Dream-Sharing Groups, Spirituality, and Community

The sharing of dreams in group settings has played a prominent role in communi ties throughout history. An thropologists and historians have provided detailed reports of dream-shar ing practices found in a wide vari ety of cultures and religious traditions.[i] However, modern Western psycholo gist have generally focused on the intrapsychic aspects of dreams and have applied dreams to strictly individual needs and concerns. The practice of dream-sharing in modern Western society has been confined to the clinician’s office, with the primary goal of assisting in the psychotherapy of individuals.

But in the last 30 years or so a remarkably large number of dream-sharing groups have arisen in the United States[ii]. Because these groups take so many dif­ferent forms and appear in so many different contexts, there is virtu ally no academic research on the subject. However, the phe nomenon of dream-shar ing groups should be of interest to scholars of religion for a number of reasons. First, these groups often look to dreams specifically for spiri tu al insights; the groups thus represent a distinc tive means of religious expression in contemporary Ameri can society. Second, the complex interplay of religious, psychologi cal, and cultural elements in these groups can tell us something about where the pro cess of secu lariza tion stands as we approach the close of the twentieth century. And third, dream-sharing groups fre quently gener ate a powerful sense of community, a sense of deep, intimate bonding among the members of the group. Schol ars who are concerned about how to create a sense of mutual understanding across differences of race, gender, ethnicity, and class should take note of the communi ty-revitalizing poten tial of these groups.

II

Dream-sharing groups began appearing in this country in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. The first groups arose in response to the writings and public workshops of Ann Faraday (Dream Power (1972) and The Dream Game (1974)), Patricia Gar field (Creative Dreaming (1974)), Montague Ullman (Work ing with Dreams (1979)), and Jeremy Taylor (Dream Work (1983)). Each of these people ar gued that the practice of exploring dreams should be expanded beyond the confines of pro fessional psy chothera py and made acces sible to the general population. Another important early stimulus was Kilton Stewart’s essay on “Dream Theory in Malaya,” reprinted in Charles Tart’s best-selling anthol ogy Al tered States of Con sciousness (1969). Stewart’s descrip tion of the Senoi, a native people whose practice of publically sharing and discuss ing dreams helped them create an idyllic, nearly con flict-free community life, inspired countless Ameri cans to explore their own dreams and to begin sharing their dreams in group settings.[iii]

Contemporary dream-sharing groups take many different forms. But they also share many basic elements of struc ture and process. Let me offer the following “ideal-type” of a dream-sharing group:

— Six to twelve people gather in a quiet, comfort able place.

— One of the people serves as leader or facilitator for the group.

— Each person in the group describes one of his or her dreams.

— The group choses one person’s dream to discuss in detail, and proceeds to offer comments, ask questions, and suggest mean ings regarding that dream.

— This discussion can take from 15 minutes to two hours; usually, an effort is made to discuss more than one dream at a given meeting.

— Over the course of a few meetings, everyone in the group participates: everyone gets to share their own dreams, everyone gets to comment on other people’s dreams, and everyone gets to have one of their dreams discussed by the group.

There are many variations on this ideal-typical pat tern. The group’s size can vary tremendously; I have seen dream-sharing groups function with as few as three, and as many as 100 people. The group’s leader or facili tator can play a very active role in steering the group pro cess, or can do nothing more than keep an eye on the clock and remind people when it’s time to stop. Many dream-sharing groups function effectively with no formal leaders or facilitators at all.

The greatest variations among different groups occur during the discussion process. The dreamer may actively participate in this process, or may sit quietly and “observe” the group’s discussion of his or her dream. The group may use a relatively structured series of questions to ask of each dream, or may engage in an interpretive “free-for-all.” Some groups, in addition to verbal discussion of the dreams, will draw pictures of them, act them out in “dream theater,” and/or engage in guided imagery exercises. The group’s activities may be oriented by par ticu lar psy cho logi cal theories (e.g., looking for Jungian arche types), by particu lar theologi cal per spectives (e.g., looking for the presence of the Holy Spirit), or by particular per sonal concerns (e.g., look ing for help with troubled marriages or rela­tion ships). But no matter what their specific theoretical or ideological cast, the discussions of almost all dream-sharing groups are grounded in a core set of assump tions: 1) that dreams are relevant our important waking life con cerns, 2) that dreams can be understood without spe cial ized knowledge, and 3) that dreams have the poten tial to reveal spiritu al or religious truths.

