Nightmare Time

I recently came across an essay written in Aeon magazine: Nightmares Becalmed by Michelle Carr. True to its title, the thrust of the essay is to describe technological means of altering recurring nightmares so that the dreamer is no longer assaulted by the emotional intensity of the dream and can get a good night’s sleep. The benefits of sleeping well each night cannot be overstated, and for those suffering from sleep deprivation, medication is often prescribed to reduce anxiety, pain, or invading thoughts sufficiently to give our bodies rest and recuperation. As the author says:

Most of us have had a nightmare or a few. They’re a normal response to stress. But for a significant minority of people, they’re so frequent – about 5 per cent of the population experiences nightmares on a weekly basis or worse – that the disruption to sleep can be severely harmful to mental health, increasing symptoms of anxiety, depression and even suicide risk….

Dream Engineering is another sophisticated technological tool in the effort to serve the well-being of the dreamer. “I want to uncover ways to repair nightmares and, in their place, engineer dreams for healing.” By “repair” Carr means to rescript the harmful nightmare to one more favourable to the ego’s well-being. This engineering is facilitated by research into connections between body and mind so that the body may be influenced externally while the dreamer sleeps, or even while awake, and this in turn may influence the dreaming. And it works. A dream of a terrifying tiger, for example, once reimagined in waking life as a paper tiger, gave rise to more restful nights of sleeping for one dreamer.

 While extolling the clear advantages of dream engineering, author Carr privileges the dominant mechanical view of dreams. Certain dream scripts can be disturbing to the well-being of the dreamer, so the healing task is to change that script technologically to one that can promote a good night’s sleep. Bad dreams are replaced by good dreams. This approach is analogous to allopathic medicine’s treatment of bodily invasions of unwanted bacteria. The doctor gives medicine to reduce the harmful bacteria and strengthen good bacteria. 

I was astonished in reading another example of a nightmare that Carr included in the essay:

I was on a bus. I don’t know where we were or where we were going. The sun was moving across the sky way too fast. I tried speaking to the other passengers but none of them seemed able to hear me. I went to speak to the driver but there wasn’t one, the bus was driving itself. It was night-time now and completely dark outside. The bus speeded up and the engine noise made it clear we were going way too fast. The full moon came up and was moving fast across the sky like the sun had done. I tried to alert the other passengers. I tried to access the driver’s compartment but it wouldn’t open. The other passengers just sat there. I began to panic. I woke up still hyperventilating.

Carr goes on to say how she assisted the dreamer to change the script so that he could “be calmer”. Such a technological approach to dreams is consistent with the world-wide perspective today of the things of the world (including dreams) being exploitable resources that we can and should engineer to our own benefit. This unstoppable drive to reduce the world to a resource solely for our personal benefit, completely obliterates the nature of dreams. Dreams are soul phenomena that, in their very nature, mean! Dreams are living meaning. This claim cannot be proved but can be experienced. It is the a priori of dreamwork, or at least used to be so. Science has its own a priori too, without which it could not proceed. The a priori of science is: all objects of scientific research are, in their nature, external to the observer, i.e. the observer does not participate in their being.

Carr’s professions as a Dream Engineer is not the least bit interested in the nightmare above as being living meaning which may therefore instruct us human beings in our existence. She only wants to engineer a better outcome for the dreamer. But if we do approach the dream as being living meaning, what may we discover and what may be revealed to us from the form of the meaning presented to the dreamer, i.e. its nightmarish quality? The dream “says” in image form that “we are going way too fast”. The dream pairs this horrifying experience with an even more alarming detail—the sun is moving across the sky way too fast! The dreamer later on tried to return this startling image to his familiar world by claiming that the sun’s going too fast is a picture of a day going quickly, like a film speeded up, so that the bus only appears to go way too fast. This procedure of reducing something frighteningly unfamiliar to familiar terms of course is “calming” but misses the meaning completely. 

The dream is uncompromisingly “saying” that the sun is going way too fast across the sky and so everything is speeding up here too, and weirdly growing darker. How ironic that the author enthusiastically embraces her discipline by claiming “It’s such an exciting time to be a dream engineer – the field is moving fast.” How would she react if she had paired such a claim with the nightmare above which “says” that all such earthly events are speeding up, along with a darkening mood, under the influence of the dream sun’s speeding up? In dream “speech” the “sun” is not just another item in the physical universe (the physical sun is not speeding up). Such is not the meaning of “sun”. As a soul phenomenon,  the dreamer’s “sun” is a symbol of time itself speeding up—-and this implicit knowledge is an alien thought terrifying to the dreamer, as it should be for all of us. This process cannot be controlled by us human beings. It is a “happening” that is happening to us and it is a darkening time (see note below).

Time is speeding up! That is what the dream means. Clock time, that is physical time, does not speed up so only the soul can “speak” and mean time speeding up. We all feel this speeding up of time as stress. “We don’t have enough time”; “we are running out of time”; “there’s not enough time in the day”, “hurry up”, etc. We all say these phrases today but do not take them seriously as pointing to an objective reality—in the way the dreamer’s nightmare is “speaking”. Time (i.e. soul movement) IS speeding up and it is terrifying to think this thought because we cannot control it. The “sun’s” going way too fast means that a process or soul movement is sufficiently at variance with clock time (e.g. the physical sun’s velocity) that we are now in the position to distinguish this variance in experience. The objective reality of soul movement as such) is impressing itself on our existence. This is a terrifying experience for all those who believe they are the centre of all action in the world.

To detect a determinative movement that simply cannot be reduced to physical or outer locomotion (even as the dreamer subsequently tried to do so) is a nightmare—terrifying. But it also could be initiatory for us. We could learn from such dreams that we are subject to movement that does not have its source in the physical world and is nonetheless determinative in our lives, as we can see with the overwhelming  stress in our lives—stress being, after all, a time disease.


“Time speeding up” was not so alien to our ancestor’s minds. It could also “stand still”. When the sun reached noon, time was felt to stand still, just for a moment (which has its own duration). And that meant that everything on earth stood still too.  Nature paused to listen. This was Pan’s time, a time of music, a time of panic, when something alien to the human condition could break through harmoniously or disruptively.