Compass Dreamwork

Dreamwork as Spiritual Practice

Category: Nightmares (page 1 of 2)

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

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

Some Bad News, Some Good News: Working with “Bad” Dreams

nightmares-01Some 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: Continue reading

Facing the Monster: Responding to the Nightmare of a Trump Presidency

monster-01Well, the nightmare has come out from under the bed and is now in plain sight, in our very own country, where we might have imagined we were safe. The monster is not Donald Trump, but the hate, fear and ugliness he embodies. And the nightmare can only be changed into a new dream for our future if we face that monster head on—resisting not only the monstrous message and agenda of this administration, but the echoes of that monster in ourselves.

There are many constructive ways of approaching our sleep nightmares, and similar approaches can apply to the nightmares that confront us when we are fully awake. One of the most helpful dreamwork techniques involves becoming lucid—which means becoming aware that you are dreaming in the midst of a dream—and then moving toward the thing that most scares you, encountering it directly instead of succumbing to blind helplessness.

I won’t go into methods for becoming lucid in a dream here, because I’m more interested right now in how we become lucid in the midst of our present waking nightmare. We become lucid by acknowledging that this nightmare is part of a big dream we’ve all dreamed up together. We face the monster and move towards it by recognizing the ways our own hate and fear can shape our perceptions and actions. By consciously and collectively turning that energy in a new direction, we will be able to resist its monstrous manifestations in the world around us. Continue reading

No Bad Dreams: What’s Good About “Bad” Dreams?

nightmares-02Many people have primarily negative feelings about dreams. But, paradoxically, the unpleasantness of their dream experiences may be the very thing that leads them to new ways of thinking about their dream lives. With a few simple tools, “bad” dreams can become openings.

Suppose someone listens politely to my enthusiastic ravings about dream openings… then shrugs and says, “Well, it’s great that you have such wonderful dreams, but most of my dreams are exhausting and weird. Or sometimes I have awful nightmares. I’d really rather not remember them at all.” Well, that could be a total conversation stopper—or a chance to give a helping hand to a poor soul whose dreams are a drag.

Of course, when I encounter a disgruntled dreamer, I don’t start lecturing on the benefits of bad dreams. That would be rude. But I do ask about those dreams. What are they like? What feelings are associated with them? What images or themes seem to repeat? If the dreamer seems willing to answer such questions, or even seems just a little bit curious… then, there’s room to explore.

Sometimes, simply finding a connection between a recurring unpleasant dream emotion and a recurring unpleasant waking situation is enough to give the dreamer a different approach to problematic circumstances. Or, perhaps there’s a tiny, encouraging element within the “bad” dreams that the dreamer has overlooked—an element that offers hope, or insight, or reassurance.

Every conversation has its own direction, but once the conversation starts, most people will find that their interest in dreams has been awakened. If dreams present problems, they also present ways of working with those problems, and sometimes even outright solutions. When people discover this about their own problem dreams, they begin to think differently: instead of wishing dreams away, they find themselves inviting the opportunities that those dreams represent. And, once  people start inviting dream opportunities, more dreams will probably come to reinforce the positive impressions. 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

After the Nightmare: Disorientation as Opportunity

Toby sleeping 01My cat, Toby, has some bad nightmares. Because he’s deaf, he sleeps very deeply and can’t monitor his environment while sleeping like other cats do. This means that when he’s in a dream, he’s utterly immersed in that dream, and when he wakes up, he’s usually a bit disoriented. Normally, he compensates by sleeping in places where he feels especially secure, and by knowing his environment (he’s an indoor cat, and it’s a tiny house) in every detail, so when he wakes he can immediately remind himself where he is. However, when he has an intense nightmare, it takes him so far from his familiar world that his own home seems alien and dangerous as he wakes up.

Of course, I don’t know exactly what he’s experiencing, but it’s not difficult to guess when he has had a nightmare. He wakes suddenly, sometimes with a yelp, on total alert with ears pricked and eyes wild. He looks around frantically, then scrambles for an exit or a hiding place. It’s most heartbreaking when he doesn’t recognize me and is terrified of me for a moment, then comes creeping to me on his belly as I crouch down to reassure him. He huddles against me, trembling so hard that his head bobs, frightened of everything that usually comforts him.

Eventually, he remembers where he is, who he is, and what’s going on. My stroking soothes him. But it takes awhile. Usually, what he needs most is his adopted mother—our older cat, Annie. As soon as he makes a sound of distress, she comes running. She examines him all over with concern, gives me a dirty look (“What did you do to my kitten?”), and briskly washes his face until he calms down. Then we’re all back to normal. (He becomes his usual confident self—and pesters Annie until she squawks with indignation.)

