Dreams Shed Light on Obama’s Values

San Francisco Chronicle Insight Article
Originally Published August 17, 2008

“I am something of a dreamer” – so confesses Barack Obama in the closing pages of “Dreams from My Father,” the title of which signaled his strong interest in dreaming, both metaphorical and literal. In the book, he shared two of his own dreams, each testifying to his long struggle with the morally and spiritually ambiguous legacy of his father.

Surprisingly, neither Obama’s critics nor his supporters seem to recognize the significance of what those two dreams reveal about his core values.

As he prepares to deliver his address at the Democratic National Convention on Aug. 28, the 45th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, Obama’s personal dreams provide a deeper psychological context for this key campaign moment.

The first dream occurred when he was a senior at Columbia University, a year after receiving the news of his father’s death. It started with him on a bus trip with an unknown group of people. An old white man sitting nearby informed him that “our treatment of the old test(s) our souls.” The bus stopped at a grand hotel, and the old man somehow changed into a small black girl who began playing the piano.

The trip continued. Obama dozed, then awakened (still in the dream), alone. He got off the bus and stood in front of a rough stone building. Inside, a lawyer and judge discussed the fate of Obama’s father, a captive in jail. The judge was willing to release him, but the lawyer argued against it because of “the need to maintain order.”

Then Obama stood before the door to his father’s cell. He unlocked it and confronted the man, with “only a cloth wrapped around his waist.” His father smiled and said, ” ‘Barack, I always wanted to tell you how much I love you.’ ” They embraced, but suddenly his father shrank in size, and a deep sadness overcame him. Obama tried to lead his father out of the cell, but he declined and told his son he should go.

The dream ended there, and Obama said, “I awoke still weeping, my first real tears for him – and for me, his jailor, his judge, his son.”

We would need Obama’s personal associations to make sense of all the dream’s details. But no special psychoanalytic training is required to identify his feelings of hostility toward his father, intermixed with love and sadness.

Obama narrated this dream in the closing pages of the memoir’s first part, titled “Origins.” The dream marked the end of his beginning, the initiation of his journey back to his ancestral roots, back to his father’s grave in Africa.

The second dream came during that journey, when Obama and his half-sister were traveling by train to his family’s village in Kenya. She told him a disturbing story about their grandfather and his cruelly self-righteous behavior toward others. That night, Obama dreamed he was walking through a Kenyan village filled with playful children and pleasant old men. Suddenly everyone panicked at the sight of something behind Obama; they ran for safety as he heard the growl of a leopard. He fled in a mad dash, finally collapsing in exhaustion: “Panting for breath, I turned around to see the day turned night, and a giant figure looming as tall as the trees, wearing only a loincloth and a ghostly mask.”

The detail of the loincloth appears in this dream as in the first, suggesting the giant figure’s tremendous size reflects a doubling of generational influence, the combined impact of his father’s and grandfather’s high moral demands.

If, as many dream researchers believe, one of the functions of nightmares involves the expression of unconscious conflicts between different parts of the psyche, then Obama’s nightmare can be seen as a call to greater awareness of shadow elements from his past – personal qualities he deplores in his paternal ancestors yet fears may dwell within him, too.

Again, we can’t know the full meaning of any dream without additional input from the dreamer. But Obama has told us enough in his memoir to draw at least one fairly straightforward conclusion: His dreams reveal him to be acutely conscious of the ever-present power of family tradition in his life. He may feel deeply ambivalent toward his ancestors, but he has discovered he must find a way to accept their continuing influence over him.

This suggests that Obama is perhaps more temperamentally conservative and respectful of paternal authority than most Americans assume.

Critics who portray him as an anarchist fail to appreciate this quality of his character. So, apparently, do those liberals who have been alarmed at the seeming “rightward shift” in his recent policy statements. His dreams suggest this is not just short-term electoral maneuvering but rather a reflection of a conviction that he must show respect for traditional wisdom, even as he tries to adapt that wisdom to changing circumstances of the present.

This article appeared on page G – 9 of the San Francisco Chronicle.

