…when you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you. – Friedrich Nietzsche
After I came back from the war in Vietnam, I started having terrible nightmares.
For several years afterward, I’d wake up sweating and terrified after finding myself right back in the war. At first, the dreams seemed to replay a confused jumble of my worst wartime experiences, and then they gradually resolved into one consistent and repetitive nightmare—that despite serving my time, I had to go back into the Army, and back into combat, forever.
In my dream two silent sergeants from the military police would appear at my door, hand me my jungle fatigues, and forcibly haul me away. “This is a terrible mistake!” I’d tell them loudly, “I served my time!” Then, in a millisecond, I found myself back in the combat zone, a medic treating the bloody wounded, a furious firefight going on around me, bullets and rockets and shrapnel flying. This grave fear assailed me every night. I often woke up yelling, flailing, even screaming, drenched and panting, my heart pounding, in an abject blood-curdling panic. My nightmares would exhaust me, but afterwards I rarely could go back to sleep, my emotions raised to a fever pitch and my psyche battered by my own mind.
Those violent and horrifying nightmares plagued me almost every night for a few years. I soon dreaded going to sleep, because I knew what awaited me there. As my sleep deprivation increased I became less and less able to stave off the nightmares, and my psychological and spiritual resilience diminished. I grew tense, anxiety-ridden, with a hair-trigger temper and a bizarre feeling that I was somehow doing battle with myself—my conscious, waking life at peace, but my inner self still at war. I realized that I had left the war, but the war hadn’t left me.
PTSD happens to people who experience traumatic life events, and undergo “intense fear, horror or helplessness,” according to psychiatry’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. PTSD sufferers go through what the professionals call “persistent re-experiencing”–which explains my recurring nightmares–and also suffer from “persistent avoidance,” “emotional numbing,” hyperarousal and hypervigilance. Their anger mounts. Their startle response rises. They often fail to see any potential future, and typically have a decreased capacity to feel the same emotions others feel.
Happily, real help for PTSD exists today—treatment protocols, medications, cognitive behavioral therapy—but it didn’t yet exist during the time of my postwar nightmares. So instead, I began a sort of self-induced personal intervention to try to direct my own dreams, and see if I could find some way to stop those nightmares.
Trying to learn as much about dreams as I could, I researched and perused many books on dreaming and what we know about dreams. I read what the various religious traditions had to say about dreams, with my focus on the Baha’i writings, where I found a great deal of helpful information and inspiration. I studied the work of the recognized dream experts—Freud, Jung, Perls—and I talked to several sleep and dream scientists about the studies they’d undertaken. Eventually, with all of this background, I began to try to understand–and direct–my own dreams.
In the course of this process, which eventually helped me recover from PTSD, I delved deeply into the world of dreams, and gradually found something there I hadn’t expected to find—a source of spiritual insight into my own soul. I learned, from a Baha’i perspective, that our souls have no limitations, and that our dreams reflect that reality:
The mind is circumscribed, the soul limitless. It is by the aid of such senses as those of sight, hearing, taste, smell and touch, that the mind comprehendeth, whereas the soul is free from all agencies. The soul as thou observest, whether it be in sleep or waking, is in motion and ever active. Possibly it may, whilst in a dream, unravel an intricate problem, incapable of solution in the waking state. – Abdu’l-Baha, Tablet to Auguste Forel, p. 8.
So in this series of essays on dreams, we’ll ask questions about why all human beings dream; we’ll take a look at the most current science on sleep and dreaming; we’ll explore what our dreams might mean; we’ll examine the deep connection between dreams, spirituality and religion; and I’ll try to tell you a few of the things I learned about the remarkable and mystical world of dreams, that amazing place we each visit every night.