“I’ve had dreams and I have had nightmares, but I have conquered my nightmares because my dreams”. Jonas Salk
Nightmares are frequently one of the aftershocks that follow traumatic events. They reflect the trauma in one of three ways: Either an “instant replay” of the events that occurred, a close replaying with some features changed a bit, or as symbols and metaphors that capture the felt sense or emotional resonance of the trauma. These nightmares can occur immediately following the event, or many many years later as our system is still trying to process and heal from it. We will meet Jackie at the end of this post, and follow her dream saga over the next several posts as she heals from childhood trauma as an adult in her 50’s.
Tara Brach says, “Trauma is when we have encountered an out of control frightening experience that has disconnected us from all sense of resourcefulness or safety or coping or love.” Therefor, these resources of self-agency, ability to cope, safety and love are what we need to reconnect with in order to resolve the trauma. There are two aspects to any trauma: What happened, and how the person reacted and responded to what happened.
Buddhist philosophy teaches that life can give us two darts: The first dart is what happens to us; that causes the pain. The second dart is the story we tell ourselves about the pain and our reactions to it, that causes the suffering. The first dart is an inevitable part of life, the second one, the suffering, is optional. With compassionate dreamwork we can address both of these darts in different ways. There is a book by Daniel Amen about ADHD titled, “Change your Brain, Change Your Life.” We can’t actually change what has already happened in our waking world of life events; that first dart, but we can change it inside of our dreams and thus reduce the second dart – our suffering.
Our sleep and dream world is just as real as our waking one. Because of the nature of dream time and space, we have much more control over this dreamscape than we do in the waking world of linear time and space. Dreamtime is non-linear, it loops and turns inside out like a Mobius strip. It is always “now” in our dreams: We never dream of the past or the future. This is one of the beauties of dreamwork: When we practice active dreamwork and change things up inside of our dreams, we can also reap the benefits in our daily lives. We will learn several methods to do this over the next few posts. And, of course, we can change our reactions and responses to the things that happen in our dreams as well as the dream narratives. These chosen changes and adjustments can also seep through the porous barrier between our sleeping and waking selves to give us gifts of insight, healing, and transformation while awake.
Jackie reported to our dream circle that she had a long history of repetitive dreams where she couldn’t speak: She either had a mouth full of sticky taffy and couldn’t talk or even open her mouth all the way, or else her tongue was literally tied up in knots, or when she tried to talk to advocate for herself in some dream confrontation she could only peep like a little bird. She had shared with us that she had grown up with a mom who was chronically depressed and was in and out of hospitals most of her childhood. Jackie spent much of her childhood trying to be good and quiet and not to upset her mother, while inside she often seethed with anger, fear and grief. As an adult, Jackie was kind, polite, and fairly soft spoken and admitted to being “conflict avoidant”. She still kept her thoughts and feelings inside, not wanting to stir up potential trouble. In dream group, we explored with her possible connections between her tongue-tied dreams to both to her current communication style and to this history with her mother. Both resonated with her as connected. Here is one form of dream intervention: The creation of insight and connections between the dreams and life, both past and present. So her “aha” was to understand the symbolic content of her repeating dream themes as connected to both past and current life.
We also worked with Jackie within the dreams themselves. At one point she was encouraged to pull the taffy out of her mouth (literally, we had her mime this in group), and to use her hands to untie her knotted up tongue. At another point we asked her what she wanted to say in the dream conflict. Her first thought was that she wanted to say “F…-You” to her overbearing boss in the dream. Jackie shocked herself but enjoyed her out of character response. We then asked if there was something less inflammatory she might like to say in waking life the next time he made unreasonable demands on her beside a “little peep”. After several weeks of working on this dream theme, Jackie reported two things: One, that she felt more empowered and safer to speak up at work, and two, that recently her husband told her that she has been waking him up at night screaming and swearing in her dreams! From no voice to a big angry one, announcing in no uncertain terms another part of her processing. Here was the next layer to address. Stay tuned as these dreams unfold.
After a long break from posting here (in order to get my book out!) I’d like to invite you to focus on the interface between nightmares and trauma. Nightmares that relive or that symbolically recreate traumatic events in our lives are one of the most upsetting and intractable types of dreams. The next series of blog posts will help you learn how to recognize these dreams, offer you tools to resolve the nightmares themselves, and advance your healing from the traumatic events that generate them.
Not every traumatic event that we experience causes PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), or results in nightmares that revive it. Oftimes our system is able to shake it off, and resolve the upset without it becoming embedded in our body or mind. We are all wired for growth, so when this does not occur on our own, we may need extra help.
Animals in the wild live a life of constant predator and prey, as Peter Levine writes about in his book on somatic experiencing, Waking the Tiger. Why don’t animals then seem to develop PTSD? Among other things, from video footage taken in the bush, we see animals that have had a near miss with death literally shake themselves off and then go hopping or running away. After the fight, flight, freeze or play dead response, they seem to return to their baseline animal habits and lives with no lingering after-affects. Active dreamwork can help us to learn these skills as well.
There are, however, some circumstances for humans that seem to increase the likelihood that we will not so easily shake it off, but will go on to develop lasting trauma responses such as persistent nightmares. These circumstances include, but are not limited to, ongoing chronic trauma, multiple traumas, trauma that occurs at vulnerable developmental life stages, entrapment, and very powerfully, the response of the family or community post-trauma. The ability or lack thereof to talk about what happened and receive appropriate support makes a big difference not only in the short, but also the long run.
