Robert Johnson's Four-Step Method to Begin Working With Dreams

In the book, Inner Work, Robert developed a useful four-step approach to begin working with your dreams. (You can purchase that introduction to dreamwork by going to our website, JerryRuhlRobertJohnson.comand clicking on the books link). Here is an introduction.

Dreams speak in metaphor or symbolic language. A dream has great intelligence in presenting images (picture language). A night dream borrows imagery from the day world. You need to work with the images poetically, not literally.

The unconscious manifests through symbols. Inner work is, in large part, learning the symbol language of your unconscious. One goal is to live in partnership with these energies so that your life can be more meaningful and vital. Dreams are an endless source of creativity, nourishment, and resilience in dealing with life's challenges.

Step 1: Make associations: The basic technique is to write down each of the key images in the dream, draw a circle around each key image and then record your associations to each image. Ask yourself: What feeling do I have about this image? What words or ideas come to mind when I look at it? Your association is an word, idea, mental picture, feeling, or memory that pops into your mind. Usually every image will inspire several associations. Only after you have written down all the associations should you move on to the next image and begin the same process. Don't censor. An association that feels silly, off-the-wall, irrational, may turn out to be the one that makes the most sense afer you work awhile. The correct method of doing this can be pictured like spokes coming out of a wheel. Circle the image and draw lines coming out from it to connect your associations. All association proceed from the original image. You return to the center of the wheel before going on to the next image. Let yourself be curious. Why this particular detail at this time? For example, why does this kind of table appear in my dream? Associate to: images, events, moods, characters, places.

Jung wrote: "The manifest dream picture is the dream itself and contains the whole meaning of the dream."

Stick to the dream images Don't chain associate away from the image. i.e, "I am in a blue room." Blue reminds me of my favorite music. I like the sound of the blues. Another example of chain association (which you don't want to do) is I dream of the color blue. Blue = Sad = hospital= Aunt Jennie = apple pie = warm kitchen.

Instead, make direct associations such as:

blue: sad or depressed, I got the blues
blue moon
color of clarity, detached, cool
my blue sweater, i always wear blue
my grandmothers living room
blew-blown away
true blue-honest and faithful

Suppose I had no idea what the image is (I'm a man from Mars), describe it to me and give substitute associations, tell its history again. Different people will have different associations.

Which association is right? Utilize the "it clicks” method described in Inner Work. Follow the energy. One of them will seem appropriate after you finish Step 2. You may feel a spot in you where you are wounded or disturbed. You may find that one association ties with the others to create a meaningful pattern, or makes you aware of something in yourself that you had not considered before. In that moment, you will get a rush of conviction from somewhere deep inside: It fits. It clicks.

Step 2. Dynamics. In the second step you are to connect each dream image (or the pattern of images) to a specific dynamic in your life. Go back to the images and consider what inner part of you has been expressing itself in your life. Connect each image to a dynamic taking place in your life during the week preceding the dream. Internal or external situation? Consider both. With regard to the external, what happened that day? What issues were you wrestling with?

Assume that the dream generally shows your backside, something you don’t already know. If the message seems too obvious, it’s probably wrong. Dreams often speak in extremes. They seem to try to compensate for our lack of awareness of a quality by picturing it in extreme, dramatic imagery. If there is a thief in your dream, it may be using this image to wake you up to somehing dishonest inside you. But the image of the thief may mean that you have repressed some fine quality in yourself, that you have locked it away and you must steal it back. Dreams are enigmatic.

Locate the dream. Where is it taking place? Just as in real estate, take note of location, location, location -- this helps to determine value. Dreams talk about our values: our feelings about what is good, desirable, true, honorable, and moral. Our values express what is most important to us.

Outer images often convey inner realities. When dream of Mr. X, it often is not about Mr. X, but that part of you that is Mr. X like.

Example: Your remember the dream had the color blue, and when you do some association it clicked with depressed. That seems too obvious. Ask yourself: Where and how am I depressed? At work? With my family? What is the dynamic that relates to this blue image?

Example: Your dream has a child: Ask: How am I childlike? Where do I perhaps need more childlike playfulness in my life?

Be open to considering qualities that are embarrassing, negative, or even immoral. A dream may speak in dramatic imagery just to get your attention. It does not mean this is a wish fulfillment.

A dream will often show you your shadow, i.e, you dream of a knife in the hand of a hoodlum, Ask yourself: How am I cutting? What repressed aspect is trying to cut through? Perhaps there is an unconscious juvenile delinquent whose energy could be put to good use in your life if applied at the proper level. Shadow images always are filled with potential energy.

Recurring motifs in dreams include: falling, flying, houses, sex. Sexual dreams often refer to interconnectedness, our coming together in some way, or our creativity. As humans, we are often cut off from our physical realm, and such dreams may appear to take us back into our bodies or connection with animal sensibility. Another frequent motif has to do with toilets. If you dream of a toilet, ask yourself: What needs recycling? What about waste, privacy, sanctuary, creativity? Plumbing may refer to your circulatory system. Perhaps you had a shitty experience. Such dream may also call for letting go, as well as shame/pride.

Soul images vary from culture to culture by may include circles, unity, mandalas, squares, diamonds. They all are attempts to unify the psyche during difficult times. A client once dreamed of baseball diamonds, his psyche’s shorthand for the higher Self, not a suggestion that he should go out to the ballpark (though that too could be good for the soul).

Most common dreams of children are of falling or of monsters. When your child wants to tell you a dream only listen with fascination and appreciation - don't interpret.

Step 3. Interpretations. A tentative interpretation of your dream is the end result of the work you have already done with the images. It ties together the various pieces into a whole. What is the central, most important message the dream is trying to communicate? In this step you will take your associations and the dynamics that are going on in your life, and you will look for patterns. Dreams often complement the conscious situation and add more information.

What is the general feeling tone in your dream? Take note of emotional and bodily responses when you re-read the dream aloud.Choose the interpretation that tells you something you didn't already know. What conscious attitude might it compensate?

Avoid interpretations that shift responsibility away from you.

Step 4. Ritual. So you have done your best to understand the dream with your mind. Now it is time to do something physical: This is the most difficult step for many people. What are you going to do about your dream? To truly honor your dream requires a physical act. How can you manifest something from the dream in your life? How can you incarnate this message from beyond conscious awareness? Do something different in the world that will affirm the message of the dream. It could be practical, for example, you need to start paying your bills on time, or straighten out a relationship.

A ritual could be defined as symbolic behavior consciously performed. The wisdom of such acts can be seen in the restitution that is encouraged in 12-step programs. Acts of kindness or affection are good rituals. You could clarify a misunderstanding. Send someone a card or note of appreciation. Maybe the dream suggests that you need for time for more relaxation - schedule a trip to the mountains, beach, or park. Keep your rituals small and subtle, positive, and affirmative. When you can't think of anything: Light a candle, or walk in park and pick up a piece of paper or an empty can or bottle.

One of meanings of word ceremony in its original Latin form was awe. Behavior related to reverence and awe, sense of connecting to powers greater than us – this is a ritual. Ritual, in its true form, is one of the most meaningful channels for our awe and sense of worship.

This simple four-step method will get you started on working with your dreams. For an advanced course in dreamtending, you will have to read our new book, Living Your Unlived Life.

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Replies to This Discussion

Another person who does work like this is David Dibble at He worked with Don Miguel Ruiz.

Thanks for the suggestion Rebecca :) ~ perhaps you would want to contribute a discussion on David Dibble?


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