Dreamwork as Spiritual Practice

When the Dream-Ego is Slippery or Sleepy

sky 02Many of my dreams lack focus. The dream-ego (the “I” in the dream) can’t seem to accomplish what she intends, or is the victim of something or someone, or doesn’t participate in the main action. Sometimes these dreams are frustrating, and at other times, the “I” just seems to be slipping away. For me, a common dream metaphor for this slipperiness is when the dream-ego has to cope with actual sleepiness within the dream. Here are two examples:

Gathering for Ceremonies: I’m with a large group of people gathered halfway up a mountain, for some spiritual ceremonies. It’s a relaxed atmosphere with lots going on. I’m responsible for a toddler named “Sleepy,” and much of the time, I carry Sleepy around as s/he sleeps heavily in my arms. When s/he’s not asleep, s/he’s running around wildly, very distracting. The more I try to keep up with Sleepy, the drowsier I get…

Sleepy Attender: I’m attending an important workshop, sitting right up front, but I can’t stay awake. I sit up straight and pretend to be listening/meditating with my eyes closed, so the presenter won’t realize I’m asleep. After a while, I know I need to open my eyes at least briefly, to maintain the illusion of attentiveness, but I’m too groggy and can’t get myself to come out of it. [Finally I literally wake myself up by trying to open my eyes.]

Another expression of this same lack of dream-ego focus is when the dream itself just seems hazy, as if the dreamer is not able to generate vivid images. The environment around “me” in the dream is vague—maybe indoors, maybe outdoors, but with no noticeable features. Events in the dream, and body awareness for the dream-ego and dream characters, can also be hazy. In lucid dreams, where “I” realize that this is a dream, the experience is not sustainable, because the dream-ego and the dream environment are not distinct enough—either I wake up, or fall back into non-lucid, unremembered dreams.

A similar pattern can develop in my meditation practice. Either my mind is too busy, or I fall asleep. There’s a fundamental lack of focus, an absence—or a slippery confusion—at the center where concentration should be.

What’s going on here? Well, often this kind of dreaming or meditation experience can reflect a general lack of attention or self-awareness in waking life as well. The sense of self and surroundings may be weakened by something serious like illness or grief, or something more ordinary like fatigue or stress.

However, this business of losing focus in dreams—when dream experiences get slippery and the dream-ego gets sleepy—can also be a meaningful process of spiritual transformation. In some traditions, the experience of profound spiritual transformation is described, rather dramatically, as “ego-death.” An old identity has become too limiting and is no longer useful, so it must die in order for a new identity to be born.

When deep change is occurring, dreams are generally not slippery or sleepy at all. They can be extremely vivid, and often include death imagery: the death of the dream-ego, or other dream characters. Such intense death dreams are often followed by dreams of new life.

But “ego-death” can also represent a transformation that is more open-ended: the old identity dies, but the new identification that is forming is an identity with something fundamentally different from the familiar ego. Here, the ego doesn’t re-shape itself immediately into a new ego-identity, but remains hazy, free-floating within a larger wholeness. This self-lessness creates the potential for recognition of our true nature as a part of something beyond ourselves, something beyond the capacity of the ego to imagine.

Yet, for the ego this state can be overwhelming. As my ego tries to “get hold of itself” and find a locus of identity in the midst of this larger awareness—I may experience dreams where I’m struggling to bring my dream identity into focus, where I’m sleepy and the dream environment is vague. This can go on for quite a while. In waking life, I may find it hard to concentrate, hard to be clear about who I am and what I should be doing relative to the world around me.

So, what happens next? Well, the healthy ego does re-shape itself, of course. But ideally, the new ego has more flexible boundaries and a broader perspective. The dreams will come back into focus, but now there might be more and more dreams in which the dream-ego takes different forms and is experienced through different characters. Or, there may be more dreams in which there’s no absolute dream-ego at all: the dream center is just awareness bearing witness to the dream, or a profound sense that the dreamer and the dream are one and the same.

In the next post, I want to talk about what happens when “ego-death” leads to breakthrough dreams—dreams that give us a glimpse of a larger identity, the larger wholeness of the dreamer and the dream, asleep and fully awake.


  1. Tallulah

    I love your metaphors – sleepy and slippery . . . . This is a beautiful post and I thank you for emphasizing the movement toward more flexible boundaries and broader perspectives.

    • kirstenbackstrom

      Thank you, Tallulah, for your kind words and for your description of this process–“movement toward more flexible boundaries and broader perspectives”… Yes! You are such a gifted guide and teacher yourself, in your work with those who are experiencing a transformation of their sense of identity as they cope with cancer.

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