Dreamwork as Spiritual Practice

The True Nature Of Dream Figures

mirror 1I sometimes imagine that I’d enjoy more dreams in which “I” am the only character, and can simply explore the dream landscape without complicated interactions with other dream figures. I sometimes even imagine that I’d enjoy having the whole waking world to myself for a day or two! But, really, waking or dreaming, the world would not be a very interesting place without other beings, other characters, to share it. In fact, there’s a sense in which we are all dreaming up—actually creating—our shared world together in each moment. Without a full cast of characters there’d be no play at all.

Dreams do occasionally seem to be solo performances, with only a single protagonist and no other obvious dream figures—but in such dreams even the “inanimate” objects, or features of the landscape, or even sounds and textures, can play the role of other characters in the dream drama. For the most part, however, our dreams are full of more obvious dream figures: people and creatures of all kinds that cocreate the context of the dream.

Often, we are just aware that there are others in the background of the dream scene—faceless fellow students in the classroom, fellow adventurers on the journey, fellow participants in the experience. Sometimes, such collective, indistinguishable dream figures provide an audience for the central action; sometimes they seem to be doing their own thing just off-stage. Who are all these people? They don’t stay in our memories individually any more than the members of a crowd at a concert—yet sometimes a face or a behavior stands out and turns these background “extras” into actual characters. And the dream figures that become actual characters sometimes return in dream after dream, or have such an impact on our emotions and imaginations that they become meaningful influences in our waking and dreaming lives.

There are different ways of understanding these dream figures. Within the dream, we tend to think of them as “other” people or animals—just as in waking life, there’s “me” and there’s “everybody else.” But in dreams, the lines between “self” and “other” can become hazy with close examination. Sometimes, I find I’m experiencing the dream not only from the perspective of the “I” character, but also from another character’s perspective, or as if I were watching the whole scene on television.

This all becomes extremely confusing if you think about it too hard—but in the dream, these slippery self/other transitions seems to flow smoothly so you don’t even notice. Only upon waking do we find a need to sort it all out—so that it will make sense enough to remember it, tell it, or write it down.

As I’ve mentioned before (“Two Basic Dreamwork Skills”), a really simple way of looking at all dreams is to see everything, and everyone, in the dream as an aspect of the dreamer. (This approach to dreamwork was formalized by Fritz Perls as part of Gestalt Therapy). So, while the “I” character (if there is one) is the aspect of myself closest to my familiar waking identity, the other characters—and even objects—in the dream are aspects of myself with which I’m less likely to identify. The way I interact with these dream figures says something about the way I’m interacting with these aspects of myself. Maybe I idealize one character, and despise or fear another, for example.

While I believe that this is an excellent psychological approach, and opens the way for some profound insights in the dreamwork process, it is not the only way of looking at dream figures. Most indigenous cultures view dreams—and waking life—differently. In shamanic traditions, dream worlds are actual worlds—parallel to the waking world, and in some ways more real. Everything in the waking world and in the dreaming world is alive and has a form of consciousness (including plants, and even objects or elemental forces). Dream figures are actual beings, with whom we interact in the dream world—and these beings may also, under certain circumstances, interact with us in the waking world.

In modern cultures, we tend to think that the only way to take such ideas seriously is to look at them as metaphorical. However, we underestimate the power and truth of metaphor. We think something that is “symbolic” is “not real.” But, truly, a metaphor is a way of describing something indescribable in terms of something more familiar. The more familiar thing is not actually more important or more “true” in its literal form than the thing it is representing—in fact, the indescribable thing it is representing is almost invariably more important, more meaningful, and in a sense more real and true, than the familiar thing. But, because that larger story isn’t tangible and factual, we say it isn’t “true.”

Indigenous people say the opposite. They say the truth behind the visible, describable world is the real truth. So, when I have a dream of being bitten by a dog, I may not need to wake up and get a shot of antibiotics, yet I have actually experienced a dog bite (albeit in a dream), and so I would treat that dog bite as something which requires real attention in my life. Though I wouldn’t necessarily need antibiotics, some form of healing ritual would be essential, once it has been determined why the dog bit me, and how serious the wound is. The dream figure of the biting dog came to my dream for a real reason, and the effects of the dog’s bite are real in my life, even though the bite probably won’t result in a physical infection.

In the next several posts, I want to write about some different kinds of dream figures, and I want to understand these figures as real. I’ll be considering dream figures that come as Messengers, Guides, or Guardians; figures that serve as Companions; figures that bear Witness; figures that play the role of Nemesis; figures that are Catalysts for change.

It’s good to remember that such figures are present, and real, in our waking lives as well as in our dreams. In waking life, a stranger may appear with an important communication (Messenger); a spouse or friend or relative may accompany us and share our experiences (Companion); an acquaintance may be quietly present, providing perspective in a crisis (Witness); a co-worker may disrupt our plans or even threaten our well-being (Nemesis); a stray cat may appear on the doorstep and demand that we change our lives to make room for her (Catalyst). All of these figures are real, and the roles they play in our lives (intentional or not) are real. Similarly, dream figures can carry significant symbolic responsibilities, and can be absolutely real and meaningful influences on our lives.

Do such figures have a “real” existence independent of our dreams? This question will definitely come up as we meet these figures face-to-face!



  1. Cynthia

    Hey Kirsten! Another great article!!!! Nice work.
    One thought that came to me: another contributer to ATH wrote that animal bites in dreams are often indicators of a shamanic kind of connection. I wonder if you’ve ever heard of that. When I read that I felt a kind of aha, as I’ve had several dreams in which animals have bitten me and sometimes I had thought of the animals as allies.
    Anyway, I like this theme you have presented. Keep up the fabulous work!

    • kirstenbackstrom

      Thank you, Cindy! That is such a great connection to share–I knew that animal bites, or being eaten by an animal, in a dream could be related to shamanic initiation, but it didn’t occur to me when I was giving the example in my post. It definitely fits. Also, it’s interesting that you’ve had animal bite dreams yourself and that your own sense of their significance points to an alliance with the animal rather than an attack based on enmity. Such paradoxical gifts are so typical of dream logic–things that seem harmful can often become turning points that lead to transformative healing, power, or love.

      By the way, for those who haven’t heard of “ATH”–it’s the All Things Healing website, and Cindy is the editor of the Dream Medicine section. It is a great resource and inspiration. Click here for the link: All Things Healing, Dream Medicine

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