I sometimes say to clients and often think to myself that one’s mind is not one’s own. While I consider myself reasonable, thoughtful, and capable of sustained focused activity, the periodic intrusion of obsessive ideas and vindictive phantasies, not to mention the nightly dream world casts my mind as a most intimate, yet seemingly autonomous other whose machinations, conceptions, and misconceptions seem to originate from some nether world.
Freud’s brilliance was to capture this unsettling uncertainty of mind by describing the intricate relationship between primary and secondary processes. The limitation in Freud’s approach was his privileging integration, stability, and the executive function of ego at the expense of vulnerability and fragmentation. Although contemporary psychoanalysis embraces the idea and theorizes about multiplicity, there is still a tendency to view fragmentation as representing a primitive mental organization. This tendency is present within the phenomenon of the Borderline Personality Disorder that tends to combine diagnosis with disparagement. Along side this conceptual tension, the individual continues to suffer the “slings and arrows” of this illusory notion of ego that holds tightly the embodied conviction of an integrated, executive self.
A client was trying to decide whether or not to move back with his girl friend after some time had passed following a break up. In one session he described obsessing about doing the right thing. The obsessions focused on seemingly unimportant decisions like does he go to see his girl friend immediately after work or does he first go home, exercise and then go. Simple choices overwhelmed him with indecision. While he felt that moving in with his girl friend was the right decision, the difficulty making this decision led him to doubt his general ability to make decisions. His increasing indecisiveness in making simple decisions led to a general feeling of self-doubt and paralysis. He felt that he couldn’t trust himself to make the right decision about moving in with his girl friend.
I suggested that he might be ambivalent about moving in with his girl friend. In other words he was of two minds. This formulation provided brief clarity to my client and helped him explore his reluctance to move back in. Before he could trust his decision-making and re-attune his relationship with himself, he needed to recognize this conflict and acknowledge his less acceptable feelings.
Understanding that the mind is intrinsically split, fragmented and organized more like the micro climates of San Francisco than the grid of Manhattan is central to establishing an ability to know and accept one’s self. Context sensitive emotional states structure the expressions of the self. One thinks, perceives, and acts differently when angry compared to sad, anxious or ashamed. Conflict exacerbates the intrinsic tendency of the mind to split. The individual deals with upsetting feelings by denying, splitting, and separating them, not so much from consciousness but from the idea of how the self should be. The experience of not feeling oneself is often a reflection of the emergence of a non-preferred aspect of the self. Paradoxically the splitting that occurs under the pressure to deny aspects of the self strengthens the need to feel integrated and increases the gradient of splitting. This protective process builds on the illusion of integration as health and involves a magical wish to rid the self of unacceptable parts in order to achieve wholeness. The effect of this process is depletion and discouragement.
Realizing that optimal development doesn’t lead to a unitary, stable, cohesive self but to increasingly complex, disparate, and context sensitive states enables a more realistic and less judgmental appreciation of the workings of one’s mind. Rather than a unitary, autonomous structure, it is helpful to view the self as a composite of multiple parts that represent different qualities, some parts complimentary and other parts contradictory.
Having the capacity to live with ambiguity, multiplicity, and conflicting feelings is critical to living well and wisely. Being able to hold and contain these disparate parts of self and examine them non-judgmentally is a signifier of health.
Within the muddle of multiplicity there exists the possibility of an observing ego, a valiant small-t truth-seeker and internal consensus builder. The most important function of the observing ego is the ability to reflect on experience, especially in times of stress. Gaining perspective involves identifying, listening to, and understanding the multiple feelings and conflicted parts of oneself. The simple yet daunting solution to the complexity of mind and life is to be open to self-experience, to invite all the disparate, contradictory feelings to the table.
Have you ever wondered about (the Real)
The way things are
And the way things seem
And the difference
Where it goes in a moment’s forgetting
Or with the lights turned down
Or when there are two
And a spark
That can burn a heart?
Have you ever wondered
About the trace it leaves
In mind and body
When it returns
In dreams so vivid
That purpose stops?
Have you noticed
That mind does weird things?
