Dreaming, Vol. 5, No. 4, 1995

Dreams and Current Concerns: A Narrative Co-Constitutive Approach

Daniel Deslauriers1,3 and John Cordts2


In a collaborative research situation, dreamers were asked to reflect on the meaning of their own dreams in relationship to self-selected current concerns. Dreamers gave a description of their current concerns in two different modes: 1) an abstract description (abstract mode) and 2) a concrete event (story-mode); during the following week, they were asked to note dreams that relate to the concerns (spontaneous mode of expression). An open-ended interview served as a collaborative mean to explore the relationship between the abstract and narrative modes of expression and the dream. A narrative approach was used to highlight particular structures of experience in each mode of expression using a case-example. The analysis suggests the possibility that in dream understanding, the focus on life concern is more easily accessible in a story-like manner. This supports the importance of life-story and of reflection on authorship in therapeutic encounter.

KEY WORDS: dream; current concerns; meaning attribution; narrative; phenomenology.

1,2 East-West Psychology Department, California Institute of Integral Studies, San Francisco, California

3 Correspondence should be directed to Daniel Deslauriers, Ph. D., California Institute of Integral Studies, 765 Ashbury Street, San Francisco, CA 94117


The question of dream meaning always remains an issue of central importance in the contemporary study of dreams. However, we might not realize to what extent our questioning is culturally bounded. Indigenous people who have been less exposed to the long-standing suspicion of religious orthodoxies towards dream revelations may still have a context in which they are allowed the full experience of knowing that dreams are meaningful (Tedlock, 1992). Similarly, someone who might not have been affected by the growing secularization of our understanding of consciousness, would probably know how to hold a dream "in reverence" until its meaning is understood. The suspicion towards dreaming as a way of knowing has created a deep vacuum in western culture and created particular conditions in which we approach dreams meaningfulness.

In many contemporary approaches to dreams, hypothesized dream functions (e.g., dream as wish-fulfillment, compensation, problem-solving, ego-consolidation) have informed how meaning is to be understood. What we deem "meaningful" often derives from the application of specific pragmatic utilitarian views (Kuiken and Sikora, 1991). However, since there is no consensus on the functions of dreaming, dreams have had a double status within the modem Western scientific culture. On the one hand, they have been held in high esteem by clinicians and dream workers for their informative value. For others, dream content and dream meaning are often relegated to the status of epiphenomena and meaning is often said to be arrived at through a-posteriori elaboration. When the question of meaning is not openly disparaged, dream content is at best seen as insignificant. This status is epitomized in the thesis of biologists Crick and Mitchison (1983), which states that we dream to unlearn (see also Globus (1991) for a discussion of new scientific views). These opposing views (dreams have functional meaning vs. dreams are nonsensical) have lead to either uncritical elevation of dreams or its opposite, devaluation.

We would like to follow a third path that focuses on the lived context of meaning elaboration. Two major premises pave this path:

1) When brought into discourse, meaning (and in particular dream meaning) is the fruit of an exchange between interlocutors in a particular context. Contributions to this exchange stem from previous beliefs, predisposition of each actor as well as a host of contextual factors, such as trust and empathy that make each exchange unique.

2) There exist distinctive modes of expression of our experience and knowledge; meaning derives from an understanding through participation within these modes. Meaning is embedded in different forms of discourse which constitute different shades of reality.

Let us describe these two major premises starting with the latter.

Meaning and Modes of Expression

It is a given for most of us that dreaming episodes are private events and that dreams contain private experiential meaning. However, when brought into the domain of human interaction, dream meaning is contextually constructed. "By the time the dream is told. . . it is a text, structurally and culturally marked, and can speak both to the dreamer and the hearer" (Dombeck, 1993, p. 140).

Furthermore, in our waking transactions knowledge and meaning can be transmitted through various modes of expression, verbal or non-verbal. In this study we focus on two verbal modes which many authors see as the basis for metalinguistic or metacognitive structures: the narrative and the abstract-paradigmatic modes of expression (Bruner, 1986; Howard, 1991).

In the first mode of expression, the narrative mode, knowledge about the world is organized in a story-like manner. The narrative mode is a way to organize accounts of actions with the aim to make sense and derive meaning from events (actual or fictional).

The second form of expression is a conceptual and abstract one, described as a paradigmatic mode (Bruner, 1986; Zukier, 1986). When couched in conceptual terms, knowledge is presented in more abstract language and transmitted as if it could be context-free. It is the world of constructs and concepts, most often organized by rational logic.

In the narrative mode, knowledge is contextualized, embedded in a rich domain of particular details. It is experience-near. One can hear the voice of the author (especially in a self-story) or the perspective of other major protagonist(s). This is the concrete domain of stories where elements are organized according to a narrative logic: plausibility replaces rationality, and emplotment of events according to moral reasons or motives inform the unfolding of a "landscape of actions" (Bruner, 1986).

