Dreamwork as Spiritual Practice

Appreciating Incoherence

Dreams are often incoherent: the images shape-shift, the timelines tangle, the events overlap, and the whole dreamy experience itself can get lost in a haze at the edge of awakening. We count on coherence in our waking lives, expecting the narrative to make sense with a reasonable cause-and-effect predictability. We generally think that things should hold together—they should cohere—and when things fall apart incoherently, it’s bad news. But we all know that the dream world is different, and we’re willing to accept a certain amount of disorder there. Still, our waking minds have to do some reconstructive work before they can get a grip on those slippery dream experiences, and some dreams just won’t cooperate. We know we have dreamed; the dream is a palpable presence with a distinct sensory intensity… but we just can’t get hold of anything solid enough to make a memory. So, the incoherent dream gets forgotten.

Lately, my waking life has been almost as incoherent as my dreaming life, and accepting this much incomprehensibility has been a challenge. I have an illness that is unpredictable and rare, so I don’t know what to expect from one day to the next. My symptoms shift like loose sand  underfoot; my daily routine is a steep dune I’m climbing, and the routine itself disintegrates as I struggle up its sandy slope. I can’t get on top of it, can’t see what’s on the other side. Is there an open ocean somewhere out there? Or just an endless sea of similar sand dunes? I’m discovering how much our lives usually depend upon our plans for the future, and my plans have been suspended in this slippery limbo, since my prognosis is uncertain.

Ordinarily, our experiences have some coherence. The sand has been moistened and packed down, so we can walk without wallowing. Even our dreams can usually be shaped into sand castles. But, sometimes the sand is so dry and fine, or so wet and slack, that we can’t hold onto a handful without its slipping away, and it’s not possible to shape a story or a structure with such material. The sandman has come to sprinkle our sleep with dreams, and has delivered a sweeping desert landscape that changes with the wind.

Dream meanings are not usually direct messages, they are more intricate, richer, and sometimes disturbingly weirder than any direct communication could be. Yet even the most incoherent dream can feel meaningful, can be meaningful, if we care about the dreaming experience, allow it to touch us and allow ourselves to respond. I’m trying to see the incoherence of my waking life in the same way. Meanings do not necessarily make sense. Life can be meaningful whether it makes sense or not.

I can’t give a good example of an incoherent dream, because, well, those dreams are really incoherent—they don’t hold together. But there’s been a sort of theme to my recent incoherent dreams. They start with a chaos that I’m trying to control:

I’m packing, but there’s nothing to contain all the stuff I need to carry with me… I’m cleaning, but the messes keep multiplying… People or animals are in trouble, but there’s no way to tell where the trouble is coming from and no way to help… Something or someone is lost—maybe it’s me… Then, in the dream, I remember that the ocean is not far from here. I haven’t seen it yet, but I know it’s nearby. I know I just need to get to the ocean. If I could only set all the impossible problems aside and get out in the fresh air, I’d be able to get there…

But usually the problems remain unresolved. Things get more and more confusing. Often, the ocean seems impossible to reach, even though I realize it’s just outside, just beyond the edge of this chaos.

Actually, the ocean itself is chaotic, too, but in a different way. The ocean is infinitely wild, vast, incoherent because it can’t be contained. The chaos indoors (or inside myself) seems disturbing because I’m trying to control it; the chaos of the open ocean, by contrast, is glorious, unrestrained and impossibly deep. The ocean has its own rhythms and patterns, which defy my sense of coherence. There’s something liberating in this. Somehow, I recognize those inconsistent and incomprehensible rhythms and patterns—I know the ocean with my own deep sense of wonder, not with my grasping mind.

“It is like what we imagine knowledge to be:
dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free…”
-Elizabeth Bishop, from “At the Fishhouses”

There’s an authentic relationship between the oceanic unknown (or deep knowledge) and the shifting sands of my everyday experience. The depths of the infinite lap at the shores of the ordinary, so sometimes the sand gets just damp enough to shape sand castles at the water’s edge: coherent dreams, insights, projects, possibilities… and then, predictably, the tides recede leaving those castles to dry and slump, or the tides rise to wash them away completely.

In my incoherent dreams, I flounder in confusion, trying to accomplish something, remember something, catch hold of something, anything… But, still, I know that the ocean is out there. The ocean does not concern itself with my accomplishments, my concerns, my comprehension. It gives me nothing to hold onto, and yet it shapes my experience. I trust the tides; I trust the depths. Occasionally, my incoherent dreams complete themselves: I leave the frustrating incoherence of my problems and worries behind, and find the more profoundly incoherent openness of the ocean. It’s right here, all around me: the infinite. I immerse myself in that dark, clear water. And I find myself fully awake.


  1. celeste viau-navetta

    ahh, thank-you for this beauty of words to savor, and think on.
    always have dreamed underwater stuff, so elusive yet pleasant, very much physicality, and an area of refuge, for me.

    • kirstenbackstrom

      Thank you so much, Celeste! I love your underwater dreaming—in fact, just this morning I was talking with someone about the wondrous experience of breathing underwater in a dream, effortless and natural as if returning to the womb (or an earlier evolutionary state) where we could breathe liquid.

  2. Lesley Laing

    Thank you for the FB link to your post and this glimpse into your current life. Prayers for you and Holly as you grapple with the sand dune-like routines of your days…Blessings, L

    • kirstenbackstrom

      Thank you Lesley! I appreciate your good wishes and prayers—and send the same back to you. Blessings…

  3. Laura Hileman

    Pure gold, Kirsten — thank you! I love your line about the ocean — knowing it through wonder, not with the ordered mind.

    • kirstenbackstrom

      Laura, you were in my thoughts when I posted this. The knowing and the wildness coming together somehow reminded me of you. Wishing you all the wonder in the world, and a trace of order to help make sense of it all!

  4. jeanraffa

    Another synchronicity between our dreams. In my last dream I’m walking up from the beach (or a vast, dark, unknown place I can’t see that feels like the beach), in near darkness. I walk into the backyard of a home that may or may not be mine. Overgrown bushes block my path and there are branches and plant debris on the ground. I want to trim them and clean them up. The dream ends with me being held by my son in a loving hug as we stand on high ground, with the unseen ocean just beyond a dune to our left as we watch a beautiful sunset, then look up at the stars in night sky. And I feel so safe and loved.

    Lately I’ve had other dreams with messes too, but this is the first one I remember with such beautiful hints of eternity: ocean, sunset, stars in a dark sky…..

    I love your thoughts about your dream. Yes there are messes and confusion and things still to be done, but the infinite and eternal is all around us, embracing us in love. Yes.

    Thank you, wise dreamer, for helping me find a clearer container for this dream…. Jeanie

    • kirstenbackstrom

      Oh what a lovely synchronicity, Jeannie—and such a precious gift that dream seems to be! Maybe those complicated messes are just the contrast we need in order to appreciate the simply vast and deep grace of loved ones and the infinite ocean. I am so grateful that you shared this, and touched by the echo in my own chaotic dream depths. Thank you. Sending you solstice blessings and love.

      • jeanraffa

        Sending them back to you! 🙂

  5. Meghan

    Dear Kirsten,
    This post couldn’t have come at a better time. I had a doozy of a dream last night that involved a hardened criminal in prison and being an imposter in a Scottish dance troop. Baffling.

    • kirstenbackstrom

      Dear Meghan—I hope you can enjoy the bafflement, since that sounds like some wonderfully creative material to play with! “Being an imposter” is something we’re doing all the time, bluffing our way through life’s demands, pretending we can dance until we actually find ourselves dancing somehow. Blessings on your incomprehension, my friend! Much love to you.

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