Dreamwork as Spiritual Practice

Three-Part Dreams: Discovering the Rogue

Many dreams have distinct scenes, and it’s surprising how often those scenes come in threes. It’s also common to have multiple dreams in the same night, and those frequently come in threes as well. Maybe it’s just that our memories tend to organize themselves in sets of three—perhaps there was a fourth scene, or a fourth dream, that we don’t remember. Nevertheless, whether it’s a function of memory or a function of the dreams themselves, the pattern is significant, and can be useful when we are trying to relate to the dream world.

One way of looking at a three-part dream is to think of the parts as past, present and future. Something happened in the first dream, which leads to what happens in the second dream, which leads to what will happen in the third dream. Or, there’s a problem in the first dream (where the problem started), which becomes better or worse in the second dream (what is going on now), and could reach its best or worst potential in the third dream (what will happen if the trend continues). If you look at a three-part dream this way, you’ll see a development from one situation to the next, and that can certainly be meaningful in many cases.

However, time may not really be relevant to the unfolding of dream meanings. Modern physics suggests that our sense of past-present-future does not reflect the way things actually are. Time is not linear, and we can sometimes experience this in the dream world. Often, it’s not entirely clear which dream-part came first, second or third. Dreams can transcend clock time—with precognitive elements (showing future events in the waking world), or dream events that occur simultaneously, or with cause-and-effect dream elements that work both forward and backward.

For example, recently I dreamed:

I’m buying some food at a deli counter for tomorrow’s journey: a packet containing an egg-and-potato pancake. I walk past the produce display just as the mist-spray comes on—but it malfunctions and is more like a gushing sprinkler, which soaks my clothes…

When I tried to record this dream (which had many other details not included here), I realized that I couldn’t figure out which part happened first. It seemed impossible, but in the part where I was buying the packet of food, my clothes were definitely wet. And in the part where my clothes got sprinkled, I was definitely carrying the packet of food. So, somehow, each scene had to have been preceded by the other scene. Hm.

Because of such incongruities, I’ve been exploring other ways of looking at three-part dreams—where the three parts are interdependent in a more cyclical or multi-dimensional model that doesn’t rely on sequence.

Threes are dynamic. When you have two things, there’s balance or contrast. When you have four things, there’s stability. But three means that something is happening. Whenever two things interact, a third thing comes into being that is more than the sum of its parts. My own way of describing the “third thing” is to call it the “rogue.”*

In couple relationships, the two partners as individuals combine their energies, but the rogue of that relationship is a third individual in itself—often having characteristics possessed by neither of the two partners. A child is a rogue, because she or he comes from two parents and has an individuality that can resemble both parents, but is also unique and distinct. The rogue is not just a synthesis, but a leap into new possibilities.

When there are three dreams or dream scenes, any one of them can be seen as a rogue of the other two. Here are three dreams that occurred in the same night:

  1. Dolphin Lover: A woman tells about her passionate romance with a dolphin. His skin is so sensitive that he emits a stimulating electrical charge! Now the dolphin surfaces through a hole in the floor. When I touch his head, I can feel a strong tingle. He’s beautiful. He and the woman kiss passionately.

  2. Elevator Accident: Two men have done something illegal and are in a hurry to get away. They force the elevator doors open and dash through before they realize the elevator car is not there—and they plunge down the shaft, apparently to their deaths.

  3. Climbing the Wall: I’m a man, and I’m climbing an interior wall at least two stories high, to get to a room above. Perhaps I’m following some criminals, or escaping from some crime I’ve committed? The wall is studded with electrical storage units or fuse boxes, like rocks sticking out from a cliff, and I climb these with the aid of dangling electrical cords. Swinging on the cords is dangerous because they barely hold my weight. At the top, I’m too far from the landing to swing or stretch across—and a man in the room above extends a hand to help me up, but I’m afraid if we clasp hands I’ll pull him down and we’ll both fall, since he has nothing to hold onto. There’s a woman in the room behind him, and maybe she will hold onto him.

This may seem like a rather complicated way to approach three-part dreams, but it can actually be very simple. Just use some Sesame Street logic—If you have three things, notice which two seem to have the most common elements, and which one is “not like the others.” Then, ask yourself how those common elements in the first two might come together to create the “third thing” that is more than the sum of its parts.

Dreams two and three seem the most similar to me. If the elevator and climbing dreams are combined, how is the dolphin dream a rogue? The elevator and climbing dreams both begin with escape or pursuit—a process that suggests energetic progress, but a problematic outcome. They balance one another as one is a descent and the other is an ascent. In the dolphin dream, however, the dolphin emerges right here, on our own level—he emerges into the room from below, while the woman (his lover) and I (the witness) lean down to meet him. The intimacy and energy of the passionate kiss between the dolphin and the woman suggests fulfillment and a vibrant sense of power and completion of that which is left incomplete in the other two dreams. So, if the dolphin dream is a rogue of the other two, then there’s a suggestion that descent and ascent, escape and pursuit, accident and effort can combine into a wonderful kind of emerging inter-species encounter—a male/female, dolphin/human, friend/lover collaboration that allows opposing or chaotic forces to come together. In the three dreams, the dreamer holds the contradictory, unfinished energies of a complex process, and simultaneously experiences the resolution of those contradictions.

Creativity itself seems to work like this. We recognize incomplete ideas expressed in different ways, and then, by comparing or contrasting them, we find that something new and utterly unique arises. Clearly, dreams (like life), don’t give us obvious formulas for understanding experiences—yet experiences, dreaming or waking, do form patterns that can seem satisfying and meaningful in the ways they surprise us, provide balance, offer new information, and just seem to produce fresh energy and perspectives.

When three dreams come together, it’s useful to see how they might relate to each other. When life offers us several apparently unrelated events at the same time, it’s also useful to see them as part of a larger pattern. Nothing ever occurs in a vacuum—all things are intrinsically interconnected. Perhaps meaning lies in those connections even more than in each distinct experience.


*In a herd of animals, a “rogue” is one animal that comes from the herd as a whole, but then goes a different way, potentially to start a new herd. (Sometimes the rogue has a powerful or even dangerous wildness: an uncontrolled energy.)


  1. Kiera O'Hara

    Fascinating post and conversations. Thank you.

    • kirstenbackstrom

      Thank you, dear Kiera!

  2. Marjorie

    I love “the rogue.” When you wrote about relationships, I thought you were going to say that the combination of the two people, their partnership itself, is the rogue, rather than the more obvious physical child that might come of the union. That’s where my mind went, even though there are two “rogues” abroad in the world that came of my union with their father.

    • kirstenbackstrom

      Yes! My mind goes there, too—the rogue of the relationship itself is also significant. But it’s fun to think of the ways that we are all “rogues” of our own parents, just as your daughters are “rogues” of you… Then again, human beings are actually “rogues” of all the influences in their lives—expressing different characteristics depending on the context and the the company they keep. It becomes a very complicated concept if it’s extended to its full potential! Thank you for your thoughts, Marjorie.

  3. Marilyn Hagar

    I love this idea of the third in dreams that is more than a sum of the parts. Thank you. I enjoyed this blog post.

    • kirstenbackstrom

      Thank you, Marilyn. I think it’s fascinating that this “third thing” or “rogue” that’s more than the sum of its parts is a good way of understanding many aspects of waking life as well as dreams—which would mean that whenever two things come together, there’s potential not only for an interesting combination but also for something that has never existed before to come into being. I imagine this could be a cue to how the universe itself came into being… Pretty awesome stuff!

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