Dreamwork as Spiritual Practice

Pity the Poor Ego: Trickster Dreams

My most disturbing dreams have not been the classic frightening nightmares—instead, I dream of being a bystander while someone else suffers. Instead of terror, there’s horror, and the agony of helplessness and vicarious pain. Just as with nightmares, the emotional impact is ugly, and, at first, it’s not especially useful to tell myself that there must be something valuable here, even though I know that disturbing dreams have been some of the most meaningful experiences in my life. I’ve witnessed the beauty and transformative power they can have again and again in working with my own dreams and those of clients and friends. Yet, I can’t plunge in with enthusiasm right away; I need to respect the real (awful!) feelings that such dreams arouse, and give them time.

When I had the following dream, it left me feeling ashamed and upset:

Burning Alive: A man, with the cocky over-the-top manner of a Master of Ceremonies from a television game show, keeps intruding on the scene. He has a large, toothy smile, and he speaks loudly and glibly about nothing, with a lot of fake laughter and fake friendliness. He assumes that everyone should pay attention to him, and is idiotically over-confident.

There’s a room with its floor covered in blazing hot coals, radiating waves of heat. A waist-high wooden wall, blocks the open double-doorway. Casually, the man climbs onto the wall, waves, and jumps into the room—showing off. Apparently someone else is inside there, working on the hot coals (raking them?)—but s/he must be wearing protective clothing, because s/he’s not harmed by the heat. The Master of Ceremonies, who jumped in without protection, has no chance of survival.

I’m horrified. There’s nothing that I can do, or that the person in the room can do, to help him—and he can’t help himself either. He must be in agony as he falls on the fiery coals, unable to get up or get out, slowly burning to death. I don’t actually see this, but I hear him shouting and imagine what is happening. Ironically, his voice sounds almost as stagey and artificially enthusiastic as he was when he was just showing off. First, he shouts, “It’s so hot!” An absurd understatement, in that loud, falsely cheery voice. Then, his cries seem more poignant and painful, though he’s still using this “game show” voice He says something that suggests he can’t stand the suffering: something like, “Please get on with it!” And even though there isn’t anguish in his tone, I feel the anguish for him and find this suffering unbearable. Please, let it be over soon. Let him die quickly.

I woke from this dream truly distressed—and the only meaning I could find in it at first was not at all encouraging. The waves of heat radiating from the room reminded me of the radiation treatments that are the source of my current neuro-muscular disease. Twenty-three years after my cancer treatments, the residual radiation is increasingly active in my body, “burning me alive.” Am I like that pathetic fellow, somehow causing my own pain? Have I been “showing off,” throwing away my life, leaping into trouble and then finding myself helpless—desperate, but somehow also ridiculous? Of course, this is not a fully-formed response, and certainly not a reasonable way to approach the dream or my own life situation. But it seemed consistent with the awfulness of the dream’s aftertaste. I wanted to feel compassion for that man (and for myself), yet all I could feel was pity, helplessness, and a strong desire to turn away from the suffering, to get it over with.

I didn’t want to remember this dream. I wrote it down, but tried to forget it. Then, a couple of days later, while I was taking a walk, it came back to me vividly—with a new title making a different impression. Instead of “Burning Alive,” the new title was much more specific, and somehow less painful: “The Self-Immolation of the Master of Ceremonies.” Why did this seem less painful? Well, “self-immolation” implies a kind of intention, a sacrifice rather than a silly, wasteful, careless act of self-harm. I associated “self-immolation” with the Vietnamese Buddhist monks who set fire to themselves in protest against the Vietnam War. Their actions were drastic, and not consistent with my own cultural ideas about what constitutes appropriate dissent… yet their intentions were genuinely meaningful. They gave their lives to draw attention to an injustice. Could the man in my dream be making a similarly meaningful statement? Also, the term “Master of Ceremonies” implies not careless foolishness but the possibility of “mastering” a situation that might represent a “ceremonial” offering. What if this ridiculous character is suffering for a reason? And what if his suffering is something other than it seems?

In a previous post [“Seeing With Fresh Eyes”], I mentioned two important “tricks” that I often use in working with difficult, unpleasant dreams: 1) look for anomalies and inconsistencies in the dream itself; and 2) question the dream ego’s perspective on the situation. In “The Self-Immolation of the Master of Ceremonies,” the anomaly and the questionable point-of-view are directly related; the most obvious inconsistency suggests a potential inaccuracy in the dream-ego’s perspective. The dream-ego assumes that someone who has fallen on hot coals must be in agony, yet the “Master of Ceremonies” himself does not sound distressed. He uses his “game show” voice to express what he is experiencing, and his emotion is not at all consistent with the suffering that the dream-ego expects him to experience.

So, what if the “burning alive” really is a ceremony, a game, or a show—a metaphorical ritual that involves the “burning up” of old patterns rather than a soul in torment?

