“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 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.
Clinical psychologist 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.
Therefore, 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.
Case Study in Healing Nightmares
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 (and always focused on “now.”) 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.