Nightmares: Dark Crossroads of Creativity and Vulnerability
From the perspective of cognitive psychology and clinical neuroscience, when it comes to treatment, a good nightmare is a dead nightmare. Since the days of Freud, we have been hell-bent on eliminating all varieties of bad dreams equally without discrimination and as a result, we know surprisingly little about ordinary nightmares. That’s a problem that isn’t going to go away by itself.
My own life has been sculpted by the gritty winds of horrible dreams, leaving me confused about how to work with the dark energies that are stirred up for days afterwards. For example, for years, I was tormented by dreams of being chased by wolves and packs of angry dogs. Usually I would wake up from fright, but sometimes not before one of them sank their teeth into me or scratched at my hands and face. In waking life, I’m a dog lover who raised and trained several dogs. In particular, I helped raise a beautiful German Shepard mix named Bandit who was also a quarter wolf. So my nightmares do not come from a fear of unknowing, but rather a legacy of love, which always confused me further. What am I so scared of?
A few years ago, I told a psychotherapist friend about my wolf dreams and my inability to proceed when the animals attack, despite often becoming lucidly aware in the dream. As with many lucid dreams, my self-awareness seemed to bungle the dream rather than provide clarity. There are no guides in the lucid dreaming literature besides a somewhat pedantic attitude that eliminating fear will shift the dream. I didn’t want to eliminate the wolves, though. I wanted to work with them somehow. Should I fight them off? Allow myself to be devoured as some sort of initiation rite?
She suggested a different approach: “Reach into your pocket and pull out a gift for them.” I was struck by the simplicity of this action. I asked how would I know what to give them and she answered, “That is up to the dream, not you.”
A month or so later, the wolves came back. I was running through a clearing in the woods and climbed halfway up a tree when I became self-aware. I remembered the woman’s words. As the wolves snapped their teeth at me all around, I put my hand in my pocket and pulled out a cloth pouch. Inside, I found raw, red meat. I offered it up and the wolves hungrily ate from my hands. I could feel their teeth scrape against my flesh and soon they were licking my fingers. I looked around and saw they were now non-aggressive and awaiting my direction. I thought, “Go,” and they instantly took off, running back to the forest.
I didn’t have scary wolf nightmares for years afterwards. In fact, on more than one occasion I have called the wolves in my dreams when I needed aid. They came running, not to hunt, but to help.
After the birth of my son Connor, however, the wolf and rabid dog nightmares came back. This time, I was caught trying to protect him from their jaws. It was rather ironic, actually, as one of the roots of the name Connor is the Gaelic name Conchobha, “lover of wolves.” After a series of these dreams, I thought, am I trying to protect him from his own inner nature? That’s pretty much bad parenting. In response, I had the following dream:
I am trying to get Connor inside the house, because a snarling fox creature is outside. He comes to me and I place him inside. The fox then attacks me and we grapple. Then it suddenly dies in my arms. I am saddened and grossed out as his blood leaks out. Then the body of the fox begins to expand, as if inflating from rapid decomposition. The skin of the fox grows taut as it becomes a hollow cylindrical shape. I realize it has transformed into a drum, a conga drum. All I need to do is scrape out the dried up guts inside and the drum will be ready for me to play . . .
After the dream, I knew immediately what I must do to honor this dream: pick up a drum again, something I had not done since I left all my percussion instruments in a hasty move the year before. Less than a month later, I found myself drumming with old friends on a secluded beach in Northern California. The energy that came coursing back into me during that session was tremendous — a bodily recognition that I was on the right track. The dream taught me that the best way to protect my son is to know how to distill those same negative energies that exist in my own body. This work will, no doubt, go on as he grows older.
“Nightmares are a clue to a neglected imaginal realm, and they represent so much more than our greatest fears. They represent our greatest strengths, and possibly our genius.”
I tell this story about my own fumbling about with nightmares because we are often on our own when it comes to intense dream experiences due to the tendency of Western scientific culture to shoot first and ask questions later. At heart, this perspective is fueled by an honest desire to end the suffering of millions of dreamers, especially those who endure repetitive nightmares that are a symptom of trauma. Most funded research these days focuses on how to disrupt the neural pathways that activate fear-based memories, therefore preventing access to the root of the fear.
