Dreamwork as Spiritual Practice

The Unknown Someone: Anonymous Dream Figures

Have you noticed that there are characters in your dreams who are a part of the story, but remain unidentifiable? Perhaps in a dream, someone tells me the truth… someone is angry at me… someone is sitting alone in the corner…someone keeps interrupting. Is it a man or a woman, old or young? Is it even a human being? I’m really not sure. I’d like to get to know this unknown someone—to make a connection, to recognize who is there, hovering in the background, exerting an influence on the dream scene. These dream figures are often overlooked when we share dreams or write them down: we assume they are unimportant, because we can’t describe them adequately.

Such incidental, indeterminate characters keep showing up in my dreams. In “Pity the Poor Ego,” for example, there’s a room full of hot coals that is too hot to endure, yet I sense an unknown someone in there, just out of sight. The only thing I know about this person is that they are where no one can be, so I imagine that they must be wearing protective clothing, though I don’t actually see them. When I wrote the dream down, I almost didn’t mention this person, because their presence seemed incidental. But, as I explored further, the unknown someone began to seem more and more significant. I looked for similar characters in other dreams, and found them, in abundance. They always seemed to have something to do with the relationship between self and other, between “me” and “not-me.” Often, these characters were doing something that “I” (the dream-ego) couldn’t do (like standing on hot coals), or saying something that I couldn’t say, or knowing something that I didn’t know. They “just happened to be there”—but at a key moment, presenting an alternative understanding of the dream reality.

Perhaps these dream figures are unidentified because they represent, or embody, more than the dreamer can imagine. They are “beyond me.” Like images of the divine, they are beyond words, beyond our limiting ideas of what is possible or reasonable, or what is even conceivable.

Many spiritual traditions avoid naming God, or creating images of God that can only diminish that which is inexpressible. Yet, in most traditions, God is among us all the time, seeming so ordinary, so inconspicuous, that the immanent presence of the unknown someone can appear to be merely an inconsequential afterthought: the person standing beside me at the bus stop; the dog pausing to sniff my hand; the trees along my street that blossom extravagantly every Spring—all these divine beings can show me a different way to experience the reality I tend to take for granted.

Exploring the “unknown someone” can open up big, universal concerns—and can also be personally revealing. So, as I write about this, I think about my own identity in relation to these anonymous dream figures. Many of my recent posts have been quite personal. Sometimes, I feel that I’m walking the fine line between sharing and self-indulgence. Still, I believe it’s vitally important to share, because an isolated experience quickly becomes meaningless, while a shared experience resonates beyond any individual, potentially creating deeper connections and a larger purpose from challenges that would otherwise be monotonously difficult, empty, painful and exhausting. We are all manifestations of God for one another—we show each other that there is more to us than what we think we are. When I really see you, I see someone“not-me,” someone beyond myself, someone that expands my understanding of who I am. When you see me, you see another world, another way of being that is both familiar and unfamiliar.

Anonymous characters share our dreams, and also populate many areas of our waking lives. It’s important to acknowledge them and recognize that we are in relationship all the time, even if we are preoccupied with our own concerns.

Because my health challenges have forced me to spend more time than I’d like attending to my own immediate needs and coping with my own practical problems, I find my work with others (in spiritual direction and dreamwork facilitation) to be refreshing, and even more meaningful than it would have been if I were healthy. What a joy to concentrate on someone else’s concerns and spiritual journey for a change! I also find it refreshing to engage with “strangers” who I encounter in the course of my day, or who have become friends through social media, for many of the same reasons. When I write, I hope to open up my own concerns and journey to others, as others have opened their lives to me. We all play essential roles in one another’s lives: we learn from each other, receive support and encouragement from one another, and have the opportunity to be supportive and encouraging ourselves.

In dreams, all of the dream figures (human or animal) might be considered to be aspects of the dreamer’s own personal psyche. But, more significantly I think, all of our dreams touch upon levels of experience that we share, and all of our dream figures can legitimately be seen as other people, other beings, other possibilities—manifestations of something or someone beyond ourselves. So, when I’m sharing a dream, I’m revealing things about myself, but also communicating about a mystery that includes you, and invites you to enter the dream world with me. There, in the dream world, we meet friends and we meet strangers. The dream characters that are least familiar to us—those unknown someones—may have the most to offer. And sharing the dream, like sharing our waking-life experiences, gives us the opportunity to acknowledge and learn from perspectives that differ from our own.

