Dreamwork as Spiritual Practice

Dream Thoughts

How does your mind work in a dream? It’s generally assumed that we think differently (or not at all) when we’re dreaming—but, if you’re anything like me, your dream-thoughts are actually not that different from your waking thoughts. It’s just that, in dreams, there are different things to think about, and different assumptions about what’s important. My recent dreams have included a lot of thinking. Maybe it’s because my “inner work” right now is not particularly sensational or dramatic—my concerns are subtle and reflective rather than active.

When we are learning to recognize our challenges and limitations, we may need to confront them  directly through powerfully instructive events in our dreaming and waking lives that either exaggerate or expose our habit patterns. As we get to know ourselves better, we may be able to see the problem played out over and over again, without being able to do much about it—but gradually, as the same scenes are repeatedly reenacted, we bring more awareness to our experiences. We begin to have time to pause and consider what is going on, how it works, and whether it’s consistent with our personal integrity and values. Eventually, we’ve had enough, and it becomes possible to interrupt the predictable process and make a change.

So, all my “thinking” dreams suggest that I’m working toward an understanding that will facilitate real transformation. I don’t need to participate in the drama, I need to comprehend it. Dreams where thinking predominates can be very creative—offering new perspectives on old problems, new insights into our own and others’ behavior. Often, they present questions without answers, and ask us to tolerate the discomfort of not knowing what to do.

Here’s a recent example from my own dreamworld:

Catching Shoplifters: I catch two blond girls (about ten and eight years old) shoplifting in a store owned by a friend of mine. The older one has tucked a pair of gloves up her sleeve. I confront them and take the gloves back. The girls are defiant at first, but then seem very frightened and I soften my tone, realizing that their mother has forced them to steal, and will hurt them if they go home empty-handed. I start to give the gloves back to them, and even consider giving them some plastic toy telescopes that are hanging on a rack nearby. But then I remember that it wouldn’t be fair to the business-owner to let this stealing continue. What if I go with the girls and confront their mother? But, no—if I confront her, then as soon as I leave she will punish them for getting caught. Whatever I do to her will be taken out on them. So, I can’t change this situation. For now, there are no good alternatives. I decide to step back and wait until I understand things better before I act. I’ll buy the girls some lunch, and let them go without my interference. But I am committed to finding a way to help these children and prevent further harm.

Helplessness is a big theme in our country right now. There’s injustice on a grand scale, theft, coercion, unkindness, and shameful conduct in our government that reflects similar patterns and problems we can also see in our immediate environment. We may be able to control our own behavior, but we are presented with situations outside of ourselves that we cannot control. What do we do about that? Well, impulsive reactions are not helpful. Suppressing our awareness and looking the other way is not helpful, either. We need to pause, care about what is happening, and give ourselves time to think. I’m trying to do this in my dreams and in my waking life.

Connecting with My First Lover: I’m angry about some careless and inconsiderate people. My first lover [a woman I haven’t seen in almost forty years] gently points out that I’m being critical before I know the whole story. Those people didn’t actually forget to pick up after themselves, and they didn’t mean to take something that wasn’t theirs. I think about this. I might have misread the situation. I apologize. She is very kind. We hug, and she smiles at me, saying, “We have a deep connection, don’t we?”

As a teenager and young adult, I began to question my own self-righteousness about politics and personal relationships. I was trying to stand up for something important, but I was beginning to recognize that life is complicated and paradoxical. I was beginning to imagine different points of view, check my assumptions, and think deeply about my concerns and the ramifications of my actions. Thirty or more years later, these questions and concerns have not been resolved, but I can connect with the earnest effort I made (and still make) to see beyond my own prejudices. I can trust kindness, gentle correction, and the courage to acknowledge mistakes. I can connect with the wisdom to wait and think about my own agenda. A relationship that introduced me to intimacy becomes a metaphor for learning to take a risk and open up to other perspectives.

So, I’m having a lot of “thinking” dreams. Ethical questions do not have easy answers. Sometimes right and wrong are clear (as in the choice between bigotry and openness), but the way to achieve a good outcome is rarely simple or obvious. For me, stopping to “season” a decision makes sense. If I’m too sure of myself, I try looking at my opinion from the other side. Too much thought is not healthy, of course—but, feeding strong emotions thoughtlessly is not healthy either. Let’s have the feelings in all their glory, but remember to wait and think for a while before acting or reacting.

Dreams tend to exaggerate emotions, and maybe they can also invite us to think. Our dreams can be wise and tender friends that point out our blind spots and encourage us to take our time and use our minds. They can reassure us that thinking deeply is a kind of love, because it makes us relate more directly with our own impulses—and, as a result, we may relate more authentically with others, and respond more creatively and compassionately to problems. What issues do your dreams invite you to consider more deeply? What easy answers might be called into question?

We can think in the midst of our dreams, and we can think about the concerns that arise in our dreams. Dream thought is good practice. Think about it.


(Just to be contradictory—click on the picture for another post that expresses the opposite view of thinking. We are paradoxical people, all of us. Thinking is good—too much thinking, not so good. Think about that, too! 🙃)


  1. Steven Ernenwein

    Hi Kirsten!

    This was a great read and very well articulated. One of the things that were caught me was how you said that even once we become aware of some of these patterns they still repeat until we understand them enough to interrupt them. That has been a huge part of the process of my shadow work. It gets maddening sometimes cause it’s like how many times do I seriously have to watch this pattern play out. But it does seem like a powerful process of seeing the full multiplicity of the issue, so you know it so well that you can interrupt it or maybe even learn what it’s there to teach you so well that it eventually ceases to need to continue. I feel we are all here to learn certain issues, some being bigger than others, and until we go through the heart of the issue, we will be prodded.

    And to speak to the topic, I have many dreams in which I seem to exert a pretty consistent thought process with my waking thoughts, some times wondering if my waking life concerns hijack the dream at times. I’ve been coining this “waking life interjections.” Where I seem to have an independent thought about what is happening, say I’m getting frisky with a beautiful woman and suddenly realize I’m engaged and pull away from the woman and it drastically changes the entire dream. Maybe that was the intent of the dream, but it often feels more like I’m borderline lucid, as I’m realizing something is not right but can’t put my finger on it, and might actually be deviating from the original dream script.

    I also really loved how you said that dreams often present questions without answers. So true! Sometimes I wish they would be forthright lol! My ego doesn’t want to always have to figure everything out on my it’s own haha but that is such a sacred process, too. As discovering it for yourself is so rewarding and so much richer of an experience than just being told something.

    Thank you my dear for these wise words, it’s clear through your words and process that you are doing the work! Bless you!

    • kirstenbackstrom

      I hope you have a blog where you are writing your own “wise words,” Steven—and if so, I want to follow you! Thanks for taking these thoughts to the next level. I really appreciate your insights.

      • Steven Ernenwein

        I do, but my site is down at the moment, working to get it back up! I’ll let you know ☺

        • kirstenbackstrom

          Great! Looking forward to it…

  2. RadOwl

    A thought-provoking post that gave me new insight as a teacher. Twice now I have applied what I learned, to help a friend with a dream and to help with my own. By the way, I posted a link at the reddit dreams community. https://www.reddit.com/r/Dreams/comments/66czyq/thought_processes_during_dreams_and/

    • kirstenbackstrom

      This is wonderful. It really means a lot to me that other dreamworkers and teachers like yourself can make use of what I write in your own work. Thank you!

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