure of some defensive strategy related to unresolved emotional residues from the past. In the second instance the element of novelty lies in the nature of the event itself and the challenge to personal growth that it offers. In either instance the intrusiveness results in the need to explore past stores of experience in order to mobilize the resources needed to deal with the impact of the precipitating event.

Longitudinal Scanning

This term refers to the remarkable way in which a precipitating event taps into our remote memory stores and mobilizes bits and pieces of past experience that are affectively related to it. This is a mechanism available to the dreamer that enables him to explore the implications of any tensions associated with the day residue and to assess his coping resources, healthy and defensive, in dealing with them. The range of data thus made available is much greater than that at his disposal at the time the event was initially confronted. In effective dream work it becomes necessary to clarify and understand the present context in order to understand the relevance of the references to past experience.

Visual Metaphor

The images of the dream can be understood as visual metaphors. This is so for physiological reasons having to do with the need to process information at a concrete level as a way of influencing the arousal system (Ullman, 1956), and for psychological reasons having to do with the expressive function served by metaphor (Ullman, 1969). Through the use of visual imagery a great deal of information is organized in highly condensed form and presented at a glance, so to speak, instead of linearly. As metaphorical statements the images are intended to communicate the feelings behind them.

The Tripartite Structure of the Dream

Dreams can be thought of as three-act dramas with the dreamer looking for the answer to a specific question in each act. The opening act setting begins with the dreamer's concern with the question: What is happening to me? The affective residue associated with the recent event has registered a tension now being experienced by the dreamer. As he moves into the second act, his concern is with the question: What is the history of this tension, and what resources can I mobilize to deal with it? In the final act, he is concerned with the question of how to move toward some kind of resolution. At this point he is faced with the possibilities of a binary decision. Can the tension be contained without disrupting the sleep cycle, or is it great enough to result in awakening?

Dilemmas and Predicaments

There are only a limited number of dilemmas which people find themselves in that preoccupy them while dreaming. Some of the more frequent ones include:

Authenticity vs. sham
Activity vs. passivity
Dependency vs. self-reliance
Defiance vs. compliance in relation to authority
Adequacy vs. inadequacy
Confrontation vs. denial
Self-definition vs. definition by others
Being vs. having
Being for oneself vs. being for others

Defining the dilemma in relation to the specific predicament that the dreamer is in at the moment is helpful in extending the range of meaning of the dream.


After the group is introduced to the general information outlined above, specific guidelines for the work to follow are set forth.

1.  The decision to share a dream rests solely with the dreamer. No one should ever be made to feel under constraint to share a dream.

2. A recent dream is preferable to an older dream because the more recent the dream, the easier it is to identify the precipitating life context. With dreams that are several days or a week or more old, this may be more difficult except in those instances where the context was so unusual that it was clearly remembered.

3. Short dreams are preferred to longer ones for reasons of expediency with regard to time. Dream work proceeds slowly and should progress at a leisurely pace. A very long dream may prove too cumbersome to manage in any reasonable time period.

4. The process is explained, and the roles of the dreamer, the group, and the leader are defined. Any questions concerning the process or the various roles are clarified at this point.

5. The prerogatives of the dreamer are emphasized. He is given to understand that he is in control of the process throughout the session and has the option of stopping the process at any point at which he wishes to carry it on by himself.

6. The leader indicates that he holds the option of considering several dreams before settling on a choice. This is generally of importance only in a beginning group. The leader is concerned with working with a dream that might readily and clearly lend itself to illustrating the process. He also must remain sensitive to the possibility of a dream's being offered, not for the purpose of sharing, but as an acting out of some manipulative need.

7. Issues of confidentiality are discussed and clarified. These include the use of tape recorders, the need for permission for any published material, and the general question of respecting personal disclosures.

8. There is an opportunity for the airing of general questions about dreams, problems connected with remembering dreams, special kinds of dreams such as repetitive dreams, and so forth.


First Stage

Presentation of the Dream. A group member presents a recent dream. Even though he may have written the dream down, the dreamer is asked to tell it from memory and then fill in from notes. The account is limited to the manifest content, and no associative data are presented. The other participants listen and take notes if they wish. When the dreamer has finished, there is an opportunity to ask questions limited to clarifying the content of the dream.

