The Wisdom of the Dreaming Body:
On The Relationship Between Childhood Dreams And Adult Illnesses:
By Alan James Strachan, Ph.D
In working with childhood dreams,
I've discovered that they point to a life pattern of the dreambody
behavior. Very often, chronic
illnesses appear in the childhood dreams. These major dreams pattern our lives, our problems with the world, and
our body problems.
it true that the basic patterns of our lives are evident in our childhood
dreams? Can the content of
childhood dreams be manifested in chronic physical symptoms during
adulthood? Do physical symptoms
contain messages which lead to personal growth and healing? These were the questions that intrigued
me as I began my doctoral research on the relationship between childhood dreams
and chronic physical symptoms that occur in later life.
I reviewed the literature on dreams and illness, I quickly discovered that this
topic has fascinated observers for thousands of years. In classical times, Hippocrates,
Aristotle and Galen wrote that dreams were highly sensitive to the events of
the body and instrumental in helping physicians diagnose illness. The modern age of dream research was
ushered in by Freud's publication of The Interpretation of Dreams. Freud was convinced that disorders of
the internal organs often instigate dreams, and that dreams could be useful in
diagnosing and forewarning of illness. Modern empirical studies demonstrate a connection between dreams and a
wide range of illnesses, including heart attacks, cancer, migraines, tuberculosis, hypertension,
ulcers, asthma, arthritis, diabetes, and back pain. The studies show that dreams can play a role in diagnosing
an illness, determining a prognosis, and formulating a treatment plan, as well
as by contributing to the healing process.
Arnold Mindell has proposed an even deeper connection between dreams and
illness. In contrast to most of
the modern studies in which the dream and illness occur within a day of each
other, Mindell observed that certain childhood dreams may manifest years later as chronic physical
the past 30 years, Mindell has been developing a psychotherapeutic modality
which he calls Process-Oriented Psychology, or Process Work. In the course of his training, Mindell
discovered some remarkable statements about children's dreams made by C.G.
Jung. In a series of unpublished
lectures delivered in 1938-39,
Jung described "far-seeing" dreams which reveal at an early age the
basic qualities of a person's "life myth," i.e., the unique pattern
or story that characterizes an individual's life and imbues it with a
fundamental meaning and purpose. (Jung, 1938-39)
Jung believed that the form of the
personality is established from birth, and that the far-seeing dreams are
unconscious, symbolic representations of the wholeness of the personality. Far-seeing dreams are especially
prevalent in childhood because the child's ego is less developed and thus less
separated from the unconscious. Jung believed that a person cannot individuate, or become whole, without
remembering and integrating these dreams.
agrees with Jung that childhood dreams reveal a fundamental life pattern or
life myth. A major difference is
that Process-Oriented Psychology places far more emphasis upon and works more
directly with physical symptoms. From the perspective of Process Work, dreaming and presenting physical
symptoms are simply different ways of conveying the same information. Mindell has observed that processes
underlying recent body symptoms always appear in a person's ongoing dreams,
while long-term processes such as chronic physical symptoms are related to childhood dreams.
I surveyed the literature on dreams and illness, I discovered four articles
which described a meaningful connection between childhood dreams and a variety
of illnesses---migraines, cancer, heart attack, hives, and backache---that
appeared in adulthood. (Lippman, 1954; Lockhart, 1977; Saul and Bernstein,
1941; and Schneider, 1973) These
studies were a beginning confirmation of Mindell's theory. A comparison of the articles showed
that the childhood dreams had four characteristics in common: they tended to be recurrent, were
frequently the earliest dream remembered, evoked strong feelings in the
dreamer, and portrayed a situation which remained unresolved when the dream
my doctoral project, I decided to examine Mindell's theory. I located a videotape of a
psychotherapy session in which Mindell worked with a client on both a chronic
physical symptom and a childhood dream. According to process theory, an analysis of the tape should show there
to be a structural correspondence between the dream and the body symptom in
terms of the client's primary and secondary process, occupied and unoccupied
channels, edges, and dream figures.
is what I found:
* * *
client---I will call her "Marla"---is 26 years old and a graduate
student of psychology. Marla and
Mindell begin the session by sitting on the floor facing each other, surrounded
by seminar participants [see Figure 1].
(right, writing on pad of paper)
Client (left, touching her chest)
Seconds into Therapy Session
Marla describes her presenting complaint:
have a chronic symptom in my chest and a constriction across
my back. [Marla swings her arms front to
back, parallel to the floor, like a breast stroke.] I’m always trying to get more room. And that’s a chronic thing.
basic tenet of Process Work is that there is an underlying structure to every
client's process. Symptoms such as
Marla's are viewed as meaningful, purposeful conditions. Often the reason our symptoms persist
is that we cannot decipher their message and make use of the information they
of Mindell's tasks is to help Marla decipher her symptoms. To do this, Mindell must first help
Marla to amplify her symptom, to actually make the signal it is sending more
intense. He accomplishes this by
paying close attention to the way in which Marla experiences her symptom, i.e.,
by noticing the channel in which it is occurring. The most basic channels are vision, hearing, feeling (or
proprioception), and movement. Marla's symptoms are occurring in her proprioceptive channel (her chest
pain) and her movement channel (her sense of constriction). In a separate exchange, Mindell
determines that Marla's main channel is vision, a fact which will be important
when Marla is ready to integrate what she is about to learn.
