Dreamwork as Spiritual Practice

Dream Messengers, Guides, and Guardians

cheetah 01I’m trying to write this post while watching the annual Oregon Humane Society telethon: a steady stream of incredible cats and dogs awaiting adoption—reminding me of the significant roles that animals can play in our lives and in our dreams. In the last post (“The True Nature of Dream Figures”), I introduced the idea of seeing dream figures—human or animal—as genuinely real and meaningful participants in the unfolding experience of life. Dream figures frequently have walk-on parts as Messengers, Guides, and Guardians—parts that are as often filled by animals as by humans.

In dreams, as in waking life, Messengers, Guides and Guardians tend to appear at turning points, or in transitional places, when we are most in need of their support.  Their messages, guidance, or protection can be obvious, or more subtle.

Regularly, when new ways of being are emerging in my life, I dream of shorelines, borderlands, or unfamiliar, dark places—with a tiger, lion, cheetah, or other big cat standing by. Twice, I’ve dreamed that a tiger actually comes up out of the water at the very place where I need to go into the water, and then seems to guard this place while I work up my courage to plunge in and do what I need to do. I have a sense, in these dreams, that the tiger will keep the way open while I explore the depths, and will be there waiting to acknowledge my return.

When people are near death, their waking or sleeping dreams tend to include Messengers, Guides and Guardians—often people or animals who have previously died. Several times, I’ve heard hospice patients say: “there’s a dog over there by the door, waiting for me.” In some cases, this is a beloved childhood pet—in others, the animal is unfamiliar, and the patient is not sure whether or not to trust this visitor. In the mythologies of many traditions, dogs carry messages between the land of the living and the land of the dead, or guard the gates of the underworld, or come to guide the recently deceased in crossing over. This is not unexpected, since dogs are commonly messengers, guides or guardians in waking life as well.

Near death, virtually every dream report I’ve heard has mentioned deceased family members or friends who come to the dying to offer advice, comfort, and direction. The word angel actually means “messenger”—and such visitors are often described as angels: messengers from another world. Such angels are usually understood to be there for the purpose of guiding the dying person through the “no man’s land” between life and death. Or to stand by and guard the person from unhelpful influences during this vulnerable transition.

Similarly, an almost universal feature of the dreams and visions of prophetic spiritual leaders is a visit from an “angel,” or otherworldly Messenger, who communicates vital information and inspiration. The guidance of such angels has a life-changing personal impact, but also has a transformative effect on the immediate community, and potentially on the larger world.

These dream Messengers, Guides and Guardians feel absolutely real, and often bring news that the dreamer could not consciously have known. When the visitor is someone who has died, is that deceased human being or animal actually present in spirit? When the visitor seems to be a powerful and distinctive being in its own right, is that being (tiger, dog, human, or angel) an independent entity?

I can’t answer this question with certainty—but it’s satisfying to speculate. My own sense—from experiencing such figures in my dreams, and hearing the dreams of others and the sacred stories of many spiritual traditions—is that the indigenous view of such beings is essentially true. The world we inhabit while awake is only the tip of the iceberg of experience, and the tangible beings we encounter in waking life are not the only beings in existence.

Certain “archetypal” figures—such as shining angelic or god-like beings—appear in the dreams of people with widely differing backgrounds and beliefs, and in the mythologies of dramatically diverse cultural traditions. In one sense, they are projections of our own psyches; in another sense, they are utterly real. Yet, whatever these dream figures may be, they are evidently concerned, in some way, with our well-being—at least when they come as Messengers, Guides, and Guardians.



  1. Julianne

    Your post brought back a sweet memory of my father. Just before he died, he told me that his beloved childhood horse Daisy came to him in his dream. It was so real to him that he was tearful as he recalled memories of Daisy. He found this dream very comforting. I like to think that our dear animal companions that have crossed over can be messengers in our dreams.

    • kirstenbackstrom

      Thank you, Julianne, that is a beautiful example, and extremely moving. I really appreciate the image of Daisy returning to help your father “cross over”–horses seem to be powerful dream guides, especially since they can literally carry the dreamer where he or she needs to go.

  2. unicornkl7

    My dog, who died 25 years ago has shown up in my dreams the last two years. He doesn’t say or do anything, he is just a presence. In one dream he was emaciated and I realized I had forgotten to care for him and feed him. I had many dreams in which he was skinny and poorly. I realized I needed to pay attention and take better care of myself. In the last four months he has shown up, put on weight and looks healthier. A few nights ago he was laying on my chest of drawers and there was some rich looking soil under him. He had moved his feet and some of the soil had fallen on the floor. I think this means I am finally able to take action (my feet) and doing something about my difficulties. I am wondering what he is doing on the chest of drawers in my bedroom. (?)
    I realized in the beginning of my dog dreams that he represented me and I was personally languishing and needed to take better care of myself. I am much improved now and pleased Barney is happy too.

    • kirstenbackstrom

      What great dreamwork you are doing! I’m glad you have Barney’s support and encouragement to take care of yourself. The phrase “lying on my chest of drawers” immediately made me think of him lying on my chest (on my physical body)–and as I imagined him moving his feet and stirring the “rich soil” I thought that he might be stirring up the fertile ground in my heart, maybe stirring up (or even digging up) things I’d buried. I also feel that he would be a heavy weight on my heart if he were lying on my chest, and that perhaps there is sadness here, as part of the healing.

  3. samteixeira10

    Very interesting! My dog plays such a big role in my life and he is in my dreams from time to time, as are other animals. I’ll have to pay more attention to it!

    • kirstenbackstrom

      Thanks for the comment, Sam. My cats appear in my dreams, too–but usually they’re getting in trouble and needing to be rescued. I guess I’m their Guardian, rather than the other way around!

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