This is an interview that discusses the uses and applications of dreamwork in psychotherapy as well as practical ways we can apply its wisdom to our own lives. Len Worley, PhD, has done extensive research regarding dreamwork and incorporates it into his practice with great success. If you have ever been interested in the meanings of dreams, you are in the right place.
Len Worley received his PhD in counseling psychology in 1981 and worked as a psychologist/psychotherapist for some twenty years. It was about half way through this period that he met the woman who would become his mentor in dreamwork. He has continued to study with her for thirty years now. Though there was never a degree or certification in this mentorship, he considers it to be his greatest and most satisfying education ever.
After a couple decades as a psychologist he felt remiss for not understanding the body more— the practice of psychotherapy at the time was primarily focused on the mind. Therefore, he returned to school to study Rolfing, an in-depth form of bodywork that brings symmetry and freedom to a constricted body. For the last sixteen years he has worked as a Rolfer, but along the way he has continued his devotion to understanding dreams, which as Len Worley says, “has been filled with the most blissful, deeply humbling and sobering discoveries of my life.”
Alec Holmes: Do you remember the time you first felt drawn to dreamwork? Can you explain this instance?
Len Worley, PhD: The first and most profound time that I was mystified by dreams came in my earliest childhood upon hearing my mother wail loudly in the night, being captured by a nightmare that repeated itself throughout her life. My father was hard of hearing and would take off his hearing aid upon going to bed, which meant that he never heard my mother crying out.
For more times than I can count I would be awakened out of my sleep and be frightened, but then would realize that it was my mother’s nightmares that anguished her. I would be the one to wake her out of her misery. Though I had no way of knowing it at the time, this would be my first training ground for studying dream meanings.
By the way, my mother’s dreams almost always involved a snake chasing her. Many years later, this became the subject of a book I’m currently researching and writing, Apology to the Serpent. We lived in a fundamentalist culture and of course held the orthodox view that the serpent was the source of evil.
Decades later, once I discovered Jungian psychology and worked with my own dreams and that others, I came to see that indeed the serpent is usually a healing force in dreams, and in fact, this non-pejorative view is widely held in both Asia and in central and south American shamanism. But it took me some time to discover and unravel the many negative associations with it.
AH: In what way did you first realize that you could harness the power of dreams to help people overcome their sufferings?
Len Worley, PhD: While I held a lifelong curiosity about dreams, based on my earliest experiences with my mother’s nightmares, and some of my own, I had no idea how to meaningfully understand or use them until I was several years beyond my PhD training and into a private psychotherapy practice. It took a personal love crisis that plunged me into unbearable grief for me to look for wisdom beyond my usual psychology.
It was during this time that I discovered my mentor at age 39. When I began to have my dreams opened by her, someone elegantly skilled in dreamwork, I was overcome with astonishment. I had had no idea of the wealth of information that was coming to me nightly through dreaming intelligence.
In these early days of dreamwork I would often have dreams of the woman for whom I grieved. She would come to me in the dream and cause me my heart to open to love in the most profound way. At first I thought these dreams were indications that we were to get back together, but after several failed attempts at reconciliation, I realized that the one in my dreams was a reflection of an inner quality within me—something Jung refers to as the anima or animating feminine presence inside of a man.
Once I de-literalized the dream meaning and understood the metaphor I was launched into a new world. Suddenly I realized that the feminine presence that I grieved would never be lost because it resided in me. But these words are simplifying the matter a great deal; learning to internalize the qualities of the sacred feminine involved a great many years of peeling away the hyper-masculinization that I had been born into.
AH: You mentioned the snake symbol and the anima, do you often see these recurring dream symbols amongst your patients?
Len Worley, PhD: The snake or serpent is the most ubiquitous animal symbolism throughout civilization, and there are many reasons for this. Before it became associated with evil in Hebrew and Christian religion, it stood for the Primal Life Force since earliest recorded times. As such, it was always associated with the Divine Feminine, which before the advent of Patriarchy, was considered to be the source of Creation. Think of the serpent more or less to be something like “The Force” in the Star Wars epic.
The serpent appears as the most frequent animal in dreams, and it is often met with great ambivalence and fear, not only because we perhaps instinctually fear it, but because we in modern times live far apart from our Primal Instincts. How we respond to snakes in our dreams indicates how well we are living in accordance with our instincts.
For many, we are caught up in a technological speed that is far different than nature, especially our own bodily nature, and we thus miss a host of signals for inner guidance and blissful animal pleasures in day to day existence. We essentially are living increasingly in our heads to the detriment of body knowledge.
The so called Anima, Jung’s term for the underlying feminine-like principle, is constantly showing up in dreams of both males and females, especially because, for men, this capacity is under-developed and under-valued.
