A dream is a wish your [neurons and/or unconscious] makes

When I tell new clients that I work with dreams, I get a range of responses. Some clients believe that dreams are a byproduct of our brains processing and pruning stored information while we sleep. They’re simply the result of a perfunctory neurological process. Other clients respond with eyes that light up as though I’ve just said, “I too know about the land of Narnia through the wardrobe!”. For the latter folks, dreams are the language of a person’s deepest and mysterious Self, or as the good ol’ depth psychologists call it, the unconscious. Though very different, these reactions and everything in between are welcome because working with dreams is an intensely personal and subjective pursuit, which means there are a myriad of ways in which it can be meaningful and impactful to each individual client.

While I’m no expert, I’ve learned about dream work by doing. My Jungian therapists over the past 18 years have helped me tend to this part of myself and it was likely the greatest education I could’ve received. The only hard-and-fast rule that I’ve gleaned is that the client, not the therapist, needs to take the lead in terms of offering their feelings, their interpretations, their point of view about their dream. Some helpful questions that facilitate this include:

    • What feeling/emotion of the dream stands out most to you? Is there a scenario in your everyday life in which you feel this same way?
    • What does [name image/character/other element from dream] conjure up in you when you take a moment to think about it?
    • What was your perspective in the dream— were you watching yourself in the dream, or were you experiencing things in first-person?
    • As we discuss the dream now, what are you experiencing?
    • If you could go back into the dream and continue it, what do you see happening?
    • Etc.

And while clients take the lead in their dream interpretation, there is room for the therapist to bring forward whatever is curious to them or stands out about the dream, the context of the dream, potential connections based on what I as the therapist am intuiting, sensing, feeling and know about the client’s everyday life.

For individuals who don’t see dreams as communiques from the unconscious, dream work can be a considered a valuable exercise in self-reflection and neuroplasticity. A recent New York Times article by neuroscientist Dr. David J. Linden describes how his father— an “old school” psychoanalyst likely steeped the world of the unconscious– didn’t necessarily cling to the concept in order to understand the why and how of effective therapy: “…when the talking cure works, it doesn’t work on some amorphous airy-fairy level: Rather, it works by changing the function of the brain in subtle ways. Similarly, he explained, when diverse behavioral practices like meditation, prayer or exercise are psychiatrically effective, they, too, are ultimately acting through biology, not some form of supernatural ether.”

However, for the Narnia folks, the efficacy and potency of dream work comes from engaging with unconscious material and believing that something deep within seeks to offer guidance about how to move forward in life in an enlarging way. With this approach, dream work is a form of introspection that leans less on rationality and reason and instead on intuition, felt sense, emotion, and a kind of blind faith.

“I recently saw a client who had just changed her session frequency from sporadic (i.e. once every two to three months) to weekly. During our first session of this new schedule, I asked about her dreams and she shared that she normally doesn’t dream, but last night she had one about getting her house in order. She remembers in the dream a sense of sadness knowing that she needed to get rid of some things, but there was also a sense of importance in gathering the items and sorting them out. I said, “So, you’re starting on this more routine therapy schedule and you dreamt that you were getting your house in order… [pause]” She replied with a knowing smile and said, “Yeah… interesting.”