Dreamwork as Spiritual Practice

Telling the Dream Story

puzzle-01Dreams tell stories in the same way that waking life experiences tell stories. Usually, we’re given a chaotic jumble of circumstances, images, occurrences and encounters that seem to come one after another, or all at once, without plan or plot or point. Then, as we reflect on these dreaming or waking experiences, we make sense of them by making stories of them. By this I mean that we find the rhythm, see the connections, sense the unfolding patterns, and find meaning in a creative process of engagement with the elements of experience.

Of course, some dreams and some waking events present themselves as perfect, ready-made parables or fairy tales or romances or crime dramas… but, for the most part, our immediate experience of the dream world or the waking world just isn’t that organized. This is why it’s important to pay attention to experiences as they are happening, and then reflect upon them with an open mind, shaping experiences into stories.

Last year, I wrote about the healing power of stories: “In studying a variety of spiritual traditions, I find again and again that stories keep cultures alive, and serve to bring people into harmony with their environment and one another…” and “many dreams come in the form of stories, which, when shared and explored, can have this same healing power…. My dreams are healing because they tell and re-tell my stories in new ways—and help me to recognize that these stories are not mine alone.” (from “Dreamwork Tells A Healing Story”)

As a follow-up to that article, I’d like to consider how the raw material of dreaming or waking experiences gets shaped into meaningful stories, even when those experiences appear to be random and chaotic.

Applying some simple techniques of the oral tradition and the storyteller’s craft can help dream material to come alive for the dreamer and for anyone listening to the dream. We can learn how to listen to dreams when they are told by others so that the dreams don’t seem boring or intimidating (see “Are Dreams Boring?”), but it’s also possible to develop methods of telling our own dreams so that they don’t bore or overwhelm our listeners.

If the dreamer tells the dream in the present tense (as if it is happening now) and concentrates on conveying emotion, colorful details, the momentum of actions and reactions, and the development or transformation of characters, then the dream is bound to become more interesting to dreamer and listener alike.

A touch of theater or ceremony can also be helpful. As you share your dream with others, or even when you are alone and remembering the dream’s unfolding events—try standing up, moving around, using gestures and facial expressions. Maybe try using props, costumes, sound effects or the steady percussive rhythm of drums or shakers to set the pace. If we take ourselves too seriously, dreamwork or storytelling becomes ponderous and dull—so let’s lighten up! Playfulness, and even a touch of silliness, can open the way to the depths of the dream, gently inviting us into full participation and meaningful insight by lightening the heavy atmosphere that may surround our core truths.

Whether I’m telling my dream aloud, writing it down, or merely recalling its details as I take a walk—I’m working and playing with the dream’s images and events, shaping a story that will have meaning for me, and perhaps for others. As I’m reflecting on the jumble of dream elements, I start by suspending judgment, giving them the space to expand and express themselves. I make room for the dream’s strong emotions, vivid images, dramatic events and unlikely details. I do the same when I want to make sense of a waking experience. This process of allowing freedom, expansion, even exaggeration, puts the experience in perspective, and lets it make an impression, so its constituent parts are easier to see and easier to grasp.

As I review the elements of the dream, I am, consciously or unconsciously, sorting and arranging them. Assembling the jigsaw puzzle of the dream, I separate out the edge pieces, make piles of the bits of sky, the bits of buildings, trees, people. And then I start finding the ways they fit together.

What is the relationship between the intense emotion in one part of the dream, and the feeling of relief and peace in another part of the dream? What colors, shapes, and textures are present in each scene, and how do they reflect (or contrast with) the emotional tone or atmosphere of that scene? What qualities do apparently unrelated dream characters have in common? What draws me into the dream, and what makes me want to shy away?

Gradually, things are falling into place as I discover a storyline, or at least a stream-of-consciousness flowing from one association to the next. Maybe experiential moments can be connected by cause-and-effect. Maybe there’s a sense of beginning, middle, and end. Maybe there’s an epiphany, or a transformation for a dream character, or for the dreamer, as a result of the dream as a whole. Maybe the dream is more like a collage, where the scraps of scenes and images and emotions play off each other in an aesthetically satisfying way. Maybe the overall affect is dissonant or clashing, offering a stimulating or stirring energy…

And, finally, how did I feel when I woke up? What has happened in the course of this dream-story to change me? A story is distinct from a series of raw, random experiences because a story seems meaningful. We find meaning when we recognize that something has happened: we have learned something, felt something, discovered a connection or a possibility or even a dead end.

Sometimes the story is inspiring, sometimes tragic, sometimes comic, sometimes disappointing, sometimes infuriating, sometimes baffling, sometimes comforting… and sometimes the story is left unfinished, inviting a sequel in a further dream or in waking life. But whatever the outcome, the story is an acknowledged experience, which has consequences. Events in dreaming or waking life may just happen to us, but when those events become a story, we become participants. By telling the story of the dream, we invite our imaginations to find meaning in our experiences. By telling the story of the dream, we invite our lives to teach us and change us.


  1. Heather Clark

    Kirsten, I’m excited to have found your site. I’m in the midst of training in spiritual direction through North Park Theological seminary in Chicago and want to spend some time studying the uses of dreamwork in direction. Looks like you’ve got a lot of wonderful resources here!

    Might there be any books which are your “top picks” in this area? I’d be glad for any recommendations you may have. Many thanks. Heather Clark

    • kirstenbackstrom

      Hi Heather. Sorry it’s taken me so long to reply—I’ve been down with the flu. I’m so pleased that you like the site, and that you’re hoping to use dreamwork in spiritual direction. There are so many good books about dreams—and a few that focus on dreams in spiritual care contexts. Anything written by Kelly Bulkeley is a good resource, and he tends to list lots of others in his bibliographies. Jeremy Taylor’s books are excellent on the overall potential of dreams (with an emphasis on group dreamwork). I really like “Healing Dreams” by Marc Ian Barasch. And John Sanford or Morton Kelsey are good from a Christian Jungian perspective. Lots of more recent books are great, but too many to list…

      If you really want to connect with the dreamwork community (which is wonderful), I’d highly recommend that you join the International Association for the Study of Dreams. They host conferences and publish information (DreamTime magazine, a research journal, & a newsletter), and there’s a constant sharing of insights and experiences.

      You might also want to schedule a phone session with me—the first session is free. Doing individual or group dreamwork in the context of spiritual direction is probably the best possible way to learn more about dreams, and practice for working with others. It’s very exeriential!

      • Heather Clark

        Kirsten, thanks so much for the recommendations. I’ve put several of these titles on hold from the library and look forward to perusing them.

        Some years ago I did a good bit of work on my own dreams with a Jungian analyst. It’s meaningful to circle back around to see if this work is something that will serve my work as a spiritual director.

        I will ponder your offer of doing some work with you! What is your usual fee? Do you employ a sliding scale?

        Hope your flu has flown and does not come back to roost any more this winter!! 🙂

        • kirstenbackstrom

          My usual fee for a one-hour session is $75.

          Although this is a set rate (so people will be aware of the market value of the work), in practice I offer a sliding scale ($50-$75) when someone can’t afford the full price. And I occasionally charge less than that if someone has been meeting with me on a regular basis and is going through a difficult time financially.

          Blessings on your spiritual direction ministry, Heather—and may your dreams be deep and sweet!

          Whether you decide to schedule a session or not, you’re welcome to keep in touch.

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