Dreamwork as Spiritual Practice

Ocean of Dreams: Responsible Dreamwork

Those of us with a professional interest in dreams have a responsibility to bring creativity, curiosity, commitment and depth to our work. Whether we are therapists, spiritual directors, teachers, healers, researchers, artists or entrepreneurs—working responsibly with dreams means 1) exploring our own dreams with a willingness to go beyond what we think we know about ourselves, and 2) contributing original insights and approaches to the field of dreamwork.

Dreams are more than useful tools or clever tricks, they invite us into the unknown and the unknowable. Like an ocean, the dream world surrounds us and can seem familiar, yet the depths are largely unexplored, and anyone who cares to dive deep enough may bring undiscovered species, unexpected natural resources, and astonishing observations to light. I believe that intentional, imaginative, in-depth dreamwork is a responsibility because careless “expertise” can so easily become exploitation.

Tragically and ironically, it is because the oceans are so apparently unfathomable that people have used them as dumps for everything that we don’t want to deal with—and it can be like that with dreams as well. For those who are considered authorities on dreams, it can be all too easy to toss our toxic waste into the dream world by projecting pathology and suppressing possibilities. It can be all too easy to feel that the dream world is ours to possess, develop, explain and subdue. It can be all too easy to use the natural resources of dreaming for selfish purposes, taking more than we are willing to give back.

If we don’t explore our own dreaming experiences with an open mind and a willingness to be changed, then studying others’ dreams can become a way of avoiding self-awareness, confirming our prejudices, and establishing our reputations. If we don’t reach beyond what we’ve been taught about dreams, we end up trapping ourselves and others into confining habits of thought that prevent further growth. Beyond the basic ethical guidelines defined by the International Association for the Study of Dreams, responsible dreamwork means respecting both dreamers and dreams by acknowledging that they are not reducible to self-serving assessments or formulaic interpretations.

Of course, as long as I’m upholding such high standards, I’d better be sure that I’m applying those standards to myself. To the best of my ability, I do explore my own dreams, and try to make new contributions to the field of dreamwork. When I come up against personal challenges in my dreaming life, I try to go deeper, rather than shy away. There are times when it’s difficult to remember my dreams, and times when the dreams are unpleasant, disturbing, confusing or all too revealing. Sometimes, personal dreamwork takes a lot of stamina, not to mention courage. This is not always fun, but it’s good to learn how to work and play with difficult material. I write some dreams down, make art from some dreams, act on some dreams and let some go; I share some dreams and keep some to myself. I bring some of my dreams to other dreamworkers—to individual friends and a peer dream group—and I meet with a spiritual director, because such skilled helpers give me a chance to recognize my own blind spots and keep expanding the scope of my awareness.

Although my certification is in Jeremy Taylor’s Projective Dream Work, my own approach is drawn from a lifetime’s experience working with, and studying, dreams—and lots of other things. My education has included degree or certification programs in process-oriented psychology, human ecology, pastoral care, spiritual direction, grief counseling, end-of-life/hospice care, and innumerable Quaker and Buddhist programs of study, as well as extensive reading in world religions/mythology, anthropology, literature, history and natural sciences. Most dreamworkers I know have similarly wide-ranging interests and experiences, and most are continually learning more.

I’ve immersed myself in just about everything available about dreams. The further I sail into the sea of dream studies, the further the horizon recedes. Knowledge and mystery increase in direct proportion to each other:

“We dredge up soil from the bed of mystery and build ourselves room to grow. And still the mystery surrounds us. It laps at our shores. It permeates the land. Scratch the surface of knowledge and mystery bubbles up like a spring…. Knowledge is an island. The larger we make that island, the longer becomes the shore where knowledge is lapped by mystery.”
-Chet Raymo

Practicing dreamwork, for me, means applying different approaches in different circumstances, and discovering new approaches through the dynamic interplay of dreamers with their dreaming and waking experiences. In any given week, I’ll usually encounter twenty or more dreams—from myself, from clients, friends, and acquaintances—and each one calls for its own response. I hope that I’ve reached a point in my work where these responses arise naturally and spontaneously, from the depths of direct experience, rather than being paraded out like a fleet of battleships. Knowing too many techniques can be a problem if dreamwork gets to be a way to show them off. But if I’ve been immersed in the oceanic dream world deeply enough, then responses will reveal themselves like surfacing sea creatures or the intricacies of a coral reef—emerging from the dreams rather than from some array of selected interventions.

