I have memories of nightmares from earliest childhood, and they’ve been a frequent, dramatic feature of my life ever since then. I’ve had times in my life where I feared going to sleep because I’d had runs of ferociously bad dreams. In my twenties, my entire dreaming experience gradually narrowed down to a handful of fairly banal bad dreams, and for years, that was all I had.
I’m prompted to write this today, having woken from an intense set of nightmares. It’s been a week of unusually vivid, complex and difficult dreams, but last night’s were the first to take a nightmarish aspect. Death, violence, grief and loss, pursuit and threat – all the things, with no kind of narrative coherence and fantastical landscapes the like of which I have never seen for myself.
Dreams always tempt us to ask why they happened and what they mean. I think nightmares especially incline us to seek the comfort of an easy explanation. From the consumption of cheese through to something downright Freudian, the impulse is to rationalise. One of the most frightening things about dreams is how much of our time we spend in these mad states doing irrational things for no obvious reason and often suffering terrible consequences. Surely it has to mean something?
We have similar attitudes to life, and in our waking existence, the experience of horrors sends us off in search of meaning. Why did it happen? What brought us to this point? What does it mean? Can there be a reason for this? Religion and novels both owe a great deal to the human desire to have incomprehensible things tidied up into viable narratives. If it makes some kind of sense, we might have control over it, and we might be able to save ourselves. In dreams, as in life, the reality we experience isn’t tidy or coherent, yet we, as humans have this peculiar desire to try and make it all make sense.
There’s no particular reason why I had nightmares last night. Some of the threads I can trace back to people I’m worried about, historical experiences and recent reading matter, but that only explains what I’m drawing on, not the nightmare itself. Put in its context though, in this run of dreams that have been intense and more incomprehensible than is usual for me and something else suggests itself. Something big, and as yet unnameable is shifting in my head. Something I have no words for, and maybe as yet no proper concepts. A big upheaval in how I see things and understand things. It may be some time before that transition shows up consciously and starts to make sense.
Dreams are at least in part, functions of the mind. In much the same way that physical sensations are functions of the body. Not all body sensations show up at time or point of cause – the low blood pressure headache, and the muscle ache from exertion are not things you can make sense of by looking at what was happening when the pain started. There are plenty of symptoms which, on their own don’t mean much, but when aligned with other symptoms, have very specific meanings. Dreams are often like this, in that taking one dream on its own, out of the context of your wider dreaming, is not a good basis for analysis.
So while the contents of last night’s nightmare were really disturbing, I am not feeling that disturbed this morning, and I’m not picking over the precise details. I’m seeing that nightmare in the context of the last week or so, seeing how the visual vividness and emotional intensity connect it to other dreams, and that some kind of unconscious process is happening. When that process is feasible for me to handle in a more conscious way, it will start making itself known. It could be that it already has, that elements of the nightmare will prove relevant in time, but I’m not going to try and force a meaning today because I know that would be counter-productive.
If this approach to dreaming appeals to you, do check out my book, Pagan Dreaming – http://www.moon-books.net/books/pagan-dreaming