Understanding and Working with Dream Metaphors from the Standpoint of
Co-Creative Dream Theory
Gregory Scott Sparrow, Ed.D., Professor
University of Texas Rio Grande Valley
Faculty, Atlantic University
Co-creative dream theory posits that the dream experience is indeterminate from the outset, and co-determined through the reciprocal interplay between the dream ego and the emergent content. Thus the dream imagery adjusts to the dreamer’s subjective stance through the course of the dream. Consequently, the dream report can be seen as one of many contingent outcomes based on 1) the dreamer’s range of possible reactions through the course of the dream, as well as 2) the broad constraints of underlying domains that account for the nature of the emergent content. From this dynamic relational view of the dream, the visual imagery itself can be regarded as the “interface” Ullman (1969) between the dreamer and the emergent domain content, or the “moment-to-moment vectoring” (Sparrow, 2013) of the encounter between dream ego and emergent content. The purpose of this presentation is to review the current state of co-creative dream theory and analysis as embodied by the FiveStar Method (Sparrow, 2013; Sparrow and Thurston, 2010) before introducing a feature that will effectively extend the model into a view of metaphor construction based on co-creative theory. By viewing dream content as representing broad content domains of human life that are rendered as specific metaphors during the dream encounter, we can discern where the dreamer stands in relationship to the developmental tasks associated with these emergent domains at this particular point in time. On a more practical level, I will also introduce a structured inquiry, as well as a series of questions consistent with this paradigm that can guide the dream worker in deconstructing dream metaphors in the process of co-creative dream analysis.
Understanding and Working with Dream Metaphors from the Standpoint of
Co-Creative Dream Theory
During the dreaming experience, the images exhibit an autonomy independent of the dream ego, apparently taking their cue from some unconscious source. In any story created by a missing author, the images become objects to us, imbued with meaning only to the extent that we can intuit the author’s intention in communicating some underlying truth. We thus tend to believe that the dream image is the carrier of meaning that extends beyond its outward appearance; that is, it is always more than what it appears.
Given these implicit assumptions, the central task in content-focused dream work has been to analyze the dream images. The word “interpretation” was once used universally to describe this activity, but it has fallen into disfavor because it implies that dream work involves translating the dream images into equivalency statements that make sense to the conscious self, much in the way that foreign words are simply translated into one’s dominant language. But modern dream analysts have favored a more sophisticated and less reductionistic approach, believing that the dream image is never merely a stand-in, or a sign for something or someone in the waking state. While it may tempting to believe, for instance, that a snake might represent a penis or one’s ex-spouse, most dream workers endeavor to assist the dreamer in understanding how the image serves as a metaphor that renders a broad domain of experience in relevant and specific forms, and that this domain might be expressing itself in intrapersonal and interpersonal ways, alike. A snake can be considered a specific representation of the broad domain of primitive, instinctual desire, which goes beyond it serving as a mere referent for some identifiable object or person. Still, the question remains, What does one do with the image to derive the greatest benefit to the dreamer without imposing one’s own biases?
The Presentational Paradigm
In conventional content-oriented dream work, the dreamer’s report is treated as a given, and the imagery as the carrier of meaning. We might refer to this approach as the “presentational paradigm,” wherein the principle aim is to discern the relationship to one’s waking concerns conveyed by the characters, objects, and scenarios depicted in the narrative. The organizing questions around which the presentational paradigm revolves are, for example, “What does this image or dream refer to? and “How does the dream image express some aspect of my life?”
Following this line of thought, it is commonly accepted, at least implicitly, that the dream is fixed from the outset by the “unconscious mind,” or some equally autonomous source. Freud’s approach embodied this prevalent assumption. He believed that the manifest dream was strictly determined by an unconscious process that balances the impulses of repressed desire with the rules of acceptable conscious expression. It accomplishes this task by sufficiently disguising—through various defense mechanisms such as condensation and displacement—the actual sexual and aggressive impulses in order to arrive at a compromise that can achieve sufficient release while circumventing conscious censorship. Not only does the conscious ego presumably play no role in the manifest dream’s formation, but the images in the dream, however distorted they may be by the unconscious “dream work,” bear a one-to-one relationship to objects and familiar persons in the dreamer’s waking life. So the dream images are, according to Freud, partially disguised stand-ins for conscious referents. Freud’s view of the psyche in general, and dreams, in particular, relegates human beings to passive participants, as Ullman (1969) states:
The model is that of energy transfer within a closed system with the dreamer limited in his expression of novelty to his own particular repertoire of artful camouflage. True novelty is drained out in the insistence on the role of unchanging instinctual energies linked to infantile wishes in accounting for the fact of dreaming. Followed to its logical conclusion what emerges is an image of man as an impotent reactor - "a complicatedly constructed and programmed robot, perhaps, but a robot nevertheless (Chen, 1962).”
The Co-Creative Paradigm
In recent years, the presentational paradigm has come under challenge from those who have observed that dream ego exhibits the capacity for self-reflection and choice, and that the visual imagery, in turn, may change in apparent response to the dream ego’s changing subjective stance (Rossi, 1972; Sparrow, 2013; Sparrow & Thurston, 2010). Along these lines, there are various sources who have observed that the dream appears to be co-determined by two somewhat autonomous mechanisms or structures—the dream ego and the emergent dream content that interact in real time over the course of the dream. While Jung practiced within the presentational paradigm, he was one of the first to articulate the premise that dream imagery derives from the interplay of two sources, rather than one, when he said that the dream image…
…is the result of the spontaneous activity of the unconscious on one hand and of momentary conscious situation on the other. The interpretation of its meaning...can start neither from the conscious alone nor from the unconscious alone, but only from their reciprocal relationship (Jung, 1966; p. 386).
