Dreamwork as Spiritual Practice

Lying Down Dreaming: Body Language in Dreams

Lying DownSince we experience the dream world as actively embodied (dream figures are usually doing things), it’s likely that movement, gesture, and posture are expressing something important, just as they would be in waking life. When we consider the metaphors, storylines and themes in our dreams, let’s also consider what’s going on in the body language.

In waking life, the body language of conversation can be as significant as the words that are exchanged, so shouldn’t it be the same with dreams? Suppose the incidental gestures and postures of dream figures are as meaningful as their overt intentions, opinions, and emotions… What do our dream bodies have to say?

If you keep a dream journal, you might become aware that you are describing certain physical actions repeatedly within a single dream, or as a pattern over the course of many dreams. Perhaps you notice there’s a lot of reaching, or crouching, or stumbling, or smiling, or running, or waving. Or you might sense that there’s a trend in the way things are being done when you keep coming across certain adverbs like quickly, or carefully, or awkwardly, or angrily. These words refer to the body language of the dream. What do they tell you? Are they consistent with the dream’s other communications?

Does one character’s “crouching” have the same purpose or significance as another character’s “crouching”—? Or is one character crouching down to pet the squirrel, and another character crouching behind the couch to eavesdrop? Is one “careful” gesture the same as another—? Or is someone carefully placing the chopsticks in a row, and someone else carefully tucking the baby into bed, or carefully crossing the minefield?

In the process of sharing a recent dream with my peer dream group, I noticed that the dream-ego and other dream figures kept lying down. Each lying down seemed different, and together they expanded the range of the dream’s meanings for me. Like with dominos, each dream figure’s lying down seemed to set off the next—click, click, click…

We All Lie Down: A cobblestone street at dawn. I’m preparing to start my pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago, with a crowd of others who are strangers to me. Almost everyone sets off with the sunrise, but I hold back, and lie down in the street. There are things I still need to do before leaving, and I prefer to let the crowd go ahead so I can walk alone at my own pace.  

Getting up, I see two elderly women who are also slow to set off. They totter a few steps, and then the older one stumbles and lies down. Now, she is an ancient Victorian dowager in full mourning dress (black crinolines and veil), who is apparently dying. The other woman is her servant, attending to her. I wonder if I should offer support—as I would in a hospice situation. But she is fully into the melodrama of her own death, and I realize she’s going to do this her own way and I shouldn’t get drawn into it.

After a long transitional process of completing tasks so I can finally set off on the Camino, I observe another scene as if from the outside: A man in a wet-suit dives from a boat into deep, blue water. At the ocean floor, he experiences repeated shocks to his chest, and lies down… Above, on the ship’s deck, his dog lies down faithfully to wait for him. Unfortunately, the dog is lying on the cord that connects the man to the surface—like an air line, or communication line—and this is causing the short circuit that shocks the man. As people struggle to retrieve him from the bottom, he dies, and his body floats to the surface. They bring him on deck and begin to revive him. He will survive after all.

My peer dream group delved into many significant elements of this dream that relate directly to my waking life: pilgrimage, death and loss, physical health, endings and beginnings… As an experiment here, I’d like to focus just on the body language of lying down, because that one element seems to contain and express many other aspects of the dream with elegant simplicity.

In the beginning, “I” (the dream-ego) lie down on the cobblestone street, while the other pilgrims go on ahead. Of course, this could be considered “lying down on the job”—a failure to step forward when the time comes to act. Yet, for me, it doesn’t feel like passivity, but like an active choice—a choice that is essential to everything that follows in the dream.

This does not seem to be a dream about setting off on a journey, but a dream about the “preparation” stage of pilgrimage, which requires patience, restraint and discernment. Even so, why not just remain standing, waiting as the crowd moves on? When I ask myself this question, I sense a response in my body that fits recent experiences in my waking life. It feels like I must lie down to experience the full surrender, and the discomfort (cobblestones!) of waiting. From this position, I can’t see the path, but must trust that it’s there; I can’t see the people who are leaving ahead of me, so I can’t compare my pilgrimage with theirs. Finally, I have to make a conscious effort to get up and get on with it, when I am ready. And I do.

Once I’m on my feet again, the old woman lies down, and begins to stage her own deathbed scene. Perhaps this is the kind of lying down that I must actively avoid—a theatrical performance by someone who does not really intend to embark on the journey at all. She has apparently come here to die, and she is dying. Again, my body-sense of the dream tells me that this death can and will proceed without my participation. Something meaningful is happening here, and it seems vital that I witness it—but it’s not up to me to step in.

As I prepare for the Camino in my waking life, I’ve encountered some serious health obstacles and have been going through a lot of medical tests to rule out cancer. Everything is uncertain, and all my fears are active. Yes, there’s the possibility of a dramatic end to my pilgrimage plans… but maybe it is not me but the drama itself, or my fear, that is getting old and needs to die. I can let this theatrical Victorian model of tragedy play out, and let it go. I can lay it down.

In the final scene, I get a glimpse of two more kinds of lying down that point to a deeper perspective on surrender and faithfulness: A man dives deep, experiences “shocks to the chest,” and lies down on the ocean floor; the pain is paradoxically caused by the faithful, patient dog who is lying down on his lifeline.

My dream-sharing friends suggested that the dog’s action could be instinctive wisdom, and the life-changing result could be, in a way, intended. The dog’s lying down is an act of patient, faithful love that causes pain, but perhaps also has value. When the dog lies down, it causes the man to lie down and die—but, if he hadn’t died (letting go completely), his body would not have risen to the surface where he could be retrieved and revived. So, the dog’s lying down causes the death, and also recovers the life. The “shocks to the chest” look like a heart attack, but they also resemble the shocks that can start the heart beating again.

To me, this suggests a spiritual transformation. As I experience the dream, I feel the dog’s unreserved love and longing to be reunited with the man. The dog lies down with the burden of that longing and the patience to bear it. I also feel the heart-pain of the man, separated from his dog and his life at the surface, dying alone. I’m reminded of how Yeats described the necessity of going to the depths of the deficient self, and beginning from the beginning:

“I must lie down where all the ladders start
In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.”
-William Butler Yeats

For me, there’s a good deal of grief to be felt these days. I’ve been separated from my parents by their deaths—and the shock of those losses reverberates. Friends have died, too. Also, my sweet, young cat, Toby, has a progressive (probably terminal) neurological disorder, causing him increasing weakness and tremors (he staggers, and lies down a lot), and I must bear with him, with painful helplessness, as he declines. In these situations, the pain weighs me down, but the love at the heart of the grief (Toby’s funny, wobbly, warm presence) feels expansive, and lifts me back to the open air, where my life is happening right now.

When we lay down our lives by faithfully loving those we love and will lose, we cause ourselves pain, but also find that we are uplifted and revived, even resurrected.

In the plain body language of a dream, gesture and posture have many meanings. Those meanings are conveyed not through explanations but through the direct experience of following the embodied senses and emotions: I lie down, I rise up, I step into the next moment with my whole being. I hope that when you lie down to dream, you’ll let your body lead the way—because your body knows the way.

El cuerpo conoce el camino. El cuerpo sabe cómo soñar.
(The body knows the way. The body knows how to dream.)


  1. RadOwl

    What a great analysis of the dream and way of understanding it. I wish you well on your pilgrimage!

    • kirstenbackstrom

      Thank you for the kind words and good wishes! Much appreciated!

  2. Kiera O'Hara

    Thanks, Kirsten! for providing this fascinating and evocative journey.

    • kirstenbackstrom

      I really appreciate your presence on the journey, Kiera! Our paths intersect in many ways…

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