Dreamwork as Spiritual Practice

Seeing With Fresh Eyes: Finding Healing in “Problem Dreams”

Sometimes, dreams just seem to show us where we are stuck—blatantly and unhelpfully highlighting our struggles and suffering. What is the point of such dreams? Waking life can be stressful enough without reenacting our problems when we are trying to get some restful sleep. I’m having a lot of these “problem dreams” lately, and even though I usually wake up from them feeling discouraged, I’m finding that these dreams always contain powerful healing if I can get past my initial resistance and take a closer look.

My most recent problem dreams have had to do with my deteriorating health, and the changes in my body that sometimes bring me to the edge of existential despair. I’m coping with a neuro-muscular disease that has been steadily progressing over the past year, and although the life-threatening aspects of this disease (heart damage and stroke risk) are stable for now, there are several less dramatic symptoms (muscle spasms and weakness, digestive trouble, intense fatigue) that drain my life force. It can be difficult to keep my spirits up, and everyday obstacles can seem insurmountable.

In many of my dreams, I’m trying to pack for an important journey but can’t get it together: there’s too much “stuff”—more than I can carry. Everything is just too hard. On top of this hard work, there are always other dream figures who are suffering. I feel their pain, but can’t do anything about it. My dreams are full of pathetic, bedraggled, wasted characters who embody my own physical misery in all-too-obvious ways. So how am I supposed to respond?

This seems like an impasse, but it’s not. When I look at these miserable dreams from a different angle, they can open my eyes. In a previous post [Feel It In My Bones: A Dream Experience of the Body] I wrote about how the physical condition of dream figures can reflect the physical condition of our own bodies—and how relating to those figures with compassion and respect can help us relate to our physical selves. So here’s an example of one of those dreams. In this case, compassion and respect come easily, but a sad, hard outcome still seems inevitable:

The Hawk Who Can’t Fly: …Oddly, there’s a a hawk standing on the pavement between buildings. Not perched on a branch, just standing there in the open. Although she has plain brown plumage and markings, and is quite small, her presence is powerful, and her eyes are bright and fierce. But something is wrong. Her wings are spread (as if she were flying) and one looks crooked and withered while the other has large torn gaps. Clearly, she has been seriously injured. She can’t fly, but also can’t even fold her wings to rest. The injuries don’t look fresh, so she has been surviving for quite some time like this, and appears fairly healthy for now. How has she managed to feed herself? I imagine she’s been picking up scraps, though there’s not much food that would appeal to a hawk here. Maybe people have been feeding her? Hawks needs to be able to hunt, and it’s difficult for them to eat food that isn’t alive, so this seems like a miserable existence. I’m so sorry to see her suffering this way. Should I try to feed her? Or maybe it would be better if she died quickly, since her death is inevitable. She isn’t looking at me, but I feel the intensity of her gaze.

My first impression of this dream was that it painfully illustrated my own dilemma: I need to fly, but even my wings (my strengths) have become an encumbrance. I can’t get off the ground, and I can’t even rest. My food (daily routine) is lifeless and doesn’t nourish me. I’m leading a miserable existence, not sure it’s worth the effort. Well, okay. That is how I feel on bad days. Sometimes, the broken bird is just broken. The dream seems to end with a whimper.

But I’ve still got a few dreamwork tricks to try. Let’s see what happens when I pay attention to the dream itself, instead of my predictable assumptions about broken birds and sad stories.

When I imagine what might happen next if the dream continued, I think of trying to feed the hawk, helping her fold her wings so she can rest, or even “putting her out of her misery” by gently euthanizing her—allowing her to transcend her problems through death. None of these problem-solving possibilities seem to fit with the dream itself, however. The hawk has no interest in my efforts to save her. Similarly, my own health issues seem indifferent to my urgency and concern, and the things that I try to do to fix myself—medical appointments, tests, therapies, medications—have no apparent influence on my condition. Trying so hard to solve these problems, I find myself in the same situation as the dream-ego in the dream: my genuine compassion and respect for my own body (or the hawk) seems tainted by feelings of pity, frustration and hopelessness.

Are problem dreams like this one just meant to torment us? Of course not. So, instead of buying the obvious premise that these “problems” need solving, let’s look instead at what the dream has to say. To find the core issues in a dream, it’s always useful to pay attention to anomalies or questions within the dream itself. Although dreams don’t always make sense by waking life standards, they have a kind of internal consistency, and things that don’t seem to fit are not accidental. In this dream, there’s a crippled raptor who can’t hunt for herself, yet she seems healthy and “her eyes are bright and fierce.” If her condition is so awful, how has she survived? How has she sustained herself? Clearly, there is something about her situation that is not consistent with the way I have understood the “problem.”

