Nightmares are dreams that are terrifying, stressful, and anxiety-provoking to the point of waking us up abruptly during sleep. Such imagery breaks through the barrier of sleep into wakefulness and can feel so real it leaves us perplexed. Upon waking, we’re often unable to determine if it was a dream or if it was real. Blood pressure becomes elevated, heart rate increases, and confusion, fear, and other somatic sensations can be felt in association with the dream imagery. So why is it that after many millennia of human evolution, frightening nightmares still persist in the human psyche?

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When examined closely, it appears that nightmares are very adaptable in that they are alerting the dreamer to a waking day situation that needs to be dealt with. Whether it’s a situation from the past or the present, there is some waking day condition that is detrimental to the dreamer. The condition can be life threatening, simply upsetting, or anything in between. It can be emotional, physical, relational, or all of these entwined into one. The most important concern is that whatever it is, it’s significant enough to wake us from the sleep state to get our attention. That is, the psyche is making itself aware of a significant life condition and doing so in a manner that’s difficult to ignore.

A nightmare is calling attention to the dreamer to “wake up” to something in waking life that needs to be changed or acknowledged. Hence, nightmares act as an internal alarm system for us, alerting us of impending danger. The danger could be something that needs emotional healing, physical healing, or attention. It could be a relationship we are ignoring and because of this, it’s starting to sour yet we’re unaware of what we’re doing. It could be a health issue that needs to be addressed before it gets serious. It could be a past emotional pain resurfacing because it was never fully healed. In other words, nightmares are calling us to become a more expanded version of ourselves. They ask us to pay attention and make necessary changes for our own growth so we do not repeat the mistakes of our past. They are a friend warning us that we need to change something because it’s vital for us to do so. Like a family member who yells at us because the house is on fire. Interestingly, if we ignore the message and continue with the same behaviour in waking day, we get burnt over and over again. Ignored nightmares they tend to recur because our own psyche will not leave us alone when we’re in imminent danger.

So the paradox of nightmares is that their purpose is to divert us from the drama of waking life and to expand our consciousness into a state of greater awareness. They shake up our patterns of thinking and behaving. The cycles can be of pain and suffering, repetitive behaviours of playing victim or villain, or whatever it is that consumes us while we’re awake. These may be cycles of good and bad relationships, happiness and boredom in our work, family situations, health challenges, illness, or any of the myriad of situations that are the scenes playing out our waking life. This is to alert us to a bigger realty; just as dream scenes are part of one reality, wakefulness is part of another, and we can wake up from that too.

So what does it mean to “wake up” in waking life? It means we are no longer living unconsciously and making choices without realizing what we’re doing. We are not in bad marriages blaming the spouse. We are not in dead-end jobs and blaming the boss. We take full responsibility for what we’re doing and the choices we’re making. We realize that we are the masters of our own lives and we start living as if this is so. No blame. No victims. No villains. From here, life choices come from a place of self-awareness and are made consciously rather than reactively.

In this awakened state we can hear our own voice when we speak. We can feel our body as it moves and breathes with life. We see each of our actions as purposeful and very much alive. We are awake to our own life-force and we participate with it. We are aware that we are aware.

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Of course we can always go back to sleep if we wish and forget that we ever knew how it felt to be in the new awakened state. We can go back to our repetitive patterns of joy and suffering, living as if life is coming at us and we’re all simply victims to that force. However, our best friend and commandant will be there once again to frighten us with dream imagery and yet another nightmare until we wake up once and for all, and only then is the nightmare over.

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