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Chapter 3   

The Hypnotic Use of Waking Dreams:
Exploring Near-Death Experiences Without the Flatlines

Chapter Three
A Typical Waking Dream

Initiating a waking dream in therapy is straightforward. The experience is very much like having a daydream. While most choose to lie down on the couch and close their eyes, some remain in a seated position with their eyes open. I have even experienced some of my own waking dreams while pacing back and forth in a room. Just like when we daydream, it is easier to have a waking dream when the person is relaxed physically and emotionally. One simple way I help my clients do this is to have them remember a time when they were feeling this way. For some this means walking in a grassy meadow. For others it may involve sitting along a river bank. Some choose a walk along a forest path with the sun shining through the trees.

If you want, try this experience for yourself. Remember a classroom from your years in elementary school. It doesn’t matter which one you choose or even if it is from a later time period. Imagine yourself in the classroom and notice the color of the chalkboard. Now look at the wall above the chalkboard and notice what you see there. Most people report seeing cards with the letters of the alphabet. If that happens to be what you see, notice the color of the cards and the color of the letters. Now walk up to the chalkboard and find a piece of chalk that is a good length. What color did you choose? Notice if you can feel the chalky texture when you pick it up. Then draw or write something on the board. When you’re done put the chalk back on the chalk tray. Did you notice the sound of the chalk as you wrote or when you put it back down? Finally, look for an eraser. Notice if there is already chalk dust on it or if it is clean. Erase what you wrote or drew on the board. Is it completely gone or is there a faint image left?

I frequently use this teaching exercise with my clients. If you did the exercise yourself, it is likely that the image you had of the classroom was based on a real memory. At the point where I asked you to write on the board, the experience most likely became purely fictional. A few people retrieve a memory of a time when they wrote something on the board during class, but for most this part of the experience is fictional. However, nothing in the quality of the imagery changes when the content moves from the real memory to one which is fictional. The sights, sounds, and feelings seem very similar if not identical. This is why I’m very careful in how I use hypnosis/imagery. For the purpose of waking dreams, I arbitrarily define the content as fictional. This is easy to do since the person is always someone else in the dream. Notice how tall you were when you walked up to the chalkboard in your mind. Most people report that they were the height of a child, not their adult height, even though I said nothing about being younger in the exercise. Waking dreams take advantage of the mind’s ability to imagine in a multi-sensory, multi-age way.

After I help clients move into a relaxed trance state, I ask them to imagine being in a movie or story whose main character’s life will contain experiences which they will find meaningful and relevant. For example, I may say, "As you continue to relax and go even more deeply within, you might find yourself beginning to imagine being someone in a movie; a person whose story will contain experiences that will be timely, useful and constructive for you in your own life." While I could certainly offer more specific suggestions, I like to keep the risks of biasing or confounding the process to a minimum by being as non-specific as possible. In this way whatever imagery emerges for the client has the best chance of being generated independent of any beliefs I may have about the nature or origin of the client’s issues. There are many ways to phrase this opening suggestion. One way is to ask the client’s unconscious or higher self "to generate a story, perhaps from another time and place, in which the events will provide you with greater understanding of [the current concern] that will be constructive, timely and useful in helping you to resolve it."

In practice, the dream is almost always experienced in the first person rather than the third person, so the dream is richly emotional and not just a cognitive experience. In fact, when the client does experience the dream in the third person as an observer, it seems to serve a protective function which allows the person some emotional distance from the content of the dream. I do not use waking dreams to access real memories from childhood. Indeed, when a history of childhood trauma is suspected, skilled therapists know that any use of hypnosis must be done with considerable caution.

For some, the waking dream begins with an experience of being a child. For others, the person is already an adult. The entry point is not critical. Because the dream content is arbitrarily defined as fictional, it is even workable to have the client intentionally make up an initial scene. For example, one client kept rejecting images he was having because he thought he was consciously making them up, and thought they should somehow feel different if his unconscious was generating them. I suggested he simply make up a scene. The client immediately saw himself – as a different person – approaching a fork on a dirt road at which stood a large, dead tree. As he studied the image he had a sense the area had suffered a severe drought for several years. Turning down the left fork he came to an abandoned house which triggered profound sadness (in the man he was in the dream). As the waking dream continued, its theme and mood had clear parallels to the long-standing emotional drought in the client’s marriage and the "fork in the road" he had come to in his life. This client’s dream is presented in full in chapter six.

