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Essays listed in chronological order starting with most recent. For archives, please see previous volumes below.
  • Writer's pictureRudy Bauer

Dream Symbolization in Light of Analytic and Experiential Thinking

Journal of Contemporary Psychotherapy

Vol. 15, No. l, Spring/Summer 1985

Dream Symbolization in Light of Analytic and Experiential Thinking


ABSTRACT: This paper compares the analytic and experiential approaches to dreams in order to illuminate the intrinsic and necessary relationships between the two understandings. It describes how dream work reflects the bimodalness of sym bolism, thought and ultimately human consciousness. An extended example of dream work reflecting both analytic and experiential modalities is presented.

T he dream is, for both the psychoanalyst and the phenomenologically

oriented psychotherapist, a primary manifestation of a person's psychological world. The intent of this paper is to compare the analytic and experiential approaches to dreams, in order to illuminate the intrinsic and necessary relationships between the two understandings. The actual therapy strategies and praxis of these two modes of thinking are elaborated elsewhere and are not the focus of this essay (Bauer, 1977; Freud, 1953; Greenson, 1972; Perls, 1969).

The experiential and analytic are two divergent hermeneutics that reflect the ambiguity of dream symbolism and indeed the mind itself. As Ricoeur (1979) clarifies, symbols carry two vectors, each of which is self-consistent. The analytic mode, via association and interpretation, revives the archaic meanings belonging to the developmental history of the person. The ex

periential mode, via amplification of the symbol, encountering, enactment and dialectical elaboration of the imagery, provides for the metaphorical emergence of figures that lead to a new sense of the self. The analytic method facilitates the insightful understanding of the everyday familiar, both in terms of past history and present causality; the experiential method facilitates the

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Rudolph Bauer, Ph.D. 21

poetic expanding of the familiar in both depth and breadth of the ex perienced self.

These two-fold possibilities are not simply artifacts of Freud's and Perls' concepts of personality, but rather, their divergent methods reflect the un folding of the dialectical structures within the dream symbol and human con sciousness. Again, Ricoeur (1979) suggests that symbols, on the one hand, repeat our childhood and, on the other, represent the projection of our possibilities onto the imagination. Dream symbolism concretely embodies both the regressive and the prophetic, the past and the future.

The analytic task is to approach the dream product as a source of in formation, a reading and deciphering of the imagery, for the patient to un derstand, hopefully, his experience as he would read a paragraph from a coded text (Lacan, 1977). The information is to be gleaned from the dream product, and used and assimilated by the ego to build ego consciousness. The experiential task is to approach the dream prospectively, reinstate the dream process and reinvent the action of the symbolization in order to expand con sciousness of the self.

Dream symbols both disguise and conceal the aims of instincts, and when amplified and lived out, the symbolic imagery discloses and reforms self consciousness. The two possibilities contained within the symbol are reflected in the two methodologies. The focus of free association and interpretation is the uncovering of the disguised structure and wish so that by understanding the symbol, a person might have a reasoned "choice" within the context of his/her drives and desires. The focus of the experiential strategies is the discovering and disclosing experientially to one's self new modes of being and sense of inner presence.

The analytic mode uses language for meaning and for knowing objectively, linearly, reflectively and prepositionally, one's own mind. The experiential mode uses language for knowing subjectively, pre-reflectively, evocatively and concretely, one's being-in-the-world. The issue and difference between the two modes is not between feeling and cognition, as emotion is involved in both, but between language as information and language in its poetic

metaphoric function.

The phenomenological approach to dreams leads to the experiential ex ploration of "our" relationship to our sense of being and to our experienced sense of inner presence. The analytic approach leads to the cognitive emotional exploration of our relationships to people, events and to our own objectified desires. Both methodologies are valid and therapeutically com plementary. The insightful approach provides for the strengthening of the ego and coping skills, and the metaphorical modality provides for the possibility of heightening and enlivening our sense of interiority. Winnicott

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(1965) has spoken about the modes of being and doing. Both modalities are necessary and make for personalized and effective living. The insightful reflective dimension enhances ego functioning and the necessary controlling, doing, manipulating and making of the environment. The awareness-non reflective mode enhances receptivity to one's own self.

Both modalities contain the possibility of exacerbating the pathological "stuckness" of a patient. The analytic position may be destructive by main taining the patient in an obsessional style. The analytic position over extended increases a person's preoccupation with the informational and ideational aspects of existence, further depriving the individual of the sense of self. The experiential approach over-extended gives undue homage to the in tensity of experience, with the consequent increase of preoccupation and fascination with narcissistic absorption, thus limiting and constricting a per son's ability to do and to cope in the world.