This leads to another important insight: Particularly with problem dreams where the dream-ego is thinking and behaving in ways that lead to an impasse (reflecting a similar waking life impasse), don’t assume that the dream-ego is always right about what is going on and what should be done about it. The dream-ego (the “I” character in the dream) usually follows the dreamer’s expectations and reinforces the dreamer’s beliefs about life’s limitations—but other characters in the dream may represent different perspectives, different possibilities. When the dream-ego’s point-of-view leads to a dead end, other characters or circumstances in the dream may be giving the dreamer an opportunity to see a different picture, tell a different story.

So, I ask myself: How is this hawk surviving and even thriving? The answer is immediate, surprising, and consistent with the information the dream presents, rather than with my expectations. I expect the hawk to be miserable, desperate, defeated, near death. But the hawk’s eyes are “bright and fierce.” What does she see? How does she see herself and her life? I’m stunned by the world that I see through those bright, fierce eyes.

The hawk sees herself as a hunter. For her, finding food and eating it—even if it’s “scraps”—is hunting, and she sees herself plunging on her prey, doing exactly what she was born to do. The hawk embodies the spirit of a raptor, a formidable bird. For her, keeping her wings open means that she is flying—she is always flying. Even while standing on the pavement, she feels the air moving through her feathers in the smooth swerve of flight. The hawk has acute perceptions, powerful vision. For her, the world is vivid, clear, enticing, expansive, even if it’s just the narrow paved alley between buildings. The hawk is wild and free. For her, pain and disability are just part of life. Death will eventually be part of life, too. She is not crippled or desperate. As long as she is alive, she is fully alive.

If I take this hawk as my teacher instead of seeing her as a victim, I am able to experience the fullness of my life, even when my wings seem heavy and my world seems small. I can see what the hawk sees, with her bright, fierce eyes. Our limitations do not define us. Our dreams may show us those apparent limitations, but they also show us that we are wild and free.

Can we open our wings? The next time you feel oppressed by your own problems—hurt, tired, helpless—ask yourself to see as the hawk sees. Ask yourself who you are, and how you might live this life you’ve been given. Dream your wings wide open. Whether you know it or not, you are always flying.



  1. jeanraffa

    Back at you Kirsten. 🙂

  2. Jenna Ludwig

    Lovely, Kirsten. Since I am the Queen of Synchronicity and came across this quote my friend shared with me right after I read this extraordinary blog post of yours, I’ll take it as a message for us both:

    What the bud calls a wound
    we call blossoming.
    This is how the angels see
    our gashed and broken places.
    – Alfred LaMotte

    Much love to you and yours this holiday season,


    • kirstenbackstrom

      Wow. The quote is perfect. And further synchronicities abound since I’ve heard at least three mentions of angels in relation to brokenness in the past few days. Of course, it’s the season for both! The darkness and the light, inseparable.

      I’m grateful for our connection Jenna—you always bring these little treasures of insight into my life. Much love to you and yours, too!

  3. Laura Engle

    I am grateful to be reading this today as it reinforces some earlier messages that I have received this morning about what true wholeness is, “as long as she is alive, she is fully alive.” The is beautifully, powerfully rendered, Kirsten. Thank you. Upon the first reading of the dream prior to any interpretation I was struck by her “bright, fierce eyes”: her wildness. It is good to be a hawk today.

    • kirstenbackstrom

      Dear Laura, I’m picturing you as a hawk! It’s always a joy to hear from you, and I really appreciate your thoughtfulness, your authenticity—your aliveness. Sending love and blessings your way.

  4. Barbara Herbin

    Powerful and moving dream, I too am impressed by your interpretation and am struck by the last line of the dream – “I feel the intensity of her gaze,” if this were my dream I would really hold to that feeling – of an immense and powerful spirit manifesting through a weakened outer form which is surviving despite all the odds.
    Thank you for sharing Kirsten, your blogs are very inspiring.

    • kirstenbackstrom

      Thank you, Barbara—your response is very inspiring to me, too. I like the way you focus on “the intensity of her gaze,” which reminds me that this hawk is communicating directly to me (to all of us!) and offering the challenge to live fully. I have no excuse for under-estimating the power and immensity of that spirit within myself, and in others—that gaze is compelling.

  5. jeanraffa

    Wow. This is an amazing dream and a masterful interpretation. I’m very inspired by it, by you. Yes, I agree that one can look on the world with bright eyes and fierce determination, no matter the circumstances. It’s more about resting on a conscious inner centering in a vitally alive place, isn’t it? A place that will continue to exist whatever happens. Thank you for this very helpful dream and interpretation. And blessings to you and yours during this Solstice season. Jeanie

    • kirstenbackstrom

      Yes! Trusting that “vitally alive place” can be surprisingly easy, because as soon as I/we set aside the idea of the “broken bird” then that spirit-at-the-heart-of-life is all that’s left—it’s the essence of everything.

      Blessings to you and yours as well, Jeanie—and many thanks. I have such respect for your gifts and your work, and your comments mean a lot to me.

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