Electric Dreams

A Case for Expanding Dreamwork in Psychosynthesis

Richard Catlett Wilkerson

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Wilkerson, Richard Catlett (2003). A Case for Expanding Dreamwork in Psychosynthesis.  Electric Dreams 10(11).


A Case for Expanding Dreamwork in Psychosynthesis

Richard Wilkerson


In the introduction to Psychosynthesis: A Collection of Basic Writings, Roberto Assagioli examines Psychosynthesis against the context of Existential psychology and uses this lay out an overall plan for the project. This nine point examination may also make a useful starting point for a discussion of dreamwork in Psychosynthesis.

1. Both Existential psychology and Psychosynthesis place an emphasis on identity and the self. This inner identity show up in unique ways in dreams.

First, the dream can be seen as a representation very easily. That is, when we are asleep, we feel we are in the dream, but when feel we are awake we say the dream was in us. We have separated ourselves from it and now hold much of the dream as a representation, though we may not know what it represents. Dream science has theorized that while all mammals dream, initially to keep the large mammalian brain active during sleep, it is unlikely that the recall of these dreams would do anything but confuse the animals. There would be a problem between memory and dream imagination. Whether this is true or not, mammals do have mechanisms to ~not~ recall dreams. This held true until animals developed the capacity to represent things no longer present. In other words, it appears as if our language capacities allow us to bridge the memory gap. People who suffer from nightmares easily doubt the depth of this theory, but anyone who has forgotten a dream knows the importance of quickly going over the dream upon waking. Anyway, waking up from a dream is the first level of dis-identification. And even those suffering from nightmares are well aware that regaining control and having the ability to speak the dream, to tell it to someone or even oneself, is very important. We dis-identify when we wake up. Some dreamers are so good at this that they dis-identify ~during~ the dream, and this is called lucid dreaming, or being aware one is dreaming while remaining in the dream. Also, we often get very dreamy while awake. So, first there is a kind of dreaming-in-general identity, and a waking-in-general identity, both of which may occur in the waking or sleeping state.

The second level of identity is the dream ego. There is usually (usually) a major identification with a particular character in the dream that we call “I.” I in the dream may or may not correspond to our waking ego. I have found that the core waking ego identity is usually fairly similar, which notable exceptions. One man told me a dream where he killed his brother by stabbing him in the back as they both climbed a ladder. In waking life, the man didn’t even have a brother as was a very gentle personality. Instead of shifting into what the dream might represent, we can here just say that while the man woke up and recognized or felt the dream-murderer as being himself, he could not recognize the murderous impulse, it just wasn’t part of his waking identity structure. The point here is not to make a metaphor of the dream, but just to say that at the second level, the dream ego may or may not have the share the same characteristics as the waking ego.
The third level of identity that may be of importance in a Psychosynthetic dreamwork will be the identities that inhabit the dream that the dreamer doesn’t identify as him/herself. In Psychosynthesis these are often referred to as sub-personalities. Two approaches suggest themselves, seeing dreaming itself as a kind of sub-personality work, and using the dreams to bring sub-personalities out in waking sessions.

The forth level of identity is the relationship of the parts to the whole, or the sense of the Superconscious manifesting in the conscious or pre-conscious of dreams. At the level of I-Thou, the dream provides a unique mediation, a realm of imaginal play in of the axis between the larger and smaller self. That is, the dream level mediates between the concrete ground below and the ideal above and connects them. The dream hovers between. Its no wonder the Greeks call butterflies “psyche.”

2. Assiagioli’s Psychosynthesis considers the person as dynamic, a growing individuality at multiple levels of latently developing potentiality. As with the sub-personality work above, the many layers of the dream can be explored in their developmental aspects and as indicators and attempts by the psyche to manifest potentialities. The dream image can function in a unique way to hold the tension between two or more new psychological potentialities that need a higher self to synthesize them.

3. The Centrality of meaning is critical to both Existential Psychology and Psychosynthesis. Meaning we give, meaning we are looking for. Dreamwork provides a way to practice giving meaning, and for exploring meaning in our lives through the overlay of the dreamworld on the waking world. We give meaning to a dream, and it reveals to us its significance. We also explore the meaning of dream within the dream itself, in its own coherence. Further, by exploring the giving of meaning itself to dreams, we encounter the core of meaning-making, of values and our relationship with them. This occurs not only in the material realm, but also in the spiritual realm, where we examine our alignment with the infinite.

