Dreamwork as Spiritual Practice

Are Dreams Boring?

toby bored

bored, bored, bored…

It’s a popular cliché that listening to (or reading about) other people’s dreams is boring. Really, really boring. Henry James said, “Tell a dream, lose a reader.” In all honesty, there’s some truth in this. Have you ever listened—or tried to listen—to a six-year-old recounting the plot of her favorite movie? When dreams are told without context, and without a sense of what the listener needs in order to follow the story… well, yes, they can be pretty monotonous.

Dreams definitely can have a “you-had-to-be-there” quality. Even the best storyteller might have difficulty conveying the indescribable experiences that occurred in a dream where sensory impressions were nuanced and intense, events seemed to overlap in timeless patterns, things kept changing into other things, and there was just a whole lot happening endlessly. As the little kid telling a movie plot (or a dream) might say: and then the man ate all the pizza … and then the dog was a horse… and then they ran over the fields… and then it was the next day… oh, and I forgot, the pizza wasn’t real, it was a big cookie kind of made of toast…

There are ways of telling dreams so that people will be engaged and even entertained. When I’m just telling a dream as an example, or to make a point, or to get a laugh (in a blog post, in a workshop, or casually with friends), I leave out everything that isn’t directly related to the topic at hand, and I try to choose a dream with images that are funny or vivid, a storyline that can be summarized simply, and scenes that are relatively easy to describe and imagine.

Nevertheless, even though I’m pretty experienced at both telling and hearing dreams, I can sometimes sound like the little kid recounting the relentless saga—especially when I’m trying to share all the significant details because I’m going to be working on the dream with others.

The bottom line is that sharing any complex experience that has profoundly affected you will be difficult. The context and background may be unfamiliar to your listeners, and lots of details are needed to convey the richness of the experience and its implications. So it’s best not to even bring it up unless everyone present is prepared to get past their own impatience, and give you and your experience—or dream—their full attention.

Okay, but here’s my heated defense of dreaming and dream-telling: Dreams are not boring at all! In themselves, they are often magnificently subtle, brilliantly “on target” with their insights, full of stunning surprises, hilarious plot twists, creative genius, rich sensuality, cunning irony, dazzling landscapes… Well, you see I’m biased in favor of dreams! It is definitely worthwhile to pay attention to them and share them, even though, as I’ve acknowledged, someone else’s dream can be very difficult to follow.

The key to finding someone else’s dream interesting (even thrilling!) is to actually care about what it may have to offer. In fact, that’s the key to listening to anything or anyone. If I’m distracted, impatient, preoccupied with my own interests or unwilling to empathize, I will be bored by just about everything. On the other hand, if I stop and recognize that I’m about to receive the gift of someone’s unique experience, presented in a unique way… then I may be confused, or even frustrated, but I won’t be bored. I will be engaged in the shared experience, and I will be changed by that experience.

Dreams naturally baffle and disorient our conscious minds. They speak a different language, have different rules, and sometimes address issues that, for one reason or another, we don’t consciously want to face. When someone begins to tell a dream—even though I’ve invited it and I genuinely want to listen—I briefly freeze up like a “deer in headlights.” What does it mean? Where is all this going? How am I supposed to respond? And then I relax and go with it…

“. . . it is of the greatest importance when listening to dreams to stay away from snap interpretations . . . and to listen to the dream with a willingness to bear the brunt of its utter incomprehensibility.” –Robert Bosnak

Yes. This is good advice for how to live life in general: “stay away from snap interpretations,” and maintain “a willingness to bear the brunt of its utter incomprehensibility.”  If I’m genuinely open to the infinite possibilities that present themselves in my daily life, in my dreams, and in the dreams and experiences of others, I may be baffled, but I am certainly not bored!



  1. Karen Deora

    Yes, yes, you are so right…”how to live life in general.” Being bored unfortunately has become one of the hallmarks of our culture…we often don’t even see the elephants in the room, i.e. global warming. Elephants are so boring…or scary?

    My granddaughter, several years ago when she was 8, used to eagerly ask me to tell her my dreams and she and a boy pal used to tell each other theirs. She would listen with rapt attention and sometimes laugh hysterically. I hope she doesn’t let the creeping enculturation change her!

    • kirstenbackstrom

      Your grand-daughter (and her grandmother!) has the kind of patience that kids are especially good at–the patience that comes with just being interested in everything… Generally, we adults are far too impatient with the things that are really important–maybe we get bored because it’s scary to care so much about this precious and fragile (but also resilient and surprising) planet. Dreams get us right to the heart of things, so it’s easy to find them overwhelming. I think paying attention, and getting past the “boredom” (or fear) is well worth it–whether it brings up laughter or tears or anxiety or action. Thanks so much for your thoughtful comment, Karen.

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