Dreaming with Kirsten Backstrom, USA

Kirsten, why did you become a dream worker?

Just about every dreamworker I know has felt drawn to their dreams since childhood, and that’s certainly where things started for me. I had some inspiring, numinous dreams as a kid—but the one that really made me want to work with dreams was a memorable nightmare when I was six. In that dream, I’m being chased by all the “bad guys” from my favorite cartoons, as if I’m a cartoon character myself. I hide around a corner and hear them chanting to a drumbeat as they get closer and closer: “Here comes the Jupiter, everybody run!” I realize they’re not actually chasing me at all, but running away from something much more fearsome than themselves. After they pass in a terrified mob, there’s a silence, and then a vast darkness is rolling toward me... EOD. 

Shortly after this dream, I had two encounters with death—a boy in my first grade class died of leukemia, and I survived acute appendicitis and spent two weeks on a hospital ward with other children who were seriously ill or dying. In response to my fear of the “Jupiter” darkness and death, I created an entire mythology or religion called “The Doctor Club.” I still have pages from the “The Doctor Club” notebook that I wrote and illustrated when I was seven, including shamanic healing practices, images of death/rebirth and “willing sacrifice,” and ideas about the ultimate nature of darkness and consciousness. It was my first foray into deep dreamwork.

My model for working with dreams is experiential and mythical: in order to understand the dream world and cope with my nightmare fears, I needed to experience my dreams as fully emotionally real, and also as part of a much larger meaningful pattern in which all beings participate. Now, when I work with others, I invite them to become curious about their dreaming and waking experiences, and to trust that those experiences are connected to a deeper, universal wisdom. Dreams demonstrate that we don’t necessarily need to grasp something intellectually in order to comprehend its value and significance in our lives.

Becoming a professional dreamworker was a gradual process. Over and over, I encountered dreams that were as authentically life-changing as any waking experiences. Dreams accompanied me through cancer in my thirties, and were often useful in my professional work as a writer and as a spiritual director and pastoral counselor. I wrote my Master’s thesis on “Dreams of Death and Spiritual Transformation.” Dreamwork is a field that stretches away into the infinite distance—there’s no end to the possibilities for exploration. That’s why it draws me.

When did you start your blog Compass Dreamwork (compassdreamwork.com) and why?

I started Compass Dreamwork in January, 2013, so I could participate in the dreaming community, as well as develop my professional practice. Compass Dreamwork gave me a forum for writing creatively about dreams, exploring spiritual questions and inviting others to join me in these explorations. The site is packed with content (lots of essays, resources, and illustrations) but is quite elementary as a social media/on-line venue. Really, it’s more like a good book than like a website. Before I could begin blogging, I had to learn what a website was and teach myself how to create one, even though the technology was well outside my comfort zone. The strange rules and surprising possibilities of the virtual on-line environment reminded me of dream work!

In your beautifully written blog you often mention, if I sum it up in my own words, that dreams are just as fragmented as our waking life, it is only our mind that connects them into meaningful stories. Is this your core belief about dreams? Do you believe that dreams have meaning?

I like your words, Metka: “dreams are just as fragmented as waking life”—yes, but also just as whole and intricate and perfect and confusing and paradoxical as waking life.

I wouldn’t exactly credit the mind with being the story-maker (depending on how you define “the mind,” of course). I think that all of the rich, wild fragments that make up our lives and our dreams have a story-like potential. It’s as if the very elements of reality have magnetic charges—but not just “positive” or “negative” charges, more variations than we can imagine. Those charges affect one another, causing the elements to come together or fall apart in an infinite array of patterns, some of which are more coherent than others. Like the chips of bright glass in a kaleidoscope, these charged fragments form meaningful, colorful, mandalas or stories. All of the elements that make up a dream—including memories, culture, relationships, archetypes, perceptions, cognitive processing, ethical choices, emotions and physical sensations—might even appear at “random” (as the brain sends a scramble of signals in sleep), yet they inevitably form potentially meaningful designs when they come in contact with one another. This sort of resembles what Buddhism calls “interdependent co-arising.”

My core belief about dreams is that they are potentially meaningful experiences—but ultimately the nature of those dream experiences is just as mysterious as the nature of consciousness itself. There’s not just one meaning, but many meanings that are continually changing, overlapping, interacting. “Meaning,” in my view, is just what happens when we care about our experiences enough to be moved by them, changed by them. When we pay attention to our experiences, we start noticing the patterns they can make, the stories they can tell. If you didn’t know what a kaleidoscope was good for, and didn’t care enough to look at it closely, you might just see a jumble of chips sliding around at the end of a dark tube. But if you turn that tube toward the light, and twist the dial slowly, you’ll see how the chips fall into place, rearrange themselves, interact with one another, and create beautiful, meaningful, moving patterns. I believe our dreams, and all our life experiences, are like that.

In addition to your extensive knowledge of Christian theology you also often mention Buddhism. Dreams play an important role in Christianity, and Buddhism has its own approach to dreams through dream yoga. How do you combine the two somewhat different lines of thought in your approach to dreams?

Although I’m familiar with Christian theology, I’m not exactly a Christian myself, not a “believer” in the doctrines of traditional Christianity (except for the contemplative/mystical tradition). I see the Christian story as rooted in older archetypal ideas that are regularly reflected in dreams: there’s the “willing sacrifice” archetype, for example, in which the surrender of the ego leads to a larger life; there are the pardoxical parables which remind us that we gain that which is most valuable by letting go of our attachment to limiting material values and goals; or there’s the concept that we are not ultimately separate from one another but part of a larger divine wholeness (love). My personal bias is to look for these kinds of universal truths in dreams, and I certainly can find them, since they are as fundamental to dreams as they are to most faith traditions.

