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"Dream As Story" by Edith Sullwold, Ph.D.

Reprinted by permission of The Ned Leavitt Agency
from Sacred Stories: A Celebration of the Power to Transform and Heal  by Charles and Anne Simpkinson, eds.,
copyright © 1993 by Edith Sullwold

Edith Sullwold, Ph.D., was a Jungian therapist who taught and supervised therapists in the United States, Europe, and Africa. Former director of the Children's Center at the C.G. Jung Institute of Los Angeles, and of Turning Point, a group for children with serious illnesses. Sullwold was best known for her work with the creative use of the imagination in therapy with children, adolescents, and adults.

Sullwold had also worked both personally and professionally with dreams for nearly thirty years. Whereas some might see dreams as merely chemical and/or electrical brain activity, Sullwold strongly believed that dreams are stories from one's psyche that carry a profound wisdom. Dreams, she explained, are like someone knocking on the door: "They are saying, 'I have something to tell you."' Because the stories our dreams tell us are not always easily captured in rational thought, Sullwold encouraged the use of creative, frequently nonverbal means – such as clay, paint, movement, and music – to explore them. In the following pages, Sullwold elaborates on the concept of dreams as important personal stories and offers specific suggestions for creating a relationship with them that will deepen and enrich the dreamer's life.

My view of dreams as stories comes from my own work with dreams over the last thirty years. During the time of my analysis and training, I spent some time in Zurich, where I heard many stories about Carl Jung. The following is one I particularly like because it confirms that dreams are ultimately a mystery.

It is said that a favorite student of Jung's went to visit him when he was in his eighties and living in a little tower on Lake Zurich. They went for a walk, and Jung began to tell him a dream. Jung would tell anybody his dreams: friends, students, the farmers who lived next door. He said that often their comments would give him some new insight that he couldn't reach himself; sometimes, people would say things that felt so wrong that he got a hint of what might be right. This student, as he was walking, listened to the dream very carefully. In great awe – as the students, of course, would have been of Jung – he said, "Oh, Dr. Jung, it must be so marvelous, having worked on dreams for so long and being the age you are, to be able to understand your own dreams." And Jung said angrily, "No, no! Don't you understand that your dream always remains a mystery, particularly to yourself?"

You see, you never know exactly what your dreams mean. You can't codify them into ordinary knowledge, but they have a kind of energy that brings tremendous vitality and, often, clarifying in-sight to your life. Our consciousness is limited. One function of a dream is to tell you something that is beyond consciousness. If you try to understand dreams with your ordinary, conscious mind, you'll never get those pieces which lie outside your awareness. This is why it is good to tell someone else your dream and to dance around the dream – that is, to find out something about it from all sides. One way to work with dreams is to work with associations. For example, if you have a dream about someone, does it remind you of somebody else, and what is that person like? Association is one way to dance around so that you get some sense of familiarity.

Another way is to look at what is symbolic in the dream. If you dream of a frog, is it a frog prince or an ordinary frog? A third way is to see the dream as a story, because dreams are inner dramas. I remember working with someone who brought in a stack of type-written dreams and said, "These are my dreams." I thought, "Those aren't dreams. Those are like synopses of operas written down on a piece of paper; they are not the dreams."

A dream is an event that captures the body, the imagination, and the soul. That is, the senses record the experience in sound and sight, often accompanied by subtle movement of the body; the imagination provides the images, symbols, and story; and the psyche or soul activates the energy to produce the dream. A dream is also a dramatic event. The Greeks understood drama profoundly, so much so that the theater was central in all their major healing temples. They put on plays with exaggerated life situations that could reflect, in a more subtle way, the lives of the spectators. Everything in Greek theater was bigger than life. If you look at many of your dreams, they contain impossible happenings. But if you reflect back on them, perhaps they give you some insight into subtle aspects of your life that you are overlooking. To see them as drama, to see them as story, can be another way to begin to capture more of their significance in your life.

For example, you might look at your dreams in relation to aspects of a story, as you might look at a novel or short story. Where does it take place? Is the place familiar or unfamiliar? What is your feeling about the place? What about the characters? Who are they? They may not all be human; they may be images, animals, or some significant objects. And again, are they familiar or known to you, or are they unknown?

One way of working with the characters in a dream or a sequence of dreams is to think about them as main characters and extras. If you look at your life, you can remember those people who have been absolutely essential. There are those who have passed through – you may remember two or three out of your kindergarten class – and the rest you wouldn't recognize any more. They're the backdrop. But essential characters have vitality and meaning in your life. If you dropped any of them out, your life would be quite different. So look at your dream and see those characters, objects, or images that have the same kind of essential quality in relationship to you.

