Good Thing or Bad Thing?

At first glance it is often difficult to tell if the central event in a dream is referring to something good or something bad. In my dreamwork practice I have found more and more that the Good Thing/Bad Thing question (GTBT for short) gives me my first glints of orientation when I’m listening to someone tell a dream, especially one in which the dream ego is having a strong negative reaction to a disturbing or frightening event. Here’s an example that recently came to me, the dream of a 41-year-old woman:

“I was in some kind of farm house. I was there with two co-workers. We were standing in the kitchen area chatting away when one of them pointed off into the distance. “What?,” the two of us asked. “It’s a big storm cloud,” he answered. “That’s not a storm cloud…that’s a funnel cloud,” I shouted.

 Within seconds it was upon us. Too fast to get downstairs. And I could feel this suction type pull like it was trying to pull us out of the house.  My first thought was that I was worried about my car…I had the sense that I had a lot of important personal stuff packed in there (not sure where I was going).

 At first it looked like it was going to come close but just miss us but then it circled back and kept attacking, at which point I planted my feet and started yelling at it “Nooooo!!!” In a long drawn out way. Because of the suction feeling it was hard to get a sound out. But I kept yelling with more and more force until some sound escaped. At one point the funnel cloud morphed into a yelling mouth (imagine if one of those Easter island statues were a funnel cloud and yelling at you…that’s what it looked like). I kept yelling back, facing it down. I could feel my heart starting to really race in real life and woke myself up.”

 So here we go–is the funnel cloud a good thing or a bad thing? Clearly the dream ego is experiencing the cloud as an intensely bad thing; but if one of the first lessons to be learned from working with dreams is that something which seems to be threatening in a dream may turn out to be wondrously helpful…IF the dreamer can overcome her fear and allow a real encounter to happen.

Let’s consider some of the possibilities, starting at the extreme bad end of the GTBT spectrum: I have worked with several dreams where a powerful suctioning force was a representation of a life-threatening intrauterine event that came close to ending the dreamer’s existence–a near failure of the embryo to implant securely on the uterine lining, a near miscarriage, or failed abortion attempt, something which the dreamer experienced as being almost sucked into a vortex of oblivion. In this case the funnel cloud would represent threatening annihilation and the dreamer is doing the right thing to resist it so vigorously.

But what if the funnel cloud was more like the twister in The Wizard of Oz?–a life-changing experience that carries the dreamer into a journey of self-discovery and towards a new phase of life? In this case perhaps the dreamer would do better to consider why she is putting so much energy into saying no to the funnel could; perhaps she could even imagine surrendering to it and allowing it to transport her.

Another possibility (this is the one I have a hunch may turn out to be most accurate in this case) is that the funnel cloud represents an external force or entity that she needs to say no to, much more forcefully and loudly than she has yet been able to. Perhaps the dream is asking her to bring forth the full volume dream scream somewhere in her waking life. The dream may be using extreme exaggeration (in a way dreams so often do) to show her that she must mount a more vigorous NO response to something that keeps circling back and attacking her.

But–here’s the key point–you could not possibly know which of these roads (or many other possible roads) to take, without the dreamer going back into the dream to find out more about the funnel cloud. You’d be guessing, and you really shouldn’t be guessing with something as powerful as a funnel cloud. Your job as a dream facilitator is to help the dreamer find out what the funnel cloud is, so she can respond to it appropriately.

The best way to help her do this is to set up an experiential encounter with the funnel cloud. I will typically use one of two scenarios–either have her talk to the funnel cloud, or have her be the funnel cloud. In either case you will be helping her experience a direct encounter with the cloud. The needed information may come through words, or it may be visual, it may come through the feeling body,  through intuition or memory, or through movement, any of these are possible; but they are far more likely to come if the dreamer re-enters the dream and meets the cloud experientially and directly.

One good way to focus your set-up is to consider what the funnel cloud wants– does it want to annihilate her? Transform her? Subject her to a death-rebirth experience? Bring her something? Teach her something? Model a new behavior for her? Provoke her to some new dynamic action? Help her discharge a powerful emotion? Once you get a sense of this you are nearing your goal. You have helped deepen the dreamer’s process of growth and self realization. Without this kind of work the whole experience may remain “just a bad dream” that will be forgotten by next week. But by doing this work you have unearthed an urgent message that calls for a real life response.

So­– one of the best facilitating questions to bring to the encounter is a very simple one: “Funnel cloud…what do want to do to the dreamer?”  When you use this technique think of yourself as a interviewer, a David Letterman of the dream world; your guest is  something which has appeared in your client’s dream and you want to find out more about it. You want to engage it in a wide open way that will bring forth as much information as possible and help the dreamer consider a wider range of possibilities than the reflexive fear and animosity that are typically felt in the original dream.

Use simple, short questions and try to keep your ego and your own assumptions out of the mix. If you’re stuck and not sure what to ask, here’s a tip–come back to the simplest, and most direct (and often the deepest) question in the dreamwork toolkit–“What do you want from the dreamer?”

 Christopher Sowton

  • Tallulah Lyons Reply

    Nice piece! But my title would be ” Beyond Good Thing-Bad Thing.
    You emphasized that “Bad Thing” is a perception of the limited view of the ego.
    You also described helpful ways for seeing into the depths of meaning.
    This is a wonderful commentary on moving beyond an either/or view.

  • Chirstopher Sowton Reply

    Thanks Tallulah! I like that—beyond good thing bad thing. I have found that when you ask that question it’s like using a compass, a compass has a pure north and a pure south which only exist as theoretical reference points not as anything ”true” or fixed. No place could ever be pure north or south, it would always be a relative mixture of the two, but still the idea of north and south helps you get oriented. So I never use the GTBT as if it was saying some truth about the dream, just as a way to get oriented. It’s somewhat like Hegel’s Thesis-Antithesis-Synthesis….if you use the extreme poles of Good and Bad it leads you towards a more complex and nuanced insight that is closer to the truth. Perhaps I have not articulated this well, because I notice that a lot of people don’t like the Good Thing Bad Thing terminology. But I just hate to change it because it works SO WELL in dreamwork practice!

  • Rehan Reply

    Dear Dr. Sowten,

    Your work with dreams continues to remain insightful. I’m still using what I learned from you a decade ago.

    Question: what did you mean by “set up an experiential encounter with the” thing? Do you mean getting the person to describe their dream and then asking them questions as they are deeply recounting it?


    • chris sowton Reply

      Hi Rehan
      The experiential encounter could be anything which helps the dreamer re-enter the feeling of the dream and”meet” a dream figure directly . Usually it will be to imagine meeting and conversing with the figure; or having them BE the figure while you (the facilitator) interviews them and asks questions. Both of these are very effective.

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