The Art of Interpreting Dreams

 

The Art of Interpreting Dreams by Kelly BulkeleyIf you woke up one morning with a vivid dream in mind, who could help you understand it? Do you know anyone who specializes in dream interpretation?

In earlier times you could bring your dream to a local shaman, sage, or priest. During the 20th century you could consult with a psychoanalyst or some other kind of psychologist.

Today, however, few religious leaders have any interest in dreams. Most professional psychologists receive no training in dream interpretation. The same is true of neuroscientists, who tend to dismiss all dreams as random nonsense from the brain.

If you felt your dream was more than random nonsense, where else could you turn for help and insight?

Here’s a thought: Ask an artist.

Many artists have surprising skill and aptitude as dream interpreters. I just watched this in action with a group of international artists who gathered at a forest retreat in Estacada, Oregon for a weeklong workshop on dreams, art, and multicultural identity, co-facilitated with Alisa Minyukova. I was hoping the members of this group (we’re calling ourselves the Dream Mapping Theater) could offer feedback on my theory that dreaming is a kind of imaginative play in sleep. What I found was much more interesting—a glimpse of the possible future of dream interpretation.

The artists in the group came from many different cultural backgrounds, with a diverse array of creative talents.  Yet they all shared three key virtues that made them remarkably effective at exploring the meanings of dreams.

First, they were unusually curious and open-minded people, full of questions and willing to follow the conversation wherever it led. The bizarreness of dreaming did not bore them or make them anxious. On the contrary, they were especially interested in otherworldly dreams that transgress and transcend the boundaries of waking reality.

Our work together began two years ago with informal conversations about the weirdness of “immigration dreams,” in which a person born in one place and living in another has dreams that creatively merge their multiple cultures, languages, and identities. The artists were struck by the radical difference between their freedom in these dreams and their increasing constraint in the waking world, with hardening national borders and tribal identities.  They became curious to learn more about their dreaming selves and the wider range of movement and awareness they experience in dreaming. This kind of mental flexibility does not come easily to everyone, but artists may have more capacity for it than most.

Second, the members of this group were quick to see connections. They were hyper-associative, in the best possible way. They could rapidly identify dream images and themes with personal relevance to their families, friends, and early childhood experiences. They eagerly noted symbolic parallels in their dreams to movies, paintings, poems, and other kinds of art. They made lightning-fast references to history and politics, language and religion, mythology and metaphysics. Because each member of the group came from a different cultural tradition, we could discuss the potential meanings of each dream from an amazing variety of perspectives.

More than two thousand years ago the Greek philosopher Aristotle said “the most skillful interpreter of dreams is he who has the faculty of observing resemblances.” Artists seem to possess this faculty in abundance.

Third, and most impressively, the members of this group knew how to bridge the conscious and unconscious parts of their minds. They were skilled at transforming subtle inner feelings into dramatic external works. Indeed, they all have professional training in communicating their deepest personal intuitions in forms that other people can perceive and understand. Once they realized they could apply this craft to their dreams, the ensuing creative explosion was a sight to behold.

Lana Nasser, a performer and story-teller born in Jordan now living in the Netherlands, shared an intensely realistic dream of “osmosing” with trees to diagnose their health from the inside. She spent much of the week exploring the forest and working with others to create an immersive robe of moss, lichen, and ferns. We filmed her one night slowly fading and morphing into a fantastically glowing green tree.

Victor Mutelekesha, a sculptor born in Zambia now living in Norway, told us a frightening dream involving fire. Early in the week he noticed an old burn pile in the forest, and before we knew it he had stripped down and buried himself in the deep, wide circle of black charcoal. (It was about 40 degrees and drizzling at the time.) The resulting footage of his Promethean emergence out of the ashes was a stunning creative response to the raging flames of his dream.

Jennifer Cabrera Fernandez, a dancer and vocalist born in Mexico now living in Italy, described an eerie dream of being paralyzed and transformed into a “stone witch.” It sounded like a nightmare, but she connected the witch’s body posture with the ancient Aztec gods of her cultural heritage, making it an image of strength, not weakness. On the last night of the workshop we turned an old horse barn into a dream temple of the stone witch, with bonfires casting a wild reddish glow on Jennifer’s elaborately painted face and body.

It took a special set of circumstances, and a talented and mature group of individuals, to generate this kind of volcanic creativity. But I suspect that many artists could, with a little guidance and encouragement, also become excellent interpreters of dreams.

This might sound like what Sigmund Freud called “wild psychoanalysis,” a dangerous dabbling in realms of the mind that should be left to medical experts.  It’s true that sharing dreams requires a high degree of sensitivity, caution, and mutual respect. But it’s also true that people were safely talking about their dreams long before the rise of psychoanalysis in early 20th century Europe. Dreaming is a natural and healthy function of the human mind, available to everyone. Throughout history, in cultures all over the world, sharing dreams has been a normal part of everyday life.

