Whenever any dream is remembered, it is an indication that the waking mind has a creative, transformative role to play in the evolution of whatever issue the dream is presenting. For millions of years, the ability to pay immediate and focused attention to nasty, threatening stuff has been a primary survival test. The creatures who pay effective attention to threats tend to survive, and the ones who don't tend not to survive. In this way, we have been shaped by natural selection to be inherently predisposed to pay attention to ugly, scary, and menacing experiences.
Why Nightmares Are Good
As a consequence, when the deep source within (from which all dreams spring, spontaneously and unbidden) has potentially important information to convey to the waking consciousness, it is very likely to dress that material up in the form of a "nightmare," simply to get our attention. This leads to one of the most ironic general principles of dream work: the more horrifying and distressing the dream experience, the greater the potential gift of increased understanding and creative energy the dream has to offer.
We usually call such dreams "nightmares." The generic message of any nightmare is: Wake up. Pay attention. There is a survival issue being brought to your attention here! Sometimes the "survival issues" raised by nightmares are related to actual physical health. Most often, however, the nightmare is trying to draw attention to questions of emotional and spiritual authenticity in the dreamer's life.
Why We Remember Nightmares
In my experience, all dreams (and particularly nightmares) come in the service of health and wholeness. This means that no dream, no matter how distressing or menacing, ever came to anyone to say, "Nyah, nyah, you've got these problems and you can't do anything about them!" The very fact that a dream is remembered in the first place means that the dreamer actually has at his or her disposal all the courage, creativity, strength, and wisdom necessary to respond creatively and transformatively to even the worst "problem" that the dream presents. (If the dreamer were not in possession of all the energies required for positive, creative, transformative response, the dream would simply not be remembered.) This is true not only at the level of individual, psychospiritual health and wholeness, but at the level of world society, culture, and collective human struggle as well.
Ironically, for this reason I take heart every time I have (or hear about) a dream that involves large, planet-wide problems like destruction of the environment, plague, military conflict, or other massive disruption of society. The fact that we remember such dreams suggests that we are able to respond creatively and effectively to these problems, in the same fashion that dreams addressing seemingly "insoluble" personal problems always indicate our ability to deal with those problems. Nightmares may also provide symbolic suggestions and specific creative inspirations, provided we have the wit and wisdom to pay attention.
However, in some cases the specific creative possibilities proposed by the dream are even more challenging than our immediate experience of the problems themselves. Among these challenging dreams are the really terrible nightmares I call "worst case dreams." Hindu and Buddhist dream workers have understood for centuries that these worst case dreams are deeply associated with the dreamer's effective spiritual development.
It is interesting to note that John Newton, the composer of the hymn "Amazing Grace," was converted to Christianity and transformed into an ardent antislavery activist by just such a nightmare: He dreamed of seeing "all of Europe consumed in a great raging fire" while he was the captain of a slave ship.
Dreams and Spiritual Development
One reason why such distressing dream experiences regularly come to people who are deeply engaged in their own spiritual development, or those working in the world to relieve the sufferings of others, is that the only place where evil can truly be faced and overcome is within. This means that people who are sincerely engaged in trying to make the world a better place must face and overcome this order of evil if they are to succeed. The more sincere and effective one's spiritual development and one's reconciling work in the world, the more likely it is that one will have worst case dreams of this archetypal order.
In that sense, the worst case dreams are little "training films" for the spiritual warrior. Another way of looking at such dreams is that they are "rescue missions" undertaken by the dreaming psyche in the as-yet-unredeemed depths of the archetypal Shadow and the Inchoate Potential in the collective unconscious.
The Magic Mirror that Never Lies
Initially, it always seems as though the most difficult task faced by the dreamer is to look into the "magic mirror that never lies" and take more responsibility for the symbolic reflections of our weaknesses and failures. However, over time, it becomes clear that an even more challenging task is to acknowledge the size and scope of our creative gifts and our ability to transform ourselves and our world. The worst case dream calls upon the dreamer not only to see and accept the depths of depravity that reside in every human psyche, but even more importantly, to become more conscious of and responsible for our ability to face, overcome, and give transformative, creative, and spiritual expression to those archetypal shadow energies.
© 1996 Jeremy Taylor