Dreamwork as Spiritual Practice

What Does “Spiritual Direction” Mean?

basswood 4I feel such abiding respect for the people I work with individually to explore their dreams and spiritual lives. These are people willing to enter unknown territory, question assumptions, open their eyes, hearts, and minds to new possibilities, share experiences and insights, and delight in being transformed by what they are learning.

Sometimes, the work is playful and creative, and often it is hard labor. Sometimes the work is painful and slow, but, always, it is healing. It requires courage and effort, but, like childbirth, it is a natural process which finds its own way of happening. Like a midwife, I help create a safe space for this “birthing,” and I bring my experience, training, caring and presence to support the unfolding process—but I don’t make anything happen. I just “watch and pray,” and bear witness to the courage and wisdom of the person who is doing the real work.

Doing dreamwork in a spiritual context, rather than as a primarily psychological endeavor, I am not trying to solve or fix what’s wrong, but to acknowledge and encourage what’s right. The context is “spiritual direction,” not therapy. What’s the distinction here? What is spiritual direction? If you are considering whether or not to explore dreamwork as a spiritual practice, it is a good idea to have an understanding of the goals and approaches of contemporary spiritual direction.

First of all, I find the term “spiritual direction” to be rather misleading. There’s a long history to why it’s called “spiritual direction,” and since most of the alternative ways of referring to it are even more problematic, I guess the name is here to stay, for better or for worse. Please note: Spiritual direction does not mean that the spiritual director is “directing” the process, but that possible “directions” are being sought and explored.

Although the term “spiritual direction” comes from the Christian tradition, most contemporary spiritual direction unfolds within the personal spirituality of the individual directee, whether that spirituality is part of a specific tradition or not. My own approach emphasizes flexibility and openness, and since dreams draw on images and metaphors that are universal as well as cultural, I encourage people to extend their imaginations beyond the familiarity of any particular tradition.

Many people today are exploring spiritual direction as a way of deepening and opening up their spiritual lives, learning about their personal gifts and callings, working with the places where they feel blocked or discouraged, and exercising discernment in their decisions at times of life transition. In essence, spiritual direction is a process by which one person (the director) bears witness, listening deeply and providing support and sometimes guidance, while another (the directee) seeks to recognize and share the sacred, authentic, and meaningful dimensions of his/her own experience.

Sometimes this process is a joyous mutual giving and receiving; sometimes it involves wrestling with confusion, fear, grief or pain. Sometimes stunning insights and epiphanies emerge; sometimes director and directee are in the dark together. There are no absolute definitions, because spiritual direction is an evolving art that is redefined continually by those who practice it. Each spiritual director has a different approach, and the nature of the work may change from session to session as the dynamic between you and your spiritual director develops.

Spiritual direction is distinct from therapy, though the two may overlap. While therapy often seeks to work with your life challenges as problems to be resolved, spiritual direction acknowledges those challenges and tries to see through them and beyond them, with you. A spiritual director may just listen, sit with you in silence, ask questions, offer suggestions and new perspectives, help you to develop spiritual practices, or act as a sounding board. The path is yours; the work is yours; the deeper meaning is yours.

As a spiritual director, I consider that my task is to encourage the people I work with to find and follow their own inner sense of direction. Within the context of Compass Dreamwork, spiritual direction often (but not always) involves using dreams to deepen the exploration. Spiritual direction cannot be limited to particular themes or tools exclusively, because it involves the whole person, and follows that person into any area of life, heart, mind and spirit that seems most meaningful.

Even the directee cannot know what will emerge as most meaningful in any given session, or over time. A person who is coping with advanced cancer and seeks spiritual direction may find himself talking not about illness and death but about his baby daughter, or about his own playfulness and the things that bring him joy. A person who is basically comfortable and clear about her health, work, and relationships, may find herself exploring fears and longings at a deep level, listening to the powerful images of her dreams, opening up to the mystery of suffering and compassion.

When I’m invited to share someone’s dreams through spiritual direction, I try to be a competent and caring companion, a consistent listener, sometimes a guide and sometimes a follower, who provides a space where people can share the known and explore the unknown aspects of themselves and their spiritual lives.



  1. Marjorie Speirs

    A lovely description of spiritual direction. I, too, struggle with the term “direction.” ˆI like “spiritual mentor” or “spiritual midwife.”

    • kirstenbackstrom

      Thank you, Marjorie. Mentor and midwife do come closer to the mark…

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