Dreams can also help in giving responses to our meaning-giving and meaning-seeking. A young woman kept sending me e-mails about her dreams of her unfaithful boyfriend. She said her boyfriend continually had to convince her he wasn’t having an affair. She didn’t much like the suggestions that she take her dream boyfriend as an aspect of herself. Still, she was haunted by these dreams and continued to write me. I suggested she ask the dream itself what it meant, and to repeat this intention before going to bed. The next night she reported the following dream: “I found a box of my old toys under my bed. Some dolls and things. I haven’t thought about them for years.” Upon waking, she said she felt like these old dolls, and was afraid of being forgotten. The unfaithful boyfriend dream then made sense to her in that she felt she was like a doll that he didn’t want to play with anymore. She also wanted to develop something in herself that was “worth playing with.” Using the dream to interpret the dream turned out to be a better approach for her than trying to understand directly that the dream boyfriend might be a part of herself.
In a world where meaning and value is at risk of being quantified by capital economy, the dream offers a uniquely sequestered-yet-connected realm for deep research into meaning.

4. The importance of values. In #3 I discussed values in relation to meaning. But values can be explored in dreamwork on their own as well. Assagioli suggests a spectrum of values, such as noetic, artistic, ethical and religious.

Dreamwork can give us indications of development of values when explored over a series of dreams. A man trying to develop his emotions may pass through a series of cold and frozen landscapes with fish and artic animals to warmer zones and more human relations.

In dreamwork, we can explore not only the values exhibited by the dream ego, but also by peripheral characters, animals, and other autonomous beings and objects in the dream. In Psychosynthesis, one is encouraged to find models of behavior, heroes and people we can not only look up to but also emulate. These models will hold the values that will guide our development. Yet getting to fixated on one hero can be a problem. By developing some of the values of our dream characters, we can assure ourselves of unfolding our wholeness as well as actualizing our main potentials. Three general areas come to mind, taking my cue from Carl Jung. The first are the values we detest. These are of vital importance to us. Dream characters that make our skin crawl, that we see as morally inferiors, who we would rather die than be seen as. Exploring the values of these characters in dreams vastly widens and loosens our own value systems. Secondly, the values of those who we desire above all else. Though more dangerous than the first group, these dream people, often lovers, can lead us into value systems that bridge the human to the beyond-human. They begin to do this through drawing us into things we have never been. Finally, the beyond human, the superconscious values. These are the most difficult and the most fulfilling, the most rewarding and yet the most challenging. For example, when we are given visions of peace on earth, yet feel the full brunt of the disparity between the vision and reality, then the real difficult task of bridging these two irreconcilables is most fully experienced, and hopefully, most fully manifested. This is the place where we can easily despair and dreamwork can be very helpful in providing images that hold the synthesis of the impossible together long enough for our ego consciousness to forge a place to hold and receive the reconciliation from the superconscious.

5-6. Important to both Psychosynthesis and Existential Psychology is becoming aware of the motivations with determine our choices. As above with the various types of characters, each realm of conscious and unconscious will involve its own set of motivations and choices.

Also in dreamwork, we like to say that each dream is multiply determined. Instead of finding a single message (though this may be all we can handle at any one time) sent by a single source, the dream is often seen as a complex of contents and their expressions, motivated by layers of determining forces, including physical, social, historical, genetic, situational, contextual, personal, transpersonal and biocosmic. Like a woodcutter carving a leg of table, the woodcutter is informed by her background, the institutions, the family, the lunch, the synchronicities and random moments, the perspectives on the wood and the body musculature applies. All this may be seen as the woodcutter giving expression to the content, just as the many forces give expression to the dream. Expression and content may change at any moment, as determined by the forces applied. An unexpected knot in the wood and she may slip and fall, and there we say the wood-knot gave expression to the woodcutter. And in the dream it is the same. One moment, the forces of the dream may be guide by the emotions of the previous day, the next an alarm clock may go off. The exploration of these motivations in dreams help us understand our multiply determined parts of our self as well as our absolute freedom. Both come with their own sets of problems and satisfactions.

