From Chapter Four:
Saddling the Nightmare: Awakening to Our Sleeping Fears
From ghosties and goblins and things that go bump in the night, dear Lord preserve us
…old Scottish prayer
Sleep lives face to face with death.
…Yakutat Tlingit saying
Nightmare! The very word is strange and mysterious. It conjures up an image of a bleak horse riding through our dreams. It is terrifying. It sweeps through our dreams in many forms, whisking into our fears.
Nightmares are the dream embodiment of fear. In nightmares we are out of control. More often than not we are powerless in the face of danger. Or, more to the point, we feel powerless in the face of danger.
It is the feeling of fear that makes a nightmare. It is not the subject of the dream. It is the affect. We may be seeing things in the nightmares, but what we see will be of no concern unless we are feeling as well. If, for example I am being chased by armed men who are shooting at me and if I reach a place where there is no escape, that does not make the dream a nightmare. It is only when I feel the fear that the dream becomes a nightmare. It is only if I feel the terror of being cornered and shot that I am experiencing a nightmare.
All dreams have two parts. There is the visual part. That is what we “see”. The other part is the visceral. Nightmares are always visceral.
Fear is part of the human condition. Other animals do indeed experience fear in the face of danger. Now it would be silly to deny the importance of fear. Without fear we would still be trying to put our fingers in light sockets or walking in front of moving cars. There are definitely some things that we need to fear in order to survive. In fact, teaching our children a certain amount of fear is part of parental responsibility.
However, we humans are probably the only species who can fear danger that does not yet face us. We are uniquely capable of generating our own fear. Other than those domesticated animals who have associated with us for so long, we probably are the only animals who can generate our own anxiety.
There are very few things that require the basic survival fears. Flight or fight is a fear response that connected us with our animal nature. It is a survival response. How many times do we face this necessity in our ever day lives? As we grow older presumably we grow more aware. And the fears instilled in childhood no longer apply. After all, what sane adult would put his finger in a light socket?
In our waking consciousness, we can often deal rationally with our fears. More often we are able to push them down. But in our sleeping consciousness our rationality is of little help. Our submerged fears may arise.
People have been experiencing fear for as long as there have been people. The ways in which people have dealt with nightmares are as varied and many as the human kaleidoscope itself.
Perhaps it is the loss of control in sleep that makes the dream state such a fertile ground for fear. After all, in our waking life we have at least the illusion of control. We fall asleep. We do not take deliberate steps into that land of dreams. We pass to another shore much as we do in death.
The Yakutat Tlingit Indians express the nature of sleep as death. In their language, the phrase, “he’s sleeping” or “he’s falling asleep” is expressed as “by sleep he was killed”. Among these people there is a common expression, “sleep lives face to face with death.”
Sleep and death. That can be scary. We leave the familiar and go into the unknown. As in death, we are out of control.
Where do they begin, these nightly messages of terror? From the time that the first child or adult woke up screaming people have been trying to find the roots of nightmares.
Humans have been watching their nightmares for a long time. The terrors of night have been with us from the beginning. And we have tried to understand their origin.
In some cultures, ancestors are blamed for nightmares. The Konde people of Tanzania have a word, minyenya. It means ancestors. It also means nightmares. For the Konde it is the action of ancestors that creates nightmares. The Kiwai of Africa see many nightmares as the attempt to escape from a pursuing dead father.
And nightmares may come. The Araucanos of Chile considered the spirits of nightmares to be real beings. We are attacked, they felt, by spirits--very often the spirits of the dead. Sometimes, according to the Tikopia of the Solomon Islands, a spirit can come and sit on a person’s chest or belly. Such a spirit pushes down giving the unsuspecting dreamer unpleasant feelings of being crushed--nightmares. The Tikopia feel that nightmares are caused by spirits who have never been in human form or lived on earth. These spirits, or atua, counterfeit familiar forms to confuse and deceive the dreamer.
The Western Shoshone and Hopi Indians saw dreams and nightmares as part of life energy. They called it Buha. Eastern mystics call it chi. Buha is positive life energy. It is the energy of the Great Spirit. Without Buha a person dies. . .