The Dream Toolkit
by Doug Grunther
Our dreams provide key insights into our true nature and for centuries have helped people deal effectively with major changes in their lives. The most effective way I know to do dream work is to use a specific“Toolkit” of principles. The original tool kit was devised by my teacher, Dr. Jeremy Taylor. I have expanded it to include eleven key principles which can greatly enhance your ability to understand the deeper meaning of your dreams. In this column I present the first three.
An important point before we discuss these principles: I am not asking you to take my word on this or any aspect of dream work. There are many different theories about dreams and strategies for working them. If you already have dream strategies which work for you, by all means continue to use them on your own. You may discover other methods in the future which work for you.
That said, I have found the principles which follow to be invaluable for effective dream work and so the purpose of this lesson is to familiarize them to you and have you apply them during this course. Here are the first three principles:
1. All dreams come in the service of health and wholeness. This is another way of saying there is no such thing as a bad dream.
Many people reading this principle or hearing it for the first time often react with “How can all dreams come in the service of health and wholeness when so many of them contain horrific images and scenes of death and devastation?”
One of the best ways to answer this question is to cite a dream which is affecting every reading this column right now (assuming you are not currently naked or wearing only hand-made clothing). Here is a horrifying nightmare experienced by Elias Howe in 1844 which led to the invention of the sewing machine: In the dream Howe is chased by cannibals through an African jungle. Running for his life as fast as he can he nonetheless gets captured, bound, and thrown into a huge pot of water A big fire is lit to cook him alive. As the water bubbles up around him, the rope binding his hands loosen up. As he attempts to escape from the pot of boiling water the cannibals poke him back into the cauldron with sharp spears.
Howe awoke from the nightmare in a state of great agitation, literally sweating. Yet a part of his mind seized on a curious detail: The cannibals’ spears had holes near the points rather than at the broad end. As he fully awoke he suddenly had a huge “AHA!” He realized that the reason he had struggled so hard to invent a working sewing machine was because he had assumed the hole in needle where the sewing machine thread went through the cloth had to be at the blunt end where most of the weight was. But the cannibal spears had holes towards the point end. By moving the hole to the point end of the sewing machine needles, it was then relatively easy to design a mechanism to poke the thread down through layers of cloth, wrap it around another thread, and pull it up again.
This has been the design of sewing machines ever since. And because the invention of the sewing machine exponentially increased the amount of clothing provided to people around the world, Howe’s horrific nightmare and his creative use of it has had a positive effect on millions of people. While very few of us will become great inventors through dream work, this is only one of countless examples where a frightening, horrific dream turns out to have a significantly positive message.
Our dreams often reveal challenging situations where we appear weak and helpless, yet they are never coming to say, ‘This is the way it is and there is nothing we can do about it.’ They may be coming to say that if we continue to ignore the situation of the dream or try to sweep its emotional content out of consciousness, then there may be future problems.
At the same time our dreams always offer creative solutions if we are willing to dig deeply enough and become more aware of their underlying messages.
2. If we can remember a dream, we can deal with the truth it is coming to reveal.
The first psychoanalyst who regularly appeared on a radio talk show I hosted many years ago did not agree with this principle. He felt that caution was often required whenever a particularly challenging dream occurs. While it’s true that with a particularly difficult dream it can take some time to uncover the most significant levels, I have found that whenever a dreamer is willing to work a dream, no matter how frightening or horrific, there are immediate benefits short term and even greater benefits long term.
So I agree with those dream experts who say if we couldn’t deal with the dream, we wouldn’t have remembered it in the first place. Or, to turn the phrasing around, if we can remember a dream, we can effectively deal with it.
3. Only the dreamer can know the truth of his/her dream. This usually comes in the form of a silent “AHA” or tingling sensation.
My first dream teacher, Dr. Montague Ullman, a renowned psychiatrist, said to a group of us studying with him, “My colleagues have been killing the dream.” He went on to explain that in his long professional experience from the 1940’s forward, most psychiatrists and psychoanalysts have taken an “authoritarian” position where they are the experts handing out the dream interpretation while their patients are called upon to receive the wisdom and apply it. Monty’s mission was to return the transformative power of dream work back to the dreamer. While it is clearly an advantage to have access to dream experts, the dreamer is the ultimate authority of what his/her dream means.
We know when we’ve hit on a truth of a dream when we experience a silent “AHA!” of recognition. Or we may know we’ve met the truth of a dream when we feel a tingling sensation somewhere in our body. Whatever form the signal takes, it will be a direct, spontaneous, clearly noticeable experience.
It can be very creative and satisfying to wrestle intellectually with a dream and test different hypotheses…sometimes these activities eventually lead to the “AHA!” But it’s important to distinguish a cerebral, intellectual exercise from the spontaneous “AHA!” of recognition. This spontaneous "AHA!" may come after a short time working a dream. Or it may take days, weeks even months before it arrives. I've had a number of experiences where I never received an "AHA!" working a particular dream, then it came with a subsequent dream. One thing I can assure you: The more you seek to understand your dreams and work with them, the more likely you will get those marvelous "AHAs!" of recognition.