Art Therapy and Dreams

February 23, 2011

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All that we see or seem is but a dream within a dream.
–Edgar Allen Poe
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The other night I had a dream that I was dreaming about dreaming…Confusing? A little. It was a dream within a dream within a dream! When I woke up I half-wondered, was I still dreaming? My take on “reality” had temporarily shifted, and I was inspired to write a little about my work with dreams and art therapy.
The combination of dream-work and art therapy can be a powerful and illuminating experience when approached in a way that honors the dreamer and his or her relationship to the dream.

Bruce Moon is an art therapist who often explores dreams within an existential framework. (For an excellent read, I recommend his book: Existential Art Therapy: The Canvas Mirror). He describes existential art therapy as “a journey of self-discovery that is shared by the client and the art therapist.” He believes that the overall purpose of engaging in dream-work and art therapy is to help the client discover and create meaning in his or her life.

In my work with clients and their dreams I deliberately refrain from offering my own interpretations of dreams. To analyze another’s dream is to assign meaning to something that belongs solely to the dreamer.  In this way, I approach a client’s dream in the same way that I approach his or her art work. I do not interpret the creations based on my point of view. Instead I serve as a witness and guide to the client’s unique journey.
During a session, clients may be open to creating an image of the dream. Since dreams are layered (and laden with many images) it can be helpful to ask the client to pick just one scene from the dream to depict. Some clients may work abstractly and capture the feeling of the dream in colors and shapes, while others may work in a more representational style. I have had clients draw, sculpt, or collage artwork about their dreams, based on their material preferences. When the client is finished with the piece, we usually place the art in between us. The client speaks freely about the piece and what he or she sees in it. Sometimes I will offer to take notes for the client, so that he or she has a record of initial responses.  Again, in this way of working, it is important to remember that there are no “cookie cutter” dream meanings. For example, one person might associate dreams of falling with feeling unencumbered by gravity and experience it as a symbol of freedom (for those of us who enjoy skydiving:) Another person may experience a dream of free falling as terrifying. The meaning is entirely derived from the client.
Sometimes I have asked clients to imagine themselves as different elements of the dream, and not just as “themselves.” For example, if a client has a dream about their mother, father, and sibling I might ask the client to re-inhabit the dream from each family member’s perspective. This way of exploring a dream will often provide additional insight to the dreamer. It also encourages the client to practice flexibility in interpersonal relationships and strengthens the ability to “try on someone else’s shoes.”
Since I was a child I have almost always remembered my dreams upon waking. Many clients have told me that they have difficulty remembering their dreams though. Keeping a dream journal by your bed can be a helpful method in strengthening dream recall. If a dream is particularly intense or even disturbing it can also help to write it down immediately upon waking up from the dream, even if it is in the middle of the night. Once the dream is jotted down, the intensity often diminishes and the dreamer is able to get back to sleep more peacefully. Writing dreams down upon getting up in the morning is also very useful. The writing does not have to be long, but can just include some key elements or words that are associated with the dream. Sketching an image from a dream is another way to record the dream.
Dreams provide clients with insight into the self, and they can also serve as rich sources of inspiration for creative work: art, writing, music, and movement. Dream-work can be further enriched by the addition of these creative modalities – for example, finding a song that seems to evoke the essence of the dream. There is no right or wrong way to explore a dream, as long as the dreamer is the one creating meaning.
Interested in diving deeper into the world of dreams? Here are a few movies I’d highly recommend – all exploring dream states and questions of what is really real?
Inception (2010)
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
Spirited Away (2001)
Vanilla Sky (2001)
Waking Life (2001)
Avatar (2009)
The Matrix (1999)
What Dreams May Come (1998)

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