What are the right questions to ask of a dream?

I learned something new from one of my client’s dreams recently.

Marian Gay and I have been working together for a number of years, and she is now herself a dreamwork practitioner. Here is her dream which I call “A Huge Man.”


         A huge man walking over ground slowly, naked or almost with bare feet. I feel great vulnerability in him just to do this. Around him many people asking questions and moving all around, and I have questions. But he keeps walking so slowly, solid and grounded, and the questions fade. He is the knowing and answer. I say this to someone, feel a knowing.

The dream presents a relatively simple scenario, a simplicity characteristic of archetypal content. In a certain way our whole work in dreams is to help people have simpler dreams. Not simple-minded, but simple in the sense of whole, complete, primary, fundamental.

It’s as if a whole layer of complication has to be worn away as we work through dream after dream. First there’s the layer of instant reactivity that’s often on the surface– our nearly constant reactions of guilt, shame, anger, judgment, worry, anxiety that dog us through our days and nights. They are like an astigmatism that bends and distorts the true light of the dream.

Then there’s a deeper layer we come upon of personal psychology. Often it’s a story dating to childhood that has somehow locked in as the story of a person’s life even though all the conditions of life have changed. If it is unknown, then discovering this story can be a great source of understanding but as Freud found out, merely discovering it does not change the reactivity. For some the story becomes an all purpose explanation, but at root it is simply a very significant story. one that may well hold many true facts of a person’s life, and that builds itself around these facts in a compelling way.

Yet even knowing this story, if our dreams remain very twisty and complicated like riddles or puzzles, it’s because the reactive layer is still very active and the knowledge of the story has not really changed that reactivity very much. Understanding is a booby prize my teacher used to say.

In the archetypal layer of consciousness there is a clarifying simplicity, directness of encounter. Then in our dreams a landscape of great depth and simplicity emerges. It is often also of great beauty. This was true of Marian’s dream of the huge man.

What do we see here? First the dramatis personae — the “actors” in the dream. Prominently there’s the “huge man” walking slowly. Then there’s a more indistinct cast of characters like the chorus in the old Greek plays– they could be seen as personifications of Marian’s own habits of questioning herself and others. But the dream allows her to see them as a group of questioners “asking questions and moving all around” the huge man.

Finally — and often overlooked– is a figure the dreamer identifies with. I call this the dream-ego. (She is not the same as the dreamer. )

The dream-ego feels and reacts, knows and thinks about what is going on in the dream. She is not quite the same as Marian in waking life, so to clearly distinguish her I’ll call her “Marian”.

“Marian” , represents the point of view of the dream. The secret to remember is that the dream is really about you, but the subtlety is , it is not necessarily about your ego. It may well be about the you in the world to come, the you who is going to emerge if you keep hanging out in archetypal spaces and learning there.

In natural dreamwork we ground ourselves in the events in the dream. We pay close attention to where the dream-ego is standing, literally– and the space between her and the other players. We also note how much duration of time she gives to each of these figures in the dream. We remember that attention is a form of love. By focusing carefully on the space-time-feeling of the dream ( a technique I call five dimensional dreaming) we can really clear away the more superficial layers of reactivity and story-fabrication and come to see the dream in itself.

In the beginning of the dream “Marian” stands between the collective questioners and the huge man. The dream traces how “Marian” moves further away from the questioners and closer to the “huge man”. This movement enacts a huge change in orientation happening within. From a quest for knowledge to “a knowing.”

Questions and answers are part of our ordinary way of knowing, and it is how law and science proceed. It’s generally how we solve problems. But certain problems can’t be solved that way. Problems of the soul, problems of the psyche don’t necessarily yield to direct questions, any more than great poetry or great works of art do. The deeper problems of value, the problems of why we are here at all, the problems of what is beautiful or holy. They don’t yield to questions in the same way. The dream suggests an experience of moving away from the tyranny of the questions which tend to lie closer to the surface, towards a sense of deeper gnosis underneath all our questions. Gnosis is closely related to our experience of recognition.

When I see an object in waking life, or an image in a dream — and I have a strong feeling of connection to it, the image evokes a subjective sense of gnosis, a knowing. Even more so when I encounter a strong presence in a dream— an archetypal presence– there is often a strong sense of recognition, of gnosis which establishes relationship.

Dreamers will report of a certain “stranger” in a dream– “I felt like I knew her”, “I felt like I was somehow related to him.” This amounts to, “I don’t know him– yet I do know him.” The uncanny ‘knowing” of someone who objectively appears as a stranger is often a tell that we are encountering an archetypal presence in our dreams.

