I just woke up from a nightmare. Nightmares are a trip. Sometimes they can unwind bouts of complexity in one massive discharge of fright. Sometimes they play unexamined or suppressed energies on repeat, i.e., recurring nightmares. Sometimes they help us digest trauma over many years. Nightmares are very clever in that they demand our attention, if even for a moment. Ultimately, they demonstrate and serve our wholeness.
Working directly with nightmares can be extremely difficult for people who have experienced torture, war, abuse, and any other major trauma. Support is essential, whether through guided dreamwork or under the care of an experienced counselor. I recommend working with someone who deals with dreams, simply because PTSD has a strong correlation with nightmares.
Here are some tips I've compiled to help us transform nightmares and recurring dreams:
1. Train yourself to recognize when you're dreaming.
While you're awake, remind yourself that powerful, intolerable fear happens most often in nightmares. So, next time you're feeling that way, check to see if it's a dream. You can say, "The next time I feel extreme fear, I will recognize I am having a nightmare."
With recurring dreams, you can replay the scene while you're awake, and remind yourself that the next time this happens, you will be dreaming.
2. Change your response to fear.
Ilarion Merculieff, Aleut elder and medicine person, told me a story of facing a dream figure who had been stalking him in nightmares. He trained himself to recognize when he was dreaming. Eventually, he was able to become lucid and ask the dream figure who it was and what it wanted. After his pursuer was able to deliver a very specific message, the dream resolved.
My typical response to fear is to flee, which is what I did this morning, until I realized I was dreaming. Then I changed my response by facing the terrifying man. I turned to him and said, "Who are you?" He looked away. I demanded, "You are bound to tell me who you are!" He said, "I am an ancient magician." I could have asked why he was here or what he was doing. I could have left him alone, but I chose to put my hands on him and sing him a Bible song. I watched as he turned into a small, plastic cherub. (Sometimes in dreams, I default to my southern, Christian upbringing.)
3. Take small steps to change your nightmares or recurring dreams.
Once, I was talking with a woman who had been gang raped and physically abused for many years. She often relived this in nightmares. I asked if she ever tried healing with lucid dreams. Surprisingly, she had. She said that she could wake up in her dreams sometimes, but even then she felt helpless. So, she began to see what she could change about the scene. Even though she was still being raped, she could change certain elements of the dreamscape, like the weather, or to a small degree, her own response to being raped. She said that over time, these small changed amounted to enormous healing.
Another teacher taught me to scan the dreamscape during recurring dreams, and look for something different. Anything at all. Is there a crocodile in the corner? A picture hanging on the wall you've never seen before? These observations can yield large shifts to release ingrained dream patterns. You can also track small, natural shifts in recurring dreams by writing them down, and noting any developments, however subtle.
4. Enlist nightmares in your spiritual practice.
Once, I found myself in a den of snakes. The mortal danger I felt as they struck all around me incited lucidity. I noted the situation, and decided to walk through a wall. Then a man, who was also a bear, told me, "This nightmare is not just for you. We are all connected." I remembered I don't have to take nightmares personally, or even feel that I am facing the fear alone. I can respond in solidarity with all beings, and enlist our shared capacity for both courage and equanimity. I thanked him and returned to the den of snakes. I sat down and meditated. Why not here? As soon as I entered the grace of no-preferences, the scene dissolved, and I simply slept.
5. Understand you're not alone.
No matter what you're going through, you are not alone. There is only so much range of human experience. Don't think your darkness is unique, no matter how extreme it feels. By virtue of our connectedness, I got your back and so does everything else (despite how it might feel). Invite yourself to heal, and don't forget to ask for help. Know that there are people who devote their entire lives to praying for all beings. That means you (and me)! So, soak it up. As we deal with the inherent difficulty of humanness, let's also receive the love that is the fabric of our being. We're all in this together.