7. Another mutual concern is the seriousness and depth of life. Often in psychospiritual practices, we fix an eye on the ideal and ignore all else, trying to force these ideals on the stubborn, material world. This can cover up the place of anxiety that we need to deal with and how to face the depth of suffering that surrounds us. Dreams can help in this endeavor as they are from and in the realm of soul rather than spirit and material. Both spirit and material are addressed by dreams, but it’s the psyche that the dream lives, the imaginal realm, the place where we suffer and encounter basic anxieties. People whose outer lives can be filled with success and are too busy to descend into the depths of misery will still spend several hours a 24-hr day dreaming and attention to these dreams may help in creating stairwell downwards. Post Jungian James Hillman talks about the need to reverse all our dreamwork, to allow the dream to take us down into the underworld, not to bring the dream up into the waking world. Learning to go down and not be a hero, not try to bash the phantoms with clubs like Hercules tried to do in the Underworld. Rather, with each step down, we learn to take off one more piece of clothing until we finally enter the realm of the soul, completely naked.

8. There is an emphasis on the future and its role in the present in Psychosynthesis.
Dreams have always had a role to play in this area. Dream prophecy can be found on the earliest cuneiform tablets. Prophecy isn’t exactly what Assagioli had in mind, but as Carl Jung noted, dreams continually push towards the future and have a distinctly teleological bent. Perhaps this is due to their connection with the project of wholeness and individuation, and perhaps this is simply due to the fact that dreams play with all things, sacred and profane, and thus are continually spinning out possible and impossible futures. Exploring the role of play and possibility in dreams, both sacred and profane, will help further the understanding of the role of the future in the present.

9 . The uniqueness of the individual is essential to Psychosynthesis. This is extended to mean that every individual may need his/her own unique psychosynthesis, their own new techniques and method. Dreamwork may be very helpful here. Each night we have six new dreams, and each one create a whole world of its own. We don’t recall but a few of these each week, but this attests to the power of unique creativity in a dream. Some feel that the final goal of dreamwork is that each dream is its own interpretation. That is, no standard set or system can be applied to dream if we expect the dream to reveal to us it most unique gifts. In exploring the uniqueness of each dream, we begin to articulate our own uniqueness. Further, we come to the limit of dreamwork as well. Since every psychosynthesis is unique, dreamwork may not be for everyone. And dreams have their limits. While Jung liked to say that dreams were already doing what they needed to do and dreamwork was like alchemy, just helping the natural process along, there are limits. PTSD dreams, especially combat dreams, can become trapped in a recurring cycle of endless nightmares. True, dreamwork can help alleviate this situation (especially re-entry dreamwork) but I think we need these limits to not deify dreams. Also, I think we need to recognize that dreams may have motives and goal that are not always our own. That is, like our friends and family, like any autonomous being, there is always a risk that when we allow them to offer themselves and not just represent us and our own needs, they may present something quite un-needed at the time.

However, this is something that our friends, and our dreams, will tell us when the time comes. Being present with the dream image means attending to the image as it appears. Robert Avens says that " Essence appears when we pay attention to phenomenon, when we take them to heart." He goes on to say that taking to heart is allowing things to be as they are. Charles Ponce also points out that:

" things are right as they appear in each moment and that what the moment brings is right... for it is the manner in which we receive ourselves that determines whether we grieve or sing, whether what we hear in ourselves is a cacophony or a melody, whether in that moment we stumble or we dance."

Developing individuation and uniqueness is not just about the ego, but about the whole self and dreamwork allows us to address both this multiplicity and unity.

In conclusion of the nine points that Assagioli makes about the similarities between Existential Psychology and Psychosynthesis, and how the value of these similarities may be explored with dreamwork, I just want to emphasize that while dreams are not everyone’s path, they are part of everyone’s psyche. In ignoring dreams we ignore a large part of our life and risk loosing a major sense and appreciation of the world, the self and their possibilities and depth.

-Richard Wilkerson