By Blake Baily June, 2015
“And then in a panic suddenly you feel
A little kiss, like a scared spider, crawl
Across your cheek …
You turn to me to help you find the beast,
And of course I promise to do my best,
If it takes all week …”
— Excerpt from Rimbaud’s “Dream in Wintertime” (1870)
We spend, on balance, one third of our lives asleep, with an average of eight hours per night. Of those eight hours, it is speculated that we spend two of them dreaming, possibly more (National Sleep Foundation, 2018). According to the science, we can say with some confidence that nearly ten percent of our lived experience takes place in the dream world, where we find ourselves interacting with, learning from, and becoming inspired, confused, or terrified by this phenomenon we call “dreaming.” And when sleep deprived, we dream even more once we finally return to Morpheus, the god of dreams and sleep.
Bob Dylan may have put it better than most when he said, “If my … dreams could be seen, they’d probably put my head in a guillotine” (1965). And Doug Martsch sings the anthemic refrain: “I wanna SEE … movies of my dreams” (2000). Don’t we all? On the other side of things, the poet, writer, and painter Henri Michaux insisted that his dreams “have always been pale, colorless. I hardly saw anything in them, and I didn’t hear much either. Nothing worth looking at.” He continued, “[The dreams] I take part in have a character and an appearance so ordinary and commonplace and banal that I have to strain myself to notice them. To me it is as if, practically speaking, almost nothing had happened” (1969).
Indeed, dreams run the gamut of experience. They offer the potential for unmeasured bliss: to fly, become invisible, visit loved ones who have passed on, have uncensored sexual encounters. Or dreams can be crazy, violent, deeply disturbing, full of dis-ease. And, what is equally as important, as Michaux points out, is that they can be mundane, inconsequential, and ultimately forgettable, as they are 95–99% of the time (National Sleep Foundation, 2018). Yet as we look more deeply into them—not just to their content, but also into the very notion that they even exist—dreams can be so much more.
To call this paper a “psychological study” would be somewhat misleading. Although a study, to be sure, it is also a “peering into,” a curious look at dreams’ impact on our waking lives as their entreaties, dramas, and images unfold. Because of the universality of dreams and dreaming, we all have preconceptions about them. Due to how we’ve come to understand them by way of the arts, through spiritual traditions, through psychology, and through the unique lens of our personal character, it is also important to point out what the project is not about, which is to say, it is not about dream interpretation, dream meaning, or dreams as a means to an end. It is not about how we might use dreams for personal gain, for insight, or improvement, or for power over our destinies; nor is it about how we might use dreams in therapy to correct our clients’ miseries and predicaments. The overall intention is to bring dreams into their much-deserved place as friends (Lippmann, 2006), as confidants, as contemporaries, as things we live with and sometimes can’t get away from. The intention is to regard dreams for what, who, and where they are, as they are, and not for the theories and myths that have been developed around them as a means of domesticating them, decoding them, or using them, perhaps, in a materialistic fashion.
Ultimately what is being explored here is dream interpenetration (Podvoll, 2003, 329), which rests in contrast to dream interpretation. “Interpenetration” suggests that if there is an interest in getting something from dreams, it has to do with how they might serve to deepen and comingle relationships between any two people lying in bed, sharing coffee, taking a hike in the mountains, or enjoying dinner at a party. Since, however, this is a paper written by a therapist with an eye toward other therapists, we can see the dreams as enlivening, fortifying, and encouraging the “continual ebb and flow” (329) of honest and meaningful exchange between therapist and client, between analyst and analysand, or between supervisor and supervisee. And if the dreams provide a key to unlocking unconscious treasures of insight during the process, then of course we would never deny ourselves such gifts. But, if it is our aim to hitch these dreams to the revelation grindstone, to make them our psychological beasts of burden and use them as yet another methodology in a long and drowsy lineup of psychological tools, at best we are mismanaging them—at worst, leading them astray from their essence and their basic intelligence.
The intention of this undertaking is to re-inspire us to attend to our dreams, to bring more awareness to the “lost 10 percent,” to allow dreams to take their honored place in the full course of our lives. In this we can in turn give ourselves the rounded out, fully-lived and appreciated experience that is our birthright. From the “clinical” perspective, the hope is to invigorate the position of dreams and dreaming in psychotherapy, supervision, and training analysis (Fortuna, 2016), and in doing so loosen these heavy-handed intentions that have the effect of placing unwanted values on dreams—values that one might assign to material commodities. Finally, this exploration is an opportunity to discover how the telling and witnessing of dreams impacts the space between two people, how it creates a type of dream-field where the atmosphere (Knapp-Gipple, 2015, 205–213) evoked by the experience can change, even deepen, the nature of human relation so that it edges naturally toward mutual healing.