While stories help to create order in human affairs and make sense of them, the abstract-paradigmatic mode enables one to conceptualize and theorize about these experiences. "The narrative mode is based on a spatial and temporal ordering of experience, while the paradigmatic mode aims at superseding the limiting dimensions of time and space. The power to render tangible basic dimensions of experience is contrasted with the power to generalize beyond them" (Deslauriers, 1992a, p. 187). Moreover as the Personal Narrative Group (1989) argues, the knowledge that narratives express must be approached in it own terms:

[The narrative] truths don’t reveal the past "as it actually was" aspiring to a standard of objectivity. They give us instead the truths of our experiences...We come to understand them only through interpretation, paying careful attention to the contexts that shape their creation and to the world views that informs them. (p. 261)

How can we construe dreams in regard to these two modes of expression? Dreams do not fit so neatly in either of the two categories. Clearly not a paradigmatic expression, their narrative status is often subject to debate (see Hunt, 1989 and Foulkes, 1985, for a more extensive discussion). While most dream reports follow a dramatic or script-like structure (Baylor and Deslauriers, 1987; Blagrove, 1989; Deslauriers, 1990; Kuiken and Nielsen, 1982), they also deviate from this structure (Deslauriers, 1990, Bonato, Moffitt, Hoffman, Cuddy & Wimmer, 1991). It is interesting that many lingering questions about dream meaning converge with questions concerning their narrative status: What are these dream stories about? Do they have a point? Do they contain intended messages? If so, ‘who’ intended them? What kind of (self-) knowledge do dreams express?

In the present study, dreams are regarded as spontaneous (albeit narrative-like) expression. In their "raw" unreported form, they are a fairly unconstrained form of experience (and possibly expression of knowledge). This private experience necessarily undergoes transformation (and most possibly alterations) when verbally shared. Indeed Freud (1965/1900) noted how the translation of the dream into a well-formed narrative is a "secondary elaboration" that can disguise the original dream experience. Freud justifiably identified the story-making lapse that is interposed between the dream-as-experienced and the dream-as-reported. However, by associating story-elaboration with defense mechanism, Freud made all dream reporting somewhat pathological. In our opinion, that we cannot ascertain the authenticity of any dream report is an intrinsic aspect of studying dreams. However, it ceases to be a defensive issue when we look at dream-sharing (with all its fluidity) as one of the primary basis of meaning. What is said (or not said if one can trace it), and how it is said is of great import. In this study, we are interested in looking at dreams as a variety of story-like communication in a particular social context, highlighting how they are effectively distinctive as a mode of expressing meaning about current concerns.

Meaning as Co-Constitutive[1] Enterprise

Meaning is not created in-vacuo nor is it an entirely subjective experience. Coming back to our second premise, meaning is the ever-ripening fruit of a dynamic collaborative exchange between people in context (paradoxically this fruit is nevertheless individually tasted)! In this exchange, individuals are viewed as cultural participants and their transactions are opened to constant revision[2] and reconstruction. We agree with Hunt (1989) for whom "dream psychology finds itself at the shores of contemporary post-modern literary criticism with its conviction that meaning is open-ended and endlessly reversible and renewable" (p. 175). Our second premise adds to this the importance of the social and cultural context.

Because research on dream content and on dream meaning necessarily involves dream sharing, we are faced with an exquisite situation in which meaning is partially a shared enterprise (this could otherwise be construed as a methodological impasse). However this dimension of meaning has not received the attention it deserves. In the context of a shared reality, dream meaning is not something abstractly attributed by only one participant in the dream sharing dialogue, be it the dreamer, the therapist, the researcher or any dream worker. Rather, it is a process that can be described more realistically as a joint venture between the interlocutors in this dialogue. Depending on the context, meaning arises between the dreamer and the researcher, the therapist, the dream worker. We would like to suggest that one of the major (but forgotten) dimensions of research on dream’s meaning is its coelaborative and relational nature. In this sense, inquiries that probe dream meaning are at their roots co-constitutive.

Meaning as What Matters

We often erroneously speak about meaning as if we could point to its source. In our view, meaning is not perceived as residing in some particular (semantic or symbolic) location but is rather, as is the case here, more adequately co-constituted during each phase of the research. To use a phenomenological expression, meaning is usually seized. We would like to extend this metaphor by pointing that if meaning is seized, it is done by interested hands. Our approach emphasizes the description of the human interest that colors meaning. The present study employs a research methodology that especially addresses the dimension of meaning-as-what-matters (Deslauriers, 1992b).

Because individuals, through concern, are involved with others or with the world, we make the assumption that aspects of one’s life are often given value according to one’s most pressing concerns. This involvement means that the world is understood in the light of the concern, e.g., "what threatens the concern, threatens the person" (Benner and Wrubel, 1989). From this perspective, research on dreams and current concerns is de facto research on meaning.

This notion of meaning attribution emphasizes the fact that meaning emerges through activity in the world (Kockelmans 1986). The meeting of worlds between a researcher and a participant creates a context within which meaningfulness is being co-constituted.

Components of Co-Constituted Meaning

In this particular research context, meaning is determined by the dynamic collaborative interaction between the researchers and the participants. Reason (1988) discussed the epistemological issues arising from collaborative forms of post-positivist research. In the context of dream research, we are witnessing the confluence of at least two intentionalities (each with their own concerns): that of the researchers and that of the dreamers or research participants. By suggesting a research task (e.g., asking the participants to pay attention to their current concerns), the researcher is delimiting the framework, albeit open, within which dream meaning is going to be studied and circumscribed by the participants.