Unfortunately, scalping nightmares with psychiatric drugs may leave untouched the original issue that is asking for healing. In non-traumatized patients, the nightmare can be healthy. And that is the perspective that I take: that many nightmares can be a loud call for healing that may be part of the healing response. As a red flag, the nightmare is pointing the way towards what needs attention and work. I’m not against pharmaceuticals, believe me. Yet I envision a medical system that gives patients more options, including the chance to work with their own healing responses before automatically killing the messenger.
A quick review about what we don’t know
What do we really know about nightmares and why they show up?
Technically, a nightmare is more than just a scary dream. It is dream that you find disturbing and that wakes you up. In many cases, the nightmare is tied to stress levels in waking life. Curiously, nightmares also have some physical causes, such as having a fever, not getting enough air while sleeping, and eating before going to bed. In Charles Dickens’ classic novel A Christmas Carol, Scrooge accuses the nightmarish figure of Marley’s ghost of being nothing more than “an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato.” Nightmares also occur in people who have suffered intense trauma such as assault, war, or a major catastrophe such as surviving an earthquake. Such nightmares may require clinical help.
The reluctance to face the nightmare started with Sigmund Freud. His Interpretation of Dreams is a great read, but has little to say about nightmares. Freud first tried to fit them into his theory that all dreams are wish fulfillment. You might ask, when is a nightmare a wish fulfillment? When it’s a sadomasochistic wish fulfillment, answers Freud. Somehow this doesn’t quite hold water, but I suppose my disagreement is only a wish fulfillment to prove Freud wrong (as he often told his patients who had dreams that didn’t jive with his theory).
Freud’s student Ernest Jones continued with this reasoning in the 1930s. Jones concluded that nightmares represent a clash between a powerful wish and an equally powerful repression. So the content of a nightmare, in this view, is sort of like the dust that rises from the battle between the Id and Ego. This view may indeed have some merit, as repetitive nightmares do tend to escalate, becoming increasingly disturbing (and direct) over time. Maybe it takes a nightmare, with us sitting up in bed, heart pounding and cold sweating, to get the message through our defenses. My wolf dreams seem to fit this pattern.
Creativity and Vulnerability
Since the 1930s, however, scientists have stopped studying the causes of nightmares and become focused on stopping them in their tracks. This trend is related to the rise of behaviorism and, later, cognitive neuropsychology.
One exception is psychiatrist Ernest Hartmann, who recently passed away at the age of 79. Hartmann dedicated years of research to the nightmare and its triggers, its symptoms, and the personality characteristics of its sufferers.
According to Hartmann, nightmare sufferers, surprisingly, are not more likely to have suffered trauma. Nor are nightmare sufferers more neurotic or more defensive (as Jones suggested). Rather, nightmare sufferers tend to have a comparative lack of psychological defenses. They are more open to their feelings and the world around them.
In fact, nightmare sufferers are more likely to be creative people and artists. Hartmann calls this trait “vulnerability” because these people have a greater ability to be touched by the world, to experience life and all of its pain. Having few defenses is like leaving the barn door open throughout the night, and anyone or anything can wander in and make a mess of things. So this vulnerability is a double-edged sword, pointing towards both creativity as well as increased suffering.
Nightmares are a clue to a neglected imaginal realm, and they represent so much more than our greatest fears. They represent our greatest strengths, and possibly our genius. That’s why the only thing scarier than nightmares is the drive to eradicate them. If you have repetitive nightmares but hardly remember any other dreams, this is a clue that your dreamlife is trying hard to build bridges between the dream and waking life.
This article is adapted from my upcoming ebook Dream Like a Boss (Book 1): Sleep better, dream more, and wake up to what matters most. The ebook is available for preorder today exclusively as a bonus for the new crowd-funding project for Shadow, a smart app that helps you remember and record your dreams.