Have you ever had the feeling that your thoughts were more foe than friend? For me, there’s always a theme to my stressful thoughts and they involve events over which I have no control.
In the spring of 1999, a tornado ripped a massive old oak tree out of my backyard and threw it into my neighbor’s driveway, crushing three cars. I’ve had nightmares about tornadoes ever since. And ever since I was a little kid, I’ve had nightmares about being engulfed in tsunami-like waves.
Just last week, I dreamed that my son had a bunch of friends over to play. One of them opened the back door to go outside and said, “Look at that cloud!” It was a funnel cloud headed right for our home.
I screamed for everyone to get inside, but I couldn’t find my son. In that moment of panic I realized I was dreaming and told myself to wake up. But somehow I chose to find my son first. My panic continued to rise as I searched for him in vain, and then, just as I felt the tornado sucking the air out of the house, I commanded myself to wake up. I woke in a cold sweat.
Carl Jung said, “When an inner situation is not made conscious, it happens outside as fate.” No, I don’t think my dreams are inviting another tornado to come roaring up to my house, but I do think my recent unconscious experiences provide an opportunity to look at other things in my life I consider undesirable, or even nightmarish, and invite myself to wake up to the reality, which is storm-free.
Even in my nightmare I wanted to make things right — I wanted to find my son and keep him safe before I would wake up. How often do I try to force a conclusion — what I consider to be a desirable outcome — instead of finding what is perfect in the moment? It happens a lot. That’s why, I think, I chose to keep the nightmare going rather than wake up to reality.
A couple of years ago I attended the “Who Would You Be Without Your Story?” event hosted by Byron Katie. For three days she helped people wake up from what I consider the worst nightmares — death of a child, sexual abuse, chronic pain, addiction — and see that our biggest crises are our greatest teachers. She said, “If you see anything as the enemy, your mind gives you all the concepts to believe it. To break free, we need big teachers.”
I want to share a bit of dialogue between Byron Katie and a woman who had a son, sister and mother die from cancer. She said she was in constant pain because of her losses. She said cancer was the enemy and she hated it. Katie invited her to do the Work with her. I’ve shared Katie’s (to me) revolutionary process in other articles, and you can read more here if it’s new to you. But here is her conversation with this woman:
BK: What image do you see when you think the thought, “Cancer is the enemy and I hate it.”
Woman: I see my son dying.
BK: Go back to what you were doing when he was dying…
Woman: I was loving my son.
BK: That sounds beautiful.
Woman: He said, “I love you…forever.” right before he died. I guess I can hold on to that thought.
BK: What did cancer teach you?
Woman: It taught me that I’m a loving mother. I used to doubt that.
BK: Give me another example of what cancer taught you.
Woman: Cancer taught me to live. It taught me not to take anyone or anything for granted.
BK: Cancer is a great teacher.
If you have a problem with a person, or a condition, you find undesirable, Katie invites you to put your stressful thoughts on paper and question them using her process.
The questions educate you. They teach you that it is not your situation, but your thoughts about your situation that make it undesirable. If you do the Work, you learn to replace the stressful thoughts with non-stressful thoughts that are as true or more true when compared to the ones you’ve been having.
We think we want control over undesirable situations, but don’t we all really want peace? After all, everything “out there” really is out of our control. But our thoughts are under our control. As long as we are aware of them, we can write them down, we can invite them to tell us what they want to say, and we can find out from them what we need to learn.
Bad feelings are an alarm clock, signaling to us that we need to wake up from our dream. What do you do when you find yourself in a nightmare? Please share in the comments!