Jung’s view of the dream image as the product of the reciprocal relationship between conscious and unconscious seems to refute the position that the dream imagery is formed without the influence of the conscious self. It also suggests that the dream image resides, not in a fully formed state, but in an indeterminate state that assumes a specific form during the dream. His assertion that an archetype is a pattern rather than an image supports the premise that it takes form only when manifesting in consciousness, and he cited the importance of the individual and culture in contributing its formal, time-conditioned attributes.
Over the past century, the case for the co-creative paradigm has been slowly emerging in a variety of disciplines. Trends in philosophy, psychology, and physics have moved away from classical Realism, which views the world as independent from the observer, toward Idealism, or the belief that reality is ultimately constructed and mediated by the perceiver. While the uninitiated cannot appreciate the math and physics of this mind-boggling concept, one can more easily understand how this principle governs relationships at macro levels of organization. In interpersonal exchanges, for instance, we easily grasp the concept that our beliefs and attitudes influence how we perceive and react to others, and that others will, in turn, react from their own subjectivity to create a reciprocal, intersubjective exchange mediated by “synchronous feedback.” This principle of reciprocity is the central concept of systems-oriented family therapy, which is built around the premise that “reciprocity is the governing principle of relationships” (Nichols, p. 37). Of course, this sophisticated view of relational dynamics breaks down when conflict erupts and individuals resort to the blame game, or what Bateson referred to as “punctuated communication.” This occurs when two parties in conflict assign blame to each other by interpreting the other’s actions as the first cause. Systemic therapists, such as Bowen (1978) endeavor to reestablish mutual responsibility by describing the problem in the form of “process statements,” such as, “So, when you do x, he does y, and then you do z.” The therapist may also use “process questions,” such as “What do you think he would have done if you’d done x instead of y?” This form of communication between therapist and clients replaces the convenient, self-serving linear causality with a circular causal, or reciprocal framework, which serves to promote personal responsibility in both parties.
Among empirical researchers, the principle of systemic reciprocity is inherent in the concept of the “experimenter” effect, in which the experimenter’s expectations and biases threaten to contaminate the objectivity of the scientific process. The “double-blind” model, in which both experimenter and subject remain unaware of the experimental conditions, is the preferred way to safeguard the data from experimenter bias and participant compliance with perceived experimenter expectations, referred to as “demand effects.”
While most disciplines have shifted away from a purely objectivistic and presentational paradigm toward a reciprocal, co-created view of reality, the conventional content-oriented approach to dream interpretation still preserves the belief that the dreamer is somehow removed from the creation of the dream experience, and is merely a witness to the drama. It is perhaps ironic that dream content should be treated as independent from the dream ego when each manifests within the dreaming mind.
The emergence of a reciprocal or co-creative paradigm in dream theory was first articulated by Rossi, who asserted that there is “a continuum of all possible balances of control between the autonomous process and the dreamer’s self-awareness and consciously directed effort" (1972, p. 163), and that the interaction between these forces accounts for the creation of new awareness and identity, and the development of personality. Since Rossi’s seminal work, the co-creative paradigm has been translated into a systematic approach to dream analysis called the FiveStar Method (Sparrow, 2013; Sparrow and Thurston, 2010; Sparrow, 2014).
The idea that the dream’s construction may partake of more than one source has been intimated in the field of neuroscience, as well. The recent debate over the neurological substrate of dreaming has pitted the activation synthesis theorists (Hobson & McCarley, 1977; Hobson et al., 2000)—who originally asserted without qualification that dreams originate in the random neuronal firing in subcortical structures—against the cognitive theorists, who have argued that dreams evidence coherent structure and bear a meaningful higher-order continuity with waking concerns (Domhoff, 2010). Solm’s (2000) finding that dream recall ceases when portions of the prefrontal lobe are damaged has been hailed as a felling blow to those who have held the position that dreams are nothing more than meaningless, random subcortical activation. But the question remains, how do these structures interact in the course of a dream’s formation? Even Hobson admits to a systemic, and possibly reciprocal paradigm when he states that we have to treat the dreaming brain as “a unified system whose complex components dynamically interact so as to produce a continuously changing state” (Hobson, et. al, 2000). Such a statement would presumably align with a reciprocal, co-creative model of dreaming.
More recently, researchers (Kahan and LaBerge, 2010; and Kozmová and Wolman, 2006) have demonstrated empirically that we are by no means passive and non-reflective during our dreams, but rather exhibit the same metacognitive capabilities as we do in the waking state, albeit to a lesser degree. Other studies have shown that reflectiveness can be enhanced in ordinary (non-lucid) dreams through various pre-sleep exercises (Purcell, 1987; Purcell, Moffitt and Hoffmann, 1993) or “dream reliving” (Sparrow, 1983; Sparrow, Thurston & Carlson, 2013). And, of course, there are abundant studies attesting to the capacity of individuals to attain lucidity, or the awareness that one is dreaming during the dream (Stumbrys, Erlacher, Schädlich, and Schredl, 2012) through a variety of pre-sleep interventions. Taken together, these empirical findings provide a sound basis for an interactive, relational model for understanding the construction and meaning of the dream experience.
In essence, the co-creative dream paradigm is based on the increasingly supportable premise that dreaming is an interactive process that results in one of many contingent outcomes based on the dream ego’s moment-to-moment exchanges with the emergent dream content. From this standpoint, the dream imagery can be viewed, not so much as the content itself, but as a third element in the dream experience that stands between the dream ego and emergent content — as the “mutable interface” or “moment-to-moment vectoring” (Sparrow, 2013), or “creation de novo” (Rossi, 1972) of the unfolding relationship between dream ego and emergent content.
