Experiential exploration, not interpretation: The practice of dreamwork has changed!
If you are like most therapists, you may dabble in dreamwork but without much confidence. Most often, it is your clients, not you, who initiate dream discussions. You may even dread the moment a client brings you a dream, worried you will have no way to help your client figure out what this nonsensical, nocturnal vignette actually means. Maybe you’ve had some experiences where your exploration of client dreams has led to dead ends, awkward silences, and mutual frustration because the dream feels pregnant with meaning, but you are both stymied.
If this sounds familiar, take heart. When you think that dreamwork means you need to offer interpretations of your client’s dream, like the great grandfathers of dreamwork Freud and Jung, it is understandable to feel intimidated. Early dreamwork methods positioned the therapist as an expert, as someone who could explain the client’s dreams to them. Times have truly changed.
Modern dreamwork is highly experiential and requires nothing more of the therapist than the skills you already possess: curiosity, empathy, and the ability to listen. The dreamers themselves are considered the true experts of their dreams, and you are merely the guide who walks beside them as you explore the terrain together.
I recently conducted a qualitative analysis of the most prevalent dreamwork methods in use today and found that experiential approaches to the dream are now the norm, and interpretation by the therapist is increasingly rare.
In summary, the common factors in modern dreamwork are generally client-centered and experiential. Dreamworkers suggest clients tell the dream in first-person and present tense to bring them back into an experience of the dream itself. From there, they might be invited to explore the setting, emotional tenor, and/or associations to the various dream elements. Then the dreamworker may invite the dreamer to delve more deeply into experiential contact with their dream by imagining they have become one of the characters in their dream, and sensing into what the dreamworld is like from this foreign vantage point.
Asking the dreamer to BE a dream character or element is one of the most popular ways of working experientially with the dream. The other common approach is to invite interaction with the dream. These experiential methods treat the dreams as though it is still alive and responsive, not a fixed entity. The therapist may invite the dreamer to allow the dream to continue from where it left off as if you have pressed ‘play’ on an unfinished video. Or, wherever there is something that feels unresolved, the dreamer can be invited to slip back into that dream scene and imagine continuing the interaction with the characters or the drama and see where the dream wants to take them next.
For those not accustomed to working in the field of experiential imagination, this line of inquiry might seem like a stretch. But dreams themselves inhabit a world that appears to be part our creation, part imagination so interacting with them is a way of stepping back into their world and making an attempt to listen from the dreamworld perspective. From this vantage point, the dreamer is often spontaneously struck with what the dream is bringing. They will have an embodied sense of rightness, a flash of insight about the dream’s relevance, and a sense of how they might respond. This is in sharp contrast to the kind of speculation about the dream’s possible meaning from an intellectual stance and from outside the dream.
This kind of embodied ‘aha’ moment is, I believe, what therapists are trying to create in our work with clients. It is a marked shift away from telling the same old stories with their problem-saturated focus. The reason I am so excited when clients bring their dreams to sessions is that they so often point toward something new that can bring about deep insights and tangible shifts. Clients love working with dreams, and with experience and a basic sense of how to proceed, most therapists will also come to greet dreams with excitement rather than trepidation.
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