In this section, I describe the basics of Processwork theory. Basic terms are defined and we see how they are used in dream work. I also show you how they can be used in personal transformation. Before I define all the terms, I want to share with you my personal story of how working with a dream has helped me to take a big step in my career.
In 2011 I was invited to my dream job—working at a holistic clinic in Samara, Costa Rica. This clinic used modern as well as traditional medicine and psychology, nutrition, yoga, acupuncture, chi-gong, art therapy, and more to help people with addictions. As a holistic therapist, I used all my knowledge from psychology and shamanism, travels, art, and nature. I loved the work environment and my clients. The clients were mostly young people, who were often interested in spirituality and transformation, but had gotten caught in the trap of addiction. Most of my private therapy sessions took place on the balcony of a beautiful villa, on a hill overlooking the Costa Rican jungle, sand, and ocean. When I did a Processwork session in this beautiful environment, we would sometimes dance or yell with clients, and the local howler monkeys would join us in a chorus.
I adored this work and put a lot of effort and heart into it. There were many interesting professionals working there, and we got along well and learned a lot from each other. Staff members were people from all over the world—there was a doctor from Russia, a psychologist specializing in addiction from Spain, a yoga teacher from Costa Rica, and an administrator from the United States. It was not easy to make up a team from all these different backgrounds and attitudes, but as the therapist, I had a good relationship with all. We had a fun and creative atmosphere in the team.
After about 6 months, our founder decided to move on to another project and he offered me to take on more responsibility as the director of the clinic. The reason for this was not wholly due to my experience (there were staff with longer careers), but also because the director was an old friend and trusted me. This would be a position of much more power, responsibility, more money, as well as opportunity to be creative in bringing in more types of healing. After some hesitation, I accepted it.
At this point all things went sour. Before this, I was an equal to my coworkers. After this appointment, our working relationship grew worse, discipline in the clinic fell. Everyone had different opinions on how to run things, staff were arguing and trying to get their own way. I got into a public fight with our yoga teacher and felt like a total failure afterwards. I had been unprepared to be thrust into the role of captain with a ship about to mutiny. My small haven of tropical creativity had become a terrifying jungle, and the screams of the howler monkeys now sounded ominous.
During this rough time I had a dream—I was sitting in front of Russian President Putin and teasing him. At some point he noticed my teasing and I decided to run away. That was the whole dream. This simple dream helped me to successfully resolve the conflicts around me. This is how I worked through this dream. From Processwork theory, I know that all figures in a dream are “me,” and the most useful is usually the figure that seems to be farthest away from my own identity. To me, Putin represents a powerful dictator who uses his power to suppress freedom, and someone to fear. So, this is the figure I tried to become. To be clear, I did not go on Wikipedia to research Putin’s biography and try to emulate him. We are talking only about the particular figure and feelings as they appeared in my dream from within my own self. I found the qualities of my “dream dictator” to be distant, powerful, firm, and unafraid of anyone. I imagined I am a dictator and tried to walk around the room in a way that the president of a powerful country would walk. I paid attention to how my walk changed from how it normally felt. I stretched up, straightened out, began to walk with a spring in my step like a confident man, and look at everyone from above.
To imitate my “inner Putin” I used various channels—movement, proprioceptive, visual. When I engaged those channels to shapeshift into the Putin figure, my psychological state changed a little to match my new attitude, and now I could look back at my conflicts or problems from the point of view of this role. Of course I did not become Putin, but I brought a homeopathic dose of Putin into my own world view.
While still in this transformation, I gave myself advice from Putin’s point of view regarding this small bit of power that was causing discord at work. The dictator suggested to stop being afraid of this authority I had been given. The dictator looked at the figure of “me” that had been teasing him in the dream.
In this dream, I associated myself with a light-hearted trickster who was afraid of his freedom being taken away by power. I told the trickster, “Don’t be afraid, I won’t limit your freedom, happiness, and lightness, we can both live in this body and consciousness together, and share this space. I will make sure to preserve your freedom, but you need to let me use my power and authority with a wise and firm hand to do our job well.” This was my way to give respect to both of my dream figures and both of my processes: the primary process—the trickster who loves freedom, as well as the secondary process—the dictator who wants to succeed in his career.
