Dreams are not on our case; they are on our side. This is one of my personal mantras about dreams and (yes) it applies even to nightmares.
In my personal lexicon, a nightmare is not only a “bad” or scary dream; it is an interrupted or aborted dream. We are so frightened, we run away. We wake ourselves up and try to slam the door on the dream experience, hoping that it is “only” a dream and can’t get out and come after us. This is a very foolish strategy. The challenges we face in dreams are challenges that life itself is presenting to us. If we learn to confront the underlying issues inside the dream space, we may be able to prevent those issues from blowing up in our regular lives. This may require us to take action in waking life, based on what we have learned in our dreams; but we will lack the essential data required for appropriate action if we have left the dream broken and abandoned, behind that door we are trying to keep shut.
What scares us in dreams varies wildly, because we have different lives and different characters. Some people fear snakes and spiders; some see the snake as a symbol of medicine, and respect the spider’s ability to spin webs of possibility from inside itself. Whatever the content of the dreams you flee from, the Rx is the same: try to learn to confront the challenge on the ground where it is presented. This requires firm intention and some degree of courage.
You want to learn to go back inside a dream you fled and try to clarify and resolve what is going on there. You want to give a name to that nameless dread. You want to know whether the plane crash was literal or symbolic and, either way, what you need to do to avoid it. You want to establish whether that dream intruder is someone who could literally break into your house, or a disease that could invade your body, or an aspect or yourself — maybe even your Greater Self — that is trying to get your attention. If you are scared of dream vampires, you want to think about who or what in your life may be draining your energy; if your dream house is infested, you need to know whether this reflects a condition in your body that may need medical attention.
I think it’s like this: our dream producers are constantly trying to alert us to things essential to our health, wholeness, and well-being. When we ignore these messages, they resort to special effects to get our attention. If we persist in ignoring the messages, the problem the nightmares reflect is likely to show up in our regular lives. Nightmares are a gift in the way that a smoke detector going off in the middle of the night — when there is a real fire hazard — is a gift.
Jane’s experience is a moving and inspiring example of the depth of healing that can become available when we confront our fears inside our dreams, instead of fleeing them. Jane told me her dream was initially so terrifying that “when it started, I didn’t know whether I could live through the night.” She dreamed she was being raped, and was thrown violently back into all the pain and sorrow and confusion that she experienced when this had happened to her when she was just sixteen. But there was something new inside the dream: “two good men” appeared to rescue her.
“At the moment of my rescue,” she recalled, “I woke with intense chest pain that lasted for twenty minutes. I wasn’t sure if it was a heart attack. I wondered if I should call for help — such penetrating pain came from my heart, through to my back, like being stabbed by a lance — but I stayed with it, thinking it was a healing pain because it came directly out of the dream.”
The pain eventually faded and Jane was able to return to sleep. She woke “absolutely charged with life, ravenously hungry and thrilled at simply being alive. I was changed by the dream; I know that major soul recovery came through.”
Sometimes we find that what we are fleeing in dreams is an aspect of our own power. When I first started living in rural New York, I dreamed repeatedly of a giant bear that came into my bedroom. He did not menace me, but he was so much bigger than me that he scared me. Finally, I told myself that I needed to go back inside those dreams, confront the bear, and discover why he was in my space. When I did that, the bear caught me up in his great embrace and showed me that we were joined at the heart, reassuring me that when I needed healing for myself or others, he would be there. I later learned that the bear is the great medicine animal of North America; he has kept his promise.
Robert Moss is the author of Dreaming the Soul Back Home and numerous other books about dreaming, shamanism, and imagination. His fascination with the dreamworld began during his childhood in Australia, when he had three near-death experiences and first learned the ways of a traditional dreaming people through his friendship with Aborigines.