Throws illusions into the daylight
And grinds the complex self
To a single point of view
So much of who we are
What we know and do
Falling in and out of love
Reaching a breaking point
And speaking our minds or not
Occurs under this illusion
Making you wonder
What is real?
I am still that 8-year old boy
Silenced by a teacher’s stern look
Whose finger pressed firmly
Against her lips
To a song
Now walking with my wife
On a less than ordinary path
Talking about writing
Hearing criticism in her voice
Carrying the burden of the unseen real
I blow air gently
Toward her third eye
And move on.
Have you ever wondered about the imaginary?
(1)“What the psyche needs but does not know to ask?”
Not the make believe of childhood
Or illusions of the day
And fables past,
But the way the psyche
Mirrors the widening sky
And how the mind can ascend
Through deception to discovery
And how a dream can waken us
And if awakened
Can be embodied
To guide us from real to unreal to sublime.
(1) James Hillman Dreams and the Underworld
Said Conrad Cornelius o’Donald o’Dell.
“So now I know everything anyone knows.
From beginning to end. From the start to the close.
Because Z is as far as the alphabet goes.”
Then he almost fell flat on his face on the floor
When I picked up the chalk and drew one letter more!
A letter he never had dreamed of before!
And I said, “You can stop, if you want, with the Z.
Because most people stop with the Z.
But not me!!!
In the places I go, there are things that I see
That I never could spell if I stopped with the Z.
I’m telling you this ‘cause you’re one of my friends.
My alphabet starts where your alphabet ends!”
On Beyond Zebra by Dr. Seuss
Social dreaming is the experience of bringing people together to share their dreams. Developed by Gordon Lawrence, the social dreaming matrix ™ creates an imaginal space that awakens the psyche and enables the interplay of the group’s unconscious as participants deepen their relationship to the dream images through free association, expressive enactments, and reflection.
The goals and the experience of a social dreaming matrix vary depending on the particular group and the individual facilitators. Gordon Lawrence in his edited books Social Dreaming @ Work and Experiences in Social Dreaming presents various applications of social dreaming. It has been used in organizational consultancy, conflict resolution, and to explore creativity. George Bermudez Phd. and Matt Silverstein, Ph.D., two Los Angeles Psychologists, see social dreaming as a means to create a community oriented psychoanalysis. They are particular interested in giving voice to marginalized groups and healing the wounds compounded by social victimization.
In this essay I will describe the experience of participating in a social dreaming group. Whatever the stated goals of a particular group, social dreaming invites the unconscious into the room, an invitation that opens the door to novelty, uncertainty, complexity, and inevitably anxiety. Robert Bosnak in his book Embodiment: Creative Imagination in Medicine, Art and Travel, has described the encounter with the unconscious as “ dream-worker’s panic, the moment of utter helplessness upon entering the world of uncontrollable unconsciousness.” The social dreaming matrix represents a theater for the unconscious that creates an imaginal space to give shape to unconscious experience.
Why experience this unsettling strange, uncomfortableness? In Dreams and the underworld James Hillman states “The world’s soul echoes and moves its imagination in my dream.” The world is always coming to us. Waking consciousness distances us from this experience through such mechanisms as denial, distraction, and dissociation. In the night we are open to the world in a unique way. When you open the door to the night through dreaming, you become more open to what comes to you during the day that goes unnoticed. We dream to see the depth of the waking world.
Gordon Lawrence describes the social benefits of being in touch with one’s unconscious in the following way: “Provided we can remember our dreams, we can have confidence that we are in touch with our unconscious, and if we can associate to them, and use amplification, we are on speaking terms with our unconscious. If that is made possible, we can minimize the possibility of being caught up in psychotic-like social processes, because we can speak with our own psychosis.” To be “on speaking terms with our unconscious” helps us become attentive to projective mechanisms that distort our interpersonal perceptions, create confusion between our internal world and external reality, and undergird interpersonal conflict.
