Dreamwork as Spiritual Practice

Dreamers In Good Company: The Social Dynamics of Dreamwork

Dreamwork is the opposite of naval-gazing. In my experience, people who take an interest in their dreams make good company, since they tend to become more self-aware, creative, curious, and caring. They also tend to develop better listening skills and social boundaries as well as more openness to diversity, concern for others, and willingness to be vulnerable and authentic in relationships. I might add an array of other healthy qualities I’ve observed in the community of dreamers: sense of humor, patience, kindness, intelligence, playfulness, maturity, integrity, generosity, flexibility… The list goes on.

Of course, dreamwork doesn’t automatically make us better people—but there’s no doubt that dreams can be significant contributing factors in our personal and social development. There are good, solid reasons why exploring our dreams, especially with others, really can make a difference in our lives and communities.

Before I give some of those reasons, I’d like to plunge into a real-life example of dreamwork in action. Not long ago, I attended the annual conference of the International Association for the Study of Dreams. I’ve been to four of these conferences so far, and have always found them to be stimulating gatherings where dreamers from all over the world and from diverse disciplines come together to share knowledge, insights, and inspiration.

This year, however, my own participation was iffy until the last minute. Just a few days before the conference, I had an echocardiogram which showed significant heart problems. I didn’t yet know exactly what this meant, but I was already having some disturbing symptoms, and understood that I was at risk for a heart attack, and might already be in the early stages of heart failure. My life expectancy and future options had abruptly changed. Was it safe to go to the conference at all? Would I be able to travel, participate fully, lead a daily dream group, interact with my colleagues and friends in such an intense social and professional environment?

Yes. Although I was in the midst of an emotional whirlwind, feeling just about as vulnerable as I could bear to be, I went to the conference and immersed myself in this vibrant community of dreamers for five days. I had a dear dreamworker friend for a traveling companion, and the support of my beloved partner via telephone, but I was also sustained by a teeming crowd of good-hearted strangers, acquaintances, and new friends (some only previously met on-line) who surrounded me with all of the qualities I described above. The majority of these good people didn’t know what was going on with me at all, and yet their presence grounded me, giving me a sense of safety and belonging, in spite of the disorientatation caused by my new health situation and cardiac symptoms.

Because of my personal vulnerability, I was especially sensitive to the social dynamics and emotional energy of those around me. The conference schedule is always packed, and between sleep deprivation and over-stimulation, most people get somewhat stressed. Taking almost a week away from home, traveling (in some cases, from very far away), and trying to pack a year’s worth of conversations into a few days… Well, I could see that I wasn’t the only person feeling vulnerable, tired, and at least a bit overwhelmed. This (like many other conferences) could easily have been an environment where gossip, exaggerated attention-seeking, belligerence, excess alcohol consumption, and generally unhealthy behavior would thrive.

Yet, incredibly, I observed gentleness and generosity on all sides, wise self-care and compassionate attention to the needs of others, respectful interactions between those who held differing points-of-view, and an atmosphere of warm, playful, appropriate willingness to share. Even awkward interactions seemed to be handled with grace and humor. Even casual conversations seemed trust-based and genuine.

In this context, I could make room for my own fears, needs, and confusion honestly without burdening those around me. My moods were constantly changing—one moment immersed in the enjoyment of the conference activities, the next moment straining at the limits of my physical and emotional resilience—but the container was a good one. As opportunities arose to talk with others about what I was experiencing, both the sharing and the responses seemed natural and mutually healing.

When I returned home, I felt more ready to face my cardiology appointment and treadmill stress test. Certainly, the company of dreamers (at the conference, and via the internet afterward) is helping me to absorb what I’m learning about my health as I adjust to my diagnosis (cardiomyopathy progressing toward heart failure) and prognosis (still uncertain). Does the fact that all these people consider dreams valuable make a difference in the way they relate to one another and to me? Does their dream interest at least partially account for their social skills and personal qualities? Since the conference, I’ve been holding this question as I lead my three dream groups and meet with individual clients for spiritual direction and dreamwork. The impression keeps being reinforced: When people explore dreams, it seems to bring out the best in them. Why is this?

