A Dialogue on Monsters

Summing up, we can say that a dream shows not only that the dreamer is occupied in the solution of one of his life’s problems, but also how he approaches these problems.

–Alfred Adler

…Then the dream changed. I was in a room with a lot of other kids, including Nina. I walked in and stood with her. Then, a monster came out of a central pillar. It somehow singled me out. I knew I had to fight him. I won. I didn’t know how, but I did. Then we were let into another room exactly the same as the last one, and a monster came out. Everyone looked at me expectantly and we fought. Just when I thought he’d had me beaten, I pressed the button in the central pillar and the monster disappeared. We were let into a third room exactly like the first two. I knew there was another monster I had to defeat. Then I woke up. (2001)

I’m not quite sure how he and I came to be talking about dream-monsters that night. I think the conversation had turned to Kafka and his dream-machines: I had recently been to a museum where I had seen little models of them, built the way Kafka had described them in his stories, and my friend, a surrealist writer, took an interest in anything having to do with the subconscious mind.

It is a bit of a stretch to call him a friend, since we had only met recently and that long walk back to the bus station was the last time I ever saw him. But I’m sure we would have been friends if I hadn’t moved away, or if we had stayed in touch afterwards. I promised I would write him into a poem. I did do that, but I’m not entirely happy with the way it turned out, so this will be a second chance.

My friend, like me, and like most people, had sometimes dreamed of monsters when he was younger. ‘Monster’ is a vague term to use—but I suppose anything can be a monster to a child. Animals, groups of strange men, and large creatures are some of the usual suspects. My friend’s were mainly of the ‘large creature’ variety, if I remember correctly. When they appeared, he would be frozen to the spot, unable to move or fight back until it attacked him and he woke up—a nightmare.

I took a more proactive approach with mine. Whatever kept him frozen didn’t seem to affect me, and so I was not only able to fight back, but to do so very successfully. In retrospect, perhaps a bit too successfully.

Fighting monsters became a habit, which is why I doubt I would find any definite triggers for the dreams even if I had kept a journal of my daily life alongside my dream-journal when I was younger. I could offer some reasons why I had them—but there’s a level at which it doesn’t really matter. When you have a dream-journal that spans years, you can see the patterns of your life written large, while the individual pictures become a bit blurred.

Of course, just looking at someone’s dreams you can’t predict how the attitude you see there manifests in their waking life, or even if it manifests at all—the sole difference between dreaming as continuity and dreaming as compensation. This makes life difficult for dream researchers and other people who like double-blind tests, but again, there’s a level at which that doesn’t matter all that much. Some people write off dreams as mere reflections of waking life, but this is a mistake: rather, dreams reflect attitudes and personality just as a person’s waking life does, although not necessarily in the same way.

Some people and I were on a journey. Conditions were pretty rough. We had to do a lot of fighting, even killing, to survive and set things right…. (2008)

I dreamed that a group of people and I were fighting human-like creatures in and around a place similar to my parents’ house…. Others joined us along the way. We fought for a long time, indoors and out, all kinds of places…. After a while, a great number of our enemies were ganging up on us. Over the balcony, in the room below, were my allies. I wanted them to come help, to prevent us from being overwhelmed, but they didn’t want to—I think they were tired out…. (2010)

I was the captain of a ship, about to do battle with another ship. The other ship’s captain and I stood among the rigging, by our flags. A storm raged, snow or freezing rain. My enemy fought with fear: he made it appear to me that we had hit an iceberg and the ship was sinking fast, and I was rushing towards an icy death below. The ship seemed to plunge downwards— I nearly cried out, but something in the illusion broke and both ships were floating among snowflakes, far from all else. (2010)

…The scene changed—I saw a woman standing in a cemetery as snow fell. (2010)

After a while, something interesting happened to my friend: he began to realize he was dreaming and that his dream-monsters posed no threat to him. When he found himself in such a dream, he would stand still and calmly let the monster kill him, knowing that he wouldn’t actually be harmed. He would just wake up.