And artists are really, really good at it.

If you struggle with mental health problems, by all means bring your dreams to a psychotherapist. If you think your dreams might contain divine messages, go ahead and consult with a religious official.

But if you simply want help in exploring a strange dream and its possible meanings, try asking an artist. Think of it as a micro-commission in which you request (and pay?) an artist to give you creative feedback about the dream, providing a novel and illuminating portrait of your oneiric self.

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(Note: photo credit to Isak Tiner)

Reflecting on my 2018 Dream Journal

Reflecting on my 2018 Dream Journal by Kelly BulkeleyThe value of keeping a dream journal is inherent in the practice itself. Simply recording your dreams on a regular basis will increase your dream recall, deepen your self-knowledge, and help you maintain emotional balance in waking life. You can enjoy these benefits even if you never look back at your journal after recording each dream.

But if you do have the opportunity to look back and review your journal over a period of time, you can learn some amazing things about yourself and the world in which you live.

I’ve been keeping a dream journal for more than 30 years, and the discoveries never stop coming. I study my journal both for personal insight and for new ideas to explore in my research with other people’s dreams. At the end of each calendar year I go back over the last 12 months of my dreams to explore the recurrent patterns and themes, using the word search tools of the Sleep and Dream Database (SDDb) to make an initial survey. This year’s review provides an incredibly accurate portrait of my concerns and interests in waking life, and gives me lots of inspiration for new research to pursue.

The results of the initial word search analysis are presented in the table in the previous post. I compared the results of my 2018 dreams with my dreams from 2016 and 2017. I also compared them with the male and female “baselines.” The baselines are two large collections of dreams gathered by various researchers to provide a source of “normal” dreaming in the general population. (I describe the baselines in more detail in my Big Dreams book.)

To analyze these dreams I used the SDDb 2.0 template of 40 word categories in 8 classes, listed in the lefthand column. The percentages to the right of each category indicate how often a dream in the given set includes at least one reference to a word in that category.

In 2018 I remembered one dream each night, as I did in 2016 and 2017. The average length of the dreams increased during this time (102 in 2016, 111 in 2017, 116 in 2018). This suggests the word search results will tend to be a little higher in the 2018 set, just because there are more total words to search. This will also be true in comparisons with the baseline dreams, which have an average length of 100 words (females) and 105 words (males).

Keeping that in mind, the 2018 dreams had more references to vision and color than previous years, while other sensory perceptions (hearing, touch, smell & taste) stayed the same. The table doesn’t show it, but the most frequently mentioned colors in my 2018 dreams were white, black, green, gray, and blue.  For both of these categories (vision and color), my dreams have many more references than either the male or female baselines.

The emotion references in the 2018 dreams are pretty similar to 2016 and 2017. I have much more wonder/confusion than the male and female baselines, and somewhat more happiness.

The 2018 dreams have a rise in references to family characters, and to females generally. The frequencies of references to animals, fantastic beings, and males are quite steady from 2016 to 2018. Compared to the baselines, my family references are still rather low, my animal references are high, and my female references are very high.

The three categories of social interaction—friendliness, physical aggression, and sexuality—are all steady from 2016 to 2018. The sexuality frequencies are somewhat higher than the baselines.

The frequencies of my 2016-2018 dreams and the baselines are all similar on the categories of walking/running, flying, and falling. My dreams have fewer references to death than the baselines.

The cognitive categories—thinking, speech, reading & writing—are consistent across 2016-2018, with higher frequencies of thinking than the baselines.

The cultural categories are also remarkably consistent from 2016 to 2018, with a slight rise in references to food & drink and art.  Compared to the baselines, my dreams have fewer references to school and more to art.

Of the four elements, the frequencies of fire and air are consistent in my 2016-2018 dreams and the baselines. My dreams have more references to water and earth.

This kind of analysis is quite superficial, of course. It ignores personal associations, narrative flow, and all the subtle qualities of dreaming that can’t be captured in numbers.  That’s true, and yet it’s also true that a well-crafted word search analysis can reveal some fascinating themes that are both accurate and thought-provoking.

One of the most striking results of this initial analysis is the remarkable consistency over time of most of the word categories. There are a few significant changes, which I’ll discuss in a moment. But those changes are more dramatic when set in the bigger context of strong consistency across word categories as diverse as air (3% in 2016, 4% in 2017, and 4% in 2018), touch (12, 11, 13), anger (7, 8, 8), fantastic beings (4, 4, 3), physical aggression (16, 17, 17), flying (7, 6, 7), and clothing (18, 19, 21). As wild and unpredictable as individual dreams may be, in the aggregate they seem to follow steady long-term patterns.

Against that background of consistency, the changes that do occur over time are all the more intriguing.

The rise in references to vision and color from 2016 to 2018 seems related to the lengthening of my dream reports over this time. As my reports get longer, I apparently need to use more vision and color words to describe what happens in each dream.

