One of the greatest benefits dreamwork offers us is the chance to change, to learn a new behaviour, a new way of being. To get this benefit we usually have to do a bit of work. Most dreams give us the problem but not the solution; it’s our job to find a solution, and we may have to explore a few possible solutions before we find one that really feels right.
This is where the IRA comes in (Imaginal-Ritual-Actual)–we can start by imagining the solution playing out in our minds; then we can do a ritual enactment that reinforces and rehearses the new solution; and finally we can bring the new solution into the real world and actualize it. Lately I have been finding that the word ritual rubs some people the wrong way, and I’ve been wondering if there might be a better word out there (more about this later). Here’s a good example of how this whole progression can work– a few months ago a 56-year-old woman (we’ll call her Janice) told me this dream:
“I’m in the change room at the Y. In the next change room I can hear an old man named Herman talking to a little girl in a creepy way. I bang on the partition. He stops. Then I see him looking in through a crack in the partition door, looking right at me! I try to scream, but my mouth is full of pebbles!”
I asked Janice if she had any association with the name Herman; she replied that she didn’t know any Hermans and had no association to that name other than Herman Munster from the TV show. I asked her what the feeling was at the end of the dream. “Shock and anger, and a horrible feeling that I couldn’t say anything or even scream.”
Then I suggested to Janice that she could re-enter the dream and change the outcome if she wanted to. She imagined herself back in the change room with a mouth full of pebbles, unable to use her voice. “Now…what would you like to do?”….Now we are entering the realm of imagined changes, trying out new scenarios which may hold the solution to the problem given in the dream.
“I’d like to get the pebbles out of my mouth and tell him off, yell at him. Loud! And then tell him that I’m going to go to the front office and make a formal complaint. Not just threaten that but actually do it.” This felt like a good response to the situation, so I invited Janice to visualize this whole sequence happening in her mind, all the way up to making a complaint at the office and having the Y staff take immediate action by confronting Herman.
This felt much better, and it also led spontaneously to an understanding of how this dream related to her waking life. After emerging from the imagined dream scene Janice said: “This is about not speaking up when I know I should be saying something. This has happened to me many times. Somebody says or does something that I know should be called out, but I don’t say anything. Then later I feel horrible, so angry. And mad at myself! Why didn’t I say something?”
We’ve probably all had a few of the why didn’t I say something moments, and they often appear in our dreams. If you’ve had a dream like this, think of it as setting the stage for you to come up with a more satisfying response. What would you really like to say? Now imagine that you can go back into the dream and say it. Imagine it having all the impact you would like it to have.
And Janice’s dream has another fascinating element–the mouth full of pebbles. Take a moment now to do a 10-second imaginal exercise– imagine that you want to scream at somebody…but you can’t…your mouth is full of pebbles….how does it feel? In my experience when a dream presents something in such a clear physically felt way it is a good candidate for a ritual response. How about literally putting some pebbles in your mouth and trying to scream? This would dramatically depict the urgency of the situation, and it make it almost impossible not to respond.
This is what I suggested to Janice. She did it using marbles; a whole mouthful of marbles. “ I filled my mouth with marbles which I happened to have on hand, then I went back into the dream scene in the change room. Only this time I spat them out! Then I said what I needed to say! The first time I did this I felt relief. I repeated it a few more times. By the third time I understood how much of my life, especially as a child, I had no voice, or my voice was stifled. Also, it made me think of the assault that happened to me in my adult life. I have hardly spoken about it though it has deeply affected me.”As she told me about this I imagined how satisfying this would feel to rid myself of something that was blocking me from using my voice in such a direct and physical way.
And what was the result of this dreamwork in the real world? Did it result in some actualized change in Janice’s life? Here’s what Janice said when I asked about it recently (about 6 months post dream): “Since having that dream I’ve had several incidents where formerly I would probably have kept quiet. But I decided not to keep quiet, I spoke out every time. I liked the idea of going back into the dream at that point and spitting the pebbles out and saying what I needed to say. I thought actually doing that rather than just imagining it would be very powerful. It was. The last time I did it I felt truly open in knowing I now had the power to speak up and I realized, in my present life, I had not been doing that. I believe this is the change the dream was asking me to make.”
This is the medicine of dreamwork. The dream presents the problem, the dream re-entry seeks a solution, the dreamwork rehearses this solution, imaginally at first, followed in some cases by a ritual exercise, and finally the solution can be tried out and integrated into the dreamer’s life.
Now– how about this word ‘ritual’? I suggested a ritual response to a client of mine recently and she replied flatly: “I don’t like rituals.” And she’s not the only one. The word just turns some people off; it’s a word that carries some baggage and a lot of strong associations for some of us. If we look at a dictionary definition of ritual… “a religious or solemn ceremony consisting of a series of actions performed according to a prescribed order” I can see why someone might be turned off or misled. This is not at all what I’m trying to convey with the word ritual. What I want to capture is this– we do something which arises out of the imaginal world of the dream but moves into the material waking world. It exists in the overlap between imaginal and actual.
I’d like to find another word. The trouble is there doesn’t seem to be one. Enactment? Literalization? Representation? Performance? Would any of these be better? They all have elements of what we’re trying to get at here, but none of them seems quite right. How about extending the dream metaphor? Needs work. (Please let me know if you think you have a good word for this) Meanwhile, if you have a dream with something in it that you can imagine actually doing (there’s the overlap) you might want to consider a ritual response. It can be a very powerful thing, even if you don’t like the word ritual.