In addition to the increasing empirical support for the co-creative paradigm, the reciprocal relationship between dreamer response and imagery change can often be discerned in the dream narrative itself. However, dreamers will often underreport their reflective agency in their original dream report, and may need to be questioned further in order to tease out the presence of reflectiveness and volition. The low frequency of reflective statements in dream narratives may be due, in large part, to the fact that dreamers minimize their own subjective processes in the retelling of the dream because of the traditional emphasis on the visual imagery alone (Kozmová and Wolman, 2006). From this standpoint, researchers and participants alike have colluded in producing dream reports bereft of reflectiveness and volition. In the future, we must endeavor to offset the unexamined demand effects of any dream theory paradigm, and allow dreamers to report the demonstrated agency of the dream ego, or the absence thereof.
The Role of Metaphors
As Kuhn has asserted, “when paradigms change, the world itself changes with them,” and that "scientists see new and different things when looking...in places they have looked before” (1962, p. 110). He goes on to say that the emergence of a new paradigm raises new questions that have never been asked, and addresses problems that have never been solved. This is certainly true of the co-creative paradigm of dreaming. And yet, the practical question of how to analyze dream imagery remains an important feature of any effective dream work method.
In recent years, the language used to describe dream imagery has shifted from “symbol,” which too easily accommodates the single-referent assumption of the presentational paradigm to “metaphor,” which is essentially a conceptualizing process that uses concrete imagery as a vehicle for comprehending an abstract truth. Indeed, the key to understanding dream images in co-creative dreamwork is understand the construction and deconstruction of metaphor.
Montague Ullmann (1969) worked on this angle in a paper titled, “Dreams as Metaphors in Motion.” Just as Jung’s statement about the reciprocal relationship between conscious and unconscious in the (co)creation of dream image could have started a revolution, but did not, Ullman’s paper could have, if taken further, transformed the entire field of dream work by introducing the co-creative paradigm through the agency of metaphors. In this paper, Ullman expresses ideas much more in line with co-creative dream theory, but thereafter neither he nor his followers seem to align his dream work methods with this radical premise.
In his seminal paper, Ullman suggested that the dream ego, when encountering the emergent dream content, gives the content specific form based on prior experience. This moment-to-moment rendering of a broad domain of experience represented by the dream content is the centerpiece of co-creative theory. Ullman actually took our understanding of metaphor beyond Lakoff and Johnson (2003)’s, in my opinion. Both sources acknowledge that metaphors synthesize 1) a broad content domain or “target domain” (Lakoff and Johnson (2003) which, in its abstractness is difficult to comprehend, with 2) a repository of personal experiences or “source domain” (Lakoff and Johnson (2003)) that enables a reduction of the content domain into a concrete, personally relevant representation. Lakoff and Johnson (2003) point out that this process is, at once, clarifying and reductionistic. That is, while it makes the content domain understandable in concrete terms relevant to the individual’s experience in the world, it reduces the dimensionality of the target domain, thus discarding other ways of experiencing it. For example, if “success” is the content domain of consideration, then two of the possible ways of rendering success might be to say, “Success is winning the game,” or “Success is reaching the summit.” Since we all are familiar with playing games, and climbing mountains, both metaphors capture elements of success, the first by introducing competition and failure, and the second by rendering success as ascent.
So one might ask, what determines the specific form that the content domain assumes in the dream? In presentational theory, one might conclude that the construction/reduction goes on outside of conscious awareness, much as Freud contended, and that the dream metaphor arrives as an a priori construction. To use the parallel of website development, designers work with software that has a “backside,” and “frontside.” The designer accesses the backside, and builds the textual and graphical features prior to displaying the content on the frontside, i.e. via a browser window. The viewer cannot modify it from the frontside, so the website becomes a “view-only” experience. Similarly, conventional content-oriented dream theory treats the dream as fixed from the outset without any backside or frontside involvement, thus impervious to dreamer input during and after its construction. From the perspective of the co-creative paradigm, in contrast, our need to review an abstract life domain(s) serves to activate the presentation of unformed content on the backside that is only rendered in specific form on an interactive frontside interface. In Ullman’s words…
…the dreamer, forced to employ a sensory mode, has to build the abstraction out of concrete blocks in the form of visual sequences. The resulting metaphor can be viewed as an interface phenomenon where the biological system establishes the sensory medium as the vehicle for this expression and the psychological system furnishes the specific content.
If the metaphor is constructed prior to observation, and arrives in consciousness as a fixed image, then one might ask, What accounts for metaphoric transformations over the course of the dream? Indeed, the best phenomenological evidence that the dream imagery serves as an interactive interface is the observation that a given dream image can change dramatically over the course of the dream. Of course, one can try to extend the utility of the presentational paradigm by arguing that the transformed image is actually a second metaphor that was anticipated and created during the “backside” construction process, such that the second metaphor appears according to some prearranged program. But what turns this view on its head is the observed synchronous relationship between imagery transformation and dreamer response. That is, imagery often evidences dramatic shifts at the moment the dreamer experiences an internal shift in mood, choice or awareness, as if the image essentially mirrors the dreamer’s new subjective state. Parsimony favors the obvious conclusion: that the dream ego and dream imagery are tethered in an interactive reciprocal exchange between somewhat freely responding entities. As Tarnas (2006) says, “In a relationship of true reciprocity––the potential communication of meaning and purpose must be able to move in both directions” (pp. 484–485).
A Systematic Approach to Co-Creative Dream Work: The FiveStar Method
In practice, working effectively with dream imagery involves deconstructing the dream metaphor by 1) understanding the dreamer’s “momentary conscious condition” (Jung, 1966) that renders the domain’s developmental tasks into specific form, and then 2) clarifying the broad content domain expressed in the imagery. Once the respective contributions of dream ego and content domain are understood, then one can appreciate the unique metaphorical synthesis that partakes of both parties.
In order to access the dreamer’s response set, one must analyze the dream ego’s feelings, assumptions, beliefs, choices, and behavioral responses (if any). This preliminary work highlights the dreamer’s global response set that, from the standpoint of co-creative theory, serves to render the content domain into specific metaphorical form. Before proceeding with the step-by-step process of the FiveStar Method (FSM), let us consider the following dream that was reported in an online dream group setting by a middle-aged woman. In the narrative, one can observe significant reflective awareness, as well as underlying assumptions that may have influenced the dream’s unfoldment.
