Compass Dreamwork

Dreamwork as Spiritual Practice

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The Compass Dreamwork Blog:
Expanding the Imagination, Following the Dream!

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Being the Dreamer, Living the Dream

My priorities have changed significantly in the past few years, and so have my dreams. Although I’m not yet sixty, I’m starting to see the world as an elder, and my dreams have reflected this change as well. Especially in the past year, as I’ve developed symptoms of a degenerative disease that is accelerating my physical aging process (Radiation Fibrosis Syndrome), I’m truly discovering what it means to be initiated into a completely new stage in the life cycle—and it’s not what I expected. It’s much more subtle than the leap from childhood to adulthood, yet more profoundly meaningful than any of the other transformative experiences I’ve known.

So many times in my life, I’ve come to the end of one phase, experienced losses, uncertainty, and “suspended animation” during a transitional period, and then begun a new phase, with new energies, new resources, and new options. But, for some reason, when I left a job I loved five years ago and entered one of those painful, liminal transitions, the “new phase” I expected never seemed to arrive.

Instead of starting over, I found that the “suspended animation” just went on and on. Somehow, I’m not getting re-animated! Unless I reframe this experience, and change my expectations, my situation and prospects could look pretty grim. Loved ones just keep dying. I face more and more physical limitations. When I tried to go “back to school,” seeking out further education and training (which had always worked before), I encountered impossible obstacles. When I started new projects, they didn’t exactly fail, but required constant attention and drained away my energies rather than rejuvenating them. And, most disturbing, many of my familiar spiritual practices and disciplines no longer seemed life-giving.

At first, all of these discouraging experiences seemed to point to depression—so I soldiered on patiently, kept trying, hanging in there, not giving up, waiting for an opening, doing my best. I tried some big things, and lots of small things, but life just kept slipping by without any significant breakthrough.

Then, I began to notice something strange about this apparent stagnation. Underneath it all, I’m at peace in a way I’ve never been before. The harder I try, the more drained and discouraged I become; yet when I stop trying so hard, I’m filled with quiet joy. I’m not so concerned with proving myself, or even with being myself—instead, I’m just being. I’ve lost most of my ambition, but it doesn’t actually worry me (except when I think “Shouldn’t you be worried about this?”). I’m paying lots of attention to the physical pleasure of doing the things I can still do, and not dwelling much on the things I can’t do. The past makes me sad, the future can make me anxious—but I’m quite interested in the present, and the present is just fine.

Even when the world situation seems catastrophic, even when there are too many losses coming too fast, even when it looks like finances or health or politics will cause everything to fall apart—I sense and trust a kind of spaciousness, and can hold that space open for others and myself. I have no idea how I’m doing it.

What is this? The “new phase” I’ve been looking for is actually already in progress. It just doesn’t work the same way that any of my previous phases have worked. I’ve always been drawn to old people, because many of them have this funny way of not getting bothered, while still caring deeply. Could this be where I’m going? Could this be who I really am?

My dreams are different, too. Like many older adults, I’m not remembering them as well. Aside from the fairly common sleep difficulties that can disrupt dreaming as we get older, I suspect the dream-recall deficit is because the work of these dreams doesn’t urgently need to be brought to my conscious attention. I’ve accumulated enough material to work on over the past fifty-six years, and I don’t need more stuff to figure out and make sense of. What I need is simple experiences of being alive and valuing life. When I remember my dreams, they just point to what’s most important right now.

I have a lot of dreams about helping or teaching others, dreams where I’m not the “hero,” but the mentor, sidekick, or teacher. I’m trying to make it easier for someone: saving a spider from the bathtub, or bringing peppermint tea to a sick girl. In many of my dreams, I’m not the central character—and often, I’m not present at all, just a disembodied observer of someone else’s story—which, ultimately, is my story, too, of course. I have dreams of returning to familiar places, finding them changed, and adapting to those changes. And then there are the sweet dreams of just appreciating something beautiful: birdwatching from the deck of a becalmed ship as sunlight glitters on the water’s surface; or approaching a lit cabin through the woods in the dark. Continue reading

Dreamers In Good Company: The Social Dynamics of Dreamwork

Dreamwork is the opposite of naval-gazing. In my experience, people who take an interest in their dreams make good company, since they tend to become more self-aware, creative, curious, and caring. They also tend to develop better listening skills and social boundaries as well as more openness to diversity, concern for others, and willingness to be vulnerable and authentic in relationships. I might add an array of other healthy qualities I’ve observed in the community of dreamers: sense of humor, patience, kindness, intelligence, playfulness, maturity, integrity, generosity, flexibility… The list goes on.

