Dreamwork as Spiritual Practice

Dreaming of Homelessness, Part 4: A Larger Perspective

homeless-4-pilgrimThere are so many ways to look at a dream, so many possible meanings. The “truth” about the dream is finally up to the dreamer—if a particular approach resonates for the dreamer, then that approach is meaningful and valuable. However, some approaches to dreams, and some kinds of meanings, have a value that transcends the dreamer as an individual. Some dream images and stories can be universally recognized, and some ways of looking at a dream invite us all to participate in the dream’s wisdom, creativity, and abundance.

In the last three posts, I’ve been exploring my own recent dream about homelessness in ways that give me new insights into myself and my life. I hope that those insights may also speak to others, but the dreamwork approaches I applied were derived from my own feelings about the dream’s story and my own associations with its images. In this final post of the series, I’ll be listening for the voices within the dream that need to be heard, not only by me, but by all of us.

In the waking world and in the dream world, some voices come through loud and clear (especially those that align with our personal agendas), while those that disagree with us, or mumble in the background, or speak in whispers or foreign languages, or through silence or “nonsense”—are likely to be ignored. In my dream, there’s a homeless man whose point of view is hard to hear—which makes sense since most of us aren’t in the habit of listening to people like him. He doesn’t say much out loud, but his actions and attitudes can tell us a lot.

Here’s the dream one more time—and let’s pay attention to the perspective of “the homeless man” (for the full dream, see “Dreaming of Homelessness, Part One”):

The Homeless Man Will Lose His Papillon: A homeless man who is our friend comes to our door for shelter on a cold, wet night, and we offer him food, a warm bath, and a sleeping bag on the couch. He has a little dog—a female papillon named “Pierrot.” While he sleeps, we realize that he can no longer take care of himself and his dog. It seems like a  betrayal to suggest this, but the only solution is for the dog to be adopted by someone else. Unwilling to give up his papillon, the man leaves—but soon returns, because he is too sick to survive out there. He seems to agree, reluctantly, to let Pierrot go, though for now he withdraws again to the sleeping bag, saying nothing.

I’m leaving out the final scene about the dog’s potential future, since I’ve explored that pretty thoroughly in previous posts. It seems that the dog will find a home, but what will happen to the man? Will he return to the streets alone? Or will the separation allow him a new freedom, and perhaps even a chance to have a home of his own?

When I took the dream literally [in Part One], the focus was on my shame and guilt over how painfully unsatisfactory the “only solution” is for the homeless man. Separating him from his dog may relieve him of the burden of taking care of her, but it also leaves him without a companion to share his hard life. This certainly reflects a real-world problem, but doesn’t really give the dream figure of the homeless man room to be more than an unresolved case for social services.

When I looked at the dream symbolically [in Parts Two and Three], I focused on the way that the dog, and the dreamer (me), were transformed by finding a new way of relating to home, and began to consider what the “homeless man” might represent. I wrote:

“From this perspective, the man represents an identity that has become exhausted, worn down, unsustainable. This ‘homeless’ identity has been ‘out in the cold’ and is finally being acknowledged, invited inside, and given care and attention. Along with the care and attention comes a realization that the soul (the papillon) cannot survive if she remains connected to this identity. The soul needs a new home, which her companion (the homeless figure) is no longer able to provide.”

What does the homeless figure himself have to say about this? Well, in the dream, he doesn’t speak, but still communicates eloquently. It is significant that the dream opens with his willingness to reach out for help. His vulnerability is dignified, as he appears “at the door,” in need, and turns himself over to his friends (my partner and I) in the expectation that his needs will be met. If I see the dream from his perspective, I can see that he has made a choice to step forward and put himself and his dog in our care—and, in dream terms, this choice could be considered a “willing sacrifice.” He is giving up his life as he has known it, at least for one night, and doing this for the sake of other, more important, concerns: immediate comfort and safety, and perhaps a new life.

Rather than see this figure as a victim, we can see him as someone who is letting go of his ego (an identification with a kind of rugged independence?)—in order to grow into a larger potential. His choice not only benefits himself and his little dog (bringing them warmth and rest on a cold, wet night), but also gives his friends an opportunity to be generous and compassionate. In the dream, those friends are able to see how much they have to offer, while at the same time being forced to face their own limitations. The moral dilemma of the dream, which challenges the dreamer’s self-image and opens up new possibilities, is set in motion by this man’s decision to step forward. By accepting that his identity must change, he makes transformative growth possible for the other dream figures, and the dreamer, as well.

Pondering the moral dilemma with me, my peer dream group recognized that keeping the dog at the expense of her safety and well-being would have been selfish. The man’s apparently unselfish (albeit reluctant) decision to let her go signals a new direction in the dream. The situation is clear: their survival depends on their separation. Although we don’t know the whole story of why this is true, we must accept the situation as the dream presents it. Someone has to take responsibility, and it is not the “helpers” who do so, it is the homeless man himself.

The man has to wrestle with the decision to submit to this separation—he goes back out into the cold and rain alone, into the “wilderness” (as Jesus, Mohammed, Buddha, and other spiritual figures had to do), to deal with his own resistance and reconcile himself to the choices he must make. And when he returns, “because he can’t survive out there,” he is not failing to cope, but acknowledging that he can no longer be what he was (homeless and wandering). He must let go, and he must change.