In the spirit of defining terms, the topic of daydream vs. night dream should also be named. Freud saw the daydream as standing on relatively equal footing with night dreams in terms of their psychological relevance and explanation for “hysterical symptoms” (Freud, 1956, 491–492). He suggested that the difference between the night dream and daydream is that we don’t confuse daydreams with reality; in nighttime dreams we “appear not to think but to experience; that is to say we attach complete belief to the hallucinations” (50). This notion suggests one final objective for our study, which is to try to blur the distinction between nighttime dreams and “real life.” It seems that segregating them tends to embolden those countless other divisions between sanity and neurosis that are often found at the very root of human suffering in general, and “mental illness” in particular.
From a Buddhist perspective, dreams show us a unique version of our daytime activity and are “based on the uncertainty between day experience and night experience … You are actually not quite certain whether you are sleeping or not” (Trungpa, 1992, 107). Dreams can also serve as a touchstone for the dreamlike quality of our waking state, offering an opportunity for us to understand the contradictory and illusory nature that marks our existence. As the Lojong slogan goes: “Regard All Dharmas as Dreams” (Trungpa, 2003).
Many Buddhists might say, and I would agree, that much of how we understand worldly phenomena is filtered through the accumulated and greatly cherished matrix of personal identity. We take in and attempt to know what’s going on around us based on a notion of self that we’ve created both consciously and unconsciously, reinforced, propped up, and defended throughout the course of our lives. I am a jock. I am a politician. I am the smart one, or the slow one, the intellectual, the know-it-all, or the know-nothing. I am a handyman, a philosopher, a chemist, an electrician. I am a reading person, a movie enthusiast, an artist, a mother, a father, a teacher … a therapist. We have history and trauma, peak moments and all-time lows. Because these identities are limited by our biases, by past and current conditioning, and by our preferences and judgments, our experience of the world is limited by those very parameters. But the world itself is functioning in a much broader—much wilder—manner, despite my abilities, and yours, and the rest of the myriad attempts to keep it all manageable and understandable so that it might be sufficiently digested by this person we call “me.”
Life, in its raw form, is intense. This becomes intrusively apparent when our filters have dissolved or crashed as a consequence of traumas, powerful drug experiences, or prolonged solitary retreats (customary to tribal and contemplative traditions), exhaustive military training, or any number and variety of physical wounds that might interfere with normal brain functioning (Podvoll, 2003, 153). Such experiences can have a devastating effect on our thinking, perception, and our established sense of identity. We are no longer protected. Out of this, a Michaux-inspired (1963) “chasm situation” can be formed, which Podvoll describes as “an acute mental derangement into prolonged turmoil, a ‘bad trip,’ or madness itself” (Podvoll, 153).
It is also true that when our often rigid and fixated personal identities relax and dissolve, our appreciation for and awareness of the world’s sacred and profound displays begins to deepen. This also appears to take place in our dreams, where we are operating with a much looser, more transient sense of self, and of course with a high degree of uncertainty about what is real and unreal (Trungpa, 1992, 107). Our “third person” experiencing self seems to operate more prominently in dreams than the strong-willed and self-referencing thinking “I” with whom we are most comfortably acquainted while awake. Considering all this, my questions continue to hang around the differences between the dream world and waking life. How much does our struggle with maintaining a fixed identity function to keep “awake” and “sleep” safely demarcated? To be sure, many of the great masters teach that these two states are not so separate:
A good rule of thumb is to take a person’s dreams just as seriously and politely as you might treat the person reporting them, acknowledging the generosity of their offerings and listening to their requests. To that end, Windhorse practitioners have found that there are four areas where dreams can be our friends and collaborators in the ongoing understanding of mind and recovery: 1) Dreams can be viewed as a prototype for psychosis; 2) as a conduit to and holograph of the unconscious; 3) they can give us the opportunity to free-associate (another vehicle to the unconscious), and finally; 4) dream work with others gives the practitioner the opportunity to listen in a pure and unobstructed manner, to pause and breathe (and practice silence) as a counter-pose to one’s tendency toward judgment … to one’s habit toward interpretation and problem-solving. Michaux speaks to the inclusiveness of dreaming—which joins us all and binds us together. He supports the notion that dreams might be used principally in support of relationship:
◈ As a prototype for psychosis
There is general agreement that dreams can be crazy. Or simply are crazy: There is no particularly coherent storyline; images and ideas tend to catch one by surprise then fall apart before recognition, reflection, and integration. In dreams, too, we find ourselves much closer to the underlying, subatomic operations of mind, the part of our mind that is running at very high speeds, with wildness and intensity, and that is totally unfiltered. In this part of the world, every thought may be met with its opposite to the point that we move as though recently thawed out, or through thick syrup, or where we simply become frozen in place.