The rise in references to family characters might be a return to a more “normal” ratio of family in my dreams. The family frequencies in 2016 and 2017 are actually the lowest I’ve ever had (extending the comparison back to 2010), so 2018 may be a bounce-back year. This would make sense in relation to my waking life: 2016 was the beginning of the “empty nest,” when the last of our children moved out of the house.

The rise in references to female characters is the most intriguing. The references to male characters stayed mostly the same from 2016 to 2018 (47, 44, 43), so the 2018 increase in female references leads to a big gender gap (59% female vs. 43 male). The baselines actually have slightly higher frequencies of male references vs. female references, so the variation in my 2018 dreams is even more unusual.

What might account for this change? My first thought is political. American society, as I currently perceive it, is dominated by destructive masculine energies, and change is only going to come once we bring more women to positions of power. I’m trying harder than ever in waking life to listen to female voices, and that intention may have influenced the patterns of my dreaming.

Two other features of the analysis pique my curiosity.

One is the rise of references to art over 2016-2018 (7, 14, 15), which I believe correlates with my increased participation as a board member of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. I wonder if other people who become more involved with an artistic group or practice also experience a rise in their dreams about art. I also wonder if my rise in art references might be connected to my higher frequencies of vision and color.

The other feature I’d like to explore further is the consistently low frequency of references to religion during all three years (3, 4, 3). This might seem odd since I have two graduate degrees in religious studies, and I’ve written several books about religion. But at the same time I never attend church, and I don’t belong to any religious group or denomination. My dreams seem to reflect the latter reality, my personal behavior rather than my scholarly pursuits.

In a recent survey that I’ve been analyzing with the help of Michael Schredl, we asked people to choose one of the following categories to describe their religious identity—Protestant, Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Mormon, Agnostic, Atheist, Nothing in Particular, and Something Else. I would definitely categorize myself as “something else”—not one of the religious identities, but not one of the non-religious identities, either. And it turns out (previewing the statistical findings Michael and I will soon publish) that people who identify religiously as “something else” have the highest interest in dreams compared to other groups. This makes me more curious than ever to understand the beliefs of people who religiously identify as “something else,” and how those beliefs relate to their attitudes towards dreaming.

I’m left with a final question, which will guide me in 2019: To what extent do these patterns reflect the past, and to what extent do they map the future?

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This post first appeared in Psychology Today on February 5, 2019.

Do Dreams Have Paranormal Power? Maybe, if Cats Are Involved

Do Dreams Have Paranormal Power? Maybe, if Cats Are Involved by Kelly BulkeleyI recently had an odd dream about a cat that left me with more questions than answers.

It was, I can personally testify, a dark and stormy night. I had gone to bed in a state of extreme emotional distress. Earlier in the day one of our cats had disappeared, and I was sure that he—the aptly named Phantom—had slipped outside through an inadvertently open door. After searching the house several times, I began walking through our neighborhood, whistling and calling. It was foggy and raining, with a temperature in the low 30’s. There were dogs everywhere. Every single one of our neighbors, as I discovered during several hours of pacing the streets around us, has at least one dog, and they literally hounded me as I looked and called for Phantom, who in the very best of circumstances is unlikely to come when I whistle. The fall of darkness meant the local coyotes would soon be on the prowl, the main reason why our cats are mostly indoor dwellers. My anxiety soon shifted into profound guilt and despair. It was all my fault… If Phantom had gotten outside the hedge surrounding our yard, he could have shot off in any direction, spooked by cars, people, and barking dogs in every yard. Never having been beyond the hedge, he’d have no idea how to get back to the safety of our house. The more time passed, the further away he might be wandering. I was the cause, it was my negligence, I had let him get out, and now he was lost in the night somewhere, with dangers all around….

After hours of fruitless searching, I fell exhausted into bed around 10 pm. (I had just returned two days earlier from an overseas trip, so I was already quite bedraggled and sleep-deprived.)

Sometime after 1 am I awoke, with the sound of the rain falling on the skylight. I immediately decided to get up, go outside, and whistle some more for Phantom. This would be the quietest time of night in our neighborhood, when even the dogs would be asleep, and I’d have the best chance of hearing him if he meowed in response.

As I quietly got dressed, I thought about a dream I’d been having just before waking up. In the dream Phantom comes walking towards me, tail held high.

A sad, depressing wish-fulfillment dream, I thought to myself. No, it’s worse than that, it’s a cruel and desperate fantasy that taunts me with a vision of what I want to be true, not what sadly is true. Stupid dream, I angrily thought as I put on my rain gear and grabbed a flashlight. Stupid dream.

And when I walked downstairs to the front door, there he was. Sitting on the living room couch in the darkness, looking straight at me.

For a dizzying moment, I wasn’t sure if I was really awake or still dreaming.

No, it was really him. Phantom came running up to me with his tail held high.

