Dreamwork as Spiritual Practice

Monsters In My Dreams

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.

mouthThe 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?



  1. Mark Tarver

    I had a horrible monster dream. I way lying on some churned up earth and I got up and saw there were potholes in the ground. In them were coiled various grotesque, predatory, huge invertebrates anchored by their tails ready to pop out like jack-in-the-boxes. As I stood up I felt a pain in my left arm and hanging from it was one of these monsters – at full dilation with a slimy pulsing body and quadruple pincers – hanging off my arm.

    • kirstenbackstrom

      That’s a powerful, disturbing image—also very creative. The coiled-spring (jack-in-the-box) suggests tension ready to burst, and then bursting out… attacking. Although dreams are not direct or consistent ways of diagnosing physical ailments, this does have some elements that might have health implications I’d consider if it were my dream. The specific pain/attack to the left arm (especially as a result of tension that suddenly lets loose) might possibly have to do with heart issues. The word “quadruple” (as in “quadruple pincers”) has associations for me with heart surgery or injury, too. But these are my own projections on “my imagined version” of your dream—and for you there may be entirely different associations and possible meanings.

  2. Stephen Miller

    I had a monster dream a couple weeks ago. It was raining and I was inside this tall building. I look out the window and saw this monster that looked like the monster from the movie, Cloverfield, charging towards the building. The monster was a quadruped that stood up straight, long thin arms, the face looked similar to an angler fish with black eyes like an alien, and a trident shaped fluke for a tail. I tried to get out, but it was locked. Next thing I knew, I see the monster crashing into the building, but with just enough force where the building did not collapse. I looked over to see his face and he stared right at me. He gave a loud shriek as we stared at each other. Then, it started clawing the building trying to get to me. I was able to get out of the room I was in, but I made the mistake of going down just a couple floors and hiding in a different room. He found me really quick and got a hold of me. The dream ended with me about to be eaten or swallowed whole, but I woke up and found out that the shriek the monster made came from outside my room from some sort of machine.

    • kirstenbackstrom

      Wow! A really vivid monster dream! This creature has so much energy—if it were my dream, I’d be curious about what might happen if it did swallow me whole…perhaps, then, the mostrous power and energy would become part of me if I became part of it? Hm.

  3. Karen Deora

    I had a recurring monster dream as a preschooler. It appeared as a hallucination or so I thought later in life. I am in my bed and it is so dark. A huge blob that seems to lack a form that I can identify appears beyond the foot of my bed about 4-6 feet away. I am terrified and afraid to move and keep my arms within the blankets. The monster is covered in crawling ants and hovers but never approaches any closer.

    • kirstenbackstrom

      This is such a great example! Thank you, Karen. There are probably personal associations for you with the ants (perhaps more significant at the time you had the dream), but, if it were my dream, I’d be thinking of how the universal character of the monster also comes out. One characteristic of the “primal energy of life and death” is that it has a collective quality that is particularly threatening to us at times when we are developing our sense of independence and uniqueness–an important developmental phase that is big at pre-school age, but also at other stages during the teen years and in times when we need to “go our own way” in adulthood. Our entire culture puts a heavy emphasis on individuality, so the “mindless” collective quality of a swarm of ants is seen as really monstrous: like the Borg in Star Trek! (There is a positive and necessary quality to this ant colony energy, too, if you think of the colony as an entity in itself, with all parts cooperatively creating the whole. But clearly in this dream it’s a scary monster.) Also, in my imagined version of the dream, the reference to the “crawling” quality of the ants would have something to do with the stage that my developing, independent identity has just left behind. I’ve recently learned to stand up and walk on my own, so it’s natural to feel a revulsion for something that represents a “step backward” to the more “primitive” and undifferentiated crawling stage.

      Incidentally, the sense of being paralyzed often comes up with nightmares, and probably has to do with the physiology of sleep and dreams. During dreaming sleep, our body is literally paralyzed so that we won’t act out the dream. When we wake suddenly with a strong feeling like fear, sometimes the paralysis doesn’t have time to fully dissipate and we get stuck half-awake, half-asleep and still paralyzed and sort of dreaming. Or else, within the dream, instead of moving our dream-bodies, we are trying to move our physical bodies because the dream feels so urgent. Of course, this paralysis can be taken metaphorically as well as literally, since it represents helplessness in an extremely graphic way.

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