Successful dream work in either mode educates in the sense that a person is led out of childhood perceptions and lifted out of the preoccupation with past hurt and fixations on past deprivation. Dream work in either mode can debilitate by hyperemphasizing a patient's past hurt and current sense of deprivation. The "familiar" itself has an addictive pull that must be relinquished if the patient is to change. Both ego-coping skills and experience of the self are necessary for living, and each mode forms a context for the other. The repetitious reflection on one's inner representations does not lead to the needed experience of the self; just as absorbed experiencing does not lead to cognitively differentiated thought and active coping with the world.

The truth of the dream depends on the mode in which the therapeutic dream work takes place. In the analytic mode, the patient's telling of the dream to the therapist is the beginning of the understanding of the grammar of the dream with its personally fixed meaning. The truth of the dream is already there, it simply has to be understood and read correctly. From the ex

periential position, the patient's telling or enacting of the dream is a con tinuation of the act of symbolization. There is a "recalling" of the dream sym bol to re-enliven the contained imagery so that the dialectic of the dream collage may be lived through between therapist and patient, self and com munity. The experiential truth of the dream is not fixed and prepositional, but the truth is relational and ontological in the Heideggerian sense (Luijpen, 1960). The truth is that which is expanded, renewed, revealed and made

present. In this context, truth has not to do with thought, but with presence. Dream symbols are spoken to us first when we are asleep. It is at that moment when there is our first listening and witnessing. In the analytic mode, the focus is on the first telling. The goal of the second telling and witnessing is to reflectively understand the product of our initial experience. From the ex-

Rudolph Bauer, Ph.D. 23

periential position, the primary focus is the second telling, which is intended to recall, amplify, and recreate the first moment to move us into a new un folding of the dream collage. From the analytic view, the dream product is the ending, and from the experiential perspective, the dream product is the beginning.

Therapeutic dream work reflects the bimodalness of symbolism, thought and, ultimately, human consciousness (Bassos, 1976; Ornstein, 1973). The ability of the therapist to strategically use both hermeneutics and to knowledgeably blend both modalities, facilitates efficient and effective dream work. Although the dream content is obviously the same in both un

dertakings, the process of each method and position will have different effects on the patient. Certain patients' pathologies may require an analytic focus to build ego consciousness and reflectivity. For example, schizophrenic patients whose thinking is weak need grounding in causal thinking and understanding of their personal processes. Some obsessively defensive schizoid patients whose identifications are entirely within the analytic mode must experience the ex

periential mode in order to begin to grow out of the schizoid vacuum. More often, therapeutic dream work involves the double working of the dream. The therapist and patient shift from experiential work to analytic work and back to experiential. Growth in one dimension often depends on a prior anchoring and support in the other. Understanding lends support to further experiential work, and a more firmly experienced self supports future, reflective understanding.

The following is an extended sample of dream work reflecting both analytic and experiential modalities. The patient is a 30-year-old male who has been in psychotherapy for about two years and who manifests a compulsive charac ter style. A major theme in therapy has been his relationship with his father. His father was a harsh, perfectionistic colonel who related to the patient in a sadistic manner. The patient both feared and idealized the father as a kind of warrior poet. The patient had internalized the victim-victimizer relationship, and has in the past acted out this drama both on others and on himself. Over the past months, he gained understanding into his historical relationships with his father, gained renewed feelings of competence and self-esteem, and has lessened the sado-masochistic interactions with his wife. Many of the changes came about by his utilization of insight.

He began the session stating that he had had a frightening dream and felt confused by the experience. In the dream, he was in a boat which he knew to be his father's boat. A storm came up and the boat began to take on water, and he attempted to paddle the boat to shore. His father was on the pier shouting at him for being so stupid for having taken out the boat. He was terrified both of his father's anger and of drowning. He called to his father for

24 Journal of Contemporary Psychotherapy

help. The father shouted to him that he was paddling stupidly and cursed him for being such an ass. The patient noticed in horror that the front of the boat had a gaping hole. As he struggled to the pier he again called to his father for help, and felt as the boat went under him that he was going to drown. His father did not help him, but continued to abuse him with words. He then awoke from the dream.

