Most dreamers report some type of anxiety dream, often repetitive or recurring, very particular to the individual and still very much like other people’s anxiety dreams. This post does not intend to minimize the anxiety that some people have to an extent that impacts life areas every day. If that is true for you, please get in touch with a professional today whom you can see face to face as soon as possible for evaluation and a comprehensive care plan.
For most folks, anxiety dreams aren’t just for weenies. A lot of people have them, including those of success and power. Take Tony Soprano, for instance. In an early session with Dr. Mefli, he has a dream his penis falls off. Scary.
Mickey Mantle had inadequacy dreams in his retirement – yes, the repeat World Champion, first ballot Hall of Famer had anxiety dreams too. Nobody questioned his courage, ever.
And from the old testament, what about the feeble dreams of the powerful kings and pharaohs? The most powerful people in our culture also experience anxiety dreams. The real question is not, “does this anxiety dream mean I am a fearful coward?” but instead, “What can this dream teach me about showing up in my life?”
My own anxiety dreams are common enough: Naked in public. Back in High School or Junior High, and it is test time. Needing to use the bathroom. Waiting tables/bartending/managing the Sailmaker Restaurant (a job I had 1979-1985) and the place fills up, I am the only one working. Naked in a High school test and needing to use the bathroom all at the same time. Each one is a dream specific to myself and as common to all dreamers as clouds that fill the sky in their unique and never-ending way. So where to begin?
(1) Looking back on the last 24-48 hours is always a good way to approach a dream that shows stress and worry. What has my attention, now? It is not a math test from 1976, I can be pretty certain. But there may be something testing my attention or problem solving skills. And something I have heard a peer say recently a couple of times applies: “The way we do anything is the way we do everything.”
(2) Who is in the dream that does not fit, and why do they apper now? Remember the picture game, what doesn’t fit? One thing or item is out of place . . . . dreams play this with us. That is why Jung invited us to pay attention to the “little people” in dreams – sometimes they carry as much or more information as the archetypal or god-like figure. Ask the figure why they appear . . . why here . . . and why now? What do they carry for us that cannot be said by someone in our life now? And who in our life now ar ethey like? Or what is our life dealing with now that we dealt with through them or someone like them?
(3) Follow the feelings . . . Confusion usually is a cluster of more than one feeling. Allow the feeling in the dream to connect us with what is alive in our emotional life today – or what needs to be relived, animated, vivified. It is less about remembering “I had an anxiety dream” and more about using any tool the dream might present to the dreamer, including the feelings of anxiety, worry, and fear.
4) Allow figures to come forward: This includes allies, helping figures, mentors, archetypes, family members. It may be an obscure figure seemingly out of place in the dream. Sometimes it is that high school classmate you knew only casually that appears in a dream that carries an essential quality needed to confront life’s current situation. It also includes figures which may be fearsome, unlikable, annoying, or downright scary. Facing these figures, allies at hand, helps to clarify the “message” of the anxiety dream and bring out resources or solutions. The picture below is a constellation of images from a single dream; one scene painted on a rock, and a different (goat) image formed in clay in the back of this altar.
5) Meet these figures on their terms. Here is an example from a different tradition: Recently, a friend recommended the book Feeding your Demonsby Tsultrim Allione. Her recommendation in the Tibetan Chod tradition is to visualize yourself turning to nectar and feeding the demon figure whatever it is seeking from you. This happens on an imaginal level of course; one visualizes turning one’s body into the quality or the nectar that the demon seeks and submitting. In dreamwork, the process is similar. It can be as simple and as powerful as an empty-chair Gestalt with the figure. It can be an invitation to take the figure on a walk in nature, as real or as imaginal as you wish for it to be.
Living with anxiety usually means living – with anxiety. Dreamwork helps us place the emphasis on living. There is something leveling and humanizing about powerful figures like Mantle and Soprano carrying anxiety and feelings of inadequacy or inferiority. Living with anxiety can mean living fully; dreams can assist in giving the anxiety a scale and context which helps us go forward more fully, into life.
Those of us who regularly journal dreams are often in search of the Big Dream, that overarching spiritual glow we get while basking in the presence of the divine that makes Jacob’s Ladder look like a cat nap whimsey.
Russell Lockhart says of the Big Dream:
The reason why interpretation fails big dreams is that interpretation tends toward understanding . . . only in terms of what already is known, while the bog dream is speaking . . . in terms that are not fully known . . .
Too often perhaps we have those dreams of great mystery and awakening. Perhaps we admire them for a day or two as the glow follows us into waking life. Perhaps we sit on the side of the bed watching it run past again in our waking presence, say “oh!,” only to metaphorically roll back over and fall asleep. The challenge of this post is to seek out the Big Dream, and when it visits, find a way to keep the light alive and burning in your soul!
I mentioned Jacob’s Ladder at the beginning, and that dream which has had such a huge impact on the last three thousand years of history, geography, religion, and politics should not be treated as lightly as I did above. It certain qualifies as a Big Dream among big dreams.
