The Arise Podcast

Dream Work with Jen Oyama Murphy

Episode Summary

Jen Oyama Murphy of Paper Crane Coaching talks with Maggie and Danielle about dreams and dream work.

Episode Notes

Jen Oyama Murphy of Paper Crane Coaching  joins Maggie and Danielle to talk about her work with dreams.

Jen is a Story Guide. She has a BA in English from Yale University. She’s worked in ministry and Non-profit settings for 30 years using both theology and psychological modalities. She’s a dream guide, a mom and she most recently worked for the Allender Center in Seattle. Jen has been a guide for Danielle personally in her training in therapy work and story work. Both Maggie and Danielle were in story groups that Jen facilitated through the Allender Center.

Jen is located in Chicago, IL with her husband. They have two adult daughters and so as far as stage of life goes, she’s transitioning out of that mother and moving into what she is calling the Matriarch stage, borrowing from Jungian Psychology and archetypes. She is trying to live and lead from a place more of knowing where I’m empowered and called, rather than when you’re in that mothering stage where it’s a lot of effort and figuring out how to care for yourself while caring so deeply for others. “I think even my identity is starting to locate a little bit differently.”

All three are connected to the Seattle School and Jen mentions that on the Seattle School’s website, they have a quote from Richard Rohr about the inside edge of the outside, or the outside edge of the inside. To Jen that’s a liminal space and she locates herself in that space as an Asian American woman, feeling very much in the in-between and the invisibility of that space. It can be really lonely, with a sense of waiting and transition. For her that plays out for her racially, not being white, not being black and not really knowing how to understand or define herself without a lot of other Asian faces around her. This has been a place that has felt like a place of abandonment and a place where she’s forgotten herself. Because she’s moving into her middle-late 50s, she in a different place where she’s starting to hear Jesus ask her to consider that the liminal space actually is a space of creativity. It’s not just a place of marginalization but out of that hurt when there is healing and transformation and growth, there can be this powerful space of transition, generativity and creativity. This has brought a new richness to her dream world and she’s trying to pay attention to it and bring it into the work she’s doing. 

Maggie asks Jen what is dream work and how does she use it?

Jen thinks of dreams as parables—they are stories that the spirit is co-authoring with our unconscious. Because she is such a cognitive person, living in her head, she believes it is Jesus’ pursuit of her and God’s sweet mercy that she has dreams. Playwright Marsha Norma says “dreams are illustrations from the book your soul is writing about you.” For Jen this is perfect combination of story work, which is about text, and dreams which are the symbols and pictures that go along with the story. Because she is in her head so much, she misses or doesn’t pay attention to the illustrations. Her dreams are stories with symbols that are inviting her to pay attention to something about herself, something about her world, something about who Jesus is and what the kingdom of God is life. Sometimes, she says, it is something she once knew and had forgotten and needed to be reminded again. Dreams are a powerful way God is communicating to us. Jungian analyst and Episcopal priest John Sanford says, “Dreams are God’s forgotten language” and Jen thinks that is really true.

Danielle has been writing about how are words just are coming out of her and that her dreams give her the texture and feeling. She is able to have a witness and a felt sense in her skin for the texture of the story. A nod back to the liminal space Jen talked about, a blending of past and present, what’s real and what we’re calling dreams or parables.

When Jen talks about dream work, 9 times out of 10 people will say her “I don’t dream” or “I can’t remember my dreams.” She believes it is because we put so much pressure on ourselves to encode things cognitively through a lot of words. Dreams are this embodied symbol and story mixed together. What Jen tells people is just to practice being aware of what comes up when you wake up—that may be a feeling, a color, an emotion, it may be one symbol or one words. Just start there and don’t put pressure to wake up a write three pages of a really complicated dream. You may not be ready for all the content. What comes you when you first wake up may be what the spirit is inviting you to pay the most attention to. 

Maggie asks Jen what she thinks dreams are made of? Jen had mention them being our unconscious and the holy spirit. What Maggie thinks of when she thinks of how dreams are made is the idea from Disney/Pixar’s Inside Out. The main character falls asleep, and we the audience are seeing her brain working on the inside and they are grabbing scenes from the day, putting a lens over it and then projecting to the dreaming world.

