Using Dreams and the Dream Group
to Access our full Human Potential
Some 2,500 years ago the Chinese sage Chuang Tzu awoke from a dream that he was a butterfly. He wondered whether he was a man who had just dreamed he was a butterfly, or a butterfly now dreaming he was a man. Which is the dream? Which is real? How can we know?
Years ago, I had a dream I sat at a table with my family members in the basement of a house ' my mother, father, brother and sister. What amazed me was to see that each shone in flawless individual perfection. In a later scene of the dream I walked upstairs to the ground floor of the same house. There I was surprised to encounter another version of my family. My mother, father, brother and sister again ' only each now had their flawed character and neurotic twists. When I woke, I was confused. Each of my families in the dream, in its own way, seemed more real than the other.
It's not one thing or the other that we're dealing with in dreams. We see the whole picture. Not so in waking life. Like a prism can split light into its component colors, we have a consciousness when we're awake that is dualist. We look out at reality and don't realize that our consciousness separates things that are united and often only registers half the picture. We aren't immediately aware that every strength comes coupled with a weakness. For everything missed, there is something gained. Wealth is wedded with poverty, superiority with inferiority, in the most intimate fashion. All opposites are united. It's the way reality is constructed. But it's not the way our waking consciousness usually perceives reality. When awake, we don't see things the way they are.
I wake up from my dream and ask myself which is my family ' the perfect one or the imperfect one? Only later, it begins to dawn on me that in a dream I've experienced the beginning of compassion. I begin to see the damage the world has inflicted on these individuals. When I see how little of their real human nature has managed to get to the surface and into their daily behavior, my heart melts towards them. How much they've missed of life! How much of their fullness never got a chance to see the light of day! How sorry I am for any unkind thought I ever harbored about any of them when I see how they've suffered and what greatness and perfection each carries inside.
There's so much of value inside each and every one of us that never gets a chance to live! If we saw each other for who we really are, we would have to recognize that and bow down to one another, like religious monks do, in sheer reverence.
When we work with someone's dream, using Montague Ullman's experiential dream group process, we do get to see this. Always at the end of the process there is this feeling that runs the circle and swells the heart of every one of us until one by one members of the group break out and say to the dreamer 'Thank you! Thank you so much!'
A beginner might think we're thanking the dreamer for sharing her dream or for being open about her life. After you've participated in many groups and done this work a while, you begin to realize it's a much bigger gratitude than that. You're thanking the dreamer for giving our dualistic mind a glimpse of the whole, which includes the other part that the dream brings in. For in doing so, the dreamer has given us a rush, an intoxication with the sense of our own deepest and fullest humanity. We walk away, even after working on someone else's dream, more alive and closer to who we really are.
Chuang Tzu raised the important question: What is real? What is not? What if we are dreaming when we think we're awake? What if what we think is a dream is really true?
This is not some abstract philosophical quandary that's irrelevant to our day-to-day existence. As the following sample dream will show, it's at the root of our ability to find the real meaning in our lives and to become the fully realized creative human beings we have it in us to be ' and that our culture needs us to be if it is not to stagnate and become poisonous and inhibiting of real life.
Vanda's Dream Fragment
Vanda is a lecturer in English at a university in a distant part of Taiwan. In December 2003 she read an article in the newspaper about the experiential dream groups Dr. Shuyuan Wang and I were conducting at Chaoyang University of Technology. She phoned immediately and wanted to come to the next one. It was three months away, in March, 2004.
Later she told us, as March rolled around all kinds of obstacles presented themselves. She had to get a colleague to cover her Friday class at the university. She had to arrange for someone to take care of her little girl. At the last minute there was a problem with the train reservation she'd made. Inexplicably, all record of it had vanished from the computer system. She overcame the hurdles one by one, managed to get a new reservation at the last minute and traveled four and a half hours by train to get here.
After her long journey, she'd stayed up half the night in the campus guesthouse talking with her two roommates, who'd also traveled from far away to attend the experiential dream group.
The following morning, on the first day of the weekend workshop, Vanda volunteered her dream in the very first session. She'd woken up with the dream that morning. She apologized it was not the complete dream. She'd had a larger dream but was too tired in the morning to remember it all. All she got down on paper was the tail-end fragment. It was only a single scene.
Vanda's Dream Fragment
'That was like adults, they're grownups. They're talking about something. Seriously. Then children. They're playing games. It's sort of a jungle gym game but I'm not sure what it was. Then for some reason I was trying to figure out what is real or which one is real.
There were no definable characters in the dream fragment. Even the dreamer wasn't exactly a character in her own dream but was sort of looking on, struggling with a question in her head. There was no action. There was a group of adults talking seriously. A group of children played games on a jungle gym. That was it. There was no contact between the two groups or between either group and the dreamer.
Outwardly, nothing was happening. All we had was the picture. There didn't seem to be a lot to work with.
After the group worked for a while with feelings and metaphors, Vanda mentioned an additional detail: the children in the jungle gym weren't making any noise and they had no expressions on their faces. She hadn't thought to write this down, but it was part of the dream fragment.
Vanda's Dream Fragment (Continued):
'Children play, doesn't seem making any sound or voice. Didn't even have too much facial expression.'
