An Approach to Closeness
Dream Sharing in a Small-Group Setting
by Montague Ullman, M. D.
This paper highlights my experience with a small group process designed to help a dreamer bridge the gap between dream image and waking reality. Dream sharing in such a setting relates to the theme of closeness in a number of ways. Dreamwork involves experimenting with a unique level of self-disclosure made possible by the support of the group and the nonintrusive way help is offered. This experience has a freeing effect. More of the self comes to the surface and is acknowledged. There are fewer impediments in the way of honest and close ties to others. Dream sharing generates a feeling of communion. There is also something intrinsic to dreaming which, when brought to life, can move us toward a more unified sense of ourselves as members of a single species. Asleep and dreaming, we seem able to focus on the disconnections in our lives, disconnections from our own past, and disconnections from others.
A few words about the nature of dreaming are in order.
Images that find their way into the dream are borrowed, from waking life but are rearranged to form timely metaphorical reflections of the dreamer's subjective state at the moment. Metaphor is the distinctively human way of capturing glimpses of feelings not yet fully manifest. We use this talent at the onset of dreaming consciousness when we express the residual feelings that are left over from the day before in appropriate imagery. Further visual metaphorical representations evolve as these feelings reverberate through our memory system. What we end up with is a series of scenes metaphorically constructed and metaphorically interconnected. By the way they succeed in containing or releasing feelings, they serve as an internal signal. Either all is well and the dreaming phase of sleep continues to its natural end, or what has been stirred up is best dealt with through awakening. In sum, the dreamer explores the historically based ramifications of a current issue, mobilizes whatever resources are available, and attempts to contain the resulting feelings in the metaphorical imagery he or she has created.
Since we confront these issues in dreams using a primarily metaphorical language, we might begin by noticing the way writers or poets use metaphor. For them, metaphor serves as the vehicle for getting closer to the realities that are deeper than our ordinary discourse can denote. Take, for instance, a reference to the writings of Thoreau.
Or consider the following view of metaphor as taking us beyond where we could go without it: "Beyond a certain level of evidence, system and knowledge fail and we fall back on metaphor, that recourse to living experience that apparently explains but, in fact, over time proves simply to complicate and thereby generate the need for further explanation. " (2)
In dreamwork we seek to retrieve feelings embedded in images we ourselves have created. We trace them to their origins in recent and remote residues and, in doing so, liberate the feelings metaphorically represented.
We generate these night images spontaneously and involuntarily. We experience them as our immediate reality, not a symbolic one, and we respond as if we were captives of that reality. While asleep and. dreaming, we respond to the images and not to their metaphorical meaning. They should more properly be referred to as potential metaphors. They can be appreciated as metaphors only when we waken and work out the two poles of the metaphor - the image and its connection to specific life experience. While we dream, we react to the feeling or lack of feeling associated with the imagery in the dream. That dreams may be available to us to explore further when we are awake is a gift from the night, incidental but none the less valuable.
DREAM SHARING IN A SMALL-GROUP SETTING
I have given a full description of the group process elsewhere. (3) In brief, it consists of structuring a small group to offer maximum help to the dreamer without being intrusive. Since it avoids the theoretical and technical strategies of formal therapy, its sole purpose is to help the dreamer appreciate, to the extent of his or her own readiness, all that the images can convey about the current emotional context of his or her life. Group members are oriented to meet the dreamer's two basic needs. The first is to feel safe. I refer to this as the Safety Factor. So that the dreamer may share the dream with others and engage in the selfdisclosure necessary, an atmosphere of trust and safety must be created. This is brought about in a number of ways. The dreamer has complete control of the process. The dreamer determines the level of sharing and is free to stop the process at any point. No one in the group assumes the role of therapist. There is no imposition of any interpretive system. Trust is further generated by the way the group meets a second need of the dreamer to discover what the dream is saying that would be difficult to discover alone. I refer to that as the Discovery Factor. Various strategies are used toward this end.
Briefly outlined, the process proceeds as follows:
Someone volunteers to share a dream and does so, giving as complete an account as possible of the dream as recalled and without going into associations or interpretive comments. It should be stressed that the decision to share a dream is the free choice of the dreamer. No one person is constrained to share a dream, regardless of the length of time they have been in the. group. Whatever constraint does exist is the general constraint of being in a dream group to learn about dreams.
