Imagine a world where no one dreamed…
In confronting what it would mean to lose this vital function, we begin to appreciate the fundamental importance of dreaming in our individual lives and in our culture. Can you Imagine Shakespeare devoid of dreams? Or Edgar Allen Poe? What would the Bible be like without the dreams of Jacob or Joseph? Or the Bhagavad Gita without Arjuna’s dreams?
Many important scientific discoveries and inventions have been inspired by dreams. Einstein’s dream of riding a sleigh at the speed of light helped him develop his theory of special relativity. Thomas Edison devised an apparatus to wake him up when he entered dream sleep, so that he could harvest his dreams’ insights.
The fact that all mammals dream suggests that dreams play an important role in our survival. Perhaps dreams play many roles, but the one I would like to focus on here is the way dreams facilitate our emotional and relational learning: all mammals live in family groups, where survival depends on the capacity to form and sustain relationships with others. Dreams are a nightly rehearsal hall, helping us to process our emotions, understand our relational needs, and develop communications skills to successfully negotiate our world. In our skirmishes over which theory of dreams is correct, we may overlook this important fact: regardless of the origin of dreams, our dreams are extremely useful. The images in our dreams communicate so much because they tap into the core of our being. The experiences in our dreams have the potential to influence and enhance our waking lives. I would like to illustrate this with a couple of examples from my work as a dream-oriented psychotherapist.
‘Douglas,’ a man in his 50’s, is a successful professional. He has overcome many obstacles in his life, having grown up in an environment of extreme poverty and emotional deprivation. The adults in his early life were unreliable and abusive. At the beginning of our work together, Douglas’s dreams depicted him as unable to relate to the people around him, unless he was in charge. When we explored this together, he expressed how difficult it was for him to develop trusting relationships with friends, colleagues and supervisors. Soon, his dreams began to show us why: in one dream Douglas watched a child beaten until he was ‘faceless.’ In another, a boy was stuck in a bubble, unable to escape. These dreams gave us a chance to talk about his experiences growing up – which he had dismissed as not significant – and begin to process the pain of his childhood predicament, in titrated manageable bits. Issues of trust, and the capacity to receive love began to emerge in his dreams.
About 6 months into our work together, Douglas brought the following dream:
I am getting married to a woman of a very different culture. It feels like she is Italian or African or both. Her family is very close and protective. Her brother gives me a gift that is bold and makes no sense to me. It seems like an abstract sculpture of what seems like a ginger root but is quite large and curling. I feel lost and intimidated by him and the gift. I don’t want to insult him by giving the impression that I don’t appreciate it. He grabs the sculpture and walks away. I am scared that I have offended him and there will be dire consequences for me, like physical pain. He returns, holding the sculpture, and sings a very soulful song. With this action, I realize that his gift is a loving and caring gesture.
In his dream Douglas is entering a new place where there is the possibility of a corrective experience; a very different culture – one where families are protective rather than abusive, and share an intimacy that Douglas craves in his waking life.
As exciting as this may be, it opens Douglas to a very vulnerable place. This quality of encounter is unfamiliar to him, and can’t be evaluated using the tools of analysis he has come to rely on in his waking life. In the dream, a ‘brother’ approaches him with a gift that Douglas labels as ‘bold and makes no sense.’ Douglas’s first inclination is to belittle what he doesn’t understand. The gift comes from a ‘different culture’ a culture of sensuality and art- not pragmatism. Douglas has difficulty receiving the gift, but has done enough work to recognize, even within the dream, that he feels lost and intimidated by the gift. Douglas stands open mouthed and unresponsive. When the brother walks away, he becomes frightened. He cannot imagine a non-punitive response to his paralysis, expects what he learned in his family of origin (that his non-compliance will result in violence). The dream shows him a different possibility, as the brother returns singing a song of love, ‘like an operatic aria’ (Douglas’s words), serenades him, opening his heart.
The abstract sculpture and song, much like the gift of the dream itself, reaches into his heart, even as the full meaning is inaccessible to his mind. This dream took Douglas to the edge of his understanding and led him deeper into the mysteries of human relationship. Without being able to state a reason, Douglas recognized that the dream figure was well intentioned, a figure he could trust. Dreams such as these help dreamers learn to trust their internal sense of what is nurturing and supportive – and what is not. Douglas did not need an interpretation of the meaning of this dream, but he did benefit from re-entering the dream in the presence of a caring witness to re-experience the love, acceptance and joy the dream provided. Douglas knew this was an important dream, felt its healing influence immediately.
Douglas’s dream would have been able to do its work even if it hadn’t been shared, but many dreams pass by unharvested, unless we are given the chance to revisit them after waking: Sometimes a dream guide is required for us to realize the healing potential of a dream. This was the case for the dream ‘Kirsten’ shared with me in the week after her ex-husband’s death. Kirsten and Evan had separated when their children were quite young. Many years later, a strong friendship was rekindled, and their bond strengthened around the love they shared for their adult children and grandchildren. Their close friendship meant more to Kirsten than she had been willing to admit. Here is Kirsten’s dream:
Walking with a woman on a road. Another woman goes by in the opposite direction caring an old man in a stretcher on her back. Was that your husband? She didn’t answer. A hat came flying toward us. I picked it up and was going to throw it back, but a huge white bird (Swan)appeared. I gave it to him to return the hat to the old man. The Swan flew away.
Kirsten was heart-broken by Evan’s death but the ill-defined nature of their relationship left her feeling like she didn’t have ‘the right’ to grieve. She carried this narrative into the dream as she asks the older woman carrying the old man on her back, “Was that your husband?” In session, I invited Kirsten to reenter the dream, to imagine walking beside the woman who carried the old man. Then I invited her to imagine being that woman, as I walked beside her (back and forth across my office), feeling the weight of the man upon her own back. As we walked together, she felt the weight of this man, could feel the love with which he was carried and the irrelevance of her question, “Was that your husband?” The connection and devotion she felt made the technicalities irrelevant. Kirsten finally felt permission to grieve and found her tears.
Together we explored the image of the hat that flew towards her: As Kirsten described the hat to me, she recognized it as the fisherman’s cap she had given Evan as a gift many years before. Evan cherished this cap and continued to wear it for many years. As Kirsten imagined holding the cap, she was able to recognize the strength of their bond, and tears flowed some more. The bird in the dream was no ordinary swan, but a magnificent presence with shimmering white feathers. As she recognized its resemblance to the Holy Spirit of her childhood religion, her body began to relax. Awe and wonder mingled with her grief.
Both dreams are Big Dreams; powerful emotional experiences whose images continue to work us long after they’re dreamt. They have no expiration date. Each dream helped expand and strengthen relational qualities of the dreamer. Douglas’s dream helped him imagine new modes of relationship. Kirsten’s dream helped her to accept her grief and to let go of the narrative that she wasn’t entitled to her feelings. The dream also reconnected her with spiritual resources of her childhood faith, brought to life with the image of the magnificent bird, the Holy Spirit.
Recognizing and harnessing the healing power of dreams is our birthright. Dreams are available as a resource to all of us, regardless of our belief system or our understanding of how they arise.
Keren Vishny originally trained as a physician, and practiced Internal Medicine for 10 years before retraining as a psychotherapist and NaturalDreamwork practitioner and teacher. Her exploration of her own dream has led to the re-emergence of her poet, in hibernation since age 14. She is affiliated with the CG Jung Center in Evanston, as well as the Marion Woodman Foundation.