Ask Me! Defining Recurring Dreams

Okay – so we have explored the sacredness of stories that are told over and over. We have explored the power of recurring dreams.
Now, let’s define them.
What I mean by recurring dreams is simple; it is a dream that repeats, that we have at least more than once.
And, just like anything dreaming, what seems simple rarely actually is.
Many people associate recurring dreams with “difficult” dreams – ones that are distressing, that could be called “nightmares”, that scare us.
How many stories have we read, movies we have seen, where a character has a terrifying dream that repeats over and over, that turns out to be a key to the storyline? I think of Total Recall, of course, and many other movies and TV shows and books. [I am watching a Netflix series right now where one of the main characters has recurring terrifying dreams which are actually located in a real place and, of course, are key to the story.]
We tend to remember these kinds of dreams – scary or distressful or disturbing – in part because of the way we process memory. When we have these kinds of experiences, for example, the part of the brain that seems to process emotion gets stimulated [like the orbitofrontal cortex and the amygdala]. In the field of neuroscience, they have found that the more these parts of the brains are activated, the more we remember.
Another way to say this is when we have an intense experience, whether waking or dreaming, our brain works to process those experiences more so than when we have “non-intense” experiences because there may be more to process. [Note that I do not use the terms negative emotions or positive emotions, because I do not believe in tagging our feelings as good or bad. They are just part of us.]
So, if I have a frightening dream, I will remember it because the response and experiences are sharper and may need more processing than the dream I have of laying in an open field of flowers. [Theoretically.]
Does that mean we only have scary recurring dreams? Do we have recurring dreams that are not distressing or scary or disturbing? I believe we do have recurring dreams and images that are not “scary” or “disturbing” – we are just not used to considering those experiences as “notable”.
I have had such dreams and I have worked with many dreamers who have such dreams as well. Sometimes, contrary to what we may think of as common sense [and many scientific studies], these dreams need as much processing as the disturbing ones.
So, let’s start with a basic question – What are Recurring Dreams.

What Are Recurring Dreams?

A recurring dream can be many different things, including:

  • Dreams that repeat each time in [what seems to be] exacting details;
  • Dreams that repeat in some details, but vary in others;
  • Dreams that have repeating “occurrences” but have different aspects;
  • Dreams that have repeating characters/places/things but have different aspects.

Why be so “picky” in defining recurring dreams? The “how” of a recurring dream or image or occurrence, the “how” a dream behaves or presents itself is/can be as important when opening the dream as the content of the dream itself. Since dreams work to work with us, to challenge and grow us, to confront and console, even the “how” of the storytelling or delivery or creating an experience matters.
So, when a dream repeats in its entirety, then the entirety is meant to be considered and questioned when opening the dream. When only certain details repeat, those details are the places to start. When an “occurrence” or place or character [human or otherwise] repeats, then these are the places to start.
By start, I mean, the places to begin the lines of inquiry to open the dream to the dreamer’s consciousness.
That does not mean that the things that vary in recurring dreams are not to be considered. Rather, how a dream differs is equally important in the exploration. The dreams ask the conscious mind to consider both the similarities and the differences in the series of recurring dreams. How are we, the dreamer, respond differently or familiarly to recurring elements.
All of which tells us that recurring dreams and dream elements are important. Which leads us to….

Why Do We Have Recurring Dreams or Dream Images/Occurrences/Themes?

One of the things I love about the intersection of writing and dreaming is this – they both work to surprise [startle] me and they are both relentless in their insistence of what is important to me to face into and explore.
I spent several years at an artist and writers retreat center in a small town in Vermont [Vermont Studio Center]. I went for two months and then stayed working part-time. One of the great things about being in an writers/artist community is that there were readings, lectures, craft talks, etc. And I had the opportunity to read some of my own work, too.
The morning after a reading where I had shared a few of my poems, I overheard someone at the communal breakfast say this, “I really liked that one poet last night who wrote about the body. I thought she was great.” I remember thinking over the reading from the night before, trying to figure out which reader he was talking about and could not. I was completely puzzled until a friend of mine said, “Sue, he’s talking about you.”
I had to return to my poems because I did not think of myself as someone who wrote about the body. And there it was – in every single poem. Not just the ones I had read that night, but in many of the poems I was writing at the time. [Still, actually.]
I write about the body because I learned, as a kid, to be out of my body. It has been one of the ways for me to return to myself, to my body.
My writing brings me back to my body, often unbeknownst to me, the same way my recurring dreams bring me to things I need in my psyche.
[Not surprising I work with dreams in an embodied way.]
We are brought to what is urgent by our recurring dreams. Not just important, not just a part of a larger puzzle of our healing and our becoming, but urgent.
I write about the body because I needed to find my way back to it.
We dream something over and over again because something in that recurrence is vital to our waking, spiritual life.

Next up – How to work with recurring dreams