Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Understanding and Explanation of Dreams: Fritz Perls Gestalt Therapy

The founder of the Gestalt Therapy movement, Frederick (Fritz) Perls, took his initial training as a Freudian psychoanalyst, but soon saw psychoanalysis as a big game that kept the patient in the therapist’s pocket (or the therapist in the patient’s pockets) and began to work out quick, powerful techniques to return the control of one’s life back to the individual. His own group work would eventually become the model for many peer dream groups that would form in the 1960′s and 1970′s.

The basic concept of Gestalt

Perls believed that unresolved conflicts from the past had a great deal of influence upon present behavior, and that these conflicts needed to be "worked through" (Perls, 1969). He also felt that dreams were highly symbolic and made extensive use of interpretation. Perls felt all past conflicts were continually acted out in the present, and chose to work on them in the here-and-now. In the here-and-now we are completely free and can choose responsibility and openness instead of illness. In the here-and-now we are free to actively control our own "becoming." Thus Perls would have his patients enact in the present the conflict and have them take on the various parts of the conflict as dramatic roles so the patient could become aware of the conflict, contact it and control the direction of it in the present and future. Thus one’s feelings and actions become unified in a whole, what Perls calls a gestalt, that is more spontaneous, open and honest.

While Gestalt therapy has had its own ups and downs, supporters and critics, its own hey-day and decline, what we are going to look at here is the influence it has had on the modern dream work movement, particularly the techniques developed during 1960′s at the now famous Big Sur retreat center in California.

Gestalt approaches to the dream
Nearly all the techniques come from that same set of ideas that Jung offered us, that the dream is a subjective presentation of the dream him/herself and that there is a sense of wholeness in every image. As with Freud and Jung, for Perls what is unconscious in the personal psyche is initially projected out onto other people and to other objects. That is, we see in others first what we refuse to see in ourselves. Perls takes this idea to an extreme and looks at how all we see is in part a projection of ourselves.

"In dreams, the hardest aspect to accept is that every part of the dream is the dreamer: if I am driving along a dream highway, the car, the road, the passing automobiles, the distant mountains, the unseen dread, all are ‘me’." (Downing, 1973, pg 7)

As you can see, the difference between Jung’s view and Perls’ is that for Jung the dream has a subjective-objective tension, i.e. is about something that contains both inner and outer realities. For Perls, the objective outer boundary is allowed to collapse to get directly at the inner fantasy level. In this way the split off inner processes can be re-owned and integrated within the context of the immediate present.

And yet, as I mentioned, there is hardly a modern dream technique or approach that doesn’t acknowledge or use this idea of the intrapsychic dream landscape. Our charge is to keep an eye on the theory, but to focus on some of the ways the technique is unfolded that will allow us to give meaning to our dreams and recover the significance in a non-therapeutic setting. Thus the emphasis is two- fold here. The first is an historical rendering of the exercises and the second is a confining for our use the exercises to the imagination. Any direct use of the exercises should be done within the context of a qualified gestalt therapist.

Lose your mind and come to your senses," suggests Fritz. How aware are we of what we are doing in the present in the dream?

Exercise: The first thing to emphasize is the telling of the dream in present tense.
a. Take an dream and re-write it or tell it to yourself as if it is happening right now. Example: " I am flying over the bay and I feel anxious. I look towards the horizon for sharks. Now I’m flying towards the beach and see the bathers there."

b. For contrast, re-write the same dream in *past* tense as though it all happened a long time ago. Example: I was once flying over a bay and I was feeling kind of nervous. I was looking for sharks on the horizon. Then I was flying back towards the beach and I was looking at some people in the water."

What did you notice about the difference between the exercises? How alive did you feel in each exercise? Make some notes about this difference.

Now that we have moved into the present, let’s move into the subjective mode as well and see all parts of the dream as ourselves.

a. Take a dream and after each thing, adjective or action, put the phrase "Part of me". Example using the Bay Flyer dream: " The I (part of me) flies (part of me) over the bay (part of me) while the looking (part of me) for sharks (part of me)…"

b. Pick one of the parts of the dream that have some feeling or puzzle for you. In my example I’m going to choice the "sharks" and the "bay". Now pretend you are that part of the dream.

Example: "I am the Shark and I lurk unseen in the dream. I could swoop in at any moment and eat the bathers and yum, how good they would be too! I make the flyer nervous because I cause him to worry about things over which he has little control. But I give him a purpose too. All the dream flyer can do is watch, watch, watch. I like the unseen waters I swim in and hope the flyer gets a little closer to the water too!"

"I am the bay. I am both shallow and deep, friendly and dangerous.My waters flow out to the deep sea and up against the beach were people play. The dream flyer soars above me and sees both these parts of me, but he seems afraid of entering me himself. I am cold and liquid and bounded only by dry and structured things. I provide passage for many ships and fish."

Try this for as many part of the dream as you can. Notice how this changes (or doesn’t) your feelings about the dream images and the way they fit together.

By Richard Wilkerson

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