Another client’s waking dream began with a rather frightening scene. She experienced herself being at the bottom of a ravine. She became quite scared to see a large tiger at the top of the ravine looking down at her. I reminded her she could leave the dream if she wanted, but asked her if she would imagine sending a thought to the tiger that she was scared. When she did I watched a puzzled look come over her face. "What happened?" I asked. She said, "The tiger sent back a thought that it is scared of me!" I invited her to dialogue with the tiger about this (since they could obviously exchange thoughts without actually speaking in the dream) and see how they might resolve this in a way which was agreeable to both. She lay silent for a few minutes and then announced calmly, "I’m riding on his back now. We’re going to travel together." We can certainly speculate about the symbolism of the tiger in her dream. I did not comment at the time as it seemed unnecessary – she resolved the fear herself. One possibility is that her apprehension about what she might learn about herself through the vehicle of waking dreams presented in the form of the tiger. Perhaps when she confronted her fear of the unknown in this symbolic way, she found a way to reframe the adrenalin rush from anxiety to curiosity and courage.

Most waking dreams follow a chronological progression over the life of the main character, though sometimes events are experienced out of sequence. Some clients will describe considerable contextual details regarding the person’s life. Others offer only minimal details like a theater stage with very few props. Sometimes the dreams include the names of people, cities, or even specific years. If asked about such information, however, the client typically reports that it is unimportant.

Most people have an easy time seeing things in their mind’s eye. Some who have a much harder time with visual images are able to hear sounds. Still others have strong feeling experiences. If a client is having trouble generating visual imagery, I shift to asking about sounds or feelings, or I may ask questions aimed at providing more context.

"You might notice what you are wearing, if anything, on your feet."

"What time of day or night does it seem to be?"

"Do you have a sense of being indoors or outside?"

"Notice if you sense the presence of another person."

"Do you hear any sounds?"

If the client encounters emotionally intense content, there are a variety of ways of handling it. One strategy is the "screening room" technique. I have clients imagine they are sitting in a small theater or screening room with me. In their mind they hold a remote control device like that used for VCRs that they can use to control the dream in a variety of ways. They can fast forward over a scary scene in the dream, or pause the action while I help them relax. Similarly, they can mute the sound in the imagery, analogous to turning down the volume during the scary part of a movie so that the sound effects are not heard. In the screening room, emotional intensity is automatically toned down by shifting to a third person perspective. As an alternative, I may have the client simply shift to a third person vantage point within the dream and move to a safe distance to observe what is happening. For example, "If you’d like, step back and watch what is happening, now, from a safe vantage point."

Many clients pace the life of the dream character in a way that I am able to remain mostly silent, recording what they tell me about the experience. If I sense the momentum is fading, I will suggest something like, "And when you are ready, you can let the scene move to the next important event which will be useful for you to see." In practice, once the client has become the dream character, I refer to the dream character as "you" rather than "he" or "she." It is easier for the client to stay in character in the dream experience this way. For example, "You can let yourself notice whether there is anything else about what is happening now that it is important for you to understand in a conscious way."

When the life of the person in the dream seems to be nearing its end, I may suggest, "If it is okay, I’d like to ask you to move ahead in time to the end of your life (as the dream character)." If the client is experiencing the dream from a third person perspective, I will honor that by changing the language. If the dream character is identified as Claire, I may suggest that "you move ahead in time to the end of Claire’s life." For many, this is sufficient to prompt a scene just prior to the person’s death. If not, I may offer suggestions aimed at helping the client set the stage. "You might notice the circumstances. . . where you are. . . whether anyone else is present. . . or what is happening now." In practice I never suggest the specifics of how the person in the dream dies. When invited to explore the final part of the life of the person in the dream, most clients spontaneously include the death of the person. I rarely need to intervene as the person dies. Clients rarely report emotional distress of such intensity that they are reluctant to let the process continue. For the rare client who seems to be in some distress, I invite him or her to view what is happening "from a safe distance." A reaction of distress is more likely to happen if the death in the dream was violent or the result of an accident such as a drowning. In such situations, I use standard hypnotic techniques for helping tone down the emotional intensity of the experience. For example, I may remind the person, "You can observe what is happening to Henry knowing that you are safe here in my office and need not experience in your physical body any discomfort which is happening to Henry’s body." I find that suggestions such as this serve to quickly abate any acute anxiety symptoms.