I still don’t know where he had been. Apparently not outside, but nowhere inside that I could find after careful, intensive searching. If he had been inside, why the f*** didn’t he come out for almost twelve hours?

And…. What do I make of my dream now?

The fact that Phantom appeared almost immediately after I awoke does not necessarily diminish or detract from the dream’s wish-fulfilling function. It could be that in this case, my wish just happened to come true in waking life, as well as in the dream. Freud would be fine with that, I think.

Another possibility is that Phantom came out of hiding before I woke up, and I somehow heard him through the closed door of our bedroom, and then incorporated that auditory stimulus into my dream. Maybe.

Perhaps, in the extremities of my emotional distress and biorhythmic disorientation, I was unusually open to subtle perceptions I don’t normally notice, and I somehow “felt” his presence, safe and close by. Hmm.

A more speculative possibility is that Phantom, either awake or sleeping, reached out to me in my dream and let me know he was back.  True, there is rather little evidence at present for interspecies telepathic communication in dreams. Still, I wouldn’t rule it out completely.

A more naturalistic explanation would be that my unconscious mind simply calculated the odds of the various scenarios regarding Phantom’s fate, and concluded that the most likely result of the whole situation was his reappearance, naturally eliciting great happiness and relief on my part. Which is indeed what happened, and how I felt.

To quote the final words of Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass and what Alice Found There, “which do you think it was?”

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This post first appeared on December 14, 2018 in Psychology Today.

New Dream Research in 2019

New Dream Research in 2019 by Kelly BulkeleyDreaming, play, theater, science, religion, social and political crisis.

Jung, Freud, Shakespeare, a troupe of immigrant artists, Alice in Wonderland, Lucrecia de Leon, the US President.

These are the topics and the people I will be discussing most frequently in a series of presentations lining up for 2019.  Each presentation will speak directly to the interests of a particular audience, and each one will also connect to the other talks I’m giving in ways that I hope will lead to a greater interwoven whole.

(All of these conferences and gatherings are still in the planning stages, so details may change.)

 

Society for Psychological Anthropology

Biennial Meeting, Santa Ana Pueblo, New Mexico

April 4-7

This will be part of a panel on “New Directions in the Anthropology and Psychology of Dreaming” organized by Robin Sheriff and Jeannette Mageo.

“Dreaming, Play, and Social Change”

This presentation offers a novel theory of dreaming—as a highly evolved form of play—and discusses its implications for new research in psychology and anthropology. The theory integrates findings from evolutionary biology, neuroscience, psychoanalysis, religious studies, and developmental psychology (especially D.W. Winnicott). This approach moves beyond the fruitless debates over the “bizarreness” of dreaming. From the play perspective, bizarreness in dreaming is a feature, not a bug. In dreams the mind is free to play, to explore, imagine, and envision new possibilities beyond the limits of conventional reality. Of special interest to anthropologists, the content of dreams, i.e., what people playfully dream about, mostly revolves around social life. Many of the cognitive abilities vital to waking sociality are also present in dreaming, which correlates with research showing that dream content accurately mirrors people’s most important waking relationships. In some instances, dreaming goes beyond mirroring the social world to actively striving to transform it; the playfulness intensifies, and the dreaming imagination labors to create something new, to go beyond what is to imagine what might be. This visionary potential is often activated during times of social conflict and crisis. Three brief examples will illustrate the playful dynamics of dreaming in relation to a crisis in the dreamer’s community: 1) the prophecies of Lucrecia de Leon, a young woman from 16th century Spain; 2) the creatively inspiring “big dreams” of a group of immigrant artists; and 3) the politically-themed dreams of present-day Americans about their current President.

For more information, click here.

 

International Association for the Study of Dreams

Regional Conference, Ashland, Oregon

May 31 to June 2

This is the general description of the event, which I am helping to host with Angel Morgan. On Saturday morning I will give a talk on the role of dreams in Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” and Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland,” both of which will be performed that weekend at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

“Theater, Dreams, and Art”

Shakespeare wrote “All the world’s a stage” and Carl Jung wrote that a dream is theater in which the dreamer is the scene, player, prompter, producer, author, public, and critic. The best plays are like the best dreams: surprising, decentering, mind-expanding, awe-inspiring, emotionally exhausting, and acutely memorable. They are unreal, yet realer than real; retreats into fantasy that catapult us into fresh engagement with the world. Many talented artists, as well as everyday creative people, have said they feel the same kind of freedom to explore their emotions in dreams that they do when they have an encounter with the artistic process. Many often connect the two by first logging their dreams, then drawing on the raw emotional content and imagery from their dream experiences to feed their art. That said, bridging dreams with theater and art tends to offer a wide variety of fascinating approaches. In this conference we hope to inform and inspire dreamers of all ages and backgrounds, as well as those who use theater, dreams, or art in their work, such as: parents, psychologists, therapists, counselors, writers, actors, directors, dancers, visual artists, and musicians.

