Meditation and Dreaming

Meditation and Dreaming by Kelly BulkeleyA new study suggests that people who are experienced meditators have dreams that differ in at least two interesting ways from non-meditators.  The study was conducted by Elizaveta Solomonova, Tore Nielsen, and their colleagues at the Dream and Nightmare Laboratory at the Universite de Montreal.  Their findings shed new light on the interactions between meditation and dreaming consciousness. The results appear in the latest issue of the journal Dreaming (volume 28, number 2, pp. 99-121).

Twenty-two people (11 male, 11 female) with training in Vipassana meditation were given a procedural learning task, and then slept for a daytime nap in the laboratory.  Their dreams at sleep onset and upon awakening were gathered, and they were given a follow-up test on the procedural learning task.  The same protocol was used with a control group of twenty people (10 male, 10 female) who were not active meditators.

The researchers found many more similarities than differences between the dreams of the two groups.  Both meditators and controls were basically the same on measures of dream content, and their performances on the procedural learning task did not vary significantly.  This in itself is an interesting finding, insofar as it testifies to the steadiness and consistency of basic patterns in dream content across variations in personal circumstance.  It takes a lot to alter the fundamental rhythms of human dreaming.

The researchers found two main differences between the two groups.  The meditators had longer dreams, and more instances of friendly interactions with other characters.

The lengthening of the dream reports makes sense as a reflection of the meditators’ greater experience and skill at introspection, which would make it easier and more natural for them to describe their dreams in detail.  It might also correlate with longer dream experiences (i.e. not just longer descriptions of ordinary-length dreams), but that’s hard to determine based on this evidence.

The higher frequency of friendly interactions in the meditators’ dreams also makes sense as a reflection of the main tenets of the Vipassana tradition, emphasizing compassion towards others.

Perhaps the most interesting negative finding was the lack of higher degrees of lucid dreaming among the meditators.  Many studies by Tracey Kahan, Jayne Gackenbach, Stephen LaBerge and others have made connections between meditation and lucid dreaming, so the lack of a correlation in this study was a surprise.  And yet the researchers offer a plausible explanation, based again on the characteristic features of the Vipassana tradition:

“It may be that Vipassana meditation does not increase the frequency of lucidity qualities during dreaming because of its particular emphasis on bodily experience. Rather, lucid dreaming might be more prevalent among practitioners of dream yoga or Shamatha meditation because these are more directly focused on the cultivation of metacognitive skills, such as the observing of thoughts, images, and other explicit mental contents.  In other words, Vipassana meditation may be less likely than other forms of meditation to induce lucid dreaming because of its greater dependence on bodily self-reflection and lesser dependence on cognitive self-reflection.” (113)

This is a very important and helpful distinction to make, whether or not it’s the best explanation for the results of this study.  It’s always good to think about the influence of cultural variations.  There isn’t just one kind of meditation; there are many different traditions and lineages.  Once we acknowledge this, it becomes less surprising perhaps that a form of meditation emphasizing metacognition will lead to more lucid dreams, while a form of meditation emphasizing embodiment and compassion will lead to more dreams of friendliness with others.

 

Note: this was first posted in Psychology Today, July 11, 2018.

The Prophetic Dreamer

The Prophetic Dreamer by Kelly BulkeleyOn May 25, 1590, by direct order of King Philip II, the Spanish Inquisition arrested a young, uneducated woman from Madrid named Lucrecia de Leon on charges of heresy and treason.  She was brought to a secret prison in Toledo, interrogated, and tortured to make her confess her guilt.  The evidence against her was overwhelming.  She had been caught conspiring with known rebels, publicly slandering the king, defying direct orders from the church, and stirring up dissent against the imperial government.

Most damning was the collection of Lucrecia’s dreams, carefully recorded by a group of priests interested in apocalyptic omens who came to her house each morning to transcribe what she had seen the previous night.  The dreams were filled with scandalous political and religious imagery, and Lucrecia had been openly sharing them with people at the highest levels of Spanish society.

