Dreamwork as Spiritual Practice

Natural Light: Dreaming Into Death, Dreaming Into Life

[This article was written during troubled times: the early days of the pandemic, when, like many others, I was suffering the impacts of collective and personal traumatic events. In such times (which can be anytime), dreams provide perspective—inviting us to see things as they are, in the shadowy half-light where nothing is absolutely certain. In dreams, death and life receive equal space, darkness gives way to light when light gives way to darkness. Dreams don’t accept the good/bad duality we impose on our experiences, they invite us into paradox. Here, I explore such riddles, and accept the dreams’ invitation to walk in the dark.]

When animals (including human beings) are seriously ill or badly injured, they can experience a pull toward death that may become as powerful as the drive to live. Perhaps this is nature’s way of easing suffering. When survival seems unlikely, dying becomes easier. 

I saw this when our feral cat friend Harold was living out his last days. It was winter, and we’d set up a space heater and a bed for him on our doorstep out of the wind. For a while, he kept warm, but finally insisted on leaving this comfortable shelter to wait for his death in the open, in the cold sleet. We tucked a towel around him, and he accepted it, but clearly preferred to let himself be chilled, to hasten the implacable process of dying. It was painful for us to watch, but perhaps not so painful for him. Mostly, he lay with his eyes closed, purring at the sound of our voices, otherwise patiently still. 

In 2019 I went through a major spinal fusion surgery and spent weeks in the hospital struggling with heart problems, intense pain, choking episodes and total physical helplessness—and this condition helped me understand Harold better. While one part of me progressed toward healing, another part of me prepared for potential death. For months after surgery, my physical craving for rest, which would give my body the opportunity to recover strength for new life, was also allowing for the possibility of leaving life behind. Profoundly, instinctively, I needed to withdraw. Eating and drinking required tremendous effort. I hovered in a dreamy, half-sleeping state all the time. I had no inclination toward the future, and felt no real connection to the past. This was strangely peaceful. It would have been easy to die. From the perspective of my physical body, the damage caused by years of degenerative illness and a brutal surgery might be irreparable. Even as I was getting better, my body also contemplated letting go. 

Turning away from dying was difficult. Supporting the healing process meant hovering in limbo, in that animal place where the instincts take over. I had to let lethargy consume me, let myself rest at the deepest level, yet hold myself back from death. My dreams reflected the ambivalent nature of this recovery period:

Wanting to Sleep: Restless, I get out of bed and go into the living room where there are lots of people. I realize that this must be a dream because it’s the middle of the night and there shouldn’t be people here, but even though I know I’m sleeping, I still feel exhausted. I try some lucid explorations like asking questions of the dream figures, knowing I can do anything I want. But I don’t really want to do anything, don’t want to be lucid. All I want to do is go back to bed and let myself sink into deeper sleep.

Plunging Into the Graveyard: There’s a little patch of graveyard nearby. A skeleton is just sitting there on a stump or gravestone. How can this be? Is it real? A boy wearing bulky plastic bones attached to his body like armor dives off the rail fence and plunges headfirst into the loose, loamy dirt of the graveyard. He disappears into the ground as if it were a pool of water. We’re all shocked, waiting anxiously to see if he will resurface. He doesn’t.

My dream journal was filled with dreams like these, but also with dreams that suggested a definite movement through the “dying” process, rather than the finality of a “dead end.”

Walking In The Dark: I’m in my late teens, responsible for a group of 12 to 14 year olds. It’s night. I lead them through a city, through unfamiliar urban neighborhoods. Now, we’re facing a downhill sloping sidewalk that plunges into total darkness. I tell them to put away their flashlights; our eyes will adjust. We begin to descend. The kids are whispering to each other nervously. At first, we can’t see anything, but then we get used to it, and the darkness begins to seem safe. There’s enough natural light to go on.

Now, over a year later, I am still feeling my way forward in darkness or semi-darkness, trying to sense the “natural light” that will show me where I am going. My “eye” (I) is still adjusting. The dream reflects the vulnerability, but also the potential, of a coming-of-age process as the part of me that is leading is barely older than the parts that are being led. Yet the confidence of the dream ego to “put flashlights away” and guide the whole self safely downward and inward, into the dark, suggests that a decision has been made. Unlike in the earlier dreams, there is no doubt that progress is possible, no question that we will keep going.

The world as a whole is going through some dark times right now, and it’s natural that many of us are experiencing a tendency to withdraw in exhaustion or dive into the grave of our own fear, anger, and despair. Sometimes, we dream of giving up. The earth herself seems unsure which direction to take, since ultimately death is as natural as life. Yet even as death and dissolution are possibilities manifesting around us and within us, healing is also happening. We stand up, we walk together, we learn. The natural world and the human world are the same world, even when we are divided and pulling in different directions. Outside my door, where Harold went to meet his death, squirrels and birds are eating birdseed together in the cold rain, keeping themselves warm and fed and alive. Personally, I waver every day, but even in uncertainty I recognize my own strength, and yours. 

May our hearts sustain the courage, collective imagination and energy we need to explore an unknown future. May we be willing to go inward and downward into the dark, without the probing light that insists on knowing the outcome of our efforts. May we let our “eyes” (our I-dentities) adjust. May we choose life, and find our way. 

[This article was originally published in the Winter, 2021 issue of DreamTime Magazine. If you enjoyed it, please consider subscribing to DreamTime by joining the International Association for the Study of Dreams ]


  1. Lisa

    Thanks for posting this, Kirsten. What powerful writing! And it’s more impactful to me reading it now in a personal blog where it’s well-protected and stands alone. I am so grateful to learn so much from you.

    • kirstenbackstrom

      Thank you so much, Lisa. Your words mean a lot to me.

  2. Jamie Reudink

    Dear Kristen,
    March 28, of this year I had Spinal Fusion surgery and a serious reaction to the anesthesia. My blood pressure fell dramatically and I have had heart issues as a result.Your story is my story in many ways.
    I spent 3 days in Intensive Care and felt I was at death’s doorway. When I went back to my house I slept for many days and only wanted to stay in bed. I prayed and said to the Holy Mother that I was willing to pass beyond the Vail or stay on this side if she had more work for me.

    I had this dream the night before my surgery:
    Crowds in my room. I am sleeping alone, only Rhea (my dog) is in the room with me. Suddenly there is a lot of commotion. A crowd is in my room, Rhea is excited. I yell to Doug (my husband) asking him what time it is. He tells me it is 5:00 AM. I look at my clock and see it is 3:00 AM.

    While I was in Intensive Care there was a dark skinned woman with me day and night. She wore a black shawl that she wore wrapped around her body. She didn’t smile or talk with me. During the night she sat on a chair near the bed, awake.

    A week later I had this dream:

    We (my husband and I) are in Australia or New Zealand. My son and his wife are with us in the jungle. In front of us two huge doors stand open. I suggest to my son that we can go in and look around. No one else is inside.Entering I feel terror as though one of our children is being harmed or harming themselves. There are ghost like figures of friends of our boys from the past and other people. Everything is confusing. I don’t know exactly what is happening

    There is screaming and a feeling of terror everywhere. It is dark. I see my daughter-in-law huddled on the floor, she is naked. She shows me a tattoo of a colorful beetle on the back of her left shoulder blade. Each person has a small colorful beetle tattooed on their shoulder. From the terror it feels like they have been stung by these insects.

    I hope your healing continues. It is a long road.

    • kirstenbackstrom

      Thank you for sharing this, Jamie. I hope your healing continues, too!

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