Initiation Dreams, Part I: Big Dreams That Change Our Lives

Double exposure image combining a person's sleeping face with cloudsHave you ever had a dream so powerful it changed your life? You are not alone. Over the years, I have worked deeply with people and their dreams, and I’ve discovered that, in many instances, these “big dreams” will appear under the heels of life transitions, questioning of identity, and major losses such as the death of a loved one or a breakup. The dream is often of an initiatory nature where the dreamer is highly impacted and the experience life-altering.

What Is an Initiatory Theme?

If we look at the stories we grew up with, we find many motifs that point to initiation. In most myths, the protagonist is faced with a situation that completely transforms them. They may have been swallowed by a sea monster (Jonah and the Whale, Pinocchio) or sent into the underworld or underbelly of Mother Earth (Persephone, Inanna, White Buffalo Calf Woman).

Others may have been dismembered and put together again (Handless Maiden, Skeleton Woman, Osiris), struck by lightning, or visited by a guide in the shape of an animal, spirit, or ancestor (Thor, Gandalf, Thunderbird).

For others still, their rite of passage may have been an illness, animal bite, or near-death experience that evoked superpower abilities (Catwoman, Spiderman, Wolverine).

Why Do We Have Initiatory Dreams?

These themes are the language of the psyche, and in our modern times we are sadly removed from the initiatory practices and rituals of our ancestors. It is the dream (the final frontier!) that bestows us access to “soul knowledge,” namely in the form of big dreams.

Coined by Carl Jung, these dreams evoke high emotional intensity and extraordinary power that strike a chord in the dreamer that continues to resonate throughout their life. When these dreams occur, the dreamer may transcend into a higher awareness or reality that can be directly reached in the sleeping state.

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In the book Extraordinary Dreams and How to Work with Them, Stanley Krippner, Fariba Bogzaran, and Andre Percia de Carvalho address the many variations of these dreams, including healing, precognitive, lucid, etc., and how these dreams can be spiritual awakenings or initiations that can often lead to a dramatic transformation in the dreamer.

What Are Some Types of Initiation Dreams?

The most the vital aspect of the initiation dream is its emotional impact on the dreamer. The feelings of pure joy and love, even to the point of ecstasy rarely experienced in waking life, are a definite indication.

However, this is not always the case. Initiation dreams more often evoke terror and take nightmarish forms, especially if we are asked to face our biggest fears in order to be transformed by them.

There are certain common elements to these initiation dreams, including but not limited to:

  • Apocalyptic scenes
  • Encounters with guides or otherworldly beings
  • Animal bites (usually on the hand)
  • Visitations from the deceased/ancestors
  • Struck by lightning
  • Engaging in a ritual/rite of passage
  • Confronted or swallowed by a sea monster or creature
  • Dismemberment
  • Alchemical death and rebirth motifs
  • Mythological/archetypal themes
  • Journeys to different worlds/states of consciousness
  • Lucid, hypnogogic, or out-of-body states

Many of the people I work with have a big dream either right before or at the beginning stages of therapy. This is the time when the initiate is being propelled into the mysteries of profound change, whether externally (loss of a loved one, home, or community) or internally (an inner stirring that “something is not right”).

Many of the people I work with have a big dream either right before or at the beginning stages of therapy. This is the time when the initiate is being propelled into the mysteries of profound change, whether externally (loss of a loved one, home, or community) or internally (an inner stirring that “something is not right”).

Here is one example of an initiation dream:

I am a young girl in an ancient landscape that reminds me of Persia, India, or Babylonia due to the architecture of mosaic columns, pools, and courtyards. There is a particular pool of water where women are lounging about. I dive into this water and retrieve hair adornments from the bottom of the pool for these women, which pleases them immensely. After this ritual, I look down and notice blood on my dress. I realize three of my ribs have been taken or are missing! I am suddenly filled with ecstasy, like I know this is a good omen or sign of initiation. The girl seems to “know” more than I do, but I am her. As I wander this area, there’s a shift as I try to discover the symbol, the meaning of the missing three ribs.

Working with Initiation Dreams in Therapy

One of the most difficult challenges in dreamwork is to make sense of what is being given. This is especially true for the initiation dream.

