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Opening The Doors To The Self: Dreams

by Bill Engle October 8th, 2013 No Comments


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Opening The Doors To The Self:  Dreams

  Widening our definitions of reality to include phenomena which are regularly perceived by the unconscious can help us find the path back to the self at a soul level. This is true even if these phenomena are often discounted by the conscious mind. Dreams provide a valuable perspective on this journey and their messages are available to us on a regular basis. In order to decipher these messages, we must allow the defenses of the conscious mind to rest. This allows us to use its acuity to organize the information we are receiving in dreams. By using hypnosis to gain access to dream images generated during sleep,  we can perceive that we are actually developing a relationship with profound and utterly personal guidance.

Dream images become reports on our evolution toward understanding and reuniting with ourselves at a soul level. They point out areas where we are blocked in that journey and they mark breakthroughs in our efforts to know ourselves more completely.


I use dreams as a door to the psyche when I am working with people who are fully involved in the process of transformation. I find them to be one of the most direct routes into core issues. They quickly highlight the anatomy of the separation from the self at a soul level. There are many approaches to deciphering the meaning of dreams. Some of the most effective begin with returning to that state just between waking and dreaming, through hypnosis. 
Once arrived at, this state which Robert Bosnak very descriptively calls, ‘the littoral zone’ (like the shoreline, it is place between two very different modes of existence), the work can begin. In hypnosis, I ask the client to re-tell the dream he has just told me in the conscious state. Inevitably, more details emerge in the retelling, and new connections are made between the variouspatterns in the dream.


I will relate a dream here (refered to later) in order to demonstrate the various ways one can use the images in the dream. These methods help bridge the gulf which separates us from our authentic experience of ourselves. I will refer to this dream at different points and use its elements as examples of ways to understand a dream at different levels.  This dream was dreamt by someone who, during our initial lengthy interview, never mentioned her family of origin. She never mentioned the way her parents had interfered with her ability to contact herself at a soul level because she was completely unconscious to the way they contributed to her sense of dis-ease. She came to me because she just felt something was amiss and because she had vague feeling of fear. After the initial interview, I had few clues as to where to begin based on the information she had given me. This information mainly circled around, but never fully touched upon, this feeling of vague anxiety. Everything she related to me seemed relatively rosy. Even though I can usually intuit the message behind the words, I did not guess the degree of discomfort which lay behind her competent, sweet demeanor.


The Dream:

She dreamed she was moving into a new house in a far away land with jungle all around it. The person who had her father’s job before him had left the family the house. She found an arbor which she imagined planting beautiful vines on, but her mother told her that this was a very bad idea and that she had different plans for the place. She walked around the yard and beautiful women emerged from the jungle. One took a ceramic heart from under her petticoat and handed it to her. She noticed it was broken. Her father was furious that she had accepted the gift, saying,  “You don’t know what it is, it could be a work order to go work in a far away city which would be terrible.” At that, she imagined going away and working in a far away city and it did not seem so bad. She fell asleep in the arbor that her mother had decorated her way and awoke to find a crocodile emerging from the jungle, ready to attack her. She ran inside and jumped on a table. Her mother jumped on a different table. She was reaching down to bring her beloved dog up on the table with her when the crocodile’s jaw snapped shut. She awoke in a state of terrible fear…

Sometimes, the information contained within the images or patterns will be very explicit and easy to see. In the dream above, the broken ceramic heart could not have been more obvious as a statement about her state. When I asked her how she felt about being handed this broken heart, she was able to deeply access the extent to which her own heart had been broken. I asked her to focus on the feeling in her own heart by asking her to enter into the ceramic heart. I asked her to “become” the ceramic heart.

From this point of view, I asked her to describe the levels of sensation of being of that heart. As a result, we arrived at a scene of severe parental abuse in waking life. This had occurred at a very early age and she had completely blocked the experience from her memory. This was the beginning of the journey to discover why she had this vague feeling that “things were amiss.”

This idea of becoming an object or a person in the dream is borrowed from Gestalt therapy, but it takes this idea one step further. In that system, it is a powerful technique for gaining information about one’s projections about one’s identity onto objects or people in the environment.  But all the information is still reflected back on the identity which ultimately needs to change in order for true growth to occur. No doubt, there is much useful information which can be gained from this type of exercise.