You often hear stories like that from lucid dreamers  when they talk about how they first became interested in dreams. It’s facing a threat, a threat that reoccurs and doesn’t seem to go away on its own, that impels the cooperation between their waking and dreaming selves. Threat heightens awareness—and once awareness in dreams becomes a habit, the possibilities are endless.

There are other solutions as well: figuring out that you’re dreaming while the dream is taking place helps the most, but thinking about your dreams while awake and intending to change the way they end has proven effective for many people. Sometimes all it takes is to stop running; sometimes it takes just one moment of clarity, where you look more carefully at what’s pursuing you and see that it isn’t a threat at all. Once you start befriending your dream-enemies, they stop bothering you—or so I hear. I never did much of that myself.

…Once inside, I found a child and told her to tell the others to go down to the basement, where they’d be safer…. My father moved aside, so I aimed the gun and fired, but nothing but a stream of air left the barrel. I immediately gripped the gun by the barrel and attacked the intruder’s head with it. We fought for a while. Mostly, I just used karate. Over near the kitchen table, I had pinned him to the ground, where I hit him many times over…. The other man was still outside—I figured he was waiting for the man I had just killed to report back, and he too might enter when he didn’t. In the meantime, I went to look for another gun down in the basement. An older woman was there, along with many children, who greeted me. I thought about what I had just done—I had killed a man. But they didn’t know that, and treated me just the same as before. I didn’t actually feel all that different…. (2011)

…There were too many enemies to take on, though, at least without a better strategy…. (2012)

Among dream-workers, the consensus seems to be that fighting back is not a constructive response. Some will tell you that victory is impossible, a conclusion derived not from experience—what could any number of defeats ever prove?— but from an understanding of how we acquire dream-enemies. It is our fear that brings our enemies into existence, and reacting to them out of fear will only create more of them. Running away, fighting back, freezing up—all fearful responses.

I have also seen calling on other dream characters for help recommended, but isn’t this too a fearful response? It is better to feel you have someone to rely on than to feel that the whole world is against you, but it would be better still to have no need of allies— or enemies— in the first place.

…There was a stage set up with three holes in a rock face on the right, and a cave over on the left, accessible through the hole closest to the audience. I watched a couple people take turns with the same scene—a zombie apocalypse—and then I found myself waking up there, half-lying in the river. It wasn’t at all like being on a stage, but in an odd way I was aware that I was there the whole time. Another person and I were ‘fighting zombies’. Other people had tried it, but had been overwhelmed—I had had the most success so far. They came onstage until I was surrounded, but they moved slowly, so I was able to beat them using only my hands and feet. I kept expecting others to come on. Seeing a group of three children, I went for them, but one told me that they were playing chairs, not zombies. I asked if they knew where the zombies were. I think we had defeated them all? (2013)

What surprised me the most about my friend’s story was that his response didn’t seem to be a constructive one, either. Mind you, I didn’t set enough store on the advice I had read to actually follow it, but I knew how the story was supposed to end.

My friend’s solution worked for a while: he let his dream-monsters kill him and woke up, just as he knew he would. But then he began to experience false awakenings: time after time, he would dream that he had woken up, but before long there would be another monster, another awakening. Sometimes it would happen half a dozen times in a row. He no longer saw his monsters as a threat, and yet he had only stepped into another nightmare. Where did it go wrong?

Was treating them as nothing but illusions just another kind of running away?

