Sources of Resistance to Dreamwork

If we were to take the point of view of space aliens, we might find it strange that a species would spend so much energy watching and learning about celebrities that they hardly know and so little on the seemingly inexplicable creativity that erupts from within themselves every night. Why isn’t everybody doing dreamwork?  Reasons range from derision of those who waste their time in such irrelevancies, to having done a lot of dreamwork oneself and being quite confident that it is more of a curiosity than a practical tool for life transformation. Dream interest is most likely to bubble to the surface at certain points along our developmental ladder: When we are under stress (both distress like illness and eustress like pregnancy or creativity) dreams can become more important to us. Generally speaking, however, dreamwork is a low priority for most people at most stages of development. There are personal and cultural, social and physiological reasons why this is the case.

We begin our development with a need to orient to the needs of our bodies, to become comfortable as emotional beings, and then to take our place in society. All of these developmental goals are relatively external when compared to the subjectivity of dreaming.  For most of us most of the time, such developmental goals take priority.  They are reinforced by our parents, our peers, and our educational institutions, whose common purpose is to socialize us. I am not using this term in a pejorative sense. Before we can become nobody, we first have to become somebody – to master prepersonal and personal life skills and develop demonstrated social competencies. Those who think they can access the transpersonal by circumventing these stages are delusional. In addition, there are both strong adaptive advantages that come from staying in touch with these dimensions as well as strong adaptive disadvantages that we risk if we neglect them.

Children are closer to the world of dreams. They lack the ability to easily separate dream reality from waking reality the way most adults do. They have to learn to do so. Also, the emotionally inspired and metaphorical nature of dreaming is most closely associated with mid-prepersonal development, which is in full flower from the age of two until about four.  However, if parents and older siblings provide a supportive context for approaching dreams and dreaming, a foundation for constructive dreamwork can be firmly laid at an early age. This usually does not happen and as the child develops more of an external, concrete operational focus, they normally “outgrow” an interest in their dreams. Again, there is quite a bit to be said for this. Wilber has shown that development cycles between male, agentic focus on the external and concrete on the one hand and the internal and intuitive communal. If there is no cultural context that supports a return to the communal context of dreaming it is not surprising that these interests and capabilities become latent.

Adolescents may become interested in dreams when they feel self-conscious, unaccepted, and painfully self-absorbed. They often struggle to get comfortable in their own skin as they grapple with who they are in relationship to their families and their peers.  For some, dreamwork may seem to offer a way of getting there.  With dreamwork they don’t have to share their insecurities with others, but yet they feel that they are getting to know why they feel the way they do. Because most people normally outgrow this teenage awkwardness when they settle into the routines of work and stable home life, interest in dreaming usually fades away with the press of school, career, and family responsibilities combined with an increasing sense of who one is.

Adults generally view dreams as intrusions into a good night’s sleep and do their best to repress or ignore them.  Those facing life challenges or transitions may develop an interest in dreams to help them find a partner or deal with their anxiety about a relationship or disease or job, but when the problem fades the interest in dreams usually fades as well.  This also holds true for people with mental disturbances, such as PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) which is characterized by repetitive nightmares, among other symptoms. Such people view dreaming as a nuisance at best and a possessive haunting at worst.

People who either are fascinated by psychic phenomena or else have developed some psychic ability are often interested in dreaming. They generally view it as a doorway to greater creativity, freedom and fuller potential, but few know how to make full use of it. Many young people feel insecure and lay claim to their specialness through the cultivation of arcane interests like dreamwork and lucid dreaming, which are relatively safe from the pressures of competition and the standards of social reality. This interest tends to either remain a superficial projection of waking assumptions onto dreams, as occurs with most interpretive approaches and most lucid dreaming, or the interest fades as the dreamer begins to become enraptured with subtle-level archetypes or develop a genuinely transpersonal meditation practice.

Dreamwork is generally viewed as a psychological “shadow” practice in the spiritual community or a way of developing greater freedom and control, if it is considered at all.  Dreamwork may be the royal road to the unconscious, but meditation is the road to enlightenment in the minds of many.  This attitude is primarily due to a lack of personal experience with effectively transformational transpersonal approaches to dreamwork. Advanced meditators are often as invested in the drama triangle and as blind to the meanings of their dreams as non-meditators. This implies that meditation alone does not an enlightened person make, a point Wilber emphasizes in his writings on the importance of the balanced unfolding of a number of critical developmental lines. Other synergistic transpersonal tools are important, such as taking up an integral life practice.

