Dreams: The Royal Road to the Unconscious – Interview with Amy Cope
Donovan Bigelow is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor (LMHC), whose work focuses on Freud’s theories of Dream Interpretation. I met him in his office, in Seattle’s historic Pioneer Building, for a 50-minute session in which we discussed dream interpretation and dream theory. He has an eclectic and diverse background that adds a richness of experience to his ability to analyze and interpret dreams.
Amy Cope: How did you get interested in working with dreams and doing dream interpretation?
Donovan Bigelow: My interest in psychology goes back a long way. I began as an undergraduate political science major. But it was always fascinating to me how people’s minds work, politically. That was my first entrance into the field. And then I went to law school and was immersed in psychology. Indirectly. I was a criminal defense attorney and a prosecutor over the course of 15 years, so I was frequently getting patients for psychological evaluations. I was frequently having to have my patients evaluated. I was dealing with psychologists all the time.
And I also began, 30-plus years ago, studying the works for Friedrich Nietzsche, who Freud said, knew himself better than any man who has ever lived or is ever likely to live. I thought that was the most amazing statement I ever heard. I thought, Freud, the guy who comes up with psycho-analysis, the greatest tool in self-exploration ever devised, and he says Nietzsche – 20 – 30 years before Freud – knew him – – –
What Nietzche said is, “consciousness is surface.” You think you’re in charge. You think you know yourself. You think you’re aware of what’s going on, both outside and inside. The truth is, for most of us, we don’t have a real clue. What’s powerful is psychic reality, our unconscious. Most good therapies are designed to bring to conscious awareness that long repressed material where, really most of what’s important about who we are, is.
That’s the natural progression that I had. I went from one thing to the other. But always, I think, the underlying mission was my own self-exploration. And so, as of this point, I’ve had almost eight years of my own psychoanalysis four-plus days a week on the couch with a trained analyst, or once or twice a week with a psychoanalytic therapist or analyst. And dream interpretation’s always part of that. So I’ve been on both ends and I think there’s no substitute for having the experience of your own dreams interpreted, for helping learn how to do it for others.
Two Dreams Analyzed: The Therapist’s and the Patient’s
Amy: Would you mind sharing an experience or an example of a dream that you had or that you analyzed?
Donovan: Sure. I’ll do one of each.
The Therapist’s Dream
When I was around five years old, I had a recurring nightmare. I was in one of those little amusement park rides – in a bench like a merry-go-round seat. Big enough for me and maybe two others. I was in the middle and there were two little people next to me. They were characters from the old TV show, The Little Rascals. Which, nobody remembers anymore.
Repeatedly. This dream happened many times. It wasn’t until I began studying the subject that I had the foggiest idea what it meant. And I don’t think you could understand it symbolically. I think it has to be understood psychoanalytically.
So, I’m watching the scene from behind. And it’s all gray, all fog. And out of this grayness comes a set of railroad tracks, coming toward me after a little curve. And on the railroad tracks is this little cart, and I’m in the cart with one little rascal on either side of me. As it takes the turn and starts heading directly for me, the observer, it gets about twenty feet away. From the back of my observer head, comes a gigantic ten-foot wide, spinning circular saw blade, heading straight for my throat, and I wake up in sweating terror – at age five.
What’s going on in a five-year old? Four year old?
Primarily the Oedipus complex. Primarily the transition from a child’s connection to its mother, almost alone, to this recognition of the relationship between the mother and the father. Which excludes the child, it sets up a rivalry with the father. It sets up a desire to be the sole connection to the mother. And for girls it does the same thing the opposite way. It also generates a great deal of anger, of competition, with father. For boys, the father becomes the competitor for the attention of the mother and that generates a lot of fear. Castration anxiety, Freud called it.
So, I finally interpreted my own dream. Think about what that looks like, if you just look at it symbolically. There’s a little guy sitting next to me, next to another little guy.
As he speaks, Donovan reaches for a nearby sticky note and draws the following picture:
And what’s coming at me, right about here? (Indicates his throat.)
