How a dream recurs is as important as the simple fact of the dream recurring.
For example, when I was a girl, I had a recurring dream that repeated with exactness most nights for a year. Every aspect exact.
This was incredibly important – the exactness. For each element of the dream was giving me vital information and vital experience about what was happening in my life at the age of 8. Information I could do nothing with as a child but has been profoundly helpful as an adult looking back. [And yes, indeed, I will write about childhood dreams soon.]
Through the fact of exactness, the dream hammered the information, the experiences, the sensations of that time into my memory. I have never forgotten that dream, not even the feelings/experiences of it.
But most dreams do not recur with this kind of exactness.
Here is what I often hear about recurring dreams: “I am always dreaming about this one house where I [grew up] [had my kids] [that I loved] [that I hated].” “I keep dreaming about [tsunamis] [big crashing waves] [earthquakes] [tornadoes].” “I am always dreaming about [weddings] [graduations] [big parties].” “I keep dreaming about an ex [lover/partner] [friend].”
When we consider recurring dreams, we often consider first the thing that recurs – be it an event or a person or a place or scene. It is, after all, the thing that seems most important upon waking, especially when we consider the importance of things that recur.
But it is not just the recurrence – it is also how we are in relationship to what recurs and occurs. Because we are always the most important thing in our dreams.
One aspect of my healing work through dreaming has been around the emotional and physical incest I experienced as a kid, especially with one of my brothers.
A dream I had early in the process of revealing my experience of the trauma I had experienced was this dream:
I am lying on my couch, wrapped in a warm blanket, half asleep. I feel, then see, my brother slowly approaching me, his hands outstretched. When he reaches the couch, he begins to reaches down to touch me sexually. I feel terrified and frozen then wake up.
Before working with my dreams, my story of my relationship with my brother, both as a child and as an adult, was that we were incredibly close. We were. I grew up in a chaotic family and the only place I had felt safe was with my brothers. With this particular brother, we had developed a close relationship – we had even lived together a few times as adults. I looked up to him, a little sister looking up to her older brother. I thought he was smart and worldly, and I believed he knew more about what I needed in my life than I did.
Before working with dreams, I knew nothing about “emotional incest”. I knew nothing about dynamics that develop in a family around survival. I did not even fully know all the stories and dynamics of my family.
I did know that I did not remember my childhood before the age of 8 and that something had happened, probably sexual. I did not know, for many years, that it was my brother.
This dream gave me both the reality of what had happened and also how scared I was when I was a girl. How I buried the scared girl and her experience because my brothers were my lifeline.
My brother was in many of my dreams around the time I had the couch dream, and, often, I was scared, frozen, silent. Unable to speak. It was a chance for me to experience and remember what I was not safe to experience as a girl; not to retraumatize me but in order to have understanding and healing. There were, of course, many other dreams around these dreams – dreams of support, of archetypes holding me in my fear, creating safe places for my grief, my anger and my fire.
The recurring element of my brother coming again and again.
During that time, I may have said [complained], “I keep dreaming about my brother over and over.” [Okay, I probably did and probably even wanted those dreams to stop.] What helped, as I worked with them, was to also notice and work with how I was changing in relationship to the dreams and to my brother in the dreams. And in my outer life.
How I was changing, too, in relationship to silence, to fear, to speaking.
After years of working with my experience with my brother in my dreams, the dreams did stop. They stopped because my dreams had taken me through many layers of acceptance, grief, healing, empowerment, love.
I had not dreamed of my brother for many years – until recently. Just this past week, I had this dream:
I am in an enormous house with a couple who feel very parental. They are people who have voice in the world and are brave about using their voices. I admire and love them and they clearly love and admire me. I realize their house is my house, this is where I live. The house is gorgeous, with many winding hallways and many rooms. As I explore the house, beginning to feel at home in a way I never did when I was small, I hear a noise in the attic. I climb up stairs that suddenly appear and find my brother hiding, wrapped in a blanket on a couch. He looks small and tired and scared. I say, “What are you doing here?” I feel sad for him – and also know he does not belong here. He stumbles and mumbles as he gets up and flees the attic and the house.
The brother, the couch, the blanket. Recurring aspects.
But now, in the dream, I am not afraid, I am not startled, I am not worried. I am not frozen or silent. I am not even angry. I feel neutral and simply know he does not belong in my new home.
I am not even the one wrapped in the blanket on the couch.
The dream recurs, but I am completely different in the dream. My dream showing me, in the sacred string of recurring dream elements around my work with my brother, that I am in a completely different place.
New archetypal parents, so I do not “need” the brother. New house, so I do not “need” to “live” with my brother anymore. New way of being inside of myself and my body.
The dream also showing there is some way “my brother” is still trying to “hide” in my house. The work of this dream not just to acknowledge where I have come in my healing work. The work of this dream is also showing me it is obviously time for whatever aspect of my trauma with him that still lingers [is hiding in my house] to leave.
When I work with others with dreams that recur, these are some of the aspects and ways we explore.
Aspects like – How am I, the dreamer, in relationship to the things/people that recur? How am I responding in a familiar way? How am I responding in a new way? Is there an opportunity for something new? Something different? How are the recurring elements, also, different or the same?
Am I running away from that tsunami, like I always do, or am I turning and diving into it? Do I hide from my ex or confront them, like I usually do, or do I respond differently? How does that house seem now in my dream?
If I, the dreamer, am responding in familiar ways, then there is something here to explore. If the recurring person/place/event is different, then there is something here to explore. If the recurring person/place/event/thing is different or something different happens around it, then there is something here to explore.
Each difference, each aspect, each similarity is information for the dreamer. Information about where they are with the issue presented – has something changed or has nothing changed and something needs to change?
In my early dream, my brother had all the power – large, looming, scary. In my latest dream, everything is flipped – he is small and scared. Just as I imagine he must have been, too, when we were kids.
Next: Exploring the intersection of recurring dreams or dream aspects and
the emerging aspects of our own personal mythology/symbolism/dream