Sometimes the dreams that appear following traumatic or upsetting events seem like instant replay: looping over and over with the same scene, the same outcome, and the same intense emotional upset. When our systems are able to tap into our innate wiring for healing and growth, the dreams begin to resolve on their own: They get less frequent, less intense, more vague and distant, and eventually disappear. This is best-case scenario – when our innate wisdom and our body’s capacity for healing can be accessed. This is one of our versions of “shaking it off”, and what we are aiming for when we work with the nightmares. If they have been persistent for a while, they may not disappear all at once, but if the pattern is that of less: Less intense, less frequent, less upsetting, then we know we are moving in the right direction.
The series of posts that will follow give you more direction on methods and strategies to do this. A first step is to do some pre-dream incubation and energetic protection if you know that you tend to have nightmares. Before going to sleep, surround yourself or your bed or your bedroom with a protective barrier of some kind: White light is often a good choice, but use any colors that feel protective to you, or an energy shield to keep you safe in the night. This can help, by the way, whether or not you “believe in it”: Like penicillin, sometimes medicine works even if we don’t exactly understand how. “Incubating” a dream means to spend a few minutes before going to sleep asking for what you want; writing it down makes it stronger and more likely to succeed. So write down that you want relief from nightmares, or a barrier between you and nightmares, or spiritual beings to protect you in the night – whatever works for you and your belief system. Then practice saying these statements out loud or at least reading them over several times just before you go to sleep. Our first goal in working with nightmares is to reduce the distress, so let’s start there.
Over the next several posts I will share a number of approaches to healing and resolving your nightmares before, during, and after the night.
“There are many who don’t wish to sleep for fear of nightmares. Sadly, there are many who don’t wish to wake for the same fear.”
(Dandelions, The Disappearance of Annabelle Fletcher, Rochelle F. Goodrich)
Have you noticed lately that your dreams are more permeated than usual with a vague or not-so-vague sense of anxiety, dread, or foreboding? What we might call “free floating anxiety”, to use a professional term. Many of us can easily name our waking angst as related to the current political scene in our country, but more and more it is apparent that PTSD (Post Trump-atic Stress Disorder) has infiltrated our dream lives as well. Reports from countless dreamers since the election have been replete with themes of invaders, intruders, floods, danger, running for safety or the need to protect, including for people who do not usually report dreams of this nature. I’ve been seeing this with my clients, my dream groups, all my colleagues are reporting this, and my own dreams bear it out. Our collective psyches that come together at night seem to breach the boundaries of our very bedrooms. Dreams can contain not only the personal layer of “my dream”; but as we pick up in our unconscious the energies of others, another layer becomes reflective of “our dreams” too. Jung named this phenomenon the collective unconscious, and our collective unconscious is having a field day lately.
Both anecdotal stories and actual polls taken among therapists and mental health professionals indicate a noticeable rise in anxiety, depression, and people seeking treatment either for the first time ever, or coming back after a significant time out of treatment. They all say some variation of “I don’t feel safe any more” or “I am getting triggered by old stuff I thought I had resolved”. They want to talk about current events in a way that is unusual for personal therapy to lead with. It is clear that we are troubled in this post election season by not only our own personal histories, but also the state of the world we are living in and how it affects our psyches and our being.
In one of my dream circles a member had a dream that she titled “The Secular Behemoth”. In the dream some one spotted a large behemoth monster (which is what a behemoth is) on the ground, perhaps just the head, with the rest of it buried, and instructed everyone to run for safety. Then young people chased them who were apparently working for the monster. The feeling of the dream was one of fear and trepidation. The dreamer was very clear that this was not a personal dream, but a collective dream, and that the behemoth represented the “monstrous new world order” under the current administration, and the young people had been brainwashed to work for him in the dream. She attributes it’s arrival to having returned to watching the news after a period of a news fast. The secular part of her title referred perhaps to this new order feeling unholy -who is caring for the needy among us? Her waking world dream tasks after sharing it included to gather up protection, and then to look at and face the monster with collective support.
Another dreamer had a dream of an enormous tinker toy structure in her children’s room where 2 teens had “invaded” her space and had set up camp there. She yelled to them “Get Out!”, feeling invaded, terrified and full of rage. Her associations when we worked on the dream were of feeling invaded as some one large and powerful was “tinkering” with her private world, and worry for the future of the children. One of the ways we worked on this dream from the inside was by dismantling the tinker toy structure and boxing it up.
We can work right inside the dream images to change them up, change the ending, or gather up supports if we are getting overwhelmed or anxious or outright terrified. It is, after all, our own dream – even though we might not be able to change the world quite so quickly, we do have the ultimate power to change our own stories, whether in our waking or our dreaming life. So, if you have an anxiety dream, ask yourself “What can I do to feel more empowered, to get to safety, to help myself and others inside this dream?” when you wake. Then, re-write that dream, adding in any resources you want: in dreams you are not limited by the laws of physics or gravity or logic. The more we can feel safe and empowered, even in our dreams, the more we can bring that forward into our waking lives as well.
In addition, here are a few more dream ideas to try before going to sleep at night to help contain the flood of feelings and the deluge of upsetting images.
1. Use your dream journal to set an intention the night before to write something like “I will allow in and recall only the dreams that are in my highest purpose and best interest”. Or “I will be safe and protected in my sleep and dreams”.
2. Hang a dream catcher near your bed with the same intentions (that is what Native tradition tells us they are designed to do – allow the good dreams to filter through the hole in the center, and snare the upsetting dreams in their webbing.)