The saw that’s going to castrate me. It’s a castration fear dream. The dream is, I’m growing up and I’m in competition. The dream represents a desire to escape the castration fear that my inevitable competition with my father invoked in me, almost as a matter of – not just of psychology – but biology.
Dreams always have an element of wish-fulfillment in them, at some level. Even nightmares. You know when you have a nightmare, you’re trying to escape. You’re trying to have it end differently, you’re trying to make the monster go away, or avoid the monster. Wish fulfillment is always central to any dream interpretation. If you don’t understand what that wish is, you can’t interpret the dream.
So, the dream interpretation will often depend on the developmental stage of the person with the dream. An adult… an adolescent… an older adult… teenager… someone in their twenties… They’re going to have different developmental dynamics, which make it impossible to have some sort of universal dream symbol interpretation. Because it’s going to mean different things to different people in different stages of their life, developmentally.
The Patient’s Dream
I interpret dreams for my patients all the time. One of my favorite ones – a guy came in and this was the third session:
He said he was in a building kind of like my office. And I’m on the fifth floor of a six-floor office building in downtown Seattle. And he said he and two guys were at the top of this building. He didn’t specifically identify it as this building… And they were at the elevator, and the elevator shaft going down into the basement. There was a monster in the basement. He and these two guys who were helping him fire machine guns down into the basement to kill the monster.
He said, “What does that mean?”
Well, remembering that there’s no temporality in the unconscious. That there’s no time sense. So my interpretation was very
simple: The two guys helping him were both me. We had had two sessions. He had had this dream after the second session.
The monster was his own unconscious, which had been invoked by my own interpretations fairly early in the treatment. Recognizing developmentally, that he had a lot of anger… a lot of repressed frustration, rage even, toward his father, and toward his mother. It was very clear that he had managed to repress his unconscious emotions. Symbolically, they had the feeling of a monster that had to be killed.
My interpretation was that there is no monster. What there is, is a scared to death five-year old little boy who’s been made to go away way too much already. Perhaps we need to see him for who he really is and bring him out of the basement, bring him out of the dark place. Because it may have the intensity of that kind of rage and fear and danger, but all it is, is a symbol of his own mind’s functioning.
When I made the interpretation, you could see his anxiety going down. It was an amazing thing because he felt the truth of that interpretation.
Understanding the Layers of Meaning
Manifest Content – the material of the dream is experienced as. But the Latent Content – the disguised, unconscious, displaced material. It really represents the unconscious content of the dream. That’s where the real meaning is.
In the dream of the shaft – the monster – the real meaning of it had nothing to do with symbolic monsters. It had to do with a sense of his own mind, his own being, as terribly hurt, destroyed, damaged, evil, bad, needing punishment – he was quite depressed. Makes sense – got a monster inside of you, you’re pretty bad. That’s what depression is – anger turned against the self. Bringing that out provided profound relief to him in just that little moment.
What About a Wrong Interpretation
Sometimes when I make an interpretation, I’m wrong and the way I know that is the patient’s response. He’ll say something like, “Nah, that doesn’t really make any sense.” And so I get very quickly that he’s not resonating. That there’s nothing in him that’s being evoked from his unconscious that resonates as even partially true and if that’s the case then we gotta go back. We gotta let him associate to the elements of the dream. We gotta go back over again and work it.
Standing on the Shoulders of a Giant
Amy: My next question was going to be, “who are you’re greatest influences,” but you seemed to have already answered that: Freud.
Donovan: Yes, but I want to be clear. There’s been astonishing amount work done since Freud, obviously, in psychology. We don’t think the way he thought about the human mind and its development. A lot great work has been done, standing on his shoulders.
The old saying that’s attributed to Sir Isaac Newton, the great English physicist, when someone said, “Oh Sir Isaac, you’re so smart,” he said, “If I have seen farther than others, it’s because I’ve stood on the shoulders of giants.” Giving credit to the scientists who came before him.
I think no one can talk about dream interpretation today without standing on Freud’s shoulders. Whatever they think they’re doing. So credit where credit is due.
Therapeutic Dream Interpretation Process
Amy: Can you explain the process you go through when you have a client that comes in with a dream – what
process do you take them through?
