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.

Most of us, if we are basically non-violent people, feel puzzled by such dreams, especially if we ourselves, as the dream-ego, perpetrated the act of dream violence. Sometimes, we can even feel embarrassed or ashamed that we are not too terribly upset by the appalling dream events. Aren’t we supposed to find explosive violence abhorrent? Then why does this bang-up finale seem okay, or even exhilarating?

It’s vital to remember here that dream violence and waking violence are not the same. Dream violence is metaphorical—it is a strong, impulsive, and conclusive release of energy, which does not cause actual, physical harm to anyone. The dreamer is not psychologically harmed by dream violence—although in some instances the dream violence may be expressing (and trying to heal) harm that is already going on in the psyche. For the most part, occasional violence in dreams is normal and healthy. Shocking dream events should only raise concerns if they are occurring extremely frequently, disrupting needed sleep, or becoming associated with habitual waking thought patterns, speech, or actions. (And, when this kind of habitual violence becomes pervasive, repeated violent dreams are the result of a larger systemic issue, not the source.) Finally, I believe that if people better understood and integrated the energy released by violent dreams, there would be a lot less violence acted out in the waking world.

But what could possibly be worthwhile about a dream that ends with a murderous bang? It’s a general principle of dream physics that when a dream figure or image dies or is destroyed, the energy contained (and often trapped) in that figure or image is set free. If the dream continues after the death or destruction occurs, there is usually a new trajectory in the story-line as some other aspect of the dream is transformed by the released energy. If the dream ends with the death or destruction—especially if the ending is loud or dramatic—then the energy release can happen in the waking world. Maybe the released energy is just a surge of emotion: anger, fear, grief, shock. But maybe, after the surge of emotion, there’s a widening space where real change can radiate outward.

I’ve found that when “I” (as the dream-ego) take decisive, even violent, action in a dream, or when the dream itself takes such action, it often happens because, in my waking life, I’ve reached a tipping point: everything is ready to change all at once. This is a readiness that comes from the deepest levels of my being, and my waking consciousness or ego-identity is generally taken by surprise, no matter how self-aware I am. When such change comes, I may have been preparing myself for it for years, but the “moment of truth” strikes like a lightning bolt and shocks me out of myself. In fact, it shocks me awake.

Wilhelm’s translation of the I Ching describes the hexagram of “The Arousing (Shock, Thunder)”:

“Shock brings success.
Shock comes—oh, oh!
Laughing words—ha, ha!
….The shock that comes from the manifestation of God within the depths of the earth makes [one] afraid, but this fear of God is good, for joy and merriment can follow upon it.”

In dreaming and in everyday waking life, sometimes, shock is followed by laughter. Here’s a waking life example: About thirty years ago, I was playing an arcade game of “Joust”….I’m surrounded by flying adversaries on all sides, overwhelmed and trapped. In a moment of blinding clarity, without thought, I jerk the joystick to the left, running my ostrich right off the edge of the cliff and into the hot lava below. Yes! Game over.

My friend was stunned. Me, too. What a waste of 25 cents! Then we both burst into laughter. How freeing! I didn’t have to play out that impossible game! I was dead! Hurray! I don’t remember whether or not I put in another quarter and played again, but either way, the game had changed for me. The whole desperate battle I thought I had to fight was over. The experience of this absurd, dramatic suicide at Joust became symbolic of some major life changes I was ready to make. That particular phase of my life, filled with insurmountable and exhausting obstacles, could be absolutely and easily over with a big leap and a loud laugh. As if a dream had ended with a bang, I woke up with energy for a new beginning.

So, the next time your dream ends with the explosive force of violence—see if you can let the sound waves sweep you away. Trust that this energetic display of fireworks will clear the air. You can coax those frightened cats out from under the bed. Look, it’s finished! It’s a new day.