This was the way in which I worked on this issue. It was a very important dream in my life. I could not realize my talents of leadership before this. I felt the dictator in the dream symbolized that part of me that can lead. He was very relaxed about it, he used force when necessary in small quantities, and made people listen to him. This inner dictator was not evil, just self-confident, calm, and assertive.
The very next day, I called a meeting of all staff. This dream gave me the ability to speak with my coworkers in the rehab confidently and calmly, show them that I am not afraid to use my authority, and everyone relaxed. After this, things calmed down and I was able to use that power for developing new projects instead of putting out fires with coworkers.
The techniques I used to work through my dream have been developed and named by Arnold Mindell (2000, 2001), the founder of Processwork. Next I explain some of the basic concepts within the methodology.
Primary process—qualities, actions, and behaviors that you associate with your own self. These are qualities you know well, accept as your identity, and are comfortable with. In dreams they often show up associated with the dreamer.
In the dream I was a free, playful figure. This is my trickster part—I tease the dictator, but am too small to be noticed, and I can run away to my playful freedom when I am noticed. I know this part of myself well. I built it up and nourished it for a long time. For several years before my move to Costa Rica, I lived a life of a free spirited trickster, leading shamanic groups in places of power, coming home to NY to lead a seminar, and then moving on with new adventures. Half a year before I got the offer in Costa Rica, I started feeling that this part of my identity had developed enough. I began to look for more stability in my life and in my work as a Processwork therapist. That process resulted in my move to Costa Rica.
Secondary process—those qualities and behaviors that are less known and often unidentified with. They may be less familiar or totally unfamiliar to the self, usually are associated with disturbing events and other people, and in dreams are hard to control consciously. As an example, the dictator from my dream was representing my secondary process—to use my power and authority consciously. These lesser known qualities are usually the ones that need to be discovered and explored for further personal development. People often experience these as scary or negative because they do not yet know how to use them consciously in a meaningful way. They may have never yet acknowledged the deeper qualities of these figures as being part of the self. For example, the figure of the dictator in my dream was more secondary for me, and I had difficulties integrating the dictator’s power.
The edge is associated with disturbing behaviors or things unaccepted by the person. This is the barrier a person throws up between “myself” and “other” in their own dream. The edge can exist as a result of views and past experiences relating to personal trauma, family, or archetypal story. It keeps people from accepting the useful advice their own psyche may be bringing to them in the shape of the uncomfortable secondary process images.
No one wants a dictator in their dream, but it may not be so bad once you become the figure and get to know it from the inside, get past the edge and look at the dream through the dictator’s eyes. In my Putin dream, the edge was represented by my childhood trauma, growing up in a dictatorship, as I grew up in Soviet Russia and was part of the Jewish minority. From the very beginning, authorities and people in power represented a danger to myself and my family. I was faced with bureaucrats who tried to limit my freedom and access to education. Since that time, I felt I could never be part of official power and leadership. I had many negative examples and few positive examples of official leadership. When I had to take on a leadership role as an adult, I was unable to. This is a good example of how the edge operates.
This dream came to me to uncover these causes, and teach me how to move forward. What methods did I use to understand what the dream told me? I first did what many modern psychologists suggest. They say that dreams are just reflections of the processes of your own psyche. I used shapeshifting to embody dream images, to feel their experiences, and use them for myself.
Some of these processes are closer to you, and in your dream you may associate them with yourself and other figures like you. Other sets of qualities which are farther from the self can take on disturbing or even nightmare forms, because they are farther from our idea of self as we know it. I was not comfortable with being a leader, and that is why my psyche gave this idea a form that was unpleasant to me—that of Putin. These can be animate or inanimate objects—they can come in the form of a zombie, or a car, or a lake. Inanimate forms can be worked with in the same way as with animate objects in the dream. When working with dreams you can become the object or ask the inanimate object such as a lake for advice in the same way that you would a person.
Here I would like to introduce the Processwork concept of channels. In our human body we perceive reality and express our feedback through a limited number of channels. Channels can relate to our normal senses, but also to more complicated concepts. Simple channels are as follows:
Vision—images, drawing or imagination.
