Access the Subconscious With Gestalt Dreamwork
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I originated Hypnotic Dreamwork, by integrating hypnotherapeutic modalities with Gestalt dreamwork. My book, Become the Dream: The Transforming Power of Hypnotic Dreamwork, focuses deeply on this powerful form of regression, including work with a tremendous variety of dreams. While several hypnotherapy books had a brief section on dream analysis or mentioned posthypnotic suggestions regarding dreaming, Become the Dream was the first book about the integration of hypnosis and any form of dreamwork.
A dream can be considered a form of reality while it is happening. Since hypnotic regression is a revivification of recent or distant memories, and vividly recalling dreams (as done in Gestalt and Hypnotic Dreamwork) tends to induce hypnosis, these kinds of dreamwork are actually forms of hypnotic regression.
Dreams can be fleeting and disappear from conscious memory quickly. But whether or not we ever consciously remember our dreams, we all go through cycles of dreaming during a full night of sleep.
Dreaming is a natural and necessary function for our mental health and well-being. For those who never or rarely remember their dreams, there are many ways to develop dream retention, and various hypnotic methods provide some of the most effective ways to do this. In addition, hypnotherapists can use both guided and elicited hypnodreams, as described in Become the Dream.
It has not been generally recognized that the methods of Gestalt dreamwork tend to initiate or deepen a hypnotic state. This is a major reason why Gestalt methods are so effective. By further utilizing this spontaneous entrance to the subconscious, we can add even greater value to the techniques of Gestalt.
The Gestalt Perspective on Dreamwork
The vast majority of methods to discover the meaning of dreams are interpretive. The role of the therapist is to analyze the dream or, in some cases, to help the patient or client analyze it.
The overwhelming number of books about dreamwork attempt to help the reader understand how to interpret dreams. Gestalt methods, on the other hand, do not analyze or interpret. Rather than understanding intellectually, the purpose is to experience the dream and feel significant aspects of it at a core level. Rather than analyze, the dreamer becomes the dream and all of its different parts. The deeper meaning of the dream is found with Gestalt methods through your heart, your gut, your senses and your feelings.
Most people have had the experience of waking up from a particularly intense or frightening dream with a pounding heart or gasping for breath. In spite of being asleep, the body experiences the processes of the dream. Dream images can produce the same physiological effects as the actual event would in reality. When a dream is taking place it is absolutely real to the dreamer. In its own way, it is reality while it is happening.
Our dreams are metaphors for our existence. They are even more than that. Our dreams are direct messages that express our subconscious experience of ourselves and the world. The Gestalt perspective of dreams is that every part of a dream is a part of the dreamer. This not only refers to the different persons in the dream, but all places, animals, objects, clothing, body parts, moods, weather and so forth. These parts have been fragmented or projected onto the world. By becoming the part we are taking back the power of that part. Gestalt therapy founder Fritz Perls, who was so fascinated by dreamwork that his work focused primarily on that in the years before his death in 1970, said, "You are greater than your wildest dreams."
Gestalt helps us to own all the different parts of ourselves. Anything we dream about has certain qualities and potentials that we are not fully accepting. We may not be in touch with our eyes, our ears, our center, our sexuality, our spontaneity, and so forth.
Anything that a dreamer becomes aware of in a dream, even atmospheric conditions or time, is a different part of the person that has been projected to one degree or another onto the world. Even a character in the dream which is apparently immoral or repugnant has something of value which the dreamer can incorporate.
By becoming the parts and dialoguing between different parts, we take on a certain power that each character has and become so much more than we are when we project those parts externally onto people or things. Some Native Americans have traditionally identified with different animals or birds and felt the power inherent in that symbol. There are certain advantages or strengths in any character, whether it be survival, cleverness, creativity, playfulness, ability to hide, etc.
Gestalt is an existential therapy predicated on awareness. Using our heads takes us away from the here and now, which we experience externally through our senses and internally through body awareness and emotions. Understandings can and do occur during Gestalt, but are a result of the direct experience of becoming dream characters, interacting with other dream characters, and experiencing our spontaneous physical and emotional processes.
Many who are considered dream experts have stated that there is still so much that we don't understand about the meanings of dreams. But in fact your own creative subconscious mind, which formulated your dreams, knows exactly what they are about, and Gestalt dreamwork is a powerful tool in getting to the answers.
