Compass Dreamwork

Dreamwork as Spiritual Practice

Tag: dream monsters

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

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

Dream Nemesis or Dream Teacher?

Toby 01Last night, my cat, Toby, woke me up with his hollering. He is deaf, and so can be oblivious to the noise he is making—reporting on his night-time activities in a very loud voice: “I’m on the bookcase, way up high! I’m pushing this heavy thing over the edge! [Crash!— the bowl of small change hits the floor.] Wow! Jumping down now! Hey, look, at all these shiny things! There’s some under the chair! Oh boy, I found my ball! [Whack! Scamper! Bang!] I ran into the door but I’m okay! Are you in there? Will you come out and throw my ball?” This goes on and on.

Just as I’m slipping back into sleep, Toby lets out another happy bellow or hunting cry. After being shocked awake three or four times, my adrenaline is pumping and it’s almost impossible to relax and ignore him. On nights like this, Toby is my Nemesis. My adorable little friend is taking the form of an awful, disruptive force, preventing me from doing what I want to do: Get some sleep! I can shout at him all I want (he’s deaf, remember?)—and it doesn’t do any good. It feels like a bad dream. Do you ever have dreams like this?

In dreams, the Nemesis character can be as innocent as Toby, or as demonic as a nightmare murderer. The Nemesis can be an annoyance, or a challenge, or a major threat. But, overall, when your Nemesis appears in a dream, like when Toby has a busy, noisy night, you are bound to be bothered. This is the character that “pushes your buttons”—making you feel things you don’t want to feel and do things you don’t want to do. 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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