Don’t run away. Engaging with dreams—even nightmares—can teach us a lot about our emotional selves.
I have had nightmares since I was four years old. I used to try not to sleep when I was a kid, terrified of the images of war and terror that my child mind somehow picked up from the world around me. (Or a past life maybe?) I would lie awake, staring at the ceiling, watching the car headlights from the street outside crawl across the room.
No matter how much therapy, yoga, or meditation I did, the nightmares never went away. I still have them now—a recent one had me going into battle to fight a vampire demon who lived in a tower where he had a closet full of hypnotized people. I fought him, escaped, and ended up free, swimming in the middle of the ocean while orcas swam ominously towards me. And I don’t even watch horror movies!
Trying not to sleep as a kid wasn’t a super effective strategy, and likely left me with a lifetime of insomniac tendencies. But there was something that helped, even then. It was something that I later learned to be a powerful tool of mindfulness practice: Rather than run away from the thing that made me uncomfortable, I snuggled right up to it.
The more we engage with our dreams, the likelier we will be to notice when we are in one. As a child, I learned to notice when I was dreaming. I invented a little spell I could do within the dream: hold hands with anyone else who didn’t want to be in that dream either, and chant a little incantation together: “wake up, wake up, wake up!” And I would instantly wake up.
I haven’t been able to lucidly dream like this in a while, though I do often notice when I’m in one of my recurring nightmares, including being chased by a man who is trying to kill me, people watching me go to the bathroom, or those orcas rising from the deep. Sometimes I can shake out of it the moment I realize I’m in the dream, but often I’m too lost in the deep narratives of unconscious terror to imagine anything other than whatever my brain has cooked up for me that night.
Now, I write down my dreams every morning. A yoga teacher once explained that the key to our dreams isn’t what’s actually happening in them—it’s the feeling we have when we are dreaming. Maybe the dream involves falling off a cliff into a pool of blood—but the falling feels like flying and the pool of blood is warm and comforting. Our dreams are an important way of working out our feelings. When we remember our dreams and think about them, we are getting a window into what we really feel—and mindfulness helps teach us that whatever that might be is okay.
I’ve also learned that the images that come up in dreams are not some sort of universal symbolic language, but a symbolic language that is unique to each of us. For me, for example, the orcas represent my deeper thoughts and desires, the ones I’m not quite ready to admit to myself that I have. Orcas are big, dark, powerful animals that live under the water but need to break the surface to breathe. So, when I see an orca in a dream, I know there’s something going on with me that I haven’t fully acknowledged to myself or someone else. When I have the dream about being chased down by a man who is trying to kill me, I almost inevitably feel powerless or helpless in my life in some way. It’s a signal that I need to find a way to take charge, to be the one choosing the path I go down, and not let someone else push me in a certain direction. Analyzing my dreams like this helps me use them as a tool to understand myself better. I don’t need to fear my nightmares—like so many things that happen internally, it’s my body’s way of trying to help me, of giving me some information about how I feel that I might really need. In that way, my nightmares are friends. I welcome the nightly show—as long as I remember to be brave!
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