No Dreams? How About Movies?

I just returned from four days in Berkeley California at the annual conference of the IASD– International Association for the Study of Dreams. As usual the conference was fascinating and diverse, and there were quite a number of highlight presentations. But there was one in particular that I’d like to share, because it has given me a wonderful new tactic to use with people who have difficulty remembering their dreams.

The presentation, given by Stanley Krippner and Sandford Rosenberg, was titled: “Personal Mythology, Media Dreams: From Movies to Facebook, How Media Images Impact Our Inner Life”. Rosenberg, who is both a psychotherapist and a media consultant, was talking about a technique he has used to great effect in his therapy practice– he asks clients to recall two or three scenes from movies that have stayed with them over the years. He gets his client to write down these scenes and bring them into a session, then he and the client together discuss the scenes– “What is it about that scene that you find so memorable do you suppose?” In many cases, he says, they may be able to pick up a unifying theme that resonates through all the scenes. This “theme” could then become an important focus of the client’s process of self exploration.

Rosenberg argues that if a movie scene “sticks to you” it must have some relevance to your personal mythology. “Movies are public dreams with private meanings” he asserts, building on a famous Joseph Campbell quote: “Myths are public dreams. Dreams are private myths.” Stanley Krippner, Rosenberg’s teacher and mentor (and co-presenter at this workshop) has written extensively on the notion of personal mythology, and much of this work can be found in his book, co-authored with David Feinstein Personal Mythology, Using Ritual, Dreams, and Imagination to Discover Your Inner Story.

If we do have such a thing as a personal mythology, an inner story that exerts a guiding and shaping influence on our lives, then it makes sense that anything we experience in life that resonates with this story would tend to jump out at us; it would be intuitively recognized as relevant and important, and it would stick with us over time. This would include certain life experiences, certain big dreams…and certain movie scenes.

I believe that each of us does indeed have a personal mythology. The degree to which we are conscious of that mytholgy, the elements it contains, and how it operates, varies tremendously from person to person. Personal growth (and psychotherapy as one of the tools for personal growth) could be seen as the attempt to learn about our personal mythology, to bring it into the light of consciousness, and to bring our lives and choices into better congruence with it.

As a dreamworker I occupy a front row seat at this theatre, witnessing the most fascinating unfoldings as clients discover their personal mythologies. After all, dreams (especially big dreams) are made from the same material as mythology; they speak the same language and share the same concerns and desires. But–what if my client is having trouble with dream recall? Where can we turn for our mythic material? I’m going to try the movie scene technique. In fact I think I’ll try it even with my clients who have excellent dream recall, just for a little variety!

When I did this exercise in the workshop I came up with two movie scenes that I witnessed decades ago; they have never left me. The first is a scene from the 1958 Japanese film The Ballad of Narayama. An old woman in a remote mountain village in Japan wants to die because she believes she is no longer able to be a useful and contributing member of her community. She asks her son to carry her up into the mountains and leave her there to die. He eventually agrees and piggy backs his mother far up into the mountains, then reluctantly leaves her to meet her death alone. But it turns out that dying is not such an easy matter…

My second scene was from the 1985 Australian film Bliss. In the opening scene a man suffers a massive heart attack and “dies”. His soul leaves his body and moves up, up, up into the sky, farther and farther away from his collapsed body; far below people rush around in panic and the ambulance arrives…but then… his soul comes back down!

When we were asked to examine the scenes we had chosen to see if there was a common theme uniting them, I was struck by the fact that both these people were very close to death, but did not die. The facilitator asked us to articulate the common thread in one sentence. This was my sentence: the soul can leave the body, it often wants to leave the body, but it can also come back; it wants both of these­– to be able to leave, and to be able to come back.

Next the facilitator asked us if we thought this common thread had relevance to our personal myth. I had no trouble seeing a connection. I have always been fascinated by the soul’s relationship with the body, and no doubt this is one main reason that I am so drawn to dreamwork; not only does the soul leave the sleeping body every night in our dreaming, but it returns with messages and insights from its journey. I strongly believe that supporting this soul process of leaving, experiencing, returning, and sharing affords us our most dynamic opportunities for self discovery and growth.

The other aspect of this technique that makes it so attractive is simply that people love to talk about movies. You’ll meet lots of folks who are reluctant to talk about their dreams or are unable to remember them, but have you ever met anyone who wouldn’t want to tell you about a few favorite movie scenes? The (perhaps sad) truth is that, for most of us, we have a better chance of tapping into the mythological realm through movies and television than we do through our own inner dream life.

So–would you like to give it a try? Think of a scene from a movie that has stuck with you…

Christopher Sowton

  • Tallulah Lyons Reply

    Thank you for this, Chris. I will try it with my dream group next week. I keep saying that two of the main things we receive from working with our dreams are a deepened relationship with the symbolic realm and also the realization that we can touch into that realm through multiple kinds of experiences. Movies can bring powerful experiences.

  • Patti Allen Reply

    Good article Chris. Ok to share it?

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