Dreamwork as Spiritual Practice

Dreaming and Dukkha: Unsatisfactoriness

dukkhaI’m exploring dreamwork through the lens of Buddhism [see “Buddhist Philosophy in Dreamwork”], taking each of the “Three Marks of Existence” (unsatisfactoriness, impermanence, and non-self) in turn. These may sound like gloomy ways to mark existence… and I’m going to start with the gloomiest of all: dukkha. But let’s see what dreams can do with this stuff that defines unhappiness in our lives:

Learning from a Child: I am imprisoned with a group of people I don’t particularly like, afflicted by a deep, visceral depression—despair, frustration, anxiety, paralysis. I know I must go off by myself and experience this depression fully. When I’m aware of my body, the depression is a sensation in my chest, a dull vibration or slowly pulsing electrical current, as if a heavy metal object has been struck by a hammer. I’m exploring this sensation when a little girl appears and begins to talk—partly to me and partly to herself. I don’t feel under any obligation to listen, still experiencing the physical sense of the depression, but then find myself absorbed in what she is saying and doing. She has drawn a cut-out human figure on paper, and she tears it down the center lengthwise, explaining that this will make it larger, because now it has space in the middle. This inspires me to act compassionately to protect another member of the group from being bullied…

I’ve had dreams about depression periodically for most of my adult life. In each dream the context is different, but the mood is the same—as intense as any waking depression. Over the years, I’ve “worked with” these dreams in various ways. Because they were so unpleasant, I used to try to forget them as quickly as possible, but I noticed that this distraction method usually just pushed the depressed feelings below the surface, where they subtly influenced my thoughts and behavior for the rest of the day.

So, my first dreamwork practice was simply to give the dreams my attention when they arose. I wrote them down, noting how the circumstances and sensations varied from dream to dream, and seeing the patterns that emerged over time. I noticed that when I gave the unpleasant dreams my waking attention their unpleasant influence on my waking state would naturally dissipate. With a dream-sharing group, I reenacted the dreams, and found grief in them, which needed to be shared.

Since the dreams continued, I kept exploring, and found layers of psychological insights into how the dreams fit my personal history. This was useful, also, in my work as a spiritual director and chaplain, where I often accompanied others who were experiencing depression. I gradually discovered a compassionate core at the center of depression, a tender place where I recognized I was not alone. No one is alone in the experience of suffering.

I found that I could work with the depression within the dream, as well. In some dreams, I’d remember that I didn’t want to let my mood affect the way I behaved toward others. In one lucid dream, I actually reached into my own head and removed a tumor-like object that was causing the depression. All this attention brought to bear on depression dreams “helped” in a sense, but my efforts were still directed toward making the unpleasant experience of such dreams stop. My awareness was tinged with judgment (“these are bad dreams”) and the need for control (“I will get rid of them”).

Unsatisfactoriness, dukkha, is the first of the “Four Noble Truths” of Buddhism, and also one of the “Three Marks of Existence.” We find experiences to be pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral, and we tend to cling to what is pleasant, try to get rid of what is unpleasant, and ignore what is neutral. But we never succeed in these efforts: pleasant things necessarily pass away; neutral things either persist in being neutral or become unpleasant when ignored; and unpleasant things arise inevitably in the form of sickness, old age, death, and a myriad of other causes and conditions. Our efforts to choose and control our experiences invariably lead to “unsatisfactoriness”—and, ultimately, to suffering.

However, if we can learn to bring awareness to our experiences through spiritual practice, we may struggle less, and suffer less. Unpleasant experiences won’t cease to occur in the light of awareness, but the suffering caused by the compounding influence of our resistance will be mitigated. Pain can be met with nonjudgmental curiosity, with the compassion that comes from awareness of our commonality with others, and with a willingness to let it be, knowing it will change and noticing how it changes.