The basic dream-sharing process described above has been used in a nearly limitless variety of settings and contexts:

— In churches and religious education programs (e.g., among Catholics, Unitarian Uni versalists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and Method ists);

— In schools, from grammar schools to high schools to colleges to seminaries to business schools to adult education programs;

— In psychological workshops, seminars, and retreats (e.g., conducted by members of Jungian, Gestalt, Humanis tic, and Transpersonal schools of psychology);

— In twelve-step counseling programs of various sorts;

— In social service settings (e.g., in prisons, drug rehabilitation centers, and hospitals; for pregnant women and their partners, people with AIDS, and victims of physical and sexual abuse);

— In community centers, libraries, and neighbors’ homes.[iv]

There are no precise demographic data on the partici pants in dream-sharing groups. Based on my initial research efforts, I have found that participants tend to be female, tend to be white, tend to be relatively edu cated and financially secure, and tend to live on either the East or the West coast. However, these are only the most general of observa tions: I have also found dream-sharing groups made up of all males, groups made up of all blacks, and groups organized in the South, the Mid west, and the Plains states. Over all, I would estimate that in the last 30 years there have been more than 50,000 dream-sharing groups in the U.S., mean ing that approxi mately a half million people have partic ipated in such groups.[v]

III

From the beginnings of Western history dreams have traditionally been the province of reli gion. Dreams have been viewed as either revelations from the divine or as temptations from the Devil, and priests and church lead ers have been the authorities on interpreting what a given dream means. In the twentieth century, however, the discipline of psychology has risen to claim authority over dreams. Psycholo gists are now the ones to whom we turn for interpretations, and we have come to believe that the meanings of dreams reflect the individual’s unconscious personali ty dynamics.

This transition from a religious to a psychological view of dreams perfectly exemplifies the process of secular ization, the process by which modern scientific, economic, and cultural forces have combined to vanquish the authority of reli gion in Western society. Dream-sharing groups, in which a reliance on psy cho logi cal dream theo ries is combined with an interest in the spiri tual dimen sions of dreams, would seem to mark an inter esting new twist on this process.[vi]

From one perspective, dream-sharing groups can be seen as resist ing and even overcoming the spiritually destruc tive effects of secularization. Dreams have always been regarded as a means of relat ing to the sa cred, to those powers and realities that tran scend ordi nary human exis tence. Dream-sharing groups draw upon this universal source of religious experience and adapt it to the cir cumstances of people living in contem porary American society. The result is a form of spirituality that may not be “for mal ly” religious and may not always take place within con ventional religious con texts, but that genuine ly satis fies people’s spiritual needs. If secu lar ization produc es a spiritual “dis en chant ment”, as Max Weber argues, then dream-sharing groups offer the means to a “reenchantment” of the world, to a renewal and revival of authentic spiritual experience in contem porary society.

But from a different perspective, dream-sharing groups can be seen as intensifying the destructive effects of secularization, making modern social life more fragment ed, more alienated, and more spiritually confused. Paying so much attention to dreams can easily appear as socially irrele vant navel-gazing; by focusing so intently on one’s personal psycho logical dynamics, people run the danger of losing touch with the public realm of community involve ment. The outer world is so cold and impersonal, and the inner world is so warm and alluring, that modern Western ers feel a strong temptation to abandon the former and immerse themselves in the latter. By surrendering to this tempta tion, people become ever more detached, iso lated, and alienated from society.[vii]

The process of exploring one’s dreams in a group set ting would seem to minimize these potentially alienating effects. But as Robert Wuthnow argues in his recent work Sharing the Journey (1994), participation in various kinds of small support groups (like dream-sharing groups) is often nothing more than a further defense against broader public engagement. Such groups are usually very homoge neous, making it easier for par ticipants to rein force their established views and to avoid contact with differ ent types of people. Wuthnow’s concern is that small support groups provide a covert means of self-protec tion against the complications of a multicultural world, and thus a further erosion in people’s broad er sense of commu nity.

So it seems that dream-sharing groups promote a kind of spirituality that is authentic, powerful, and person ally fulfilling–but that is also helping to corrode the communal integrity of contemporary American society.

IV

That harsh conclusion is not warranted, however, by a careful examination of the actual practices of various dream-sharing groups. Such an examination reveals that many dream-sharing groups enable participants to gain valuable insights into the relations between their per sonal lives and the broader social world in which they live. Furthermore, many dream-sharing groups give people a means of understanding others, of recognizing their connections with people who are differ ent. In such cases, dream-sharing groups genuinely help to revitalize a sense of communi ty and to renew people’s active engage ment with the world.

