Dream as a way to understand the client or A Meeting With An Amazing Dreamer
Author: Julija Abakumova-Kočiūnienė (Lithuania)
A few years have passed, but I still remember the wonder I felt meeting this client. Our work together stimulated my interest in dreams and alerted me to many aspects of the significance of dreams in therapy.
Client N., a middle-aged man, was not committed to the therapy for which he applied because of some external pressures. The questions of ageing, of the meaning of what he was doing in his life and his contradictory wish to be closer to people hung in the air, but we could not find a way to approach them. The progress in therapy was slow, taking us, in fact, nowhere and making it difficult and at times painful for us both. The client often found various reasons to engage in calculation of time he still had to spend on this uninspiring business. Frequently I could not understand what we were doing and how we could get closer to something that really mattered for N. The possibility to do it emerged unexpectedly when the client began to share his dreams. They described his existential situation in such an open and bold way that was rare in our conversations while fully awake.
From then on, dreams became indispensable to our therapy. Thanks to these dreams, I was able to understand the world of this person deeper, to get in touch with his being more realistically, feel affinity towards him and accept him without reservation. Presence of dreams in therapy provided an opportunity of exploration on a deeper level, where he appeared honest and informed about his being.
Dreams give us a chance to understand the client’s ‘ultimate concern’. According to Emmy van Deurzen, ‘when a person tells about dreams, he or she can (and does) express his or her ultimate concerns and lifestyle in dream images’ (van Deurzen, p. 148). Dreams enable more advanced understanding of a person in his or her current existential situation and enhance the development of the client’s relations with a psychotherapist. Dreams provide a metaphor of the existential situation unfolding at the given time in the person’s life. ‘Dream is a microcosm populated by the same meanings and anxieties as the client’s real world’ (Ibid.).
In existential approach it is essential that a dream is viewed as authored by the dreamer and largely aimed not at concealing but at revealing, disclosing and unfolding the dreamer’s being. Dreams are understood as means of honest communication about basic existential givens in the person’s life. In his dreams, the dreamer speaks about his being in an undisguised and truthful, metaphor-based language.
Often a dreamer in the waking state finds it hard to go back to the meaning of images and metaphors that were present in a dream. Dreams frequently contain alarming expressions of the dreamer’s actual life situation or a multi-faceted reflection of his or her being accompanied by deep existential feelings. Metaphorical creativity seen in dreams allows the dreamer to weave its content structure so that he or she can grasp the essence of the messages only when ready for that. Therapeutic relations should nurture this readiness, because the ‘intellectual response […] to a dream will provide a sort of defence mechanism, where the only desire is to avoid anxiety associated with the dream’ (Caligor and May, p. 19).
Dreams represent a thoroughly honest, authentic and at the same time creative message to a person about his or her life from the perspective of existential dynamics and ontic development, about events of his current existential situation. I was lucky to encounter such an amazingly creative dreamer, and the dreams were perceived by the client in his waking state as thoroughly truthful messages which impressed us by their insights and clarity of meanings.
One of the first dreams which N. described at our thirty-seventh meeting, was as follows:
‘There is someone’s house which sinks into something swampy, and N. invented a structure that will enable the house to stand’.
I had a feeling that both of us stopped breathing while we read the dream’s resonating message: life is moving towards death, it sinks into non-being, while he invents some ‘structures’ that should enable him to withstand the process but cannot stop the movement.
Dreams indicate a troubling domain that a person, following the laws of existential growth, must approach and perceive, but which causes high anxiety. According to Rollo May, a dream can express ‘things [the person] knew about but did not dare to consciously admit’ (May, pp. 9-10). A dream gives the person an opportunity to see things as they are, but the revelation may be so striking that the person wants to push it aside and forget what he or she has learnt. There is a notion that psychotherapy is a way of reminding the client what he already knew but wanted to forget. Thus, a psychotherapist’s task in analysing the dream is to help the client identify the meaning of the dream, which is clear to the client at the start but which the client tries to ignore, and then to support him, so the meaning of the dream, instead of being avoided, could be accepted.
Tried consistently to circumvent one issue which, we both realised, was important for him, the question of affinity in human relations. The issue increased in importance as the client experienced the escalating sense of ageing and the limitation of his lifetime. The interweaving of these ‘ultimate concerns’, to use van Deurzen’s term, is reflected in the dream N. saw on the eve of our forty-fourth meeting:
‘N. sees his old acquaintance, maybe a good fellow or even friend, sitting. The man seems to be drunk or asleep. N. and another person want to help the sitting or drunk man. They take the man up, carry him to the lift and go down. The lift is moving down endlessly. N. feels with his back that the friend is already cold. N. realises that the man is dead. He is horrified that he is going down in a restricted space with a dead man. The lift does not stop.’
The dream scared the client, but also brought him hope – moving towards something deep inside his life together with N. is another person, who helped him meet death and what awaits him ‘at the bottom’.
During our conversations I acutely felt this client as a representative of modern technocratic world who in daily life is not inclined to pay attention to existential aspects and transcendental categories. In his dreams, N. as a dreamer spoke about his existential worldview in the language of images.
