From Alcoholic to Dreamer
A Personal Story of Getting Help from Dreams*
Henry Reed, Ph.D.
*Originally published in Voices, Spring, 1984, 20(1), pp. 62-29.
Can we get any help from our dreams? Are dreams really anything more than a rehash of yesterday’s experiences? Could it actually be true that dreams can inspire us, provide guidance, even healing? If so, how can we ever know how to correctly interpret them? Science claims that dreaming is somehow necessary to our biological survival. Yet if remembering those dreams, not to mention correctly interpreting them, were the critical component of dreaming’s survival value, then our species would long ago be extinct. Few of our dreams are remembered, and fewer still are understood. The critical value of dreams must lie elsewhere.
I believe that the essence of the dream is the story we experience during the night—the experience of the dream changes us. The guidance dreams provide, the help they give, is produced by the effect of the dream experience, remembered or not, upon our being. That’s what I’ve come to understand from my own experience. Here’s how I found help from dreams.
It was a good friend, an artist whom I held in special esteem, who first introduced me to the value of dreams. He shared with me how his dreams were enriching his life. He told me, for example, how he had first seen his inexpensive, but beautiful, oceanside studio in a dream, and then actually located it in town.
It was 1968 and I was preparing for my PhD research examinations at U.C.L.A.. Reading about dream psychology at that time I learned that our oft-forgotten dreams were regarded as a natural, necessary and regular part of the sleep cycle, but the specific value of dreams remained undetermined. A few psychologists claimed they could deduce insights into a person’s deep personality structure from dreams, as if dreams were meaningful symptoms. Back then, having dreams interpreted was like a proctological exam: only the doctor could read the signs, the patient wouldn’t really want to look for oneself, and it was something done in private, as it was somewhat embarrassing.
While I had been studying dreams as a clinical phenomenon of ambiguous reputation, my artist friend was actively engaging his dreams as an extension of his creativity. He introduced me to the work of Edgar Cayce, who suggested that if you or I were to make an active attempt to become involved with our dreams, we would become the best interpreter of our own dreams and would be led to know how to receive the dream’s help. What a different perspective! My friend’s stories of his dreams were exciting and gave me a sense of great new possibilities. Being able to use dreams as an instrument of guidance, as if having an internal compass to point the way, had an irresistible appeal for me. It was on such a note of inspiration that I finally dedicated myself to seek my dreams. I wanted to overcome my amnesia for them. As a New Year’s resolution I began: I bound together a sheaf of papers into a hand-made journal and covered it with some attractive material. I wrote a dedication prayer in the journal, asking that through dreams I might be able to see through the fog of my life. I wanted to connect with any meaningful life plan that might be within me. New Year’s Day, 1969, was to be the first day of my new life!
I awakened that next morning without recalling any dreams. I tried the day after, but with no luck. I kept my journal by my bedside every night, night after night, but still with no success. It was disheartening but I persisted. Beyond my abstract, intellectual curiosity about dreams, I had good reason to persist. I had personal need. I was a troubled person, searching for something that would allow me to feel good about myself, something to give me a sense of direction and a new lease on life. I was 25 years old at the time, in the seventh year of my career as an alcoholic. I didn’t know it at the time, but the effects of the alcohol were making it very difficult for me to remember my dreams.
It wasn’t until sometime in March, over three months later, that I finally did remember a dream. I almost didn’t remember it! I was already out of bed, groping in my closet for a shirt, when I remembered something about a flying goat. Aware that it wasn’t an ordinary memory, but perhaps something of a dream, I sat back down on the bed and it gradually came back to me. I wonder how different my life might be like today had I not been given a second chance to remember that dream. Here it is:
I am camping in a tent
on the land of an Old Wise Man. This land is his special sanctuary and I feel very grateful to be here. I am standing in the barnyard face to face with the Old Man. His deep eyes fix my gaze and I feel his presence quite strongly. I then notice behind him a flying goat! Yes, indeed, this place is special, and magical. The goat flies back and forth, a few feet off the ground, around the barnyard, then flies off into the barn, not to be seen again.
Then to my left I see a haystack, and lying there an empty bottle of wine. I realize that someone has been there sneaking a drink. I say to the Old Man, "Hey, look at that!—there’s a drunk on this property, sneaking around to drink. We’ve got to find him and get rid of him, kick him out! He doesn’t belong in such a special place as this." But the Old Man faces me patiently, his deep eyes penetrating my innermost self, and replies, "Henry, that man is a guest of mine, and was invited here long before you arrived. I put that wine there myself, to lure him in so that I can feed him." I look back at the haystack and see an empty jar of mayonnaise and an empty bag of potato chips. Potato chips and mayonnaise, I wonder—what kind of food is that? I guess my image of a wise man would have him serving health food. But my presuppositions are brushed aside, for in the presence of the Old Man’s generous acceptance of the drunkard, as mysterious as it may seem to me, my own self-righteousness sticks out in embarrassing and shameful contrast. I feel exposed and can’t look the Old Man in the eye anymore. I wander off back into the forest to return to my little round tent.