3. Surround yourself and your bed/bedroom with a bubble of light for safety, protection, and good boundaries. Pick your favorite most healing and protective color.
4. Imagine closing a door in your mind before going to sleep, like a portal between worlds. You can also add a phrase such as “I close the door to unwanted intrusions in the night”.
5. Say the words “No”, or “No more” or “Enough”, (Dayenu, in the spirit of Passover) strongly, perhaps even out loud to your dream muse to give you a break!
Stay connected with your supports and your tribe as well, so we can face the Behemoth together. Join groups, gather with friends and fellow dreamers, feel the power of the collective spirit. Brene Brown recently said that collective courage is an antidote to collective trauma. She quoted Howard Thurman saying “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive and then go out and do that. The world needs more people who are fully alive.”
Awake to your dreams, and then take them with you out into the world.
At this time of year, we celebrate Easter, Passover, the equinox, and the coming of spring. Themes of renewal, resurrection, and freedom abound as we mark this season, and remember that the healing potential lays under the darkest of places. Although here in New England we are still dealing with a layer of snow, the buds are pushing through the ground and out the ends of the tree branches, reminding us that what has been buried underground all winter has not died, just has been waiting for enough light and warmth to come forth. Our darkest dreams, our nightmares even, contain the roots and sources of our freedom and liberation. As we struggle up through the layers of sleep to our dream-saturated waking consciousness, retaining what we can of the messages that came through to us in the night, we can find the hints of our healing, and as Mary Oliver suggests, we get that “click” of an “Aha!” and the taste of sweet blossoms in our mouths.
Dreams(by Mary Oliver)
the dark buds of dreams
In the center
of every petal
is a letter,
and you imagine
if you could only remember
and string them all together
they would spell the answer.
It is a long night,
and not an easy one—-
you have so many branches,
and there are diversions—-
birds that come and go,
the black fox that lies down
to sleep beneath you,
the moon staring
with her bone-white eye.
Finally you have spent
all the energy you can
and you drag from the ground
the muddy skirt of your roots
and leap awake
with two or three syllables
like water in your mouth
and a sense
of loss—-a memory
not yet of a word,
certainly not yet the answer—-
only how it feels
when deep in the tree
all the locks click open,
and the fire surges through the wood,
and the blossoms blossom.
May your dreamings bring you insights and blossoms
When we recognize the patterns in our dreams and in our lives, then we have the power to shift and transform them.
Amanda, age 8, developed a fear of intruders breaking into her house. She dreams that some one will break in and kidnap or hurt her or her family members or her pets.
Jen, age 27, consistently has dreams of violence: of being chased, some one being murdered, small animals being hurt. Her current life is pretty stable and happy, so she can’t figure out what these dreams are about.
What both of these dreamers have in common is the repetitive and intrusive nature of their dreams. Sometimes bad dreams and nightmares resolve on their own, and sometimes they seems to get “stuck”. Paying attention to and keeping track of dreams, especially when they are repetitive dreams, is crucial in order to be able to see and to heal the patterns. We can’t recognize patterns if we aren’t keeping track over time.
Healing is about becoming aware of the healthy and unhealthy patterns in our lives – once we recognize a pattern, then we can get on with healing from the events that created and perpetuated it. Framing the dreams and the patterns of the dreams in the life of the dreamer can give us guidance towards understanding and then resolving these scary themes and images.
Alan Seigal, president of IASD (the International Assoc. for the Study of Dreams) outlines 3 stages in the resolution of recurrent nightmares:
Stage One: The Threat:The dreamer or the main character in the dream is being threatened in some way and can’t get away or defend themself.
Stage Two: The Struggle: The dreamer or main character is still being attacked or chased or imprisoned, but they are attempting to break free, to run or to get away. (For example, the dreamer is being chased by a bear and successfully climbs a tree to safety, but the bear is still lurking underneath the tree and they are trapped in the tree).
Stage Three: Resolution: A workable solution has been found, and the threat no longer exists- it has been transformed, overcome, vanquished, extinguished.
I really like this organization of stages in working through nightmares because it honors the steps along the road to progress. Looking at it in this way, we can see more clearly that even though the struggle phase is still difficult, it does represent progress. It is important to recognize the small steps along the healing path as well as the big leaps.
Alan also does a lovely job with a pneumonic for the work of healing from nightmares. The “3 R’s” of our childhood were reading, writing, and ‘rithmatic. The “4 R’s” of dream healing can be thought of as Reassurance, Re-scripting, Rehearsal, and Resolution.
Reassurance: Whether we are with children, loved ones, or clients, the first step to providing some comfort and relief to nightmare sufferers is Reassurance. Not reassurance that it’s “just a dream”, since that would negate their experience, but reassurance that you respect the feelings of the dream, that you recognize (another “R”) that it feels really real. Having their dream taken seriously is a source of comfort for both children and adults. Then leaning into the dream with better resources, rather than leaning away from it in avoidance or fear, is a good next step.
Re-scripting allows you re-write the dream and to build in resources for the dreamer to use in working with the dream and in ending the dream on a more positive note. We should encourage the dreamer to approach scary dreams slowly and carefully, and to add in resources for safety and protection even before working with the dream material itself. For example, use your imagination to provide magical tools, cultural symbols or icons, non- lethal protection such as shields, light or force fields, or a posse of people/animals/guides to protect the dreamer. Anne Wiseman, author of the book “Nightmare Help”, encourages us not to use violent means as protection, as this can encourage using violent means to solve life problems, especially with children. Even with adults, we don’t want to annihilate a dream figure that we may later discover can be a hidden resource for us.
