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A Few Practical Tips For Dreamwork
#2 in a series on dreams
In the first essay of this series, I wrote about dreamwork as strength training for consciousness. Below, I’ll get into a few exercises, with some creative takes mixed in. Even if you don’t remember your dreams, you can still apply any of the following methods to waking life, psychedelic experiences, or that nutty mystical thing that happened in meditation.
Any material you have at hand today is exactly right for today. Simply by working with whatever comes up—sometimes just a fragment or short scene—I’ve gotten unbelievable benefits from dreamwork. And here’s one of the biggest: as you develop the consciousness to sit with and learn from dreams, those capacities are available for anything you want to focus on, just like beefy quads.
After I got into dreams in college, I embarked on what is for me a fairly typical, mildly-obsessive program of reading: I read C. G. Jung’s 18-volume Collected Works, letters, and all volumes of his lectures published in English, then proceeded through the collected works of 4 different psychoanalysts, ranging from ~1940-present, who’ve branched out from Jung’s inquiry. In other words, I’ve waded through and digested tens of thousands of pages of this stuff. As that went along, on and off for 20+ years, I practiced on my dreams.
Each time I learn from a dream, I’m able to make slightly different choices in my daily life. Then my next dream evolves, and the cycle repeats in a creative flywheel. But the word learn doesn’t really do this process justice. The realizations that come from working with dreams are at once embodied, emotional, cognitive, and spiritual. They’re a total package. They can hit every level of your being, as deeply as you care to go.
Dreams present energetic patterns—the same patterns that animate our waking lives. Left to their own devices, these patterns ramble through our days, cloaked by concrete details, compelling us to repeat tired plot lines. But in a dream, they arrive in super-concentrated form. Even the simplest fragment distills an extraordinary amount of information, delicately compressed into a potent swirl of images, impressions, and emotion. When we’re dreaming, we interact with our patterns directly. And, similarly, when working with a remembered dream, we have an opportunity to expand and change them.
So, practically, how to go about that? There are many wonderful approaches, and to fully dig in I could easily write a book. Instead, I’m going to keep this focused on 4 of the most impactful methods I’ve used.
1. List the emotions
This is my cheat code for working with dreams. A lot of dreamwork focuses on interpreting images and symbols, but I’ve found those approaches to be constrained and often counterproductive. They put the emphasis on the content of the dream, when a much more interesting feature is the dream’s motion. You want a way to dial into how a dream is moving, and particularly how it’s moving emotionally.
When remembering dreams and writing them down, we tend to focus on narrative events and visual images, but less so on our emotional states. Taking the time to identify, feel, and name your emotions at each step of the dream has the added benefit of making you more conscious of them in general, both in dreams and in waking life.
This step also helps to release the emotional payload of the dream. Emotions are energy. Part of why we’re having a dream in the first place is to experience emotion—which is an indispensable part of learning—so if our emotions are being glossed over, and aren’t felt and identified, they remain unconscious, and tend to repeat until they finally get our attention down the road.
Here’s how to do it:
First, write down your dream. Then, write a list of the emotional states you experienced in the course of the dream, in the order you experienced them.
As an example, let’s try this out with the last dream I remember. Here’s my sample dream: I see sculptural forms in front of me, like large leaves, with an intricate pattern of relief. They are plain and unmarked, like plaster. I begin adding shading to the pattern with pencils. Then I get more absorbed, and begin adding color. A man to my right sees this and encourages me. As he encourages me, I realize how much progress I’ve made, and that the end is in sight. Then I see a large model of a hillside, with space for a river. I’m uncertain about how this model works or what I can do with it. I pick up a blue pencil, and think “fuck it, I’m going for it’” even though I don’t know what will happen. In one bold motion I press the pencil firmly into the river bed. Somehow this magically releases a surprising amount of water, which begins to flowing out of the pencil. I feel a pang of doubt, as if maybe I’ve messed things up. But I continue, and now I can see much more of the model. I see how there’s a long riverbed, and I place water into pools within the banks of the river, and connect them so that a stream begins to flow.
