I have been reading and hearing lots of stories lately on Covid-19 dreams, on NPR, National Geographic, Psychology Today — really everywhere. Most of them have the same premise. People are having more intensely weird dreams. Somehow this is a problem to solve. So most offer a solution: different techniques for suppressing, abolishing, reframing these dreams — so you can sleep better. These articles trot out old Freudian theories that have been disproven for decades: such as the old chestnut that dreams exist to protect sleep. And they are dismissive and fail to respect dreams.
Here’s a beaut from the National Geographic story:
“Bizarre dreams laden with symbolism allow some dreamers to overcome intense memories or everyday psychological stressors within the safety of their subconscious.”
Is it possible to have more cliches about dreams in one paragraph? “Laden with symbolism” — poor dream having to carry its heavy symbols around. How about “safety of their subconscious” — in addition to confusing subconscious and unconscious, the author reduces the psyche to a little sandbox where we get to play with our feelings. When you are terrified in a dream it sure as hell doesn’t feel safe. Indeed feeling danger intensely is often the very point of the dream as we will see below.
But the real problem is the phrase “Bizarre dreams” — This is the unquestioned and unexamined premise of almost all of these articles: that the dreams we are having are “bizarre”, “weird”.
Once dreams are categorized as “bizarre” stories we are on our way to dismissing them, getting rid of them. So the same articles offer opinions from “experts” about how to dispose of our dreams.
All these ideas about controlling dreams, avoiding strong emotions — i.e. ignoring them — are designed to lead us “safely” back to daylight consciousness, to ordinary normal waking consciousness and our old stories about ourselves that we don’t want to change.
God forbid a dream should make us feel anything more deeply, or that we should come to know our own feelings better and learn how to live with them.
But that’s what dreams do for us — if we allow ourselves to feel them. I am not saying it’s easy. I am saying it’s worth doing.
The reason more so-called COVID dreams are reported is simple: more people are paying attention. We have more time to do so while living in quarantine. We are probably not sleeping as well as many of the articles rightly point out. And more people — often middle class or upper class — who have led lives of security and comfort — are now more afraid of dying. The fear of death is no longer abstract— we see it all around us. I feel it when my neighbor works at the hospital on the front lines, got sick. I feel it when I read 8 pages of obituaries in my morning newspaper.
We have good reason to be afraid. So naturally we have dreams that include the feelings of fear — and quick as a wink the experts come in to teach us techniques for “controlling” our dreams. Thereby undoing what the dream brings us, which is the opportunity exactly to learn how to live with our intense feelings of fear — instead of pushing them down, suppressing them, ignoring and denying their value.
I have learned a different way to live with my dreams. Instead of interpreting them, in Natural Dreamwork we bring dreams to life. In our sessions the dreamer recites her dream and together we slow it down and experience the feelings more intensely — not less. We go to the moments of encounter, the moments of intense feeling. If it is fear and terror, we go there. If it is pain or disgust we go there. The practitioner supports the dreamer to stay with deep feeling — a few moments longer at first, and then more. We have forgotten how to feel, but our dreams are teaching us. That is their gift to us.
(Dreams also teach us the difference between feeling and reaction, between existential fear: a lion breathing on us and anxiety — “I’m at a bus stop and I’m afraid the bus will be late and I will miss the test.” Existential fear is immediate and in the moment — anxiety is about the future — a displacement of deep feeling. In what follows I want to be clear, I am speaking about feeling, not reaction.)
One reason we keep reading in the media about “bizarre” dreams relates to the concept of underlying metaphors. In their book Metaphors We Live By, linguist George Lakoff and philosopher Mark Johnson point out how certain metaphors govern our thinking. Sometimes we are aware of these metpahors such s “time is money’ (we spend time, we waste time..) But other underlying metaphors are mostly unconscious (One example: “language is a container”, we “put things into words.”)
In regard to dreams, a highly prevalent underlying metaphor is that “a dream is a story.” And so if that story does not fit our waking life idea of what a story should be then the underlying metaphor becomes, a “dream is a weird story,.”
How about if we stopped trying to squeeze dream experience into the container of our waking life idea of a good story?
I once wrote an article challenging the wonderful author Michael Chabon who complained that dreams are badly structured stories. he is right but he didn’t go far enough — they aren’t really meant to be stories at all.
This metaphor that a “dream is a story” is so prevalent and so unexamined that what I’m saying here will seem like nonsense to most people. (I’ll take the risk.) But just think about it. Is it true , is it a good metaphor to say that “a dream is a story”? Does that metaphor capture the value of a dream?
What is true is that when we wake we often reframe our dream experiences as a narrative. That is so deeply embedded in our culture that my challenging it may well be Quixotic but please give it a chance. The question is; what is the actual experience we have when dreaming? Is it really a smooth story or does it have a series of jumps?
My own experience with dreams, my own and those emerging from my engagement with thousands and thousands of client dreams, is that the metaphor is shaky at best. Our actual phenomenological experience of dreams is of a series of images and presences that we encounter, that we feel or react to. the underlying pattern is not a smooth narrative, but a movement of feeling and reaction.
