Dreamwork as Spiritual Practice

Initiation for Grown-ups: Dreaming Into Maturity

initiation imageDuring times of deep change, dreams don’t just guide us through the chaos of transitional threshold experiences, they can also participate in our initiation into the next phase of life. In fact, a dream may actually be an initiation in itself.

Traditionally, development from childhood to adulthood is acknowledged by significant rites of passage: in some cultures, there are vision quests and initiation ceremonies, and in other cultures there are graduation parties and college entrance exams. Then, as life goes on, there are relationship passages as family roles evolve, work passages as career roles evolve… But where are the rites of passage for later life? Retirement, bereavement, physical aging and death… Often, these passages are treated as if they mark only an absence—the lack of something that had previously defined us, the encroachment of time on our meaningful lives.

How can we trust the new and strange kind of meaning that comes along with the real losses and changes in later life? How do we recognize the passage from a social identity based on tangible accomplishment, action, and independence to a deeper, more mature, elder adulthood, which includes a fuller awareness of mortality and interdependence?

Late middle age is a time of profound transformation. This passage includes the physical changes of the aging body, the changes in perspective and understanding that come with cumulative life experiences, the professional and social changes that come with altered work priorities and abilities, and the spiritual changes that come with the recognition of death (our own and others’) as a direct influence on our lives. In the course of these changes, we redefine ourselves…

For me, health issues, career issues, and the deaths of my parents and several friends this past year marked deep change. I’m always in the midst of some sort of transition or other, but this has been a particularly big one. Without a culturally-sanctioned rite of passage, it’s easy to feel lost, even though I’m closely connected to the community of my peers and friends who are passing through a similar process of transformation. We are becoming more aware of our own aging, and we are facing the losses of loved ones. But how do we find ourselves on the other side of this transition? What are we inheriting? What are we becoming? And what do we have to offer the next generation?

These are questions about initiation. Initiation is a process which represents not only an ending, but a new beginning. Initiation acknowledges, and celebrates, our completion of one stage of life, and turns us toward the possibilities ahead… giving us a gentle, encouraging nudge forward.

My dreams have been helping to initiate me into a new maturity. I ask myself: What is the difference between the person I have been and the person I am becoming? And dreams offer responses, because dreams come from an unbounded sense of self, which includes not only what I think I am, but also what is possible for me. And then, dreams go beyond “me” completely.

Part of the initiation into full maturity is the acceptance of experiences that go beyond the questions we are asking. Here is one of my recent initiation dreams:

The Kind Examiner and the Naked Toddler: My niece and I are college room-mates [she’s in her 30s and I’m in my 50s]. An examiner—a man somewhat older than me—comes to give us our final exams. He tests her first, posing rigorous intellectual and physical challenges, and gives her high marks, but says she “needs to lose a little weight.” She accepts this, though I think it’s rather harsh, since she’s not overweight at all, and it’s none of his business anyway. This guy is really strict, and I approach my own exam with trepidation, expecting the same stern treatment.

Instead, the examiner treats me entirely differently—with great kindness and respect, helping me to understand what is expected of me. My test is not a test at all, but something experiential. I’m shown a flat space where there’s some pattern like a timeline or map.

I have to convey, without actual words, what my life up till now has been. Somehow, with the encouragement of the examiner, I do this quite naturally (though it’s hard work). There’s a sense that the essence of this life has been loneliness. The examiner lets me know I’ve done extremely well, in fact, I could not have done better. I’ve fulfilled the difficult task that was set for me.

This phase of my training is complete. I’m told that this phase—my youth—was exceptionally difficult because it had to be done in isolation and without the reassurance of understanding its significance. All along, while I thought I was struggling and often failing, I’ve been doing exactly what needed to be done, and I’ve succeeded fully. Now, the examiner is happy for me because I can enter the new phase, awake and aware. Although this new phase will be difficult in other ways, it is a path of openness, freedom, abundance and love—no longer loneliness.

I see a scene from the outside: There’s a baby girl, just old enough to walk, who is me. She’s wearing doll-like clothes and is being forced by a stiff, uncaring woman to pedal a tiny tricycle in a mechanical, hurried way. Suddenly, the little girl is naked, joyously running away down a long hallway in that pell-mell, falling-forward wild run of a toddler set free! Along with the stiff woman and other people, I’m chasing after and trying to keep up with that amazing little girl…

Of course, most dreams are not so blatant in their depiction of initiation. But, sometimes, such dreams do come along: dreams with transparent imagery; dreams that literally give us the initiation experience; dreams that carry us through transformation and out the other side.

Learning is usually based on things we already know. I’ve been trying to find my own blind spots, so I can “work on them”—but, of course, this is about as effective as trying to see my own eyes. When I look at my dreams, the meaning I can recognize is still within the range of what my eyes can see. Even when others share their projections on my dreams, I’ll only be able to hear what is within the range of my hearing, my understanding.

But, when true transformation happens—within a dream like this one, or when we are really ready in our waking lives—we can know new things. We are initiated into another world, where the eyes can see differently, the ears can hear differently. I can tell I’m being initiated, because the meaning I can find in my dreams surprises me. All at once, I am seeing through and beyond my own blind spots. How is that possible?

After having this dream, I shared it with my peer dream group—and the sharing process made the initiation feel complete. A new beginning. There will be more to come, but I take the time to savor this one, and to trust it.

I learned from this dream that the tests I took as a young person have been completed. I’m not being tested in that way anymore. Now, the new challenge is just what I am ready for. I am becoming a toddler again, testing my legs, naked and free. I belong to a larger universe than I thought.

The initiation into maturity is a full acknowledgement of what I have been and done, with responsibility but without regret. And now I’m running, pell-mell, and I’m also chasing myself, trying to keep up. This is how initiation feels.



  1. dreamelady

    I love how the toddler’s response and initiative cause all that action! New life can inspire many responses from those different internal aspects. Thanks for sharing this one, Kirsten. Marking these rites of passage and initiations via your blog helps reflect and inspire on the path of transformation.

    • kirstenbackstrom

      Thanks, Karen—you’re an inspiring transformer yourself…. Let’s keep following that toddler as she leads us on a merry chase!

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