Current concerns were chosen as a starting point because, by definition, they can be easily accessed in awareness. The relationship between dreams and current concerns have been discussed by many authors (Bisson, 1991; Cartwright, 1986 & 1991; Kramer et al, 1981). Current concerns provide a context of relevancy that involves participants emotionally, cognitively, by highlighting important dimensions of personal experience (spiritually, vocationally, politically, financially, etc.; see Klinger, Barta & Maxeiner, 1981).

The co-constitutive frame however gives the participant a more active role in the research: strict distinctions between "researcher" and "subject" are attenuated to leave room for a reciprocal and mutually enriching situation. When we asked participants to engage in the research process, we encouraged them to perceive themselves as co-researchers and to construe the research process as a means whereby they could do research on themselves. Their task description read: "insofar as you are working and exploring material that is meaningful for you, you are potentially contributing the most meaningful data for the research."

This phenomenological approach is designed on the basis of a subject-subject relationship, rather than a subject-object relationship. The research participant is an experiencing person, present with the research situation and whose intentions toward the research questions and the interview hopefully converge with the intentions of the researchers. This convergence is one way of seeing the co-constitutive nature of the investigation (it might also be noted that co-created meaning is also open to possible contagion and/or negotiation between interlocutors).

There exist at least two other important aspects of co-constitution embedded in this study. Since two researchers analyzed the data and collaboratively compared and discussed their respective points of view, their conclusions have evolved in a collaborative manner. Moreover, meaning is co-constituted by the remote interaction that reading this paper presently enables. In some way, an endless number of cycles of interpretation and understanding is launched in the world.

To summarize our inquiry so far, we seek to explore the relationship between the participants’ understanding of dream meaning and the particular mode in which meaning is expressed when speaking about current concerns. A subtext of this project is the methodological concerns of the inquirers: What methodology is most appropriate to answer questions about dream meaning? What kind a research method is most respectful of the natural emergence of meaning?

Towards a Meaning-Sensitive Method

A group of participants composed of fourteen graduate students (age range 23-49) from the psychology programs at a graduate school voluntarily elected to participate in the present research project. Participants received an open-ended questionnaire in which we first asked them to write a list of their most important current concerns.

We then asked them to choose one concern from this list and to elaborate on it through two different modes of expression. First, to elicit a more abstract response they were asked to "take some time to describe in detail relevant aspects of this issue or concern." To elicit a more story-like narrative response, they were asked to "describe in detail a concrete situation or an event in which this concern or issue was played out. Describe where it was, who was present, what happened and how you felt." Most participants took approximately one hour to complete the questionnaire.

Participants were then asked to pay attention to their dreams during the following week, and to report any dreams that seemed related to their identified concerns. This constituted the third mode of expression of concern, the spontaneous-oneiric mode. Participants were left to set their own criteria to choose a dream.

The senior researcher met all students individually to discuss their dreams in the light of the questionnaire. The interviews followed a dialogical pattern. Looking at the written questionnaire and the dreams, participants were asked how they perceived the relationship between their dreams and their concerns; they were also asked to elaborate about the main point(s) of the event and the main point(s) of the dream. Interviews lasted approximately one hour and were tape-recorded. The protocols and the interviews form the basis for narrative analysis. Because of the length of the analyses, only one example will be brought up for illustrative purposes.

Narrative Analysis

In its broadest sense, narrative is a mode of understanding by which people piece together their experiences of reality into a story form. The narrative approach can be applied to a wide range of human (or other natural) expressions, beyond what we usually describe as story. Howard (1991) goes as far as stating that "most forms of thought reflect instances of story elaboration" (p. 187) and that even science itself could "be understood as instances of storytelling and story refinement . . . or rich metaphors" (p. 189).

Despite this claim of generality, we propose a more discriminating view of what "story" is, one that distinguishes a narrative mode of expression from a paradigmatic one. In this study, a story is viewed a type of discourse that describes lived or imagined events; using Sarbin’s (1986) terms: "a story is a symbolized account of actions of human beings that has a temporal dimension" (p. 3).

While the paradigmatic mode aims at abstracting structures across context, a story organizes actions, with the aim to make sense and derive meaning from a concrete event-based situation (Polkinghorne, 1988). General criteria to assess either "storyness" or goodness of stories are not well defined in the literature, nor are they similar to those which enable us to assess the logic of arguments or their rational validity. However, certain aspects do characterize a narrative analysis.

Narrative analysis is predicated on the fact that we are in some respect constantly creating a model of the world when interacting with and reflecting on the world. "Narrative structures provide a format into which experienced events can be cast in the attempt to make them comprehensible, memorable and shareable" (Olson 1989). Moreover, according to Chafe (1989), narratives inform us about how, as adapting organisms, we require certain kinds of information, especially regarding the "need for orientation in terms of the organism’s location in space, in time, in a social context, and with relation to ongoing events" (p. 93).

