Interpretation Passion and Core Experiences
My experience of exploring dreams has extended over nearly 40 years. My approach to dreams was not simply that of a professional therapist working with clients. It has also been, at times, that of a troubled human being seeking healing, and looking for answers. Because I started my dream exploration as a means of self-help, and because I was the sole breadwinner for my five children and could not afford professional help or tuition, I had to find my own way. Fortunately I did not have fixed ideas about how to approach dreams. I was a great reader at that time — my early 20s — and haunted the London bookshops looking for new bits to fit in the jigsaw puzzle I was gradually putting together.
My main drive was to find something that I could use, and would be of practical help in the physical pain and hopelessness I felt, and I wasn’t particularly concentrating on the subject of dreams at the time. Fortunately I came across two books in the early days that gave actual examples of ordinary people such as myself, exploring their dreams and finding real transformation. One of these was The Way Within by Wyatt Rawson, published by Vincent Stuart in 1965. This gave detailed accounts of a group of lay people working together using an approach developed by P. W. Martin. The second book, by Leslie Weatherhead, was called Psychology in Service of the Soul. It was published by Epworth Press in 1929.
So my start was as a raw beginner searching through bookshops and absorbing everything I could. I went on to develop individual and group dream work: to establish one of the first human potential growth centres in the UK; to write a number of books on dreams; to become a media dream therapist; to teach dream and creative movement work in different parts of the world. (See biography).
I mention these things to give an idea of the various approaches and stages I have lived through. I hope this will qualify the things I am going to describe here.
Mostly, when people talk about understanding a dream, they often use the word interpretation. Perhaps it was Sigmund Freud who made this word popular in connection with understanding a person’s dreams. It was certainly Freud who, in recent times, set in motion the view that trained professional men and women could “interpret” your dream. A great deal of Freudian analysis, and also some Jungian analysis, uses a great deal of interpretation by the therapist. In other words, the person who is seeking help and telling their dream is told by the therapist what their dream might mean.
Of course, this is not true of all dream therapists, but before we proceed, we need to understand what analysis and interpretation might achieve.
If we start with basics, the word analysis means a detailed examination of something; and interpretation suggests the explanation of something that may be obscure to us, such as a foreign language. In the case of dreams, and in connection with therapists, it usually means the professional considers the dream of the client and explains it in terms of their particular psychological theory. So for instance, if it were a Freudian therapist or psychoanalyst, the dream may be said to refer to infantile sexual needs, or some stage of growth defined by the theory, such as oral, anal, or genital. The dreamer may have no feeling of connection with this information at all. They may not be able to connect it with what they observe of themselves in their everyday life. Nevertheless, the unconscious is a huge and often dark land, and one needs some sort of map to traverse it.
Another sort of interpretation occurs when we look at our own dream in a particular way. For instance, recently I told one of my dreams to a friend via e-mail, and he wrote back saying what he thought the dream was about. A similar sort of interpretation can occur when a person tells their dream to a group, and the whole group comment on the dream.
Now, in this short article, I cannot hope to define and cover the multitude of ways the Freudian, Jungian, and the non-professional approaches to interpretation can succeed or fail. But to give some sort of idea of the range, I will use a rather black and white, or polar opposite, type of image to explore the subject. Therefore, let us say that at one end of the polar opposites there exists somebody telling you what your dream means without allowing you any real response or exploration of your own feelings and associations. At the other end of the polarity there is someone who acts as a sort of question mark, encouraging you to express your feelings and associations connecting with the dream, and letting you explore its depths.
As can be seen, there is room between those opposites to include all manner of approaches. But these opposites help to define something of importance. This is whether or not the dreamer has any opportunity to express their own feelings, their own ideas, and to discover their own internal power of healing. If there is no environment in which this can happen, then the dreamer is pushed into a relationship with the interpreter as a powerful authority figure — perhaps even a sort of shamanistic healer.
I remember meeting a professional Jungian psychoanalyst while she was taking part in a peer dream group. That is, a group that supported the dreamer in exploring his or her own dream. After several sessions of working with the group, she said to me, “I am going home, and I am going to start a group like this. I am fed up with my dreams being torn to shreds by my professional associates.”
