benefits of dreaming

Dream On - Part 6: Dream Analysis Example

Here's an example of Gestalt dream technique in action, using one of my own dreams, from a period when I was experiencing uncertainty about my next steps in my professional and creative life. I start by recounting the dream (no dream is too short—even a fragment can yield rich results). I describe the overall mood or atmosphere, then inhabit each significant part, animate and inanimate.

Dream: I’m driving into a city with my mother and some kids. I see dark, ominous clouds of various shapes and levels amassing right over the city. As we drive over a bridge into the city, I see a black cloud in the shape of a boot drop down. It seems to hit the head of a swimmer. This action has a sense of gangster warfare—the old-fashioned Italian type—menacing. But there’s also a sense that these gangsters carrying out this aggressive battle are not interested in us ordinary folk.

Mood: Ominous but intriguing, like a quickly evolving film that turns cartoon-ish. In making this shift it becomes almost funny in an edgy, hysterical way while at the same time becoming even more concretely menacing—a boot falling from the sky and kicking someone in the head appears as a surreal cartoon but is at the same time more substantive than clouds massing and swirling.

“I”: I wonder if we’re insane for barreling along right into the storm. I wonder if we should be pulling off to the side. I know I’m the only alert adult present—I can’t count on my mother to make decisions in this situation. I wish to be passive but I feel I should be active. But I don’t know what to do, and I feel pulled forward by the momentum of the car, of the unfolding scene.

Mom: I feel placid. I hate driving. I’m so glad my daughter is driving so I don’t have to take responsibility. I can just be, gaze, observe, think my thoughts. My daughter can handle everything.

Kids: The grownups are acting like it’s OK to be in this situation. So we guess reality is supposed to be this frightening. It’s also exciting, watching ourselves roll right into this vision. It’s like a film or even a cartoon. It’s real and unreal, troubling and wildly entertaining. We’re just drinking it all in, no filters.

Clouds: We are angry and nothing can stop us. We move through the air like we own it. Out of ourselves we form a menace people might laugh at. But watch us form into a huge hard boot that kicks a swimmer hard in the head. Now we are this boot. We form from air but we become hard mass, a weapon. Call us cartoon, but you wouldn’t want to be that swimmer. We will dominate this war with the other dark powers.

Swimmer: I was just swimming and got totally socked with pain. This is what I get for letting down my guard. I have enemies who want to destroy me—I can’t relax ever.

Bridge: I provide access to the densely populated, magical, energetic city. I can’t keep people in or out but if they decide to come, I’ll be their passageway. Once you’re on me you can’t get off because I’m over water.

Water: In me, both pleasure and danger can happen. Beings can swim skillfully through me or drown. I separate the city from the rest of the world. In that way I’m like a moat, something that must be crossed over in order to enter the action, the center.

City: I’m where the action is. I’m what humans have created. I’m all artifice but at the same time I’m where the great human party happens. I’m the place of the least and the most contact. I hold promises that I deliver and foil. In a storm, like now, it’s dangerous to be in me with my tall buildings that could be hit and fall, crushing denizens.

If I were to continue working with this dream I would take one or more of the parts that seem most "not-me" and demonstrate their energy physically. For example, I might become the clouds massing in the sky, and the boot falling and hitting the swimmer. I might then "speak" those parts as "me, Sarah" to help integrate them into my conscious psyche.

I could go even further, representing the dream or an aspect of it in an artistic medium (skills not necessary!). Or I might prefer to move on to analyzing another dream. Either way will yield insights.

Dream On - Part 5: A Dream Analysis Technique (cont.)

Hey, dreamer, in my last post I addressed three of the six basic principles you need to grok dreams the Gestalt way:

  • Everything in the dream is an aspect of the dreamer
  • The dreamer reenacts the dream in the here-and-now
  • The dreamer sticks to the scenario of the dream, instead of generalizing based on waking life

In this post we'll look at the remaining three principles :

  • The parts that are not “I” are emerging consciousness
  • Dreams are embodied consciousness
  • Only the dreamer can discover the dream’s meaning

Zooming in a bit closer:

The parts that are not “I” are emerging consciousness: The elements of the dream that are not the “I” are seen in Gestalt theory as emerging consciousness—present but not quite ready to be “owned” by the dreamer. By inhabiting the point of view of each element in turn, the individual sees the dream scenario from new perspectives that often yield surprising insights. (Even elements that seem destructive or in some way unacceptable from the perspective of the “I” can have revelatory messages when inhabited in the retelling. A tornado might be seen as terrifying by the “I,” but when inhabited, can reveal excitement.) The dreamer becomes conscious of what is on the edge of consciousness—so this is a growth experience, custom-designed for this individual at this point in her development by her own deeper self. According to Kenneth Meyer,

The point of dream work is not necessarily to discover something totally new, but to sharpen the existential dilemmas we find ourselves in, to strip away the details and circumstances that mute the felt-sense of our situations.


