Today is the launch of the Kickstarter campaign to fund the SHADOW mobile application for tracking dreams and creating a new and bigger community of dreamers than ever before possible. There’s a lot of potential here, especially for people who are already familiar with dream research and have good ideas about how such a project could develop to benefit the most people. As an advisor to SHADOW I’ve been doing my best to promote greater awareness of the privacy and ethical issues involved here, and I have also been helping sketch out possible paths for future development and growth. I can honestly say that nothing is set in stone–SHADOW will develop from the ground up, based on user interest and support. If you are someone who cares about the importance of dreams and wants to broaden public appreciation of the creative powers of dreaming, don’t stand on the sidelines–get involved, get active, and help us create the future! This video offers my 3-minute appeal for your support.
A couple of years ago a reporter from Cosmopolitan magazine sent me a list of dream types she had gathered from other women in her office. I can’t remember if an article ever appeared, but I thought the dreams were interesting as expressions of the concerns many women feel about their romantic relationships. Here is the intro I gave to the reporter, the dream types, and my comments. (Note: I just found a copy of the article. It appeared in the December 2010 issue, p. 112, under the rather lurid title “What Your Freaky Love Dreams Mean.”)
Many of these dreams seem to have a distressing, negative tone, so let me say that in general I look at “bad” dreams and nightmares as valuable opportunities for insight and growth. Such dreams usually revolve around the most emotionally important and challenging issues of our lives. They focus on our difficulties precisely in order to give us a deeper understanding of what’s going on and what we might do about it.
1) You’re back with an ex.
*Is there a different interpretation depending on whether the ex you dreamt about was a nice guy who you had a good relationship with vs. a bad guy who didn’t treat you well?
Dreaming about one’s past romantic partners never ends. He may be gone from your waking life, but, for better or worse, he’ll linger in your dreams forever. These kinds of dreams do NOT automatically mean you want to get back together with him. Rather, they reflect the complex and long-lasting impact any serious relationship makes on your unconscious mind. The details of the dream are important: I would want to know, in what situations does your ex appear? What kind of emotional energy does he bring into the dream scenario? If he’s a “good” ex, perhaps the dream suggests there’s still a way in which his presence is a helpful force in your waking life. If he’s a “bad” ex, maybe it reflects a sense of still being trapped in the relationship, or possibly threatened by something symbolized by his kind of personality.
2) Your partner betrays you in some way (like cheating, lying, or revealing something personal about you to everyone).
This is the price of a committed relationship: a vulnerability to betrayal. No matter how strong a relationship may appear in waking life, both people inevitably suffer some degree of insecurity, both conscious and unconscious, about their partner’s being unfaithful. This insecurity naturally comes out in dreams that vividly portray how badly you would feel if your partner violated your trust and fidelity. It’s possible the dreams are clues to an actual problem in the relationship (again, the details matter), but usually such anxiety dreams are reminders of our exposure to extreme emotional pain whenever we form a romantic bond with someone else.
3) You blow it with your man (whether by having a one-night stand, saying something cruel to him, etc.).
Monogamy doesn’t come easily. We all have within us complex and conflicting feelings about our romantic partners. It’s important to acknowledge and accept those feelings when they arise in dreams, even if we don’t necessarily act on them. That said, if someone were having these dreams frequently, I’d certainly wonder about the quality of their waking relationship.
4) You’re engaged, and there’s something off about your ring—the stone is missing or so small you can’t see it, it’s ugly, etc.
An engagement ring is an ancient emblem of love and commitment, a very public announcement of two people’s plans for a future life together. This makes it an excellent dream symbol for a person’s feelings about the impending marriage. Because the focus in these dreams is usually on the appearance of the ring, I’d want to ask if there’s a concern about the appearance vs. the substance of the relationship.
5) Something weird happens during your wedding (like you can’t see the groom’s face).
A wedding is one of the most momentous rituals of human society, a true rite of passage that forever binds two people’s lives into one. The awesome magnitude of this life change is often reflected in distressing dreams of wedding day disaster. A Buddhist perspective might be helpful here: In that tradition’s view, a dream of wedding catastrophe could be a good dream because it shows your old way of life is dying and a new and better way of life is being born. The weirdness reflects the shifting of your reality from the past to the future. In the case of the groom’s missing face, it might be that his appearance and personality are not the primary focus here; what’s ultimately important is the power of the vows you’re making with him.
