Alan on the Technique
In Book IX of The Republic, Socrates urges us to explore our innermost thoughts and dreams as a means of gaining personal insight. The instruction is so simple it is often overlooked, because we are told simply to ponder our dreams. So, providing a dream is recalled in its entirety and in detail, it should be possible to apply the reason alone, in a non-interpretive fashion, to puzzle out the meaning of a dream to gain insight.
I have experimented on myself using this method to great benefit. The practice is simple, although it can require a lot of work, especially if you are not used to exercising understanding (and the truth is, most of us are not). The golden rule: if you still don't understand the dream, more questions are required. For instance:
- How many parts or stages are in the dream?
- Who are the players and what are their roles?
- What states of mind are in play during each event?
- What exactly is occurring, and what is your reaction?
- Are the events and your reactions reasonable?
Drawing the dream and writing down phrases used (even if not accurately recalled) and the attendant feelings is a must; most people simply do not have the capacity to puzzle out all of the elements in their mind alone. In addition to this, performing the exercise on your own can be difficult as a result of the false beliefs you might have about yourself – the message can often be obscured by it.
Last week, I introduced Duncan to the method. We began by drawing his dream and writing down its details. I continued to ask Duncan questions about the dream until a meaning came to the fore. Below is an account of the dream, followed by what Duncan felt about each of its elements. We then present the remainder of the exercise in a question-and-answer format.
It's lunchtime. I go with friends to our usual café. The café serves curry, but that's too much for me at lunchtime. I'm sitting against the wall, and my friends get up – for the toilet, probably – when a man takes the chair opposite and tells me how much he hates me. He's sick of seeing me and my sort in the café.
I want to hit him, but he's too big. So I try to talk my way out of trouble. I flatter him, empathise; he responds at first, but isn't completely fooled: 'Don't think you can talk your way out of this,' he says, and I realise I'll probably get beaten up in a moment.
But the scene shifts. Now I'm standing in a pub carpark next to my parents' house. The man in the café and some younger friends have committed a burglary. They're making their escape across the carpark. Shaking with nerves, I dial the police on my mobile. There seems no chance the police will get here in time, but to my surprise a sergeant arrives and arrests the burglars.
'I didn't expect that to work out so well,' I'm thinking.
Reflecting on the Dream
At first, in the café, things feel familiar and comfortable. I'm happy. I don't want the curry, but I don't have to have it. There's a sense that serving curry lowers the tone of the place and attracts the wrong crowd, but I'm with my friends and the atmosphere seems okay, so I'm not troubled by this at first.
It all changes when the man comes over. He's older than me: late forties, early fifties. Cropped hair. Thick neck. Built like the proverbial brick shit-house. His hatred of me is palpable, and I know at once I can do little to change it. I want to hit him, but know he'll demolish me. I hate myself for trying to talk my way out of the situation, because this is not my genuine impulse. Instead, I'd prefer to smack him.
If my friends had stayed at the table this wouldn't have happened. If the café didn't serve curry, probably the man wouldn't have come in. But I don't blame anyone; my overriding feeling is the self-disgust at having to talk my way out rather than acting. Although I'm very skilful at talking to him, it doesn't quite work. He's not fooled. This adds weight to my feeling that trying to talk my way out is only a weak and ineffectual course of action.
Then the scene shifts, and I'm in a place I immediately recognise. My parents actually do live next door to a pub. Occasionally there's a disturbance at night, so although I'm on 'home turf' the scene in this part of the dream has the potential for violence, as well as feeling familiar and safer than the previous scene in the café.
When I see that the man has committed a burglary, I realise that now I have a 'legitimate premise'. I can now take action and call the police. But I still feel disgusted at myself, because this is obviously 'passive-aggressive'. I'm getting the police to do my dirty work without putting myself at physical risk. I've got that sick, nervous feeling as I dial, because although I've got a golden chance to get back at the man, the chances of the police arriving in time are minimal.
As it turns out, they arrive at once. There is a sensation of pride and satisfaction in the way I've managed to get things to work out: the man is taken away without me getting beaten up. But the satisfaction is still tinged heavily with disgust. I haven't acted on my genuine impulses; instead, I've simply waited for a situation to arise where he's in the wrong. Oddly, I feel somehow responsible; it's as if I've tricked him into committing the burglary and sealing his own fate purely for my convenience.
ALAN: The dream is clearly in two parts: the café scene, and the car park scene. Would you say the course of action you wish to take, but fail to, in the café scene – namely smack the guy in the face – is an appropriate course of action based on his actions, the setting, etc?
DUNCAN: It's a struggle to answer this question. It really is. Because it was my original impulse, I would say that smacking the guy is the more genuine course of action to take. It's what I wanted to do. So in that sense it's appropriate. Talking my way out of trouble isn't what I immediately wanted or thought of doing; it's a compromise with the initial impulse. But having said that, and having thought about it some more, talking my way out is definitely more realistic. And the guy is bigger than me, and we're in a public place, and there is a chance that by talking I can get out of there without any punches being thrown, so – yes, I suppose this is the appropriate thing to be doing, and the urge to smack him is something it's better that I suppress.
