On False Awakenings

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Ending Nightmares for Good

“False Awakenings” are dreams in which you think that you have awakened from a dream when you have not. You continue to dream. False awakenings are different from lucid dreaming in that in lucid dreaming you know you are dreaming and stay dreaming. In false awakenings you know you are dreaming but then attempt to awaken out of the dream only to awaken into a dream that is the context, set, or ground, in which the previous dream was figure. You do not know that you are still dreaming, although it is possible to have either another false awakening, move into lucidity, or wake up. False awakenings are also called “inceptions,” “double dreams,” or a “dream within a dream.”

False awakenings are clearly attempts to wake up, and therefore on a scale of lucid dreaming would be more lucid than normal dreams but less lucid than lucid dreams. As such, they can be considered a type of pre-lucid dream.

Here is an example of false awakening as nightmare in a sufferer of post-traumatic stress disorder:

There is a different kind of nightmare which I don’t know how to deal with. It centers more around anxieties from the future. Ever since that terror attack, which happened at work, I got scared that a terrorist will break into my house while I am asleep and kill me (At the time there actually were some incidents like this). The nightmare goes like this:

I dream about something normal, then I am suddenly awake because I hear footsteps in the next room. Also the night-light is off. I am scared to death. I try to get up and can’t see anything because it’s so dark. Then I suddenly wake up with my heart racing and realize it was a dream. But then to my horror some man actually walks into my room, sits on me while I am in bed and pins me down so that I can’t get up. He wants to kill me. I scram and I try to fight, but he is stronger than me. Then I wake up for real.

The problem with this dream is that I “wake up” several times during the dream and then I don’t know what is a dream and what’s reality (at night). I feel Like a victim. I know the man wants to kill me. I don’t know how to deal with this kind of dream. And I suffer a lot from this dream.

Notice that this is a special subcategory of false awakening. It is not only a nightmare, but a PTSD nightmare. Also notice that the sufferer is deep within the Drama Triangle: she is a victim in her own experience at the time she experiences this horribly frightening nightmare; as the source of her dream experiences, she has manufactured at least three persecutors: the darkness, the attacker, and the inability to awaken-i.e., false awakening. She attempts to rescue herself by waking up but fails to escape her attacker.

Just as PTSD nightmares are excellent subjects for understanding the sources and effects of dreams in general, false awakening dreams associated with PTSD nightmares such as this one, shine light on some of the possible dynamics around false awakenings in general.  PTSD sufferers are unable to escape from their anxiety for very long. They are unable to awaken out of the waking nightmare of their fear.  Whatever they try to do in order to “wake up” out of the anxiety, does not work. Their attempts at rehabilitation amount to “false awakenings.”

Secondly, waking anxieties and fears clearly fuel PTSD nightmares, just as PTSD nightmares fuel waking anxieties.  Consequently, in order to stop false awakenings, which are a depiction of the subject’s inability to wake up out of his or her waking fears, the waking anxiety has to be interrupted.  The IDL interviewing protocol is designed to do this. When the subject turns her fear into a color and allows that color to congeal into a shape, she is mimicking the dream creation process.  Then, by interviewing the result, she is first respecting and then integrating her fear through the practice of deep listening.  When and if the fear transforms into a self-aspect that is high-scoring, the subject has generated an authentic, organic antidote to her internal conflict.  When she remembers to become that self, persona, role, or self-aspect, particularly at the onset of anxiety, she is practicing waking up out of her waking nightmare.  She will slide back in again, as we all do, but by repeating the interviewing process regularly with other personifications of her anxiety and other dream characters she discovers fresh, salient ways to perceive and incorporate her split off anxiety.  Such a process does not guarantee the elimination of PTSD, but if interviewing is performed daily and if the subject works diligently at becoming high-scoring self-aspects at recommended occasions, significant improvement can be expected.

Thirdly, this dream makes clear that PTSD sufferers are afraid of death, for good reason.  They have experienced one or more life-threatening traumas that almost literally scared them to death. However, high scoring self-aspects, such as one often accesses in IDL interviews, are not.  They represent parts of ourselves that have witnessed but not participated in life drama as victim, persecutor, or rescuer. When you become them, for that time you transcend your fear of death. This may be thought of as a type of practice at dying, as is meditation and as is the following exercise.  PTSD clients need to imagine their nightmares during their waking experience and allow themselves to be “killed” in the experience. They need to do their very best to experience themselves as actually dying and then finally, completely dead, with no thoughts and no feelings. Thoughts and feelings that arise indicate that the subject has not fully, completely died. Complete death means the complete surrender of struggle; such a unconditional capitulation is absolutely necessary for the rehabilitation from PTSD, since it is the very fear of death that maintains the cycle. Again, IDL subjects get a dose of this when they become high-scoring self-aspects, but that is not enough for people with PTSD. They need to practice being dead by finishing off their re-experiencing of their nightmare by actually experiencing being killed, dying, and staying with the experience of being dead.  If they do, they will move into a state of deathless, fearless, anxiety-free peace and spaciousness.  The more this exercise is repeated the more a new perceptual framework that transcends and includes the old evolves.

Most importantly and most profoundy, false awakenings are a metaphor for the human condition. At some point we outgrow our awakenings. Our first love, a genuine first awakening, is often looked at in retrospect as an embarrassing delusion. Our loyalty to our family, employers, and nation is often experienced as a type of awakening into honor, honesty, and commitment, only to later be understood as a form of sleepwalking enslavement to cultural dreams.  By making such statements I am not negating the importance or value of any of these experiences or commitments; they have their place. I am simply pointing out a simple fact of human experience: if we are fortunate, we wake up out of false awakenings. Nor is it cynical to assume that this process is unlikely to end. In fact, it is a sign of hope, an indication that growth continues, and that enlightenment will never be a final, static awakening, regardless of how transformative it is.

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