Rehearsal: Remember the old joke: “How do you get to Carnegie Hall? – Practice, practice, practice.” That’s what Rehearsal is all about- practice using the methods you came up with in re-scripting to work out a safer and more satisfying dream scene and dream ending over and over again. Keep going over those resources, changing the dream ending, getting the characters to talk to each other, etc. until the dreamer can “do it in their sleep”. When working with Amanda (age 8), we practiced standing up tall and building a magic fence around her house, and as we acted that out she also talked back to the intruders out loud, saying “Go away, You can’t get me!” and “Get out of here” and “I’m safe”.
Resolution:Once we’ve reassured, re-scripted, and rehearsed we are much more likely to come to a good resolution that will either make the nightmares go away, or will transform them into something much less stressful, or benign, or even helpful, or provide some insight or direction for the dreamer to take in their waking life.
For those who are interested in learning more about using these methods, I will be leading a workshop titled “ Using Dream, Imagery and Metaphor in Clinical Practice: Taming Demons and Transforming Nightmares” which will be held at the Therapy Training Boston Center in Watertown, MA. on Friday May 1st. While geared for health and mental health professionals (6 CEU’s are available!), the interested dream enthusiast is also welcome, and the material and experiential exercises will be useful for all. Click here for the link, http://www.therapytrainingboston.com, and scroll to workshops. Early bird registration gets you a discount till April 1st! Hope to see you there.
“In most of our dreams, our inner eye of reflection is shut and we sleep within our sleep. The exception takes place when we seem to awake within our dreams, without disturbing or ending the dream state, and learn to recognize that we are dreaming while the dream is still happening”. Stephen LaBerge
Most of us have heard of the phrase “lucid dreaming” but have not been aware of the intricacies of it. It has become an increasingly popular concept however, and Wikipedia told me that a smartphone app for it was downloaded half a million times within six weeks in 2012. A lucid dream has been defined as any dream within which we are aware that we are dreaming. To be lucid while dreaming implies being “awake” or conscious while asleep (sort of an oxymoron), and then to be able to control or direct what happens inside the dream. (While my blog title is “Awake To Your Dreams”, lucid dreaming can be thought of as being awake in your dreams).
Until recently I was somewhat prejudiced against this as a worthwhile goal, given that I believe that it makes more sense to dream all the way through a dream that we are given, and then to work with it. In other words, not to interfere with our wise unconscious dreaming self from doing the work that it does best: Taking our unarticulated dilemmas, longings, desires, wishes, issues, pains, and struggles and then present them to us in dreamtime with as much metaphor and symbol as it thinks we need in order to be able to begin processing them. Pictures, images, emotions, storylines, fragments, a single word or a whole epic- let ‘em role – and then go back and find the layers of meanings. But as I have been giving the concept more thought, I have been coming to see other options available in lucid dreaming that do not necessarily hijack our innate processing systems.
So as a modern adult with a teenager to learn from, I Googled “lucid”. It was defined as “articulate, rational, or luminous”, with additional synonyms of thought through, clear, eloquent, and silver tongued (the later being my personal favorite). Not what I actually had expected, given how it is commonly used in the dreaming world. And yet, it makes sense. I especially liked the use of the word “luminous”: implying otherworldly, shining and glowing, and yet clear and eloquent- all hallmarks of a dream well dreamt from our souls’ warehouse of dreams.
There seem to be two kinds of lucid dreams: 1.) “Dream initiated lucid dreams” that begin as a regular dream, and then turn lucid, and 2.) “Wake initiated lucid dreams (or “W.I.L.D.”). These can occur a.) while we are drifting off to sleep but are still technically awake and we are aware immediately that we ‘re dreaming, or b.) when we incubate a dream before going to sleep. To incubate a dream, we purposely journal, think, or pray to journey into a dream on some issue or dilemma while we are awake, and then dream on it in the subsequent dream. This later method is a form of lucid dreaming that combines inside and outside worlds- focusing our attention on what we hope to have a dream about while awake, and then having the dream on that topic while asleep. This seems to be one way not to interfere with the wisdom of our dreaming mind- we kind of point our radio frequency dial in the direction we want, and then our dream mind picks up on the right signal and we make contact.
Both kinds of lucidity can be useful for nightmare sufferers. The ability to point our dreams in the direction of healing while awake, and the ability to purposefully change course in the middle of a distressing dream to avoid a pitfall or disaster can greatly alleviate the distress of chronic nightmares. If we don’t misuse the method to bypass the inner work we need to get through, this skill can be a gift and a short cut to relief. No one gets extra points for prolonged suffering! I once had a dream in which I was being assaulted. I somehow knew it was a dream and that I didn’t want the assault to continue, so I remember deciding to get out of there. I knew I had to swim upwards to get out. Then I had the sensation of straining my way up and out of the dream like swimming through sticky molasses, aiming for the light at the top. I could feel the pulling and kicking feelings in my arms and legs, and when I got to the top I was awake. I still recall the feeling of relief and self power that I got myself out of there.
The ability to lucid dream is both innate and can get better by practice, much as exercising any other kind of muscle gets stronger with practice.
Here are a few popular methods of getting more lucid:
1. “Am I Dreaming?”
Ask yourself periodically during the day “Am I dreaming?” and perform some kind of reality check. If you do it often enough you will remember to do in in your dream as well. For example, if you lean against a wall and ask yourself “Am I dreaming?” and you don’t fall through the wall you are awake; since in a dream you are more likely to fall through. Jump up in the air: if you land you are awake; you are more likely to be able to hover or fly if you are dreaming. Clap your hands together or snap your fingers- if you can hear, see and feel it, you are awake. If you are missing any of those sense awarenesses, you are asleep.
