DreamTime Vol. 26, No. 1, p. 13, Winter 2009.
Photo by Shuyuan Wang
Gunnar's Tree, Fall 2008
by William R. Stimson
Over a decade ago when Gunnar Sundström, now President of the Swedish Dream Group Forum, was still a young man and I wasn't yet an old one, we met in Ardsley, New York at one of Montague Ullman's dream group leadership trainings. This October my wife Shuyuan Wang and I went to stay a few days with Gunnar and his wife, Lena Hulthen, in Göteborg, Sweden where Monte first originated his experiential dream group process back in the 1970s. Monte had just died a few months back and maybe for that reason I felt his presence all the stronger as we walked down the stately tree-lined avenue that once had been his daily route to work. As the streetcars ran back and forth on their rails, we stopped before the building where he began his pioneering work with dream groups and stood there on the cobbled sidewalk splotched with freshly-fallen yellow leaves to peer up at the second floor windows to the corner room where those very first experiential dream groups had met.
In the almost thirty years I knew him, Monte never stopped talking about how special it was to work with the Swedes on dreams. Thanks to Gunnar, I got to do this myself at Göteborg's Psychotherapy Institute down the street a ways from that corner room where Monte started it all. Afterwards, Gunnar and Lena walked us out towards their apartment in the suburbs. After passing through a succession of interesting neighborhoods, Gunnar and I fell behind the two women and got into an involved conversation. I was making an emphatic point when Gunnar stopped walking and interrupted me. "I planted this tree," he said with an endearing sheepishness.
There before us, in a sliver of lawn in front of an apartment building, was a full-grown tree. Some big side branches had long ago been sawed off. Bursting with life in its sunny location, the tree had compensated and re-gained its original fullness. "I mean, it's not important," Gunnar quickly said, embarrassed to brag. "But I interrupted you," he added politely. "You were saying..."
I wasn't interested in what I had been saying. The tree had my attention. Gunnar saw that and launched into its story.
"Back in the years when I was a student at the university I came across a branch freshly broken-off from a flowering tree," he said. "I snapped off a sprig from it, carried it home, and put it in a vase of water by the window in my room."
"At that time I lived in a front room in this building here," Gunnar said. "That window there." He pointed to the one that had been his. "By the time the sprig had lost its last flowers, it had thin little white roots in the water and was putting out tiny green leaves. I brought it down one day, dug a hole here in the yard right under my window, and planted it."
At that point we chanced to notice how farther ahead the two women had gotten and hurried along to catch up.
The next morning, Gunnar and Lena biked off to their jobs first thing in the morning. Shuyuan and I went out on our own to explore Göteborg. We walked and walked. Then, as the day drew to a close, we turned to head back. I was careful to go back the same way we'd come. It wasn't until we got to the suburban outskirts that we ran into trouble. The streets were confusing and I couldn't find the way we'd come, but went on anyway, trusting it was the right direction. The farther we went, the more unfamiliar everything became. We were lost. I stopped. "We didn't come this way," I said.
"Now what do we do?" Shuyuan was tired and irritated.
What made it so hard to distinguish one street from another was that all the apartment buildings were built in the same style. The street that stretched out before us looked like any other. "We might even be in the wrong neighborhood," I said.
Just before turning around to try to find my way back out, I caught sight of a burst of red foliage down at the end of the next block.
"Let's go," I said.
"You don't know where you're going," Shuyuan objected.
"We turn left at the next block," I said.
"How do you know that?" Shuyuan challenged.
"Because that's Gunnar's tree," I said. I'd pointed it out to her in the morning on our way into town.
"How can you be sure it's the same tree?" she countered.
Sure enough, when we got to the corner it proved to be the tree with the big side branches cut off, growing right under the window Gunnar had pointed out to me. Turning off onto the side street, we were on familiar ground again and proceeded without difficulty back to the apartment.
In working with a dream we take some flowering of realization given to us seemingly out of the blue and put it into our life, like Gunnar set the sprig of blossoms into the vase of water in his apartment window. It isn't a static thing, though, and doesn't just sit there but continues living and changing, like the dream it came from. It outgrows the narrow confines of the inner life that is ours and ends up by some fluke of spontaneity out in the world, like Gunnar's sprouted sprig, sticking clumsily up out of the soil in the lawn under his window.
The dogma that has slipped from psychology into our thinking about dreams is that we work with them to make conscious the unconscious. This trivializes what we really do with dreams; and, by holding up a piece as the whole, makes us blind to the rest. Gunnar's life moved on after he planted that little sprig. He met the love of his life, got married, became a recognized dream psychologist, had children, his children grew into young adults. The little sprig became a full-grown tree. One day he shared with someone who came from the other side of the world his secret joy in having planted it. The tree had been cut back again and again by the outside world, yet it still hadn't become a static entity. It retained the changing magic we see in dreams whereby one thing can turn into another and accomplish the seemingly impossible.
I stood on that street the next day lost and forlorn. The tree worked its spell. I suddenly recognized familiar ground, knew where I was, and proceeded undaunted on my journey.
Dreams are not merely about personal psychology. They operate in a larger way that is responsive to the whole. We don't often feel this dimension to them because we spend so much of our life confined by a limited self-concept. We would "use" dreams merely to expand that paltry construct. What dreams themselves want, though, is to burst out of it and take us with them into outer reality where their creativity, spontaneity, and natural aliveness to truth so desperately needs to be planted. Dreams aren't about who we think we are - our ego concept. They're about who we really are. They don't so much aim to serve, broaden, and expand our conceptual self as they, in fact, shine right past it - out into the world where it's possible, if only we would plant ourselves there, in our real identity, we might stand a chance to enlighten the journey of another and make everything suddenly recognizable to him in a new way.
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Along with Shuyuan Wang, William R. Stimson developed the Montague Ullman experiential dream group process into undergraduate and graduate university courses at two universities in Taiwan, in which the students don't just learn about dreams, but come to know themselves in the Socratic sense.