Dreamwork as Spiritual Practice

Surrender, Dreamer!

backpack 02You know those times in the middle of the night when you wake up and start worrying, and every challenge you anticipate becomes an impossible obstacle, or a catastrophe waiting to pounce? Late night anxieties are notoriously difficult, perhaps because on the edge of the dreamworld we are especially vulnerable to our strongest emotions, and prone to experiencing every passing thought or impression as portentous. But these very characteristics of dreaminess (increased emotional tone, powerful sense of significance) can also be openings to inspiration, or invitations to creatively explore our fears.

So, the other night, half-awake, I found myself imagining the realities of a pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago (a journey I plan to take next spring). First, there’s just the panicky certainty that I’m not up to it, and then, gradually, a weird mix of anxiety and anticipation. I imagine myself arriving alone in some large city in Europe, jet-lagged and disoriented, making my way by train or bus to a small village in France or Spain (still haven’t settled on the exact starting point), finding food and shelter for the night, then setting out to walk 10-15 miles a day, carrying an awkward backpack, for almost two months. I imagine sleeping in crowded hostels, coping with mountains, rain, cold, heat, exhaustion, injuries, illness, loneliness, food and bathroom issues, and utterly unfamiliar people and surroundings…

The prospect is, to say the least—daunting. The middle-of-the-night effect amplifies the out-of-control feeling of my imaginings, but I hold myself poised on that edge, balancing, leaning forward, allowing the fears to rise and flow and pass. I surrender to the experience, as if I will be leaving for the airport in the morning (no turning back!), or as if in a dream where everything that happens has an all-or-nothing spontaneity.

Somehow, there’s that wonderful combination of deep willingness and objective witnessing that characterizes authentic surrender. I know that surrender is essential to compassion, mindfulness, and wisdom. It means being “all in,” entirely committed, yet not attached to the outcome. In the middle of the night, taking responsibility for my decision to undertake a pilgrimage, I am aware of how scary and hard this adventure could be, and I feel empathy for anyone plunged into such adventures, by choice or otherwise. But I’m not making the fear into an opponent; I’m acknowledging resistance as part of the process we all go through when our lives change and we step (or stumble) into the unknown.

I do not intend to die on this pilgrimage, any more than I intend to die on any given day of my life—though it’s always possible that today is the day. And I know from past experience that I’m capable of handling a very great deal of discomfort (in fact, a great deal of pain), when called upon to do so. Most of us (maybe all of us) are capable of this. I’m also quite familiar with the experience of fear. If I accept that setting out to walk more than 500 miles alone in a foreign country will be, at times, extremely uncomfortable, and that I will be afraid—then what? I imagine, when the time comes, I will engage with the experience as I would engage with a dream: wholeheartedly, in the midst of the moment.

In my solitary imaginings, I can’t anticipate what will happen when I turn myself over to the long walk itself. The pilgrimage will have to do with other people and our interactions, with the places and circumstances rather than with my solitary reflections, so my anticipation is only a sketch, an outline of the full color, 3-D experience for which I am preparing.

Yet, between now and then, dreams can fill in the colors. My dreams give me the aspects of this experience I can’t yet imagine. Lying awake, anticipating surrendering to the Camino, I naturally surrendered to dreams. In my dreams (as in every moment of my life, actually), I’m not in charge of what happens, but I do the best I can:

Pilgrimage Fragments: Preparing to go to the airport to set out on the Camino. Family members are here to see me off. I’m packing—choosing carefully, rearranging things. We need to leave soon, but Dad is out on a tiny mud island in a big shallow lake, trying to photograph fish. He tries to step or leap back to shore, but falls into the water, soaking his nice suit. Picking himself up, he says that he has injured his hip, and begins to wade, slowly, toward me. I notice my cat, Annie, sitting nearby with a beautiful blue butterfly in her mouth. I ask, “Annie, what are you doing?” And Annie answers, around a mouthful of butterfly, “I’m eating this.” Gently removing the butterfly from her mouth, I set it free. At first I’m afraid it’s been too badly hurt, but then it flies off. Dad comes ashore. He’s miserable with allergies—his eyes red and puffy. I tell him that once you’ve done everything you can do, the only thing left to do is wait: the misery will pass. He’s still miserable. As I am helping neighbors to carry some boxes of toys, I think of Dad and go back to tell him that the other thing he can do is distract himself by helping others. He is already feeling better. All of this is preparation for my journey…

Dreams (where there are no direct external consequences) leave us truly free to surrender to events and see what happens. We know that there is more to us than any single experience or emotion we might dream or imagine. We know that we’ll go on from here—get up in the morning, or just take the next step that needs to be taken—so for now, we can give ourselves permission to feel even the most difficult feelings, and wrestle with uncomfortable circumstances. No need to call any of this a “bad dream” or a “big worry”: it’s practice. We can test the water, lie on our backs and float in our vulnerability. We can let ourselves feel our fear of drowning. And by the time we wade ashore, we find we’re a lot less afraid.

When I’m actually thrown overboard next May, plunging into that very long walk away from my comfortable life, maybe I’ll remember to surrender to the water. I’ll surrender because, along with the practical preparations (physical training, planning, etc.), I’ve rehearsed it all in my dreams and in my middle-of-the-night imagination: grasping and letting go, falling in and wading out, flailing and floating.


  1. Marjorie

    I love this image: “but I hold myself poised on that edge, balancing, leaning forward, allowing the fears to rise and flow and pass.”

    • kirstenbackstrom

      Thank you, Marjorie. I’m inspired by your own words about surrender… “When you’re afraid you’re going to drown, go limp in the water.” Is that right? I’m not sure I’m remembering it the way you said it, but the feeling of letting go and trusting the water’s buoyancy is something I associate with you.

  2. Karen Deora

    El Camino: a metaphor for our lives? You are SO wise and I appreciate your words of wisdom. They could become a book?

    • kirstenbackstrom

      Thank you, Karen! I’ve dreamed of a book… Maybe the Camino will help bring the dream into waking life…?

      Perhaps there’s a book waiting to be written by you as well? Your own wisdom is powerful stuff.

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