The Healing Language of Dreams
Our Dreams Can Warn & Inform of Physical Disease and Prescribe
by Marc Ian Barasch
It is the dawn of my daughter’s ninth birthday and I am having a nightmare:
The top of my head has been drilled with three neat, bloody
holes. An iron pot filled with red-hot coals has been hung under my chin.
“We’re going to boil your brains out,” one of my invisible torturers announces.
His voice is flat, matter-of- fact; a technician, not a sadist. I feel
the heat sear my throat and I scream, the sound becoming hoarser, a raw,
animal desperation, as the coals gnaw my larynx. An emotion swells which
I have never known in my waking life:
As I wake up, slathered in fear-sweat, my heart beating
hooves on my ribcage, I become aware that I am yelling aloud.
complete hopelessness; a black, no exit despair.
I’m still trying to shake free of it when the phone
rings. It is my girlfriend, Susan, calling from back home in Colorado.
"Honey, are you alright?” she asks. Her voice sounds uneven, fluttery.
“I have cancer,” I blurt out before I can think about it. “I have cancer
growing in my throat.” She laughed nervously. Months later, when
my life came churning down around me, furious as an avalanche, I would
wonder how I had been so sure.
I had a number of strange dreams that year.... not
passing strange but the kind of “raw-head-and-bloody-bones” nightmares
the novelist Robert Louis Stevenson gave up Cheese rarebit before bed in
a futile effort to avoid. I was disturbed enough to make an appointment
with a doctor. When I told him that I thought I might have cancer, he looked
at me quizzically. “You don’t even have swollen glands,” he said as he
palpated my throat. “Your blood tests are all within normal range. It’s
probably the flu.”
Not caring how unhinged I might sound, I told him
of the increasingly weird, technicolor dreams I had started having almost
nightly. A recent one, I told him, had depicted a ritual circle of black
and Indian medicine men who had stuck hypodermic needles into something
called “the neck brain.” I could almost see the thought balloon
—’hypochondriac’— rise over his head like a small cumulus cloud, but at
my insistence he scheduled a full check-up.
It was then, kneading my neck probingly, that he found the lump. “Nothing
to worry about,” he said, patting me on the shoulder. “But we’d better
schedule a scan.”
“Of what?” I demanded. I felt— oddly , not
fear — but the kind of exhilaration you get when a roller coaster
car crests the first hump and begins its first stomach-dropping swoosh
to the ground.
“Your thyroid gland,” he said, then smiled grudgingly. “The neck-brain.”
The scan revealed the presence of a plump nodule
in the left thyroid lobe, which was eventually diagnosed as cancer. I had
the recommended surgery, and was pronounced cured. But questions remained
that were to burn inside me for years like acetylene. What had all
that been about? I still have a battered-looking notebook cataloging
nights in which I would have six or seven amazing, baffling dreams in a
row (some with their own dreams-within-dreams). Sometimes these terrorized
me, sometimes they seemed to promise deliverance. But it was their trumpet-blast
immediacy, their realer-than-real Presence, that mystified me, held me
in thrall, made them impossible to dismiss.
Driven by curiosity, in the ensuing years I conducted extensive interviews
with some forty other people who had journeyed through serious disease.
Along the way I read copiously in the work of Carl Jung and the litera-ture
of shamanism. I discovered that others, including Jung himself, had observed
the same intensification of their dream-lives in the throes of illness
and healing.Their dreams, like my own, had often had an unusual, archetypal
quality. Many reported that space often appeared vaster (descriptions of
immense landscapes or great halls were typical); there were
vivid experiences of luminosity and color; images of anatomical processes;
repetitive dreams and dreams-within-dreams. Illness-dreams were often filled
with strong emotions, by a magnification of feeling-tone. Dreamers experienced
not simply anxiety, but terror; not aversion, but horror; not desire, but
lust; not surprise, but awe. Journeyers also had dreams of joy, laughter,
heart-bursting happiness—dreams we have no vocabulary for—“nightmare” is
our only specialized term— but which the Bantu of southern Africa refer
to as bilita mpatshi, or blissful dreams.
Sometimes journeyers reported spontaneous images
more often associated with rituals, sacred food and drink, dance,
“books” containing spiritual or medical instruction, gods, demons, wild
animals, even ostensible instances of clairvoyance and precognition.
Something as exotic as psychic phenomena is not
required to explain “dream-diagnosis.” Dreams that symbolically point to
illnesses not yet revealed are well known in literature. Aristotle observed
that “since the beginnings of all events are small, so, it is clear, are
those of the diseases... It is manifest that these beginnings be more evident
in sleeping than in waking moments.” In The Interpretation
of Dreams, Freud, too, cites with favor a colleague’s remark that during
sleep the mind “is obliged to receive and be affected by impressions of
stimuli from parts of the body and from changes in the body of which it
knows nothing when awake.” This, Freud said, occurred “owing to the
magnifying affect produced upon impressions by dreams.”
Jung was especially struck by the healing language
of dreams. He once wrote that the colorful imagery of seemingly diagnostic
dreams “often make it appear that it is a poet at work rather than a scientist.”
In a famous 1933 incident, a doctor read Jung a dream one of his patients
revealed about “extinct animals in a pond of oozy slime,” one of
them “a minute mastodon.” Jung, using intuitive reasoning too arcane
to recount here, said he
believed this indicated a damming-up of cerebrospinal fluid, probably due
to a tumor. This proved to be a correct diagnosis of a person he had never
Dreams themselves are alleged to possess healing
During the years of China’s Tan dynasty, the Emperor
Xuanzong fell ill with a deadly fever. In a dream he saw a terrifying deity
subjugating and destroying fiends. When he awoke, the fever had left him.
This 8th century account is reminiscent of the doctrines of the Greek Aesculapian
temples, where patients sought a vision of unmistakable meaning, called
“the effective dream.” The right healing dream, it was said, brought
the patient an immediate cure.
Jungian psychologist Meredith Sabini has also pursued
an interest in diagnostic dreams. Typically, she told me, the state of
the body is symbolized by the condition of objects like a house or
a car. “The car is complex enough to bear more sophisticated corres-pondences
to many bodily processes,” she told me. “The headlights to eyes, the four
tires to limbs, the electrical system to the nervous system, hoses
to circulation and so forth.”
I was fascinated! In several of my dreams, my symptoms
had been represented as mechanical failures in a 1949 Studebaker I had
once owned. Years later, I realized my beloved Stude was a vintage 1949,
my own birth-year.... clearly a symbol of my own body. In
another dream, I was burying in a deep grave a Volkswagen that “revved
in all gears.” I realized that here was a psychological as well as
a physical diagnosis: the image of a vehicle constantly at full throttle,
unable to slow down, was a fitting symbol of my workaholic lifestyle at
the time. It also aptly represented the thyroid gland itself, described
in one text as “the great controller of the speed of living."
Interestingly, a Volkswagen for me was also a symbol
of self-repair. I had at various times owned several cherished but temperamental
Bugs. Like a lot of unmechanically inclined people, I had managed, using
a grease-splotched copy of the famous “Idiot’s Guide,” to master a few
intricacies of carbueration adjustment (in a sense, the thyroid’s metabolic
function in the body). Was the dream heralding the possibility of self-healing?
Given the course I took, I will never know.
Marc Ian Barasch is the author of The Healing Path:
A Soul Approach to Illness. Tarcher/Putnam: 1993. He lists a request
for healing dreams in the Research Requests, Classified section, p. 48.
Address correspondence to 865 37th St. Boulder, CO 80303
Reprinted from Dream Network, Volume 15 #s 2&3