Some dreams can seem like really “bad news.” Of course, this won’t be news to anyone. Sure, we’ve all had unpleasant, uncomfortable, disgusting, disturbing, frustrating dreams. Most of us have had a few frightening nightmares, too.
Many spiritual traditions recognize that some things which seem to be poison can also be medicine. Even western medical science recognizes this—an obvious example being how poisonous chemotherapy can be medicine for cancer. (Incidentally, while I was on chemo, I noticed that the mosquitos didn’t bite me!) Yes, it’s true that dreams bring us lots of experiences that can feel like poison, but even the worst dreams also have the potential to be beneficial.
In the last post [“No Bad Dreams”] I explored some of the good news about bad dreams. But I would certainly acknowledge that nightmares really do seem awfully nightmarish, and in order to find the good news within the bad news, we need to start with some tools and skills to help us understand the dream differently. The dreamworker doesn’t just turn lead into gold by telling the lead that it should be gold. There are ways and means, gleaned from study, practice, and experimentation, which can make dreamwork seem like magic—and actually work wonders.
I always start with the assumption that any “bad” dream could potentially be a good dream—so this particular dream deserves my attention and curiosity. Such an assumption is like an invitation to the dream: “I’m listening. You don’t have to shout (or spit, or threaten, or bite, or throw a tantrum). We’re on the same side, and I want to hear what you have to say.”
Lets consider some ways of working with those “bad” dreams. Over the course of my own career in dreamwork, I’ve developed a few approaches that seem to be helpful, and I’ve drawn upon the experience and wisdom of other practitioners as well. Here are some suggestions:
[Note: These approaches are designed for generally unpleasant dreams or ordinary nightmares, and can be practiced on such dreams by anyone. However, if these approaches are applied to PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) nightmares or really severe chronic dream issues, it should be with professional support. If you have serious sleep-disrupting dreams on a regular basis, or have other mental health concerns, seeking professional assistance and guidance is strongly advised.]
1-I mentioned last time that ‘bad’ dreams “offer a great opportunity to recognize our own projections, and explore unknown aspects of ourselves.” One good way to recognize these unknown aspects of ourselves is to talk to dream figures or images directly. The process is simple. Just imagine that you are one of the unpleasant or scary images (person, animal, monster, object…) in your “bad” dream. Then ask yourself (or have someone else ask you) what you are doing and why you are here. Remember, you’ll be answering these questions from the point-of-view of the “bad guy”—how would he/she/it respond?
This approach was outlined in more detail, using some questions devised by Robert Hoss, in an earlier post [“Interview with a Dream Figure”]. You can either use Hoss’s helpful questions, or just ask the dream figure whatever it is you want to know. Interviewing dream figures often brings big surprises—the dream figure may have answers that make sense of a difficult situation, that you, the dreamer or dream-ego, would not have considered. Finally, it’s harder to dislike or fear something once you understand the world from its point-of-view.
2-An even simpler approach is to experience the feeling of being the disturbing image itself—and play it out in an exaggerated way. Use art and drama, color and sound and tactile sensations. This is probably the best way of helping kids with nightmares—and it works with adults, too. Make a mask or a picture; create a dance, or make a noise; give your best imitation of the “bad guy” and let yourself get into it.
After recalling the dream’s unpleasant characters or images, say to yourself (as you might say to a kid who just told you a scary dream), “Wow, that image was intense. Can you show me what it was like? Can you show me how it looked when it did that?” Basically, a kid would respond to this kind of opening by behaving as badly as whatever was behaving badly in the dream—and you can do the same! This has its limits, of course. You don’t need to go on a rampage. But finding some constructive way to release the energy of the unpleasant dream image is always helpful.
If the dream image is angry and dangerous, then waving your arms, making loud noises, roaring and raging a bit can be fun within safe bounds. If the dream image is disgusting, then find some way to get that disgust out of your system (most kitchens offer all kinds of good, icky stuff to make a mess with). If the dream image is shocking, then try miming it (while noticing your own horrified reaction)—do it over and over until it no longer blindsides you.
This method is all about play. Often, the dream image is carrying some energy that is bursting out in an ugly, frightening and forbidding way because it is being suppressed or denied. If you accept it and embrace it, then it might show itself in a much more benign shape, and could be exactly what you are needing.
3-Suppose something terrible happens in a dream that makes you feel helpless and desperate. Focusing on incidental elements, other than the main action, can offer alternative angles of approach, or at least provide a distraction to open up some space. [An example of this, with a lighter dream, is described in “Turning the Dream Upside Down.”] Look at some aspect of the dream that seems unimportant: What is that dream figure wearing? What is on the table behind her? Are there windows or doors in the room? What is the weather like? What time of day is it? How are the “extras” or “bit players” in the dream feeling, and what are they doing? Often, you’ll find a sub-plot that tells a different story, or brings a glimmer of hope to an otherwise bleak situation.
4-Most therapists, counselors, or professional dreamworkers address nightmares by using some form of “dream re-entry.” If the nightmares are chronic and severe, or associated with a waking-life trauma, then this kind of work should always be done with qualified professional support. Usually, such dreams are explored little-by-little, over time, and with safeguards to defuse the intensity of the most disturbing dream events and emotions. A common practice is to work with the nightmare as if it were a movie—imagining what actors would play the starring roles, and how the dream would be directed and edited to create its effects. The dreamer gradually develops a safe position from which to view the nightmare, as well as tools and strategies for making sense of the experience and moving forward.
5-My own preferred method of working with most nightmares or “bad” dreams takes the dreamer beyond the dream’s unsatisfactory ending. This approach [mentioned in “A Nightmare Is An Incomplete Dream”] will be described further in the next post…