Those who seem to be most likely to maintain an ongoing and deep interest in dreamwork probably share several factors. They are intellectually curious, highly introspective, and view dreams as expressive of untapped higher potentials.  They probably are survivors of a number of crises that dreams have helped them through.  In addition, they often have been influenced by a mentor who respected dreams and did dreamwork themselves.  In other words, personal, cultural, social, and behavioral factors have to converge to maintain an interest in dreamwork within cultures that do not support it.

The holon of dreaming has four aspects or quadrants. These are:

1) External Individual, which addresses the physiological and behavioral aspects of dreaming. It attends to the behaviors of dream group members.

2) Internal Collective, which deals with the cultural world view and individual values which color our approach to dreaming. It is also the realm of our preferences toward our dream group members and, equally important, their preferences toward us, toward themselves, and toward each other.  Do members of this or that  dream group like each other? Do they like each other a lot?  Love each other? Dislike each other?  Dislike each other a lot?  Hate each other?  Do they not care?  Does their compassion transcend having any preferences at all? What values do self-aspects express? How do they interpret their dream experiences?

3) External Collective perspectives address how others affect our dreaming and how our dreaming affects others. It is also the realm of the various distal selves, roles, or “mes” that we meet in our dreams in the form of dream group members.  Do we interact with them in the context of the drama triangle or not?  What influence do they have on us?  What I effect do we have on them?  In the intrasocial realm, this is the context for demonstrating sacred “I-thou” relationships with other aspects of ourselves.

4) Internal Individual, which not only relates to the state of consciousness in which we approach dreaming and experience our dreams, but also with the states of consciousness of our individual dream group members.

Physiological and Intraphysiological

The most basic type of resistance to dreamwork involves an inability to recall dreams.  Generally this is not a major factor with Integral Deep Listening, since not only can dreams from childhood be used just as effectively as one from last night, but imagery and waking life experiences are approached as if they were dreams. Consequently, there is no prerequisite focus on increasing dream recall, and working from other angles often has the effect of increasing dream recall naturally.

There are many physiological and psychological factors that work to diminish recall. Most of them can be neutralized when all four quadrants are supportive with clear intent, attribution of positive meanings and values to dreaming and dreamwork, a supportive dreamwork community (if only from the authors of the sources one consults and one’s own intrasocial community), and a few behavioral changes: the elimination of eating, drinking, and sleeping habits that diminish dream recall while developing the habit of writing down feeling, thoughts, and images upon awakening.

Why do we have trouble recalling our dreams? Is there a physiological need to not recall our dreams? We know that sleeping and waking states utilize different memory processes for short-term and long-term memory storage. The switch-over between these two when we wake up accounts for our tendency to forget, regardless of how sure we are that we will remember a dream. While dream recall does not seem to provide a conscious adaptive or survival function (or we would routinely remember them), it is likely that dreaming “keeps the motor running,” so that we can more easily re-enter waking awareness. There seems to be no good pervasive physiological or psychological reason why we should not remember our dreams. Even advanced meditators who are conscious and aware in both dreaming and deep sleep are not physiologically deprived by not being “unconscious” or by attending to their dream experience.   Lack of recall is impacted by factors like attention, motivation, time of awakening, diet, locus of control, assumptions about their value and many other factors.

What is the source of the common resistance to writing a dream down? Because there is no biological imperative for dream recall, the motivation for remembering them and working with them must primarily be psychological.   Dreams are associated with mental activity, and maintaining the internal vigilance that dream recall requires can feel stressful when compared with the normal unconsciousness of sleeping.

The resistance many people have to sharing their dreams comes from a sense that they have no obvious cultural or social adaptational advantage.  They rarely help you make friends, make better grades in school, help you get over the flu or reach your career goals, despite the many dream books filled with anecdotal accounts of people receiving such assistance from their dreams. In addition, because many dream experiences seem irrational and impractical, people who share their dreams may be viewed as detracting from the maintenance of more pressing needs for the family or community, such as survival, safety, meaningful work, and caring for others. Consequently, socially mal-adapted people are generally the ones who are willing to accept that most others see them as an impractical “dreamer.” What such people need to remember is that those who do not easily fit into society often have opportunities for higher order integration unavailable to those who have learned how to fit in. Their restless sense of a lack of internal balance is a strong and important driver to birthing new, broader cultural definitions of normalcy.