The following are two brief descriptions of dream-sharing groups that have this community-revitalizing effect (for fuller accounts of these cases, and for other perspectives on the social and cultural relevance of dream studies, see the anthology I’ve edited, Among All These Dreamers: Essays on Dreaming, Modern Society, and the Future of Dream Studies (in press (a))):

1) Jane White Lewis, a Jungian analyst, has for the past three years been teaching classes on dreams at a public high school in New Haven, Connecticut. New Haven is an all-too typical American city, plagued by drugs, crime, poverty, and urban decay. Many of the teenagers in Lewis’s classes are struggling simply to survive in this deeply troubled community. But Lewis has found that when the students begin exploring and discussing their dreams, they discover new resources of energy, creativi ty, and hope. In her class the students share their dreams, draw pictures of them, act them out in little dramatic productions, and write essays and stories based on them. Many of the students who hate writing or think they just don’t have the talent to write sudden ly find their “voice” when writing about their dreams and about the memo ries, feelings, and thoughts that arise in con nection with their dreams. For example, the students in one class often dreamed of the police, of fighting them, arguing with them, trying to hide from them; class dis cussions of these “police dreams” led the students to reflect on conflicts with authority, both in society and in their own personal lives. Similarly, the dreams of many of the girls about having babies raised the very immediate issue of teen pregnancy: the students dis cussed the social and psycho logical pressures girls feel in romantic relation ships, and their dreams opened up new vistas of reflection on how to resist those pressures. In this case, encourag ing the students to turn “inwards” to their dreams became a valu able means of guiding them “outwards” to the realm of public society.

2) Bette Ehlert is a New Mexico lawyer who for a number of years has been leading dream-sharing groups in jails, prisons, and other correctional facilities. As public opinion polls tell us, crime is widely regarded as the number one threat to the American commu nity; politi cians argue bitterly over what causes crime and what to do with criminals. In her groups Ehlert has found that dream-sharing can be an effective means of discovering links between the particular crimes committed by an offender and certain events, experiences, and conflicts in the offender’s past. For example, a young African-American convicted of dealing crack had a dream of struggling to get away from a dark entity pushing down on him. In the group discussion the dreamer discovered the relations between his being sexually abused as a child and his crime of being a “pusher.” Ehlert has also found that in a more general sense dream-sharing groups help criminal offenders cultivate the cognitive abilities in which they are so notoriously deficient: the abilities to reason critically, to empatheti cally take the perspective of others, and to envi sion alter na tives, possi bili ties, and poten tials. All of this strengthens their capacity to avoid becoming trapped in a lifelong cycle of crime and incarceration.

These two cases show that dream-sharing groups can actually give their partici pants valu able, focused in sights into prob lems that involve an intersec tion of personal and social forces. Rather than promoting navel-gazing escapism, rather than further isolat ing people in homoge neous little social units, these groups enable participants to per ceive, to understand, and to respect the lives of other people, of different people. Dream-sharing groups are not only a powerful means of spiritual discovery and expression; they are also a powerful means of renewing a vivid, dynamic sense of community in con temporary Ameri can soci ety.

V

My discussion of the phenomenon of dream-sharing groups is not intended to suggest that these groups can cure all of society’s ills. Any attempt to offer “new thinking on community” must acknowledge that in this post-modern, post-Cold War world there are no simple remedies, no magic wands that can make poverty and racism and crime and all our other social problems disappear. What I would like to suggest is that dream-sharing groups offer a resource that can, in many situa­tions, prove effective in revitalizing a sense of commu nity. Among their many practical virtues, these groups are widely accessible (since everybody dreams), cost-free (all you need is a space for people to sit in a circle), and capable of adapting to an endless variety of settings and circum stances. Dream-sharing groups have an especially great potential, I believe, to enrich educa tional pro grams. Lewis’s work in a public high school is one good example of this. In my own current research, I’m working with preschool children in various socio-economic set tings, trying to develop programs that inte grate dreams, play, and story-telling.