This is an excerpt from a panel on dream education at the recent conference of the International Association for the Study of Dreams. My co-panelists were Phil King and Bernard Welt, with whom I wrote Dreaming in the Classroom: Practices, Methods, and Resources in Dream Education.
Any class on dreams that occurs within a school context must, at a minimum, provide educational benefits consistent with the school’s mission. These benefits usually include critical thinking, literacy skills, knowledge acquisition, global citizenship, etc. All of us on the panel agree that classes on dreams can do a wonderful job of providing these educational benefits and contributing to the general goals of almost any kind of school.
But dream classes can do more than that. Indeed, dream classes are always doing more than that, whether or not the teacher and students are explicitly aware of it. Something happens when dreams enter the classroom, something very different from other topics of study. Each of us on the panel has different ways of talking about that educational surplus. For me, what’s interesting is how every class on dreams becomes at some level a class on religious studies. By that I mean a class that studies human expressions of ultimacy via symbols, metaphors, and myths. The historical aspect of this may be most obvious. Prior to the rise of psychology as a Western academic discipline in the mid-nineteenth century, the primary arena in which people shared, discussed, and explored their dreams was religion–in Hinduism, Buddhism, Daoism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and the spiritual traditions of the indigenous peoples of Africa, the Americas, and Oceania. Any class that’s trying to provide a solid base of knowledge about dreams can’t ignore the history of religions. This is true whether you are teaching in psychology, literature, biology, or any other discipline—as soon as you start telling your students about dreams, you’ll need to talk about religious history, too.
I understand this might seem daunting to educators without any training or background in comparative religious studies. I’m not saying you have to include large amounts of this material in your curriculum. But I am saying you should think carefully about how you’re going to present the topics of your class within this bigger historical framework. You should let your students know there IS a bigger historical framework, even if that’s not the specific focus of your class.
There’s another way that dream classes become religious studies classes, even more important than the historical aspect. Whenever dreams become a topic of classroom discussion, the students are inevitably prompted to reflect on their private dream experiences. The class may not explicitly involve personal dream sharing, or keeping a journal, or anything directly about the students’ own dreams—but I guarantee you, the students are thinking about their dreams in relation to what’s coming up in the class. Especially if the teacher is a good one and gets the students excited about the topic, they’re going to be curious to explore their own dreams. And once they do that, they’re very likely to come across themes, questions, and experiences that go to the heart of many of the world’s religions—for example, the prospect of death and an afterlife, the struggle of good and evil, the illusory nature of reality, prophetic anticipations of the future, nightmarish suffering and existential dread, haunting encounters with supernatural beings, and so forth.
Teachers can ignore all this if they wish, but I think it’s better if they at least recognize that their students are wondering about these kinds of issues in their dreams and thinking about how the class is, or is not, helping them make better sense of their experiences. Again, this doesn’t mean you have to devote extensive class time to the religious implications of dreams in people’s lives. You could devote some time to this topic, of course, and I think you’d be surprised at what your students would say if given the chance! But it’s enough if you simply let the students know that, just as people in the past drew religious inspiration and philosophical insight from dreams, so do many people today. It’s not a matter of ancient superstition carrying over into the modern world, but rather a recognition that humans in all times and places, up to and including us today, are dreamers, and our dreams bring us into contact with ideas, feelings, and energies that most cultures through history have regarded as religiously meaningful. Whether or not we use religious language, the personal impact of certain dreams can be intensely meaningful and even transformative. As dream educators, we have to give our students some degree of informed awareness of those spiritual dimensions of dreaming potential.
In today’s Oregonian newspaper I published a commentary piece titled “The politics of dreaming: Even in sleep, Americans show a partisan divide” (4/30/12, p. A9). It’s the latest version of my ongoing study of the interplay of sleep, dreams, and political ideology.
Abraham Lincoln was born on February 12, 1809, and in honor of his birthday I am reposting a brief essay about four dreams he reportedly experienced while President: a visitation dream, a dream of parental concern, a prophecy of his assassination, and a series of dreams relating to military battles. Each of these dreams is reported in a legitimate historical source, indicating that Lincoln took dreams very seriously and tried to incorporate their insights into his waking life.
