The Good Message in a Nightmare

What is a “nightmare”? A scary or threatening dream, one with a startling twist?

Nightmares claim our attention in a way pleasant dreams may not. Unusual elements  stand out, getting a message through that we might otherwise miss even if the dream is interrupted. Here’s an example from several years ago:

I’m driving by myself down the winding coast highway in a convertible sports car, enjoying the breeze in my face and the view of the ocean. To my left bluffs rise sharply. Steep cliffs fall on my right, to the ocean below. It is a clear bright evening. Rounding a curve in the road, I see three planets, remarkably huge – Saturn, Jupiter, and one I don’t recognize. Suddenly I’m enveloped in an impenetrable fog. I can’t slow down or stop the car. I’m beginning to panic. Then I feel the car leave the road, going over the side of the cliff. I jam on the brakes and scream “NO!”

I wake suddenly, heart racing, drenched in sweat, and somehow feeling that I’ve failed a test. A quotation by a speaker at church the next morning reinforced the feeling of having failed a test: “When you come to the edge of all the light you know, and are about to step off into the darkness of the unknown, Faith is knowing one of two things will happen – there will be something solid to stand on, or you will be taught how to fly.”

What would have happened had I not panicked?

Would the car or I have sprouted wings?

Would the fog have supported the car?

Would I have wound up in a tangle of debris below the cliff?

What would have happened if I had just continued the dream and not reacted and tried to control it?

 These are all questions that can come up when we interrupt the flow of a dream.

In his book, Conscious Dreaming: A Spiritual Path for Everyday Life, Robert Moss calls a nightmare an “unfinished dream.” Moss said, “a nightmare is not just a ‘bad’ dream; it is an unfinished dream, one from which the dreamer fled back to the imagined safety of the daylight world. It is a failed test.” [p. 70]

How to Work with an Unfinished Dream

There are many ways to work with an unfinished dream, such as shamanic journeying, re-entering the dream with a companion, setting the intention to re-dream the dream on subsequent nights, meditating on it, and so forth. We can look at identifiable archetypes within the dream. The small car, for instance, is often a metaphor for the dreamer’s own life.

Some dreams come clearly as ‘message’ dreams, with recognizable elements that stick in the consciousness even when the dream turns into a nightmare or is interrupted. Elements can be from any aspect of the dreamer’s life. In working the dream and gaining clarity on its meaning, it helps to pay attention to these diverse aspects.

Change and dying: Dreaming of dying can indicate that the dreamer is at a point of transition – not necessarily of bodily life and death, but of spiritual or developmental transition. As snakes shed their skin so they may grow, we also must shed the restraining, outgrown skin of thoughts, beliefs, and circumstances that no longer serve us. It is a dying to one way of being in order to be born or grow into a new level.

A change in living circumstances or work situation can seem like a form of death before rebirth into the new setting. Actually, any change – even if it’s “for the better” – can create this death/rebirth cycle. It is change itself that is feared. We cannot grow without shedding something. Letting go of what is familiar can be very scary, and many people elect to live with the status quo rather than take a leap of faith and accept the unknown, full of uncertainty. Facing it takes courage. Sometimes facing it in a dream is a way of preparing for what wants to happen in one’s life.

Planetary references and astrology: When the dreamer is a student of astrology, the dream’s elements may relate to the dreamer’s natal or progressed astrology chart. Saturn was prominent. This dream occurred shortly after my second Saturn return. Astrologically, a Saturn return is the period when Saturn completes its journey around the Sun to the degree where it stood when each of us was born, ushering in a new stage of life. The first Saturn return heralds the beginning of maturity and test of the character and structures a person has built her life upon. It can really shake your foundations. The second Saturn return is a revisit of the course charted since the first.

The other two planets were Jupiter, the planet of expansion, and one I didn’t recognize. They, too, loomed very large. Checking the dates, the dream began a period when Jupiter was on Neptune, the planet of transcendence, spirituality, and the immaterial, as well as the mythological ruler of the sea. Jupiter on Neptune, according to astrologer Jyoti Wind, is “expanding your spiritual life, your values and priorities, the balance of the material and spiritual.”

The fog and landscape: The other significant element in this dream was the enveloping fog. In the dream it’s a beautifully clear night until I encounter the fog. I’m driving on a narrow road between the massive, solid Earth bluffs (Earth = the Mother, grounding, nurturance) and the expansive ocean (Ocean = undercurrents, deep soul growth). There is no room to turn around, no way to go back. My path is set. While fog can be an archetype for uncertainty, it can also be the Unknowing that is at the heart of Buddhism and of Christian mysticism. Fog can be a metaphor for the Void, the Between that we must cross, akin to the ‘dark night of the soul.’ On the Native American Medicine Wheel, the Void is the place of intersection between the red road of the lessons of human life, and the black road of spirit and the lessons of the ancestors. The walker must cross. There are no shortcuts if one wants to reach the other side.

Where it fits in the day-to-day: The discussion of these elements emphasizes that we must consider the dream in the context of the dreamer’s life and what is significant to that dreamer. In waking life, this dream came at a time when I had begun studying animal communication, was on the threshold of entering the Chaplaincy Institute, and was putting things in place to be able to change professions. The dream was startling in its power, yet in retrospect it was heralding the transformative process I had begun.

There was comfort and assurance in what first seemed to be a nightmare about dying.

Crossing the Void, one learns that it is not empty, and that it is the place where one learns to fly.

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Article published by The Dream Tribe (June 2010): http://thedreamtribe.com/author/nancys/

Nancy is an animal intuitive and interfaith minister who specializes in helping people understand and communicate with their animal companions.

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"Animals are such agreeable friends - they ask no questions, they pass no criticisms." - George Eliot
"The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated." - Gandhi
"There is little that separates humans from other sentient beings – we all feel pain, we all feel joy, we all deeply crave to be alive and live freely, and we all share this planet together." - attributed to Gandhi
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