the name of catastrophe, it is never
the opposite of love.’ (Mary Oliver)
The effect of engaging with dreams and nightmares can be to bring together parts of the psyche which have hitherto been unbalanced, fragmented and misunderstood. From the beginning of psychotherapy dreams have been considered, in Freud’s phrase, the ‘royal road’ to the unconscious – in other words the easiest way to increase our knowing about ourselves and about life. We all know that dreams come in strange shapes and that the messages are often hard to decipher, but the assistance of a skilled therapist can be of great assistance.
Nightmares are simply dreams that you do not like, dreams which elicit frightening or threatening content. They do not generally need to be treated any differently from more ordinary dreams. When we are having nightmares it is because we are turning towards something difficult, buried, disturbing to our equilibrium. Although we have to approach such ‘turning towards’ with a certain amount of caution, change comes when we can make that change, look in to that darkness, work with the nightmare. So nightmares are a type of dream to which we might want to pay particular careful attention. However, when trauma is being held in the body there may be other, prior or parallel work to do before or alongside the dream. Often a trauma will throw out nightmares until we have been able to readjust our system to integrate it – such nightmares have a slightly different ‘feel’ to them, Jung spoke of trauma experiences as those which can ‘no longer be psychified’ – they are experiences which require a slightly different approach.
Mindfulness practice is also about turning towards that which is present, and not just that which we like. In meditation we sit with what is present, without flinching away or giving it more – or importantly, LESS – emphasis than it deserves. A mindful approach to life encourages present time, present centred awareness. Dreamwork encourages you to extend that awareness in to your inner world, in to the landscape of your psyche, claiming your imagination and receiving the wisdom of its mirror.
As we know, many people are a little disappointed when they find out that mindfulness practice and meditation do not deliver a free pass to check out of life’s difficulties. Neither does psychotherapy. Neither does a good spiritual path. Life’s difficulties are the stuff of life itself – to be present with that which we don’t like offers us the chance for expansion, freedom, and open hearted love. I am suggesting that exploring your dreams (yes, and nightmares) can be a way for you to expand your spiritual practice to do this work of ‘turning towards’ more effectively, more thoroughly, and potentially in a more embodied way.
The way to accomplish this is to bring together the work with the imagination – extending mindful awareness to the inner world through the dreams – with present centred embodied awareness. In other words, what do you experience IN YOUR BODY as you focus on the images in your dreams. This simple technique contains the material which is trying to become known. It allows you to be present in the moment. It allows you to observe in a mindful way the whole of your being, inner and outer, body and soul.
With difficult dreams, and certainly in the wake of significant trauma, this might be best approached with some good psychotherapy assistance – dreams are powerful and the energies contained in them are not to be taken lightly. Chose a therapist who is interested in working with dreams and confirm that they use an embodied and imaginative approach, and that they understand the principles of balancing the psyche as well as the principles of working with trauma, and of mindfulness.
Psychotherapy has changed over the last few decades, work with embodiment, trauma and mindful engagement has become mainstream and has come to stand along side the imaginal work which those who watch their dreams have been doing for millennia (the bible is a particularly rich source of dream images for any one who is studying this field!). Do not settle for less.
I will be running a mindfulness and dreamwork seminar series in Buckinghamshire this summer – there are a few places left so please do get in touch if you are interested in participating.