Our knowing of the archetypal is not from personal history or experience, and yet is felt deeply as a real knowing. (For instance, it would probably be foolish to ask Marian if she knows any giants in her waking life.)

Gnosis is embodied and felt and intuitive. It is not knowledge of a fact, but as Marian writes and says in the dream– it is “a knowing.” And “a knowing” is a glimpse of a whole realm of felt experience, the sense we may have covered over or forgotten, of fundamental imaginative reality.

It’s the imaginative reality that the Greeks must have felt when they told stories of the Titans, and the Hebrews when they wrote of the nephilim.” (Genesis 6:4)

In that realm, “huge” figures walk the ground.

It is easy to understand that the group of questioners personify Marian’s waking thought process. Confronting some experience of mysterious depth, the mind gets busy asking questions. We all have these questions buzzing around in our heads, they simply become personified in the dream.

But what about the huge man?

We can certainly theorize as I’ve done here, about archetypes– my own theory is really based on thousands of dreams yet in every dream, I must return to the fundament of space-time-feeling. We must witness clearly what we see in the dream.

Instead of theorizing about what he is, our approach is more phenomenological. What do we see ? He is not a human size. He is naked (“or nearly so”). He is barefoot. He walks the ground slowly and deliberately He is silent. He does not answer the questions.

If we understand the plot of the dream in causal terms, as a chain of actions and responses– then the space-time-feeling of a dream becomes active and dynamic.

It makes sense to think that the questioners are in some ways arising in response to the huge man’s presence. They are “moving around him”, in some way their questions are activated by him. Marian too has questions but she moves off that position. She comes to understand that asking him questions will not lead anywhere. This understanding arises in a moment of recognition.

Aside from his huge size and deliberate movement, what really sets the huge man apart is a “knowing” that the dreamer feels, in response to him.

The ability to cultivate this kind of knowing (gnosis or recognition) develops through contact with dreams, and also through immersion in other imaginative experiences, reading poetry, watching plays or movies, looking at works of art… this sense of recognition of a felt object or a felt presence is a necessary capacity to enter into dreams imaginatively.

I am positing– it’s not a matter of proof but it comes through long experience– that the huge naked barefoot man is unaccountable, and unlikely, so much so that our ordinary thought process does not know what to do with him, our ordinary question-answer way of processing the world. He appears huge to us because he is not of our domain and we are not of his.

In my view, the huge man’s presence itself energizes the people “moving around him” because his very quality of being evokes a mystery that undermines the security of the ordinary way of thinking. His presence provokes questions and demands for answers, which is how the waking ego maintains its equilibrium.

But the insight in the dream that comes to Marian is that this q-and-a process is futile. We cannot really know or understand the “huge man” through questions.

The dream displays an ongoing process of separation from the “questioners” and growing adherence to the “huge man”. That is the overall movement of the dream.

She senses the contrast between the questioners “moving around” — and the huge man’s steady slow gait. She hears the difference between their speech and his silence. As her attention moves completely to the huge man, the “questions fade.”

It is a fading of sound, but we can understand it too as a quieting of an inner turbulence, a dampening of that restless inquiry of the mind that goes on in us all the time.

By aligning with him in feeling, a realization arises. The huge man is not there to give answers. Rather he “is the answer”.

That is a very beautiful recognition. It is “a knowing”, a clear example of the difference between intellectual knowledge and an intuitive recognition.

This moment that arises from her shifting her attention from the questioners to the huge man is what the dream is all about.

In the session I asked Marian to deepen this movement by imagining herself moving closer to the huge man, walking beside him, walking step by step as he walks, and to feel in her body this sense of being naked, and barefoot and slow. In this way she was practicing becoming his companion on the way to a knowing that is beyond discourse, beyond reasoning,, beyond questions and answers.

(This grounding is a lesson she has received from a giant man in other dreams. Marian has written about this in a piece called Dreaming as a Contemplative Path.)


The dream of “a huge man” is not specifically about dreamwork as such, but I find it helpful in suggesting how a practitioner might help to midwife a dream.

In our culture, one of the overhangs of the debunked Freudian dream hypothesis is the idea of the dream as a riddle. This idea has a storied past, literally: with roots in Sumerian literature and in the story of Pharaoh’s dreams in Genesis. Freud who brought this same approach to dreams into the twentieth century, identified himself as a latter day Joseph. And he gave his theory a powerful literary form the psychological “case study” such as Freud’s studies of “Dora”, “Little Hans” and “The Wolf Boy.” These famous case studies are great works of literature. They resemble the detective stories of his contemporary A. Conan Doyle.

