Dreamwork as Spiritual Practice

Two Basic Dreamwork Skills

Dreamwork is more of an art than a science. And like most arts, even a beginner can use the basic tools in a creative way and come out with satisfying results. Of course, this assumes that the medium itself doesn’t require specialized skills (a beginner couldn’t do much with a chisel and a block of marble)—but even though dreamwork can seem daunting at first, exploring and experimenting with the essential medium of dreams comes as naturally to most human beings as playing with modeling clay, or clapping a rhythm, or making up a story.

To become a real artist of dreamwork (an ongoing process, rather than a final identity), like becoming a real sculptor or drummer or fiction writer, requires intensive practice and the cultivation of individual abilities. But the first steps are easy for anyone, and if you can grasp a couple of basics, you can easily play around with dreams, have fun, learn a lot, and even impress people with your terrific insight!

In my experience, the two most essential tools used by dreamworkers are: 1) the process of making associations to dream images; and 2) the principle that every aspect of the dream is an aspect of the dreamer.

Specific schools of dreamwork add more tools, and some (such as shamanic dreamwork) have very different ways of understanding association and identity in dreams—but almost everybody who sees dreams as meaningful recognizes that metaphor is the language of dreams, and that these two basic tools are among the best ways of looking at metaphorical language.

Basic tool #1: The associative process means that I look for connections with a particular image, on a personal, cultural, and universal level.

If I dream of climbing a mountain, for example, my personal associations might include a hike I took last week during which I sprained my ankle and needed to ask strangers for help (this is a made up story: my ankle is fine). A cultural association might be that mountains generally are associated with striving, accomplishing, personal challenge, and Mallory’s famous line about climbing Everest “because it’s there.” (In modern Nepalese culture, by contrast, mountains might be more associated with hazardous skilled work that could provide support for a family, or tourist business that could support a community). On a universal or archetypal level, in all human cultures, mountains evoke awe, are associated with grandeur and power, and are often the mythic link between heaven and earth.

Any image in a dream can be explored on these three levels, and, to a greater or lesser degree, all three levels of meaning are likely to be present, overlapping and sometimes contradicting one another.

Basic tool #2: The principle that every aspect of the dream is an aspect of the dreamer can open the way for surprising discoveries. It’s as if the dream is a play, and although we are meant to identify most with the central character, every character, stage set and prop is part of the whole performance.

So, if I’m the dreamer, then the “I” character in the dream (known as the dream-ego or dream-self) represents the parts of me that I readily identify with. And the other characters in the dream are parts of me that I less readily identify with. Dream figures that are frightening, aggressive, disturbing, or distasteful might hold qualities that are quite distant from my usual identity, and those that I find agreeable or friendly might hold qualities closer to my usual identity.

When I, the dreamer, see how “I,” the dream-ego, interacts with other figures in the dream, I get a sense of the way my inner world is working. Re-imagining the dream from the perspective of the different characters, and allowing each to express what she/he/it wants and needs, is an exercise in empathizing with parts of ourselves we tend to reject, and also is a first step in “taking back our projections” of those qualities onto others. This can have a significant effect on our waking relationships! (Jeremy Taylor’s Projective Dream Work explores these concepts in depth.)

The next time you’ve got a baffling dream on your hands—like a lump of heavy clay—try pinching and squishing and shaping without working too hard to figure it out. Don’t try to be a great artist, just see what you can do with what you’ve got: look for personal, cultural, and universal associations to the images; and see if you can imagine the dream story from the perspective of each character or object in the dream. What does the dream have to say for itself? Remember: like a lump of soft clay, a dream doesn’t turn out to be any one thing absolutely—it can take all sorts of unexpected shapes, and the more you work it, the more flexible it becomes.



  1. Jon Andres

    I work as a hospital chaplain and I often wonder about the dreams of people who are approaching death as well as caregivers for those at end of life. Is this a special category of dreaming/dreamwork? Here, the metaphor of death becomes very literal. You may have addressed this in previous blog entries, but I am a new subscriber and find this to be relevant in my life and work right now.

    • kirstenbackstrom

      Thank you for your thoughtful comment, Jon. Yes, death dreams are a significant theme in themselves–and are especially important to me because of my own background in hospice and eldercare settings, as well as my work as a spiritual director specializing in “threshold work” such as illness, grief, death, and difficult life changes. There are a lot of blog posts about these things; if you look in the “categories” section in the right sidebar, you’ll find a drop-down menu. The categories for “Dreams Related to Death and Dying” and “Threshold Work” contain many of these posts. Especially, there’s a series: “Walking in the Dark,” “Death Dreams & Open Fields, “Not Knowing, “Journeys into the Unknown,” and “Death Dreams Are Healing Dreams.” (They’re listed in reverse chronological order.) I also lead presentations and workshops on death dreams periodically (they’ll be posted when they occur). If you feel like talking more about this in person or over the phone, please feel free to e-mail me and we can arrange an appointment (a one-hour initial appointment is free–and I’d be interested in hearing your experiences).

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