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.
When you tell acquaintances and strangers that you write and teach about dreams an interesting thing happens – the polite, interested look disappears, their faces light up and they straight away tell you about a dream they’ve had…
This is the first sentence of Writing in the House of Dreams and I wanted to tell you about recent example, when a complete stranger told me this story.
He said that as a young man in his teens he had experienced intense suicidal feelings, and he happened to be going out with a girl who felt the same way.
They talked very seriously about suicide and he was in no doubt that they would indeed end up killing themselves.
Then one night he dreamt they were waiting for the last bus near a roundabout on the edge of town, after an evening out. Everything looked orange under the street lights and there was no-one else around.
When the bus finally arrived, the dreamer saw through the windows that all the passengers were skeletons.
‘Don’t get on the bus!’ he said, grabbing his girlfriend’s arm. ‘We don’t want to get on that bus!’
When he woke up, he thought the dream had been about her, and that he should tell her not to think about killing herself any more, but then he realised it was actually about both of them.
He thought, ‘If we’re not getting on that bus, we need to think of good reasons for living. We need to find out what we want to live for.’
From that day, the dreamer stopped obsessing about suicide and started to live purposefully, and at times in later life when things felt hard, he remembered that dream, and stayed off the bus.
As I write this, I’m struck by the curious fact that decades after the dreamer had this dream, there’s now a website for people considering suicide that uses the term ‘catching the bus’ to mean killing yourself.
I’ve heard lots of stories about people who have had a life-changing dream at a time of crisis, like this man, but sometimes a not-at-all epic-seeming dream can change the way we see the day-to-day things we’re going through, and help us over a hurdle.
For example, I had a dream that coloured balls were pouring from the sky as if someone was emptying a giant ball-pool. They were bouncing off the ground and landing all over everything.
I thought, ‘This isn’t right! The balls all belong in one place. They should all be landing in one box.’ When I woke, I knew it was about a situation that had been making me feel annoyed (it was ‘a load of balls’) and realised I had been judging everyone according to one person’s behaviour.
That dream didn’t change my whole life forever, but it did change the way I was handling a passing situation. Big changes, little changes – dreams can provide an opportunity to consider things from a different angle when our conscious mind is going round and round, stuck in the same groove.
This surprised me at first, but when I thought about it, it seemed less surprising. The people who call by the House of Dreams are almost all dreamers and writers, and dreamers and writers are acquainted with their own inner darkness, and know how powerful it can be.
When you first engage with the darkness, it can be terrifying, and you may look for reassurance that you will not come to harm.
As you explore further, you find the darkness is full of meaning, and then you may look for other explorers who will understand your experience.
Carl Jung said that he stopped trying to cure people of depression when he realised that the way to make your darkness less dark was to accept it and inhabit it.
When creative people and depressives, and dreamers like me, are called to the darkness, that is a gift of opportunity, even though it is a gift nobody wants.
The sick man has not to learn how to get rid of his neurosis, but how to bear it. For the illness is not a superfluous and senseless burden, it is himself.
The darkness holds the keys to the self, and more. On the other side of meaning, where both the dark and the light are dissolved, all is energy and possibility, and we can experience pure creative freedom.
I believe in this journey. It can be long, and bewildering; it can feel unbearable. But if we can learn to bear the darkness, there is treasure to be found.
I hesitate to write about depression because it may sound as if I don’t understand how terrible it can be. I do. I suffered from depression for many years before I stopped fighting it and, paradoxically, began to win.
These three posts about the darkness brought a wealth of wisdom and experience in the comments, which I hope you will take the time to read.
Has depression or the creative journey ever brought healing and insights for you?
I think of them as the nameless or faceless one – archetypal images which carry the pure power of a universal human experience. In pantheistic cultures they may be represented by gods and goddesses. In our secular world, we encounter them most directly in dreams.
A few weeks ago, I had a series of nightmares about an intruder in my house. I never saw his face because fear woke me up, but rather than feeling disturbed, I felt attentive, because like the Death card in tarot or the Tower, the dark intruder is a messenger of change.
Major changes are always unsettling and being unsettled is always unwelcome. Even if we’re actively seeking new ways of being and want to move forward into new areas of experience, there will still be resistance because change involves letting go of the familiar, and the outcome is never certain. Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t know.
These dark intruder dreams were swiftly followed by a series of dreams about babies. Like the dark intruder, the archetypal baby provokes a powerful emotional response, but rather than fear and anxiety, it’s an outpouring of love, hope and happiness.
It occurred to me to wonder whether baby dreams often follow dark intruders; they kind of should, because they are both aspects of change, the one full of initial fears and the other moving forward into joyfully anticipation.
Our major Christmas archetypes are Santa Claus, the intruder who brings gifts, and the Christian symbol of the wondrous baby who brings redemption, light after darkness at the turning of the year.
Happy Christmas everyone, and may all your challenges in 2014 bring blessed new beginnings.
My favourite chapter in Patricia Garfield’s ground-breaking book, ‘Creative Dreaming,’ is the one about the Senoi dreamers, whose dream-practice is designed ‘to make life better.’
