Dreamwork as Spiritual Practice

Walking In The Dark

In my early thirties, my health deteriorated. Over the course of several years, increasingly severe autoimmune problems began to break down my sense of myself as an independent, capable, creative person who could make choices and take action in my own life. I seemed to have a bad case of respiratory flu that never went away. My lungs and joints ached; I had fevers and night sweats; I was exhausted, losing weight, unable to think clearly. I had to leave my job as a bookstore clerk, and soon could not even keep up with household chores or errands. I’d also developed hard lumps along my collarbones and under my arms—but these and my other symptoms were diagnosed as “cat scratch fever.” I was told that I would soon recover, but things were only getting worse. One feverish night, I had this dream:

I am walking naked in a blizzard at night, surrounded by the steam of my own breath and the snow coming from all directions in the dark. The air is freezing, but I feel warm and safe. I know I am walking, but cannot really feel myself moving. There’s just a pleasant sensation of wind-filled darkness, and icy snowflakes stinging softly all over me. I walk until the ground comes to an end at a cliff, and I step out into nothingness. I don’t feel myself falling, just merging into the swirling emptiness.

I woke from this dream with a sense of blissful release, yet as soon as I became more fully aware, I was sure that this was a dream about my death—so sure, in fact, that I woke Holly and told her I needed to see a doctor right away.

There could have been many other ways to look at this dream if it had come under different circumstances, but for me it was a perfect metaphor for the inevitable conclusion of the internal experience I’d been having. In the dream (as in my waking life at that time), each element of my conscious identity was dissolving almost easily: my clothing (roles and persona), my surroundings (relationships and work context), my perception of intentional action (will and purpose), my body (as a dependable vessel), even the ground that held me up… until there was no distinction between myself and everything—or nothing.

Although there was a sense of absolute freedom and peace in the dream, and although it also quieted my fears of death by allowing me to feel that there was/is more to me than my body and thinking mind—it also served to alert me that death was, in fact, approaching. I was not yet ready to die, and so was prompted to do whatever I could to stay alive. As a result of this dream and the subsequent development of my symptoms (the tumors got bigger and more numerous), I had a biopsy and was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Disease, a cancer of the immune system. I went through chemotherapy and then radiation treatments, and then began to recover very slowly….

The story goes on from there. It’s twenty years later now, and I’m still alive, but I’ve glimpsed enough of the Mystery (as the blizzard dream demonstrates) to know that I don’t know exactly what I am—or what will happen to “me” when I die. And, as a phrase from a Zen teaching story says: “Not knowing is most intimate.” There’s no getting away from this “not knowing” once you have experienced it. It’s as close and intimate as breathing.

This dream reflects the threshold of Mystery. I mentioned in my last post that there would be a series of further posts on this subject, and I thought I’d better start with my own experience. The challenging thing here is to write about the unknowable, the indescribable, and the inexplicable—the stuff that’s beyond words. But, words are my medium. There we are.

As I go deeper into this subject, I’ll try not to over-explain (over-explaining is a common response to the anxiety we feel at the edge of the unknown… and I’m doing it right now!) Instead, I’ll try to share some dreams that relate to death, and a few thoughts about their significance. But such dreams don’t require an intellectual response. Robert Bosnak wrote that “it is of the greatest importance when listening to dreams to stay away from snap interpretations… and to listen to the dream with a willingness to bear the brunt of its utter incomprehensibility.”

I’m counting on you to bring your own experiences to this conversation as well. Please share your “utterly incomprehensible” dreams, or your encounters with Mystery—your  own sense of the place of darkness, swirling snow, and unknown possibilities.



  1. Marjorie

    Wonderful post, Kirsten. And I’m so sorry that you didn’t have a better doctor sooner. Who would not biopsy lumps in someone who was having night sweats, weight loss and extreme fatigue (cancer clues all)? I am so glad that you went back for more tests and survived to be a part of my life. XOXO M

    • kirstenbackstrom

      Thank you, dear Marjorie. Perhaps if I hadn’t had the misdiagnosis, I wouldn’t have had the dreams and experiences…In my case (not true for everyone) the learning was worth the pain. I’m sure my doctors were all in on this interesting conspiracy to help me grow! On a more realistic note, while the tumors were small, the doctors were reluctant to biopsy because the lumps were located in nests of blood vessels, making surgery complicated and risky–so as long as there was another possible diagnosis (“cat scratch fever”), a wait-and-see approach was preferable.

© 2024 Compass Dreamwork

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