Obviously, that is again one of the extremes. And we must remember, that within any approach, the practitioners, the quality, maturity and love they bring to the situation, can transform a poor format into a healing process.
However, the negative side of interpretation can be, as my Jungian friend suggested, a destructive process. If not that, we may simply be given ideas that might be quite interesting, even fascinating. Perhaps we are told things that dismay us, or massage our ego. But if you have ever really touched the core of a dream, you will know that those things are inconsequential. When you touch your core self, some degree of transformation always follows. That core is the fount of life. You cannot touch it without becoming wiser, and in some way healed or grown.
I will give some examples to illustrate what has been said. To start with here is a man’s dream, Greg, experienced near the beginning of his interest in dreams.
I was walking down a hill, through the woods. When I came to the fields, they were so deeply flooded, that my dog and I could only walk on the path. I looked around for a stone to throw into the water for my dog to swim after, but could only find a tiny piece of bark. I threw it in, wondering in fact, whether he would follow — he leapt into the water. When the bark hit the water, it looked as if a bomb had hit the water. The exploded impact area then turned into a whirlpool. My dog was dragged beneath the surface by the current.
Looking at his dream Greg described it in the following way:
My dog represents the ability to see in the dark, and roam far and wide in the night. He is unleashed instincts, sexual attraction, doubts, cynicism, animal certainty, but not intellect. The dream is possibly a response to the starting of my dream journal, and an explanation of the likely results. I throw what seems to be a harmless thing into the dream layer, and it explodes, causing a whirlpool. The ego is not threatened, but the instincts certainly are, and this is difficult to understand.
Greg ends by saying that it “it is difficult to understand”. He is admitting that his interpretation doesn’t really unfold the drama of the dream. It hasn’t led him to feel the explosive and life-threatening forces the dream depicts. Maybe he is looking at them, but they are still at a remove. Remember that the dream is fashioned out of his own core emotions and passions. Therefore his admittance that he doesn’t understand tells us he still has not met those passions.
Most attempts at dream interpretation are like that. Perhaps they are something like reading a book. We are involved, we are interested, we may even be educated, but we are not living the story. There is a difference between thinking about something and experiencing it. As I have said elsewhere, reading about swimming in the ocean, or talking about it, or thinking about it, are completely different to the experience of actually doing it. Getting to core feelings in a dream are the same as swimming in the ocean.
What Greg did however, is near to being one of the extremes of the polarities. And, as already said, there are many degrees of interpretation. This next example shows us what can happen as we get nearer to touching the core. This dream comes from another man, Alan.
I was with my wife who was sunbathing nude sitting in a deck chair. She wanted me to have sex with her but I declined. Instead I stuck my thumb in her vagina, but she said this didn’t satisfy her.
Alan did not attempt to interpret his dream as Greg did. He was working with a dream group and said he would like to explore his dream. He started to describe his dream to the group, but as soon as he did so he began to feel uncomfortable, embarrassed, and suddenly knew what the dream expressed. In a stumbling way, he told what he felt to the group, saying, “As I am telling this to you, I know what it says, and I feel embarrassed. It is saying that I am not really a man, and don’t know how to have a proper sexual relationship. This because, sex for me is a sort of thumb suck, a comforter, rather than a shared meeting and merging.”
Every dream we have is a very personal thing, and Alan, in talking about his dream, met very personal feelings. He was courageous enough to tell these to his group, and in doing so confronted what he felt about himself when seen in that light. This is very different to what happened with Greg. After a few days, Greg could only vaguely remember his interpretation. It had not touched him deeply. It had not etched itself into his life. Alan met something quite different. What he experienced was never forgotten. Also it was very new for him to recognise that aspect of his relationship with sex. I say recognise, rather than think about. Alan did not “think about” if he had an infantile relationship with sex. He was not told this by a therapist in a way that left him wondering. Alan experienced his own infantile sexual feelings, and knew.