Here’s what I think:

1-Those who take any interest at all in their dreams are already a self-selected group of people who are willing to look more deeply at the difficult aspects of themselves and their lives. If you don’t want to deal with discomfort, the unknown, and your own baloney, then you avoid dreams as much as possible because dreams are full of uncomfortable truths, apparently nonsensical chaos, and personally revealing embarrassments. You’ve got to be somewhat courageous, curious and open-minded to allow those dreams into your life in any way. If you weren’t up to it, you’d suppress the whole business of dreaming as completely as you possibly could.

2-The process of remembering dreams, writing them down, sharing them with others, and studying them involves engagement with strange worlds, altered states-of-consciousness, and an uncertain reality. If you do it often enough, it gets to work on you. Dreams invite you to question assumptions, and to see familiar things in new ways. This invitation extends to your waking life as well, making it easier to accept surprises (pleasant or unpleasant), and recognize aspects of reality that seem unpredictable and inexplicable. Dreams expand your mind to include new possibilities.

3-Dreamwork can be training to “own your projections”—to acknowledge that everything and everyone you experience in a dream is, to some extent, shaped (or even created) by your own particular needs, desires, regrets, fears, memories, opinions, losses, issues, etc. It becomes clearer that this is also true in waking life, and when you learn to “own your projections” in waking life, you are taking responsibility for yourself in a way that increases trust and reduces defensiveness in others. You also learn not to “take on” what others project on you. All of this leads to healthier, and more flexible, social boundaries.

4-Dreams are fraught with emotion, so if you can tolerate (and even appreciate) the intensity, allow the feelings to flow, and reflect upon those powerful experiences with a clear head after you wake up, then you are certainly developing your emotional intelligence. From dreamwork, you learn not to identify so much with the drama, while also discovering the richness of your own and others’ emotional range. In dreams, you get lots of practice expressing your feelings, so it’s easier to make choices in waking life about what’s appropriate, what’s authentic, and what “feels right” to share (or not share) at any given time.

5-If you are exploring dreams with others (in a dream group or with family or friends or a professional dreamworker) then you soon discover that you are not alone in the world. Everyone has weird, silly dreams. Everyone has glorious dreams. Everyone has disturbing dreams. Some of these dreams aren’t remembered or acknowledged by the dreamers or by society, yet we’re all dreaming, and those of us who share dreams with one another know that those dreams overlap and coincide in myriad ways. These synchronicities can be small—in one of my groups, for example, three people brought dreams about “rabbit ears” on the same day—or they can be universally meaningful and give guidance that makes a real difference. If you follow your dreams with others, you know that we are all connected, and that everyone contributes to the flow of dreaming.

For all of these reasons (and others, I’m sure) dreams build community, and make us better communicators, better listeners, better participants, better leaders, better friends. Dreams help us solve problems together, support one another, and interact responsibly and creatively. My trust that I am included in the magnificent, expanding universe of dreams makes my life meaningful, even in the midst of my personal fears and losses. My experience of this kind of dreaming community makes me feel deeply grateful, and hopeful for the future of our planet. We can, and do, dream together.



  1. Peg Edera

    Kirsten! You are so generous with your wisdom! May the dream time love your heart into an easier way of being!

    • kirstenbackstrom

      I’m grateful for your generosity and wisdom, too, Peg! Many blessings…

  2. Tina

    Wonderful. So clear. I’m going to pass this along. Thank you, Kirsten!

  3. Hélène Montpetit

    May your heart be healed and your journey in the world of dreams bring you all you want and need. Thank you for sharing.

    • kirstenbackstrom

      Thank you, Hélène, for your warm wishes and kindness.

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