Dreamwork as Spiritual Practice

Beyond Dead Ends: Accepting the Kestrel’s Invitation

Recently, I shared a dream about a hawk, and explored ways of working with dreams that present us with our “problems.” Since I wrote that article [“Seeing With Fresh Eyes: Finding Meaning in Problem Dreams”], more hawks have appeared both in my dreams and in my waking life. They seem to be heralds of a new way of seeing and being, presenting me with a challenge to open my eyes, my mind, and my heart to new possibilities.

The hawk in my previous dream was a juvenile Sharp-Shinned Hawk: a small hawk that generally hunts in forested areas. Within a week of that dream, I saw a hawk exactly like this in two different places. Both times, the hawk appeared unexpectedly, landed close to me, and seemed to look straight at me. Up until then, I’d seen many adult Sharp-Shinned Hawks, but no juveniles. I knew from the field guide that juveniles have different markings—plain brown and white, rather than the more detailed adult markings—but I’d never encountered a juvenile up close (except in my dream). Seeing these juvenile hawks when I did seemed significant. At the very least, it suggested to me that my dream was both meaningful and currently active in my life.

Then, I had a second hawk dream about a different kind of hawk: a Kestrel. A Kestrel—also called a Sparrowhawk—is a very small falcon with extraordinarily colorful markings. Kestrels hunt by hovering high in the air, beating their wings rapidly in place (like “treading water”), looking for their prey below. This dream also includes my deaf black cat, Toby, who died of a neuro-muscular disease (not too different from the neuro-muscular disease I’m coping with myself) last year, while he was still quite young. He was a sweetheart, very brave and innocent, funny and affectionate—I’m still wrestling with his death, not fully able to accept it.

Toby Wants To Fly: Toby’s on a leash outside with me, and I need to get him home safely. I lift him in my arms, holding him tightly, and hurry. It’s a long way. I have to get across a large, busy intersection and traffic circle. We’re surrounded by loud trucks, car horns, shouting voices, city sounds… I’m so afraid that Toby will get spooked and struggle to escape, but then I remember that he is deaf, so of course it isn’t noisy for him. He’s alert in my arms, looking around with calm curiosity at everything.

We get beyond the city, and I have to climb a little hill covered in low, heather-like shrubs. Suddenly, a stunningly beautiful Kestrel flies right up to us, and hovers in the air at head-level, just a few feet away—looking straight at us with a piercing gaze. Toby struggles to get free, to leap after the Kestrel. I cling to him, desperately determined to hold onto him. I can’t let him go. I know that if I let him go, he will die. I notice that there’s a second Kestrel in a bush nearby.

Having subdued Toby, I continue on over the top of the hill and begin to descend the other side. Now, it’s getting dark, and the downslope is treacherous because there are white plastic garbage bags full of some unspeakable, dead, rotting stuff scattered everywhere in the shrubbery. It’s difficult to pick my way through the shrubs, without stepping on those bags. Toby’s still wriggling. Perhaps this is a place where people come to do drug deals or shoot up, a real “dead end place.” I’m not scared, but the downslope is ugly, grim and sad. I need to get Toby home.

Because of his deafness and his obliviousness to danger, Toby would not have been safe outside; he was an “indoor cat” his whole life. I never took him out on a leash (except in this dream). But I loved to hold him in my arms, whenever he would let me, and I wished I could have held him like that forever.

Throughout the dream, I’m motivated by seeking “safety” and “home.” I’m apparently willing to ignore the powerful invitation of the Kestrel, because my strongest need is to get Toby home safely. When members of my peer dream group pointed out how clearly the dream was offering an opportunity to let go, I insisted that if I let go, he would die. Maybe I would die.

But the contradiction is evident: Toby is already dead. And this is a dream: Anything is possible. If I had been lucid in this dream, aware that I was dreaming, I would have realized that I could release him—he would go free, maybe fly into the air after the Kestrel. He could not be harmed. He is already home, safe. I’m the one who’s afraid. I’m the one who’s deaf to the call of the Kestrel, and who trudges on, “over the hill,” in the bleak landscape of decay and death.

This dream, like most of my dreams lately, reflects how I’m dealing with my own mortality and health challenges, and also how I’m seeking meaning in my life.

I have a disease (Radiation Fibrosis Syndrome) that makes me vulnerable in some of the same ways that Toby was vulnerable. I long for a safe place to rest, but, at the same time, I understand that my physical symptoms and uncertain prognosis put me in a situation that is potentially a spiritual opportunity. Every moment of every day, I’m meeting the unknown. I don’t know how quickly the damage to my upper spine and heart will progress—and I don’t know whether these conditions will cripple or kill me, sooner or later. I don’t know how to proceed with my work commitments, since my ability to undertake long-term projects is entirely unpredictable. I’m holding on, desperately, to the things I treasure about my life, afraid that the clamor of the busy world around me will sap my remaining resources, or distract me into wasteful, exhausting digressions. But I know from many years of inner work that this open-ended experience of not-knowing gives me a chance to question my assumptions, release my need for control, and surrender to the freshness of a life without agendas and absolutes.