Here, a harmless or even mundane scenario, like lunch with a friend, might suddenly branch into a vast network of unregulated storylines—she becomes a spy, the food is dog chow, you’re now in a garden sitting on blankets, you procure a razor blade and begin shaving your bikini line and notice that the moisturizing strip contains a strong narcotic. In this strange place, an idea about who you are, your “self,” can shift, alter, and proliferate into something so bizarre and foreign that the whole notion of a secure personal identity becomes tenuous. The act of maintaining an identity or “keeping it together,” as we often say, is simply not going to happen in the dream world. Too, it begs the question as to whether or not we’re actually doing such a great job of it in our waking lives. What does it actually mean to “keep it together?”
Psychosis is many things to many people, but one common component has to do with being intimate with that disintegration process, with intensity and power, with the unsubstantiated nature of things, with the hopeless falling apart going on all around us—and then taking ownership of it. And in that witnessing and personalizing, there is a natural absorption that can lead to widescale ignoring: the ignoring of society’s conventions, to our families’ demands and entreaties; we might ignore the rhythms of day and night, or what substances we’re putting in our bodies—or refusing to put in our bodies; and at the core of it we ignore our own basic intelligence that says repeatedly and in so many different ways: “Wake Up!” (Podvoll, 2003, 123).
These messages of sanity seem to show up in the midst of both psychosis and in dreams, reminding us that in fact we will never locate a solid sense of self, that we will never be operating entirely alone, and that we are indeed a shifting arrangement of moving parts, causes, and conditions. An arrangement that is in full engagement with the moment-to-moment activities of life around us: cosmological, environmental, interpersonal, nutritional, pharmacological, biochemical, and so on. The voices of reason unceasingly remind us that this project here on earth is not just about ME.
It has been said that psychosis is “living in a world of one,” (Gipple, personal communication, 2018). Perhaps the most important aspect or notion of dreams as a prototype for psychosis has to do with the fact that we all dream and are therefore offered the opportunity to experience the insanity of falling apart and the struggle to gather it all back together. A typical “dream-theme” often has us engaged in an impossible task. Whether it’s shopping for groceries on the moon or putting a toaster together with a handful of Q-tips, each one of us has experienced the instability and unstructured nature of that world. Because of that, we all have the ability to recognize and feel, at least momentarily—and in the comfort of our own beds—what it’s like not to be in charge of our minds and lives. From here we can all come to understand the slogan: “If you have a mind, it can go mad,” (Podvoll, 2003, 317). And from there, empathy arises.
◈ Dreams as a holograph of the unconscious
There are layers to mind, thought, and experience in as much as there are layers to all things, living and inanimate, from the subatomic to the expanding-out quality of space and time. In his presentation “Health Without Ego” (1994), which was given in Vienna, Podvoll discusses the sedimentary aspects of mind and consciousness. What we generally call “the unconscious” is the part of our experience that goes unrecognized or unspoken by the waking self—that is, until one “slips” and reveals something, perhaps a hostility toward another, an unacknowledged sexual impulse, or some buried fear.
When one slows down in the dream space and begins listening and telling, something like meditation starts to happen. Interpenetration occurs between teller and listener, between this world and the other. Dream images begin to take on more personality, the senses begin to perk up, and a dialogue takes form—both an outward dialogue and an inner one as well. Perhaps we start talking to ourselves, which, according to Podvoll (1994) is more like a monologue. “What did he say? There were two boats, his child was in one, and a floating convertible (a Cadillac?) full of potted plants that were withering in the sun … This is a dream about power and loss. Stop analyzing. Just listen.” Or the dreamer: “I can’t say this, I can’t remember. This is not a good dream. This dream was so much more interesting before I started talking.”
We begin to appreciate the often-unrecognized speeds our minds are capable of when we witness them in the dream space of intensive psychotherapy. Here we enter a dream with our partner and drop down deeper and deeper into the vast mine of the unconscious, moving past the sense perceptions, the smells, sounds, sights, textures of the dream, to the neurology, the sub-neurology, to the underlying speed of mind where “any thought is met by its anti-thought, any emotion is met by its anti-emotion, any idea by its antithetical idea. Yes, no, yes, no, on, off, on, off, eat, don’t eat, eat, don’t eat, go, don’t go, go, don’t go. And if … if this subtle level of consciousness, this particular micro-operation, comes to the surface, one is paralyzed in indecision, doubt and ambivalence” (1994). What does one do at that point? What does one say? The suggestion might be that we … Say The Next Word.
◈ Dreams as an opportunity for free association
On the gross level we speak, using words, to describe our condition to other people. This is a dialogue. While this is taking place, however, we’re also talking to ourselves—one level down, if you will. As suggested above, we’re perpetually engaged in a monologue (Podvoll, 1994, 3), reinforcing our positions, placating our fears, reassuring ourselves that we are, in fact, “ourselves.” And below that level of activity lies the proto-language material that can allow for the method of free association. Podvoll states in his Vienna talk that free association remains the only true vehicle to entering the dream space while awake (1994, 4). It is through free association that we encounter the unedited, unrestricted act of witnessing and speaking all that enters the part of our mind that gives rise to language.