Intraphysiological refers to the sensory and biological components in dreams and the elaborations of dream characters.  You have your own experienced contact with your body and your senses in a dream, and so do your other dream characters.  None of that is readily apparent until you interview them, however.  When you do you are likely to find that most express more detachment from the body than you do. This is because they tend to know and understand that they are mental-emotional realities that, while being impacted by physical states, are fundamentally internal individual quadrant phenomena.  Therefore, they tend to be less concerned with issues of physical health and illness than you are.  Some self-aspects can and will provide information about the body and its processes, but for the most part this is a lower priority since they cannot physically die. Most concerns about physical and biological realities appear to be wake-up calls: a focus on YOUR concerns about your health so as to get your attention so that you will pay attention to something that is a resistance to health, balance, or transformation.

Many dreamworkers resist this idea because they want to believe that spirit shares their values. Spirit wants them to be healthy, wealthy, and a social success. They don’t want to be confronted with any evidence that no, spirit really doesn’t care whether you live or die.  It doesn’t want to grapple with what it means to realize that, from spirit’s perspective, you are alive for it; it is not alive for you. So while it matters a great deal to us whether we live or die or whether or not we feel physical pain, have enough to eat, and have shelter from the elements, it is a waking vanity to assume that such things would or should be priorities for dream characters.  Why should they be?

Behavioral and Intrabehavioral

Most of us not only do not set an intent to recall or record our dreams; we have strong intent NOT to have our sleep disturbed. As noted above, dreams are associated with mental activity, which feels stressful when compared with the unconsciousness of deep sleep.  Sharing and working on dreams are rarely priorities for people with busy lives and pressing external concerns, although with increases in leisure time dreamwork becomes more feasible. Still, for the general population it remains not much more likely to become an important part of our daily lives despite the amazing and profound fact that we spend eight years of our lives in an alternative universe. Our psychological resistance to recall is expressed through many common behaviors, such as going back to sleep, jumping out of bed quickly, or going to sleep too late and thereby oversleeping or waking up tired.  The resistance to writing a dream down is related to the introspective mental focus that recall and writing require first thing upon awakening. At that moment, many people are neither inclined toward introspection, mental focus, or the fine motor control that writing requires. In addition, when we first awaken we often have other behavioral priorities..  We want to shut off the alarm clock, roll over, and get some more sleep, or quickly get up.  Most of us quickly become preoccupied with thoughts about the routines of the coming day.

Resistance to sharing dreams often relates to our disinterest in the dreams of others.  Why would anyone be interested in ours if we are not interested in theirs?   We might think, “I would like to be interested, but I really don’t have a clue why in the world they had that dream about a three-headed baby…” Sometimes sharing a dream is embarrassing.  We may have a vague sense that if we find out why we had it we may find out more than we bargained for.  Why talk about something that may make us anxious or embarrassed?  Do we really want to relive being trapped in a burning house or raising a corpse out of a well?

Intrabehavioral aspects of dreams involve not only your actions but those of dream characters.  What do you do and not do in your dreams?  What do your dream characters do and not do?  If you do not pay attention to such things you do not have the data to ask why things are done in your dreams.  If you are not aware of a behavior you cannot evaluate it, much less change it. You have your own experience of what is done and not done in a dream and each of your dream characters has their own. They may disagree not only about the “why” of things but about the “what” and “when” of things.  We generally wake up with assumptions about what happened in a dream.  We know what the story is.  However, it is not unusual, upon interviewing dream characters, to find that they report different events or a different order of things.  How can we know the “why” of a dream if we do not first know what happened?

For example, you dream that a monster is chasing you.  Based on that dream behavior you draw conclusions about the why of the dream both while dreaming it and then when you are awake.  The dream “why” might be that the monster wants to kill you. The waking “why” might be that you are scaring yourself.  However, when you interview the monster you may discover that he is not chasing you at all.  Perhaps he is running to catch a train.  Perhaps he is racing you.  If he is not chasing you, then your “why” of the dream will change and your entire perception of it will transform. The point is that you don’t know why your dream characters behave the way they do until you interview them – you just think you do.  This is your core delusion, and one that you can prove to yourself to your own satisfaction, if you are simply willing to interview your dream characters.

