Dreamwork as Spiritual Practice

Dreaming of Homelessness, Part 3: Metaphor & Imagery

path & wallI’m pretty sure it’s true that “no dreams come just to tell you what you already know” [from Jeremy Taylor’s “Dream Work Tool Kit”]. There’s always value in looking further, letting the dream take us into unknown territory. My recent dream about a homeless man being separated from his dog troubled me, and dreams that trouble me suggest that it’s particularly important to expand the bounds of “what I already know.” Can I see beyond the troubling first impression? Can I find more meaning here than meets the eye?

I started with what I could easily see by taking the dream literally [“Dreaming of Homelessness, Part One”], and then listened for resonance between the dream and my own recent experiences walking the Camino de Santiago [“Dreaming of Homelessness, Part Two”]. But both of these approaches kept well within the realm of what I already know—about the dream and about myself. Now, I’d like to tap into the dream’s core imagery, its metaphoric energy source. This is still a somewhat personal, psychological approach, but the dream gives me a boost so I can peek over the wall at the edge of my conscious imagination.

When we pick up the symbols that generate the dynamic life force in a dream and hold them to the light, rainbow patterns flash from every facet. Through metaphor and imagery, personal projections glitter and unfold into multiple dimensions that reflect universal meanings.

Here’s a short version of the dream, emphasizing some key images (for the full dream, see Part One):

The Homeless Man Will Lose His Papillon: A homeless man comes to my partner and me for shelter on a cold, wet night, and we offer him food, a warm bath, and a sleeping bag on the couch. He has a little dog—a female papillon named “Pierrot.” While he sleeps, We realize that he can no longer take care of himself and his dog. It seems like a betrayal to suggest this, but the only solution is for the dog to be adopted by someone else. Unwilling to give up his papillon, the man leaves—but soon returns, because he is too sick to survive out there. He seems to agree, reluctantly, to let Pierrot go, though for now he withdraws again to the sleeping bag, saying nothing. I remove my valuables—passport and cash—from the room where he is sleeping, so he will not be tempted to steal.  

Now, we witness a different scene: another dog—a retriever—is in a crate. Her owner is giving her up for adoption, and says good-bye through the cage door. Then, her new owner, apparently the same kind woman who will adopt Pierrot, comes and opens the cage door and lets the dog out. They get to know each other, gently. I think that it could be like this for the papillon, too—a sad separation, but the chance to go to a warm and loving home.

My peer dream group helped me to hold “The Homeless Man Will Lose His Papillon” up to the light, to see through the dream’s words and into the dream’s world. Ordinarily, I know how to play creatively with images and metaphors, to uncover the paradoxical intricacies of a dream—but this dream had hit my blind spots. I couldn’t see past the homeless man’s needs, my own fears, and my shameful failure to trust him or find a compassionate solution that would allow him to keep his dog.

There were some obvious symbols that I recognized right away, but they seemed opaque, dulled by my literalism. I needed the help of my fellow dreamworkers to open up some space in my thinking and give this dead-end story a new life. They heard the dream in a fresh way, and echoed its metaphors back to me, with their own associations and emotional responses—and in those echoes I could hear the dream’s voice speaking more clearly to me, singing to me.

A homeless dream figure is not the same thing as a homeless human being, and a dream papillon named Pierrot is more than a man’s canine companion. Separating them from each other, even though it feels painful and sad, is not necessarily a tragedy since the dream itself suggests in the final scene that, after the good-byes are over, the cage door will be opened and a new relationship and home may be gently introduced.

My friend Pearl as “Pierrot"

Pearl Luick standing in for “Pierrot”

The dream figure of the homeless man will have his turn in the final post of this series, but here I’d like to concentrate on the little dog. She is a papillon—a breed of toy spaniel known for big, perky, silky ears that look like butterfly wings. The name does, in fact, mean “butterfly” in French. In many traditions, butterflies are associated with the soul, because of their beauty, lightness, and the way that they emerge from a process of metamorphosis. The papillon is the soul of this dream. I don’t even actually “see” that little dog—I know she’s there, but have no visual impression of her presence—and yet the whole dream is her story.

The separation of the homeless man from his papillon could be considered a process of “soul loss.” [For more about soul loss, see: “Soul Retrieval and Shamanic Dreaming.”] It seems that the primal connection between body and soul (man and dog) is going to be severed. Viewing the homeless man as analogous to the physical body makes some sense, since his needs are immediately physical—he needs food, warmth, rest. And, when the man sleeps, or when the body goes through trauma or radical transformation, the soul may take flight. Maybe the papillon is a lost soul.

But, another way of looking at this situation is that the soul is just leaving one kind of relationship with the primary identity and going on to a new kind of relationship. Both the old “owner” (the homeless man) and the new one (the kind woman) are aspects of the dreamer’s whole self, and the papillon/soul is simply shifting allegiance from one aspect to another. This movement of the soul suggests that the dreamer (myself) may be shifting away from her own identification with homelessness and toward a new understanding of home.

From this perspective, the man represents an identity that has become exhausted, worn down, unsustainable. This “homeless” identity has been “out in the cold” and is finally being acknowledged, invited inside, and given care and attention. Along with the care and attention comes a realization that the soul (the papillon) cannot survive if she remains connected to this identity. The soul needs a new home, which her companion (the homeless figure) is no longer able to provide.

