Electric Dreams

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 Gestalt and Dreamwork

Richard Catlett Wilkerson

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Wilkerson, Richard Catlett (1997 July). Dream Education Series - Gestalt and Dreamwork. Electric Dreams 4(7). Retrieved July 26, 2000 from Electric Dreams on the World Wide Web: http://www.dreamgate.com/electric-dreams

"Loose your mind, come to your senses"
Fritz Perls

o Introduction

"Psychoanalysis is an illness that pretends to be a cure"
Fritz Perls, p. 244

The founder of the Gestalt Therapy movement, Frederick (Fritz) Perls, took his initial training as a European Freudian psychoanalyst, but soon saw psychoanalysis as a big game that kept the patient in the therapist's pocket (or the therapist in the patient's pockets) and began to work out quick, powerful techniques to return the control of one's life back to the individual. His own group work would eventually become the model for many peer dream groups that would form in 1960's and 1970's, and his influence is in dreamwork is incalculable.

o The basic concept of Gestalt

Perls believed like Freud that unresolved conflicts from the past had a great deal of influence upon present behavior, and that these conflicts needed to be "worked through" (Perls, 1969). He also felt that dreams were highly symbolic and made extensive use of interpretation. Perls felt all past conflicts were continually acted out in the present, and chose always to work on them in the here- and-now. In the here-and-now we are completely free and can choose freedom, responsibility and openness instead of illness. In the here-and-now we are free to actively control our own "becom ing."

Thus Perls would have his patients enact in the present the conflict and have them take on the various parts of the conflict as dramatic roles so the patient could become aware of the conflict, contact it and control the direction of it in the present and future. Thus one's feelings and actions become unified in a whole, what Perls calls a gestalt, that is more spontaneous, open and honest.

While Gestalt therapy has had its own ups and downs, supporters and critics, its own hey-day and decline, what we are going to look at here is the influence it has had on the modern dream work movement, and thus focus on the techniques developed mostly during the 1960's at the now famous Big Sur retreat center in California, Esalen. (Downing, J and Marmorstein, R. 1973, Perls, F. 1969)

o Gestalt approaches to the dream

Nearly all the techniques come from that same set of ideas that Jung offered us, that the dream is a subjective presentation of the dream him/herself and that there is a sense of wholeness in every image. As with Freud and Jung, for Perls what is unconscious in the personal psyche is initially projected out onto other people and to other objects. That is, we see in others first what we refuse to see in ourselves.

Perls takes this idea to an extreme and looks at how *all* we see is in part a projection of ourselves.

"In dreams, the hardest aspect to accept is that every part of the dream is the dreamer: if I am driving along a dream highway, the car, the road, the passing automobiles, the distant mountains, the unseen dread, all are *me*."
(Downing, 1973, pg 7)

As you can see, the difference between Jung's view and Perls' is that for Jung the dream has a subjective-objective tension, i.e. was about something that contained both inner and outer realities. For Perls, the objective outer boundary is allowed to collapse to get directly at the inner fantasy level. In this way the split off inner processes can be re-owned and integrated within the context of the immediate present.

However, as Anthony Shafton mentions, there was a dangerous tendency for untrained individuals to take Perls' technique and turn it into a gimmick, claiming that anyone who got some kind of breakthrough would be cured. (Shafton, 1994, p. 214).

And yet, as I mentioned, there is hardly a modern dream technique or approach that doesn't acknowledge or use this idea of the intrapsychic dream landscape. The compromise for this class will be to keep and eye on the theory, but to focus on some of the ways the technique is unfolded that will allow us to give meaning to our dreams and recover the significance in a non-therapeutic setting. Thus the emphasis is two fold here. The first is a historical rendering of the exercises and the second is a confining for our use the exercises to the imagination. Any direct use of the exercises should be done within the context of a qualified gestalt therapist.

"Lose your mind and come to your senses," suggest Fritz. How aware are we of what we are doing in the present? How often are our minds anxious about the future or remorseful about the past rather than just being here, now? To test out your ability to stay aware in the present, you might want to try the following exercise. For just a couple of minutes, I'd like you to keep saying "Now I'm aware of [blank]" and fill in the blank with a word or two about whatever it is that you happen to be aware of. If you shift from outer observations of the room to inner awareness, keep saying out loud what it is you are aware of. Example: "Now I'm aware of typing this sentence and now I'm aware of wondering what to type next and now I'm aware of the chuckle in my stomach and now I'm aware of the reflections on the computer screen and now I'm aware of some confusion about what I'm aware of and now I'm aware of the sound of a car going by...." and so on.

