The sad thing for us Westerners is that we live in a society that does not in general place a great deal of value on dreaming, so we are not encouraged to value them, to discuss them, or to learn how to work with them. When this means we miss out on the opportunities for growth and delight dreams can give us, this is a shame, but when it means we can’t manage our own nightmares, it is a far more serious affair. As we grow into adults our dreams should mature with us. As we become more skillful, balanced and wise with years, so too should we dream in a more balanced and rewarding manner. But studies show that in Western society the dreams of anxious adults do not differ much from those of children. We still feel anxious and afraid, we are still pursued – maybe not by a big hairy monster as child would be, but perhaps by a vicious knife wielding bandit, and we all still dream of being attacked by wild animals. As adults we differ hardly at all from children in our response to these threats as well – we flee, we run, we get stuck, we are eaten, hurt, trapped. In short, we remain victims.
To stop having adult nightmares or bad dreams, we need to face up to what we are afraid of, we need to honestly admit to ourselves what is not working in our lives, we need to really grow up. It is hard. Our society does not encourage talking about our fears, it judges perceptions of failure, and we don’t teach our children the skills they need to work on their own inner selves so they can mature into self-aware adults. So the only thing we can do is start learning now.
Facing a scary threat in a dream can be a very difficult thing to initiate. This is especially so if we aren’t practised and confident with working with our dreams! That is why confronting the thing in waking life is often an easier way to start. Try imagining your dream when you are awake. Sit somewhere comfortable where you won’t be disturbed, and play the dream through your mind like a movie. Remember, you are the director of your dream, so tell yourself you don’t like the ending, and imagine a new one for yourself.
Another useful method you can adopt while awake that may have a carry over effect to helping deal with nightmares, is to actually do in waking life what you can’t do, or what you need to do, in your bad dreams. This often means learning a new skill, which can be confronting, difficult, frustrating or embarrassing at first, but the commensurate feelings of ease, satisfaction, confidence and pride that you should feel upon mastery will make it well worth the effort. Nightmares of sharks? Try swimming with them in a safe tank. Have a nightmare you are lost and can’t read a map? Try learning orienteering, how to read a map and use a compass. Have a nightmare someone is hurt and bleeding, and you can’t help? Go on a First Aid course and learn how to treat wounds. It may sound simple, and even silly, but actions such as these send a clear message back to our subconscious – it lets our deeper self know we have heard the message, we are listening and we care enough to do something about it. That is a very strong message indeed. It can even be enough to stop our subconscious from shouting so insistently at us, and go back to a normal tone, breaking the repetitive cycle of bad dreams. At the very least, actions such as these give our mind an alternative to work with. Instead of thinking of sharks as something that always eat us, when you have been with them safely your mind now has a clear, conscious (and no doubt very emotion charged!) image of you being with sharks and them not eating you. In fact the more emotion charged these images are, the deeper they are likely to penetrate our mind, and the stronger and more effective they can be in helping us imagine a new and happier outcome. The greater the fear, the greater our exultation can be on overcoming it.
Tomorrow, looking at a special kind of nightmare…