Have you ever had a dream of someone or something that was truly nasty and harmful, something that creeped you right out, terrified or tormented you? Most of us have dreams like this, and upon waking we often wish the outcome had been different. We may wish that we had taken a more courageous stand against that nasty figure– stood up to it, talked to it, fought back against it, defeated it or drove it off, perhaps even killed it.
Many people have wondered…what would it mean to imagine killing an entity from our own dream life? Is it possible to do? Would we be somehow violating the integrity of our own unconscious life by doing such a thing? Do we have the right? What if we are making a terrible mistake? There is no single answer that fits all cases. It all depends on the person, the time, and the individual circumstance. Some frightening dream figures turn out to be important and very positive parts of our own selves confronting us in hopes of integration. In these cases, killing or driving off the figure would not be the best thing, and it wouldn’t feel right.
In my experience as a dreamworker, I have encountered many circumstances where killing a dream figure is indeed the best possible outcome. I’m not talking about mindless, destructive killing, or killing reactively in fright or rage; I’m talking about killing with consciousness and after careful consideration. I believe there are times when our dreammaker is asking us for this, setting the stage for some new and decisive action to be played out. Here’s an example. This is the dream of a 35-year-old woman named Amelia–
“I was near the place in the airport that sold transit tickets back to the city, and I found a creature that I thought, at first, was a dog. It looked like a big white husky but on its face, instead of a muzzle, it had a very large, beak-shaped, bare bone. It only had the top of the beak—no hinged bottom—so the beak didn’t open and close. It stayed stationary. There were also other protruding bare bones on its face and across its body, sticking out on top of its fur. Its eyes were sunken beneath the bones on the face. My first thought was, how interesting! This thing is half dog, half… but before I finished this thought, a person came over to lead the creature away and told me ‘it doesn’t breathe.’ At first I thought, that’s preposterous. It’s moving, its eyes are looking around, it’s certainly alive! How can it be alive and not breathe? But then I looked at its ribs to see if they were expanding and contracting, and they were not. With sudden dread I thought, is this person right? It doesn’t breathe? And I was filled with horror. I was absolutely terrified. The person told me the name for this kind of creature, but I can’t remember what it was.”
Now…imagine that you had a dream like this. What would you do? Clearly it is referring to something very important that needs to be dealt with. But how? What on earth is that boney white dog? My advice would be this– don’t try to figure out what it means. Don’t try to interpret such a dream. It might be fascinating to try, but it might also take you a lifetime. There is a faster and more direct way– go back into the dream and re-encounter the boney white dog. You need to gather more information about it from the inside. First use the three C’s– step back into the dream, but this time imagine that, instead of feeling terrified, you are feeling calm, conscious, and courageous. Invite some supportive figures to back you up if you wish, or imagine yourself stronger, or protected from harm by some defensive power. Now, once you feel safe and have a sense of agency within the dream scene, you can approach the dog. Use your feeling body to sense into what it is. Is it a part of you? Does it represent something or someone in your life that has terrified you? If it is a part of you, do you want it to remain a part of you? Or would you perhaps rather be rid of it?
When you choose to work on a dream by re-entering it there are a couple of built-in safety mechanisms. First—you are primarily guided by your feelings, rather than your intellect. And feelings give you faster and usually more accurate feedback. Second—you’re not committed to a single irreversible course of action. If for example, you decide to try killing the dog, but this feels somehow wrong, then you can re-do the whole scenario and decide not to kill the dog. You can try something else, something more empathetic and friendly. No harm is done. Your first course of action was not a mistake, but an imaginal experiment that led to something more true.
Some months ago, Amelia told this dream in a dream-sharing circle. As the facilitator of the circle I invited her to go back into the dream. I asked her to slow everything down, breathe away the terror, and imagine that she felt calm, conscious, and courageous. Then, once she had achieved this, I asked her to approach the dog and gather more information about it. Here’s what happened:
“The dog is white. So white it’s almost blue. And it has a beak, like of a bird of prey–an owl?–but the beak has no hinge, so it can’t use the beak to communicate. And the bones are sticking out of its torso, like a corpse?…was it dead? And then of course I was told in the dream that no, it wasn’t dead, it was never alive in the first place! It had never breathed. It was that knowledge, in the dream, that had filled me with terror.”
