Jan 19, 18 Dreamwork

Why do we dream?

Theories abound, but no one is certain. The enduring mystery of dreams is part of their allure. We do know that everybody dreams (all mammals), and that if we are deprived of dreaming, we will amp up our dreaming to make up for lost dreamtime. Rats deprived of REM sleep for an extended period lose the ability to regulate body temperature and die!

Dreams appear to be necessary for our bodies, although precisely why that is has not been settled. There are many theories, and it may be that dreams serve multiple functions. Research has shown that dreams may help regulate emotion, encode memory and consolidate learning, and that all of this happens whether we choose to work with our dreams or not. However, if we do delve more deeply into the fascinating world of our dreams and actively work with them, we are often rewarded with deeper insight, self- awareness and a larger sense of self.

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Throughout the history of mankind, dreams have held special significance as prophetic, meaningful messages from the gods. It was Sigmund Freud who first brought dreamwork into the mainstream clinical setting and ascribed personal meaning to our nocturnal journeying. Carl Jung took dreamwork a few steps further, and through his own dreamwork, conceived of the collective unconscious and most of the psychological theories he is famous for today.

Dreams are an innate process that I believe moves us toward integration and healing. They speak in a symbolic language that has a logic and time-line very different from that of our waking consciousness. But they impart wisdom and knowledge that often seems greater than what we ordinarily possess. If we can understand, appreciate and experience them, dreams bring us new insight, help and healing.

If all of the answers to our life’s problems were obvious, there would be no need for counselling or dreamwork. However, many of our issues return again and again, despite our best efforts to do what is best for us. That’s because unconscious forces are at work within us, and these, by their very nature, operate outside of our awareness. They drive our addictions, choice of partners, and relationship patterns, even to our detriment.

Making the unconscious conscious is the goal of therapy, according to Jung. This process, achieved mainly through dreamwork and active imagination to access the unconscious, teaches us about our true selves, and ultimately frees us from compulsions that drive us without our knowledge or conscious will. We can use our dreams to point to what is most important for us to know about ourselves at any given moment. They can also bring incredible gifts of creativity, insight and purpose.

Leslie Ellis recently presented a talk on focusing and dreamwork. The following is an abridged version of the handout for workshop participants:

Focusing and Dreamwork:
Are you working on your dreams, or are they working on you?

When should we analyze a dream for its comment on our personal ego stance in our lives, and when should we simply enter into the reverie of the dream and let it play out in our psyche?

Jung suggests that dreams often send new information to the ego to compensate for one-sided positions in real life. When you are inflated, they take you down a peg. When you are too hard on yourself, they lift you up. Dreams present a counter-weight, as an honest, good friend — though sometimes what they have to say is hard to hear. And then there are archetypal dreams that touch on themes so much larger than our personal ego and its development that it would be hubris to suggest we read them as a comment on our own personal world.

Preparing for this talk has got me wondering about the true purpose of dreaming, and I have not been able to settle on an answer. It’s not either/or, but and/and. I think a dream can be read in many ways, and its meaning can change as we progress through our lives. Big dreams can be visited again and again, and as long as they are living dreams, will keep informing us and enlarging our perspective.

Ultimately, their true nature is unknown, in the same way that the spiritual realm is ultimately a mystery. However, I believe that’s all the more reason to play with dreams, reflect on them and experience their deeper meaning. What appears at first to be nonsensical, often turns out to be a nugget of wisdom for the dreamer, and sometimes something much larger and transformational.

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