Dreamwork as Spiritual Practice

Journeys Into The Unknown

Before my cancer diagnosis and treatment, as I was becoming increasingly ill, I began to dream of a wonderful journey to a place I called the Western Archipelago.

I arrive at the ferry dock with a group of others. It’s surprisingly easy to embark on such an important journey. We are all thrilled at the prospect. We board and the boat heads northwest, across a harbor and out through narrow straits into the open ocean. Almost immediately, we come to deep, crystalline waters, where icebergs and ice floes drift, radiant in the sunset. An infinite number of small islands can be seen in the misty distance. We will visit all of them. I can see down through the water, where whales are swimming under the boat. Occasionally, they surface and spout, then vanish into the dark depths. Our breath steams in the freezing air, but we are warm. There is a sense of playful camaraderie, anticipation, and innocent, uninhibited excitement—like the joy of waking on Christmas morning as a child.

 As people approach death or significant life changes, they often dream of embarking on a journey. For me, the dream of The Western Archipelago became increasingly vivid and magnificent, and the ferryboat went further out among the islands, as I got sicker and the possibility of death got closer. Around the turning point of my illness, just before and after I was diagnosed, the ferryboat went quite far—and some of us were getting ready to disembark on one of the islands.

I continue to dream of this journey occasionally, almost twenty years after my treatment—but since I’ve been in fairly good health, the ferryboat has not gotten out of the harbor, but has anchored by an island in the mouth of the straits. This island, like a familiar one near my former home in Maine, is connected to the mainland by a sandbar, so that it is possible to walk across to it at low tide. The dream seems to suggest that my journeys these days don’t need to take me as far into the unknown as they did when I was seriously ill.

Of course, any interpretation  of such a significant dream will inevitably be a tremendous over-simplification. The Western Archipelago dream, like many death or transformation dreams, is bigger than the imagination of the dreamer, and points to experiences that cannot be conveyed by description or explanation. Even the “tamer” versions of the dream (where I don’t leave the harbor) contain endless nuances, endless possible meanings. Such “big dreams” (as Jung called them) are meant to be experienced and honored, not analyzed. In a way, this is true of all dreams, “big” or “small”—they cannot be reduced to what we think they mean. Exploring a dream is more about experiencing the dream’s possibilities (or some  of the possibilities) than it is about interpretation.

I’ve noticed that even the “small,” apparently ordinary  dreams (or dream-like experiences) of those who are dying often involve travel. Repeatedly, hospice patients have told me that they need to catch the bus or train or boat, or to finish packing, or to find some missing object like a suitcase or ticket. Sometimes, they describe their travel preparations as dreams, and sometimes not—but even when they know that the journey ahead is not literally “real” in waking-life terms, they feel it to be extremely urgent. A former nurse who was dying of pancreatic cancer once said, “I know I only dreamed it, but I’m sure I need to be on a plane tomorrow, and I keep wanting to check my purse to be sure my passport is in there.”

These travel preparations mostly fall into the category of dreams that represent something of a struggle to gain control over circumstances and self (see “Not Knowing: Dreams of Resistance and Opening”). The planned trip, like travels in general, must be arranged and embarked upon with effort, and certain obstacles must be overcome. At this stage, people are concerned with “checking their passports” (which contain their identification, and travel history), and trying to take things with them, or leave things behind in good order.

But elements of transcendence and openness to the adventure of the unknown journey begin to come into these dreams as well. And when the journey itself is described, it is usually as exciting and beautiful as the voyage through the Western Archipelago. I’ve never heard anyone actually describe reaching a destination in such dreams. Sometimes, there’s an exotic destination that they are anticipating, and sometimes it is entirely an adventure into the unknown.

Marie-Louise Von Franz, a prominent Jungian, did extensive research on the dreams of dying people, and wrote:

“All of the dreams of people who are facing death indicate that the unconscious, that is, our instinct world, prepares consciousness not for a definite end but for a profound transformation and for a kind of continuation of the life process which, however, is unimaginable to everyday consciousness.” –Marie-Louise Von Franz

What will this “profound transformation” look like? What are the features of the places our dreams anticipate? I dream of icy seascapes and islands glimpsed through fog. These are unknown waters, and I won’t know where I’m going until I get there. If then.



  1. Meghan O'Flaherty

    Reading your lovely description, I couldn’t help but think of Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea series, which are based on Jungian psychology and take place in a magical archipelago. They are some of my favorite books. Celtic mythology is also full of tales of voyages to the mysterious Western Isles, Avalon and Tir Na N’Og, always located in the West. Your dream has a very archetypal feel to it, and the association with death sheds new light on the Celtic stories for me.

    • kirstenbackstrom

      Yes! You have caught the atmosphere exactly, Meghan. I’m sure that my dream-world has been shaped by both of the influences you mention: LeGuin’s Earthsea trilogy, and Celtic mythology–and it felt very archetypal to me, too. Such dream places–especially the ones we dream about more than once–seem to be actual locations, which are timeless (and thus eternal, like mythical otherworldly realms) and, in a way, more essentially real than waking reality.

© 2024 Compass Dreamwork

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