Into the dark

During November and December last year I took part in a dreamwork group. There were just a few of us, which made it quite intensive.

The leader of the group was grounded in the work of Strephon Kaplan-Williams, which I felt boded well. Williams’ work developed from a combination of Jungian “active imagination”, Gestalt “drama therapy” , and somewhat discredited accounts of dream practices among the aboriginal Malaysian Senoi people. (Williams responded to attacks on his appropriation of these techniques with the sound enough claim that they’ve worked for him and his clients; certainly, if you bear in mind that you’re not necessarily following some “authentic tradition”, Williams’ work represents a good model for dreamwork.)

I’ve always taken for granted a dismissive attitude towards “dream dictionaries”, and this has grown over the years into a deep suspicion of most forms of “interpretive” dreamwork. The most devastating attack on the interpretation of dreams is James Hillman’s elliptical, exaggerated, rhetorically brilliant The Dream and the Underworld:

Analytical tearing apart is one thing, and conceptual interpretation another. We can have analysis without interpretation. Interpretation turns a dream into its meaning. Dream is replaced with translation. But dissection cuts into the flesh and bone of the image, examining the tissue of its internal connections, and moves around among its bits, though the body of the dream is still on the table. We haven’t asked what does it mean, but who and what and how it is.

The Williams-style methods we used in the dream group did avoid blunt interpretation. The core of the process is bringing dream characters in, envisioning them, dialoguing with them out loud, sitting in their place and being questioned as them. Williams’ work has a strong “phenomenological” strain to it. Dreams are analysed, pulled apart, but solely (or at least, initially) in terms of the dream’s internal dynamics. Reference to other dreams comes next, and lastly—if at all—associations with waking life are teased out. It’s a kind of structuralist approach that has certain echoes in literary criticism. When I described it to Donal Ruane, who was initiated into the mestizo ayahuasquero tradition in Peru, he thought it resonated strongly with the shamanic method. This makes sense, as they seem to take the Otherworld of visions and dreams as a distinct reality, and don’t have the Western tendency to see it as an illusory projection of the buried concerns of waking life.

However, even though I always managed to have something to bring to each fortnightly session, and always got something interesting out of working with that dream—usually a perspective of the dream character I spoke with that I missed completely but was obvious in retrospect—my dream life withered during that period. Uncannily so.

Was there something in that work, bringing these characters into the daylight world, that they shied away from? Even with Williams’ techniques, I think it’s incredibly difficult for us, in this culture, to not let interpretive tendencies subtly well up and direct work with such frustratingly oblique and slippery things as dreams. Our positivist legacy is deep, and the gravitational pull of the urge to “shed light on things” is potent.

Where id was, there ego shall be. It is a work of culture, not unlike the draining of the Zuider Zee.

Freud, New Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis

Perhaps this colonizing intinct snuck into the dream group’s work via the part where we took on the role of a dream character and were questioned. We certainly tried to treat the character as an autonomous entity, with its own desires and motives, to be respected for itself; but of course it often became very difficult to not slip into the standard view that in doing this you were enacting parts of yourself. This view isn’t without its uses; but letting it guide your relationship to your dreams has important limitations.

In any case, the dream group finished just before Christmas, and I decided not to re-join in the new year. Since early January, my dreams have returned, almost like a barely-simmering pot being slowly returned to a rolling boil.

If dreams wither so readily in the face of the daylight ego, our tendency is to consign them to the “weak” and “illusory” end of the dualistic oppositions that this ego sets up, i.e. we place them exactly where hard-headed scientism wants them. This relegation is far from an impassive, objective assessment; it is an active, even aggressive move. The polarizing model of reality, splitting everything into light/dark, rational/irrational, strong/weak, real/illusory, is unconsciously forced into place, and the resulting arrangement of phenonema is seen as “the way it is”. Stepping back and lifting these constraints from our experience can set the potency of dreams free. I can feel it as I lie there after waking, basking in the dark afterglow of that world, allowing its images to dwell in me through the day without “bagging and tagging” them.

James Hillman’s approach is infuriating to the action-based ego (or the “Hero archetype”, as he would have it). It often seems to be saying, “Do nothing.” Often—from the ego’s perspective—this is precisely what is required. But really, something is happening, even if nothing is being “done”. It takes a while to learn, I’m finding.

The belief that the soul wanders away from body in sleep is another way of stating that dreams leave the body-soul’s literalistic and naturalistic perspective. If so, then to grasp at dreams with body techniques and apply their images directly to the relation of bodies is to miss their wandering. Therapies that go at dreams in terms of body-language, body-ego, and physical life are attempting to force the free soul into perspectives that sleep allows it to leave. The key here is indirection: if the soul wanders from the body in sleep, then our way of letting the soul return in concrete life must follow the same wandering course, an indirect meandering, a reflective puzzling, a method that never translates the madness but speaks with it in its dream language.

Hillman, The Dream and the Underworld