However, if the object of this type of work is to grow as completely as possible into one’s native sense of self without defenses, projections from the false self become meaningless. If the work is successful, there is no longer the identity of the false self to reflect back on. This is because, hopefully, our identity changes from moment to moment as we rearrange our sense of self to be in fuller alignment with ourselves at a soul level. There is really no point in augmenting perceptions of that identity which is only useful insofar as it highlights the degree of separation we are experiencing from ourselves at a soul level.

But by actually transforming our identity into the object or person through hypnotic suggestion and guided imagery, we can have an actual experience of a new identity. This is because we leave our identity of the false self and its defenses behind. This must happen if we are to step outside the traps and walls we have created for ourselves – for whatever reason. This is because these walls tend to limit the breadth of the experience of the native self. This process is especially effective if the transformation of identity is that into the object or person or image which
is a product of our own subconscious. There is no denying its reality, and there is no denying the information gained from this exercise.


Sometimes the images are coded in such a way as to need some deciphering. It was clear to her that she would be sad that her dog had died. But by entering into the image of the dog through feeling, another level was revealed. This had a much more profound effect on her self – understanding. When I asked her how she felt about the dog, she said he was her constant companion and that she loved him more than anything else alive. She said that he was ‘like a part of me.’ By returning to the moment of losing him, and using the feeling this produced as an affect bridge,  she was able to touch another situation where her mother was, by her deed and words, killing a part of her. She was able to experience this death in an undefended way. Therefore she was able to understand the origin of the pain of separation from herself which her mother had engendered. By allowing herself to explore the anatomy of this separation in dream images she was able to explore all of the places this pain of separation from herself affected. This allowed her to touch her own life force again. 

This level of self-understanding could not be reached simply by talking about the psychodynamics of her anxiety. This is because

1. The entire reality of this separation is unknowable at that level since the defenses of the conscious mind have necessarily been tightly kept in place
2. Even if this reality were hinted at through psychodynamic conversation and dialogue they would provide few mechanisms to shift away from the old paradigm.


  The technique of using an affect bridge – that is, connecting situations, times or places through the common emotion they share – is used by many hypnotherapists. This is usually used to travel from a conscious state to an unconscious state. It is a very effective way to access information which is hidden to the conscious mind. The conscious mind generally tends to categorize events chronologically or through ‘rational connection.’ For example, it might state: “that brown dog looks the brown dog I had when I was six who was run over by a car.” In that statement, rational or logical connection accomplishes what it often does: it leaves out emotional color as a protective device. An affect bridge might connect the following statement to a set of core issues around sadness. By translating “When I wear that brown sweater, I feel sad”  to “The brown color of the sweater brings me back to the moment my dog was run over. It connects me to the pain I felt but would not let myself express because my father was there. My father never let me cry, and there is a well of sadness which has been unexpressed all these years.” 
The only difference in the actual clinical situation would be that these latter statements would only emerge after the emotional release the contact with sadness engenders. Usually, this can only occur when the sadness is encountered without the defenses of the conscious mind. This emotional release would most likely connect to other emotions behind the sadness. And so the journey to self at a soul level reveals itself at deeper and deeper levels.


This way of using an affect bridge, or emotional release, to travel from a non-conscious state to a conscious state is even more powerful than using it in the reverse direction, which is more common. This is because it circumvents even very tightly-held defenses; it allows us to come in the “back door” of conscious experience. I am quite sure that if this person had been working in conventional talk therapy, it would have taken months, if not years, to access the information we were able to touch in a few sessions. This is because her conscious defenses were necessarily, because of the deeply-held pain, so well polished. In a psychodynamic situation, the dialogue about the sweater could have easily stayed at the level of interaction we have when talking about the weather.


Another technique similar to the affect bridge in connecting dream images to the experience of the larger self is the body sensation or reaction bridge. Here, the physical reactions present themselves spontaneously without the introductory aspect emotional response provides.