It is night time. I hear a wolf howl, and realize that he threatens my chickens, so I grab a shovel and run out the door into the back yard, where I see the wolf on the edge of the lighted area. At first, I am not only worried about my chickens but also concerned that he might attack me. But as I stand there defiantly between the wolf and the chickens, I then notice that the wolf is actually a coyote, who is missing a leg. While I have compassion for the coyote, and I no longer feel any danger to myself, I am wary because I believe he intends to attack my chickens, nonetheless. I see that the chicken coop has no roof, and that the coyote can see the chickens through the chicken wire. Then I become aware that a raccoon is beyond the fence, as well, and also threatens the chickens. I never see it, but know somehow that it’s there.
The FiveStar Method (Sparrow, 2013; Sparrow and Thurston, 2010) is a systematic approach to co-creative dream work that involves three steps leading up to the analysis of the dream imagery: feelings, process narrative, and dreamer responses. Let us review these three steps before considering how one should approach metaphor deconstruction in co-creative dream work.
Step One of the FiveStar Method: What are the dreamer’s feelings?
I have discovered that the first question one should ask in effective dream work, regardless of the particular approach, is, What are the dreamer’s feelings? It is tempting to assume that the first recollected “fact”—in this case, the wolf’s howl—sets the stage for the ensuing drama, but according to a variety of thinkers on this matter, a dream begins as a state of dissonance, or felt conflict, that gives rise to a visual interface between dreamer and dream content. In Rossi’s developmental model, the awareness of “the new” precipitates a crisis in the dreamer’s ordinary passive and resistant state of unreflective awareness (Rossi, 1972). Thus, the dream ego’s initial feelings about the wolf’s howl establishes the nature of the dissonance, however subtle it may be in some cases, with the emergent content domain that stimulates the arousal of the dream imagery. Back in the 40s, Edgar Cayce underscored how dreams involve a “correlation of truths,” or a comparison of conscious and unconscious ideals. When these ideals are out of alignment, a state of conflict ensues. Ullmann, too, alludes to this state of dissonance when he says,
The day residue, reappearing in the dream, confronts the individual either with new and personally significant data or forces a confrontation with heretofore unrecognized unintended consequences of one's own behavior. There follows an exploration in depth with the immediate issue polarizing relevant data from all levels of one's own past in an effort to both explore the implications of the intrusive event and to arrive at a resolution.
This dissonance, and the commensurate need to resolve it, also concurs with Hartmann’s view (1998) of the dream. He argues that the dream imagery contextualizes unintegrated emotion with the purpose of facilitating its association with previous emotional experience that has been effectively resolved. In the case of the sample dream, we can sense the dreamer’s perceived dissonance with the dream content when she reports feeling threatened at the beginning of the dream.
Step Two of the FiveStar Method: The Theme
The broad relevance of the dream may be lost to the dreamer if he or she becomes fixated on interpreting specific visual content too soon in the process without regard to the generic process or structure of the dream. Relational therapists are trained to recognize the importance of analyzing how people interact vs. what they are saying to each other, because the solutions that clients are seeking usually reside in changing the way that they respond to the problem vs. solving their specific content-saturated complaints. Extracting the process narrative in the FiveStar Method (Sparrow, 2013; Sparrow and Thurston, 2010) similarly clarifies the relational process by temporarily setting aside the consideration of the specific imagery. In the case of the sample dream, the process narrative is, Someone becomes aware of a threat to something vulnerable and for which they have responsibility. She takes action to protect it, and then perceives the threat as less than before, but nonetheless still significant. This generic analysis lays the groundwork for the next step, which involves analyzing the dreamer’s responses to the emergent content, and the impact the responses seem to have on the imagery.
Step Three of the FiveStar Method: Dreamer Response and Imagery Change Analysis
What the dreamer feels, thinks, believes and does in the dream is considered the centerpiece of dream analysis from the standpoint of co-creative dream theory, and ironically it is often disregarded by the presentational paradigm, which tends to focus primarily, if not exclusively, on the analysis of the imagery. Thus, in this step, the dream revolves around the questions, What are the dreamer’s responses to the emergent content, and how do the responses impact the imagery? In turn, how does the dream imagery change in response to the dreamer’s state of mind? In the example above, the dreamer’s bold defense of her vulnerable chickens seems immediately to precipitate a transformation of the central dream image from a healthy wolf to an injured coyote. It is parsimonious to conclude that her courageous response accounted for the transformation of the wolf into a less threatening predator; but all we can definitively say is that the two were correlated. Obviously, the word “cause” presumes a degree of functional autonomy between dreamer and dream, along with sufficient linkage between the dream ego and the observed content. But interestingly, the dreamer then imagines, without any justification, that the threat is, once again, at a high level due to the presumed presence of a raccoon, in spite of the absence of any evidence to support of this conclusion. According to the co-creative paradigm, dreamers often do this. That is, they project their emotions and expectations, however unsupported, into the dream, and the dream imagery may or may not accommodate this subjective attitude. While the dream accommodates the dream ego’s boldness by precipitating a less threatening predator, it does not go on to perfectly mirror her subjective state of alarm, as evidenced by the failure of the raccoon to appear on the heels of the dreamer’s assumption that it lurks in the shadows. This imperfect correlation between dreamer response and imagery change demonstrates that the emergent content of the dream is not enslaved to the dreamer’s subjective state, but retains its somewhat autonomous quality even in the presence of an active and reflective dreamer. The correlation is, theoretically, never perfect in the dream or in the waking state, because the interacting parties are, to some extent, functionally autonomous.
