Saturday, January 25, 2020

You Can’t Understand a Dream without the Dreamer

“No interpretation can be undertaken without the dreamer. The words composing a dream narrative have not just one meaning, but many meanings. If, for instance, someone dreams of a table, we are still far from understanding what the ‘table’ of the dreamer signifies, although the word ‘table’ sounds unambiguous enough. For the thing we do not know is that this ‘table’ is the very one at which his father sat when he refused the dreamer all further financial help and threw him out of the house as a good-for-nothing. That is what our dreamer understand by ‘table’. Therefore we need the dreamer’s help in order to limit the multiple meanings of words to those that are essential and convincing [for the dreamer]. – C.G. Jung, “On the Nature of Dreams" (1948)
     In our Active Dreaming approach, we respect this cardinal rule through the first questions we put to a dreamer about their dream. The very first question is, “How did you feel on first leaving the dream?” This provides immediate – and often the best – guidance to the basic character of the dream, whether it is negative or positive, urgent and personal or something else. If a bear turns up in your dream house and you wake up feeling cheerful, your bear is clearly very different from the kind people flee from, at least in your perception and availability for interaction. If you are at work in a humdrum situation but wake with feelings of crawling dread, there is something in that scene – perhaps something that will unfold in the future – you need to understand and be ready to contain or head off.
    The next question we ask is the reality check. It has two aspects:

What do you recognize from this dream in the rest of your life, including the life of your imagination; and

Could any part of this dream play out in the future, literally or symbolically?

The question about the future is vitally important because dreams often rehearse us for challenges and opportunities that lie ahead and sometimes give us very clear precognition (a phenomenon that Jung, for all his brilliance on many fronts, was slow to accept).
     The first part of our reality check answers Jung’s concern by taking the elements of the dream straight to the dreamer and locating them in the context of their outer and inner life. I will never forget listening, in a dream sharing circle, to a dream of bats. Everyone there had strong feelings and associations with bats, across a wide spectrum from bats in the belfry to witches, from speleology to being able to navigate in the dark.  Some were quivering with eagerness to offer feedback on the dream. “If it were m dream, the bats would mean…” But wait. First we do the feelings: cheerful, confident. Then we do the reality check. “Have you encountered bats in your life?”
    “Oh yeah,” the dreamer said nonchalantly.”I kept bats as a pet when I was a kid.”
     I don’t think we had ever met someone who kept bats as pets and regarded them as delightful childhood playmates. This took our dreamwork in an entirely different direction from where it might otherwise have gone. You can't understand a dream without the dreamer, and the bats in your dream are not the same as the bats in my dream.

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