Dreamwork as Spiritual Practice

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.

On the day after the election, I took a long walk, crying and trying to cope with the grief and fear of the nightmare-come-true. I was in my own small world of despair. As I came to a busy intersection and stepped into the crosswalk, a man riding a motorbike zoomed past me, too close for my comfort. Without thinking I shouted after him, “You jerk!” And then I caught myself. Someone had done something I didn’t like, and I’d turned it into an excuse for a personal attack that could only lead to making him feel angry and ugly in return. Maybe it would have been a good thing if the man had gotten a ticket for his reckless driving, but my outburst certainly wasn’t helpful (and it was probably more about the election than about him anyway).

Facing our own monsters doesn’t mean blaming ourselves, and doesn’t mean that we are terrible human beings—it just means noticing the apparently innocent little bursts of temper, arrogance, selfishness, greed, laziness, cowardice and ignorance that, unfortunately, pop out of most of us on a regular basis. These are natural emotional impulses, not nightmarish in themselves—yet they come from the same shadowy place that produces monsters. When we don’t notice those impulses, we feed them, and when we feed them, they expand and overtake us… Some of us, like Donald Trump, feed those impulses until there is almost nothing left of the human being to hold them together.

We don’t want to go there. But it’s so easy. Notice, when we make cracks about orange skin and tiny hands and awful hair—that we are using a person’s physical characteristics as grounds for attacking him, wishing to humiliate him. Notice, when we explode into expletives, that we are asserting the language of sexualized violence as a threat. Notice, when I’m mad about the election, that I hurl insults at the first person who bothers me. Notice how easy it is to behave in the way that Donald Trump does (even though it’s on a much milder scale). Without vigilance, and the motivation of concern for others, it’s understandable that this kind of behavior becomes monstrous, self-reinforcing, and contagious.

He’s acting out the worst in us, and that’s why some of us love him (because he’s giving us permission) and some of us hate him (because we don’t want to be that way)… But we don’t need to hate him or ourselves, we just need to make sure that the worst in us does not define us, and the worst definition of our country is not forced onto any of us.

Of course, the nightmare has been here all along—in subtly pervasive racism and sexism that erupts to tear apart lives and communities (yet remains unacknowledged by most of those who benefit from its privileges); in assaults on the earth and indigenous people; in imperialistic rhetoric; in the disenfranchisement of the poor and aggrandizement of the wealthy; in glorified violence; in a culture of false patriotism that celebrates boasting and bigotry while refusing personal responsibility, compassion, and authentic commitment.

In our dreaming lives, nightmares are doing us a favor by bringing the hidden monsters out of hiding. When we have a nightmare, there’s no getting around it. Now we know what it looks like, what it feels like… and, we can do something about it. We can become lucid and wake up. We can face the monster, and see where it comes from.

Just as in a dream, facing the monster is scary—and sometimes makes the monster seem even worse at first. When my dad was a boy, he had a recurring nightmare of being chased by a bear. Finally, in one of those dreams, he became lucid and had the courage to turn and face the ferocious beast. He stood his ground as the bear charged—and he woke up unharmed. But, when he opened his eyes, there was the gigantic bear itself looming over his bed and roaring! This was a “false awakening” and he was still dreaming, so it took yet another act of courage to face the bear again, right there in his own bedroom. But, he noticed that this bear was transparent. He could see right through it. By looking closely and seeing clearly, he discovered that he was stronger and more real than the nightmare.

Here’s what I’m learning about nightmares, waking or sleeping: They have a whole lot of energy. All of the energy in our lives that’s tied up in fear, frustration, desperation, helplessness, insecurity, confusion, shame, resentment, avoidance, anxiety, impatience—all of it coalesces into  a kind of monster, overflowing with raging life force. The nightmare is awful, ugly, hate-filled, furious. When we feel it coming for us and respond with more fear and revulsion, it feeds on our energy and gets stronger. We dream it again and again, and the more we try to get away from it, the more it exhausts and diminishes us. But if we turn and face it, that wave of terrible energy becomes available to us in a new way. It’s just energy: it can make us into raging monsters, or it can fill us with life and strength.

So, it’s been difficult to recognize and resist the quiet nightmare that’s been growing in the shadows in this country. But now that it has stepped out into the open, in all of its dangerous, monstrous meanness, we can feel the energy of our own emotions rising. We can feel the fear, despair and anger—but those are just strong energies. We don’t have to be eaten up by those energies. The monstrousness is transparent; we can see right through it. And where there was fear, we can see and feel the energy of courage. Where there was despair we can feel the energy of commitment, and the tenderness of caring deeply. Where there was anger, we can feel love and clarity and the strength to stand together.

The nightmare’s gift is that it shows us where we are stuck, and empowers us to transcend our monsters. Let’s ride the energy of this nightmare, resist being devoured, and transform ourselves and our country.



  1. kirstenbackstrom

    Thank you, Sam! I wish that my generation could do more—we’re leaving your generation with an awful mess. Sending love, and hoping for the best…!

  2. Samantha Teixeira

    Thank you for sharing this! I appreciate hearing more about your thoughts as you process the election and its ramifications. Take good care!

    • kirstenbackstrom

      Thank you, Sam! I wish that my generation could do more—we’re leaving your generation with an awful mess. Sending love, and hoping for the best…!

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