Dreams hold the answers without trying to intellectually figure them out. A formal interpretation could be wrong, or not as important as other aspects of what the dream is about. Unlike different methods of dream interpretation that say a particular object or activity always means the same thing for all people of all ages in all cultures, in Gestalt dreamwork, dreamers are led to experience what it means for them. The most important meaning is the truth of one's experience. As the therapist, if you feel your client might be missing something obvious you can encourage him or her to stay with the feeling and notice if there is also something else. But again, that is turning it over to and trusting the dreamer's subjective experience, rather than giving (or requesting) analysis.
Many individuals have gotten value from various methods of dream interpretation, and my statements regarding interpretation are in the context of Gestalt dreamwork strategies. These methods provide us with non-analytic tools which steer completely away from interpretation and are consistently effective in giving us deep understandings of our dreams and solutions to the issues the dreams address. When used properly, Gestalt dreamwork methods produce meaningful revelations time and time again. And they keep the client tending toward hypnotic states as opposed to analysis, which tends to bring the client out of hypnosis. Avoiding interpretation keeps us focused on direct access to the wisdom of the greatest ally and potential therapist of all, our own subconscious minds, and also allows the potential for deep healing by way of the increased suggestibility inherent to hypnotic states.
Accessing the Subconscious with Gestalt Dreamwork Methods
The first step for the therapist is to have the client describe the dream in present tense while vividly imagining it. Encouragement may be given to close the eyes and make gestures and movements to experience the dream more intensely. Very significantly, this revivification of the dream brings the person's full attention right into the subconscious, the part of the mind that created the dream. The key to profound, deep therapy is to work with and effect the subconscious mind. By definition, any method that gives us direct access to our inner minds while awake is hypnotic. In other words, this first step in Gestalt dreamwork is a hypnotic induction. (Through many traditional hypnotic inductions, a person initially opens to the subconscious mind by becoming very relaxed and passive. Gestalt dreamwork is one of the many alternative forms of hypnotic inductions.)
Next, the therapist typically has the dreamer describe him or herself as being one of the characters of the dream, emphasizing to stay in touch with his or her feelings. If the description is brief, some elaboration may be encouraged. The therapist will usually then have the dreamer become at least one more additional character. This increased identification with specific parts of the dream frequently further deepens the hypnosis.
A very common Gestalt dreamwork procedure is to have different characters dialogue. This is communicated directly in the first and second person, rather than talking to the therapist about the other character. When you dialogue between the different parts, switching and becoming first one part and then the other, this gives the opportunity to work through struggles between conflicting parts (and/or increase communication and appreciation between complementary, harmonious parts), integrating characteristics of each part into a more balanced whole. Questions between the characters are to be avoided or turned into statements. A question is considered a form of manipulation, a way of not taking responsibility. It also is usually a request for an intellectual explanation, which tends to diminish the hypnotic state. The Gestalt dialogue is traditionally done while sitting in a chair and facing an empty chair. It usually works well to have the dreamer get up and switch chairs when moving from one character to another.
Another Gestalt practice is to periodically have the dreamer describe what is happening internally. This is especially good when a person has begun to tap into an emotion, whether or not there appears to be resistance to that emotion. Going inward will tend to take a person deeper into hypnosis and deeper into the experience. As the person describes his or her inner feelings you might turn to an inner dialogue to further develop that experience. For example, if a person has begun to make physical movements, you can encourage him or her to exaggerate those movements or become the body part that is doing that, in the same way the person would become a direct character in the dream.
Keep working with dialogue between characters until you complete the communication or get a natural coming together of some of the characters. It is important that the therapist not take sides. What usually happens as you stay with a person in dreamwork is a gradual appreciation and integration of the different sides. The appreciation is automatic with wish fulfillment dreams, but in frustration dreams you initially emphasize the clashing parts and work with those, letting them have total space to be themselves. You encourage each part to express and be itself, whether the part is upset at the other, or afraid, or whatever the feeling is. If the dreamer becomes ready to complete this process, a mutual respect and acceptance often develops between characters at the conclusion of the dialogue.