When as practitioners we analyze dreams using questions and seeking answers, we are following the line of Freud who was always searching for the smoking gun, some forgotten or repressed event in the past that is the cause of present day behaviors and symptoms. For Freud, dogmatically insisted that dreams “are about the past in every sense.” Nothing in a dream to Freud could be anything but a memory or a distorted memory. By following this line of Freud’s, we become very much like the questioning figures in Marian’s dream.

But the dream itself is not only about the past. The “huge man” is a presence if anyone is, and in a way he’s also a future. His presence is active upon “Marian” and changes her. It makes more sense to stay with the phenomenology, the actual movements of time-space-feeling in the dream, instead of looking for some “answer” that is outside the dream.

Of course it depends on what stage you are in with the client. We can always go horizontal instead of vertical and sometimes we have to. When we play detective and act like “questioners” of a dream, working with a client, then we “move all around” the subject, we ask clients to give us associations, or to identify people in the dream. We pursue questions from the dreamer’s waking life or we probe into her past. We keep dragging the dream back to waking ‘reality” not realizing the dream has its own reality. We make waking consciousness the be-all and end-all of truth, when for the dream it can be something of a dead end. If a dream is about presence and presentation– then inserting questions about the dreamer’s past can sometimes be an imposition.

Often the stories we evoke this way are not fresh material or repressed or lost memories. Many people already know very well about all their smoking guns and have a well-established story to wrap around them. They’ve composed their own very convincing case history.

This kind of detective work can often be very valuable in getting to know a person, or to be more precise, to getting to know the person’s story. (For it takes a long time to really encounter persons, and not stories persons wrap around themselves.) But Marian’s dream suggests that it is somewhat futile as a way of understanding what the presence of the huge man is here to bring her.


To get there we must follow our eyes and ears. We must see how the huge man is behaving and more deeply we must feel him. By walking alongside him, aligning with him, attuning to him, we can come to feel what he is showing us.

In the dream, merely by observing how he is walking, the “questions fade” and Marian comes to understand his nature. She acquires a knowing which she then verbalizes and shares with another.

The key here is that the archetype does not come bearing a doctrine or a theology or a belief system. He does not verbalize an instruction, respond directly to queries or questions. Rather he shows us how he moves, and we must learn his moves.

In regard to the ground of the dream,– which I refer to as a five dimensional universe of space-time-feeling– he shows us that we must walk the ground slowly,   we must maintain our silence and we must remain vulnerable and open (naked or nearly so), and we must feel the earth sensuously, that is we must walk barefoot in the dream. That is how we might come to a knowing instead of answers. That is how we might come to understand how the huge man is himself “the answer.”

John Keats in one of his letters to his brothers George and Tom, wrote about the state of being attuned to primary imagination, which he calls “negative capability” a capability that he saw very much in the genius of Shakespeare. He was marveling at how Shakespeare could become almost anyone, identify with almost anyone. He could become tender-hearted Ophelia, philosophical Hamlet, the evil plotter Iago and the uproarious Falstaff. How could he become so many people and inhabit them so thoroughly?

Keats called this imaginative capacity, “negative capability. And he said in such a state, there is “no irritable reaching after fact or reason.”

If our questions about dreams, arise from a search for an answer, for causes and explanations, for an etiology, a reason why someone is the way one is– then we are not in alignment with what’s archetypal in the dream. Such questioning arises from this “irritable reaching.” The literary avatar of this” irritable reaching” would be the irritable and touchy Sherlock Holmes.

The natural dreamwork approach is quite different. We must learn directly from the huge man in Marian’s dream. The way we do this is through imaginative alignment. We must feel how he is behaving, we must imagine ourselves into the dream and become his companion and friend. We walk alongside him, we imitate his gait, we feel what it is like in the body and then in the mind to walk the ground slowly, hearing the questions surrounding us, but then letting the questions fade. He does not give answers, but for us he becomes the answer.

Imitating the huge man, we too do not give answers to clients, because if we do we play into the story-making of the I-function, we encourage and reinforce what the client already knows, whereas the dream wants to give the client what is not yet known and not really an answer to a question. It is instead a quality of being.

Rodger Kamenetz is the author of The History of Last Night’s Dream. He will be giving a lecture and teaching a workshop on dreams and poetry September 15 and 16, 2017 at the Center for Integrative Learning in Wilmington DE.