Dreamwork as Spiritual Practice

The Uncertainty Principle: in Pilgrimage and Lucid Dreaming

my friend Woody Brinati, posing as “the Westie boy"

My friend Woody Brinati, as “the Westie boy”

By the time you read this, I hope to be on the brink of departure—completing final preparations for a life-changing two-month pilgrimage. The plan is to leave May 1st, to walk across Spain, and then go on to the Netherlands to attend (and present a workshop) at the International Association for the Study of Dreams annual conference.

Maybe many of you are world travelers or athletic hikers, but, for me, this is the most challenging experience I’ve ever voluntarily undertaken. I’ve never been to Europe, and the complexities of modern travel intimidate me. This expedition is on a frugal budget, without much of a safety net. I’m a skinny 55-year-old with some of the disabilities of a 75-year-old, and, in spite of lots of training, walking 12 miles a day with a pack and staying in hostels will test my physical limits. On the way to the airport, I’ll certainly be wondering what I’ve gotten myself into!

However, as I’m writing this, the journey is still almost two months away (I usually write and schedule blog posts ahead)—and I don’t yet know whether any of my plans and dreams will actually come to pass.

At this moment, I’m up in the air. I had a surgical procedure two days ago, and will wait another week to get test results. It’s probably not cancer, but I won’t know for sure—and can’t buy my tickets and make a full commitment—until those results come back. So, there’s a chance that when you read this I’ll actually be in the midst of a completely different kind of journey, no longer preparing for the Camino after all. Right now, I’m still recovering from surgery and walking slowly around the block is enough to tire me out. It’s difficult even to imagine being ready for the Camino by late April. For a little while at least, everything is uncertain.

This is a strange place to be. I think I know how Schrödinger’s cat must have felt. I’m in that dark box, waiting patiently (!) to find out whether my pilgrimage plans are “alive” or “dead.” For now, both possibilities exist. I am both a pilgrim on a path, and a patient facing whatever has to be faced. When the box is opened, I will be one or the other… Right?

But, really, no matter how solid my plans may be, I’m always both a pilgrim and a patient. The path that I’m following is only revealed a few steps ahead (if that), and, ultimately, there’s no doubt I’ll encounter various critical turning points and detours along the way—places where the path may be swept away entirely by events beyond my control. That’s life.

“Two basic innate kinds of energy seem to operate during our lives. One may be called the energy of the journey; it is an energy that keeps us moving forward on our path with little radical change. Those who value life when it is a steady movement toward the future, comprised of a series of predictable choices and decisions, are most in tune with journey-energy. Such people are usually surprised and upset by the presence of the second kind of life-energy called death-rebirth. This is the energy that carries us into and through crisis, illness, loss, separation, major life changes, and radical transitions. Persons who have a crisis-personality—who seem at their peak when under pressure—usually operate well with death-rebirth energy.”
-Savary, Berne & Williams (from “Dreams and Spiritual Growth”)

While the authors of “Dreams and Spiritual Growth” describe “journey” and “death-rebirth” energy in terms of how certain personalities emphasize one or the other, I find that both are meaningful as a way of understanding my present (and perpetual) situation in life. In one sense, I’m always journeying, always going forward into the next possibility. In another sense, I’m always waiting at the edge of the unknown, surrendering to whatever transformative process comes next. Of course, both of these processes are also reflected in dreams.

I might imagine that, as a pilgrim, I’m following “journey” energy, and, as a patient (waiting in limbo for test results), I’m dealing with “death/rebirth” energy. Yet it’s not so simple. As a pilgrim, I can make plans and choices—but, paradoxically, true pilgrimage means letting go of both. As a patient, I must have no expectations—but, paradoxically, a willingness to encounter the unknown on its own terms allows me to be at peace with the journey of each moment. Really, the two “life energies” are inseparable and interdependent.

When I was being prepped for surgery the other day, I was reminded of being a cancer patient in my thirties. Yes, there’s anxiety and frustration in the helplessness of this role. There’s physical discomfort, some real pain, and the utter vulnerability of leaving my body in the care of strangers. My personal plans and choices are simply not relevant for a while. It’s a kind of ego-death that is essential to pilgrimage. Maybe I’m going through this uncertain part of the pilgrimage now, so I can have less of it later on…? Hm. Nice try.

Our plans and choices ebb and flow throughout the journey—sometimes it’s all about what we want to do and can do, but at other times we must let go, trust others, accept what comes, and respond rather than initiating action. In fact, this is exactly what I hope to be doing on the Camino.

In lucid dreaming, this ebb and flow of willed action and surrender is especially evident (see “Lucid Dreaming: Control and Choice”). Once I become aware that I’m dreaming in the midst of a dream, I may be able to direct the experience without many of the limitations imposed by waking life. But the lucid dream, like the pilgrimage, is most valuable when I can willingly relinquish the idea of control, and experience the dream as it comes to me: as a gift, a surprise, a challenge, a learning experience. Lucid dreaming calls for a balance: we take action and make choices, but we also ask, receive, invite, and accept.

