Modern Halloween is obsessed with the stuff of nightmares: the undead, ghouls and things that go bump in the night. What makes this fun rather than truly terrifying is that we remain in control. We play at being a zombie and can take off the mask if it starts feeling uncomfortable.

But what about the sweat soaked darkest night horror of actual nightmares? We’ve all had the experience of waking up with a heart beating like it’s going to burst, staring into the hard darkness, held still in the chill memory of a nightmare. We are not in control. Our animal selves are so overtaken that the rational thought “it’s only a nightmare” remains powerless. And the question looms; is the nightmare waiting for me in the darkness of sleep?

Ram's skull

Trick or treat?

Why is it that the nightmare is so often waiting for us? Like some terrifying TV repeat, nightmares often come back. This topic is alive for me because a friend recently asked me for my advice on the topic. Why do they keep coming for us and is there any escape? The question came after a large meal and a few glasses of cider, so my answer was less than satisfying. But I awoke the next morning with more clarity. Nightmares, like all dreams, often carry a message for us. This is especially true for recurring dreams or nightmares. In most cases, if we can get the message, the dream will stop. At that point the unconscious mind has done its work; your conscious self has understood the lesson.

Therapists have been helping people with dreams for centuries and powerful work can be done using interpretation or more direct engagement with the dream process. Gendlin developed a way of using Focusing to explore a dream (Gendlin, 1986). He doesn’t start with any specific school of interpretation but with the dreamer’s relationship with the dream. Maybe Jungian theory will open the meaning of the dream, but it might just as well be Freud’s ideas or a Gestalt approach that holds the key. The therapist cannot know in advance what language the dream is speaking, but the dreamer’s embodied felt sense does. So a Focusing Oriented Therapist guides the dreamer to sense into what their felt sense tells them about the dream. I love the fluidity of this approach as much as the fact that it’s grounded in the dreamer’s embodied knowing.

My own experience of using Focusing in this way was profound. My psychotherapist and I had spent most of a session unsuccessfully trying to tease out the significance of a particularly odd but powerful dream. Soon after a colleague guided me though the same dream using Focusing. Within 10 minutes the dream opened up like a oyster, revealing the pearl within.

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