1983 by Montague Ullman, M.D.
Dreams are an under appreciated natural resource. Although readily available they are seldom used in our search for healing and growth. The pragmatic social matrix in which we live rates dreams rather low in the scale of priorities for the good life. The positivism of modern science tends to reinforce the view of dreams as a low status item. Objects, studied in their separation from the subject, result ultimately in a distortion as well as a derogation of the subject and his subjectivity. The net effect of psychoanalytic theory has been to mystify the public into an awed submission to the caveat that dreams are for experts only. The fact is that dreams are regular and remarkable features of our nocturnal existence.
Our dream life is more active and extensive than our capacity for dream recall. Those dreams that are spontaneously recalled can be approached by the dreamer as meaningful and helpful exercises in self-confrontation. The essence of dreaming is the creative transformation of one's private experience into private visual images. Dreams differ from works of art insofar as the latter involve the transformation of private experience into public images. Both involve the creative transformation of inner experience. Like a work of art the dream can best be appreciated rather than interpreted. One must feel, rather than think, one's way back into a dream. Rich emotional overtones rise to the surface and move the waking self into his personal history as well as toward the immediate relevant issues that stimulate the dream in the first place. Dreams are a response to the intrusion of novelty into our lives. The feelings that are stirred up are shaped into images that link the current tensions to related incidents from our past. The dreamer struggles to define the emotional task that confronts him and tries to mobilize the resources to cope with it.
Dreaming is a universal experience. As such one would hope that it could be appreciated universally. Based on my experience with lay groups I am convinced that it can be. Sharing some basic technology can go a long way toward that realization. The following imaginary dialogue is offered as an aid to those who wish to get closer to their dreams.
Q. Isn't there some danger in working with dreams without professional help?
A. I think some of the concern with danger is tied to the notion of interpretation which often implies someone telling the dreamer what his dream means. This can be a worrisome thing. When you are helped to appreciate your dreams you can go as far with them as you feel comfortable.
Q. How difficult is such an undertaking?
A. People differ a great deal in the ease with which they get close to their dreams. It involves hard work. Work implies moving against resistance. Dream work leads into unsolved, problematic aspects of our lives. It involves the right combination of persistence, boldness and risk in order to arrive at that wonderful guts level sense of clarity that comes when a lingering image from a dream suddenly comes alive. The mystery and strangeness of that vanishes at the moment it illuminates a particular preoccupation or concern which would otherwise have eluded the dreamer.
Q. How do I go about working with and appreciating my dreams?
A. The first step is to make the dream potentially public by having it clearly established in your own mind. What then would follow can best be described in two stages. I designate the first as gross tuning into the dream and the second as fine tuning into the dream. Gross tuning involves two steps, the first of which is to identify any residual feelings that stem from the dream.
This isn't too difficult if you let the dream sink in and try to identify the feelings that are set into motion. The next step is to look at each scene in the dream as a metaphor expressed in visual terms and to speculate on the possible translation of this metaphor. For example, a student described part of a dream by saying she was riding on a unicycle while holding onto a pole to balance herself. This might be a metaphor for trying to maintain her emotional balance, a manifestation of exhibitionistic needs, etc. At this point we are concerned, not with the accuracy of the translation of the metaphor, but with the range of possibilities opened up by the metaphor.
Q. How do you get the hang of translating the metaphors?
A. Simply by trying. They are often more transparent than they seem to the novice. Fine tuning involves arriving at what the dream really means to the dreamer. To discover this, further information is needed that might link any aspect of the dream to some current event in the life of the dreamer. Freud referred to this as the day residue. It helps to establish a bridge between current preoccupations and the theme of the dream. Then go on to associate to the various elements in the dream. In that way you will be gathering up some of the background thoughts that were translated into metaphor. When this process is combined with the identification of the day residue it limits the range of applicable metaphors and helps to select the one that is most relevant to the dream and most congruent with the feelings and thoughts of the dreamer.
Q. Is this all done in a freewheeling way?
A. No. A dream has a well-defined structure and the pursuit of its meaning should take this into account. There is an opening scene or setting. This depicts in metaphorical images both an existing emotional status quo and a hint of what may be disturbing to this status quo. Then follows a middle segment or developmental sequence. This explores the impact of the impinging stimulus on the life of the dreamer and the range of healthy and neurotic defenses that were mobilized to cope with it. The third part, or denouement, is an effort to cope with and remove the tensions and disequilibrium evoked by the emotional residue that triggered the dream.
Q. How can I make headway with this when the real world itself is so demanding?
A. Give the dream its due in terms of time and effort.