Compass Dreamwork

Dreamwork as Spiritual Practice

Tag: bad dreams

Pity the Poor Ego: Trickster Dreams

My most disturbing dreams have not been the classic frightening nightmares—instead, I dream of being a bystander while someone else suffers. Instead of terror, there’s horror, and the agony of helplessness and vicarious pain. Just as with nightmares, the emotional impact is ugly, and, at first, it’s not especially useful to tell myself that there must be something valuable here, even though I know that disturbing dreams have been some of the most meaningful experiences in my life. I’ve witnessed the beauty and transformative power they can have again and again in working with my own dreams and those of clients and friends. Yet, I can’t plunge in with enthusiasm right away; I need to respect the real (awful!) feelings that such dreams arouse, and give them time.

When I had the following dream, it left me feeling ashamed and upset:

Burning Alive: A man, with the cocky over-the-top manner of a Master of Ceremonies from a television game show, keeps intruding on the scene. He has a large, toothy smile, and he speaks loudly and glibly about nothing, with a lot of fake laughter and fake friendliness. He assumes that everyone should pay attention to him, and is idiotically over-confident.

There’s a room with its floor covered in blazing hot coals, radiating waves of heat. A waist-high wooden wall, blocks the open double-doorway. Casually, the man climbs onto the wall, waves, and jumps into the room—showing off. Apparently someone else is inside there, working on the hot coals (raking them?)—but s/he must be wearing protective clothing, because s/he’s not harmed by the heat. The Master of Ceremonies, who jumped in without protection, has no chance of survival.

I’m horrified. There’s nothing that I can do, or that the person in the room can do, to help him—and he can’t help himself either. He must be in agony as he falls on the fiery coals, unable to get up or get out, slowly burning to death. I don’t actually see this, but I hear him shouting and imagine what is happening. Ironically, his voice sounds almost as stagey and artificially enthusiastic as he was when he was just showing off. First, he shouts, “It’s so hot!” An absurd understatement, in that loud, falsely cheery voice. Then, his cries seem more poignant and painful, though he’s still using this “game show” voice He says something that suggests he can’t stand the suffering: something like, “Please get on with it!” And even though there isn’t anguish in his tone, I feel the anguish for him and find this suffering unbearable. Please, let it be over soon. Let him die quickly.

I woke from this dream truly distressed—and the only meaning I could find in it at first was not at all encouraging. The waves of heat radiating from the room reminded me of the radiation treatments that are the source of my current neuro-muscular disease. Twenty-three years after my cancer treatments, the residual radiation is increasingly active in my body, “burning me alive.” Am I like that pathetic fellow, somehow causing my own pain? Have I been “showing off,” throwing away my life, leaping into trouble and then finding myself helpless—desperate, but somehow also ridiculous? Of course, this is not a fully-formed response, and certainly not a reasonable way to approach the dream or my own life situation. But it seemed consistent with the awfulness of the dream’s aftertaste. I wanted to feel compassion for that man (and for myself), yet all I could feel was pity, helplessness, and a strong desire to turn away from the suffering, to get it over with.

I didn’t want to remember this dream. I wrote it down, but tried to forget it. Then, a couple of days later, while I was taking a walk, it came back to me vividly—with a new title making a different impression. Instead of “Burning Alive,” the new title was much more specific, and somehow less painful: “The Self-Immolation of the Master of Ceremonies.” Why did this seem less painful? Well, “self-immolation” implies a kind of intention, a sacrifice rather than a silly, wasteful, careless act of self-harm. I associated “self-immolation” with the Vietnamese Buddhist monks who set fire to themselves in protest against the Vietnam War. Their actions were drastic, and not consistent with my own cultural ideas about what constitutes appropriate dissent… yet their intentions were genuinely meaningful. They gave their lives to draw attention to an injustice. Could the man in my dream be making a similarly meaningful statement? Also, the term “Master of Ceremonies” implies not careless foolishness but the possibility of “mastering” a situation that might represent a “ceremonial” offering. What if this ridiculous character is suffering for a reason? And what if his suffering is something other than it seems?