This first dream proved very important and from the moment it was first recalled, it played upon my waking mind. Was the goat a symbol of my astrological sign, Capricorn? I wondered. There was a drunk in the dream—could that relate to my own drinking? As I asked myself questions I couldn’t answer, I was discovering just what it is like to puzzle over the meaning of the images in a dream. I couldn’t make much sense of my dream, but one thing stood out: the face of that Old Man and my feelings while talking with him. His intentions for the drunkard seemed very puzzling to me, but clearly my own attitude was inappropriate—my feeling of shame over being so righteous and uppity was a vivid memory from the dream. The idea that the Old Man purposefully left wine for the drunkard as bait suggested to me that perhaps there was some purpose or meaning to my problem drinking that I just couldn’t see. Yet the food being left for the drunkard—potato chips and mayonnaise—seemed so peculiar that I had a hard time accepting that it might make any sense. The question of meaning was left unresolved. But I no longer felt quite comfortable being so judgmental about my drinking.
This reaction was my first clue about getting help from dreams. A meaningful interpretation of the dream was not available. Instead, it was the natural, emotional effect of the dream upon me that proved important.
The impact of the dream upon me was that I tried to be acceptant of my drinking and continue my quest for dreams. The former was much easier than the latter. I still found dreams hard to recall. I wasn’t able to record another dream until July, and after a whole year, I was only on page three of my dream journal. I graduated from U.C.L.A., accepted a faculty position at Princeton University, and continued to recall only an occasional dream. That next summer I took a vacation and devoted myself exclusively to remembering my dreams. I would sleep late and then spend at least an hour when I awakened to recall as much of my dreams as possible. It took me that much work to catch on to how to recall them.
I gradually improved my dream recall to the point that it would take me several hours each day to write out my dreams fully from my morning notes. From my work that summer, I discovered some interesting subtleties about memory for dreams and summarized them in an essay, "The Art of Remembering Dreams," which you will find in my book, Getting Help From Your Dreams and as a separate booklet with exercises. In that essay I express my idea that we can get some help from dreams simply by remembering them. I reasoned that if the dream experience was meant to affect us, then by remembering the dream experience over and over again during the day, the impact of the dream would be strengthened.
That fall I decided to do a more formal study. In an experimental course, students and I developed a way to measure the results of our efforts trying to remember our dreams. Using this measuring scale we were able to prove that remembering dreams was a skill that could be learned. You can read later about that project in the chapter, "Learning to Remember Dreams." In that project we also discovered that after having learned how to recall dreams, we don’t necessarily remember any unless we make the effort to do so.
While I continued to record my dreams, my drinking began to create problems for me I couldn’t ignore. I suppose my story as an alcoholic is typical: repeated confrontations with the problems brought on by my drinking were met with repeated vows to quit drinking. These vows would then be quickly forgotten as my compulsion got the better of me, until finally that moment came of "bottoming out." I sunk into the despair of the truth: I knew that I would never voluntarily quit drinking—I loved it too much! I felt totally helpless and sullenly contemplated my future as an unredeemable, drunken bum.
One night, feeling very lonely and sorry for myself, I drank myself to sleep. A few hours later, I awaken , lost in uncontrollable sobbing. My crying was the carryover of this dream:
I felt calmer inside after this dream. I felt as if there might still be hope. Once again it was the emotional impact of the dream, not any interpretation, that proved helpful.
Feeling I might be worth saving, I decided to seek psychotherapy. I remembered a Jungian therapist whom I had heard lecture once before. When I had questioned her about my dream of potato chips and mayonnaise, her intriguing reply was, "The wine is the spirit." When I called for an appointment, I learned that her schedule was full, and it would be over a month before we could meet. In the meantime, I began to attend some meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous.
I was in for a surprise at these A.A. gatherings. While among my friends and peers, who were confounded by my drinking, I felt the loneliness of a stranger in a strange land, and I made no sense to myself. At the A.A. meetings, however, people spoke a language that I immediately recognized and understood, and I felt myself reflected in their stories. By my third meeting, I accepted the fact that I was alcoholic. Even though I didn’t know how I would ever stop drinking, I was nevertheless strangely relieved. I realized that all the guilt trips and other torments I had suffered were not an expression of my individual personality, but instead were an expression of the personality of alcoholism. I likened it to a person unknowingly caught in a whirlpool, who feels scared and guilty for always spinning around in circles. But when the source of the predicament is realized, the feelings of foolishness and guilt are relieved, because when you’re caught in a whirlpool, you’re going to spin around helplessly—it’s not your fault!—until you are released.