Dreams are embodied consciousness: Gestalt theory views dreams as embodied consciousness. Our dreams aren’t abstract thoughts—they are bodily metaphors. A person might dream of swimming in a pool and finding all the water draining out, leaving him sitting alone at the bottom of the cold, empty pool; this might be pointing to the way he has felt “let down” by others in real life, and to a “sinking” feeling he felt when he realized he was being “let down.” Perhaps when this experience occurred in real life, he did not directly deal with it. His dream shows up to give him a chance to face this “unfinished business” (a term coined by Gestalt theorists).

Note that Gestalt theorists see metaphors not as the results of verbal thinking, but as the source of language. The dream comes first; then we describe it in language. This accords with the perspective of linguist George Lakoff and philosopher Mark Johnson in their book Metaphors We Live By:

Metaphor is for most people a device of the poetic imagination and the rhetorical flourish—a matter of extraordinary rather than ordinary language. Moreover, metaphor is typically viewed as characteristic of language alone, a matter of words rather than thought or action. For this reason, most people think they can get along perfectly well without metaphor. We have found, on the contrary, that metaphor is pervasive in everyday life, not just in language but in thought and action. Our ordinary conceptual system, in terms of which we both think and act, is fundamentally metaphorical in nature.

Only the dreamer can discover the dream’s meaning: Gestalt theorists believe that only the individual can discover the meaning of his or her dream. In a longer dream workshop we would extend this this to include a practice whereby an individual whose dream is up for discussion can decide whether or not to invite group members to offer observations using the sentence frame “If this were my dream.” This frame, along with other discussion guidelines, ensure safety by making it clear that the individual is the owner of the dream and its meaning, and keeps us from giving advice. However, for today, we will not offer our own observations of others’ dreams.

In my next post, I'll demonstrate Gestalt dream analysis using one of my own dreams.

Dream On - Part 4: A Dream Analysis Technique

Approaches to dream analysis abound, including Freudian, Jungian, shamanic, culture dreaming, and problem solving techniques. One method I’m especially fond of is Gestalt dream analysis.

Gestalt psychology was developed by Fritz Perls (1893–1970) and Laura Posner Perls (1905–1990) in reaction to traditional psychoanalysis.

Instead of focusing on past trauma, Gestalt focuses on the here and now. It uses experiential techniques, including dream work, to help individuals safely and directly confront and work through difficulties. In addition to Fritz and Laura Perls’ early studies with leading psychologists, theologians, philosophers, and developers of bodywork approaches such as Feldenkreis and Alexander technique, Laura Perls was a student of movement and dance and an accomplished pianist, and Fritz Perls had a strong background in theater. Their artistic training is easily evident in the approach they developed, and this is in turn helps make Gestalt dream work particularly well suited to developing our creativity.

Basic principles of this approach include:

  • Everything in the dream is an aspect of the dreamer
  • The dreamer reenacts the dream in the here-and-now
  • The dreamer sticks to the scenario of the dream, instead of generalizing based on waking life
  • The parts that are not “I” are emerging consciousness
  • Dreams are embodied consciousness
  • Only the dreamer can discover the dream’s meaning

Let’s take a closer look at the first three of these principles:

Everything in the dream is an aspect of the dreamer: The German word gestalt, as used by Fritz and Laura Perls and other German psychologists who inspired their work, means “something that is made of many parts and yet is somehow more than or different from the combination of its parts; broadly, the general quality or character of something.” When applied to dream work, the word points to the fact that dreams include various characters, objects, forces, settings, and moods, and that all of these elements are aspects of the dreamer’s mind. These elements combine to reveal something the dreamer is working through. Gestalt dream work stays focused on the meaning of each aspect of a dream in the context of that particular dream. As Kenneth Meyer (President of the New York Institute for Gestalt Therapy founded by Fritz and Laura Perls) puts it,

A horse within a dream is not any horse, but a specific horse, in a specific setting and in a specific relationship to the other figures. Associating to “horse,” or even acting out one’s general idea of a horse, will not give insight to the motivations and interactions of this particular dream-horse, at this particular time and in this particular context.