And he dreamed, and behold, there was a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven. And behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it! And behold, the Lord stood above it and said, “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac. The land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring. Your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south, and in you and your offspring shall all the families of the earth be blessed. Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land. For I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” Then Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it.” And he was afraid and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.
Hence, the origin of the promise behind the promised land. Pretty big dream, huh? For most of us, we may never have a dream so large that it alters the lives of say, several billion affected people, as did the dream of the Patriarch. So how do we distinguish between the big dream, the wishful thinking dream, and some garbage-in-garbage-out “day residue” from the day before?
For those of you looking for a brief and well researched post, this is a good stopping place. For those who are willing to attend deeply to an experience, stay with me!
A recent dream, worked first with my Dreamtending partner, and later with a mentor, has led to a feeling of the transcendent presence in each of several figures, all of whom seem larger than life. First, the dream fragment from the middle of a much longer and equally substantial dream:
There is an evil man, later he is a Billy Goat, that is a bad character that is threatening a small Latino boy of 6 or 8 and his mother alternating. Each time he would seem to get the upper hand a force would intervene. I have the awareness this is a series and therefore none of the main characters will be killed. At one point the man/goat dreams the boy onto a rock and the boy may be about to be killed or smashed and a bear attacks the goat and sends him off. The boy throws small rocks at the goat that can do nothing but the goat is fleeing the bear more than anyone and the woman in league with him and the boy, I am thinking, can regain some esteem by thinking he is a part of driving off this goat.
The goat is forced to a cave where “Billy Goat Gruff” is coming to work and is now unfortunately for him having to choose between returning the face the bear or taking his chance with the toughest of his kind. He engages with the even more aggressive Goat; this Tough, Old Goat as they go farther into the cave and as I follow and watch. . . .
There is more before and after, but I awaken thinking about the toughest Goat, as well as the bully billy goat, hereafter the “Young, Wounded Goat” that has to meet him. This picture of that scene emerged:
Each of these figures has become larger than life. From this one dream has sprung a conversation with other dreams; imagery and dialogue with each of the five dominant figures, and a felt presence throughout the day of one or more of the figures. I’ll start with the Boy.
“Paco,” not meant in a pejorative fashion here, is a boy who shows up in at least four dreams in the month in which this dream visited. In one he is throwing rocks off a bridge on the way to a town while a woman approaches him from across the water. In another, he is in a hole in the ground, protected by the same bear who presents. Paco is protective of his mother, and intensely a fierce competitor – survivor qualities in a boy who sees family as important. My concern for his self esteem is a key to the take-away for me as the one who views and participates in this dream. This is the time to acknowledge the consistent work of Jill, my dream partner, with this image of this boy and the connection to other dreams and images I have shared with her over these months and years. Jill brings her own life experience, her shamanic ways of knowing, and an incredibly patient presence in allowing me to deepen into meaning or into pain, however it unfolds.
Young, wounded goat: The “numinous” or openly spiritual aspect of this dream is that from the outset I knew there is something of my destiny that is inextricably tied up with the destiny of this wounded goat. The watercolor I made shortly after the dream captured the bright, fresh, and dangerous nature of this wound. To make peace, I had to deepen my understanding of this goat’s wounds – and my own.
Tough, Old Goat: The tough old goat, as he announced in my meeting with my mentor, is not impressed by the appearance or presentation of the young wonded goat. “He has seen 4,000 young goats come and go. Not every young goat gets to be an old goat, but every old goat was a young goat once.” There is wisdom in this figure that reminds me at once of my original AA sponsor who died over 26 years ago, and whom I think of every day. \
The “Mother” figure has not yet been touched in this discussion with the fullness her presence and her vulnerability represent. For length, and out of respect for some of the work I am doing with this fugure now, I will only say shortly that this dream exists for her as much as or more than it does for the young boy.
The combinations of this “Big Dream” include the relationship of goats young and old, the protection of Bear toward Boy, and the underlying relationship between this boy and his mother. Therein lies both some of the original wound; the closeness of child and mother that was affected at some level by the alcoholism in and around both; their alchemical interaction which ranged from the comforting and loving to the conflictual and competitive. And the overcoming of that – ultimately the making of peace with the long buried past – that is some of the magic and the essence of this dream.
Forgiveness and mentorship, healing and repair work together in the formulation of a daily medicine from the parts suggested by the dream: The four components of the medicine are a bit of the old wound (abandonment), an equal part of the energy from the affliction (addiction), the quality of wisdom and experience (sponsor/old goat) and the essence of mountain, the gift of the earth suggested in this dream. These four parts I mindfully mix each day now, and journal the experience.
This draft has now been revised several times since the first draft on February 26th, more than five months ago. It was waiting on this dream that visited about six weeks ago. I want to get back to Russell Lockhart’s quotation: that interpretation fails big dreams because big dreams point to the unknown. I have worked this dream privately for hours, openly with a trusted friend for a couple of sessions, and transparently with a mentor in front of nearly three dozen people. It still has not revealed all of the secrets of the cave nor of the inner relationships of the figures. This is not a big dream because it carries Jehovah or Govinda or Athena or Mohammad, but because Bear notices and because goat feels. This is a big dream not because it will change the course of life for a billion people, like Jacob’s Ladder, nor even in the twenty or more who may read this post. This is a big dream because it may more fully illuminate some dark corners in the life of one. And I feel almost unspeakably grateful for the visitation by this dream and each of the figures. I can only repay that gratitude by continuing to deepen the conversations between myself and them, or witness (bear) the conversations between the figures themselves.
There are times when working with Dream opens up a story. That story may be a new story – such as the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde dream that Robert Louis Stevenson had once. Or it may be a common story, like the having-to-take-a-high-school-exam-dream that soooooooo does not make sense in a person so far removed from the last Homecoming Dance. But what about encountering a story in dream that is so old, you just know it is older than you are? Like those “trickster” dreams in which something shape-shifts into something else, and you just have a feeling this dream is not about the dreamer.
In December 2007 I had what I thought was a pretty average dream about me. A couple of months later, working that dream in depth with a mentor, I felt the entire Greek Pantheon in a struggle about
me. The dream was not about me at all, only my perception of the dram was really about me. The gods of Olympus were duking it out – again. I won’t relay the whole dream, as that would make the length of this post unbearable. But enough to give you the idea.
I am in a living room of the house I live in. I am thinking I should paint this room – [edited for length]. There is an oil portrait of an ancestor in this room. It is actually more like a pharaoh, and I am at some point in the dream thinking when he wakes up, he will wreak havoc and do harm if I don’t have something for him to eat and drink. I wonder if I can fend him off for a while with that bottle of port I have in the dining room. In a room there are some relics in bookcases or display cases that have value, handed down from the family, including things on top like a 19th century “perpetual motion machine” – those things concerned with keeping some constant motion – they are really like toys. One of them has a series of 8 cups and 8 ball bearings, it takes at least two of the bearings to operate the contraption, and as I am looking at it the last two ball bearings that fit into a cup to maintain motion fall out and quit. I am thinking I need to fix this, feeling really worried that the pharaoh will attack if I do not. As I start to fix it, an older man like my father in law tells me, ‘Here is what I would do. It’s now December. I would tell the guy that runs this he has until February.”
The dream continues a seemingly interminable length. The next scene is about my son and his debate partner; then a scene where I am robbed and humiliated by two men. At the end of the dream I have to track these men down to regain my manhood – for my son more so than for me.
The chain of associations in this dream with a mentor were very long. Part of that is that the images seemed so very, very old, much older even than the 150 years of family history represented. The sadness of two centuries of men who had lost sons, boys who had lost brothers, families with an empty spot, informed me in my body of the weight and responsibility I carry just in being alive. I can see it in the firmly set mouths of many of my forbears, each living with a kind of 19th century ancestral pain:
When my father was 6 years old, his 24 year old brother was killed in a car wreck. Their father, my grandfather, has lost his 22 year old brother when he was 24 due to pneumonia. Their father, my great grandfather, lost his 17 year old brother when he was 19 “whilst a student at Bethany College” in 1864. Their father had also lost siblings, on back. Part of the story was multigenerational grief and loss; what was the other part?
The unspoken part of this family curse was that between my brother and me, without knowing all the family history of centuries back, I had the nagging sense that one of us didn’t belong. As my brother was perfect (Phi Beta Kappa at Vanderbilt; established in my father’s business) – I must have been the expendable one. I survived peritonitic and appendicitis at 11 months of age, against odds, as the family story holds. I always got the message “I am lucky to be here, and perhaps not really necessary in the equation.” The dream references the anger of the gods when they realize that, maybe like some Harry Potter, I was “The Boy Who Lived” when he shouldn’t have. Addiction and addiction recovery, and working through that sense of superfluous existence, is at the heart of the dream. As old a story as the survivors of generation upon generation.
The story unfolded even more deeply. My first wife’s father died at age 39. Her grandfather at 49, and on back in time for four generations at least no Millard father lived to see the age of fifty, going back to her great grandfather who died as Lieutenant Governor in California. Amazing how those two pieces fit together, isn’t it? And bearing down on age 40, perhaps the strain of my own mortality, my family complex and hers, may have contributed to an unconscious flight from my fear of perishing that led to a divorce. Something about all of that became apparent in the dream; something about my history was understandable, and leads to a compassion for both the mother of my children, that first marriage that could not hold, and my current relationship with my children and my new wife and her children. Old story. New cast of characters. Multiple possible endings?
A few images from this dream many years ago stay present with me today. One is the idea of the angry pharaoh, disturbed into awakening by a shaking of the order of things. I occasionally have to make peace with the pharaoh; to convince him time marches on, and that people and systems evolve and develop. Another is the portrait of Philip Lindsey, who really does hang in my dining room. His portrait does, rather; he does not personally hang out there; he hangs in Mt. Olivet Cemetery, actually. And another is the notion of the “perpetual motion machine” and what happens when things stop. Sometimes, when caught in a cycle I cannot see ending, I can visualize this machine, see it stop, and then explore what happens next. Do you have a cycle you wish would stop? Can you see yourself living beyond a problem or complex that currently has you so in its grip that it defines you?
Sweet dreams . . . to you and to all sleeping Pharaohs.