20 January 2015

Driving a stake through Freud's heart

Whenever I tell someone I am involved in dreamwork or that I lead a dreamwork circle, their first questions invariably contain some form of the words "interpretation" and/or "analysis", like the following.

"So, what do you people do when you get together?

"Well, we take turns telling dreams to the group, and then...".

"And then you all interpret them, right?"

"Well, no, actually. We avoid interpreting the dream as much as possible. What we do is we work the dream together."

And at that point I often detect a blank stare of cognitive dissonance. I can explain how other members of the group ask questions of the dreamer to help her explore the dream (Do you know a calico cat like the one in your dream? Did you or anyone you know live with one? In the dream you owned an aquarium. How would you describe the kind of people who own aquariums? In the dream you pass by a sleeping dog in the street? Do you think your dream made a visual pun about 'leaving sleeping dogs lie?' "

And I can go on to explain that we might draw pictures of characters, objects or scenes from dreams, or even play "dream theater" in which group members perform someone's dream like a play. The ways in which one can "work" a dream are as endless as the imaginations of the dreamworkers.

But people always get stuck on interpreting. That's what you do with dreams, isn't it? We've all seen the cliche movie and TV show scenes in which someone lying on (or sitting on) a couch tells the psychoanalyst his dream, and the very grave-faced psychoanalyst tells the dreamer (in this case playing the passive role of "the patient") what the dream "means". That's what you're supposed to do, right?

Here's the problem: if you analyze something, you decide that's what it means. And you look no further. You stop exploring. You stop experiencing. Another thing: analysis involves only the rational mind. It leaves out emotions, instincts, intuition, aesthetic sense, and many other dimensions of what makes us human beings. Often it takes months of replaying a dream in one's mind (re-experiencing that mysterious desire or fear or wonder inspired by some part of it) and experimenting with it (making or acquiring an object in the dream; researching characters or places in the dream) before the much desired "aha!" finally occurs. And when that aha occurs, you know it. It's more than the smug intellectual satisfaction of quickly solving a logical puzzle. It is knowledge. YOU KNOW THAT YOU KNOW.

As the old chestnut goes, "If your only tool is a hammer, everything you encounter looks like a nail." It's like that scene in Forrest Gump where Bubba names all the things you can do with shrimp.

But all some people could ever think of doing with shrimp is breading and frying it!

There are so many other tools in the box. There are so many other colors in the paint box. There are so many other instruments in the orchestra. Hammers are good for their purpose. And so is analysis. It has brought us many of the riches our civilization possesses.

But if you really want to learn about your dreams, you need to drive a stake through Uncle Sigmund's heart. It's OK. He'd understand. He'd see it as an Oedipal necessity.


Alexander Svitych said...

I wouldn't necessarily polarize analysis and intuition (inner voice, experiencing, insight, etc.). There is indeed emphasis on analysis in the Western tradition. And there's more attention to inner self in the Orient.

Yet both serve the same purpose - getting knowledge. Just the tools are different, and they don't necessarily cross out each other. Moreover, I think serious spiritual practices are impossible without a sort of intellectualism. Intellect serves here as a tool to interpret you mystical experiences.

Otherwise, without such interpretation, it's like getting high on LSD without really leaving any seeds of understanding for yourself.

Great post as usual. Thank you Theo!

Theo Huffman said...

My point is not that intellect (more specifically logical reasoning) should NEVER be used in the process, but that intellect (especially intellect based on a material-reductionist worldview) has hijacked spheres of activity where it should not be the primary mode of functioning. You have to have and experience before you can interpret it. Our culture tends to try to analyse before it has actually fully experienced things. Or even analyze things BEFORE experiencing them.

Alexander Svitych said...

"You have to have and experience before you can interpret it." - couldn't say better. And this is how both tools are combined - experience first, and reasoning next.