Some years ago in Switzerland I saw the opera Aida. I had seen it once in Italy in a huge outdoor field; to the great enthusiasm of the Italian music lovers, they brought in elephants. In Switzerland, there were no elephants, just gold. Not only was the stage set gold, but all of the characters wore gold, all of them. And into this dazzling gold setting came Aida, dark and dressed in a bright blue dress. Her character so contrasted with the backdrop of the others that the audience was struck by her image. Very often in a dream, a character, image, or symbol will catch you that way. Those are the ones that you know are essential, are worth working on and perhaps befriending in a very deep way for the rest of your life.

Another thing to ask would be, what is the issue? What is the core of this drama? Is it a question, or perhaps a crisis, or some state of confusion? What is the juice of the drama? What motivates the story?

Then, just as you would look at a story, ask yourself what is happening in the dream? How does the action develop? Look also at the ending, the resolution. Does the dream resolve itself? Is the question that has been asked answered? Or is the question still alive? Is the question one that needs to be asked continually?

If you look at your dreams and get used to living with them, you will see that they have a sequence. We are, after all, continuous beings, but sometimes dreams don't feel like that. A dream may have content that seems to have nothing to do with the dreams that preceded or followed it. Very often, however, a dream sequence will state the same issue or the same question in many different ways. The psyche is very kind. If you don't get something one way, it will show it to you another way, then another, and yet another. Very often a question is not answered, but each time it's asked it becomes more vivid and more alive to you, and perhaps more clear.

Most important is to ask about the meaning of a particular dream in your life. Why did you have it? What is it teaching you? Is it bringing new knowledge that expands your awareness of yourself? Something that gives the reason behind the dream? Is there a question it is asking about your life?

In a King Arthur legend there was an old king who was very ill and could only be healed when a knight asked the right question. Asking the right question in that story was essential to the old king's healing. You might look at that mythic story as a metaphor for dream work. The old king who rules the old kingdom would represent your old standpoint, your old way of being in the world. Asking the right question of your dream can wake you up to what you haven't paid attention to, to what is new, what is fresh, and what is being brought into your life that you haven't quite lived before. Asking the right question is essential to understanding your dreams.

Finally, it is important to integrate your dream stories and the information you get from them into your life. Otherwise, the dream is just a disconnected drama, which is not the psyche's intent. The psyche's intention is to heal. It tries to give you
information that will allow you to live your life more fully and with more awareness.

For example, my husband had a dream in which an artist friend of ours – whose work has been shown in many galleries – had composed an opera. In the dream, my husband found himself on stage, singing a solo. Shortly after he had this dream, my husband was asked to display and talk about the paintings he had done for the preceding fifty years. Although his paintings, inspired by the inner world of images and dreams, had always been done only for his own reflection, the dream made it clear to him that this work was now to be "on stage," exposing to an audience his part in the opera of life. He accepted this invitation to "sing a solo."

In this example, the integration of the dream into the dreamer's waking life came quickly. Sometimes such integration may not come for years. If you read Jung's autobiography, you will see that some striking dreams he had when he was small – as young as five – were still working in him in his old age. You might have powerful dreams that stay with you, and only later can you say, "Oh, that's what that is about." It doesn't mean the dream hasn't affected you in that period of time, but perhaps the confirmation in your life doesn't come clear until some time later. As you get older and have much more of a story to look back on, more of your life begins to make sense. "Oh, that's why that happened!" "Oh, that's why I made that choice!" There's a weaving together that begins to give your life – both inner and outer – some cohesive meaning.

I'll give you an example from my own dream life. At the time I had this dream, I was working with Mary Whitehouse, who was one of the founders of the dance therapy movement and a close friend. It was a very important time in my life. Until that period, I thought the only reason to have a body was to hold my head up. Working with my body was a very moving and profound experience for me. It brought out creativity that had not been alive before.

IN THE DREAM, I went to my lesson with Mary. There were two other students there. Mary took us all down to an open area at the bottom of a hill to dance. When we got to the bottom, we sat on benches and watched some monkeys that were separated by a fence from people who sat in the seats. We watched them, especially a green one on the left who was wrapping his arms around himself and twirling. My husband was sitting next to me. We began to talk to the monkey and were surprised when he began to talk to us.

Now, LET'S LOOK at the dream aspects I referred to before. The setting consisted of being with a very dear friend of mine who helped to reconnect me to my body and for whose work I had tremendous respect. That was familiar. However, I had always danced alone with her, not publicly. In this setting, there were two other women dancers and we were in a public arena. The unfamiliarity was that there was something of a performance about the work that had not been there before. It might be that some insight I would have in this unfamiliar setting would be applicable not only to me but also to a larger collective.
When we actually got to the arena, it turned out that it wasn't the dancers who performed but the monkeys. We were thus not an active part of the drama but passively watching unfamiliar figures who were perhaps there to teach us something. The monkeys were behind a fence in this dream, a fence that perhaps indicated the barrier between the familiar and the unfamiliar—the consciously known and the new material from the unconscious.