ALAN: In the car park scene, the bad guy has robbed a house and is then arrested. How would you describe this course of events? What does it mean that he gets arrested thanks to your actions?
DUNCAN: I'm ambivalent about the way I act in this part, and that makes it hard to wrap my head around what is objectively going on. But the course of events, I suppose, is that the bad guy has committed a crime with his mates, I call the police, and he is taken away. My perception of this chain of events is tied up with a lot of feelings about my 'responsibility' for the guy committing the crime in the first place (although there's nothing in the dream, apart from my feelin
gs, to substantiate this), and also thoughts about whether I'm acting 'genuinely' or in a cowardly way. But part of me is genuinely pleased by the outcome. So, once again it seems I've done the right thing – despite my angst – and that Justice has been served.
ALAN: So would you say that the self-disgust evident in the second scene is justified?
DUNCAN: Not now I've thought about it, no. There's nothing to support it, now that I've reflected on it.
ALAN: What does this mean regarding your self-image in the first scene, then?
DUNCAN: It's very negative, isn't it? And it seems silly now, that I should base my self-image on the extent to which I fulfil my immediate impulses – as if the most immediate impulse were always the best, which it's quite clearly not! My negative self-image has no foundation. Wow. It's good shit this, isn't it?
ALAN: Is it not very interesting that this false belief you have about yourself – which you will need to clarify shortly – is the very thing that prevents you from understanding the dream correctly? What do you think that might mean about the nature of false belief?
DUNCAN: Yes, it's very striking! Especially when you're on the receiving end, and you realise the reason you can't see properly is because you've been squinting so hard. What this says to me about false belief is that although it feels as if it's impossible to detect, it's actually right there in your face all along. I was reading about astral projection the other day, and the guy who wrote the book was saying how, on the astral plane, 'to think' becomes to act, and 'to believe' becomes to perceive. False beliefs are hidden from us when we're awake, but believing is perceiving when we're dreaming, so in dreams we get to see false beliefs in action. We see them extremely 'up close', but they can be recognised.
ALAN: If you could sum up the message of the dream – and remember, the symbols are very specific; for instance, the 'cops and robbers' scene – then what would it be?
DUNCAN: That if I'm assualted (as is likely in some form or another, from time to time, through no fault of my own) then my use of the real and effective powers that lie at my disposal to restore justice needn't be an occasion for guilt or self-disgust. How's that? Am I cured? I don't have to pay you for this, do I?
ALAN: Try harder.
DUNCAN: Aw, you knob-jockey! If you were a real analyst, you'd spend some time exploring why I called you that. All right: it means that I hate myself because I believe I deal with things really badly.
ALAN: Even though you don't. In fact, you deal with things correctly, yes? Isn't it funny that you get frustrated and angry the closer we get to attacking your cherished false belief? The next step, Dunc, is to consider the dynamics of the dream, and to look for recent examples in real life that share those dynamics. A sure-fire way of accomplishing this is to recall a time when you attempted to achieve something personally meaningful, and the problems you encountered. For now though, we'll leave it here. That's a grand please. And you called me a knob-jockey because your parents dressed you as a girl until you were fifteen.
Duncan on How the Technique Differs from Psychoanalysis
Most contemporary models of dream-analysis are based on the Freudian psychoanalytic approach, which views dreams as symbolic representations of unconscious thoughts. The Hellenic technique is superficially similar in approach to psychoanalysis – i.e. the account of the dream is collected in as much detail as possible, and then its imagery and feelings are explored. However, in psychoanalysis free association is used to relate the symbolism of the dream to the dreamer's waking life and experience. In psychoanalysis there is the assumption that our understanding of the dream is incomplete until we relate its imagery to our waking experience.
The Hellenic approach, on the other hand, assumes that the dream-imagery is in a form already perfectly amenable to understanding. Instead, the emphasis is on the emotional state of the dreamer within the dream, which supplies pointers to what is preventing the dreamer from recognising the dream's meaning.
What I found hard to grasp, when Alan worked on my dream in this way, was the idea that the Good and the True are embedded in the dream. It was hard to adapt to the non-Freudian notion that my actions could be judged on their efficacy within the dream itself, and didn't need to be looked at in relation to some hidden factor in 'my unconscious'. For instance, I was concerned with whether I was acting 'genuinely' rather than simply for the Good. Concern with 'the genuine' assumes a difference between the manifest and some other domain of truth or meaning outside the dream and my experience.
This is the crux of the difference between the Hellenic approach and psychoanalysis. Psychoanalysis assumes the dream is a true expression of only a part of the self – e.g. of the unconscious, the shadow, or some other sub-personality. From this perspective the dream is never sufficient to express its own meaning and elucidation must be sought elsewhere. In other words, within the psychoanalytic model (and other models based upon it, such as Jungian analytical psychology or Gestalt psychotherapy) an individual's dream is at best only a relative expression of the truth.