Of course, dreamwork doesn’t automatically make us better people—but there’s no doubt that dreams can be significant contributing factors in our personal and social development. There are good, solid reasons why exploring our dreams, especially with others, really can make a difference in our lives and communities.

Before I give some of those reasons, I’d like to plunge into a real-life example of dreamwork in action. Not long ago, I attended the annual conference of the International Association for the Study of Dreams. I’ve been to four of these conferences so far, and have always found them to be stimulating gatherings where dreamers from all over the world and from diverse disciplines come together to share knowledge, insights, and inspiration.

This year, however, my own participation was iffy until the last minute. Just a few days before the conference, I had an echocardiogram which showed significant heart problems. I didn’t yet know exactly what this meant, but I was already having some disturbing symptoms, and understood that I was at risk for a heart attack, and might already be in the early stages of heart failure. My life expectancy and future options had abruptly changed. Was it safe to go to the conference at all? Would I be able to travel, participate fully, lead a daily dream group, interact with my colleagues and friends in such an intense social and professional environment?

Yes. Although I was in the midst of an emotional whirlwind, feeling just about as vulnerable as I could bear to be, I went to the conference and immersed myself in this vibrant community of dreamers for five days. I had a dear dreamworker friend for a traveling companion, and the support of my beloved partner via telephone, but I was also sustained by a teeming crowd of good-hearted strangers, acquaintances, and new friends (some only previously met on-line) who surrounded me with all of the qualities I described above. The majority of these good people didn’t know what was going on with me at all, and yet their presence grounded me, giving me a sense of safety and belonging, in spite of the disorientatation caused by my new health situation and cardiac symptoms.

Because of my personal vulnerability, I was especially sensitive to the social dynamics and emotional energy of those around me. The conference schedule is always packed, and between sleep deprivation and over-stimulation, most people get somewhat stressed. Taking almost a week away from home, traveling (in some cases, from very far away), and trying to pack a year’s worth of conversations into a few days… Well, I could see that I wasn’t the only person feeling vulnerable, tired, and at least a bit overwhelmed. This (like many other conferences) could easily have been an environment where gossip, exaggerated attention-seeking, belligerence, excess alcohol consumption, and generally unhealthy behavior would thrive.

Yet, incredibly, I observed gentleness and generosity on all sides, wise self-care and compassionate attention to the needs of others, respectful interactions between those who held differing points-of-view, and an atmosphere of warm, playful, appropriate willingness to share. Even awkward interactions seemed to be handled with grace and humor. Even casual conversations seemed trust-based and genuine.

In this context, I could make room for my own fears, needs, and confusion honestly without burdening those around me. My moods were constantly changing—one moment immersed in the enjoyment of the conference activities, the next moment straining at the limits of my physical and emotional resilience—but the container was a good one. As opportunities arose to talk with others about what I was experiencing, both the sharing and the responses seemed natural and mutually healing.

When I returned home, I felt more ready to face my cardiology appointment and treadmill stress test. Certainly, the company of dreamers (at the conference, and via the internet afterward) is helping me to absorb what I’m learning about my health as I adjust to my diagnosis (cardiomyopathy progressing toward heart failure) and prognosis (still uncertain). Does the fact that all these people consider dreams valuable make a difference in the way they relate to one another and to me? Does their dream interest at least partially account for their social skills and personal qualities? Since the conference, I’ve been holding this question as I lead my three dream groups and meet with individual clients for spiritual direction and dreamwork. The impression keeps being reinforced: When people explore dreams, it seems to bring out the best in them. Why is this? Continue reading

Believing in the Dream

Do I really believe that dreams are meaningful, and that they are always (at least potentially) healing and helpful? Well, yes and no. I believe that my beliefs are beside the point.

