top of page

Studio for the Healing Arts

Nightmares Have a Bad Rep: What They're Really Trying to Tell Us

A few weeks ago a friend of mine told me:" I was walking along the beach. It was one of those perfect days. I could feel the fine grains of sand beneath my feet and the cool waves lapped at my toes. Then out of nowhere the ground began to tremble. I saw a huge bubble of churning water rise right out of the center of the ocean and become agargantuan Tsunami wave, like the one in that movie Deep Impact. Anyway the wave towered over my head, paused for a moment and then crashed down on the city behind me, leveling every building as I watched. I woke up in a sweat with my heart pounding.

We've all had these dreams. So what gives?

To understand nightmares we need only understand the purpose of dreams.

Throughout the ages almost all indigenous and mainstream cultures have honored the dream as a meaningful--indeed divinely inspired--source of knowledge, wisdom and guidance. In contrast to Freud's sad view of the psyche as a kind of personal garbage can, the perennial worldview has been that we are all connected to a compassionate source of healing energy and intelligence--one with which we can commune in many ways including prayer, meditation and dreams. This perennial philosophy holds that we are born innocent and later learn the habits of mind and attitudes that cloud the perception of our true nature. In this view nightmares are not "bad dreams", but rather helpful guidance from our psyche which we initially fear and mistrust because of our habit of resisting what is new and unfamiliar.

This concept is easier to understand if you look at the message of our most popular fairy tales and fables--stories that would be nightmares if we dreamed them. Think of all the tales in which the hero or heroine is called to kiss something ugly or repulsive like a frog or toad. How about Beauty and the Beast in which Beauty kisses and embraces the beast? Yet in every case, when the hero or heroine fully accepts what appears repulsive, it transforms into a prince or princess--something of inestimable value.

The message is clear: If we expect to find our Princess or Prince--that is, if we expect to change our lives for the better--we must stop judging and rejecting the parts of ourselves we have been taught to believe are ugly, bad or unacceptable. In a nutshell, the frightening characters in our dreams are long lost aspects of ourselves seeking our attention. To paraphrase the famous Swiss analyst Carl Jung: "The neglected parts of our psyche come back at us like clawing, scratching cats." This means that the guy who keeps chasing us in that recurring dream wants our attention. Indeed as a long lost part of us, he has something to offer if only--like Beauty--we would embrace him and what he represents instead of running away.

Nightmare characters are the proverbial "pearl in the mud"--the 'pearl' being a lost and very necessary perspective on ourselves and the world around us. So when you awaken from a nightmare begin by asking the right kind of question--one that goes like this: " If I had to say--upon pain of death--what good could come from this devastating event in my dream or what good this threatening, repulsive dream character embodies, what would it be?

Hint: Because our dreams speak to us in hyperbole--through exaggerated images--when asking this question of yourself, it helps to add: "…if that event weren't so extreme." or " In moderation, what good might there be in having this happen to me or in being like this character?"

For example, a friend of mine whose life felt suffocating due to all the rules laid down by his authoritarian father, dreamed repeatedly of being chased by a psychopath whom he was sure was going to kill him. When he asked himself what the good part of being a psychopath might be (in moderation) the answer was, "He gets to do whatever he wants to do." Aha! The figure pursuing him embodied his wish to get out from under the suffocating, oppressive rules that governed his every action in life--to do more of what he wanted to do. Now we can also see how such a dream figure would seem murderous--because when we begin to give up the old way of life to which we have been clinging usually out of obligation to family, it feels like a kind of death, a letting go of what we once treasured that no longer serves us.

Now what about dreams of catastrophic events like the Tsunami mentioned earlier that leveled the city. Once again, to understand nightmares, we must remember to give the benefit of the doubt to our psyche---that is, what appears to us as frightening, is so because we are clinging to our old safe and secure script, even if we are deeply unhappy with the kind of life it prescribes.

The dreamer who dreamed of the Tsunami wiping out everything was contemplating a change of career that would mean giving up her central role in the family business and moving out of state. She wanted to go, but only if she could do so without affecting the family and business she would leave behind.

We can easily see the metaphor of the Tsunami in this woman's life plans, as her wish would radically alter the professional and emotional landscape of her life. When she asked herself. "What good could come of such a devastating wave, she realized there was no way to have the life she so desired while trying to leave in tact everything she had built. To allow something new to grow in her life, she first had to clear a space. It's nature's way that for the forest to grow more lush and green, first it must burn down. This is why it is said that we are all part of an endless cycle of birth, death, and re-birth.

Our dreams teach us powerful lessons. One of the most profound is that when we give up the self-centered notion that we have all the answers, we begin to intuit there is another source of wisdom, guidance and healing energy available to us on our Journey.

As Einstein said, "The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is its faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift."

May your dreams guide you swiftly and well along your path.


bottom of page