When I was six years old, around the time of my mother's second marriage, I suffered a bout of bad dreams. I came up with a system for coping: I mastered the art of lucid dreaming after discovering an ability to change the course and outcome of almost any nightmare. Most vividly, I remember escaping assorted dangerous dream characters by turning myself into a girl-power version of Superman. With a flap of my arms and a flip of my cape, I'd turn around to face and chase away any scary villains from me and my dream territory.
Later, in early adolescence, I hit another rough patch, and my dreams became a recurring nightmare in which I was unable to walk. Often the dream would begin with me in the long, dark, basement-level corridor that led to the locker rooms and gymnasium of my junior high school. I would be entering that passageway surrounded by throngs of other noisy, shoving, groping twelve-year-olds, when suddenly, my legs would become impossibly heavy. I would struggle with all my might to lift each leaden foot and place it in front of the other. Kids would shove past on either side of me, their shrill voices echoing off the painted concrete-block walls of the tunnel, and there I'd remain, stuck, alone, slogging forward inch by inch. I had lost my talent for lucid dreaming, and my only escape came with awakening.
These nightmares of paralysis could have symbolized my entrapment on many levels. Things were difficult at home; I was a new and unwelcome addition to my father and stepmother's suburban family, which had hitherto consisted of 2.0 children, one dog, two cars, one split-level stucco house, and no confused pubescent girls with braces, feathered hair, and nightmares. But even if life at home had been a vision of warmth and security, junior high itself was a living hell. My junior high might have been more cruel than most. Boys regularly "raped"--as they called it--us girls, which meant, as far as I knew and experienced at the time, trapping us, lifting our shirts, pulling down our pants, and grabbing what they could before the bell rang between classes. These assaults happened most often deep inside the rows and rows of brightly colored lockers. No one, as far as I knew, ever told an adult about this hideous ritual. In private, we girls complained to each other, but our small confidences brought little genuine comfort or safety, because the girls were nearly as threatening as the boys, and in some ways, more so. With one rumor, girls could turn an entire group of powerful peers against you. To be paralyzed among this group of seventh- and eighth-grade demons was indeed a terrifying proposition.
Later, in high school, the paralysis nightmare changed form. First of all, it would arrive only after a long, torturous fight with insomnia. Then, when sleep finally came, it would often entail a nightmare wherein I would lie in bed, immobile, conscious of my sleep state, but unable to awaken. It was the most terrible way to be in a lucid dream--semiconscious, but powerless. And in keeping with the theme, paralyzed.
Happily, my dreams have improved over the years. It's been a decade or more since I've encountered the paralysis nightmare in the deep alleyways of my nightscape. Instead, when stress overgrows its boundaries in my life--a gnarly sumac bush overtaking a side yard, a few fern-like greens one day, a monster out of control the next--I topple into chase dreams. These take many forms: sometimes Nazis are chasing me to a certain death, sometimes burglars are in my house and I am stealthily seeking an exit or a hiding place. Sometimes I can't even remember come morning who was after me, but always I wake with a pounding heart, all freaked out on adrenaline, mentally and physically more tired than if I had never slept at all. I call these my stress dreams, and though they are "recurring" in the sense that they repeat, they do not come often, and when they do, I heed the signal and take serious steps to simplify my days and soothe my psyche. It always seems to work; the dreams disappear until the next time the sumac bush needs trimming.
I'm fascinated by dreams, mine and everyone else's. I'm certain they're far more than snow on a television screen, random images picked up by a skittish satellite dish. They are maps of our inner world, songs composed by our deep unconscious beings, symbols straight from our hearts. I never interpret my dreams literally, and I've rarely had a prophetic dream that I remembered (except once about buying some new shoes). But I hold fast to the notion that if we pay attention to our dreams, we'll learn something about ourselves and our lives. In a frenetic world, this seems a noble example to set for our children; as noble, in its own way, as meditation or spiritual practice.
This is especially so now, at the cusp of winter, nature's own cold, dark dreamtime--the season of ultimate transformation and inner renewal. If you're unconvinced of the value of dreams in enriching your self-knowledge, consider that sixty-five years ago, psychologist Carl Jung correctly diagnosed a patient as suffering from a damming up of cerebrospinal fluid, probably due to a tumor, without ever having met the individual, based on the following account of the patient's dream as supplied by the patient's medical doctor, and nothing more:
Someone beside me kept asking about oiling some machinery. Milk was suggested as the best lubricant. Apparently I thought that oozy slime was preferable. Then, a pond was drained and amid the slime there were two extinct animals. One was a minute mastodon. I forgot what the other one was.
According to Bernie Siegel, writing in Love, Medicine and Miracles, Jung based his diagnosis "on the facts that the Latin work for phlegm, one kind of bodily "slime," is pituita, and that "mastodon" derives from two Greek words meaning "breast" and "teeth." [Jung] deduced that the mastodon image referred to the mammillary bodies, breast-shaped structures lying at the bottom of the third ventricle, a pond of cerebrospinal fluid at the base of the brain."
Jung's interpretation is examined more thoroughly by UCLA research psychologist Russell Lockhart in his article, "Cancer in Myth and Dream." Jung himself, however, when asked how he arrived at the conclusion, had only this to say: " . . . why I must take that dream as an organic symptom would start such an argument that you would accuse me of the most terrible obscurantism . . . . When I speak of archetypal patterns those of you who are aware of these things understand, but if you are not you think, 'This fellow is crazy because he talks of mastodons and their differences from snakes and horses.' I should have to give you a course of about four semesters about symbology first so that you could appreciate what I said."
I'm not quite ready for four semesters of symbology, although I'd love to delve into it someday. But for now, I'm willing to settle for a slow awakening of my own intuitive knowledge of dreams and their meanings for myself, my family, my life. I'm going to invite dreams at night when I slip under the covers, and I'm going to jot them down each morning, even sketching a quick visual of these sleep journeys before they slip away with the last remnants of early-morning gray. I hope to do this every night and day this fall and winter, into the spring, and forever after that, as another step toward tuning out the incessant choruses of what life is supposed to be about, and staying wide awake and fully conscious in this, the one real life I'm living.
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