The Healing Language of Dreams
Our Dreams Can Warn & Inform of Physical Disease and Prescribe the Rx

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:
complete hopelessness; a black, no exit despair.

    As I wake up, slathered in fear-sweat, my heart beating hooves on my ribcage, I become aware that I am yelling aloud.
    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 met.
    Dreams themselves are alleged to possess healing powers.
    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

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