For more information, click here.

 

International Association for the Study of Dreams

Annual Conference, Kerkrade, the Netherlands

June 20-26

This is part of a panel I am organizing with Svitlana Kobets and Bernard Welt on “Visionary Dreams in Art, Religion, and History.”

“Vision and Prophecy in the Dreams of Lucrecia de Leon”

This presentation explores the visual imagery, religious symbolism, and prophetic warnings contained in the dreams of Lucrecia de Leon, a young woman from 16th century Madrid who was persecuted by the Spanish Inquisition as a traitor and heretic, despite the fact that many of her dream warnings came true.

This is part of a panel Jayne Gackenbach is organizing on the interplay of artistic practice and scientific inquiry.

“Dreaming Is Play: A Bridge Between Art and Science”

This presentation offers a theory that dreaming is a kind of play, the imaginative play of the mind during sleep.  This theory has directly inspired me in new activities with art and artists: supporting regional theater, collaborating with the Dream Mapping Troupe, and cultivating a forested dream library.

For more information, click here.

 

American Academy of Religion

Annual Conference, San Diego, California

November 23-26

This is a “call for papers” topic that will soon be posted by the Cognitive Science of Religion (CSR) group of the American Academy of Religion, and open for submissions from all AAR members. If the CSR steering committee receives enough good proposals on this topic, there will be a panel session at the conference in San Diego with three or four presentations.

“Cognitive Science of Religion (CSR) Approaches to Dreaming”

The rise of psychology of religion in the early 20th century was driven in part by Freud’s and Jung’s efforts to understand the nature of dreams. What would a new 21st century approach to dreams look like, using the resources of CSR? Specifically, to what extent do cognitive functions known to operate in religious contexts (e.g., memory, imagination, metaphor, teleological reasoning, social intelligence, agency detection, dual-systems cognition) also operate in dreaming? To what extent does this shed new light on the various roles that dreams have played in the history of religions (e.g., theophany, healing, prophecy, moral guidance, visions of the afterlife)? Proposals are welcome that draw together detailed accounts of religiously significant dreaming with specific CSR concepts and theories.

For more information, click here.

 

 

Dangerous Dreaming: The Spanish Inquisition’s Trial of a Prophetic Dreamer

Dangerous Dreaming: The Spanish Inquisition’s Trial of a Prophetic Dreamer by Kelly BulkeleyIt is in dreams that one can catch sight of the most fundamental and stable symbolisms of humanity passing from the ‘cosmic’ function to the ‘psychic’ function.” (Paul Ricoeur, 1967)

[The following is the text of a presentation I will make on Saturday, Nov. 17, at the American Academy of Religion annual meeting in Denver, Colorado.]

The revelatory power of dreaming, illustrated in the sacred texts and practices of religious traditions all over the world, has naturally led people to actively seek more access to that power.    If spontaneous and unexpected dreams can have so much transformational impact, what would happen if one were to prepare for such a dream, and carefully arrange to amplify its impact?

The term “dream incubation” has been used by Western researchers to describe any set of ritual preparations aimed at eliciting a special kind of dream experience (Patton 2004).  As Kimberley Patton outlines it, dream incubation involves three elements: locality, intentionality, and epiphany.  Dream incubation practices usually involve sleeping in a special place or setting (locality), seeking guidance on a specific question, dilemma, or task (intentionality), and interpreting the resulting dream as a transpersonal response to the dreamer’s intention (epiphany).

Many of the world’s religious and spiritual traditions have ancient practices of dream incubation, defined in these terms.  These include the Greek and Roman temples to the healing god Asclepius, where people prayed and slept in hopes of a curative dream; the Vision Quest rituals of the Ojibwa, Iroquois, and other Native American groups, in which an adolescent slept alone in the wilderness for several nights until visited in a special dream by a personal spirit; the Muslim practice of istikhara, with pre-sleep prayers and purifications aimed at eliciting dream guidance on an urgent question; and the Dream Yoga of the Tibetan Buddhist sage Naropa, which teaches methods of preparation for dreaming with greater clarity and consciousness.

In each of these traditions, focused waking attention prior to sleep has the effect of influencing people’s subsequent dreams, which then influence their consciousness upon awakening via interpretation, which then colors their later dreams, on and on in a spiritually dynamic and virtuous cycle (Bulkeley 2008).

Another term widely used by Western scholars, “lucid dreaming,” highlights the powers of self-awareness and volitional control that can arise in dreaming. Such powers have long been recognized and actively cultivated by Hindus, Buddhists, and Daoists, so lucid dreaming is hardly a Western invention. The sages and mystics of those traditions talked about conscious awareness in sleep as a kind of meditative practice that extends beyond the waking state.  In indigenous cultures around the world, shamanic healers are trained to become conscious within sleep so they could seek out cures for people who were sick.  And many philosophers from classical Greece and Rome admired the potential in sleep for a pure form of mental clarity (although few of them actively explored these possibilities).

