Waking Dream Therapy

The Waking Dream Therapy approach was first described by Dr. Gerald Epstein, and springs from the work of Mme. Colette Aboulker-Muscat of Jerusalem and Dr. Epstein's own work and studies.


A waking dream is a guided exploration of one’s inner reality through the media of imagination. The purpose of the waking dream method is to give people the opportunity to travel willfully and sensorially through world of the embodiment of their belief systems, which they discover as images. The experience of moving successfully through the challenges of this inner journey alters one’s beliefs and the significance of the past events, and creates new ways to meet experiences yet to happen. The waking dream experience “not only permits the seeing of possibilities but also the doing of possibilities,” the effects of which are brought back to concrete reality and are actively used to shape one’s existence.


Just as a night dream, a waking dream is a spontaneous flow of the events of appearance within the inner realm of human experience. And just as a short correction exercise of a dream, a waking dream offers the freedom to make changes. And yet, a waking dream is different from the night dream because of the added advantage to journey through various places at will. And it is different from the short correction exercise of a dream, because the correction exercise is a re-entry of a dream with a particular predetermined intention of making a change, while a waking dream is an exploration of “what is” within the realm of one’s inner life. A waking dream in a linear time lasts forty minutes to an hour and a half (as oppose to a short imagery exercise or a dream correction exercise which last no longer than 45 seconds).


A waking dream originates directly from the night dream of the patient at a particular chosen segment. The choice comes as a result of patient’s “working the dream” with the help of the therapist.


After the patient describes the dream the therapist asks the patient to see everyone in the dream as a quality oneself. The therapist also asks if an analogy can be seen between the events in the dream and in the waking life. Often one gets insight into one’s life and into what needs to be changed through a correction exercise and/or voluntary will exercise. If a patient cannot find any analogies or simply has difficulties with the dream and yet finds the dream disturbing, or feels that it's "something important" - the waking dream technique is utilized.


A patient is instructed to sit comfortably in an upright position, a 3-4 minute light relaxation is induced, and a person is offered to use any important point of the dream as a starting point of the exploration. What will happen during the journey is unknown either to the therapist or to the patient, since the images that appear after the patient enters the dream are a spontaneous flow of the “what is” of the patient’s inner life.


In this work the therapist acts strictly as a guide and nothing more. The therapist is there only to listen to the report about the journey and to assist the explorer with any frightening or difficult predicaments. An understanding of the symbolism of colors, numbers, and directions in space helps the therapist to be aware of when and what support the “explorer” might need. Because the events of a waking dream are very real to the “explorer”, the emotional challenge of the experience can often overwhelm one’s will in making constructive changes. The therapist reminds the "explorer" that one has the power to protect oneself and to make the needed changes. With the therapist's guidance, the patient confronts, overcomes, and resolves the problems that emerge in the narratives. As Francis Clifton wrote:


“Guided waking dreams are birthings, assisted by the midwife (therapist or guide), which take place in the emptied, at times terrifying realm of becoming which is the imagination."


The process of de-construction of old forms of existence in a waking dream creates the “window” of openness to new ways of existence in one’s waking reality.


Case Illustration


E., a thirty three year old, strikingly attractive and highly successful business woman complained of a pattern of falling in love with men and of them quickly becoming obsessive about and dependent upon them. The outcome of all E.’s relationships was inevitably the same: She was "dropped" by her lover, a man who was usually abusive, selfish, and intolerant of her neediness. E.’s relationships never lasted for more than half of a year. In between encounters she said, "it was enough for a man to say hello to me and I would screw him". Two times she attempted to commit suicide. In both cases she was brought to the hospital where she fell in love with her psychiatrists. In one case it led to termination of the therapy, and in the other, to another short and purely sexual affair with the psychiatrist.


E. grew up in an affluent family in France. Her childhood as far as she could remember was "like any other child’s'". Her parents loved her, she was good to her younger brother, and her family spent enjoyable summers in their second home in Southern France. But, E. reported, as long as she could remember she feared that one day her parents would leave her somewhere and not come back. Since her first romantic relationship when she was 15 years old E. remembered anticipating that her boyfriend would not want to date her for a long time. She felt needy, jealous and from there "it all went downhill."


E. told the author that her appointment with him was her last hope. She said that nothing worked for her and maybe she "could just be hypnotized out of this mess". E. agreed with the author’s recommendation that waking dream therapeutic technique would be more clinically indicated than hypnosis.


Since E. was still in pain about her last break-up she was given an imagery exercise called "Letting go of relationship". She was to imagine herself walking along the beach with her last boyfriend holding hands and laughing, then at one point they were to stop, say good-bye to each other and the friend was to continue his way. She was to go back the way they came but walking backwards, erasing her footprints on the sand.


E. was also given an exercise called "Burying the past," the intention of which was to let go of regrets and errors of the past (after they were discussed and patterns of self-defeating behavior were identified). In the exercise she was to walk with a heavy load of regrets and mistakes of the past on her shoulders and feel the pain, the anguish of carrying the weight. Then she was to stop, take off the load, dig a hole in the ground, bury the load, and see the rain fall washing away any trace, of where the load was buried.


E. was instructed to keep a dream journal and to do both exercises every morning for 7 days (each exercise to lasted no longer than 30 seconds.


