Dreamwork as Spiritual Practice

The Healing Experience of the Dream Itself

One evening recently, a dear friend was coping with a crisis—and I could think of nothing else. My heart and mind were completely with the pain that she was going through, and the unresolved situation that she faced. There was nothing to be done to help, nothing to be done but wait and pray. As I waited to learn what the outcome might be, I couldn’t imagine working, writing, or even distracting myself with books or television. How could anything to do with dreams or dreamwork possibly make any difference here?

Nevertheless, since it was all I could do, I went to bed and to sleep—holding in mind the wish that all would be well. During the night, each time I woke, I did the Buddhist practice of Tonglen—which involves opening up (rather than shutting down) to the experience of suffering, letting myself feel this suffering on behalf of all those who suffer, breathing it in, and then sending love, relief and peace on the out-breath.

I breathed in the pain of helplessness that I was feeling along with my friend and so many beings all over the world who have suffered similar pain. I breathed out the warmth and safety of my own bed, the dearness of my loved ones, the easing of pain that comes from feeling connected and cared for—wishing that all beings could share this easing of pain. The Tonglen practice pervaded my sleep and my dreams.

In the morning, I felt rested and peaceful, even though my concern for my friend was still with me every moment. My dreams had been deep, and left a clear experiential memory of emotions, interactions, questions—though they seemed to have no direct relationship to the situation at hand. In my dreams, I wandered around schools, airports, familiar places—having sympathetic conversations with strangers. What did this have to do with my friend? Still, it was as if the dreaming (and the Tonglen) had healed my sense of being lost in my own uselessness.

The struggle to find solutions where there are no immediate solutions is both exhausting and isolating. But in the ordinary interactions of my dreams, I felt the simple connection of compassion and empathy—which is ultimately the only “solution” we really have to offer one another. In my dreams, I was just present with the feeling of being human and in relationship with others whose experiences I recognized and shared. This was enough. This was helpful.

Within a few more hours, I heard from my friend that the crisis had been resolved. The relief and love that I felt in response seemed to flow directly from the sense of connection in the dream experience. In fact, we are never “helpless” as long as we are connected in this way—our willingness to be fully present to one another’s lives (and our own) makes a tremendous difference in the way we all cope with crises.

Dreams don’t generally bring healing by offering immediate solutions. If I incubate a dream with a particular problem in mind, asking for an answer, I believe I will always get a response, but usually it is a response that asks me to open myself to the whole experience, rather than giving me a specific key to unlocking the problem.

Some years ago, after a distressing series of events left me overwhelmed and in turmoil—I fell asleep exhausted, just thinking, “help, help, help me.” I had a peculiar dream that did not seem even remotely associated with the troubles I was facing.

A Visit From A Trickster/Teacher: I encounter the late Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche [a controversial and challenging, but also beloved and respected Buddhist teacher] in the form of a tall, muscular, handsome young man with a mane of glossy, dark hair [not at all like any pictures I’ve ever seen of Trungpa Rinpoche]. He is behaving completely irresponsibly—has stolen something, and is not taking anything seriously. I am shocked, feel resentful that I’m expected to clean up the mess he has made, and try to persuade him to conduct himself more appropriately. He laughs and teases, shrugging off my concerns—yet, somehow does so with such profound tenderness and compassion for me that my heart opens. I wake up feeling that I have been touched by the kind of love that values my deepest being, and disregards all of the nonsense that tangles me up in my life.

The overwhelming unhappiness that seemed absolutely real when I went to bed was entirely gone when I woke up. Although the actual dream content—the events and details within the dream—seemed  trivial and petty, the direct experience of encountering such love was utterly transformative.

One way of looking at this dream is that the “spirit” of Trungpa Rinpoche actually visited me, and gave me a glimpse of the paradoxical approach for which he was infamous. Personally, that is how it felt to me. Until that time, having heard many bizarre stories, I’d been skeptical and ambivalent about this teacher: doubting his trustworthiness while at the same time valuing his teachings. After having had the dream, I can imagine, can comprehend on a visceral level, how it is possible for such contradictory qualities to exist within a single being. I trust this experience in a way that I could not trust explanations and rationalizations for his conduct.

However, no matter what I believe about the dream figure of Trungpa Rinpoche, I am sure that this dream manifested something true about the nature of my life, and all our lives. There is, within me and beyond me, something essentially loving and beloved, which transcends everything, and can be known, trusted and shared, regardless of circumstances. Any difficult emotions and situations I might encounter can be seen in the light of this experience.

Last night’s ordinary dreams were healing dreams, not because they “helped” the outward situation my friend was facing, but because they brought a direct experience of connection—a reassurance that no one is lost, nothing is wasted, we are not alone even when our lives are falling apart. The dream of the “Trickster/Teacher” was a healing dream, not because it solved my problems, but because it gave me a glimpse of the paradoxical truth that it is possible to be all messed up and absolutely all right at the same time.

These dreams don’t offer answers, they just let me know what I need to know, by letting me directly experience what I’ve known all along.



  1. Karen Deora

    Thank you for sharing this post. It spoke to me in deep ways and I will look up more about the Tonglen practice.

    • kirstenbackstrom

      Thank you, Karen. I’m so glad to hear your response.

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