The human mind is capable of becoming conscious and active during the state of sleep—that’s the common thread in all these historical traditions.  Combining this with the findings of modern psychology and neuroscience—that the mind during sleep can activate the full range of cognitive abilities found in waking (Gackenbach and LaBerge 1988, Kahan and LaBerge 2011)—it becomes clear that lucid dreaming is a natural power of the human mind.  Everyone is capable of these revelations in their sleep.  Rituals of dream incubation tap into those deep reservoirs of lucid potentiality, and at their best these practices nurture a spiraling interplay of spiritual experience and growth.

With that cross-cultural material setting the stage, I will focus now on a little-known historical example of revelatory dreaming with unusual elements of incubation and lucidity.  In this case, the dreamer lived in a community that did not appreciate her visionary insights.  On the contrary, she was violently persecuted because of her dreams.  This example highlights the potential dangers of revelatory dreaming, dangers that revolve around two key questions:

  1. How can we tell if a dream is a true revelation, and not just a personal fantasy or total fabrication?
  2. What is the best/safest/most effective way of channeling the disruptive energies of a revelatory dream?

More than 400 years ago, a young woman with a gift for prophetic dreaming was arrested as a traitor and heretic.  Her dreams were judged by the religious authorities to be a danger to the king, the church, and the country as a whole.  She was imprisoned, interrogated, tortured, and punished because of her dreams.  All of this happened despite the fact that her dreams came true—they accurately predicted a national disaster that could have been avoided if her dreams had been heeded.  Instead, she was punished as an enemy of God.

Her name was Lucrecia de Leon.  She was born in Madrid in 1568 (making her a contemporary of Shakespeare’s, born in 1564).  Madrid was the new capital city of the vast Spanish Empire and its intensely Catholic ruler, King Philip II.  She grew up during a time of rapid urban expansion; Madrid had about 10,000 people when she was born and more than 80,000 by the time she was a teenager, with priests, diplomats, and government officials streaming in from all corners of the empire.

Her parents gave her the name Lucrecia, harkening back to the Roman legend of a supremely virtuous young woman of that name (Lucretia) who was raped by prince Tarquin; even though she was blameless, the young woman killed herself to prevent any taint of dishonor from infecting her family’s name.  Ever after in Roman and then in Catholic tradition, Lucretia became the ultimate symbol of female honor, chastity, and obedience.  We know that Lucrecia de Leon’s father, Alonso, was proud of being an “old Christian,” meaning a Spaniard of pure Christian blood, with no foreign elements tainting his lineage.  It seems likely he and his wife Ana chose this name for their firstborn child to emphasize the supreme importance of feminine purity and virtuous behavior.

Alas for Alonso and Ana, their daughter turned out to be a big dreamer.  From early in life she gained a reputation in her neighborhood as someone whose dreams frequently came true.  In the fall of 1587 a powerful nobleman, Don Alonso de Mendoza, who was interested in apocalyptic omens and symbols, heard about Lucrecia, and he became fascinated by her dreams.  Because she was illiterate, he arranged for a priest to come to her house every morning and, in the context of confession, record her dreams from the previous night.

Many of her dreams revolved around Spain’s holy war against England and the Protestant Queen Elizabeth.  For years King Philip had been working on a plan to invade England with an attack from the most powerful navy in the world, the Spanish Armada.  Philip claimed a holy mandate for the invasion, and the Catholic church helped him whip the Spanish people into a violent frenzy aimed against England.

In this heated, religiously militarized atmosphere, Lucrecia dreamed repeatedly that the Armada would fail.  From the fall of 1587 through the summer of 1588, her dreams as recorded by Don Alonso’s priests mentioned the Armada several times, always in negative terms.  When the Armada was defeated by the English in the fall of 1588, everyone in Spain was shocked—everyone but Lucrecia.

In the time following this, Lucrecia’s dreams became more widely known, as people looked for new guidance in the aftermath of the Armada’s defeat.  This aroused the ire of King Philip, who in the spring of 1590 ordered Lucrecia arrested by the Spanish Inquisition on charges of heresy and treason.  She was taken to the Inquisition’s secret prison in the ancient city of Toledo, the spiritual capital of Spain, and held there for five years before a final verdict was rendered in her case.

The main source of evidence against Lucrecia were her dreams, dutifully recorded by Don Alonso’s priests (all of whom were also arrested and imprisoned in Toledo) and then seized by the Inqusition.  These dreams are still available for study today in the national historical archive of Spain, in Madrid.