When shared in a group setting, dreams can stimulate a deep and powerful sense of relat ed ness to others, en abling people to recog nize a shared humanity in the midst of social and cultur al differences. I would like to close with one of the more poetic statements of this point, by Synesius of Cyrene, an early fifth-century Neo-Platonist who convert ed to Christianity and became famous as the bishop of Ptolemais. In a treatise he wrote on dreams, Synesius says this:

“[T]he dream is visible to the man who is worth five hundred medimni, and equally to the possessor of three hundred, to the teamster no less than to the peasant who tills the boundary land for a livelihood, to the galley slave and the common labourer alike… [To this oracle] then we must go, woman and man of us, young and old, poor and rich alike, the private citizen and the ruler, the town dweller and the rustic, the artisan and the orator. She repudiates neither race, nor age, nor condition, nor calling. She is present to everyone, everywhere, this zealous prophetess, this wise counsellor, who holdeth her peace.”[viii]

Bibliography

Bellah, Robert, et.al.1985. Habits of the Heart.
University of California Press.

Berger, Peter. 1967. The Sacred Canopy. Doubleday.

Bulkeley, Kelly. 1994. The Wilderness of Dreams.
SUNY Press.

________ (editor). In press (a). Among All These

Dream ers. SUNY Press.

________. In press (b). Spiritual Dreaming.
Paulist Press.

Domhoff, G. William. 1985. The Mystique of Dreams.

University of California Press.

Faraday, Ann. 1972. Dream Power. Berkeley Books.

________. 1974. The Dream Game. Harper & Row.

Garfield, Patricia. 1974. Creative Dreaming.
Ballantine.

Jedrej, M.C. and Shaw, Rosalind (editors). 1993.

Dream ing, Religion and Society in Africa.
E.J. Brill.

Kelsey, Morton. 1974. God, Dreams, and Revelation.
Augsburg Publishing House.

Rieff, Philip. 1966. The Triumph of the Therapeutic.

Harper & Row.

Stewart, Kilton. 1969. “Dream Theory in Malaya.” In

Charles Tart (ed.), Altered States of
Consciousness. Harper Collins.

Taylor, Jeremy. 1982. Dream Work. Paulist Press.

Tedlock, Barbara (editor). 1987. Dreaming:

Anthropolog ical and Psychological
Interpretations. Cambridge University Press.

Von Grunebaum, G.E. and Callois, Roger (editors).
1966. The Dream and Human Societies.
University of California Press.

Wuthnow, Robert. 1994. Sharing the Journey. Vantage.

Notes

[i]. See Von Grunebaum and Callois 1966, Tedlock 1987, Jedrej and Shaw 1993, and Bulkeley in press (a).

[ii]. Although my focus in this presentation is on the United States, there are also many dream-sharing groups active in Canada, Mexico, and Western Europe.

[iii]. For a highly skeptical evaluation of Stewart’s re search and its popular reception, see Domhoff 1985.

[iv]. In keeping with a notion of “groups” as consisting of people meeting in face-to-face contexts, I’m not discuss ing the phenomenon of dream-sharing via television, radio, and cyberspace–although these technological arenas have brought countless more people into the pro cess of sharing and discussing dreams with others.

[v]. I’m basing these estimates on 1) my experiences in leading and participating in these groups, 2) my reviews of the many books and periodicals devoted to the subject of dreams, and 3) numerous conver sations and extensive correspon dence with people who have been active in the dream-sharing group “movement” for many years, including Montague Ullman, Jeremy Taylor, Roberta Ossana, Anthony Shafton, Jill Gregory, and Rita Dwyer.

[vi]. For a more detailed discussion of the relevance of modern dream studies to the process of secularization, see Bulkeley 1994, chapter 19.

[vii]. This is a general critique of modern psychology made by Philip Rieff 1966, Peter Berger 1967, and Robert Bellah, et. al. 1985.

[viii]. Kelsey 1974, pp. 247-248.

Dreams Reflect Our Waking World

(Santa Clara Magazine, Spring 2003, 8-11)

Are dreams meaningful revelations of truth, or just deceptive gibberish? That is a question humans have been debating for thousands of years. Some of the earliest written documents from ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, and India are texts on dream interpretation that provide instructions on how to separate the sense from the nonsense in dreaming. Most cultures through history have agreed that at least some dreams are genuinely meaningful and relevant to people’s lives.

Over the past century, Western psychologists have used new methods to study this age-old question, and their research has confirmed the basic meaningfulness of dreaming. Clinical psychotherapists from Sigmund Freud on have found that dreams bear strong relevance to people’s emotional concerns and personal conflicts. For example, psychotherapists have repeatedly found that if a client is going through a divorce, or suffering an illness, or experiencing a crisis situation at work, the client’s dreams are likely to provide informative, insightful reflections of his or her emotional situation in waking life.

