Dreamwork as Spiritual Practice

Dreaming and Anicca: Impermanence

gyroscope 01As I explore the Buddhist concept of impermanence (anicca), the second of the “Three Marks of Existence,” I’m going to let a long dream do most of the talking for me. Dreams are ingenious in their fluid approach to time, and in dreaming we can drop our usual linear understanding of experience—freeing ourselves for a larger sense of life.

Dreaming In and Out of Time: It’s nearly dark and several of us have missed the bus in a neglected city neighborhood. We go into the only open shop to get change, and when we return, the bus is there, but we have to climb a hill, then cross a ditch and a road to reach it. We scramble up the hill, then descend into the ditch, which becomes a deep, wooded ravine—so deep, and so full of trees and shrubs, that we can no longer see the bus. As we come to the bottom, we find a lake among pines. People wearing 17th century European peasant clothing are going about their business along the shore path. Nearby, there’s a farming settlement. As a young man from our group approaches the lake, he enters this other world; his bright modern jeans and t-shirt become plain brown and gray work clothes. We join him, and our clothing is also transformed. A woman welcomes us, offers us their wonderful, abundant food, and shows us around, introducing us to a whole, peaceful community of people. Buildings are constructed on platforms, at various levels. On one platform, an old man is dying, surrounded by loved ones; on another platform, a young woman is giving birth, with the help of a circle of neighbors. I stay with a family for some time—maybe a few days, maybe months, getting to know this village and its way of life intimately. It is not perfect, but it is a good place. Eventually, I understand that I need to return to my own world. Some from our group choose to stay, and some leave when I do. We’re led back to the road, where the bus is waiting.

Then it is twenty or thirty years later. I’m in late middle age now. I’ve had a full life in my own world—was married and widowed, but have no children. In late middle age, I realize, with joy, that it is time to return to the hidden village. I drive around looking for someone to give my car, my house, and my few other possessions. I go into a hospice where I once worked, and find three tired-looking, hard-working aides pausing at the bedside of a dying person, who is asleep. Whispering so we won’t wake the patient, we talk about the hidden village, and they offer to drive me there, drop me off, and park my car in a safe place. They don’t yet know that I will leave them everything—or that they may also choose to join me in the other world. We drive through the woods until we come to the familiar ravine, and get out of the car, preparing to descend…

Impermanence—anicca—simply means that everything changes. This could be understood as a statement about time, suggesting that all things are subject to time. However, in the Buddhist sense, impermanence is really about timelessness. There is no subject or object in impermanence, as all things equally are changing. If everything, everything, is always changing, then there is nothing but change. In a sense, the condition of change is changeless.

So impermanence is a perfect (as in whole or complete) expression of the same paradox we see in modern physics: any moment of experience is simultaneously wave and particle, moving and still. In order to give ourselves the illusion of some control over the disconcerting paradox of impermanence, we create clocks, calendars and bus schedules—convincing ourselves that we can keep time by such means. It all seems so real. Events occur in orderly sequence: they begin, they last for a while, they end. But actually there is no “lasting” at all, and the beginning and ending simultaneously occur in each moment. A moment is not like a minute; it is not a period of time; it is an impermanent eternity.

It is just about impossible to live in this experience of impermanence, with our rational minds and their priorities. But dreams give us timelessness directly. Often it is difficult to describe “what happened” in a dream, because it didn’t happen in the time frame we require for telling a story. It’s not uncommon for dreams to have two different storylines branching off from a common point and running, simultaneously, to contradictory conclusions—but in telling such dreams we’d either tell the stories as if they were sequential, or just leave out one of the two parallel lines. Some dreams exist in an eternal moment.

In “Dreaming In and Out of Time,” we have missed the bus—stepped off the schedule—and gone to get change. When we return, we can see the bus at its stop in the distance, but cannot reach it—as in mathematics where infinity may exist between two fixed points… we can progress endlessly, with a goal clearly visible, yet never arrive.

Then we enter a world that seems changeless, perhaps because we ourselves have been changed by going there. This world is the mandala of the moment unfolding in all its paradoxical perfection/imperfection, permanence/impermanence. Births and deaths are occurring simultaneously. It is unclear how much time has passed. When we return to the world of bus schedules and calendars, we seem to have lived whole lifetimes, but can still return to the other world where the moment of unchanged change is continuous.

A strange dream, indeed: it takes our complex ideas about time and makes them simple, immediate. Here, the spiritual practice of dreamwork occurs within the dream itself, as if the dream were a lifetime of lived experience. The central character participates in the world, belongs to a community, makes independent choices and has an individual life to live out, but finally returns to what she never really left. As if on the path of a Bodhisattva (someone dedicated to compassion), she shares the way to this home-place with others, who will follow in their own time. In no time.


  1. Kiera O'Hara

    These dream explorations just keep getting better and better, Kirsten! Thank you for putting such complex, mysterious realities into a form others of us can receive and ponder and learn from.

    • kirstenbackstrom

      Thank you for the kind words, Kiera. Your response inspires me!

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