Why Our Worst Dreams May Be Our Best


The dreams we have that wake us up are some of the most important experiences of our lives. Just speaking of dreams that come to us while we’re asleep, we spend a minimum of six years of our lives engaged in this mysterious activity. Too often we find ourselves explaining and pushing away “bad dreams”, in large part due to the fact that difficult or disturbing dreams can truly feel awful. Especially when we don’t have the helpful perspectives in our “bag of tricks” to help us understand them.

The English word for dream, which apparently originated between the 12th & 13th centuries, seems to reflect an inability to see the dream as other than an unhelpful visitation by troubling energies. Early roots of the word carry meanings like phantasm or illusion, both akin to the word we all still use to describe our frightening dreams, “nightmare”. This word itself calls up images of wild, out of control steeds, running powerfully and dangerously through the night. It’s no coincidence, then, that at this past time in history, Christian theology had ruled that visions of the night were not to be trusted, and were, in fact, equal to deceptive temptations sent by the Devil himself.

The ancient ancestors of Western and European peoples must have, nonetheless, far before such terms were coined, depended upon dreams as instructive warnings and guiding messages. It’s not hard to imagine people in the days of old seeing dreams of powerful wild animals attacking the village, receiving dream messages about where to find food or prophesying enormous storms threatening the survival of the clans. Even conservative contemporary sleep researchers today tend to agree that one of the main functions of dreams is to provide us with rehearsals and practice for upcoming waking experiences and events. Since a time before the development of a complex spoken or written language, it’s highly likely that men and women have dreamt about the most important energies and circumstances in our lives, as a means of coping with the multiple vicissitudes of earthly existence. In Europe, in particular in France, there are a number of archaic cave paintings depicting the hunt, which suggest such an imaginative activity was also engaged in while awake as a tool for becoming more effective in attempting to secure physical survival. It’s not a far stretch to conclude that these beautiful imagistic endeavors were the basis of a practice of visionary prayer enacted to seek success in acquiring the food and supplies necessary for the basic nourishment of everyday life. Such visions could be said to be parallels of our modern experience of dreams, in which we recall activities such as hunting down that new income stream as well as waking projects involving vision planning and meditations aimed at manifestation.

It seems that the words we use to describe these dreams of ours, which appear to take such a negative tone and dramatic form, may further instruct us about their deeper levels of meaning. What if we could imagine the term “nightmare” as the awesome power to be related with in the challenging visions we see as we sleep, a “night” “mare” the mighty, wild, feminine force embodied as life’s great advneture? The word “awful” can also be turned on its ear, to be understood and perceived differently, as awe-full, a state full of awe. Perhaps there is a thin line between the emotions of terror, passion and excitement, and perhaps we confuse our experience of the two. Equally as possible, perhaps our dreams scare us into paying attention to the very areas of our existence that we need to look at in order to progress and find meaning amidst the often paradoxical and complex situations eventually to be encountered along the byways of a fully lived life.

Take, for example, the story of the well-known rock and roll band Lynyrd Skynyrd who are still renowned today for popular classic tunes like “Sweet Home Alabama”. While preparing to fly to Baton Rouge for a show, Jojo Billinglsley, a backup singer for a band that was traveling with Skynyrd, recalled a nightmare wherein she see saw a plane crashing, in which people died and several more got hurt. Upon waking from the dream, she was so upset that she was screaming uncontrollably and was quite shaken by the memory of the crash in her dream. She decided to tell the band about it, feeling a great deal of concern. The guys took a vote and decided to go ahead and fly to Baton Rouge and change planes afterwards. The flight went down and members of the band were killed, while numerous other passengers were badly hurt. Had the individuals involved in this accident heeded the warning presented by the dream, a great deal of pain and loss might have been avoided. Fair play to Jojo for having faith and confidence in her dream despite the fact that the tragedy was not averted. There are many such tales that could be told, some with happier endings than others, and some more plain and everyday than this one.

To my mind and heart, the takeaway message here is how important it is not to ignore the messages to be found in the dreams, and to do our utmost to follow up on them and by all means, not to sweep them under the rug as we are often wont to do. The above example is fairly dramatic. At the same time, by being willing to receive this dramatic parable, it’s possible that we could begin or continue to allow our worst dreams to offer us their best messages.

In my personal and community dream practice, we follow a time-tested notion that “there is no such thing as a bad dream, only dreams that sometimes take a dramatically negative form in order to grab the dreamer’s attention”, a practical tool for working with dreams offered for over forty years by Jeremy Taylor, Author, well-known Dream Worker and Teacher. I’ve tested this idea, over and over again, in my work with my own and other people’s dreams. Ultimately, this attitude and perspective towards the dreaming allows us to understand that there is a wise inner source, which we can relate with, especially through recalling our visionary experiences. By widening our view to include for terrifying as well as pleasing images, experiences and scenarios, we allow ourselves to open to a vast potential for honoring and seeking to integrate the totality of our human nature, within the larger domain of  a Cosmic Nature, a diverse cornucopia of existence that challenges our very ideas of what we consider to be “good” and “bad”.