In working with the dream, I first asked the patient what he thought about it and what his associations were. He made some clarifying connections to previously discussed material concerning his relationship with his father. He recollected how his father had abused him and how he desperately wanted his father's approval and love. He again recollected the memory of the day his father had beaten him with a whip. He was about six; his maid was changing him and he felt embarrassed about being naked, so he hit the maid and she left the room. He felt relieved, and when his father came into the room, he felt proud of what he had done to the maid. To his horror, his father grabbed him, took him to the basement, and beat him with a whip, shouting that he should not abuse women. As he recollected the memory, he spoke about his improved relationship with his wife and how currently he has not played out either victim or victimizer role with her. He then noted that the dream sum

marized much of his past therapy work.

I then asked him if he would like to work experientially on the dream. During the experiential work, he played out the dialogue between him and his father. For some time, he re-experienced the dialogue, assimilating the in tensity of the split parts/roles, gaining further familiarity with the in ternalized victim-victimizer identification. I then asked him to be the hole in the front of the boat. At this point he shifted into an absorbed, experiential trance-like state. He grabbed his chest and wept in pain. I might note here that I believed he was shifting consciousness from the level of object internalization to the deeper level of the experienced self. In his weeping, he said that he could not go on but wanted to stop. I asked him to remain focused and go through the pain.

He then stated that he felt totally empty in his chest and it was as if his heart had been torn out.., there was nothing in him but a dark, empty hole. He continued crying and weeping. I placed my hand on his chest to amplify the contact both within him and with myself. I asked him to stay with his ex

perience, simply witnessing what took place. He later described that he felt himself going deeper and deeper within himself, going into and through the void and pain. Then to his amazement, he began to feel deep within his chest-- from inside to out-- a feeling of movement. To quote him, "I felt as if I was filling up from the inside . . . I sensed an inner warmth and kind of in

ner presence within me. It was as if I was healing from the inside.., growing

Rudolph Bauer, Ph.D. 25

warmly." He stayed quiet for a long time, sporadically describing how he felt a growing sense of presence. To quote him again, "I felt a fullness in me and not me... a realness... I felt realer than real.., loved from within. I am still sore and tender, but it feels as if the wound is being taken care of... as if I am being taken care of... from within. I sensed myself.., there was the sense of at-homeness.., a sense of knowing and witnessing the drama of nay life."

In working on this dream, time was initially spent using the analytic mode. By his reflection on the dream symbols, the patient was able to regain his in tellectual support. The dream symbol contained and repeated past historical experiences now internalized into the patient's personality identifications. His associations led to previously worked on and interpreted material. His un derstanding of the dream collage, both in terms of past historical events (beating with a whip) and present interactions (relationship with wife) and his own internal dynamics (his internalization of victim-victimizer polarity), facilitated his understanding of his inner experience. As this information was re-assimilated, the possibility of greater choice in regard to his wishes and drives increased. The language used in this process was objective, linear, prepositional and reflective. The goal was to read the meaning of the text of the dream with the hope of gaining understanding into his present inar ticulated experience in order to provide for a choice in future actions.

The analytic position could have been maintained longer, and further cognitive-emotional exploration into past causative history and present in ternal and interpersonal dynamics could have been developed. Also possible were explorations into the implications of the damaged self-esteem in regard to professional undertakings, into the transferential implications of the dream, and into the patient's feelings of helplessness as manifested in other relationships. The reworking of this material would at best have deepened and expanded his insight into the ego-object relations level of experience. The further elaboration, at worst, would have led to a working over and over, rather than a working through.

I believed that to have extended the analytic perspective with this par ticular patient and this particular dream would have increased his preoc cupation with the ideational aspects of his existence, depriving him of the task of reparation of the sense of damaged interiority. The repetitious reflection on one's inner representations does not lead to the needed experience of self love. Intellectual understanding and associations do provide a patient with the cognitive support and context for the experiencing of the self.

When the patient began to express the dialogue in the dream between him self and his father, the work reflected the object-ego level of discourse. When he began to identify with and amplify the dream symbol of the hole in the

26 Journal of Contemporary Psychotherapy

bow of the boat, there was a shift to the level of the experienced self. The dream symbol of the hole presented to the patient that which was existentially unfinished and developmentally impaired-- the beloved sense of the self. The experiencing of the symbol of the hole in the boat was the beginning place and signifier for the patient to know the void in his being, and by living through this aspect of his existence there emerged a deepened sense of in

teriority never before experienced. The void had been the background of his experience of himself and of others, rather than the enlivened inner self. This particular patient's reflective understanding was highly developed, and he used his cognitive abilities to the utmost as a support system. Yet, until the foundations of his experiencing were firmly rooted in the self, he would sense the impending weakness of the positions ascertained. What is existentially cut off and humanly damaged must ultimately be cured by living through and being completed in a human way.