Social dreaming begins with an initial relaxation exercise that transports individuals into a waking dream-like state. Participants are then asked to share dreams. Some individuals bring dreams that have been active in their imagination and others allow the group setting to activate a dream. Participants are not required to share dreams. Dreams that are shared are offered to the group as a way to initiate a process of relinquishing individual ownership of the dreams and diffusing the boundaries between self and other. Participants are asked to listen to dreams as if they were listening to their own dreams. In this way individual dreams are linked to the collective dream experience.
There is often an uneasy silence at the beginning of dream sharing. Who are these people that I am exposing my inner psyche to? What will they think of my dream and of me? That dream is too crazy, too sexual, or too violent. The invitation to share dreams prompts the ego to vocalize its concerns. Social dreaming is a process of learning to loosen the ego’s grip on the self. Social dreaming is an unlearning process that takes time. Hillman says, “Dreams call from the imagination to the imagination and can be answered only by the imagination.” Social dreaming initiates an experiment in imaginal thinking that can be both disquieting, unburdening, and liberating as one moves from an active, focused mode of understanding to a more receptive, passive mode of experiencing.
A dream is shared. I’m in a tunnel under Gaza and I’m blind folded like an American hostage. There’s a woman, someone close to me who is South African and Jewish and is standing behind me. She is guiding me. I keep wanting to go in a certain direction and she says “no.” I’m angry and my heart swells because I know she loves me and I trust her.
Other dreams follow. I’m in a living room, upstairs. I’m leaping from one foot to the other, wearing a tutu. To my right is a mess under a chair, to my left is a man, a love interest from my past. I am concerned that I will be asked to leave soon. I am mournful, yet super excited about where I will go next. There is a mirror in front of me and I’m by myself, leaping…leapt, just elevated.
Each dream is recorded so we have a record of all the dreams. An individual might share more than one dream. A time limit is established at the beginning and a two-minute signal is given as the group nears the end of dream sharing.
Free associations follow dream sharing. Each dream is read back and then associated to. Participants are instructed not to interpret dreams or try to uncover hidden meanings, but to listen to the dream with an open mind and let the dream evoke feelings, images, thoughts, and memories. Whatever pops into the mind or is felt in the body is an association. The initial challenge is to not suppress experience. There are no wrong associations. All associations have value.
The dream is like a boat moored to a dock. Most approaches to dream work examine the dream from the dock. Free association unmoors the boat, releasing dream images to drift on the wild currents of the imagination. Hillman states, “We must reverse our usual procedure of translating the dream into ego-language and instead translate the ego into dream-language. This means doing a dream-work on the ego, making a metaphor of it, seeing through its reality.” Free association further decenters the ego, a process of letting go in order to unmoor one’s conventional understanding.
The associations to the second dream follow. You’re already living. The feeling of weightlessness. The too-too-muchness of things. Shame hidden in the pile of feces under the chair. Changing your life. Leaving things behind. Exuberance, glorious self expression. Mixed feelings about Kohut and self psychology. Hearing movement and playfulness. Pink. Little girl. Father figure. Letting go. What to do with old lovers and shame. Pirouette dance. Excitement for the unknown, unfettered, unweighted down, unknown future. Energy. Who is beckoning me? A shadowy sense that even if you leave it, there will be things you’ll have to deal with. Left behind. You can run but you can’t hide. The guide is the one that says no sometimes. Self conscious about dancing, feeling awkward. I love myself. Boots or ballet slippers. Footwear, omg! These boots are made for walking…or leaping. No choice. All choice always a choice. No good deed goes unpunished. I’m flying. Self-consciousness in the self reflection. I’ve already left. I’m remembering. It’s hard to be grounded. I feel so disgusted. Upstairs Downstairs and TV shows from the 70s. Why be grounded? Flights are grounded because of weather. People are grounded because of bad behavior. Thinking you’re gonna hide your stuff that you leave behind under the chair. Near dust bunnies. Human skin cells. Like Ganesh. Remover of obstacles created from the sloughing off of the skin. Is it my living room? Rules of ballet. Ganache and Gavroche.