Now let's apply this to the dream, but use the dream imagery story to guide us along.

Exercise: The first thing to emphasize is the telling of the dream in present tense, as if it were still happening.

a. Take an dream and re-write it or tell it to yourself as if it is happening right now. Example: " I am flying over the bay and I feel anxious. I look towards the horizon for sharks. Now I'm flying towards the beach and see the bathers there."

b. For contrast, re-write the same dream in *past* tense as though it all happened a long time ago. Example: I was once flying over a bay and I was feeling kind of nervous. I was looking for sharks on the horizon. Then I was flying back towards the beach and I was looking at some people in the water."

What did you notice about the difference between the exercises? How alive did you feel in each exercise? Make some notes about this difference.

Now that we have moved into the present, let's move into the subjective mode as well and see all parts of the dream as ourselves.

Exercise: a. Take a dream and after each thing, adjective or action, put the phrase "Part of me". Example using the Bay Flyer dream: " The I (part of me) flies (part of me) over the bay (part of me) while the looking (part of me) for sharks (part of me)..."

I realize this exercise is a little silly, but just want you to see how each part of the dream may be seen as part of yourself in projection. Now we can unfold each of the parts a little more.

b. Pick one of the parts of the dream that have some feeling or puzzle for you. In my example I'm going to choice the "sharks" and the "bay". Now pretend you *are* that part of the dream, as if you were playing that character on a stage and describe yourself and your role and whatever else comes up.

Example: "I am the Shark and I lurk unseen in the dream. I could swoop in at any moment and eat the bathers and yum, how good they would be too! I make the flyer nervous because I cause him to worry about things over which he has little control. But I give him a purpose too. All the dream flyer can do is watch, watch, watch. I like the unseen waters I swim in and hope the flyer gets a little closer to the water too!"

"I am the bay. I am both shallow and deep, friendly and dangerous. My waters flow out to the deep sea and up against the beach were people play. The dream flyer soars above me and sees both these parts of me, but he seems afraid of entering me himself. I am cold and liquid and bounded only by dry and structured things. I provide passage for many ships and fish."

Try this for as many part of the dream as you can. Notice how this changes (or doesn't) your feelings about the dream images and the way they fit together.

There is notion in Gestalt work that by taking on these roles, we begin to integrate them into a gestalt or whole personality. In a sense this makes the dream out to be a deception and we dream because we can't directly admit to being these parts, i.e. we have disowned them. But in another sense the dream is the carrier of our fate and future growth, and by re-owning these parts, we re- own a more complete personality.

Exercise: Take an image in the dream and walk around the room acting like this image. You might play a character as complex as a friend or relative, but also try playing the inanimate objects, like a stick, a rock or a watery bay.

But what about parts of the dream that still don't seem to fit, even after becoming that part of the dream? For this is there is an additional exercise of having the parts talk and interact with one another. This is the famous procedure of using an empty chair and talking to one part of the dream image, pretending it is sitting in the chair, and then taking on the role of that image and speaking back.

EXERCISE: a. After dramatizing a few parts of the dream as in the previous exercise, pick two dream images. In my example I'll use the Bay Flyer and the Shark. Pretend that you are one of the images, and that the other image is sitting close enough to you that you can talk with the image. Put that image in an empty chair or use a pillow or something else to represent that part of your dream. Have a conversation with the image, tell the image from your role how you feel, what you see as happening in the dream, what you would like to happen. Then switch seats. Take on the role of the other image and respond. Play act, experiment, have fun. If you get stuck, switch roles. Do this in the spirit of putting on a puppet show.

B. If there is an unresolvable difference between the two parts, make up a third chair and put in that seat the unresolvable difference. Allow the unresolvable difference to speak about itself as well as about the other images.

_Bay flyer: I'm concerned about you shark and if you come into my territory I will warn everyone to get out of the water. I feel concerned and plan to warn the innocent people about you.
_Shark: Hog wash. Without me you wouldn't even exist. I draw you and everyone elses' attention to deeper things. You eat life, I eat life. I don't need your moral attitude. I feel connected to my depths and hunger.
_Bay Flyer. Oh, you are connected to your hunger alright, but don't think you can satisfy it in my bay. There are plenty of ways of connecting us to our depths without eating us alive. I'm highly skeptical that you have any concern for all we have constructed here in the bay and feel threatened by your inconsiderate destructiveness.
_Shark: Yes, all you have constructed for your own purposes, while excluding nature, me. Your daylight projects you tout as creative constructions are clearly johnny-come-lately attempts to control what is not yours to control, since you repress and cast out of the bay anything that doesn't fit into your own little self-serving world. I'm not the one who doesn't fit, you are. You keep me hungry by scaring all my dinners away.

