Normally when we have a scary or troubling dream we try to push it out of our minds as quickly as possible. There it stays, for months and sometimes years, gathering dust in a corner of our psyche. Whenever we happen by chance to think of it again, it feels just as strange and unnerving as it did the night we had it, though the intensity does fade with time. But the image imprinted on our memory never really goes away, it stays with us unchanged for life.
There is another way of dealing with bad dreams, one that has a much happier ending. With just a little effort, we can transform those frightening scenes into ones of power and strength. As we learn to tap into the hidden ally within every nightmare image, we discover that many things once fearful to us can become sources of joy and freedom.
I had my first intimation of this concept several years ago, at a dream conference in Berkeley. The wonderful writer and scholar of world religions Huston Smith was speaking there on Buddhism, dreams, and higher states of consciousness.
As Smith talked about how the path to enlightenment is not something we can grasp with the rational mind, someone asked him why we have nightmares. Smith took a moment, then declared that he had no idea why our dreams shock us so. But back in my seat, I had a sudden realization about the nature of nightmares.
Huston Smith had just been telling us the story of Siddhartha, who sits under the Bodhi Tree and vows not to leave his meditation until he had achieved enlightenment. Determined to stop this enterprising human, the chief of demons immediately sends a swarm of smaller demons to distract the Buddha from his mission.
The demons plague Siddhartha with visions of death and destruction, suffering and bloodshed. But with each one the Buddha simply deepens his meditation, by recognizing the visions for what they were: just demons, bent on distracting him. The chief of demons kept sending out stronger and stronger demons (the strongest apparently being visions of beautiful, seductive women, but that's another story); the Buddha saw through each of them and his meditation continued to deepen. Finally the chief of demons himself emerged to shake Siddhartha, but the Buddha saw through this ultimate challenge as well, and in doing so broke the cycle of suffering and became enlightened.
At that moment during Huston Smith's talk, I realized that nightmares were like demons that try to distract us from our mission of gaining self-awareness through dreams. I reasoned that maybe if we could face our nightmares without fear, they would instead become our allies and we would find our awareness increased.
Later on at the conference, I happened to meet Professor Smith in the hallway. I reminded him of the audience member's question, and told him the answer that had suggested itself to me. In his gracious manner he looked surprised, then delighted, and said that it was very likely so. He thanked me for telling him, and we parted.
That may have been the moment when the seed was planted for writing my new book What To Do When Dreams Go Bad. Since then, I have helped many people transform their frightening dream images into powerful dream allies.