The associations are unruly, chaotic, silly, and confusing. The associations seem endless. Free associations leap over the wall of reason. Additional dreams and associations follow. Pandora’s box has opened with vehement delight. The dreams talk to each other through the associations. Associations are made to the associations. The dream is neglected under the onslaught of associations. I am feeling increasingly lost, confused and unsettled. The challenge is to find balance between the tendency to overly control the process through interpretation and the wild and unruly chaos created by a group that is freely associating. And this balance is as elusive as the dream.
After free associations, there is a short break. Dream reflection follows. It calls for a more focused mode of thinking. Dreams are read back as one continuous dream. Dreams are not analyzed for their individual meaning. The group looks for themes that appear in the material within and across the dreams. Efforts are made to see similarities, contrasts, and connections among the dream stories.
Dream engagement is the evolving, most experimental phase of our adaptation of social dreaming. Expressive techniques are used to access the non-verbal aspects of experience. So much of our psychological experience is embodied. Primary emotional experience that is not formulated or processed is embodied and or projected into the world of things and others. Embodied experience is the unconscious breathing through our body, curdling in our stomach, aching in our neck. Early traumas can reside in unintelligible somatic states. Language alone cannot access this experience. The body has a story to tell that is dissociated from the mind.
There are different expressive techniques that can be employed from sand tray to mask–making to psycho-dramatic enactments. Our group has been experimenting with dream play based on a procedure Stephen Eisenstat developed called “dream council.” He uses dream council as a way to deepen one’s personal relationship to dream images bringing the power of the dream into one’s life. The dream council consists of a group of figures that represent important dream images. The council is like a personal cabinet consisting of unconscious dispositions encompassing the wide range of psychological experience. He will bring questions and concerns to his dream council. He uses a form of intuitive knowing to enable the dream figures to communicate.
We have adapted dream council to be used in a group setting. Individuals sit on the floor in a circle. They are asked to think of one image from the dreams that have been shared, to select a figure from a collection of figures to represent the image, and to think of a few words that describe the essential qualities or personality of the dream image. The play begins with individuals describing their figure to the group and then placing their figure in the circle. Individuals are told they can only move their figures. As figures are placed in the circle, the group is asked to be attentive to the feelings and sensations that are evoked by the movement of the figures. They are challenged to feel into the figure, to feel its intentions, desires, and reactions: to become their dream figure. With each turn, individuals express their feelings and reasons for placing their figure where they did. We repeat this process several time in order to allow the dream figures to interact with each other.
In this phase we are inviting dream images to interact with each other in an imaginary space. The group focuses on the relationship among dream images rather than on the relationship among individuals. It is the dream that is medium for discussion, not the individual, and the dream figures that direct the action.
The following dream images were named: Unformed Potential, Blue – Reflective, Intimations of Immortality, Transformation, Evolved Self, Nature connected to earth, Bi-morphic – Moving Backwards and Forwards, and Mad Max Dark Side. Except for Mad Max the images selected were abstract and positive representing potential and transformation. There seemed to be little space for darkness or dissension. Due to time limitations we had only two rounds. There was little conflict in the movements. The figures ended up in a straight line, with the figure of Nature slightly misaligned on the far right in the picture below.
A social dreaming group is an experiment exploring the deeper psyche and the outer edges of thinking. This social dream group was open-ended without any particular focus or agenda except to see what emerged when individuals shared their dreams and associations. The experience generated excitement and energy in the group. Some individuals reported that their personal dreams expanded in meaning. In another social dreaming group one participant made a collage of her dream and I wrote a poem based on the free associations to the dreams. Sometimes there is a flurry of dreams that follow the group.
Social dreaming is activating. There is a process that occurs subliminally, a learning curve whose curriculum is unconsciously scripted. There is an evolving, dialectical relationship between unconscious and conscious processes that social dreaming nurtures and illuminates. Over time as one becomes tuned to the rhythms and languages of the dream, a more intimate relationship develops between waking and dreaming realities.
Image Nswatugi Cave Paintings created by Stu. Used under creative common license
Shame is a master magician
Born of human frailty,
Delicate, self-deluded and eagle-proud.