Like everything else that we experience, dreams offer us opportunities to relate and respond to events, relationship dynamics, and our own emotions. Regardless of whether or not we believe that our existence has a larger spiritual “meaning,” our life experiences (including our dreams) are truly meaningful when we treat them as if they were meaningful. Experiences may be wonderful, terrible, ridiculous or confusing—it doesn’t really matter what we believe about them, or even how we feel about them—if we seek guidance, growth, creativity and connection through those experiences, then they can become healing and helpful. I don’t actually have to “believe” in the intrinsic goodness or wisdom of something in order to experience it fully and find it valuable.

On a daily basis, I find myself investing deeply in my beliefs about the nature of my life experiences. I hear a news story about environmental devastation or social injustice and I believe that I’m trapped in a nightmare where I absolutely must take action but really can’t influence the situation no matter what I do. Or, I take a long walk in the park on a sunny, breezy day, greeting my neighbors (and their dogs) and believe that it’s easy to appreciate every moment. Or, I talk to a friend who has just suffered a terrible loss, and I believe that she is going to be okay, or that losses are inevitable, or that I don’t know how to respond, or…

All of these beliefs are “true,” in a way—but not particularly useful. As soon as I hold a belief about something, it limits me. If I’ve decided that this is the way things are, then that belief sets me up to see everything in a certain light. Beliefs lead to more beliefs. Some are just passing thoughts, but others get bolstered by an array of arguments, which interlock neatly to form an entire system of thought. Beliefs may contradict each other, but then I can somehow manage to find arguments to make them fit.

Even now, I’m writing this article about my belief that believing isn’t a good idea. Darn it.

This is where dreams make a difference. Dreams demonstrate that “believing” is a moving target. What am I seeing? How did this happen? Where is it going? Why did he do that? In dream-sharing groups, when we first hear a dream, our impulse is to figure it out and believe something about it. As soon as someone suggests a meaning that seems to make sense, we all tend to create variations on that theme. It all fits together… doesn’t it? But why is there an octopus and not a giraffe? Why does one of the table legs have stripes? Why are we eating oatmeal when we’re supposed to be at a funeral? What is that peculiar green mark on her forehead? There are always elements that don’t quite fit. Continue reading

A Dream of Surrender and Hope: DreamTime Article

Click on the photo to read the article, and enter the woods…

For the Spring 2017 issue of DreamTime Magazine (a wonderful publication of the International Association for the Study of Dreams), I wrote a short article that really expresses the depths of my heart in these troubled times. My own dreams often invite surrender and offer hope—and I believe that such dreams can change our lives and our world in essential ways.

Please take a few minutes to read the article (by clicking on the photo)… And let’s talk about dreaming our way forward. How do your  dreams guide you? How might you choose to surrender old ways to follow a different path? And where do you find courage and hope?

Dreaming Up “The Bad Guys”

On my walk this morning, I saw a little boy dressed as a dragon, following his mother up a steep hill, roaring. He was tiny (barely four years old, probably) but formidable, in his fierce, floppy dragon-head hat, with his spiked tail swinging from side to side when he stomped his feet. Rows of green fins or scales lined his striped leggings and sleeves, and ran down his back. His sister (just a bit older) waited with their father at the top of the hill.

The little girl shouted, “Mom, are you the good guy?” Her mom, trudging up the hill, replied, “Yes. I’m the good guy.” The girl shouted, “You’re the good guy, and he’s the bad guy!” Mom said, tentatively, “Yes…”

The girl hollered at her brother, who had stopped walking to listen to the exchange: “You’re the bad guy! We’re the good guys! You’re the bad guy!” He stood with his mouth open—uncertain. Perhaps at first he’d intended to roar and be the bad guy, but his sister’s tone became increasingly taunting, and now it looked like he might decide to cry instead.

His mom couldn’t see his face, but his dad saw it and interceded, calling to him—“You’re not a bad guy.” And with that affirmation, the dragon burst out, in a teary wail of self-defense: “No! I’m not a bad guy! No, I’m not! I’m not a bad guy! I’M NOT A BAD GUY!”