The dreamer reenacts the dream in the here-and-now:  Gestalt theorists see experiential here-and-now reenacting of a dream as much more powerful and effective than intellectual analysis. The individual slowly retells the dream as if it’s happening now, beginning by establishing the dream’s mood. To appreciate the gestalt of the dream, the individual inhabits not only the “I” of the dream but every other prominent aspect of it, knowing that every aspect is part of the dreamer. Jack Downing, a founder of the Gestalt Institute of San Francisco, describes it this way:

… If I am driving along a dream highway, the car, the road, the passing automobiles, the distant mountains, the unseen dread, all are me … The car in my dream isn’t my actual car, it is my impression, my memory trace of that automobile, having attributes and opinions and attitudes coming from me, not the vehicle.

The dreamer sticks to the scenario of the dream, instead of generalizing based on waking life: Approaching dreams in this way takes practice, because it’s tempting to think of elements in the dream in the terms one usually thinks of them in waking life. Just as the dream car isn’t the actual car, people from our waking lives who show up in our dreams aren’t the actual people. When Aunt Minnie appears in a dream, it’s important in the retelling to stick to what she is doing, saying, and feeling in this dream, not get caught up in describing her typical behavior in waking life. And Aunt Minnie’s appearance in last night’s dream might have a completely different import than her appearance in another dream.

Up next: A closer look at the remaining core principles of Gestalt dream work.

Dream On - Part 3: Recording Dreams

On the verge of leaving Providence, where I’d attended college, to head out to San Francisco and start inventing adulthood, I met a woman who was deeply involved with dream work. Sitting on a sunny deck with a couple other recent grads, she described how her Jungian analyst was having her write and draw her dreams.

This creative approach to self-development intrigued me. A couple summers later, when I backpacked around Europe for six weeks, I carried a small sketchpad and fine-point markers. I wrote my dreams in detail and then, when I had the time—sitting in the 300-year-old stone house of a friend of a friend amongst olive orchards outside Lucca, or in the garret of the home of childhood friends in Paris’s 16th arrondissement, or in a cramped bed-and-breakfast in Bloomsbury, or on a bench in Munich’s Englischer Garten—I’d select a prominent dream image to illustrate.

I embraced the Jungian approach of plunging into visual art low on technique and high on commitment to dream life—I allowed my drawings to be primitive, knowing skill wasn’t the point. And I liked the way the drawings complemented the words while making their own claims on my attention. Over the years, though I’ve rarely looked at them, I’ve never forgotten them. They have carved their own grooves into my neural pathways.

That summer was the only time I regularly drew my dreams (although writing about it here makes me want to do so again). But I’ve continued to write my dreams. In the process I’ve discovered things about the mechanics of doing so that I’d like to share with you.

Writing in the dark won't earn you high marks in penmanship—but with practice, it's legible.

Writing in the dark won't earn you high marks in penmanship—but with practice, it's legible.

  • Pay attention to even vague images and sensations that seem like part of the dream, and describe them as best you can.
  • Some people prefer to write out their dreams fully upon waking, to capture as much detail as possible. However, if you’re short on time—and who isn’t—even briefly jotting a few phrases or words describing the most vivid images or events very often allows further recall later.
  • As we practice dream recall, it’s common after some time to begin waking with such vivid memories of our dreams that we think it’s impossible to forget them, so we forgo or delay writing them down. But even vivid dreams can disappear easily into the unconscious the longer we’re awake. Discursive thinking—a very strong habit—suppresses our dreams. So keep pen and paper handy and remind yourself that even a minute of jotting upon first waking will give you permanent access to your amazing dream.
  • If you live with others, you might wish to explain to them that you’d like to remain in silence until you’ve jotted your dreams. This may feel odd at first but it can become very comfortable and allow a new way of relating—mutual silence in the service of doing something important. This is a cherished practice at silent meditation retreats where people live in silent community for days, weeks, even months on end.
  • If you share a bed with someone, think about how to record your dreams in a way that doesn’t disrupt their sleep, for example turning journal pages quietly. If you choose to jot at night, training yourself to write in the dark eliminates the problem of waking others up by turning on lights. Or you might experiment with an inexpensive LED book light. I like writing in the dark. I fold down the corner of the next blank page and place a ballpoint in the journal at that spot. When I wake from a dream in the wee hours, I grope for my journal and, eyes closed, do my sleepy best to write legibly. Generally I fall asleep again right away, happy that I’ve caught the dream by the tail before it has slithered back into my unconscious.
  • Some people like discussing their dreams with friends and loved ones. This is the basis of rich conversation and a great means of deepening intimacy. On the other hand, if you’re using dreams to stoke your creative process, you may find that relating to them privately supports that process. Experiment and see what feels right.

Happy dreaming!