Beneath the dogma and cultural character of any tradition, there are certain “Golden Rule”-type ideals, like the Buddhist precepts or Christian commandments. These show up in dreams as opportunities to wrestle with our own personal challenges, and to understand them as ultimately shared. There are also philosophical and spiritual questions and mysteries, which are common dream themes. If you’re a Christian, you might dream in Christian imagery; if you’re a Buddhist, in Buddhist imagery, and so on.

As with Christianity, I’m less interested in Buddhist doctrine and practice than I am in the fundamental spiritual ideas. So, dream yoga is not my main focus—I agree that lucid dreaming can teach us a lot about how to question our rigid concepts of “reality” and recognize that waking life is also a dream, but the final goal of dream yoga is to stop dreaming entirely, to transcend the illusion of both dreaming and waking—and that isn’t my goal. I believe that while we’re embodied and alive in our present form, we should fully participate in our lives and our dreams, while still recognizing that these experiences are not absolutes or ends-in-themselves. What I value about Buddhism is its ideas about the nature of reality, impermanence, suffering, identity, compassion, and peace. Again, these are familiar themes in our dreams.

I’m also very interested in indigenous, shamanic traditions, which reflect the worldview of dreams most closely of all. Indigenous traditions from all over the planet teach us to see ourselves as part of a cyclical, interdependent, living ecosystem—and I think that’s what dreams teach us, too.

In 2016 you went on a pilgrimage and walked the whole Camino De Santiago trek.  In your presentation at PsiberDreaming Conference 2016 you described some of the excruciating exertion this walk required from you.  One year later, how do you view your pilgrimage and how does it affect your dreams now, if at all?

I’m in an unrequited romantic relationship with the Camino a year later... there’s longing, loss, love, and letting go, all mixed up together. I regularly dream that I am walking again—sometimes following the route backward, sometimes getting lost along the way, sometimes having miraculous encounters.

Shortly after my return from that two-month journey last year, my health began to deteriorate, and I’m currently trying to integrate new diagnoses and prospects into my understanding of myself and my life. I have a degenerative disease (as a result of radiation treatments for cancer over twenty years ago) that is now causing progressive, crippling damage to my spine, and life-threatening damage to my heart. I’d hoped to walk the Camino again—to experience it more as a joy, and less as a way of overcoming my own resistance—but with my current physical condition, a major undertaking like this seems impossible. So, I’m accepting my limitations, and trying to trust that this pilgrimage is complete as it is, and also still in process as I continue to live the pilgrimage of my everyday life.

My dreams tell me that pilgrimage is a life-long process. We walk on paths that others have walked before us (we all share common dream-themes and dream-images), but we each walk them in our own individual ways. This is holy ground, and we have a sacred destination even though it may seem impossibly distant at times. Our lives, and our dreams, force us to relinquish our comforts, conveniences, and certainties.

I love the fact that I walked that particular long, hard way across Spain while I could. It was really terrible at times: physically painful (I was sick most of the way), emotionally exhausting, and there was no time to reflect on what I was experiencing as it happened—I just lived it. Now, I’m absorbing and remembering and trusting that hard road, especially in my dreams. Isn’t that remarkable? Nothing we’ve ever experienced is lost; it becomes part of us. So, the Camino expanded my sense of who I am. This helps me to cope with the fears and confusion of my current health situation. My dreams make the connection between the past and the present experiences immediately available. Dreaming is an ongoing pilgrimage.

You've done a lot of work with patients in hospices. What do these experiences mean to you?

Well, every hospice patient I encountered was unique—and even those who were comatose seemed to have their own particular way of being. I’m not doing hospice work now, but when I think about those encounters, I’m flooded with impressions and memories.

When I first began to do hospice work, I was just recovering from my own cancer and the idea of death was very real to me—yet it was still an abstraction at the same time. As I met more and more people who were dying, I stopped thinking about “mortality” as an idea, and just appreciated the people themselves, and the profound mystery of what happened—to them, and to their families—when their lives ended and they were “gone.” I never got tired of it, because spending time with people who were dying or grieving meant being with people who were in the midst of some of the most significant moments of their lives. As with dreamwork, the “small talk” was not really small at all—every single breath, and every story or song or symptom, was potentially meaningful. As death approached, the distinction between dreaming and waking was less important. What’s “real” and what’s a dream or a hallucination? It doesn’t matter. We experience what we experience. And if we’re lucky, we share those experiences with loved ones and caring strangers. What could be more meaningful?

As I think about my own mortality now, it’s more real to me than it has ever been. The damage to my heart will probably continue, and I can actually see the end of my life ahead, not so very far away (although, I hope, not too near either). The dying people I was privileged to know give me great comfort, and reassure me that our lives have their own trajectory, and come to completion in a meaningful way. I’m trusting this. And I trust my dreams to guide me when the time comes to die.

I believe you write haiku poetry on the basis of your dreams.  Why do you choose haiku as your creative expression for dreams? Would you like to share one of your dream related haiku poems with our readers?

Well, this is a good place to conclude, because the practice of haiku directs our attention to immediate experience, to the present moment that speaks for itself. Finally, dreamwork is about meeting the dream where it is—experiencing it, appreciating it, letting it go.

robin song wakes me
the bright dream birds take flight
opening my eyes