At this point in the process, the dream worker engages the dreamer in order to assess the quality of his or her responses over the course of the dream. The dream worker does not know whether a response is creative and facilitative, or chronic and regressive. By drawing on the dreamer’s waking life relationships, the dream worker and dreamer can explore whether the responses in the dream were creative and developmental (Rossi, 1972), or chronic responses (Sparrow, 2014) that may have arisen as reasonable adaptive strategies, but which may have lost their utility in one’s present life context. The dreamer is the ultimate authority on the desirability of his or her responses in the dream, and needs to determine if new responses are called for, in future dreams of a similar nature, and in parallel waking relationships. In the case of this specific dream, the dream moves toward integration as the threat initially subsides, but then escalates once again as the dreamer imagines that there is a second source of attack.
Step Four of the FiveStar Method: Working with the Dream Imagery
In previous articulations of co-creative dream work (Sparrow, 2013; Sparrow and Thurston, 2010), we have recommended traditional non-intrusive methods for analyzing the dream imagery, including amplification and Gestalt dialoguing. However, regardless of how useful they have been in guiding modern dream work, they are not derived from the co-creative paradigm, but are simply effective methods that contain elements of the co-creative model, without embracing it fully. For instance, Jung’s method of “amplification” allows the dreamer to access the ways that his or her associations provide insight into the dream ego’s unique contribution to the specific imagery, but stops short of viewing the dream image as a real-time, evolving synthesis of archetypal domains and personal imposition. Similarly, Perls’ use of dialoguing captures the interactive quality of the dreamer-dream relationship, but only after the fact: Perls did not emphasize in his dream work that the dream itself was a real-time co-creative process that should be revisited with this seminal premise in mind.
An In-Depth Approach to Step Four of the FSM: The Deconstruction of Dream Metaphors. Over the course of the last several years, I have become dissatisfied that my own dreamwork methodology stops at the investigation of the reciprocal relationship between response and imagery change and the effort to discern parallel dynamics in the waking state with an eye to modify chronic responses that may have preserved an undesirable status quo. This, of course, is imminently useful from the dream ego’s side of the equation. However, two questions must be considered in order to complete the picture is: 1) What lies on the other side of the dream interface? Are there stable “domains” of content that define and constrain the range of phenomenal expression through the imagery? And 2) why does the dream ego’s interaction with the emergent content render it principally as metaphor?
Conventional methods of dream imagery analysis depart from co-creative dream paradigm by removing the images from the phenomenal context, and working with them without regard to the way that they are tethered to, and modified by the dreamer’s responses. It also overlooks how the images may be derived from underlying content domains that become relevant and specific only when encountered.
Thus the next step, and final piece, in the development of co-creative dream theory and practice, is 1) to identify the range of possible content domains that the dreamer encounters and perceives on the visual interface, and 2) assist dreamers in understanding how their responses to these content domains precipitate metaphors that reflect both the developmental challenges of the content domain and the dreamer’s current state of relationship with it. The content domains can be understood as a priori constants that lie behind the changing interface of the dream, and which constrain the range of expression of the imagery along predictable themes. While these content domains may represent constants, the specific imagery can be seen as the sequential “mapping” (Lakoff) in real time into resultant images conditioned by the dreamer’s “momentary conscious condition” (Jung, 1966).
The Nature of the Content Domains. The delineation of content domains can be done from the top-down, or from the bottom up. That is, we can draw from systems that delineate essential domains of human experience, or we can derive them phenomenologically by examining dreams with this in mind. Or, of course, we can do both: We can approach the dream with an open mind, endeavoring to avoid reductionistic assessments while acknowledging the accumulated wisdom available from several related traditions. As for top-down theoretical systems, we have Jung’s archetypes, Maslow’s hierarchy, and the chakra system of Buddhism and Hinduism, to name three. Ullman’s view of major and minor metaphors, and Lakoff and Johnson (2003)’s conceptual metaphor theory both posit two levels of metaphorical expression, but do not offer structured systems that reflect the major domains of human experience.
Identifying the Nature of Dream Content. Beginning with Jung, the identification of the underlying “deep structure” of the dream has occupied us. Jung drew a distinction between the archetypes of the collective unconscious—shared by all peoples everywhere—and the accumulation of personal experiences, some of which remains conscious and some of which becomes the personal unconscious. This categorical distinction between a priori archetypal components of the deep psyche and the historical record of the individual—conditioned by idiosyncratic belief, experience, and cultural context—has had the effect of assuming that there are mutually exclusive categories of dream imagery in the analysis of dreams. It is common to hear dream workers deliberate over whether an image is personal or archetypal, as if they are mutually exclusive. And yet, Jung’s statement that the interpretation of the image “...can start neither from the conscious alone nor from the unconscious alone, but only from their reciprocal relationship,” conveys a different picture, at least potentially, in which a given dream image partakes simultaneously of two independent sources or “feeds.” From Jung’s formulation, it is a small step to assume that the dream image is, as I’ve asserted, a mutable interface between conscious and unconscious, personal and universal, such that the convenient distinctions of personal and archetypal, conscious and unconscious, are convenient, but ultimately inaccurate distinctions. As Jung often said, one cannot talk about what is unconscious. So, the dream image is not so much a product of the unconscious as what manifests in consciousness during the encounter between the dream ego and the emergent content, which cannot be known independent of the observer and the phenomenal interface.
Lakoff, in his analysis of dreams, suggests that there are “supraordinate” or generic conceptual metaphors that are derived from our embodied experience and stored within the mind. According to Lakoff, these overriding, broad linguistic metaphors are “mapped” through the course of the dream into contextually appropriate, specific representations of the supraordinate metaphor. While Ullman wrote about dream metaphors before Lakoff and Johnson (2003) published their first works on conceptual metaphor theory, he alludes to the same general-to-specific mapping process of the dream, and refers to the dream imagery as the “interface,” which is a word that I have also used in co-creative dream theory—more specifically, the “mutable interface” and “moment-to-moment vectoring” of the encounter between the dream ego and the emergent dream content. (Sparrow, 2013).
