Conducting a Dream Helper

The Dream Helper Ceremony: 

A Dramatic Educational Tool

Henry Reed, Ph.D.

(This article appeared in the Newsletter of the Association for the Study of Dreams)

Can you imagine dreaming for someone else? If dreams are personal, in other words, about ourselves alone, is it possible to dream for someone else? It turns out, in fact, that attempting this seemingly paradoxical task actually provides a uniquely educational handle on dreams, their meaning and their extraordinary value. We call this unusual experiment the "Dream Helper Ceremony" (DHC).

It began over twenty-five years ago as a serendipitous discovery in an intentional community setting, and then took form as an experiment in group dreaming. The experiment began as an attempt to investigate dream telepathy using an alternative, transpersonal, approach (Reed, H. & Van de Castle, R., 1990), but has evolved into a useful method to introduce people generally to the power of dreams. It's value as an analytical investigative tool has not diminished, but its popularity as an experience in the seemingly magical power of dreams has superceded its perceived research value. If you want to read about its history, its scholarly and scientific background, as well as case studies of actual sessions, see Randall (1977), Reed (1976, 1977, 1989), and Thurston (1978). Here my focus is going be on helping you envision the process so that you might be able to try it for yourself, sharing it with your friends, students, clients, or even your research subjects.

Dream Helper Ceremony Summarized

The basic scenario of DHC is that a group of people volunteer to dream about the undisclosed problem of a person in distress. When the group reconvenes, the dream helpers report their dreams and examine the collection for common patterns. Ignorant about the focus person's (FP) situation, the helpers use the common patterns to form hypotheses about the nature of the problem, its background, underlying cause, and, suggestions for the problem's resolution.

When they've finished processing the dreams, the FP reveals the problem and responds to the dreams and the group's analysis. Typically, the group's analysis proves to be extremely relevant to the FP's concern, to the surprise of all. The helpers then interpret their own dreams on a personal level to answer the question, "What can I learn about myself from my dream that might be helpful to the FP's concern?" This final step in the process shifts the focus, as DHC concludes by the group's sharing of personal insights centered about a common focus.

The results of DHC have been consistent over many years, in a variety of contexts, conducted by persons of varying backgrounds and amount of dreamwork experience. The interpersonal drama of the DHC is effective in increasing participants' dream recall (Randall, 1977) showing the power of motivation. DHC also increases people's appreciation of the value of their dreams. Upon returning in the morning, most people may have recalled a dream, but rarely can anyone detect anything in their dreams that might be relevant to the FP's concern. After seeing the patterns in the dreams, however, and hearing the FP's response, most participants realize that their dreams are highly relevant. How can dreams "see in the dark," to use a metaphor, so well? To discover that one could successfully dream for someone else's undisclosed problem raises respect for the mysterious power of dreams.

Introducing A Dream Helper Ceremony

There is a natural human drama to DHC that speaks directly to most people. Someone is in distress and is asking for help. The participants are being asked to look to their dreams. They can empathize with the basic scenario, and find it intriguing. A major value of DHC is that it can be introduced to audiences relatively new to dreams without having to provide a lot of background about dreams, dream incubation, the Maimonides dream telepathy research (Ullman, et. al, 1989), the objective and subjective level of dream interpretation, unconscious projection, or any other other theoretical context that might relate to understanding the dynamics of DHC. This type of discussion can be saved until the aftermath of DHC, when people find their curiosity significantly focused. DHC can be introduced simply as an experiment to test the power of dreams by putting them to constructive use. Afterwards, people are highly motivated to ask questions about the nature of dreams that permit the startling results that DHC deliver.

By helping many people who have wanted to learn how to conduct DHC, I know it can be introduced to a group with a simple invitation, "Would you be interested in attempting to dream for one of our group members to see how we can use our dreams to obtain intuitive guidance?" The group need not focus on the psychology of dreaming, but rather on the practical issues, such as who to dream for and how to retrieve the dreams. That DHC can be set up independent from any theoretical perspective is one of its strengths, because it doesn't require any prior commitment from a participant to any particular belief. All it requires from participants is that they are willing to try to remember their dreams in order to help someone in need.

Selecting Someone In Need to Dream For

What's most important to the success of DHC is that group perceives that they are responding someone's genuine need, and not just trying an "experiment." In other words, the FP to whom the dreams are directed should be selected in such a manner as to arouse in the dream helpers a feeling that there is a need to help the FP. I recommend asking for a few volunteers to put their names in a hat, and then have a random drawing.