Shame casts its dreams over the world
Plans each day to be better than the last
And by night falls into restless reverie
Shaming all with steel-plated perfectionism.
The face of shame darkens soft eyes
The feet of shame walk in shadows
Its body bares the weight of trauma.
Its tongue speaks of unworthiness
Spits into the psyche despair
“I suck therefore I am!”
And acts as if it precedes Being.
The tragedy of shame
It wants to be Other that itself
It wears grimly the mask of normality
Desires the crown of exceptionalism
And swims against the current
In pursuit of this radiant, non-existing (excellent) Other
As shame moves through life
Its future is endless repetition,
Disappointments and mistakes freeze failure
In the deep beyond
Speechless in their presence
A drowning skipper
A barren soul
A broken embrace
A certain collapse.
Short on tenderness,
Empty of compassion
Shame comes to therapy reluctantly.
With one hand extended the other withdrawn
Its fingers crossed in fear and disgust
Its need a wound stripped, salted, and double-bound
Its crown of exceptionalism tattered stunningly steadfast.
Shame engages the therapist with small talk
Cryptic conversations darken their way
Calculated statements hold secrets
Traces of desperate truth
Shame presents difficulties, tests, and temptations to the therapist.
A mirror to reflect upon
A stage on which the two can struggle
Shame on shame collapses the two
In an instant of misunderstanding
Shame softens within the tenderness of a patient psychotherapy
A beacon whose illumination wanes as the hour passes
Through the mirrored deceptions that distort each word
In the aftermath of all that has been unlearned
Through repetitive movements that seem like a glacial dance
That require more than endurance
A mindset unschooled and undisguised
Painful truths are held and spoken.
In the cradle of these conversations
Deep within the crucible of human frailty
Shame releases shame.
A tear descends
Shame staggers forward
Over the precipice of unworthiness, regret, and resentment
And surrenders to tenderness
That learns empathy for itself.
I write these words as I climb my wall of shame erected by the pain of my faults. I can see from this perch across the wastelands shame’s story retold by my clients and friends.
Who was she who made love to you
in your dream, while you slept?
Where do the things in dreams go?
Do they pass to the dreams of others?
And does the father who lives in your dreams
die again when you awaken?
The Book of Questions
Dreams have been part of our history as a species. In certain indigenous cultures, they occupied a central role in the society. They were shared in groups, told to shamans, and used to guide important decisions as well as critical to healing.
With all the gadgetry, virtuality, and possibility intrinsic to our age of technology, there has been a turning away from the inner world and a disconnection from the self. Social dreaming is an attempt to recover qualities of being, thinking, and relatedness that have been lost as a result of post-industrialization. It is a way to work with dreams developed in the 1990’s by Gordon Lawrence, an English psychoanalyst. Social dreaming or “dreaming the social” as Lawrence has also described it brings individuals together to share their dreams.
Dreams by their nature both enrich self-experience and stretch the boundaries of the self. Social Dreaming sees the dream as having both individual and collective meanings. Intertwined with the personal, dreams contain the shared anxieties, desires, traumas, and hopes of the culture, reflecting the circumstances of the human condition.
Social reaming attempts to create a psychological space that is receptive to the influence of the dream world. Lawrence coined the term social dream matrix to capture the generative potential of collaborative dream work and to differentiate it from groups that focus on interpersonal dynamics. The matrix encourages the emergence of unconscious thinking that shifts individuals from an egocentric perspective to a socio-centric one, from a rational, logical point of view to one of reverie and imagination. The dream is not only the “royal road” to the unconscious, but is also a bridge connecting individuals to each other at deeper levels of psychological experience.
The Self. Social dreaming views the self as a composite of self and other qualities. We are more alike than we presume. This contrasts with the prevailing ideology of industrial society that views the individual as a self-contained, distinct and autonomous entity. Social dreaming conceptualizes the boundaries of the self as porous, extending beyond the skin into the world, enabling transpersonal factors to be absorbed. This conception of self is not easily recognized given our ego and its attachment to the idea of the Individual, but it is represented by shared emotions and images that are often unnoticed. It is the basis for empathy.