The second stage is an exercise or game in which each group member makes the dream his or her own. The members share with each other the feeling tones and moods the imagery evokes and then breathe metaphorical life into the dream by offering, from their own experience and imagination, ideas about how the imagery might connect with possible life experiences. They talk of the dream in the first person, address each other, not the dreamer, and all that they come up with is considered their own projection. By projecting feelings and thoughts onto the images, they are creating a reservoir of possibilities in the hope that some of them may have meaning for the dreamer. Often this happens. We all swim about in the same social sea and may very well use an image in the same way the dreamer did. The dreamer does not participate actively at this stage, but in the privacy of his or her psyche is free to accept or reject anything that comes from the group.
At the end of this stage, the dream is returned to the dreamer, who is then invited to respond. The dreamer is free to shape the response in any manner he or she chooses and to share at the most comfortable level of self-disclosure. At all times, the dreamer is responsible for setting the limits.
By this time, the dreamer has generally begun to move further into the dream. Should the dreamer wish to continue, a dialogue then ensues in which the members of the group question the dreamer to elicit as many associations as possible about the imagery of the dream. The questions are simply instruments for the dreamer to use to explore his or her psyche. The dreamer is free to go with the questions or not. The first set of questions is designed to help explore and reconstruct the emotional climate the dreamer experienced the night of the dream.
Again at the dreamer's invitation, two further strategies are applied. In the first, the dream is read back to the dreamer one scene at a time. The dreamer now has the initial information mustered when the dream was first returned plus additional information about the relevant current life context that group members brought out in the first phase of the dialogue. With greater contextual clarity, the dreamer is now able to build further bridges between the dream imagery and recent and remote emotional residues. The aim of playing the dream back in this way is to further contextualize the dream to the point where the dreamer becomes more and more aware of those aspects of the life experience and personality that the dream's evolving visual metaphors depict.
The final strategy is one in which members of the group arc free to offer "orchestrating projections" to the dreamer. If anyone in the group sees a connection between dream image and the information the dreamer has shared, a connection not yet seen by the dreamer, he or she is free to offer it to the dreamer. It remains a projection unless validated by the dreamer.
The general aim is to help the dreamer bring out all the relevant information and so create the likelihood that connections will emerge spontaneously. The "orchestration" by the group is a strategy oflast resort. Throughout, the group functions as a catalytic agent by trying to help the dreamer make explicit what is implicit in the imagery. The reality captured in· the dream is brought into the waking mode through a social process that offers support and stimulation to the dreamer. This leads to significant and helpful readjustments in the dreamer's self-perception.
The notion of healing can be applied appropriately to dreamwork in a number of ways. These relate to the nature of dream content, the ~ay in which dreamwork is carried out, the altered relationship of the dreamer to his or her own dreams as a consequence of dreamwork, and the changes that occur in relationship to others.
THE CONTENT OF DREAMS
All of us continually rework the emotional heritage of our past. Our dreams help us do this in rather remarkable ways. When some vulnerable area is exposed in the course of our daily life, the dream takes the initiative in tracking it down to its historical origins. Our dream seems to have access to deeper informational sources than are ordinarily available. Since we are always honest with ourselves while dreaming, the information we come up with is reliable. Jung spoke most movingly about this feature of our dream life when he wrote: "So flowerlike is it in its candor and veracity that it makes us blush for the deceitfulness of our lives." (4)
The dream's relevance to our current life situation, the historical perspective it affords, and the honesty of the self-scrutiny that ensues are the qualities of the imagery that make their explication a healing experience. The result of dreamwork is a movement toward greater clarity and openness, not about a trivial aspect of our life but around an issue from our past that has intruded into the present in a way that has set up an unresolved tension.
THE PROCESS OF DREAMWORK
Consciously or unconsciously, people tend to seek out emotionally healing experiences. One way these can occur is through dreams. There is something interesting about the curiosity everyone has about dreams. It is more than idle curiosity. I believe it hides a deeper awareness that dreams speak to hidden truths about our nature. With the dream comes an insistent urge to get at those truths. It is as if, at some level, we all recognize the validity of the Swedish author Poul Bjerre's characterization of the dream as a "natural healing system." (5) Quite early in the century, Bjerre took issue with Freud and saw dreams as a readily available route to healing. His writings demystified dreams and showed how the understanding of dreams could help everyone in everyday life. Jung, who was more intuitive and insightful about dreams than Freud, pursued the same path.