In a previous post [“Seeing With Fresh Eyes”], I mentioned two important “tricks” that I often use in working with difficult, unpleasant dreams: 1) look for anomalies and inconsistencies in the dream itself; and 2) question the dream ego’s perspective on the situation. In “The Self-Immolation of the Master of Ceremonies,” the anomaly and the questionable point-of-view are directly related; the most obvious inconsistency suggests a potential inaccuracy in the dream-ego’s perspective. The dream-ego assumes that someone who has fallen on hot coals must be in agony, yet the “Master of Ceremonies” himself does not sound distressed. He uses his “game show” voice to express what he is experiencing, and his emotion is not at all consistent with the suffering that the dream-ego expects him to experience.

So, what if the “burning alive” really is a ceremony, a game, or a show—a metaphorical ritual that involves the “burning up” of old patterns rather than a soul in torment?

With the strong emotion of my initial reaction to the dream, it was easy to assume that this egotistical fellow represented my own Ego-identity in its crudest form: trying to be the center of attention, and coming to grief as a result. But, in fact, the dream-ego (the “I” in the dream) is actually a much more accurate representative of how my own Ego-identity (the “I” in my waking life) sees the world. The Ego, in Jungian terms, is not necessarily egotistical—it is just the essential lens through which the much larger Self perceives and understands experience. We can’t reject the Ego, because we need an Ego-identity to function in the world, but we shouldn’t take her perspective as the whole truth. The dream-ego, like my waking identity, does her best to interpret what she’s experiencing. She understands what’s happening according to its impact on her, so when the Master of Ceremonies behaves as he does, she reacts by judging and defining him as “idiotically over-confident”—his leap onto the burning coals is “ridiculous” and, from her perspective, inevitably results in his pathetic annihilation. Yet, she also wants to be a good person, and finds her own inability to help, or to feel authentic compassion, shameful and painful.

If you want to find the Ego in a dream, look for the one who’s suffering, because the Ego always suffers when reality doesn’t conform to what the Ego believes is important. In this dream, the man who leaps onto hot coals doesn’t seem to be suffering—but the dream-ego is clearly in a lot of pain. She can’t bear what she thinks is happening. In my waking life, my own experience of fluctuating emotions and deteriorating health often causes me suffering. Yet there’s more to me than this suffering Ego, and more to my experience than my Ego can imagine.

Who is the Master of Ceremonies, then? Who is running this “game show”? Dreams have more to offer than the Ego can grasp—but the wholeness of my Self includes all of it, and my Ego can learn from the other characters in the dream. In this dream, I suspect the Master of Ceremonies is not just an exaggerated Ego figure, but a Trickster.

Tricksters in world mythology are not usually very appealing characters, and their stories can make an ugly and painful first impression. Characters like Coyote in some Native American traditions, and Loki in Norse traditions, have all the worst qualities of the Ego: they are malicious, greedy, lustful, and brutally selfish; they are clever, even brilliant at times, but they always end up being too smart for their own good and coming to a bad end. Other Trickster figures may seem more benign, especially when they are represented in cartoons for children, through characters like Bugs Bunny or the Cat in the Hat. But all of them are, at the very least, cocky—and, to some degree, this cockiness is self-defeating. Tricksters are always getting into trouble. While the Master of Ceremonies in my dream seems merely annoying rather than mean, his bad behavior (“showing off”) seems to be his downfall. But wait…

Tricksters are not just bad guys. They may be brought down by their own machinations (often explosively, grotesquely, or pathetically) but, like Wile E. Coyote, they are always up and at it again in the next scene. They always bounce back, and the inadvertent consequences of their actions are often massively transformative.

