Dreamwork as Spiritual Practice

Tag: traumatic dreams

After the Nightmare: Disorientation as Opportunity

Toby sleeping 01My cat, Toby, has some bad nightmares. Because he’s deaf, he sleeps very deeply and can’t monitor his environment while sleeping like other cats do. This means that when he’s in a dream, he’s utterly immersed in that dream, and when he wakes up, he’s usually a bit disoriented. Normally, he compensates by sleeping in places where he feels especially secure, and by knowing his environment (he’s an indoor cat, and it’s a tiny house) in every detail, so when he wakes he can immediately remind himself where he is. However, when he has an intense nightmare, it takes him so far from his familiar world that his own home seems alien and dangerous as he wakes up.

Of course, I don’t know exactly what he’s experiencing, but it’s not difficult to guess when he has had a nightmare. He wakes suddenly, sometimes with a yelp, on total alert with ears pricked and eyes wild. He looks around frantically, then scrambles for an exit or a hiding place. It’s most heartbreaking when he doesn’t recognize me and is terrified of me for a moment, then comes creeping to me on his belly as I crouch down to reassure him. He huddles against me, trembling so hard that his head bobs, frightened of everything that usually comforts him.

Eventually, he remembers where he is, who he is, and what’s going on. My stroking soothes him. But it takes awhile. Usually, what he needs most is his adopted mother—our older cat, Annie. As soon as he makes a sound of distress, she comes running. She examines him all over with concern, gives me a dirty look (“What did you do to my kitten?”), and briskly washes his face until he calms down. Then we’re all back to normal. (He becomes his usual confident self—and pesters Annie until she squawks with indignation.)

Toby’s nightmares—and shaky transitions—don’t seem to do him any harm. He absorbs their impact in his own way, reorients himself, and gets on with his life. Perhaps, the experience even energizes him, making his quiet, limited, indoor world more exciting by letting him see it in a new way.

When I have a nightmare myself, it’s not quite so difficult to get my bearings as it is for Toby, but it’s still pretty disorienting. By definition, a nightmare shakes things up. The nightmare situation is so compelling and intense that it stimulates a fight or flight response, causing me to jolt awake, on full alert. And it’s not easy to find familiar points of reference, and convince myself to power down my defenses. Continue reading

More Monster Dreams

I’ve had monsters on my mind. I described the archetype of “the monster” in the last post (“Monsters In My Dreams”) as primal energy: the life force itself, taking the form of change. All change involves the death of something and the beginning of something else. The monster is the aspect of change we fear most—the ferocious energy with which the life force destroys in order to create.

Monsters take many forms in mythology, and in dreams. Some, as in the dream I described in “A Nightmare Is An Incomplete Dream,” are formless—or at least they remain unseen or undefined by the dream-ego (the “I” character in the dream). Other monsters are the semi-human creatures popularized in the media: zombies, vampires, werewolves, etc. Some are monstrous combinations or distortions of other creatures. Some are apparently ordinary things, but made horrifying by the context of the dream (as in some horror movies): an animated toy doll, a bunny, a flock of birds. Monsters are what we make of them. While their essential nature may be universal, the form they take is usually based on individual associations and projections. Continue reading

A Nightmare Is An Incomplete Dream

I rarely have nightmares, but last week I had a full-blown, truly scary nightmare:

I am being hunted by a formless monster who tears people apart. The police don’t believe me and won’t help. To prove that the danger is real, I show a young couple the desolate house where I was held captive by the monster. We enter apprehensively, making sure the monster is not there. The rooms are empty except for scattered trash. The young woman goes down into the dank basement, and as the young man follows, I realize that he is about to be killed. There’s a moment of terror, as I see him on the basement stairs, screaming, and then a splash of blood against the wall. I run in panic, as the invisible monster goes down to get the woman in the basement. I know I have only a few moments to get away, but there is nowhere to run or hide—only a peaceful neighborhood where I know that I will bring harm if I ask for help again. I try to keep running, stumbling, crawling, but know that I can’t get away…

dark corner

The corners are dark, and something could be hiding there…

When dealing with nightmares, there is some preliminary dreamwork that needs to be done before engaging in the usual practice of unfolding metaphors or exploring associations with the images. A nightmare is basically defined by the emotional and physiological response we have to it. I woke from the above dream in the state of emotional distress and physical agitation typical of nightmares. This distress and agitation must be addressed, before anything else can really be done with the dream.In the short-term, the first, best response to a nightmare is simply to bring the body and emotions back to some sort of equilibrium, as much as possible. For me, that meant getting up to use the bathroom (turning on lights!) and “shaking off” the awful feelings before trying to sleep again. In really serious, chronic nightmares or dreams associated with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), returning to equilibrium can be much more difficult, and can require professional support. Continue reading

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