There are so many wonderful dreamworkers applying their creativity and integrity to exploring the ocean of dreams! I know this because my particular professional specialty is providing spiritual support, and dreamwork, for my fellow dreamworkers (my clients also include therapists, spiritual directors, artists, healers, teachers and other gifted and wise people). I want to encourage, and work with, those who are willing to dive in, experience their own depths, and open up new possibilities for other dreamers. And I love to work with those who are dedicated to approaching the unknown, contributing to the healing of the earth, creating beauty, and expanding our understanding, because these people challenge me to do the same.

It is our responsibility to care about what we are doing when we explore dreams—after all, caring about life is what makes life meaningful, and the ocean of dreams is absolutely teeming with life. We can challenge ourselves to care deeply, imagine boldly, and take responsibility for honoring the dream world as we invite others to explore with us. The dream world itself responds to our efforts. We can trust that our lives matter, and our work matters, if we live and work and dream wholeheartedly. So lets plunge in. You know, there’s no need for scuba gear or submarines to take us into the depths: in the ocean of dreams, we can breathe underwater!



Note: If you’d like to dive into your own dreams with a fellow dreamworker, you are welcome to contact me: kirsten@compassdreamwork.com  for a free initial session (via phone, video, or in person).



  1. Jenny Alexander

    Lovely post, and very well said – thank you. I’m an author, lifelong dreamer, always expanding my knowledge and awareness of my ignorance, and in my workshops I help people engage with their dream material through writing, where the focus is entirely creative and not interpretative. They find it fascinating and freeing, and I think that’s the best beginning for opening up to dreams.

    • kirstenbackstrom

      Thank you, Jenny—your work sounds so creatively nourishing to the spirits of the participants. I’m glad that you are contributing your gifts to the ocean of dreams!

  2. Mindfunda

    Hi Kirsten, good morning, i hope you are doing well. Diving into the ocean of dreams 😉 Your post is such a synchronicity as i have been working with the Freya energy this week, in my Norse Mythology Dreaming Course. Water is a prerequisite for life as we know it, and Freya is -as many Earth goddesses- a water deity.

    It is hard to imagine that a creature who names itself after its brain: Homo Sapiens can dump so much waste in the sea. I share your worries about that.
    I think we can dream the earth a better place! I am looking forward to your next post and I will, when it is time in my course to connect with the goddess who dreams up the universe in a lucid dream share my worries about the earth with her. I think that lucid lesson that starts April 10 (my birthday) will be one of the greatest dream adventures I have ever undertaken.

    • kirstenbackstrom

      Good day, Susanne! I appreciate the synchronicity with your Freya post, and have been enjoying your series on Norse Mythology—thank you so much for your good work as an international ambassador among the dreamers and dreamworkers! Blessings on your upcoming birthday—and beyond…

  3. Mary Jo Heyen

    Kirsten – such gorgeousness you articulate here…the courage and responsibility necessary for working with our own dreams…to learn from them…each other…our teachers…you are a valued voice in this work we do. Thank you!

    • kirstenbackstrom

      Thank you, Mary Jo—you are a valued voice as well, and I’m honored by your response to my work. So much to be grateful for. Blessings and gratitude.

  4. Tzivia Gover

    Well said! I enjoyed following you on your deep dive.

  5. Karen Deora

    Beautiful writing, Kirsten. Thank you.

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