Nobody really wants to be the bad guy. Yes, it feels powerful to make a lot of noise and to be a dragon… But, ultimately, the good guys are “us” and the bad guys are “them”—and being excluded from “us” just doesn’t feel right. Of course, this applies to the adult world as well as to the world of dragons and their older sisters.

In our present adult world, we’ve got a lot of noisy, dangerous “bad guys” in positions of authority, and many of us are running scared or trying to defend ourselves by defining ourselves as “us.” When we shout at the dragons and try to make them go away so that we can be a happy family of “good guys” without them… Well, good luck with that. I know that Donald Trump has virtually nothing in common with the adorable little boy in the dragon suit, yet I can’t help thinking maybe that’s how he started out. If bad guys exist, he’s certainly a bad guy. But how helpful is the whole game of bad guys and good guys anyway?

In dreams, the bad guys can seem truly awful. There’s someone dangerous, something horrible, some monstrous creature that does unbearable things. In nightmares, the damage done by these bad guys feels terribly real. Even in waking life, we can get caught up in a movie scenario where everything is reduced to the worst possible bad people against the best, most peaceful, most reasonable, good people… It seems like this is the way things actually are. But when the movie ends, we find that the world is much more complex and subtle and paradoxical than it seemed. The world is not a movie. Dreams are not movies, either. Unlike the popular clichés in those blockbuster films, dreams potentially express the richness of real life. While nightmares may play out the bad guy/good guy dichotomy, they also invite us to explore the possibilities surrounding such simplistic scenarios.

If I listen to the bad guy in the dream, I find that he doesn’t see himself as the bad guy—and maybe I learn something, even if I still don’t like him much. If I look at all of the other elements in the dream—the dragon costumes, the sets and supporting characters, the unexpected emotions and inconsistent details—then I find that I have to include everything in order to have any real understanding of what is actually going on.

There’s no “us” and “them” in a dream—it’s all me, or something larger than me: the dreamer and the dream-maker. The human family includes the good guys and the bad guys, the dragons, big sisters, parents, and observers. The dream is a big, intricate, inconsistent story. Every aspect of that story deserves my care and attention. Continue reading

Dream Thoughts

How does your mind work in a dream? It’s generally assumed that we think differently (or not at all) when we’re dreaming—but, if you’re anything like me, your dream-thoughts are actually not that different from your waking thoughts. It’s just that, in dreams, there are different things to think about, and different assumptions about what’s important. My recent dreams have included a lot of thinking. Maybe it’s because my “inner work” right now is not particularly sensational or dramatic—my concerns are subtle and reflective rather than active.

When we are learning to recognize our challenges and limitations, we may need to confront them  directly through powerfully instructive events in our dreaming and waking lives that either exaggerate or expose our habit patterns. As we get to know ourselves better, we may be able to see the problem played out over and over again, without being able to do much about it—but gradually, as the same scenes are repeatedly reenacted, we bring more awareness to our experiences. We begin to have time to pause and consider what is going on, how it works, and whether it’s consistent with our personal integrity and values. Eventually, we’ve had enough, and it becomes possible to interrupt the predictable process and make a change.

So, all my “thinking” dreams suggest that I’m working toward an understanding that will facilitate real transformation. I don’t need to participate in the drama, I need to comprehend it. Dreams where thinking predominates can be very creative—offering new perspectives on old problems, new insights into our own and others’ behavior. Often, they present questions without answers, and ask us to tolerate the discomfort of not knowing what to do.

Here’s a recent example from my own dreamworld:

Catching Shoplifters: I catch two blond girls (about ten and eight years old) shoplifting in a store owned by a friend of mine. The older one has tucked a pair of gloves up her sleeve. I confront them and take the gloves back. The girls are defiant at first, but then seem very frightened and I soften my tone, realizing that their mother has forced them to steal, and will hurt them if they go home empty-handed. I start to give the gloves back to them, and even consider giving them some plastic toy telescopes that are hanging on a rack nearby. But then I remember that it wouldn’t be fair to the business-owner to let this stealing continue. What if I go with the girls and confront their mother? But, no—if I confront her, then as soon as I leave she will punish them for getting caught. Whatever I do to her will be taken out on them. So, I can’t change this situation. For now, there are no good alternatives. I decide to step back and wait until I understand things better before I act. I’ll buy the girls some lunch, and let them go without my interference. But I am committed to finding a way to help these children and prevent further harm.