If you do not interview your dream characters it may be because you prefer your “whys,” your comfortable delusions, to any real understanding of the behavior of others. This perspective is fundamentally egocentric and narcissistic, and it is fundamental to how most humans approach not only their dreams, but life in general.  It is a perspectival prejudice that amounts to a fundamental resistance to dreamwork.

Cultural and Intracultural

Do your values and worldview support dreamwork? If you are reading this then they probably do.  How come?  What gave you those values?  Why do you have them and most of the people around you do not?  Are you driven by curiosity, fear, hope, or the example of others? What factors in your environment support your interest? Do you read books that subscribe to values conducive to and supportive of dreamwork?  What factors keep it from becoming a more important part of your life?

What sort of values support dreamwork?  Certainly there is a value of inner, internal experience. There is a family or cultural permission to value those experiences rather than to always prefer to focus externally. Where did you learn to have such a focus? Who did you grow up with that naturally valued their own interior life?   Most people probably come to an interest in dreaming from a desire to understand and stop disturbing dreams or to use them in some way. They may have an inner need to resolve some life issue, such as sickness, relationship, or finding life direction. Some people are simply curious and turn that curiosity toward the greatest overlooked mystery of our everyday lives.

Regardless of your values, you will tend to have them validated by your dreamwork.  Your own theories about why you dream say more about you than about the nature of dreaming. This is because what you pick out and pay attention to as well as the conclusions that you draw about it say more about your level of development than they do about dreaming per se.

The values expressed by your dream characters are intracultural, not cultural, like yours. Unless they tell you in a dream you merely assume you know what their values are. You only assume how they interpret the world.  Consequently, both in the dream and when you awaken your interpretations of your dream experiences are based on your culture, not theirs.  Because you are invested in your world view and your cultural assumptions you resist making an intracultural evaluation of your dream. If you do you are guaranteed to have your fundamental assumptions about who you are and why you do what you do challenged. Do you want that? Can you handle that? Is your sense of self strong enough to handle direct challenges to your core cultural assumptions?

Social and Intrasocial

How do your family, social, and work groups interact regarding dreams? Are dream recall, writing, and sharing supported?  How do the people in your world interact regarding dreams and dreaming?  Few families talk about dreams around the breakfast table and not many children grow up seeing their parents writing down or pondering their dreams.  It’s not surprising, then, that many children grow up without respect for their own inner life and with very few skills with which to deal with it.

Is dreamwork valued by your family and social groups?  Were dreams and dreamwork given respect, reverence, or time when you were a child? During the course of your education?  At work?  By your friends?  By your family members?  By you?  What sort of example are you setting in these various support groups?

Your intrasocial dimension involves how your various self-aspects deal with each other in your dreams.  Do they ignore each other?  Do they fight?  Are their interactions taking place in the context of the roles of victim, rescuer, and persecutor? If you never form relationships with those parts of ourselves that value dream recall and dreamwork you will lack important internal support for dreamwork. If you do not understand the dynamics of the interactions among the various parts of yourself in your dreams  you will misunderstand how and why you create conflict in your life, including the resistances you unknowingly create to your own health, growth, and happiness.

Strategies for minimizing our resistance to dreamwork

To repeat what we have said above, “Those who seem to be most likely to maintain an ongoing and deep interest in dreamwork probably share several factors. They are intellectually curious, highly introspective, and view dreams as expressive of untapped higher potentials. They probably are survivors of a number of crises that dreams have helped them through.  In addition, they often have been influenced by a mentor who respected dreams and did dreamwork themselves.” There are physiological/behavioral, cultural, social, and consciousness factors that increase our willingness to work with our dreams.


We can increase recall by reducing or eliminating those substances which create physiological barriers to recall, such as caffeine, alcohol, drugs, and certain medications. We can enhance  factors which encourage physical receptivity to recall, such as stress!!  Physical, emotional, mental, and interpersonal distress and eustress increase dream recall.

We can also increase our  biological imperative for recall by drinking water before going to sleep! Normally we are most likely to awaken to go to the bathroom at the close of a REM cycle, when we are also most likely to recall a dream.  Tell yourself you are going to sleep soundly but become extremely vigilant just before awakening.

You can reduce your resistance to writing a dream down by increasing your biological imperative by not going to the bathroom and forsaking that cup of coffee until you have written SOMETHING on a piece of paper, such as how you felt when you awoke. Not moving when you first awaken will also help recall.