Here’s a lucid dream fragment from last night:

Westie Boy: …There are two rude small boys mocking me. Should I make them float up into the air? Or change them into something? No, I’ll ask permission. I ask one of the boys if he’d like me to turn him into a dog. He and his friend are both enthusiastic. I begin to shape him, gently, with my hands, not knowing whether I have enough lucidity to make the transformation work. Then, I notice that the boy has curly white-blond hair, and a terrier-like spark. It feels like he wants to become a Westie (West Highland Terrier). Following this intuition, and with his cooperation, I can easily transform him into a stocky little Westie, trembling and wriggling with excitement. His friend points out that he’s not wagging his tail, and he tries a few tentative wags—enjoying the awkward sweep of his hind end. I notice his tail is unusually long and fluffy, and offer to shorten it for him…? But he pulls it out of my hands indignantly. It’s his tail, and he likes it this way. We’re all delighted by his new body, and the three of us frolic together.

Waking life is not so different from a lucid dream. Most of the time, we actually have less control, but more choices, than we might think. In the dream, do I really have the option of imposing my will on those dream figures—or would attempting to do so have closed off my own options, and drained the dream of its energy? Choosing not to impose but to ask and attend opened up more opportunities.

Any action undertaken in the name of control tends to lead to a diminishment of participatory experience, which ultimately results in less control. In a lucid dream, if I try to turn boys into dogs without interacting with the boys themselves, I’ll just end up with the dogs I’ve invented, and the possibilities offered by those boys will vanish—basically, the dream becomes no different from something I’ve “made up,” and I’m likely to lose my lucidity. In waking life, if I struggle to control situations that are beyond my control—for example, if I try to direct the surgical procedure I’m undergoing—then my lack of control becomes increasingly obvious and onerous, and I end up experiencing myself as a victim rather than a willing participant.

On the other hand, entering into the spirit of the experience by asking permission, responding to intuition, and relinquishing expectations in a lucid dream can lead to delight, and a rollicking frolic. I learn, with my hands and my whole body, how it feels to participate in transformation. And, in waking life, this kind of openness makes even uncertainty more engaging.

I may be “up in the air” as I wait for my test results—but the pilgrimage is in process at this very moment. I’m engaged with my body (feeling strength returning after surgery), with other people (who participate in my life, by helping and sometimes hindering me), and with an ongoing spiritual journey (dreaming up ways to integrate whatever happens into a larger wholeness)…

So, this is good. I’ll let you know how it all comes out. By then, of course, there will be a whole new set of uncertainties!


[Following up on this post: Everything turned out all right—tests showed no cancer—so I’m on my way to Spain very soon. Hurray! Dreaming into the unknown ahead…]


  1. Kiera O'Hara

    Dear Kirsten,
    I loved your insight about control in lucid dreaming and waking life. I hope this doesn’t sound horribly academic, but I remember reading Coleridge in college, and how he distinguished between Fancy and Imagination. In the case of your dream, if you’d opted for total control and “made up” the whole process on your own, you would have produced a work of Fancy. But Imagination has the depth of divine spontaneity, creates something completely new.
    Anyway, I’m thinking of you with excitement and curiosity and huge feelings of support as you near the day of embarking.
    love, Kiera

    • kirstenbackstrom

      This is so great, Kiera! I love the Coleridge reference—and the distinction between Fancy and Imagination really fits… Imagination adding that element of something that goes beyond what we think we know, and “divine spontaneity.” Yes!

      I’m grateful for your support and enthusiasm as I get ready to leave—tomorrow morning!!!!—You will be in my thoughts as I walk.

  2. Alyson

    Thank you! Kirsten. Wishing you the brightest of blessings on your pilgrimage, however it may be.

    • kirstenbackstrom

      Alyson, thank you for your blessings. And wishing blessings to you as well, for whatever your own pilgrimage may be!

  3. Norbert Nielsen

    Dear Kirsten,
    surely you have a nice pilgrimage stay in europe, because the unfortunately things are gone and I hope, you can enjoy the positive inspirations of your life and to reduce a possible percieved age from day to day!


    • kirstenbackstrom

      Thank you so much for the encouragement, Norbert!

      • Kathleen Kennedy

        Hope your pilgrimage is going well! Love your reference to Woody! I have met him many times! Kathleen

        • kirstenbackstrom

          Thanks, Kathleen! Woody is such a great little guy—and he was kind enough to pose for this picture. I’m home from my pilgrimage now, and doing fine. It was a long, challenging journey, which gave me lots of opportunities to open up to new experiences! I really appreciate your encouraging words.

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