Tricksters are game changers; the world is recreated in their wake. When Coyote steals fire for his own selfish reasons, his tail ends up in flames, and as he flees in panic, the sparks he scatters form the stars in the sky. By accident, new energies are released, new life begins, new possibilities are opened up. We human beings are the epitome of the Trickster, with our greedy self-interest, our crazy, impulsive, ego-driven yet creative technological advances, we harm and transform ourselves and the world around us. The Trickster leads the way to catastrophe, but also, potentially, initiates whatever comes next.

In my dream, the Master of Ceremonies leaps onto the hot coals, showing off. The dream-ego interprets this as a wretched mistake. Meanwhile, another unseen person, who is impervious to the heat, bears witness. The MC should be in terrible pain, yet his expressions of dismay are unconvincing, and it’s primarily the dream-ego who seems to suffer. Another dream anomaly is that the wall which separates the blazing coals from the rest of the world is made of wood. Wouldn’t a wooden wall catch fire?

If the wall is made of wood, then perhaps the fire is not as hot as it’s supposed to be? Or else, that wall represents an illusion of protection; sooner or later, the wall will burn and the fire will be right here, where I must experience it directly. The fire is inescapable, not only for the MC (who plunged right into it!) but for me. For every mortal being, protections are only temporary. It’s inevitable that we will all encounter experiences that are too painful, “too hot to handle,” as we lose loved ones, physical health, and ultimately our own lives.

The dream-ego is caught up in the horror of the dream’s apparently disastrous momentum, but she never actually sees what is going on in the fiery furnace of that room. If I actually get closer, overcoming my revulsion and dismay… If I actually look past that anomalous wooden wall… What might I see? I imagine the Master of Ceremonies, the Game Show Host, would not be writhing in agony. In fact, he wouldn’t be there at all. The “someone else in the room” could turn out to be another face of the Trickster, with no need for “protective clothing,” impervious to the pain, but raking those coals in order to make the room ready for a ceremonial Fire Walk. These “too hot” horrors could become a way of transforming pain into something more meaningful.

Perhaps my own Ego-identity can step into that room, and walk across it, without judgement or suffering. Perhaps she is willing to change, to let her old life be burned away, and to walk into a new world, born out of the flames of losses, illness, and uncertainty. Continue reading

Game Over: Dreams That End With A Bang!

fireworks 01I’m writing this just after the fourth of July, and the thunderous bangs are still echoing in my head (along with a few illegal leftover rockets occasionally shaking up the neighborhood). The cats are edgy, and I’m just glad that most of the noisy ordeal is over for another year. On the other hand, much as I personally dislike the explosions, I have to admit that a lot of violent energy has been fairly benignly discharged, and the atmosphere feels a bit clearer.

People often tell me about dreams that end with an explosion of unexpected violence. Of course, such dreams can be pretty distressing for the dreamer: In the midst of a tense public gathering, or meeting that’s gone on too long, the dream-ego, or another dream character, suddenly pulls out a gun and starts shooting, or a bomb goes off... These are pretty common dreams, and there’s no reason to think the dreamers are aggressive or repressed people. But it can be difficult to share such dreams, without somehow feeling like we ought to apologize for them. There’s far too much violence in our world already—and it can be disturbing to acknowledge that it’s in our dreams as well. Nevertheless, such dreams need to be shared.

About a month ago, I dreamed …a doctor rushes into the hospital room, but instead of helping, he brings a heavy rifle and blasts the patient. Someone is setting off fireworks to cover the sounds of the bangs. I’ve had my share of stress, pain, and sadness, but there have been very few truly violent situations in my life (and nothing like this). Where does this stuff come from? Sure, I’m regularly exposed to violence in the media—but the power of this dream, and the power of the explosive dreams that others have shared with me, is intensely personal. The details are intimate, and the emotion seems to come out of nowhere.

