Dreamwork as Spiritual Practice

Being the Dreamer, Living the Dream

My priorities have changed significantly in the past few years, and so have my dreams. Although I’m not yet sixty, I’m starting to see the world as an elder, and my dreams have reflected this change as well. Especially in the past year, as I’ve developed symptoms of a degenerative disease that is accelerating my physical aging process (Radiation Fibrosis Syndrome), I’m truly discovering what it means to be initiated into a completely new stage in the life cycle—and it’s not what I expected. It’s much more subtle than the leap from childhood to adulthood, yet more profoundly meaningful than any of the other transformative experiences I’ve known.

So many times in my life, I’ve come to the end of one phase, experienced losses, uncertainty, and “suspended animation” during a transitional period, and then begun a new phase, with new energies, new resources, and new options. But, for some reason, when I left a job I loved five years ago and entered one of those painful, liminal transitions, the “new phase” I expected never seemed to arrive.

Instead of starting over, I found that the “suspended animation” just went on and on. Somehow, I’m not getting re-animated! Unless I reframe this experience, and change my expectations, my situation and prospects could look pretty grim. Loved ones just keep dying. I face more and more physical limitations. When I tried to go “back to school,” seeking out further education and training (which had always worked before), I encountered impossible obstacles. When I started new projects, they didn’t exactly fail, but required constant attention and drained away my energies rather than rejuvenating them. And, most disturbing, many of my familiar spiritual practices and disciplines no longer seemed life-giving.

At first, all of these discouraging experiences seemed to point to depression—so I soldiered on patiently, kept trying, hanging in there, not giving up, waiting for an opening, doing my best. I tried some big things, and lots of small things, but life just kept slipping by without any significant breakthrough.

Then, I began to notice something strange about this apparent stagnation. Underneath it all, I’m at peace in a way I’ve never been before. The harder I try, the more drained and discouraged I become; yet when I stop trying so hard, I’m filled with quiet joy. I’m not so concerned with proving myself, or even with being myself—instead, I’m just being. I’ve lost most of my ambition, but it doesn’t actually worry me (except when I think “Shouldn’t you be worried about this?”). I’m paying lots of attention to the physical pleasure of doing the things I can still do, and not dwelling much on the things I can’t do. The past makes me sad, the future can make me anxious—but I’m quite interested in the present, and the present is just fine.

Even when the world situation seems catastrophic, even when there are too many losses coming too fast, even when it looks like finances or health or politics will cause everything to fall apart—I sense and trust a kind of spaciousness, and can hold that space open for others and myself. I have no idea how I’m doing it.

What is this? The “new phase” I’ve been looking for is actually already in progress. It just doesn’t work the same way that any of my previous phases have worked. I’ve always been drawn to old people, because many of them have this funny way of not getting bothered, while still caring deeply. Could this be where I’m going? Could this be who I really am?

My dreams are different, too. Like many older adults, I’m not remembering them as well. Aside from the fairly common sleep difficulties that can disrupt dreaming as we get older, I suspect the dream-recall deficit is because the work of these dreams doesn’t urgently need to be brought to my conscious attention. I’ve accumulated enough material to work on over the past fifty-six years, and I don’t need more stuff to figure out and make sense of. What I need is simple experiences of being alive and valuing life. When I remember my dreams, they just point to what’s most important right now.

I have a lot of dreams about helping or teaching others, dreams where I’m not the “hero,” but the mentor, sidekick, or teacher. I’m trying to make it easier for someone: saving a spider from the bathtub, or bringing peppermint tea to a sick girl. In many of my dreams, I’m not the central character—and often, I’m not present at all, just a disembodied observer of someone else’s story—which, ultimately, is my story, too, of course. I have dreams of returning to familiar places, finding them changed, and adapting to those changes. And then there are the sweet dreams of just appreciating something beautiful: birdwatching from the deck of a becalmed ship as sunlight glitters on the water’s surface; or approaching a lit cabin through the woods in the dark.

During our early adult lives, it’s vital that we concentrate on work—the work of developing skills and knowledge, the work of providing for ourselves and our families, and the inner work of cultivating self-awareness, compassion, and the capacity to learn from our mistakes. Getting old seems to invalidate the entire effort. How horrific! From the perspective of the worker, who has really worked very hard and very well, there is nothing to be gained by going downhill just when you could be getting somewhere.

But, from another perspective, downhill is the fun part. Downhill is the whole point. We’ve trudged up the long, steep slope, lugging our sleds—and now we get to ride down, with the wind whistling past us, and the world just whizzing by in a blur, and the thrill of letting go into our whole reason for making that climb in the first place. Here we are! On this gorgeous planet, among these incredibly brave and beautiful other beings, with the smell of pine, the exhilaration of momentum and surrender, the easy laughter. We really don’t need to work so hard at it. Life can be a dream.