When I meet a client for the first time I’ll usually invite them to say “anything and everything that comes to mind” as a way to clear the space of judgment and censorship, and to establish a good and safe place for us to speak in completely unrestricted terms. This is an ancient psychoanalytic opening, and free association as a technique arose out of this general disposition. Say what you will, say what comes to mind without editing, without holding back, let the words come as though you were riding on a train at high speeds and describing the view from your sleeper car window (Strachey, 1913). Impossible? Ed Podvoll described the process as, ultimately, embarrassing: “having to face the utter banality of my mind. What was in my mind was boring, petty, tiresome, uninteresting, even sickening—a cycle of useless concerns” (Podvoll, 2003, 326). But his training analyst, Harold Searles, encouraged him to carry on, despite the ordinariness, the pettiness, and the hilarity. In the end, Dr. Podvoll found that the exercise equated itself to the practice of mindfulness meditation, where one sits and observes the moment-to-moment activity of mind, the narcissistic, wild and repetitive thoughts, images, and associated feelings, touching in to them, and breathing them out, not identifying with them, letting them go, and counting on them to reemerge. No interpretation, no diagnosis, just watching and listening with care and kindness (2003).
Dreams are often populated with symbols, objects, people, and words. When the dream has been told, one might invite the teller to name a few remarkable symbols or images, ones that he or she finds to be of particular interest. They can be used as a source-point, and the client is invited to associate from there—going word-for-word, phrase-for-phrase—and ending when he or she is ready, or when you interrupt the flow for further conversation. It is here, too, that one may inquire as to the teller’s understanding of the images and voices that linger and cajole. Free association can be maddening in its own right, but the claustrophobia of giving voice to each and every verbal impulse is enlivened by the activity of the listener.
◈ Dreams as an opportunity to listen deeply
Given the persistent and compelling monologue playing—sometimes broadcasting—in each of us, is it any wonder that we even hear, let alone care, what others are saying? Consider someone in a state of mania, whose every thought, memory, and association finds a voice, a stream of consciousness, a self-absorbed, narcissistic tirade that places the individual at the very center of the universe, whose importance is undisputed, messianic, and often magical. Those who experience unipolar manias (those that rarely endure the horrendous whiplash depression common to bipolar) might be some of the most honest people you’ll ever meet. They reveal the pure and naked state of discursive mind, its layers, and its relentless pursuit of ego protection, refusing to give in to the ordinary and sometimes shameful consensus experience. Yet, honest as they are, people in the midst of manic highs seem to be listening-challenged.
Anyone might agree, however, that in order to be a therapist one must be a decent listener. Witnessing the dreams of others, and utilizing the disciplines described in this paper encourages a form of deep listening that we don’t normally encounter in ordinary life. Pen and paper are an afterthought. Interpretive, judgmental tendencies are invited to take a rest. An open, exposed attitude is assumed, as though one’s chest armor cracks apart to receive and eventually protect the dreamer’s precious material. An “unprofessional,” ordinary, and humble listening takes place. Each detail, sound, movement, and association washes through the recipient, filling the client and therapist with the experience so that the dream becomes shared and the environment saturated with feeling. It is at this level of awareness, the “exchange” level of interdependence and “naked receptivity” (Podvoll, 2003, 327), where so many in therapy often struggle to connect and find intimacy. Perhaps this is due to the distractions and fixated quality of the arising and unrelenting personal stories, defenses, and reflexive responses—all common side effects to provocative dream telling. It is also in this strange, yet oddly sacred, space that dreams offer us an opportunity to exchange with feelings in an otherwise resistant or frozen existence. It is here where we may work directly with our regressive tendencies to back away, hide, and insulate. This discipline of dream listening encourages us to take it all in despite our interpersonal dramas, our financial struggles, our hangovers, or our ambitions for success.
Pointy Hats, Stripey Socks
My interest in dreams and dreaming, as is with most dream enthusiasts, began in childhood. I’ve been fascinated by the memory of certain dreams and dream images that have persisted throughout the past 50 years of sleeping and waking. Old, memorable dreams—ones that will never leave—are actually moments of lived experience. I really did eat hot dogs with Mickey Mouse on a bed sheet. My parents hid from me in our darkened living room, making animal noises behind unfamiliar walls. I dissected a giant frog, shaved its eyebrows, and it was—you guessed it—my mother. Like the light from burned-out stars, the dreams continue to pay visits to this grownup person. These old ones, especially, have left impressions that lead me to think they’re in some way responsible for who I am today, how I think about the world. At the risk of moving into interpretation, those dreams demonstrate how I was attempting to integrate and make sense of a sometimes painful childhood experience. It is also true that they are my constant companions, availing themselves when I’m in need, or bored, or trapped in some neurotic struggle—or calling on me when I least expect it. For instance, the following childhood dream, one of the earliest I can recall, came recently at the driving range, during my backswing:
What does it mean that I still remember this dream? Why did it come most recently with a golf club in my hand? John Updike wrote a splendid book called Golf Dreams (1996), which is a collection of essays, many of which draw comparisons between the maddening and oftentimes impossible nature of the sport and the clumsy surrealism our bodies endure in dreams (and also on the golf course). Is this dream about status? Literature? Incarceration? Domination? Golf had nothing to do with this dream when it was dreamt, but the truth is that I find golf to be a sport made up of consecutive psychological disturbances ranging from mere disappointment to the downright horrific. The truth is also that I experienced at least two significant traumas at the home in which this dream occurred proximal to the time of dreaming: one sexual and one animal. Moreover, why have I told this dream here? Perhaps it has something to do with why we tell our dreams to anyone, and why we listen.
