I have been reading and hearing lots of stories lately on Covid-19 dreams, on NPR, National Geographic, Psychology Today– really everywhere. Most of them have the same premise; people are having more intensely weird dreams. And then most offer a solution; different techniques for suppressing, abolishing, reframing these dreams– so you can sleep better. These articles trot out old Freudian theories that have been disproven for decades: such as the old chestnut that dreams exist to protect sleep. And they are dismissive and fail to respect dreams.
Here’s a beaut from the National Geographic:
“Bizarre dreams laden with symbolism allow some dreamers to overcome intense memories or everyday psychological stressors within the safety of their subconscious.”
“Safety of their subconscious”– reduces the psyche to a little sandbox where we get to play with our feelings. And anyone who has had a strong dream can tell you it hardly feels safe. Indeed feeling danger is often the point of the dream.
But the real problem is the phrase “bizarre dreams”– This is the unquestioned premise of most of these articles: that the dreams we are having are “bizarre”, “weird”.
All of these ideas about controlling your dreams, overcoming strong emotions– i.e. ignoring them– are just designed to lead us “safely” back to daylight consciousness, to ordinary normal waking consciousness.
God forbid we should feel anything more deeply, or that we should come to know our own feelings better, and learn how to live with them.
But that’s what dreams do for us– if we pay calm attention. The reason more dreams are reported is simple: more people are paying attention. More people are afraid of dying is the underlying explanation. The fear of death is no longer abstract– we see it all around us. We have good reason to be afraid. So naturally we have dreams that include the feelings of fear– along the harmonic of fear-terror and quick as a wink the experts come in like Prof Deirdre Barrett of Harvard- to teach us techniques for “controlling” our dreams. Thereby undoing what the dream brings us, which is the opportunity exactly to learn how to live with our intense feelings of fear –instead of pushing them down, suppressing them, ignoring and denying their value.
I have learned a different way to live with my dreams. Instead of interpreting them, in Natural Dreamwork we bring dreams to life. In our sessions the dreamer recites her dream and together we slow it down and experience the feelings more intensely– not less. We go to the moments of encounter, the moments of intense feeling. If it is fear and terror, we go there. If it is pain or disgust we go there. The practitioner supports the dreamer to stay with the feeling– a few moments longer at first, and then more. We have forgotten how to feel, but our dreams are teaching us. That is their gift to us.
Dreams also teach us the difference between feeling and reaction, between existential fear: a lion breathing on us and anxiety– “I’m at a bus stop and I’m afraid the bus will be late and I will miss the test.” Existential fear is immediate and in the moment– anxiety is about the future– a displacement of deep feeling.
One reason we keep reading in the media about “bizarre” dreams relates to the concept of underlying metaphors. In their book Metaphors We Live By, linguist and philosopher Lakoff and Johnson point out how certain metaphors govern our thinking. These underlying metaphors are mostly unconscious (One example: “language is a container”– we “put things into words.”)
In regard to dreams, a prevalent underlying metaphor is that “a dream is a story.” And if that story does not fit our waking life idea of what a story should be then the underlying metaphor becomes, a “dream is a weird story.”
I once wrote an article challenging a novelist who said he hated dreams because of their “endlessly broken promise to amount to something.” He thought dreams were essentially badly written stories. He is right but he didn’t go far enough– they aren’t really meant to be stories at all.
This metaphor that a “dream is a story” is so prevalent and so unexamined that what I’m saying here will seem like nonsense to most people. (I’ll take the risk.) But just think about it. Is it true, is it a good metaphor to say that “a dream is a story”?
What is true is that when we wake we often form our dream experiences as a narrative. That is so deeply embedded in our culture that my challenging it may well be Quixotic but please give it a chance.
My own experience with dreams, my own and those emerging from thousands of hours with clients, and thousands and thousands of dreams, is that the metaphor is shaky at best. Our actual phenomenological experience of dreams is of a series of images and presences that we encounter, that we feel or react to.
Yes as it is remembered and recorded, a dream often emerges as a story, but that’s in part because the sequence of images and encounters in a dream, are usually knitted together into a narrative as part of an interpretive process that the conscious mind does all the time, in service of the ego.
