All dreams come in the service of health and wholeness. The generic message of every remembered dream is: “There is a potentially positive, creative, transformative role for the dreamer’s waking mind to play in the further unfoldment of whatever is being given symbolic shape in this dream.” In other words, no remembered dream ever came to say to the dreamer, “Nyeah, nyeah, nyeah – you have these problems and there’s nothing you can do about them…!” If the dream is remembered at all, than it means that the dreamer has the inherent ability to deal creatively and effectively with all the problems and “issues” that the dream raises in symbolic form; if this were not true, the dream would simply not have been remembered.
When a dream experience is not remembered, then the health & wholeness promoting quality of the dream must be sought somewhere other than the expansion and development of the dreamer’s own waking consciousness. In the case of sleep-walking and sleep-talking, and the special case of “night terrors”, (about which more below), the dreamer is most often very difficult to awaken, and if/when it is accomplished, most often does not remember what was going on “inside” that was the occasion for the strange “acting out”. Sleep-walking and sleep-talking are most frequent in childhood and usually, (although not always), dissipate and eventually disappear as the dreamer reaches adulthood. I believe that the generic meaning of sleep-walking, sleep-talking, can be summed up in the idea “involuntary theater”, put on not so much for the dreamer him/herself, but for the benefit of the others who are awake and observe it.
Let me offer an example, (because I believe that examples often convey theoretical information better than abstract formulations.) Several years ago, I had occasion to talk with a charming young couple after a church service during which I had offered a pulpit address on the importance of paying attention to dreams in the pursuit of moral, creative, spiritual life. They asked me if there was a drug that I could recommend to them that they could give their almost four-year old son to prevent him from sleep-walking.
I replied that fortunately I did not know of any such drug, and that even if I did, I was not sure I would tell them, because I believe it is always far better to seek for root causes and address them, rather than to manipulate symptoms with chemicals andnever look for the underlying origins of the situation. I asked them what their son was up to at night that they wanted to find an “anti-sleep-walking drug”?
They told me that he was “a very good boy”, cheerful, cooperative, affectionate, bright, and obedient. He was not a “sleep resister” and went to right off to sleep when the put him to bed, but each night, around 3:00-4:00 a.m., he would get up, still sound asleep, and toddle downstairs, where he would open up the liquor cabinet, take out all the liquor bottles, line them up in a row on the floor, and then go back to bed. They had repeatedly tried to wake him on these nightly forays and failed. In the morning, even upon close questioning, he apparently had no memory of any of his nocturnal activities…
The moment I imagined the scene the child created every night, I had an “aha!”, and I asked what seemed to me to be the obvious question: “…And would you say that there any adults in your house who are abusing alcohol on any sort of regular basis?”
Once the question was asked, the expressions of shocked and startled recognition on their faces were unmistakable. Yes, apparently they were living in the home of the bride’s parents, and her father was a practicing alcoholic… When I learned that, I had the clear thought – “…Once again, this sounds like the kid’s sleep-walking is a piece of ‘involuntary theater’ that the kid is putting on every night to make the point that he is incapable of making consciously when he is awake…”
Obviously a child that young is not able to lean across the high-chair at breakfast and say, “Now, look here, Mom and Dad, Grandpa’s abuse of alcohol is threatening to ruin my formative years…!” – but his unconscious is vividly aware of the situation. So, rather than provide dreams that are messages to the child’s waking consciousness, the unconscious sources of the child’s dream invent a piece of “pantomime”, a piece of “involuntary theater” that is aimed at effecting the awarenesses of the adults who are awake to witness it, not the sleeping child. I believe the inevitable implication of the sleep-walking activity is: “Look! I put these bottles out for you to look at last night, and I’ve put them out for you to see again tonight – see how far the levels have dropped? Don’t you see what’s wrong with this picture?”
This “involuntary theater” aspect of sleep-walking is so often the most important key to the deeper meanings of those behaviors, so much so that it is always worth asking, in any given instance, whether this is a factor in the shaping of the events, pointing toward their deeper meaning. The same basic principle applies top sleep-talking as well. When the utterances of the sleep-talker are observed carefully with an eye to their symbolic implications, paying particular attention to the nuances of tone of voice, and the dramatic connotations of implied character and situation, then sleep-talking also reveals itself, far more often than not, to be another mode of “involuntary theater”, “staged” for the edification of the “audience” more than the “actor”.
“Night terrors” are a special case of sleep-walking and sleep-talking, They should not be confused with “really bad nightmares”. Nightmares are most often remembered vividly, while night terrors are seldom if ever remembered by the children, (and the rare adults), who experience them, but they make a dramatic and lasting impression on all who are awake to witness them.
I have not had direct experience with a sufficient number of instances of night terrors for my observations to be statistically valid, but in the seventeen cases I have dealt with to date, one factor has proved to be salient in every instance: the
child who experience(d) the night terrors was an unusually intelligent and sensitive individual, and the child’s parents married against the wishes of their respective parents, almost always because of “religious differences” between the two families. (In one family, the different family backgrounds would probably be called “political” by casual observers, but in my view the political convictions of the husband’s and the wife’s respective families-of-origin were deeply and rabidly held as to easily fit Paul Tillich’s generic definition of “religion” as “a person’s ultimate commitment”.)
In each instance that I have dealt with directly, the child’s family milieu was characterized by the mother and father coming together in spite of strong “religious and cultural” objections from the respective grandparents. In each situation, this multi-generational family tension regarding “religious” issues, had led to an unwillingness on the part of the parents to speak freely to each other, (let alone the child), about their respective personal religious beliefs, longings, and convictions.
When I imagine the psycho-spiritual situation of the child who exhibits night terrors, it is as though there were a “black hole” of unspoken spiritual fear and longing for a felt-sense of the presence of the Divine at the center of the family – a black hole into which the intelligent and sensitive child feels drawn and swept every night when he or she is in bed, “alone with God…” Even Mommy and Daddy can’t speak or find the courage to face this “emptiness” directly – how can I, a mere child, be expected to feel anything but terror and despair when every night, I feel drawn into this vortex of fearful “unknowing”…?
But once again, ALL dreams, even the unremembered ones that spur night terrors, come ultimately in the service of health and wholeness. In all seventeen of the instances of night terrors that I have an opportunity to work with directly, the night terrors of the child disappeared when the parents had a discussion of their respective religious convictions, spiritual longings, and practical beliefs. This relief was observable in the child’s sleeping behavior, even when the child was not privy to the parental discussions, and had no conscious knowledge that the conversations had taken place. The parents did not have to agree about any of it(!), all they had to do was talk honestly about it and lift the heavy curtain of fearful silence between them.
It is for all of these reasons that I am convinced that night terrors are a special case of sleep-walking and sleep-talking, and that if the child’s night terrors are distressing to the parents, then it is almost certainly within the power of the parents to change the situation that is precipitating the child’s sleeping behavior. Often, the parents themselves are very afraid of what will happen if they have “the conversation” they have been carefully avoiding about their most deeply held beliefs and longings, but if the child is exhibiting night terrors, everything I know suggests that the parents are, in fact, capable of having the discussion – even if all they end up doing is “agreeing to disagree.”