Roles. The dreamer's role is clear. He is simply to recount the remembered dream and not go beyond that. Knowing that they will be expected to respond, the members of the group listen and remain sensitive to any feelings they experience as they listen. The main task of the leader is to preserve the integrity of the process. At this stage it involves seeing that the dreamer does not go beyond the simple recounting of the dream, and alerting the group to attend to every detail. As the group becomes more experienced, it will also begin to take into account any qualifying statements that the presenter might make before introducing the dream.

Rationale. By limiting the dreamer's presentation to the manifest content alone, we are minimizing the degree to which the dreamer will influence the subsequent responses of the group. It may seem paradoxical that we should want to do this inasmuch as our goal is to get at the meaning the dream has for the dreamer. Why are we injecting an intermediate step before we explore the dreamer's personal connection to the dream? That step is necessary to ensure that the response of the group can evolve in the freest way possible. Were the dreamer to begin the process of relating to his dream at this point, it would not only have the expected effect of sharpening the responses of the group, but it would also have the constraining effect of having these responses move along tracks laid down by the dreamer. By first operating in a clear field, without the dreamer's intervention, the group avoids any limiting biases the dreamer may unconsciously communicate. When the dreamer does have the opportunity to tell his side of it in the third stage, then the full unconstrained response of the group has already been set before him.

Second Stage

The group members are asked to "move into" the dream and try to make it their own. They are asked to respond at two levels, first to the feelings the dream evokes; and second to the images. They have free reign in exploring the limits of their response and are under no obligation to defend or justify it. They are to speak to each other rather than to the dreamer. They are told that what they come up with is to be considered their own projections until and unless there is later validation by the dreamer. As much time as is needed is allowed for each of these responses to run its course.

The group's responses will be a mixture of feelings evoked by the dream as it is being presented, by the dreamer who is presenting it, by what they already know about the dreamer, and by feelings flowing from their own efforts to take over the dream. Regardless of the source of these reactions, they are considered presumptively projective until checked out with the dreamer. Group members are asked to describe feelings in personal terms and to avoid putting them in terms of what they think the dreamer felt.

The concept of the visual metaphor having been explained, the group now explores each of the images as well as the relationship of each image to each other one for its possible metaphorical meaning. Again, the group is encouraged to report whatever occurs to it. We are seeking out what each one has to contribute. At this stage we are not concerned with contradictions, differences of opinion, and so on. The goal is to display the broadest possible spectrum of personal responses to the metaphorical potential of the imagery and to do it without "laying" an interpretation onto the dreamer.

Roles. The dreamer's role is to listen as impassively as possible to the input being generated. Some of it will connect; some of it will be wide off the mark. What does connect will stimulate a flow of feelings and ideas about the image and bring him closer to a feeling of its bearing on his life. Even group responses that appear incongruous or wrong may be helpful. By defining what the image is not, the dreamer may get closer to defining what it is. As he begins to resonate with the input from the group, it becomes increasingly difficult for him to remain impassive, as his face and gestures will betray the feelings of inner discovery.

The group's activity at this point is best described as an exercise that may or may not be helpful to the dreamer. The members are encouraged to come out with whatever they feel, regardless of how unrelated or purely personal it may at first appear. This is not easy to do. It takes some effort and experience to move away from the comfortable stance of focusing on what they think the dream is telling the dreamer to working with the dream in terms of what it is telling them.

The leader's ability to preserve the integrity of the process is tested in various ways in this stage. It requires some effort to keep the group focused on their feeling responses initially. This is so because the images are so challenging and stimulating that there is the temptation to begin to work directly with the metaphors. The leader must be on guard against anyone slipping into the role of dream interpreter and telling the dreamer what the dream means. His role is to support everyone's right to say what he thinks, no matter how far out it may seem. Finally, he must respond as a member of the group with his own feelings and metaphors.

After all the projective responses have been developed, the leader may attempt to bring them into a more organized relationship to the manifest content, in order to emphasize that the sequence of images is as important as the images themselves. Comparisons, contrast, and other clues to meaning emerge when this is taken into consideration. An image that appears puzzling when looked at by itself may assume meaning when examined in its relationship to the preceding and succeeding images. The leader's efforts at orchestrating the group's input and checking it against the manifest content also provide the opportunity to call attention to any details in the dream that might have been overlooked or not given sufficient attention.