Most dreams for most of us are frustration dreams or have significant elements of frustration. Both frustration and wish fulfillment dreams are valuable and have their advantages. Working with a wish fulfillment dream, for instance, can be very healing when the subconscious mind finds a discovery or solution, or immerses itself in the joy of its power and sense of accomplishment, or success, freedom, peace or whatever the relevant feelings are. A dream segment can be so brief that it may not be clear at first if there will be something frustrating or challenging to work with. You simply find out by having the person do the dreamwork process.
Combining Additional Hypnotic Processes with Gestalt Dreamwork
Most people are able to do Gestalt dreamwork in the traditional posture, making movements and switching chairs as they switch characters, and so forth. Some may find this distracting and become more responsive after receiving a hypnotic induction. Also, the dream may be experienced more deeply and emotionally by some after an initial hypnotic induction, which is one possibility for bypassing resistance or to help someone who is using Gestalt dreamwork methods but having difficulty identifying with the parts of the dream. The subconscious connections of this deeper state can bring the dream more to the surface.
If I do dreamwork after a hypnotic relaxation induction I don't have the person get up and switch chairs because that would be difficult and distracting. Instead of switching chairs, I can tap a person on the shoulder or hand to encourage a switch to a different part, or just announce to make a switch. With the integration of hypnosis, we can take traditional Gestalt work further. For example, Hypnotic Dreamwork can include further integration with direct and/or indirect suggestions. Traditional Gestalt therapy focuses just on the person's process, but there is so much you can suggest for further integration of the process while the subconscious mind is open to suggestion. Actually, the subtle support throughout of the person's process, including encouragement of full expression of each character, is a form of indirect suggestion.
Typically, I avoid direct posthypnotic suggestions during the process of the Gestalt dreamwork, to not interfere in that way with the person's internal process. Once we are at or near the conclusion, I often give various kinds of suggestions for appreciation, reinforcement and further integration. For example, encouragement may be given that integration continues to take place in the days and the weeks ahead, and in further dreams. Depending on circumstances, the hypnotic support can take place at different times during the process, not just at the conclusion. Positive suggestions laced throughout the dreamwork may fit well once it is clear it is a wish fulfillment dream.
Sometimes before doing direct hypnotic suggestions, I will begin that process with a few brief hypnotic deepening techniques. The deepening can intensify the suggestibility, and it is also a signal for the client to become more passive and receptive. Additionally, hypnotic deepening can be used to increase the effectiveness of the process at any stage of the dreamwork.
As previously stated, Hypnotic Dreamwork is actually a form of hypnotic regression. But what follows refers to non-dream regression. During Hypnotic Dreamwork a dream can be transformed directly into regression when appropriate. Regression work is often valuable when a person is working on a particular issue or recurring pattern because on a subconscious level, the person hasn't let go of something that is still affecting the way he or she sees and experiences the world. Perls said that a person's experiences are retrieved "not in his memory but in his behavior. He repeats it, without, of course, knowing that he is repeating it."
Traditional Gestalt dreamwork stays with just the dream and the dreamer's here and now experience. But with the understanding we have of hypnosis and regression, we can also return to an earlier similar experience. For example, using the affect bridge, a person can tap into a strong emotion that the dreamwork has brought up and regress to specific significant experiences that happened out of the dream state at an earlier time.
When dreamwork turns into another form of regression, various regression modalities can be integrated into the work. For example, while dream analysis is not associated with Gestalt dreamwork, encouraging the client to do his or her own brief hypno-analysis at the conclusion of a regression can be important and appropriate. When I lead such an analysis it is usually regarding the understanding and release of misconceptions that the client had continued to be stuck with in the here-and-now experience of himself and the world. I am usually able to help keep this self-analysis very brief so that it normally does not interfere with the hypnotic state.
Any additional form of hypnotherapy can be integrated when appropriate. For example, there are various ways ideomotor questions can be used to request information or get feedback from the subconscious. Other hypnotic tools that can be selectively used include grounding and centering techniques, indirect suggestion, hypnotic metaphor, time distortion, bibliotherapy and inner child processes.
Since hypnotic deepening techniques are typically a part of Hypnotic Dreamwork , a brief period of suggestions for returning to full conscious awareness is usually applicable to ensure best results, including avoidance of a possible lingering lethargy.
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