Dreamwork as Spiritual Practice

Pilgrimage: Walking the Way of the Dream

backpack 01In both my dreaming and my waking life, I’ve been going through a lot of dramatic changes very quickly since my mother’s death last April. After three difficult years when change came only slowly and laboriously, I found myself broken open by grief and loss, so that I could be finally, fully available for transformation. My family, my work, my friendships, my health, my identity and my understanding—everything has been swept into this cascade of change.

When such spiritual opportunities arise, however painful, the one vital life task is to keep on opening up to whatever comes next. What comes next will necessarily be unexpected—because all ordinary expectations have been overturned in the surging events.

What came to me was pilgrimage. A pilgrimage is a way that this wide open, empty, swirling space of transition becomes a movement, a journey, a compelling process rather than an end in itself. A pilgrimage is an inward and outward journey shared with strangers, shared with Spirit, shared with the landscape of our larger lives. It is a passage through and beyond the fears and obstacles that seemed to define us, a passage through and beyond ego and ignorance, through and beyond the separate struggles of our personal history… and into our interconnectedness, our interdependence. It’s a long, humbling walk through the wilderness—a wilderness made up of familiar features seen in strange new ways, familiar patterns shattered and reshaped.

In short, a pilgrimage is a lot like a dream. As we go to sleep each night, we empty ourselves, willingly, of our identities. We put on our pilgrim’s robes (or pajamas), and we lie down and let go. Then, we walk into other worlds where we encounter the impossible as possible.

We walk toward the light of the coming morning, but, on the way, we find our whole lives scrambled and spread before us in a different light: the light of possibility. Our embarrassing secrets are revealed; our true hearts are touched; our pet peeves come out to play; and the overwhelming, creative abundance of the universe becomes inescapable. The dream is inexhaustible, and it utterly exhausts our efforts to grasp the gist of it. Later, we may unfold the dream story—but in the midst of the dream itself, we simply meet each moment of experience as a step that carries us forward, followed by another step, another moment, and another.

So, here I am—going on a pilgrimage, to explore the dream-like nature of my life, and the connection I have with all other dreamers, pilgrims, wanderers on the earth. Being in the midst of change, the pilgrimage is already happening. I don’t mean just for me—for you, too, right now, in the midst of the journey of your life.

A scallop shell is the image for one of the most widely-traveled pilgrimage routes in the world—the Camino de Santiago de Compostela. The deep paths on the surface of the scallop shell represent the many and varied pathways of pilgrims, and they all converge at the hinge. At the end of the journey, at the hinge or turning point, we come together, even though we thought that we were all on separate paths.

My own pilgrimage path is not only metaphorical, but also literal and physical. I hope to walk the Camino—500 miles across Northern Spain—next spring. It astonishes me to acknowledge this intention, let alone express it in public. But here we are. I am doing my best to prepare now, and I will do my best to follow through with this challenging outward journey when the time comes…

But the process of pilgrimage is like the process of dreaming: you can incubate a dream (asking for a dream, for a particular purpose or on a particular theme), but you never know how it will come out until you turn yourself over to sleep. Then, the dream decides where to take you. I can plan a pilgrimage, but I can’t tell where it will take me, or how it will change me, or even whether it will turn me back before I think I’m finished.

Up until this point on the pilgrim path, I’ve been on my own: planning, praying, learning, preparing. Now, by writing this post, I’m taking the first steps on the part of the journey that’s out of my hands. Now, it’s not just my journey, it’s a shared journey. I want to share the dreaming process, and I want to acknowledge your place on the path as we walk it—separately and together. As I discover and describe my intentions, maybe we’ll find our common ground. We are walking the dream, and dreaming the way.

Buen Camino.


  1. Jim

    I highly recommend Phil Cousineau’s “The Art of Pilgrimage” – a great prep for making a pilgrimage. It made all the difference for several of my own trips/pilgrimages.

    • kirstenbackstrom

      I’ll add it to my reading list! Thank you, Jim.

    • Zoe

      Amazing, Kirsten!

      I echo that recommendation — read it before my first trip to Asia two years ago, and copied passages that served as a compass during the darker, labyrinth hours of last year’s trip there….

  2. Kiera

    I would like to echo Tina. This post evokes so clearly and hopefully the mysterious and bountiful illumination you are helping me find via dreams. Thank you Kirsten. I’m looking forward to whatever ways you end up sharing your upcoming pilgrimage on the Camino.

    • kirstenbackstrom

      Kiera, thanks for the “mysterious and bountiful illumination” that radiates outward from you and your dreams! And thank you for the kind words about my work.

  3. Tina

    Congratulations, Kirsten, on taking this step of making it a public project. Wow, how beautifully you express the process and link dreaming and pilgrimage.

    • kirstenbackstrom

      Thank you, Tina! And blessings on your own ongoing dreamwork… you bring people together in ways that inspire me to connect and share, too.

  4. dreamelady

    So great! A pleasure to journey with you, Kirsten. And now I will put on my ‘pilgramas’ to sleep. Buen camino.

    • kirstenbackstrom

      Karen, I love “pilgramas”! You are so great with dream-words. Thank you for your dreamwork wisdom—it’s a pleasure to journey with you, too!

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