Rationale. All of the group's contributions are considered as projections. This is so regardless of the degree to which there may be an admixture of accurate perceptions of the dreamer. The ultimate test of the relevance of any contribution is validation by the dreamer. The fact that the group is working on this premise has a freeing impact on both the group and the dreamer. The members of the group, through the act of projecting onto a foreign body, are able to tap deeply into their own unconscious fantasies in their response to the imagery. On the other hand, the dreamer is exposed to a range of feedback under circumstances when he is under no constraint to respond, and therefore has little need to defend himself against any projections from the group that may strike home. It is a freeing experience to be exposed to public input of thus kind while, at the same time, being able to deal with it privately and having complete say over how much of it will ultimately be shared.

What accounts for the fact that some of the responses of the group at feeling and metaphorical levels resonate with the dreamer? The group's ability to pick up feelings the dreamer may be unaware of is, I think, due to the fact that images arise out of feelings in the first place, and through their selection and arrangement they often convey the source of their origin. As for the group's coming upon metaphorical translations of the imagery that strike a chord with the dreamer, it is not a surprising development. We all swim about in the same social sea so that any particular image may convey similar metaphorical meaning to the dreamer and to one or more respondents in the group.

Third Stage

This stage is devoted to the dreamer's effort to find the connecting links between the imagery of the dream and the immediate life situation giving rise to the dream. It unfolds in three phases.

Phase I. The dreamer is given all the time needed to respond to the input from the group and to develop his own view of what the dream now means to him. He can go about it in any way he wishes; either he may stress those parts of the dream that were opened up by the group, or he may begin with where he was in relation to the dream before the group work began.

Phase II. When the dreamer is finished, the group then enters into a dialogue with him to help explore any images that remain unclear and to help identify the relevant life context. This is done in the form of open-ended questions which any member of the group may put to the dreamer, at the same time recognizing that the dreamer remains in control of the level of self-disclosure he wishes to make. When the dreamer finds it difficult to identify any recent events related to the dream, it may be helpful to ask him to try to recall his last thoughts and preoccupations before falling asleep. This often yields a direct clue to the focus of the dream. If the dreamer is unable to do thus, he may be asked to recount the events of the day before. Doing thus often leads quite unexpectedly to the identification of the significant precipitating event. The dreamer is also encouraged to explore the connections to the past suggested by the imagery.

Phase III. The dreamer has the last word. He assesses the degree of "closure" he now feels about the dream. If it is not sufficient, he can encourage the group to continue with the exploration. He is free to stop the process at an earlier time if, for any reason, he should wish to.

Roles. The dreamer is expected to respond to the group's efforts only if he is genuinely touched by them. What should be guarded against are compliant responses - particularly in people who are highly suggestible - which are rather infrequent because of all the safeguards provided for the dreamer to ensure that he has the feeling of being the authority about his own dream. When a compliant rather than a genuine response occurs, it is easily detected. A feeling of passive agreement betrays this response and is in sharp distinction from the "eureka" feeling and sense of liberation that comes with a true response.

At this stage the group must again be careful to respect the dreamer's authority and not use their questioning to challenge it. The questioning, like the group's participation in the second stage, should be an instrument that helps the dreamer in his exploration of the dream. It should not be used in a confronting or challenging way or as a way of getting agreement.

People with a background in therapy unconsciously tend to step into an interpretive stance at this stage, something the leader must be alert to counteract. The task of the leader is also to sense and check with the dreamer when "closure" has taken place. It is at this point that the dreamer feels that he owns his dream. He is now ready to engage in further exploration of the impact of the dream by himself.

Rationale. By the time the third stage is reached, a feeling of trust and rapport has developed between the dreamer and the group. A genuinely concerned, helpful, and supportive response is elicited when someone has had the courage to share a dream and seek help with it. There is an important though implicit aspect of the process that further nurtures this trust. It stems from the fact that the process evolves dialectically into one of mutual self-disclosure. The dreamer defines himself by offering a dream. This in turn leads to the group members defining themselves through the projections they offer. In the final stage all parties become better known to themselves and to each other. The dreamer gains from those parts of the group's projections that are relevant to him. The group members gain from the discovery that aspects of their responses that they thought related to the dreamer were really their own projection. They learn by being confronted with their own biases as the images fall into place in the dreamer's life.

The dreamer needs the group's help in the exploration of the images. It is the group's interest, support, and probing that help close the gap between what the image is conveying and what the dreamer may be defending himself against. Our dreams offer us the opportunity of growing more whole. This is an aspect of emotional healing that requires the concerned support of others.