Here is the first one in the surviving manuscripts:

The first of December of this year [1587], the Ordinary Man came to me, and calling me said: “Stick your head out of the window,” which I did, and I heard a great noise and asked him: “What noise is this I hear?” He answered: “You will soon see.” And then I saw coming from the east a cart pulled by two bulls or buffalos (so they said they were called), in which I saw a tower, on the side of which there was a dead lion, and on the top of which was a dead eagle with its breast cut open. The wheels of this cart were stained with blood, and as it moved it killed many people; and many men and women, dressed as Spaniards, were tied to the cart. They were shouting that the world was ending.  Not having ever seen anything like this, I asked: “What vision is this?”  The Ordinary Man told me that he could not tell me (although he showed signs that he wanted to). In this instant, the Old Fisherman appeared, and I asked him: “Why have you left the seashore and come here?” He responded that it was necessary to come because this man wanted to tell me about this vision, and it should not be known until the third night. I saw that he was carrying a palm leaf, which it seemed he was creating right there.  I asked him: “Who is this palm leaf for?” He said: “For the new king who will be to God’s pleasing. I will give it to him, but for the moment I cannot say any more.” And then I woke up…

Lucrecia’s dreams often began in the normal setting of her home, looking out her bedroom window, and then something fantastic and otherworldly would happen—she would journey to a faraway land, or see an amazing sight in the street, or go the palace for an intimate conversation with the king.  El Hombre Ordinario (the “Ordinary Man”) was a nearly constant presence in her dreams, and so was El Viejo (the “Old Man”), also known as El Pescador (“the Old Fisherman”).  A third figure, known as the “Young Fisherman” or the “Lion Man,” also appeared frequently.  These three “companions” usually appeared in a coastal setting, on a beach or cliff overlooking the ocean, hence her surprise in this dream at seeing them in the city rather than at the seashore.

Many other dreams besides this one included strange animals, bloody violence, apocalyptic warnings, and a variety of allegorical symbols.  The emotional tone tended toward the negative: fear of the enemies besieging Spain from all directions, and despair at the inability of the king to safeguard his people.

This first report highlights Lucrecia’s general capacity for lucidity and metacognition (that is, high-level mental functioning) during her dream experiences.  Almost every one of her dreams included sophisticated thought processes and features of conscious reflection and social intelligence.  When she said during her trial testimony, “I wake up the moment my eyes are closed,” she was not just speaking poetically; she was trying to describe the highly conscious quality of her dreaming.

As a result, many of her dreams had at least two levels of activity.  At one level she witnessed and/or engaged with elements of the dream world, and at another level she analyzed and interpreted the events occurring on the first level.  She often spoke at length with her three companions about the meanings of her ongoing dreams, although the mysterious men rarely gave her a straight answer and often argued among themselves.  During these digressive discussions the three companions would occasionally mention Don Alonso, Fray Lucas, and other people in Lucrecia’s waking life, either to correct their mistaken interpretations or comment on their behavior.  This added another level of awareness and cognitive complexity to her experiences.

As the dreams went on, night after night, they began to interweave with each other in unpredictable temporal loops, going back to images from previous dreams and looking forward to the appearance of new images in future dreaming.

A core concern here and throughout the series was the fate of the king and the question of who would replace him on the throne (having observed the crown prince up close, Lucrecia apparently had little confidence in the official succession plan).  The Old Fisherman’s magically appearing gift of a palm leaf, a common Christian symbol of spiritual victory, made it clear that Philip’s reign must end so a new king “to God’s pleasing” could lead Spain to a better future.

Lucrecia dreamed repeatedly about dangers to Spain, the death of the king, the scheming of Francis Drake and Queen Elizabeth in England, and threats to the Spanish fleet, which was led by the Marquis of Santa Cruz.  In a dream from December 14, 1587, Lucrecia saw a terrible vision of war on the sea and woe for the Spanish Armada:

I saw two strong fleets fighting a fierce battle. Because I had seen them fight before, I knew that one was the fleet of the Marquis of Santa Cruz, the other of Drake. This battle was the fiercest and loudest of all those I had seen in other dreams. Previously, I had seen them fighting in a port; this one was on the high seas and lasted all afternoon because before it began I heard a clock strike one; it lasted three hours, until sunset. Once the sun was down, I saw the defeated fleet of the Marquis of Santa Cruz fleeing toward the north, having lost many of its ships and men, and I saw Drake’s fleet returning to England to take on more troops. I saw Drake writing letters, asking for more men. He also wanted to forward a request for troops to the Great Turk, but one of his knights said, “Do not send it, the men we have are enough to secure victory.” And with this I woke up.

Lucrecia had several other ominous dreams in 1587 and 1588 about the Armada’s dire future, which were recorded by Don Alonso’s scribes and shared among various members of the court and nobility.  When the Armada was in fact defeated in August of 1588, no one could say they had not been warned.  Yet it seemed inconceivable to the religious and political leaders of Spain that the vehicle for this shockingly accurate prophecy was a poor, uneducated young woman.  Indeed, her very existence now posed an embarrassing affront to King Philip, who had put so much personal and theological emphasis on the holy cause of the Armada.  Finally, he had enough.  In May of 1590 he directed his religious police, the Inquisition, to put an end to her prophetic career.