Jen wishes she knew how dreams are made but for her it is part of the mystery of it and that is what she loves about dream work. She is sure there are physiological components to what makes us dreams. She believes the idea that dreams are the spirit of God co-authoring with a part of her that she doesn’t have access to or has forgotten, that are calling her back to herself, back to Jesus, back to the people that she is called to be in community with. “There is something that God is touching in us in a creative way that is meant to tell us something about ourselves that we don’t know or aren’t paying attention to. How that works or why that works, I don’t really know… It just feels like a gift and mystery of God to me and I’m okay with that being how I think dreams are made and what are purpose are to me.”

Maggie agrees, especially when you look at the Biblical text – there are many places and times when God is speaking to people through a vision or a sleeping dream. There is precedent for what you’re saying. And there probably is some science or physiological components that we just don’t understand. 

Danielle says if we jump back to the text or to story work, there needs to be a witness. In the biblical text yes people get a dream but they just don’t keep it to themselves forever. There’s a sharing, an imparting, and singing, as was the case with Mary and Elizabeth. We aren’t meant to have to decipher and decode dreams by ourselves. 

Jen believes that dreams are meant to say something to us personally as well as to the collective. If you look at scripture, the dreams are for the dreamer and also as a way to connect to whatever is happening in the community, the collective space. We need each other in order to bear witness to the dream but also to explore what the dream is saying to me about me, what the dream is saying to us about us, what the dream is saying to our world about our world. We know this from story work, that kind of exploration invites and needs other people. Dreams never have one meaning, there’s so many meanings to dreams.” This is why Jen loves doing this work in groups: you get the reflection, or the idea or the questions from so many people. There’s not one right interpretation to the dreams. There can be lots of meanings and at different times. The more people that you have, like the same with story work, you need to be wise and discerning of who we share or dreams with (and your stories). 

Maggie says she loves that the dreams are not just for the dreamer. When we initially approached Jen to come on the podcast she sent us a resource about dream work and Maggie thought she would give the guided practice a try in preparation for our time together. She wrote down two dreams she had over the past week and one of them felt like it wasn’t for her, it was for her mom. 

Her dream was about her grandfather, who passed away in 2005. In the dream just her mom and her were in a room with him in his home in Redmond, WA as he was dying. He passed away and all the extended came in to grieve and morning and say a few words. And when it was her turn, her grandfather opened his eyes and said “I made it home. I love you.” Maggie woke up and felt like “Whoa, that was insane!” She has not dreamt about him in a long time. But she thought was for her mom and so she texted her and told her about the dream. It brought peace to her mom as well as her. Dreams are just for the dreamer and it’s meant to be shared in community. It feels more powerful, the mystery of it. 

Jen says dreams can be saying something about our community and our collective nature and they are primarily about us. She says the tendency in dreams, when you dream about people, is to think that it’s about that actual person. Our instinct is to externalize whatever we’re dreaming or reading or coming across. Part of what dream work is focusing on, and asking of us to look at, is our representation of our inner world, which is harder for us to look at it. 

If Jen was working with Maggie she would ask her some questions like, “tell me about your grandfather” and have her describe him and think through “are there any parts of you that are like him?” “What about your mom? What about your external family?” She says it’s not Internal Family Systems but there are some similarities. These real people in your dreams are real people but they are also possibility representations of parts of you that you may not recognize that you resonate with. So that story is also telling you something about you, internally. 

Maggie said that makes her a little bit weepy, especially with what her grandfather in the dream said, which was “I made it home” and “I love you.” Maggie goes on to say, “and if that is a representation of myself, then some place, some of inner world, is settled… It is where it’s supposed to be…” 

Jen continues engaging Maggie by asking her to list three adjectives about her grandfather just off the top of her head. 

Maggie responds with a deep sigh. Her grandfather was extremely kind, deeply religious (what she would call “a holy man,” and he was also available. 

