One of my favourite films is the 2010 classic, “Inception”. I remember the buzz around it when it came out – similar to the excitement around “The Matrix”, when it came out in 1999. The buzz was partly due to the fact that it was Christopher Nolan’s next big film after the phenomenal success of the “The Dark Night”, but “Inception” had been much longer in the making, as Nolan worked on the script for around ten years. “Inception” is about a special kind of thief – no ordinary stealer of possessions, but a stealer of ideas. He enters the dreams of his victims – and by sharing in their dream-states and projecting himself deep into their subconscious, he has unparalleled access into whatever secrets and information they may be withholding – even from themselves. The film is about his biggest challenge – not stealing an idea, but implanting one. This is “Inception” – and only he has ever done it before, just the once, with disastrous consequences.
I am fascinated by dreams, including their use in therapy. I think they can reveal a great deal to us – but not in any straightforward way. I don’t believe in a kind of common dream symbolism which applies to everybody and in which particular objects stands for particular ideas. Nor do I believe that dreams are speaking to us about the future. But I do believe that our dreams are speaking to us – that we are speaking to ourselves – and that this can be a powerful form of communication.
As with free association, it’s not just what we say or dream that is important, but the meaning that we attach to it. What it does remind us of, what does it make us think of? What interpretation of it makes sense to us? And, importantly, why these words, why this dream, right now? What is happening in my life that makes sense of these particular images or scenarios? Whatever meaning we end up attaching to it, just thinking through the various components of a dream and what comes to mind, can be a fruitful therapeutic exercise in itself. If you haven’t tried it before, I can thoroughly recommend taking a dream to session, and discussing it with your therapist – if you can remember it, that is…..
For a very long time I struggled with remembering my dreams. I love dreaming, and I love the interesting and complex worlds that I get to inhabit, and the things I get to feel and experience. Ever since my therapist mentioned bringing dreams to session, more than two years ago, I have tried – and most often failed – to remember them. Occasionally one would be so emotionally powerful or disturbing that it would stick in my mind and provide valuable material for discussion. But most often any trace of my dreams would disappear as soon as I woke up.
But since a week or so before my Easter therapy break, I have been remembering dreams on a regular basis – if not every night, then almost every other night. Although I remember only small portions of a much bigger whole, often I remember a number of fragments from different dreams during the same night. It happens so regularly now that I only really have time to email them to my therapist so that both of us have a record of them; we don’t get a chance to discuss them all. But as my therapist says, they are ‘in the bank’ and we can return to them; something that happens later on in therapy may trigger a memory of a past dream, and it may suddenly feel particularly relevant, or it may enable us to see something in a different light.
I realised very recently, that my sudden ability to remember my dreams coincided almost exactly with a major shift in my therapy and a big leap in terms of progress. It also coincided with the beginning of a different sort of relationship between me and my ‘inner child’ – a relationship more open to love and support and co-operation, as opposed to a relationship of enmity. The change in my ability to remember dreams does not seem like coincidence – but what I’m not sure about is whether it’s the deepening of my connection with my therapist and my greater ability and preparedness to trust her and be vulnerable with her, that was the key factor, or whether it was the change in how I viewed my inner child. I think perhaps it was both – and that in fact they are related.
It certainly feels as though many of my recent dreams have been about that inner child’s fears and vulnerabilities; some of them have felt like strikingly direct messages. And seeing and knowing her a little better now, it certainly seems possible that she could be acting as a sort of ‘gatekeeper’ – that she has the strength to block and unblock recollection of my dreamworld depending on how connected and accepted she feels. And that she – and other parts of me – can use my dreams to communicate how they think and feel.
The thief in “Inception” does not work alone, he is part of a team, a key member of which is the Architect. The Architect designs the shared dreamworld which the thief and his victim enter. The victim populates the dreams with their own human projections, and they furnish it with the details of their own ideas and thoughts. For example, the Architect designs a building and places inside it a safe; the victim’s subconscious fills the safe with the things they wish to keep most hidden.
Over time, I have started to try and understand not just my individual dreams, but my dream-scapes. The features that recur, the particular forms they take, or the items that inhabit them. Dreams use the ordinary features, people, and occurrences of day to day life, and combine them with our thoughts, ideas, dreams, beliefs and associations, to form a narrative that we can then try and interpret. There is no right or wrong answer – the journey to interpretation, or multiple interpretations, can be an end in itself.
I like to think of my subconscious and I as being joint architects of my dreamworld. We feed off each others’ creativity and interpretations. For a long time, the image or concept of a ‘house’ has been a helpful metaphor for me, of therapy. When I dream of a house, I tend to look for an interpretation involving therapy, but which came first? Did I dream of a house and interpret that as being about therapy? Or did the metaphor come first, and influence the dream? I do think that once a connection or particular interpretation is made, that makes it more likely that my subconscious will use the same image again, to represent the same concept. So although I don’t believe in a common dream symbolism, I do think that as my subconscious and I work together in my dream architecture, over time I may well end with a dream symbolism that is fairly consistent and makes sense for me.
I have also noticed, for example, that the colour white in my dreams tends to have negative connotations, and is associated with situations that are unsafe or threatening in some way, despite perhaps initially appearing the opposite. I think I can trace the original association to a childhood memory, but at the same time, now that I have made that connection, I think it is more likely that my subconscious will use it in future dreams. Just as it appears to be using the sense that I have that when I dream about my youngest child, he represents a part of me. And so often, particularly when my attention is elsewhere, he ends up drowning.
Dreams are powerful because there are no constraints – anything can happen. There is speculation that dreams provide “a psychological space where overwhelming, contradictory, or highly complex notions can be brought together by the dreaming ego that would be unsettling while awake. This process serves the need for psychological balance and equilibrium” (www.medicalnews.today.com).
Perhaps that need is served in more than one way – both through the processing that happens during sleep itself, and the processing that can happen when one thinks about one’s dreams, and why they are significant. They may help to bring psychological balance and equilibrium – and part of that could involve a process of connecting us to ourselves, reminding us of who we once were, or of things we have forgotten.
“She had locked something away, something deep inside her. The truth that she had once known, but….she chose to forget” (“Inception”). Yet we cannot be our own thief, stealing from the vaults of our own minds. The thief was almost defeated by the projection of his dead wife, who he had not yet made peace with, and who continually tried to sabotage him. We need to face our projections (or demons – however you choose to refer to them), in order to have access to the deepest parts of ourselves.
Sometimes we need to choose to forget, in order to survive. But later on, we may need to remember, in order to live. Dreams can help us to do that, if we build them with ourselves.