The dream. Social Dreaming sees the dream as embodying social and personal meaning. It is a source of un-realized potential, tapping the unconscious well of mystery and creativity. Dreams open the individual to the infinite, the mystical and transcendental dimensions of reality. This infinite world of psyche can be thought of as a collective mind-stream that is the milieu of individual subjectivity. Lawrence states, “The dream is always enlarging the space of the possible. Through the dream we are brought into tension between the finite (that which we know) and the infinite that which is beyond our ken.”
The dream is an imaginal experience to be realized, an inherent disturbance that defies logic and resists interpretation. This is why dreams are often so disquieting and puzzling. “According to Lawrence, “The dream is an anticipatory parallel state of our being-in-the-world.” In other words it is about something yet to be known. The dream asks the dreamer to suspend logical thinking and to allow the dream to provoke associations, feelings, images, memories, and new ways of thinking. While there is value in interpreting dreams, especially within a therapeutic context, social dreaming sees the power of the dream in its ability to modify, deconstruct, and transform our thinking process. In so far as it is disturbing, disruptive, and subversive it is within an arena of play that its novelty emerges, enabling one to see what hasn’t been seen before.
Billy Collins poem, Introduction to Poetry, captures this playful quality of dream work.
I ask them to take a poem
and hold it
up to the light like a color slide
or press an ear against its hive.
I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,
or walk inside the poem’s room and feel
the walls for a light switch.
I want them to waterski across the
surface of a poem waving at the author’s
name on the shore.
But all they want to do is tie the poem to
a chair with rope and torture a
confession out of it.
They begin beating it with a hose to find out
what it really means.
The Dream Matrix. To host and experience the intelligence of dreams requires patience, vulnerability, and a mind-set that is different from our rational mode of thinking. The social dream matrix creates an imaginal stage upon which dreams play out their drama. Certain conditions facilitate this process.
First, chairs are arranged in a snowflake pattern so that individuals are not facing each other, or sitting in rows. Lawrence did this to create an atypical environment to facilitate the suspension of our familiar expectations.
Second, individuals are asked to offer their dreams to the group and listen to the dreams of others as if they were their own dreams. Relinquishing personal ownership of the dream diffuses the boundaries of self-experience. It initiates the individual into the collective.
Third, rather than interpret dreams, individuals are instructed to free associate. Learning to think freely and imaginatively is a process. According to Freud, free association “is to surrender oneself to trains of thoughts, without monitoring them for importance, relevance, or whether they are nonsense or disagreeable.” Whatever pops into one’s mind is an association. Lawrence states, “It is the dream that is medium for discourse, not the individual.” And in this medium it is the group that thinks through the individual. The group thinks associatively using dream images as the links.
Fourth, expressive techniques that utilize non-verbal and enactive means of expression are used to play with the dream images. Play accesses non-dominant, non-logical cognitive-emotional processes. What I am calling dream play adapts Stephen Aizenstat’s technique of dream council. In this process individuals sit on the floor in a circle. Each individual selects a small, non-representational object to stand for a dream image. They describe the qualities that the image embodies. Individuals place their figure(s) in the circle that becomes an imaginal stage. They are asked to listen intuitively to the figures as they are positioned in relation to the others. The group takes several turns where they move their figures in relation to the other figures, sharing the feelings attending the movement. In this way the dream images interact as iconic guides leading the dreamers beyond the limits of language.
The social dream matrix alters the thinking process, enabling individuals to tap the group’s unconscious mind. Through the sharing, associating, and “playing” with dream images, meanings emerge that enlarge the personal dimension of a dream and deepen one’s connection to others. The group adds multiple layers to the dream that loses its individual identity, and the many become one communal dream. The individual is de-centered from a narcissistic perspective and is oriented to the collective.
Aizenstat, S. (2011). Dream tending: Awakening to the healing power of dreams, New Orleans, La.: Spring Journal.
Lawrence, G. (1998) Social Dreaming @ Work London: Karnac.
Lawrence, G. (2003) Experiences in Social Dreaming, London: Karnac
Image created by Eddie van W. Used under creative common license.