When E. came back for the next appointment she reported that the exercises helped her to feel more relaxed, more hopeful, less “obsessed” about her last boyfriend. The following three sessions were devoted to dealing with E's anger toward men and also with her feeling of loneliness. For the fourth session she brought a disturbing dream that she said had been consistently reoccurring over the years.


In the dream E. was a child (she did not know the age) playing with her cat on the playground. She was throwing the cat up in the air and catching it. Then she got tired and wanted to go home, but the cat wonted to continue playing. She became angry and started hitting the cat while at the same time feeling sorry for the cat. Suddenly a big hairy man (like a monster) appeared. She got scared and started running. She heard his steps behind her, and as she was about to be caught, she woke up.


The intensity E.’s dream experience, the emotional impact that the dream had on her upon awakening, and E.’s inability to “make sense of it all” compelled the author to conduct a waking dream exploration.


After the induction E. found herself back in her childhood playground. She was alone. She was asked by the guide (the author) what age she was. She did not know. She was asked if she liked to be in the playground. E. said that she was bored without her cat but she couldn't see the cat anywhere. She was asked what she wanted to do. She said she wanted to go home to find the cat. As she described approaching the house she was asked to look in the window and to see her reflection, and to let the guide know how old she looked. E. described in great detail her appearance and said she was approximately seven. As she was about to open the door to her home, a big, hairy man appeared at the door step. E. was asked if she knew the man or if he reminded her of anyone. She said "No", but she said she felt very frightened. (E.'s breathing intensified, her legs move beneath her, and her hands tighten into fists.) E. was reminded that in her present reality she was free do anything to protect herself. Then she was asked what she wanted to do. She said that she was already running away from the big man but he was near. Than E. said she was in her school running down the stairs. Suddenly she was in front of the door that was open only a crack. The door was too heavy to move and the crack was too small to squeeze through. She heard the man behind her. E. said she did not know what to do. She was reminded that she could find a way, that where she was, anything was possible. She turned into a cat and slipped through crack. Finally she was in huge grotto. She was again a girl. Although her surroundings were beautiful, E. knew that she was facing a dead end. Suddenly the man was next to her. She wanted to run but he grabbed her legs and started dragging her to the center of the grotto. He started throwing her up in the air and catching her just before she would be smashed against the rocks. Finally he let her fall and she was lying there “all broken”. He took a sword and pinned her down to the ground. Then he became just a huge hairy head flying above her and hurting her in the stomach. Once again she was reminded that she could find a way to protect herself. At that point E. pulled the sword out of her stomach and as the head descended upon her she slammed it with the sword, splitting the head into two. Dark blood poured all over. She got onto her feet and started running away. As she reached the exit of the tunnel (with the encouragement of the guide) she threw a grenade into it, burying the remains of the monster. She was standing on an open field filled with beautiful yellow and red flowers. After she spent some time enjoying the freedom of the clearing she was instructed to quickly (like in fast motion movie) go back to the point of the departure into the journey. Then she was asked to open her eyes, still keeping the image of the field and the flowers in her mind.


E. was instructed to write down her experience, and to draw a picture or pictures illustrating the journey. (Once again, the symbolism of space, color, and numbers in the drawings would help the guide to understand the impact of the journey.) She was also asked for seven days every morning to do an imagery of the last part of the journey where she was blowing up the tunnel and walking in the field. (The purpose of repeating the last part of the waking dream as a morning imagery exercise was to reinforce a new “no victim” emotional memory.) Additionally E. was asked to buy yellow and red flowers (to anchor her imaginal experience to the waking life).


E. came for the following session looking very different. She was wearing a dress of light buoyant colors, and was smiling for the first time as she entered my office. She reported that the whole last week felt like she was recovering from a long, long illness. The session was devoted to discussion of E.’s journey in her waking dream and of her drawings. The symbolism of the use of space and color in her drawings was very encouraging. Because of the circumstances E. did not have any sessions for the following four weeks.


During the next session one month later, E. reported that for the first time in eighteen years she said "NO" to a man who wanted to sleep with her but in whom she had no interest. The following nine sessions were devoted to "cleaning up" or changing certain problematic habitual responses through behavior modification, and learning new ways to deal with challenges.


Two more waking dreams were conducted. In both E. was no longer a victim, and although there were challenges, she dealt with them in an assertive way.


All together E. underwent 14 sessions over a period of six months. The therapy was terminated because both the therapist and E. felt that the initial intention "to stop feeling a victim, and to stop being so needy of men" was achieved. After completing therapy E. did not have any intimate relationships with men for a year as she sought to learn how to be alone, - as "ALL ONE ". After one year she met a man with whom she proceeded to develop a healthy and loving relationship. After knowing each other for six months they moved in together. A year and a half later they married.


If we were to attempt to understand E.’s experience without engaging it, what would we find out? Was it a classical “fear of abandonment”? Was E. raped as a child and blocked it out? Was it a belief system of being a victim solidified in the image that traveled with E. from the previous life, or lives? Was the man in the dream a representation of the sadistic part of E.? Was it all of the above or none of them? We don't know. We do know though, that the quality of E.'s life improved dramatically when she defeated the monster in her waking dream journey.