It seemed like an open-and-shut case.  The Inquisition had dispatched thousands of heretics to their eternal fate based on far less evidence than this.  And yet, Lucrecia’s trial did not end quickly.  It dragged on for five years, one of the longest trials in Inquisition history, and the final verdict against her deviated in several ways from the normal process of punishment.

Why did the Spanish Inquisition, at the height of its brutally oppressive power, struggle for so long to resolve Lucrecia’s case?

Because her dreams had come true.

The hand-written journal compiled by the priests proved it.  The Inquisition judges in Toledo had before them a document showing that Lucrecia’s dreams accurately predicted the fate of the Spanish Armada.  The Armada was Spain’s invincible navy, the most powerful military force in the world, which King Philip planned to use in launching an invasion of England in 1588.  Lucrecia’s dreams in 1587 and early 1588 repeatedly warned of impending disaster for the Armada, and that was indeed the unfortunate result of the attack.

This put the Inquisitors in an excruciating bind.  The evidence of her treasonous and heretical behavior was undeniable, and should have been sufficient to put her to death immediately.  And yet the predictive accuracy of her dreams forced them to pause.  Given the intensity of their Catholic faith, the Inquisitors could not help but wonder if Lucrecia might actually have some kind of prophetic gift.  If this were true, then perhaps it might contrary to God’s will to persecute her.  Indeed, in that case they would be the heretics, not she.

But how could a divine gift like prophecy be granted to a foolish girl from a lower-class family who could barely read and write?  This question seemed to vex the Inquisitors more than anything else. They looked for every possible way to discredit Lucrecia, and they relentlessly pressured her to admit she was a fraud and had made up all the dreams.  For five long years, she refused to do so.

At its core, the trial of Lucrecia de Leon is a story of a young woman defiantly dreaming truth to power.  She could have avoided all of this.  She had many off-ramps along the way, many opportunities to veer off, stay out of trouble, resume her normal life, and escape the Inquisition’s wrath.  She was violently threatened numerous times by church officials, and also by her own father, who ordered her in the clearest possible terms to stop.  “Dreams are only dreams,” he told her, “and if you believe in them I will give the order to have you killed.”

Despite all of this opposition, Lucrecia continued dreaming and sharing her dreams, literally putting her life at risk in the process.

The question of why she did so is the reason I wrote Lucrecia the Dreamer.  What was it that gave her the courage to defy the religious, political, and parental authorities for so long?

Even though she lived more than four hundred years ago, Lucrecia’s story can teach us important lessons about the extraordinary powers and potentials of the dreaming imagination. Using research from religious studies, psychology, and cognitive science, I take a naturalistic approach to the prophetic features of Lucrecia’s dreams.  Her experiences reflect the sleeping mind’s ability to simulate highly realistic visions of future possibility.  Lucrecia evidently possessed an unusually intensified capacity for these kinds of dreams. 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.

 

Note: this post first appeared on the Stanford University Press Author’s Blog, 2/23/18.

 

Moving Dreams

Moving Dreams by Kelly BulkeleyFollowing the death a few weeks ago of Jeremy Taylor and his wife Kathy, I spoke with their daughter Tristy, and we agreed that I would take responsibility for moving, storing, and preserving his professional books and papers.  Tristy understands that her father had a major influence on the contemporary study of dreams, and his works will have an enduring historical significance for the field.  I told her that my wife and I have recently begun working with an architect to design a study and library devoted to dream research on property we own near Portland, so I can offer a place where his collection will be available to other dream investigators in the future.

In assuming this responsibility, I did not reckon with the fact that Jeremy apparently kept every single book he ever owned in his entire life.  He loved his books, and he obviously drew great inspiration from their physical presence.  However, to someone who did not share his (and my) bibliophilia, his collection appeared rather daunting.  That, at any rate, was the response of the moving company estimator.  When I met him for an initial survey of the house, he spent a couple of hours sighing, shaking his head, and measuring shelf lengths.  He finally told me he’d never seen anything like it.  There were approximately 300 boxes of books to pack up, with a total weight of around 15,000 pounds.  It would take four guys a full day to get it all ready for the truck.