Thus, a narrative approach does not strictly emphasize interpretation of a text but also attempts to characterize the aspects that make such an account a story, and what make this story relevant. In this sense, the unfolding of a research project can be seen as a story: it creates a context for understanding the actions of the various actors, (e.g., the researchers and participants) and for legitimizing particular interactions such as asking people to share their dreams and interviewing them.

More specifically, narrative analysis focuses on:

1) How events (in waking and dreaming) unfold in time;

2) How life events and episodes are chosen and connected together in order to form some kind of plausible and well formed account;

3) How in connecting those events, the story draws a trajectory. A plot develops which involves progressive movement (or stagnation, impasse) through major oppositional forces;

4) How this development will often lead to some kind of conclusion, resolution or catastrophe or at least a point when the story ends or is suspended if not interrupted;

5) How a story may be following scriptual constraints influencing its unfolding. However, since stories may present major inconsistencies or deviations from script, different threshold of acceptance will be used to accept or make sense of these deviations as an understandable part of the story. Dreams are generally regarded as bizarre because they tend to include a higher degree of inconsistencies. They are not judged under the same plausibility criterion that waking stories are. This has often been used to point out that dreams are chaotic events as opposed to well-organized, understandable stories. We come to expect bizarreness in a dream report.

6) How a story follows the deeds of a major protagonist and from which perspective the story is told. In a self-narrative, this protagonist is the self. In the case of dream research, the self assumes different roles: as spontaneous creator (last night I had a dream), as major protagonist ("in the dream I was walking. . .") and reflective decoder of the meaning of story ("I still don’t know what it means");

7) Stories are understood both from the point of views of concrete events and moral dimensions. According to Bruner (1986), a story includes both a "landscape of actions" (the flow of actions/deeds/activities as presented by the narrator) and a "landscape of consciousness" (the psychological states of the protagonists reflecting human agency: feelings, beliefs; goals; intentions; realizations of the actors (see also Fieldman, Bruner, Renderer and Spitzer, 1990);

8) The fact that a story is told in a context that will affect how it is produced and understood. This point has been shown to be of great importance in dream meaning attribution (Dombeck, 1991);

9) The fact that a story usually has a point (an elaborate story may have many points);

10) A narrative analysis of dreams would also attempt to provide some clarification of the metadiscourse employed to understand dreams as a distinct form of narrative. Such metadiscourse in turn emphasizes the rhetoric of dream, (e.g., uses of tropes such metaphorical or metonymy) and contains the assumptions (hidden or acknowledged) about the function of dreams (problem-solving, compensation, spiritual communication, wish-fulfillment, etc.) which serve as stipulation on how aspects of the dream should or could be read.

These dimensions have been synthesized and called upon when appropriate in the narrative analysis that follows.

Data: Current Concern Descriptions

The abstract and event-based description of a young man’s concern will be presented as well as his chosen dream. The participant is Caucasian, in his mid-twenties and a psychology student in the pursuit of a degree in psychology. Personal background was not discussed in any further details.

To ensure some sense of symmetry in the act of disclosure, (which plays an important part in co-constitutive encounter), the senior researcher has included a description of his own concerns. Some of these concerns were shared publicly in the class setting. Although left unanalyzed, this latter description attempts to relate how the concerns of the researcher might have intersected with the participant’s concerns.


1) Abstract Description of Concern

Question 1) What is important to you at this time of your life? (Make a list of issues or current concerns)



—"How to become a healer—feeling that the essence of healing will be developed more through meditation practice than academic work.

—Sexuality in my relationship with women, appropriateness

—Differentiating with family."




—The ‘success’ of the experiment and of the class.

—The impact of general political climate on the class morale and my own (this class was held during the Persian Gulf War)




Question 2) Choose one of these issues or concerns that especially matters to you at this time in your life (it might be, for example, an issue which you often spend time thinking about). Take some time to describe in detail all aspects of this issue or concern.


"The strongest desire in my life is to be a healing presence for others. In developing as a healer, I feel that the quality of my being is the most important factor in my capacity to be of assistance. To develop qualities of love, compassion, wisdom and insight, I feel I need to strengthen my awareness (self). I have found that meditation practice is the most direct means of acquiring the mindfulness necessary for deep self-understanding. Presently, I feel like I’m so busy ‘learning’ in the academic sense that I’m not learning the real important material that is crucial for transformation of being. This school process is beating around the bush—it is not in accord with my growth and development. There is dabbling here and there without full-bodied organic growth. Part of me wants to leave school for awhile and pursue intensive sitting. But then there are conflicting issues of completing school, financial concerns, and being available to my grandmother who is in her last years."


I feel that I need to "get out" with my own ideas. This is an important research project for me and I want to adapt this "alternative research" research to dream research.

Collaborative inquiry appears very promising and is a natural extension of my earlier work on narrative.

The data that will be generated might be quite voluminous and difficult to analyze. I have to remind myself that the experience will be beneficial for all involved.

I still feel that I am very much in control of the process (i.e. that the frame is already organized & delineated modes of expression are already identified.)

2) Description of Current Concern in Story Mode

Question 3) Please describe in detail a concrete situation or an event in which this concern or issue was played out. (Describe where it was, who was there, what happened, how did you feel.)


