Dreamwork as Spiritual Practice

Dream Groups And The Doggy Jamboree

Earlier this week, I participated in two dream groups—one is a group that I facilitate, and the other is with fellow dreamworkers on-line. Both groups are now at the point where the true alchemy of dream-sharing begins to work among us, and a living dreaming process takes shape with a life of its own. These group experiences leave me feeling invigorated and open. After the second one (on-line), I emerge from my office for lunch, and notice that it’s a windy, sunny, beautiful late-autumn afternoon. So I decide to forget further work for the time being, and take a walk in the park. Walking is a good way to let the dream group’s energy and insights bubble and spark inside me, while the cool, fresh air stimulates my senses, and the rhythmic pace of forward momentum steadies my thoughts.

There’s an open, grassy, off-leash area in the park where the dogs come (with their human companions) to meet and play. I stand for a while, watching. The atmosphere tingles as each new dog arrives and the leash is unclipped. At first, even the big Bernese Mountain Dog is shy. She keeps close to her human, while he stands sipping coffee and chatting with the others. But almost immediately, more dogs bound up. They stop a short distance from the Mountain Dog, tails wagging tentatively, legs a bit stiff. There are perky gestures with heads and ears, gentle woofs, and soon a general sniffing and greeting and all the tails are wagging enthusiastically.

Then, one bright little terrier jumps to attention and shoots off like a rocket, and everybody explodes into motion. Dogs chase; dogs bound and roll in the grass; dogs tumble over each other and leap up barking. The humans whistle or call if things get out of hand, and occasionally throw a ball, but mostly they aren’t needed. The dogs are having fun, building and affirming relationships, learning from each other, and feeling the freedom of infinite possibilities.

Of course, because I’m thinking about dream group dynamics anyway, I make the connection: a good dream group can be like this doggy jamboree. The “humans” could be the participants’ conscious minds and waking identities: aware of the rules and roles, good-hearted and willing to go along. They want their “dogs”—their deeper, dreaming selves—to get some exercise and have a nice time.

When a dream group is getting started, there’s a lot of polite conversation among the “humans” and some friendly, but cautious sniffing among the “dogs.” We’re getting a sense of each other, making sure it’s safe. But then, the fun begins. While, on the surface, we continue to follow courteous protocol and maintain our composure, our deep selves begin to romp and expand into the open spaces. The interactions between these deep selves are complex and nuanced and sometimes beyond words.

We share the world of dreams the way that dogs share the world of smell: sensing, connecting, responding, discovering. One person has an inspiration, and it ripples through the group as a little thrill of knowing—the hairs on the backs of our necks prickle. Your dream speaks to me, as a dog’s tumble in the grass brings all the other dogs to pile on. And then you’re off and running, taking the adventure in a new directions, and we’re all running with you, or in the opposite direction, building on the curiosity, the tenderness of the vulnerable places, the sheer energy of ideas coming together. And when we all get back on our leashes, we go home tired, to think and dream about group dreamwork, or romping in the park.

Generally when a group of strangers or acquaintances comes together for a specific purpose—for a class, or a meeting, or an activity—the “dogs” stay on the leashes while the “humans” stand around on the sidewalk, talking. We interact with our primary, conscious identities, and keep our deep selves at heel. Among the “dogs,” there’s some sniffing, some tail wagging, maybe a bit of showing off (a bit of subtext going on below the surface of our conscious conversation), but then they tend to sit down and wait patiently or impatiently for their “humans” to move on. Our deep selves are present, but they don’t get to interact with each other much, and they aren’t really expressing themselves or generating any new energy.

Dream groups are different from most other group gatherings, because they “cut to the chase” pretty quickly. It’s amazing how dreams immediately take us beyond the small talk. The dreams we remember tend to be about the things that are really, genuinely most important to us. Even dreams that seem funny or trivial carry a whiff of wonder, beauty, deep questions, sadness, love, fear, joy, peace. We automatically catch the scent of something profound, something that is familiar to all of us, though to each in a different way.

And dreamwork also has a tendency to bring these deep experiences to light so that it is easy and comfortable (mostly) for us to share. Just as dogs in the friendly, off-leash area seem to sense how much energy to bring to the play, so no one gets hurt—the atmosphere of a well-grounded dream group makes it safe for everyone to open up and participate in their own way: fully, yet within the bounds of what is right for this moment.

When a good dream group ends, I go home feeling the flow of new life all through my being. I have new images, new impressions, new insights. I am larger than I was before. The “human” (conscious, rational) part of me makes sense of the experience, takes notes on what I learned, and thinks of ways to apply this experience to my waking life… But the “dog” part of me (the deeper aspect, perhaps the soul) has been changed by the experience itself and lets it continue to unfold within me. The “dog” in me feels herself connected to the doggy jamboree, the energy of exploration and interaction, the learning and the knowing, the play and the work, the essence of life. The “dog” keeps dreaming…

Have you had group experiences that speak to your “deep self” directly? Are there opportunities in your life to “cut to the chase”—to get beyond the small talk to a more meaningful kind of communication? Group dreamwork is so good for this—but other contexts (music, dance, sports?) might also offer a kind of “doggy jamboree.” What is your experience?



  1. Karen Deora

    I liked your description of the terrier who suddenly changes the doggy group dynamic. I have noticed that happen in a group when someone expresses something from a deeper place and it opens up the group to a different level of communication. It is hard to describe but you know it when you experience it!

    • kirstenbackstrom

      Yes! I love the way that we all take turns being “the terrier”–taking off in a new direction, or taking the conversation to a deeper level. Thank you, Karen!

  2. maria wattier

    Justfinished facilitating a group this morning and, yes, our soul dogs were off and running, chasing and catching balls. I appreciate this metaphor. So true. . . it doesn’t take long for the humans to relax and allow the instincts to play in a safe container.

    • kirstenbackstrom

      Many thanks for sharing your experience of this, Maria! It’s difficult to describe, but seems to happen so naturally once a group comes together.

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