Dreamwork as Spiritual Practice

Dream Catalysts and Witnesses

In the previous post, I focused on the dream figure of the Companion, who can represent our essential connectedness with others, and with life itself. Dream figures that serve as Companions, or as Messengers, Guides, and Guardians, tend to have strong individual characteristics, and can seem to be independent entities with their own reasons for taking part in any particular dream. Some other dream figures, such as Witnesses and Catalysts, can seem more objective, even neutral. Although they play meaningful roles in our dreams, they may not seem to have great significance in themselves.

A couple of years ago, when I was coping with a lot of change, I had a series of dreams in which I saved, or tried to save, a child from drowning. Sometimes these children were girls, sometimes boys, and they ranged in age from about two to about 10. They were children of diverse ethnicities, from various parts of the world (the Netherlands, North Africa, North America, Central America, Southeast Asia )—and seemed to represent “children” or “childhood” rather than any individual child in particular.

In the dreams, I often had intense, personal interactions with the child’s mother or father, but never with the child—except in one instance where I was carrying the little one out of a flood, when our eyes met. I felt a profound sense of love and awe at the beauty of this small being, who seemed to change gender and age continuously as I held him/her. This dream marked the last in the series, and after that I had a number of dreams in which a child played a much more personal role.

Part of the definition of a “catalyst” (according to the American Heritage Dictionary) is “One that precipitates a process or event, especially without being involved in or changed by the consequences.” I would call the anonymous children in danger of drowning in my dreams Catalysts, because they acted as the initiating cause or motivating energy for my actions in the dream, but had no personal response to the drama in which they were engaged, no apparent investment in the outcome. Each of these impersonal Catalyst characters changed the direction of the dream, and their presence evoked a sense of urgency (perhaps the emergent need to save something/someone child-like in myself and in the world around me, through my work), which “precipitated” a process of personal transformation for me in waking life.

This series of Catalyst dreams came to an end once the energy of those catalytic forces became integrated. Once the child was fully seen and essentially recognized, s/he could be met on a new level, in relationship instead of as a contrivance to make me take action. Such developmental processes occur in many forms in our dream lives, as well as in our waking lives, all the time. In the context of waking life, we only begin to really connect with other people as unique individuals once we stop seeing them exclusively through the lens of our own projections: merely as victims to be saved, ideal teachers to be followed, perfect lovers to be pursued, or any other role we might assign them.

It is important that we recognize our projections (which are natural, and inevitable), and try to see the bigger picture as much as possible. We can practice this in dreams, where projection is really not a problem at all. Catalyst dream figures are there for the very purpose of carrying our projections! When they serve that purpose effectively, they initiate healing changes that will eventually make them unnecessary, and allow them to take more complex forms and challenge the dreamer to deeper engagement.

Dream Witnesses serve a somewhat different purpose. Witnesses are the people who observe our actions, and the unfolding of events, without judgment or agenda. In dreams, the role of Witness falls to anonymous characters (strangers with no definitive traits and no personal associations for the dreamer), or to characters that resemble those we feel fairly neutral about in our waking lives. While Catalysts are nothing but projections, serving the purposes of the dreamer and the dream, Witnesses bear fewer projections than any other dream figures. Witnesses are meant to be objective, so we project on them only the characteristics we think of as reliably neutral.

A frequent Witness character in my dreams is a girl I knew as a kid. I thought Jan was smart, friendly, and decent, but had no strong feelings of attraction or aversion for her—and since we never interacted more than superficially, I didn’t imagine or project any particular backstory or opinions she might have. Yet she was there, in many of my classes, all through elementary, junior high, and high school. Now, she appears regularly in my dreams. There has to be a trustworthy quality about the Witness, and Jan’s perspective seems trustworthy to me. When events in my dream get chaotic, and emotions run high, she seems to see through the drama, to “hold the space,” to remain present and attentive while everything around her is changing.

If I have a Witness (or multiple Witnesses) in my dreams, I can trust that some part of me is capable of being engaged without being swept away by circumstances. I watch what the Witness does, and I breathe easier. She doesn’t solve problems, but she sees through them—letting them come, and letting them go.

Just as the Catalyst can evolve into a more personal character with whom we can relate, the Witness tends to evolve over time in dream cycles to show increasing levels of compassion. She doesn’t fix problems, but her presence relieves the pressure to have a solution, so the whole dream begins to feel more workable. Often, this actually means that the Witness works herself out of a job: she becomes such a “good,” caring, helpful presence in the dream that she begins to attract more projections, more expectations. Her presence is no longer neutral, and she may become either a Companion character, or something more disturbing or distracting. Oh well. That’s the way it goes with dream figures, and with human interactions. Nothing ever stays “neutral” once we start noticing it!

What have you noticed about Catalyst or Witness characters in your dreams? I’m inventing names for dream phenomena—but there are certainly other ways of looking at these things. What kinds of characters have you dreamed up? Who have you encountered in your dreams? Please share your thoughts and experiences…



  1. Diana Backstrom

    Hi Kirsten, I just wanted to add that I have had two dreams since reading this where I woke up and recognized that there was someone “anonymous” with me during the dream. There was a presence with me but they had no identity – I never saw them or interacted with them
    . It was really neat to immediately think of you when I woke and how aware I was of that detail of the dream which never would have occurred to me previously!

    • kirstenbackstrom

      Do you think the anonymous presence in these dreams could be a kind of Witness character? I’m thinking of how, in waking life, I often feel that there’s an objective and observant part of me that stands outside of the action and just pays attention to the way things unfold… almost like there’s a camera filming my life, reporting on it without getting caught up in it. Maybe that anonymous part of me sees things I don’t see about who I am and what I’m doing. On some level, I have that objectivity about my own life, but I usually don’t identify with it (too busy thinking, feeling, acting), so it might appear in my dreams as a faceless witnessing presence.

      I really appreciate your sharing the dreams, Didi–and giving me the opportunity to think about them in the context of “witness” dream figures.

      • Diana Backstrom

        I wish I had the same objectivity to my daily life and experiences!! Yes it definitely feels like a witness character. I will continue to be aware! It is really interesting to dig in to the parts of dreams that you normally wouldn’t consider. Thanks Kirsten!

  2. Diana Backstrom

    Very interesting! I don’t remember ever noticing a catalyst figure but I definitely will be more aware now! Thanks for all of these great informative thoughtful blogs Kirsten. I love getting little glimpses into your dreams which remind me sometimes of
    things from our childhood!

    • kirstenbackstrom

      Thanks, Didi. It’s so great to “hear your voice” on the website!

  3. tina tau

    Very helpful; I got the catalyst character in a new way! Your example of it , with the children you were trying to save–so clear.

© 2024 Compass Dreamwork

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