Enter _The Unresolvable Issue: I am the tension between you both and feel both the hunger and the abandonment of the flesh.
_Bay flyer: I need that distance resolved so I can have some fun too. I don't feel I can have fun as long as you and Shark exist.
_Unresolved Issue: I cannot be wished away, nor can you use me to keep Shark away.
_Shark: Ya!
_Unresolved Issue: But Shark, while you offer some advice, that need to connect with depths - you must learn to carry some of your own hunger. Being an animal, you are simply hungry, but being cooperative, you may learn that the Bay people will feed you on a regular basis.
_Bay flyer. There's an idea.
_Shark: Ya, give me a leg right now - har , har.
_Bay Flyer - so it seems we are agreeing to all three exist. But how to feed Shark?
_Unresolved Issue. I'm not here to solve issues, I just want some breathing room too. You and Shark have to work that out.
End example

"Most of our whole striving in life is Pure Fantasy. We don't want to become what we are (but) what we should be." (Perls, 1969, p. 224)

Now in real Gestalt therapy there is an attempt on the part of the therapists to bring the dialogues out of these more superficial levels and into high emotionally charged areas. It is the belief that it is only in breaking though to these charged areas that true integration can take place. But in the decades since these encounter groups and intensive therapies, there has grown a general belief in a kinder, gentler way towards integration. The point of all this is not so much to find an answer as to be in present time contact with the issues and imagery. The solution is being present. Fritz: "...once you judge you can't experience anymore, because you are now much too busy finding reasons and explanation, defenses and all that crap..."
( Verbatim, 225)

o Gestalt measures of intensity

So how deep do we go as individuals alone or in a peer group? The answer, of course, is up to you. But here is a measuring stick that combines Fritz's work and that of a student of his, Jack Downing:

There are five levels all of this can be seen.

Level 1: The Chicken Shit Level. Good-morning-how-are-you-great-fine-nice-weather-be-seeing- you-bye. Barely functioning and very dead. Downing calls this the Cliché layer. No contact, no risks, no life.

Level 2: The Bullshit Games Level. This is the social roles level where I am the student, the boss, the bully, the important person. Usually you can see it in binary form - husband-wife, sick person- healer, student-teacher, boss-employee. Lots of games, but no real life. Lots of danger in there being just a game and no one really there to play it.

Level 3: The Impasse Level. This is were we get stuck and lost. We are becoming aware of ourselves and the chicken shit and bullshit just isn't working. But we are lost, frozen , uncertain. We know we have to change, but we just don't know how or where.

Level 4: The Death Level. The Sick point. This is the final extension of the impasse. Its the implosive or death layer were things really feel lost, dead, sick. Really the repressed life we have denied is struggling for expression, but so is our strongest rigid holding back. We are contracted, compressed, withdrawn.

Level 5: The Explosive Life Level. Here the authentic self has been contacted and there is a free explosion of life, feelings and reactions that can take various forms. Perls usually worked with grief, anger, orgasm and joy. Downing adds to this ecstasy, where the complete freedom to feel and experience is available and responsibility is seen less as a yoke which burdens us but rather as an ability to respond without playing games.

Perls also stated as a measure the following: "Once it clicks, you are through the projection and it's all over. First you look through a window, and suddenly you recognize that you are just looking into a mirror" (quoted form Shafton 225-226). As Shafton goes on to comment, we can see the value in the experience without assigning it some grand cure or panacea. In later body based dream techniques, this click will become the central focus, not so much in determining health or sickness, but as an internal measure of the *place* where meaning and value is created in the body.

The issue here, however, is that we can use this measure to get a sense of where other's may be pushing us. To be one's own authority is to catch on that being pushed into authenticness can be an abusive act. As the Buddha said, we are already enlightened. Attempts to become enlightened are looked upon the same way that a man in a lake looking for water is looked upon.

Sometimes Perls was accused of dragging people across their pains and wounds, always focused on suffering. His response was to turn the accusation into an exercise:

" I don't preach suffering. But I'm willing to invest myself whenever a suffering, an unpleasantness comes up. ... Staying in touch with the unpleasantness is the only means of growing and consoli dating one's position."

