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Dreams & Dreamwork

by Sheldon Litt, Ph.D.(more info)

listed in psychospiritual, originally published in issue 21 - August 1997

Man has speculated about the meaning of dreams since the beginning of time. Perhaps, back in the prehistoric caves, images appearing to people in dreams were the origin of the concept of the soul (i.e. in the world of the dreamer, dead people appear, therefore it could be speculated that they must be alive somewhere, in some afterlife...).

Dreams are even interpreted in the Bible. Sigmund Freud was one of the pioneers in modern times to take dreams seriously and he tried to understand them. For Freud, dreams are a key which can be fruitful for psychotherapy. He called dreams "the royal road into the unconscious".

Since Freud, it is now widely accepted that one can learn about oneself through examining dreams.

For Freud, the dream expresses unconscious conflicts, primarily from childhood. The function of the cheat is often to fulfil a wish. Freud gave the concrete example of how dreams protect the dreamer: if you are cold, instead of waking up to get another blanket, you may weave this scenario into your dream.

Freud's big "dream book", The Interpretation of Dreams was published in 1899, but he put 1900 on the title page because, an acute practitioner of modern Public Relations techniques, Freud wanted his book to signal the start of a new era.

Freud and some of his followers, especially Stekel and Fromm, expostulated on the symbolism found in dreams. For Freud, objects in dreams were frequently interpreted as sexual symbols. But anyone can play this game, and many dream books appeared with exotic readings of everyday dream material.

Modem culture is permeated with this extensive interest in dreams, as seen by the many famous novels and films reflecting Freud's influence. However, my favourite quote from a modern author on this topic is the following line from Graham Greene: "Dreams are the finest entertainment known to man, and given rag-cheap".

It is widely believed by laymen that dreams have only one kind of interpretation – the Freudian; but this is not true. There are different schools of psychology, each with its own method of working with dreams.

Carl Jung, a one-time co-worker with Freud, soon developed his own rival system to analyse the dreams of patients. For Jung, the dream does not, as Freud claimed, reveal mainly negative hidden instinctual desires; but it also includes central concerns of the dreamer – for example, cognitive, religious and universal elements. Jung considers the dream a high form of mental activity, comparing it to Art, as a form of symbolic expression, a creative spontaneous activity.

In contrast to the Freudian stress on the darker, negative aspects of the unconscious, Jung was prone to emphasise the positive side of unconscious events such as dreams. We can learn a great deal from these spontaneous unconscious processes, instead of simply interpreting them in terms of conflicts and negative impulses. In a sense, the Jungian views the dream world as a kind of compensation for the things one doesn't dare bring up in the daytime. This is an example of the Yin/Yang approach of Jungian psychology.

There is a flaw in both the classical Freudian and Jungian styles of working with dreams – they rely on the analyst as Expert Now, for one thing, analysts are human, and maybe their interpretation of your dream is wrong. After all, the suppositions are by no means proven fact, but mere theory. That's one problem. The other, and perhaps more perfidious difficulty is that the patient is reduced to a passive role. As Paul Goodman put it, "the T tells the P" (the therapist, as a kind of expert, tells the patient what his, the patient's dream is all about). Look at it from the P's standpoint: for years before he began therapy, his mother told him what to think and what to do. Now, his therapist plays the same role. He swallows the interpretations of this Expert in the same old way he used to believe in his mama. He is still a slave to an authority figure.

Now it may be that your analyst is extremely insightful and thus gives you the "correct" interpretation of your dream. But despite his prowess, it is merely another instant of a passive P receiving Wisdom from another authority figure, the T.

This critique of the traditional psychotherapeutic method was made by Fritz Perls and Paul Goodman, founders of Gestalt Therapy. In Perls' approach to dreams, each patient learns to interpret his own dreams, instead of relying on the word of some expert. For only the dreamer can really tell if it is "right", if it gives an "Aha" experience. In working with dreams (or Dreamwork, as it is called in Gestalt Therapy), the gestalt therapist is only a guide, his role is that of a witness, keeping the dreamer on target as the dream is worked on, so that he doesn't get distracted.

For Perls, the parts of the dream represent projected parts of the self. Thus, if you dream, for example, of an aggressive hunter chasing you – the dreamwork consists of you playing that aggressive hunter. The patient is encouraged, in a kind of psychodrama, to play the different parts of the dream. This may result in a renewed perspective both on the dream and on yourself. Remember, only you have the answers, not the expert. If you connect the meaning of the dream, it will be a kind of "moment of truth" in the here and now, not necessarily related to the drudging up of old memories from the past.

Thus, Perls sees the dream as an existential message to the self; it tells you something vital about your existence just now. Various holes in the serf (missing parts of the personality) are constituted in the dream. They are alienated projections which may then be worked on to be re-owned and accepted.

So that in the example of the dream of the person being chased by an aggressive hunter (not an uncommon example, by the way), it may come to light in the re-playing of the dream in the here and now (in the therapy session, as a kind of inner psychodrama), that the person experiences exhilaration doing the experiment. In contrast to his usual everyday passivity, this aggressive energy sparks a smile...

Often the things we don't dare to do in the daytime, we are allowed to express at night in our dreams. The existential message of the dream enables the dreamer to recapture those lost unused parts of the self, and perhaps he can learn to use them more in his everyday life.

In this way, a dream can be a springboard into the present, a commentary on one's current existence. Unfinished situations from the past are often played out in the dream sequence, and these call for satisfaction and completion in the dreamwork. For Perls, the dream is a creative expression of the self, rather than an unconscious disguise of problems. Take the dream seriously for its own sake instead of searching for hidden, Freudian meanings.


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About Sheldon Litt, Ph.D.

Dr Sheldon Litt is an American psychologist who trains professionals in modern methods of psychotherapy. He has taught at many universities in northern Europe. He was trained by Fritz Perls at the New York Institute for Gestalt Therapy.S. Litt, Inedalsgatan 25, S-11233 Stockholm, Sweden. Tel: +468 651 2489 Email:

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