Hartmann doesn’t allude to embedded generic metaphors, or archetypes, in his dream theory, but says that the dream serves to “contextualize” unintegrated emotional experience into a generic metaphorical image that captures both the emotional content of the immediate experience, as well as an array of previous, similar emotional experiences that have already been integrated and resolved. The central image thus works by uniting past with present through associative neural networks, thus enabling the organism to integrate the current distressing experience with similar experiences that have already been dealt with successfully. Hartmann reveals his psychoanalytic background by overlooking the dreamer’s metacognition or response set as a facilitative factor in this process, and he does not mention the changes that the dreamer perceives in the imagery through the course of the dream. By implicitly dismissing the dreamer’s metacognition as a possible accelerant in the process of integration, or the existence of underlying, supraordinate metaphors or domains that are mapped through more specific imagery/metaphors as Jungian theory allows, Hartmann’s theory cannot resolve the problem of where the imagery originates, or why some dreamers successfully integrate traumatic memory, and others do not.
In contrast to Hartmann, who leaves the dreamer out of the equation, Ullmann anticipates the emergence of co-creative dream theory, when he states;
Our main thesis is that dreaming involves rapidly changing presentational sequences which in their unity amount to a metaphorical statement (major metaphor). Each element (minor metaphor) in the sequence has metaphorical attributes organized toward the end of establishing in a unified way an over-all metaphorical description of the new ideas and relations and their implications as these rise to the surface during periods of activated sleep.
Clearly, Ullman sets the stage for the role of dreamer metacognition, but does not embrace an approach that acknowledges the dream ego as the catalyst in the “rapidly changing presentational sequences.” Although he remains wedded to the Presentational paradigm, he distinguishes between major metaphor (similar to Lakoff’s “suprordinate metaphor,” and arguably Jung’s “archetypes”) and minor metaphor, which raises the question of how the major metaphor is translated “downward,” or mapped into a series of minor metaphors. Of course, co-creative dream theory offers a solution: The dreamer’s overall response to the “emergent novelty” of the major metaphor translates it into personally relevant, contextualized images or minor metaphors that may shift over the course of the dream.
It is significant to note that neither Ullman, nor Lakoff and Johnson (2003) seem to share Jung’s seminal view that the unconscious or “backside” repository consists of indeterminate patterns that become specific in the context of a person’s unique experience. That is, while Jung insists that the archetypes are patterns, rather than images, Ullman refers to the backside repository as containing “major” metaphors, while the dream presents “minor” metaphors that reflect a personal conditioning of the major metaphor. Similarly, Lakoff and Johnson (2003) refer to “supraordinate metaphors” to describe what is stored within memory, and which then are “mapped” into our experience as more specific, personally relevant metaphors. The problem with referring to supraordinate, or major metaphors as fully formed background or unconscious components is that the construction of a metaphor by definition partakes of two sources. That is, a metaphor is always a synthesis of a generic realm of experience and an anchoring image derived from one’s personal history. How can there be an “unconscious” metaphor if the metaphor, by definition is forged in the crucible of personal awareness? It can be created in consciousness and then stored, but it’s impossible to conceive of a metaphor without considering the reductionistic contribution of consciousness. Thus, Ullman, as well as Lakoff and Anderson (2003) seem to struggle with the way that the backside repository assumes specific metaphoric form. Only Jung tacitly acknowledges the possibility that the metaphors assume form in relationship with an observer, not independently, thus leaving open the possibility of a real-time co-creative view of dream metaphor construction. Rossi alone as a modern theorist alludes to the parallels between dream imagery and quantum mechanics, which explains the way that reality only becomes manifest in the presence of an observer.
Ultimately, Ullman leaves the door open to the co-creative paradigm when he says,
We have offered very little thus far concerning the laws governing the movement and development of the global or major metaphor of the dream. It is likely that the full exposition of the developmental aspects of the dream process will have to await further investigative effort.
Seven Content domains
There are a number of developmental frameworks that have been proposed by a variety of psychodynamic (e.g. Freud and Erickson), humanistic (Maslow), and transpersonal/theorists (Wilber, 1996; 2007). These disparate theorists describe a hierarchy of sequential stages in the maturation, actualization, individuation, or enlightenment of the individual. As stated, the psychoanalytic theories focus on psychosexual development (Freud) or the mastery of psychosocial developmental tasks (Erickson). In contrast, the teleological systems of transpersonal/religious thinkers point toward a higher state of self-actualization or individuation to which we are inexorably drawn. Wilber, in particular, describes the process of evolution according to Hegel’s notion, in which each successive domain of development is transcended through the “death” of the current dominant mode of consciousness, and then recapitulated or encompassed as a mastered component within the next higher, more differentiated level of consciousness.
The concept of universal content domains as the origin of dream imagery is by no means new. In particular, the chakra system has become a familiar framework in the West due to the contributions, among others, of Edgar Cayce, Manley Palmer Hall, Rudolph Steiner, the theosophists, and more recently Ken Wilber. These sources have drawn from the ancient chakra system that has been thoroughly delineated in Hinduism and Buddhism. Compared to modern Western systems of hierarchical psychological development, the chakra system arguably wraps all of them into a comprehensive system. Indeed, the Western systems can be subsumed within the larger framework of the chakra system, and the symbology associated with these Western systems, including Jung’s array of archetypes, can be mapped onto the chakra system with minimal conflict.
The nature of the seven domains represented by the chakras is a study unto itself, which can illuminate a variety of areas of study, including meditational states, mythological motifs, and dream content. What follows is a brief description of the domains, summarized from a variety of sources:
Domain One: Often referred to as the root chakra, and associated with the element earth, this domain concerns issues of basic energy and sustenance. As a state of consciousness, the self is still in an unconscious, “uroboric” state (Neumann); that is, largely unaware of itself and undifferentiated from the mother and the environment. When the dream ego encounters this domain, it may perceive food, wealth, or security—or the lack thereof—on the dream interface.
