What are you supposed to do when you know your dream is asking you to do something but you’re not sure what it is? Here’s an example–I’m working with a 32 year old woman who recently told me this dream:
“I’m a contestant on Master Chef (the cooking competition show starring the famous chef and TV personality Gordon Ramsay; I actually do watch this show in waking life). I walk into a kitchen. In front of me there are 3 giant sushi rolls, the size of logs. They’re not made out of rice and fish, they’re made out of sandwich materials. We contestants are expected to use these giant sushi rolls as our inspiration to create our own sushi rolls. The clock starts. We start cooking as fast as we can. I’m putting together the first roll, which has duck in it. The way I roll it is all wrong and when I go to slice it, it falls apart. Oh no! There’s no time to fix it though, I have to move on to the next two rolls and get them completed before the clock runs out.
At this point Gordon Ramsay comes to look at my work. He looks at the duck roll and says: “What happened here? This is a mess!” I say: “Don’t even look at that roll, I’m not even going to put it on the plate, I’m moving onto the next two rolls.” He says: “Alright, tell me about your next two rolls.” I reply that my next roll will be a “meat lover’s delight”. He seems to be OK with that, and asks me about my third roll. I reply that it will be vegetarian. He frowns, he is not pleased with this idea. He says: “You should just smile…because you’re done!” He walks away. I’m frantic. Now I’m second guessing my third roll. Maybe I should forget my vegetarian idea and use some of the fish, maybe I could do a fish and cream cheese roll. The clock is running out! I’ve got to work fast!”
We worked with the dream and were able to get it connected to her life fairly quickly using a set up with the feeling tones: “In the dream you feel like you are competing, you are judged, stressed, frantic, under time pressure, and second guessing yourself; where in your life do you have those feelings? She connected it to her career as a health care practitioner. She had recently moved to a new part of the country and was trying to cope with the stresses and demands of establishing herself in this new environment. The feelings of being judged, under time pressure, and second guessing herself all fit this part of her life.
I asked her to describe how she felt about the giant sushi rolls. “I don’t like them!” she replied. “The idea of making a giant sushi roll is insane. It makes no sense to me. It’s not something I could be passionate about. It’s not the way I would want to do it. I would want to make the smaller traditional sushi rolls.” This also connected to her new health care practice; there were many aspects of it that were feeling un-natural and wrong for her. She did not feel passionate about these elements of her work although she felt obliged to continue them because they were generating business for her.
The dream felt satisfyingly connected to her life now, BUT…we still don’t know what it is asking her to do. Is it asking her to continue to strive under these very stressful conditions where she feels as if she is in a competition, being judged, on the clock, and second guessing herself all the time? Or is it asking her to walk away from the whole thing, to leave this scene and find a place where she can do what feels right for her, making a more modest-sized and traditional kind of sushi roll? Only the dreamer could know the answer, and she was not yet clear about the answer. I presented both these options to her, and they both seemed to have their pro’s and con’s. How can we move this situation forward so that the dreamer knows what she is aiming for in devising a response to this dream?
What I do at times like this is something I call re-enter and explore. Help the dreamer re-enter the dreamscape and explore the different possible action scenarios that could move things in a good new direction. I asked the dreamer to go back into the dream, at a point near the end where the stress and time pressure are at their peak. I waited a few moments as she went back into the set of Master Chef. For this technique to work well the dreamer must be re-experiencing the emotions of the dream, not just remembering the storyline and the visuals. Then I asked her catch herself and become aware that she could now change the situation. How would she like to change it? I reiterated the key choice point that the dream seemed to be highlighting: should she stay on set and continue to do her best, or should she walk away from the whole frantic scene? “Let’s try both”, I said (this is important because it signals to the dreamer that they can fully explore both paths without committing and being locked into the wrong choice). I asked her which scenario she would like to try first; she elected to begin with the walking away option.
The job of the facilitator here is to help establish the permission and the pace for the new imaginal experience to happen, very similar to what would be done in guided visualization exercises, but always beginning with the conditions and emotions that were given in the dream. “Alright then…there you are…you’re running out of time…you have two sushi rolls to complete…now you catch yourself…you become aware that you can now change the situation…you decide to leave the competition and walk away…you find the door…open it and walk outside, closing it behind you…you walk away from the building…you’re leaving Master Chef behind and moving on to something else…how does it feel?”
She let herself feel this new feeling for a few moments. “It doesn’t feel right” she said, “I feel a relief from the pressure, but there’s also an empty feeling. I also feel like I’m giving up too soon. I want to prove to myself that I can get these next two rolls!” Alright then, let’s try the other option. So we went back onto the Master Chef set, only this time when she caught herself and gave herself space for something new to emerge a very different creative possibility appeared–“First of all, I want to give myself more time. I’m going to slow everything down so I have a whole hour. Then, I don’t have to keep trying to imitate these over-sized sushi rolls. I’m going to make a smaller traditional roll, the way I know how.” I asked her to play out this scenario fully in her imagination, culminating with Gordon Ramsay coming over to judge her new rolls. How does this scenario feel? “It feels good” she said, “Gordon Ramsay and the other judges are very impressed. And I feel like I’ve done something that is true to me.”
Now that we have found and developed a satisfying response within the dreamscape we can think about translating this response into her waking life. What would this mean for your actual practice? I asked her. “It would mean bringing more elements into my practice that are true for me, going back to the basic traditional healing values. I’ve done too much conforming to the new trends that are happening here in order to stay competitive and relevant. The role I’ve taken on is too big (here the dreamer noticed the role/roll wordplay and laughed). It’s a source of income, but it’s not what I really want to be doing.” Now the dreamer had arrived at a resonant sense of what the dream was asking to do in her life, and what made this possible was the imaginal re-entry and intra-dream exploration of the possibilities.
So, here’s the take home message: In cases where a person understands the connection between the dream and his or her life, but still is not sure what the dream is asking for– first figure out the desired direction of change within the dreamscape by re-entering it and exploring a few different possibilities. Then, when the dreamer is satisfied that she has found a change that feels right, translate this back into her waking life. I have been asked a number of times–is it legitimate to change the dream like this? My answer is yes! Many dreams like this one that end in a horrible impasse are pointing out a critical failure of the imagination. The dreamer’s imagination literally cannot generate a creative solution (either dreaming or awake) to an important life problem. The dream provides us a quintessential depiction of the problem and thus gives us the best place to look for a good solution. This is the medicine of dreamwork.