Link to Article Online:
“Dreams Shed Light on Obama’s Values,”
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A Talk with Kelly Bulkeley: The Boston Globe, Nov. 2, 2008

Boston Globe Article

November 2, 2008

KELLY BULKELEY FIRST became interested in dreams as a teenager, after being haunted by a recurring nightmare of being chased by Darth Vader. He’d wake up in a cold sweat, terrified of that glossy black mask. While the typical adolescent would probably choose to avoid “Star Wars” paraphernalia, Bulkeley ended up pursuing the deeper meaning of the dreams: Why were these imagined experiences so vivid and powerful? Where did they come from? What was their significance?

Bulkeley discovered that the content of dreams – the particular stories we tell ourselves when asleep – had been disregarded as a scientific subject. “Studying dreams still seemed like a very Freudian activity,” he says, “and nobody wanted to do anything that Freud might have done.”

This led Bulkeley to divinity school. For most of recorded history, he explains, dreaming has been intertwined with the divine. A vivid nightmare was a prophecy, a coded message from the gods. What Bulkeley wanted to do was use this rich religious tradition to better understand the process of dreaming. “You see the same type of dream occur over and over again, in all these different religious texts,” he says. “I think this universality can teach us something interesting about how the brain works.”

A visiting scholar at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Calif., Bulkeley recently published “Dreaming in the World’s Religions,” a vast survey of religious dreams and religious attitudes toward dreaming. He analyzes the sexually tempting nightmares of St. Augustine and the mourning dreams of “The Illiad,” the conception dream of Buddha’s mother and the “vision quests” of the Ojibwa people. But Bulkeley isn’t interested in these dreams because of what they teach us about the divine. “I’m not a particularly religious person,” he says. Rather, he hopes that these old narratives will inspire new research. A dream might not be real, but it can still illuminate the reality of the human mind.

IDEAS: Do you think dreaming played a crucial role in the development of religion?

BULKELEY: I think it’s clear that having certain kinds of dreams can’t help but provoke religious or spiritual thoughts. It’s just inevitable. In that sense, spirituality is a natural outgrowth of the way the dreaming brain seems to work. I’ve tried to be very agnostic in this book, but I can also see why theologically minded people find dreams to be such a source of inspiration.

IDEAS: There’s a long tradition of people trying to understand the mind of God by studying their own dreams. But dreams are also inherently ambiguous and open to interpretation. How do religions deal with that issue?

BULKELEY: The problem of how you interpret dreams without being deceived is a real source of tension for a lot of religions. You might think you’ve cracked the code [of the dream] but you haven’t. Or maybe the demon is trying to trick you with dreams.

There’s this assumption, I think, that looking at dreams goes along with a naive state of mind, that you’ve got to suspend reason and critical thinking when thinking about dream content. But, in fact, virtually every culture has struggled with that very question, the question of decoding, how to find the deeper messages and not be misled.

IDEAS: You argue that modern science can learn about dreaming from religion. Do you have a favorite example that you use when talking to scientists?

BULKELEY: Well, consider this particular kind of nightmare dream that recurs again and again in religious texts. In the Christian tradition they talk about the incubus, or the demons of the night. In Newfoundland, it’s the old hag and so on. But what all these various religions agree on is that there’s a type of nightmare that’s very intense and involves the constriction of breathing or paralysis. Now we know, thanks to modern science, that this is a real class of dream called night terrors and they’re very different from ordinary nightmares. So all these texts that talk about night terrors, they’re actually describing a real element of human experience.

IDEAS: Then is it fair to say that these religious prophets or religious texts were there first? That they described a psychological phenomenon that science would only later describe?

BULKELEY: If you bracket out the claims about how the world was created or what God is like, and you just look at the kind of experiences that are described in all these religious texts, and then compare these descriptions to what we know today from science, I think you can see that there are some real correlations. I’m talking about dreams that appear across cultures – they’re universal themes – and that suggests to me that these dreams are rooted in a fundamental feature of human nature.

IDEAS: Was there a particular moment when dreams stopped being seen as largely religious phenomena?

BULKELEY: As far back as Aristotle, people are thinking that dreams are at least in part produced by the physical workings of our bodies and not just messages from above. I think that sort of skepticism has been part of a more widespread tradition that you can see in just about every culture, which is the acknowledgment that even these dreams which seem to have a spiritual dimension can still be false or misleading.