Freud … Lamentations
The “Blue Witches” dream is low hanging fruit for interpretation, so along those lines there remains something we can’t ignore: any discussion, investigation, or inquiry into the dream world simply must begin with acknowledgement of Sigmund Freud. Prior to Freud’s scientific inquiry and catalogue, dreams were largely the domain of animism and divination; they were messages from the spirit world and were primarily devices of prophecy, warning, and divine communication (Freud, 1954, 2). Although by no means the first person to study and document their relevance, Freud remains the seminal figure in bringing dreams into the fold of scientific rigor (5–6).
To the contemporary therapist, the idea that dreams represent some disguised architecture of the unconscious, or that they might contain information about our early childhoods, or even that they offer us glimpses into our deepest, most unfulfilled wishes and projections, to our distortions of thought—all seems readily plausible thanks to Freud. Whether or not our professional guiding principles line up with Freud’s assertion that dreams afford the “royal road to the unconscious,” he has nonetheless given us a psychological reference point from which we can strike out and make our own dream discoveries. His method of interpretation is not only ingenious but demonstrates how we can liberate and broaden our thinking. He encourages us to begin paying attention to detail, to light, shadow and texture; to unconscious motives, our egos and to how we protect them. And of course, he seems to smile and open his palms to our scarcely repressible, sometimes inexplicable, and fluid sexuality—all central aspects of dream exploration.
Many theorists of Freud’s day and beyond have branched off and studied dreams on their own terms and from their own intellectual positions, including Jung’s collective unconscious and the many and varied schools of psychoanalysis. (According to the Encyclopedia of Psychology there are at least 287 separate schools of psychology and psychotherapy, not including “contemplative” psychotherapy.) (Podvoll, 1994, 1). And there are of course the neuroscientists, the new age theorists and practitioners, and any number of healing communities, spiritual orders, and artistic and literary movements taking on the subject of dreams. As diverse as our own dreams are the multitude of dream theory disciplines and sources. There are simply too many to name or pay adequate respect to in one treatment, but one name stands out in this particular context: Paul Lippman.
Dr. Lippmann, a psychoanalyst and elder wisdom-holder of Windhorse, wrote a deeply moving paper, a “call to arms” for dream civilization. It is titled “The canary in the mind: on the fate of dreams in Psychoanalysis and in contemporary culture” (2006). In this work he describes the historical split that took place in psychoanalysis with respect to dream study, and how dream analysis eventually lost its potency due to an inability—and perhaps fear—in the clinicians themselves to “think beyond the stranglehold of the domination of the idea of correct interpretation” (115). Once the doctors bound themselves to dream interpretation dogma, which resulted in a sort of dream-theory dominance in the field of psychoanalysis, the dream itself became marginalized, according to Lippmann. What began with Freud and his contemporaries (including his friend Wilhelm Fliess) as a scientific exploration of the distorted, representational, and often-wishful phenomena of dreaming, became by the mid-20th century a somewhat one-directional and mechanical endeavor, bereft of its original spontaneity and inclusiveness. No longer were dreams of the healer recognized and given a value equal to the person seeking help, support, or understanding (119–121). If dreams were once passionate, romance-seeking troubadours (as Lippmann fondly suggests), their love was becoming increasingly unrequited. Not only were dreams denied the “care and feeding” they needed to survive, they were being “mined” for their potential, exploited in the service of personal and professional gain, and diminished in power.
In the same manner that my colleague laments the role of pornography in blunting or even diminishing one’s capacity for unaided sexual fantasy (Daniel Green, 2017), Lippmann (2006) describes dreams’ disturbing fate in the face of the digital age: dreams and dreaming are being replaced by film, virtual worlds, video games, and designer drugs. Their utility and strength are being compromised by these new landscapes constructed to be as equally wild, impossible, and compelling.
Any investigation into a dream is predicated on remembering the dream and recounting it with some degree of reliability. Without that, what do we have? How might we, the therapist, dream listener, and the dream teller work together to properly honor the dream, allowing it to be of benefit without confining it, insulting it, or degrading its value as a living thing? Given the distractions of the modern world—the technological dream competitors Lippmann warns us against, and the dream obstacles that hijack us in the form of deadening psychiatric medicines, excessive substance use and disrupted sleep—how are we to possibly remember our dreams?
