Dreamwork as Spiritual Practice

Halfway Down The Stairs: What Makes A Dream Worth Dreaming?

Some dreamworkers claim that it’s necessary to distinguish between dreams that are worthy of our attention and dreams that are not. I keep on disputing that claim (see “Housekeeping Dreams” and “Dream Composting”), but it must be admitted that although every dream, like every day of our lives, can be valuable and meaningful, some certainly do seem to be more valuable and meaningful than others.

In one exciting dream, for example, I had the opportunity to assist the Dalai Lama:

Dalai Lama Dream: First, he is an 80 year old man, then he is a little boy, then an infant, then a corpse, then a young man—and I am responsible for escorting (and sometimes carrying) him through all these transformations… Later, one of his attendants gives me a carafe full of thick liquid. But when I ask if it is mine, she says no. I hand it back and she gives it to me again, saying it is for me. I ask if I am supposed to keep it, and again she says no, so again I give it back. She returns it to me once more and tells me that it is for me to keep alive. After she has gone, I understand: the liquid is like a sourdough starter—I’ll set some aside, add to it, let it grow, keep it alive, until there is more than enough to give back…

This is indisputably important stuff! A meaningful role in the reincarnation of life itself! And what a great metaphor! It was satisfying to bring this dream to my peer dream group (along with a lot more detail that I don’t have room to include here)—and they added their own insights until, like a good yeasty dough, the dream’s already-evident potential was expanded further still…

Of course, some dreams demonstrate their qualities and get our attention right away. Sometimes, we know a dream is significant because (as with the “Dalai Lama Dream”) it has a big theme, or a clever twist. Sometimes, its emotional impact makes it stand out. Maybe it’s a frightening nightmare, or maybe it’s a transcendent revelation, or maybe it’s just stunningly beautiful, but whatever it is, we know we’re onto something.

Halfway Down 01And then, there are all of the other dreams. The ones where the bathroom is filthy, or I can’t remember the telephone number, or my hair is green and sticky, or I’m arguing furiously with someone very stubborn, or there’s no cake left at the buffet… These dreams have emotional content, but it’s ordinary emotion—nothing special. Like the familiar diversions and distractions of a typical day, the dream events don’t impress.

A typical recent dream of mine reflected this kind of ordinary emotion, in an ordinary way. I’m still grieving over the death of my mother, but the feelings are mostly just a part of me now, a part of my life. I’m reminded of her, remember that she is gone and, for a while, I feel lost and sad. This feeling presented itself quietly in my dream:

Halfway down the stairs: I stop halfway down a flight of dusty wooden stairs, and I just sit. I am sad, and I need to stop here and rest and feel the loneliness of my losses. I sit quietly, by myself.

This uneventful dream doesn’t make a statement or bring a message. It’s just a feeling, just an experience. Most of our days are filled with experiences like this—our doing and our being, our ups and our downs, our neither-here-nor-there happenings. Looking back over the years, we’ll remember the big events, or the things that led up to the big events, or the things that followed the big events… But whether we remember them or not, there have been a lot of other things going on besides crises. Between the big events and beyond the big events, there were those halfway-down-the-stairs experiences.

Do you remember this A.A. Milne poem from when you were a kid? It was one of my favorites:

Halfway Down
Halfway down the stairs
Is a stair
Where I sit.
There isn’t any
Other stair
Quite like
I’m not at the bottom,
I’m not at the top;
So this is the stair
I always
-A.A. Milne

(That’s only half of the poem, you can look up the rest for yourself…)

While it’s satisfying to work with the impressive and powerful dream themes, the beautiful and brilliant dream images, the deep puzzles and stunning breakthroughs—well, it’s also satisfying to work with the quieter atmosphere and simpler experience of an ordinary dream. Such dreams form patterns and resonate with one another, just like the waking experiences that create the patterns and textures of the fabric of our lives. Each dream has its place in the whole dreaming experience, yet each dream is a unique and complete expression of itself.

My “Halfway Down” dream brings echoes of stairways in previous grief dreams (described in “Interview with a Dream Figure” and “Grief Dreams: The Experience of Absence”). The staircase seems to be a transitory, liminal experience—an in-between place. It reverberates with my memories of Milne’s poem, and expresses the childhood discovery of that private, solitary, yet universal stopping place within ourselves, right in the middle of life’s ups and downs. Some dreams give us room to pause and reflect on where we are. That’s all.

So even if it’s just a dream of sitting down on the stairs, it might be worthwhile to stop and notice: “There isn’t any other stair quite like this.”


  1. Jill

    Halfway down the Stairs was a poem our Mom used to read to us and it was always my favorite. It is cool reading what Kirsten writes because she includes references to things that happened when we were kids that I remember too.
    I’m in a transition stage too. I shared a recurring dream with my sister a while ago.
    I am always getting ready to leave from an unfamiliar place to go back home. I wonder why I brought my bureau and my toys and clothes and vow next time to pack lightly. I’m very stressed out trying to pack everything and fit it in the car. I am really scared because I don’t know how to get home.
    I’m not sure what it means…
    So funny I have the “bathroom dreams” too and I think it’s because I have to go so frequently! There is always a lack of privacy as well like the walls missing or the stall is in front of a window.
    Kirsten and I are as different as night and day but the love there is really strong.
    Kirsten’s sister Jill

    • kirstenbackstrom

      How lucky am I, to have a sister like you, Jill? Not just lucky—blessed. Yes, we share so much even though we’re so different. Thank you for being there, and dreaming your dreams…
      Love you!

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