recommends that they begin working on the chest pain, and Marla agrees. Marla lies down, and together they
locate the painful point on her chest. With Marla's permission, Mindell begins to press on the point, to
intensify what Marla is feeling, and she variously reports that it feels like a
"bruise. . . a black and blue mark. . . sharp pain."
a few minutes Marla says that the pain is "like a knife." As she speaks she also makes a fist and
raises her arm [see Figure 2]. This is significant, for it means that Marla has
changed channels, i.e., that she is beginning to experience her symptom as
movement rather than as a feeling. Mindell facilitates this process by providing resistance to her knifing
(lying down, fist clenched)
Therapist (seated immediately to Client’s right)
into the therapy session.
then asks, "Who is this knifer?," and Marla replies, "A
killer." Within the next
minute, Marla raises her head, sits up and turns to face Mindell. The killer is no longer just in Marla's
arm! Instead, Marla is embodying
then begins to play the role of the killer's victim. Marla makes a knifing motion [see Figures 3 and 4],
repeatedly stabbing the place on Mindell's sternum which corresponds to her own
pain point. In Process Work
terminology, the killer is the "dream figure" who is creating the pain
in her chest.
playing the role of the killer,
the therapist at 16:50 into the therapy session.
Attacking Therapist at 18:26
Marla stands up, faces Mindell, and continues to threaten him with her
"knife" hand as she makes full eye contact for the first time. Her facial expression, posture and
gestures all indicate that she has fully identified with the role of the
killer. But in order to gain a
complete grasp of her process, Marla needs to explore more completely the role
of the killer's adversary, which is her usual or primary process identity. She needs to fully experience the
initiates the role reversal by imitating the killer's posture and raising his
arm to make a knife stroke. Marla
makes several vigorous attempts to ward off the killer, swinging her arms with
great force in front of her. As
they interact, Mindell is closely monitoring his reactions to playing his
role. He notices that Marla's
actions have not been enough to make him stop his attack, and he remarks,
"This is the pattern of a chronic symptom: that you're up against a force
that you are stalemated with." Mindell remembers that proprioception was Marla's least occupied channel
at the beginning of the session, and therefore the one in which she is most
likely to learn what it is she needs to know. He therefore suggests that they return to Marla's original
symptom---her chest pain---in the hope that they can find a way out of the
stalemate, and Marla agrees. With
Mindell's help, Marla amplifies her feelings until she is grimacing with pain
and her body is contracted [see Figure 5].
grimaces and contracts
therapist provides resistance for her right hand at 29:22.
then initiates another role-playing sequence by resuming the role of the
killer. He wants to see if Marla
can use the depth of her feeling reaction in direct confrontation with the
killer. He warns, “I’m going to
kill you. . .” and “stabs” her in the chest.
responds to the knife stroke by becoming even more tense and contracted than
before [see Figure 6]. Mindell,
severely affected by her reaction, tells her, "I can't strike you when you
do that. It's an incredible
protection. I can't play my role
Client in a More Amplified
Version of Contraction at 31:59.
Marla reacted so strongly, she made it impossible for Mindell to continue with
his role. Marla used her entire
body as well as her facial expression to fully express her pain. This is what the killer had been
challenging her to do, and, now that she has done it, the nature of their
relationship changes. In the
moment, at least, there is no longer a need for a “killer.”
killer's challenge was an extraordinary one, for he called upon Marla to
express a range and depth of feeling that was far beyond her usual
experience. The killer had not
been concerned with the relatively superficial motivation to seek pleasure and
avoid pain. Instead he conveyed to
Marla the wider need of the psyche to know itself completely, and thereby move
toward integration and wholeness. From this broader perspective, Marla's pain is not a burden, but a
profound teacher about her fundamental character and way of being in the world,
helping her learn---for example---about her sensitivity, expressiveness, and
impact on other people.
* * *
there is another, crucial step for Marla: she must integrate what she has
learned. There are several phases
to this process, but the most critical one ocurs when Mindell suggests that she
draw the killer. He makes this
suggestion because Marla's most powerful experiences during the session have
been proprioceptive, while her most familiar way of processing her experience
is through her visual channel. In
order to begin to integrate her proprioceptive experiences, she must translate
them into visual form. Mindell
therefore suggests that she draw the killer. Marla complies, and, when she completes her drawing [see
Figure 7], a remarkable thing happens. As she looks at the face and body of the killer, Marla remarks, "It's like a missing
figure in my childhood dream."
In one of my childhood dreams there is this kindergarten girl
who is locked
up in the bowels of the
earth. And there are all these
boulders. And I just recently
found out who she was locked up by. I forgot that part of the dream when I was younger. She was always alone. And it was, like, this giant. And I could only hear him. [Hits her hands on the floor, making sounds like footsteps.] Boom, boom, boom. I was
terrified of him.
