Are We Responsible for our Dreams?
by julie swanson
This is a question I began asking myself a few years ago when I started going through a spell of terrible nightmares. They were so violent, evil, and disturbing–sick really–and I’m a quiet, peaceful person who’s never been violent or suffered physical violence. Pretty much a boring goody-two-shoes in many people’s eyes, I’m sure. I’d never experienced or even thought of many of the things I suddenly found myself dreaming about. And the dreams I’d had my whole life prior to this were largely pleasant, funny things, with a few sad ones about family members dying thrown in there, or with me being angry with someone who irritated me in real life. I had flying dreams and hilarious ones that made me crack up. I’d wake up laughing and then crack up again in the retelling of them hours later. I’ve always shared my dreams over breakfast with whoever I’ve ever lived with; that’s how entertaining and amazingly creative I found them. So it didn’t seem like these sick nightmares could be coming from me, any part of me–my brain, my subconscious, my mind, my spirit, soul, heart… whatever it could possibly be. I was embarrassed of the things I dreamt about, horrified by them. I felt guilty for having them, ashamed. I didn’t want to take any sort of ownership for them. It felt like, and I wanted to believe, that they were coming from outside of me (although that idea was scary, too!). I would think, Can I really be held responsible for these bizarre images bombarding me at night?
Although the things that happened in my dreams, the creatures that appeared in them, the places, the violence, although all those things seemed totally foreign to me, I did, however, realize that I felt a sense of ownership for the emotions the dream left me with. If the dream was an awful one of hiding something, like a body I’d murdered and buried and that police dogs were now sniffing around, I felt like I could somehow relate to that sense of guilt and hiding, the fear of being found out. I couldn’t put my finger on where that would ever have come from in real life, in my past or present, but I had this odd feeling of ownership for the feelings. If it was a dream in which I felt great shame, I’d be like, wow, that was bizarre and over-the-top, but I know that shame somehow, from somewhere else, some other time. Or if I was storming around in a rage in a dream, using vicious words I’d never use and doing things to people that I’d never do, I would have a feeling of having felt rage like that before. Where I had no idea, but it felt like my rage, not some alien dream weaver’s. If the violence was being done to me or another person I was watchng in the dream, the fear I felt, well, it was something I knew as mine and not a foreign thing, even though all the imagery in the dream may have been very foreign to me.
It was suggested by some people who are close to me and very religious, that perhaps my dreams were evil, from the Devil, and that I ought to pray to be spared them. Yikes. But by this time I’d already been doing a lot of reading and studying on dreams and dreamwork, and I was seeing things in my dreams, seeing that the dreams were exaggerated metaphors for things, and that the dreams were actually trying to wake me up to things, show me things. They were pounding me over the head, trying to get through to me, and now that I knew that, and was looking at them as helpful guides rather than things to be afraid of, I could begin to ‘listen’ to them, to look more closely at them and what they were trying to point out. I began to appreciate them, even the violent sick ones. Sometimes the worst ones were almost comical in retrospect, after I was done crying or thinking that my heart was going to explode with how fast it was pounding. In the light of day, I could see how funny it was really, the great lengths my unconscious or subconscious (or soul or spirit or Self or God or the Holy Spirit or Being or whatever you want to call it) went to to try to get through to me. I could almost imagine my unconscious plotting after I didn’t get the message of the previous night’s dream: OK, I thought that would work, but I’m going to have to try something really extreme here to get her attention. She is so dense! I’ve been hitting her with the same type of dream over and over, using slightly different symbols and people to try to get through to her. Hmm, maybe this symbol will work, because I know that one will be really emotionally charged for her. But do I really have to do that to her in her dream before she sees what I’m trying to show her? And so he’d/she’d cook up something really gory or so dramatically sad, thinking surely I’d get the message now. Or the images would just be so comical, so ridiculous, trying so hard to wake me up with humor. Yes, I began to see that my dreams were doing what they could to point things out to me, to make me conscious of things, to shake me ‘awake’ with laughter or tears or a jolt of adrenaline.
So, yes, I believe we are responsible for our dreams, amazingly enough. Maybe not exactly us-all-by-ourselves, but something that’s intimately tied to or enmeshed with us is, something which we are both a part of and at the same time is a part of us. Yes, illness can cause us to dream, and drugs, but I’m not talking about that (and even if I were, I’m not sure all morphine-induced dreams/hallucinations in the dying or whatever can be disregarded as nonsense; what if the morphine just opens us up to that part of us, to the unconscious and its metaphor). We may not be aware of the part of ourselves that creates dreams, but it’s there in us trying to help us. I can see that now. Sometimes it’s just plain confusing and seems like nonsense, sometimes it takes weeks or months or years to know what a dream was about, sometimes you never figure it out, and even when you glean something from a dream, there might still be parts you don’t get. But I don’t think dreams are simply the random firings of a brain at rest as some do. I don’t think my evil dreams are from the Devil–far from it. I think dreams are gifts to us from that divine life energy that is in each of us, and that sometimes they are from the divine life energy outside of us as well (but which we’re still a part of), in others and everything. Whether you call it your Self, your subconscious, the unconscious, soul, spirit, Holy Spirit, God, Being, Life, Now, Consciousness, the Collective Unconscious…, it is a friendly, loving thing trying to help you and using extreme measures and going to great lengths to get through to you (I don’t think getting through to your brain, your mind, is its ultimate goal either; it aims for your heart where you really need to get things if it’s going to do any good, and your brain can’t always understand or put words to these special knowings).
This guiding, dream-making part of you might succeed in one night, or over weeks, or it could take years. It’s persistant. It will not give up on you, on us. Dreams are fascinating, amazing, powerful, clever. The more I work with mine and read and hear about others who study and do dreamwork, the more I am in awe of them. And I feel lucky that I can remember so many of mine, that they bother to ‘wake me up.’
I am quite thankful for even my nightmares now.