Then I asked Amelia what she wanted to do. I put a few options on the table for her, just to invoke them into the realm of possibility. This is critical, because terrifying dreams often generate a paralysis of the imagination, leaving the dreamer in a state of frozen disempowerment. I will usually say something like: “Would you like to be able to walk away? Meet the dog? Speak to it? Summon an ally to help you? Chase the dog away?”
This is what Amelia did: “On going back into the dream with you, I made the (strange, I thought) decision to kill the dog. I was puzzled by this. Why would I have an instinct to kill a calm, quiet creature that could be led away on a leash. It seemed so dramatic and violent and to come out of nowhere. But I wanted to put it out of its misery. I also said something like “his face is a prison” and had no idea what I meant by that. So– I took a sword and cut off its head. I felt like I was somehow releasing those eyes that were imprisoned in that face. I realized that this was the most compassionate choice.”
Afterwards, as Amelia re-emerged out of dream scene and came back to the space of our dream circle, her choice seemed to feel right (not only to her, but to me and most others present as well). There was a sense that some decisive and healing action had taken place. I asked Amelia to re-visit the scene a few more times in the following days, and if she started to feel that killing the dog was a mistake, or incomplete in some way, to change the imaginal action or move it forward in a new direction.
A few months later Amelia contacted me to report that something remarkable had happened, something she felt was directly connected to the imaginal killing of the white dog: “About a month ago, I had a transformative experience that blew me open. And boy, did I ever get in touch with my Feeling side. And I’m going back over some old dreams and seeing them in a completely new light, because I think my unconscious knew this change was coming, was pushing for it, but my conscious self had no idea. My dreams were hinting with all kinds of transformative images but I didn’t get it. In fact, the dog dream took place at an airport where I was not flying anywhere. Stalled transformation!
And I thought of the dog. I realized that essentially all my life, when I’ve thought I was dealing with Feeling, I was mostly dealing with Thinking DISGUISED as Feeling. As a defence. It’s hard to explain, but I had no idea I was doing this until I experienced what Feeling really is. I just didn’t know any better. Now I do. And it’s been transformative. I’m like Scrooge on Christmas morning!
Leaning too hard into thinking feels like being frozen. It feels like death. In the first few weeks when my heart thawed out, I was terrified I would go back there into that frozen place which I had not known was a frozen place until I left it. I can feel myself going back there sometimes. Shutting down. Shutting off. The frozen feeling is the feeling of being cut off from my fellow creatures, from life, from open-heartedness, vulnerability, connection, joy, gratitude–essentially from love. It feels like death.
But when that happens, that’s when I have to imagine cutting off the dog’s head again. That’s a good way to kill Thinking!) And what that means is identifying for myself the times when I’m thinking something in order to protect myself and labeling it “Feeling.” It is not Feeling. It is a defence, masquerading as Feeling. It never breathed as Feeling. It was never alive. And must be identified as such. Defences are good companions (like a trusty dog side-kick!) until you’re out of the shit that created them, and then you have to chop their heads off.
Psychologically speaking, Amelia had come to see the dog as a remnant of an old protective adaptation that was once very helpful to her (distancing her from unbearable feelings through habitual thinking patterns). Since she no longer needs this adaptation, killing the dog was justified and appropriate, and re-killing it whenever she catches herself lapsing back to the old habit is also appropriate.
Amelia also felt a sense of indebtedness and gratitude for the old dog. After all it had served her well for many years. At such times I often invite people to do something of a ritual nature to honor an old retired part of self and say goodbye to it with gratitude. I suggested that she might want to consider burying a small white dog figurine.
Re-entering this dream allowed Amelia to take action, something that could not have happened through analysis alone. Has she remained content with thinking about the meaning of this nightmare, it is possible that the energy of change contained within it might not have been able to move forward towards transformation, or at least not so readily. To put it another way– the dog didn’t just need to be understood, it needed to be killed. The action occurred first in her imagination, but reverberations from this action appeared soon after in her waking life, carrying forward into an important series of insights and subsequent life changes. This is one of the medicines that dreamwork can offer us.