The greatest surprise, of course, came in the character of the monkey who talked. He was clearly the spokesman for the unknown, the one with the new lesson. He was the predominant character in this dream, the "Aida" of the drama. My husband's presence there was very important because he believes that animals know exactly what you say to them and can communicate, so he appeared in the dream as someone who really understood that it was possible.

Beginning with my husband's understanding and led by my own curiosity about what the monkey said, and wondering why a monkey should come into my dream-story, I decided to ask the monkey himself. I began by writing a dialogue between us, a written conversation of the sort that Jung describes as "active imagination."

I: What is it that you have to say?
Monkey: To play, to twirl, to spin, this is the way.
I: But play? Isn't it work that's needed?
Monkey: To really play would be work for you. It is letting go in the head, letting the inside spin you outside, letting the center take over and tumble you. Just let the outer extremities follow. Just do it, let go.
I: But, monkey, I have two other questions. Why do you have no neck? And what are you doing in the tree?
Monkey: No neck. Of course that would interest you. I have none because I am still so much in nature, and there hasn't been a split between my head and my body. You see, I don't need to turn my head around so much to locate myself. Look at me now in the tree holding on with arms and legs and tail. I can see very well from this spot in the tree, of course, and the moon is in my favor tonight.

This kind of communication with the monkey – about how to be in the body; how to play, to move, to be more free – had been very much inspired by my work with Mary Whitehouse. But the monkey reinforced the sense of the absolute animal naturalness of this connection with physical agility and form. He was the exaggeration of this point of view, the kind of exaggeration the Greeks played with in their dramas. And the message was collective, because I was not – am not – alone in disconnecting my natural relationship to the body from my mind and soul. It is still a collective issue. But the monkey also gave me a lesson not only about my physical body but about my spirit, which needed to move more from the inside out, a hint of which was in his statement about the moon. I still had curiosity about that statement, but sometimes it is good to let some aspects of the dream remain a mystery until they want to show themselves.

I wanted to record the visual image of the dream-monkey, so I drew him as he had appeared in my dream, in a tree against the moon. A week later, I made another drawing because I wanted to see him again. In this drawing, the monkey was sitting on a rock near a pond reading a book. This drawing turned into a story that I wrote down. The monkey had gone into the pond and, under some rocks, found a box of old manuscripts. Some of them were very wet and rotten. But he brought the manuscripts back up and began to read to me from them. This is part of what he read:

Monkey: I'll take up the second sheet now. It's yellow and wrinkled, as though someone wanted to throw it away but changed his mind. It says, Beware of the sun, behold the moon. Behold the moon in the darkness. This darkness brings light. Pure light is too bright and flattens the image. The moon gives depth and dimension to life.
I: What meaning does this have?
Monkey: I think you understand most of this, at least on the surface. The dark is the unconscious, the moon is the feminine which lights it. Being incompletely lit, there is something unknown, at least unknowable in terms of mind. The logic of intellect will flatten because it leaves out that which is mysterious. What I think you may not understand is the other quality, the darkness. Besides its soft enfolding, intimate quality, which is so feminine, there's also a quality of danger in the blackness; hidden things lurk in the corners. This blackness in you, which needs the illumination of the moon, is something you have not come to terms with yet.

Here, the monkey was not just teaching me of my body, but about the feminine aspect of spirit represented by the soft light of the moon, by the darkness of night, and by the mysteries of the unknown.

As I have grown older – some thirty years have passed since the dream – remnants of the issues of this dream still remain. For example, sometimes tension appears in my neck, reminding me of a disconnection with my own natural physicality; then I remember my friend the monkey, a teacher of "no-neck," comfortable in his tree with arms, legs, and tail, and I laugh and relax. And often, in the full moon, I see not the "old man" in the moon but the face of the monkey, speaking to me as a friendly companion, reminding me of the softness of the moonlight – not the bright sunlight of intellect – and the subtlety of the imagination that speaks in the quiet of the night.

IF YOU WANT to work with your own dreams like this, there are many ways to approach them. You can spend time writing about your dream, or writing dialogue with some of the characters. You can continue the dream in a story. You can draw an illustration of it, or make something out of clay.

I suggest, however, that you don't try to do it all in one sitting. If the dream figure is full of energy, it's like having a new friend. When you have a new friend, you don't just say, "Let's have a cup of tea. Good-bye." You stay with her or him for a long time, and you do different things together.