There is no obvious physical adaptational advantage to sharing dreams, but you can be aware of how sharing dreams supports the reduction of anxiety and stress. Measure your anxiety by considering such factors as rate of breathing, irritability, impatience, reactivity, impulsiveness, insomnia.   Monitor your physical stress levels, grading anxiety 0-10 for a couple of weeks when you are not sharing dreams. Then grade anxiety 0-10 during weeks when you are sharing dreams.  If your dream sharing is successful at reducing your anxiety, you have demonstrated to yourself a physiological adaptational value to dream sharing.

Monitor your overall stress level 0-10 for a couple of weeks prior to undertaking dream character interviewing using the questionnaire format. Then monitor your anxiety level during periods when you are applying IDL action plans in your waking life.  If your dreamwork is successful at reducing your anxiety, you have demonstrated to yourself a physiological adaptation value to dream work.

Dreams are associated with mental activity, which instinctively feels stressful, when compared with unconsciousness.   To overcome this physiological, behavioral, and psychological predisposition it is important to set and maintain a clear intention to be aware and wake up. There are suggestions about this here on this website and elsewhere on the web.   These recommendations are basically instructions in dream incubation, or in establishing the intent to recall and record dreams with pre-sleep suggestions and visualization, as well as to establish the intent to share and work on dreams.


Factors like resistance to recall, writing a dream down, sharing some dreams, or working on some dreams can be addressed by asking self-aspects about the resistance. These can be dream characters that you are interviewing or you may take the resistance itself, turn it into a color and allow that shape to congeal into a shape and interview it.   You are likely to not only gain information about why the resistance exists but specific action recommendations that you can take to reduce the resistance.


Typical dream discounts are forms of resistance. These include saying they are valuable but spending little time working on our own, feeling they are a phylogenetic throwback that are irrelevant to daily concerns, meaningless or superficial in meaning. This is indicated by a smug sense that we already know what they mean, that because the dream has someone in it that we were talking to yesterday, that is what it is about.

One basic way to overcome this resistance is to learn to stay out of the drama triangle in your waking life. Refuse to take the roles of victim, rescuer, or victim.  If you learn to stay out of the drama triangle then you will be less likely to see your dreams as in conflict with your waking priorities.  You will not care what others think about your dreamwork.  You are much more likely to not perceive other aspects of yourself in roles of the drama triangle while you are dreaming.

Social and Intrasocial

To reduce resistance to recall, writing a dream down, sharing dreams, or working on your dreams, read about dreaming and share thoughts about it with friends and in on-line forums. Join or start a dreamwork group. Cultivate relationships with dream group members who value these activities.

Our Self-Sense

Listening to self-aspects intrinsically involves power sharing.  This in turn implies a diminishment of control  by our sense of who we are.  We have been powerfully rewarded all our lives for protecting and building up this self-sense. It represents huge adaptive capabilities that we are not going to surrender just because we think interviewing other parts of ourselves is a swell idea.  Fortunately such fears and mistrust, while quite understandable, is not supported by the actual experience of interviewing.  In fact, the opposite occurs.  Most people discover that perceived dream threats are largely misperceived and that dream drama is largely self-created.  In the absence of such misperceptions, dreams and their group members are experienced as largely benign.

Another related source of resistance involves our fear of annihilation. On the surface, dreamwork can seem to be a serious threat to what Ken Wilber calls “The Atman Project.”  “If I identify with all these self-aspects won’t I lose my sense of self? Won’t I deconstruct into some mindless mass of zombiefied protoplasm?”   The actual experience of character interviewing turns out to be something quite different.  What happens is that waking identity takes on the world view and self-sense of disowned aspects of himself.  As a result the self-sense expands and thins at the same time. The self becomes more secure and confident because it represents an ever broadening sample of legitimate internal perspectives.

Resistances to dreamwork boil down to resistances to waking up. Being asleep, in your present state of beingness is comfortable. Waking up is inherently a decision to deal with your discomfort toward growing. With Integral Deep Listening the approach is to expect this resistance as natural and to interview it. Take the feeling of the resistance and see what color or colors it reminds you of. Fill the space around you now with that color and watch it congeal and condense into a shape. Become that shape and interview it using the protocol for life issues found here. By doing so you will be listening to and respecting your resistance instead of fighting it, thereby incorporating it into an expanded definition of who you are. In the process, you are likely to receive concrete recommendations for how to address such resistances in the future when they arise.

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