Dreamwork as Spiritual Practice

The Dreams We Don’t Need To Remember

tree rootsWhat if I rarely, or never, remember my dreams? In “Inviting Dreams” you’ll find some good ways to look at the dreaming process, and some practical methods for making dream recall more likely. But right now, I’m looking at this question from another angle: What is happening in those dreams I don’t remember? Are they still “working” at another level of awareness, even though I can’t access them consciously?

Even those who are practiced in the techniques of dream recall, and those with a vividly-remembered dream life most of the time, will have phases when only fragments, or nothing at all, remains of their dreams in the morning. I’m going through this myself lately. Last night, for example, there were a lot of dreams, but I can’t get any of them to take shape in my mind now that I am awake. Something about sweeping up shreds and shards of something… I struggled with it for a while, then let it go. Many nights have been like that in recent weeks, and although I have had several meaningful dream memories, for the most part there’s not a lot to get hold of.

This is okay. In fact, this is good. (Or maybe I’m just trying to reassure myself?) Actually, in my experience with my own dreams and the dreams of others, I’ve seen clear evidence that going through times when few, if any, dreams can be recalled is natural, and even healthy. I also think that if you’re one of the people who really can’t remember any dreams at all, that can be okay, too. Dreams are part of a process that is larger than our thinking and remembering minds. That process goes on and does its work—and we live parts of our lives in the dream world—whether we remember dreams or not.

I look at it from the perspective of healing and wholeness. Although we may sometimes feel alienated, or believe that the world is a hostile place, the truth is that the universe we inhabit truly includes us—and the fabric of that universe is essentially self-healing, just like our bodies are essentially self-healing. That doesn’t mean that things don’t fall apart and die, or that they can’t get out of balance. Death is included in the larger healing process, because new life can’t exist without death. But while one part is dying, another is being born. When things get out of balance (usually because some parts of the system seek to prolong and enhance their separate existence at the expense of other life)—then there may be too much death and destruction and too little renewal. Yet, the natural tendency is still toward restoring balance, toward healing and wholeness.

We are part of a spiritual ecology larger than ourselves, which moves us naturally toward life when it’s time to live, and toward death when it’s time to die. My own personal belief is that what I think of as “myself” is only a tiny part of what I am, and that when my body dies there’ll be some consciousness that changes form and continues to participate in the larger whole in a new way. I don’t know whether this is true or not, but living “as if” it were true leads to a life that is both energetically independent and cooperatively adaptive.

So what does any of this have to do with dreams? In dreams, we seek balance and participate in something beyond our individual idea of our separate selves. Carl Jung believed that dreams were “compensatory”—meaning that if something in waking life was out of balance, then dreams would present the opposite perspective. It may not be quite that simple, but dreams definitely take us to places that can challenge us and balance us. Dreams show us alternative points of view that may threaten or thrill us; they can make us aware of the unexpected roles we play in the lives of other beings and the ecosystem as a whole. Does this process have to be remembered to be real? I don’t think so. Our bodies heal, grow, and ultimately die without instruction from our conscious minds. I trust that dreams function like our bodies, whether or not they are consciously recognized, remembered, or brought to our full awareness.

“What we recall is what we need. Remember that when you are writing down your dream in your journal, you are dealing with your memory of the dream. You may not be able to recall every detail. And you are picking up the story or imagery from a certain point and taking it to another point. This means that what we recall is exactly what is needed to be brought to our waking consciousness at this time—no more, no less. Even the dreams that can’t be recalled serve a purpose in your subconscious. Further, if a message really needs to come to consciousness, you will receive it in future dreams.”   -Robert Gongloff

During times when I’m not remembering my dreams very well, perhaps it is because my conscios mind needs to be dedicated to other tasks. Perhaps there are times when dreams actually do their work better without conscious interference from me—even the mild interference of observation and reshaping into waking memory. At other times, when I’m remembering a lot of dreams, perhaps it’s because the process of making them conscious is good for me, good for restoring balance and wholeness in my waking life.

And maybe those who rarely if ever remember dreams are just not in need of integrating conscious and unconscious experiences, but instead are fine with letting the waking life do the waking work and the dreaming life do the dreaming work. Unless there’s some obvious sense that something is wrong, perhaps it’s best just to “let sleeping dreams lie” and not struggle too hard when they refuse our invitation to become more conscious.

That’s a peculiar position for a dreamworker to take! I certainly don’t think everyone should just leave dreams unexplored. It’s good to extend ourselves, and open ourselves to the possibility that there’s more to us than meets the eye—and that means that we can support our own growth, and our connectedness to the larger world, by bringing some dreams into consciousness and finding out how they might affect our waking lives. But there will always be dreams we don’t remember, and times we can’t remember. And those dreams that remain below the surface will still serve their purpose—like roots which balance the visible with the deep ballast of the invisible, so the whole tree grows well in all directions.



  1. Donna Brinati

    i Kirsten, I have tried a long time to remember a dream if I have one. Maybe I don’t sleep deeply enough to make it happen. I will ponder that. Donna Brinati

    • kirstenbackstrom

      Many thanks for your comment, Donna. I know it has been difficult for you to remember dreams–and you’re probably right that not sleeping deeply makes a difference. If we ever do “dreamwork” together, I’d suggest that we try thinking of a waking experience as if it were a dream… and use the images from your daily life as dream images that can have metaphorical meanings, too. It would be fun to play with that, and maybe give you a glimpse of something like a dream. Blessings on your sleeping and waking!

      • Donna Brinati

        Good Morning Kirsten, hope you have a great day. I am open to your answer. Donna

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