All we can do for the man right now is make him comfortable. But the soul needs something more. Perhaps, as the last scene of the dream suggests, separating the soul from this homeless figure is not “soul loss” after all, but actually a form of “soul retrieval.” As long as she is with a homeless owner, the papillon/soul is homeless, too. But she has the potential to go to a true home when she leaves her homeless identity behind. At the end of the dream, we witness a different dog going through a similar process of separation from one owner to another, and this dog is a “retriever”—so the dream intimates that some kind of retrieval can occur. The new owner is a kind woman, and she receives the dog “gently.”

It was the homeless man who named his dog “Pierrot”—but if she goes to a new home, she may get a new name. It’s a common practice in many spiritual traditions for a person (or soul) to take a new name as a rite of passage at a time of significant transition. When she goes to her new home, she will still be a papillon (butterfly/soul), but she may no longer be a pierrot.

What is a pierrot? Well, first, Pierrot is the sad clown character from the French pantomime tradition. He is dressed in baggy white clothes (papillon dogs are mostly white, with black or brown markings), and is naively innocent, pitifully suffering from unrequited love. In the dream, I am aware that Pierrot is a male name, though the dog is a female… So already there is a hint that the name does not fit her. Perhaps the man has given her this name because he thinks of her as a part of himself—representing his unexpressed longing for love and a home. Such a name, however, limits the soul to being always associated with homelessness and lovelessness, never fully loved for herself or at home with herself.

I also realized as soon as I woke from this dream that pierrot is a diminutive of Pierre (or Peter), which means “stone.” So, the name means “little stone” or “pebble.” Which reminds me of the expression, “a pebble in the shoe,” referring to a small thing that makes walking (or any task) much more difficult.

As I walked the long camino in the weeks before I had this dream, there was a song that ran continually in my head: “By My Side” from the musical Godspell. The lyrics of this song fit the dream (and the walking), and one of my dreamworker friends recited those lyrics aloud for me, allowing me to hear them clearly and fully feel their appropriateness:

“…I’ll put a pebble in my shoe, and watch me, watch me walk—I can walk and walk. I shall call the pebble ‘Dare,’ and we will talk about walking. Dare shall be carried, and when we both have had enough, I will take him from my shoe, singing, ‘Meet your new road…’”

The homeless man and the dog, the man and his soul, were companions in suffering. But there comes a time when the man must lie down and let the suffering go, let the homeless life come to an end, and take the pebble from his shoe so that the soul can “meet a new road,” take a new name, move toward a larger, gentler life…

Yet the painful companionship of shared struggle is still valued, still acknowledged as authentically loving and courageous, in the dream and in the song. The deep sense of loss and longing implicit in letting go is reflected in the full lyrics of “By My Side”—along with the deeper relationship that transcends that loss. In the Godspell story, just before Jesus is betrayed and surrenders himself to his death, his companions sing to him:

“Where are you going? Where are you going? Can you take me with you? For my hand is cold and needs warmth. Where are you going? …Far beyond where the horizon lies and the land sinks into mellow blueness—Oh, please, take me with you. Let me skip the road with you, I can dare myself. I can dare myself. I’ll put a pebble in my shoe and watch me, watch me walk—I can walk and walk. I shall call the pebble ‘Dare,’ and we will talk about walking. Dare shall be carried, and when we both have had enough, I will take him from my shoe, singing, ‘Meet your new road…’ Then I’ll take your hand, finally glad that you are here. That you are here, by my side.”

[to hear “By My Side” performed by the Godspell cast, click on the papillon picture]

When the painful pebble is set free—finally, paradoxically, there is true companionship. The papillon/soul companion (no longer a pierrot) is now here “by my side,” rather than uncomfortably in my shoe.

When I was walking, day after day, week after week, I carried sadness and loss, and a sense of homelessness, with all of the difficulty and physical harshness of living this way. But the time has come for this identification with suffering and struggle to be lovingly released. So, in my dream, I’m not the homeless one. I play the role of the one who recognizes the need to separate the man from his dog, separating the soul from its identification with homelessness and suffering. I even have to take steps to keep that homeless, struggling part of myself from being tempted to steal my identity (my passport) and resources (cash). At the same time, however, I give that homeless figure comfort and safety—so that, within the context of the dream at least, both body and soul can experience homecoming.

In one sense, walking is hard, life is really hard. In another sense, walking is easy, life is beautiful, hopeful, gentle and filled with joy. A butterfly-soul can’t carry the name of a small, hard stone forever—she must, at some point, be released to find her true home, her “new road.” As the world opens up and my friends add their experiences to my experiences, the dream sings to me and gives me a new way of seeing my own life, my own true home, and a new road.


  1. Kiera O'Hara

    Dear Kirsten,
    Following your process with this dream (all three of the entries so far) has been amazing and inspiring, and helpful. Thank you for going deep and wide with it, and sharing your discoveries with characteristic clarity and generosity.

    • kirstenbackstrom

      Kiera, I’m really grateful for your response—and your kind words about my work. It means a lot to me that you are reading these posts, as I know you are doing your own deep work with your dreams and your life.

  2. Tina

    What a beautiful piece of dreamwork. I love the soul retrieval aspect of this, and the new home for the butterfly dog. Oh my. Thanks for sharing this careful, refracted work.

    • kirstenbackstrom

      I’m so glad you like it, Tina… Remarkable how such simple images can hold so much transformative power. You always find the beauty and power in dream images yourself, and it is a joy to share dreams with you.

  3. Jean

    Wow, Kirsten, I was just singing that song to myself this past weekend while walking a rocky shoreline…..I love your insights. Thank you.

    • kirstenbackstrom

      Thank you, Jean! It’s a haunting song, isn’t it? Always makes me cry.

© 2024 Compass Dreamwork

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