Yes as it is remembered and recorded, a dream often emerges as a “weird story”, but that’s in part because the sequence of images and encounters in a dream are usually knitted together into a narrative as part of an interpretive process that the conscious mind does all the time, in service of the ego.
I view the ego as a narrative mechanism. As egos, we protect ourselves from experience by constantly story-fabricating, making up stories about our experience. Often we add that this person is a good guy and that one is a bad guy.. because we need to serve the star of every story which is the waking life ego.
We call dreams “weird” because what they do to our stories about ourselves is so disruptive.
Suppose our actual experience of a dream is not a story at all — but a disruptor of story. Suppose the images in dreams come — not to affirm our well established old stories about ourselves that favor the ego — but instead come to overturn them, so we might go deeper into our feelings, deeper into our psyches, our souls? Away from controlling experience, and towards feeling experience.
This is why I often say, a dream is a poem disguised as a story. To be more precise, a dream offers a series of encounters with images and presences that are full of feeling. They are linked not by logical narrative but by movements of feeling within us. And by allowing ourselves to participate in those encounters when we bring the dream to life, we realize that the idea of a dream as a weird story is woefully inadequate to the actual experience.
I view waking life experience as offering the ingredients for a dream. So waking life might offer flour, milk, eggs.. but the dream is an entirely new creation: it is the cake. To break the dream back down to its ingredients, to always push the dream backwards towards daylight is a mistake. This was the great premise of James Hillman’s classic The Dream and the Underworld. The dream is an imaginative creation of something new, with something urgent for us to feel.
If a dream is not a story, what is it? Like a lyrical poem I consider it to be a movement of feelings.
Here’s a quick example of a recent dream that definitely has reference to our current waking life experience these days. But I want to show that the real value of the dream is in the underworld, within the dream itself — the movement of feeling it offers.
We were staying in a house under quarantine. I was waiting on someone to come back — with supplies. Then “G” — a friend — said he was in Arabi. I just couldn’t wait any longer. Had to get out. Now with my “son” [a boy, but I don’t have a son] I am climbing down from the top of a tall building. I saw cars in a parking lot far below. I felt I had done this before. There was a jump to an overhang. Now I was just too scared. I said that to the boy. “I feel so scared.”
As we brought the dream to life together, we found that the ending of the dream was a powerful palpable moment of encounter for the dreamer. Looking down from the roof he felt his whole body trembling, and felt the terror of falling. Then when he spoke to the boy, it was with a real humility, with a real sense of needing the boy to know.
Now those were the feelings.
But if you read the dream with the expectation of a story, then the dream is indeed a weird story, or bizarre narrative. How did the “I” get out of a house and end up on the roof of a tall building? It “makes no sense.”
But if you view the dream as a movement of feelings, then it makes a lot of sense. The dream point of view — the dream-ego if you like, begins in quarantine. Then he gets impatient and wants to leave. Then when he ventures out he suddenly realizes he is in danger — and he feels his fear.
In the beginning of the dream there is no “son” then suddenly there is. That’s also “weird.” Moreover, in waking life the dreamer has no son — in the dream he does. That’s “bizarre” from a waking life perspective — how could the dream-ego be so deluded , even insane as to think this boy he is with is his son? And where did this boy suddenly come from… as he wasn’t there at the beginning, only when the dream-ego got out on the roof.
Bizarre right? Weird, right?
No not really.
Within the dream, the feeling is paramount — not the facts of waking life. The feeling of relationship with this boy is significant — maybe beyond the scope of what I can bring to this essay. But the boy suddenly appearing in the dream after the dream-ego decides to leave — has something to do with the impatience of desire to get out of the house. The boy represents that quality within the dreamer. So when the dream-ego acts — the boy appears.
(Often in dreams the “boy” represents just such impatience, initiative, the adventuresome part of the soul that wants to act on desire. )
The boy appears but the dream-ego is still separate from the boy and yet experiencing the fear together on top of the building, he speaks to the boy of his fear. It is like one part of himself speaking to another part, the conscious controlling part (dream-ego) acknowledging to the desiring soul (the boy) — yes I am afraid.
The dream is a movement of feeling, not a story. The dream-ego moves from staying in quarantine to an intense desire to get out of the house — to a sense of fear and paralysis on the roof of the building.
The dialogue between the dream-ego and the boy, between being obedient to quarantine, and the raw desire to get out of the house — shows the dream addressing feelings and conflicts many of us are experiencing. The dream is not a bizarre or weird story, It is a movement of feeling. And by paying more attention to our dreams — and the feelings moving in them, including the terror in this one — we can benefit with a greater capacity to feel more deeply. And we can learn the lineaments of the soul.
Rodger Kamenetz is the author of The History of Last Night’s Dream. His interview with Oprah Winfrey about that book is available on her podcast. He is reachable at firstname.lastname@example.org. His essays on dreams can be found at thenaturaldream.com His other essays on dreams on Medium can be found here and here.