Jim brings the following dream into session:
He’s Edgar Allan Poe. Two birds are circling above him high overhead. If he holds up his right hand, a dove will fly down and perch on it. If he holds up his left, a raven will.
He’s drawn to the raven but fearful that he’ll be overwhelmed by its enormous black wings. He remembers, though, that he’s Poe, has written a poem about ravens, and knows something about them. It’s still risky, but he decides to hold up his left hand.
It’s clear the dream is significant to Jim or he wouldn’t be telling it to you. How do you work with this material? Where do you start?
Three key points are helpful in doing dream work:
- Remember: It’s not your dream.
- Ask your client what the contents mean to him.
- Ask him to link the dream to waking concerns.
You may subscribe to a particular modality (I’m a Jungian, myself). Some schools of thought refer to dreams as sacred messages, some as unfinished business, as byproducts of processing the day’s events, as disturbing but disguised material or as white noise. It will be more useful here to know your client’s views. Ask if he’s done dream work before and what approach he found helpful, just as you would ask him about previous experiences in therapy.
This doesn’t mean you don’t have input into the process. Your knowledge, intuition and feeling for the intricacies of psychology—of your field and of your specific client—are essential. But while being directive can be useful in crisis situations, with dream work it’s more productive to be led by curiosity. Let your client decide what clicks and what doesn’t. Your role is to be the midwife of the work, to receive, hold up for viewing and hand the new meaning back to the dreamer.
In working with Jim I “dreamed” the dream as he told me—visualized it, resonated to it emotionally, fit it into my own issues and concerns. I set “my” dream aside for analysis at a later time. Even though I have a lot to say about Poe and links between creativity and depression, I didn’t say it. Instead, I acknowledged the dream, Jim’s strong feeling response to it and asked him about his associations to these striking images.
For Jim, Poe was the archetype of the sensitive artist who struggles with madness and ultimately loses the struggle, someone “too weak to handle it.” Jim’s feelings here were sadness and fear. To “dove” he reported romantic love and partnership, hope and longing and, from his Catholic upbringing, spirituality. To “raven” he started with Poe’s poem, and then Poe’s writing in general, which Jim characterized as being “all about the person he loves being dead.”
Following this line he reported feelings of sorrow and desolation. A secondary line of associations here included the literal bird. Jim expressed admiration for the raven’s ability to eat and thrive on anything—vegetable or animal, garbage or carrion. Here Jim described the bird as a “survivor” and dwelt on its toughness and adaptability.
I asked him to link the dream to his waking concerns. He reminded me that the death of his partner several months previous was why he’d come to therapy. He described listening to mourning doves calling in the tree outside his and his partner’s bedroom window toward the end of the partner’s life. He told me about using denial to get through that time and be able to function. He identified and expressed a fear that he might become so depressed that he’d be unable to get out of it, or if he did would emerge permanently changed for the worse. This fear had prevented him from fully entering the mourning process for his partner.
“What do you make of your decision to hold your hand out to the raven?” I asked him.
Jim said, “I feel like I can handle it better now. I don’t know what it’ll look like when it’s over but I’ve got to grieve for him. It’s how I’m going to get my life back.”
Whether dreams have their own meaning and intention is open to debate. Meanwhile, dream work provides the dreamer with a practice to make previously unconscious associations conscious. These associations can lead him out of blind alleys. They’re also, if we consider that dreams are products of the same unconscious of which the dreamer himself is a product, entirely organic to him, and therefore form an effective locus of treatment.