Dream On - Part 2: Dream Recall

We dream multiple dreams, every night. No matter how entrenched our habit of not remembering dreams, our dream life is willing, even eager, to make itself known to us, provided we prepare for it—and approach it with an attitude of invitation and respect. This is a matter, not of hocus pocus, but of lessons learned from many experiments with what does and doesn’t work. Here are some tips for encouraging dream recall:

  • Place a journal and pen by your bedside. Choose a pen that doesn’t have a tendency to leak; simple, smooth-writing ballpoint pens work well.
  • Alternatively, you might wish to speak your dreams into a small recorder, and transcribe them later. However, for the writers in the house, I recommend writing, because even the way you record your dreams as you emerge from them can be, or evolve into, a form of creative drafting.
  • Before you go to sleep each night, make the wish that you’ll remember your dreams.
  • Make a plan for how you’ll record your dreams upon waking. For example, you might say to yourself, “I plan to take three minutes before getting out of bed to jot the strongest images I remember, and another five minutes to flesh them out while eating breakfast.” Or you might say, “I plan to jot my dreams when I wake during the night. Just knowing I’ve fulfilled my commitment of remembering and recording my dreams will help me go back to sleep easily and restfully.”
  • Upon waking, during the night or in the morning, before moving or speaking, gently inquire internally whether there are any dream images coming to you. Even the slightest sensation or fragment is worth attending to. If at all possible, jot down whatever comes the moment you recall it. Don’t judge yourself for not remembering more. Gradually, over time, your recall will improve.
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At first you may feel that you are the single human failure who is incapable of remembering a dream. Despite careful preparation and invocation, morning after morning you draw a complete blank. Don’t despair. If you persevere, it’s almost certain that you’ll begin to remember your dreams. Remind yourself to invite, not demand. The subconscious is like a small child or an easily frightened animal—it simply will not come out to play unless and until it feels it is being treated gently and respectfully. Impatience makes it run for cover. Respect and curiosity for this mysterious, fragile yet powerful creature will eventually draw it into the light.

As you continue to practice, the act of recording will bring more details to your awareness. In my next post I’ll provide more support for recording your dreams.

Dream On – Part 1

I recently heard the author Robert Glück read from a memoir-in-progress called About Ed in which he incorporates dreams. Bob likes to fold in matter written by others and in this case the dreams belong to former lover Ed, an artist who died of AIDS. The dreams demonstrate, among other things, that the dreamer knew a thing or two about striking visual imagery, and, poignantly, that he knew he was going to die. As I leapt and shimmied from scene to scene along with the dreamer, I was intrigued to glimpse how the dreams simultaneously frame and are framed by the story of the two men’s relationship. I am looking forward to reading the memoir in its entirety.

I’ve always loved Bob’s writing, and felt especially close to this work because of my own involvement with dreams. My mother used to comment that the simple fact of dreaming boosted her self-esteem. Depleted by the demands of parenting four kids while teaching high school French, her dreams reminded her that she was an interesting person with an interesting mind, someone bigger than the sum of the items on her endless to-do list. Her comments must have programmed me to appreciate dream life. I still remember dreams I had as a child, and I started recording them when I was about 12. In my early 20s I saw a therapist who taught me dream analysis based on Gestalt principles. I still love this approach and the surprising insights it inevitably reveals.

Photo of Journal.png

In my late 30s, as a grad student in the MFA in Creative Writing program at San Francisco State University, I encountered William Carlos Williams’ prose poem “Kora in Hell: Improvisations.” It includes diaristic entries Williams wrote at the end of long days working as a doctor, passages that allow the drift into sleep to modify his musings. This poem opened a door and I walked right through it—into my dreams. I’m completing my third full-length creative book and all three make extensive use of dreams.

But in addition to employing dreams for artistic ends, I also continue to record them, often several a night, with no particular goal in mind. Why, exactly? In a sense, just because. Because one of my favorite things about being human is the fact of imagination. As much as it gets us into trouble, it’s also one of the things that’s amazing about us. And dreams are the imagination at work every single night, in all its wild, vivid glory (and sometimes in its mundane, practical aspect—dreams leave no stone unturned). Even if I record a dream and don’t do anything in particular with it, I feel better knowing I’ve honored it by writing it down. I enjoy feeling the remnants of the dream cling to my day, coloring it with a vision from the beyond.

You might be saying, Well, Sarah, you dream, but I don’t. Dear reader, fact is, practically everyone dreams, every night. That’s just how it is. Even cats dream.

Or you might be saying, OK, I’ll take science’s word for it that I have dreams, but I don’t remember them. Never fear. In future blog posts, I’ll provide tips I give coaching clients who want help with dream recall and dream recording. I’ll also write more about the many benefits of dreams and various approaches to understanding them.