Domain Two: Often referred to as the sexual center and associated with the element water, a sense of otherness arises in this domain, and the yearning for the sexual partner commences. Here the developmental task is to balance one’s outwardly directed sexual impulses with the realization that this yearning is, in part, for one’s unactualized self. Jung’s concept of the anima/animus archetype coincides with this domain. Austerities are commonly practiced in Eastern tantric spiritual traditions, not so much in disrepect for sexuality as in respect for its power to fuel the expansion of consciousness and one’s further evolution.
Domain Three: Referred to as the power center, and associated with the element fire, this domain involves facing the developmental challenge of expressing self-assertion and autonomy through maintaining appropriate boundaries between oneself and the world. Learning to deal appropriately with interpersonal conflict, and general threats to one’s survival—physically and emotionally, without escalating the threat—is paramount to mastering this center’s developmental tasks.
Domain Four: Referred to as the heart center, this domain concerns relationships, affiliations, family, and one’s social life. The developmental achievements of this level include relationship bonding, interdependency, and intimacy, with the attendant threats of jealousy, attachment, and abandonment.
Domain Five: Referred to as the throat center, this domain deals with the issues of volition and calling. Here the self has to decide what he or she serves, and commit to that relationship in order to align oneself with the next stage in one’s evolution. The developmental challenges of this center revolves around the question of whether one will surrender one’s own narrow agenda in favor of embracing a deeper or higher calling. Jonah’s refusal to serve as God’s prophet, and Peter’s threefold betrayal of Jesus, both allude to difficulty of fulfilling the requirements of the fifth domain.
Domain Six: At this level of consciousness, one becomes aware of the personal embodiment of God, and has to come to terms with that relationship. This personal relationship with the divine is considered a step that one cannot bypass in various Eastern guru-centered traditions (Wilber), and it is mirrored in the orthodox Christian position that Christ is necessary for our salvation. The developmental requirements of the sixth stage are similar to the fifth. That is, one must perceive, accept, and serve the mandate of one’s calling. However, at this level, one’s calling becomes incarnate as a personal embodiment of the divine, in whatever form it takes, based on one’s ideals and cultural/religious context.
Domain Seven: This domain is experienced only once the perceived division between self and God dissolves in the climax of the fulfilled covenant between self and divine. While the first domain features undifferentiated union, the centerpiece of the seventh domain is conscious, fully differentiated union that transcends the power of language to describe it. One does not merely perceive God, but becomes God, and can truthfully say, “I am that Thou art.”
The Coalescing of Dream Metaphors
From the standpoint of the co-creative paradigm, whatever emerges as content to the witnessing dream ego coalesces in the form of imagery as it felt or perceived. And from the first moment onward, the content mirrors the dream ego’s subjective attitude and response to it. The reciprocal exchange accounts for the dynamic mapping of the content domain on the dream interface, and becomes from the standpoint of the dreamer, the received dream content. Manifesting as metaphorical imagery, the mapped domain incorporates the respective contributions of domain and dream ego, and moves progresses through time as co-created dream forms that reveal the state of the relationship between dream ego and content agenda.
An important question pertains to whether the content domains are passive arenas for virtual engagement, or have their own independence, autonomy and thrust. This question fueled the debates over the ethical and psychological advisability of trying to control one’s dreams. Some lucid dream authorities advocated early on for a no-holds barred experimental approach, while others urged caution, given that the nature of the dream content can never be conclusively ascertained. Theory aside, the phenomenology of the dream regularly reveals that the dream content has an intrusive, surprising quality, and cannot justifiably be reduced the a mere “part of the dreamer,” at least from a subjective, or felt-perspective. Ullmann once referred to the “intrusive novelty” of the dream imagery (Ullman, 1978), and Rossi once asserted that the development of personality as evidenced in the dream process, is “in part autonomous.” Jung, too, saw the individuation process as a teleological process, inherent within each individual as, in the words of Hillman, the “soul’s code,” and working its way into consciousness through agency of dream and active imagination. For Freud, the dynamic nature of the dream derived its intrusiveness from the bound-up energy of one’s past; but for Jung and Wilber, the process is prospective and endpoint driven, and draws the psyche forward toward a destiny that can be rendered symbolically in dream, vision, and myth, but cannot be fully understood from the ego’s current level of partial development. While Jung declared that “consciousness is the unnatural thing in nature,” and that “nature cares nothing for a higher state of consciousness,” he also asserted that the ego is by no means the center of our evolution, but that the archetypes have an energy and destiny of their own, drawing us into them.
I have argued elsewhere that the reflectiveness of the dreamer, paired with the felt-autonomy of the dream creates a true relationship (Tarnas) in which each party is capable of freely responding to the other—thus establishing a true dialectical process characterized by conflict, dialogue, and the synthesis of greater consciousness or development. (Hegel, Neumann, Edinger, Rossi, Wilber).
The Incorporation of Content domains into Co-Creative Dream Theory and Analysis
The concept of content domains is, as countless dream workers have discovered, a useful supplement in dreamwork, whether one practices from the Presentational paradigm or the Co-Creative Paradigm. In other words, dream imagery can be conveniently and accurately associated with various content domains, and the meaning to the dreamer can thereby be enhanced by understanding the nature of the developmental tasks at each domain. However, by downplaying the influence of the dreamer upon the unfolding imagery, the Presentational Paradigm constrains our assessment to an array of static images unrelated to the dreamer’s subjectivity. In contrast, the co-creative model treats the dream imagery as a elastic, mutable interface that coalesces and mirrors one’s relationship with a particular content domain. By examining how the dreamer’s initial response initially “maps” the domain into a specific image, and then tracking the changes in both, we can obtain a contemporary view of the dreamer’s relationship with that level of development, and help the dreamer to troubleshoot current responses, and define ways to accelerate one’s development at that level.