Often, the physical reaction will lead back to the emotion, rather than vice versa as with the affect bridge. Many talk therapies overlook the wisdom which is held in the body, believing that the mind is the only place where information about emotional imbalance can be obtained. I have found that the body is, first and foremost, a field of integration of experience.

By listening to physical symptoms, we can uncover experience we once thought lost to us. The conscious mind cannot erase that which the body experiences. It may try to ignore it, but information remains accessible simply by opening to physical reactions or sensations.

Many times, dreams will allow us to enter into fully visceral experiences of often-negative emotions. We would never allow ourselves to experience these with our conscious defenses in place. In this dream, she woke up in terror. In waking life, she never allows herself to experience this level of fear. It would be too overwhelming to her self-reliant false self, which she needs because she has found no other way to deal with the terror she holds within her. The dream can produce emotions in us which we don’t allow ourselves to acknowledge in a waking state. These unexpressed emotions are the building blocks of the walls we use to separate ourselves from experience at a soul level. The dream images manage to bring us back into connection at this level while the false self is literally sleeping. This allows us to explore and integrate them into a larger, more balanced sense of self. 

On the one hand, the types of coping mechanisms which are sleeping while the dreams weave their messages are absolutely imperative. They allow us to maintain sanity in an insane situation. For example, children who are subjected to constant abuse of any kind by their family dynamics cannot afford the luxury of being fully conscious of the pain the abuse is producing within them.  However, once the “insane” situation is over, once
the child has grown so he can begin to operate outside of the sphere of the family dynamic, it is important to allow a shift. This shift must occur in the coping mechanisms or defenses which were created to deal with the dynamic of the “insane” situation. This allows us to maintain a clear channel of information streaming in from the new circumstances in which we find ourselves. If there is no shift, we are unable to clearly understand
new information. This is because we are constantly cataloguing our experience through our defense mechanisms to past situations rather than perceiving new information objectively. The defense mechanisms must also shift in order for us to maintain clear contact with the self we are trying to preserve by creating them in the first place.

Unfortunately, this dissolution of the coping mechanism does not always occur spontaneously when the situation it evolved in does. All too
often, it tends to take on a life of its own. We find ourselves creating layer after layer of karmic involvement in our attempt to contact the
emotions which the coping mechanism just as actively continues to keep us from experiencing. Unless these emotions are allowed their true and
authentic experience,  we are drawn further and further away from the possibility of a direct and authentic communication with the ourselves at a
soul level.

In this case, by gently bringing the dreamer back into the full visceral experience of terror in hypnosis, she was able to unravel a whole series of events where this terror had crippled her ability to cope. By reliving the genesis of the crippling terror, she was able to begin to, figuratively, walk again. The dream allowed her the opportunity to heal which her conscious defenses could not understand or allow.

There are at least two general categories of images or symbols which emerge in dreams which provide information at different levels of
understanding. These two categories are archetypal images and personally-understood symbols. The term, archetype, was coined by
Jung to describe the same images which he found recurring again and again in different patients’ dream lives. These images often refer to realities which are present at the soul level which all people share, which he calls the collective unconscious. Jung points to archetypal images as containers of vast amounts of information. These images span the realm of the collective unconscious of which dreams are but one emergent phenomenon.
Because they are shared, archetypal images can be read from person to person and dream to dream in the same way. Personally-understood images are only relevant in their relationship to the personal meaning of the symbol within the person’s own psyche. Images regularly cross the boundaries of these two categories. Nonetheless it is important to keep this possible distinction in mind.

The function of archetypal images contrasts with the function of more personally-understood images. I have found that when archetypal images
emerge, they are indicative of a major shift in consciousness. The more personally-understood images can also function in this way, but generally,
they deal with the understanding of ourselves at a more quotidian level. Personally-understood images can be compared in their function with the
images of the minor arcana of Tarot cards. This is because they deal with our personal situation. Archetypal images can be compared with the images of the major arcana. This is because they are concerned with our interaction with forces greater than ourselves.

In practice, it is useful to explore dream images from both standpoints. This is because, as mentioned, these images have a habit of shifting category. In this dream, the jungle – a wild and unconfined place, much like the subconscious – is a classic archetypal image. In this case, she did feel like the jungle was wild and unconfined, so the archetypal reading of it is valid here. However, she could have grown up in a jungle and found it to be a safe haven; in this case the classic archetypal meaning would have led us away from the path of understanding rather than toward it. This is why it is so important to check the nature of archetypal imagery against the language of each individual’s subconscious.

