We’ve all felt them, those terrifying moments in a dream when we’re being chased or experiencing something so distressful that we force ourselves to wake up into ordinary reality. Many of the questions I receive in my dreaming workshops, classes, and retreats are about nightmares; what they mean, and what to do about them.
Troublesome dreams warn us about the condition of our health or offer us important insights about our emotional status and inner psyche. They depict patterns, behaviors, and attachments in relationships — and warn us of possible future challenges in either literal or symbolic ways. Nightmares may also indicate events in the outer world over which we don’t have much control, or dramatize situations that call for problem solving within a larger collective of people. Sometimes, nightmares reflect the condition of the world at large — issues that affect our safety or frighten us like war or sudden catastrophe. But maybe the lion that chases us through the woods is not trying to make us his dinner, maybe the lion is the ally we most need in life right now!
Carl Jung, in his book Memories, Dreams, Reflections, tells us that dreams are “the facts from which we must proceed.” (1) In another of Jung’s books, Dreams, he recounts a dream in which the dreamer runs from a group of Apaches and successfully escapes. But later an unknown woman tells that dreamer “it will not always be so: sometime he will have to stand up to his ground and not run away.” (2) Robert Moss tells the dreamer in his book, Conscious Dreaming, that “a nightmare is an aborted dream, one we fled before its full message was delivered.” (3)
Most nightmares compel us to pay attention to something important. It’s often a warning about a future occurrence, but always an invitation to engage the challenge we most need to address. If a dreamer discounts a nightmare as only a bad dream, it will return until she gives it the attention it requires. Dealing with a nightmare can be done through dream reentry and by way of asking questions about its elements: What is chasing me? What am I afraid of? Who’s the adversary? One effective way to deal with nightmare characters is to write up a dialogue with them, asking the questions: Who are you? What are you trying to tell me? What do I need to do about you to resolve the issue or challenge? Finally, the dreamer might imagine a different outcome for a bad dream if a certain action is taken.
Much has been written about nightmares and how to deal with them. Only the dreamer can determine how to resolve them by uncovering the hidden truths in the dream. Nightmares can be understood as preventative medicine — for our health and our lives. Nightmares serve us in positive ways, when we face up to them before they play out in waking life in ways we would rather have prevented.
(1) Carl Jung, “Confrontation with the Unconscious,” Memories, Dreams, Reflections, p. 171.
(2) Carl Jung, “Individual Dream Symbolism in Relation to Alchemy,” Dreams, Translation by R. E C. Hull, p. 266.
(3) Robert Moss, “Working Through Nightmares,” Conscious Dreaming, pp. 49-53.
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Alex Lukeman, PHD, Nightmares: How to make Sense of Your Darkest Dreams.
Photo Credit: M. Eastwood, “Entering the Deeper Chamber” (Taken at Newfields, Art and Nature Park)