Now that I’ve got the dream written down, I make a list of the emotional states. I’m not strict about this process at all, it’s helpful to be expansive and play around with language until it feels right. Here’s the sequence of emotional states I came up with for the dream above: open, curious, creatively focused, creatively absorbed, encouraged, seen, accomplished, reassured, uncertain, “fuck it” boldness, decisive, surprised, doubt, re-centered, curious, creatively engaged, creatively directing the flow. Note that not all of the emotions present in the dream made it into my written dream account. This step always asks me to dig further, which is helpful.
Once I have a sequence like this, I look at the evolution. What’s the pattern? If there’s a moment of conflict in the dream, what was the emotion right before, during, and after the conflict? In this dream, I go pretty quickly from feeling open to being creatively absorbed, then this wonderful encouragement comes in, it’s received, and I gain confidence. In response, the dream levels up—like, oh nice, our dreamer has more capacity now, what will she do with it? So the situation changes, and I feel uncertainty. I respond with this fuck-it bold move, which has a surprising outcome, but my knee-jerk emotional reaction is doubt. Still, I roll with what’s happening and recenter. Then the emotions of the opening sequence repeat, but on a new level—I’ve learned something, and now I’m more actively involved and creatively directing the flow. There’s plenty more levels to unpack in this dream, but listing the emotions and meditating a bit on their motion is a streamlined way to begin.
Usually, there’s a pretty clear link between the emotional patterns in the dream, and patterns I’m experiencing in daily life. This dream shows me right where my snags are—uncertainty and knee-jerk doubt. It also shows where I’m doing some new emotional tai chi—like this decisive, bold move that leads to a surprise, with the resilience to recenter immediately after my doubt, and to integrate the magical surprise going forward. At this stage, I haven’t even looked at the symbolism yet, and I already have great pointers I can put to use right away.
A pattern like this often surfaces a mix of old reactions with new ones, so it’s helpful to identify what’s from the past, where the growth is for you, and what new stuff you want to encourage. If you’re giving this a try, take it easy. It’s a big step to be present with each emotion and to bring these patterns to consciousness. Every move in that direction is significant work.
2. Gather a series
Many types of dreamwork focus on single dreams, but that puts a bunch of pressure on the act of “interpreting” any one dream, which is kind of impossible and also not the point. Looking at a single dream—much like looking at one hour plucked from your decades on this planet—is arbitrary. There’s a ton to learn from their progression.
For this step, I suggest looking at a series of dreams. You can start anywhere. If you don’t remember many dreams, just pick any two, that’s a series you can start to compare. I like to pick out my most significant dreams from the past few months, then look at them together. In general, I’m selecting dreams to include in a series based on their intensity, picking ones that stand out, and not worrying about the rest. But occasionally, if I notice a particular figure or setup repeating, I’ll select a focused series of just that type.
When you’re starting out, I caution against excluding dreams from a series because they appear to be different on the surface. If I’m selecting for motifs that are too superficial, it’s easy to miss a key development. For example, maybe I had a dream about a lightbulb two nights before a work dream; both were memorable and had some charge. To the daylight mind, these dreams might seem completely unrelated, with zero shared associations or symbols, so why look at them together? But when I compare them in series, I can see how a development in the lightbulb dream paved the way for a breakthrough in the work dream, and how both are playing out a larger, deeper pattern. Longer sequences can give you insight into what’s changing and how in ways you can’t get from looking at single dreams.
Here’s how to do it:
Decide on a premise for your series, like, say, significant dreams from the past 3 months, your dreams of cats, or something as simple as the last 4 dreams you’ve ever remembered. Then copy out the series into one place—this helps you to reflect on each dream again—and look at them laid out together in this new sequence.
