Do we benefit from dreams whether we work them or not?
There are varying schools of thought from, at one end of the spectrum, the notion that dreams don’t do anything for us at all to the idea that dreams are a piece of unfinished process that moves us forward only when we revisit the dream and allow it to complete. The middle road is the notion that dreams are useful in and of themselves (and there are too many theories about why and how they are useful to go into here) but are more beneficial if you work with them in some way. If you don’t have a dream therapist, simply writing your dreams down, telling someone, and allowing dreams to send your musings down an unfamiliar path can spark new ideas and insights.
I fall into the middle ground somewhere but personally have found dreams to be most beneficial for myself and my clients when I spend time with them and actively try to align myself in the direction they send my attention and intention.
A dream that prevented suicide
There are many examples of dreams that do their work by themselves, needing no interpretation, or further exploration. An entire book, Dreams That Change Our Lives, a publication by the International Association for the Study of Dreams (IASD), is devoted to the topic and filled with examples of transformational dreams. In one striking example, a woman who was planning suicide had a dream that she was at a friend’s funeral, and Jesus angrily told her she had to give the eulogy. As she did this, she deeply felt the sorrow of all the friends and family attending, and forever changed her mind about killing herself.
For me, the transformation from a dream has mostly come in the context of therapy or working through it with a friend or dreamwork partner. In a recent example, I dreamt I was trapped on a cliff, had run up a ridge with my sister, and was trying to get down to the water via the rocky canyon on the other side that led to a small, rugged beach. We were on an island that was beautiful but with incredibly steep shores. My sister jumped down into the canyon where there was a brown leather couch – still a ways from the water, and I could not see any realistic way back out of there. But neither could I get back to where I had come from. I was perched in a small hollow that was sloped down toward the cliffs, and it felt like now that I had stopped my momentum, any little movement could affect my balance enough for me to fall to my death. That’s kind of where the dream left me – if I pushed myself back against the rock, as close into the little hollow as possible, I could hang on, but there was no way to rest in it, no flat enough perch to take my entire weight. In a word, it was terrifying. And it felt like there was no way out.
Dreamwork provides the way forward
I had the chance to work with the dream a few days later with a fellow therapist as part of a group exercise. I realized from my own work with traumatic dreams is that fear often narrows our field of vision, and we are not aware of all that is possible. I was dimly aware I was in a dream when I had it, but not enough to attempt to defy gravity. But I did realize, in talking about the dream, that there was another way to get out of my predicament: I could jump! My goal was to get into the water anyway – this would be the most direct route. The danger was in falling too close to the cliffs and landing on the rocks below, but it felt as though I could use momentum to run down the ridge and, with momentum, launch myself up, out, and away from danger.
Making the leap!
I told my friend how, for most people, the prospect would be scary, but for me, jumping from a cliff would be fine because I spent my university years competing for the diving team. I wasn’t afraid of jumping from great height into deep water. She repeated back to me my sentiment about this: you know what you’re doing. The felt sense I got from this was, yes, be bold. Make the leap. So I imagined myself in the dream again, and instead of cowering against the rock, I ran down the slope to get some speed and then launched myself into a swan dive, fully expecting to drop like a stone. Instead, I started to soar. It reminded me of the one time I went parasailing from the top of Grouse Mountain, the pilot and I launching ourselves by running down a steep slope and then lifting off. I love it when dreams surprise me, and I came away with a feeling of soaring, lightness, and being lifted up. It was such a different feeling from the way the dream had ended, and I felt grateful to my dream partner and so glad I had a chance to move forward from where I had been crouched in terror on the cliffs.
Does this resolve everything as tidily as that? I don’t think there is anything tidy about dream work. If a dream is indeed alive (which is how I experience it), it is always changing. And there is never just one way to interpret and dream. There is probably a place in my life where I can’t quite rest, a place that feels precarious. There is also a part of me that feels the confidence of mastery, a sense of being called to do something again that I had once dedicated many hours over many years to achieve mastery. I am not talking literally about diving, of course, my middle-aged body would have something to say about that. But writing is also a skill I acquired, and then honed, in my ten years as a professional writer and editor. Now I am writing again after a 20-year hiatus where my focus was on the practice of psychotherapy.
I feel like I did when jumping off that dream cliff – a sense that this is a familiar activity, a sense of knowing what I’m doing. It feels as if the dream is asking me to be bold and brave, implying I won’t drop like a stone but will soar. I don’t know if dreaming the dream on and having such a splendid ending is truly a prediction of the future. But I can say that it gave me a lift and implies I will be propelled forward by forces greater than my own if I boldly move forward, which feels both motivating and true. The feeling of soaring was a pleasure in the moment, one I can still feel when I sense inside, especially in my chest and shoulders. If that is all the dreamwork brings, it will have been worth the exercise. It made me want to sit down and write.
Master an engaging, experiential way to talk about dreams with your clients by taking Leslie Ellis’ course How to Work with Dreams in Your Clinical Practice here on JungPlatform. You will also learn how the current science of dreaming supports its use and how to make the most of the healing potential inherent in your clients’ dreams.
Dr. Leslie Ellis, PhD, is an author, teacher, speaker and clinical dreamworker. Her book, A Clinician’s Guide to Dream Therapy (Routledge, 2019) offers therapists a primer in modern, experiential dreamwork.More Posts by Leslie Ellis