Proprioceptive—body feelings such as cold or warm, a sharp or cutting sensation, feelings of lightness, and emotional experiences.
Taste and smell—much rarer in dreams than the other channels, but there are some people in whom these channels are developed. There really are people who dream with tastes and smells!
Composite channels are as follows:
Relationship channel—something that happens between two people, two roles. Example: Zombie chases person, person runs away. Putin pays attention to me while I taunt him.
World channel—what happens in the world around you in response to your transformation.
Example: I had a several nightmares with fire and destructuction right before Russia started a war with Ukraine in 2014. I wasn’t watching political situation at that moment. I was busy with Process work diploma program residency. But the energy of war got into my dream through the World channel.
In Processwork, we use the different channels to understand different messages that come to us in dreams.
Shapeshifting and Roleplay
Shapeshifting. Find the dream figure that is the least “you” in the dream and shapeshift into it. In order to do this you can use channels—sound, movement, and so forth. In Processwork we think that all parts of the dream, whether alive or not, represent processes in our self. We use shapeshifting to understand the process, energy, method, or teaching it has. We transform into one of the forms present in our dream. It could be an object, a person, a hero. We can receive lessons from a Hollywood actor, a cat, a bear chasing us, a forest, or even a table. To shapeshift we use different channels such as movement, visual, and others, to be as much like that form as possible. We then use roleplay to really develop that state.
Roleplay. This incorporates channels, actions, and interactions between dream figures. Shapeshifting into different roles within your dream, you communicate between them with the help of role switching. A second person or therapist could help in role switching, but that is not necessary. You can set up a chair to play the role of a second character.
When we are small we learn about the world through roleplay. Children practice adult behavior in this way. We play doctor, astronaut, mom and dad, we feed medicine to our dolls. In the first few years of life a person processes and acquires more new skills and behaviors than in the rest of their life, and very quickly as well. In Processwork we turn to roleplay to help us internalize, and incorporate dream revelations into our behavior. Roleplay is an important aspect of working with dreams.
When my dream sent me the message of being more assertive, I did not immediately run off to yell at my coworkers. When I first realized that I needed to wield my power, I was mad at my coworkers and afraid that I would ruin the relationship if I acted out. Instead of running out and acting on these emotions, I used roleplay as a buffer. Roleplay helped me to integrate this new feeling of authority with the feelings of freedom that I already associated myself with. I used roleplay to feel as Putin using all the channels—I used the movement channel when I walked like Putin, I used the proprioceptive channel by changing my posture and straightening my back and stretching out vertically, I also relaxed and felt more grounded. I used the visual channel to imagine myself dressed and looking like Putin. I roleplayed this new character until I felt confident wielding my power calmly and assertively without hurting the other trickster part of me. Only then was the work done and I was ready to apply this new behavior in my life.
Exercises: Shapeshifting Into a Dream Image
Think about your life, and the kind of tasks and problems you are currently faced with. Decide which one you would like to work on. Take a recent dream and rewatch it like a movie. If it is a long dream and has several scenes, find a point in the dream which has more emotion, the one you remember most vividly. Which figure in the dream do you most associate yourself with? This image is probably closer to your primary process. Now find a dream image or figure which is the farthest, or opposite from your own identity, it can be alive or inanimate. For example, if in the dream you drowned in a lake, the lake would be the dream image you are going to use.
Start to shapeshift into this image. For example, if you have a wolf chasing you in the dream, you can start to run or walk the way that wolf would. You can growl like that wolf. You can imagine how it would feel to have fur. Try to become that specific wolf from your dream. Keep this going for at least 5 minutes and notice the changes in your body. Notice how your posture changed, the position of your shoulders, the tension in the solar plexus and stomach, position of the neck. Notice the attitude with which you walk and touch the floor, what is the difference between this and how you usually walk? Do you see things around you differently?
When you feel that you have completely shapeshifted into this role, notice what quality is held in this figure that you might not usually notice. What does it do well that you do not? It could be very specific like, “the wolf can smell for miles around itself and be totally aware of a large surrounding area.” See how this quality can help you resolve your task or problem. Embody this figure, and see how this figure would approach your task or problem. In this example—how would your dream wolf deal with the problem your human self is now facing?