The waking life ego is constantly story-fabricating, making up stories about its experience, often the ego adds that this person is a good guy and that one is a bad guy.. because this is needed to serve the star of every story which is the waking life ego. The dream-ego often does the same.
We call dreams weird because what they do to the ego’s stories about itself is so disruptive.
Suppose dreams are not stories at all but disruptors of story. Suppose the images in dreams come– not to affirm our well-established old stories about ourselves– but to overturn them, so we might go deeper into our feelings, deeper into our psyches, our souls?
I view waking life experience as offering the ingredients for a dream. So waking life might offer flour, milk, eggs.. but the dream is an entirely new creation: it is the cake. To break the dream back down to its ingredients, to always the dream back to waking life, is backwards. The dream is an imaginative creation of something new, with something urgent for us to feel.
If a dream is not a story, what is it? Like a lyrical poem I consider it to be a movement of feelings.
Here’s a quick example of a recent dream that definitely has reference to our current waking life experience these days. But I want to show that the real value of the dream is within the dream itself– the movement of feeling it offers.
We were staying in a house under quarantine. I was waiting on someone to come back — with supplies. Then “G”– a friend– said he was in a nearby town. I just couldn’t wait any longer. Had to get out. Now me and my “son” [a boy, but I don’t have a son] were climbing down from the top of a tall building. I saw cars in a parking lot far below. I felt I had done this before. There was a jump to an overhang. Now I was just too scared. I said that to the boy. I feel so scared.
If you read the dream with the expectation of a story, then the dream is indeed a weird story, or bizarre narrative. How did the “I” get out of the house and end up on the roof of a building? It “makes no sense” but if you view the dream as a movement of feelings, then it makes a lot of sense. The dream point of view– the dream-ego if you like, begins in quarantine. Then he gets impatient and wants to leave. Then when he ventures out he suddenly realizes he is in danger– and he feels his fear.
In the beginning of the dream there is no “son”. Then suddenly there is. In waking life the dreamer has no son– in the dream he does. That’s bizarre from a waking life perspective– how could the dream-ego be so deluded , even insane as to think this boy he is with is his son? And where did this boy suddenly come from… as he wasn’t there at the beginning, only when the dream-ego got out on the roof?
Bizarre right? Weird, right? No not really.
Within the dream, the feeling is paramount not the facts of waking life. The feeling of relationship with this boy is significant– maybe beyond the scope of what I can bring to this essay. But the boy suddenly appearing in the dream after the dream-ego decides to leave– has something to do with the impatience of desire to get out of the house. (Often in dreams the “boy” represents just such impatience, initiative, the adventuresome part of the soul that wants to act on desire. ) in short the desire feeling ends up becoming a personified image, an imago, in this case of a boy. And this fits, since boys often have the quality of wanting to act and do rather than sit around and wait.
Here the dream-ego is separate from the boy and yet experiencing the fear together on top of the building, he speaks to the boy of his fear. It is like one part of himself speaking to another part, the conscious controlling part (dream-ego) acknowledging to the soul (the boy)– yes I am afraid.
The dream is a movement of feeling, not a story. The dream-ego moves from staying in quarantine to an intense desire to get out of the house– to a sense of fear and paralysis on the roof of the building.
The dialogue between the dream-ego and the boy, between being obedient to quarantine, and the raw desire to get out of the house– shows the dream addressing feelings and conflicts many of us are experiencing. The dream is not a bizarre or weird story. It is a movement of feeling. And it opens a dialogue prompted by deep feeling– between parts of ourselves, the dream-ego but also the archetypal boy.
In this particular dream the dialogue doesn’t resolve. The dream-ego is trying to negotiate with the boy because he is very afraid of falling. But the boy is not willing to move. There’s more to come in subsequent dreams.
But this dream is itself helpful. Because it frames the underlying terror and gives it a surprising image: it is the terror of falling from a great height. By paying more attention to our dreams– and the feelings moving in them, we can benefit with a greater capacity to feel more deeply. In this current crisis, it is only by facing honestly our difficult feelings– such as fear or terror– that we can see the face of the soul. In this dream, the face of the boy.
Rodger Kamenetz is the author of The History of Last Night’s Dream. He is reachable at firstname.lastname@example.org His essays on dreams can be found at www. thenaturaldream.com, Medium, and the Kenyon Review.
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