Dreamwork as Spiritual Practice

Walking Around Wondering: The Wide-Angle Approach to Long, Detailed Dreams

beach in fog 01Although it’s common to remember dreams in a fairly fragmentary way—with more impressions than exact details, and with few extended storylines—most dreamers will periodically experience long, vivid dreams with elaborate plots, a full cast of characters, and nuanced, detailed scenery. Especially for young people, or those who are going through major life changes, such dreams may come in abundance.

When I’m working with long dreams (my own and others’) that contain a wealth of images, interactions, emotions and events, it is easy to get overwhelmed. So, I’ve been considering different ways of approaching such dreams. In the last post, I described the close focus approach (“Holographic Webs”) and today I’d like to talk about the wide angle approach.

In the wide angle approach, if someone is sharing a long, complex, richly detailed dream, I listen to the whole thing with an openness to the big story, as if I were dreaming it, and really experiencing it, myself. But I don’t expect to remember every exact detail. Maybe I try to organize the whole dream into some shape that seems natural: What is the beginning, the middle, the end? Does the dream have “acts” or “scenes” like a play—and is there a progression, a “plot development”?

Humans are storytellers, so we tend to shape our experiences (including dreams) into stories. But I try not to get too caught up in this way of looking at the dream—because once I think I know what the story is about, I will tend to see everything that happens only in terms of that particular story. I tend to see the stories that are common in my culture. For example, I might recognize stories about individual paths of learning and accomplishment, while people from other cultural traditions might be more likely to identify stories about responsible participation in community, or about the relationship between the immediate physical world and the eternal or ultimate realm of ancestors or gods.

A dream can contain many kinds of stories, since dreams are larger than individuals or cultures. So, I try not to project my own plot onto the dream, except as a way of entering the dream, participating in it. I try to remember that the dream is as open-ended as any life experience—so I don’t want to come to conclusions that will prevent me from engaging fully in the unfolding process.

The heart of dreamwork is inhabiting the dream as an immediate, authentic experience. I ask the dreamer about how different parts of the dream feel—and I let myself feel it. Through the dreamer’s senses, I experience textures, smells, colors, moods, sensations. As I ask questions, the dreamer describes details, and I respond with my own sense of what the experience is like—checking with the dreamer, adjusting my perceptions according to the description of the dream, and then feeling my way further to explore what else may be there.

I think of this as walking around wondering—where wondering means both questioning in an open-ended way (“I wonder what this is? I wonder what this feels like?”), and also being amazed and awed (“Wow. This is wonderful!”). Pleasant or unpleasant, the events of any dream are worthy of wondering!

As I experience someone else’s dream, the dreamer and I share our curiosity and our discoveries directly—bringing the whole dream to life between us. Often, this leads to specific insights about the significance of particular scenes or images for the dreamer, but even if no special insights arise, the experience of just walking around in the story of the dream allows the dream to be better integrated into the dreamer’s consciousness.

When I am working with my own long dream, using this wide angle approach, I may not write the dream down at all, but instead, literally, take a long walk and just carry the dream with me. As I walk, I recall the dream—wandering (and wondering) in the dream world as I am walking in the waking world. This means that the dream is not immediately forgotten, but continues to resonate with my waking experience.

Incidentally, this process of exploring a dream by walking around in it can also be done with waking experiences that I want to fully integrate. Recently, Holly and I went to the Oregon coast—a low-budget trip with nothing to do but walk on the beach and rest and read for a couple of days. It was lovely, but it had already begun to slip into the past (like the fading memory of a dream), and there had been so much to appreciate about the experience that I wanted to feel it a bit more deeply before letting it go.

So, I took a walk to the library, and, on the way, went back to the ocean—just wandering and wondering: the exact turquoise color of a curling wave; sand caking on the bottoms of my shoes; the yellow and red buds on willow twigs; the gull standing on a rough rock as the tide came in; the textures of my changing moods; not knowing what time it was; the eerie fog; the familiarity and unfamiliarity of sights and sounds and smells and flavors…

When I re-enter and explore a long dream this way, with a sort of purposeless curiosity, just taking it all in—I find I can remember almost infinite layers of detail. My senses absorb the abundance with fascination—examine it, listen to it, touch it, taste it, play with it—and then let it go. And if I don’t feel compelled to write it all down and keep it, there’s great freedom in the abundance rather than overwhelm. Nothing is ever really lost. The dream is a part of me, and I’m a part of the dream.



  1. Tina

    This is so helpful! Such an easy phrase to remember–walking around wondering–and thus easy to apply to something like a long, big dream that I might think I should be working on. What if I just kept it with me, and wondered?
    Thanks, Kirsten.

    • kirstenbackstrom

      Thank you, Tina. I can easily imagine you working especially well with this approach, since you are so good at creatively exploring your experiences–turning them over and looking at them in different light. I really appreciate your feedback on the post!

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