Dreamwork as Spiritual Practice

Gentle Adventures: Dreaming Courageously, Without Catastrophe

dark road 01Adventures don’t need to be awful. I need not be awe-struck, but perhaps can be awe-stroked instead. In my dreams, I’ve been taking challenges in stride, bringing trust to bear on new experiences, finding courage in going forward slowly, feeling my way, with humility and willingness.

Dream of Walking Into The Dark: The car has broken down, and my companions are gone. I’m stranded at a desolate gas station with two men who are up to no good. I’m their prisoner, but we keep up a friendly pretense that we are just fellow travelers, while I try to figure out how to get away, and they try to decide what to do with me. We wait while the car is being repaired. It is dusk; we’ve been waiting for hours. Perhaps I could walk ahead? I know there’s a country store at the other side of the dense forest; from there, I could get help. The men pretend to go along with this, but in fact intend me harm. Either they’ll come after me and eliminate me where no one else can see, or I’ll be waylaid by bandits in the woods. I know they’re plotting, but also know that if I don’t let fear take over, I can outwit them and reach safety.

I believe it is less than a mile to the store. As I set out, darkness sets in. There is no moon. The road curves, and I run my hand along a bamboo fence as a guide into the total darkness of the forest. Then, the fence ends, the black woods close in on on both sides. I hold back my fear as I go, feeling the road with my feet. Bright eyes can be glimpsed in the deepest darkness, but they don’t look fierce and I don’t need to fear them. I’m following the road’s edge closely, so I won’t stray and wander off into the depths of the forest. I keep walking… Now, I realize it’s actually seven miles through this forest, and I prepare myself to accept a much longer journey than I had anticipated. I expect real danger ahead, but I know I can face it when it comes.

This dream reminds me of an all-night hike I took in my late teens, when I lived on an island off the coast of Maine. On my way home after midnight, I followed an unlit road that spiraled down a mountain, in total darkness, alone. The rhythm of my slapping footsteps on the sloping pavement was soothing and hypnotic. The downward road seemed to go on and on for hours, until I forgot myself. I was inseparable from the sounds and sensations of walking, from the clouded night sky, from the spiraling road.

These days, life seems a lot more complicated. As I prepare for the pilgrimage I’m planning to take, on the Camino de Santiago, in a couple of months [see “Pilgrimage: Walking the Way of the Dream” and “Surrender, Dreamer!“]—I’m overwhelmed by the complexity of my preparations, and regularly wrestle with the wish to control the process, to make everything manageable. There’s the challenge of getting physically strong enough. There’s the challenge of coping with my anxieties and habit patterns. And there’s the plain ridiculous effort of organizing transportation, communication, insurance, finances, supplies and logistics.

The goal is to place myself on an unfamiliar path, adapt to the circumstances I encounter, and just keep walking. So how come the preliminaries require so much planning? Well, we live in a complicated world. I long to let go, and step into the darkness without decisions or drama, feeling my way along, trusting something other than my own plans.

In the midst of all this, my dreams remind me that the important thing about any journey is to step forward—to let it carry me where I need to go. These months of preparation for the Camino are part of the camino, part of the journey, part of the way. And, as in the dream, I’m afraid but I just need to begin and go on.

I began in August when I conceived of the idea that I might undertake this pilgrimage. I began in September building my intention. I began in October and November, challenging my body, facing my limits, hitting my stride. I began in December wrestling with setbacks and stresses, and then in January, just coping. I began in February with a new openness that included all the difficulties… I’m beginning yet again now.

I begin and continue, attending to the tasks that take me where I’m going—and in a couple of months, I’ll take one more big step across an ocean and onto another continent. But how is this so different from the steps I take every day, and every night, waking and dreaming? Just being alive is an adventure, isn’t it?

Recently, I talked with my spiritual director about how things are going in my life—wanting to know if I’m “on the right track.” But, as I talked about the track that I’m on, I realized that although I can’t always see my way, I can sense what I’m doing, what I’m being. I answer my own questions as I live my life.

This walking in the dark can be a gentle adventure. Any pilgrimage we undertake is bound to take us beyond what we expect, but we’re up to it. There are real threats, perhaps, but we’re up to those, too. And, often, we’re surprised by how easy it is to put one foot in front of the other, feeling the rhythm of the path we’re on, and letting the way reveal itself before us.

My model for adventures used to be all about crisis and struggle. I would throw myself headlong into the abyss, and wait for the crash at the bottom. But something different is happening as I get older, and dream deeper. I still step over the edge, but find that I am simply walking, peacefully, along the path of least resistance, letting momentum carry me through my fears.

Another night recently, I recalled another long hike in my past, and re-lived that waking experience in a dream:

Slope of Sand: I have to descend a terribly steep, sandy slope while hiking in the desert. I dread that slope at first. It looks like a drop-off that will require a desperate scramble. But when I step into it, the sand just flows softly downward, bearing my weight, lowering me, slowly, floating with each stride, to solid ground again. It is so wonderful that I take the trouble to climb back to the top and do it once more.

Remember this. The adventure can be more difficult than you think, but it can also be easier. It can even be gentle and miraculous. Step in.


  1. Kiera O'Hara

    Thanks for conjuring steadiness, stepping forward, letting go amidst the unknown–making it a conceivable, believable, possible path to travel.

    • kirstenbackstrom

      Thank you, Kiera! I love the expression “conjuring steadiness”—and the poetry of a “conceivable, believable” path… You’ve conjured the gentle adventure yourself.

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