Now, even though I’m thinking of winter metaphors, it’s summer. The windchime is blowing gently in the wind, the branches of the oak tree are rising and falling, the air feels warm and creamy and gentle. Whatever the season of life, there’s the dreamy potential for anything to happen, and for everything to be just as it is.


  1. Lou

    Thanks again, Kirsten. I’m reminded of a dream of descending a beautiful river valley on a train. I walk up to the front where there is no engine, just a choras of children singing in harmony.

    • kirstenbackstrom

      What a deep, sweet dream, Lou—thank you!

  2. Anna Sery

    Dear Kirsten,
    This is such a beautiful post, and really resonates with me. I’m following your comments and have been inspired of them. Thank you.

    • kirstenbackstrom

      Thank you for the kind words, Anna!

  3. Susan Scott

    Thank you – lovely post

    • kirstenbackstrom

      Thank you, Susan—I appreciate your posts in the Garden of Eden blog, too!

  4. Viv

    This resonated. I’ve felt stuck, lost, blocked for some years; I have also had a serious deterioration of mental and physical health (partly due to a congenital condition that got missed all my life until later forties and which is now driving the disintegration.
    Will try to think about this. Thank you.

    • kirstenbackstrom

      Thank you, Viv—I hope that the post is helpful to you, and that you are able to find meaning in the serious challenges you are facing. Even though there is potential beauty in every experience, the day-to-day can still be terribly difficult. I’m sorry you’re going through this. Wishing you well!

  5. Mindfunda

    Thanks for your post Kirsten. Since I was 11, I have been diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. And -even if i did not face many hard health challenges (the loss of heating in one ear, but i have gotten used to that) I have always been aware of how fragile life is/can be. So I was smitten when I discovered my first grey hair recently. Really! Honestly… I could’ve never imagined growing into my 50th. I had this childish expectation that I’d be a thirty something and pass away. Never thought about a possible cause or something, I just never imagined myself as an elderly lady. And now I have become one.
    Like you, my dream memory is fading. But i do imagine myself being surrounded by possible grandchildren (even though both of my kids say they don’t want to have children, I know how life can put up surprises).

    Sorry that my response has been all about me. Growing old is a process of letting go. A mutual friend of ours once said to me that growing old is accompanied by pain and disease because otherwise you would not be able to let go and move on. I love that thought.

    blessings as always,

    • kirstenbackstrom

      Thank you for speaking from your own deep wisdom and experience, Susanne. I suspect you were pretty wise as a youngster, too! Illness brings insight, and makes us pay attention to life’s moments—like it or not. You bring your gifts to the world in so many ways.

  6. Tzivia Gover

    Beautifully said, as always, but more so!

    • kirstenbackstrom

      Many thanks and blessings to you, Tzivia!

  7. Lisa

    Hi Kirsten, thank you for such a wonderful piece of writing. I feel I am following you down that hill! I am reminded of Einstein’s dream of sledding downhill. He explained that the faster and further he went, the sled stretched and, I believe, time slowed down. This developed into his theory of relativity. Humph. All is relevant. The only other thing I can say is you certainly know how to enjoy the ride and I’m grateful you are teaching me how.

    • kirstenbackstrom

      Einstein’s sledding dream is perfect! Thanks for sharing that, Lisa. My own understanding of this deep “slowing down” is still sometimes just theoretical… but opportunities for practicing keep coming along (relentlessly)—and the practice of “enjoying the ride” does get easier with momentum. I’m grateful for your insights, and I’m wishing you a long, sweet ride!

  8. Karen Deora

    Beautiful expressions! Thank you and welcome to the land of the elders!

    • kirstenbackstrom

      Thank you, Asha. You are an example to me of the best kind of eldering. I’m honored to be wecomed!

  9. Meghan O'Flaherty

    Dear Kirsten,
    This was such a beautiful post, and really resonates with me. I thought I knew what I was going to be, but life took me in another direction. And now that I’m moving into my seventies I find that those projects I expected to get to someday no longer interest me. Simply keeping my heart open and loving the people and things life brings me everyday is my joy, and I’ve been living my purpose all along.

    • kirstenbackstrom

      So beautifully expressed, Meghan—thank you! I love hearing about the joy and peace you are experiencing in your life—you’ve earned it! Sometimes I imagine meeting my younger self and showing her around my life as it is now… I wonder what she would think? She might be disappointed, but I suspect she’d also be relieved. I wouldn’t tell her all the things she has to suffer, and all the joys she has to experience for herself, before she gets here!

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