"The other morning I wanted to sit early in the morning. That was disrupted by the guitar playing of my roommate. We have been having a conflict over noise and space in the house throughout the weekend. I felt frustrated in a situation I had either to let go of my desire or impose on his. A feeling or a reminder that this isn’t really the place for me to live."


As I am passing these questionnaires around and students start filling them out, I feel a special silence in the room. The atmosphere is charged with an intense seriousness. I feel a trembling in my own guts. I feel I am responsible for sending student on this self- search. Again, I am concerned that everything turns out OK.


3) Dream Report (Dreamer only)

The Bohemian Dream

Strolling through a small bohemian town on a Friday night; there is very little activity and most of the shops are closed. Then the scene becomes an open air bazaar in daylight. I am looking for a Grateful Dead sticker when I come across a sculpted painting (8" x 10"). It catches my eye: deep red with three abstract faces in black—barely decipherable. When I look at it closely it changes form. It looks like a big hand. There is textured tar surface around the hand. I’m deciding whether to buy the painting of $25. The artist made a comment to a friend (We’re in a workshop or gallery now) about how the piece will be more valuable in the future. I don’t bite; I only want to purchase the painting if I can get a good deal. Next I notice that the painting has the imprint of two different shoes (imprint of leather, not the sole): one is gray and the other black. Italian style men’s shoes, made with cheap leather. Only the front, top half of each shoe . . .

I’m in the back seat of a small car with Sue (classmate to whom I have a sexual attraction, but barely know) showing her the piece. As I do, the painting shows a clownish dog and the medium is flimsy brown paper bag folded like so. I put it down and start kissing with her. We both know that is why we are here. At first I am passionate and fast—but I slow down to match her. She is into it, but not overly eager. We are parked near the water in a hilly town—like old Tiburon, but light quality is similar to Maine in the afternoon.

Descriptive Analysis

1) Abstract Description of Current Concern

The participant chose to describe his most important concern of "how to become a healer." Although this description is not an event-based story (a story where something is happening to someone in some particular location and time), it presents narrative qualities. The major protagonist is the self who is cast in the social role of a healer or therapist, "the strongest desire." At first, there is a future orientation in what the dreamer wishes to accomplish: to develop certain human qualities necessary to assist others. This provides the basis for an elaborate series of enabling clauses (Mandler, 1984; Kuiken and Neilsen, 1982) between practicing meditation and the development as a healer. Although presented in a different order by the participant in his own description, his developmental ideals could be schematized as follows:

The practice of meditation is "the most direct means" [enabling]
the acquisition of mindfulness needed
to strengthen my awareness in order to
develop the "qualities of being" (Love, compassion, insight) which enable
me to be of assistance [to others] as healer.

Later in his description, the protagonist situates himself at the present time in regard to his stated plan. He perceives his current activity at school as distracting or unfulfilling in regard to these plans. "Presently, I feel like I’m so busy ‘learning’ in the academic sense, that I’m not learning the real important material that is crucial for transformation of being." He then offers possible alternative actions and reflects over their conflicting nature and the fact that they require commitment from him.

Commentary. To do a narrative analysis of what we have framed as an abstract description of the current concern might appear contradictory. In retrospect, we realized that we might be in front of a blurred genre. In answering questions about their own concerns, it is understandable that most people will cast themselves as the major protagonist and an individual context must necessarily be evoked. Thus, the participant’s most abstract discourse does reveal a narrative dimension. Regarding Bruner’s (1986) distinction between the landscape of consciousness and the landscape of action, we observe that although the ‘landscape of action’ is minimal in his description, there is a strong emphasis on the ‘landscape of consciousness’.

In this landscape, two important narrative dimensions surface:

1. Most obviously, the casting of the self as a person who holds the concern. In the process of formulating his concern we learn about the dreamer’s personal beliefs regarding what it means to be a healer and what the schooling process should ideally include.

2. The way the temporal dimension is brought in by the dreamer. We might imagine many different ways to express "currentness" of concerns. Here, he does so by formulating a future orientation (what he wants to become), and by portraying an ideal course of action (how one should ideally attain this goal); then he evaluates his present situation from this ideal standpoint. What is of concern is precisely that these ideals are currently not being met. An important sub-theme revealed at the end of his answer is that alternative actions seem to require more involvement than what he is willing to make. It introduces a dynamic twist by providing a ‘what-if’ ending to his description. This is an important theme that will reappear in the discussion of the dream.

2) Narrative Expression of Current Concern: The Thwarted Meditation Story

The story provided by the participant centers on a conflict at home. There is only one short scene described, two actors, and a rather simple plot: the roommate’s playing of the guitar disrupts the protagonist in his meditation. However, similar instances of this relatively innocuous conflict have been occurring over time, and it is implicitly understood that such repetition lends the story its gravity (will the next straw break the camel’s back?).