In addition to the abundant clinical evidence from psychotherapists, the meaningfulness of dreams has also established by cognitive psychologists who have studied long-term dream journals—personal diaries in which people have recorded their dreams over a period of years or even decades. Content analysis of these journals has revealed a remarkable continuity between people’s dreams and their waking lives. The characters, settings, and modes of social interaction in the dreams have clearly identifiable connections with journal keepers’ everyday waking experiences. Thus students frequently dream about school, parents about their children, athletes about their sports, artists about their creations, etc. The upshot of this research is, whatever it is you do in waking life, you probably dream about it, too.

Taking the last 100 years of psychological research as a whole, the evidence is quite strong that dreaming is not deceptive gibberish (at least not entirely), and it does have genuinely meaningful relevance to people’s lives.

Now that we have a well-grounded answer to that initial question, a new question can be addressed: What kinds of meaning does dreaming convey? Most researchers have focused on the personal dimensions of dream meaning—how dreams relate to the private life concerns of the individual dreamer (health, sex, family relationships, etc.). While I value and appreciate the work of these researchers, my own studies have followed a different path. I have become increasingly interested in the communal dimensions of dream meaning. My research over the past several years has been building a case for the idea that dreams offer meaningful reflections of the broader cultural, political, and economic environment in which people live.

As you might expect, this idea has struck many people (including a number of my fellow researchers) as highly implausible. How can dreams, the bizarrely idiosyncratic products of an individual’s sleeping mind, have any significance for the waking world of public life?

One way I have tried to answer that question is by studying people’s dreams during times of unusually intense political activity—namely, Presidential elections. I have done research during the past three election cycles (1992, 1996, 2000), and each time I have found numerous instances of dreams with explicit themes and images from the waking world political scene. By 1996 I had gathered a sufficiently large number of politically-related dreams from people all over the country to begin sorting them by theme and content into three broad groups:

Political cartoons of the mind: Dreams expressing in succinct and sometimes very humorous ways the dreamer’s waking life political perspective. Here’s an example from a 36-year old man from Florida: “I’m playing golf with Bill Clinton. I’ve heard people say he cheats, and I understand what they mean, because he frequently improves the lie of his ball. But he encourages the people he’s playing with to do the same. He says, ‘It’s just a game, and just for fun!’” This dreamer voted enthusiastically for Clinton in 1992, but in 1996, when he had this dream, he wasn’t sure if he would vote for Clinton in the upcoming election. The dreamer saw the golf imagery of his dream as an expression of his concern that President Clinton is a “cheater” who frequently “improves his lies” and then tries to smooth-talk other people into letting him get away with it.

Personal symbols: Dreams using the figures of politicians as “personal symbols” to express strong emotions that the dreamer is feeling toward some matter in his or her waking life. Here’s an example from a 55-year old woman from New Mexico: “I’m back in college, in one of the classrooms, and Bill Clinton is one of the students. Then he’s the teacher, and he asks me how alcohol manufacturers get us to drink so much. I say I haven’t given the question much thought.” This dreamer had long struggled with alcoholism, and in her dream she sees the President as voice of “executive authority” within her, a voice that is prompting her to think more carefully about why she drinks.

New political perspectives: Dreams directly calling into question the dreamer’s waking life political attitudes, leading the dreamer to think anew about his or her accustomed beliefs about a politician or a political issue. This example comes from a 44-year old man from New York: “I’m on a camping trip with the President and his party in a heavily wooded area. Suddenly, Clinton darts up a hill into the woods. He sees a bear approaching the camping area. None of us moves, as the President confronts the bear; Clinton is very expert and competent as he does this, not wild or frightened. He manages to drive the huge bear, the size of a Grizzly, into a snare set for him. The FBI in the entourage are angry at the close call, but the President seems unperturbed.” This dreamer said that from the start he had been skeptical of Bill Clinton’s leadership qualities, but he awoke from this dream surprised by Clinton’s swift, assertive, and fearless response to the threat of the huge bear. As a result of his dream, this man reconsidered his generally dim view of Clinton’s executive abilities, wondering if he had been overlooking the President’s skills as a fighter.

My next research project tried to build on those earlier findings by taking a different approach to the general question of dreaming and politics. Beginning in the Fall of 1996 I began gathering most recent dream reports from college undergraduates of varying political persuasions. In addition to writing down their most recent dreams, I asked the students a series of questions about their political beliefs and activities: were they registered to vote? If so, in which party? Did they vote in the election? If so, for whom? How would they describe their political views, as conservative, liberal, moderate, other? I then compared the dreams of 28 highly conservative people and 28 highly liberal people (half men, half women in both groups) and found the following:

People on the right had more nightmares and dreams in which they lacked power. They had a greater frequency of lifelike dreams. Female rights were especially anxious about family relationships, and male rights had dreams almost devoid of girlfriends.

