Dreamwork as Spiritual Practice

Interview with a Dream Figure

outside stairs 01If you want to meet a dream on its own terms, to enter the unmapped territory and find paths and passages you never knew were there, you have to go outside your comfort zone. Well, that’s what we’re trying to do, isn’t it? Even in our waking lives, we want to get beyond routine and have new experiences (up to a point). We aren’t just looking for reinforcement of our expectations. Jeremy Taylor reminds us that “no dreams come just to tell you what you already know.” But it’s certainly tricky to recognize a new thing when we see it, because our frame of reference sets us up to see what we expect to see.

I’ve written a couple of articles about different ways of looking at dreams that can help us get around our personal blind spots: by questioning the dream-ego’s point-of-view (“The Unreliable Narrator in Dreams”), and by exploring the inconspicuous details of the dream scene (“Turning the Dream Upside Down”). Now I’d like to consider another mind-bending approach that is deceptively simple, but tremendously powerful: asking dream figures or images about themselves.

There are many ways to communicate directly with the images in a dream. Fritz Perls set up conversations between dream images (as aspects of the dreamer’s psyche) in his Gestalt Therapy; lucid dreaming practices invite us to ask dream figures for guidance or gifts, etc. These and other practices can be transformative on many levels, but sometimes the concentrated effort required to transcend your own limitations can seem about as easy as jumping higher than your own head.

Almost all dreamworkers experiment with “becoming the part”—meaning that the dreamer imagines him or herself as a particular dream character, particularly if that character is troublesome. This doesn’t have to be as difficult as it sounds. I find that it’s a way of seeing past my blind spots very quickly. As a shortcut, when I become the dream image or figure, I ask myself (as that figure) a set of questions suggested by Bob Hoss. Here’s an example of how it can go.

I had a distressing dream early this morning. Like most dreams, distressing or not, there were things about it that seemed to make sense, and other things that were totally mysterious. In order to understand the mysterious parts, I “interviewed” the dream figures, and discovered a way of looking at the dream that was entirely new to me—and immediately meaningful. The dream was much more complicated than I can describe here, so I’ll focus on a key scene.

Mom’s not well, and I’m trying to get her up many flights of wooden stairs on the outside of an old city apartment building. We’re almost to the top when she becomes more ill and confused, and sits down, and won’t move. I urge her to get up. Other people—perhaps from our extended family?—are coming up the stairs to a reception or reunion in the top apartment, and they complain about having to climb over and squeeze around us. Finally we get to the landing at the top… But Mom is gone. I don’t think she went into the apartment, so I search the landing—a long, narrow balcony with a wooden railing. At the end of the balcony, there are several dirty cat litter boxes. There’s one gray cat brooding on a shelf near the cat boxes. I go down to the parking lot, looking for Mom—who has apparently left with my friend Sandy. This is a desperate, urgent situation. I don’t know where to look for her, or how I will get home from here.

The dream image of “Mom” is not clear at all—just an old woman shape, and a cluster of upsetting emotions associated with illness, uncooperativeness, and a kind of wild unpredictability. In spite of (or because of) the intense emotional charge, I’m tempted to dismiss the dream. The idea of my mother in this situation can so easily be taken literally. My mother is, in fact, in the midst of a health crisis and may be nearing the end of her life; I’ve been preoccupied with painful family dynamics arising from her choices and actions. However, the specific context and details of the dream make no particular sense to me.

Finally, when I can’t shake off the anxiety brought on by this dream, I try experiencing myself as “Mom” (not my actual mother, but the dream figure). Sometimes, when I do this with a dream figure, it’s a physical experience—but since the body of this dream image is so vague, there is very little that I can sense in my own body when I imagine being her. Yet when I ask Hoss’s questions of myself as this image, the responses come with startling clarity.

“Who are you and what is your function?” I am your future.

I don’t like where this seems to be going. Again, it is tempting to take things literally. I’m going to become like “Mom” in the dream: old, sick, and uncooperative. But, no, maybe there’s more to it than that.

“What do you like about yourself?” I always get my way.

“What do you dislike about yourself?” I’m weak and vague. Most of me is hidden or buried.

“What do you fear?” Not being in control.

“What do you desire?” (I expected the answer “to be in control,” but I was wrong) Freedom to go wherever I want.

“What do you have to teach me?” You can’t stop me.

Usually, that last question is an opening for the dream image to offer guidance or wisdom—but this particular figure seems almost malevolent. She isn’t going to give me anything useful…

Then, I put it together. I am your future. If I hear that phrase differently, everything else makes sense! Yes, perhaps in some ways it fits that “Mom” is my personal future, but that’s a familiar fear—most of us sometimes wonder if we will become our parents. The unique insight of the dream comes from her answers to my questions…

What if this “Mom” is my idea of the future. I’ve been worrying excessively about things that may or may not happen in the future. I’ve been dragging this future with me, trying to make it come out well, trying to make it safe and healthy, trying to keep my fears about it from blocking the steps I need to take to get where I’m going. But regardless of my efforts, the future will always have its way, and I can’t change it or control it or keep it from getting away from me. Just when I think I’ve got it where I want it—it disappears.

The future is weak and vague because it doesn’t belong in the present. It’s a ghost. It goes where it wants, but it’s never really here. The dream tells me I’ve been living too much in the future: planning, worrying, projecting, hoping… using up my energies to get it to go where I want it to go, and keep it from escaping. But it escapes anyway, and runs off with “Sandy”—the shifting sands that are not a good foundation for building a house or a life upon.

The associations I have with every other image in the dream begin to fall into place from here. And “falling into place” is just what I need to do: to fall into the present moment, the present place. I interview the gray cat, and her answers are consistent: I’m just here. I like the fact that I can be at home anywhere. I’m afraid of being trapped. I want to explore. I’m telling you to stop right where you are. The cat might be my “present”—stuck on a narrow landing with a lot of other cats and dirty litter boxes, but with the potential to be at home and exploring at the same time: in this moment. If I’ll only stop right where I am. Stop, be here.

When I re-enter the dream, I rediscover a complete moment, a present moment, at the very end…

I’m standing in the parking lot, and I know that Mom and Sandy are not coming back for me. There’s snow on the ground. It’s quiet. I listen to the buzz of a street light. The air smells of car exhaust, cold, and cinnamon. I wake up.

[Note: I wrote this article back in April, and shortly after writing it, my mother herself died unexpectedly quickly. Re-reading what I wrote in the light of her death, I find that the dream figure’s responses can be taken much more literally than I understood at the time. This does not negate the other meanings, but expands upon them. In the dream, and in waking life, I had to let her go. And here I am, right now, in the stillness and sadness of the present moment, after she has gone…]


  1. Tina

    Another great post, Kirsten. I love the way you discovered that “mom” was your idea of the future, and how what she (the future) wanted was to be able to go wherever she wanted to. Not where you wanted her to go. And then–you also found the literal level of the dream after your actual mom died. A great example of the many levels of truth in dream. Thanks.

    • kirstenbackstrom

      Thank you, Tina! I can always trust your insights… you get right to the heart of the dream truths.

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