[This “Dream Alchemy” column, written in 2020, describes how the strong emotions experienced in dreams can contribute to emotional flexibility and resourcefulness. Sometimes emotions in dreams can be overwhelming, and, as in the case of nightmares, may even cause the dreamer to close down rather than open up. Still, dreams always have the potential to be healing and meaningful, though framing the experience of the dream in a positive way is essential. I hope that this article serves as a positive frame for even the more difficult dreaming, and waking, experiences.]
Dreams are often emotionally intense. They can exaggerate ordinary feelings to a ridiculous degree, but they can also give us an opportunity to experience our most profound emotions in their full richness and complexity. It would be impractical to feel everything so intensely under ordinary circumstances in our waking lives. We might be moved by the death of a neighbor’s old dog, or frightened by the prospect of giving a presentation, or angered by a politician—but generally those emotions are contained within socially appropriate bounds. In dreams, however, we may discover our tremendous capacity for passionate, consuming and often contradictory feelings. Discharging strong emotion in dreams can be healthy, relieving us of repressed energies. More significantly, I believe that our dream feelings can help us to know ourselves, acquainting us with the depth and breadth of the emotional faculties that allow us to experience the world as we do.
I’ve been reading a thick book about 9/11. The subject matter is certainly disturbing, and the book isn’t particularly well-written as it tumbles repeatedly into the twin traps of sensationalism and sentimentality. Yet I keep on reading, because immersing myself in the details of this iconic catastrophe gives me a chance to witness, from many different angles, how we human beings respond to shocking, overwhelming circumstances. I want to understand who we are in the immediacy of extremity. How do we cope with chaos and pain? How do we face death? How do we make sense of the incomprehensible? How do we interact with one another in the midst of shared crisis? What makes us compassionate and courageous, and what makes us lose ourselves in selfishness?
The heroic stories from 9/11 have become legendary, representing the best responses that we might have in a desperate situation. But there are other stories, too: stories of the terrified people who abandoned injured companions or ignored pleading strangers; stories of officials who couldn’t face the sheer horror of the situation and persisted in following inapplicable protocols—ordering people to return to their offices, assuring them that everything was under control. Such unhelpful (or even harmful) responses are just as natural as the heroic ones, but we all hope that we’d come through with courage and compassion in a crisis. Among the survivors, it’s often those who were not heroes who suffer the most excruciating after-effects of a tragedy, in shame, self-justification or regret.
So, what makes the difference? I don’t think heroic behavior comes only to those with special training or religious faith, or to unusually “good” people as my 9/11 book simplistically implies. My sense, after reading these stories, is that those who are already familiar with their own intense emotions can more often choose to act on their strong, natural feelings of empathy in spite of their equally strong, natural feelings of fear. In a crisis, both kinds of feelings will arise simultaneously, but some people manage to make brave choices about how to respond to those feelings and some don’t. If we know from past experience how profoundly afraid we can feel, then we’re less likely to be overwhelmed when our feelings are most extreme. If we’ve felt this way before, then we’re less likely to ignore the reality of a terrifying situation because we can’t face the fear, and less likely to deny our empathic connection with others who are also afraid.
Few of us have felt such a nightmarish level of fear in our waking lives, but many of us have felt it in dreams. Our dreams may provide us with an opportunity to practice the full range of our emotions, so that those emotions won’t take us by surprise and overwhelm us in a crisis. Just having access to our own emotional range also expands our repertoire of responses in any situation, and makes us more resilient human beings. And, finally, the intensity of dream emotion can give us a more vivid experience of our whole selves, showing us who we really are and can be.
In dreams, I’ve been in a village under siege when the enemy breaks through the gates. I’ve been accosted in a dark parking lot. I’ve been stalked by a monster. In these kinds of dreams, I’ve been amazed and ashamed to find myself in the kind of panic that prevents me from caring about anything other than saving myself. Since the emotional centers of the brain are more active in dreams, I get a glimpse of how visceral and irresistible my fear can be. Dreams also show me how compelling desire can be, how violent rage can be, how wrenching grief can be.
I don’t know if those who behaved courageously in the surreal horror of 9/11 had previously “practiced” with fear in their dreams, but I strongly suspect that they were all people who had some previous experience of their own vulnerability. If we’ve never been vulnerable, we might expect that we can handle most situations, and we’re not likely to respond well when control, even of our own emotions, becomes impossible. But if we’ve felt the raw vulnerability of being emotionally triggered (in dreams or in waking life), we’re less likely to need to deny our unfamiliarly out-of-control “negative” feelings, and we’re more capable of choosing which feelings to act upon. During the events of 9/11, many of those who managed to follow their courage and compassion in the midst of their terror were later able to integrate the pain of what had happened rather than be broken by it, because they had connected with something within themselves more deeply meaningful than the fear.
Dreams show us the “positive” feelings as well as the “negative” ones. In one of my recent dreams, a friend of mine who has been in a wheelchair for over twenty years suddenly recovers the ability to walk: She looks radiantly healthy; her injuries are healed. Joy and tenderness well up in me. In tears, we lock eyes. I reach out to touch her shoulder, her cheek, unable to find words. The feelings we share in this moment fill us completely: wonder, love, exquisite hope…
I can’t describe the power of these dream emotions. For the first time, I felt how profoundly moving it would be to see my friend standing, walking. In waking life, this friend and I know each other well and can speak openly about many things, but we never express, or directly experience, feelings this intense. I know that I care about her, and feel saddened at the thought of the challenges she faces on a daily basis, but I didn’t realize how very deeply I care. There’s some obvious projection in this dream, since I’m just beginning to allow myself to imagine the possibility that my own physical disabilities might heal—so the wonderful tenderness I feel is, on one level, for my own potential healing as well as for my friend’s. In the dream, I care more deeply for her, and for myself, than I could ever have imagined. But, the central experience of the dream is uninhibited joy—an emotional vulnerability and openness that extends beyond either of us to encompass all beings everywhere as we struggle with limitations and pain, yet long to stand in the shining wholeness of who we really are.
When we allow ourselves to feel all of our emotions, as we do in dreams, we are likely to find that profound compassion coexists with fear. Our capacity to feel is virtually infinite. Our best actions can arise out of the fullness of our feelings. No matter what challenges we face, we can recognize ourselves in each other, and choose to feel with and for each other. In moments of extremity, we can’t know who will behave heroically and who will not—but we will all be longing to live up to the best in ourselves. Even if we can’t literally stand and walk, even if we can’t simultaneously feel our fear and act on our courageous love, we can trust that the potential for every possible response exists within each of us. We can feel it in our dreams.
[This article was originally published in the Winter, 2020 issue of DreamTime Magazine. If you enjoyed it, please consider subscribing to DreamTime by joining the International Association for the Study of Dreams ]