Dreamwork as Spiritual Practice

Death Dreams And Open Fields

open fieldAt an in-patient hospice where I’ve volunteered for many years, I got to know a man named Jasper who was dying of lung cancer in his seventies. Over several weeks, he told me stories about growing up on a midwestern farm. He shared his memories of the endless acres of green-gold alfalfa fields shimmering in the wind—memories that were associated with a sense of spaciousness, but also with hard labor and long hours as he tried to follow his father’s example and expectations.

When Jasper could no longer get out of bed, and was sleeping more and more of the time, he began to share dreams. In a hoarse whisper, he told me:

I’m walking across an open field. Just walking and walking. Trying to get to my father. He’s at the far side of the field, standing by a fence. He’s expecting me. I walk and walk but can’t get any closer. Don’t want to disappoint him, but I’m too slow, can’t keep up. The tall grass is dragging on my legs, slowing me down. But I have to keep walking. The sun is setting.

Jasper was anxious and exhausted, but committed to completing the task of his life. He’d always worked hard, and he wasn’t going to give up now. So he struggled and labored through the process of dying. Towards the end, he was in a coma, unresponsive to those around him, but with his eyes partly open, and his lips moving as if he was talking to himself, urging himself on. As I sat beside his bed, hour after hour, I noticed that his feet were moving under the thin sheet: first one foot flexed and then the other. Actually, his legs were working, too—alternately tensing and relaxing. He was walking. I imagined him walking across that field, to meet his father. It was a long way, and it took a long time. He worked hard at walking, and worked hard for each breath, the whole way.

I wasn’t there when he died, but his son, who was with him, told me that he walked right up until he stopped breathing—then let go with a big sigh, as if he’d finally gotten where he was going.

According to Hindu Vedanta, there are three states of experience: waking, dreaming, and deep dreamless sleep. Sometimes, these states are described as entirely separate from each other. But in my experience they exist on a continuum. They tend to overlap when we are falling asleep or waking up, or in lucid dreams—to name just a few examples. As death approaches, the distinctions between waking, dreaming, and deep sleep can break down completely. It becomes impossible (from the outside, and probably from the inside, too) to tell what’s a vision, what’s a dream, what’s “real.”

Jasper seemed to experience the same “dream”—a dream of walking across fields—as a waking memory, a vision, a dream, and a state of being in deep sleep. (Of course, I can’t really know about the deep sleep or death experience—I am only imagining.) While recounting memories, he was often half asleep. While recounting dreams, he wasn’t always sure whether they were dreams or not. And when he was in a coma, he may have been dreaming, or he may have been beyond dreams, but his body was moving in a way that communicated to others in the waking world.

The idea that these three states are on a continuum suggests a linear sequence of events—but I think that they are actually happening simultaneously, in every moment. Waking, dreaming, and deep sleep are not separate states at all, but different stances of the identity in relation to the unknown, infinite Mystery of existence itself, which is perpetually present.

When we identify ourselves as fully awake, we have a clear sense of what we are: our bodies, our roles, our relationships, our patterns of thought and behavior. When we are in the midst of a dream, we may retain a shadow-image of the waking identity (the dream-ego or “I” character), but we also have access to other perspectives and possibilities (see: “What Am I?”). And when we are in deep sleep, according to some spiritual traditions, we may have a kind of consciousness that is not attached to any defining characteristics at all—a state of pure, unbounded awareness that may be comparable to the experience of death. What changes between these states is not “reality” itself, but our sense of who or what we are.

When we are dying, or when we are going through times of intense change (illness, crisis, grief, etc.) our sense of identity begins to fall apart as we lose many of the things that had defined us. Although it is often a struggle, the identity can become more flexible, even fluid, as in a dream. And when the identity is fluid, the reality experienced by that identity is also fluid. Possibilities open up. Who knows what might happen next?

“In this body, in this town of Spirit, there is a little house shaped like a lotus and in that house there is a little space…. There is as much in that little space within the heart as there is in the whole world outside. Heaven, earth, fire, wind, sun, moon, lightning, stars; whatever is and whatever is not, everything is there… What lies in that space does not decay when the body decays, nor does it fall when the body falls. That space is the home of the Spirit.”
-From the Chhandogya Upanishad


Note: On The Use of Others’ Dreams in these posts


  1. Roger

    I am touched by the imagined version in my head of jasper dying and trying to walk through the tall grasses to meet his father. I watched my father as he neared death in the end of May and he was working with his hands, presumably to finish his work here. His legs and feet were so tight and his shrunken body (from Alzheimer’s) had a power that was incredible. My wife and I massaged his body and told him what a wonderful job he was doing and that we were so proud of his work. As he relaxed a bit I told him he could finish his work here and all I really wanted to say was how much I wished him to feel the love and gratitude I wished for him to replace a life of distance and regret that was the reality of our experience over the last 25 years. I dreamed of death that week in the form of me killing unarmed soldiers and I realized later that it was all of the stories I needed to release so I could forgive myself and let him pass in peace. I miss him so much and that is a great gift and a blessing. I am so grateful my dreams held so much wisdom for me to connect to this far more compassionate experience with my father.

    • kirstenbackstrom

      This is so powerful, and beautiful. It is the sort of life and death experience, and deeply resonant dream experience, that requires no further comment–just to be received with the gratitude you expressed. Takes my breath away. Thank you, Roger.

  2. Sharon Loaiza

    Context for my dream: I teach a SoulCollage class every Friday. Last week I created a card with an angel dressed in white but did not feel I could ask the usual questions of the card. The first question “Who am I” follows with an answer that begins “I am one who”. I thought, “Who am I to identify with an angel ?,” and never did ask my angel questions.

    Dream: I am in a very large, sparsely furnished room with some ladies and we have been working on our SoulCollage cards. To my left the wall is open to the outside and I notice an interesting creature that resembles a llama. I hear a motorcycle, move to the window, look out and see a feelow drive by. There is a lady sitting at a card table with wide open space around her. I look to the right and through the other open wall I see a most magnificent creature. He is like a white horse with a llama face. He begins to slowly stretch himself up, and up and reaches full height. Then he begins slowly walking into the room and towards me. My heart is beating very hard and fast and I try not to be afraid. I do not move a muscle. He has white soft curly hair and it is very fluffy. He has a horn that is short, about 6″, that resembles a rhinoceros horn. He comes up to me and I say, “It is a unicorn”. He comes very close to me. The height of his back is about 6′ tall. I lean my head into his neck and rest there thinking his hair is so clean, someone must have just washed him. The lady says in response to my unicorn statement, “But that is not possible.” I think, “Oh but he is.” I awaken with my heart racing.

    • kirstenbackstrom

      Thank you for telling us your amazing dream, Sharon. Of course, I can’t respond more than very briefly here, but I hope you will bring this to our dream group, or explore it further with me individually, since it certainly seems to contain a lot of “openings” (all the open walls and spaces!) and messages.

      The reason I mention messages in particular is because of your mention of the SoulCollage angel–angel means messenger, as you probably know. If it were my dream, I’d sense that through my SoulCollage work (or the spiritual/artistic part of my life) many messengers are coming to me: the llama/unicorn, the lady at the table (I imagine she might be laying out Tarot cards, since it’s a “card table”), and the motorcyclist (“Hell’s Angels” perhaps?)… Unicorns have a lot of symbolic meanings, are usually male (the one “horn”) but can only be approached by females… There’s so much going on here! My waking-self’s reluctance to ask the “angel questions” may have been over-ridden by the dream world, which is sending me (the dreamer) messengers with responses to those unasked questions anyway!

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