In contrast to physiological healing, emotional healing takes place outside the physically defined limits of the person. It happens because of changes that occur in an interpersonal field. Other people are an essential component of emotional healing. Emotional difficulties start with human beings and are resolved through human beings. Dreamwork evolves best in the context of an interpersonal field. The process I have described is so structured as to elicit and maximize the ability of others to function in a healing way toward the dreamer. This effects the release of the dreamer's own self-healing potential. Accompanied by, supported by, and stimulated by the group, the dreamer shares secrets, and a truer version of the self emerges.
In group dreamwork, general and specific factors contribute to the healing effect. The general factors include:
1. The rapid generation of trust in a nonintrusive atmosphere created by the structure.
2. The concern with and respect for the dreamer that are built into the process.
3. The sense of mutuality and commonality of experience that is generated by the way the group members, through their projections, share aspects of themselves with the dreamer.
4. The lack of a hierarchical structure. The leader assumes no special professional role and has the same option to share dreams as everyone else. His or her special responsibility is to lead the group through the process. In all other respects, he or she functions as one of the group members. This flattening arrangement makes for greater sharing.
The specific factors involved arise in connection to the way the group makes it easier for the dreamer to respond to the metaphors of the dream. The group's ability to open up the dream for the dreamer begins first with the range and virtuosity of the members' own projections and later is furthered by the skill and effectiveness with which they carry out the dialogue.
THE DREAMER AND THE DREAM
As dreamwork develops, the relationship of the dreamer to the dream changes. From being accidental, intrusive, strange, and sometimes frightening visitations, dreams are transformed into useful communications that contain information of value to the dreamer. Dreamwork becomes demystified. Participants sense the potential accessibility of the dream and obtain an awareness that when the dream is pursued in a supportive social context, the dreamer becomes better known to himself or herself and to others in a way that has elements of release and a sense of greater wholeness. The freedom to let oneself be known to others is also the freedom to be oneself.
One learns not to judge a dream on the basis of the immediate reactions it produces. These largely reflect the set and bias of the waking state. To judge a dream by the standards of the waking state (for example, whether it is deemed interesting or not) is also misleading and prejudicial. Such judgments are irrelevant to the nature of the dream. The dreamer soon learns that the only thing of importance is the connection the imagery has to a larger and more truthful version of the self. Regardless of the waking impression it produces, the dream comes to be looked upon as an available and helpful private resource.
THE DREAMER AND OTHERS
Healthy changes occur in the dreamer's own interpersonal milieu. The dreamer has been given privileged glimpses deep into the souls of other people and has seen there the same mix of vulnerability and strength that he or she has come to see in himself or herself. The dreamer has had the rare experience of witnessing people coming together as healers for each other. The dreamer has learned how to participate in healing others as well as himself or herself. There is a deepening appreciation of self and others and a growing sense of communion. The dreamer has greater awareness of the circumstances under which other people live, a greater sensitivity to the struggle that is part of being alive, and a greater interest in and tolerance for others. There is a healthier expansion and deepening of the social field and, as a result, a greater openness to new experience and competence in interpersonal relations.
Dreamers benefit not only from what the dream says, but also from how it is said. They come to recognize and appreciate, sometimes for the first time, the range of their own creativity and how it keeps them supplied with an unending source of useful imagery. When so motivated, dreamers can channel this creative source into artistic and aesthetic outlets in. the waking state. They experience nighttime imagery as a hidden creative resource that is there for their benefit and can be called upon when needed.
Many of my views on the nature of the dream have changed with my growing experience with group dreamwork, an experience that included not only training psychotherapists but also efforts to extend dreamwork into the community. The changes I refer to involve the technique and nature of dreamwork. Broader issues have arisen with implications that go beyond dreamwork and relate to all other modalities where imagery is used to shed light on unconscious processes.
