An Existential View on Dreams

We all are dreamers

Are you a dreamer?
Do you remember your dreams and do you desperately try to understand them when they just don’t make sense? Some people dream intensely and remember the details while others don’t think they dream, or they forget them in the morning. The dream you remember the most is usually the last dream you have before you wake.

Recently a friend left a message on my answer phone urging me to have my skin checked for melanoma. She said I was in her dream and I needed to go urgently and have my skin checked as her dream was vividly telling her there was a skin growth that needed attention – she was so shaken by the intensity of the dream she panicked and thought it was a warning dream saying I had Melanoma. I did as she suggested and had my skin checked over and was treated for a non-cancerous skin lesion. She was very relieved when I told her.

I have always dreamed, for as long as I can remember. I have been flying and floating in rooms of people, observing others from the heights above; I have been up to my knees in a quagmire of sinking sand, fearful of moving in case I sink to the depths below; I have been chased by people firing arrows and bloodied axes in their hands; talked to strange spirit like people and found my name on books piled high in a cave. Dreams can be disturbing, intriguing or forgotten and yet we all dream, even those who say they don’t dream.

How do dreams help us in our waking life?
What are we open to and what are we closed off to in our lives? This style of question forms the basis of exploring dreams from an existential perspective.  Merdard Boss (1903 - 1990), a Swiss Psychiatrist believed in dreams and went on to analyse more than 1000 dreams of his patients and published two books: The Analysis of Dreams, and I Dreamt Last Night. Both books are not easy to come by these days. The basis of his theory was to challenge the traditional view of Freud, and later his close friend Jung; to allow the dreamer to arrive at their own personal meaning. Boss was opposed to imposing analysis, interpretation or linking predetermined meaning of symbols within the dream trapped in the ‘unconscious’. He went on to challenge Freud and others that there is no such thing as a hidden repository within the brain called the unconscious. He believed there was no difference between the waking and the sleeping worlds. Both are inter-related and connected by the individual and their experience in life is experienced in a dream. The idea was to explore the dream from the dreamers’ perspective not the analyst.

Dreams help us to focus our attention on our lived lives
Boss used the analogy of light in his theory of dreams. This was in direct relation to his studies and friendship with Martin Heidegger, a German Philosopher. He used the term illumination, meaning to bring things to light. In staying with the dreamers’ exploration of the dream, the meaning of the dream will come to light. He also identified that dreams have a mood or a feeling associated with it. Just like my friend who was convinced that I needed to have a skin check, the sense of urgency in the dream provided her the platform to contact me with her genuine concern. All dreams have a mood attached to it, and Boss called this attunement. Paying attention to the overall mood of the dream can also provide a rich opportunity to allow space for the dreamer to begin the process of discovering what the dream may hold.

Think of a dream you recently had. Call to memory as much as you can and then notice what mood your dream leaves you with.

Dreams help us to attune to our moods
I recently provided a workshop in Victoria on dreams over 2 days with a group of like minded people. It was such a rich time together to explore dreams and to begin the process of accessing the mood of the dreams they brought to work on.  I noticed how some people were tearful as they explored and touched upon the possible meaning of the dream. Others were irritable and moved around in their seats or stood up, while some used strong hand movements as they recounted their dream. In accessing the mood of a dream a felt sense is experienced in the body – again Boss had a term for this called “bodying forth”.  Boss believed we also recount our dreams not only in attunement to the mood of the dream but also we experience the dream through our body expression. Moods of frustration, fear, excitement, are common and our body movements also help us to get in touch with the meaning of the dream.

What can dreams tell us about how we are living our lives today?
This brings us back to the question of what we are open and closed to in our lives? Stop for a moment and think about this question and challenge yourself to reflect on this important question. Is there a mood or feeling attached to the parts of your life that you are open to and closed to; does your body also give away your mood associated with your dream? What did you learn from this simple but powerful exercise?

These three basic concepts of Boss’s dream work allow the dreamer to explore the dream and then relate the dream back to their waking life. Boss didn’t see any distinction or division of the two worlds – waking and sleeping; both are on a continuum, one is in direct relationship with the other. We don’t need to look to external sources to find the meaning, the meaning lays with the dreamer. The dream shows how the dreamer illuminates one part of their life over another; dreams can hold important information for everyday concerns.

The Existential View on Dreams
From an existential viewpoint, Dreams are not something that interpretation can be attributed to, or meaning constructed from a book of symbols or where an analyst provides the prescriptive answers to the dreamer on the associated meaning. The dream offers a window of opportunity for the dreamer to illuminate and clarify their relationship with their waking and lived world and, shows its potential and limitations if the dreamer is willing to explore in detail.

Dreams have multiple meanings and cannot simply be taken on face value; they hold key information that takes time to explore in-depth. You will be amazed at what you can learn about how you are living in the world, your relationships to your-‘self’, towards others and ultimately how you would like others to treat you. In exploring dreams you can open up possibilities to new awareness of your self. Why not try exploring with your therapist next time you have a dream. You never know what you might discover.

Photo taken in Heidelberg, Germany.

Posted on 29 October 2013 in - Temenos Journal - Dreams

Adam McLean

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