People on the left had fewer nightmares and more dreams in which they had power. They had a greater frequency of good fortunes and bizarre elements in their dreams. Female lefts had an especially high frequency of good fortunes, and male lefts had an unusually high percentage of female characters.

What do these findings mean? When I presented this research finding at an academic conference in the summer of 2001, I said my pilot study was far too small to support any certain conclusions. However, to my surprise and amusement, this little research factoid—“Republicans have more nightmares than Democrats”—was quickly seized by the national news media and bandied about by pundits of all persuasion (Matt Drudge, Rush Limbaugh, Bill Schneider, Bob Edwards, Peter Jennings, etc.). Despite my cautions, political partisans on both sides did not hesitate to assert their interpretation of my findings. As reported by UPI correspondent Mike Martin, Terry McAuliffe, Democratic National Committee chairman, declared “If George W. Bush were the leader of my party, I’d have trouble sleeping at night, too.” Not to be outdone in the game of “dream spinning,” Kevin Sheridan of the Republican National Committee quickly replied, “What do you expect after eight years of William Jefferson Clinton?”

As you can imagine, this episode taught me a humbling lesson about the manipulation of academic research by the mass media. But beyond that, it encouraged me to expand on this small but promising project and continue exploring dreams as a means of gaining new insight into the unconscious roots of people’s waking life political beliefs.

On a more sober note, I have over the past year been gathering dream reports related to the September 11 attack on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. As you can imagine, many of these reports have been nightmares—frighteningly vivid dreams of planes being hijacked, terrorists with bombs, tall buildings exploding, all the horrifying imagery of that unforgettable day. In a forthcoming book (Dreams of Healing: Transforming Nightmares Into Visions of Hope, Paulist Press) I discuss these dreams both in terms of their relevance to the dreamer’s personal life and to the profoundly changed communal world in which we all now find ourselves. I have found that many of the post-September 11 dreams not only express the dreamer’s private emotions but also envision creative new possibilities for meaning and order in the life of the community.

This capacity of dreams to convey meanings of both personal and collective significance is beautifully illustrated in the experience of Mandy (not her real name), a twenty-nine year old artist from California. A couple of days before September 11 Mandy had flown to New York to visit a friend who happened to work in one of the World Trade Center towers. On the morning of the 11th her friend had gone to work as usual, leaving Mandy asleep in her apartment (right across the river from the towers), with plans to meet at the WTC for lunch. When the attack occurred, Mandy rode her bike to a spot where she witnessed the towers collapsing. It was several hours before she learned her friend had survived. That night, Mandy had this dream:

“I’m walking through a forest that has been chopped down. It is a sea of stumps. Every single tree has been cut. I stand in the middle, sobbing. Who could do this? I walk up to one of the stumps and see the huge beautiful spiral inside. I get lost in its magnificence. These trees are so old. I can see all of history in these trees, and I’m struck with the beauty and power of seeing this part of the tree. It’s a part that I don’t get to see. This spiral is taking me so deeply down into myself, to a place so powerful that it overwhelms me.”

Mandy knew right away that her dream was directly related to her harrowing personal experiences the previous day. She felt “so much calmer and clear-headed” when she woke up, and she said the beautiful image of the spiral helped her get through the agonies of the next day. She also recognized that her dream had a broader, almost allegorical dimension of meaning: Amid a scene of apparently total devastation and ruin, a previously hidden source of power, beauty, and strength is discovered. Mandy understood that this message was relevant not only to her but to everyone who was consumed by fear, confusion, and despair in the immediate aftermath of September 11. When she returned home she made a painting of her dream, and since then she has shown it in public exhibitions as a way of sharing its inspirational meaning with others.

