Dreamwork as Spiritual Practice

Shamanic Dream Perspectives

oak tree 01Much of what I write and teach about dreams starts from a psycho-spiritual frame of reference, integrating some basic ideas about dreamwork from C.G. Jung, Jeremy Taylor, and others. This approach assumes a wide range of creative and healing potential in the dreaming process, and uses archetypal metaphors and imagery (recognizable also in mythology and religion) along with personal, cultural, and contextual associations with those images.

But there are other—equally valid—ways of approaching dreams. The shamanic tradition has an entirely different perspective on the meaning of dreaming, and this is a perspective that I also bring to my work. (Incidentally, Taylor often includes this perspective in his work as well—as did Jung, in his own way.)

To bring this perspective to our conversation about dreams, I’ll be writing a series of posts about how I experience and try to apply the wisdom of shamanism in dreamwork. Today, I’d like to introduce the shamanic worldview—and I’d appreciate anything that those of you who are more experienced shamanic practitioners might want to add. Shamanism is a vast subject, with variations, and sometimes contradictions, between cultural traditions and the methodologies of individual practitioners. But I’ll try to mention a few of the essentials that define shamanism as a whole.

Shamanism was and is a primary spiritual and practical system of knowledge and skills in most, if not all, indigenous cultures worldwide. Thanks to the efforts of shamans, elders, and wisdom-keepers from these cultures, shamanic perspectives, along with some shamanic skills and practices, are becoming increasingly integrated into many areas of contemporary spirituality—making contributions not only to the spiritual development and healing of individuals and communities, but also to the ecological balance of all life.

From a shamanic perspective, all things are manifestations of Spirit, and Spirit is present in all things. In shamanism, everything is alive—and everything is inter-related. Rather than viewing human beings as the pinnacle of evolution, shamanism sees dynamic relationships of mutual responsibility among all beings—human and non-human (animal, vegetable, mineral, elemental and Spirit beings). Shamanic practices and principles emphasize the recognition, restoration, honoring and tending of these relationships.

As for dreams—they are simply a reality in which this interdependent, living system of Spirit is expressed and experienced. “Reality” is far more fluid and all-pervasive from a shamanic perspective than it is in our common, contemporary usage. While our usual definitions of reality make the waking world “real” and the dream world “unreal,” in the shamanic worldview, both are aspects of a larger Dreaming, which represents the ultimate reality. The Dreaming (called by different names in different cultures) is the beginning and end of all things, and it is created, inhabited, and sustained by Spirit (in a sense, it is Spirit). This Spirit, manifested in infinite forms, is present in both dreaming and waking experiences, so the distinction between the dream world and waking world is not absolute.

Because dreams and dream-like states can allow for a more direct human experience of Spirit, it could be said that dreams are actually more real than our waking reality. In the dream world, we can encounter Spirit in its many forms, and receive immediate guidance on how to bring ourselves and our waking lives into harmony with all life.

This is particularly significant for shamans, whose task it is to facilitate communication and alignment with Spirit, on behalf of the larger community (and individuals)—especially where that connection has been damaged. Shamans journey into “other worlds” (other aspects of the Dreaming)—including dream states—where an experience of Spirit is more accessible, and they return bringing what they have learned from those experiences to be applied in concrete ways for healing and restoration.

This is, of course, a tremendous over-simplification of a rich and complex system of wisdom and spiritual technology. My own shamanic knowledge, practice, and training is limited—yet each time I work with and from a shamanic perspective, I learn more and go deeper experientially. We all learn from our own encounters with Spirit—whether we call it “Spirit” or “shamanism” or something else—and basic shamanic practices and principles can be useful and meaningful to anyone.

This doesn’t mean we are all shamans! Those who are called and initiated as true shamans rarely have chosen this calling; it requires an intense level of commitment, training, and sacrifice—and Spirit chooses the shaman, not the other way around. Nevertheless, those not called to be shamans can still benefit from seeing the world from a shamanic point-of-view. We can all experience our dream-lives as well as our waking-lives more fully if we explore and apply that point-of-view appropriately.

So, in the next few articles, we are going to explore and apply the shamanic perspective, and see what happens to our dreamwork. Please contribute your own insights and experiences to this adventure!


  1. Kesia

    Most of my dreams leave great impressions on me. I am a teacher by nature and as I ascend in conscious awareness I seek to assist my fellow Jamaicans in this process also and through finding out about shamanism and reading your articles I see were Shamanism can assist greatly. My dreams are mostly about tidal waves, flying or am being chased or I am chasing someone.

  2. Kesia

    Greetings I am in Jamaica and I am very interested in Shamanistic DreamWork any suggestions would be much appreciated.

    • kirstenbackstrom

      Thank you for getting in touch here, Kesia. It sounds like you are deepening your own experiential wisdom so that you can bring those gifts into your community—a very shamanic process! I’m glad you’re finding my articles useful, and reading about these things is always a good place to start.

      If you want to explore dreamwork further, I also offer individual sessions for spiritual and/or dream exploration (which can be done over the phone or via video conferencing), and the first half hour session is free, so we could set up a time when you could ask questions or explore a short dream if you like. Also, my partner, Holly Jarvis, is a shamanic practitioner who does energy healing, and she would also be available to talk on the phone for a free half hour session—to answer your questions about shamanism and its possibilbilities. My email is: kirsten@compassdreamwork.com and Holly’s is: holly@compassdreamwork.com if you’d like to follow up on either of these options.

      Another great resource is the International Association for the Study of Dreams (their website is http://www.asdreams.org)—they’re an excellent organization, and you might want to become a member, since it’s a perfect way to meet lots of others with similar interests. They have a really good magazine, a research journal, and a newsletter—plus some conferences that are wonderful events for making connections in a learning community, if you’re up for traveling (they hold conferences in many parts of the world, but I don’t think there’s yet one in Jamaica).

      So I hope that’s not too much information all at once! And I really hope you find whatever you need to continue your seeking and teaching. Blessings on your path!

  3. Lisa Rigge

    As of tonight, I will have finished reading “The Shaman’s Body” by Arnold Mindell – read it all day on the airplane on my way home. Synchronistic! Another book I read years ago was “Woman in the Shaman’s Body” by Barbara Tedlock. You capture the essence of Shamanism very well, Kirsten. And yes, it is such a complexity of wisdom! Attention and Awareness are the two concepts I carry from Mindell’s work – which is of course what we do in dreamwork. appreciate your taking the time to explain this to the readers of your blog. And, if people are interested in reading further on the subject, I recommend both of these books.

    • kirstenbackstrom

      Thank you for the recommendations, Lisa! You inspire me to re-read Mindell (I studied Process Work with him for several years, a long time ago), and also to look for the book by Tedlock. I’ve read articles by her, but not a full book, and her work is fascinating.

  4. Tallulah

    Your post is a beautiful way to help us dream workers recognize that our greatest task is to facilitate the recognition of the interrelatedness of all things and sense of connection with Spirit.
    We’ll look forward to the adventure.

    • kirstenbackstrom

      Thank you, Tallulah! I certainly agree that this is “our greatest task” as dream workers–and it’s a task for all human beings to be aware of, especially in these times…

  5. Tina

    Great post, beautifully articulated. Can’t wait to hear more…

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