Dreamwork as Spiritual Practice

The Heart Dreams What the Heart Knows: Prodromic Dreams

As a professional dreamworker, I regularly find support and guidance in my own dreams—so it’s challenging to find myself with a serious illness, but not getting a lot of dream-feedback.

In waking life, I’m learning more and more about the physical impact that radiation poisoning is having on my body. I had intensive radiation treatments for Hodgkin’s Lymphoma over twenty years ago, and knew at the time that these treatments had caused damage—loss of thyroid function, circulatory and metabolic problems, impaired heart and lung efficiency—but didn’t realize until recently that this damage was progressive, and would get much worse as I got older. In the past year, the bones, muscles and nerves in my upper spine and chest have begun deteriorating due to Radiation Fibrosis Syndrome, so it is becoming increasingly difficult to support the weight of my head. Then, an echocardiogram revealed that my heart muscle is also damaged, and my heart function will be declining. My life expectancy is now shorter, and my present strength and health will probably not be sustainable in the long-term. So why haven’t my dreams been more helpful? Why aren’t they advising me in this critical situation?

When I had cancer in my thirties, there were plenty of dreams. I was very sick for several years before my cancer diagnosis, with flu-like upper respiratory symptoms, and during this time my dreams became increasingly urgent, intense, and spiritual. Dreams gave me news of what was going on in my body, and prepared me for the possibility of death. Fortunately, I got the treatments that saved my life (for which I’m grateful, though the debt if now falling due)—and my dreaming settled down.

The fact that my dreams aren’t particularly powerful or revelatory right now should, perhaps, be reassuring. I trust that if I were going to die soon my dreams would let me know. On the other hand, the vague dream fragments I’ve been having could be considered rather worrisome. I keep dreaming that I’m packing up my stuff, to go and stay at my mom’s house. My mom died two years ago. This seems a bit suggestive. I’ve worked extensively with people in hospice, and dreams about “packing for journeys to join deceased loved ones” are certainly common when death is near.

But, my instincts are not alerted by these dreams in the way they were when I had cancer. I’ve been dreaming about going to see my mother ever since she died, and although it probably has implications for my own eventual death, right now it seems to have more to do with my relationship to her, our family history, and my experience of her loss. When I first found out that my heart was damaged, I thought of my mom, who died of heart failure—and when I learned that I might die of heart failure myself, I felt her with me, and her presence has been a comfort.

Even when dreams seem to be referring directly to dying, they don’t necessarily suggest that the dreamer is about to die. Dreams don’t measure time like we do. My prognosis of “five or ten years” seems shockingly short to me, but for dreams, it could be tomorrow or decades away—the important part is that death (and grief) is on my mind, and in my heart, and the dreams reflect that. Not particularly helpful if I’m looking for practical suggestions or a clear timeline. And, the dreams seem offhand rather than emphatic, so there’s none of the urgency I felt when I had cancer.

After the echocardiogram indicated that my heart is unable to pump properly, I looked back at some recent dreams to see if there were any communications that made sense in retrospect, or perhaps predicted what I might be facing next.

I found many more dreams than I’d expected:

  • A dream of medical students practicing heart transplants on patients without anesthetic.
  • A dream of adults who volunteer to donate parts of their hearts to a baby who is dying of heart failure.
  • A dream of bringing tea—made from heart-shaped tea-bags—to a sick girl.
  • A dream of going inside a giant, pink (heart-like) jellyfish.
  • A dream of a man collapsing with a heart attack.

And this one (two months before my heart diagnosis):

The Paper Wasp Nest Breaks Open: In an unfinished, semi-dark basement with several other friends or friendly strangers. I’m tapping things with my hiking poles, as if feeling my way, testing various possibilities. Under the stairs, there’s a paper wasp nest [heart-shaped] that has been growing slowly larger over the past few months. I’m careful not to touch the nest with my sticks, and I tell the others not to bump this nest as we make our way to the stairs. Then, I look again and see that the nest has grown to the size of a bushel basket. We don’t touch it, but its own weight is too much, and it tears away from the eaves and falls to the floor, where it breaks open. A few wasps begin to fly from the wrecked nest, and I know that in a moment there will be a furious swarm. I shout, “Run!” and make sure everyone gets out. Terrified of being stung to death, I rush up the stairs after the others, with wasps buzzing angrily around me. Finally, at the top of the stairs and out of the basement, I slam the door—safe. Everyone else is okay. But I’ve gotten at least one sting, on my chest, near the left breast.

These dreams that predict health problems before any symptoms appear are called “prodromic”—and there’s really nothing mysterious about how they work. Dreams often reflect what’s going on in the body before the conscious mind catches up. Unfortunately, many such dreams, like mine, pass unnoticed—and only seem obvious in retrospect. I couldn’t have done much about my heart condition if I’d recognized the images in these dreams earlier, but some prodromic dreams contain information that could make a real difference to the dreamer’s survival. Still, without the emotional element, the strong sense that this dream is really trying to tell me something, it’s unlikely that a dreamer will follow up on dream hints that might suggest a serious health problem. When I had cancer, the dream images were emotionally insistent, and that made all the difference. Now, I just don’t know what to make of the more subtle hints I’ve been getting.