Because of the perceived incompatibility between their simultaneous activities, there seems to be no easy solution for the dreamer. In the story there is no clear resolution offered. We don’t know in the landscape of action what the dreamer will do concretely but we have some description of the landscape of consciousness about it. He is faced with choices he doesn’t like: "I have to let go of my desire or impose on him." This reminded him that in his own home he cannot do his practice as he ideally wishes. When later we asked him to summarize the point of the story, the participant’s reply during the interview was: "I’m not having support for my work where I live."

Commentary. With the request of giving an example of the concern, we wanted to elicit a story about the concern. We expected such a story to be told from the point of view of the participant. In a vivid manner, this story tells how important the practice of meditation is for the dreamer. We have shown earlier how meditation forms the very basis of an ideal developmental plot. Only in this context, can we understand the point of the story as enunciated by the dreamer—the thwarting of his meditation practice is experienced as a lack of support for his work (understood here in its vocational sense). We will see later that, following the dream, the conflict situation at home is not a fortuitous example. We will see how his living arrangement shifts from being a mere example of another concern to become a full-fledged concern on its own right. The story presents no clear resolution. However, it offers a balance interplay between the landscape of action ("I wanted to sit" [in meditation]; "that was disrupted by the guitar playing...") and the landscape of consciousness ("I felt frustrated", "a reminder that this isn’t really the place for me to live"); this would indicate a greater degree of reflection and articulation by the dreamer.

3) Dream Spontaneous Report: The Bohemian Dream

Dreams present particular challenges to understanding. Although the dream report can stand on its own to be analyzed, (this dream possessed a rather clear landscape of action) we need the dreamer to fill in the landscape of consciousness and to describe how the dream offers a new understanding of his concerns. At this point, the research interview becomes crucial. We chose to look at the dream narrative first before we report on the interview.

The dream report comprises three distinct episodes, a) a short episode taking place in a bohemian town: b) a central episode where the dream ego finds and buys an art object, c) a sensual or sexual encounter with a woman in his car. Several distinctive features of this dream are important from a narrative standpoint. First, (temporal dimension) the reference to the different times of the day which suggest a distinctive time sequence and (possibly metaphorically significant) progression: from night to daylight and finally afternoon light. Second, (spatial dimension) alongside the time progression there is a series of setting changes and the social interactions that take place in these settings: going from open-air spaces and impersonal settings towards smaller, more enclosed and intimate settings. In the beginning, all the shops are closed and there is no contact with others; then the dreamer is looking around by himself and something catches his eye. Later, when he is faced with the decision of whether he is going to make some kind of investment by buying a piece of art, he finds himself for the first time in an enclosed space—a gallery—inside which some form of negotiation is taking place. Finally, in the most intimate scene, he is "showing her the piece" in what is the most narrowly enclosed setting of the dream—the back seat of a car. This parallel progression is a remarkable example of the overlapping of a visual-metaphoric and emotional script. This time and setting progressions seem to accompany a gradual progression towards intimacy and personal involvement by the dreamer.

Third, this dream narrative contains an exquisite vignette illustrating the simultaneity of continuity and change. The paradoxical relationship between continuity and change is well captured by the presence of an art object which "catches [the] eye" of the dreamer. This object remains the major focal object throughout the longest portion of the dream while at the same time it undergoes many trans­formations: from "deep red with three abstract faces in black" it turns into a "big hand" with a "textured tar surface" around it, and then into an "imprint of two different Italian-style men’s shoes, made with cheap leather". Finally, it becomes "a flimsy paper bag folded like a clownish dog."

Fourth, (scripted activities and plot) despite the free-floating quality of scene changes, the dream seems at first to be organized around the progressive activities of looking for something and buying something; this object then became a narrative link to the last scene when a sexual encounter happened. The dream ego sets out to look for a "Grateful Dead sticker," and he is, by apparent serendipity, coming across an art object that "catches his eye." The plot thickens. One does not buy art objects as if one buys food or other commodities. Metaphorically speaking, buying could be linked to the more abstract theme of personal involvement. The dream amplifies the dimensions of value and exchange. The interaction between parties (buyer and seller) is one where the value of the object is negotiable on grounds different from simple commodity. With art, one enters the dimensions of appreciation, aesthetic value, reputation of the artist, etc. In particular, we see in the dream an emphasis of the expressed tension between the possible future value of the object as opposed to a "good deal" in the present.

The possibility of a second script emerged in the last dream scene where the dreamer is having a sexual encounter with a woman. While it might be arguable that the last episode is a seduction script (there is no verbal exchange that indicates sexual persuasion to have taken place and seduction implies a rather imprecise definition of roles—who is seducing whom?), clearly the dreamer does play an active role: "I am showing her the piece... I put it down and start kissing with her." Paradoxically, the dreamer assumes to know what is on the woman’s mind: "we both know this is why we are here." This kind of self-confirmation usually fuels implicit understanding (or, just as likely misunderstanding!) which permeates first time sexual encounters when each partner is judging (or projecting) what the other might be expecting, "how far" to go, etc. Indeed, later in the dream, the dream ego is trying to judge how much "she is into it" and is modulating his own behavior accordingly.

4) Dream Interview as Co-Constitutive Process

When compared to other lab or home studies on current concern, a distinctive aspect of this study is to have asked the dreamers to choose a dream themselves. A crucial question then surfaces: Why was this specific dream chosen by the dreamer? How did he relate it to his concerns? These questions were a major focus of the dialogical interview.