Here's an example of the exercise: Play What Won't I Suffer? Pick a part of the dream you don't want to deal with, the ickest part, and say " I'm not willing to suffer this because [blank]." Fill in the blank with various levels of answers, from the chicken shit level to the bullshit level and so on until there is an impasse. Then begin with the impasse as the new thing you won't suffer, and say " I'm not willing to suffer this because [blank]."

Make some notes about the icky feeling and impasse - describe them as if you were making a weather report.

These kinds of techniques are fine if you are having dreams, but what if you are not having dreams or your dream completely stump you? There is one last example exercise I want to pass on. In these places Perls would have the person take on the character of the dream itself.

Example: "I am your dream and I stay away from you. You try to catch me in the morning, but I'm more clever than you. I have all the answers to everything and even when you do catch me I won't tell you what I mean. I hide everything you want in dark symbols and evaporate any meaning you assign to me."

Exercise: Go ahead, give it a try - become your dream and have a chat with yourself.

It should be clear by now how any part, fragment or even absence of a dream image can become a useful dialogue or drama that can bring us into an awareness of the present and involve us in being our own authorities in the destiny of our lives. Whenever we find ourselves in confusion, deadness or distance from our lives, there we find that impasse and a chance to wake up to a more colorful and vital existence.

A final quote from _Verbatim_(1969):

"Now if we understand the impasse correctly, we wake up, we have a satori, I can't give you a prescription because everybody tries to get out of the impasse without going through it; every body tries to tear their chains, and this is never successful, It's the awareness, the full experience, the awareness of *how* you are stuck, that makes your recover, and realize the whole thing is just a nightmare, not a real thing, not reality. The satori comes when you realize, for instance, that you are in love with a fantasy and your realize that you are not in communication with your spouse.

The insanity is that we take the fantasy for real. In the impasse you have always a piece of insanity. In the impasse, nobody can convince you that what you are experiencing is a fantasy. You take for real what is merely an ideal, a fantasy. The crazy person says," I am Abraham Lincoln," and the neurotic says" I wish I were Abraham Lincoln," and the healthy person says, "I am I, and you are you."
(Perls, 1969, p. 40)

o Conclusion

While the pressure of a group process to be "authentic" is seen today as a little harsh, the basic techniques of taking responsibility for one's own dream and dream imagery are universal. Once these techniques are shifted from a pre-determined course to being used to explore the unknown, they become user-friendly, and we can allow ourselves to be most essentially who we are, ourselves.

o Bibliography and Citations

Downing, J and Marmorstein, R. (1973). _Dreams and Nightmares._ San Francisco: Harper and Row.

Fosshage, J. C. & Loew, Clemens, A. (1987). _Dream Interpretation: A Comparative Study._ (Revised Edition) New York:PMA Publishing Corp.

Mindell, Arnold (1982). _Dreambody_. Boston: Sigo Press.

Narajo, Claudio (1980). _The Techniques of Gestalt Therapy_. Highland, New York: The Gestalt Journal.

Perls, Frederick S. (1969). "Dreamwork Seminars." In _Gestalt Therapy Verbatim_, Moab, UT : Real People Press.

Perls, Frederick S. (1970). _Dream Seminars_. In Joen Fagan and Irma Lee Shepherd (Eds.) ,Gestalt Therapy Now: Theory Techniques Applications. Palo Alto, CA: Science and Behavior Books, Inc.

Shafton, Anthony (1995). _Dream Reader: Contemporary Approaches to the Understanding of Dreams_. Albany, NY: Suny Press. See especially Chapter 6, "Gestalt", pp 213-231.

Van De Castle, R. L. (1994). _Our Dreaming Mind_. New York: Ballantine Books. See esp. pp. 191-196.

o Gestalt on the Net & Web

A note on Gestalt Therapy. There are not a lot of pure Gestalt Therapists, though the techniques are learned and used by those studying other types of therapy and group processes. Often Gestalt is mentioned in NLP, or Neuro Linguistic Programming, an offshoot of Milton Erikson work. This is a completely different system, though they trace back through Gestalt therapies. Also, Gestalt Psychology is a German psychophysics movement that preceded and influenced Gestalt therapy but if fundamentally different, though the metaphors used are shared.

Simpified Summary of Gestalt Therapy (AAGT)

Association for the Advancement of Gestalt Therpy (AAGT)

Gestalt Therapy Page

A short History of Gestalt by Daniel Rosenblatt, Ph.D.

Dream Wisdom by Valma Granich (Short Essay)

Gestalt Therapy - By Alan Brandis, Ph.D.