Toby’s nightmares—and shaky transitions—don’t seem to do him any harm. He absorbs their impact in his own way, reorients himself, and gets on with his life. Perhaps, the experience even energizes him, making his quiet, limited, indoor world more exciting by letting him see it in a new way.

When I have a nightmare myself, it’s not quite so difficult to get my bearings as it is for Toby, but it’s still pretty disorienting. By definition, a nightmare shakes things up. The nightmare situation is so compelling and intense that it stimulates a fight or flight response, causing me to jolt awake, on full alert. And it’s not easy to find familiar points of reference, and convince myself to power down my defenses. Continue reading

Dreams of the Living Dead

I mentioned in the last post (“‘No Feeling Is Final’: Healing Beyond Feelings’”) my recent dream about fighting “two terrifying eight-foot-tall living corpses”—zombies! Dreams about zombies, or “the living dead” seem to be getting more common these days. What is that all about? In addition to this dream of mine, I’ve had at least one other zombie dream, and have heard at least three more such dreams from different people I work with, in the past year. I’ve also read references to zombie dreams all over the place.

Of course, zombies are big in popular culture right now—movies, comic books, toys… Yuck. The image of animated corpses lurching and moaning (or ominously silent) seems to be no more than an invitation for our violently over-stimulated society to revel in gruesomeness and gore. And, as a cultural icon, they might represent our modern illusion that we can keep our physical bodies going, even beyond death. Or they might refer to our technology, which can be as mindless and relentless as animated corpses hungering to eat our brains. Or they might refer to our materialistic appetites and dedication to distraction, which drive the corpse-like ego on and on without mind, spirit, or soul.

But I haven’t been watching zombie movies, and neither have the others I know who are having zombie dreams. True, we’re immersed in popular culture, whether we like it or not—but we’re not saturated by the images and we don’t take those cultural messages at face value. So why are we dreaming of the living dead?

In two earlier posts (“Monsters In My Dreams,” and “More Monster Dreams”) I described how monsters of all kinds relate to a primal fear of death. This isn’t necessarily a fear of physically dying, but a larger resistance to the natural process of death/loss essential to the ongoing, ever-changing nature of growth and life. Fear of death is really just fear of change, since all change involves death. Something must end in order for something new to begin—and, in fact, the ending process and the beginning process are inseparable. 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

Monsters In My Dreams

In a recent post (“A Nightmare Is An Incomplete Dream”), I wrote about nightmares, and shared my own nightmare of “being hunted by a formless monster who tears people apart.” That post was about coping with the disturbing aspects of nightmares in general, and focused on some issues that might need to be addressed before exploring the metaphors and imagery within any particular nightmare. Now, I’d like to look at the central scary image of my dream—an image that is common in children’s dreams, and not uncommon in the dreams of adults: the monster.

mouthThe words I chose to describe the monster of my own dream say a lot about the significance that this particular monster has for me. It is “formless” and it “tears people apart.” Within the past year or so, I have come through a period of major depression. The experience of such depression is probably the scariest thing I can imagine—it is certainly “formless” (like being in great pain, but not being able to find any source for that pain), and it does “tear people apart.” Other aspects of the dream also point in this direction: I’ve been “held prisoner” by this monster in a “desolate house,” and when I am trying to escape, I am afraid to go to others for help, because I’m afraid that I’ll just bring the monster down on them.

Although there is no doubt that my personal associations create a credible case for identifying the monster in my dream with depression, it is important to note that this “solution” occurred to me very easily. According to Jeremy Taylor, “No dreams come just to tell you what you already know.” (That’s the 4th tool in his “Dreamwork Tool Kit.”) At the time of the dream, I already knew that I feared depression returning to hunt me, and I was (and continue to be) actively involved in exploring this fear in my waking life and in dreams. So, I looked further and deeper, and found other personal associations to the monster. No doubt, still more could be unfolded if I were to work on this dream with the help of a dreamworker, a friend, or a group.

The most exciting way to respond to a monster dream, however, is to go beyond the personal and explore it on a more universal, archetypal scale. Children have monster dreams even if their lives are relatively safe from threats to their well-being. Adults have monster dreams when they have no personal associations that seem particularly monstrous. Monsters appear in mythology regularly, and, as Joseph Campbell wrote: “Myths are public dreams. Dreams are private myths.”

In both mythology and dreams, across cultures, monsters are associated with primal energy—the original darkness we come from, and the darkness we fear will swallow us up at death (or if we “lose our minds,” or if the “light of reason” fails us). Whether this is the darkness of “empty” space before the big bang, of the “chaos” that precedes creation, of the grave, of the womb, or in the belly of the whale—this perceived darkness or chaos is a monster that threatens our belief that we are in charge, in control. Continue reading

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