Podvoll addresses this question with a meditation on dream memory, beginning with the basic principle of intention: “As with anything else, our ability to remember our dreams depends on the degree of intention brought to it. Creating an environment of openness and friendliness to the dream experience begins with the intention to remember” (1985, 23.). We begin this remembering process by stating our aspiration to remember dreams just as we lie down and close our eyes. We’ve put away our books, our devices, kissed our loved ones goodnight, and have cleared the ground for the dream-space to manifest. It helps to use the same words of intention each night, as a sort of mental training: “I will remember my dreams upon awakening. I will remember my dreams upon awakening.” In my experience, it works to employ a full body awareness scan while repeating this mantra, up to where its repetition begins to make one feel sleepy. Podvoll continues, “Intention has arisen and there will be consequences of that, but if we do not attend to our dreams at all, then everything will very likely be a blackout” (23).
Next comes bringing awareness to the transition into sleep, which involves “falling into sleep, passing from sleep to dream, and awakening from a dream” (24). As Podvoll notes, sleep is often regarded as a refuge from our lives, an opportunity to black out, to tranquilize, to “fall into unconsciousness” (24). He continues: “We feel that sleeping is our due rest from the world, an inalienable right to be unconscious” (24). Yet if we are serious about tasting the full display of the phenomenal world in this waking and dreaming life, as Podvoll suggests, then we can’t actually “go to sleep” in that habitual way. In some fundamental (and paradoxical) manner, we have to remain awake during the sleeping process. Perhaps a less onerous way of putting it would be for us to “bring awareness” to sleep. Although we are not speaking directly to lucid dreaming, the practice begins to take form naturally once we begin bringing mindfulness awareness to our sleep disciplines, rituals, and hygiene. This is probably what Podvoll is suggesting we try, noting that shamatha vipassana has been used by meditation masters throughout history as a means of “transmuting” confusion into wisdom (22) i.e., bringing the dream into full view.
Once asleep, and having brought our awareness to dreaming, we eventually leave the dream and wake up. In this tradition, waking from the dream also requires great attention to detail (25). We all have different waking rituals, some that serve us and some that distract us from the present moment, which can have the effect of obscuring dream memory and insight. Coming out of sleep can be disorienting, making it difficult to apply the disciplines of dream awareness; however, repetition and mindfulness is key. Morning after morning, night after night, continue with the practice, do it in the same manner that one might approach sitting practice, returning to the object of meditation, to the breath, the image, the mantra, the sensation … to the dream itself. That level of discipline and priority helps dream awareness practice to take its true form. Finally, recording the dream as soon as possible upon awakening, whether in a dream journal, with a voice recorder, or by sheer memory, is central to the practice. Catalogue the unembellished, unrevised, “raw data” of the dream, nothing more. The dream teller’s natural tendency is to provide context when repeating dreams, to make commentary and interpretation, or more troubling, to weave the dream into a coherent story, complete with an introduction, a dramatic plot, and some sort of resolution. Most dreams, in fact, are not linear, do not have a plot, and rarely have a centralizing force that holds together from scene to scene. I’ll share what I wrote from a recent dream:
That is pretty much what I remember, nothing more, nothing less. Also, just a few nights before—in waking life—I had watched the film Death Race 2000, so my “dream self” made the “science fiction-y” film connection, not the revisionist in me. There was no discernable transition between the alien creature and my drunken daredevil neighbor’s antics (who is a friend, whom I know not to drink much, who drives a modest hybrid car—who enjoys my projection of being an entirely responsible man). There is no seam or division between my driveway view of the drunk driving scene and the mountaintop, eagle-eye view. Often there is the temptation to describe the transition or fill in the gaps. For example, in order to ease my discomfort with the dream’s jump cuts I might have slipped in: “the lizard thing struggled and found its way free, running to the driveway, where I found my neighbor peeling out in his new Tesla.” Try to avoid this commonplace and pernicious dream-recall habit. Without our dedication to the dream’s purity and to our own relentless honesty, an obstacle to dream-intimacy will start to form. In life, as in relationship, and as in therapy, the absence of truth-telling is scarcely noticeable in the beginning, but its reverberating nature leads to ever-widening, obtuse angles of departure from the source—from what is actually real and interesting. The dream happened, so why not present it in the clearest way possible?
With all that said, it should be acknowledged that too much effort, as with so many facets of spiritual and personal development, could have a deleterious effect on the process of dream recall and understanding. Podvoll advises in a letter to Jeff Fortuna from lifetime retreat, dated September 20, 2000:
To me the instruction seems clear: hold the intention to remember, take responsibility for the practice, stay with the experience, share … relax.
