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. This 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. Ofttimes 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. See:
Part 2: Resolving Nightmares
“And like seeds dreaming beneath the snow your heart dreams of spring.Trust the dreams, for in them is hidden the gate to eternity.” Kahlil Gibran
It has been some time since I last posted here. But last night “I had a dream” – maybe not as powerful as that of Dr. King, but one I wanted to share here; a journey dream that helped to point the way to traveling without fear.
Dreams often take us on journeys. We dream travel in usual or unusual modes, to known or unknown locations. We travel in our dream vehicles of cars or planes or flying carpets or flying horses to New York City or down the street, to our childhood homes or our office building, to Mars or to Narnia. We journey in time and space, to both the outer and inner worlds that we inhabit nightly. Sometimes these journeys are pleasant, sometimes they an be terrifying,
This early fall time of year is a time of transition and journeying in non-dream time as well. We had 2 dark (new) moons this month; an unusual occurrence that points us toward the gifts of the night and the dark places. The leaves have begun their journey as they turn from summer greens (and the browns of this drought year) to the reds and golds of autumn. The kids have gone back to school, the college students are back in force, and it feels like the New Year, whether or not you are celebrating Rosh Hashanah now. Rosh Hashanah is a holy window in time and space. Similar to the January New Year transition, it can be a time of personal reflection and transformation as we look back on the year that passed and make resolutions for the year to come. One of the key concepts at Rosh Hashana is “t’shuvah”, which means return, and also to make amends. We sing a song with the lyrics “…Return again…return to the land of your soul…” Another song tells us that the main point of the journey is not to be afraid: That “All the world is just a narrow bridge” that we must cross without being immobilized by fear.
Journeying. Returning. Without fear. Fear is part of the human condition. How do we journey without it? If we pay attention to our dreams, they may provide resources and guidance for us to address this dilemma and help us on our way over these narrow bridges.
I had a dream a few nights ago that I knew was important, but didn’t realize it’s potential until sharing it with my dream circle. The process of talking about it out loud, with a few well-placed questions from my friends helped me to recognize what had been in my blind spot before. Here’s a part of the dream:
I am driving my car on my way to meet my husband somewhere, when all of a sudden there is no light- it has become pitch dark. My car lights are gone, and there are no streetlights or stars-nothing but blackness. I am surprisingly not as frightened as I could be, just a bit anxious. I grip the steering wheel and just keep driving up and down ramps and over passes and underpasses. Suddenly there is light again, it is daylight, and I am in a warm southern place.
The dream continues a bit, but this is the journey part of the dream. The initial title I come up with is “Driving Blind”. As I talked my way through it, I realize that it is kind of like life itself – sometimes we are “driving blind”, we don’t really know where we are going, but we just know that we have to keep on going through whatever this difficult time is. If we stop, if we get paralyzed by fear, we get stuck in the dark. In my dream I come out into the light – if that’s not a metaphor, I don’t know what is. As I kept talking, I realized that the reason that I wasn’t as afraid as I might have been about driving in the dark had to do with faith – I must have trusted even while driving with no lights that is would turn out ok. I then was able to re-name the dream “Blind Faith” and bring that trust into some of the ups and downs of my life right now.
On this journey of life, we just keep going, even during times when we are driving in the dark.
My you be blessed with the gift of faith, and with peace, abundance and sweetness in this New Year.
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
Our hearts go out to the victims at Newtown, and all the other victims of gun violence. In addition to signing petitions, showing up, and contributing funds, we as dreamers can contribute in a special way. We can work to dream the world we want to see into being by actively incubating dreams. There is a long history and precedence for this: the aboriginals of Australia believe that this is how the world came into being in the first place- the ancestors dreamed it into being, and by following the ancestral song lines in the desert each clan can follow their particular totem animal’s dream. Shamans and healers from all cultures believe in the generative and creative power of dreams. Group dreams are all the more powerful.
My Thursday Dream Circle (thank you Starr, Mia, Joy, Joyce, Barbara, Ruth) suggested that we could together send our collective dream energies toward ending gun violence, establishing better gun control, getting better mental health services; in short, whatever it takes to avoid the senseless tragedies we have been pummeled with in the last several decades. As many of you saw in the Boston Globe, these random shootings seemed to happen once every few years during the 60’s and 70’s, and more and more frequently through the 80’s and 90’s, several times a year in the early part of this 21st century, and already 3 times just since this summer in 2012!
Tzivia Glover manages a blog called 350 dreamers, which practices synchronized global dreaming for the purpose of healing the planet. She writes that the goal of her blog is:
1. A belief in the power of dreams
2. Belief in the beauty of community and communal action and
3. A commitment to healing on all levels from personal to planetary.
It occurs to me that we too could dream a version of this, and dedicate one night to specifically incubate dreams toward the healing of gun violence in our culture. A timely and reasonable date seemed to be in honor of Martin Luther King Day: January 21, 2013. After all, he said, “I have a dream…” that we will all be able to live together in peace and harmony; without violence.
John Lennon said it “…Imagine all the people, living for today…nothing to kill or die for…imagine all the people living in peace…You might say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one, I hope some day you’ll join us, and the world will be as one.”
Theodore Herzl said it: “If you will it, it is no dream”.
And finally, Rodgers and Hammerstein said it in South Pacific:
“You’ve got to have a dream,
If you don’t have a dream,
How you goin’ to make a dream come true?”
(From “Happy Talk”, South Pacific).
So: A call to dream action for all dreamers: It’s easy to do. Incubate a dream on the night of January 20 in which you ask your dream guide to send you a dream for healing from gun violence. Write this intention (your kavanah, in Hebrew) as clearly and succinctly as you would like. Spend anywhere from just one or several minutes on your statement of intention. You can be specific if you like: i.e. dreaming to have President Obama and Congress pass assault ban rifle laws, or doubling the funding for mental heath services, or passing stringent background ckecks; or even to have the NRA see the light and forbid anything but carefully supervsied hunting rifles! Or be general, or creative, or spritiual- whatever suits your style the best. Keep your dream journal close at hand to jot down the dream(s) you receive that night or on the morning of the 21st. Post any dreams here on this blog site in the reply section (along with what you incubated if you want); and we can see together the energy we create. Please pass this on to anyone who you think would like to join us.
May we live together in peace.
P.S. And who remembers this! :
Last Night I Had The Strangest Dream
words and music by Ed McCurdy (often sung by Simon and Garfunkal)
Last night I had the strangest dream
I’d ever dreamed before
I dreamed the world had all agreed
To put an end to war
I dreamed I saw a mighty room
Filled with women and men
And the paper they were signing said
They’d never fight again
And when the paper was all signed
And a million copies made
They all joined hands and bowed their heads
And grateful pray’rs were prayed
And the people in the streets below
Were dancing ’round and ’round
While swords and guns and uniforms
Were scattered on the ground
Last night I had the strangest dream
I’d never dreamed before
I dreamed the world had all agreed
To put an end to war.
TRO-©1950,1951 & 1955 Almanac Music, Inc.
New York, N.Y. Copyrights renewed
Used by permission