In this tradition, if you have an unhappy or disturbing dream, you create a happy outcome for it, either by going back to sleep and dreaming it on, or through creative visualisation when awake.
If every time you have a bad dream you bring it to a satisfying resolution, soon your dreaming mind will start to follow the pattern you have consciously created, and difficult dream situations will always be resolved within the dream.
This practice doesn’t only make your dreamlife happier, it makes your waking life better too, because it works as a kind of rehearsal, an empowering opportunity to experience yourself as someone who confronts their fears and finds their courage and ingenuity in difficult situations.
One of my most common nightmares when I was younger was fear of falling from high places, and that fear was reflected in my waking life. First, I learnt to handle it in my dreams and then, building on that imaginative experience, in my waking life, so that nowadays I love the exhilaration of pushing through the fear to reach the heights.
This is exactly what we do when we write fiction. We put our characters in difficult situations and imagine them forward to a place of resolution. These fictional situations emerge, like dreams, from our deep unconscious, and like the Senoi dreamers, we transform them in imagination in order to triumph over them.
Has your dreaming or writing ever helped you to face a deep fear and feel empowered?
Carolyn Hughes is a writer with an interest in addiction and mental health issues. Her popular blog is The Hurt Healer and she has a lively and rapidly growing following on facebook and twitter
I must also have a dark side if I am to be whole ~ Jung
Like many writers I want my work to be recognisable by its unique and individual style. For me, it’s crucial that what and how I write reflects my authentic self. Anyone who has read my blog The Hurt Healer will be familiar with the fact that I share from the heart. It’s a deliberate approach to enable readers to relate to and hopefully be encouraged by my words. Authenticity means being genuine and real. Much as I would love to reveal only my good side, to be true to my work I have to disclose my whole self.
It is no coincidence that I am only now finding my writing voice as it has taken a long time to find myself. Years of battling with depression and alcoholism meant that I had very little idea of who I was. How I presented to the outside world was very different to how I felt inside. It was only through having the courage to challenge my past at every level that I was able to start the journey to healing and so begin to find personal identity and my authentic self.
My aim though isn’t just to be authentic, but to be authentically creative. And the key to writing both authentically and creatively lies with the unconscious. For me the unconscious is a limitless place in my mind where my spirit and soul meet. It is a place where I can visit those painful issues that used to torment me. But instead of being overwhelmed I can now bring them into my conscious, safe from their power to harm me. So as I communicate from my unconscious, so I hope to reach the unconscious of others and in doing so share a collective moment of authenticity.
The interpretation of dreams is the royal road to a knowledge of the unconscious activities of the mind ~ Freud
Recently I’ve been looking at how I can reach further into the depths of my unconscious and take my writing to a new level of creativity. I’ve started to look at the constituents of my dreams. This is a wonderful way to tap into those hidden thoughts and images that make up the psyche, as well as exposing my inner truth.
Examining my dreams however has only been possible from a position of emotional recovery and psychological stability. In those dark days of depression and alcoholism my night-time experiences were fraught with darkness and fear. The erratic and terrifying nightmares that emerged reflected my complete inability at the time to manage my physical and mental anguish.
Jung once remarked that nothing was ever lost in the psyche. That is an horrendous thought for anyone who has tried to block out the past in the hope that the pain would stop. The idea that all thoughts, memories and emotions never disappear but remain forever can be frightening. Yet I found that there was indeed a freedom to be found in allowing the unconscious to simply ‘ be’. I stopped fighting the emergence of the dark side and celebrated the arrival of the good side. By no longer fearing my thoughts and dreams I was free to live authentically and to write openly too.
Il ne faut jamais regarder quelqu’un qui dort. C’est comme si on ouvrait une lettre qui ne vous est pas addressee ~ Sacha Guitry
I couldn’t mention dreams without including one of my favourite quotes. A general translation of this is; “You should never look at someone who is sleeping. It is like opening a letter that isn’t addressed to you.”
It is a quote I came across many years ago at a time when I was experiencing my first love. After one of those deep conversations that you have in such relationships I remember feeling that he hadn’t been entirely truthful. As I watched him sleeping I remembered the quote and realised that I had been right to doubt him. His real emotions were disclosed on his face as he slept. So dreams aren’t just for the benefit of the dreamer!
Dreams are often most profound when they seem the most crazy ~ Freud
Being new to noting my dreams, I must admit that at first they did appear to be made up of bizarre representations that made little sense and made no contribution to my creativity. But as I made more of a conscious effort to remember them and to focus on not just what they were about but how I felt, they became significant.
Very often it’s in that winding down time between waking and sleeping that a word, phrase, image that comes into my mind and gives the essence to a piece of writing. Other times it’s a complete dream that a memory from the past, an issue of the present or an aspiration for the future.
Sometimes this works better than others depending on the obscurity or relevance of my dreams. Yet the importance lies in allowing that writing to happen regardless of whether it makes sense at the time. So although I may have rearranged the words to make them flow, I haven’t messed with the essence of what my soul may have whispered to me.
I may never reach the purest form of authenticity or be famed for my creativity, but I will continue to write from the heart with my unconscious and dreams as my guides.
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.