2. Journal It
Keep a dream journal. As you build up a dream lexicon of re-occuring images and themes, they will become easier to recognize in your dreams. Make a list of your common images and themes and review them before going to sleep.
3. Set Your Clocks
Try a variation on Stephen LeBerge’s method. Set an alarm clock to wake you up at periodic intervals of several hours duration during the night, and record the dreams you have then. We are most likely to have lucid dreams during our deepest REM sleep. So after recording as much as you can remember, lie back down to the position you were just in, and tell yourself “I am aware that I was dreaming”, and you will be more likely to know that inside of your next sleep/dream phase. (Personally I can’t imagine wanting this badly enough to wake myself up for it on purpose, but that’s just me- there are those who do it.)
4. “Look At Your Hands”
a.) As you get into bed, look at your hands, and say to yourself over and over “I will dream and I will see my hands” until you are tired and go to sleep.
b.) If you wake in the night, look at your hands and repeat the phrase.
c.) With practice, you will see your hands in the dream and can say in the dream “Wow- here are my hands- I am dreaming!”
5. The Diamond Method
While you meditate, try to visual your whole life, both waking and sleeping as facets of a diamond: All is one, just different aspects of the same whole, a synthesis of the spiritual and the psychological. (A. H. Almaas). Our dreams and our waking selves are thus just two facets of the same human consciousness. Almaas calls this diamond the Universe, or God, or the Soul. The key is to recognize that all of life is happening at once, and it is only our limitations and perceptions that separate it out into its different facets or dimensions. Once we recognize this, it then becomes easy to see dreams and waking as simply different facets of the diamond, and therefor easier to be “awake in your dreams” with little effort.
Of course, as Robert Waggoner points out in his book on lucid dreaming, we can’t control everything in a dream, or in life – not the color of the sea, or the height of the waves. But when we develop a relationship with our Inner Guide, our inner Wise Woman or Wise Man, our clear cut Diamond Self, then we can direct the ship of our life more confidently and with more resources.
Dreaming is a healing process…a vital means by which we bind up our wounded spirits and rekindle our hopes for the future.” (Kelly Buckeley)
Last year the Boston area held the world in horrified thrall during the terrorist attack on the Boston Marathon. Stories have appeared in the news media off and on all year about the healing and recovery of the survivors, and stories of courage and selflessness of responders. Many are planning to run or cheer on this year in honor of those who were killed or affected by the bombing and it’s aftermath. As a Watertown resident, I have walked the streets less than a mile from my home where the suspect was finally recovered. Scenes of the bombing on Boylston St., of the responders and victims that day, the lock down in many towns, the images of SWAT teams patrolling the quiet neighborhood and banging on doors, to the final recovery of the second bomber under the boat- these images have been engraved in many of our memories. For some, they have shown up as persisting nightmares in various literal or symbolic forms over the past year. While the distress has abated for most as the year unfolded and life returned to the new normal, as the first anniversary approaches the city and our psyches are revisiting that time, and we can hope to use the anniversary to mark healing and courage and our unwillingness to be bowed down to the false gods of violence and terror.
Kelley Buckeley (Dreams of Healing, 2003) tells us that we make meaning out of tragedies publicly when people build monuments (think 9/11 or the Vietnam Memorial) or set up spontaneous memorials (think piles of running shoes and flowers on Boylston Ave.). Inter-personally, we have conversations and prayer circles, and internally people dream dreams. Our dreams can guide us in the direction of hope and healing; our job becomes to pay attention to them, and to direct them toward resolution and wholeness of being.
Our dreams can be both landmarks of our internal process when “bad things happen to good people”, (to quote Kushner), and a source of healing and solace as we attend to them and use their generative powers to move forward: to creating meaning out of chaos, hope out of despair, and a forward-moving life force out of the depths of darkness and sorrow. A hallmark of a therapeutic modality called AEDP (Accelerated Experiential Dynamic Psychotherapy) has as some of its tenants that we are all wired for growth, that we all have the capacity to experience joy and delight, and that nothing that feels bad is ever the last step. I love these philosophies! It reminds me of what the proprietor of the hotel in the movie “The Exotic Marigold Hotel” also tells us (in his lovely Indian accent): “Everything will work out in the end. And if it hasn’t worked out, then it isn’t the end yet.”
Post-traumatic nightmares can actually be a sign of a vigorous life force that is pushing forward to bring in potential allies of deep powerful inner strength and resilience that need to be brought forward into consciousness. Dreaming in and of itself is a healing process- it is one of our system’s ways of digesting and processing information. (With the legacy of trauma, the body/mind adage “what isn’t sufficiently metabolized can become metastasized” can have great meaning).
Dreams that follow a crises do not aim to simply return the dreamer to the status quo, rather they aim to develop a whole new understanding of the self and the world that encompasses the trauma, and help the dreamer to rise out of the ashes of their broken self to find new hope, structure, and meaning for their world. (Buckeley) Dreams are one of our most powerful sources of meaning making.
Buckeley continues, “Nightmares are more like a vaccine than a poison.” This understanding follows the homeopathic principle of that a minute dose of a negative substance inoculates us to the disease or distress. Our dreaming selves are struggling to deal with the psychological distress and spirit anguish caused by traumatic events. “…Although dreamsharing by itself does not cure a disease, it does have the power of enhancing conscious awareness of both our deepest fears and our greatest strengths… At times of great suffering and vulnerability, this kind of enhanced self awareness can have a deeply re-vitalizing effect.”