Yet my dream tells me that I’m not as open as I truly want to be. I’m holding on tightly, believing that death, or at least a painful loss, is the inevitable outcome of a leap into the unknown.

What if I let Toby leap after the Kestrel? My dreamworker friends also mentioned the phrase, “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.” The second Kestrel waits “in the bush” nearby. Both Kestrels are wild and free. My “bird in the hand,” my beloved cat, wants to be wild and free, too. But I’m holding onto him. I wonder… How am I holding myself back? Do I think that possessing my life is more important than living it?

On one level, my life is filled with unanswerable questions, and I’m thrilled by the prospect of living into the unknown. On another level, I somehow foolishly believe that I’ve got a grip on what’s in store for me, and I’m hanging on as long as I can, trying to keep the inevitable from happening. I believe (or I “know”) that everything is going to fall apart, the losses will accelerate, and then I’ll die. We’re all going to die, of course. We don’t know when, but we know that, no matter how hard we hold on, we will certainly die eventually. Still, we really have no idea when or how we will die, and no idea what “dying” means.

When I’m discouraged, I imagine dying as a certainty, a “dead end”—the inevitable “downhill” where, after all of the distractions and dissipations of a difficult lifetime have played out, we go “home” and it’s over.

However, ultimately, I can’t know this or anything else. I don’t know what death is. I don’t know what is going to happen to me, or to anyone. Not knowing is spooky, but the open-ended nature of life and death is much more real than my limited notions of “being realistic.” In hospice work, I’ve been with hundreds of dying people, and I’ve seen both of my parents, many of my friends, and several dear cats, come to the ends of their lives. But I’m deluding myself if I think I know where they have gone, and what death—or life, for that matter—really is. Our mortal lives are mysterious, wild, and wonderfully strange. The body is identified with the person—and then the person is gone (how? where?), and the body is empty. Maybe those Kestrels come to remind me that I really don’t know how much I don’t know. How is it even possible that “I” am here to question my own existence? How could someone as precious as Toby come into being, share his life with me, and then fly away into nothingness, completely out of my reach?

Honestly, I can’t hold onto anything. I don’t know what’s going to happen to me, or to anyone. And that’s good. I’m trying to live, day to day, as if I were hovering, with rapidly beating wings, engaging with the world, really seeing and feeling my life, rather than trying to pick my way through a minefield of old, rotting assumptions (packaged up in neat, white plastic garbage bags). I keep seeing hawks in my dreams and in waking life, so I need to pay attention. Maybe you’ve been invited to pay attention, too? What invitations have you received and refused? Would you like to be free to make a leap into the unknown?

The Kestrels are calling all of us. Toby can fly, and so can we.



  1. Marjorie

    Dear friend, I love your writings (and you). Many years ago, when I was going through a very difficult time, I would lie on my back and picture myself floating on water. When a person is struggling in deep water, flailing about makes her more likely to drown. By going limp in the water – letting go, accepting – we find our way to peace and ultimate safety.

    • kirstenbackstrom

      You are so right, dear Marjorie—I’ve quoted you on this: “Go limp in the water!” Love you, my friend.

      • Marjorie

        Haha. I didn’t remember that I had shared this with you.

  2. Jill Lee

    I love the part “living my life instead of possessing it” Living in the flow and not resisting and not letting patterned thoughts lead me into fear. We think we have a grip on things but this is just to comfort us in the thought that we have control. At the same time, not being in control is a huge burden lifted.
    Also the impermanence and unknowing; being okay with that.
    I”know” that everything will fall apart and the losses will accelerate – that resonated with me.
    Mike, our precious yellow lab mix died yesterday. He DIED. I won’t see him on the couch in our tiny apartment. My husband is 68 and his body is painful to live in. My sister Kirsten, who is so incredibly insightful and gentle and vulnerable and creative and loving has less time on earth and probably won’t be 90 some day. My Grammy is 101 an has amazing faith and resilience, my sister Didi has rheumatoid arthritis, my daughter is 30 and has special needs; what if…
    Part of me wants to LIVE AHEAD AND GET IT ALL OVER WITH. And then what…
    My loving those around me hurts, but also they are woven into my life and make it beautiful. Hmm, what if I am the only one left? After Mom and Dad died I realised that we’re up next. It is my generation’s turn. Then Sam and Jay and then their kids… This isn’t meant to be dark, just brought into the light to be looked at and thought about. Being brave…
    Bible quote “Let Be, Be still, and know that I am God”
    If we trust in our higher power as someone who has us in loving arms and knows everything and takes care of everything, why can’t we let go, let be, and be still?

