Dreamwork as Spiritual Practice

Indescribable Dreams

web 01Where do I begin? How can I convey this dream experience to you, when I can’t even quite catch hold of it for myself? I’d been asleep for only an hour or two when I had this dream. Then, I woke for a few minutes, with the dream still fresh in my mind—but, not exactly as a memory…. In a sense the dream was still happening, even though I couldn’t quite remember it. I soon slipped back into sleep, and this peculiar dreaming experience seemed to continue in some way for the rest of the night: throughout my other dreams, and through my brief periods of wakefulness, and maybe even during the stretches of deep, “dreamless” sleep. I woke in the morning filled with the essence of this amazing dreaming.

But what was the content of this dreaming? It’s so hard to describe.

There is an awareness, in the dream, that “I” have left my physical body and am now just consciousness, taking many different forms. There are rich interactions with others, and I feel myself as a sort of “me” character, but also as every other character, and as the context, and as the communication itself that flows among us. We are in a large stone building, in an echoing room. I am aware of being the echo. We are outside, sailing through the air, over water. At one point, there’s a huge dinosaur-like creature, swimming in a narrow waterway—I see this as if from far above, and at the same time I am the creature swimming, and the water, and the surrounding landscape. There’s a thought that my physical body is still around here somewhere (sleeping in bed?), and I will be able to return to that body. But also a sense that when the body dies, there will still be this consciousness—there is always this consciousness—and it won’t be lost. There is complete freedom in this experience,but also total immersion.

This dreaming might be considered a “numinous dream,” a “Big dream.” Experientially, it is equivalent to a spiritual epiphany, the kind of mind-opening breakthrough into a larger conception of self and reality that William James described in his classic text, “Varieties of Religious Experience.” And, for me, it was wonderful. It gave me a direct sense of being a part of something beyond my ego-identity, something vast and fascinating that I could trust absolutely. Never mind that I can’t fully remember or tell what happened. It was the kind of experience that makes the idea of our ultimate interconnectedness immediately real, rather than an abstraction.

However, I doubt if I will include this particular dream among the “Big dreams” that I keep with me and share, and use to remind myself of the potential for profound spiritual experience. Why not? Well, because this dream does not have a frame of reference, a storyline or a structure that makes it possible to describe it, or even recall it, in any way that is recognizable to waking consciousness. So, the dream lifts me up and gives me a glimpse of something, but when it sets me back down on the ground, I don’t know how to frame the awesome expanse of sky and clouds that surrounded me up there, in terms of the streets and people and buildings that surround me down here. They’re different worlds, and there’s no evident connection between them.

What really defines a “Big dream” (a powerful, numinous, potentially life-changing dream) is the extraordinary fact that it is memorable, and even describable. A “Big dream” gives us an awesome experience of ultimate reality, but somehow does so with enough imagery, story and coherence that it can be grasped by the waking mind and even conveyed to others (if the dreamer is articulate enough).

I suspect that stream-of-consciousness dream experiences like the one I tried (futilely) to describe above are actually happening pretty frequently for all of us. In fact, I believe these kinds of dreams, which may give us a glimpse of the true nature of reality, are essential to our sanity. On some level, even though we get caught up in the business of our waking lives and identities, we must know there’s another way of looking at things, a larger perspective. How else would we be able to tolerate the fact that we ourselves (and all those we love) are walking around in bodies that will die and disintegrate within a matter of decades? Perhaps we just fool ourselves into not thinking about it, but it’s more likely that we are having lots of unremembered experiences in dreams that reassure us that self and other, time and space, nature and cosmos—all are somehow much “bigger” than the everyday material world we think we inhabit and the separate human beings we think we are.

Jeremy Taylor writes:

“. . . I am now convinced that the primary reason for forgetting the majority of our dream experiences is that they take place beyond the basic structures we use to organize our waking personalities and consciousness: most particularly the sense of ‘self and other’ and the sense of linear time. These are clearly the two basic defining coordinates of our common waking experience. However, I know in dreams we enter into experiences where these basic categories of conscious life simply do not apply.”  -Jeremy Taylor

It really was a fluke that I remembered my dreaming experience the other night at all! And it’s certainly not surprising that I can’t come up with a coherent way of describing it. Actually, even with the more “ordinary” dreams that I do remember and can tell as stories, there are always elements that I have to sort of rearrange so they’ll make sense to the waking mind—elements that are essentially indescribable.


  1. Madelyn

    I keep having this dream I can’t describe it, it’s like endless pain and it’s like every time I move I get hit by something but I don’t know what it is and I just want this dream to stop beacause I hate it

  2. Tallulah

    This kind of indescribable dream came up in one of my dream groups last week and I made a note to find Jeremy’s quote to share with the group this week. With great appreciation, I can now share your wonderful post with the quote included. Thank You!

    • kirstenbackstrom

      That’s wonderful, Tallulah! And I’ve found that particular quote from Jeremy helpful myself many times, too.

  3. Tina

    I love this exploration into what we all experience but can’t describe. This part especially speaks to me: “On some level, even though we get caught up in the business of our waking lives and identities, we must know there’s another way of looking at things, a larger perspective. How else would we be able to tolerate the fact that we ourselves (and all those we love) are walking around in bodies that will die and disintegrate within a matter of decades?”
    Dreams teach us, even without our conscious participation, that all is not as it seems: all will be well…!

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