Focusing and Dream Work
Eugene Gendlin wrote a book in 1986 – Let Your Body Interpret Your Dreams in which he said, “Love and enjoy the dream whether you interpret it or not” and which included sixteen questions was a way to find the meaning in dreams for oneself. He followed that up with two articles updating the ‘dream book’. Andrea Koch wrote Dreams and the Person-Centred Approach in 2012. There was also a Folio special on Dreams in 1992. Outside of these and a few articles in Focusing newsletters there has not been a lot of overt attention paid to dreams in the Focusing community, especially given Gendlin said that dreams are an excellent means of learning Focusing because they bring with them a fully-formed felt sense … until now that is. Leslie Ellis, a Focusing Trainer and Coordinator from Canada studied dreams, researched the dreams of trauma survivors and wrote the book, A Clinician's Guide to Dream Therapy* which blends Focusing with many other approaches to dreams.
Ellis packs a lot into this book’s 147 pages. Drawing on the insights of neuroscience and current research, including her own, she examines dreams from many angles to provide a clear and concise map for anyone, not just clinicians, to interpret or work with their dreams. In the book she answers the questions as to why one should engage in dreamwork and how best to bring dreamwork into a practice and into life. She makes the point that dream interpretation is no longer the prerogative of a clinician but is now firmly the responsibility of the dreamer possibly with help or/and support of a listener/clinician. Having surveyed all the approaches and theories she outlines a universal approach to working with dreams.
Specifically, she asserts that,
“there is a distinct trend toward experiential methods as the main way of working with dreams. The most popular experiential techniques include telling the dream as if it is happening in the present, dreaming the dream onward, and inviting the dreamer to enter into the subjective experience of a dream character or element … there was almost total consensus that the dreamworker refrain from interpretation of the dream. Instead there was an emphasis on collaborative exploration with the dreamer, and a focus on exploring the emotional landscape of the dream.“
While there is only a short section specifically on the Focusing approach to dreamwork, Gendlin’s approach is frequently referred to throughout the book. She highlights Gendlin’s unique additions/contributions to the panoply of dreamwork approaches and techniques: finding the ‘help’ in a dream and ‘bias control’. The former is a suggestion to look for the ‘life-forward’ energy or life force that is present in every dream and she points to the various forms that such help might take as well as where to find it. The latter is an exhortation to be open to the possibilities in a dream rather than interpreting them based on what we already know. This means exploring and possibly embodying all aspects of a dream including those that may be unpleasant or frightening and not jumping to conclusions about them.
She has an especially helpful chapter on bad dreams in general and nightmares in particular, including those affected by PTSD. She shows how confronting or being able to be with the most frightening aspects of dreams has a de-escalating effect on the dreamer and that among other methods, finding the inherent life forward energy can help greatly to alleviate uncomfortable symptoms brought about by these dreams. She gives many examples of dreams and their explorations here and throughout the rest of the book which illustrate clearly the benefits of making the space and time to remember and work with dreams in an open, curious and compassionate way.
My experience of bringing this type of Focusing-oriented approach to my own dreams has been a very interesting and enlightening one. I found the suggestions in the book enormously helpful, including one where she suggests that this process works really well when people tell and explore their dreams in pairs as in a Focusing partnership or in small groups.
*A Clinician's Guide to Dream Therapy: Implementing Simple and Effective Dreamwork (2020) by Leslie Ellis is published by Routledge.
Leslie has a very interesting and helpful website with articles, videos and podcast on various aspects of dreamwork: https://drleslieellis.com/