I dreamed I was on vacation with my father and some others at a campsite somewhere in Europe. Something bad was going on, and a group of men had surrounded the site. My father and I ran to the small house they were going to enter through. He went in by a side door. I shouted to him that a man was already running through the front door, but it was too late. He came back out, but the man came with him. I stepped up and told him that I was guarding the camp and wouldn’t let him through. He seemed incredulous, so I told him that I knew magic, and I’d set the air inside his lungs on fire if he tried to come any closer. He didn’t try. Later on, though, more men arrived in a truck. The camp’s owner had ceded to them, so now they had use of the site. My father encouraged me to go off on my own for the rest of the time we were staying there. I was reluctant, saying that I shouldn’t need a vacation from a vacation, but the idea did appeal to me. I could travel freely, the way I had done before…. (2014)

It turns out that victory isn’t impossible—go figure. I won. The monsters vanished.

The monsters vanished—but I was still the person I had had to become to fight them, and the sudden lack of enemies threw me completely off-balance. It was far more bewildering than a defeat would have been, and perhaps it was the only way left for my dreams to truly pull the rug out from under my feet, as my friend’s had done to him.

I am speaking in metaphors and generalities, of course. I wouldn’t want anyone to take this too seriously. But to say that it all means nothing would require superhuman levels of denial. Having made a few spirited attempts myself, I can attest to it.

I dreamed I was playing a video game, a 2D platformer. I played a level of travel followed by a boss battle with a large creature and two smaller ones, then another level of travel that ended with going up into a large, disc-shaped airship. Another boss battle took place there. This one was harder: the big, metallic creature and the two smaller ones were only vulnerable at certain moments. After that, it was as if I was in a different part of the airship, but watching the person I was from 3rd person perspective. The ‘me’ on the ship was very tired, and said to the person I was talking to, “I’m going to sleep now”— then immediately collapsed…. (2015)

…Later, I was lying in a bed, as a doctor wrote at a desk. He may or may not have been a cat—the dream was oddly vague on that point. As I watched, I began to realize I was dreaming. I wanted to ask a question. I asked him: “Why have I been so tired lately?” He paused, as if gathering his thoughts together, then answered me. “First, it’s your sleeping schedule.” The gist of what he said was that I was going to sleep too late and waking up too late. “Second, you’re no longer driven by a reason to live.” I can’t remember the details that came after that, but I was thinking that he was right: I had lost what had been driving me, and I had nothing to replace it with. I had just been trying to pretend that it wasn’t important, that I hadn’t really lost anything…. (2015)

I had gone to a place near a forest where a race was just ending, and people were leaving. On the way back out, I passed through a tavern or restaurant where the staff was cleaning up the remains of a meal. A short flight of stairs led up to the exit. A young woman in a blue and black dress was lying there, asleep or passed out. I stepped through the door, but then turned to ask a man with a broom who was standing nearby, “Will she be all right?” I can’t remember the answer I received. (2015)

“Has it got any drunks in it?” he asked me.

I racked my memory. It had been a long time since 11th grade English, and I hadn’t been paying that much attention to begin with.

“I think so,” I ventured.

“Good,” he said. “I like stories with drunks.”

It was a warm spring evening outside the theater, a few minutes before curtain. Now that the sun had gone down, the flowering trees seemed much more fragrant—one of the first beautiful evenings this year. I was happy that the weather had turned nice before I had to leave.

We spoke about many things that evening—the dreams came later—but I recall that at one point, we were talking about the internet, and he mentioned how people nowadays were using it as a way to get away from reality. It was creating a generation of escapists.

“Nah, people have always done that,” I answered. And as if to confirm what I had said, that turned out to be what “The Glass Menagerie” was all about.

I now tend to think that’s what most things in life are about, when you have the big picture in view. Art is a common way of escaping reality—but it can also bring you closer to it. Becoming too involved in your dream life can easily turn into escapism—but so can ignoring it, and claiming it was just something you ate. Work, relationships, the internet, writing in a journal—name anything you can think of, it’s sure to be a double-edged sword. And I’m sure we all know what happens to those who live by the sword: it is the one reality none of us can ever escape.

To my friend, I say: may your dreams be as surreal as your stories are. Next time we meet, I’ll be fighting for the right reasons. But one doesn’t fight hoping to win.


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