15,000 pounds of books.  Seven and a half tons.

I’m going to need a bigger library.

Last Friday the packing crew arrived at the house at 7 am.  There were four guys, none of them especially happy to be up at that hour.  When they got inside the house, their momentary elation (just books, no couches or dressers!) turned to dread when I showed them the full extent of the job (oh my god, how many f***ing books are there??).  We got to work, and to be honest, it was a struggle for the first few hours.  The quarters were tight, the air was stale and musty, and the books came in all shapes, sizes, and conditions, which made the packing process much more complex than it usually would be.  Several shelves had extra shelves behind them, so it literally seemed like the books were multiplying.  The more the guys packed, the more books there were to pack.  Suffice it to say, morale was low and tempers were short.

And then something cool happened.  The books began to work a kind of magic.  As the guys settled into the rhythm of removing the books from the shelves, wrapping them in paper, and placing them in the boxes, they inevitably noticed the covers, titles, and recurrent themes.  Dreams, dreams, dreams.  Mythology from all over the world.  Tricksters.  Ancient religions.  Jungian psychology.  Graphic novels.  Science fiction.  Surrealist art.  Poetry.  Weird stuff that’s hard even to categorize.

I heard them discussing these topics while they packed, as it dawned on them what this huge and very focused collection of books said about a person’s view of the world. They asked me a few questions about Jeremy, and over the course of the afternoon I told them about his life and works, and the importance of these books to him and to our field of study.  Naturally this got them talking about their own dreams, and their personal speculations about the powers of the human mind.  I wouldn’t say they were whistling while they worked, but it did make the time pass.  Each of them seemed to find something of special interest among the dusty tomes that made them pause and ponder for a moment.

They finished the day with a burst of energy (it was Friday, after all), and before they left at 6:30 pm I gave them each a copy of Where People Fly and Water Runs Uphill.  I knew this was risky—they might never want to see another book again—but if they didn’t want it, they could just give it to someone who did, and Jeremy would be happy either way.

Whether or not they keep their books, these guys were clearly moved by Jeremy’s passion for the study of dreams.  I’m pretty sure they will henceforth look at their own dreams in a different light, with more curiosity about exploring their multiple dimensions of meaning.

As they drove away and I locked up the house, I thought, if this experience were a dream… I would interpret it as a vivid reminder that Jeremy’s books still have the power to teach and enlighten.  Aha!

Moving Dreams by Kelly Bulkeley

DreamRev: The Many Contributions of Jeremy Taylor

DreamRev: The Many Contributions of Jeremy Taylor by Kelly BulkeleyThe Rev. Jeremy Taylor was one of the most prolific dream speakers and teachers of modern times.  He traveled to every corner of the U.S., and to many countries around the world, reaching out to people and promoting greater awareness of dreaming.  He combined his background as a Unitarian-Universalist minister with a deep familiarity with Jungian archetypal psychology to not only help people better understand their dreams, but to get them excited and energized about the amazing adventure of psychological growth and spiritual discovery that opens up once they start paying more attention to general human experience of dreaming.

That was certainly his effect on me.  One of the clearest signs of that effect is how often I turned to him when organizing a new collaborative project.  Over the years I have edited or co-edited six books, and Jeremy wrote chapters for four of them—by a large margin, he is the all-time champion of contributors!