This new information changed the whole picture ' because it didn't fit reality. Children in a playground make lots of noise and their faces are very expressive.
Whatever the image of children represents in Vanda has been ominously silenced and deprived of self-expression. The only voice present is the adult one.
There is a story here. Occasionally we glimpse, in the person of the dreamer, some small trait that sheds light on a puzzling image in the dream. When a group member offered as a projection that the children in the jungle gym seemed happy, Vanda replied, 'I didn't have that happy feeling in the dream.' In the next breath she graciously added, 'But maybe the feeling was there and I just wasn't aware of it.'
She seemed overly compliant about admitting outside authority into the area of her feelings. The adult voices in the children's area came to mind.
Vanda told us as she lay in bed dozing off to sleep after her long conversation with her roommates, the last thoughts in her mind were: 'I felt my roommates were so brave to do what they wanted and I asked myself 'What do I want?' They each made a really big decision. I'm not sure if I could do that. To me it seems they really followed their intuition. That would be a big challenge to me. Even when I figured out what I really want, it would be a challenge to me to make some changes if I want to.'
Vanda told us that when people found out she was coming to this dream workshop they said, 'Why are you going to waste your time doing something like that? You have so many more important things you need to be spending your time on right now.'
Vanda said she almost decided against coming but at the last minute she did come.
'I don't want to be doing something just because [other people say] it's important,' she said.
'I thought the dream workshop would be really exciting [to me].'
'Is there anything more you'd care to say about doing things that are important vs. doing things that are exciting?' I asked.
'When I was a kid I loved dance,' she said. 'That's something I always wanted to do.'
'When I was in third or fourth grade I told my mom, 'I want to do this. Let me take dance classes just a couple of months.' But after I started, she told me, 'You've got to quit. You have too much homework.'
'During the day before the dream,' Vanda said, 'I watched Cloud Gate Dance Theatre perform on public TV.' Her eyes became suddenly moist and her voice wavered, but she continued. 'I watched the dance,' she said, struggling to contain the emotion as tears streamed down her face, 'and I cried.' She broke into sobs as she told us this.
'I don't know why I cried when I watched the performance,' she said when she recovered enough to go on. 'I don't know whether it was because I wished I had become a dancer but I didn't, or whether it was just because of the beauty of the dance movements.'
Vanda cried again. The group had to wait a long while before she was ready to go forward.
'I had a chance in college to make dance my major. My mom wouldn't let me. She wanted me to major in English. I majored in English.'
Now we begin to see where the image of the silenced children figures in.
'After college I went to America for a Masters degree,' Vanda continued. 'For the first time in my life I felt really free. To my dismay, when I returned to Taiwan with my degree I found I was expected to fit myself back into the same little box I'd been in before, and give up all my freedom.'
'When I got a teaching job at the university I yearned to travel and to get away, at least for vacations. 'No,' people told me. 'It's more important to save and buy a house.'
'I actually enjoy teaching at the university.' Vanda said. 'The students say I'm a good teacher. They like me. I love talking with my students about things that matter. The same things that matter to them matter to me. 'You shouldn't waste your time doing that,' people tell me. 'To get ahead in your career, you have to get your Ph.D. and concentrate on research and publishing academic papers.'
I brought Vanda's attention back to the real-life events leading up to the dream. Then I said, 'But when you went to sleep you dreamed a playground'
'When I was a little girl,' she said, 'I loved the playground. I had so much fun in the playground that my mother had to pull me away when it was time to go.'
Then she added, 'Not the jungle gym, but the swing was my favorite.'
'But you didn't dream a swing, you dreamed a jungle gym,' I pointed out.
'When my mother came to pull me away from the playground,' Vanda said, 'I often took refuge in the jungle gym, where my mother couldn't so easily catch me.'
One by one, the images of the dream, which had seemed so cryptic and impenetrable to begin with, were beginning to make perfect sense.
'Our Chinese culture' Vanda then said, as if to sum everything up.
She was leaving something out, though ' there's more to Chinese culture. There's more to her dream. There's more to the picture of the playground. There's the question she is struggling with. 'This question,' she now told us, 'was actually the loudest voice of all in the dream.'
Outwardly, Vanda's dream is a static picture of personal defeat and invasion by external authority. Inwardly, it is not. There is a struggle in Vanda's heart with a question. It is perhaps the most profound question a human being can ask ' 'What is real?' This is the kind of question you come across in the writings of enlightened Indian yogis, great Zen masters or Nobel Prize winning novelists. Chuang Tzu posed this question with his butterfly dream. It came to me in the dream of my two families.
Vanda said that in the dream she didn't know where the question came from, whether it was her question or whether it was a question the adults had presented her with. After a lifetime of other people telling her who she is, it's not so easy to recognize her own voice when it appears.
Who would have suspected that Vanda's voice would go to so deep a hiding place? And that it would busy itself with such profound things while it was there? Our waking mind looks at Vanda's story in a dualistic way and sees only half of it: the maiming of the psyche. The dream shows the whole picture, including the powerful counterbalancing development from the unconscious depths bringing to the wound a healing, to the loss a gain, to the powerlessness, a power.
