I had a nightmare the other night, you know one of those where the narrative takes you right up to the most awful part of the horror and then…you wake up. Whew, thank goodness!
Well, not always. Usually I try to get back to sleep so as to resolve the outcome, to finish the story so to speak. In that way I have some control over the outcome, or get more information on the meaning of the dream.
If you were to consider the point where you wake up as the climax of a story then perhaps asking yourself “what happens next?” Or “How might the story end?” might be a good technique for exploring the nightmare further.
Now I don’t mean for someone who is dreaming a reenactment of a literal horror that has happened in their waking life (such as for those who are suffering from PTSD), stay away from those nightmares, they may need more professional guidance*. I’m talking about those that are symbolic of something going on inside you, or that you are reacting to in your daily life, something psychically broader. You might ask yourself, “Does this dream remind me of something in my waking life?”
Nightmares can be a normal dream occurrence after a trauma, but most of the time they present material that you’ve kept hidden (e.g. threats to your self-esteem, loss of something, or someone important, or trouble coping with certain stresses, unconscious memories stimulated by some recent event, or scary emotions that you have avoided) and the unconscious mind, in the service of your health and well-being, is trying to bring them to consciousness so that you can deal with them appropriately. They literally demand attention.
I think that many of us with the standard unfinished nightmare event want to be able to master them, it’s probably why we like such authors as Stephen King, remember Carrie? Finishing the nightmare in a psychically satisfying manner is much better than ignoring it, because if you do …it’ll be baaack!
I’m also not talking “night terrors” here, in those there’s no plot just a lot of scary chaos**. On the other hand, nightmares have a plot, and often a fairly complicated one. You go from balance, or equilibrium, to extreme out of balance then wake up. When you awaken, the climax then dominates the story and this can truncate the meaning and leave you stuck. If you were to treat the nightmare as a narrative, you would then want the story to return to equilibrium i.e. resolution. I’m talking about the process of transformation, the psychic alchemical process of turning something base into something of value.
The kind of intervention to which I’m referring has the advantage of giving you some feedback i.e. if the nightmare has recurred and then after intervention disappears you’ve been successful, if not, try something else.