Jen adds, because he is old there is a time element. She asks Maggie: Are there ancient, old or ancestral parts of you that are looking to come home within you?

Maggie said she’ll need to ponder it. 

Danielle notices that the idea that there are these ancient aspects of ourselves, which seems taboo in our current culture to think through. To be able to dream that feels like a safe way to bring it to Maggie’s awareness. 

Maggie will ponder, long after this conversation, what ancestral parts of her are longing to return home and what that will look like. Our family stories are complicated right, we carry with us our stories and their stories [our ancestor’s]. Even saying that, Maggie realizes it’s not just me and my family, but also the collective, the generations built up.

Jen says the other piece of dreamwork is not having these strict categories like gender. If you are dreaming about a male and you identify as a female then we assume it’s about someone else. “It’s the fluidity and the integration of all these different pieces and parts of us: ages, genders, sexuality, race… To consider those within us, and not just something that is external that we can kind of pick and choose. Again, I feel like the spirit is bringing all those symbols and pieces to us for a reason, so having a lot of openness and kindness and curiosity around why that is? And considering is that apart of who we are? Is that a part of maybe a piece of us that we have contempt for or have forgotten or we felt like we only assigned to somebody else but that identity or those characteristics are actually within us as well.” This is especially so within families, when you start to dream about your family. We tend to put people in one place or another and we say, “I am not like these people!” or “I don’t want to go here” or “I really identify here.” 

“Dreams don’t tell us what we already know. They very rarely are confirming or self-congratulatory. I think dream should be humbling to us, in a kind way not in any way that’s about humiliation, but about a kindness and a curiosity. Dreams, I think, are meant to tell us something that we don’t know, that we aren’t paying attention to or that we’ve forgotten. There should be a tenderness and softness to the exploration."

Jen adds that confidentially in dream work is important, just as it is in story work or a therapeutic setting. How we hold people’s stories is so important and another’s dreams is very important to. Especially because dreams happen in the unconscious. We may be revealing something about ourselves to ourselves, to our therapists, to our friends, that we don’t even know yet. There is an extra layer of vulnerability that happens when you’re doing dream work. 

When Danielle thinks about confidentiality and bringing the unconscious forward, she wonders how do you form a group that it’s engaging dream work? It usually recommended, when someone comes to a group that she co-facilitates, that group participants have a therapist or spiritual director or some other place outside of the group to process what comes up in group. She and her colleague Kali that run groups together also have supervision—they have a place to process what comes up in group while still honoring the participants confidentiality. She asks Jen, is that a similar frame for doing dream work or a dream group?

Jen says it very much is the same. Dream work is mysterious and deep; It taps into the things about ourselves that we don’t yet know or that we don’t want to know yet. There needs to be a lot of care. She has two dream groups right now and her participants have their own therapeutic or pastoral process with other people, and that feels really important. She is also in regular contact with two analysts—one that she is doing her own dream work with and the other being more of supervisory role. Jen adds that all the things that we advocate for in story work and pastoral work are equally if not more true for dream work. 

There are some similarities, she says, between story groups and dream groups: they both are working towards transformation and healing; confidentially is key; the idea that having more voices, faces and stories that are able to engage you can be helpful, expansive and deepening; Curiosity and kindness are necessary for the work. 

The key difference between story work and dream work is that in dream work the dreamer is the author and authority of the dream. It is the dreamer who controls the pace and process. The only expert in the room is the person who had the dream. In dreams, the symbols that comes to the dreamer are particular to the dreamer. Only the dream knows what a cat means to the dreamers. Everyone else can offer suggestions and reflections, but that is all they are. 

In terms of a story group or a therapeutic group, we may work in terms of the group dynamics. If you start to delve into a story and come up against resistance, we would work with the resistance. That’s true also of transference or counter transference. But this is not the case in a dream group because the dream is for the dreamer and they are the only one who gets to say what the dream is about. If they (the dreamer) are resistant, then they are resistant. Jen sees resistance in dream work as something in you that is not ready to hear. The work is asking a lot of questions to help the dreamer find the meaning of the dream or themselves. 

