Dreams are fascinating aren’t they? They can be long and complex, short and fragmented, random or recurring. They can be satisfying, frustrating or just downright confusing... but what do we make of our dreams? Are they significant or nothing more than scrambled data? Why do we dream what we do?
In Gestalt therapy, we use dreams to explore our inner processes. The therapist does not interpret the Client’s dream, only the Client can discover the significance of each part, each character, each setting and the emotion attached.
We can define a dream as “a collection of images and ideas that occur involuntarily during certain periods of repose” (Lewis, n.d.). The word ‘dream’ also has two meanings-
‘A series of thoughts, images, and sensations occurring in a person's mind during sleep’.
‘A cherished aspiration, ambition, or ideal’.
Although these meanings are supposed to represent different types of dreaming - one relating to hope and desire and another to a seemingly random collection of images, it strikes me that actually both are about processing the desires of our hearts. Exploring our dreams in sleep therefore, can reveal a lot about what is important to us- what in our lives is unresolved? What is missing? What do we need?
Research tells us that REM (Rapid Eye Movement) stages of sleep occurs four or five times during a typical night’s sleep. It is understood that the amygdala, the area of the brain which processes emotions, and the hippocampus, the centre of memory, are both active during REM sleep and so it is suggested that this is why our REM dreams have a story-like quality.
What our dreams can tell us-
Dreams have many functions. They are a way of organising memories, of preparing us for things we feel threatened by and of finding solutions to problems. They can also connect us to denied or ignored parts of ourselves.
The Gestalt therapy approach to dreams.
In Gestalt therapy, it is considered that the various elements of a dream represent parts of the dreamer’s persona. The Gestalt therapist would ask them to retell the dream in the present tense, with as much sensory detail as possible and paying attention to anything spoken or any thoughts that occur within the dream. I will use a recurring dream of my own to demonstrate this.
‘I am walking down a narrow road with very tall (giant) buildings either side. The buildings look a little like drawings. I am completely alone and have an awareness that I am late for my flight. I am anxious about this but also have no sense of urgency.
The colours around me are sepia. I am very small in relation to my surroundings and I have a sense that at the end of this narrow, winding road there is vast beach with beautiful sea. I am plodding along the road but not making any progress.
I am aware of being alone but I’m not afraid, just a little bit lonely. Im also aware that I’m missing my flight and I’m impatient with myself about that but also a little indifferent. A big white aeroplane flies over my head just above the buildings, it’s very close and tilted at an angle. It makes no noise. I think it might be my flight.’
As the dreamer, only I can make sense of this dream. The therapist would simply guide me by asking a series of questions such as -
What feelings emerge from this dream?
Frustration (I’m not getting anywhere)
Concern over a lack productivity (wasting time that could be better spent)
A sense of my aloneness.
A vague hope that I will eventually reach the beach, even if I do miss my flight.
Why do I always miss flights (repeated mistakes).
Who is the character in you dream?
It is me.
How old are you?
Tell me about the buildings?
They are tall and thin, lots of windows, packed tightly together and bending over at the top.
You are the buildings, what are they saying/thinking or feeling?
I feel big, I’m looking down on myself and wanting to help out but know I can’t. I’m quirky and gentle.
Tell me about the winding road?
It’s narrow, a pale stone colour and cartoonish in nature.
You are the road, what are they saying/thinking or feeling?
I’m helping myself to move forward but I feel like I’m never ending. Actually, I lead to the beach and I need to remember that.
How might looking at dreams help us?
One of the aims of therapy is to retrieve what we have pushed away and to come to understand it, process it and integrate it into our lives. Dreams are just one way of doing this and a very interesting exercise. My dream analysis above helped me to see where my frustrations and fears lie but also reminded me of the hope and comfort that I carry inside of me.
If you would like to know more about working with dreams or raising awareness through therapy, do get in touch.