CHANGES RELATED TO DREAMWORK ITSELF
It is a truism that a dreamer generally needs help to fully realize the meaning embedded in the imagery. Ever since Freud defined dreamwork as the province of someone psychoanalytically trained, the role of the helper has been considered to be a professional one. I regard this as unnecessarily constraining. The role of the helper does not have to be defined professionally, and serious dreamwork can be carried on outside the framework of a formal therapeutic engagement. The skills necessary for dreamwork can be taught. They involve learning how the visual metaphor expresses meaning symbolically and learning how to help a dreamer elaborate on the recent and remote feeling residues that shaped the dream. The skills also involve learning how to listen to all that the dreamer says in an open, unbiased way and how to ask questions that can be helpful in elucidating the relevant life context without going beyond whatever limits the dreamer sets.
Perhaps the most significant change from a technical point of view involves the way I see the operation of defense mechanisms. I no longer view them as quite as difficult to influence as I did during my career as a psychoanalyst. I see them as much more responsive to the social milieu and much more apt to melt away in an atmosphere of safety and trust. Put another way, in the presence of a supportive and stimulating social milieu, the dreamer's own curiosity will override his or her defensiveness.
Group work with dreams has made me more aware of some of the limitations of one-on-one dreamwork in formal therapy. These include time limitations since the patient may have many more items than the dream on the agenda; the limitations· imposed by the nature of the hierarchical arrangement where dream sharing goes only one way and someone else other than the dreamer is looked up to as the expert; and the temptation, at least with inexperienced therapists, to misuse theory in a way that aborts the search for information. The therapist has the advantage, or course, of knowing the dreamer in greater depth. This can be a two-edged sword since the therapist may respond along a too narrow path based on past experience with the patient, and the response can result in an insufficient tracking of what is happening now.
Psychoanalytically, I was not brought up as a Jungian, but the group dreamwork I have done has brought me closer to Jung's notion of an underground psychic terrain common to all of us. As members of a single species, we have a common underlying psychic dimension to our existence that unites us in our struggle for survival as a species. The hallmark of this heritage is a sensitivity to what is true despite the frantic efforts at times of our higher faculties to obliterate the truth.
We all have certain basic needs, and this "universal unconscious" of ours does its best to see that those needs are met regardless of how astray we go in the pursuit of personal goals. Living organisms have to be in touch with what is real. Our complex symbolic superstructures sometimes cause difficulties, obscuring rather than highlighting the real. In the group situation, when we work with someone else's dream, we clear the way for the maximum display of our connectedness to what is real. This is a somewhat different view of Jung's concept of the collective unconscious. But I think it embodies his emphasis on the universality of this dimension of our existence, its ability to counter the one-sidedness of waking life and in gyroscopic fashion enable us to remain upright in the face of ever-increasing social forces threatening to upset our balance, and finally, in his notion of archetypes, sensing that a bridging mechanism exists between our tissue needs and the symbolic superstructures we have erected.
What follows, admittedly speculative, are some of the broader issues that arise from our remarkable capacity to generate spontaneously meaningful imagery.
Dreaming and Connectedness
This first issue concerns the dreamer's affective connection to others. While dreaming, we confront ourselves with the state of our connections to significant others in our lives, the strategies we use to undermine or restore these connections, and the social pressures that place obstacles in our paths. The essence of the dream's natural healing potential derives from the dreamer's ability to produce imagery that reflects recently exposed areas of disconnection to others or to oneself. By this I mean that the dreamer is concerned with ongoing events or experiences that significantly affect the felt sense of connectedness to others. Such experiences set off reverberating tremors at different levels and define the issue to be explored in the dream.
The relationship of dreams to connectedness emerges clearly in the course of group dreamwork. In the presence of a safe atmosphere generated by the nonintrusive nature of the process, social defenses melt away or, at any rate, do not interfere with the deep-level sharing and sense of communion that are generated. Group members are able to respond at a feeling level to someone else's imagery. We can partially understand this in terms of a shared social milieu. The response may also be due to the deeper way imagery has of linking people together that is more akin to a shared aesthetic response.
Dreaming and the Survival of the Species
The dream's ability to reflect the dreamer's concern with maintaining connections has led me to speculate that while asleep and dreaming, we are engaged with a much deeper aspect of our human nature than when we are awake, an aspect that goes beyond the concerns of the individual. Group dreamwork discloses an agency that works against fragmentation. Trust, and a sense of solidarity, develop rapidly in a dream-sharing group. I suggest that the concern wth connectedness links dreaming to a larger issue, namely the survival of the species.