Here’s one of my recent dreams. Notice that what I don’tknow about what’s going on in the dream is as important as what I do know:

Forgetting the Name of My Helper, My Cousin: I’m being stalked or hunted by a murderer, and many friends and family members, with children, are showing up to help me. But I don’t know what they can do to help. At first, I thought we were pretty safe because it’s still daylight, and I hoped that the murderer would be caught before dark. But now I realize he’s really very crazy, and might come at any time—and I’m concerned that my friends and family don’t understand the danger. If he comes, there is nothing anyone can do to stop him, and the children might be at risk. More family members keep arriving all the time.

 I want to introduce two children (maybe 11 years old) to a slightly older girl (about 14) who is supposed to be my cousin. This cousin is chubby, sweet-faced, kind and practical; she has been here all along, helping me protect myself from the murderer. As I’m about to make introductions, I realize I can’t remember her name, or the names of the other kids. I should know her name—and it wouldn’t be okay to get it wrong! Then, there’s someone else with us who makes the introductions, which is a relief. But my cousin saw my hesitation and recognized that I couldn’t remember her name. She is hurt, and almost tearful. She says, “We’ve known each other for six months!” I apologize genuinely, and tell her I’ve been having memory problems lately. She accepts this, but still seems hurt, and I’m very sorry. Her name is Claire. How could I have forgotten?


I don’t know what anyone can do to help. I don’t know the names of those who are helping. But someone does know the names, someone makes the introductions. I don’t know who that “someone” is—don’t know who it is that does know.

Every dream figure here is somewhat unknown. None of the “friends and family members” are familiar from waking life. I don’t know who the “two children” are, and don’t even know the name of my “cousin,” though she has been helping me. It’s easy to see that the “murderer” in the dream might represent death itself, or specific physical or emotional symptoms that could “kill” my quality-of-life, but really, the “murderer” is also unknown, unknowable. Why does he want to murder me? I assume he is “crazy”—but I don’t really know. I assume that my “friends and family” can’t help me, but they keep showing up anyway, and my “cousin” has already been helping “for six months!” (Some of my more difficult symptoms have developed in the past six months.) Finally, there’s this invisible, incidental, inconspicuous “someone” who knows the names, who makes the introductions. Someone knows that it’s “Claire” who’s been helping me. Of course. Now, I recognize clarity, light, caring, love. Although I think that I have failed to recognize her for who she is, I know that she has been helping me, and someone—within me and beyond me—has known her name all along.

So often in our lives we receive help that we couldn’t have known how to ask for. We connect with one another in spite of the fact that we are fearful and forgetful. We come together, and make sense of things by seeing them through others’ eyes, by hearing others name them, by accepting what is offered and offering something in return, even if it’s only an honest apology for our authentic uncertainty.

I believe that the unknown someone is always on the edge of being recognized. We long for connection because we are reaching for that which almost—but not yet—could be. And, we connect with each other because we see “that of God” in others before we can see it in ourselves. We share our uncertainty, our limitations, and our curiosity. We may forget each other’s names, and still be helped, and loved, by one another. It’s not easy to remember who we are. But, in our dreams, the unknown someone is there to remind us.


  1. Terry Barrett

    It was so good to read this Kirsten. It was so insightful and beautiful to read. I found your words tonight provoking. I’ve had some unknown characters in my dreams as well. I didn’t think a lot about them either, but I find myself recognizing their value in the dream.
    It’s so nice to hear your voice in this post! Thank you

    • kirstenbackstrom

      Oh Terry it’s so nice to hear your voice here as well! Thank you for the kind words. I’d love to talk or see you sometime, if you want to connect. I think of you often. You’re a warm light in the world, and I find myself smiling whenever you come to mind. Sending blessings and love.

  2. Velda Metelmann The dream of the kestrels reminded me of this verse, so I thought to share it.

    Lovely thoughts. . . loving thoughts. I’ve been dreaming of packing for a trip, but do not know where I’m going. That doesn’t bother me, but getting the suitcase packed is important.

    • kirstenbackstrom

      Thank you, Velda. Your dream of packing is also a dream that I’ve had a lot lately myself—so imagining “if this were my dream” comes easily! In my version of the dream, I find the packing frustrating, because I can’t get everything packed, “can’t take it with me.” For me, I suspect that eventually I’ll give up the whole idea of packing and just go, unencumbered by my stuff. However, your sense that “getting the suitcase packed” is important might be true for me also… I’m not ready to “go”—not ready to die, not entirely ready to leave this phase of my life behind, etc. Right now, the important thing is to sort out what is important to me and what is not, fold it all carefully, figure out how it all fits. So that’s a meaningful life task, even if, when it is finally time to go, I might just leave the whole suitcase behind. Of course, the dream could be a completely different story for you than it is for me. We each have our own journeys and pack for them in our own ways!

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