Returning to the dream of the fox and chickens, one might say that the content domain involves an encounter with power, or the third chakra, in the form of the various predatorial animals. In the first moment of the dream, the dreamer perceives power as threat, and takes action to protect what is vulnerable:
I hear a wolf howl, and realize that he threatens my chickens, so I grab a shovel and run out the door into the back yard.
There is so much to be gained by analyzing this initial statement. By identifying the content domain in generic terms, and then examining the dreamer’s subjective stance, we can assist her in seeing how her assumptions “map” the domain into a threat, thus justifying her fear. But the mere howl of a wolf does not, in itself signify a threat, so we have to explore why she “rendered” the domain issue as threatening. As it turns out, she literally raises chickens, so her life experience predisposes her to interpret a predator’s presence as threatening to what is precious to her. Her robust response signifies the courage that she needs to intervene at some risk to herself, which is an issue worthy of consideration. That is, it reveals a great deal about the dreamer’s assumptions and willingness to take action. The wolf synthesizes her assumptions and the domain into an image that captures the elements of power with a certain beauty, nobility, and suffering, as well. But of course, the connotation of “nobility” and “suffering” has to be ratified by the dreamer. Her own associations will help us understand why the wolf captured her “momentary condition” in a form that perfectly expressed her lived experience with the realm of power.
This may seem overly complicated, so let’s look at how the dream worker’s use of language can translate the first four steps of the FiveStar Method into a brief, effective intervention that opens up a conversation with the dreamer.
Dream Worker: So in this dream, you are initially alarmed (feelings) by the presence of something powerful, and you feel protective (feelings) of something vulnerable that, without your help, could be hurt or destroyed. You are also concerned about your own well being. As you confront the threat, it seems to become less threatening, and weakened, and you experience compassion, but then you imagine that it still represents a threat, and that there is even a new threat that is not fully evident, as yet. (process narrative). Does this capture the dreamer’s feelings and your sense of the dream process?
Dreamer: Yes, exactly. I went from fear to relief and then back to fear again. I raise chickens, so this scenario is a familiar one, but I don’t think I would have felt personally threatened by these animals in real life.
Dream Worker: You certainly countered the perceived threat without hesitation. Is that like you, I wonder? I noticed how your fear returned, and wondered if it accounted for your suspicion that a new threat lurked. Do you get a sense that this resurgence of fear made you think that the raccoon was lurking the darkness?
Dreamer: Yeh, it was if I snatched defeat out of the jaws of victory. I mean, the wolf was no longer a threat, and the coyote needed help more than he threatened my chickens or myself. Puzzling why I inserted more fear into the picture.
Dream Worker: I’m wondering what would have happened if you’d stopped short of imagining more threat. Do you think the dream would have ended on a more positive note? What could you imagine having done differently?
Dreamer: Yes, I wish I would have reached out to the coyote. It was a wild animal, but sometimes wild animals come for help. It could have brought about a very different outcome if I’d reached out to the coyote.
Step Five of the FiveStar Method: Applying the Dream Work
The final step of the FSM involves encouraging the dreamer to imagine new responses in the dream as a way to 1) resolve the unfinished conflict in the dream, 2) prepare for future dream encounters with this content domain. It also includes a free-ranging exploration of where this kind of encounter may be occurring in the waking state, and whether new responses are called for. Of course, the dreamer leads the way in determining any course of action; but is encouraged to overturn chronic ways of responding in favor of implementing new, more creative and functional ways of relating.
As a supplement to this update, one may benefit from considering these questions in the course of proceeding through the five steps:
What is the dreamer’s first emotion? This will reveal how the dreamer sets the tone for the dreamer-dream encounter.
What is the most significant moment(s) of dissonance between dream ego and emergent content? The points of dissonance indicate places where the dreamer is resisting the intrusive novelty of the dream, and thus resisting integration of what the dream content represents. The co-created imagery is likely to reflect this dissonance by showing the emergent domain-level developmental need as a threat to the dream ego.
What is the first significant perceived image? The first significant image reveals the initial co-creation that captures both the content domain and the dreamer’s unique rendering of it.
What is the dreamer’s first response? The first response usually determines whether the dream moves toward integration and synthesis, or toward conflict.
How does the imagery change? The imagery alterations reflect how the content domain is adjusting to the dreamer’s response set, and reveals whether the dream process is moving toward dream-dream synthesis, or not.
How do changes in imagery mirror changes within the dreamer’s responses? This consideration helps the dreamer become aware of his or her agency in influencing the dream imagery, and demonstrates the extent to which the dream imagery is tethered to the dreamer’s reactions, or acting somewhat independently of them.
What is the content domain(s) depicted by the context and category of imagery? It’s important for the dreamer to understand what life domain is being constellated in the dream. Usually, the specific domain is activated by parallel waking concerns, but not always.
Does the dreamer/dream content relationship move toward, or away from integration? By assessing the trajectory of the dream process, the dream worker assists the dreamer in determining if he or she is working in concert with the developmental process, or thwarting it through non-facilitative responses.
What is chronic in the dreamer’s response, and what is (or would be) a creative and facilitative response? This analysis can trace dreamer emotional responses to earlier experiences, which made sense at the time, but are no longer serving a developmental need.
In summary, my global intention in this paper has been to articulate how we can work with metaphors wholly within the co-creative paradigm, viewing their creation as a real-time synthesis of generic content domains with the dream ego’s subjective stance in relation to it. Further, my specific intent has been to work toward finalizing the dreamwork methodology that I have previously introduced as the FiveStar Method (Sparrow, 2013; Sparrow and Thurston, 2010). By adopting this approach to metaphor co-creation and deconstruction, we can assist dreamers in understanding the broad content domains expressed through the dream imagery, and how a dreamer’s “momentary conscious condition” (Jung, 1966) renders and reduces the broad domain into personally relevant images.
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