AH: What are some benefits we may we encounter from the exploration of our own dreams?
Len Worley, PhD: The most recent neuroscience testing results show that dreaming is essential to regulating emotions as well as creative problem solving—of course there are many other benefits, but these are the two areas most studied. Loss of dreaming or Rapid Eye Movement is related to increase in both depression and anxiety, since it appears that dreaming helps us sort through emotional difficulty during the night. Creative problem solving is clearly enhanced with REM—if you don’t sleep and dream well the night before a mental challenge, you will be at a disadvantage compared to someone else who has.
And take note, the benefits of dreaming happen whether or not you remember your dreams. One should also note, that in the last 70 years we are sleeping about 1 and ½ hours less per night, which is the equivalent loss of 60 nights of sleep per year! Since most dreaming occurs in the second half of night—deep, slow wave restorative sleep happens mostly in the first half—we are experiencing an epidemic of REM loss in our culture.
Apart from the benefits proven by science, my experience of dreams, once they are meaningfully understood, is that they are the great truth-teller—they reveal my blind-sides and point to solutions that I ordinarily would overlook. Jung saw this and said that dreams counter-balance extremes in waking life, and in this sense we need dreams to prevent us becoming one-sided and lost in attitudes or behaviors that predispose us to bad decisions.
Of course one must find a meaningful interpretation for dreams to have the truth-telling benefits, and not all interpretations are truthful. My advice is that if your interpretation of a dream doesn’t surprise, convict, inspire and result in a changed attitude or behavior you probably haven’t found a truthful interpretation—it’s my conviction that dreams come to evolve us. In this regard, most people think they have found an accurate interpretation when they have come up with an explanation for why they dreamed something—“I dreamed of an elephant because I passed by a circus yesterday,” for example. An explanation like this explains but doesn’t impact the dreamer. Instead, I want to know, “What is the essence of an elephant?”—strength, power to overcome obstacles—and how might such an attitude to be needed at this particular time in the dreamer’s life?
AH: How can we more readily recognize these dream characters in our own/other’s dreams, and tap into the messages that they bring?
Len Worley, PhD: If I were forced to follow only three principles or guidelines when approaching a dream and looking for its meaning, I would choose these …
1. See Your Hidden Self in the People, Places, and Things of Your Dream. This guiding principle counteracts one of the most common faulty tendencies in dreamwork; that is, to concretize and literalize and make images pertain to people and events in waking life. Even after 30 years of devoted dreamwork as a spiritual practice, I am still inclined to think that when I dream of someone I know from waking life, I am being shown something about that person—as opposed to considering that dreaming intelligence is using the image of a particular person (and their particular qualities) to show me something about myself. When you consider that the characters in your dreams, including animals, objects and landscapes, are reflections of various aspects of your larger personality, a rich and meaningful world is opened. Albeit, easier said than done.
2. Distill the Essence. This has to do with defining the essential characteristics of a person or object or animal in your dream that makes it unique. Once you understand how to articulate the particular qualities that make a dream figure unique, you will never have need of nor have interest in a dream dictionary again, whereby the meanings of images are pre-determined.
3. Merge with the Essence. This principle takes dreamwork beyond interpretation and gives a psych-spiritual practice of embodying positive dream images; taking on their essence and thus transforming and enriching one’s own personality. This is a most intimate and exacting process but richly rewarding whereby you allow yourself to be more like a positive dream figure that inspires you; and yes, that can entail developing the courageousness of a lion, for example, if that is an image that appeared in your dream.
If you look at one of my video interviews, I discuss how I worked with three of my own nightmares. In one, a young inner city kid tore the roof off my safe and secure Volvo. You will see these three principles in action in me understand the wisdom and gift that this boy’s disruptive action was to me.
AH: Can you recommend any materials for those interested in furthering their understanding of dreams?
Len Worley, PhD: I have read a lot of books about dream meanings, and I am sad to say that I have found most of them mediocre or of no use whatsoever—most are force-predetermined interpretations that may have been true for another culture or another person, but are not particularly relevant to the dreamer. This is true particularly in regards to dream dictionaries.
However, one book that has stood the test of time with me is Robert Johnson’s little book: Inner Work. Johnson studied with Jung and is masterful in making complex subjects digestible for the average person without oversimplifying. Additionally, he makes Active Imagination understandable—a method of entering into conversation with dream figures once you are out of the dream; this, by the way, was considered by Jung to be an essential method for dream investigation, and I couldn’t agree more.
That being said, there is no substitute for experiencing dreamwork directly with a seasoned dream worker who will be respectful and not impose his or her meaning onto the dream. If one finds this, one will have discovered a jewel for life.
For more on Len Worley, PhD, please visit: lenworleyphd.com