One day soon thereafter, on my way home, I stopped by the liquor store to pick up my evening’s ration. But when I grabbed for a bottle, something inside me hesitated. I couldn’t do it. I didn’t understand what was happening, but finally I left the store emptyhanded, thinking I would return later. But I didn’t return. That evening, a mood of sadness descended on me, because I realized I couldn’t drink anymore. I was surprised and somewhat put out. I hadn’t yet decided to quit drinking—what was going on? I tried to make sense to myself about how I was feeling. I remember explaining to someone that I felt as if I were standing on the edge of a cliff, wanting very much to jump off, but realizing that there were plants back home that needed watering—who would water them if I jumped? Longing to jump into that bliss of release, but reluctantly accepting the responsibility of being needed at home, I sadly returned. My drinking career had ended.
But how? By whom? I hadn’t decided to quit. I never would have done that! I didn’t want to quit, ever. So what had happened? I didn’t know. All I knew was that drinking was no longer an option for me and I felt sad about it. By then I had begun psychotherapy, and when I told the therapist what had happened, she did not seem at all surprised. She encouraged me to continue going to A.A. meetings. She surmised that I had been able to let go of drinking because I knew, at an unconscious level, that what I was seeking in booze would be found through our work in psychoanalysis. Maybe she was right. Only years later would I better understand what she meant. But at the time, at the beginning of therapy, at the beginning of my strange new career as a non-drinking alcoholic, I was a mystery to myself.
Much later I was to discover a garbled entry I had made in my dream journal just before my drinking disappeared. In this dream, I am at my grandmother’s house, and I find a bottle of whiskey in the kitchen cupboard. I push it away, saying to myself that such stuff shouldn’t be left in the reach of little children. Perhaps this dream, which I only vaguely recalled, represented an inner decision. In any event, it is the closest I have ever come to finding any act of "will," anything resembling a "decision" to quit drinking. Actually, I experienced my quitting not as something I did myself and could be proud of, but as something that happened to me, something I found out about after the fact.
Meanwhile, my research on dreams continued. I had learned from that first experimental class that it was hard for the students to maintain their interest in dreams without being able to interpret them or otherwise find some meaningful way to interact with them.
Interpreting dreams was still very difficult for me so I searched for some alternatives. I had become more interested in Jungian theory, and came upon a book by a Swiss psychiatrist, Carl Meier, Ancient Incubation and Modern Psychotherapy, about the cult surrounding the Greek god, Asklepios, who performed healings during the dream state. Sleep sanctuaries were created in his name, such as at Epidaurus. People with illnesses would sleep in these temples and have dreams that healed their afflictions. These dreams did not need interpretation, for the dream experience itself was the curative factor. Dream incubation appealed to me as it confirmed my own feeling that the dream must be sufficient itself to accomplish its purpose. I made arrangements to spend my sabbatical leave from Princeton at Dr. Meier’s laboratory, the C.G. Jung Sleep and Dream Laboratory, in Zurich, Switzerland. There we explored many different types of experimental designs for studying problem solving in dreams. Returning to Princeton, I supervised student projects in my laboratory trying to implement some of these ideas. Inwardly, however, I felt dissatisfied with this research. Then I received an invitation to conduct dream experiments at the youth camp run by the Association for Research and Enlightenment, the non-profit organization developed around the work of Edgar Cayce. Contemplating an outdoor setting for dream research among people predisposed to value their dreams inspired me and gave me the necessary impetus to design an experimental ritual of dream incubation.
On my way to camp I developed a plan to gather the campers together and tell them stories of the wonders of Asklepios, and speculate about the possibility of dream healing today. Since in the ancient days, a person could not sleep in one of the sanctuaries without a prior dream of invitation from Asklepios, I would tell the campers to watch their dreams for signs that they were to undergo dream incubation. Only those who had such a dream should consider going any farther. For a sanctuary I bought a tent, an aesthetically pleasing, dome shaped tent that would become the "dream tent."
I describe my work with dream incubation and the dream tent more fully in my essay, "Dream Incubation," which you can find in my book, Getting Help From Your Dreams. Here let me say that the design for the incubation procedure, briefly, was to engage the participant, the incubant, in a series of activities that would place that person in roughly the same frame of mind that must have existed in the ancient Greek pilgrim who was seeking a healing in one of the sanctuaries of Asklepios. The incubant was to imagine someone for whom they had tremendous respect as a healer or wise person, and to imagine the tent as a sanctuary located somewhere the person thought would be full of healing vibrations. I would then engage the person in a day of role-playing activities, in which the person would dialogue with their healing figure concerning the problem for which they sought help. That night, the person would sleep in the tent to have a helpful dream. That was the plan.