Projective Dream Work and “You language”, Part 2

This post continues a theme from a previous one about projection… The image pictured here is from Surrealist Painter Magritte, and is titled “The False Mirror”


Why is it that we so often speak in what I call “You language”? When discussing situations with others, we often attempt to tell friends, colleagues and other folks what we think is true or right for them. We even do this when trying to describe our own individual unique experience of life, and make seemingly all-encompassing statements about people we may know very little about. For example, when somebody close dies, we say things like, “When death visits, you feel the limits of your own mortality and you begin to question the very meaning of existence”.  This might be true, in a general sense, for all of us, but it can be harder to hear when it’s put like this. And for some, it might not be like that at all. For instance, one might simply feel sad and miss the person who’s passed away. If I were having a conversation with someone about death and dying, and felt a sense of my own mortality, why wouldn’t I acknowledge that by saying, instead, something like, “When someone dies, it makes me question the meaning of my own life.” Wouldn’t it be more honest, helpful and appropriate to say what it brings out in me versus trying to speak for others? How can we honestly do anything but speak from and about our own experience? It’s not as though it even makes sense to pretend I can know for certain what another person is thinking or feeling, let alone what she or he has gone through in the past, or will face in the future. I have a hard enough time keeping track of my own memories, thoughts and feelings from moment to moment and day to day!

Experience has been said to be one of the greatest teachers. Over time, and in my own life, I can recall several defensive arguments that took place because of people using “you language” with each other. I’ve done it many times myself. I know that when I do, part of the reason I am even tempted to do so, is that it seems it would be so much easier to be able to assign my difficult feelings and shadowy actions, the positive and negative potentials of my own existence, onto someone else, rather than face up to the challenging forces that exist within my own being. If I can cast my problems or potentials onto the neighbors, my friends or intimate partners, then I don’t have to clean up my own mess, or confront and take responsibility for aspects of my life that are anxiety producing or seem unattractive or difficult to respond to.

The obstacle to realizing this lies in an inborn capacity to be unaware of what we’re unaware of. How can we know what we don’t know, if we don’t know it? That guiding essence within each of us, what Psychology or Buddhism might call the ego, would much rather be seen as a champion with all the right stuff, than to be experienced as a perfectly flawed and complicated bundle of competing wishes, desires and qualities. This is one reason I find it so useful to work with dreams. Such visions, in my experience, provide a unique access to “the magic mirror that never lies”. Dreaming, we enter realms of the unknown where we’re given accurate depictions of previously unconsidered difficulties, and find solutions for the struggles we come up against in relation to others. It might not be easy to look at the images and situations that are reflected by dreams, but doing so allows a recognition of the unique challenges, gifts and tendencies which can be honored in seeking to discover and fulfill the souls’ deepest and dearest longings.

Here’s an example of one of my own night-world adventures, which I believe shows of how the unknown appears in dreams, as well as how projections relate to and within them.

“The Shrunken and Broken Protection Door, I’m a Woman Leading the Youth”

*Dream from May 2013:

I am vaguely aware of a structure that I find myself in. I know I’m leading a group of young people and that I’m a woman, my current age of forty-two, or slightly older. I feel a protective sense and see a doorway. The door seems to shrink just off the frame and its’ hinges as I look at it and my awareness becomes involved with somehow keeping the door closed. I also know that there’s a group outside that are waiting to get us, or attack us and I find myself concerned with fixing the door, but also with how to proceed out of the structure to get to the outside. I don’t feel it’s safe to do so with the attackers/mob out there waiting for and planning to attack us.

As the dreamer of this dream, I’m bound to find it tricky to see what’s in it for myself, because, like any dreamer, I am uniquely blind to the messages and meanings in my own material. No less, right off the bat, experiencing myself as a woman in the dream is an intriguing way for it to put me in a position that is opposite to my day-world, physical experience as a man. No matter how hard I try to imagine what it’s like to be female, while I’m awake, all I can do is make the effort to do so. On one level, the dream takes this experience a step further, and gives me a brief but real experience in the dream of feeling like and existing as a woman.

Although there’s much more that could be said about the above narrative, it relates to the earlier stated ideas in that the imagination here gives a directly felt-sense of being something that I don’t appear to be in the waking world. As I look at the dream from my conscious perspective, despite being a woman in the dream, I naturally, unconsciously, begin to project onto the dream all my ideas about what it means to be a woman, leading a group of youth, feeling protective and as if I need to insure the success of our quest. It would be easy to conclude, at least on one level, that a way I hold my inner idea of “woman” is to assume that she is motherly, protective, and is invested in taking care of her young.

The only reliable way to be sure what the dream is coming to say is to ask whether it inspires any sort of “A-Ha” response. I definitely do resonate with this possibility that the experience of being a woman in my dream is inviting me to look deeper into my own hidden layers of thought and feeling around what it means to be a woman, and that I may be expecting a kind of stereotypical role from her.

This is a very brief exploration, given the topic, but I do feel it begins to give a genuine sense of the way that dreams point out how we project, at the least, while we’re awake. I also want to emphasize that in looking back at the dream, it becomes possible to become aware of unconscious ideas, thoughts and feelings as they appear, while receiving, reading or listening to the dream. Working with the dreams in this way begins to create and honor a perceptive reality in which many of us may realize that what exists in the psyche, the inner imaginal world of each person, suggests that there are any number of unconscious ideas, feelings and attitudes which we’re not fully aware of. This phenomenon also demonstrates that it’s very likely we project such unknowns on each other, and that using an “I language” in our conversations can afford us the opportunity to realize what is true for each of us, and offers a different level of respect for each persons’ own version of reality and truth.