By Linda Fultan
(Student at the Institute for Integrated Psychotherapy)
The last week of our second year of the Body-Oriented Psychotherapy course focused on Dreams and Dreamwork. Each of the Study Sub-Groups had to prepare a seminar on one of four theoretical approaches to dreamwork: Gestalt, Jungian, Freudian and Body-Oriented. Each seminar included an experiential exercise, worked on during the seminar and in our dreamwork session the following morning. The morning session involved recording our dreams upon waking and then discussing them in a sub-group before our ordinary day started. As a person who is a very slow starter in the morning and who doesn’t remember her dreams very easily or very often, I was not looking forward to this added dimension of our work. The first day was the most difficult as I felt as if I had done at least half a day’s work by the time we started on our “normal” day, but as the week progressed I found the morning dreamwork sessions invaluable and actually began to look forward to them.
The group who gave the first seminar, on the Gestalt approach, gave us a tip which I found useful to remember my dreams. This was to physically stay in the position in which I awoke and to concentrate on what I might have been dreaming during the night. My initial feeling was that I had not dreamed at all but they surfaced as I concentrated further. Intermittently I wrote down what I remembered, mainly because I knew that we would be discussing the dream shortly.
During the morning dreamwork session, we each had fifteen to twenty minutes to look at our dream. As we learned in the seminars, the dreamer is the principal person to analyse his/her own dreams, which was faithfully respected in our group. This did not come entirely easy to me as I struggled with an urge at times both to interpret other people’s dreams and to get them to interpret mine. I think my urge to get the others to interpret my dream was an attempt to distance myself from intimately facing my dream, and avoid dealing with the discomfort and distress that accompanied this process. I was amazed, as the week progressed, at how even a small section of a dream could end up having a great deal of significance attached to it. I was also constantly surprised by the emotions that were stirred up when I looked at the amazing information that my unconscious was pouring out.
The first seminar presented the Gestalt approach to dreamwork which focuses initially on the individual making contact with himself to work on his dreams by keeping a dream journal. Perls sees that only the dreamer can decode the dream and it seems that the therapist is present to help the dreamer look at its literal and metaphorical meaning. He views each part of the dream as representative of a a part of the person that they are not consciously able to own. Perls’ use of dialoguing with absent dreams might also be a further device to bring the rejected parts of a person’s psyche into focus at the conscious level. My confusion around the dreams that I do remember led me to be sceptical of the Gestalt approach because I didn’t really believe that I could decode my own dreams. My curiosity though, along with the fact that everyone else was trying it and I didn’t want to be left out, enticed me to experiment with it. The presenting group gave us an exercise which involved telling our dream in the present tense, being aware of how we felt as we reported it, and saying after each piece, “And this is my life”. The next morning I tried this in my dreamgroup and was absolutely startled by the powerful effect. It brought the dream and its images sharply into focus, which I found shocking at first. I had felt that these dream images were out there, at a distance, to be pondered upon – but this approach brought them right into the room to be faced. It took me a while to adjust and the resistant part of me said, “Is this really my life?” Over time, though, I began to accept these startling revelations and saw that I could decode my own dreams. The seminar leaders also suggested that we conclude this exercise with short statements that came to mind from the dialogue. I find it useful to have these written statements to look over periodically. I found the Gestalt approach so helpful that I actually used it in my morning dreamwork throughout the week. I have a sense that it is particularly useful for people who, like myself, are resistant to bringing these unconscious parts into sharp focus and believing they are real.
I was one of the presenters for the next seminar on the Jungian approach to dreamwork. I found Jung’s ideas about symbols, archetypes and the individual and collective unconscious fascinating. Jung also uses the idea of a dream journal and my understanding is that he aims to bring the detail and symbols in the dream into sharper focus. Jung’s approach is to assist the dreamer to amplify parts of the dream or the symbols within the dream to look at their significance and the messages they could hold. The exercise that we gave to the groups involved initially having the dreamer amplify part of a dream, describing it with attention to details such as colours, shapes, places, objects, etc. If any symbols or significant objects emerged, the dreamer was to dialogue with them and immerse themselves or become it. The exercise also involved getting the dreamer to take the symbol either forward or backward in time. This approach proved very useful in my dreamwork the following morning when I could only remember what seemed like a “frame” of a film involving a flash of myself carrying one of my canvas bags. My initial feeling was that this was not really enough to take to the dream group, but once again I was astonished to see what my unconscious was saying as I focused on what this bag symbolized. In my conscious life, I had been struggling with throwing this bag away. My unconscious reminded me of the bag’s significance and made sense of the fact that it was not easy to let it go.
The third seminar presented Freud’s approach to dreamwork with humour and clarity. Along with Jung, Freud sees dreaming as a biological function that allows us to continue sleeping. He sees dreams as presenting us with a distortion of our “blatant wishes” that would be unacceptable to our conscious selves. Freud uses the idea of “censorship” to describe how the latent content (our unconscious messages, wishes or desires) is disguised in our dreams to give us the manifest content. As a person who likes to know how a process works, I found Freud’s framework to be quite clear and of great assistance in understanding how we operate between our conscious and unconscious beings. This information seemed to help me to make sense of my discomfort in bringing the latent content of the dream into focus. Freud’s attention to why we cloak the latent content in symbols, displacement and the condensation of ideas in our own dreams and how even reporting the dream can be difficult, produced relief within myself. It makes sense that if I need to censor things from myself, at times I would be reluctant to show the “latent content” of my dreams to others. Somehow this put the discomfort that I experienced as I tried to remove this censorship in my dream group into perspective.
The last seminar was on the Body and Dreams. Reflective of the nature of body-work, this seminar was predominantly experiential with a strong theory input as well. It was extremely interesting as we were taken through relaxation and visualisation into our bodies. The group leader led us into an exercise where we were asked to get into the body experience of being a symbol from one of our dreams. Following this, we were guided into being ourselves connected in some way to the symbol. They finished up with some animal chakra imagery which I found extremely revealing about myself. We discussed our experience in pairs after each section and I found it very enlightening. This was added to the continuum of startling revelations of the week.
Overall the experience of the week of dreamwork was “mind-boggling”. It left me with an extra bag of images, revelations, information about myself, along with practical tools to carry out dreamwork to take home. The fact that I feel very safe with the group was important for me in carrying out my dreamwork. Exploring unconscious messages in dreams is not easy in front of myself, never mind in front of others, and I feel that the safety aspect is important. The week was extremely enlightening, sometimes painful, but overall a very enjoyable experience.
(Linda Fultan works at the Family Therapy and Counselling Centre.)