To create the appropriate group perception, it should be explained to the group that the requirements to volunteer as a FP is that the person be currently confronting a real-life challenge or dilemma that is causing some emotional distress. Interpersonal situations or life choices are the most amenable to DHC, but some people have found that financial and health issues have received clarification through DHC. The worst questions, not suitable for DHC are hypothetical, abstract, or vague questions, such as "What shall I do with my life?" It would be better to ask, "Why don't I know what to do with my life?" The important point is that the volunteer have a specific, focused issue for which help from the group is requested. The nature of the question is not mentioned, of course, but the perception in the group should be, "these volunteers need our help!"

To choose among the group of volunteers a lottery seems effective. The perception in the group needs to be not only that the volunteers who are submitting their names are in need of help, but that "fate" has actually selected the most needy volunteer for whom the group will focus their dreams. This "fate"" factor seems to make it easy for helpers to dream for someone other than the person they were hoping would be selected. In fact, I often ask the entire group to bless the container holding the names of the candidates: "Let's bless this drawing so that the person who most needs our help, and who could best be helped by this process, by this group assembled here, be the name(s) chosen by this drawing." Then we draw a name, or names, from the container, depending upon the number of groups we will form.

Regarding numbers, I have found that having a group size of about 8 seems optimal. Too few people and it is harder to see patterns in the dreams, too many and it takes too long to process the dreams. The rule of thumb I use is that we select one FP for every eight people in the audience. That means that if I have a hundred people at a workshop, I would try to get about 20 people to volunteer to stick their name in the hat and we'd draw out 12 names. I have regularly conducted DHC in groups exceeding a hundred, but most people find themselves operating in a small group that allows dreaming for one person only. Conducting a single group, with the conductor participating, is the best way to learn about the subtleties as well as the power of DHC.

The "perceived need" factor needs to be emphasized. It is important to DHC and should not be made secondary to some concern for abstract "experimental design." I have found that people who conduct DHC in ongoing dream groups, for example, run into a problem if they decide to adopt the strategy of simply having people "take turns" being the FP. Then the group's perception is that the FP is not truly in need, rather it is simply that this person's "turn" has come up, and DHC becomes an group exercise rather than a genuine expression of help. In an ongoing group, it would be better to introduce DHC by saying, "We have available to us a great dream process for helping someone in need, so whenever one of you finds yourself in a crisis in home, don't tell us about it, but rather ask us to conduct DHC for you.!" I have known dream communities that do not meet regularly, but rather come together only when one of their members requests a DHC. It's set up by phone, the members dream the night before they assemble in person to process the dreams.

Preparing to Dream

There are no specific instructions for "dreaming for someone else." Because in some situations there can be a time lag between setting up the dream experiment and the night of dreaming, I often ask the FP to autograph several pieces of paper and hand them to the dream helpers. Upon receiving an autograph, the dream helper can say to the FP, "I promise to remember a dream for you tonight."

Motivation to recall dreams is high, but participants are not sure that they have the skills to act on that motivation. Giving a few tips on dream recall seems sufficient.

The person least likely to recall a dream is the FP. Fortunately, the success of DHC is not dependent upon the dreams of the FP. A more productive task for the FP is to do some journaling before going to bed, writing about the question or concern and clarifying the focus. I often ask the FP to write out a statement concerning the nature of the help being sought, a statement that the FP will read to the group the next morning at the appropriate point in the processing of the dreams.

Processing the Group's Dreams

There is a logical progression to processing the group's dreams that most people can easily understand. When, for example, I conduct DHC for multiple, simultaneous groups at large workshops, the groups conduct their own dream processing after hearing my simple instructions. Initial processing goes on with the FP listening, but not participating, and without having revealed the nature of the concern. Thus some of the group's processing is done "blind."

The first step is to hear all the dreams. Note taking is encouraged to facilitate pattern recognition. The one exception to the rule that the FP be a silent witness to the process is that they can tell their dream, if any. Discussing any of the dreams, however, is discouraged until all the dreams have been told.

