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Flames Around the Witch’s Cauldron: A Treatment of Nightmares

Written by Lane Gormley, EdS, LPC, BCC, NGHC

Under Cover of Darkness
On a frosty and moonless autumn night near the Brookwood Hills swimming pool, I am mysteriously alone and wandering the woods at the tree line on the steep hill, now so much higher than usual, above the park. I find my way along the winding, narrow path, careful not to slip over the edge into dark nothingness. As I start the dangerous descent to the park, I become aware of a fire’s glow out on the playground. I know that I shouldn’t go out there, but I simply have to. I creep onward in spite of myself, drawn with dreadful foreboding, closer and closer to the crackling, spitting, yellow light and intense heat. It is at this point that I see her, etched black against flame, standing in front of the huge smoking cauldron beneath which the fire blazes. She sees me, too, and begins to howl and cackle. She points at me with a sooty, grizzled finger. I am frozen in my tracks. Nothing can save me. It’s too late. I am doomed.

I wake up screaming.

This was a recurring nightmare that I had as a child. I had it quite often for a while – so often that by the third time, I knew from the very beginning of the dream what was going to happen. I knew that I was not supposed to be in the park alone, that I should return home immediately, that I should definitely not go down that hill, and that I should avoid at all costs being seen by the witch. Where my overprotective parents were I had no idea. BUT… once the dream started, the outcome was inevitable. The scene would play out to its dreadful conclusion, its horror magnified by foreknowledge of what would happen.

This nightmare continued at intervals for weeks or months until the night that, in my nightmare, I finally spoke up. I said to the witch, “There’s nothing you can do to me because you are not real.” I woke up, unafraid. The witch was gone, never to return.

False Portents of Evil
A nightmare, like a dream, is a message from the self to itself. Sometimes dreams seem to be about evil beings and fearful, dark, unknown forces; but many dream researchers write that every figure in our dreams is an aspect of ourselves.

Some of the darkness in nightmares may refer to knowledge that our Unconscious is trying to communicate to our conscious minds. When my Clients have nightmares, I always suggest that they attempt to become conscious during the dream, conscious that they are dreaming, so that they can penetrate the nightmare’s mystery and perhaps even find the solution to the problem posed by the dream.

The Truth of the Self
I have written before about my Client’s dreams and the truths that the dreams revealed about their unconscious desires, fears, hidden agendas, and personal imperatives. If we take the time to examine our nightmares event by event, element by element, we may learn something about ourselves that we need to know in order to create successful life patterns.

Our conscious minds are a reflection of what we have seen and experienced since birth in this life. Our unconscious minds are thought to be more Universal and even eternal. They may be in conflict with what we think are our most cherished beliefs and ideas.

There are theorists who believe that the truths concealed in the vast, murky territory of the Unconscious may even connect us to the meaning of this life and what might lie beyond it. This is the subject matter of Transpersonal Psychology.

A Brother’s Nightmare
My friend, Nicolai, grew up in a poor family in the brutal and dangerous period when Stalin ruled Russia. During the Communist and post-Communist periods, Russian public hospitals were ill-funded and particularly bleak. It was in such a grey and dismal structure that Nicolai’s brother, Vassily, was taken when cancer incapacitated him. Day after day, Nicolai went to the hospital and witnessed his brother’s deterioration from the incurable illness. His heart still sinks at the sight of the building where Vassily’s life ended in illness, pain, and fear.

Shortly after Vassily’s death, the nightmares began. Nicolai was awakened night after night, terrified, feeling a presence and then seeing his brother sitting on the foot of his bed. He developed issues around sleep.

I asked Nicolai if he had spiritual beliefs, and he responded yes. He had grown up covertly practicing the doctrines of the Russian Orthodox Church, since religious beliefs could be dangerous in Stalin’s Russia. I suggested to him that he and his brother might both have been traumatized by the way that Vassily died. I suggested that, when Vassily next came to him in dream, he should speak with his brother and reassure him. “Tell Vassily that you love him, that you cherish your childhood spent together, and that there is no need for him to worry about you. Tell him that you hope that one day you will be together again.”

Nicolai did this twice, going so far as to remind his brother of things they had done as children. After that, his brother did not return. Nicolai had achieved resolution of the death trauma for himself – and, some might think, for his brother as well.

Sleep Well
Sleep is a beautiful respite from the hectic pace of life, but it is more than that. It is a busy processing time for the human psyche. If you have nightmares, write them down. Look up the different elements in a dream dictionary. Explain to yourself why they are scary. Decide what would be a positive outcome for the dream, and create it during the dream. Remember that I told you to do this. Take that knowledge into your dream. The nightmare belongs to you. It contains a part of your truth. You can shape it any way you like. It may contain the seeds of insight and revelation, so do not let it go unprocessed.

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