Abraham Lincoln 1: Visitation of the Dead
“Mr. Lincoln said: ‘Colonel, did you ever dream of a lost friend, and feel that you were holding sweet communion with that friend, and yet have a sad consciousness that it was not a reality?—just so I dream of my boy Willie.’ Overcome with emotion, he dropped his head on the table, and sobbed aloud.”
Henry J. Raymond, The Life of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Darby and Miller, 1865), 756.
Abraham Lincoln, elected President of a rapidly fragmenting country in 1860, reportedly confided this dream to in the spring of 1862 to his personal aide, Colonel Le Grand B. Cannon. Just a few months earlier Lincoln’s son Willie had died, at the age of eleven. Willie was the second son he and his wife Mary had lost (four-year old Eddie died in 1850). Visitation dreams of deceased loved ones have been reported in many cultures around the world, reflecting the all-too-human desire to look beyond death and meet with those who have left their physical bodies. Lincoln commented on the paradoxical quality of his experience, which I’ve found characteristic of many visitation dreams: they are joyful and heartbreaking, reassuring and distressing at the same time. The vivid memorability of such dreams plays an important role in the mourning process, enabling the individual to envision a new kind of relationship with the dead person—an enduring spiritual connection of tremendous emotional power that carries over from dreaming into waking awareness. Whether or not you believe such dreams represent the wishful imaginings of the mind or the actual contact between a living person and a soul of the dead, visitation dreams provide people with a kind of sad wisdom that’s profoundly reassuring, particularly in times of waking-life conflict and danger. That would certainly describe the situation Lincoln faced in 1862. The Civil War had begun the previous year, and he felt the unimaginable weight of personal responsibility for the country’s political survival. As painful as these dreams of his dead son Willie may have been, I suspect Lincoln wouldn’t have given them up for anything.
Abraham Lincoln 2: Parental Concern
“Think you better put “Tad’s” pistol away. I had an ugly dream about him.”
Abraham Lincoln, Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1953), Volume 6, Note of June 9, 1863.
Lincoln sent this brief note to his wife Mary regarding their youngest son Tad, ten years old at the time. No details are given about this “ugly dream,” and apparently no details were required. Mary would have immediately understood her husband’s worry, accepted its source, and taken the necessary precautions. Lincoln’s parental anxiety dream, in today’s language, represented “actionable intelligence.” Mary took great interest in dreams and other kinds of unusual psycho-spiritual phenomena, and historians have blamed her for her husband’s dalliances with the supernatural. But I think we should credit Lincoln with possessing at least as much innate dreaming power as any other human, including the capacity of his nocturnal imagination to simulate realistic threats to himself and his family. The psychological potency of dreaming appears very clearly in Lincoln’s brief report. The “ugly dream” provoked greater awareness of a danger to one of his children, and it prompted greater vigilance in his waking life to defend against that danger.
Abraham Lincoln 3: Who Is Dead in the White House?
“About ten days ago I retired very late. I had been up waiting for important dispatches from the front. I could not have been long in bed when I fell into a slumber, for I was weary. I soon began to dream. There seemed to be a death-like stillness about me. Then I heard subdued sobs, as if a number of people were weeping. I thought I left my bed and wandered downstairs. There the silence was broken by the same pitiful sobbing, but the mourners were invisible. I went from room to room; no living person was in sight, but the same mournful sounds of distress met me as I passed along. It was light in all the rooms; every object was familiar to me; but where were all the people who were grieving as if their hearts would break? I was puzzled and alarmed. What could be the meaning of all this? Determined to find the cause of a state of things so mysterious and so shocking, I kept on until I arrived at the East Room, which I entered. There I met with a sickening surprise. Before me was a catafalque, on which rested a corpse wrapped in funeral vestments. Around it were stationed soldiers who were acting as guards; and there was a throng of people, some gazing mournfully upon the corpse, whose face was covered, others weeping pitifully. ‘Who is dead in the White House?’ I demanded of one of the soldiers. ‘The President,’ was his answer; ‘he was killed by an assassin!’ Then came a loud burst of grief from the crowd.”
