Dreamwork as Spiritual Practice

The Phenomenal Dream

slow sign 01When I write or talk about dreams, I often begin by writing or talking about waking life experiences. Dreaming and waking exist on a continuum—they are not entirely separate states, only variations in the landscape of consciousness. Our lives are the roads (or footpaths or railroad tracks) that wander through this ever-changing landscape: we pass through dreaming, waking, dreaming, waking… and all the different experiences in between.

Dreams make more sense, and offer more openings, if we remember that they are lived experiences—as subjectively real as any other experiences. The essential reason for paying attention to dreams is that they are part of our lives, remembered or not—and no part of our lives deserves to be discounted. If I want to live a full life, then I want to live my dreams fully, too. Living fully involves intentional participation in our experiences, waking or dreaming, and sometimes creative reflection upon these experiences.

To illustrate what I mean by this, I’ll reflect a bit on the waking experience I’m having today. Sometime after midnight last night, I developed a migraine—and, by the time I got up this morning, I had a blinding headache, nausea and dizziness. Those are the basic facts. If this were a dream, you might say it was a pretty awful dream. But, fortunately, although I had a full day planned, I didn’t have a strict schedule, and so could let my body decide how to go about the business of getting things done. It turned out that, after taking some medication for the pain, I could do most things I would have done anyway—only very, very slowly and carefully.

Migraines affect me peculiarly: they make me zero in on one thing at a time, with exquisite appreciation, so I become absorbed in every aspect of every moment. It’s as if the pain surrounds me like a shimmering shell of light, with a soft, cool hollow at the center where something newly born is nestled.

Sipping cranberry juice and coffee, eating crispy rice cakes and plain yogurt, brushing my teeth, talking (quietly) with Holly. Then puttering through some chores, and visiting the sunny morning outside, testing my senses…

A migraine heightens my awareness. The sensation of tipping and spilling the stale water out of the birdbath so I can refill it is like tipping and spilling and refilling something inside my chest. Lowering my head as I crouch to pick a weed makes the world around me rearrange itself at a different angle, and I can feel the stringy stem between my fingertips and smell the soil as the roots let go. I have to keep looking down (resting my eyes on the soft, blunt colors of the ground) because the world is too intensely bright. Even the softest bird call (a chickadee, a goldfinch) feels painfully sharp and clean—like cool air on a toothache.

Moving through the day has been a delicate process of finding a winding path among moments that would be jarring if encountered abruptly. Once things begin to feel more solid, I take a longer walk to the park, come home, manage some lunch, then prepare to work on the computer… but all with a sweet floating slowness as if moving underwater.

It really is true that when you’re in a hurry, the best way to get where you’re going is to slow down. Before the migraine, I was worried about all the work I had to do today. But the migraine made hurrying, or worrying, hurt too much. So I didn’t. I worked my way slowly through the tasks, and probably accomplished more than I would have if I’d been rushing and pushing. This has been a good reminder of how I want to live my life overall. I want to be gentle, patient, appreciative, connected and aware in every waking moment (every dreaming moment, too). And when I’m not any of those things, I want to let that be all right. Whether my experiences are pleasant (a beautiful day) or unpleasant (a migraine), they can occupy my whole attention, and be well worth savoring.

The same goes for dreaming and dreamwork. My approach to dreams is phenomenological. This twenty-dollar word just refers to the phenomenon (or phenomena) of immediate experience. I encounter dream experiences in the present: by dreaming them, and then again by remembering, writing, telling them, or hearing them told by others. I ask the same kinds of questions about dreams that I would ask about my waking life:

What happens in this dream, and what is it like? What is happening as I recall or share it in different contexts? Can I look at it from unlikely angles, through other eyes, from inside and from outside? What feelings do I find? What sensations and perceptions? Does the dream experience have a clear beginning, middle and end, or not? Is there a sense of cause and effect? How do things change in the course of the dream? Do I learn or receive anything from the experience? What consequences might this dream have for me or for others?

I treat the dream as if it were of great significance and could have a powerful, positive effect on me, my life, my relationships, and the world around me. It’s not even necessary to believe that this is true—just imagining or even pretending that it is true changes the nature of the experience for the better. Even the most ordinary or unpleasant dream, like the most ordinary or unpleasant event in waking life, can be seen as representative of an entire lifetime, and is as meaningful as we make it. So, suppose this dream is significant… Then how might it be significant? How might it change my perspective? How might it make me larger? How might it touch others?

Those vivid migraine phenomena gradually fade, and I go back to my everyday waking experiences of the world, yet all it takes is a tiny change in biochemistry, an illness or a startling event or encounter, or the subtle shifts between waking and dreaming, to refresh my awareness completely. The landscape of consciousness unfolds all around, offering phenomenal astonishment with each experience. I’m walking into the next moment: What is this?


  1. Roger

    I slowed down enough this morning to read the full article and even write a response. Not my normal in life anymore but it feels right. Thanks for the depth of your sharing and the beauty of your writing.

    • kirstenbackstrom

      Thank you, Roger—I’m grateful that you gave your time to reading this, and glad it “felt right.” I know how full life can be, and I don’t get to read all that I would like either! I hope it contributed something meaningful to your day.

  2. Mica

    I find the white print on a black background very difficult to read. It is taxing on my eyes and hard to process.

    • kirstenbackstrom

      Sorry about that, Mica. If you are using Safari, check under the “View” menu and you’ll find a “Reader” option, which makes it black-on-white and easier to read. If you’re using another browser there may be similar options available.

      Unfortunately, the white-on-black function is part of the website’s theme, and can’t be changed overall without changing to a new theme. I chose the current theme because it offered many other functions that I’m using on the site. Finding another theme with similar functions, and redesigning the site to fit the new theme without losing content or features would take me months (I’m very much an amateur at this, and have to learn what I’m doing from scratch as I do it—with many mistakes). Eventually, I will take the time to create the site anew, with a more readable font… but for now it is not possible.

  3. Royce

    Kirsten, I am always rewarded to have taken the time to read your articles…I deeply appreciate your thought-full-ness. And your weaving of the waking and sleeping lives, the only true reality that expresses us, you honor both as connected, naturally. So, last night I had this crazy dream about me arguing passionately with Ted Cruz, nearly screaming at him for his willingness to be violent and carpet-bomb innocents! The Iowa caucuses were yesterday, and I was disturbed, again, at fundamentalist Christianity in the waking world, and the world within me. I/we are so deeply the same and connected, our dream self “makes” us/me own the all of who I/we am and are. I am sorta grateful…(-:

    • kirstenbackstrom

      Thank you for the encouraging words, Royce.

      Although your Ted Cruz dream was no fun for you—as the U.S. political scene in the waking world is no fun either—I’d like to imagine that your dreaming, in expressing feelings many share and struggle with, is stirring or releasing something that needs to be stirred or released. May our dreams, and our waking lives, serve purposes beyond our imagining!

  4. Tallulah

    Kirsten – I’m starting a new dream group next week and I will give them copies of this posting. As always, you articulate so beautifully the essence of dream work. Thank you.

    • kirstenbackstrom

      That’s wonderful, Tallulah, thank you! Please let them know I’d welcome any responses…

      I greatly appreciate your work, too—and recommend your “Dreams and Guided Imagery” to my groups as well.

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