At the moment in the dream when death occurs, most clients report a significant shift in how they feel. This is particularly true if the death was secondary to some kind of accident or other trauma. Regardless of the circumstances leading to the death, most spontaneously float out of the body of the dream character. Again, independent of the nature of the death, they report feeling very calm, tranquil, at peace, etc. Because this part of the experience is so consistently associated with the absence of any judgmental tone or attitude, it creates an emotionally safe environment within which the client may review and self-critique the dream content. As is the norm in the NDE literature, clients seem very open and non-defensive as they explore the content and implications of the dream content from this out-of-body perspective.

I help them do this in a variety of ways:

They may review major decisions or conclusions, especially those made at the very end of the life.

They may notice pre-existing assumptions which were found to be invalid in the dream content.

Based on the life outcomes of the dream content, they may return to a critical decision point, enact a different choice, and live out the consequences of this new alternative as a way of experimenting with new solutions.

After the death of the person in the dream, I routinely propose a dialogue between the dream character and the client. The out-of-body person can be asked if he or she has any suggestions for the client regarding the client’s own presenting issues based on the life experiences from the dream. The content of the suggestions which ensue are often predictable; however, the tone is usually quite different from that which typically characterizes internal self-talk. The tone of the person in the dream is described by clients in terms like "gentle, non-judgmental, supportive, encouraging, forgiving." Sometimes the suggestions are thematic such as, "You’re taking this issue much too seriously. Lighten up!" At other times the suggestions are very concrete and specific.

I often use a split-screen image to suggest that the client notice correlations between the dream life and his or her own life. Even without suggesting specific possibilities, many clients will report personality parallels between other people in the dream life and current relationships in the client’s life. Just as Dorothy incorporated neighbors and family members in her dream experiences in The Wizard of Oz, clients often incorporate critical elements of their own relationships in waking dreams. These can be worked with in various ways to tease out faulty assumptions, to reframe aspects of the relationship, or to dialogue with the people involved in the dream about alternative solutions to the problem.

One fascinating outcome is when the client and the dream character agree on a signal that the client will use in the future to remind himself or herself to use the new solution that was generated in this dialogue.

If the presence of guides or angels is experienced, I focus on the emotional healing potential of a relationship which has unconditional love as its foundation.

I make use of these guides as co-therapists with many of my clients. I find the comfort, support and suggestions that clients attribute to their guides to be consistently constructive and positive. Most present in human form in the client’s imagery, though some present as animals or birds or fish. Most indicate that they have been with the client since birth. Occasionally I encounter a guide who works with the client on a time-limited project. For example, while using hypnosis with a client to help her prepare for major surgery, I invited her to notice if her guides wanted to add any suggestions to the work we were doing that day. She reported that a new guide introduced himself as "John." She said he told her that he would be with her just during the surgery and recovery period. When she was several weeks into her uneventful postoperative recovery period, she reported that John had visited with her once again to tell her that his work with her was now finished. In the months which followed she had no further contact from him.

Another client who happens to have multiple personalities called me one day in some distress. She told me she had just awoken from a nap and found that her room was full of people, some two dozen of them. I had worked with her for several years at that point, and knew she had no prior history of visual hallucinations. I asked her to notice if one of the people seemed to be a spokesperson for the group. She indicated there was. I suggested she ask, simply, why they were there. She did and reported that one of them told her, "Well, there are many of you so we figured that it would only be fair if there were enough of us to go around." Throughout her youth she had consistently felt that she had to put her own needs second to those of other family members. Here she understood without further discussion that this group was offering her – and every one of her alter personalities – a one-to-one relationship of support and guidance. In the years since that afternoon, whenever she experiences significant emotional distress, she can calm herself (and her other parts) in about 30 seconds by inviting this group of guides to be with her.

Another of my clients routinely worked with two guides, a male and a female, whom she experienced as standing on either side of her. They regularly nudged her to tell me something which she was reluctant to address. If they thought we were getting too far off on a tangent, they told her to tell me so – and she did. I firmly believe that her willingness to allow this kind of active involvement by her guides in her therapy was the result of the simple reality that their advice and manner of support has always been both on target and very loving.

