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Introducing Dream Work to the Group Setting

May 1, 2006
by Roger Martinez, LADC, NCAC II
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Alcohol and other drug counselor Darryl Wheeler of the Jackie Nitschke Center in Green Bay, Wisconsin, wrote in to request more information about how to use dreams in group therapy for the benefit of members' recovery. Groups are perfectly suited for dream work. Several contemporary theorists use dream work in groups. I prefer a combination of some of their theories and techniques. Although none of the dream workers I mention here focus on addiction, their ideas are applicable to our clients.

Roger martinez, ladc, ncac ii
Roger Martinez, LADC, NCAC II

Two prominent authors and dream workers are Jeremy Taylor and Gayle Delaney. Taylor's Dream Work lists 21 basic hints for dream work. The first mirrors the International Association for the Study of Dreams ethics statement, declaring that only the dreamer can recognize the dream and its understanding or meaning. Many colleagues have shared with me horror stories of a therapist telling the patient what the dream means, absent the patient's own “aha!” experience.

Taylor coined the phrase “if it were my dream.” This refers to group members helping the dreamer with the dream brought up in the dream group. The premise is that others in the group will have their particular projections, and that what is said about someone's dream always will reflect to a degree the personality of the person making the comment. Taylor explains in a Jungian way that an individual dream in fact does speak to the collective, and chances are with a close-knit group that the dreamer might have the “aha!” experience from everyone's comments and projections.

In an example of this process, a dreamer shares a dream that he is in a blue room filled with dogs. One group member starts by saying, “If it were my dream,” then continues, “I feel sad and blue, and am afraid.” He goes on to say he has always been afraid of dogs and has depression. The next person says, “If it were my dream, I recognize the loyalty sense of dogs and calmness from the blue.” A third person suggests, “If it were my dream, I pictured sheepdogs as my guardians, and the blue represents calmness to me.” (The color meanings are taken from Max Luscher's Luscher Color Test and the dog meanings from J.E. Cirlot's A Dictionary of Symbols.) The dreamer can now incorporate any new symbolism that fits, can have the “aha!” experience, or can continue with his own associations. The dreamer always has the final say about the dream.

Using a dream interview

Delaney's Living Your Dreams includes a chapter on starting a dream group. Explaining what she calls a “dream interview,” Delaney uses the idea that the therapist or dream helper is only an aide to the dreamer and helps the dreamer discover the dream's meaning. She writes, “The interviewer pretends to have just come in from another planet and asks the dreamer a series of specific questions about the dream.”

Using the dog dream as an example, the interviewer would start by saying something like, “I don't know what blue is or what dogs are; I just came from another planet. Tell me what they are and what they mean to you.” After the dreamer's explanation, the interviewer would seek to make the dream practical to waking life by asking if the description fits anyone in the dreamer's life or a situation in life that the dreamer is experiencing.

Delaney's dream interview has six steps. The first two are to describe the dream as completely as possible and to have the dreamer restate the dream. Every time I have pursued this second step, a new important symbol comes out or another symbol becomes complete. The third step is the “bridge,” or connecting the dream images to waking life characters or situations. The fourth step is to test the bridge, which simply means to “verify and clarify.” The fifth step involves summarizing, in which the dreamer is encouraged to outline parts of the dream, usually gaining insight while going along. The final step invites the dreamer to reflect by asking him/her to go over the dream several times in the next week. The focus here is to look at thoughts and insights that the dream and the interview provoke.

A staged process

Montague Ullman is probably the forerunner in the area of using dream work in groups. In his book Working with Dreams, Ullman clarifies basics such as that the dreamer is his/her own authority and that the dreamer may back off from the process at any point in dream work.

Ullman outlines three stages of his work. In the first, he asks the dreamer to state the dream, and in this process he requests a short dream. (I also prefer working with short dreams, as the symbols tend to be easier to work with.) Ullman also prefers to work with recent dreams, as freshness presumes a current need, although he is open to work with whatever dream the dreamer needs to share. Group members are invited to take accurate notes of the dream. At the end of the recounting of the dream, group members are invited to ask the dreamer to clarify any missed or unclear content. This is not a time for interpretation. Often the questions focus on identifying the dream characters or the location.

Stage two belongs to the group. The dreamer is invited to step back and listen, and takes notes if needed. This method is similar to Taylor's method, without the “if it were my dream” phrase. Group members are asked to share what they felt as the dream was told, and how they are affected by the dream.

In stage three, the dreamer is invited to respond in any way. The dreamer is encouraged to connect with waking life events. At this point the group helps the dreamer bridge the dream with waking life.