Dreamwork as Spiritual Practice

Buddhist Philosophy in Dreamwork

yellow dahlia 01Although I am not a member of a Buddhist sangha (community), I have been a student and practitioner of Buddhism for at least twenty years, and have applied what I understand about Buddhist psychology, philosophy and practice to my work with dreams.

So, when I talk about “dreamwork as spiritual practice” I am often thinking of spirituality as it would be understood by Buddhists. From a Buddhist perspective, the first step (and perhaps, ultimately, the only step) in spiritual practice is bringing awareness, or “mindfulness,” to our experiences, so that the essential nature of those experiences may come to light. Insight into the true nature of reality can end the repetitive cycles of self-perpetuating suffering that tend to characterize existence without awareness.

All experiences are opportunities for insight. Experiences certainly occur in our dreams, just as much as in our everyday lives and meditation. Bringing awareness to our dream experiences is valid spiritual practice, just like bringing awareness to any other aspect of life.

I had this dream as a teenager, during a time of turmoil:

Mandala Dream: I am a droplet of water falling into a pool. Rings of ripples expand out from me. I am endlessly falling in, and endlessly radiating outward. The ripples unfold like the petals of a flower opening. As I fall backward and inward, I open outward, blooming concentric circles of infinite colors and forms. This continues even when I realize I am dreaming—even when I open my eyes and become aware of the little room around me and the snow falling through the apple tree outside the window. I am in the midst of everything, and I am nothing.

In some branches of Buddhism, dreams are addressed through intensive esoteric practices that lead the practitioner to recognize the ultimate dream-like nature of reality. But another way of working with dreams, still using a Buddhist perspective, would be to let the dreams themselves give the dreamer a direct experience of awakening. The significance of the dream is not in its “meanings,” but in present-moment awareness of the experience it offers.

The simple spiritual practice of experiencing our dreams fully, like the practice of living our waking lives mindfully, is fundamental. Dream experiences can be extraordinary (like the “Mandala Dream”), or quite ordinary: confusing, delightful, monotonous, distressing, etc. Living our lives with awareness includes everything—all kinds of experiences, waking or dreaming. When everything is included—from turmoil to transcendence—an essential, radiant, fluid, blooming, expanding and infinite wholeness may emerge.

Spiritual practice, as described in Buddhism’s “Eightfold Path,” involves an intentional process of bringing awareness to our thoughts, words and actions. At first, we may be aware only in retrospect, as we reflect upon what we felt, thought, said and did in given situations. Gradually, we learn to notice what we are experiencing as we are experiencing it; we become more and more present to events as they are unfolding.

Once we have begun to notice, our awareness takes in more and more of our experience, so that our place in the larger pattern of unfolding events becomes clearer. We become less trapped in craving, aversion, and ignorance, less likely to cause suffering to ourselves and others.

Awareness of the patterns of participation in an ever-changing play of light and shadow (form and formless, relative and absolute) is available in every moment of every experience. Awareness is not “mine” or “yours,” it is inherent in the nature of all that is. And our experiences—the strands of perception that interact to make up ourselves—are the vehicles for such awareness.

Dreamwork as a spiritual practice highlights these patterns of participation. We take part in a larger process when we engage with our dreams. First, we bring awareness to our dreams in retrospect, by recalling as much of them as we can and giving them our attention (writing them, sharing them). Gradually, our awareness of the experience of dreaming itself increases. We may have “lucid dreams” (when we are aware that we are dreaming as we are dreaming), but with or without lucidity, we find that we are more fully present in the dream experience as it unfolds.

We take these experiences to be “real” as we are having them, and they are real in a relative sense: our brains respond to dream perceptions as reality, just as our brains respond to waking perceptions as reality. Even when we don’t remember our dreams, we are a part of their unfolding, just as we are woven into the whole story of every momentary experience of our lives, even though the vast majority of those moments are forgotten almost immediately.

But, as awareness increases, we become increasingly attuned to a “realer” reality, beyond the relative mind states of waking and sleeping. In this realer reality, we recognize that our intentions affect our perceptions and create our experiences; that nothing is solid or permanent, everything is continually arising and passing away; that our identities are part of an unfolding, interdependent process, which includes us but is not limited to us. These are all insights that are basic to Buddhism, which may be summed up as the “Three Marks of Existence”: unsatisfactoriness (dukkha); impermanence (anicca); and non-Self (anatta).

In the next few posts, I want to use the “Three Marks” as a guide to further exploration. If you’re not familiar with these concepts, or if they sound awfully grim or abstract—don’t worry! With dreams, all things are possible, and even the “Three Marks” can be portals into intriguing dreamworlds. Lets see what we can see when we open our eyes to the awareness of experience, and the experience of awareness.


  1. Tallulah

    Thank you so much, Kisten. Since Buddhist philosophy is now being emphasized in integrative medicine programs, it’s important for those of us who do dream work in wellness centers to weave the connections.

    • kirstenbackstrom

      Thank you, Tallulah—for bringing out this real-life application of the abstract ideas I was expressing. And bless you for the ways you are bringing dreamwork to integrative medicine and wellness… your work is so vital!

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