Dreamwork can be very dramatic and alive, especially inside dreamwork, the kind where you re-enter your dream, let it come alive again, and move it forward in your imagination. But dreamwork can also bog down and become stagnant and unsatisfying. You may know this from your own experience– have you had that feeling of your dreamwork session losing energy, as if things have wandered slightly off the true path? Why and how does this kind of stagnation happen?
I have been doing inside (re-entry) dreamwork almost exclusively for several years now, and I have observed three quite distinct kinds of stagnation that seem to crop up again and again in this work. They all involve a kind of paralysis which, at its strongest, can stop a dreamwork session cold.
The first of these is the paralysis caused by fear. Our dreams are often frightening, and it almost seems that some dreams are guarded against the approach of insight, as if cloaked in a force field of fear. When you re-enter a frightening dream you will feel frightened; this only makes sense. And in fact it is a good thing because it means that you are truly back inside the dream, you are not just thinking about the dream from a safe vantage point, you are back in it, feelings and all. From this interior position you can now do something really interesting.
There is a problem however. The problem is that the fear usually has a deterring or paralyzing effect. Who in their right mind wants to re-enter a fearful and dangerous place? Our animal instincts don’t want us to do this! Yet this is precisely what you must do if you want to work with your nightmares and scary dreams effectively. This is even true in cases where the threatening dream figure turns out to represent something truly dangerous and harmful, because you would not be able to know with certainty what the figure represents until you approach it calmly enough to meet it and understand it.
It is well known that intense fear usually causes one of three instinctual reactions–fight, flight, or freeze. In dreamwork we often see a fourth reaction–waking up. All four of these responses are usually problematic when it comes to fearful dreams and nightmares. Fighting is usually problematic because you may be attacking a true part of yourself. Flight is usually problematic because you may be avoiding and fleeing from a true part of yourself; or you may be running from something that you can actually face and overcome. Freezing and waking up are problematic because they both mean that you are unable to muster any effective response to the dream situation. Chances are you will find yourself in a similar (or worse) situation in a future dream because nothing has changed.
So– what you need is a way of transforming or reducing the fear itself. You need to do something very specific and focused, something that will slow everything down. Something that allows you to coach yourself out of the reactive fright state and get yourself into a calmer, stronger state. You need to feel safe enough, clear-headed enough, and powerful enough to step boldly back onto the stage where your frightening drama is being played out.
If you can do this you immediately gain two advantages that you didn’t have in your fearful state. First – you can now gather more and better information about what is really going on. When you are on high alert your mind isn’t working with its full range of capacities, you can’t observe things clearly or make good decisions. As you slow things down and begin to feel safer you will find that you can look around, you can now assess the situation with a bigger perspective and more conscious awareness.
Secondly–you can start to be pro-active rather than just reactive. You can consider options that weren’t there when you were in alarm mode. Maybe you don’t have to run away after all. Maybe you can try something different. Perhaps you can actually encounter this frightening figure, meet him face to face, ask him who he is and what he wants.
You are now changing the dream, dreaming it forward in a new direction. A tremendous potential for healing and change appears when you reclaim your agency and creativity. And this only becomes possible after you have calmed your emotional body and taken your place as the protagonist in your own dream.
Changing the fright state into the empowered state
As a professional dreamworker I have helped hundreds of people learn how to re-enter their scary dreams, slow things down, and transition from a fear state to a state of relative empowerment. I have developed a protocol for doing this, which includes a quick checklist of options for feeling stronger and safer when facing a frightening figure or situation. Now–imagine that you had a nightmare about being chased by a large menacing male figure. He’s so frightening that you can only run for your life and try to hide. You cower in a hiding place, hearing the footsteps approaching…you wake up with your heart pounding!
Let’s imagine that you have asked me to help you work with this dream; here’s what our session might look like:
“Can you go back into the dream?”
“Let’s go right to the point where you’re in the hiding spot. And you hear the footsteps approaching…”
“Are you there?”
“Yes. I’m there.”
“How does it feel?”
“Okay…now…slow everything down….take a breath…you have lots of time to think now…you’ve stopped the action…the footsteps have stopped…so you have some time….how does that feel?”
“Better…but still very scary.”
“Okay, now be aware that you can do something to change this situation a bit…I’m going to give you three options…three possible things you can imagine happening now…”
“Option one– you can make yourself much bigger, much stronger, more powerful. This can be because you now have a powerful weapon, or just because you feel bigger and more powerful in yourself”
“Option two–you can put a protective shield around yourself. Like a force-field…an energy field…”
“And option three– you can call for help. You can summon any kind of ally you want to be with you. A friend…a power animal…a famous figure…an ancestor…an angel…whatever you want…”
“Even though they weren’t there in the dream? Because I was alone in the dream.”
“Yes I know, but we’re changing the dream now. And you don’t need to limit yourself. It doesn’t need to be something realistic. You can now summon anyone or anything to stand beside you…”
“Okay….then I want to bring in three large dogs….or even wolves…huge trained wolves…can they be wolves?”
“Sure….three huge trained wolves…imagine them standing right with you.”
“Now how does it feel?”
“That feels a lot better. I have no fear now.”
“So—can you imagine turning around now and facing the figure who has been chasing you?”
“Yes. I’m actually very curious now to see who it is…”
(end of scenario)
Now the dreamer is feeling safe and clear-minded enough to approach the figure and learn something about it. From this point the dreamwork could go in any number of directions, depending on what this figure turns out to represent in the dreamer’s life. The critical thing is that the paralysis caused by fear has been overcome; now things can move forward.
In our next installment we’ll take a look at another type of paralysis that often crops up on dreamwork– paralysis of the imagination.