Is Dreamwork a Cure for Nostalgia?

You may not want a cure for your nostalgia, and that’s okay. I’m not sure yet I want to “cure” mine. It’s served me well across many years and many stages of life, as has my capacity for daydreaming.

But I am strongly considering the possibility of giving it up.

Like the other coping mechanisms we developed in childhood and adolescence that enabled us to survive loneliness, awkwardness, abuse, or cruelty, nostalgia and daydreaming allow us a respite from grief and from pain. For some of us, reminiscing about past experiences of joy, intimacy, and connectedness is the only way we can access rich feeling anymore; so dissociated we’ve become from our hearts, so detached from our bodies.

We nostalgics, somewhere along the way, unlearned how to feel in proximity; we trained ourselves to feel only at a distance. It’s safer. More in our control.

We nostalgics became skilled instead at re-inhabiting moments from the past, inaccessible and nearly forgotten had we not called them to memory time and again in an attempt to battle impermanence.

We learned that supplemental tools could support us in this effort: images, music, smells, tastes. We dip into the photo albums, the old videos, the comfort food, the perfume bottle when we feel it’s safe enough to remember.

(Sometimes, we avoid all of the above instead, in order to forget.)

Are you familiar with this experience?

As an example, imagine someone (perhaps it is you) who is more apt to cry watching an old home video than she is to sink or soften into a long hug with a loved one. Or imagine someone (perhaps it is you) who is unable to accept a heartfelt expression of love offered by your father, but can sit for hours with old greeting cards reading the loving words of affirmation written by family members now grown, moved away, or passed

Both scenarios are familiar to me. (Perhaps, the someone is me.) Photos, videos, old greeting cards — I can easily become immersed in feelings when I am communing with the past. Set me up with a video of my children from when they were little, turn on a song with some minor chords, and watch me weep.

There’s something so deeply satisfying about the act of slipping away into memory, especially into the fantasy version of memory that contains only fragments, usually the pleasant ones, though, and hardly ever the painful ones. We may pull those painful memories out, however, when we are pained —perhaps an act of self-flagellation after we’ve been hurt. We call those fragments up to remind ourselves why we shouldn’t have ever let ourselves get close to someone in the first place.

Nostalgia has served me well. And maybe, you, too. 

I am thankful for my creative imagination and powerful ability for recall for keeping me safe when I felt unsafe, for entertaining me when I desperately needed distraction, and for reminding me I once felt loved, seen, and cared for even if I didn’t in the moment. 

However, I’ve been thinking about how sinking into nostalgia and fantasy has surely hampered my growth and healing and kept me distanced from people I could have become closer to.

It might be time for nostalgia to retire. 

* * *

I was very attuned from the beginning of motherhood to the impermanence of my children’s childhood. There were days when I would sit and watch my children at play and implore myself to “remember this moment, remember this moment.”

Yet inevitably, the moment passed, and while I do remember some of them, I can’t quite inhabit the feeling of them, not unless I am watching old home videos, scrolling through photos while listening to poignant music, or inside a vivid dream.

Yes, sometimes in a vivid dream I am able to feel it.

In a dream, unlike watching an old video, the experience feels present, alive, and sensory-rich. It’s full-bodied and intense. It feels less in and of my mind. It feels like it’s happening to me, rather than to a version of me I once was.

Especially just after waking, these moments feel so precious — and sometimes so achingly painful– because there’s a distant knowing that I am being gifted a return to an encounter I thought was lost to me forever.

There is my son, now 20, as a toddler. He invites me with his pudgy fingers to try the strawberry that was just in his mouth. I am. He is. A present moment.

There is my high school boyfriend serenading me with a guitar on the deck of a beach house. I see myself in the reflection of the patio door. My hair blonder, my skin smoother. He is. I am. A present moment.

There is my old camp friend, still a teenager, still alive, still healthy, leaning over from the top bunk to shine a flashlight in my eyes. We giggle endlessly. I feel the giggles in my gut. I wake up with that feeling. I wake up feeling young, so young.

The dreams feel real.

Since I have been engaged in dreamwork, there have been more and more dreams; and a lot more of the kind that feel real.

* * *

It would be easy to make a comparison between the two, nostalgic pining and lingering over a dream.

But they’re different. I can’t tell you exactly how or why they’re different. But they are.

The biggest difference is nostalgic longing keeps me in the past …or it keeps the past here in me. 

Dreams images are spontaneous. They are new. Even when the characters and subject matter are seemingly familiar.

Since I’ve been working with my dream images and dream experiences using Natural Dreamwork, I find myself in a new kind of feeling space both in dreams and in waking life: one with greater intensity, one that is more embodied and sensory.

One that is open to change; even around the most painful matters.

* * *

Over the last few years, in my dreams, I find myself in more intimate and affecting encounters, with people or with my environment.  Subsequently, in waking life, I have become more open to feeling and more allowing of it, even when it’s unpleasant. 

In parallel, the feelings I get from a dose of nostalgia now feel a little synthetic, artificial. I am more aware that when I reach for images or music or food of the past, I am trying to induce feeling, rather than opening to and allowing feeling, whatever feeling arises.

Nostalgia is very much about control feeling, I believe. And very much in the mind.

Dreams seem to be the work of the soul. It operates through me.

* * *

Again, there was a time in my life when that behavior was necessary for my survival, or at least in order for me to cope with certain circumstances I wasn’t equipped to cope with at the time.

Now, I can see more clearly when, how, and why I may try to induce synthetic feelings; for instance, there are types of situations that cause me to reach for nostalgia or for fantasy. Stress. Overwhelm. Monotony.

Since I’ve been working my dreams (part of which involves stopping during a dreamwork session to feel a feeling from a dream), I am less inclined to reach for fantasy in my waking life hours, and more eager to feel what’s there before me in the present. 

As it relates to moments with my children, I no longer will myself to “remember this moment, remember this moment.” (It’s futile.)

Instead, I try my best to feel what is there, even if that feeling is overwhelm or concern or despair, and even though I know the joy is oh-so-fleeting.

Working my dreams seems to have triggered a response deep within me. It’s as if doing so sends my heart a message that it’s okay to feel again. 

In waking life, I am deeply moved at times when I previously would have been checked out.

Senses formerly dulled are being re-awakened.

There is more pleasure. There is more connection. There is more wonder and awe. There is more appreciation.

Sometimes, there also is aching and fear. Sometimes grief. Long overdue grief. 

In her book, Who Are Those Guys?, Natural Dreamwork co-founder Mary Jo Heyen (of blessed memory) expresses this feedback loop of dreamwork so well.

She writes, “As we listen and learn from what it is our dreams want for us, something remarkable happens. We find that we change both in our dreams and in our outer world. We heal from the inside out. We begin to have dreams where we are less reactive with a need to control. We become more willing to be vulnerable without the need to know and manage everything… As we come into alignment with the soul, qualities we thought we’d lost for good … true joy, sensuality, creativity, our ability to feel the full range of emotions from deepest pain to deepest love … all begin to return to us.”

What I would add is that when we work our dreams, we eventually find we don’t need nostalgia (or fantasy) as much anymore as we once did. 

We can more willingly be with what is, and who we are, as it is and as we are now.

Not always, but a lot of the time. And for me, increasingly more of the time, as I open again to feeling that full range of emotions.

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