Usually with a batch there’s some repetition of scenes, characters, and narratives, mixed in with seeds of breakthroughs. You’ll want to pay attention to what’s being repeated—it’s usually repeating because it’s important—and what’s new. Where are the moments of conflict, and how is the conflict changing as your series progresses? How are your reactions as the dreamer changing? Usually, a new development will gradually come into focus over the course of a series. I find that a significant breakthrough will start in a small, glancing appearance, perhaps in a scene I see acted out from a distance by other people, and over time I’ll begin to take on that role in more evolved ways.
This works particularly well when combined with the previous step, where you identify the sequence of emotions in each individual dream. Being able to compare those feeling-sequences as part of a longer-term series allows me to pinpoint where I’m repeating a particular emotional and cognitive pattern, and also where I’m beginning to evolve out of that pattern.
The results never fail to surprise. When I first started to do this it profoundly changed my life—the biggest single jump I’ve ever had—because I just couldn’t see a gigantor pattern until it finally stacked up in a series. Truth is, we’re throwing off massive amounts of information in dreams. You’re raining diamonds every night, why not try scooping up a few.
3. Dis-identify with the dreamer
We’re trained to take things personally, so this step might seem foreign. The basic idea here is to loosen up your identification with the role of the dreamer, and to try on other stances.It’s like yoga, but for consciousness. And it’s really, really hard, because it asks you be flexible with an ingrained point of view.
Let’s say you have a dream where a cyclone comes at you—typically, this will activate a bunch of fight-or-flight emotion, and the emotion is sticky, so it keeps you firmly identified with the dreamer. It’s easy to say, “An awful cyclone chased me, I felt persecuted by the weather,” and decline to probe further. But conflict and resistance show up to build strength. When an astronaut’s bones aren’t exposed to gravity, they atrophy. Also, conflict in dreams is a finger trap—the more you resist, the harder you struggle. What you tend to learn, if you dare, is that you are both ends of the trap.
To dis-identify with the role of the dreamer, you want to broaden your perspective, to see how all of the elements in the dream create your experience. Because we are, on some level, each end of the conflict-trap.
This can go wrong if you take it too literally. It’s important to not be reductive—the point isn’t to concretely label every aspect of a dream as just another facet of you. If you have a dream of an ornithologist in Tampa, it doesn’t automatically mean that some part of you is ornithological, or Tampa. Instead, I really do approach this like yoga. I might choose to take the posture of the dreamer pov, really feel that, and examine those patterns. Then I take the position of other elements in the dream, or see myself as my own antagonist, or as the entirety of the dream, and learn from that. But I’m not bluntly labelling myself with qualities. This is about the capacity of my consciousness to take each perspective, learn from that perspective, and to move fluidly between them. This can be extremely difficult to do for dreams with intense emotional conflicts, and that’s also where I learn the most from doing it.
Plus, the truth is weird. The whole dream is simultaneously you and not-you. Dreams are intensely personal, and at the same time not about us. Our culture is so extraordinarily, concretely personalistic that we don’t have good working concepts for the phenomena that ripple through our continuum. To paraphrase Jung, we are the unfolding of a rhizome whose fullness we cannot perceive. Dreams pass through me like current in a wire, just as I read the pages of a book and breezes rustle leaves. It can be a mistake to personalize too much. On the one hand, I want to feel and grok the full impact of my dream as the dreamer. And, in another way, I want to let the dream flow through my banks with the ease of a stream.
Here’s how to do it:
Write down your dream. Then rewrite the dream in the 3rd person, using only the essence of the action and as little content as possible.
Let's try it out. For this example, I’ll quote a dream from someone else.Here the dreamer is a woman, age 42: “I awake to find myself on a bed. I look up and see holes in the ceiling, and rats dropping down through the holes. Horrified, I jump and run out of the room. The rats seem to chase me, so I fearfully run up a stairway to get away from them. When I reach the top, I turn around to see if the rats are still following me. A huge rat is climbing up the stairs and is within a few steps of where I stand. I look at it closely, and I’m surprised to see that its fur looks soft and lustrous. Intrigued by its beauty, I reach down as it comes closer and touch its fur. As soon as I do, the rat changes into a snow leopard.”