Helplessness is a big theme in our country right now. There’s injustice on a grand scale, theft, coercion, unkindness, and shameful conduct in our government that reflects similar patterns and problems we can also see in our immediate environment. We may be able to control our own behavior, but we are presented with situations outside of ourselves that we cannot control. What do we do about that? Well, impulsive reactions are not helpful. Suppressing our awareness and looking the other way is not helpful, either. We need to pause, care about what is happening, and give ourselves time to think. I’m trying to do this in my dreams and in my waking life.

Connecting with My First Lover: I’m angry about some careless and inconsiderate people. My first lover [a woman I haven’t seen in almost forty years] gently points out that I’m being critical before I know the whole story. Those people didn’t actually forget to pick up after themselves, and they didn’t mean to take something that wasn’t theirs. I think about this. I might have misread the situation. I apologize. She is very kind. We hug, and she smiles at me, saying, “We have a deep connection, don’t we?”

As a teenager and young adult, I began to question my own self-righteousness about politics and personal relationships. I was trying to stand up for something important, but I was beginning to recognize that life is complicated and paradoxical. I was beginning to imagine different points of view, check my assumptions, and think deeply about my concerns and the ramifications of my actions. Thirty or more years later, these questions and concerns have not been resolved, but I can connect with the earnest effort I made (and still make) to see beyond my own prejudices. I can trust kindness, gentle correction, and the courage to acknowledge mistakes. I can connect with the wisdom to wait and think about my own agenda. A relationship that introduced me to intimacy becomes a metaphor for learning to take a risk and open up to other perspectives. Continue reading

Ocean of Dreams: Responsible Dreamwork

Those of us with a professional interest in dreams have a responsibility to bring creativity, curiosity, commitment and depth to our work. Whether we are therapists, spiritual directors, teachers, healers, researchers, artists or entrepreneurs—working responsibly with dreams means 1) exploring our own dreams with a willingness to go beyond what we think we know about ourselves, and 2) contributing original insights and approaches to the field of dreamwork.

Dreams are more than useful tools or clever tricks, they invite us into the unknown and the unknowable. Like an ocean, the dream world surrounds us and can seem familiar, yet the depths are largely unexplored, and anyone who cares to dive deep enough may bring undiscovered species, unexpected natural resources, and astonishing observations to light. I believe that intentional, imaginative, in-depth dreamwork is a responsibility because careless “expertise” can so easily become exploitation.

Tragically and ironically, it is because the oceans are so apparently unfathomable that people have used them as dumps for everything that we don’t want to deal with—and it can be like that with dreams as well. For those who are considered authorities on dreams, it can be all too easy to toss our toxic waste into the dream world by projecting pathology and suppressing possibilities. It can be all too easy to feel that the dream world is ours to possess, develop, explain and subdue. It can be all too easy to use the natural resources of dreaming for selfish purposes, taking more than we are willing to give back.

If we don’t explore our own dreaming experiences with an open mind and a willingness to be changed, then studying others’ dreams can become a way of avoiding self-awareness, confirming our prejudices, and establishing our reputations. If we don’t reach beyond what we’ve been taught about dreams, we end up trapping ourselves and others into confining habits of thought that prevent further growth. Beyond the basic ethical guidelines defined by the International Association for the Study of Dreams, responsible dreamwork means respecting both dreamers and dreams by acknowledging that they are not reducible to self-serving assessments or formulaic interpretations.