    • kirstenbackstrom

      Jill, this is such a beautiful understanding of what I was trying to express—and your own additional insights touch my heart. You are a wonderful sister. Love you!

  3. Chris Fenaroli

    Hi Kirsten. I really appreciate your willingness to share your journey and process about death/dying. I used to see Kestrel’s up on Twin Peaks in San Francisco when I lived there. They would ‘tread water’ in the wind for what seemed like hours. The wind up there was breathtaking, especially when the fog rolled in. I didn’t know that they were raptors until my wife told me.

    To me the kestrels didn’t seem to be working that hard. They were drifting in the wind, in one place. I don’t know if this means anything to you. I know that raptors are great conservers of energy. They don’t waste it. Hawks fly about 30 minutes a day, enough to find food and that’s it. That’s what jumps out at me.

    I honor your journey.

    • kirstenbackstrom

      Chris, this is wonderful information about kestrels and other raptors, and I also love the image of you observing and learning from them and about them. The idea that they are not working too hard, but “conserving energy” and letting the wind hold them—wow. That fits so well with my own inner process around my illness! I’ve been exploring ways of following “the path of least resistance,” trying to move and live with the least possible friction, following the Tao and being carried by it. Yet, at the same time, I find myself wrestling with my body, resisting and exhausting myself since everything I do takes so much more energy than it used to—I suspect that this kind of wrestling is reflected in the dream, in the way that I am carrying Toby, holding him back when he might let go into the kestrel’s effortless flight. Thank you so much for adding another dimension to this exploration, offering other ways of being!

      • Chris Fenaroli

        The paradox … I am reading a book called, “The Self-Aware Universe, How Consciousness Creates the Physical World”. The author is a quantum physicist. From what I can understand, it seems that this physical world is a collapsing of the wave function of the quantum world into particles. Our choices appear to influence the collapsing although it’s all in probabilities. Things like synchronicities appear to be a experiences that bring awareness to this in the moment. In my own way, I find the same paradox, going through my day in the tao and falling out of the flow into struggle, resistance and old patterns and, yes, pain. It seems to be the path that we are on. Boy, being outside and enjoying nature does help! Blessings and thank you so much for sharing your dream work and path.

        • kirstenbackstrom

          Makes me think about the Buddhist distinction between “relative” and “ultimate” realities. On the ultimate level, it’s all flowing and there’s no suffering; but on the relative level, we’re in and out of that flow, wrestling with it. Maybe the relative level is like Newtonian physics, while the ultimate is reflected in quantum physics and beyond. And, as you say, being in nature does reflect both levels, and seems to help me reconcile the two within myself. I’m sure we’ll encounter each other again, as our paths seem to run in a similar direction. Thanks and blessings!

          • Chris Fenaroli

            FYI, That is one of the hypotheses of the author, that both the Newtonian reality and quantum reality exist, one in the brain and the other the mind. Interesting.

            Look forward to your next blog. I keep going back to this one. I am not diagnosed with a terminal illness, however I am going through what feels like a death or maybe a dark night of the soul experience. I am trying to work through it with my dream work and seeing a shamanic practitioner. I appreciate your sharing your experience because it resonates so closely with mine in many ways. Thank you.

          • kirstenbackstrom

            Wishing you well in your “dark night” experience, as you listen to your own deep wisdom. Seeing a shamanic practitioner sounds like an excellent idea—I’ve found some profound healing in that work myself (my partner, Holly, is a shamanic practitioner). Thank you for reading the blog, I’ll look forward to further conversations with you here in the virtual world!

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

    O Son of Spirit!

    The bird seeketh its nest; the nightingale the charm of the rose; whilst those birds, the hearts of men, content with transient dust, have strayed far from their eternal nest, and with eyes turned towards the slough of heedlessness are bereft of the glory of the divine presence. Alas! How strange and pitiful, for a mere cupful, they have turned away from the billowing seas of the Most High, and remained far from the most effulgent horizon. (Hidden Words of Baha’u’llah from the Persian #2.)

    • kirstenbackstrom

      Thank you, Velda. I appreciate this quote, but I’m not quite sure what it is saying… Can you tell me what it means to you? I’d like to understand—are the nest and the rose lesser things to seek, while the “glory of the divine presence” is the ultimate goal?

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

        What pleased me in relation to your dream was the reference to different birds. I do think that the “glory of the divine presence” is an ultimate aim of life and that death is its messenger.

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