With the strong emotion of my initial reaction to the dream, it was easy to assume that this egotistical fellow represented my own Ego-identity in its crudest form: trying to be the center of attention, and coming to grief as a result. But, in fact, the dream-ego (the “I” in the dream) is actually a much more accurate representative of how my own Ego-identity (the “I” in my waking life) sees the world. The Ego, in Jungian terms, is not necessarily egotistical—it is just the essential lens through which the much larger Self perceives and understands experience. We can’t reject the Ego, because we need an Ego-identity to function in the world, but we shouldn’t take her perspective as the whole truth. The dream-ego, like my waking identity, does her best to interpret what she’s experiencing. She understands what’s happening according to its impact on her, so when the Master of Ceremonies behaves as he does, she reacts by judging and defining him as “idiotically over-confident”—his leap onto the burning coals is “ridiculous” and, from her perspective, inevitably results in his pathetic annihilation. Yet, she also wants to be a good person, and finds her own inability to help, or to feel authentic compassion, shameful and painful.

If you want to find the Ego in a dream, look for the one who’s suffering, because the Ego always suffers when reality doesn’t conform to what the Ego believes is important. In this dream, the man who leaps onto hot coals doesn’t seem to be suffering—but the dream-ego is clearly in a lot of pain. She can’t bear what she thinks is happening. In my waking life, my own experience of fluctuating emotions and deteriorating health often causes me suffering. Yet there’s more to me than this suffering Ego, and more to my experience than my Ego can imagine.

Who is the Master of Ceremonies, then? Who is running this “game show”? Dreams have more to offer than the Ego can grasp—but the wholeness of my Self includes all of it, and my Ego can learn from the other characters in the dream. In this dream, I suspect the Master of Ceremonies is not just an exaggerated Ego figure, but a Trickster.

Tricksters in world mythology are not usually very appealing characters, and their stories can make an ugly and painful first impression. Characters like Coyote in some Native American traditions, and Loki in Norse traditions, have all the worst qualities of the Ego: they are malicious, greedy, lustful, and brutally selfish; they are clever, even brilliant at times, but they always end up being too smart for their own good and coming to a bad end. Other Trickster figures may seem more benign, especially when they are represented in cartoons for children, through characters like Bugs Bunny or the Cat in the Hat. But all of them are, at the very least, cocky—and, to some degree, this cockiness is self-defeating. Tricksters are always getting into trouble. While the Master of Ceremonies in my dream seems merely annoying rather than mean, his bad behavior (“showing off”) seems to be his downfall. But wait…

Tricksters are not just bad guys. They may be brought down by their own machinations (often explosively, grotesquely, or pathetically) but, like Wile E. Coyote, they are always up and at it again in the next scene. They always bounce back, and the inadvertent consequences of their actions are often massively transformative.

Tricksters are game changers; the world is recreated in their wake. When Coyote steals fire for his own selfish reasons, his tail ends up in flames, and as he flees in panic, the sparks he scatters form the stars in the sky. By accident, new energies are released, new life begins, new possibilities are opened up. We human beings are the epitome of the Trickster, with our greedy self-interest, our crazy, impulsive, ego-driven yet creative technological advances, we harm and transform ourselves and the world around us. The Trickster leads the way to catastrophe, but also, potentially, initiates whatever comes next.

In my dream, the Master of Ceremonies leaps onto the hot coals, showing off. The dream-ego interprets this as a wretched mistake. Meanwhile, another unseen person, who is impervious to the heat, bears witness. The MC should be in terrible pain, yet his expressions of dismay are unconvincing, and it’s primarily the dream-ego who seems to suffer. Another dream anomaly is that the wall which separates the blazing coals from the rest of the world is made of wood. Wouldn’t a wooden wall catch fire?

If the wall is made of wood, then perhaps the fire is not as hot as it’s supposed to be? Or else, that wall represents an illusion of protection; sooner or later, the wall will burn and the fire will be right here, where I must experience it directly. The fire is inescapable, not only for the MC (who plunged right into it!) but for me. For every mortal being, protections are only temporary. It’s inevitable that we will all encounter experiences that are too painful, “too hot to handle,” as we lose loved ones, physical health, and ultimately our own lives.

The dream-ego is caught up in the horror of the dream’s apparently disastrous momentum, but she never actually sees what is going on in the fiery furnace of that room. If I actually get closer, overcoming my revulsion and dismay… If I actually look past that anomalous wooden wall… What might I see? I imagine the Master of Ceremonies, the Game Show Host, would not be writhing in agony. In fact, he wouldn’t be there at all. The “someone else in the room” could turn out to be another face of the Trickster, with no need for “protective clothing,” impervious to the pain, but raking those coals in order to make the room ready for a ceremonial Fire Walk. These “too hot” horrors could become a way of transforming pain into something more meaningful.

Perhaps my own Ego-identity can step into that room, and walk across it, without judgement or suffering. Perhaps she is willing to change, to let her old life be burned away, and to walk into a new world, born out of the flames of losses, illness, and uncertainty.