We can assist our dreaming selves in this healing process, whether the nightmarish distress is from trauma, loss, illness or parts unknown. We can incubate dreams at night before going to sleep; spending a few moments quietly tuning in, then writing in our dream journal our desire for our dream guide to send us healing dreams in the service of our highest good and best interests. We can be general or specific, depending on what we already know about our nightmares or our day distress. We can orient ourselves, as recommended by the Talmud, to find the gift in every dream. We can hold the expectation that if it hasn’t worked out, that it is not the end yet. And you are all invited to participate in a day retreat workshop on Sunday May 4th on “Dreams of Healing: Dreamwork and Transformation” where we will learn dreamwork principles, journey together, and find our way in the nearby woods for a short waking dream journey. Click here to find the link to the flier for registration.
May we all dream together of inner and outer worlds of peace
“Those heart-hammering nightmares that start to lose coherence even as you’re waking up from them, but that still manage to leave their moldering fingerprints all across your day.”
(Mike Carey, “The Naming of the Beast”)
After a longish hiatus, here is the next in the series on working with the more severe nightmares. Neuro-psychologist Daniel Amen wrote a book on the neuro-plasticity of the brain entitled “Change Your Brain, Change Your Life”. We might call deep dreamwork “Change Your Dream, Change Your Life”, since deep and careful work on long-term nightmares can transform them and free us from their bondage.
Nightmare shadows and fears can affect our waking lives as well as our night lives: with fatigue (of course), irritability, difficulty concentrating; or a lingering “emotional hangover” from the dream that lasts through the day. Some nightmares can be caused by medications, or withdrawal symptoms from medications or substance use. They can also occur because of sleep deprivation or exposure to scary media.
Chronic re-occurring nightmares however, are often caused by unresolved traumatic events. These might be “Big T” traumas such as a history of neglect or abuse, growing up in a dysfunctional household due to substance abuse, mental or physical illness, traumatic deaths, medical trauma, natural disasters, or witness to chronic violence. The nightmares may also be activated by “Small t” traumas such as a minor fender-bender that while upsetting in their own right, also serve to also re-activate some earlier larger scale trauma. The good news is, that once the underlying source issues have been resolved sufficiently, then these nightmares begin to transform and eventually disappear entirely. That is the key phrase-“sufficiently”: you can begin to experience positive changes once you have made some progress on healing these stuck places. Often these nightmares need some one experienced in both dreamwork and trauma to serve as a guide through their rocky terrain.
One of my clients had her nightmares “contaminate” her bedroom as well, so much so that she could no longer sleep in her bed. Luckily for her, one Christmastime she discovered that the lights on the tree were soothing and comforting for her, and she took to sleeping in the living room under the Christmas tree in order to feel safer. She negotiated with her roommates to leave the tree up until April, when they finally protested the amount of dry pine needles they kept stepping on throughout the house. We figured out together in her sessions that she could instead buy a small artificial tree and put it in her bedroom with the colored lights on as a stopgap measure until the nightmares were sufficiently resolved. This was actually a significant step in her healing work: seeing that she could have greater control over her dream life, and that she could effect change there, and began to generalize to other parts of her life as well.
An important note here: when working with the types of nightmares that contain real life events, figures, or actions we don’t want to rush to assume that they are only symbolic. While dreams often come encoded in symbolism, sometimes “memory bursts” of actual events may make their way into the dream world and emerge full blown, much as Athena did from Zeus’ head. So in general, be careful of assumptions about nightmares- the key to resolving all kinds is to find out what they have come to teach us and what we need to learn and do to live fully in our lives.
The first step in working with these types of nightmares is to make sure that the dreamer has enough safety to work on the dream material without becoming re-traumatized in the process. I have developed a system of dreamwork called the GAIA* method (Guided Active Imagination Approach), that is based on a combination of Jung’s active imagination and basic safety protocols around trauma treatment. The first piece of business is to make sure that the dreamer has all the resources they need in the imaginal realm, before they even begin work on the dream.
I start this type of dreamwork by asking the dreamer what resources they need to feel safe enough to approach the dream, to re-enter it and work on it. So, from outside the dream, after they have shared it, but before going inside to work on it, we first gather up through active imagination people, objects, guides, and resources that they bring with them into the dreamscape to keep them safe inside the dream. I can’t emphasize strongly enough how important this step is. Some of the beings and objects that my dreamers have gathered before even working on the dream include a flashlight (it was dark in there!), a baseball bat, an invisibility cloak, their guardian angel, a beloved pet, a friend or relative; alive or deceased, a mythological figure (i.e. one brought Gandalf, the Wizard from Lord of the Rings), and some kind of Divine light. The possibilities are limitless. Only after making sure that they are ready, do we then enter the dreamscape to use a variety of methods to work with the dream material from the inside towards transformation and empowerment. Those who want to learn more about this method are welcome to connect to my article that appeared in the publication of the Association for the Study of Dreams, entitled“Getting Unstuck: Using the GAIA* Method of Dreamwork to Heal From Trauma”
Part of this re-entry work can also include what has been called “Image Rehearsal”. In this method, the dreamer imagines a different more positive outcome for the dream, adding in whatever resources they need to bring it about, and then have the dream end in a different way than it did originally. They then rehearse this new ending several times until it feels strong and viable.