These chapters covered a wide range of topics, yet they all revolved around a perennial set of concerns.  Here are some excerpts, to give a sense of

In Among All These Dreamers: Essays on Dreaming and Modern Society (SUNY Press, 1996), Jeremy’s chapter is titled “Traversing the Living Labyrinth: Dreams and Dreamwork in the Psychospiritual Dilemma of the Postmodern World.”  Here’s a passage that expresses his conviction about the power of sharing dreams in group settings:

“When people gather together to explore their dreams, they enter into a process which challenges and promotes withdrawal of the projections, denials, and self-deceptions that fuel the collective dramas of gender, race, class, and other oppression. The emotional, psychological, and ultimately spiritual information revealed by the successive layers of ‘aha’ recognition of the multiple meanigns that are woven into every dream inevitably brings the people involved in the process closer to their wellsprings of archetypal creative energy. My own experience in working in prisons, community organizing projects, and the like, has convinced me that all dreams serve evolving health and wholeness, not only for the individual dreamer, but for the society, the species, and the cosmos as a whole.” (154)

DreamRev: The Many Contributions of Jeremy Taylor by Kelly Bulkeley

In Dreams: A Reader on the Religious, Cultural, and Psychological Dimensions of Dreaming (Palgrave, 2001), Jeremy wrote a chapter titled “Group Work with Dreams: The ‘Royal Road’ to Meaning.”  His essentially positive, optimistic, and growth-oriented perspective comes through in this passage:

“One of the most important self-deceptions that dreams regularly address is the sense that a situation is hopeless and that there is nothing the person can do about this situation in his or her life.  In my experience, no dream ever came to anyone to say, ‘Nyeah, Nyeah—You have these problems and there’s nothing you can do about them!’ Thus if a person has a dream and understands upon awakening that the dream makes reference to a seemingly unsolvable problem in his or her waking life, it means that, in fact, some creative, potentially effective response is possible, and in the service of health and wholeness the dream is directing the dreamer’s attention to those as-yet-unperceived possibilities. If this were not the case, the deam would simply not have been remembered. In fact, this is a generic implication of all remembered dreams: If a dream is remembered at all, it suggests that the dreamer’s waking consciousness is capable of playing a creative, positive, even a transformative role in the further unfolding of whatever issues and situations are taking symbolic shape in the dream.” (198)

A book I edited with Kate Adams and Patricia M. Davis, Dreaming in Christianity and Islam: Culture, Conflict, and Creativity (Rutgers University Press, 2009), has as its final chapter a work from Jeremy titled “The Ambiguities of Privilege.”  Here he talked about the ambiguous role of dreams in institutional religions:

“Whenever religious hierarchies grow physically, emotionally, and theologically distant from their less educated and more humble followers over extended periods of time, this archetypal drama of fundamentalism and renewal is awakened and energized once more. Because of the universally privileged position dreams and dreaming occupy in the sacred narratives of the world, a return to lay interpretation of dreams also tends to emerge as a universal element in this repeating drama in its early stages. But the spontaneous, inspired interpretation of dreams brings with it its own set of problems and difficulties.” (244)

The collection Teaching Jung (Oxford University Press, 2012), which I co-edited with Clodagh Weldon, has a chapter by Jeremy titled “Teaching Jung in Asia.”  Here he expresses some of the core questions that animate his exploration of dreams:

“It is my own evolving understanding of Jung over the decades that has led to the evolving ‘ministry of dream work’ that I have now pursued for more than forty years as a Unitarian-Universalist minister. Following Jung’s lead, I begin with the assumption that all dreams (even our worst nightmares) come in the service of health and wholeness and speak a universal language… In my experience, all dreams remembered from sleep ask the same basic psychospiritual questions: Who am I, really? How fully am I giving creative expression to this only partially conscious genuine self? What, specifically, can I do to move more in the direction of authentic health and wholeness, not only for myself but also for the species and the planet as a whole?” (199)

And it should be noted that in all these edited book projects, Jeremy was always among the first contributors to finish his draft and the first to respond to editorial requests for changes and revisions.  He wrote as he spoke and taught, with tremendous grace, boundless passion, and a remarkable fluency of language.  His was a singular voice in the study of dreams.

DreamRev: The Many Contributions of Jeremy Taylor by Kelly Bulkeley

 

Memories of Jeremy Taylor

The world has just lost one of its greatest, wisest, and most compassionate dream teachers.  The Reverend Jeremy Taylor died two days ago, just two days after the death of his wonderful wife and life companion Kathy, a sage dreamer and artist herself.  Their passing together makes a tragic kind of sense, as an ultimate expression of their profound love for each other.  I miss them both deeply.

