Dreamwork as Spiritual Practice

The Necessity of Dreaming

bridge 02After two months away (walking the Camino de Santiago in Spain, and participating in the IASD conference in the Netherlands), I’ve been home now for a couple of weeks. I was exhausted by my travels, physically and emotionally stretched to my limit, so simply resting and recovering has been my top priority. During those months of strenuous effort and unfamiliar conditions, I slept very badly and remembered few dreams. In fact, because of disrupted sleep patterns, there were probably some nights without any dreams at all, remembered or not. This gave me a direct experience of how vital dreaming is for my sense of well-being, and even my capacity to function.

I know of well-documented experiments that demonstrate the necessity of dreaming—but these last two months have given me first-hand, personal evidence of the consequences of dream-deprivation. I’m sure that if I had been deprived of dreams for much longer, my physical and mental health would have begun to deteriorate as a result. Even though I only had diminished dreaming rather than a total dream-drought, there was a noticeable decline in my energy, memory, cognition and emotional balance, which seemed related to my sleep and dream patterns. The boundaries between waking and dreaming got a bit fuzzier, too. Of course, other health factors were in play as well, since I was exerting myself strenuously (walking 10-15 miles a day), while coping with stress and a respiratory infection… However, as the experimental subject of my own unscientific research, I can attest that my body, mind and spirit seemed desperate not only for rest, but for dreams!

bridge 01When I finally returned home and began to sleep normal hours, I felt the healing influence of dreaming almost immediately. For the first few nights, the dreams came rushing in, often nightmarish and always intense, repeating and exaggerating the stresses of my journey. I’d wake up shaken—yet with a sense of releasing pent-up pressure, allowing something within me to relax. Soon, I was dreaming more naturally, with periods of transitional sleep, sound sleep, and REM sleep working together. I could lie in bed in the morning, feeling drowsy and refreshed, with a sense of perspective on my experiences that had been lacking before.

Dreaming seems to nourish me at the deepest level, regardless of the content of the dreams. Whether the dreams themselves are pleasant or unpleasant, the restoration I feel from dreaming makes it possible to shake off the hazy, surreal trance of travel and feel fully awake to my life again.

In the next couple of articles, I’ll describe dreams that relate directly to my pilgrimage experiences, and explore some of the meanings that these experience have for me—but right now, I just want to express my gratitude for dreaming itself.

What makes dreaming beneficial? Well, even if you believe that dreaming is just a matter of brain functions and biochemistry, the scientific research shows that there’s an awful lot going on when we dream: memory consolidation, rehearsal of social and survival skills, emotional integration, creative problem-solving, stress discharge… Yes, that’s all important stuff.

The research also shows that people deprived of dream-sleep become profoundly disoriented, hallucinate, and suffer impairments of basic physiological functions. Of course, human experiments are discontinued at this point, but it’s assumed that if the dream-deprivation went on much longer, the subjects would eventually die. (Unfortunately, this has proven true in animal experiments—rats and cats and monkeys need to dream as much as we do.) Without dreams we would die! What is it about dreaming that is essential to our very survival?

The benefits of dreaming go beyond what current research has discovered, but basically, it seems that dreaming keeps our minds alive, just as physical activity keeps our bodies alive. Dreaming may even be one of the defining factors of consciousness itself.

Without involuntary physical activity (heartbeat, breathing, etc.), the body would literally be dead. And without more complex activity (using movement and the senses to interact with the environment), muscles, tissues, and entire organic systems of the body would soon become slack and useless, leading, finally, to death as well. Similarly, our minds need to be engaged, to be in motion—not just in simple, repetitive cycles, but also in more complex ways. The body doesn’t just move repetitively—even when resting, it exchanges energy with its surroundings, at least on a cellular level, all the time. And the mind can’t just lie around dozing, or repeating patterns of thought over and over, it needs to stretch itself, explore, and have experiences continually. And so, when we sleep, our minds don’t go slack: we dream.

Walking the Camino, I had plenty of activity for my body and mind: working my muscles and joints, feeling pain and peace, communicating and connecting with others, solving problems, sensing the natural world around me, creating and breaking routines, getting a couple of months older—being alive in various circumstances, and being changed by my experiences. But, after a while, without enough dreaming, my mind began to exhaust itself, to wear itself down like a joint forced to perform the same exercise over and over and over…

When I finally came home and could dream freely again, the difference felt like dancing instead of pointlessly exercising. When I am dreaming regularly, my mind loosens up instead of tensing; my thoughts can move in any direction, not just back and forth; my emotions follow the flow and rhythm and creative potential of each moment, instead of getting stuck. I can’t prove it, of course, but I know that dreaming adds a necessary dimension to my experience. I am grateful for my dreams. Are you grateful for yours?



  1. Marjorie

    Yes. Although not necessarily the one I had this morning . . .

    • kirstenbackstrom

      Of course not all dreams inspire gratitude as a first response! May that unpleasant one fade, to be replaced by less disturbing images…. It’s hard to welcome the really awful ones.

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