Interviews enable participants to enter more actively into their role of co-researcher. Specific observations about the understanding of the relationship between the dream experience and expressions of current concerns emerged in dialogue. Sometimes these observations were phrased as hypothesis, sometimes they were accompanied by a felt sense of insight. This process allowed a mutual understanding to slowly build.

At the beginning of the interview, the dreamer revealed that he did not really know why he chose that particular dream and how it was related to his concerns. However, the dreamer’s understanding expanded after he returned to the dream at a later point (Was it in preparation for the interview? We don’t know). He was "hit by the reciprocity of the dream and the issues surrounding [his] living situation." This marked change in his understanding from the time he had the dream suggests that, at least in this instance, reflection upon the dream after a lapse of time is important for seeing a relationship between the current concern and the dream. This supports the notion that dreamers usually need time to allow the meaning-making activity to take place and some kind of "felt-sense" (Gendlin, 1986) to develop. For Kuiken and Sikora (1991), it takes time for "dreaming [to sensitize] us to additional layers of significance [and to] alert us to aspects of our life-worlds that we typically ignore."

The interview allowed for that process to go a step further. Together we were trying to get a sense of "what the dream is trying to be" (Hunt, 1991). Following the Thwarted Meditation story, the living situation of the dreamer became the main metaphorical targets for the dream images. The Grateful Dead sticker was associated with his roommates; the three abstract faces in the painting mirrored the three people currently living in his house. Reflection on the "big hand" aroused a bodily felt sense of himself as "heavy-handed presence in the house." The color red was associated with one of his roommates who was healing from a recent abortion and how he responded to her need for support. These metaphorical connections were explored at length in the interview. They seemed to play the role of "pointers" to known referents; by identifying these referents, the dreamer was able to attribute that his dream was indeed related to his household living situation.

When the dreamer was asked about the overall relationships among the Bohemian dream, the concern description, and the Thwarted Meditation story, a structure of his understanding gradually emerged. His concrete living situation clearly stood out as the focal point of his understanding and it remained, throughout the interview, the main reference point for dream meaning. Surprisingly the top-of-the­list concern, "being a healing presence", was not brought to the foreground by the dreamer himself. While he saw that "being a healing presence" is underlying the situation in a larger context, that concern flows or "spans’’ into his living situation.

He felt that he had outlived the original living arrangement with roommates who do not to share his interest in developing human potential. While living in this household apparently blocked the attainment of his needs, he however expressed why he continued to stay there: "I want a very good value . . . I stay because it’s a good deal." The theme of frustration in meeting one’s own ideals, strongly emphasized in the abstract description, was again echoed in his living situation.

In the interview dialogue, we were concerned not only to explore the relationship between two modes of expressions (dream and story modes) but all three of them. The link between the concern and the story was fairly explicit and so was the story between the dream and the story, however, the link between the dream and the expressed concerns appeared weak. This was paradoxical to me (D.D.) and I wanted to see if the dreamer saw any relationship between "being healing presence" and the Bohemian dream. I suggested to the dreamer that the primary concern "being a healing presence," might not only as an abstract ideal but also possibly a way of being in one’s own house. This in turn enabled the exploration of the relationship between the issues encountered "at home" and the more abstract concern of "being a healing presence."

Reflecting on the dream gave the dreamer the opportunity to explore questions such as: How does my living situation support or clash with my concern of being a healing presence? What emerged is the recognition of his own predicament as the person who chooses to live and continue to live in this household overlaid by other predicaments, e.g., the expressed possibility either pursued or forsaken of wanting to be a "healing presence" (even in his own living environment). Only then, did the participant report seeing a sense of wholeness or interrelationship among these aspects of his life, the story and the dream. To use the dreamer’s own words: "the dream is showing a lot of aspects of these relationships."

In summary, co-constituted meaning stemmed first from the recognition of the links between the dream and the event-based expression of the concern succinctly described in the Thwarted Meditation story. The dream and the living arrangement (the main scene of the narrative expression) were reciprocally understood in terms of each other while the abstract concern remained relatively peripheral. The household situation clearly stood out as a concern on its own term, and the main ‘target’ of the dream metaphors. Only when this main scene was revisited again by considering the dreamer’s concern of ‘being a healing presence’ did the three modes of expression started revealing layers of meaning unsuspected by the dreamer.


In this study, we explored the dreamer’s understanding of his current concerns within three modes of expression. We also attempted to illustrate a process that enables meaning (particularly dream meaning) to be collaboratively explored. Meaning is seen as a co-constitutive effort within a context of exploration of current concerns, and the access to dream meaning is seen as incremental within that context. The exploration of meaning through three modes of reporting (abstract report, self-story and dream report) is yielding a rich array of information about a dreamer’s way of dealing with his concerns. This points out the importance of paying attention to the multiplicity of mode of expression when approaching dreams.