My current research project on the social dimensions of dreaming is a collaborative effort with Prof. Tracey Kahan of the Psychology Department of Santa Clara University. Prof. Kahan has taught a class on Sleep and Dreams for several years, and one requirement of her course is to keep a sleep and dreams journal. At the end of Fall Quarter of 2001 Prof. Kahan and I gathered the journals of 22 students who volunteered to participate as anonymous subjects in our study. We are currently in the process of analyzing the journals for evidence of explicit incorporations of September 11-related imagery (e.g., hijacked airplanes, terrorists, Osama Bin Laden, etc.), and we will present our findings at the 2003 conference of the Association for the Study of Dreams, to be held in Berkeley from June 27 to July 1. In previous studies Prof. Kahan has examined the various types of thinking, awareness, and self-reflection that occur in dreaming, and one question we will be examining is whether dreams with clear incorporations of September 11 themes have distinct qualities of awareness as compared to dreams without such content. Do dreams with explicit images of terrorism have less self-reflection (because of overwhelming fear) or more self-reflection (because of heightened vigilance)? The results of our study should cast new light on this and other questions relating to the profound psychological impact of September 11.

My interest in how dream content relates to major events in public life is not intended to disparage the value of dream interpretation for personal insight. Particularly in the practical contexts of psychotherapy, counseling, and spiritual direction, dreams are a wonderful resource for individual growth and self-knowledge. My concern is to rather to complement the personal meanings with communal meanings by heightening people’s awareness of their deep and often unconscious relations to broader forces in their communities and in the world. Like many social commentators, I lament the tendency in American society to segregate private and public spheres of existence, and my research is providing evidence that even in the seemingly isolated realm of dreaming we are still dynamically involved with the political, economic, and cultural forces shaping our lives. My guiding belief is that the more aware we become of those forces, the better able we will be to guide them in creative and fruitful directions.

Dream Content and Political Ideology

LIST OF THE DREAMS

Appendix 1

FL 1 COOK KILLS HER MOTHER

I was at my house with my mom, my younger sister, and my younger brother and his friends. My brother and his friends were watching a sports game on TV. Out of nowhere the cook at my parents’ restaurant came to my house and murdered my mom in my bathroom. My dad came home a little while later, went into my sister’s room and killed himself. When I found him there, I went to call 911 and our phone wouldn’t work. I finally got through on a cell phone, and suddenly my dad was alive again. My sister then took his hand and led him into my bathroom. She said, “Look, there’s mom,” and pointed to her dead body. We went back out to the living room and my dad said, “Let’s get out of here.” Just as I said, “We can’t, Tom (the cook/murderer) took mom’s car,” Tom pulled up in the driveway. I was terrified as he walked up our walkway and into our house again, but my dad wasn’t. Tom then proceeded to explain the procedures and the logic behind killing my mom, as I stuffed my face with a huge bowl of raviolis.

FL 2 BOYFRIEND’S HAPPY PARTY

I dreamt that I was at a party that my boyfriend was hosting at his house. I cannot remember the specific details of how/why I was at this party, but I do remember that it was at his house. I can remember it was very warm in the house, and all the lights were on. Everyone was very happy and seemed to be enjoying everyone’s company. What made this dream memorable was that my high school friends were there, who I haven’t seen in two years. I remember their faces being extremely colorful (red lips, pink cheeks), and just full of life. Both my friends and I were extremely excited to see each other.

FL 3 HUGGING HER CONFUSED AUNT

I am in my house I lived in when I was younger. My aunt and little cousin Marcus came to visit me. I was back home from going to school in Hawaii. When I saw my aunt I gave her a hug but she was hesitant at hugging me back. She looked extremely confused. Marcus was playing with my mom, he was restless and he wanted to leave. I was just standing there. I was confused myself. I wasn’t sure what was going on.

FL 4 EX-LOVER’S MASSAGE

I was dreaming about a past relationship. I ran into my ex-lover at the mall. We went back to his house and I began speaking with his mother. He and I went upstairs and he began to massage my body. When his hands touched the small of my back, I quickly woke up and called my boyfriend to tell him how much I love him.

FL 5 MOTHER CUTS HER HAIR CRAZILY

I had a dream that my mom cut my hair all crazy, giving me bangs and cutting it uneven on the sides. We were on a vacation and the house in which we were staying was located right on the beach. My parents were there and I believe my brother was there as well. I remember looking out the glass doors and seeing the ocean directly outside. The waves kept getting closer and closer and taller and taller. Then I realized that there was an emergency warning being sounded out, but no one was taking it seriously and I had to try and get everyone out of the house.

FL 6 A WATCH IN THE WATER

I dreamt that I was in the ocean near the shore, with people. As I was floating I noticed a male watch and swam down to reach it. The watch kept slipping out of my hand and then I noticed the clasp was floating away. I managed to catch the watch but not the clasp. Then when I looked at my hand with the watch in it, it was a female watch that I had grabbed. I went back and took the male watch as well but both were damaged when I brought them back to shore. On the shore there is a little girl with a nose piercing that is almost grotesque. It is revealed that her mother made her wear it because it is trendy. Then her father notices that the piercing is infected and removes it.

