Dreamwork as Spiritual Practice

A Dream By Any Other Name

We’ve all used the word “dream” when we talk about a positive waking vision or hope for the future. While struggling with our current political nightmare, I find myself dreaming (imagining a better future) this way more often—such dreaming is a manifestation of longing, and longing has power. I dream of healing for the earth, and for all living things. I dream of kindness, fairness, simplicity, generosity, gratitude, integrity, beauty, cooperation, balance, peace. These are collective dreams, of course, shared by many millions of human beings all over the world—and perhaps by other creatures as well. Just as our sleep-dreams have archetypal images and themes, so do our waking dream-visions of what goodness could be. We have a common vocabulary for our longing, and even those who are greedy and hateful may dream of these positive possibilities (at least for themselves and their friends).

Yet, such waking dreams rarely have much substance. They are often abstractions rather than fully realized imaginings. I can “dream” of world peace—but what would that actually look like? Unlike most daydreams, our sleep-dreams have emotional richness, physical details, stories and surprises; although they may lack the coherence of conscious intention, they make a substantial impression because they are lived experiences, not just intangible ideas. We may try to imagine the future in a positive way, but our daydreams usually lack direct experiential weight. Our night-dreams have more vivid “reality.”

When Holly and I went to the humane society to adopt a kitten seven years ago, we dreamed (imagined, hoped) that our new family member would be sweet and special and a joy in our lives; we dreamed that we’d love him. But we could never have imagined Toby himself—the deaf cat whose voice sounded like a donkey braying; the little guy who bravely overcame his fear of balloons, liked to drink the bathwater, and would gaze soulfully into our eyes, begging for tiny bits of apple. Our Toby. Dreaming up a person (whether that person is human or cat) is not the same as experiencing that person. Although my daydream of who Toby might be could not measure up to Toby himself, my night-dreams of Toby, since his early death a few months ago, have been filled with the full intensity of his living presence.

What if our daydreams—our true longings—could have the same resonance, reality, narrative strength and specific impact as our night-dreams? Recently, for example, I had a vivid sleep-dream image: I’m seeing the coast of California from the air, and all the coastal cities are under water—I can feel the jolt of sad realization that climate change has already gone too far….

When I woke from this dream, the intensity of the feelings made my daydreamed longing for a healed relationship between humanity and the earth, between human cities and coastal ecosystems, much more real. I could smell the sea and hear the rustling of grasses in the salt marshes; I could feel the energy and vitality of city people and city life; I could sense the pulse of the planet, and the movement of meltwater. I could feel the real consequences of our human environmental carelessness, and I could truly imagine what it might mean if we moved toward a reciprocal, respectful relationship with the planet we inhabit.

When we have big dreams (longings)—like Martin Luther King Jr. did, or like our wisest, kindest, most courageous selves can—they are as real as our vibrant night-dreams. We need to imagine our longings as fully realized. This is not always possible, but it is something to move toward.

When I daydream about living in a world where people are truly kind to one another, I need to bring all of my night-dreaming richness into this vision. I can draw upon my daily life experiences (as night-dreams do)…. I can bring to mind the young guy who stopped to be sure I was okay when I slipped on the ice this morning, the elderly woman who pointed out a hawk, and the little girl who wrapped her arms around her big brother when they got onto the sled together.

When I daydream about making a difference in the world, I can draw upon my memories (as night-dreams do), to remind myself of the real experience of contributing and cooperating…. I can bring to mind the feeling of giving an oral report on the Civil Rights movement to my sixth grade class, or speaking at the funeral of a friend last week, or working on a haying crew as a farm apprentice when I was fifteen.

When I daydream about solutions to the problems we are facing, I can draw upon the responsive, instinctive quality of creativity (as night-dreams do)… I can imagine how compassion and individual courage might come together in a kind of dance, as in my recent night-dream:

A giant snake attacks the crowd and we all scatter in search of hiding places. Soon the snake singles out a straggler and is about to eat him. But an older man emerges from hiding and runs right up to the snake, drawing the predator’s attention onto himself. Then, when the snake is about to eat this second man, another hero comes forward. One by one, we all take a turn. When the snake corners someone near me, I dash out and offer myself—feeling the terror as the huge creature zeros in on me. Just as the snake is about to get me, a young girl comes to my rescue. And then, yet another person rescues my rescuer—and so on. The snake is confused because there are too many of us; it’s impossible to single anyone out without being distracted by someone else, so as long as we can keep this up, no one will get eaten….

When I daydream about how wonderful life could be for everyone, I need to make it as real as the experience of a night-dream, because in night-dreams “wonderful” is a physical, emotional, spiritual, social experience… I can recognize, all at once, that every moment when I’m being kind or funny or curious or brave is a real moment—and life is just made up of those moments. Night-dreams are filled with moments when we notice life itself: A tree is growing in fast motion: branches, twigs, roots spreading, leaves unfurling, shadow patterns on the leaves… Two dogs are running in a field, taking turns chasing each other… I’m invisible, but when I nibble the salty pumpkin seeds she gave me, they make me shine so everyone can see me… There’s just the richness of experience, manifesting itself.

This is how our waking dreams can be realized. We need to notice that the world around us is already alive with the same potential that our night-dreams demonstrate. A night-dream (like a waking experience) can be ugly, violent, empty… but it has substance—and it can change in a moment. Our living, waking dream-visions have just as much flexibility, if we allow ourselves to plunge into them, feel them, taste them, share them, fully committing ourselves.

When we let go into sleep, we drop our identities for the night, and allow our dreams to lead us into a larger, stranger world. In order to dream the big dreams (visions) that the world needs now, we have to suspend our abstract ideas of what should be, and allow ourselves to participate fully in what could be, which we glimpse every day in what already is. What we find when we venture into this new world may not be pretty or perfect, but it will have an immediacy that makes it meaningful. Let’s plunge in, and when we dream—let’s really, truly dream.


  1. Kiera O'Harag

    Thank you, Kirsten. I gave this a try and it was good!

    • kirstenbackstrom

      Thank you, Kiera! I can feel you uplifting us all with your music, your authenticity, your heartfelt seeking, and your big dreams.

  2. Mindfunda

    Hi Kirsten, another deep, almost philosophical post about the power of dreams as a tool for self improvement. The world would be so much better if we al listened to our dreams, the scary ones as well as the darker nightmares. I am plunging in, even though I am on the other side of the ocean.

    • kirstenbackstrom

      Dear Susanne, it is reassuring to me to know that you are there, dreaming, on the other side of the ocean! Thank you so much for your energetic commitment to dreams and waking up. You continue to inspire me.

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