Dreamwork as Spiritual Practice

Can Healing Dreams Offer Practical Help?

plant 01In the last post (“The Healing Experience of the Dream Itself”), I emphasized that healing dreams aren’t usually specific in their helpfulness. I wrote: Dreams don’t generally bring healing by offering immediate solutions. If I incubate a dream with a particular problem in mind, asking for an answer, I believe I will always get a response, but usually it is a response that asks me to open myself to the whole experience, rather than giving me a specific key to unlocking the problem.

But, can dreams offer any practical help? By asking me to “open myself to the whole experience” of the problem I’m facing, can they help me to find useful tools or guidance within myself and within my situation? I believe that they can. And I believe that attending to the details of my dreams is one of the best ways to become aware of unexpected options and unconventional answers that might be available to me.

It is the very fact that the possibilities presented in dreams are unexpected and unconventional that makes them useful. If I am in need of healing, I have probably already considered, and tried, every possible solution within the grasp of my conscious mind. I’ve already reacted with strong emotions, and worked my way through various approaches to the problem. By the time I remember to go to my dreams for help, I’ve usually exhausted myself with the struggle, and I’m ready to try any crazy thing the dreams might suggest.

Sometimes, it’s a challenge to guess what the dreams might be suggesting! For example: I struggle with severe hay-fever-like symptoms, especially during the winter. I get acute episodes of intense congestion and sneezing, with swollen, itching eyes, sinuses, throat and lungs. Of course, I’ve been tested for allergies and have tried every antihistamine and natural remedy available—some things have worked for a short time, but the problem persists. Utterly miserable, and getting desperate, I asked my dreams to show me what was needed for healing.

The first time I incubated a dream about my symptoms:

There’s a clear glass carafe with a long spout (like a tea kettle), filled with sparkling clear liquid. I keep hearing the phrase: “Cleansing the vessel.”

Guessing at what the dream was suggesting, I went out and got a nettie pot (a little pot with a spout, used to rinse the nasal passages). It didn’t help. Nevertheless, with all the “clear liquid” that had been flowing through my sinuses, the image and the words from the dream did seem to have some connection to my situation. I found that simply picturing the image and repeating the words to myself felt soothing. I began to think of these symptoms as potentially cleansing, rather than exclusively miserable. This did help quite a bit.

Still, suffering, however—I tried again sometime later, and had a long, bizarre adventure dream in which I was part of a small team trying to prevent some bad guys from developing dangerous weapons in the subway system. One member of the team, an apparently warm, friendly woman, turned out to be a bad guy herself, and captured me.

I wrestle with the traitor, who is planning to torture and kill me. I subdue her by holding her nose so she can’t breathe. Then I tie her up. I notice that my computer is missing from its place in a dusty basement (I suppose she has stolen it). For some reason—I have no idea why—I go and get a potted plant and put it on the floor where the computer used to be.

See how random this all seems? If I ask: “What, exactly, is the dream trying to tell me?” I’m not going to get very far. So I approach the dream by playing with it, letting it work on me.

I notice, first, that the dream-self (the “I” in the dream) is causing someone to experience one of my own miserable symptoms (plugging up her nose so she can’t breathe)—and doing it for a good reason. Arnold Mindell has done some excellent work on the way that symptoms can be treated as dreams, which express aspects of ourselves that we don’t consciously identify with. His Process-Oriented Psychology encourages us to “pick up” those symptoms and bring them into full awareness, sometimes by acting them out. In the dream, that’s just what I’m doing.

So, perhaps my waking symptoms are trying to accomplish what my dream-self is trying to accomplish: to subdue something/someone intent upon doing harm. In fact, I’m sure that’s what my immune system thinks it’s doing. There’s some adversary (allergen) that is being fought with a histamine reaction. However, this isn’t a useful or effective response, since the symptoms just escalate. In the dream, the response is effective. So, what do the waking symptoms actually accomplish? Is there a part of me that somehow “goes bad” and tries to assume too much control, so the acute allergy symptoms must immobilize me completely, to prevent me from taking any more action, until my over-controlling tendencies have been subdued?

Whew. Too much analysis. I’m still sneezing and miserable! I look at the part of the dream that seems most obscure. Why did I put a plant in the dusty place where the computer used to be? Replacing intellectual processes with something natural and growing? Rather than trying to figure it out, I go and look for a plant like the one in the dream. I know it was in a green plastic pot, and it seemed to be a common houseplant. After a brief internet search, I find that it was a snake plant. Then, I take a field trip to a nearby plant store and find a snake plant almost identical to the one in the dream.

I’ve never had a houseplant before, but I love this one. Because our cats either chew or push over anything left out for them to get into, I have to keep the plant safe—moving it from room to room when I’m home, and leaving it where they can’t get it when I’m out. Remembering to keep this green, living thing nearby has become a very pleasant discipline. Coincidentally (?), my symptoms went away for quite a while. And now, when I occasionally still get stuffed up and sneezy, I look at my plant, and feel a peculiar easing of the misery. Why is this? Maybe some future dream will give me more clues…



  1. Karen Deora

    Some houseplants actually clear pollutants from the inside air, like spider plants and I know there are others. That would be interesting, huh! if your snake plant had this property. In winter there is less oxygen indoors and with cats, probably more dander and other dust type accumulations. Just because your tests didn’t show any specific allergies doesn’t mean you don’t have them. I too get allergies that haven’t been identified. I’ve thought about getting an air purifier for my bedroom.

    From your “fellow” dreamer,

    Dr. Deora (lol)

    • kirstenbackstrom

      I appreciate this insight very much, Karen (Dr. Deora, indeed!)–and now that you mention it, I think I do remember reading that snake plants have this property! The genius of dreams…

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