So. What does this story tell us about the two questions I posed at the outset, questions that are relevant to almost every historical and contemporary instance of revelatory dreaming?

First, how can we tell if a dream is a true revelation, and not just a personal fantasy or total fabrication?

The answer is clearly not a trial by the Spanish Inquisition. That much comes through in Lucrecia’s story.

Ironically, the trial did highlight many of the criteria that can be used to reach a more satisfying answer. Indeed, in many ways Lucrecia, Don Alonso, and his colleagues conducted an admirably well-designed research study of precognitive dreaming. Her dreams were recorded as soon as they occurred, by someone other than the dreamer. The significant patterns emerged across many dreams, not just from a single dream. The dreams were recorded many months before the predicted event (the defeat of the Armada) occurred. The dreamer displayed no signs of mental illness or erratic behavior. She gained little personal benefit from sharing her dreams; indeed, she brought tremendous danger upon herself by doing so. And, when all was said and done, her dreams unmistakably came true—they accurately predicted a shocking national disaster.

By these pragmatic criteria, Lucrecia’s dreams can be judged true revelations.

Second, what is the best/safest/most effective way of channeling the disruptive energies of a revelatory dream?

For the few months that it worked as planned, the system Don Alonso set up provided Lucrecia with an amazing opportunity to contribute her oneiric gifts to something bigger than herself. By sharing her dreams with Don Alonso’s scribes each morning, she felt she was actively helping to promote the welfare of her country and her faith. She evidently found this a very meaningful pursuit, and it was during these times that Lucrecia was healthiest, her dreams most vivid, and her relationship with Don Alonso most trusting and mutually respectful. Although the process took a horrific turn, there was a brief period in which a highly effective method emerged, with a group of dedicated people channeling a powerful source of revelatory dreaming towards an issue of immense public concern. The king and his religious police may have rejected the product of this method, but that does not take away from the fact that, had they been heeded, Lucrecia’s dreams could have staved off a catastrophe that cost thousands of Spanish lives.

Let me conclude with the idea that Lucrecia’s abilities as a prophetic dreamer were unusual, but not unique. Other people in various places and times, including people today, have experienced similar phenomena.  Perhaps everyone has the potential for such dreams, given the right circumstances.  Lucrecia’s dreams highlight latent abilities within the human psyche that are real, powerful, and potentially valuable, although they may appear threatening to traditional religious and political authorities.

This is true today as well.  The wild multiplicities of dreaming inevitably run into conflict with rigid, monolithic systems of thought and behavior.  At a time when waking-world boundaries are hardening and clashes between ideological tribes are worsening, the act of dreaming, and sharing dreams, becomes a meaningful political and spiritual gesture.  Dreams remind us of our existential freedom and capacity for future growth, and they help us see the world from various perspectives besides that of our waking ego.  They tap into our deepest sources of creative insight, and, in cases like Lucrecia’s, they envision threats to our communities that can be avoided if consciously recognized and humbly acknowledged.

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References:

Bulkeley, Kelly. 2018. Lucrecia the Dreamer: Prophecy, Cognitive Science, and the Spanish Inquisition. Stanford University Press.

________. 2008. Dreaming in the World’s Religions: A Comparative History. NYU Press.

Gackenbach, Jayne, and Stephen LaBerge, ed.s. 1988. Conscious Mind, Sleeping Brain: Perspectives on Lucid Dreaming. Plenum.

Kahan, Tracey and Stephen LaBerge.  2011. “Dreaming and Waking: Similarities and Differences Revisited.” Consciousness and Cognition 20: 494-515.

Patton, Kimberley. 2004. “‘A Great and Strange Correction’: Intentionality, Locality, and Epiphany in the Category of Dream Incubation.” History of Religions 43: 194-223.

Ricoeur, Paul. 1967. The Symbolism of Evil. Beacon Press.

 

 

Presentation information:

American Academy of Religion Annual Meeting

Denver, Colorado

A17-235

Western Esotericism Unit

“Esoteric Traditions of Revelatory Dreaming”

November 17, 2018, Saturday, 1-3 pm

Convention Center-505

 

Abstract

The revelatory power of dreaming, illustrated in the sacred texts and practices of religious traditions all over the world, has prompted people in many cultures to seek more access to that power via rituals of dream incubation, which can generate intensified dreams of conscious awareness and metacognition (lucid dreaming).  With that comparative material as context, this presentation will focus on the author’s original research on a little-known historical example of revelatory dreaming: Lucrecia de Leon, a young woman from 16th century Spain whose prophetic dreams threatened the king and brought down the wrath of the Inquisition. This example highlights some of the potential dangers of revelatory dreaming, dangers that revolve around two key questions: How can we tell if a dream is a true revelation, and not just a personal fantasy or total fabrication?  What is the best/safest/most effective way of channeling the disruptive energies of a revelatory dream?