In dreamwork, there can be an unfortunate tendency to label dreams (and dreamers) “good” or “bad.” I’ve often heard it said that recurring dreams, especially recurring unpleasant dreams, mean that you’re “not getting the message,” and that nightmares mean you’re “resisting” something—with the explicit or implicit corollary that you should correct your attitude or behavior.

While there is certainly some truth to the connection between difficult dreams and inner obstacles, I believe that the judgment and the “cure” are misguided. This is dukkha. Unpleasant events and emotions occur, and recur, in dreaming life just as in waking life. Buddhist teachings and my own experience tell me that the most skillful response to such events and emotions is to bring awareness to them—get curious—without struggling to make them other than what they are.

Recently, in dreams and awake, I’ve gotten curious about this experience I’ve been calling depression. I find that the sensations are indeed painful and disagreeable, but they are also intricate, subtle, and somewhat surprising. The physical state of depression is not a state at all, but a shifting pattern of energies in the body (or the dream-body). These energies ebb and flow with my attention.

As I pay attention to the experience of unpleasantness, I find that it has gaps that are not unpleasant at all. In those gaps, other experiences arise—like the child who comes along in the dream. Instead of deciding that I am depressed and therefore not interested in this child, I observe the experience as it unfolds, and find that there are openings during which I am listening. Then, instead of accepting or rejecting what the child is saying, I am simply open to the changes that happen within me as she shows and tells me something. Gradually, I find I’m not so identified with my depression; I’m becoming more identified with an experience of listening, which leads to an experience of compassion that is expressed in actions, and so forth.

This dream marks a shift in my relationship both to depression dreams and to depression itself. It doesn’t necessarily mean that I’ve finished with experiencing depression, in dreams or awake—depression is a very unpleasant experience that may arise and pass away like any other—yet perhaps I will suffer less. Perhaps by allowing an opening (even though it involves an experience of being “torn down the middle” by the pain of the sensations) I become “larger.”



  1. traviswernet

    These themes and approaches have been so present for me lately, after several (new) challenges have arisen in my own life, including my partner breaking her hip last May… I think this is a crucial perspective Kirsten, that part of the invitation, as you so clearly, soulfully and helpfully present it, is to allow “what is” and to become curious about the areas we find difficult. The dream is also very striking and the visceral “in the body” elements seem to bring a much needed and appreciable gravitas to the work, great stuff, and I will also share this one on Facebook in the trust that others may also find it helpful as well. All Blessings, T

    • kirstenbackstrom

      Thank you for highlighting the visceral “in the body” elements, Travis. So often, it’s the overpowering physicality of intense experiences that makes us basically dissociate and detach from ourselves as we try to get away from the unpleasantness—returning to the body can also mean returning to the spirit center. I value the way that you treat your challenges (and your partner’s) as invitations to presence.

      Thank you for helping me share my work with others—and, as always, thank you for your own wisdom and gifts to the world.

  2. Tina

    Kirsten, I so appreciate your posts on looking at dreams through these various lenses–shamanism, Buddhism–they illuminate such a rich landscape of possibility for working with dreams. I love the image in this dream of being torn down the middle, and how that makes a person larger–oh yeah! Once again, I’m touched by the gift of your dream and the wise light you shine on it.

    • kirstenbackstrom

      Thank you, dear Tina. I’m touched by the gift of your dreams, too—and the “wise light you shine on them” as well! Your words mean a lot to me.

  3. Deborah

    Thank you, Kirsten, for your insight into those ‘dark’ dreams that I often want to forget. I especially like your statement,

    “….the most skillful response to such events and emotions is to bring awareness to them—get curious—without struggling to make them other than what they are.”

    It is so easy to get caught up in that struggle to make them something else, and in the meantime loose sight of the message of the dream.

    • kirstenbackstrom

      I greatly appreciate your thoughts on this, Deborah. It’s remarkable how these “dark” dreams can turn out to be the most healing and meaningful ones. Opening up and not struggling is certainly easier said than done, however! It sounds like you have experience with the wisdom, and the difficulty, of letting go and listening to the dream. Thank you!

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