Dreamwork as Spiritual Practice

The Dream Gatherers

Here are two quite different approaches to dreams:

blueberries 011-We sharpen our weapons and follow the trail, deep into the forest. There, we corner the wild dream beast, and, after a long and valiant battle, we return victorious with meat for a great feast.

2-We get all the kids and old people together and go out with our baskets and sacks. Perhaps we have one particularly fine patch of dream berries in mind, but on the way there and on the way back we find all sorts of other treasures: some dream nuts and mushrooms, and maybe a nice stream where the kids can play and catch a few crayfish, or a meadow where wildflowers are blooming, or a shady, soft place for a nap when it gets too hot. We chat as we walk, and we munch as we gather, and then we all come home satisfied with our day. Nobody makes much of a fuss over our full bags and baskets, but, after a modest supper, there’s still plenty left over to add to the storehouse. If we do this again tomorrow (and the next day, and so on…), our community thrives.

Traditionally, the first would be the men’s story, and the second would be the women’s. However, where dreamwork is concerned, both men and women can participate in either approach. You might be able to tell by the description that I’m biased in favor of the gathering method. However, both hunting and gathering have their places in a healthy human community, and in the world of dreamwork. The only reason to put a greater emphasis on the less glamorous approach of the gatherer is that the hunter generally monopolizes the field.

In patriarchal cultures that tend to value the big bang over the slow spiral, dreamwork, like any other work, is expected to show impressive and tangible results after a short, dramatic skirmish. Dreamwork according to the hunting approach requires ingenious strategy (theory), incisive tactics (methodology), and efficient weaponry (clever tricks). Approached in this way by the hunter, the dream animal will yield its message, meaning, or secret—also, its life.

If the dreamworker’s emphasis is psychological, and there is actually a “presenting problem” to be addressed, then the hunter approach may well be best. For instance, dreamworker Christopher Sowton has written an indispensible book (“The Dreamworking Manual”) that offers theory, methodology, and clever tricks in abundance—and while I may disagree with his approach (a little too much certainty about what dreams “are trying to say” for my taste), I defer to his expertise and refer to his ideas on a regular basis. We gatherers use everything that crosses our path—like the kids on the berrying expedition who become hunters (of a sort) when there are crayfish to catch.

The hunting approach gets the job done. But for those who are looking at dreams from a spiritual perspective, there’s no “job” to be done, so the gathering approach makes more sense. The gathering approach is an engagement with the life of the dream world itself. Gathering tasty morsels, exploring new territory, and building a sense of connection with other people and other aspects of ourselves and our environment, can be more important than figuring out answers, solving problems, or facilitating a breakthrough. Gatherers are in it for the long-haul: stocking the store-house and deepening relationships rather than celebrating a big event.

Most important of all, gatherers honor and enjoy the Mystery of dreams and dreaming, the life force of the great forests and open fields we’re exploring. At the end of a gatherer’s day, we have mosquito bites rather than war wounds, and we have full baskets to show for our efforts—but, even better, we know that the shadowy hollows and rocky riverbanks are still out there, and that we have barely scratched the surface of the wondrous abundance available. We find the dream world both awesome and inviting.

Hunters may be impressed by dreams as well (if they’re Big enough dreams, or ferocious enough dreams), but they seem to want to cut them down to size—to manage, define, and analyze. We gatherers don’t necessarily get the satisfaction of a thrilling adventure, but we get experiences that improve the quality and meaning of our lives as a whole, and contribute to the world around us.

In her delightful 1986 essay, “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction,” Ursula LeGuin offered a playful (yet pointed) indictment of society’s exaggerated preference for hunting over gathering in the writing of fiction. She questioned the inherent value of conflict as a central narrative concern, and described another way of approaching a story—a gatherer’s approach. I’ve substituted “dreamwork” for “novel” or “fiction” here:

“I would go so far as to say that the natural, proper, fitting shape of the [dreamwork] might be that of a sack, a bag…. [Dreamwork] is a medicine bundle, holding things in a particular powerful, relationship to one another and to us.” -Ursula LeGuin

In this kind of dreamwork, we explore the infinite world of the Dreaming forest, gathering nourishing nibbles and nuggets: mushrooms we recognize, seeds and roots that speak to us, healing herbs that provide the alchemical catalysts for transformation and connection. When we explore a dream this way, we are creating a medicine bundle, but the power of that bundle is not in the stuff we put into it but in the relationships and dynamic living energies it represents and sustains.

The dreamwork sack has room for everything, because it is not limited to what we put into it. The dreamwork medicine bundle draws its power from the larger medicine bag of the whole Dreaming. The dreamwork gathering process is…

“…a way of trying to describe what is in fact going on, what people actually do and feel, how people relate to everything else in this vast sack, this belly of the universe, this womb of things to be and tomb of things that were, this unending story. In it… there is room enough to keep even Man where he belongs, in his place in the scheme of things; there is time enough to gather plenty of wild oats and sow them too… and sing… and listen… and watch newts, and still the story isn’t over. Still there are seeds to be gathered, and room in the bag of stars.” –Ursula LeGuin

So, happy hunting, when it’s time for the hunt. But give me a day of gathering in good company, and let’s share a hearty meal made from the wild dream life that feeds us…



  1. Metka

    Another excellent post, Kirsten! The two approaches can be applied to many other things – for example journalism or even medicine – and as you say, our Western world favours the hunter’s approach. But I feel that gatherers are gaining strength and, as you point out, there is room for both.

    • kirstenbackstrom

      Yes! You’ve got me thinking of all the other areas where the two approaches might apply, Metka. Thank you for that suggestion! I really appreciate your insight and the emphasis on how there is room for both…

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