Dreamwork as Spiritual Practice

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.

In some of my dreams, a rat makes an appearance in the Nemesis role, giving me the creeps. In other dreams, recalling childhood squabbles, my sister shows up, resisting all my plans and making me so angry I could just explode! In nightmares, there may be a shadowy, sinister Nemesis character lurking in the background, picking off other characters and getting closer all the time… Whether I’m being creeped out, pissed off, or terrified—I wish this Nemesis would go away.

Jung’s archetypal dream figures—Anima, Animus, Shadow, etc.—are different from the dream figures I’ve been describing in the past few posts. But my concept of the Nemesis does bear a certain resemblance to the Shadow. According to Jung, the Shadow is the character in the dream who carries all of the qualities we disown in ourselves. In other words, if I find my sister bossy and stubborn in my dream, then chances are there’s a bossy and stubborn part of myself I’m trying to learn to deal with (too true). If the Shadow is a very scary character, it’s because I’m really scared of that part of myself. It doesn’t mean that there’s a monstrous and murderous part of me necessarily, just that I’m so scared of these qualities that I make them look monstrous and murderous. Suppose the evil monster Shadow in the dream “knows what it wants and doesn’t care about the consequences”—then perhaps I’m needing to encounter the part of myself that is clear about my wants and needs. In Jungian psychology, engaging and integrating the Shadow is essential to personal and spiritual development.

The dream figure I’m calling the Nemesis can certainly be seen as an aspect of the dreamer’s larger self, asking (or sometimes demanding) to be engaged and integrated. But I also find it useful to think of the Nemesis as a separate being with its own agenda, because, in waking life, it is the “otherness” of the Nemesis that drives us crazy.

When Toby disrupts my sleep, it is because he wants to do what he wants to do. He would be delighted if I joined him in his nocturnal adventures, and can’t comprehend that I’m tired and generally like to sleep when it’s dark. Even people in our lives who may intentionally try to do us harm do so because it seems right to them, and gives them some satisfaction. The problem with the Nemesis is that he, she, or it is not me, and does not share my goals. While the dream figure of the Companion is there to make us feel what we have in common with other beings, the dream figure of the Nemesis is there to make us feel that other beings are different and may not agree with our world view.

In Buddhism and many other spiritual traditions, the whole point of encountering opposition (or what Castaneda’s Don Juan called “the petty tyrant”) is that we learn more from having our views challenged than we do by having them affirmed. Dreams give us lots of practice with this spiritual principle. Dreams always take a larger perspective than the perspective that the dreamer consciously acknowledges. Dreams open our minds to new possible ways of understanding experiences, make us question our assumptions, and throw us into unknown territory. And so, our imaginations are expanded, our resilience and flexibility increase, and we can, potentially, find creative alternatives when our certainties are demolished or disregarded by the certainties of others.

In dreams and in waking life, the Nemesis calls everything into question. The Nemesis shows us what we do and who we are when we are being prevented from doing or being the comfortable or familiar thing we want to do or be. The Nemesis is the Teacher.

And, in a way, the Teacher is the Nemesis. Even when I dream of a wise and kind Teacher character, who shows me what to do and how to be so that I am excited by the learning but not threatened—there is always an element of uncertainty about where these learnings will lead. If the Teacher is any good, the teachings will spell trouble for some part of me that wants to remain just as it is. The dream, if it is allowed to continue beyond the initial “honeymoon period” of the encounter with the Teacher, will tend to lead in unexpected directions that are less agreeable and easy. Often, I dream of a “good” Teacher, who meets all my expectations, but there’s a Nemesis character close at hand. I start out receiving guidance that seems sensible and straightforward, and then I find that the Teacher has a pet rat… and before I know it, the rat is the one in charge of my education.

Finally, all dream figures are in a process of transformation, cycling through different stages and characteristics as the dreamer requires. The Teacher becomes the Nemesis, and the Nemesis becomes the Teacher. This is really what the Nemesis teaches in a nutshell: we can’t control what happens, but we inevitably participate in it (even by struggling against it). We can be changed by others, change them, and change ourselves, without losing anything in the process. In fact, with the help of the Nemesis, we gain a larger understanding of who we are and what is possible for us.

So, Toby has disrupted my sleep, but I’ve learned something about myself. Aren’t I lucky to have such a Nemesis and Teacher? Ask me in the morning!



  1. Jean Kathryn Carlson

    Toby, thanks for the reminder that we are strengthened in the process of having our opinions challenged. It reminds me also of what Jeremy says about dreams coming in the service of health and wholeness, NOT comfort and convenience.

    • kirstenbackstrom

      Too true! Thank you for this excellent reminder, Jean! (And thanks also to Jeremy Taylor for the words of wisdom.)

  2. tina tau

    Toby has done you such a service, too, by acting this out so you could write about it for the rest of us. He is an unforgettable Nemesis!

    • kirstenbackstrom

      Yes, Toby is “unforgettable” all right! I could easily make him the star of every post I write, since he’s often in my dreams–and I dote on him. Thanks, Tina!

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