Nightmares are dreams on steroids.
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.
(photo credit to http://lakesidepottery.com/Pages/kintsugi-repairing-ceramic-with-gold-and-lacquer-better-than-new.htm)
“…and we are strong at the broken places”, Ernest Hemingway
The previous post looked at synchronicities and opening channels to receive knowledge in uncanny, intuitive or non-linear ways. We continue here with a history of dream incubation and how to use this method now to ask for and receive wisdom from the universal Source. In addition to being open, we can also play a role in priming the intuitive pump.
Dream incubation; the first step in asking for guidance in this way; comes with preparation as well as intention. Kimberly Patton speaks of 3 elements common to the topography of incubation in ancestral times:
For our ancestors, having a proper frame of mind and making the proper Sacrifices were necessary components of asking for help from the Dream Source. The sacrifices often included burnt offerings, usually of a sheep or goat; and the supplicant would then sleep on the skin of the sacrificed animal. According to Patton, the burning of the animal transformed the material earthly world into the world of vapor and air, thus allowing the gods to smell the pleasing odor as the burnt offering went up in the smoke. If we recall that the Four Worlds in many mystic, pagan, indigenous (and Jungian) traditions are Earth, Air, Fire and Water; then having a ritual that connect us with each of these worlds in some way makes intuitive and as well as logical sense.
Second, some form of Purification was also part of the ritual: a sacred bath in clear or flowing waters was a common element. Interestingly, according to Patton, tears or weeping were also frequently part of the purification process: perhaps this invoked our own internal salt water cleansing; a way of making ourselves vulnerable and thus open to receiving (l’kabel). Teachers in both Sufi (Hefetz) and Kabbalist (Reb Nachman) traditions teach that when our hearts are broken open, there God is able to enter.
(Connected to this concept, the Japanese art of Kintsugi consists of repairing a cracked piece of pottery with gold or silver filling in the cracks; thus the repaired piece is actually more valuable than the original un-cracked piece. What a wonderful metaphor for healing- that we are more valuable for having repaired the places where we have been cracked open than for never having been cracked at all. )
The third step in ancient times is that of Pilgrimage– this is about locality, “location, location, location.” An outward journey was taken to imitate the inward journey one hoped would happen. Anthropologist James Frazer (his classic text is “The Golden Bough”) spoke of several kinds of magical practices he found in his studies, and one of the most common was imitative magic. The pilgrimage is part of the external manifestation we hope our dream journey will imitate. Where one sleeps for this kind of journey was in a sacred place set apart. Our ancestors traveled in order to incubate their dreams on holy ground. Alternately, the ground on which the ritual is created becomes holy by virtue of having accessed the Divine in that place. Frequently, though not always, it was a high place- on a hill, or a mound: where the membrane between worlds perhaps is thinner, just as the air is thinner atop high mountains. (i.e. tall standing stones of Druidic or Celtic lore, Mt. Sinai, Mecca, any “castle on a hill” seen so often in fairy tales).
How then are we to translate this for our times, since most of us aren’t about to kill a sheep or goat or spent the night alone on a mountain top. To receive this kind of knowledge, we may ask ourselves what kind of Sacrifice we are prepared to make: is it the sacrifice of some kind of comfortable place, or belief, or lifestyle? Are we willing to sacrifice the easy way of something for the higher way? Are we willing to walk our walk, as well as talk our talk? Get clear- what are you willing to give up for this portion of wisdom?
Purification: Will we cleanse ourselves with sage or incense? Will we take a long shower or a salt bath with intention to prepare ourselves to dream deeply and purely? Will we drink a bit or wash with salt water as our ancestors did?
And finally, Pilgramage: Where are we headed? Can we set a compass, or an orientation through our dream preparation for what we are seeking? Do we take a large or small retreat space from our daily life in which to open to this work? Is there an elevated space we can go to? Can we take ourselves out of ordinary time and/or space for a little while for this pilgrimage?
I’ll share with you an example of a small modern pilgrimage. A few years ago I was experiencing a lot of stress in my life; family illnesses, too much work; and I didn’t have the time to go off on retreat, even though I was craving some alone renewal time. I asked a friend if I could use her meditiation room for a day. I drove just 20 minutes away to spend seven hours in solitude resting, reading, writing, and had a dreaming nap in “designated” holy space that contained the energies of the people who had done yoga and meditated there over the years. And just now, as I am writing this, it occurs to me that this space was actually a high place- up the crawl ladder to the finished attic space! “…And I, I did not know…”.