Dreamwork as Spiritual Practice

Threshold Experiences: Dreaming and Waking

crater wallIn the previous post (“Threshold Work As Spiritual Practice”), I was thinking about how an everyday familiarity with “small” threshold experiences can help us when we are thrown into more intense and overwhelming threshold experiences such as a life-threatening illness, or the death or loss of someone or something significant in our lives.

Now I’d like to consider some examples of those “small” thresholds. On a daily and nightly basis, we encounter in-between places—where the ordinary suddenly seems strange and surprising, or oddly off-key, or wonderfully new, or just uncomfortably indescribable.

Dreams are definitely thresholds like this. In the midst of a dream, I find myself thinking: “Wait, this can’t be happening!”

Someone gives me a paper bag with a fish in it, and, after carrying it around for hours, I suddenly  realize that the beautiful, silver creature is still alive and flexing… The fireplace is the size of the whole room, and we are walking around inside it, tiptoeing gingerly among the coals… Two rhinoceroses come out of the woods and walk down the path toward the lake… I am about three years old, riding a bus alone, and I am also my middle-aged self, sitting across the aisle and worrying about that child… We’re exploring a perfectly-preserved shipwreck at the bottom of the ocean, and have no difficulty breathing underwater…

In Tibetan dream yoga, a central practice is to learn to ask oneself repeatedly during the day, “Is this a dream?” By doing this on a regular basis, especially when something unusual occurs, we learn to ask the same question when we realize that something peculiar is happening in a dream—and so, “wake up” to the fact that we are dreaming (lucid dreaming). The deeper aspect of this practice, however, is to learn to question our waking state as well… Until we discover that our waking “reality” (the world we think we know) is also, in a sense, a dream—a tenuous, transitory condition, a threshold experience.

The other day, I was walking in a familiar wooded park near my home. I go there several times a week before work, when the place is usually crowded with joggers, birdwatchers, and dog-walkers. On this particular day, however, the sky was heavy with the dark weight of an approaching thunderstorm. I suppose most people decided to stay home and avoid a soaking. Suddenly, I realized that I hadn’t seen a single person in half an hour. The air was warm and thick with humidity. The light was yellowish-gray, and eerie. The trees on either side of the narrow path were absolutely still, as if waiting. I stopped and asked myself, “Is this a dream?”

In the midst of my routine activities, I found myself questioning the nature of my reality. “What is this?” It was wonderfully strange, and a bit frightening. I sniffed the electricity in the air, and felt the hairs prickle on the back of my neck. Then, as I began to walk again, I passed a man with a small white dog. Abruptly, my world returned to “normal.” There were a few more people as I descended the hill, and the storm clouds seemed less ominous.

But I let myself continue to experience the threshold, the in-between place. I remembered that this wooded hill is, in fact, a volcano, though it hasn’t erupted for at least 300,000 years. The reddish crumbly slope by the basketball court is actually the inside of a cinder cone. I was walking inside a volcano, anticipating a thunderstorm, and recognizing that—as in a dream or a time of catastrophic events—the boundary between the ordinary and the impossible is hazy. My mind opened wider, to try to take it in.



  1. traviswernet

    Simply reading these words enlivens my dreaming awareness… the dream within the dream within the dream; another helpful reminder to inquire within daily experiences which I will carry with me as a result of reading this – Many Thanks Kirsten, Travis W

    • kirstenbackstrom

      Thank you, Travis. My regular habits are an extended dream that I rarely inquire into unless something peculiar happens to get my attention. So I’m reminding myself, too!

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