So, I’m combing my dreams, trying to tease out some insights from a tangle of vague impressions. Friends have been dreaming on my behalf as well (more about that in another post). Some of my dreams refer to foods or medicines that might help me to care for my body, to care for my heart. Some dreams suggest that I’m already receiving support and healing that I might not have recognized. Some dreams either point toward death or indicate that I’m thinking about death. Some dreams show me the strain I’m under as I cope with the medical mazes, physical difficulties, and existential uncertainties created by cardiomyopathy. And some dreams just seem entirely unconcerned with my health concerns!

I’m giving myself the same advice I would give to those who come to me with their dreams and health issues… Just listen, feel your way around in the semi-dark dream basement, and trust your instincts. Sometimes, the absence of clear guidance is the clear guidance. When there is nothing to be done, practice doing nothing. Wait. Keep listening. Being in the midst of the mystery is the hardest thing in the world, and also the easiest. There are some things that the heart knows before the head can make sense of them. Listen for those things. Dreams come from the heart like blood, and circulate through the entire system, informing our lives. Feel the pulse of the dreams thrumming in your veins, giving you life. Trust that even when you are sleeping your heart keeps beating, and your dreams are with you.


  1. royce fitts

    I simply want to reflect and project, not sure where this will go as I do…I am moved by this post, by the waking life story of health and heart and journey… and by the dreams, and especially about the “wasps and heart-shaped nest” that grows and grows and falls…questions “swarm” around me, “what if” questions, maybe painful questions, stinging me, or wanting to…I have poles and people, what of these and them? I wonder if they , these people, are my ancestors or people who have gone before? Why are we fleeing, up the stairs? Are we reaching new “spiritual” heights? climbing “Jacob’s ladder”? Why not hit the nest with my poles? why do I have hiking poles in a basement? Am I exploring my dark, less known basement? If, at some level, I know I am dreaming, why flee? what if I just stopped and let the swarm, swarm me? what would I find out or ask? or be stung by? the nest has fallen, been overgrown, maybe swollen by…? what? is this my heart? what if I was not so careful and hit the nest with my poles? why am I so cautious??? or, why do I, as the dream-maker, make the nest grow and grow and fall, no matter how I, as the dreamer, am so cautious…??? it seems no matter my choice, to stay still or flee or hit, the nest will grow and fall and be perceived as dangerous. what if I calmed myself and did not run? what is the ONE sting all about? is that the one question? one stinging, burning question? or is that an answer?

    the nest is heart-shaped…yet, what does this mean? is this my literal, waking self imagining my wounded heart? I know much about my heart’s journey by now…how might this nest-shaped heart or heart-shaped nest, full of stinging wasps be here for my whole-heartedness? are wasps my enemy, or, how might they be my loving friends? what venom exists that can be a part of my wholeness? can venom heal me? aa-hhh, I had to take venom, radiation, to stay alive a long time ago? and for that, I am grateful…but now? why now?

    I love the conclusion to this essay/post, that dreams flow throughout our whole system, like bloodflow from the heart. I love that you, Kirsten, are simply able to “wait”, to be with your dreams, to let the dreams hold you, without the knowing, that being held by the dreams is enough, that the dreams want to hold you, maybe without answers, and, maybe that is the answer, after all.

    in loving prayer, these are my projections,

    • kirstenbackstrom

      Royce, your projections are perfect—and very helpful to me. I love the questions you are asking—and, like Rilke, want to keep “loving the questions,” not necessarily seeking answers but embracing the possibilities those questions offer me. For whatever reasons, I especially paused over “why am I so cautious?” and all the questions about those wasps and that venom as healing friends. I will ponder what you’ve written here! With much gratitude… thank you.

  2. Lisa Rigge

    Hi Kirsten, I too had to read every word through to the end of your post. This is such an insightful and heart-filled post (yes, pun intended!). Thank you for being so open and honest with your illness and sharing your story with us. I am reminded of Tallulah Lyons book “Dreams and Guided Imagery”. Tallulah works with cancer patients dream groups, but I don’t know what experience she has working with the issues you are dealing with. My sense says she would be familiar with them. She is very friendly and I’m sure would be glad to correspond with you should you have a need or want to get her overall view. She’s easy enough to Google. Take care!

    • kirstenbackstrom

      Thank you, Lisa! I know Tallulah—she’s a delightful person, and I love her work. I recommend “Dreams & Guided Imagery” too! Isn’t it wonderful that there are such gifted dreamworkers out there listening to the “heartsong” of dreams? Yourself included. Blessings on your own dreamwork gifts.

  3. Marilyn Hagar

    Thank you for this post. I found it very moving. Couldn’t stop reading until I got to the very end. Such a personal story but ever instructive to us all. Much appreciated. Sending all good wishes your way.

    • kirstenbackstrom

      Thank you, Marilyn—I really appreciate that you took the time to read the post and comment! When I explore my own health issues (and sometimes other challenging issues) in a public context, it’s because I want to find new dimensions in these experiences that could be potentially meaningful to others—not just an isolated process—so your response is truly meaningful to me.

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