Dreamwork as Spiritual Practice

Dreams of Helping and Being Helped

helping 01In my recent dreams, I’ve been aware of giving and receiving, helping and being helped:

Fragments: I receive three gifts: sagebrush, a meerschaum pipe, and an iphone—and must learn how to use them… Someone lends me a bicycle, and then seems more confident and capable herself when she experiences my gratitude… I’m in prison for life, and a fellow prisoner relieves my fear by asking me to help her solve some math problems… We distract the dragon, so the young girl can complete her initiation safely… A white bull calf comes to me for comfort, but when I am threatened he places himself between me and the danger…

We all have a need for our strengths and gifts to be recognized and received by others—and sometimes the best thing we can do to support others is to receive what they have to give, whether it is by listening to their stories and learning from their example, or allowing them to assist us on our own path—physically, emotionally, spiritually. I’ve been noticing this process in my dreams, at the same time that I’ve been noticing it in my waking life.

As my friend Kay is now on hospice, I’m recalling the many ways she has been a mentor to me. Kay and I worked together on the pastoral care team for a continuing care retirement community. She was an experienced pastoral counselor and spiritual director (volunteering with the team, since she was technically retired); and I was a relative beginner in this work. With warmth and grace, she gave me exactly the encouragement I needed, by allowing me to take the lead. She attended my workshops and groups as a participant; she brought me her dreams, and she invited me to act as her spiritual counselor as she got older and faced health challenges. It wasn’t like an adult letting a child win at checkers—she authentically found things that I could give her, that she could learn from me. While she also helped and mentored me in more traditional ways, she always allowed me to bring my best self to our relationship, and to experience my own gifts with her.

Kay is an especially wise and kind person. But, actually, similar giving/receiving relationships are happening all the time. If I pay attention, I notice that the true gifts and blessings in waking or dreaming life are always somehow reciprocal.

The other day, I was climbing a long, long, long set of steps (18 flights, I think) to the top of a hill in a nearby park. As I was going up very, very slowly, two brisk women and a healthy young dog passed me going down, with an older dog following stiffly behind them. The older dog—a sweet-faced, short-haired terrier—gave me a commiserating look as she went by.

A few minutes later, the two women and the young dog, in their exercise routine, passed me again on their way back up, taking the steps two at a time. The older dog trailed along slowly in their wake, but was still a bit faster than me, and eventually caught up and passed me, too. She got a little way ahead, and then turned to look at me over her shoulder.

When I smiled and said hello, she relaxed her efforts to keep up with the others, and, with a big doggy grin she came running back to meet me. After we’d had a cuddle, she went on ahead again, but kept looking over her shoulder and encouraging me—occasionally running part way back to help me along and show me how easy it was.

Of course, this exchange of friendliness brightened my day and made the climb less onerous for both of us. But it was more than that. The little dog had been experiencing herself as the slow, tired, old one who couldn’t keep up. Then, she found someone slower, and she became the leader, the helper, the guide. She could take care of me, and it made both of us happy. By allowing myself to be the slow one, I got to see her become the fast one, the confident one, the strong one. It was lovely.

A while ago, I wrote an article about the pleasures of “Humbling Dreams”—and now I’m on the lookout for occasions when my dreams, or my waking life, allow me to experience humility and love by noticing when it’s better to receive than to give. Whenever aging or my health challenges put me in the vulnerable position of being helped (which will happen increasingly often for all of us as we get older) I’m reminded of my interdependence with others.

We are never just dependent, or just independent. The ecology of dreams demonstrates this again and again, since every character within the dream reflects the dreamer, and the give-and-take of these reflected images brings balance and wholeness to the psyche. This same ecology takes place among us in waking life, as well as within us in dreams.

When I visited Kay recently, she was very frail and no longer able to talk much. She kept dozing off and waking up again, and as she dozed, I’d let myself drift and dream along with her. At one point, when she was mostly awake, I reminded her of some of the ways she’d helped and taught me. “Did I do that?” she asked. I nodded. “Well, good for me,” she said, “Good for me.”


  1. Bonney Parker

    What a beautiful tribute to your friend and insight into the simple act of walking and climbing. I found myself meeting two very different dogs and their owners today on my walk. Now I have another perspective to consider. I received enjoyment engaging in conversation with my neighbors and with their dogs. Yes, I talk to the dogs, too. And I very much needed their love today, whether they knew it or not!.

    • kirstenbackstrom

      Thank you for this, Bonney! It’s moving to read about your experience, too—and I’m glad those dogs were a help to you. This past week, Kay died. Then, my mother unexpectedly died as well, and I’ve been grieving intensely. But when I went for a walk today, the kind, cheerful dogs (and some sweet cats) were a comfort. Of course, human friends and even casual acquaintances are comforting as well. We’re all blessed to have each other!

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