Dreamwork as Spiritual Practice

What Actually Happens In A Dream Group?

dream circle 01

Dream images come to life among us…

Last week I played with the metaphor of a dream group being like a happy gathering of dogs in the off-leash zone (“Dream Groups and the Doggy Jamboree”). I took the metaphor and ran with it—like a dog with another dog’s squeaky toy—and maybe got a bit carried away. Of course, a dream group is not just a free-for-all romp. Among other things, it’s a mutual opportunity to share experiences. Often, in the process of this sharing, unexpected and indescribable events occur. Although I can’t describe the indescribable (I gave it a shot with the doggy jamboree metaphor), I can at least mention some of my own recent experiences with groups.

The groups I facilitate meet in a classroom, in the local Quaker meetinghouse. The room has lots of windows and a high ceiling—and although it is small, it feels spacious and light-filled most of the time. We move the big tables to one side, and sit in a circle of chairs near the windows (trying to arrange things so that no one gets the sun in their eyes).

At the beginning, we “check in” briefly. After several sessions of meeting together, we know each other, and we also begin to recognize images and themes that have a tendency to come up in each person’s dreams as well as in their waking lives. We’ve come to know some of the things we have in common, and some of our individual special qualities. We catch up with anything new that is arising, and sometimes find it’s arising not only for one person, but for several, or all, of us. Maybe it’s a time of feeling too busy; or a time of losses and letting go; or a time of reconnecting with old friends; or a time for a fresh start. A shared theme can emerge even when we are just giving the smallest glimpses of our daily lives.

Then, we go around the circle again, and each of us tells a brief dream. Like the check-in, there are common images and themes that come up, and already there’s a sense that a dreaming process is going on collectively as well as individually. For example, in one group, several people dreamed of babies—human or animal—being born; in another group, the color blue kept being mentioned.

Although we don’t explore these brief dreams in any depth, occasionally someone will have a quick response to something in the dream. When I dreamed of a small, round pond with steep sand banks crumbling into the water, someone thought of the pond as a “source of life” (like a spring or well), and another person suggested that the word “banks” might have implications related to financial resources. Both of these suggestions “clicked” for me. The hints offered by these brief dreams help us to connect with each other, and to feel the presence of a larger dreaming.

Finally, one or two dreamers share a full dream, and we explore more deeply. The dreamer tells the dream, and each member of the group listens and imagines the dream as if it were his or her own. In my on-line peer dream group, I was the “focus dreamer” last week, and both the differences and the similarities between others’ experiences of the dream and my own gave me a new perspective on its possibilities. I saw how a situation I’d thought of as frightening could actually be seen as a game, and how “hiding” from danger could be seen as a chance to share refuge and comfort with others (or other aspects of myself), rather than just as escape and retreat.

Simply hearing another’s dream and embracing it as one’s own can bring a powerful sense of recognition. Especially during times when I am not remembering my dreams very well, I find that the dreams others share with me, individually or in groups, can be just as meaningful to me as if I’d dreamed them myself. These dreams are intriguing not only because they reflect the experience of the dreamer, but also because they use a fresh language of symbols, which broadens my own vocabulary for dreaming. By hearing and imagining another’s dream, I make it mine, and expand my own inner resources and self-understanding in the process.

Often, in groups, the first ideas that come up in response to a dream are fairly obvious, perhaps things that the dreamer has already thought of. But when the dream is allowed to simmer, and questions asked by the group bring out its nuances and surprises, the insights can be stunning. The dream is actually coming to life among us.

That’s as far as my description can go. Every dream group I’ve experienced has been different. In some, we’ve re-enacted or re-imagined dreams. In others, we’ve used more analytical tools. Sometimes, the personalities of the participants seem a perfect fit, and sometimes there’s a tension that brings both challenges and opportunities. But in each group the chemistry, the experiential quality, is unique. Each group is more than the sum of its participants, and each participant is changed by the nature of the group as a whole.

A group of dreamers is like a group of musicians jamming together. Their work is not task-oriented, or educational, or problem-solving—they’re creating art. And, as with music or any other art-form, the art is also creating them. As dreamers share dreams, the dreams create new dreamers and new dreaming. And while not everyone can be a musician, everyone is a dreamer. Through dream groups, everyone—anyone—can share in the dream.



  1. Karen Deora

    I SO look forward to our dream group. It gives a shape to my months and I am so glad you’ve been called to do this service to us.

    • kirstenbackstrom

      Thank you, Karen! I’m so glad that you are a part of this. You contribute so much.

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