Of course, as long as I’m upholding such high standards, I’d better be sure that I’m applying those standards to myself. To the best of my ability, I do explore my own dreams, and try to make new contributions to the field of dreamwork. When I come up against personal challenges in my dreaming life, I try to go deeper, rather than shy away. There are times when it’s difficult to remember my dreams, and times when the dreams are unpleasant, disturbing, confusing or all too revealing. Sometimes, personal dreamwork takes a lot of stamina, not to mention courage. This is not always fun, but it’s good to learn how to work and play with difficult material. I write some dreams down, make art from some dreams, act on some dreams and let some go; I share some dreams and keep some to myself. I bring some of my dreams to other dreamworkers—to individual friends and a peer dream group—and I meet with a spiritual director, because such skilled helpers give me a chance to recognize my own blind spots and keep expanding the scope of my awareness. Continue reading

A Dream By Any Other Name

We’ve all used the word “dream” when we talk about a positive waking vision or hope for the future. While struggling with our current political nightmare, I find myself dreaming (imagining a better future) this way more often—such dreaming is a manifestation of longing, and longing has power. I dream of healing for the earth, and for all living things. I dream of kindness, fairness, simplicity, generosity, gratitude, integrity, beauty, cooperation, balance, peace. These are collective dreams, of course, shared by many millions of human beings all over the world—and perhaps by other creatures as well. Just as our sleep-dreams have archetypal images and themes, so do our waking dream-visions of what goodness could be. We have a common vocabulary for our longing, and even those who are greedy and hateful may dream of these positive possibilities (at least for themselves and their friends).

Yet, such waking dreams rarely have much substance. They are often abstractions rather than fully realized imaginings. I can “dream” of world peace—but what would that actually look like? Unlike most daydreams, our sleep-dreams have emotional richness, physical details, stories and surprises; although they may lack the coherence of conscious intention, they make a substantial impression because they are lived experiences, not just intangible ideas. We may try to imagine the future in a positive way, but our daydreams usually lack direct experiential weight. Our night-dreams have more vivid “reality.”

When Holly and I went to the humane society to adopt a kitten seven years ago, we dreamed (imagined, hoped) that our new family member would be sweet and special and a joy in our lives; we dreamed that we’d love him. But we could never have imagined Toby himself—the deaf cat whose voice sounded like a donkey braying; the little guy who bravely overcame his fear of balloons, liked to drink the bathwater, and would gaze soulfully into our eyes, begging for tiny bits of apple. Our Toby. Dreaming up a person (whether that person is human or cat) is not the same as experiencing that person. Although my daydream of who Toby might be could not measure up to Toby himself, my night-dreams of Toby, since his early death a few months ago, have been filled with the full intensity of his living presence.

What if our daydreams—our true longings—could have the same resonance, reality, narrative strength and specific impact as our night-dreams? Recently, for example, I had a vivid sleep-dream image: I’m seeing the coast of California from the air, and all the coastal cities are under water—I can feel the jolt of sad realization that climate change has already gone too far….

When I woke from this dream, the intensity of the feelings made my daydreamed longing for a healed relationship between humanity and the earth, between human cities and coastal ecosystems, much more real. I could smell the sea and hear the rustling of grasses in the salt marshes; I could feel the energy and vitality of city people and city life; I could sense the pulse of the planet, and the movement of meltwater. I could feel the real consequences of our human environmental carelessness, and I could truly imagine what it might mean if we moved toward a reciprocal, respectful relationship with the planet we inhabit.

When we have big dreams (longings)—like Martin Luther King Jr. did, or like our wisest, kindest, most courageous selves can—they are as real as our vibrant night-dreams. We need to imagine our longings as fully realized. This is not always possible, but it is something to move toward. Continue reading

The Dream’s Way

What is truly meaningful in our dreams and in our waking lives? How do we find resonance in dreams that seem vague, disturbing, incoherent or unpleasant? We all experience a range of frequencies of dreams and dream-like states every day and night. Some of these experiences are beautiful and breathtaking, but some are difficult to appreciate, and many are not particularly moving or memorable. How do we “tune in” to the ground of our collective being that is perfectly and uniquely expressed in each moment of dream experience?
-Kirsten Backstrom (from “The Dream’s Way”)

Pilgrimage can open the way to the dream world, and dreams can open the way to a spiritual path, but walking and dreaming must both unfold on their own terms.  When I walked the Camino de Santiago last year, I knew I was in for an adventure, and that I would be well outside my comfort zone—but I didn’t know how I would handle the experience, and what my dreams had in store for me…

At the recent 2016 Psiber-Dreaming Conference (an exciting international on-line event that explores the outer reaches of dreamwork and dream studies), I offered a presentation called  “The Dream’s Way: Resonance in Dream Experiences on the Camino de Santiago .”  

