I’m often asked, with some trepidation, about the role of dreams in therapy. People are fascinated by them, but also wary. Dreams open the doorway into the unknown, and it’s only right that we do that with some caution and thought.
One of the questions asked most frequently on this subject is: “What does this dream, or situation in a dream, mean?”
As modern human beings we want a definitive, objective meaning. We’d like to change the “unknown” dream into a utilitarian “known”. This is the approach popularized in many a glossy magazine, or books on dream interpretation.
We like the certainty of this approach: a boat in your dream means X. Or…not being able to speak in your dream means Y. Or, worse still – the predictive interpretation: dreaming of a star means you are about to find your true vocation.
In therapy I encourage a different way of looking at dreams: they are your own personal artwork. Dreams are something that occur to us, by us – we sleep and are strangely passive recipients of vivid material that, on examination, often reminds us of our waking experience (including our thoughts), and at the same time seems entirely foreign.
I’m reminded of the attraction people have towards the Mona Lisa when I think about this subject. The painting evokes a reaction in people whereby they focus on her smile, which is always described as “elusive” or “enigmatic”. In my own interpretation of this, the picture brings up our need for knowledge. There is something we don’t “get” about the smile. Something we would like to understand. We feel forced to guess or try to be clever about it, but there it is still – a smile that reassures us since it just is, and yet disquiets us because we are uncomfortable with the unknown.
You could stand for hours wondering about the smile on the Mona Lisa’s lips, partly because it so wonderfully evokes the human need for knowledge. We will never know what it “means”, but there it is anyway, no matter how our minds our teased into searching for an object or reason for the smile.
Dreams, and dream work in therapy works in a similar way. They can be a potent part of therapy work: they ask us to be curious, and can teach us to admit to things about life or ourselves through a representation. This can lead us to open up and grow in self-knowledge.
Apart from the specifics of dream exploration – the specific things we can come to about each dream or dream sequence – dreams also open us to possibility just by their existence. They hint at a life that is lived within us.
Again, our conscious minds resist this notion. We like to think that we are in control and that we live life logically, according to our reasoned understanding.
When we find meaning in dreams, it is a subjective experience. Something resonates and feels very representative of our waking life. Looking at the scenes of life from this given perspective, we find surprising niches, colours and varieties within the dreamwork that might have been previously elusive. Dreams, when we are open to them, can provide perspectives that are shocking, wise and helpful.
At the same time, those artworks are just what they are. They hang within us, enticing us to draw rich meaning, and then retreat with an enigmatic smile. Is that something that we can love, or something that we want to “fix” until it can feel definite?
If we could “fix” this inner, creative mind in place, would it still be alive?
by Tom Barwell