A few years ago I realized I’d been unconsciously living out my life according to the plot of A Nightmare on Elm Street III: Dream Warriors.
This 1987 slasher flick centers around a young woman named Kristen (Patricia Arquette in her first role), who leaves her hometown to study dream research after suffering from realistic nightmares starring the gruesome undead figure Freddy. She then returns home, and begins working in a psychiatric hospital to help others who have powerful but destructive imaginations.
But then (cue the creepy music) the nightmares begin again… and this time stronger than ever before.
I had forgotten entirely about this movie, which I must have seen in the 1980s as a child, but apparently it lodged itself so deeply in my mind I decided to go ahead and model my life after it.
Like Kristen, when I was a teenager I suffered from lucid nightmares– those dreams in which you know you are dreaming but feel powerless to act in the dream or sometimes even wake up. I also had some terrifying sleep paralysis nightmares that I was too afraid to mention to anyone lest I be thrown in the lunatic ward.
Trial by horror
Looking back, I see that the dreamworld was throwing initiations at me: important dreams that revealed core fears and wounds, providing opportunities to move beyond them. These dreams often come at transitions throughout the lifespan — the ones on the cusp of adulthood are particularly grueling.
But in my late teens and early twenties, I wasn’t looking for knowledge; I was thirsty for experience. So rather than face my fears with equanimity or self-compassion, I dug deeper into the horror with the attitude of “bring it on!” I thought if I could just embrace the utter depravity of my mind I could somehow rise above it or “integrate” it.
Unfortunately, this strategy doesn’t really work. Rather than heal, I was actually enforcing my core wounds and re-traumatizing myself.
This is an important point as many people think that simply recalling and working with dreams will magically resolve our inner demons. Not so. A powerful dream or nightmare needs to be tended with support from a community or some kind, even if all you have access to is a good book from someone who has trod the territory of the dark heart before.
Dreaming as medicine
Strong medicine is ambivalent: it can kill just as easily as heal, which is why doctors always take an ethical oath at the end of their training.
Dreaming is strong medicine, but I wasn’t treating it that way. I was a natural lucid dreamer and operating under the assumption that I could do whatever I wanted in the dream without repercussions to my own wellbeing. It’s just a world simulation, I told myself, it’s just a schema playing itself out according to my conscious expectations.
Well, that paradigm failed the reality check.
What happened next is something that probably happens to many who are destined to be big dreamers but unlucky enough to be born into a culture that has no understanding or respect for dream power: I simply lost interest in my dream life altogether. Boredom, as it turns out, is a healthy defense against the unknown.
I got grounded alright, spending all day in the woods looking for buried or forgotten cultural sites. For close to a decade, I investigated and recorded historic ruins, ancient American Indian encampments, and excavated some human grave-sites too (as if I needed any more curses).
And slowly, my interest in dreams returned. But this time, I was more respectful of the dream. I didn’t have an agenda, and was more receptive to what showed up. I didn’t always fly away in my lucid dreams, but stayed put and participated courageously. I found allies and spots in the dreamscape where I knew I was safe to speak my truth.
Still, I knew that I couldn’t hack it alone: the nightmares came back too, and it was time to find teachers. So like Kristen in the Nightmare of Elm Street 3, I went to grad school to get my training. I lucked out, landing in California at the height of an academic dream movement.
I walked away three years later with an advanced degree, but that was just the icing. In grad school, I found a supportive community of elders who knew the territory and spoke from experience. I got serious about dreaming as a spiritual practice, and in the process transformed my dreamlife from one of terror and uncertainty to one of healing, self-discovery and insight into the natural world.
Passing the knowledge on
Since 2007, I began a new life with the aim to encourage dream education and help those big dreamers like myself, especially those who struggle with the isolation that comes with lucid nightmares and sleep paralysis. These visions are gifts, but it takes some time to navigate the realm, and there are no easy answers.
My central mission today is to reintroduce imagination and dreaming into modern life, and save the next generation of dreamers from having to reinvent the wheel by providing some framework for what we are going through in our dreams, nightmares and waking visions.
My work with The DreamTribe is a key part of this mission.
And interestingly enough, I often now wear the same kind of hat — a fedora– that Freddy sports in the Nightmare on Elm Street movies. The fedora is also the hat of choice for ironic archaeologists who grew up in the Indiana Jones era. It’s been with me since my terrorized teen years, my travels, and now my present adventures in parenting and education.
After all these years, the hat fits.