Stephen B. Oates, With Malice Toward None: A Life of Abraham Lincoln (New York: HarperPerennial, 1994), 425-426
During the second week of April 1865, a few days before his assassination, Lincoln told this dream to his wife, his bodyguard Ward Hill Lamon, and one or two other people sitting with him in the White House. According to Lamon, who wrote down the conversation immediately afterwards, a downcast Lincoln said the weird dream had haunted and possessed him for the past several days. Mary and Lamon both became alarmed at the ominous implications, and Lincoln tried to reassure them by saying it probably meant nothing. He doesn’t seem to have believed that himself, though. Death by assassination was a real and constant threat; Lincoln knew for a fact that Southern sympathizers were plotting to kill him. He also knew from his close reading of Shakespeare and the Bible that especially memorable dreams can portend the imminence of death. His earlier night visions focused on the well-being of his children, but now his dreaming imagination turned to the dangers looming over his own life.
After Lincoln was shot the night of April 14, an anguished Mary was heard to exclaim , “His dream was prophetic!”
Abraham Lincoln 4: Victory
“At the Cabinet meeting held the morning of the assassination, it was afterward remembered, a remarkable circumstance occurred. General Grant was present, and during a lull in the discussion the President turned to him and asked if he had heard from General Sherman. General Grant replied that he had not, but was in hourly expectation of receiving dispatches from him announcing the surrender of Johnston. ‘Well,’ said the President, ‘you will hear very soon now, and the news will be important.’ ‘Why do you think so?’ said the General. ‘Because,’ said Mr. Lincoln, ‘I had a dream last night; and ever since the war began, I have invariably had the same dream before any important military event occurred.’ He then instanced Bull Run, Antietam, Gettysburg, etc., and said that before each of these events, he had had the same dream; and turning to Secretary [of the Navy] Welles, said: ‘It is in your line, too, Mr. Welles. The dream is, that I saw a ship sailing very rapidly; and I am sure that it portends some important national event.’”
Francis Carpenter, Six Months at the White House with Abraham Lincoln: The Story of a Picture (New York: Hurd and Houghton, 1866), 292.
Here’s an instance of pre-battle dreaming, an apparently frequent occurrence in Lincoln’s life as military commander of the Northern army. He had learned to associate the dreaming image of a ship speeding across the sea with the imminent arrival of momentous news, and on this Good Friday morning of 1865 he felt the impulse to share his dream omens with his military commanders. The final triumph of the Union over the Confederacy lay just weeks away, and Lincoln knew the war had been won. His optimism seems tragically misplaced in light of his murder that very night, but I’m more interested in his imparting of oneiric wisdom to the victorious generals. In speaking so openly about his dreams as legitimate sources of warning and knowledge that helped him in his efforts to keep the Union together, Lincoln offered the generals gathered around him (whose company included Ulysses S. Grant, the man who would be President from 1869-1877) an example of truly visionary leadership. He also offered to the rest of American history an example of someone who relied on his dreams to help him overcome the most serious challenges in both his personal and collective life.
But Lincoln did not say…
“My dream is of a place and a time where America will once again be seen as the last, best hope of earth.”
This quote is often attributed to Abraham Lincoln, but that’s apparently incorrect. I could not find it in any of Lincoln’s known writings, and several Lincoln scholars agreed that the sentence is apocryphal. The last six words, without the comma, appeared at the conclusion of Lincoln’s address to the U.S. Congress on December 1, 1862. The meaning and spirit of his actual words point to an idealistic hope for America’s future that has long (but not that long) been associated with a special kind of dream:
“We know how to save the Union. The world knows we do know how to save it. We, even we here, hold the power and bear the responsibility. In giving freedom to the slave we assure freedom to the free–honorable alike in what we give and what we preserve. We shall nobly save or meanly lose the last best hope of earth. Other means may succeed; this could not fail. The way is plain, peaceful, generous, just–a way which if followed the world will forever applaud and God must forever bless.”
Why do we have dreams? Where do they come from? What, if anything, do they mean? These mysterious questions have puzzled humankind since the earliest days of history. The best answers, I suggest, come from integrating the insights of art and science. Dreaming is rooted in the physical workings of our brains, and it expresses our highest spiritual yearnings and deepest psychological concerns. In dreams the mind, body, and soul come together in a creative ferment, giving us new perspectives on the emotional realities of our lives.
Looking first at art, people throughout the ages have regarded dreams as a source of creative inspiration. A number of famous works of Western art and literature were directly influenced by their creator’s dreams.