Aspects of dreams that remain vague and inaccessible for rationalisation offer modern people means to experience being as mystery. Dreams take us closer to the domain of the incomprehensible, the unconscious and the transcendent. In dreams a person is able to approach such transcendent phenomena as faith, God, the absolute, laws of creation and everything that goes beyond everyday life. By their very presence, dreams signal to the most materialistic mind that life is a mystery which cannot be brought under total rational control.
Dreams give an opportunity to experience Other through the prism of shared existential entities and common hardships of human existence, such as being ‘thrown’ into life through birth, finiteness of life, vulnerability to disease, desire for impossible affinity, etc. The truthful metaphoric language of dreams reflects faithfully existential moments of a person’s life, enabling dreams to act as a link with the Other, despite numerous separating factors (age, sex, profession, education, ethnicity, nature of problems, etc.).
Thanks to dreams, I was able to get in touch with N. on the universal human level, feeling affinity with the client as another human being. Dreams created a link with the client as an Other, with his life on the level of the existential situation, which, in turn, made it possible for me to accept this person and deeply experience our affinity. Because of emerging dreams, I began to realize our common humanity more acutely and to discern our unity in universally human existential givens rather than individual differences. Just as many works of fiction use motifs of classical Greek dramas, so universal human experience of existential givens is present in dreams as an individual replay. Moreover, the metaphoric language of dreams is as memorable and transparent as the language of the classical Greek drama. May comes to a similar conclusion, writing that ‘a person is represented in dreams so brightly that I felt a complex, multifaceted link with this real person’ (May, p. 20).
Another recurrent motif in N.’s dreams was the issue of meaning in his life. During our forty-sixth meeting, N. told the following dream:
‘N. in working clothes walks on the surface of a mine. For some reason, he does not go down the mine, although he should be working there. He is wandering among people who are doing their work. N. is afraid of meeting the top managers. His day is drawing painfully on and on. He looks at the watch and sees it is not yet 11 a.m., and he should be working till 15. He is out of business.’
Our search together, where the client was the principal interpreter of his dream, was concerned with the juxtaposition of the mine and work: the mine is something deep and meaningful, while work on the surface is shallow and idle. What is he doing ‘on the surface’? Why doesn’t he dare to go ‘down the mine’? What is it that really engages him in life? Who or what are those ‘top managers’? Is it conscience, or some higher meanings? Dreams introduce us to personal images of reality, using which we can address this person using comprehensible and engaging language. The powerful metaphor of a mine as a depth to meet life, which appeared in the dream, ensured progress in our subsequent conversations and made our work meaningful and substantial even without the aid of dreams.
The same images can continue for a long time in different versions of dreams, and the goal of looking into them together during therapy sessions is to explore their meaning and the dynamics of their evolution. For quite a while, N. saw the same dream repeated:
‘A big house, inside which something is unfinished. The house needs finishing. Still, the house is nice the way it is.’
The dream remained unchanged for considerable time. The house in the dream stayed unfinished. On the night before one of our final therapy sessions, N. saw a dream that he took to be a continuation of the previous repetitive dream:
‘N. sees the house from the inside and from the outside. A lot is completed inside. Not much work is left to do. Someone close helps with the work. Everything goes well, but N. does not like the fact that other people have appeared, who pass through the house or ask questions.’
It is the first in a series of repeated dreams where other people appear. The people interact with the dreamer, and one of them is clearly bent on helping the client (‘someone close’ helping him). Analysing the dream, it is clear that the house is a reflection of the client’s inner world, and the repetitive dreams emphasize the confusion, ambivalence and dissatisfaction of the client’s experience of himself on the deep level of being. The dream indicates the direction in which he could continue to move for greater peace and satisfaction with his life, allowing assistance in his inner ‘repairs’. The dream also contains a warning against the danger of being too open, which can lead to the intrusion of uninvited guests to his interior ‘home’.
May writes that dreams are stimulated by a person’s need to ‘do something’ in the world in which he or she is here and now: ‘The phrase “do something” includes, on the one hand, the meaningfulness of the action as approached from different perspectives, also in the complicated and apparently meaningless situation, and, on the other hand, changes in relations with this world’ (May, pp. 13-14).
Dreams are honest and bold reflections of a person’s current life situation, and, at the same time, mirror the dynamics and results of therapy. Considering the client’s latest dream from this perspective, I can assert that N. progresses to greater comprehension of significance of close relations in his life and to a clearer understanding of the consequences of opting for intimacy and openness.
I believe that therapy is rendered meaningful, effective and sustainable for the client if the changes of which a person speaks are reflected by the dynamics of his or her dreams. In this case, there is a vivid impression of contact with the client’s world, a feeling that I as a therapist am present and allowed access to the changing, dynamic life of the client. Contact with a dreamer opens ways to create close relations with the client, provides the sense of growing trust and greater affinity between the therapist and the client.
- van Deurzen E. Existential Counselling and Psychotherapy in Practice. Sage, 2002.
- May R., Caligor L. Dreams and Symbols. Basic Books, 1968.