Maggie asks Jen what kind of inner healing or insights or even interpretations have come out of her dream groups on individual dream work clients?

Jen likes the word “analysis” better than “interpretation” for dreams because with “interpretation” it is about assigning a meaning. Jen isn’t going to interpret your dream for you. This, she says, is another big difference between story work and dream work. With story work, we tend to give a lot of authority and expertise to the facilitator or the therapist; they get to name for us what they are seeing in our story. And in a lot of ways, Jen says, they can see and understand our story better than we can. In a dream, however, she does not think its good dream work to have someone outside of the dream be interpreting the dream (think like books about dreams or “bar tricks”). This is why she likes the word “analysis” – because in Greek it is the word for “loosening” as in “loosening of.” Jen says then that “analysis is breaking up the things that are stuck so that it floats to the surface.” The dreamer gets to say this is what is coming up to the surface, and they get to name what it is and the meaning of it. The question in dreamwork is less, “what does it mean?” and more, “what is the dream saying to me about me?” Dreamers are the only ones who knows the meaning and significance of their dream and the symbols in them. 

The dreamer being in control is important because in Jen’s 30 years of experience doing groups, 95% of the time the leader is white and is trained in a very Western theology and psychology. Their interpretations are coming from that located-ness, which has so much goodness but also misses her as an Asian woman. And then she misses herself. When the dreamer is the author and authority, their culture, gender, sexuality, etc. becomes theirs and primary. We get to focus in on their particular identity and story and culture in a way that we don’t often do. 

Danielle as a therapist, is licensed and has gone through the system, but yet she really believes that the space is co-created. People want to be told something helpful, “tell me what do” they say to her. She finds that giving some kind of answer or instruction is not satisfying in the therapeutic space. To give an answer often isn’t helpful and is not actually what they want. What she hears Jen says is that there is a way to embody culture, to honor it, and to not offer to untie a dream and let it spill everywhere. It’s more about the group pulling gently on threads of a knot and seeing what does loosen up. That provides a lot of safety for the dream teller. 

In Jen’s body it feels more collective – it’s working together on loosening something up so the dreamer can say, “this loosened up and here’s what it means to me” rather than the therapist or facilitator telling you over there while people are watching. Sometimes in story work as the story teller, Jen said she can oddly feel passive in her own process, relying on someone else to interpret. It can feel like I don’t know myself or my story and I need someone to make meaning for me, rather than people helping me making meaning for myself. 

Maggie agrees and believes that is what happened when she shared her dream today about her grandfather. Rather than Jen telling her what the dream means, just by asking Maggie questions she was able to arrive at a deeper meaning. When she initially had the dream, the meaning she made was that her grandfather is in heaven, he got there! But then with Jen’s questions, and the idea that we are all the characters in our dreams, Maggie began to process for herself, “what ancestral part of me is home?” or is coming home. Thinking of herself as the one said “I made it home.” Maggie said she now has an experiential knowing of what Jen is taking about. 

Danielle said she wants to sign up! 

Jen loves doing dream work and she loves story work, it’s both for her just like in the playwright quote. We need the text, the story, the script of the play and we need the images, the symbols, and the mystery of that. For her personality and her story, doing dream work feels more natural to her. She tends to wonders around, ask a lot of questions and ask the participant to think. Because she’s a non-majority person she tends to ask about culture—she’s interested and curious about the specific things have a different meaning or story because of your ethnicity and culture. She has that orientation. 


Connect with Jen at Paper Crane Coaching


Jen is readingAs A Woman, by Paula Stone Williams, The Island of Sea Women by Lisa See, The Cure for Sorrow by Jan Richardson, Gospel of Mark

Jen is listening to: "Permission to Dance" by BTS, Vivaldi's Four Seasons - especially Autumn

Jen is inspired by: the 2 groups of women she meets with weekly, her family, her clients, and the sunrise from her condo  

Introductory Dream work resources

Inner Work, by Robert Johnson

Dreams, A User Guide, Centre for Applied Jungian Studies