To someone unfamiliar with experiential work as carried out in a group, the question often arises: How is it different from group psychotherapy? There are major differences, which can be defined by a number of criteria. These can best be presented in tabular form, as shown in Table 14-1.

TABLE 14-1.


Experiential Dream Group

Group Psychotherapy

I. Nature of the communication.

The dream is an intrapsychic communication from a part of one's being to oneself. It is the dream that is being communicated.


Waking behavior is a communication to others. It is waking behavior that is being communicated.


2. Focus of the group.

The focus of the group is on the impact of the dream on the dreamer. The focus is on an intrapersonal field.


The focus of the group is on the impact of the behavior on an interpersonal field.


3. Nature of the task.

The nature of the task is to establish the meaning the dream images hold for the dreamer by seeking to close the intrapersonal distance between the image and the real-life context of the dream.


The nature of the task is to seek meaning in the behavioral expression of a tension as it becomes manifest in an interpersonal field (past or present).


4. Expectational set.

The expectations of the group are secondary to its task of helping the dreamer realize his own expectations with regard to the dream. One set of expectations, those of the dreamer, dominates the interplay.


The expectations of all the members of the group and of the therapist gain expression and seek realization. Manifold expectations are at play.


5. Nature of the process.

The process brings into the open the unknown messages embedded in the imagery of the dream.


The process brings to light the unknown messages embedded in interpersonal behavior.


6. Source of the expectations.

The dreamer and the group work along intuitive and shared experiential levels with no specific theoretical orientation.


The leader works from a theoretical base involving personal and group dynamics.


7. Source of change.

The support and trust developing between dreamer and group liberate the healing power dream images have, once their concrete connections to waking life are established.


The leader and group members engage in a number of strategies to work through personal defenses and stimulate change. These include interpreting, confronting, modeling, and so on.


8. Mechanism of change.

Using the projections of the group to free up the dreamer's connection to the dream.


Unmasking the projections of the various participants.


9. Tempo

The group moves at the tempo of the dreamer.


The tempo is a reflection of combined needs.


10. Role differences.

Leader: Plays a dual role. In leadership position he assumes the responsibility for ensuring the integrity of the process. As a participant he engages in the same level and degree of self-disclosure and dream sharing.


Dreamer: The dreamer remains in control of the process including the right to stop at any point.


Group: The group works with the metaphor as depicted in the dream and helps redefine it in terms of personal life context.


Leader: Assumes responsibility of a leader but level of self-disclosing participation is considerably less.


Dreamer: The control is largely in the hands of the therapist.


Group: The group experiences the roles assigned unconsciously by the patient and seeks to redefine those roles in terms of the present interpersonal reality.



 To summarize, we are dealing with two processes that have a similar endpoint, namely, the healing of the individual. Each process gets there by different routes, using different ground rules and assigning different roles to the participants. It is important to bear this in mind in assessing the relative indications and advantages of each. It is also important to avoid slippage from one process to the other without taking cognizance of the fact that the ground rules have changed.


Implicit in the distinctions drawn above between group psychotherapy and the experiential process are features that distinguish it from individual psychotherapy. A number of participants in groups I have worked with have been in individual therapy at the same time, which gave me the opportunity of observing the impact of one on the other. Despite some concern originally about problems that might arise relating to the possibilities for competitiveness and manipulativeness, there were surprisingly few situations when any difficulties arose. In almost all cases the two processes complemented each other, with the patient learning to make the best use of each.

Aspects of group work on dreams that were most helpful to those in individual therapy were:

1. The time factor. There is an unhurried, leisurely approach when a group sets out to work on a dream. It is the only item on the agenda, and it may occupy the group for the entire time they spend together. Dream work has its own tempo, which is more apt to unfold naturally when other constraints on time are absent.

2. The diversity of input. The diversity of response from a group to the feelings and meanings expressed by the images presents a broader range of possibilities to the dreamer than any one person can offer. Although in individual therapy the range is more limited, it is generally more accurate on matters within that range because of the amount of information available to the therapist.

3. The control exercised by the dreamer. This allays fears and anxieties that might otherwise heighten defensive operations.

