How dreams and art therapy join in a sacred junction of aesthetics and psychological healing.
Speeding down a sleek and expanding highway, I found myself in the driver’s seat of an uncontrollable SUV. Miles of road quickly traced behind me while the path ahead grew steep towards the sky. All surrounding life disintegrated, just the slivering asphalt tanged up towards the heavens. I was flooring it all the way to space until I suddenly came to a hauling end. The road finished and my fate greeted a boundless, dark abyss.
The jolt of this dismal arrival shocked my body back into the safe reality of a warm bed. Upon waking, I scrambled for paper to illustrate the unnerving world built within the deep folds of my mind. I hoped that outlining this dreamscape would prove to elucidate a message for the unmet queries of my waking self.
It’s a classical Jungian approach, in which visualizations of such knotted thoughts and images of our dreams can somehow unfurl the inaccessible material of our minds. Jung understood this as the physical forms of the intangible feelings we resist.
“To the extent that I managed to translate the emotions into images—that is to say, to find the images which were concealed in the emotions—I was inwardly calmed and reassured,” professed Jung in his book, “Memories, Dreams, Reflections” (1965).
Jung encouraged his patients to sketch their dream images (he himself benefited personally from the process). The steady trace of a pencil, the seeping quality of watercolor, or perhaps the sculpting technique of clay, could invite us into a relationship with the symbolic language of our subconscious.
The very act of dreaming could be considered the most intrinsic, spontaneous creative process manifested by human beings. The dream realm possesses some of the same properties as the expressiveness of art; it seems natural that the two have intertwined at the junction of aesthetics and psychological healing within art therapy.
I decided to take an unwavering hand with some pastels and drew vertical lines sloping as the freeway did in my head. I began to recall the thoughts I experienced before going to sleep that night–streams of judgement that rang clear with anxiety and fear about my job, career, and life trajectory.
Soon the accelerating car became a larger metaphor about the race towards my abstract idea of “success.” And the abyss showed up as nothing but a black, finite circle amidst a white page, a blackness that once appeared endless in my fantasy.
It felt like recognizing a private language forged by foreign ancestors long since forgotten. A deeply-rooted understanding desperately communicated with a complexity of symbolic pictorials. Research has affirmed this encoded language of dreams, deeming them uniquely shaped by the idiosyncrasies of each dreamer. To decipher this distinctive tongue is known as free association.
“I’ve actually had some pretty amazing breakthroughs with clients through their dream life; where they all of a sudden realize that something wasn’t the way that they had thought it might had been before,” recounts Linda Turner, a licensed art therapist and psychotherapist in NYC with more than 15 years of experience working with adults and children alike.
Snug between two drop-down tables, Turner and I sat in her downtown office on neatly upholstered furniture in a room spotted with bright colored pillows and adornments. She sees clients ranging from 10 to 40 years of age experiencing a range of issues including depression, anxiety, and trauma.
Pointing to a large white cabinet brimming with art supplies, Turner begins to indicate how different visual means serve a patient’s inner experience.
“I have as many mediums as I can have in this space because it really depends on who you are working with,” describes Turner. “For instance, if you are working with somebody who is very flooded with emotion and then you give them paint, it might overwhelm them and it might become too much of a mess for them.”
Though Turner does not ascribe to a particular school of thought, her methodology is reminiscent of Jung’s. The art piece represents a third party entity in a triad relationship with therapist and patient. Free association response to the artistic elements is the patient’s responsibility, providing an individual agency into their psyche.
Control on the behalf of the client is conceived in various forms within Turner’s practice. For instance, hosts of people visit her with the quandary of existing as a “mess”—their lives are inconceivably coiled in chaos. Rendering the affliction on the page allows for self-identification with the disorder at hand.
“For example, a client has created a piece of art representing their mess, and she’ll ask, ‘if you were in the piece, where would you be?’ They might say, ‘sitting in a flower’, which was glued above the rest of the piece,” details Turner. “I could then acknowledge their resilience, saying “wow, look at where you placed yourself, above the mess so you can witness and not be in it.”
As advocated by Jung, authority over the unconscious is transferred from therapist to patient, becoming a compelling point of contention from Freudian theory.
The Marriage of Art And Dreams
Speaking about dreams invokes the name of Sigmund Freud and his pivotal contribution, “The Interpretation of Dreams” (1899). It became the initiation on a definitive mapping of the conscious and unconscious processes.
Though modern psychology disproves tenets of Freud’s sexual repression theories, his work set the stage for parallels in conscious and unconscious fantasy that continues to inform psychological functioning.
Ultimately, Freud’s stubbornness in disregarding alternate theories on dream development provoked a student and colleague to sever into their own schools of psychological thought. Jung bequeathed the helms of psychoanalysis and contented that dreams were not merely facades to unmet sexual desires, but rather “a part of nature, which harbors no intention to deceive, but expresses something as best it can.”
The evolution of Freudian, Jungian, and eventually the existential-humanistic movement, propelled the dissection of dreams in clinical settings. Margaret Naumberg, a psychotherapist considered to be the pioneer of art therapy in the United States, opened the Walden School in 1915 with the emphasis on spontaneous creative expression as an important vehicle into a child’s inner life. She was influenced by the ideas of Jung, Freud and the circle of psychoanalytic thinkers of her time, using artistic creation as a natural evocation to unlock unconscious repression.
Tapping into a patient’s dreams isn’t Turner’s primary avenue to psychotherapy. Only if a client initiates a discussion about a vivid dream does Turner encourage drawing of that memory. In her experience, forging these visual demonstrations of dreams has allowed for impressive therapeutic outcomes.
“I had one client many years ago who, after they shared some dream imagery and they drew it, their drawings grew from stick figures to more robust bodies,” says Turner. “The whole way that they created their images actually shifted.”
These substantial statuettes are a realization and acceptance of aggressive impulses that they never permitted themselves to have in life, according to Turner.
“We can deal with monsters and all kinds of wild, crazy, and scary things inside of our heads,” she says. “And when we put it on paper all of a sudden it provides an opportunity to see something differently.”
Art As Hope
Dreams and artistic expression are riddled with irrational predispositions that may seem difficult to render into our rational reality. However, what I discovered in bestowing art therapy techniques on my own dreams is that a precise logical answer is not the point.
We are creatures of infinite contradictions that often get lost in our own web of fears and ideas. Art can help us expand our beliefs in the positive and help us fully inhabit the negative as a legitimate space of sorrow in an otherwise good life.
Depicting the seemingly expansive abyss in my dream reality measured up to be quite small in a sea of whiteness on the page. I realized my anxiety about the ceaseless progression to an unattainable abstraction of career success was a mere fraction of my psycho-emotional world. There was so much more white than black that I could experience.
Turner believes art to be a remarkable life-centering force, bringing a more accurate assessment of what is working against us and where we have aspiration and love. Exemplary moments are in working with patients battling depression.
“There’s a sense with depression of a loss of hope,” explains Turner. “The paper is filled with black. but they put a little spot of red and they put a little spot of yellow and we might look and be with the darkness, but we also explore the light”
Such is the power of art; through the instinctual creativity of our dreams, we both witness and celebrate the ordinary, and even the sorrowful, that so frequently becomes forsaken.
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