For more than fifty years, Jeremy has been traveling the country and the world, teaching people about dreams in an incredibly wide variety of places and circumstances.  I’m not sure any single person has devoted more of his life’s creative energy to the cause of increasing public awareness of dreaming.  And I’m not sure any single person has had a greater beneficial impact on the overall tenor and ethos of contemporary dream research.

It will take a long time to reflect on his legacy and take in the full scope of his influence.  What strikes me immediately is how he taught us to find the exciting potentials in even the tiniest dream fragment, and how he welcomed everyone, from all backgrounds, into the great spiritual adventure of exploring the world of dreaming.  He also taught us to think of dreaming as a window into social conflict and cultural change—an idea with more resonance than ever right now, as he well knew.

Below is the card he sent me on July 10, 1987, in response to my asking him for an opportunity to meet him and talk about his work.  I had just finished my first year in doctoral studies, and was trying to figure out where exactly I wanted to focus my research.  The meeting that ensued from Jeremy’s warm invitation (at 10 am at their home in San Rafael) had a direct impact on how my studies proceeded from there (he had published Dream Work in 1983).  And it all ties together in a way, because I first heard about Jeremy through my mother, who was working for a time with Kathy Taylor in Marin County and happened to mention my interests to her.  Kathy suggested I contact Jeremy, which I did.  And my life changed as a result.

Memories of Jeremy Taylor by Kelly Bulkeley

The Dreams of a Religious Cult Member

The Dreams of a Religious Cult Member by Kelly Bulkeley

A new study of a long-term dream journal from a woman who belonged for many years to a physically and spiritually abusive religious cult.

Earlier this year a dream research colleague, G. William Domhoff, told me about a new series of dreams available from a person willing to participate in a new experiment with “blind analysis.”  Blind analysis involves bracketing out all personal information about a dreamer and focusing only on the patterns of word usage frequency in the dreams.  These patterns become the basis for making inferences about the dreamer’s waking life concerns, relationships, and activities, which the dreamer is then able to confirm or disconfirm.  I like this method because it provides a very rigorous way of testing and refining my hypotheses about dreaming-waking connections.

According to Domhoff, the dreams came from a woman who is an “ex-cultist” and who has been keeping a regular dream journal for more than 30 years.  This immediately catapulted the project to the front of my research queue.  Here was a rare opportunity to study the dreams of someone from what sounded like an extremely unusual religious background.  What might a blind analysis of the dreams of such a person reveal?

The Dreams of a Religious Cult Member by Kelly Bulkeley

The following is an initial progress report on what I’ve found so far.  A more detailed discussion will be part of a talk I will give in June at the annual conference of the International Association for the Study of Dreams in Anaheim, California.

To make the analysis more manageable we asked “Beverly” (a pseudonym) to provide four subsets of her dreams, one each for the years 1986, 1996, 2006, and 2016.  Apparently she has recorded a total of more than 6,000 dreams recorded over this whole time period, which works out to an average recall rate of about four dreams a week for 30 years.  Quite a prolific dreamer!  And quite an amazing personal document for her to reflect on the long and winding course of her life.

We uploaded the four sets of dreams into the Sleep and Dream Database and I used the SDDb’s 2.0 word search template to analyze each set.  The 2.0 template has 40 categories of word usage organized into 8 classes: Perception, Emotion, Cognition, Characters, Social Interactions, Elements, Movement, and Culture.  After creating a large spreadsheet with all the word search results, I compared the frequencies in Beverly’s dreams with the frequencies of the SDDb baselines—a large, high-quality set of dreams from many sources that I use as a standard of “normal” frequencies of dream content (presented in chapter 6 of my book Big Dreams).  I also looked at variations between the four sets of Beverly’s dreams, noting any frequencies that seemed markedly higher or lower than others in the same category.