In more modern times, it’s easy to pin the blame on [Rene] Descartes, who largely dismissed dreams as irrelevant. . . .The irony is that we now know from scholarship that Descartes had some powerful dreams himself which inspired him to leave his family business and become a philosopher.

IDEAS: You argue in your book that modern science, like Descartes, has largely discounted dream content as inherently meaningless. Is this a mistake?

BULKELEY: My partisan view is that science should certainly learn to appreciate dream content. I think too often there’s this belief among scientists that dreams are just random utterances of the brain stem and that we shouldn’t waste time trying to figure out what they mean.

In part, I think this is a justifiable reaction to the tendency of Freud and Jung to impose categories onto dreams, and so then you end up finding what you expect to find. It’s absolutely fair to question those loose interpretative systems.

But I also think it’s possible to analyze dream content in a more systematic way, so that you can really pull out these patterns that are universal. And I think you can find some of these universals by looking at various religions.

IDEAS: Do you still dream about Darth Vader?

BULKELEY: No, I haven’t been visited by Darth in a while, which is quite nice.

Jonah Lehrer is an editor at large at Seed magazine and the author of “Proust Was a Neuroscientist.” His next book, “How We Decide,” will be published in February. He is a regular contributor to Ideas.

Boston.com: A Talk with Kelly Bulkeley

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Bin Laden’s Dreams, and Ours

The recently released videotape of Osama bin Laden openly discussing the September 11 terrorist attacks does more than offer compelling evidence of his role in organizing the attacks. The video also provides the best insight yet into the religious and psychological world of bin Laden and his followers. A major portion of the video involves bin Laden, an unnamed sheik, and several other men discussing prophetic dreams and visions relating to the September 11 attacks. Many American commentators have expressed amazement at bin Laden’s interest in such tribal superstitions. But in fact this seemingly nonsensical conversation is quite revealing of the deepest motivations guiding the behavior of bin Laden and his followers.

Dreams and visions have played an enormously important role in Islam from its very beginning. The Prophet Muhammed is said to have received the first revelation of the Qur’an in a dream visitation from the angel Gabriel. Throughout his life Muhammed experienced dreams he believed were communications from Allah, and he encouraged his followers to tell him their dreams so he could interpret them. Many of these dreams included images of violence and warfare, and in each case the dream was interpreted as a sign of God’s support and guidance in the battle against the unbelievers.

Viewed in this light, the video portrays a ritual reenactment of the dream interpretation practices of the Prophet Muhammed. Bin Laden, playing the role of the religious/military/political leader, is taking time out from the war against the infidels to speak with his followers about dreams, visions, and other reassuring signs that God is on their side and will guide them to ultimate victory. This is identical with what Muhammed practiced with his followers on a regular basis almost 1400 years earlier.

The video is perhaps the clearest evidence yet found that bin Laden is patterning his life after the Prophet Muhammed, and feels himself blessed with the same degree of divine approval for his violent struggle with the enemies of God. His perverse success in persuading thousands of young Muslim men to fight and die for him is very likely due to their perception of him as a Muhammed figure—an inspiring warrior-prophet who embodies the wrathful power of Allah.

Can anything be learned from the particular dreams discussed in the video? Bin Laden and his followers mention a total of seven dreams and dream-like experiences. The first involves a strange soccer game between American pilots and Muslim pilots, which the Muslim team wins. Three other dreams portray airplanes crashing into tall buildings. A man is reported to have had a vision of carrying a huge plane on his back to the desert, while another man envisioned a group Muslim faithful leaving for jihad in New York and Washington. Bin Laden says a soldier told him he’d dreamed of a tall building in America, and then of learning from a spiritual teacher how to “play karate.”

What’s most striking about these dreams is how similar they are to the dreams reported by Americans about the terrorist attacks and the war in Afghanistan. Since September 11 I have gathered several hundred dream reports, most of them highly disturbing nightmares, from people all across the U.S. The predominant themes in these fear-ridden dreams are airplane crashes, military conflict, building explosions, terrorist attacks, and threats to children and family members. Many of the American dream images are almost identical to the bin Laden dreams, but the emotions they evoke are radically different: the American dreams are suffused with fear, confusion, and a horrible sense of vulnerability, while the bin Laden dreams are welcomed as good omens. What terrifies the Americans brings joy to the Muslims. Nothing could make clearer the distressingly huge psychological gap separating the two warring sides.