There is no question that dreams offer us valuable resources to work with, yet the question remains whether or not the material can be utilized from a place of open curiosity, non-fixation, and permeability. In other words, can we relax and intermingle with the information dreams provide? Can we simultaneously place our awareness on the content of the dream and on what’s happening in the room while it’s being told? From my understanding, this is a hallmark of Windhorse Intensive Psychotherapy and can serve as a guide to how we might explore dreams with our clients … and with our friends, lovers, and children.
For instance, there is a difference between the quiet curiosities of a mouse vs. the barking enthusiasm of a foxhound. The mouse is interested in exploring its environment, peeking around corners and nosing up the walls, tentatively yet persistently exploring its maze. The foxhound tracks sound and scent and has a singular focus: to find the reward, to subdue its quarry, or in the case of therapy-gone-ballistic, to rescue, fix, or otherwise cure the patient (Podvoll, 1986, 10–12).
Although one cannot always keep the hounds at bay, the suggestion is that it is better to practice like a mouse than like a panting dog when it comes to doing therapy and particularly when it comes to working with dreams. It is easy to get excited about dreams and encourage clients to tell them; but it also makes sense to not crystallize and fixate on any one phenomenon, whether it’s a dream vision, a voice, a startling insight, or a dominant theme. And for good reason—this position is congruent with Dr. Podvoll’s recommendations for people experiencing psychosis: use whatever mental and physical recourses available to avoid fixating on compelling hallucinations, waking visions, commanding voices, and mind-blowing revelations (Podvoll, 2003, 186–187). When the patient’s grasp on one particular idea, sensation, or mood state has the effect of shutting out the range of other experiences, a “narrow band of existence” (Fortuna, personal communication, 2015) begins to take shape, severely limiting the person’s ability to function and carry on with “human realm” relations that are so crucial to survival in the modern world. The type of dream exploration being proposed is an approach to one’s dreamed (and lived) experience, one that encourages an interpersonal atmosphere, an energetic and intellectual “exchange” between two people, one that might be visualized as an oxygen tent of awareness that supports trust, creates intimacy, and allows for deeper personal exploration beyond the potentially restrictive formulas of dream problem-solving and interpretation.
But how does one square an attitude of non-interpretation with the seminal and indispensable work of Sigmund Freud (1954). It would be remiss to ignore his and countless others’ vast and varied research into dream interpretation. I’ll offer here an example from my work early on as a Windhorse Intensive Psychotherapist (IP) just released from IP training and of the mind that interpretation was “not where it’s at”:
“I have a dream to tell you,” says my 23-year-old client, with some hesitation. “It’s pretty fucked up.” And so, he reports: A guy with a shotgun is chasing me through a strange house. I’m running up this set of stairs and down another. It is dark, and I can’t figure out the layout. There are a bunch of people in the house, strange people. It’s a weird scene. A lot of the people are like spiritual people, some of them are black, some are white people with long hair and are wearing robes. I hear someone coming … footsteps … and I head for an exit. I go down another set of stairs and the guy appears at the bottom, in front of me and … shoots me … in the balls! (He makes a loud, gunshot noise) And then he says: “… and it was YOU!”
The shooter in my client’s dream was me, his therapist. Like many boys from the rural Midwest, I grew up around violence—guns in the house, bullying and fighting at school and around the neighborhood, animal cruelty. Within a year time span, guns killed two friends of mine during my sophomore and junior years of high school. Yet still, I remain a shotgun owner (the client did not know this) and often find myself wondering if I could ever bring myself to use it for home defense, which is to say, I often wonder if I would be willing or able to shoot and kill another person.
I was knocked back on my heels—and intimidated—by this powerful dream. And I’d like to say that “curiosity arose in psychotherapy” (Podvoll, 2003, 365) as a means of joining my emotional response with his outrage, but unfortunately something else happened. Instead of settling into the strong imagery that was calling out to us both and allowing him to voice his ideas about me, his projections, etc., I muddled about with free association, tried some inquiry into his feeling state, where it was located in his body, and a few other things I’d picked up in graduate school and from my recent IP training. While this was going on I could feel him fading from me, as though he were a dream himself that I knew I wouldn’t remember.
It is my understanding that a dreamed wooden door is not necessarily a point of interpretation to be cut, crafted, and leveled into the client’s understanding. In the way I am describing, it’s possible that the wooden door grabs the client’s attention or is perhaps breezed over during the dream discussion. It is both parties’ responsibility to find relevance if it is there and if it serves the unfolding therapeutic relationship. The very nature of dreams is such that they cannot be captured, anesthetized, and pinned to a specimen board. A wooden door for one therapist and client may very well have to do with sex and transition, while to a different pair it may not even rise to the stature of a repeated word, or the color of a bicycle, or even to the splash of a water feature pumping away in the hallway during session.