4. The leveling out of hierarchical arrangements. The fact that the leader shares dreams and does not assume any special therapeutic role minimizes defensive operations. It also lessens the likelihood of issues arising relating to transference and resistance.

5. The deprofessionalization of the process. A sense of the normality of the experience is conveyed by the absence of any allegiance to a technical or theoretical system. A feeling of competence evolves along with a respect for the healing potential of dream images and a lessening fear of what the images might convey.

6. The ludic quality of dreams. The ludic or play aspect of dreams has a greater chance of surfacing in a group setting than in the dyadic relationship.

The group accepts the dream as a challenge, a mystery to be solved. As the group works with the images, there is an exciting and playful quality. This does not mean that they are taken more lightly; their meaning comes through in the excitement of engaging with their subtlety and inventiveness.

The best arrangement seems to be to use the group experience to get the leverage on the dream necessary to pursue it in greater depth in the private sessions. Quite often the pressures in the therapeutic hour do not allow for the time necessary to work through a dream, in which case it may be brought to the group. There are also instances when transferential and countertransferential issues arising in therapy are clarified through group work.


Some of the optimal conditions for any small group process are the same for dream groups. Some are different.

Size. The optimal number of participants is six to eight.

Frequency. There is some flexibility here. I prefer groups that meet weekly for two hours.

Homogeneity. The groups are self-selective and generally result in a mix of professionals, nonprofessionals, patients, nonpatients. Groups work well despite differences in age, education, background, and cultural disparities. Groups that are heavily professional tend to feel more comfortable working with others of comparable educational level. Sensitivity, freedom in self-disclosure, and the capacity to be in touch with internal processes count for more than credentials.

Duration. The contract can be for any duration. Four weeks gives a newcomer a feeling and grasp of the process. My groups tend to be ongoing on the basis of renewing the contract for four weeks at a time. As participants get to know each other better, more of their interaction becomes reflected in their dreams, and the growing knowledge of one another sharpens the accuracy of the contributions.

Group Process. There are occasions, though relatively rare, when the integrity of the process is jeopardized. Then more time has to be devoted to group process in order to deal with tensions that may arise within the group. If the dream process is adhered to, tensions of this kind are minimal.

Deviations from the Process. Once the group understands lice importance of identifying the immediate life context that gave rise to the dream, there can be more flexibility about presenting older dreams and repetitive dreams, provided enough of the context can be recalled, or if the dream is so important that the dreamer is willing to risk the loss of specificity that occurs when the context eludes us.

Changes in the Group. At the end of each four-week period the makeup of the group may change because of turnover. Although these changes may have some impact on the growing sense of intimacy and trust among the participants, they also provide the compensatory feature of fresh new input. The group joins in the decision to bring in newcomers.


The process lends itself to training and general educational purposes. It has been introduced into a college curriculum (Jones, 1979) and into the training of psychiatric residents and psychoanalytic candidates (Ullman, 1977). Experiential dream work can be extended to all age groups with whatever changes may be needed to accommodate the special needs of selected populations. Training programs to assure competence in leadership will ultimately be necessary in larger numbers than are now available.


Dreams are a normal dimension of human experience. The experiential dream group is one way of helping a dreamer realize in a feeling way the relevance of the images he creates at night to the issues he faces during the day. A social process has been presented that helps put the dreamer in touch with these images while, at the same time, respecting his privacy and authority over the dream. Although the goal of the process is one of healing, it differs in strategy and structure from group psychotherapy. The process can be used advantageously in conjunction with individual therapy. It has application in psychiatric training programs as well as in educational and other programs geared to personal growth.


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Randall, A. Dreaming, sharing, and telepathy in a short term community. Unpublished doctoral dissertation. New York: Teachers College, Columbia University, 1977.

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Ullman, M. Dreaming as metaphor in motion. Arch. General Psychiatry, 21: 696-703, 1969.

Ullman, M. A theory of vigilance and dreaming. In Zikmind, V. (Ed.), The Oculomotor and Brain Functions. London: Butterworths,1973.

Ullman, M Experiential dream groups. Paper presented before Academy of Psychoanalysis, December, 1977.

Ullman, M. The transpersonal dimensions of dreaming. In Boorstein, S., and Speeth. K. (Eds.), Explorations in Transpersonal Psychology. New York: Jason Aronson, in press.

Ullman, M. and Zimmerman, N. Working with Dreams. New York: Delacorte/Eleanor Friede, in press.