Of course, I’m not quite ready to see where this dream might take me. The Trickster is way ahead of me—demonstrating how my strengths and weaknesses are both essential to my growth, and to whatever it is I have to offer the world. “Showing off” is a kind of shining. “Suffering” opens the heart to authentic compassion. New ideas almost always look foolish and false, as they insist upon getting our attention when we believe we have more important concerns. Finally, what should I make of all this?

For me, the health challenges I’m facing may seem to be a room filled with hot coals, and my own inner resources may seem absurdly inadequate and meaningless as I plunge into the fire. I sometimes fear that my life has been all “show” and no substance. Yet, the best advice I can give myself, in a tone of compassionate humility (and some humor) is: “Please, get on with it!”—Not to die more quickly, but to live what I have to live.

If I look more closely, I find that the messiness of this story is just like the messiness of everyone’s story—and there’s actually someone (some aspect of me, some aspect of you, some aspect of the divine Trickster within us) standing in the midst of the hottest fire, raking the coals, making a sacred ceremony out of what seems to be only ugliness, pain, or ridiculous waste. I don’t know who that “someone” is, yet I suspect that this mysterious, holy, unknown presence at the heart of my life could sometimes look like the foolish “Master of Ceremonies,” could even look like the poor, suffering Ego… could be someone not unlike myself.


  1. Svitlana Kobets

    Thanks for sharing this dream, Kirsten! I loved your insightful discussion of it! When you say, “this egotistical fellow represented my own Ego-identity in its crudest form” I thought that I could say the same about myself. In fact, I thought that it is a kind of a dream that transcends personal and talks about the collective as you say on several occasions. If it were my dream I would see it as a metaphor for an unexamined, unenlightened life, life as a show. Isn’t it us, the humanity, at our most insincere and extraverted? Being false with oneself and others brings about a fall into emptiness, lovelessness, depression, anxiety and madness. Christian mythology says that such a life brings one into the flames of hell ☺ and it does in this dream.
    The wooden wall is a very interesting detail too. As you say it “represents an illusion of protection.” Isn’t it also an illusion of separation between the burning one and the rest of us? Finally, I asked myself, Who can perform “Fire Walks”?—In the world traditions this ability is reserved to the enlightened ones, people of introspection, Yogis, for example. (There are documentaries about fire walkers). Aren’t they the opposite of the delusional humanity? The protected person who appears side by side with the Master of Ceremonies/Trickster might as well be such an enlightened being. Thanks again for sharing your dream! I think it is an extraordinary one!

    • kirstenbackstrom

      Great insights, Svitlana—many thanks! I especially appreciate what you say about the wooden wall as an “illusion of separation”… so true. When there’s no wall (if it’s burned up) then the distinctions between the three dream figures (dream-ego, MC, and the other person in the room) collapse and all become aspects of the same being. I certainly agree with you about the way the dream transcends the personal. All dreams do, of course—and it’s rather a relief not to take it all as “my stuff,” recognizing how the dilemmas and separations the dream demonstrates are shared with human beings everywhere! I’m grateful that you took the time to read and comment here. Blessings to you.

      • Svitlana Kobets

        “When there’s no wall (if it’s burned up) then the distinctions between the three dream figures (dream-ego, MC, and the other person in the room) collapse and all become aspects of the same being.” Wow, I love this! Very powerful! Thank you so much Kirsten! I really like your blog and always learn a lot from reading your posts, articles and comments. Much gratitude and blessings to you too!

  2. Kiera O'Hara

    I uttered an amazed WOW when I finished reading this post. Another reader’s response to Kirsten speaks for me too. “I’m constantly amazed by the breadth of knowledge, insight, and integrity you bring to your dreamwork.” Thank you for this gift which I know has sown seeds of mystery and understanding in my heart.

    • kirstenbackstrom

      Thank you so much, dear Kiera.

  3. Karen Deora

    This quote that I am going to send to you came from the group Jewish Voice for Peace and is part of their Passover Seder ceremony: “Maror: Eating the bitter herbs
    “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, who had ever been alive.”
    – James Baldwin

    • kirstenbackstrom

      Oh, yes! I love this beautiful, powerful quote! Thank you for this gift, Asha—and for your own wisdom and compassion. Sharing the “bitter herbs” does bring us together—whether in a Seder or in the simple day-to-day torment and ordinary glory of life.

  4. jeanraffa

    I’m constantly amazed by the breadth of knowledge, insight, and integrity you bring to your dreamwork. I once read from a Jungian writer, perhaps Jung himself, that fire in a dream always suggests the presence of the Divine. All dreamwork is holy work, but this dream, oh this dream……it warms my heart and comforts my soul. Thank you for sharing it.

    • kirstenbackstrom

      Many thanks to you, Jean—and wishing you blessings in the holy fire of your own life and deep work.

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