The evolution of the human species has been characterized not only by diversity but also by a remarkable degree of disunity. Separations and tensions have arisen in many different ways. We have drawn lines between ourselves and others according to country of origin, color of skin, religious preference, class position, and so on. At some level, each of us is a victim of the emotional fallout from this continuing process. In this nuclear age, who among us does not harbor some concern about whether we will establish collaborative ties among nations that are strong enough to avert a nuclear catastrophe? Each of us plays a role in mitigating or perpetuating this now dangerous situation.
It is as if while dreaming we display where we are in relation to this state of affairs from our personal and immediate point of view. Somewhere within us is an awareness that, if unchecked, this disunity could be the seed for our eventual destruction. Only through constructive, affective bonding can this fragmentation be overcome and the species endure.
While dreaming, we seem able to transcend individual boundaries ahd move toward our place in a larger whole. The images we create register alienating pressures intrinsic to our social environment and the way we have come to deal with such pressures in our day-to-day encounter with others. It is in this sense that dreams may be perceived as arising from a built-in mechanism concerned with the survival of the species. The individual's effort to maintain a sense of connectedness is part of the larger concern, namely, the issue of species connectedness. Poets, writers, and, in their own way, psychotics, have always seemed to know about this connectedness and to relate to it. Creative artists express it in a way that can be appreciated by others. Psychotics manipulate it to fit in with their autistic vision.
To support the idea that we view our underlying connectedness from two entirely different perspectives, those of waking and sleeping, I will bring together an unlikely pair, an odd couple. Despite their disparate origins, interests, and ways of life, each has something important to say about this question of interconnectedness.
The first member of the pair is August Strindberg, that fascinating, complex, and unhappy genius. Harry G. Carlson, in his study of Strindberg's use of mythical themes in his plays, notes Strindberg's preoccupation with the Indian concept of maya, a term that refers to "the tissue of objects, things, and people that constitute what men believe to be reality .... " (6) He traces Strindberg's interest to his reading of Schopenhauer:
It is difficult to pinpoint exactly when Strindberg became familiar with maya or maya-like concept, but it might have been as early as the 1870's, the time he first became impressed by Schopenhauer. Maya is a basic and recurrent expression in The World as Will, where we find scores of passages like the following: "The eyes of the uncultured individual are clouded, as the Indians say, by the veil of maya. To him is revealed not the thing-in-itself, but only the phenomenon in time and space .... In this form of his limited knowledge he sees not the inner nature of things, which is one, but its phenomena as separated, detached, innumerable, very different, indeed opposed." Part of Agnes' mission in A Dream Play is to help mortals understand that they see not "the inner nature of things, which is one," but the multiplicity, the misleading, illusory veil of maya, "phenomena as separated, detached, innumerable, very different, indeed opposed." [My italics] (7)
Strindberg's writings reveal his own desperate struggle to resolve his deep feelings of disconnection with the social order of his day (he exiled himself from Sweden during a critical part of his life), and his almost pitiful struggle to make a go of married life and fatherhood. The fires of absolute individualism consumed him to the point of psychotic-like behavior at times. He ended up bypassed socially (the Nobel committee chose another Swede, one generally considered a lesser writer) and alienated from friends and family.
The second member of this pair, David Bohm, a distinguished theoretical physicist, postulates an underlying order of reality not directly knowable, but constituting the ground of all being. He refers to this as the Implicate Order. Out of this, an Explicate Order arises. In Bohm's words:
Because the implicate order is basically dynamic in nature, I called it holomovement. All things found in the unfolded explicate order emerge from the holomovement in which they are enfolded as potentialities, and ultimately they fall back into it. They endure only for a time, and while they last, their existence is sustained in a constant process of enfoldment and reenfoldment, which gives rise to the relatively stable and independent forms in which they appear in the explicate order. (8)
We are part of the explicate order, but, we can never see the whole of it, only what our perceptual apparatus allows us to see. Through the way we perceive this explicate order, we create a perceptual order, which Alex Comfort refers to as consensus reality or middle-order reality. In his discussion of Bohm, Comfort puts it this way:
Comfort is using the term "manifest order" to encompass the entire explicate order whereas our waking grasp of that order is limited to how we have learned to perceive it. As a result of long conditioning, our perceptual order takes discreteness as the primary given despite our ever deepening understanding of field interrelationships. Bohm suggests, and I think rightly so, that this approach to understanding the nature of reality has played an important role in fostering the degree of alienation and fragmentation that now exists in the world today.
