Dreamwork as Spiritual Practice

Living Up To Our Dreams

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We discover where we are going, together, as we go…

So here’s the question I’ve been asking myself ever since the inspiring experience of the IASD (International Association for the Study of Dreams) conference: How do we apply the experiences of our dreams to our ordinary lives in such a way that they will make a difference in the world?

When I work with individual dreamers and small groups, I am constantly aware of how the dreams I hear are changing my life. Each of the people I meet with for spiritual direction or dreamwork is genuinely grappling with profound spiritual challenges that are both personal and universal: How do I cope with the speed and complexity of the modern world, without losing my ability to be fully present in the process? How do I share my unique gifts and skills creatively—and is what I have to offer truly wanted or needed? How do I respond kindly and compassionately to others when I am feeling frustrated, impatient, or overwhelmed? What is my responsibility to myself, my family, my community, and ultimately, to all beings? How do I cope with feelings of fear, anger, loneliness, exhaustion, grief, apathy, despair? Where do I belong?

These and other such questions resonate with me as I hear them coming from others. When I work with others to see what light their dreams may shed on these questions, I find echoes in my own life and in my own dreams. We may be working with one person’s individual life issues and dream images, but at the same time we are addressing life issues and dream images that have meaning for all people and the planet as a whole. Dreams take us to the heart of the matter at hand, and at that heart level the things we have to learn extend far beyond us as individuals.

Last night, I dreamed of taking part in a quest that might very well lead to failure and death:

The Lost Cause Looks Encouraging: We have one last opportunity to escape, but we choose to stay and risk our lives, because our friend and guide has gone ahead of us into the wilderness and has disappeared. We choose to go after him, not to leave him behind to die. As we prepare to go upriver into a mountainous region where we will be pursued by guerilla forces trying to eliminate us, we are learning the skills we will need: riding horses, working with boats, packing food. It becomes evident that I am inept at every one of these tasks, and I’m bumbling around trying to help but just getting in the way of others who are much more capable. I am like the group’s mascot: others are tolerant and patient with me, and seem to accept my ineptitude with friendly amusement. Gradually, I begin to clown and sing, to raise everyone’s spirits. I fall in the water and splash about. I sing unselfconsciously, like a child. In the process, it becomes clear that I’m actually the group’s leader, and this is how I lead. I am loved, and I love my fellow travelers. Our courage and innocence will carry us through.

I struggled to remember the details of this dream. It was so vivid, but I couldn’t put the pieces together, couldn’t make the fragmentary scenes shape themselves into the whole story. But the experience of realization was strong: I can’t leave my guide behind, even if it means my death, and others feel the same commitment as I do. It is possible to be both a clumsy clown and an inspired leader at the same time. We are at risk, but something about our collective acceptance of, and responsibility for, one another will make all the difference.

These realizations have personal relevance for me as I look at my own leadership role in my community: I recognize that true leadership emerges through a process of letting go of ego-attachment to the ideal of the capable, all-knowing commander-in-chief. One leader in the dream—the guide who has been lost—actually motivates all of us through his absence and his vulnerability. And the “I” character in the dream somehow rolls with her own deficiencies in order to find her strengths.

But the key feature of this dream is that it’s not mine alone. I’ve heard dreams like this from many others, each with its own unique flavor, emphasis, and application to the person’s life, but all with a similar energy—the lost cause quest with the willingness to sacrifice oneself, the group collaboration, the suggestion that, as the scripture says, “a little child shall lead them.” It is our desire to protect and include the vulnerable and clumsy among us (and within ourselves) that sparks the love and courage we need to undertake difficult things together.

This seems to be a story that extends to all of us—a story that could be very useful in our present world. But just talking about it in the abstract does not reach me, does not change me or make me take action. What really does bring out my capacity to offer something meaningful to the world through my choices and conduct is the direct experience the dream gives me. And what reinforces and actualizes that experience is hearing it echoed in the dreams and lives of others. We experience these dreams, listen to these dreams, share these dreams—and they change us. Our dreams allow us to include others and our shared world in our definition of ourselves—and so, when we change, the world changes.



  1. Tina

    Amen, Kirsten! Let us share our dreams and find that the big story is telling itself through us. We are not alone, and we are being steadily shown what to do, or how to be, as the world shifts around us.

    • kirstenbackstrom

      Beautifully said, Tina! Thank you!

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