There are ways to process the material, especially after the fallout of such dreams. It can be an uncomfortable process for people, not only due to the highly charged content but also the fear of making dramatic life changes that may call for a sacrifice in the form of jobs, loved ones, identity, belief systems, and way of life.

If you are experiencing big or initiatory dreams, I highly recommend seeking a trained professional who specializes in dreams and depth work. Having a therapist to hold the container and be a guiding force to bring context as well as support for these powerful experiences in a compassionate and nonjudgmental way is vital. What makes dreamwork so effectual is that the material has an emotional impact and comes directly from the person, not an outside source.

Here are some points of entry and inquiry to consider when working therapeutically with these dreams:

  • If you were bitten by an animal, it would be suggested to engage with the animal’s energy and habits. What animal gifts can be integrated into your life?
  • If you dream of death and resurrection, what part can shift in your life to make room for a new birth and way of being?
  • In apocalyptic and alchemical motifs, the elements are keys to understanding what’s being asked. Is it fire, water, tornado, earthquake? The element can shed light on the nature of the call and the type of transformation taking place.
  • If you have a visit from a guide or deceased loved one, what messages are being told to you? In what form?

The most important thing to remember is change is a part of life. If we can engage in the dreaming process in a conscious way, we not only live more authentic lives but can make healthier, more mindful choices.

In Part II, I will focus on the dreams of the bereaved and how they can bring healing in the face of grief.


  1. Campbell, J. (1976). The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Bollingen Series 17. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  2. Eliade, M. (1958). Rites and Symbols of Initiation (Birth and Rebirth), trans. W. Trask. London, England: Harvill Press.
  3. Jung, C. (1963). Memories, Dreams, Reflections. London, England: Collins and Routledge.
  4. Krippner, S., Bogzaran, F., & Percia de Carvalho, A. (2002). Extraordinary Dreams and How to Work with Them. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.
  5. Murdock, M. (1990). The Heroine’s Journey. Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications.
  6. Pinkola-Estes, C. (1992). Women Who Run with the Wolves. New York, NY: Ballantine Books.
  7. Sparrow, G. S. (n.d.). The Dream as a Path of Initiation. Edgar Cayce’s ARE, Virginia Beach, VA.

© Copyright 2016 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Linda H. Mastrangelo, MA, LMFT, Dreamwork Topic Expert Contributor

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Drake

    June 3rd, 2016 at 6:48 AM

    oh these are sleep in dreams, not like life in general types of dreams?

  • Linda Mastrangelo

    July 31st, 2016 at 5:18 PM

    Thanks for your inquiry, Drake. Yes, these are ‘sleep dreams.’ What I have found if we work with them in a direct way, dreams can be a map for us and an exciting tool for self discovery/knowledge.

  • Michel

    June 3rd, 2016 at 1:29 PM

    This is cool, how for so many they seem to experience this right around the time that something big is happening in their lives or they begin the therapy process.

  • Linda Mastrangelo

    July 31st, 2016 at 5:19 PM

    It is exciting, Michel! I hope this inspires you to explore your dreams more deeply…thanks for your comment!

  • shera

    June 5th, 2016 at 1:12 PM

    What an amazing opportunity to connect to the past that you may or may not even be familiar with.

  • Linda Mastrangelo

    July 31st, 2016 at 5:23 PM

    Yes, Shera! I have found that working with dreams with both my clients and as a personal practice, they have been a guiding force in all factions of life. Thanks for your comment!

  • cj

    January 29th, 2023 at 2:27 AM

    I had a dream like this..I was in a hotel and randomly went down to see if they had dinner out to my surprise they do so I start eating everything I had made three plates one, for now, the other for a snack, and another one for tomorrow..a couple of hours later I offered to help the manager at the hotel clean up the dishes she was washing and I was drying out of nowhere her son came he was around 8-11 years old the weird thing is he started praying while I and his mom cleaned hearing him pray pleased the mom so much that she started to initiate me. They started off rubbing symbols on my shoulders and forehead the setting changed and I was in this very dark room with a monk who had symbols on his arm that glowed whenever he did these arm movements. I woke up from that to being back in the hotel scared running into the elevator I knew exactly what floor and room to go to but I couldnt find it for the life of me I started opening up random rooms in the hotel but was only seeing very veryy old people

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