Writing the story of your dream can allow you to have a deep conversation with something unknown. Write a dialogue, as if you were writing a play or a novel. When you write in that way – novelists and playwrights often talk about this – you can develop the characters to a point where they take over. You no longer have control of them. For maybe the first ten minutes, it feels like you're making it up, but all of a sudden something happens and you are much more of a witness to the voices that are speaking.

When you dialogue with figures from the dream, it is important that you and the figures be in equal partnership. In other words, don't just listen passively to the figure. Question it, challenge it, say, "I don't think so." The unconscious and your conscious mind should be in a real relationship. When you do this, a very amazing thing happens. The barrier between the two begins to drop; you begin to have two friends, both aspects of yourself, talking to each other.

In a significant passage on dialogue, Jung says that unless the conscious mind and the unconscious learn to dialogue with equality and respect, we probably will not learn to do that person to person, group to group, or nation to nation. The psyche is your training ground to give an equal voice to both the inner unconscious knowledge and to the knowledge that your consciousness already has.

Another way of working with dream as story is not only to write it but also to illustrate it, on paper or in sculpture. One of the things that's very important, I think, in drawing, painting, or working with clay, is to forget what happened to you in kindergarten. Back then, if your painting went up on the wall, you were described as an artist, and you had to be a good artist. If your painting didn't go up, then you weren't an artist. In this way in our culture, we stop ourselves early on. In artistically rendering the dream, I am not referring to what I call gallery art; I am referring to an expression of yourself.

Drawing or sculpting a dream is a very powerful way to bring solidity to the images. But often, by the time you draw the dream image, it has already moved on. What happens is something like what happened to me. In my second drawing, I drew not the actual image of the monkey in the dream but the monkey doing something else. In that way, I continued the story.

I call this work second-chaptering. The dream is the first chapter, and then you second-chapter it either in drawing, writing, or perhaps even dancing it. Jung said it beautifully: "Often the hands will solve a mystery that the intellect has struggled with in vain."

Whether it uses the hands, body, or poetic voice, the imagination wants to move the story onward, giving us the second or third acts of our personal drama. This desire of the imagination, combined with the creative energy behind it, leads to surprises and new solutions, which we could not have found through rational, intellectual problem-solving.

Practically, you can continue a dream in several ways in a waking state. For example, if in a dream you miss a train, you can second-chapter the dream by imagining what you would do and writing that down in story form. Or, if you were to paint a scene from the dream, you might discover that some new element wants to emerge in the painting that was not in the dream, leading the story onward.

Sometimes you find figures in your dream stories that you don't particularly like. This happens frequently, and it's important to also pay attention to these figures because they can bring something new and essential to your life. However, you may have frightening dreams in which there is a force that feels very powerfully negative. In those cases, it may not be appropriate for the ego to deal with that force or those figures directly.

My metaphor for that is, if you meet a snake on the path, you don't go up and shake hands with it. In dream work, if you encounter a powerful, frightening, and perhaps very negative force, bring in, through your imagination, another equally powerful balancing force. The snake, for example, is often balanced by the eagle in medieval paintings, which display an understanding of the balance of two equally powerful figures. You see other examples of this balance of forces in Buddhist iconography, where you have both wrathful deities and benevolent deities. You have both sides. In certain aspects of Christianity, you have the devil and you have Christ.

In all of these examples, you have a balancing that is not just from the ego. This is very important to pay attention to because it can be very overpowering to deal with negative forces only with the ego.

You also see this in fairy tales and myths. Red Riding Hood could not deal with the wolf by herself. She could have been swallowed by it; she needed the woodsman to rescue her with his axe. In doing this kind of work with dreams, especially in dialoguing, we may need to summon the "woodsman" to deal with the "wolf."

Many people ask how they can develop the capacity to remember their dreams. First, you can set a clear intention when you go to sleep. You can say to yourself, "I really want to catch the dream in the morning." That can be quite effective, as is having paper and pencil near you so you can capture the dream immediately. Again, it is about the amount of attention you give to that realm. If you put a certain amount of energy into your relationship with dreams – working with them, trying to integrate them into your life – the psyche will respond to your friendship. As I have said before, the psyche is there to help you. Once it finds out that you've plugged in the telephone, it'll start calling you up, giving you the latest chapter of your life story.

The whole point of working with dreams is to effect change in our lives in a very real way. Otherwise, it is just an intellectual exercise or fantasy. The point of integrating your dreams into your life is to do some healing, and to expand your awareness of who you are and what your place is in the world. Joseph Campbell had a marvelous word for this work: He called it "shape-shifting." That means that you and your perceptions don't have to stay stuck. That is what the dream wants to do – to move things around in your life, to give you the insight and courage to become more fully humane in the service of the world.


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