Dreamwork as Spiritual Practice

Resistance and Dream Catharsis

It seems peculiar that when so many profound spiritual and physical changes are occurring in my waking life, my dreams continue to be uncomfortably uneventful. I’m having lots of what I call problem dreams, the dreams that drain energy, vent frustration, and express unproductive struggle. In these dreams, I’m trying to do something or get somewhere, encountering petty obstacles, feeling impatient, inadequate, exasperated, resentful and worried. Do you have dreams like this? Problem dreams are extremely common. They’re like the “filler” that takes up space and time in our lives, the day-to-day entropy of irritation and expectation that fills in the gaps while we’re waiting for something more meaningful to occur.

Ironically, I’ve been quite free of such “filler” in my waking life lately. While my physical health has declined rather sharply, I’m finding ease and meaning in the unfolding of my everyday experiences. The obstacles I encounter while awake are very real, but somehow acceptable; yet at night, in the relatively harmless dream world, I’m tripping over every step, struggling with every task, resisting all the way. 

Jung wrote of the compensatory quality of dreams: how they balance our waking life experiences by showing us what we’re missing about our reality, how they restore wholeness by including what’s being neglected. In my own case, however, my “compensatory” dreams don’t seem to be inviting me to integrate these neglected, problematic elements into my waking life. Instead, they seem more cathartic, helping me to discharge energies that would exhaust me if I acted them out during the day. It seems like I’m getting the usual messy business of wrestling with difficulties out of my system in my dreams, so I can ease up when I’m awake. 

My primary spiritual practice right now is “Don’t Waste Energy.” My symptoms are exhausting enough, and I want to appreciate the life I have, not expend scarce resources on unnecessary resistance. For the moment, I have to deal with increased pain and neuropathy, increasing debility, and the threat of further deterioration. None of this is under my control, though I do have a say in how I’m going to respond, and everything is improved by a response that is yielding rather than confrontative. My health issues also put me directly in the path of a dysfunctional and absurdly obstructive medical system, which is nevertheless staffed by many kind, capable practitioners—so when I encounter difficulties (the referral inadvertently lost; the long-awaited appointment accidentally canceled at the last minute; the insurance billing misdirected) it is a waste of energy to rage and blame the decent people who are just trying to do a good job in a bad business. It’s better for me to dream and re-dream my relentless, unsolvable issues than to take them out on myself and others when I’m awake. 

At a deeper level, all of these draining difficulties are only difficult because I’m afraid. The physical symptoms and the ineffective health care system only exhaust me because they scare me, they make me aware of my own helplessness in the face of my mortality. Every exasperating problem, finally, comes down to an encounter with the truth of how vulnerable and ephemeral we all are, how little control we have over our lives or our deaths. In dreams, I’m feeling the frustrating futility of fighting, so when I’m awake I can open my arms to the shared experience of being human; I can let my own transitory suffering soften my heart. I can embrace the awesome depth and breadth of our humble, meaningful moments together—the ways we need each other, the ways we care for each other (friends and strangers alike), however imperfectly. 

I’m facing the prospect of a major spinal surgery that would restructure my body, and thus my sense of myself, completely. My vertebrae are stacked crookedly, pressing into the spinal cord, and so the spine may have to be straightened and fused—cut, broken, rebuilt. It’s difficult to contemplate being taken apart at my very axis. My spine is the tree that springs from the source of me and spreads the branches that manifest me in the world, the twigs that leaf out into my life. How frightening to permit such drastic pruning. And not to be pruned by my own cautious clipping and splicing, but to give myself over to whatever hands I have to trust. 

While my dreams take on the tangled negotiations between my idea of me and my resistance to what happens to me, my waking life is free to experience itself happening. While walking or meditating, I hear the background chatter of my fears, like the ambient noise in a busy airport or, more pleasantly, like rain pattering on the spread leaves of my life, or wind rocking the branches so they rise and fall out of sync with one another yet rhythmically. I can almost feel myself as mere awareness, sheer awareness, pervasive as sunlight or darkness. This is the truth behind all of the stories that nest in my branches, or the insidious little worries that infest my heartwood like boring insects. The sunlight is everywhere and nowhere; the darkness is everywhere and nowhere. Sunlight feeds each individual tree. Darkness is quiet. This is okay; I can live like this.

For now, my problem dreams gnaw at my sleep, but they don’t bring down the tree. In fact, there’s a kind of symbiosis going on. The dreams live in me, and they give me permission to let them be. Usually, I think of dreams as deeply important, to be explored, but these dreams are meant to be left to get on with their work, releasing me from resisting them. I don’t need to bushwhack my way toward some sort of answer. I can step back for a larger view of the thriving chaos of my life. I can witness the chaos, allow it, even love it. When I’m not resisting, I stand in the sunlight, and shine, as we all do. 


  1. Kiera O'Hara

    Thank you so much for this helpful post, Kirsten. And thank you for continuing to share with us your penetrating insights and your vulnerable, beautiful self. Along with many others, I will be holding your surgery and recovery in the Light.

    • kirstenbackstrom

      Thank you, dear Kiera. I will be holding your “beautiful self” in the Light as well!

  2. Laura

    Kirsten, these ideas and the way you express them are powerful and profound. The phrase that really struck me is, “everything is improved by a response that is yielding rather than confrontative.” Another is this, “I can almost feel myself as mere awareness, sheer awareness, pervasive as sunlight or darkness.” Indeed the calm, powerful, radiant you-ness of you comes through in your writing as a testimony to the depth of what you are experiencing and knowing these days. I just thank G-d for you and the way that you have remained open to your experience and your ability to share it with us.

    • kirstenbackstrom

      What a lovely blessing—thank you so much Laura!

  3. Heather Clark

    Thank you for this article, Kirsten. You’ve given me a new perspective on these kind of dreams.

    Just today I was with an elderly friend who had back surgery last week. He was in good spirits in spite of the uncomfortable “turtle shell” brace. May your surgery go well and lead to increased functioning for you!

    • kirstenbackstrom

      Many thanks, Heather!

  4. Lisa

    Hi Kirsten, Your article is so spot on in relation to compensatory dreams. Years ago, I read about a study abou women who had anxiety dreams during pregnancy. The ones who had anxiety dreams about their deliveries tended to have the least problems when the time came to give birth. I’m actually relieved you are having these dreams so your waking days are much brighter and easier to get through. Our whole being is so intertwined with all our leaves and branches. You write about the tree metaphor so beautifully. Thank-you for doing so! Wishing you well as you traverse all the obstacles and possible misdirections these next few weeks. I have a feeling you will get through this operation with lots of grace.

    • kirstenbackstrom

      Many thanks for the kind words, Lisa—and also for writing about the women with anxiety dreams during pregnancy… I didn’t know about that study, but it makes so much sense and is very reassuring. Blessings to you.

  5. Teresa Barrett

    Kirsten you articulate this challenging time so beautifully and honestly. Thank you for the gift you share.

    • kirstenbackstrom

      Thank you Terry! Sending you a big hug.

  6. Kate Hobbie

    Kirsten, this post touched me where I needed it most. Thank you…and godspeed to you.

    • kirstenbackstrom

      I’m so glad it touched you, Kate. And thank you for your blessing!

  7. Cathy Pettigrew

    Incredibly beautiful and deep. Thank you Kirsten.

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