Dreams that end with a bang often seem like nightmares. The sudden violence triggers an adrenaline rush, and the dreamer is shocked awake. But—unlike regular nightmares that leave us feeling haunted or hunted, and unlike PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) nightmares that recreate the horror of actual traumas, dreams that culminate in a sudden, loud, unexpected shock tend to be more energizing than terrifying. After the adrenaline settles, the dreamer gets curious about what the heck happened. Continue reading

Ugly Duckling Dreams

If my dream-self were graded on her performance by the standards of my most judgmental waking self, she’d get an “Unsatisfactory” on her report card. The “I” character in my dreams has been disappointing lately. She fails to work and play well with other dream characters—is frequently sullen and whiney and withdrawn. She doesn’t make the most of opportunities, step up to challenges, or take responsibility for her mistakes. She falls apart under pressure, and her dream-space is often cluttered, neglected, and unimaginative. In short, the dreamer often wakes up dissatisfied with this character’s work, and discouraged about her prospects.

Fortunately, there are less judgmental parts of me exploring dreams and discovering what they have to teach! When I go through a phase where my dream world seems lackluster and my dream-self is miserable, I do tend to wake up discouraged—but I also see these dream patterns as part of a larger process. Like little Einsteins, my recent dreams fail to impress at this phase in their development—but when the time is right, I trust that they will come out with something brilliant! I know this because I’ve gone through this phase dozens of times before (with my own and others’ dreams), and if I bear with the ugly ducklings, they always turn out to be swans. Continue reading

More Monster Dreams

I’ve had monsters on my mind. I described the archetype of “the monster” in the last post (“Monsters In My Dreams”) as primal energy: the life force itself, taking the form of change. All change involves the death of something and the beginning of something else. The monster is the aspect of change we fear most—the ferocious energy with which the life force destroys in order to create.

Monsters take many forms in mythology, and in dreams. Some, as in the dream I described in “A Nightmare Is An Incomplete Dream,” are formless—or at least they remain unseen or undefined by the dream-ego (the “I” character in the dream). Other monsters are the semi-human creatures popularized in the media: zombies, vampires, werewolves, etc. Some are monstrous combinations or distortions of other creatures. Some are apparently ordinary things, but made horrifying by the context of the dream (as in some horror movies): an animated toy doll, a bunny, a flock of birds. Monsters are what we make of them. While their essential nature may be universal, the form they take is usually based on individual associations and projections. Continue reading

A Nightmare Is An Incomplete Dream

I rarely have nightmares, but last week I had a full-blown, truly scary nightmare:

I am being hunted by a formless monster who tears people apart. The police don’t believe me and won’t help. To prove that the danger is real, I show a young couple the desolate house where I was held captive by the monster. We enter apprehensively, making sure the monster is not there. The rooms are empty except for scattered trash. The young woman goes down into the dank basement, and as the young man follows, I realize that he is about to be killed. There’s a moment of terror, as I see him on the basement stairs, screaming, and then a splash of blood against the wall. I run in panic, as the invisible monster goes down to get the woman in the basement. I know I have only a few moments to get away, but there is nowhere to run or hide—only a peaceful neighborhood where I know that I will bring harm if I ask for help again. I try to keep running, stumbling, crawling, but know that I can’t get away…

dark corner

The corners are dark, and something could be hiding there…

When dealing with nightmares, there is some preliminary dreamwork that needs to be done before engaging in the usual practice of unfolding metaphors or exploring associations with the images. A nightmare is basically defined by the emotional and physiological response we have to it. I woke from the above dream in the state of emotional distress and physical agitation typical of nightmares. This distress and agitation must be addressed, before anything else can really be done with the dream.In the short-term, the first, best response to a nightmare is simply to bring the body and emotions back to some sort of equilibrium, as much as possible. For me, that meant getting up to use the bathroom (turning on lights!) and “shaking off” the awful feelings before trying to sleep again. In really serious, chronic nightmares or dreams associated with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), returning to equilibrium can be much more difficult, and can require professional support. Continue reading

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