Dreamwork as Spiritual Practice

Extraordinary Dreams

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If we follow the water it will lead us back to the source: a deep, secret lake so reflective that travelers can become lost between the surface and the sky…

One of the most meaningful experiences for many of us at the recent International Association for the Study of Dreams (IASD) conference came from hearing the “Big dreams” of others, and participating in the world-view of these powerful dreams.

Jungians often use the term “Big dreams” to talk about, well, big dreams—which I’d describe as dreams that expand or transcend the dreamer’s sense of self and open up a larger reality. At the conference, Robert Hoss, Patricia Garfield, and Jacquie Lewis offered a presentation entitled, “Dreams That Change Our Lives,” where they spoke of the transcendent and transformative capacity of significant dreams, and gave examples of life-changing dreams (or series of dreams) from their own experience.

After the presentations, there was an “open mike” opportunity for audience members to share “Big dreams,” too. Each person who came forward told a dream story that was breath-taking in a unique way, and each one inspired insights, reminded us of possibilities, warned us of how we need to pay attention, and gave us a glimpse of something beyond our separate selves, something that connects us at the deepest level with our planet and fellow beings.

Whew. That’s a lot to get out of a handful of dreams! These were not dreams that could be boring—they were so rich in detail, so surprising, so original and yet so deeply familiar. They didn’t require interpretation, or even feedback—they just needed to be heard, acknowledged, experienced in a group so that their wisdom would resonate through us and out into the world.

The half hour or so of sharing during the presentation just whetted my appetite for more of this, so in the days that followed I ended up in several conversations where extraordinary dreams were shared. There were dreams in which the dreamer learned something that saved his or her life, or met someone who evoked profound empathy or love, or encountered an apocalyptic event, or was given a great gift, or created a stunning work of art, or went through an initiation, or became a bird or a storm, or experienced total oneness with all things, or lost everything and was blessed…

Okay, the people at this conference were special in the sense that they all had an interest in dreams—and many of them had developed that interest because they’d had extraordinary dreams that had changed their lives. So, you’d expect to hear some “Big dreams” in this context. But that’s not the only reason these dreams were coming up.

The conference created the right atmosphere for dream-sharing, but if we invited such sharing more often in other contexts, we’d certainly find that there are lots of extraordinary dreams to be shared. I believe we all have extraordinary dreams whether we remember them or not. Even among those of us who do remember, these dreams are probably happening more often than we think. I’ve found that the more I pay attention to the rare “Big dreams” when I have them, and the more I share them, the more of them I start remembering.

It’s not a question of having more and more, however—just one such dream in a lifetime could change the world. These dreams are at work in us, and when they are shared, they connect us with the deeper wisdom, the new way of thinking, that we all need.

In last week’s post [“As the World Dreams”], I wrote that “dreams offer us another kind of ‘thinking’—another way of experiencing our problems—and responding—both individually and collectively. Such a response acknowledges that there are no private interests: our needs are inseparable from the needs of all beings and the earth itself. And our dreams reflect this interrelatedness on many levels: through expressions of suffering, calls to action, experiences of wholeness, creative openings, and direct motivations for cooperative change.”

Maybe it’s misleading to call these dreams extraordinary. If extraordinary means “other than ordinary” or “not ordinary,” then that wouldn’t really fit, because, truly, these dreams are woven into the essence of what we are—they are something we have in common, and they are as natural to us as breathing. The kinds of experiences we have in “Big dreams” represent the deep flow of groundwater beneath the surface of our everyday lives that makes all the growth and life possible. So, in this sense, “Big dreams” are ordinary, but they are also extra-ordinary, in that they are “super-ordinary,” or “more ordinary than ordinary,” “more real than real.”

Until I started hearing and sharing these dreams, I didn’t realize that the sharing is what makes them real in our lives. So let’s listen to the sound of that groundwater flowing beneath the surface. Let’s hear it and share it, and acknowledge its presence among us. Let’s be amazed and changed by our extraordinary dreams!



  1. Tallulah

    Another word that describes an extraordinary dream is the word “numinous.” Jung used this word often when he talked about dreams that shake us to our very core. Jung borrowed the word from theologian, Rudolph Otto, who coined the word to describe an encounter with the Holy.

    • kirstenbackstrom

      Wonderful, Tallulah–thank you for adding “NUMINOUS” to the names for extraordinary dreams. I’d forgotten that Jung used this, and it is such an excellent descriptive word. I also appreciate your reminder that these dreams are “encounters with the Holy.”

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