In that question that comes to her in the dream, what Vanda struggles with is the unknown ' and unknowable ' at the very core of her real self.
If you asked an enlightened Indian yogi or a great Zen master where the question 'What is real?' comes from, they would say it comes from the part of you that's real. The part that can't be known, but that knows.
The various religions and philosophical systems have many names for this. Montague Ullman's many years of experience with dreams have left him with the conviction that there exists deep down inside each of us what he calls, for lack of a better term, an 'incorruptible core of being.' In the dream of my two families, this is what I saw in the family members around the table in the basement. Many times I have heard Dr. Ullman say he was not a religious person and could never imagine what religious people meant by spirituality until he began working with dreams and started to witness, time and again, shining out from the very core of the dream ' a ray of purity, honesty and grace. Then, and only then, he understood what people might mean by a concept like 'God.' There is something which we all have inside which cannot be tarnished or corrupted by the world in any way. It exists outside of time and space and connects us with eternity. It's called various things by various traditions. Throughout the East it's symbolized by the lotus flower which grows up through the filthy mud to open its unblemished petals to the sunlight.
Vanda's little dream fragment contains the most momentous event that can happen to a human being ' a realignment with one's true self. The discovery of inner reality.
In her childhood and young adulthood, Vanda had no one to protect her because the one who was supposed to protect her was the one who did the harm. She had no one to go to for help because anybody listening to her case would assume her mother was doing the reasonable thing. ('The difference between you Americans and us Taiwanese,' a woman informed me, 'is that you think about what the child wants, we think about what the parent wants.')
Sadly, when outer authority failed her she had no recourse to her inner authority because it spoke to her through her passion ' which was dance. Her mother forbade her to pursue that route. Her mother silenced her deeper genius.
Our native genius is the core and essence of what we are. If we don't get at it and find a way to let it out into our lives, we ruin our lives and the lives of those around us. We ruin our children's lives. Without knowing it, we do this. And, no matter how good our intentions might be, we poison the existence of everyone we touch. Our genius is not superfluous. It is essential. We need to live through it and let it live through us in order that we may do good and cause happiness all around us.
Vanda's final words were, 'I feel really safe. He [the group leader] is trying to protect me. I don't know whether the feeling of being protected has something to do with the dream. It [Montague Ullman's experiential dream group process] feels secure.'
After the workshop, she sents us an e-mail:
'This was a wonderful and beautiful dream journey. And here is something I would like to share with you. Well, the night right after sharing my dream I was exhausted and it has lasted till yesterday. But as what I said in my next day reflection, the feeling of being exhausted was nice. It may sound weird, but, really, first time in my life, I felt that I enjoyed the feeling of exhaustion. It's like I could empty out myself and be ready to be filled up again. Well, but very important, only with my "permission," not his, not her, not anyone. I mean, I get to choose what can be in and what should be out of my mind. I don't know how long this feeling can last but at least I still feel this way. And I am sure I will remember this feeling and it will shine again down the road, somewhere in my life.
The feeling of being in charge and in control of my own very little yet very important dream happened during the time while I was sharing my dream with other dreamers, a group of strangers. This feeling made me feel safe and more willing to open myself. I think the feeling of being totally respected and protected is very important.'
She had needed just for once to feel it was safe to be herself in front of a group of other people, to be who she really was and not who other people wanted her to be ' she needed to feel she could do this and still be safe. The experiential dream group supplied that need.
It couldn't have happened if Vanda hadn't already reached a point in her life where crucial energies in her were poised and ready to spontaneously heal her lifelong trauma.
Compliant and submissive like a good girl, Vanda did as was demanded of her. At each stage of her development she repeated this same strategy. She introjected the outside voice more deeply and deeply into herself until it was down so close inside of her that her own authentic voice was silenced and stripped of expressive power.
What perhaps changed the equation for her was to reach a position of authority herself as a university lecturer and to be accepted so warmly by students who see her for the free spirit she is and seek her opinion on questions that they can see are as real to her as to them. The assistance she affords her student is seen by them and by herself to be of a remarkable high quality. Vanda has been made ready to know something that she has long had evidence for, but the evidence got buried under layer after layer of other people's designs for her. The dream group gave her a chance to see what deep inside her she already knew. It let her dream fragment speak to her. It brought her to realize that in her own experience lay the key to understanding the imagery of her own dream fragment.
We have worked with a great many dreams in the last year or so since we brought Montague Ullman's experiential dream group process to Taiwan. Of them all, Vanda's dream strikes me as uncannily in line with what I sense happening in Taiwan today. This nation has experienced great material success, but at a high human cost. We see a shallowing of human life and a maiming of the spirit in many of the dreams we work with here but, like in Vanda's dream, we also detect a powerful compensatory upwelling of deeper awareness poised to enter into the lives of the people here. The practical usefulness of the experiential dream group in utilitarian Taiwan today is that it can throw light on areas of the inner life that have fallen badly out of balance, redress that imbalance with awareness from the unconscious, and initiate the processes of inner healing and growth necessary to transform the surface glitter of Taiwan's economic miracle into real human gold.