Because I neglected to attempt an interpretation of this dream that was nearly screaming to be interpreted, I lost this young man. I, or some version of me, or some projected version of himself, his father, his mother (who knows?), shot him in the testicles, taking away his power, potency, and creative force. All was undercut and blown to pieces in my office right there between us in the mid-day sun. The African American people, whites in robes, unknown spaces, dark hallways, and the pursuit of heavy footsteps—I didn’t explore the meaning of any of this with him, unfortunately. I didn’t ask him about his dealings in the day or two before this dream. What he’d watched on TV, seen in the movies, what video games he’d played, what conversations he’d had with his friends, girlfriend, teachers, parents, or even reflect on our previous session, which has been only a couple of days before this dream. I didn’t properly explore this dream with him out of some abiding allegiance to non-interpretation. Probably for this and other (understandable, reasonable, sane) reasons, this young man ended with me a few weeks later, saying there was nothing much left for us to talk about, that he’d gotten what he needed from Windhorse, and that he was ready to move on and grow up on his own. And it was true that he’d matured a good deal in the two years we’d worked together, but we weren’t close to finished as far as therapy was concerned. More importantly, I liked him and didn’t want to see him go. This dream was a potential window into our work and relationship—an island of clarity (Podvoll, 2003)—and a fleeting and missed opportunity.
Despite this example of what I will generously catalogue as a technical error and not a “mistake of the heart” (Podvoll, 2003, 329) my understanding of a basic approach regarding the matter of dream work in psychotherapy remains aligned with Lippmann’s (2006): we should see dreams as living things we can relate to in a genuine and civilized manner, yet we mustn’t rule out interpretation if that is what is being requested, either from the dream or from the patient, even if we, the therapist, the healer, or the caring friend have no training and background in classic dream interpretation. As long as you’re doing no harm.
As I was preparing to leave for work recently my wife mentioned that I had tried to kill her in the previous night’s dream. Although struck by such a provocative confession I barely missed a step in the daylight charge toward the front door. Something made me pause, however. It could have been that I was planning to write more on the subject of dreams that morning, or that I was hungry for any interaction with her that didn’t include the storyline of our young children or some kind of ugly power struggle between us.
Turning around and setting down my heavy, leather bag, I look at her longer than I had all morning and said, “What happened?” And then I couldn’t resist: “How did I do it?”
“Well,” she said, “It was in V. [the town she grew up in]. It was a gun. Guns. You tried killing me … there was a plot. It was some kind of weird, creepy thing. You were on some kind of trip with all of your friends and you had a stash of guns. There was a pile of guns. None of your friends liked me and you were going to kill me.”
“What kind of guns? What kind of gun did I have?”
“Machine guns. With long bullet-holders. You weren’t holding one, there was just a pile in the middle of the room. Some weird apartment or something. It was dark.”
“Then what happened?”
“It was just weird. You were all going to kill me, none of them liked me … but … I had a gun, too. I brought a gun and I held it up, and so no one hurt me. And then [our 4-year-old daughter] woke me up.”
“What kind of gun did you have?”
“It was a …”
“Was it a gun you hold in one hand, or …”
“It was a sniper gun.”
“Like a rifle?”
“Yeah, like a big, long gun.” And then my wife says, “What do you think it means?”
And for the first time in a few weeks I felt a real softening toward her. I can see her as a sensitive and vulnerable person, just as insecure and confused as I am, who is curious and intelligent, and above all, interesting. I want to know more, so I ask about the apartment, any colors she remembers, more details on the guns, who are the friends? What was the time of day? What were you reading or watching before bed? Anything else? She asks again about what I think it all means, and I feel those last traces of resentment toward her drain down the back of my neck. I say to her that, you see, what I’ve been studying and writing about as far as dreams go is that it’s not so much what’s in them as the closeness that develops between two people who tell them to each other. A “sort of interpersonal dream space” is created, where there’s trust and a certain kind of knowing between two people. That’s what I’m mostly curious about and where I’m going with things lately, with the dreams. She smiles broadly and says, “Hon … whatever,” and then gives me a kiss, of all things. I drive off wondering if I should have asked her to write out her dream for me but decide to leave it as it is: that honest, rare, and very precious thing between us.
Blake Baily, MA, LPC, has worked and volunteered in the mental health field since 1987. He earned his B.S. in Psychology from the University of Iowa, and was employed in the University Hospital’s acute care psychiatric facilities early in his career. After a three-year period of teaching and travel in Asia, Blake returned to study and earn a Master’s degree in Contemplative Psychotherapy from Naropa University, where he continued to teach for eight years. He has been a Basic Attender and Team Leader with Windhorse Community Services (2002) and is a graduate of the Windhorse Intensive Psychotherapy training. He is a certified Mindfulness Instructor, and is currently an Intensive Psychotherapist and Team Supervisor with WCS. Blake lives in Boulder with his talented and courageous daughters, Azalea and Frieda.
Built To Spill: http://www.builttospill.com/?frontpage=true
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