Many of the dreams people have reported to me came before September 11 and appear, like the bin Laden dreams, to have “prophetically” foreseen the attack. There is of course great scientific controversy about whether dreams can actually anticipate future events. But for people who feel they’ve had such dreams, the experience often bring a terrible sense of guilt—“Did I really see this coming? Could I have done anything to stop it?” For those people, the most chilling part of the bin Laden videotape surely comes right after he tells about the young man who dreamed of a tall building in America: “At that point,” bin Laden tells his followers, “I was worried that maybe the secret would be revealed if everyone starts seeing it in their dreams. So I closed the subject.”

Kelly Bulkeley, Ph.D., teaches religion and psychology at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California. He is editor of Dreams: A Reader on the Religious, Cultural, and Psychological Dimensions of Dreaming (Palgrave, 2001)

Review: The Little Vampire

I don’t know anyone who saw this movie. In fact, I don’t know anyone who even heard of this movie before I mentioned it to them. “The Little Vampire” quietly passed in and out of theaters in the fall of 2000, just before the seasonal onslaught of family-friendly films released between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Whatever kind of marketing campaign the movie’s producers tried to mount, they didn’t succeed in spreading the news of their work very far. That’s too bad, because “The Little Vampire” is one of the best children’s movies I’ve seen in a long while. This is a movie that asks its young viewers to believe vampires can be good guys and scary guys at the same time. Children’s movies rarely ask for that kind of cognitive sophistication from their audiences. Most kid movies (and, as father of three, I’ve seen a distressingly large number of them) prefer to keep their moral distinctions clear, unambiguous, and unthreatening. “The Little Vampire” directly challenges simplistic moral categories by portraying vampires as frightening, ghoulish, dangerous, and worthy of respect, sympathy, and friendship.

For many children, vampires stand at the very top of the bad guy hierarchy. Nothing is scarier than sharp-fanged bloodsuckers who live in coffins, come out only at night, and have the ability to turn into bats. To its great credit, “The Little Vampire” does not downplay these horrifying qualities (with the one exception of not showing any actual drinking of blood). The vampires do not become cuddly, Disney-fied dolls; they are truly the undead–fearsome creatures of the dark. The film maintains a strong sense of the weirdness of vampires, the creepy otherness of the world in which they live. And yet, the film goes on to suggest a connection between humans and vampires is still possible. Even though vampires are really, really, really scary, we who live in the light can still find a way to befriend to them.

The improbable agent of this potential for relationship is an eight-year old boy Tony, played by child actor Rollo Weeks with a mannered cuteness that almost, but not quite, ruins the movie. Tony’s unflagging good cheer enables him to take the initiative in making friends with a slightly older vampire boy named Rudolph, whose delicate features and pallid beauty evokes all the eerie romance of the vampire legend. The development of their friendship is the heart of the movie, and I enjoyed the simple words and gestures through which the two boys slowly come to know and like each other.

I naturally found it intriguing that the original impetus for Tony’s good-hearted and fearless determination to help Rudolph is series of strangely intense nightmares. In these dreams Tony learns of the centuries-old curse laid upon Rudolph’s family and their desperate quest to have the curse lifted. Because of these dreams Tony develops an unshakeable certainty that vampires are real—though of course his parents, teachers, and schoolmates laugh at him in scornful disbelief. Tony’s defiant certainty enables him to stay true to his new friend no matter what happens. In this regard “The Little Vampire” is a classic story of a child learning to trust his own budding intuition and have the courage to take the initiative in befriending those “creatures of darkness” the adult world fears and despises.

The ending of the movie is rather sappy, as is true in most children’s films. Tony’s heroic efforts succeed, the curse on Rudolph’s family is lifted, and all is well again. The happy narrative closure does not, however, dispel the truly haunting, reality-stretching possibilities this film suggests to its young viewers’ imaginations.

Joe Lieberman’s Farewell Dream

Joe Lieberman's Farewell Dream by Kelly Bulkeley“He [Lieberman] was feeling loose now, so much so that he began telling aides about a dream he’d had the other night in which long-dead Democratic Connecticut Governor John Dempsey had walked across a stage and waved at him.  Lieberman was puzzled by the dream.  It was hard not to wonder what his unconscious was telling him: Was this the Democratic organization from the past wishing the senator well or waving goodbye?”