What unifies Strindberg's interest in maya and Bohm's explicate order is that in both instances we are said to settle for a limited, fragmented, and one-sided view of reality and to lose sight of the deeper structure of interconnectedness that pervades this order. We fail to appreciate the profound significance of what Bohm refers to as the "unbroken wholeness" that characterizes all of nature.
How do the considerations offered about dreaming tie in with the constructs emphasized by Bohm? In a general and analogous way, the view presented here is more intrinsically related to notions of interconnectedness and "unbroken wholeness" than are dream theories designating reified psychic entities at war with each other. Awake, we are mired in our own discreteness and, by the language we use, trapped by the seeming discreteness of all else about us. Asleep and dreaming, we forsake linguistic categories as a primary mode of expression. We risk feeling our way back into this underlying unity and set ourselves the task of exploring both internal and external hindrances to the full range of the manifest order and its rootedness in a deeper order of connectedness. Bohm's notion of "unbroken wholeness," which characterizes the implicate order, is like an insistent Greek chorus, heard dimly or not attended to at all during our waking hours. Awake and tied to the perceptual order, we tend to see things in their discreteness. Waking consciousness is narrowly focused on the immediate reality facing us. We experience this against a background of feeling tones, emotional murmurings derived from our historical background. While dreaming, we affect a figure-ground reversal, one that brings aspects of that "unbroken wholeness" more into focus.
In Bohm's terms, we might say that metaphor is the instrument that carries us deeper into the interplay of these two orders once some newly revealed aspect of that interplay begins to affect our life. Through metaphor, we reach out to what is still implicit, that which is unidentified, unconceptualized, and still only a dimly felt stirring within us. Its initial grasp defies the ordinary use of language, which is simply not up to the task. That language is of use only after metaphor has forced what has been implict out of its hiding place.
From this, it is easy to see how metaphor acts as a force propelling us into the future. It represents movement, change, a tampering with the unknown, an exploration of a mystery. Directed at the outside world through poetry, art, and even science, it brings more into the domain of the known. Directed to the inner world, it eases the passage of material from the domain of the unconscious to that of the conscious. In both instances, it offers to the creator of the metaphor and to those who benefit from its creation a more compelling connection to what is real.
The healing potential of dream imagery has been explored as a consequence of the experience I have had with dream groups. By calling attention to certain common attributes of dreaming and waking consciousness, I have suggested e1sewherelO that the basic features of dreaming consciousness, namely, to display more of ourselves more honestly to ourselves, can be understood as phylogenetically derived manifestations of vigilance operations during
the repetitive cycles of arousal that characterize mammalian sleep. Based on these considerations, along with the impact of group dreamwork, I have further suggested that the organizing principle underlying the adaptive significance of dreaming derives from operations relating to species survival.
Healing has been linked to our remarkable capacity while dreaming to produce an endless supply of meaningful metaphorical imagery. Eschewing any meta psychological considerations, I have felt the need to link dreaming consciousness to something else, not another metapsychological system, but to a different way of perceiving both inner and outer reality.
This brought me to Bohm's ideas about the implicate and explicate order. His conceptual scheme seemed to offer a way of appreciating the limitations of our perceptual apparatus in its dealings with the manifest or explicate order or reality and the consequent difficulties we encounter in an effort to delve more deeply into what still remains implicate within ourselves and in the world about us. Disengagement from the waking mode makes it possible for us to contact manifest reality in a way more congruent with the nature of that order than our waking perception of it. This is the goal we seek when we engage in dreamwork. The therapeutic value of the image lies in the use we can put it to while awake. By tapping into the information it contains, we move toward greater wholeness and greater freedom. In a term borrowed from physics, we experience a greater degree of "coherence" with the natural order of the world about and within us.
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