Beyond the information gained through the affect bridge, the body bridge, the use of archetypal and personally-understood symbols and the
transformation of identity,  dreams can provided more maps. These are maps to some of the issues which contribute to the way in which a person has been separated from his sense of self. These guides are especially valuable when someone has had to deeply sever connections to the self due to severe abuse. In this dream, I was given concrete information about the severity, genesis, and depth of this woman’s dislocation from herself in a few sentences. However, although this information had been lost to the conscious mind, the unconscious mind had preserved it in a way which needs only a little understanding to decipher.

A superficial reading of the map of the above dream told me this about this about the client:  Her issue was a karmic one, a generational thread handed down to her parents from their own parents. Because of her parents’ inability to make the extent of the damage of their own acculturation conscious, they created the same damage in their child. (The person who had her father’s job before him had left the family the house.)

One source of her disconnection from her self was her mother’s scorn and need to control her daughter’s reality. (She found an arbor which
she imagined planting beautiful vines on, but her mother told her that this was a very bad idea and that she had different plans for the place).
One path to reconnection to herself is through connecting with her feminine nature and the power of nature. (She walked around the yard and beautiful women emerged from the jungle). The extent of her distress was hidden from her (One took a ceramic heart from under her petticoat and handed it to her.) She has a broken heart. (She noticed it was broken).

Another source of her disconnection from herself was her father’s fear of her being independent and his inability to trust her. (Her father was furious that she had accepted the gift, saying “you don’t know what it is, it could be a work order to go work in a far away city which would be terrible.”)

She is able to defend herself a bit better from her father’s attempts at breaking her spirit. (At that, she imagined going away and working in a far away city and it did not seem so bad). 
But the only way she can deal with her mother’s attempts at controlling her sense of self is to relegate her feelings about herself and her distress at her loss of self to the unconscious. (She fell asleep in the arbor that her mother had decorated her way). But on one level she realizes this is ultimately dangerous because she will leave herself open to ultimate destruction by her mother’s machinations. (She awoke to find a crocodile emerging from the jungle, ready to attack her). (As she was reaching down to bring her beloved dog up on the table with her, the crocodile’s jaw snapped shut).

  Again, her mother was a victim of the same type of destruction of her spirit, but she has used a different way to deal with it. (She ran inside and jumped on a table. Her mother jumped on a different table). 

All that she is consciously aware of this disastrous internal passion play is that she is afraid. But having no conscious point of reference for the fear, the fear can only be expressed as a vague anxiety. (She awoke in a state of terrible fear).

I could never have gained this information by asking her about her relationship to her birth family, because she was totally unconscious about
this information herself.  I wonder how long it would have taken us to get to the level of self-understanding she touched through this dream in one
session through more conventional talk therapy.
This dream amply demonstrates one of the most remarkable aspects of dreams: that one can understand them at constantly deepening levels. One dream is almost like a series of fireworks. At different levels and places in the dream, there are always new bursts of light one had not seen before.

I have given up all hope of ever getting all of the information available in any one dream. This is because there are constantly new ones to delve
into and because I am limited by own ability to see and understand.
Dreams have a way of providing us with exactly the kind of information we need if we can just allow ourselves to open to them. The following is a description of just one dream, the only one John remembered in 2 years of working together. It appeared at a time when no other experience could have provided him with the inspiration to continue in the sometimes difficult work of confronting pain honestly.

John came to me originally because he had been diagnosed with severe dyslexia and anxiety. He had been seeing a psychiatrist for several years and had been taking the drugs prescribed by him during that time. But his symptoms had not appreciably improved. He was hoping that hypnotic suggestions could help him with the symptoms involved with the label of dyslexia. John decided to try to confront whatever was at the source of his imbalance rather than settle for simple, external hypnotic suggestion. I asked John to go back, in hypnosis, to the time to when he was first aware of the problems he was experiencing. What followed was many months of twice-weekly meetings where he uncovered layer after layer of abuse – including physical, sexual and ritual abuse.

