Dream On

We depth psychologists talk a lot about dreams. But what is it to dream? And what is it not to dream?

Psychoanalyst Thomas Ogden has this to say in “On not Being Able to Dream”: “Much has been written on what dreams mean; relatively little on what it means to dream; and still less on what it means not to be able to dream.” He goes on to tell about Wilfred Bion’s notion that the activity of dreaming is more fundamental than we normally think.

Dreaming is not identical to the “dreams” we wake up remembering. Instead, when we are functioning well, dreaming is happening all of the time, waking or sleeping. It is the unconscious psychological work of linking elements of experience that have been stored in memory. Dreaming makes sense of our emotional realities by making these links and giving elements of experience form. This can take place while we are sleeping, and it can take place while we are awake.

I remember consulting with a very experienced psychoanalyst a few years ago about cases. I asked him how he worked with dreams in his own practice, with his own clients. He said that his approach had changed over time. Now, he said, he thought of each session itself as a kind of dreaming. In other words, each session enters the space of making associations, links, and playing with meanings. Client and therapist dream up the session together and so engage in learning from experience.

In this view, the background experiences held in memory are raw ingredients. We can’t digest experience without first dreaming it. The act of dreaming cooks the raw ingredients. It creates a meal that we can eat and share with others.

Bad things happen when we can’t dream. At the extreme, some individuals become unable to dream when in a psychotic state. Psychological digestion is disturbed, and the results can be catastrophic. For most of us, there may be moments of failing to dream–aspects of self and world that we choke on and need help to swallow and metabolize. That’s where psychotherapy comes in and creates a vessel for this alchemical work.

Behind Shades

Sunglasses have a way of showing up in odd places, in songs or interpersonal encounters or photos of public figures. “Cheap Sunglasses” by ZZ Top. The image of Ray Charles. A friend whose eyes are hidden behind dark lenses. Other characters who live mysteriously behind shades.

Recently I lost my regular prescription eyeglasses and had to rely solely on my prescription sunglasses to see clearly. In my therapy office, I went without glasses. I enjoy hanging out behind dark lenses in some circumstances, but while doing therapy isn’t one of them. Whether eyes meet or not or at what moments they do … all these variations are significant and interesting during a session. I explained to clients that without glasses I could see, but joked that everything is in “soft focus.”

In the days of film photography, which still continue for some of us, you could buy a soft focus filter to lend a pleasing blur to an image. My digital photo editing software can create the same visual effect. To be more accurate, my vision problem without glasses is not exactly a soft focus issue. It is closer to the blur in a portrait photo, in which the subject is in sharp focus, and whatever is going on in the background fades into a blur that suggests a dreamlike reality. Sometimes I think of this as the dreamlike background of existence–the fluid realm out of which individuation emerges and which becomes activated during developmental events in a person’s life.

One might also think of impressionistic movements in art as attempts to squint, or blur vision, in order to see reality differently. Seeing clearly has its downsides. Used destructively, it kills the imaginative faculty. As I coped with the embarrassment, frustration, and self-attack involved in losing my glasses, this blurring of vision afforded a new view of things. As focus softened, I softened, and my attitudes softened and became more fluid and capable of experiencing what was there.

Maybe not being able to see so clearly forced me to rest my eyes, half-closed, and thus experience a relaxing of my mental muscle–the muscle that tries to know and master what I encounter. In the words of Captain Beefheart, “Somebody’s had too much to think!” Relaxing the need to know and master is in fact beneficial to psychotherapy in various ways. Psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion associated each therapy session with a kind of dreaming while awake. Therapy makes a space for reverie and free association–less knowing and mastery, in other words–and thus engages the capacity to dream one’s experience into existence. This capacity undergirds psychological development and therefore therapeutic efforts by making it possible to metabolize experience.