Why do we need to have dreamworkers in the world? This is a fair question; let me try to answer it with a recent dream example from my practice that illustrates how active dream facilitation can bring about an important psychodynamic change in a very short time. A 52 year old woman recently told me the following dream:
(This has been a repeating dream. The first time I had this dream I was 10 years old. It kept coming to me every day this past week.)
“ I am at home in my childhood bedroom. It is on the ground floor and has big bay windows that crank open. One of them is open as it is a warm night. As I’m falling asleep I worry that someone could come in through the window. I wake up hearing some noise. I go to the window but I am attacked by three wolves. I have fallen on my back and they are biting and tearing at my flesh. I am screaming and screaming!”
Before we even find out what the wolves may be referring to we can already deduce several important things:
- This dream is depicting a situation that has existed in the dreamer’s psyche since her childhood (approximately age 10)
- The situation has not been resolved yet even though it has presented itself repeatedly (presumably in hopes of some resolution) for over 40 years.
- The need for resolution of this situation has recently become urgent. We know this because the dream has come “knocking at the door” every day for the past week. Another way to think of this is to consider that the time is now right to work on this problem; the window is open onto this issue. If some actively directed facilitation is not done soon, the wolf problem will have to disappear back into the night of the unconscious and emerge at some later time with even more urgency.
- The situation is very frightening to the dreamer.
As the dreamworker/facilitator/therapist we need to make a crucial decision very soon– do the wolves represent a potentially positive aspect of the dreamer that she has kept outside her sense of self (in other words a shadow figure)? Or do they represent something non-self, something that may be truly harmful to her? This is a watershed decision; the dreamwork would be going in completely different directions depending on the answer to this question.
There are three elements which, in my mind, support the shadow possibility: first, the open door which the dreamer tries unsuccessfully to close. In my experience this very common dream motif points to a shadow dynamic over 90 % of the time. Second, the fact that the figures are wolves. Wolves are very high on the fright scale, but they are also very high on the awesome power animal scale. Thus they are frequently used by the human unconscious to play the role of a shadow part– a part of the dreamer’s own self that is awesome and powerful but also frightening. Wolves have a certain don’t mess with me quality that makes them great shadow material, along with bears and large members of the cat family. Third, the fact that there are three wolves; not one, or two, or a pack, but three. The three-ness could be referring to many things but most likely it is a reference to the magical third time that happens so often in dreams and fairy tales, the hero or heroine is offered multiple chances to face something and finally (on the “third” try) they achieve it. Groupings of three often appear in dreams when there is an important psychological task that must be accomplished that is both difficult and fearful.
But there is also one element in the dream which is not suggestive of a shadow dynamic–the fact that the wolves cause real harm to the dreamer, they attack her, knock her down, then bite and tear at her flesh. Typically a shadow figure in a dream will frighten and menace the dreamer, but will not cause any actual harm if they are encountered. So now we have a problem– we don’t know whether these are shadow wolves or something different. And we cannot proceed to work with the dream until we know.
At this juncture we can use a technique which I think of as an exploratory visualization. We can invite the dreamer to have a safer and more controlled encounter with the wolves and see what happens. The help of a facilitator is critical here; as things stand now the dreamer is terrified of the wolves and can only experience them as an attack. Something needs to be changed in the setting and pace of the encounter before it could be experienced in a potentially positive way.
If we consider the action of the dream we notice that there is an unusual quality of suddenness. In most shadow dreams when a scary figure is at the door the dreamer has a bit of time to think– Should I try to secure the other doors? What about the windows? Should I call the police? But in this scenario the dreamer has no time to think, no time to summon her courage, to brace herself or make a plan of action; she goes to the window and WHAM! the wolves are instantly on top of her. This suddenness is something that is characteristic of this woman’s mental processing–she is subject to sudden surges of affect and instantaneous changes of emotional state. So we need to come up with a new scenario that gives her a bit of time to think.
I asked her to re-enter the dreamscape, offering to be there with her (just by using a phrase like: “let’s go back into the dream and imagine…” you have implied your presence in the scene; it’s the same scene, but now she is not completely alone, the feeling tone will be changed and it may be possible for things to unfold differently.) I asked her to go towards the big bay window and see the three wolves out on the lawn, some twenty yards away, just looking at her. Now we have introduced some space, some time, some safe distance. Still at first she did not want to do this. Quite understandably she did not want to have anything to do with the wolves, they had just mauled her and could maul her again. And yet, at the same time I could feel that part of her was starting to be drawn to them. She was seeing and experiencing their awesome beauty and power for the first time now that she had a bit of safe distance between herself and them. This was the beginning of the characteristic positive shift that happens when a shadow figure is truly seen and encountered.
Over the next few days the dreamer began to feel that the wolves were indeed a part of herself. Now she could walk outside to meet them, touch them, play with them, communicate with them. Her fear was gone, which is remarkable when we consider how strong the fear was in the original dream and the memory of it. Now the dream is connected, we know what the wolves are. They are a part of her that started to emerge at age ten, a potentially wild and fierce part that she could not welcome and integrate at that time. The wolves did not abandon her over the intervening years, they kept returning to her window. In subsequent dreams, after being denied a true meeting again and again (because of fear) they became fiercer and more intense. This escalation of urgency over time is characteristic of the shadow dynamic; if we will not answer the door the shadow must knock louder. This is what could account for the intensity of the wolves “attack” in the dream, the biting and tearing of her flesh–they have been trying to get inside her for more than forty years!
As part of her response to this dream the dreamer created the piece of art featured above, a collage of the three wolves standing and waiting outside on the lawn, looking at her. She later added her a photo of her younger self into the collage, resulting in a piece that beautifully captures the feeling of wondrous merging that happens when a shadow part is met and accepted. And what will happen now that the wolf energy is no longer experienced as a feared attacker but an ally and aspect of self? This is one of the most exciting points in dreamwork and psychotherapy–to witness how the new wolf-like qualities of power and fierceness will be integrated into her personality, expressed, and used in the world.
So– this is why we need more dreamworkers in the world. Someone needs to be able to recognize the presence of a powerful potential ally lurking within a history of repeated nightmares. Someone needs to be able to take the dreamer back into a nightmarish scene and hold the space for a new possible outcome. Someone needs to help dial down the dreamer’s fear so all the possibilities can be considered and imagined. This is the job of the dreamworker. And you know what– it’s a really fascinating job.