- A basic dream-sharing method can be safely practiced in a variety of group settings.
- The goal is not dream interpretation, but dream appreciation.
- Respect for the dreamer and the dream is the cardinal principle.
Originally trained as a psychoanalyst, Montague Ullman (1916-2008) said he always struggled with Freud’s theory of dreams. Freud emphasized dream interpretation as a therapeutic tool for treating people with neurotic disorders. Ullman agreed with this idea in a clinical context, but worried it might lead to a broader assumption that no one should look into dreams, their own or other people’s, without a mental health professional present, lest a hidden neurosis suddenly explode into awareness.
Ullman devoted many years of work in both the United States and Sweden to programs in community mental health that expanded public access to valuable psychiatric insights that, in conventional therapy, had been restricted to clinical patients. Through this work, he became increasingly confident that ordinary people could be trusted to safely explore the unconscious without any expert overseers. Specifically, he became more convinced of the need to expand the practice of dream interpretation beyond the confines of the therapist’s office, and to bring dreamwork more fully into the standard practices of community mental health.
As a first principle, Ullman set aside the term “dream interpretation” in favor of “dream appreciation.” This subtle but crucial shift of emphasis allowed him to design a process that can truly be applied in all settings by anyone, no matter what their level of expertise. It also reverses the power dynamic in a typical therapeutic situation, in which the therapist is the authoritative healer and the patient is the recipient of the therapist’s skillful insights and interventions. For Ullman, the goal was to bring the individual dreamer back to the center of the process, orienting everything else around that cardinal point.
By insisting on maximal respect for the dreamer and the dream, the process enables an unusually honest conversation about unconscious thoughts, feelings, and conflicts. The process also empowers people to overcome the difficulty of understanding the strange metaphorical language of dreaming, which Ullman attributed to the inevitably biased and limited perspective of the individual human mind:
“Obviously such a handicapped creature could use some help. This is where the group comes in. As I envisage it, the task of the group is to define that help in a way that works in harmony with the nature of the dream, respects the intimate relationship of the dreamer to his dream, and preserves the dreamer’s authority over his dream.”
In the book he co-wrote with Nan Zimmerman, Working with Dreams (1979), Ullman outlined the three basic stages of his approach. Stage I of the process begins by going around the group and asking someone to share a dream. Once a person has agreed to do so, they describe the dream in as much detail as they can remember, while everyone else listens intently. After the dream is retold, the members of the group are invited to ask questions about aspects of the dream’s content they may have missed or not quite understood. No interpretations or extra comments are allowed at this point: "This is only the first stage and we want to stay with the dream just as we heard it.”
In Stage II, the dreamer sits back and listens as the rest of the group proceeds to discuss the dream. Ullman stressed that we ultimately cannot know what the dream means for the person who dreamed it, “but there is something we can do to be of help. We can each try to make the dream our own, respond to it as if it were our own.” An open-ended conversation follows, with each member of the group offering comments, reflections, and insights based on their own version of the dreamer’s dream. Ullman encouraged everyone to pay close attention to the metaphorical possibilities in the dream’s contents, and allow their own personal feelings into it without judgment—“just project your own meanings into the imagery as freely and as honestly as possible.” The discussion continues as long as the dreamer and group have time and energy.
In Stage III, the dreamer comes back into the process and responds to what the members of the group have said about the dream, talking about whatever ideas or insights they find most intriguing. This stage involves an open reflection on the various possibilities raised, not judging who was right and who was wrong. The deepest discoveries often emerge only after the gathering has ended and the dreamer has had some time alone to process and reflect on all the input from the group. In this stage, as in the previous ones, the group follows the lead of the dreamer, trying to be sensitive to their limits.
The Freedom of the Unconscious
The dreamer may also at this point share more details about the background and waking life context of the dream, which may elicit another round of discussion among the group. Often, the members of the group will say they wish they had this information at the beginning of the process; they might have given much better appreciations.
Ullman believed the reverse is actually true. If you know too much about the dreamer’s ideas, your view of the dream will narrow in the direction of what the dreamer has told you. The most helpful interpretations, the ones that come most freely and spontaneously, are only possible if the dreamer’s ideas are bracketed out and the group focuses their unconscious intuitions about the dream itself. Some of the appreciations may be irrelevant or off the mark, but some of them may shed fresh new light on a vital detail of the dream, which might have been overlooked if the group was thinking only in terms of the dreamer’s point of view.