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.
The 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.
Indigenous cultures honored this “monstrous” primal energy, without struggling to subdue it. It often appears in their stories as a great lizard, dragon, or serpent—a monster that, like time itself, can devour and destroy, but is also the beginning of all life, the source, the mother, the eternal moment which includes the whole process of being born, abiding, dying, and being born again (symbolized often by the ouroboros: a snake swallowing its tail). Such cultures also honor the feminine principle, and support a relationship of participation in, rather than domination of, the natural world. By contrast, many modern cultures, engaged in a struggle for control over experience, and for independence rather than interdependence, promote an absolute separation between light (good) and darkness (bad). They are likely to see this monster as not only frightening (even those who honor the primal energy can find it fearful), but also as an enemy.
I acknowledge that in my own dream, I experienced this monster, this chaos and darkness, this source and substance of all life—and I tried to run away from it. Children run from the monsters in their dreams, too—monsters that might represent the chaos of changes overtaking them in the developmental process. I’m being overtaken by chaos all the time, as are we all! It’s important that we acknowledge and honor our monsters, the things that make us feel out-of-control, because they show us that life and death are powerful forces, and that we are called to participate in something larger than our fear.
Have you had monster dreams?