FL 7 BOYFRIEND’S MOM YELLS AT HER

My boyfriend and I were watching tv in his living room and he went outside to smoke. So, I was just sitting by myself watching TV. Then his mom comes home and starts yelling at us and yelling at me because she didn’t know that he smokes. I was really scared and sad because I didn’t want his mom yelling at me. I wanted her to like me.

FL 8 TAKING CARE OF HER YOUNG NIECE

My family had a reunion get together at a hotel and I was in charge of taking care of my young niece. We were outside and walking on this pathway that was very slippery and we kept falling. My niece would cry every time we would fall and I would try to distract her. Suddenly I realized I didn’t have her milk bottle, so I asked my dad to watch her while I went inside the hotel to get it. I managed to get up the slippery pathway again and go inside the hotel, but suddenly it turned into a mall and I could not find my family anywhere. Although I had never seen the mall before, I somehow knew my way around. The rest of the dream I spent looking for my family (very vague at this point).

FL 9 TEMPTED TO LEAVE HER BOYFRIEND

I dreamed I was lying on my stomach and a friend of mine who I might have crush on came next to me. We were in a corner of a room. He kissed me on the ear. The next thing in the dream was us sitting on a sofa in the living room (mine??) talking, and I’d assume stuff happened in between that I did not actually dream. He was offering to give me a lot of things, I don’t know what exactly for, something like, leave my boyfriend and run away with him. He offered things like spending his savings on me, and when I didn’t give an answer, neither yes nor no, he offered more. I didn’t speak, just cried. I knew what was the right thing to do, but I didn’t want to commit myself. Out of the parlor? Came the chair of my department and I thought, oh great, now I’m in trouble. (the chair knows of my boyfriend, and he’s met him. But instead, he talked to my friend as if they knew each other and asked, “were you the one that did this (made her cry)?” When he nodded, the chair said, then it’s your responsibility to make it better.

FL 10 CRUEL SOCCER GAME FLYING

I was walking in a park-like area toward some sort of museum, there was a lot of statuary (Greek?) leading up to the museum and I remember thinking how far (unusually far) the walk to the door was. I was with a friend, Pat, I have had since second grade. I noticed a soccer match going on to our left and it consisted of many adult men but there was a line of children (6-7 years old) who had their shirts pulled over their heads, and their parents were lining them up. I remember thinking how odd and cruel that was to send the children into a violent game with older men. At this point I became lucid and remembered that I could fly in my dreams if I wanted to. I began to fly and I thought to myself, “If only I could remember how to do this while I am awake, it is so easy.” Pat was up ahead and as I flew towards him I awoke.

FL 11 BLISSFUL PREGNANCY

I am not sure of where I am exactly; however, that does not really concern me. It is not dark yet not overly bright. I do realize I am indoors because though there is not a mirror visible to me I know I am looking at myself and through my eyes. It is pleasantly warm and quiet; I can feel this in my arms, back, face…through my whole body. I may be reclined in a bed or a very soft and big easy chair. I am very comfortable and peaceful. I feel my abdomen, large and warm, and I know life is within me. This is a recurring dream in which I have the baby in my arms and I am nursing the baby. It is so real that the baby’s smell and gurgling, suckling, etc. I feel physically. I have to emphasize the calm and contentment, the overwhelming love I have for this child welling up within me.

FL 12 SEEING THE GIRL SHE LOVES

In the dream there was me, the girl I’m in love with, and her boyfriend, who is a friend of mine also. We were in this really large bathroom like thing and she wanted he and I to escort her to the bathroom. The weird thing about the bathroom was that some stalls had doors and others had shower curtains. Like the almost clear kind but you can’t really see through it. She wanted to go to one that had the shower curtain, but was afraid to because she thought we would look at her.

FL 13 HAUNTED APARTMENT

I was moving into a new apartment, from the 3rd floor to the 3rd floor-across a grassy area, there were other people helping me with boxes, when I got in to the new apartment I loved it, I remember climbing up the stairs, I looked around and liked it, but I knew it was haunted, I can’t remember what happened so that I would know, but I knew and I didn’t mind.

FL 14 GEORGE W. BUSH STEALS HER CHIPS

I was in my room watching the news on the election and eating chips and G.W. Bush came into my room and stole my chips. I was surprised and caught off guard. I looked up at the TV and Gore won because they miscalculated the votes.

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)

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.