I arrived at camp, erected the tent, but when the time came to approach the campers with my plan, I got cold feet. I felt guilty and inadequate. Who was I to propose such an experiment? Things such as incubations were essentially initiation mysteries, processes that were handed down from master to initiate. I had not been initiated by anyone. It felt like I had made all this stuff up. I decided that the best thing to do was either to take down the tent, or if I left it up, to indicate simply that it was a fun place to sleep if you wanted to get away from the crowd and focus on your dreams.
I felt disappointed and depressed over my decision. But then, out of the blue, I remembered a joke I used to tell when I was a kid. It went like this:
Yuk! Potato chips and mayonnaise! So that was meaning of that perplexing image in my first dream! I was dumbfounded to have this long-buried memory suddenly pop into my mind at such a critical time. It had been over three years since I had that dream, never understanding the reference to the strange food the Old Man was providing the drunk. Now, for some strange reason, I had recalled this childhood joke which obviously was the source of that dream image. I could then recognize, from my studies of symbolism, the significance of the image: it was a reference to the mystery of the homeopathic principle as declared by the Oracle of Apollo, "the wound heals." It is the notion that an illness itself brings its own cure, that there is something in an illness that heals, if you will but incorporate it into your life. In my dream, the Old Man used booze as a lure to teach me the secret of the healing power of woundedness.
I could see, from what booze had taught me, how his trick had worked. The spirits of alcohol came to rescue me from a one-sided existence. I realized that my life had been dominated by the intellectual pursuit of power as a means to deny my basic dependency upon factors in life beyond my personal control. When I reflected upon my "reasons" for drinking, I recalled that I always felt that life was too "concrete," and that I was always "scraping my knee" against its hard realities. Just as I had rejected the necessity of suffering, and had avoided it, so had I rejected the value of the Old Man’s "food." I bit the bait on drinking, however, and found it, at first, to be a protective lubricant. But in time, the drink brought me face to face with my wounded knees, made me acknowledge the inescapability of my dependency, and made me give proper recognition to the importance of its spiritual basis. Finally, I had to accept the food, too. Rather than continuing to attempt to conquer life through power, like the willful captain of a motor boat, after quitting drinking I had gradually come to feel more comfortable as a skipper of a sail boat, utterly dependent upon the spirit of the winds and the moods of mother nature. I had come to be grateful for my alcoholism as an affliction of the "gods" that only they could relieve, and thus for an initiation into the way of the spirit and the power of surrender.
All these ruminations brought me full circle back to my plans to pursue research on dream incubation. I realized that the method for dream incubation that I had so laboriously constructed was prefigured in my own first dream. The sacred place of the sanctuary, the revered benefactor of the Old Man, even the tent that I was now using—all these components had appeared in my dream! I remembered too that the god of dream incubation, Asklepios, was regarded as the archetypal "wounded healer," because his power of healing originated from a wound. I had been profoundly mistaken to have assumed that it was my cleverness to have designed this experimental ritual, for I saw that I was unwittingly acting out a dream! What an irony, a humbling one at that, because while I had been stumbling around trying to figure out how to use dreams for creative problem solving, all along my dream had been solving my problem without me knowing it! My dream provided me with a new life pattern based on an ancient source of wisdom!
These surprising discoveries cleared away my inhibitions, and I went ahead with my plan. I announced the availability of the tent and began a program of research that was quite successful in demonstrating the continued operation of the miracle of dream incubation. In my report of that research, published in the Journal of Humanistic Psychology as "Dream Incubation: The Reconstruction of a Ritual in Contemporary Form," I suggested that symbolic ritual might be a helpful method for people to assimilate the transformative power of their dreams.
Looking back, I see that the synchronistic timing of my recall of the old childhood joke, giving meaning to that critical image in the dream, coincided with the moment that the dream, and my original petition that led to the dream, were about to be fulfilled.
I will always remember that critical moment in the dream tent. It’s an experience I now call "Dream Realization." I believe that trying to interpret a dream (that is, trying to abstract a message from it), although a natural and useful exercise, is but an imperfect approximation to recapturing the total understanding that must have accompanied the original dream experience. For by simply allowing the healing influence of the dream to have its effect, until that moment comes, when having changed as a result of the dream, the meaning of the dream is realized in life, and the dream no longer needs interpretation.
The dream story itself can be experienced as the most perfect revelation of its truth. At its best, then, dream interpretation becomes practice in fully remembering the dream.
Getting help from dreams can be as simple, and as profoundly mysterious, as falling asleep to awaken a changed person. Even if we don’t realize it for some time, it happens, naturally, every night. At least, that’s what alcoholism taught this dreamer.
Note: Thirty years after the dream of the Wise Old Man, Henry has a Dream Temple on the banks of Fox Creek, at his Flying Goat Ranch.