Among writers, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley dreamed up several key scenes in her novel Frankenstein, and Robert Louis Stevenson had a dream about a divided soul at war with itself that gave him the core plot idea for Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Surrealist painters like Salvador Dali and Rene Magritte drew upon their dreams for bizarre, symbol-laden images of melting clocks and floating bowler hats. In more recent years, a number of prominent movie directors have experienced dreams that influenced their films, including David Lynch in Blue Velvet, Francis Ford Coppola in Apocalypse Now, and Akira Kurusawa in Dreams. Contemporary musicians have also described their dreams as creative inspirations. Paul McCartney had a dream that gave him the tune for “Yesterday,” and Sting’s song “The Lazarus Heart” came from a personal nightmare.
If we consider religion as another realm where humans express their deepest creativity, then we can see even more evidence of the inspiring power of dreaming. In the Hebrew Bible, visionary dreams come to Abraham and Jacob, while Joseph saved his people by his ability to interpret dreams. In the New Testament, prophetic dreams of guidance help Jesus’ parents before their child’s birth and Paul during his missionary travels. The Muslim Prophet Muhammad told of his dreams in the Qur’an, and each morning he asked his followers what they had dreamed, so they could better discern God’s will. Hindu and Buddhist mystics consider all of life to be a dream, a great illusion shaped by our desires. Many indigenous cultures around the world have myths (e.g., the Australian Aborigine’s “Dreamtime”) and rituals (e.g., the Native American vision quest) to help their members learn more about the creative potentials of their own dreaming.
Do the insights of artists and mystics stand up to the findings of modern science? Surprisingly, the answer is yes. Based on the latest evidence from research in cognitive psychology, it appears that dreaming is a natural and normal aspect of healthy brain/mind functioning. Not all dreams are heaven-sent revelations or artistic breakthroughs, but in general dreaming is an accurate and meaningful expression of our fears, concerns, conflicts, and desires in waking life.
Since the 1950’s scientists have known about the different stages of sleep, and it appears that dreams occur most often during the stage of REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. During REM sleep our brains are very active, but in a different configuration than in waking. In REM the brain centers for instinctual emotions and visual imagination are highly activated, while the parts of the brain responsible for focused rational attention are less active. This evidence fits the general qualities of many dreams—less rational, more emotional and visual—and it supports the idea that our capacity for dreaming is hard-wired into the human brain.
However, it is important to recognize that dreams occur in stages of sleep other than REM. REM sleep may be the most common trigger for dreaming, but research has shown that dreams can occur throughout the sleep cycle. This means that we still do not have a complete picture of the dreaming brain. We cannot “reduce” dreams to REM sleep.
Most people remember one or two dreams a week, but that can vary depending on many factors. Some people remember at least one dream almost every night, while others say they have never recalled a dream in their whole life. Researchers have found that small efforts to pay more attention to dreams can lead to big increases in dream recall. It’s like the movie “Field of Dreams”: If you build it, they will come—if you open your waking mind to the possibility that your dreams have something meaningful to say, you’re likely to start remembering more dreams.
When people ask me how to interpret their dreams, I start by emphasizing that only the dreamer can know for sure what his or her dreams really mean. “Experts” like me can offer ideas and possibilities based on our research, but ultimately you are the final authority on your own dreams.
Sometimes dreams speak in direct and literal terms. For example, you may be scared of flying, and thus you might have a nightmare of crashing in an airplane. But sometimes dreams speak indirectly, in a language of metaphor and symbol. Your nightmare of a crashing airplane may symbolically reflect your waking anxieties about your finances, your health, or a personal relationship. To understand your dreams you need a flexible mind that can perceive these kinds of metaphorical connections between dream imagery and your emotional concerns in waking life.
One of the most important functions of dreaming is to look ahead, to anticipate what might happen in the future and prepare us for possible dangers and threats. This isn’t a simple matter of “prophecy,” although that’s what ancient people called the same basic process. Scientists today have found that many of our most memorable dreams revolve around visions of worst-case scenarios, and it seems that these kinds of dreams are like fire drills, getting us ready in case those dangers actually occur in the waking world. Even though many of our dreams are negative and disturbing in this way, they are still promoting our physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being.
This article appears on pp. 22-23 in the August 2011 special issue on Sleep and Dreams in Vintage Newsmagazine, a publication in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Thanks to editor Betsy Troyer for inviting me to contribute.