Nancy’s story: Nancy had grown up with ongoing abuse by her father and a mom who was silent. She had nightmares for many years that were so strong that she was effected by them all day as well- she would spontaneously recall the feelings of dread and the sensations of claustrophobia and feeling trapped from the dreams off and on throughout the day. The fear from the dreams was so strong that she felt the need to binge eat or drink to sooth herself. She despaired of ever being free of them.
Before working directly on the dreams, she added the resources of her pet cats, the special comforter on her bed, a friend from her spiritual community, and me standing by her. After a few weeks of doing dreamwork, she came in and said “Linda, I am almost afraid to mention this in case I jinx it, but for the last 2 weeks, even though I am remembering my dreams, they disappear within minutes of my waking up, and don’t bother me during the day.” For the next month, she would report in every week: “Still no dream hangover- can that be true?” Then she came in and said “When I have dreams of my father now, instead of him being larger than life and menacing to me, he seems little and weak and I am more powerful than him now.” This transformation is one of the hallmarks of resolving trauma: that the previous suffering is transformed into “just a memory” with no emotional wallop.
Doing dreamwork by yourself on your own dreams can be like trying to see the back of your own head without two mirrors.
If this post seems a surprise in the series on nightmares, that may be both true and not true. I had initially planned the next post on the big nightmares that often have a source in trauma. However, some challenging life circumstances got in the way of this intention, and I was happy to find that I had stored this post for a time when I needed one and didn’t have the time to write from scratch. In truth, it is perfect timing for a conversation about dream sharing with others. When we work with our most challenging dreams having a guide, a companion, or a group is an invaluable aide to help us stay grounded and centered as we journey through the dark nights of the soul. So here we are:
Dreams usually arrive in our consciousness as conundrums. We usually have to spend time hanging out with the dream material to unravel it’s coded messages. As we get more skilled in attending to our dreams, we can get pretty good at it, especially if we can catch our own puns and plays on words. Problem is, most dreams come to us fairly encrypted. Just as we can often see some one else’s issues or truth more clearly than our own (who among us can’t identify (ahem…) just what our spouse, child, parent, etc. should do to be a better person!). We often hit the same blind spot when we attempt to decode our own dreams as we do when we try to see our own “issues” clearly. Our dreaming self offers up it’s mystery into our conscious minds, but if we want more than it’s initial offering, we may need to enlist the help of others: from those who can see more clearly the backs of our heads and into our blind spots. (FYI, even Freud and Jung rarely considered their owns dreams completely analyzed if they worked on them alone.)
The flip side of this coin, as we discussed in a previous blog, is that only the dreamer can truly know the resonant meaning of his or her own dream. This is because only the dreamer has the first person access to their dream, and only the dreamer can say how it relates to their own life. Richard Russo quotes Jung as saying “…to truly understand (another’s) dream, we would have to know everything about the dreamers life- something only the dreamer is capable of.”
Jeremy Taylor, based on the work of Montague Ullman, designed what I call the “Code of Respect” for dreamwork with others: When we offer an idea about the meaning of a dream, we preface it with “If this were my dream…” “If this were my dream, I would wonder about the horse in the corner of the field.”… “If this were my dream, I would want to know the significance of that bright red color in her dress.” … “If this were my dream, I would wonder if that child in your dream was a younger part of yourself; it reminds me of what you said about your life when your parents got divorced when you were six”. You can be as specific or general as your insight takes you, but if you preface it with this phrase, then you are offering the option of your opinion to the dreamer, but not insisting that your explanation is correct. We can also receive our own insights from working on some one else’s dreams. What might catch my attention in your dream is something that has significance for me- whether or not it does for you. Thus, we get do a bit of our own dreamwork with other people’s dreams- what a nice benefit for sharing dreamwork. So, if you are working on another’s dream with them, pay attention to own your own projections!
The ultimate is dream sharing is being with a group- a dream circle. I have been in a personal circle of my own for almost 30 years. We know each other pretty well at this point, and on occasion don’t even get to the dreamwork if we have a lot to catch up on, but we have held the frame of dreaming together as bond and a structure to our monthly meetings. We’ve dreamed each other through births, marriages, illnesses, deaths, career changes, surgeries, milestone birthdays and now into the empty nest phase for some of us (not me yet though! – mine is the youngest of the group’s children at 15.)
I have also facilitated dream groups for over 25 years. Again, the bonds formed in the circle often extend out of the circle as well. If you chose to form a dream circle, be clear about whether some one is in charge, or you have a rotating leadership, or a “self help” model with no one in a leadership role. Set up a format and a structure that works for you, and then stick with it. So many groups without formal leadership devolve into “just chatting”, and then loose momentum and die out. As a group worker with training in group dynamics and group process, I know that these are some the biggest reasons for group failure: lack of a clear purpose, lack of clear goals, and lack of clear structure.
Choose your fellow dreamers as carefully as possible; it doesn’t have to be people you already know, but since dreamwork is such an intimate sharing, you do want to be able to trust the members to keep confidentiality and treat each other respectfully. One option is, that you can choose whether or not to share your “aha” with the group– it is always fine to say “oh’ I’ve got it”, without divulging the details if it feels too personal to share. When I teach large classes in dreamwork, I always give people this option. This creates more of a sense of safety to go as deep as you want, and still have choice and control over what you disclose.