A special challenge with Beverly’s dreams is their relatively short length.  The 940 total dreams across the four sets have an average length of 54 words, with a median of 43 (meaning half the reports are more, and half are less, than 43 words in length).  I typically use this method with much longer dreams, so I went into the analysis with even more caution than usual.

As it turned out, and as I will describe in more detail at the IASD conference in June, the short length of Beverly’s dreams did not impede the process.  On the contrary, this has been one of the most successful experiments of blind analysis I’ve done to date.

After I calculated Beverly’s word usage frequencies and made my baseline comparisons, I formulated a total of 26 inferences about her waking life.  To be clear, at this point I only knew three details about Beverly’s personal life: she was a woman, an avid dream journaler, and an ex-cultist.  Other than that, I was “blind” to her waking life circumstances and personality.

Of the 26 inferences I sent to her, Beverly confirmed 23 as accurate.  These included predictions about her personality, relationships, financial concerns, physical health, and cultural interests.

The three inferences she did not affirm are interesting, and may help me further refine the blind analysis process.  I’ve found in past experiments that I often learn more from mistaken inferences than from successful ones.

In the 1986 set of dreams there are five dream reports that use the word “earthquake”; none of the other sets of dreams use this word, which prompted my inference that in 1986 Beverly was “impacted by an earthquake.”  This was her response: “This must be symbolic of what I went through with the group in 1986. That was the year they hit bottom, including the murder.”

The Dreams of a Religious Cult Member by Kelly Bulkeley

This aspect of meaning was not really part of my inference, so I don’t count it as a successful one, but it does shed light on the possible use of a natural disaster like an earthquake as a recurrent symbol for strong emotional concerns that feel profoundly disruptive and foundation-threatening.

The 1996 set of dreams had remarkably low frequencies of perception words, which struck me as significant.  My inference suggested that during this time the dreamer was “less perceptually stimulated.”  Beverly responded, Not sure what this means, but I was smoking tons of pot that year.”  Maybe that’s the connection, or maybe it’s something else. I didn’t phrase the inference very precisely, which made it hard for her to definitively confirm or disconfirm it.

The 2006 set of dreams had the highest frequency of animal references, which led me to infer that during this time period Beverly was “more concerned about animals (especially birds, cats, and dogs.).”  She replied, “Possibly. I had pet birds and was very attached to Rocky, my parents’ big orange tabby.”  I’m inclined to take this answer as a confirmation of my inference, since 1) she specifically mentions birds and a cat, and 2) she describes the kind of behaviors and feelings that I would generally include in defining the phrase “concerned about animals.”

The Dreams of a Religious Cult Member by Kelly Bulkeley

What about the references to religion in Beverly’s dreams?  This whole series is an amazing chronicle of a lifelong spiritual journey.  Even if I had not known Beverly was an ex-cultist, I would have made it the top headline of my inferences that this dreamer had an extremely strong interest in religion in the early parts of her life.  It turns out that Beverly was deeply involved with a Hare Krishna group in the 1980’s, a group that took a very dark turn into abuse, violence, and murder, as she mentioned.  Her dreams track the course of her involvement with the group and her final escape from it, which has opened her life to a variety of new creative possibilities, also reflected in her dreams in remarkably accurate detail.

The Dreams of a Religious Cult Member by Kelly Bulkeley

At the IASD conference I will talk more about the religious dimensions of her dreams, along with her social relationships and her “big dreams” (i.e., what she considers the most memorable dreams of her whole life).  I will then compare these results with those I’ve found in studying three other long-term dream journals—from Brianna, Jordan, and Jasmine (all pseudonyms, all in the SDDb).  My hope is to use this conference talk, and the feedback I receive from my colleagues, as a springboard for a deeper exploration of Beverly’s dream series.  Her journal is an incredibly valuable resource for the scientific study of religiously significant patterns in dreaming.

Note: This post was first published in Psychology Today on April 20, 2017.