Understanding the dream in this way is justified, because when the man returns he doesn’t explain himself or argue for his rights—instead, he withdraws to a sleeping bag, which, as my dreamworker friends pointed out, is very much like a cocoon or chrysalis. What happens to the man is what happens to the larva when it enters the chrysalis. It ceases to exist in its current form, but will emerge as an entirely different being.

Since the dog is a papillon, a butterfly [see Part 3]—there is a hint here that man and dog are both aspects of a single process of metamorphosis. When they are separated from each other, they are  just being separated from their unsustainable roles as homeless master and homeless pet. This separation is like the breaking of a spell, which allows them to become what they have actually been all along: parts of a larger whole. The homelessness of man and dog is their larval stage, and their freedom to find a home is the butterfly stage.

homeless-4-pebblesThis is where dreamwork begins to speak to all of us, to challenge us to a deeper understanding of ourselves, one another, and our world. In a dream, the characters all play separate roles, but can be seen as parts of a larger whole as well. Whether we understand them as aspects of the dreamer’s psyche, archetypes that stand for shared human experiences, energies that come together to form patterns, visitors who share our dreamspace, or even random neurological activity that the brain arranges into stories—regardless of how we approach them, these dream figures are, in a sense, all aspects of one dreaming process.

We typically contrast this dreaming process with the “real” processes of our waking lives, where we are all separate people who just happen to exist on the same planet—but many spiritual traditions agree that the true nature of our reality is a lot like dreaming: we are not only interconnected, but interdependent, and ultimately we are all aspects of one ongoing process of growth and transformation expressed in many forms, through many lives.

Like the man and the dog and the “helpers” in this dream, we in the waking world may also benefit by making choices that allow us to change our limiting self-definitions. Our roles do not define us, and we should not limit our imaginations, and one another, to these roles. We can acknowledge that we are all at different stages in a process of metamorphosis, different points in the unfolding of life. Our destinies and relationships dance in time, and there must be (to paraphrase Ecclesiastes) “a time to be born and a time to die,” a time for coming together and a time for letting go.

Dreams like this one challenge us not to take our separateness as absolute, to notice the meanings and connections we’ve been missing, to listen for the voices that are difficult to hear. The homeless can be found within each of us: in the parts of ourselves we’ve rejected, forgotten, or left “out in the cold.” And they can also be found in the world around us: in the people we treat as problems. Dreams invite us to question our assumptions, step out of the roles and beliefs that alienate us from one another, and recognize that we are infinitely-varied manifestations of one great, ever-changing field of the imagination.

Dreams (or waking experiences) always take place in context, always belong somewhere. They are not random, separate, lonely events. Maybe that’s why the theme of home and homelessness is especially significant for many of us. We can’t exist, can’t imagine ourselves, in a vacuum. We must belong somewhere. We can only comprehend ourselves, our dreams, and our lives in the context of our place in the larger world, among others like us and unlike us. If we experience ourselves as homeless, it is only because home exists—even if only as an unrealized potential—and homecoming is essentially self-recognition. The transformation of the world occurs when we recognize the flexibility of our lives and identities, our own continuous metamorphoses, and the home we create together as we live and dream.


  1. Tina

    Oh my. This speaks to me so much, and to my own process of separating from a beloved being, reluctantly but responsibly, because it is time–in our own metamorphic unfoldings–for this to happen. I can recognize that our attachment (though real, and important, like the homeless man and his dog) was unsustainable. And that “This separation is like the breaking of a spell, which allows them to become what they have actually been all along: parts of a larger whole.” How beautifully put.

    I love this too: “If we experience ourselves as homeless, it is only because home exists—even if only as an unrealized potential—and homecoming is essentially self-recognition.”
    Thanks again, Kirsten, for some amazing thinking and big-hearted writing.

    • kirstenbackstrom

      Bless you, Tina—your response touches my heart. The timing is perfect as you echo my words back to me and bring your own experience of separation to bear… Today, I read your comment—describing “separating from a beloved being” just when I returned home after we took our beloved, sweet, young cat Toby to the vet for the last time… The “letting go” is so painful—but the blessing of a kind of mutual transformation is there, too. Thank you for reminding me. I’ll be thinking of you with love as you embark on your upcoming journey.

  2. dreamelady

    That is such a satisfying ‘read’ and the homeless man really does seem to be finding his way to transformation and a new life.
    I am recalling a minister who took her youth group on an exploration of homelessness by having them all spend the night outside behind the church. People brought food to them and she realized that she did not want to say thank you to the givers. She had spent so much energy finding shelter and was so tired she did not want to give away what remained of her self respect by feeling like a recipient of charity. There was a power imbalance that was insisting that there was a difference in value between the givers and receivers, but the receivers are not allowed to challenge it. I feel this dynamic of resistance in dreaming, when I am rejecting a character in the dream and am in the tension of neither giving nor receiving what is needed because of an old value/identity rule that I have yet to see and challenge.
    Kirsten, thanks so much for opening this great dream up further. It helps me feel that tension and be more ready to recognize it when it comes up in my own dreams – like last night’s, already!

    • kirstenbackstrom

      Such a powerful story, Karen—and your insights are powerful, too! How to stay with that tension? “Neither giving nor recieving,” or both giving and receiving? Thank you so much for bringing your wisdom to these questions, to our dream group, and to me.

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