Dreamwork as Spiritual Practice

A Bird-Watching Dream Walk

Dreamwork includes practice in looking at waking life as if it were a dream—where the ordinary may become extraordinary, experiences have multiple layers of metaphorical meaning, and anything is possible. This is a useful spiritual practice, because, really, the world we see when we look at things with the freshness of a dream-perspective is more “true to life”—and certainly more interesting—than the habitual, predictable world we think we inhabit as we go about our business in the usual way.

Here’s a creative approach (particularly recommended by Robert Moss) to getting in touch with the dream-like nature of waking life, and the responsive relationship between ourselves and our world. Suppose you have a problem or concern, or you just want to better understand your current situation: Formulate a question, and just as you might hold this question in mind before sleep and hope to dream some kind of answer, you can treat your day (or a part of your day) as if it were a dream. Pay attention to what happens, and trust that information pertinent to your question will emerge. Any unusual event, or pattern of events, will contain a message.

I like to play this game with variations. Today, wanting a new perspective on this particular phase in my life, I decided that during my walk, I would let the birds speak to me, as if they were dream images. Each bird that approached me would be a messenger. I would notice what that bird did, and how my personal associations with the bird’s behavior might relate to my current life. I would notice the context in which the bird appeared, because that context might be relevant to the bird’s message. Finally, I would consider the bird-watching process as a dream that others might share, and try to understand how this experience could be part of a larger whole.

Okay. Here we go. (The photos are just of the environment where I saw each bird—my camera isn’t good enough to get decent bird pictures. Perhaps you can go out and see your own birds, to fill in the blanks…)

song sparrow thicket

song sparrow thicket

After I’ve been walking for a while, I come to the edge of my local park, and hear a song sparrow in a thicket right beside my path. A song sparrow is a plain, brown bird with a beautiful voice. This one is just twittering, not really singing. I have to look closely to find her (or him) in the tangle of twigs. Look—there are actually two song sparrows. A parent and baby. The adult has something in her/his mouth, and feeds it to the baby. As I climb a steep hill, I hear bird songs everywhere: robins, song sparrows, juncos, finches, warblers, chickadees, nuthatches… and many I can’t identify. Most of these birds remain out of sight today.

towhee slope

towhee slope

But then there is a loud, musical trill immediately to my left, in an open part of the wooded slope. A towhee stands on a low branch singing (like a whistle with a bubble in it) very close by. He is singing the familiar towhee song. Just as I am turning away, however, he makes a melodious chirping noise I’ve never heard from a towhee before.

After a lot more walking, up and over the hill, a movement on the trunk of a douglas-fir catches my eye. Two brown creepers skittering up and down, almost blending into the bark. They’re a bit more unusual than sparrows or towhees, so I go closer to get a better look, and they move to another tree farther away. As I approach again, they move to the other side of the tree, out of my sight.

brown creeper tree

brown creeper tree

Another song sparrow gives me his best, from a small tree beside me, just as I am leaving the park. He is in full view, quite handsome, and singing the lovely, full song sparrow melody, as if performing for me.I hear a woodpecker drumming, particularly loudly, high up in the woods behind me. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if it turned out to be a pileated woodpecker? Pileated woodpeckers are pretty unusual around here. I go back and scramble up the ivy-strewn slope, unable to tell exactly where the drumming is coming from. It’s moved further away now. I realize that I’m trying to make my own dream more meaningful by spotting something exciting. This bird apparently doesn’t want to be seen, so I let it be.

context for crows

Crow construction site

I almost don’t include the crows, hanging around a vacant construction site on my way home. It’s not a pretty setting, and crows like to hang around everywhere. But these crows notice me and caw at me a bit (as if mocking), just enough to make me aware that they are there.

I’m home now. What would I make of these bird-messengers if this were a dream? Here’s the commentary to my bird-walk:

In the tangle of my everyday busyness (the thicket), it’s good to pay attention to ordinary, simple things (song sparrows) that may provide nourishment (one feeding the other). There are many things available to be heard—listened to—but not seen and analyzed (songs everywhere, but birds mostly invisible). When there’s an opening (an open slope), I need to be patient and listen to familiar things long enough for them to surprise me (towhee singing an unusual song). In the still places (a large douglas-fir tree), there are subtle movements, cues to things I don’t want to miss (brown creepers)—but if I pursue them, they get further away. The plain and even drab aspects of my life can sing beautifully (song sparrow), and the more exotic prospects I pursue will probably lead nowhere (unlikely pileated woodpecker). Where only the bare foundation of my work is in place (construction site), there are trickster-type characters hanging about (crows), suggesting neither bad nor good omens, but the paradox of possibilities and the necessity of keeping my wits about me.

Beyond my personal dream story, this set of messages could apply to almost anyone. We often get so caught up in the importance of our plans and activities that we lose any sense of the life behind the routine. Often, on my walks, like all of the other people out walking “for exercise,” I don’t really feel the presence of other beings around me: other people, the birds, the trees, the insects… What does this say to me? A towhee and a song sparrow sang for me today. And the crows told me to sharpen up. This waking dream message seems to say: don’t rush, don’t push, pay attention to ordinary things.



  1. Elizabeth Herr

    Thank you for sharing the Bird Watching Dream walk. Your insight is inspiring. I would like to let myself dream while watching the large variety of birds at our bird feeder. I am captivated by their songs and their interactions with each other. I draw them , yet I search for meaning.

    • kirstenbackstrom

      Thank you, Elizabeth! I wish I could draw well enough to draw the birds… but I try to find meaning in them just by watching and listening. I think they are meaningful in themselves–just as we are meaningful in ourselves. No need to search? I’m so glad you found inspiration in my words. I found inspiration in your response, too.

      • Elizabeth Herr

        Thank you for your kind response Kirsten.

        As I was busy identifying the various species of birds and visually recording their likeness in my field journal, I was awestruck at the complexity of these seemingly common creatures. I set out to draw all 25 species that have visited our bird feeder and upon close observation witnessed the distinct differences in their beaks, feathers, wings, feet, colors and overall shape.

        We have enjoyed watching and talking about the behaviors of the birds. Some are aggressive, while others seem to be nonchalant. Some may approach the feeder with a squak while others come in quietly and flit about nervously.

        The variety of sounds should be recorded, as it is hard to put each sound to words. The important thing to note is that the songs, when combined, are a symphony of music; sometimes in discord but most often times in harmony.

        • kirstenbackstrom

          That certainly sounds meaningful to me! You are finding meaning in the direct encounter with those birds. Blessings on your bird-dreaming!

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