Please Click on the Photo, to read this presentation:

 

Best Case & Worst Case Scenarios: Working With Nightmares

nightmares-03Last month [“Some Bad News, Some Good News”], I described several ways of working with bad dreams in general. Now, I’d like to go a bit further into my own preferred method of working with nightmares.

[Note: As I mentioned in the last post, this kind of dreamwork is meant for 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.]

Let’s talk about really “bad” dreams. People define nightmares in different ways, but what distinguishes a nightmare from any other kind of unpleasant dream is that it leaves you in a state of strong emotion.

In my experience, the nightmare leaves you in this strongly emotional state because you wake up when the action of the dream has reached a crisis point, as the emotion is peaking. The anxiety has been building, the threat is getting closer and closer, and now the fear (or rage, or anguish, or horror, or helplessness) is so strong that sleep is not sustainable. The dream bursts its bounds and carries the shock of all those feelings into the waking world.

You’re lying in bed, but you’re also in the midst of the nightmare, and you can’t shake it. For the rest of the night, and sometimes for much longer, it stays with you. Maybe you dream it again and again, maybe it hovers in the back of your mind and haunts you. Or maybe you make a big effort and manage to forget it completely, but then something sparks a memory and it all comes back. It can seem inescapable.

This kind of dream takes you to a place that is as bad as anything can be, and even though you get over it and get on with your life, you can’t help knowing, now, that such a place exists, at least potentially, within you. A place where anything can happen, where everything you dread does happen. A place you can’t handle—or believe you can’t handle, because the emotions it evoked overwhelmed you and left you feeling messed up. You’re stuck with the idea (whether conscious or not) that this could happen again, anytime. You’re at its mercy.

So, how do you move on from this nightmare place? And, how could it possibly be meaningful or “good” to have such a dream?

As I mentioned in the last post, many dreamworkers and therapists use dream re-entry methods (going back to the dream while awake, and re-experiencing it) to recreate the dream scenario, but with safeguards and the potential to find a new resolution. You can experience the nightmare, and at least some of its emotional impact, from the perspective of the waking mind, which knows that this is a dream and that you will wake up. Such perspective allows you to exercise some choice about your responses to the dream events. And, often, a dreamworker will encourage you to imagine how the dream might continue beyond the shocking emotional crisis point where you were left hanging—following the process through to a place of potential acceptance and integration.

My own variation on this dreamwork practice is to suggest taking it a step further. It’s usually helpful to begin with the “best case scenario” resolution of the terrible dream situation. (The “best case scenario” resolution is the approach most therapists tend to use.)

Remembering that this is a dream as you come to the crisis, you would recognize that anything can happen, and begin to imagine how things might get better if the dream continued… Perhaps the monster is afraid of you when you turn to confront it, or perhaps the thing that was following you turns out to be a big, friendly dog…  Perhaps the child who was hit by a car is okay after all—a doctor rushes in to save her life… Perhaps the bloody massacre turns out to be a scene in a movie, and the actors begin to over-act playfully, so the violence becomes absurd slapstick and everyone is laughing… Perhaps everyone turns into purple furry caterpillars dancing in a ballet…

These positive possibilities can be more beneficial the more imaginative and unlikely they are. Instead of just coming up with a pat solution to a situation that you know was really and truly horrible, it’s good to be as creative and kooky as dreams can be, to make it clear to yourself that this is a dream and therefore the possibilities are truly infinite. Any dream always has the potential to go in an entirely unexpected direction—and our waking lives have a similar open-ended potential (well, maybe not caterpillar ballet…!). The important thing is to experience the truth that just because it looks hopeless, and just because the emotions are overwhelming, doesn’t mean it has to end here. There are always other ways.

Once, you’ve played with the “best case” possibilities, however, I’ve found that the really powerful transformative work happens when you are brave enough, and feel safe enough, to go on to the “worst case scenario.” Now that you’ve had some practice with the flexibility of dream outcomes, you can dare to follow the nightmare where it clearly seems to be going… into the place where everything is as bad as it can be. Continue reading

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