Dreamwork as Spiritual Practice

Turning the Dream Upside Down

upside down 01If I start with some straightforward approaches to dreamwork (see “Two Basic Dreamwork Skills”), I can learn a lot about dreams. But I can learn a lot more if I’m willing to turn the dream upside down, or inside out—to spin it, flip it, and toss it around a bit.

Actually, it’s not the dream that needs to be turned upside down, it’s the dreamworker. Have you heard the Nietzsche quote: “If you gaze long enough into the abyss, the abyss gazes back”? In order to see the whole dream in all its multifaceted dynamic transpersonal splendor, I have to suspend my own habitual patterns of thought, stand on my head, and take a new look at the dream—until I can see the dream looking back at me. Like a mirror, the dream shows me a reversed image of myself, and more than myself.

One way for me to turn the dream upside down is to learn to recognize some of my own biases. What kind of dreams do I tend to expect? Well, as a dreamworker and spiritual director, I tend to see dreams as experiences that reflect a spiritual journey, a path of discovery, a personal and sometimes universal process of learning and growth. I find rites of passage in dreams. I discover gifts of healing and wholeness. Sometimes I see dreams shamanically, as portals into other worlds where we encounter other beings. I believe that all of these aspects of the dream are true and real, because I have witnessed and participated in the transformative power that they can have in the lives of those who share dreams with me.

But because I have these biases, I might miss other ways of looking at the dream, and other possibilities the dream is presenting to me. It’s like having a new computer, figuring out how to use it for particular tasks (word processing, e-mail, games…) and ignoring its other tremendous and varied capabilities. In the fantasy world of modern technology, I know only the most rudimentary magic words for computer-use. In the world of dreams, I’m a fairly seasoned traveler rather than a casual tourist, yet I still miss a lot. Much of the dream is beyond me.

So, I look to others in my dream groups to point out their favorite attractions, as I point out mine. I show them the dream’s mythic dimensions, and they remind me to look for puns and wordplay. One person zeroes in on the emotions in the dream, another on color or numbers. For someone, the dream is all about family relationships; for someone else, it’s about body symptoms; for someone else, it’s precognitive. Even when someone suggests a way of looking at the dream that doesn’t make sense to me, it’s likely to give me a new insight about what I believe (and don’t believe) about the dream.

At the end of each group session, I ask if there’s anything anyone wants to say about the dream that hasn’t been said yet… And in my own mind I run through all of the possibilities that have been suggested, and try to come up with further possibilities, even ones that seem unlikely or contradictory. Dream groups definitely challenge all of us to go beyond our biases.

Another way to turn the dream, and the dreamworker, upside down is by looking into the shadowy corners of the dream itself. When you look in the dream mirror, what’s behind that reflected closet door? Is it a closet, or something else? Don’t take anything for granted. The dream mirror may reverse your expectations.

I can look at the obvious surprises and incongruities in the dream—they come with a lot of energy and can get the dreamwork engine to turn over. But I often find more secrets hidden in the inconspicuous, incidental aspects of the dream.

Banana Typewriter: Someone gives me an old-fashioned manual typewriter. I’m excited and grateful and can’t wait to try it out. But then he tells me that it works in a special way. He places a banana on the carriage, so that when the keys are struck the banana smears all over them. This is supposed to produce the ink. It’s very messy, and I suggest that maybe I could just use the typewriter without the banana. He says it just doesn’t work that way. I don’t really want this gift now, but feel I must accept it, even though I’ll never use it.

The surprising juxtaposition of the banana and typewriter brings up lots of humorous associations—including some Freudian innuendo (Hey, sometimes a banana is just a banana, Sigmund!)… But where do we go from there?

I try turning the dream upside down by reading between the lines and examining the inconspicuous details. Looking back into the dream I ask questions about the stuff that didn’t immediately get my attention:

Where is this dream taking place? I notice that we’re in the dusty basement classroom where we took typing lessons on old manual typewriters in sixth grade. What about the banana itself? The banana isn’t peeled, yet it smears? Hm, it isn’t even ripe. And how is banana mush supposed to make ink? Because it’s fruit, and something fruitful is needed. If I accept this typewriter but don’t type on it, what am I going to do with it? I’m aware that it’s too heavy to carry, and will have to be kept here.

When I ask questions about the details, I find that I can remember more of the dream, and these details seemed to point in a new direction. Instead of just seeing the absurdity of the image, I find all kinds of memories and feelings connected with that basement typing classroom—and I begin to empathize and then identify more with the typewriter itself, as it inhabits the dusty, dimly lit, gray space of memory.

I won’t go into all the personal insights that the sense of being that typewriter evoked, but it spun off into a discovery that the typewriter embodied the creative process of the dream itself, which needed to include something “fruitful” (the banana) at several stages in its life cycle (unripe & unpeeled, soft and mushy, then cleared away and present only as a fragrance). My dream-ego had an aversion to the messiness of this process, but the banana was what made the difference between an ordinary, utilitarian, classroom typewriter, and a special dream typewriter with its own creative power and potential. If I choose not to use that typewriter, it will revert to its heavy, ponderous, unexceptional nature (without fruit), exiled to the basement of my consciousness.

This was a whole new angle on the dream, and I felt that the dream showed me a different story from this angle than I would have seen if I’d stuck with the silliness at the surface. The dream could be both funny and sad, both playful and profound.

Finally, turning a dream upside down means finding its paradoxical and unlimited nature. It means noticing my initial response to the dream and looking for the opposite—and then experiencing the infinite spaces that open outward and inward when irrelevancies become relevant, and opposites can coexist.


  1. bashwill2014

    My dream group for some time has the end of the dream group evening be that each dreamer pulls one taro card and we discuss and play with how that card does or doesn’t seem to add new meanings to be discovered we had not found in the dream work. Some nights all of us had wonderful serendipitous surprises that added good energy to our dream work. Sometime we felt we had someone else’s card for the night. Rarely did we have nights where all of us felt that the cards didn’t relate to the dream we told that night or to the waking life activities related to the dream. or even waking activities of that day or resent past days. It always added more insight when we did this.

    • kirstenbackstrom

      This is a great idea, thank you! And I like that the cards can relate to others’ dreams or waking experiences, too.

  2. Tallulah

    I recently was with a group that added the Taro cards as a way of turning the dream upside down. After each dream, we formulated a basic question the dream seemed to be asking and then we laid out a Taro spread and projected on the cards, keeping the question in mind. It was more than a fun game and we all felt it added a new perspective to our usual dream sharing.
    Thanks for another provoking article.

    • kirstenbackstrom

      Thank you, Tallulah—as always, you are an inspiration to me! Combining dreamwork with tarot sounds fascinating… and I think I’d like to try it with the I Ching as well.
      Blessings on your work…

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