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Dreamwork Tip: Contrasting Symbols

by Gillian Holloway, Ph.D. (Dream Discoveries Newsletter, Spring 1995)

A client of mine was telling me about a dream of attending a party thrown for her by some Italians. I asked her what Italians meant to her and she gave me a blank look. "Nothing," she said. "There's nothing special about Italians." "Um," I paused. "Well, how would the party have been different if the hosts had been a group of Klingons?" She began to laugh. It had been a great party, from her description, and the image of Klingons substituting as hosts helped her to recognize that the boisterous, emotional, celebratory quality in the dream was something she associated with her stereotype of Italians, as people who "know how to live." The remainder of the dream dealt with her recent decision to accept life on its own terms, good and bad, and to be present more fully in her own life.

Symbols and images don't necessarily stand out immediately when someone records or re-reads a dream. In fact, they often seem insignificant, even to people who are well aware that all elements in a dream may be quite meaningful since they were selected from a huge range of possibilities. One of the easiest ways to highlight what is special and significant about an image is to contrast it with another image that is in the same logical subset. Someone who dreamed of driving a cute red Volkswagon might be unable to articulate their sense of meaning about the car, until you ask them: "How is driving a red Volkswagon different from driving a Buick?" They immediately are more in touch with their association; that a Volkswagon is more hip and unconventional, less materialistic, and more adaptable because it's ugly-cute style transcends fashion changes. From this description they can also recognize these adjectives accurately describe their new business venture involving alternative health practices and meditation.

Another use of the contrast technique is to contrast the dream imagery against typical waking reality. If the symbol in the dream differs vastly from what you would expect to find in waking life, you expect the difference to be relevant. If someone dreams of chopping firewood with a butter knife, you may need to keep a straight face and ask them how that would be different from cutting firewood with an axe or saw. Only then will the light go on, and they'll see how impossible is the task they have undertaken. This realization in turn, will remind them they have just been asked to take on the responsibilities of a second department while reducing their own staff by a third. They are extremely overwhelmed and have inadequate tools to accomplish the job.

When you are working with your own dreams be sure to pose these contrasting questions from time to time. Even when the balance of the dream is unfolding nicely, it is good practice to ask: how is the search for a goat different from say, the search for a cow? This may trigger the recognition that in this particular instance it was important to find a scapegoat.

I find this technique saves time and irritation, since questions that don't help meaning unfold can be annoying to dreamers. It is much more pleasant to respond to a contrast question than a direct question, which can seem like a challenge. Using this technique as a thinking style can speed up the recognition of meaning, and help group members develop skills as they observe the process.


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