On one level, he was relieved to know that there was a reason for his many maladjustments to reality which came into focus through the
psychiatrist’s diagnosis. But he had tremendous difficulty in accepting that these things had really happened to him. With the torrent of
information which poured out of our sessions together, John’s sense of self began to shift. I saw this a positive sign since his perception of himself
had been so negative. Yet, in giving up this negative image of himself, he was left, as he put it, “with no buoy to hang on to.”  This loss of the
already-tenuous mooring he had in reality was of increasing distress to him. It made it difficult for him to continue to have the courage to
continue our work together. No amount of external support seemed to help shift this distress because he was so utterly unable to connect with any
sense of support from within his psyche. As he put it, “It is almost impossible for me to allow myself to believe in myself.”

I had always asked him to try to remember his dreams to see if they could offer more information about the state of his internal dynamic. For
months, he could report no dream recall whatsoever. Then, one day, after several sessions where he had been unable to continue what he called the “dredging” operations, he reported a dream. This dream marked the shift in his journey back to wholeness.

At first, he was reluctant to recount the dream because he thought I would think he was being conceited. When he did recount the dream, I
helped him to see how clearly it signaled a new sense of identity in formation. The dream was actually very simple, but it was packed with many symbols which were intimately relevant to John.

The Dream :Mario Andretti sees John driving and declares that John is Benito Andretti. John knows without a doubt that this is true. The following is a reconstruction from notes of the session:

T: Who is Mario Andretti?
C: He is greatest racing car driver in the world.
T: What does being the greatest racing car driver mean to you?
C: It means that you can do anything. I have always been drawn to
racing of any kind.
H: Why?
C: Because it means winning, setting records. You are out in front, no one can touch you. You’re the first or else you can get better and you can always improve. You are free. Free!
T:  Who is Benito Andretti?
C: He was Mario’s little brother who disappeared under mysterious circumstances at the age of 2, or maybe even younger.
H:  What would it mean if you were Benito, Mario’s little brother?
C: It would mean that I would be part of a big, loving Italian family.
The family I always wanted. A family which is really alive and where people interact with each other in a real way. A family which sits down to dinner together.
T:  What else would it mean?
C: It would mean that I would have someone to learn from. Someone who knows more than I do and who could give me the information I need.
T: What was it like to know that, without a doubt, Mario’s assessment
of you was true: that you were Benito Andretti?
C: I just knew it was true. I knew that I was a great race car driver, that I could drive any kind of car in any kind of race. I knew that I was
related to Mario. It was undeniably true, unshakably true. There was no doubt in my mind that Mario was right.

This simple dream was very significant to John’s ability to go forward with the recovery of his sense of self. It filled many of the voids he had been feeling in himself. He knew, without a doubt that he could handle any car in any race (the symbolic connection to life’s situations is more than graphic).

He knew what it felt like to be was part of a loving family (that he belonged to a greater, beneficent whole). He knew he would have Mario to learn from, to help him improve (that it was possible to go forward with his journey to himself and that he would get the help he needed).

It is significant that Benito disappeared under mysterious circumstances at a very young age – at about the same time John believes the abuse started. It is also significant that in the dream he has now reappeared. 
And his return has been validated and confirmed by someone who is admirable, respectable and believable.

The most wonderful gift that the dream gave John was a sense of utter certainty which he was able to carry over into his waking life. This is something that he had been seeking desperately throughout his life. But this was especially true since he had begun to uncover the memories of
abuse. This certainty of his ultimate success is what has brought him through the next level of his recovery. I am quite certain that he would
have found it much more difficult to continue and his process would have taken much longer without the insight this dream provided.

Needless to say, much of the information available to us through dreams would be lost without the tool of hypnosis to aid in the retrieval of the
information. It is almost as though the dream is the ore, hypnosis the smelting process and self-understanding at the conscious level is the
ingot. By allowing the information contained within our subconscious to interact with that which is held in the conscious mind, we are made whole
in ways we cannot imagine when we are lost in either the unconscious or the conscious mind. Hypnosis is the bridge between these worlds and the way it allows each to inform the other is an extraordinary path to self-knowledge.