wellness

Is Creative Dream Work the New Frontier of Wellness?

08/05/23

Author: Laura Pitcher

DOCUMENTED BY: RIISE

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The latest trend sweeping Hollywood promises to unlock creativity, unveil capacity-limiting patterns of thinking and behaviour and help you to reach your true potential, all by tapping into your subconscious as you sleep. To find out if dream work is really all it’s cracked up to be, Laura Pitcher put her dreams to the test.

Our dreams can be many things — scary, vivid, embarrassing. They’re also, oftentimes, seemingly mundane and, usually, forgotten very quickly. But what if the thoughts we have during our sleeping hours can be harnessed to untap creativity? This is the question the rising practice of “dream work” asks (and perhaps answers), with actors such as Sandra Oh, Benedict Cumberbatch, Bill Pullman, Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons and Ryan Gosling engaging in the practice to hone their craft, as well as famed directors, Sofia Coppola and Jane Campion. Founded by Kim Gillingham in 1999, to “work” your dreams is to make contact with the unconscious with the help of a dream work facilitator. From there, the idea is to pull the wealth of information from your dreams, bringing the findings back into your life and work. If this sounds similar to the 2010 sci-fi Inception, it’s because it is (minus the heavy sedation and international crime).

With dream work seemingly one of the best-kept secrets in Hollywood, it was only a matter of time before the practice began to infiltrate the masses. After all, who wouldn’t want to “tap into” their subconscious as a means to self-actualise? But could dream work become the new frontier of work and wellness? For answers, I turn to Ken Barnett, an actor and teacher of dream work who studied and trained extensively under Gillingham and has been coaching dream work privately to actors, artists and other creatives in New York and Los Angeles for over a decade.

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Before my “dream work” session with Barnett, he sends me information on how to “ask” for a dream. “A dream is a direct communication from the unconscious, so we begin by asking for and recording a dream,” he explains. Although there is “no right or wrong way to do this”, I follow Barnett’s advice to put a journal near my bed and write a letter to my inner self before sleep. The letter includes where I am in life right now, the struggles I’m going through, anything that is repeating or standing in my way, what feels out of balance, and what I long for. I use it as an opportunity to check in with myself, then, on Barnett’s suggestion, add, “If it is your will, please reveal to me in my dreams tonight what you want me to know so that I may fulfil my potential and come closer to you.”

For two days after I “ask” for a dream, I wake up with the strong feeling that I had just had complex revelations… and then completely forgot them. This instant memory loss is why Barnett often suggests writing dreams down through the night (if you wake up to go to the bathroom), rather than waiting until morning. “The ego will immediately begin to edit out the most potent material,” he says. The next evening, I have a small but vivid dream of my late father walking into my New York apartment, turning the music down, and then doing the dishes. I quickly jot it down, then bring it to Barnett for my first-ever dream work session.

Science estimates that 95 per cent of our brain’s activity is unconscious, meaning that the majority of the decisions we make, the actions we take, our emotions and behaviours, depend almost exclusively on brain activity that lies beyond conscious awareness. Despite this, the unconscious mind is still largely a mystery, and therefore, dream work, too, continues to be a profoundly mysterious practice. Barnett defines dream work as being firmly rooted in the dream-analysis theories and writings of psychoanalyst Carl Jung while viewing the unconscious as a huge unruly source of guidance and information.

"We often work with a metaphor of thinking of the ego as like a cork bobbing on the ocean and the ocean is the unconscious,” he says at the start of our session.

That metaphor is useful because it reminds you that the ego from which we function mostly is a tiny part of the vastness that is ourselves. The effort with dream work is to get to the root of what is going on in your innermost self and bring that to your creative expression.

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Barnett and I analyse my dream for an hour, then practice putting myself in the eyes of my father in the dream, role-playing his energy. Barnett even asks me questions as if I were looking through his eyes (which took a minute to get the hang of), explaining that everyone in our dreams is a reflection of parts of ourselves. “If you really pay attention to any dream, any dream at all, it will suggest or demand that you make some sort of shift,” he says. “The ego is very happy with the status quo, that’s why it often comes in with a dry eraser in the morning.”

In leaving my dream work session, I have a new understanding of how the practice could be helpful not only for creative projects but for approaching general life from different angles. After all, if everyone in our dreams is a reflection of ourselves, the scary man chasing you in your head might actually represent the part of you that feels overwhelmed; the woman pushing you off a cliff might be giving you a wake-up call. By talking through my dream, I found an increase in compassion for myself and awareness of the areas of my life I may be neglecting. After making these realisations, the idea is to write or paint (or do anything creative) based on the parts of yourself revealed in the session.

While Barnett’s particular focus is working with artists, he does see the need and benefits of the practice being embraced by wider society. “The culture needs it desperately,” he says. Where his work gets you “into your body” and creating, some dream workers are focused on self-reflection, using dream work to process complex feelings like grief. Carla Frocchi Blowey found dream work after the loss of her son, Kevin. “The night before he passed I experienced a prophetic and precognitive nightmare that foreshadowed his death,” she says. “So my work began immediately in reconciling that loss and dreams were the tool for me.”

Blowey worked with a grief counsellor who recognised the power of dream work, talking through what she had dreamt just prior to her son’s death. From there, she began to write the book Dreaming Kevin for other bereaved parents. “I wanted to share this tool because it worked for me, and there are tonnes of people also having dream experiences that they didn’t understand but could be helpful in their healing,” she explains. Blowey now works as a certified dream facilitator. She explains what she does as being similar to hearing someone explain a film to her.

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“Imagine you are sitting in your little dream theatre and I can only see it on my dream screen the way I’ve heard it because I can never sit in your dream theatre,” she says. “As a facilitator, it’s my job to offer feedback to the dreamer in a format where the dreamer can hear and receive even challenging comments that might be uncomfortable, but strike a chord of knowing.” Blowey views dreams as a way for the soul to cry out and express itself.

There are so many insights and revelations that can come from dream work if we are willing to accept its multiple layers and meanings to break new ground for insights.

With formal training required to be a “dream worker” and “dream work” itself meaning different things to different people, the growing practice can vary as much as your dreams themselves do. One thing it can teach us all, however, is to pay more attention to our minds (and to write dreams down immediately, before our ego erases them from our memories). Whether you’d then like to connect to your dream self for your creative endeavours or for the process of self-development is up to you, it may come more intuitively than you think. As Barnett puts it: “People throughout history have written songs, plays, and books on their dreams and people have created beautiful pieces of art based on inspiration in their dreams”. Turns out you can too, with the help of a dream worker — or just your trusty journal and some free time to workshop your subconscious.

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