Donovan: To begin with, at the first session, I describe the process – free association and dream interpretation are the two primary techniques of good therapy. The patient comes in and just speaks whatever comes into his mind. And tries not to block and tries not to deny and tries to let these things flow.
That never happens very well, because they’re all resistant. So I interpret the resistance as well as what they bring in. And I’ll tell them about dream interpretation.
When they come in with a dream, I’ll usually have them walk me through it in detail, once. The ONLY time I ever take notes with a patient is when they have a dream. I’ll write on half the sheet, the left side. Because at some point I’ll have them tell it to me again.
They will always add something in the second telling. Freud understood that that’s the important part. They left it out because it was repressed – in the second telling, a little bit of the work brought it out. I’ve never had a client NOT do this. You ask them for a second telling – they add something in the second telling. That’s where we focus to begin with.
Sometimes I ask them to free associate to the most intensely effective portion of the dream. And it may not be obvious what it is.
I had a patient who dreamt he was being chased through a corridor by a monster. When I asked him to tell me what the most intense part was, he said, “About half-way down the corridor, I looked up and I saw a clock face and I looked at the clock and that was really intense.”
The emotion isn’t connected to the manifest content. The emotion in dreams is connected to the latent content.
If you fall in a dream – very often people fall or are floating around thinking, hey this is kind of fun – if you were really falling, you’d be screaming in terror. The emotion in the dream doesn’t fit what’s being portrayed in the manifest content. That’s one of the keys that got Freud to understand that there’s a latent content underneath.
And then we work it. They free associate, I make an interpretation and modify based on their response. Maybe I’ll ask them to tell me a little more about it – walk me through it again, sometimes three times. Every times it’s a little different. Every time something more comes out.
That’s the short version.
How Dream Interpretation Makes you Stronger
Amy: What do you after you make an interpretation? How can patient’s use that in their daily lives?
Donovan: First of all, this isn’t about problem solving in the real world. This isn’t about behavior modification. This is about exploring the depths of the Souls. It’s about exploring who they are. This is about revealing to them, core attributes of their unconscious and their identity.
So, the point of the dream interpretation is to psychically make them more whole… to integrate, to bring into conscious awareness elements of themselves that has not been conscious and to integrate it. To give the conscious mind – the Ego Freud said – power over once hidden realms.
Even though they’re hidden doesn’t mean they don’t wreak havoc on the mind. Everyone knows they do things that get them in trouble – and they don’t know why. It’s because of unconscious dynamics.
So, the idea is that this helps people, not directly solve an immediate problem in their lives, but it gives them strength, it gives them integrity and integration. Everybody’s mind’s a little fragmented. We’re not unified creatures. We’re kind of conflictual creatures. And the dream interpretation acts directly as a tool to integrate the mind. If you’re stronger, if you’re braver, if you’re more capable, if you can see reality more clearly – not so clouded by unconscious defenses, then you can always solve problems better.
This way of thinking works to continue a developmental trajectory that can begin at birth or even before and the idea is that it makes you stronger, it makes you more capable, more whole, more integrated. It brings to conscious awareness vast areas of your mind that you did not have access to and brings with that, tremendous strength, energy, power, creativity. This unleashes the patient’s power, it unleashes the patient’s creativity. I think the best phrase for it is: aliveness.
Patients who do this work well and thoroughly, with a good therapist can have evoked in them a spark of aliveness they’ve never felt before. Or haven’t felt since they were babies where it was unfortunately not adequately fostered. But it’s there. And that spark of aliveness and bringing that to the patient’s experience in therapy is at the end of the day what the
therapy’s all about.
When I see that happening in one of my patients it’s very gratifying work.
Amy: We’re running out of time. Is there anything else that we haven’t touched on yet that you would like to share?
Donovan: Well of course… Your dreams. I’d like to hear one of yours. But I don’t think we have time.
Amy: [laughs] Yeah, we don’t have time.
Donovan: Perhaps another day. Yeah, that’s the basics.
If you’ve found this interview valuable and would like to connect
Also, for more information on psychoanalytic dream interpretation and an in-depth discussion of Freud’s theories, you can check out Donovan’s video on Dream Interpretation: