We were discussing the Senoi method for tackling nightmares in last week’s session of Writing in the House of Dreams, when someone said, ‘We ought to be teaching this to children in schools!’
The Senoi technique is described by Patricia Garfield in her fascinating book, Creative Dreaming – that’s where I first came across it. When you go to sleep, you intend that if you have a bad dream you will confront the difficulty, face down the enemy, and claim a reward.
If you wake before your dream has reached a positive outcome, you either go back to sleep and continue the dream or else complete it in imagination.
You don’t need to be lucid within the dream, so it’s a very easy practice that anyone can begin, and if you always bring your dreams to a positive outcome you set a track in your mind that your dreams will soon automatically follow, resolving themselves before you awake.
It’s obvious that not having unresolved nightmares is a way of making your dream experience better, but the goal of Senoi dreaming isn’t just to make your dream life better – it’s to make your waking life better as well. So how does that work?
When you deliberately face up to challenges and create positive outcomes in your dreams or imagination, you experience yourself as an effective and courageous person. Then when you’re faced with challenges in waking life, that’s the person you know you can be – someone whose first response to difficulties is ‘I can sort this!’
I shouldn’t think we’ll ever see creative dream skills in the national curriculum but I believe children could get the same benefits from learning to write stories.
The Senoi approach is basically the Hero’s Journey. The hero crosses the threshold into the unfamiliar world, meets enemies and falters, before finally facing up to them and claiming her reward to bring back to the ordinary world.
This story is the mythic template for all our stories. Every new experience starts with crossing the threshold into the unfamiliar and making the hero journey, from starting a new relationship or job to small things such as making a phone call or trying a new restaurant.
In the past, creative writing was part of the school curriculum – I don’t mean analysing styles and all that kind of thing, but properly diving into imagination, every child different, every story unique.
Writing stories is joyful, exciting and empowering. I wish we could have more truly creative writing on the curriculum because, in my view, it wouldn’t only make children’s experience of school better – it would, like creative dreaming, make the rest of their life better too.
Babies in the womb display all the physical characteristics of dreaming, which begs the question, what could they possibly be dreaming about? With no experience at all in this life, could they be dreaming about lives they have had before?
I’ve believed in past lives since I was eleven or twelve years old because when I started learning French at school I just knew how to speak it. It felt familiar. I had never been to France, but I was certain I must have been a French person, once upon a time. The belief in past lives has become common in recent decades but back in the early sixties it was something you kept to yourself.
When I visited France for the first time, with an older cousin and her friends, it was not a good experience. I put that down to me being sixteen and them in their twenties. My second visit was also really bad, and my third, but again, there seemed to be logical reasons why I didn’t enjoy them.
It was only in my thirties that I realised this was not to do with individual visits but fundamental to my relationship with France. Every four or five years, driven by our friends’ huge enthusiasm for France, we would take the family across the channel for a few weeks in the summer, and whenever we did that, as the boat pulled out of Plymouth I would start to feel agitated and depressed.
In France, my head said, ‘This is nice. It’s warm and sunny. I like these al fresco cafes, and wonderful patisserie!’ but I felt a great tension inside me, as if I was holding my breath. I felt darkness like a cloud that only lifted when we came in sight of the English coast and I could start to breathe again.
By then, the New Age had arrived in Cornwall, and I saw a palm reader who told me I had lived in France in a previous life. I knew that – but how did she? I asked her for more information and she told me she saw me on the steps of a grand house, in a long blue dress. It was the eighteenth century and I was the lady of the manor.
This felt very disappointing. People always seemed to think that in past lives they had been royalty or had the kind of lives that are the stuff of historical fiction, but I couldn’t personally relate to the scene she described at all.
However, the fact that she had said I’d had a past life in France piqued my curiosity, and I went to see a past life therapist. She took me back to a dusty ditch in the North of France, during the last war. Immediately, I remembered a very vivid dream I had had as a small child, in which I was lying in a dry ditch, with ants crawling all over me.
But I was born less than a decade after the end of the war, and weren’t past lives supposed to be centuries ago? I did some research and discovered a theory that souls rebirthed more quickly after a massive and violent loss of life in war.
That’s as far as I’d taken it. Interesting ideas, thoughts, feelings, about past life possibilities. Then a few weeks ago an astrologer friend, the astro life coach, mentioned she had discovered how to find the date of your most recent past life in your birth chart. We had never spoken about past lives and she certainly didn’t know what I had been thinking about mine, so I was astonished when she told me I had died in 1941.
It’s all just musings and possibilities, but I like the intriguing idea that when we are very young some of our dreams may come from memories of forgotten worlds we lived in once before.
Do you believe in past lives? Have you had vivid dreams about places you’ve never been to in this life but feel you know really well?
I’m delighted to welcome writer, poetry therapist and tutor Victoria Field into the House of Dreams today. I’ve attended several of her poetry therapy workshops over the past few years, which I can highly recommend, and I always look forward to reading her blog
I have always been aware of my dreams. I still remember one from my pre-school years in which I went to watch a Punch and Judy show at the bottom of the hill where I lived. I sat on my tricycle and was both drawn and repelled by what I saw happening on the stage of the booth and feared I’d be sucked in. I’m not sure I’d ever seen Punch and Judy in real life.
It seems dreams are informed by more than direct experience. I know that on residential courses, participants report shared dreams and that when I was married, my husband and I somehow occupied the same dream space as we shared a bed. As a student, I often dreamed of tents. I loved back-packing but there was also something mysterious about my dream tents and when I recently sat in a Bedouin tent in Kuwait, it felt familiar.
Many of my poems begin with a dream image and they find their way into prose too. Several years ago, I began writing down an exceptionally vivid dream that centred around finding a white horse in my tiny kitchen in a terraced house in Chester. As I wrote, the dream took on a life of its own and eventually turned into a novella of 16,000 words recounting what happened next. The white horse can stand for many things in my life and like all dream images is mutable and outside time. Writing happens in a liminal space and to my surprise, the horse surfaced again in a comic short story.
I’m also aware that dream-work happens without our conscious mind being involved. I often tell an anecdote when people ask how I became involved in poetry therapy. My first encounter with the practice was when John Fox, an eminent practitioner based in the US gave a workshop in London in 1999. It was a two day workshop and on the second day, I felt utterly unable to keep my eyes open, in spite of being fascinated by the work. I’d had a leg injury and was on pain-killers which I blamed for my sleepiness. I excused myself and found somewhere to put my head down and went into a deep sleep for a couple of hours. I can’t recall any dreams but I woke up thinking utterly clearly, ‘I want to be a poetry therapist’. And so began my journey of the past decade and more.
So, if people fall asleep on my courses, I never object. Important work is being done as we sleep, whether we know it or not!
When I interviewed Brenda Mallon here in the House of Dreams a few weeks ago, she touched upon the way that dreaming about a lost loved one can bring great comfort for the bereaved.
These dreams happen when a person is most in need of comforting, but dreams can bring comfort in less extreme times too.
When I was about five years old, I dreamt I was riding along my street in a horse-and-cart, on a lovely summer day. The horse was trotting happily, and the cart was full-to-overflowing with gold coins which jumped and jingled, and sparkled in the sun.
Everyone came out of their houses to wave as I went by, and I knew I ought to throw pennies to the poor, but I didn’t. That gold was mine, all mine!
I liked that dream so much I used to deliberately go back into it every night, as soon as I closed my eyes. It made me fall asleep with a smile on my face.
I used to think that dream showed what a horrible person I was – it was a guilty pleasure. But looking back now, I see it’s just the dream of a child in a large family with little money, where clothes were passed down and everything – even the bath water – had to be shared. It was the pure pleasure of experiencing something which was completely my own.
You can re-enter enjoyable dreams any time you like, by simply closing your eyes and imagining, in the same sort of way as you might revisit pleasurable fantasies in waking life.
It isn’t the only function of dreaming and imagination, but bringing comfort and pleasure is one way these experiences can enrich a person’s life.
Have you ever deliberately imagined your way back into a pleasurable dream on subsequent nights?
I met Brenda Mallon at a conference of children’s authors and she kindly agreed to read the MS of my book, ‘Writing in the House of Dreams’ and to be interviewed for this blog.
Brenda has over thirty years experience of working with dreams as a researcher, teacher and therapist. She has written 18 books on the subject, presented a Channel Four series ‘In your Dreams’ and sat on the board of directors of the International Association for the Study of Dreams.
Could you tell us a bit about your own personal journey in dreams, Brenda? How and why did you start to remember them, and how has your relationship with dreams developed over the years?
I can recall dreams from my childhood that have stayed with me. I was probably influenced to some extent by my mother. She talked about her dreams and had dreams which were precognitive. She didn’t call them that but would say, ‘You watch, it will happen.’ I think she was psychic in many ways and dreams were just one aspect of that ability. So, over the years I was fascinated by dreams . When I was completing my Diploma in Counselling I based my dissertation dreams. I recorded and worked on my dreams over a sixth month period and was amazed by what they revealed. After that I wanted to focus on working with and researching dreams and to find out what other people’s dreams meant to them, so when I wasn’t working in my full time job in the Child Guidance Centre, I was sending out questionnaires and interviewing woman about their dreams. Over 900 woman took part and the findings were covered in my first book ‘Women Dreaming’ which was published by Harper Collins.
I greatly enjoyed your Channel 4 series, ‘In your dreams.’ Could you talk about how you work with dreams as a therapist?
Thanks, I enjoyed working on the series and meeting such a variety of people who were not coming for therapy but to discuss their dream life in general.
As a therapist, my role, I believe, it to accompany people as they seek to find a way to resolve issues that are distressing and to help them find their own way forward. I generally ask clients to write down their dreams when they recall them and to bring them to the sessions. I should add here, that not all clients do remember their dreams so I work in other ways if that is the case. When a client talks about a dream I ask them if they can make a connections to their waking life and explore the emotional aspects of the dream as well as the symbolic significance of the content. Sometimes, I ask the client to draw their dream and use that as a basis for our work. These techniques, including recording your dreams, using metaphors and symbols, taking the dream forward and dream amplification are detailed in ‘The Dream Bible’ (Godsfield/Octopus)
I like working with dreams because they empower the client to work on their own dreams once they get used to the techniques. This can take just a few sessions and it is something they can access on their own for the rest of their lives, if they wish to. Also, I have specialized in working with people who have been bereaved and, in many cases, dreams can bring great comfort. They form part of the continuing bond we have with those who have died. In ‘Dying, Death and Grief: Working with adult bereavement’ (SAGE) I show how valuable such dreams can be.
As a children’s author, I’m interested in your work with children’s dreams. What would you say are the main differences between talking with children about their dreams and talking with adults?
I think younger children are more open to talking about their dreams and less concerned about how others might view them. I remember, one four year old I spoke to told me that dreams were ‘pictures in my pillow’. His dreams were in his pillow which came into his head when he slept. (In fact, I later used it in ‘Children Dreaming: Pictures in my pillow’ (Penguin). So, small children feel they have little if any control over dreams and their content and are less defensive than adults sometimes are.
Children are usually happy to enter into the playful aspect of dream work. For example, a girl whose brother had died, had a distressing dream in which a lion came into her bedroom and wanted to eat her and her brother, who was alive in the dream, She talked about what frightened her and how she was sad that her brother no longer came into her room to play. She drew the dream, including the fierce lion. I asked her what she would change in the dream if she could change it. She thought for a while and said, ‘The lion could turn out to be nice and then it could go away. I could play with my brother again and that would be lovely.’ So, we talked about what they would play and games they used to play. She then did another drawing of herself and her bother playing as they had done in the past. She knew her brother was dead and would not return to her home and family but talking about him and playing with him gave her comfort and a chance to recall happy times in the past, which is part of the grieving and healing process.
Working with adults is also a pleasure. Adults however may have more pre-conceived ideas about dream interpretation which may lead to being more guarded about what dreams they share. However, once they understand dreams are powerful tools to help them through their crisis or distress, they truly value them, even those nightmare ‘wake up’ calls.
This blog is mostly about using dreams as a creative resource. I know you also teach creativity and writing workshops – do dreams feature in that work as well?
Artists, writers, scientists, musicians and actors speak of the importance of dreams as a source of creativity. I use dreams in my own writing and many members of the creative writing courses I teach use dreams as the springboard for their writing. Sometimes an image will be so vivid that the dreamer cannot get it out of their mind. This kernel of an idea then grows to encompass characters, plot, further imagery and a developed story line. In other cases, the whole story or song appears in the dream. Robin Gibb, of the Bee Gees, told me his song ‘Stayin’ Alive’ came in one of his dreams as did Paul McCartney’s ‘Yesterday’.
I include sections on creative writing and creative dreaming in ‘A Year of Creativity’ (MQ Publications) as I think dreams are central to our creativity. The more we pay attention to our internal treasure trove of dreams the more enriched we are.
Who is your favourite author on the subject of dreams?
I like the work of Kelly Bulkeley, Robert Van De Castle and Patricia Gardfield. All members of the International Association for the Study of Dreams who have made vitally important , accessible contributions to the understanding of dreams. Also, Carl Gustav Jung, who could leave him out!
And your favourite book?
This is a hard one to answer. Probably because it is one of the earliest books I read that introduced me to the significance of symbolism in dreams is ‘Man and His Symbols’ by C.G. Jung.
As an author yourself, which of your own books are you most glad to have written?
Another difficult question! As a therapist, I think ‘Dreams, Counselling and Healing’ was an important book because I was able to put down my experience of working with clients and to show how powerful working with dreams is and to share techniques so others could use them. My latest dream book ‘The Dream Experience: Your complete dream workshop in a book ‘, which includes a CD featuring exercises and inspirational music, is interactive and is, I hope, a guide to deepen awareness of the creative heart of dreaming.
In everyday life we belong to groups – most closely, our immediate family, fanning out to our extended family, our region, our nation, our continent, our culture; ultimately all of humanity. On the dreaming level of consciousness we have access to the collective experience and archetypal symbols of all our dreaming tribes.
My friend and fellow-author, Katherine Langrish, told me the extraordinary story of her family dream over dinner at a conference some years ago, and I’m delighted she has agreed to share it here.
Roughs and smooths, by Katherine Langrish
When I was a child, I used to have a recurrent dream – or nightmare – in which I would be lying in bed, apparently awake, and see a thing like a stone or boulder come rolling from one corner of the ceiling (and yet as if from a million miles away) – and as it came, everything went crumpled. It would roll and roll across the ceiling, and with it came a sickening sensation as if I was seeing the skin of the world pulled off and chaos underneath. Then it would roll back again and everything would go smooth, but the feeling remained, because I knew that underneath the appearance of smoothness, the sickening crumples were still there.
It was a dream that was often repeated, and the feeling often heralded it, so that it was possible to say to myself, Oh, it’s coming. As I grew older the feeling would sometimes come without the dream, and after the age of about 11 or 12, it vanished for ever.
While I was still having them, I told my mother about them, and she said, “Oh, do you get those too? I used to have them, and so did my father; he called them roughs and smooths.” My mother’s and grandfather’s versions were slightly different. I think she said my grandfather saw ‘it’ as something like a barrel. For herself she said, “something came towards me rolling, and everything broke up. But you stop getting them when you’re about twelve.” I remember feeling a mild but real relief that she knew what I was talking about.
I never told my own children about the dream, because I didn’t want them to have it, and I didn’t want to suggest anything to them which might influence them into having it, but they both did get variants after all, and one daughter in particular was prone to them. Aged about seven, having woken upset, she told me, “I see squiggly lines” – she drew one in the air with a finger, “squiggly lines, and it all goes wrong.” Asked next morning, she said she’d be half asleep, half awake, and see “squiggly lines, jagged lines, calm lines. They come and go. There’s a horrible feeling with them.”
I reassured her that she’d simply got the family dream, and it wasn’t anything to worry about, and would take itself off when she was about twelve. And it did. I don’t know if anyone else has ever had an inherited dream, and I feel it’s got to be something to do with brain patterns, but I’m happy to leave it at that and not know anything more about it. I hope it doesn’t get handed down any further – as a family heirloom, it’s one we could well do without.
Katherine’s blog, Seven Miles of Steel Thistles, dips deep into the realm of myths and fairy-tales, and her books likewise have a wonderfully mythic feel. You can see a brilliant trailer for her new book, ‘Forsaken’ onher website
I’m permitting myself a wayhay today because my agent has read my manuscript… and she says ‘Writing in the House of Dreams’ is a remarkable book!
So while my dream book is winging its way onto editors’ desks, I’ve decided to celebrate by sharing a short extract here, about what every five-year-old knows about dreams.
Life is resonant. Small events set up vibrations in the soul which still reverberate long after the event itself is forgotten. So it was with the ants on a hot summer day in 1955 which, two years later, were to bring me my first understanding of dreams.
I was making mud pies on the back step, scraping the dry earth into my bucket, adding water from the dribbling outdoor tap and stirring the mixture like my mother did when she made fairy cakes for tea. I spooned it out in sloppy dollops onto the hot concrete and by the time I had found enough small stones for cherries my mud pies were already drying out, going hard and pale at the edges.
My mother was at the kitchen sink doing the washing. The hankies were boiling on the stove and she had the back door open to let the steam out. My father was mowing the grass. I could hear the whirr-whirr of the blades behind me as he pushed the mower up and down. My big sister Susan was riding her bike, bumping and rattling along the path that ran down the side of the garden to the wooden gate at the bottom.
Our garden was a large patch of scrubby grass, featureless except for a washing-line and a compost heap in the far corner comprised entirely of grass cuttings. On one side, a chain-link fence separated the garden from next door’s identical one, and then another chain-link fence, and another, all the way to the main road. On the other side, a tall hedge hid the flower-beds and orchards that surrounded the big bungalow at the end of the close.
We heard Monica calling but we couldn’t see her over the hedge. Susan ran down to the gate. I ran after her. I always followed although Susan never asked me to and sometimes I ended up wishing I hadn’t. I hoped Monica wouldn’t have her doctor’s set with her because if she did, they would make me be the patient. They would take me to secret places and hold me down. Susan would wield the syringe, of course – she was the expert when it came to injections.
We went out the gate and clambered over the stile into the woods, where Monica was waiting impatiently.
‘I’ve found something!’ she said to Susan. ‘Come and see.’
I followed them along the dirt path under the trees. Monica was pulling a plank of wood along the ground behind her, tied to a piece of string. I didn’t know what it was for, and I didn’t like not knowing. Suddenly, Monica stopped.
There was a dead animal lying under the long grass at the side of the path. It had a dribble of dried blood stuck to its face where its eye should be.
‘What is it?’ Susan said.
‘I don’t know,’ said Monica. ‘But we’re going to pick it up and put it on my sledge.’
They both looked at me.
I was frightened of Monica. She wasn’t as big as Susan, but she had bright ginger hair, and her pale face was covered in freckles. She claimed she could eat the skin of oranges, and I had seen her mother do it, her bright red lipstick lips drawn back from her teeth. When I tried to do it myself, I couldn’t. Even the fleshy pith was too bitter.
I looked at the animal. I didn’t ask why we had to put it on the plank, or where we were going to take it. There were fat flies buzzing around it and ants crawling in and out of its fur. I wanted to run back along the path, but I couldn’t see the house from there and I wasn’t sure of the way.
My sister flicked at the flies with a bit of bracken.
‘Go on then,’ she said.
Monica put her hand on her hip, her orange hair gleaming dangerously. Susan’s hair was black, in thick curls around her face. They were both much bigger than me. I could feel the ants crawling in the rat’s wiry fur as I picked it up.
The ants crawled out of the rat and surfaced again soon after when I was watching a film on television with my father. The Indians buried the cowboys up to their necks and smeared honey on their faces.
‘Why have they given them honey?’ I asked my dad. ‘Is it to tease them because they can’t reach to lick it up?’
Before he could answer, the ants came and everything became horribly clear.
So the ants crawled out of the rat bringing fear and revulsion on their backs, and they came to the honey, and they hurt the cowboys, and then with fear and revulsion and cruelty they marched on. They caught up with me two years later, when my family had moved to a suburban street far, far away from the woods.
I was lying in a shallow ditch. I had no idea how I had got there. The earth underneath me felt warm and grainy, and the sun on my bare arms and legs made my skin tingle. I raised my head and looked down at my body. There was an ant on my leg. I stiffened. Suddenly, the ants were everywhere. I wanted to brush them off but I found I couldn’t move. I started to scream.
My mother came rushing into the bedroom.
‘Get them off me!’ I shouted. ‘Make them go away!’
‘What? Get what off you? What’s the matter?’
I couldn’t tell whether my mother was angry or scared, like me.
‘The ants! Get them off me!’
My mother said, ‘There aren’t any ants here. You must have been having a dream.’
What did she mean, there weren’t any ants? I could see them. I could feel them crawling all over me. I started to scream again.
My mother ran out and came back with my dad. He stood in the doorway in his pyjamas, bleary with sleep.
‘Get them off me!’ I yelled.
The ants were everywhere. They were nibbling at my skin. They were eating right through to my bones.
‘What’s going on?’ my father asked – my mother, not me.
‘Just tell her there aren’t any ants.’
He nodded, and pulled back the blankets. He said, ‘Look, Jennifer. No ants. There aren’t any ants.’
I couldn’t see them now, but I knew what I had seen, and I knew what I had felt. I knew what every five-year-old knows – that dreams are real. The only difference between the ants on the rat and the ants in the ditch was that nobody else could see the ants in the ditch. In dreams, you were on your own.
After my mother and father had gone back to bed, I lay there rigid, not daring to move in case the ants came back. Then I did what every child eventually does – I turned my face away from the dream towards the light streaming in from the landing.
I looked away and my dreams disappeared, as dreams will.