The second step is to look for common patterns, either in the symbology, feelings, or other attributes. I use the following example to encourage finding more subtle patterns in the dream narratives: In one dream, the dreamer is stopped at a traffic light, and when the light turns green, is about to resume and enter the intersection, when it is necessary to brake suddenly as another car running the red light from the right speeds through the intersection. In a second dream, the dreamer gets up from watching TV to go into the kitchen to get a cup of coffee, but discovers upon getting the cream from the refrigerator that it has gone sour. There are no common symbols, but both narratives contain the theme of events unfolding contrary to expectations, a thwarting of anticipated movements. Most often, it is such narrative patterns that suggest the nature of the FP's question.

The third step is the "profiling," working backwards from the patterns found, to answer three key questions:

(1) What is the subject matter of the FP's question--financial, health, family, career, or some other? Most groups find this an easy one. It is useful to refine that answer. For example, if a family problem, what kind of family problem, exactly?

(2) What is the underlying cause of the problem? If a family problem over conflicts of life goals, what causes this to be a problem? Communication defects? Financial constraints? Different values? Trying to answer these questions further refines the group's perception of the patterns in the dreams.

(3) What do the dreams suggest doing about the problem? To answer this question, it is useful to look at constructive actions in the dream, or lessons learned from the dream narratives. In the two sample dreams, for example, one lesson might be, "Look before you leap!"

Getting Feedback from the Focus Person

When the analysis seems complete, then, and only then, does the FP speak, by reading aloud the statement of concern written the previous night. The FP may then respond to the group's hypotheses and to the details of the dreams. By this time, the FP has a lot of pent up reactions to what has been heard. For example, if you ask the FP, "have you found the group' conversation interesting?" the answer is invariably an enthusiastic, "Yes, indeed!" The FP's feedback shows that the group's blind dream speculations faithfully followed the contours of the problem, its background and implications, even if not identifying it exactly or correctly.

At this point it is helpful to dissuade the group members from giving advice to the FP, but to look instead to the dreams. Knowing the actual stimulating agent that prompted the dreams, their significance takes on new light. People are surprised to see how their dreams, which did not seem particularly significant when they recorded them, are now linked meaningfully to a specific subject matter. Here is an excellent educational opportunity for exploring dream interpretation.

If nothing else, the dreams have, by this time, created a strong sense of group empathy with the FP's concern. There may also be some suggestions about how to resolve the issue or otherwise respond constructively. To get even more helpful information, it is necessary for the participants to interpret the dreams at the personal level (Freud, 1970). This revelation of the subjective confessions embedded in the dreams provides an important dimension of information as to how each helper has internalized and responded to the FP's dilemma.

Several methods of dream interpretation can be used for this portion of the dream processing. In self-facilitated groups, I instruct people to create titles for their dreams, reflect upon what truths about oneself the dream title suggests, and to extrapolate those conclusions to the FP's situation. If there is time for "homework," I assign more elaborate methods involving journal writing techniques (Reed, 1996a).

Whatever the method of dream interpretation that is used, this final step brings the dreams back to the dreamers at a personal level. It shows that a dream can be both a personal confession and yet, at the same time, meaningfully reflect attributes of an external situation. DHC has the unique quality of illuminating this dual capacity of dreams. It also has the advantage of insuring that whatever "diagnosis and prescription" that might go on during DHC will be grounded in self-disclosure and self-evaluation.

Evaluating the Results

The examination of DHC began in a context of dream telepathy research. A study conducted under the supervision of Stanley Krippner (Thurston, 1978), involving no personal contact between the FP and the dream helpers, showed that the FP can discriminate dreams specifically intended for them from dreams intended for other FPs or randomly selected dreams. This study also verified the helpfulness of the dreams collected.

The fact that people can perform the task required by DHC, i.e. dream for another person, with only minimal instruction, whereas most experimental methodologies for influencing dream content require elaborate pre-sleep procedures, suggest that DHC taps into a natural, intuitive process (Reed, 1976). Underlying DHC is some form of intuitive impression formation or intuitive communication. I have created a waking intuitive helping process comparable to the dream task, called the Intuitive Heart Discovery Method (Reed, 1996b), that makes a useful "control" procedure for evaluating the contribution dreams make to the apparent success of DHC.

A published testimony by someone helped in their role as a FP (Medicine Heart, 1986) suggests that one of the main, positive contributions of DHC as an educational tool is that it so reliably shows the transpersonal dimension of dreaming, making people feel connected to one another at a spiritual level. The FP serves as a catalyst to allow the participants to draw closer together, through their dreams, in appreciating their common human condition and their unique resources available for responding to it creatively (Ullman, 1990).


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