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.
Is 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.
As 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.
Psychotherapist 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 symptoms.
For 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 In a series of unpublished lectures delivered in 1938-39, Jung described "far-seeing" dreams which reveal at an early age the basic qualities of a person's "life myth," i.e., the unique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.
Mindell 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.
As 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 ended.
For 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.
Here is what I found:
* * *
Mindell's 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].
Therapist (left, writing on pad of paper)
and Client (right, touching her chest)
40 Seconds into Therapy Session
Marla describes her presenting complaint:
I 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.
A 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 are conveying.
One 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.
Mindell 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."
After 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 motion.
Client (lying down, fist clenched)
and Therapist (seated immediately to Client’s right)
13:53 into the therapy session.
Mindell 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 the killer.
Mindell 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.
Client, playing the role of the killer,
attacking the therapist at 16:50 into the therapy session.
Client Attacking Therapist at 18:26
Finally 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 pain.
Mindell 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].
Client grimaces and contracts
while the therapist provides resistance for her right hand at 29:22.
Mindell 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.
Marla 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 any more."
Client in a More Amplified Version of Contraction at 31:59.
Because 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.”
The 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.
* * *
But 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.
When 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 process structure.
Marla's dream fits the basic pattern described in the literature: it was recurrent, evoked strong emotions, and portrayed an unresolved situation.
Four 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 it."
It 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 goal.
In 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.
In 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 together.
It 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. . . "
Marla 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.
* * *
As 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.
Although 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.
The 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.
A 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.
Freud, Sigmund. (1955). The Interpretation of Dreams. N.Y.: Basic Books.
Jung, C.G. (1938-1939). Psychological Interpretation of Children's Dreams, Zurich lectures, (unpublished).
Lippman, Caro W. (1954). Recurrent Dreams in Migraine: An Aid to Diagnosis. J. of Nervous and Mental Disease, 120, 273-276.
Lockhart, Russell A. (1977). Cancer in Myth and Dream: An Exploration into the Archetypal Relation Between Dreams and Disease. Spring, NY: Spring Publications.
Mindell, Arnold. (1985). Working With the Dreaming Body. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
Saul, Leon J., and Bernstein, Clarence Jr. (1941). The Emotional Settings of Some Attacks of Urticaria. Psychosomatic Medicine, 3/4, 349-369.
Schneider, Daniel E. (1973). Conversion of Massive Anxiety into Heart Attack. American J. of Psychotherapy, 27, 360-378.
(Originally published in Dream Network, 1995 14/1-2, 22-25.)