A short while ago, I shared a link on my Facebook page to an article by renowned dreamworker Robert Moss called “Don’t Flee the Dream Scene.” In this blog post, he writes about dealing with nightmares through a technique he calls dream reentry. I have a lot of respect for Moss, and dream reentry can be a great technique for working with some dream images. But not necessarily with nightmares. In fact, under certain circumstances, reentering a nightmare can be a really bad idea.

What Robert Moss Says About Nightmares

A nightmare, Moss writes, is unfinished. What he really means is that it’s unresolved. He’s mostly talking about nightmares where we run away from the scene. This is only one type of nightmare, though. We also have nightmares where we’re trying to resolve a problem or the scary stuff goes away on its own.

Moss writes

[w]hat you left unresolved in the dream space is likely to pursue you in physical life.

I agree with this on principle, and this is the mechanism behind recurring dream images. Until we’ve dealt with the issue the dreams are guiding us on, we’ll keep having the same dream images.

However, this isn’t necessarily something to be concerned about. It’s not a sign that you’re dysfunctional in some way. Some issues take years to resolve, and their continued appearance in your dreams just reflects how you’re working through the issue.

For instance, when I was healing from my abusive past, I would constantly have a figure who was psychotic appear in my dreams. This lasted for quite a while. The psycho represented the distorted worldview I’d learned from my abusers about myself, others, and life. It was keeping me out of touch with reality (which is what being psychotic is all about). As I worked through those distorted beliefs, the psycho appeared less and less and eventually disappeared. In fact, I haven’t dreamed of him in years.

Moss goes on to say

[t]he monster you are running away from may be an aspect of your own power that is hunting you.

Again, I agree with this on principle, although I think hunting is a rather severe term to use. I prefer to say reaching out. In most cases, dream figures represent parts of yourself, but a monster in a dream doesn’t mean you’re a monster. It might mean some distorted belief or unhealthy behavior is taking over you. I used to dream a lot, for instance, of people with deformed faces. They were showing me the deformed parts of my identity as a result of the distorted view of myself that was taught to me by my abusers.

Moss’s suggestion for “facing” nightmares is to reenter the dream. This involves entering an altered state of consciousness (through shamanic techniques like drumming, for instance) and returning to the dream scene in order to face the “monsters.” If you’re afraid, he suggests calling upon spiritual allies or animal guides, if you have a connection to them. If not, he says to do a dream reentry with a supportive person. Even if you don’t “meet” that person in the dream reentry, their energy while you’re doing it can support you.

Woman on bed with demon sitting on her chest

“The Nightmare” (1781) Painting by Henry Fuseli, in the public domain.

What I Say About Nightmares

Robert Moss has years of experience working with dreams and working with people. But he is not, as far as I know, a trauma survivor. I am. That gives me a different perspective on nightmares. If you’re a trauma survivor (and that includes abuse of any kind, war or political unrest, any kind of crime, and the illness or death of a close family member) then please take what I write here seriously.

Nightmares aren’t always about our power reaching out to us. They’re not always about guidance. Sometimes they’re about cleansing. In the West, we tend to look upon a problem as only solvable through initiating some action, but some problems can best be solved by being receptive. Cleansing nightmares are that kind of solution. When a nightmare is cleansing you, I believe that going back to it through dream reentry could do more harm than good.

Tip

Determining the purpose of a nightmare involves interpreting it as it relates to what’s going on in your life. Recurring nightmares are a strong sign of cleansing because it takes time and patience to work through deep-seated trauma. Keep in mind that you may have pushed an issue from past trauma deep into your unconscious mind so that you can function around it, and some issue in your present life is bringing it back up. The nightmares you have at such a time are also cleansing nightmares, even though it may not seem like you’re dealing directly with the trauma.

Identify the real-life situation the nightmare is addressing first. Then really think about whether that issue involves remnants of past trauma. For instance, if you have a history of domestic abuse and you have a nightmare that you think relates to a man you’re attracted to, the nightmare may be cleansing you of a fear or distorted belief that getting involved in another relationship means being abused again.

Sometimes you may not know whether a nightmare is a cleansing or guiding one until the situation develops further. One sign that a nightmare is cleansing is if you find yourself in your waking life repeating destructive patterns from the past at the time you have the nightmare. Let’s say, for instance, you’ve been sober for 3 months and you lose your job. You have a nightmare and find yourself really wanting to start drinking again. There may be a link there. The same issues that are pushing you to drink again may be the same issues that the nightmare is trying to cleanse you of.

Here are my suggestions for dealing with nightmares of the cleansing kind:

  • For recurring nightmares, please see a counselor or therapist! There’s a good chance that these are a sign that you’re working through some deeply-rooted pain, possibly from past trauma or present trauma.
  • For occasional nightmares, respect the mechanism of your unconscious mind by allowing it to cleanse you of dark energy in its own time. There’s no need to push a dream reentry. My opinion about altered states of consciousness and shamanic-type activity is don’t fuck with consciousness unless you’ve been trained to do this or are with someone who has. I feel that strongly about it!
  • Interpret the nightmare as you would any other dream, keeping in mind that the scary images are trying to help you. A deformed figure can be expressing deformed beliefs about yourself, others, or life. Bullying figures can represent ideas that “bully” you or bullying you’re doing to yourself or others. Figures who aren’t sane can represent distorted beliefs or behaviors that prevent you from seeing what’s really happening in your life.
  • Express the scary dream images in art, if you’re so inclined. This can be part of the cleansing process. What’s horrifying to you in a dream may not be so horrifying in the sober light of an artistic work. A painting or drawing can make the scary image less overwhelming to you. A story can help you deal with the scary image and cleanse you of your fear of it.

I’m not trying to say that reentry of nightmares is always a bad idea, but this is not the only way to face your dream “monsters.” And as someone who went through a period of months having nightly nightmares, I can’t recommend dream reentry for every nightmare, particularly if you’re cleansing from trauma. I guess my final word on this is that sometimes we need to trust the mechanism of our dreams rather than try to push for knowledge we may not be ready to receive.