Despite the best efforts of Freud and other such introspective party poopers, the relevance of our dreams borders on the mystical. After all, we can’t control them or really pin them down.
And yet there are common threads in dreams, among us all. Teeth dreams, for instance. Who hasn’t woken up and felt around among his surely, at this stage, empty gums and shattered molars? Is it supposed to mean anything? And what of nightmares? Are they really there to help us overcome real life fears? Or are psyches just screwing with us?
For these and other reasons, there is something undeniably intriguing about dreams. Jordi Borràs García was so enraptured with them that he’s devoted his life to studying them. A psychologist and dream researcher, his quest was personal — and also by necessity.
“In the academic world, we still don’t have an official course exclusively about dreams,” he says. “In so many societies around the world and throughout human history, dreams have been understood as spiritual experiences. I don’t think exploring this is incompatible to having a scientific approach. I really believe that denying this vision, describing it as primitive or just magical thinking, is an unscientific position.”
We spoke to García about his journey, and the therapeutic possibilities examining dreams. The upshot: It’s not bad to pay attention.
How did you become a dream researcher?
When I was studying psychology in the University of Barcelona, I was amazed that dreams, which were one of my main interests, was virtually absent from the curricula. I really thought when I started that I would find it over and over.
After I finished my studies in the university I just decided to go on learning about dreamwork all by myself — reading books on the subject, participating in workshops, exploring my own and those from my clients. Many years have passed since then and, unfortunately, the situation is exactly the same. This is one of the reasons why I decided, after many years offering dream workshops from the mondesomnis platform to create the first training in Spain for psychologists and psychotherapists who are interested in working with dreams therapeutically, in an individual or group setting, in what I call “the integration of dreams.”
What do you mean by “the integration of dreams”?
The integration of dreams is a protocol that helps the dreamer understand what the dream is talking about and, specifically, allows dreams to affect the dreamer’s waking life. It’s also an integrative look at the different psychotherapeutic approaches which have considered dreams to some extent: psychoanalysis, Junguian psychology, gestalt, etc.
One of these approaches is the one from transpersonal psychology, which investigates the psychological implications of the different states of consciousness for well-being and understands a human being must face his or her spirituality if he or she wants to live a meaningful and happy life.
You are involved with DreamsCloud, a service that allows users to upload their dreams and have them interpreted by a community of like-minded dreamers.
I think it’s a great initiative and I’m sure it will bring many good surprises in the future. I think it’s really good for people that we get used to sharing our dreams. This can help us remember them better, and when we have them in consideration, we can notice symbols, situations, scenarios, etc., that are repeating in our dreams so it’s increasingly easier for us to understand them. This is my own experience and the one of many people I’ve worked with therapeutically along the years.
Interestingly enough, when we socialize our dreams, things get much better. In mondesomnis we’ve been leading a lot of Dream Circles — that is, a group of people who meet regularly and share their dreams. In our experience, it can be much more illuminating when one person share a dream and other people explain their own associations to it. Though dreams are obviously personal, sometimes it’s much easier for us to understand what they are telling us when we see other people reactions.
Furthermore, sometimes it’s really revelatory to hear other people dreams and see how they’re relating to it, as it helps you realize of your own situation relating the issues those dreams are bringing out.
So what, in your opinion, is a dream?
I think dreams cannot be easily defined and their definition depends always on what you are expecting them to be. There are neuropsychologists who are exclusively interested in what happens in our brain when dreams are going on and don’t raise any question about their meaning. There are artists who only consider dreams their inspiration for their writings, paintings, songs, etc. There are Buddhist monks who consider dreams a state of consciousness which will help them be ready for the moment they die and realize the dreamlike quality of waking life. I think all these perspectives are very interesting and can be combined.
As a psychologist, however, I’ve also had the chance to listen to many people who have shared their dreams with me, and I have repeatedly observed how dreams reflected the way these people thought, felt and acted in waking life. But, sometimes, dreams also showed an alternative to these habitual patterns as a way of compensating them.
So, dreams can express fears, doubts, childish traumas, repressed desires, but also can talk about our power, our strengths, our hidden treasures, and help us find the way to recognize them and live through them.
You studied in Tibet for some time. How did that affect your understanding of dreams?
I participated in several retreats led by Lama Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche. At first, I was only interested in how Tibetan Dream Yoga could help me explore my own dreams. During some years I practiced this strict and complex discipline, trying to adapt it to a non-monastic life and, though nowadays I only practice it at some measure, I still consider it a very valuable way to integrate dreams in a spiritual path.
As time went by, however, I started realizing some of the teachings in Dream Yoga could be applied to a psychotherapy process — relaxation breathings, visualizations and tantric movements which clean some specific chakras, etc. — and, specifically, one which explored dreams thoroughly.
Anyway, I only recommend or suggest some of these practices to people who are really interested in the Tibetan vision of dreams or, at least, if they have a spiritual approach to their dreams.
In general, how do you think interpreting dreams can benefit a patient?
Being in touch with our dreams, sharing them, exploring them, playing with them, helps us realize how immensely creative our mind is. This only could help us already connect to this profound creativity in order to face our waking problems, apparently unsolvable, from another point of view. But if we also try to understand our dreams and make the right questions to it, we could see clearly how they’re talking about some patterns of behavior, thought and emotional responses.
Can you give an example of this?
A woman who came to my private practice last Thursday, for example, had a dream in which she was riding a horse. As so many dreams, this one also had a clear waking connection, for she had been riding that same horse some days before. But in the dream she felt strangely self-confident. Following my suggestions she explored one character in the dream: a woman who climbed on the horse all of a sudden, and told her not to worry. She finally understood — and, most important, she clearly felt —what this woman symbolized: it was a part of herself that was little by little waking up and appearing increasingly in her dreams, in many different disguises.
But, though she was feeling okay, suddenly the horse couldn’t climb a hill and she felt like they were falling backwards. I suggested to her to feel that previous effort and she easily connected it to the one she was making to live up to the expectations of others in a job. She realized she had this tendency which wasn’t healthy for her.
And when I told her to imagine she was back in the dream and feel like when she was falling she felt kind of released. That was enough for her to understand she had grown used to a pattern which wasn’t good for her and had to quit it. There was a middle way, neither climbing to the top nor letting go and falling apart, which she related to getting sick in waking life. She could ride the horse “around the hill,” and, to her, that meant being respectful to and mindful of her feelings, body and intuitions. That was a good final image to keep and feel.
How does one know if a dream is worthy of attention?
Every dream is susceptible to be explored. In many occasions, I’ve worked with people who said a dream they told me looked irrelevant and they were really surprised, after we really got in touch with it, when they found the treasure it hid.
But, the dreams that usually are more interesting to work with are nightmares. I always think nightmares are kind of a present. It’s like our unconscious mind is shouting out there’s something going on we are not taking care of adequately. So it’s an opportunity to see more clearly.