“I’ve had dreams, and I’ve had nightmares, but I have conquered my nightmares because of my dreams.” Jonas Salk
Nightmares. There seem to be two main categories of adult nightmares. There is the uncomfortable or upsetting dream, and then there is the heart-pounding panic-stricken terrifying one. Some nightmares are so vivid that they seem real- we wake sweating, or screaming, or our partner wakes us up asking, “What were you yelling about in your sleep?” Perhaps especially with upsetting dreams, we need work with them, figure them out, and resolve what triggered them in order to have them transform and/or disappear. (Really. I’ll give you some examples over the next few blogs.)
Believe it or not, nightmares come to us bearing gifts- even the really scary ones. We may not have been particularly desirous of this kind of a gift- and would just as soon “re-gift” it as soon as possible. However, if we’ve dreamed the dream, it means that some part of us is ready to receive these gifts: the gifts of information, of insight, of potential, and of direction that we may need in order to move forward in our lives.
This is part of what mythologist Joseph Campbell calls our “Hero’s Journey”. Part of the journey of every hero and heroine is to encounter obstacles, face seemingly impossible tasks, and then to figure out how to resolve and overcome them. Sometimes the task is to face up to and then overcome something: (i.e. Perseas and Medusa, where our hero Perseus has to cut off the Gorgon Medusa’s head, but since looking directly at her would turn him to stone; he figures out how to see her indirectly reflected in his shield and thus be able to slay her). Sometimes the work is to complete a seemingly impossible task (i.e. Hercules 7 labors; one of which included cleaning out the Elysian stables of the gods-and that’s a lot of horse-sh*t to have to clean up!). Sometimes the task is to journey to dark forbidding places for the purpose of redemption ( i.e. Orpheus and Eurydice where our hero Orpheus actually journeys to hell and back to reclaim his bride). All contain allegories for our lives, and our nightmares often include being threatened by something monstrous, an impossible task or dilemma, or dark forbidding landscapes.
Since we know that the language of dreams is usually through symbols, we have to figure out what these messages mean for us, and then what we need to do with the information we uncover. The final stage of dream work is the action stage- taking the dream information and connections into some form of action in our life. This is the part that is often neglected, which is why the nightmares may continue. Jeremy Taylor says that dreams come to us in the service of health and healing, but as Robert Moss points out on his website, we have to actually DO something differently in our lives to get us there. “…Dreams require action! If we do not do something with our dreams in waking life, we miss out on the magic…we (have to) take the necessary action to bring the magic through.” (Moss)
Moss calls his quick method of working with dreams “Lightning Dream Work”; it is one way to work with the milder form of the nightmares.
1. Title your dream: As mentioned in a previous blog, giving the dream a title can often allow the core message of the dream to “pop” in high relief. Don’t think – just go with your first gut response.
2. Describe the feeling narrative: Have the dreamer describe the various emotions that accompanied each part of the dream story.
3. Bridge to life:This is the reality check part. We ask the dreamer where in waking life this might be true? Do we recognize any of the people or places or events? Are any of them real now, or in the past, or potentially in the future? We may need to ask several questions here to tease out possible connections. Once you have the “aha” connection- what then is the message of the dream for you?
4. Bumper sticker:If you were to make a slogan, a pithy statement, a “bumper sticker” one liner out of the message your nightmare was bringing to you- what would it be? Again- go with your gut on this. What does your bumper sticker then mean to you?
5. Action plan to honor the dream:To change the dream, or your life, or keep it from becoming repetitive, you need to do something concrete in the world. Your action plan may also be to incubate another dream on what to do next, or to perform some small symbolic act.
Example: One client’s nightmare was “I stopped on the way home from work to buy a loaf of bread and when I got home I discovered that it was stale and crawling with bugs that I tried to pick out, but they were too numerous”. She titled it “Buggy Bread”. She had been having some version of this dream (sometimes sour milk, sometimes spoiled meat, sometimes in her office, sometimes on the way home) for several months. They were profoundly distressing and wouldn’t seem to dissipate.
The feeling narrative accompanying the dream story was “first calm, then tired from work, then I started to feel anxious, nervous, and when I unwrapped the bread I felt disgusted, sickened and upset.”
We played with possible bridges to life: Have you bought bread recently? Anything significant about the buying of it or having it be spoiled in some way when you got it home? How about the way home from work- how do you usually feel then? Are you feeling sick or disgusted or “bugged” anywhere in your life recently? Then, you might ask about the significance of bread- Sustenance? Staff of life? Money? Are you feeling “stale” or “bugged” or “disgusted” at work, at the place from where you are to “bring home the bread”? This last one resonated fully.
Possible bumper stickers she explored were: “Man does not live by bread alone”, “Call the exterminator” , “Change bakeries!” , “Time to go gluten free”. The bumper sticker she chose read “Change Bakeries”, and in doing so she realized that it might time to leave her current job, that the “bugs” in this one were too numerous to continue or risk getting “sickened”. The bumper sticker feeds the action plan. Her small symbolic act was to wash her hands before leaving work to (wash the office off) and then to start to send out resumes. Once she updated her resume and began sending them out she had this dream: “ I am making a cake, and I realize in the middle of it that I don’t have all the ingredients I need. I worry that it is too late to go to the store, but when I get there it is still open and I can get the rest of what I need for this project.” No more bugs, and it’s not too late! Although she’s not completely out of the woods yet (neither was Dorothy when she met the Lion), it’s clearly not a nightmare anymore.
Additionally, don’t forget that adult versions of some of the kid techniques in the last blog work as well. Next time I’ll address in detail the “Capital N” nightmares that may require other methods to stay grounded as you work on them, and introduce the GAIA* Method: “Guided Active Imagination Approach” for Nightmares and Trauma Dreams.