Now that we’ve got a dream written down, the next step is to turn it into a 3rd person story, boiled down to it’s narrative core. Here’s an example 3rd person narrative for the dream above: “Someone becomes afraid of something and tries to get away from it, but eventually considers it more closely and discovers attractive qualities they were previously unaware of.”Now, that’s an elegant storyline with a surprising twist. Recasting a dream in the 3rd person like this helps the dreamer to step back and create space.
Emotionally-charged roles like victim or persecutor are sticky, it takes work to loosen their grip and reclaim agency. It’s understandable to feel like a victim when a mob of rats is chasing you. But in these situations, we’re biased to blame the rats for our predicament.
Yet dreams don’t behave with the causality we typically expect from daylight life. Instead, the dreamer and dream contents are fluidly responding to each other, shifting from moment to moment as a dream evolves. In this example, when the dreamer feels horrified and runs, the rats chase. When the dreamer is curious, the huge rat becomes interesting, even beautiful. And as the dreamer reaches out to connect with the previously horrifying mega-rodent, it magically transforms into something new. We tend to overemphasize the causality of things happening to us. In dreams, we see how our reality responds to us.
4. Imagine a new action
I think of each dream as an invitation to evolve consciousness. We can learn, adapt, heal, and make discoveries in dreams. There’s always a prompt to grow or change in some way, however large or subtle, which begs the question: how is that change going to make the jump from a dream to waking life?
Here’s how to do it:
As you get to the end of unpacking a dream, ask yourself these two questions:
1) Is there a new action you’d like to have taken in the dream? If there is, then in a relaxed state of meditation or active imagination, return to the dream and try the new action.
2) How will what you’ve learned flow into new action your life? Here, you’re drawing from the previous steps, and letting your realizations suggest new ways of relating, being, making decisions, moving through your day, or whatever the material indicates. For the dream of mine I shared, that intuitive fuck-it-boldness is a definite thing I want to get into my day when I’m meeting uncertainty, both as an emotion and a rubber-meets-the-road action. The client with the rat dream might want to find ways to turn toward their fear, get curious about it, and see what it transforms into. If you’ve really gotten to the heart of a dream, you’ve already changed. But you want to be conscious of the new patterns now available, make sure they get the follow through they deserve, and support them with care.
I hope the above steps will provide food for thought as you weave your own approach to dreamwork. If something resonates with you, make it your own. The goal is always to find what’s most useful for you, right where you’re at today.
You might think of dreamwork as another avenue to understand yourself, your purpose, unique trajectory of growth, and to hone the capabilities you’ll need through the rest of your day. Rumi wrote, “Though we seem to be sleeping, there is an inner wakefulness that directs the dreams. And that will eventually startle us back to the truth of who we are.” Over the years, there were several points when I thought I was done with dreams. I got bored, convinced I was over it. Yet again and again, more than any other modality I’ve tried, my dreams return to startle and course-correct me back to my truth. On this path, the tiniest steps compound, and there are no upper bounds on the rewards.
This is the second of a series of essays on dreams. Thanks to everyone who’s reached out after the first, it’s been great fun to chat about the ideas with you. Would love to hear your thoughts, reactions, and, of course, dreams. If you liked this piece, please do tap the heart, share and forward it along, I’d love to expand the reach of this series.
Preview image: Jupiter - PJ13-26 - Detail by Kevin Gill
This step is partially adapted from Dr. Scott Sparrow’s Five Star Method. His work is excellent, highly recommended.
This step adapts an exercise from Dr. Scott Sparrow’s Five Star Method, but places the emphasis on the point of view, instead of the narrative.
The excerpted dream is sourced from the paper The Five Star Method: A Relational Dreamwork Methodology by Dr. Scott Sparrow and Mark Thurston.
The dream narrative quoted here is also sourced from The Five Star Method: A Relational Dreamwork Methodology by Dr. Scott Sparrow and Mark Thurston.
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