“Joe Lieberman’s War: The Hawkish Senator Finds Himself in an Epic Battle—With his Own Party,” by Meryl Gordon, New York Magazine, August 7, 2006.

On August 8th, 2006, Joseph Lieberman, the incumbent Democratic Senator from Connecticut, lost the Democratic primary to newcomer Ned Lamont, whose anti-war campaign stirred up sufficient liberal opposition to reject Lieberman and his unwavering support for President Bush’s campaign in Iraq.  His defeat seemed to mark the end of his career, a dramatic and precipitous fall given that just six years earlier he was the Democratic Vice-Presidential candidate alongside Al Gore.

Lieberman did not accept defeat, however.  Instead he ran as an independent in the November 2006 general election and handily beat Lamont, retaining his senate seat for a fourth term.

From our vantage today, his puzzling dream visitation from the late Governor (Dempsey died in 1989) might qualify as a kind of prophetic anticipation of the political near-death experience he was about to endure  (Lieberman, an observant Jew, would likely know of his religious tradition’s long belief in the prophetic power of dreaming, especially in times of mortal danger).  Lieberman did indeed come within waving distance of his political demise.  A classic theme in visitation dreams is a welcoming gesture from the dead, which is often interpreted as a sign that the dreamer will soon depart this world and journey to the next.

After he lost the primary, Lieberman could have accepted the Democratic voters’ verdict, followed the path taken by Dempsey (a loyal member of the state’s Democratic party who retired in 1971), and left the political scene.  Instead he fought against the Democrats, and won.  He survived the threat to his political life, but perhaps at the cost of losing connection with his ideological ancestors.

[I wrote the above in the summer of 2008.  Recent days have given new reasons to wonder about the psychodynamics of the Senator’s movement away from the Democratic party.]

Sarah Palin Dreams

Sarah Palin Dreams by Kelly BulkeleyWhen Sarah Palin was first named in late August 2008 as John McCain’s vice-presidential running mate, several people (both supporters and opponents) began reporting dreams of her.  An article posted on Slate by Abby Callard and David Plotz, “Your Dreams (and Nightmares) about Sarah Palin,” appeared on September 12, 2008.  The article includes twenty of what they judged to be the most interesting dreams sent in by their readers, with some comments from me. 

 Since then I have gathered several other dreams involving Sarah Palin.  At some point soon I will set up a website for people who want to share dreams they’ve had of Sarah Palin, comparable to the www.idreamofobama.com site for people to share dreams of President Obama. 

Till then, here’s one that came in response to the 2010 Zogby survey question asking, “What is the most recent dream you can remember?”:

 “You’re not going to believe this, but it was a dream with Sarah Palin. It wasn’t sexual, it was a situation where she was with me at my boyhood home in San Antonio, Texas, whereby I was in the front yard with her standing with me. I was showing her a Christmas ornament I made along with a table and chair I made. Next thing I know we’re in my older brother’s 1965 Chevrolet Impala. I was in the driver’s seat and she was sitting next to me real close like we were an item. I don’t remember any words being spoken, but it was very cool since she is such a beautiful woman. I hated the dream to end, but it did after only a few frames. It’s amazing to me because I remember very few dreams that I have so this one was very cool to have remembered.”

 The dream came to a 50-year old Hispanic man in Texas, a Catholic and conservative Republican who voted for McCain and Palin in the 2008 election. 

 Not knowing anything else about the dreamer personally, it’s impossible to say what the dream means to him.  But it does seem to accurately reflect his positive feelings toward Palin.  Indeed, the dream’s intensity and strong memorability suggest that Palin represents ideals, aspirations, and values that are especially meaningful to this man.

 In light of previous research I’ve done, the dream sounds similar to the dreams of Bill Clinton that liberal Democrats reported in the early 1990’s.  In those dreams, people found themselves in close, casual, rather intimate contact with a political candidate they greatly admired in waking life.  Often there was an aura of romantic ambiguity, as if the dreamer was struggling to understand powerful feelings of attraction that were more than friendly but not exactly sexual. 

 Then, as now, it seems that dreams offer a kind of “charisma index” that shows the deep psychological impact a politician can have on his or her supporters.