When one of my clients first meets a guide such as the ones I have described above, I routinely pose a series of questions for the client to put to the guide(s). I invite the client to, "Notice the response you get to the question, and pay careful attention to your own reaction to that response." The message here is for the client to learn to trust his or her own intuition. If the client doesn’t feel comfortable or trusting of the response from the guide, I pay careful attention to it. I make no assumption that when the client "sees" someone that this means I am dealing with a guide as opposed to there being some other explanation for what is happening. In practice, my clients report that the guide seems to know the rest of my question before I finish asking it, and that as the questions continue, the guide begins to grin in a knowing anticipation of the next question – to which the answer will also be an affirming "yes."

I begin by asking the client to inquire if the guide "is from the Light." While it easy for someone to lie on a job application or personality test, it has been my experience that whomever or whatever these beings are, they do not lie. On very rare occasions when a client has asked this question, the person simply left. If the client has any reservation about the answer to this question, I follow with additional hypnotic techniques which usually resolve the uncertainty. Once the client is clear that the person/guide is "from the Light," I ask the client to confirm some assumptions which I have consistently found to be true:

"Are you available at any time, or do you keep office hours?" I phrase it this way to call attention to the fact that guides are available at times when clients are often reluctant call their therapist. I find guides are available at any hour of the day or night – weekends, holidays and power failures included.

"Do you promise that you will never try to ‘make me’ do anything; that you will only offer advice?" I find that guides never "insist." They may remind, nudge, encourage or prod, but they never insist or demand. They may comment about the consequences of procrastinating on an issue or the benefits of dealing with it, but they leave the decision up to the client.

"Can I expect that if I ask a question, that you will answer it – if you are allowed to do so?" I find that guides provide information in proportion to how often they are asked. In an odd way they seem reluctant to intrude, but if asked for help they are quick to provide what they are able. They tend not to answer many specific questions about future tense events. They will not tell someone what they "should" do. Their suggestions come as options, as possibilities which the person is free to use or not. One client wanted me to recommend some books for her to read. While I have my favorites which I thought might be useful, I suggested she go to a bookstore and ask her guides to point out some possibilities. She e-mailed me on her return from the store, somewhat stunned at the success of this new way of utilizing her guides whom she felt had steered her to several books which she found very relevant.

"Is it true that you can be much more helpful to me if I specifically ask for your help?" Good friends often wait to offer suggestions (only) when they are requested. I find guides are eager to help, but tend to be much more actively involved when we specifically ask them to do so. Having forgotten to take his pass key to get into his office building one Saturday, another client decided to do some shopping. He asked his guide, a hawk, about the idea of checking out one of two local exercise stores for some replacement equipment he was contemplating purchasing. He told me the hawk pointed him towards the second of the two stores. There he found the equipment he wanted – on sale – from a reputable manufacturer whose price was more than $1,000 lower than the brand he had planned to purchase. The salesman explained that the only difference was in the level of sophistication of the on-board computer.

One direct consequence of these kinds of experiences is that my clients report a shift in how they understand the "coincidences" which occur in their lives. While it is not my intent to "prove" that coincidences always have other explanations, I find that my clients have a different attitude about life’s unexpected quirks. They come to react to them as unexpected possibilities, cleverly disguised in many different ways which they would have previously labeled as annoying or inconvenient. As I was editing this very paragraph one day a client "misremembered" the time for a scheduled phone consult and called three hours early. During the time which remained I had intended to make a critical, difficult call to someone on her behalf which we had been planning for quite awhile. We reconfirmed the later phone time and started to say goodbye. Before we hung up she took a moment to tell me about a conversation she had had the night before which eliminated the need for me to make the call. We both chuckled at the suspicion that our respective guides had a hand in the "coincidences" involved in the timing of her call, as she had not known that I would be making my call just before we were scheduled to talk. Whether or not guides played a role in this particular situation, my clients and I find life is much more intriguing when we approach the unexpected with an attitude of curiosity and anticipation.

In the following chapters we’ll explore a variety of ways in which these different experiences manifest in waking dreams. Each client has given his or her permission to use the transcript of the waking dream. While names and identifying information have been changed to protect confidentiality, very little other editing has been done of the actual dream content.




Updated: 06/23/2007

Paul W. Schenk, Psy.D.
3589 Habersham at Northlake, Bldg O, Tucker, GA 30084-4001
Phone: 770-939-4473
Office Fax: 770-939-0033