The Client's Drawing of the Killer, completed at 48:32.
The round face on the killer’s right shoulder
was drawn by the therapist as a means of prompting the client.
Marla associates the drawing of the killer with the dream, the session reaches
a much deeper level. Early in the
session we discovered that the painful place in Marla's chest was the killer's
point of contact with her. But
now, when Marla remembers her childhood dream, we realize that the killer is
related to an even more ancient figure, i.e., the giant in her dream. By recounting the dream, Marla also
helps us to understand why she has the chronic sense of being confined: she is
still "locked up in the bowels of the earth." Her childhood dream has been in the
background patterning her experiences and creating symptoms which hint at the
deeper process. In my dissertation
I demonstrate this in much more detail, showing that the dream and the body
symptoms are logically and consistently linked in every aspect of Marla's
dream fits the basic pattern described in the literature: it was recurrent,
evoked strong emotions, and portrayed an unresolved situation.
years after the psychotherapy session, I conducted an interview with Marla to
explore the ways in which she had been affected by the Process Work. At that time she revealed that working
on her symptoms and her dream produced both physical and psychological
changes. Recalling the session,
she said, "I remember being really struck by the pain I was in and showing
that pain. I remember the
emotional pain and the thing that stopped the giant was the intense
agony." She further stated
that she was becoming "more and more fluid. . . in showing my hurt"
in relationships, and that, on a physical level, her chest symptom was
"not really up as a focal issue. . . .I don't have a lot of pain with
would be a mistake, however, to focus strictly on Marla's physical
symptoms. The orientation of
Process Work is to increase awareness of the processes underlying body symptoms
and dreams. This may result in changes in physical symptoms, but it is not a
Mindell's view, Marla's childhood dream and her chronic symptoms are
reflections of a more fundamental process---her life myth. Marla has learned about her life myth
from a variety of experiences: her childhood dream, pain in her chest, the
feeling of not having enough room, her relationships, and observations of her
family. At this deep level of
personal reality, the line between dream and chronic physical symptom becomes
blurred. It is the underlying
process---the life myth---that defines and guides us.
our interview, Marla reflected about her personal myth: "I think that figure [the giant]
has always haunted me...If I think of that I think of something very wild and
earthy inside of me. And also at
the same time there is the other part of it which is this little girl. She's very sensitive, and shy, and
quiet." Marla recognizes that
part of her myth appears to involve bringing those two parts of herself
is a life-long challenge to learn from chronic physical symptoms and childhood
dreams and integrate the knowledge. Marla explained, "I find my childhood dream and chronic symptoms
are fluid things. So whenever I
work on them I always understand something more. It's not like I have one particular breakthrough and then
I've understood the dream. I
always feel there is always a lot more that I can learn from it. Once it will be important learning
about the little girl part of the dream and other times about the giant, and
other times about the relationships. . . "
recognizes that her chest pain and her terrifying childhood dream are more than
symptoms. She knows that they are
priceless gifts, which, if treated with the respect and attention they deserve,
will guide her throughout her life, teach her to recognize and live in
accordance with her deepest truths, and help her unite body, mind and spirit as
she fulfills her personal destiny.
* * *
I reflected on the results of this study, I became convinced that the
investigation of childhood dreams and chronic body problems could have a
far-reaching impact on the practice of psychotherapy and health care.
I restricted my doctoral research to childhood dreams, both Jung and Mindell
claim that early memories play a similar role. Thus psychotherapists could utilize either early dreams or
memories as a diagnostic tool, ones which symbolically represents the client's
personality structure, basic attitudes, and relationship patterns. In addition, the Process-Oriented
approach to chronic body symptoms has important implications for the field of
health care. Typically, a patient feels victimized by physical problems,
particularly chronic ones. And it
is not unusual for health-care practitioners to pathologize the patient, to
view the symptom only as evidence of what has gone wrong and needs to be fixed.
basis of the Process-Oriented approach is to regard all symptoms, including
physical ones, as positive in the sense that they carry information which, if
processed and integrated, furthers individuation. Recurrent problems occur for a reason, and that reason can
lead us to an important understanding of ourselves. The more chronic the problem, the more it says about who we
are. If we assume that the symptom
is trying to tell us something, then we can become active, curious participants
in a process of discovery rather than re-active, depressed victims of a process
of pathology. This positive
attitude makes it possible for us to access parts of ourselves that are
essential for our development. A
further practical implication, as indicated by Marla's remarks during the
follow-up interview, is that discovering and acting on the meaning of the
symptom may have a positive effect on the symptom itself.
final implication concerns the spirit with which we face life. If our oldest and most persistent
problems ultimately lead us to fundamental insights and growth, then we may be
encouraged, as Marla was, to embrace the unfolding miracle of our lives.
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Russell A. (1977). Cancer in Myth
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Saul, Leon J.,
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(Originally published in Dream Network, 1995