Dreamwork as Spiritual Practice

A Place at the Table: Dreams of Scarcity & Abundance

plates 01You know those dreams where you just can’t get what you want? Maybe there’s this buffet—you see all kinds of great treats when you walk by, but then when you get in line and it’s finally your turn to serve yourself, there’s nothing left…?

Variations on this dream are pretty common in general, but I suspect they’re especially likely to show up at this time of year. Why? Because, in the northern hemisphere at least, it’s the season when we start worrying about having enough to go around. The abundance of the harvest-time is well past, and spring still seems far away; humans and other animals begin to take a good look at the supplies, and wonder how long they will last. Sometimes we take a peek at others’ supplies, too, suspecting that they’ve got more than we’ve got.

To combat the dread, and subsequent hostility, that can come along with this kind of scarcity-mentality, many ancient (and modern) midwinter traditions include a celebration of abundance and generosity. It’s the “season of giving” for very good reasons. We need each other at this time of year. Stinginess can lead to disaster.

I find that whenever money gets tight and I become fearful about whether we’ll have enough, I need to literally give something away in order to remind myself that I am part of a larger whole, part of a community of living beings who can support each other through good times and hard times. Instead of noticing what I don’t have, I try to be grateful for all that I do have—and share it with those around me, without counting and comparing.

But my dreams sometimes suggest that I’m still anxious about getting enough for myself:

A Place at the Table: I arrive at the feast that I have helped to prepare, but find that there is no chair for me. Someone has taken my seat, and there are not enough chairs to go around. Then I notice that there is no plate at my place, though everyone else has theirs. Also, there is not enough food. The last helpings have gone to others, and all of the serving dishes are empty. I stand alone, and feel sorry for myself.

Dreams like this one simply seem to be commenting on a state of mind that is present. Yes, the cold and dark at this time of year do bring up feelings of fearfulness, resentment, the instinctive desire to hoard and hide what I have. What is the point of being reminded that I feel this way, when I am really trying hard to remind myself that I can also feel generous and abundant?

I think the usefulness of such dreams lies in the vividness of the imagery, and the potential of that imagery to make an impression on the psyche at a deep level. When I have dreams that just seem to be telling me unpleasant truths about myself and my situation, I look at the images that the dream chooses to express those truths.

In “A Place at the Table,” the images include chairs, plates, food and empty serving dishes. The poverty that the dream reflects in these images is also evident in the memory of the dream as a whole: the dream memory feels weak and the images and narrative are vague, lacking substance. It’s a dream about not having enough, and it’s not enough of a dream to engage my interest…

So, in response to this wavering and insufficiency, I need to focus on what the dream does have to offer, not on what it lacks. The few plates (soon to be claimed by other people) are particularly vivid…. I let myself play with the images of the plates. I imagine spinning them on the table, juggling them, letting them smash to the floor where they shatter but then reassemble themselves and fly back onto the table. I imagine them multiplying until there are stacks of empty plates. Then imagine them filled with food and distributed to all—including me.

A Buddhist practice for cultivating generosity suggests that if I find myself clinging to a particular possession, unwilling to share it, then I should imagine this possession multiplying until there’s enough for everyone, so I can give it away without any sense of loss. A dream gives me an image for this practice that is particularly rich, because it was chosen by the dream-maker. My deep psyche has experienced scarcity expressed through the image of a plate, and so now it feels meaningful to also experience abundance through that same image.

Something similar happens in the popular stories associated with the holiday season. Vivid images help us fully experience the inner wrestling between a mentality of scarcity (stinginess) and an attitude of abundance (generosity). The Grinch’s heart is “two sizes too small” and he impoverishes the village of Whoville to match his own inner poverty. Then we can all feel the profound shift when his heart expands to burst its bounds, and he lifts the ridiculous burden of a sled full of stolen goods as if it were weightless. When he returns to Whoville, the redistribution of wealth is nowhere near as important as the fact that the Grinch now joins the circle of the song, and the feast. It is not accidental that his first action when he comes to the table is to carve the “roast beast” and serve everyone else, including Max the dog (whose heart was full-sized all along). There is enough to go around. There is more than enough.

A dream of scarcity offers images that invite abundance, just as a season of scarcity invites the spirit of sharing. It’s often true that the “negative feelings” evoked by a dream can create opportunities for expanding our hearts, if we allow the whole story to play itself out in our lives.


  1. Royce Fitts

    Recently a client who posts a blog wrote about how her awareness of “enough” has increased this past year…gazing at her family, her children, her own growth and expression of her inner soul’s stories emerging out into the open, has moved her into these moments of awareness of “enough”…and, for her, what a blessing this is. I notice, too, that her “enough”, as I shared w/ her, seems to be, in my projection, “that I am writing my soul’s stories that have wanted to be told for years, and now the writing and telling is unfolding…”. I contemplate this dream that Kristen has shared, about “enough”, and appreciate how the dream-maker sometimes speaks out of “opposites”, profoundly getting my attention w/ opposite “facts”. I am not hungry in WL, yet I am, I don’t have a place at the table, yet I do, everyone else has “enough and more”, yet I do not, and, yet, I do…b/c this is MY dream…and those “other parts” of me have more than enough to share…The dream-maker uses opposites to invite me to wrestle w/ insecurities of me having less than I do. My insecurities have a BIG voice at my table. Actually, for me, there are many voices of “not enough!” and it takes a BIG voice of “opposites” to shake-up my powerful inner voice/ego that says, “I do not have what it takes!”. And, as the dream so bountifully reveals, I do.

    May I ask and say, for all of us who “own” this dream, and for those of us who do not wrestle w/ those “not enough” voices, that we join in “prayer” for all of us…”enough and not enough”, to support each other w/ care that breaks the barriers, breaks the empty plates of not enough.

    Thanks Kristen, for these moments of meditation.

    • kirstenbackstrom

      Thank you! What you have said here is so important, Royce. The opposites of “enough” and “not enough” within the dream are both expressions of truths–and although I (the dream-ego) identify in the dream more with “not enough,” the deeper truth may well be with the other characters and images in the dream that express a fundamental abundance. I appreciate your example and articulation of this.

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