Dreamwork as Spiritual Practice

“No Feeling Is Final”: Healing Beyond Feelings

feeling stone 01The title of this post is a quote from the poet Rainer Maria Rilke—“no feeling is final.” I’ve been writing and thinking a lot about the meaning of healing lately (see “Kites in the Wind: Defining a Healing Dream”), in preparation for a workshop on healing dreams that I’ll be offering soon. At the same time, I’ve been looking at the experience of healing in my own life, and have found that my personal sense of wholeness and well-being has a lot to do with my relationship to feelings, emotions, moods.

Emotions come and go—good or bad, they are the life energy of my experiences. However, their nature (like the nature of all energy) is to be perpetually moving, flowing, changing. In a healthy system, emotions flow through without getting stuck. Personally, I’ve found that when I become too identified with a feeling, it turns into a mood—a prolonged, limited and limiting state of being—and leaves me with few options.

If I think (and repeatedly reinforce the thought) that “I am angry,” then only the choices of an angry person are available to me. But if I just notice, “I feel anger,” then I am free to feel something else in a few moments. When “no feeling is final,” all the possibilities, pleasant or unpleasant, are at least open to change.

How does this apply to dreams? I just read a reference to studies by the dream researcher Calvin Hall, which revealed a surprising paradox: When counting the pleasant or unpleasant emotions in the dreams of his research subjects, he found that a significant majority of the emotions experienced in their dreams fell into the “negative” category (anxiety, frustration, sadness, etc.); yet, when the subjects were asked to rate dream experiences as a whole, most of them described their dreams as pleasant rather than unpleasant.

In other words, the fact that unpleasant emotions occurred more frequently in dreams did not necessarily make the overall experience of dreaming unpleasant. I think this is pretty much the way things are in waking life as well. Most people probably experience more unpleasant than pleasant emotions in the course of a day (particularly since unpleasant experiences tend to be more noticeable), yet many of those same people are likely to say that their lives, in general, are pretty good.

In a recent dream, I had to fight two terrifying eight-foot-tall living corpses intent on destroying me and everything I cared about. If I were to make a list of all the emotions in that dream, the emotions would be overwhelmingly negative: fear, horror, revulsion, stress, self-doubt, grief, desperation… All of those feelings came and went in rapid succession as the dream events unfolded. And yet, I consider this to have been a very good dream. I woke feeling invigorated and intrigued.

Why did I experience this intense, emotionally unpleasant dream as a good dream? Other, similar dreams have been nightmares—perhaps because in those dreams I felt trapped in the negative emotions and woke up in the midst of full identification with those awful feelings (see “A Nightmare is an Incomplete Dream”). But in my recent dream of fighting the corpses, no feeling was final. The emotions were continually changing. The dream-self (the “I” in the dream) took action and kept experiencing each awful moment as it brought a new set of challenges and possibilities. When I woke up, I found the images fascinating, and felt that I’d learned from them. I also felt the strong energy of the flowing dream emotions—rather than being physically exhausted and agitated by a self-perpetuating adrenaline rush, as I would have if the emotions had gotten stuck.

Often, it’s impossible to control how the dream-self will respond to the circumstances of the dream. As I’ve mentioned before (“Ugly Duckling Dreams”), I had a whole series of dreams in which my dream-self was persistently disengaged, stuck in unpleasant emotional states in almost every dream. Those did not feel like “good” dreams, yet my reflections on those dreams after waking still made it possible to see them as useful, and to see the overall process of having dreamed them as meaningful and ultimately good.

By exploring the “bad” dreams, I could give their emotions room to come up and move on, rather than defining myself and the dream experiences according to conclusive emotional labels. Those dreams were part of a healing process for me, and my recent dream of fighting the corpses could be an expression of a powerful shift from passive stuckness in emotional moods to active engagement with the flow of emotions, even when many of those emotions are intensely “negative.”

Taking emotions too seriously is a common problem for many of us. The information that emotions give us is vital—but strong emotions were essentially designed to trigger survival responses (such as “fight or flight”), and are not suited to become the basis for our definitions of ourselves and our world. In dreams, as in waking life, we are challenged to feel what we feel, acknowledge what that feeling tells us about our situation, and keep exploring.

The ups and downs of emotions don’t determine the value of our dreaming or waking lives. The overall experience of exploring, opening and engaging with the ever-changing world around us and within us (dream world, too), is what makes for well-being, for good dreams, and for healing.



  1. Tina

    Another wonderful post. I like the fact that you were invigorated by this corpse dream–because you stayed in the challenge of it, and it all kept flowing. Thank you!

    • kirstenbackstrom

      Thank you, Tina. You describe it so well–sometimes “staying in the challenge of it” seems to be the only (and therefore best) option! Maybe the “flow” itself is just the process of encountering challenges and “staying with” them…

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