During the experiential piece of the dream work, the patient reinstated the action of symbolization and experienced his own inner consciousness which had been previously cut off because of parental impingement. By staying with and living through the void, he discovered a new mode of being and presence. The basic self is not a concept or image, but is presence. The language of this mode is metaphoric and concrete. Prior to this work, the patient had gained insight into his relationships, and his insight had strengthened his discrimination and self-esteem. The insightful level cannot intrinsically lead to an enlivened and heightened sense of interiority and receptivity to the self.

There were two truths in this dream. The analytic truth was quickly revealed because of the summary quality of the dream in light of previous therapy work. The experiential truth was not so predictable. Experientially, the patient recalled and lived out the dream collage between himself and the therapist. What the patient's real father did not do in the dream or, for that matter, historically did not do, the therapeutic father did do in the dream work. The therapist helped "just enough" by focusing, encouraging and sup

porting the patient's heart. The act was not the curative element, but was the container for such curing to take place. The self ultimately cures the self. The experiential truth was experienced by the patient in silence. In silence, he understood his own subjectivity. The experience of the truth of the self is not interpersonal. The truth of this event was not the truth captured by a specific thematization, nor is it the truth that results from the desire to know objectively the self . . . the who I am. This desire can never be attained, because subjectivity is beyond language, although subjectivity is rooted in and structured by language (De Waelhens, 1978). Subjectivity must be expressed in language, although the person's discourse with the self is not on the

Rudolph Bauer, Ph.D. 27

linguistic level. The self is experienced when there is no thought, no con ceptualization, no reflection, no words.

Kohut has successfully elaborated that the encouragement of the develop ment of positively cathected self-representations leads to stable self-esteem, Self-esteem is not on the linguistic level on which the discourse with the self takes place. However, to experience the ontological self, one's con ceptualization of who one is is radically altered. Lacan (1977) points out that the truth of the subject is not the truth of an accurate self-portrait, but is the truth of experienced presence. For this patient, the experience of his own truth was not simply his giving up false significations about his personality, or giving up his illusion about his relationship with his overly idealized father. In this piece of work, he did not substitute one trait for another, nor did he replace one poor objectification with a more prestigious one. The experience of his own ontological truth encompassed the momentary giving up of the at tempt to use and place an image of the self as an organ and pole of his ac tions. The patient discovered in this moment that beyond his cognitive an chorages, beyond his metaphorical experience reflecting subject-object representations (dream, the drama and identification of victim-victimizer), there is one's presence to one's seK which is the presence of one's self.

When a person understands the self ontologically, the knowledge of his being-as-subject is inscribed on another level of existence. The truth of the self places one beyond one's personal style, beyond one's historical dynamics, beyond the results of self-examination by introspection. In the moment of this truth, one relates to one's inner consciousness as consciousness, and in doing so unites one's presence in the world with one's presence to one's self. This non-reductionistic experience of the human-being-as-subject requires a non reductionistic understanding. Dreams open for us directly this revelational experience. But to do so they must be understood from a non-reductionistic context.

In summary, man appears to be organized into two primary modes of con sciousness, and both modes are reflected in symbolization and specifically for our concern here dreams. The matter is illustrated in dream work as the dream directly manifests and presents the psychological world to the patient.

28 Journal of Contemporary Psychotherapy


Bauer, R. Gestalt approach to internal objects. Psychotherapy: Theory, Re search and Practice, 1976, 13, 232-235.

Bassos, C. Two modes of consciousness and their pseudo modes. Psychotherapy: Theory, Resear ch and Practice, 1976, 13, 335-342.

De Waelhens, A. Schizophrenia. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1978. Freud, S. The Interpretation of dreams ~. Strachey, Ed. and trans.). London: Hogarth Press, 1953.

Greenson, R. The technique and practice of psychoanalysis. International Universities Press, Inc., 1972.

Lacan, J. Ecrits. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1977.

Luijpen, W. Existentialphenomenology. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1960. Ornstein, R. E. The nature of human consciousness. New York: The Viking Press, 1973. Perls, F. S. Gestalt therapy verbatim. Lafayette, Calif: Real People Press, 1969. Ricoeur, P. Freud and philosophy: an essay on interpretation (D. Savage, trans.). New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979.

Winnicott, D. W. The maturational process and the facilitating environment. London: Hogarth Press, 1965.

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