Electric Dreams

 The Meaning of Apocalyptic Dreams

Henry Reed 

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Reed, Henry (1995 March 30). The Meaning of Apocalyptic Dreams. Electric Dreams 2(5). Retrieved July 31, 2000 from Electric Dreams on the World Wide Web: http://www.dreamgate.com/electric-dreams  

Might apocalyptic dreams serve a function for the dreamer similar to that served by apocalyptic visions for an entire culture? Just as apocalyptic visions have been common to religions for thousands of years, so too do such dreams appear in individuals. What do these dreams mean? Might therapists use these dreams for diagnostic purposes? Dr. Mortimer Ostow, a New York psychiatrist, believes so. He recently published a history of apocalyptic visions and compared them with the dreams of his patients who were suffering from schizophrenia, borderline personality disorders, manics, and depressives.

Apocalyptic visions share many common elements. They view the outcome of life as "a violent struggle between good and evil forces." This struggle is perceived as the last days of the world as we know it. Often there is some foreshadowing of catastrophic earth changes and upheavals. Apocalyptic visions are revelations, usually given by an omniscient source, to serve as a warning and show the eventual outcome of the human condition. Any potential redemption is offered by some messianic figure, angels, or demons. Finally, there is the promise of a prolonged or eternal peaceful time where those who have struggled will be rewarded. Out of death and destruction comes some form of rebirth, the phoenix rising up out of the ashes.

Dr. Ostow describes correlations with these patterns to several apocalyptic-type dreams of his patients. These dreams might be an attempt to regulate the disturbances within the psyche. The alternating images of de-struction and con-struction correspond to the process of trying to regulate conscious control within the dreamer. A patient might be aware of an internal struggle, whose feelings surface through a dream showing the patient's psyche struggling with a sense of doom and destruction, followed by a scenario for recovery, yet oftentimes finishing by giving up, being swallowed by the catastrophic forces.

A particular case example demonstrates how one patient's dream relays a scene of complete destruction, followed by a sense of hope for the future, yet concludes by giving in to the catastrophe. A suicidally depressed woman dreams that a tremendous flood sweeps away the entire world. She tries to save herself by staying on a boat, complete with a kitchen stocked with food. The end of the dream, however, focuses on all the people drowning and their various reactions to this plight. Dr. Ostow determined that this patient was aware of her present depressive state, attempts to save herself from this "flood" of depression, and yet suppresses the attempt at recovery and slips back into a suicidal condition.

Apocalyptic dreams have widespread occurrence, but for a variety of mental illnesses these dreams have a special function. From a psychiatric point of view, apocalyptic dreams might be an important source for doctors to ascertain what types of medication, if any, might be most appropriate for their patients, as well as relaying the progress of the psyche in its process of healing. Apocalyptic dreams don't have to mean the end of the world, but may outline the transformation of an unbearable inner condition.

Source: "The interpretation of apocalyptic Dreams," _Dreaming: The Journal of the Association for the Study of Dreams_, Vol. #2, No. 1, 1992, pp. 1-14.

Wilkerson, Richard Catlett (1995 March 30). Commentary: on "Apocalyptic Dreams." Electric Dreams 2(5). Retrieved July 31, 2000 from Electric Dreams on the World Wide Web: http://www.dreamgate.com/electric-dreams


How might we at Electric Dreams convert these clinical suggestions to our use? One idea that occurs to me is to particularize the general notion that apocalypse involves the disintegration of the whole personality or self structures. That it may only be a small and quite manageable part of us that is *feeling* like its all over. How many of us had to extend this kind of thought to, for example, our teenage daughters when they have been humiliated at school by a pimple or public embarrassment and weep about how their life is over? My feeling is that dreams too can inflate their given situation and for most of us it is more likely (or more usefully seen as) the disintegration of an old habit, relationship or value. 

Given this transition to apocalypse of the particular, what else might we derive from clinical studies? One notion I want to pick up on in Henry Reed's article is the polarization he mentioned that seems to be a thread in these dreams. 

If the individual is leaving and old meaning, value or relationship - it is going to leave a *gap* in the area that used to mediate the opposites and we can predict from this a clash of the now unmediated sides. We see the dark self and can no longer live that way anymore, the old world collapses. 

The daughter who up to that time has relied upon her innocence and the goodness of others has been given a glimpse and that world is now gone. Thank goodness we have an even more interesting world(s) to offer her! 

And so, as Reed has suggested, these dreams may be used as maps to our traversing unbearable conditions. In this sense the images hold an contain us through the transition, providing mediation both in the old value system we might be leaving as well as the new one we might still be trying to enter.


 Henry Reed
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