The narrative approach attempted to grasp how the participant organizes his experience out of the context of his own life: how selected events are important in representing his concern. In our example, the Thwarted Meditation story became the major focus of meaning in understanding the relationship between the dream and the concern. This suggests the possibility that in dream analysis, the focus on life concern is most easily accessible in a story-like manner. This supports the importance of storytelling and reflection on authorship in any healing encounter. Although States (1992) argues that the "dreamer, unlike a waking author, has no perceptual experience of the act of authoring," the story-form helps bridge the authorship gap in the wake of the dream. In this case-example, the story did function as a bridge between the dream and the experience of a more abstract current concern.[3] Moreover, authorship is accentuated in co-constitutive research where the dreamer is given responsibility to choose dreams relating to the concerns and the platform for validating this choice.

More generally, the phenomenological standpoint emphasizes the essential role of reflection in the establishment of meaning. The impact of the reflective act can be nurtured through collaboration. Such research on meaning can be seen as sharing a common process with psychological therapy whereby a person is frequently directed to attune to the felt sense of a concern (through noticing feelings, thoughts, and intuitions), as well as to the events in the drama of one’s own life. When an embodied sense of meaning grows from a co-constitutive dialogue, the necessity to link meaning with preconceived dream functions diminishes. Conversely, we suspect that the farther away a research procedure is from being collaborative or co-constitutive, the more difficult it is to ascertain meaning in dreams.

Although it provides a context of instantiation of the concern, the description of events in story form may not reveal the totality of the lived meaning of the concern. The same holds true for the dream. Indeed, it is difficult to distinguish whether meaning primarily stems from the participation within one’s own "life drama," from engaging in communicating such event (thus narratively making sense), or from further reflection upon it. All these converge to form a complex gestalt of meaning that States (1992) justifiably termed as ultimately "untranslatable conceptually."

Earlier, we asked how dreams distinctively express meaning about current concerns. Beyond the generally accepted view that dreams offered a metaphorical expression of concerns, dreams provide a mode of expression that requires the dreamer to fill in the landscape of consciousness of their dream story. If dreams have "the ability to condense being into narratives of felt sense" (States, 1992), a dream is meant to be re-inhabited in order to reconnect with the felt-senses and the paradoxes that dream narrative are so adept to portray. From a narrative stand­point, understanding consists in the convergence of various lived experiences. Thus the "big hand" in the dream, converges with the expression of the concern elicited in the Thwarted Meditation story to form an understandable concrete felt-sense, "I’m heavy-handed at home." The experience of understanding the relationship between the dream, concern, and storied situation may metaphorically consist of moving pictures of intentional awareness (much like the image of the shifting tableau in our dream example) among all three modes. Meaning crystallizes on the intersecting nodes of two or three of the modes.

Although open-ended and fluid, this convergence is not just "relative." It obeys a set of contextual "constraints" which the interview, and subsequently the analysis served to delineate. In some sense, the major narrative here is not the dream per se, nor the story per se but how the understanding develops within the context of the dream study. As we mentioned earlier, the context of dream exploration might influence the direction of dream understanding more than any a-priori theoretical assumptions. In dream sharing, there will always be a subtle interplay between participants which either opens or closes certain meaning avenues. For instance, in the last scene of the Bohemian dream, concerns with sexuality and appropriateness (previously identified by the dreamer in step 1) seem to be represented. This could have been a meaningful avenue of exploration, one that probably required a depth of intimacy greater than what the present research encounter permitted, or one that scholarly publications can only intimate.

The present inquiry opened the possibility of meaning convergence under the topic of dreams and current concern. More research is needed to describe the con­textual inter-relations between cultural participants and to describe the outcome of such dialogue when the focus is not on current concern. More research is also needed on the complimentarily between oral and written narrative ways of narrative expression.

In this study, dreamers and researchers worked with a dream in ways that were new for both parties. The outcome was unpredictable but not unconstrained. A limitation of this study is that the context of research itself imposed a certain artificial separation between the different modes of expression to highlight their distinctions. In another context, such as that of psychotherapy, the interplay among the three modes of expression (and others, such as art forms) would actually be more spontaneous.

Finally, to borrow the dreamer’s words, whether our approach is a "sure value" is an open question. Co-constitution is predicated on the awareness of the relative fluidity of interpersonal boundaries within cultural context. In this paper we illustrated how the relational dimension can animate personal reflection which gives rise to meaning and in turn enhances the potential of authentic encounters.

Coda: Recently, we learned that the dreamer changed career path and decided to pursue an artistic career.



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[1] We use the word co-constitutive as opposed to collaborative to emphasize the fact that not only do both parties "work together" (someone can collaborate in answering the MMPI) but that their respective worlds are being influenced by each other.

[2] This process is not always noticeable; some meanings are culturally inscribed as more or less permanent knowledge shared by cultural participants.

[3] Phenomenologically, such a bridge may not always be necessary to see a connection between dream and personal concern. Although the situation was the focal point in the co-researcher’s understanding of the relationship between the meaning of the dream, the concern, and the situation, we cannot conclude that the narrative or situation-based mode may not always be the primary means of constituting dream meaning. It is possible that direct connections can be made from the dream to an abstract idea or a felt sense of a concern (such as the felt sense arousing from the gesture associated with the dream image of the hand: "heavy handed").

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