Dark Times and the Powers of Dreaming

Dark Times and the Powers of Dreaming by Kelly BulkeleyI’ve been thinking a lot recently about a new book, Dreaming in Dark Times: Six Exercises in Political Thought, by Sharon Sliwinski, a professor at the University of Western Ontario in Canada. Sliwinski approaches dreaming as a powerful resource for political theory and action, especially in times when basic human freedoms are most at risk. That we today are living in such times has become impossible to ignore.

But throughout history, in times of collective crisis, people’s dreams have often responded with a surge of imagery, emotion, and insight that help people respond more effectively and creatively to the pressing challenges facing their group in waking life. This is also true in the modern era, as Sliwinski’s fascinating and beautifully written book makes clear.

As she explores the political sociology of the dreaming imagination, Sliwinski’s main guides are Sigmund Freud (as interpreted by Michel Foucault) and Hannah Arendt. It is the deep dive into Arendt’s philosophy that gives Dreaming in Dark Times its inspiring vision and potent timeliness. Arendt was a twentieth-century political theorist born in Germany who fled the Holocaust in World War II and lived in the United States until her death in 1975. Her writings focused on such topics as totalitarianism, freedom, authority, and revolution. Sliwinski draws her book’s title from Arendt’s notion of “dark times,” which Sliwinski describes as follows:

“Dark times are turbulent political moments in which the public realm has been infected with a kind of black light… [Arendt] marked these eras by a certain kind of suppression of speech and public declaration, and simultaneously, by an all-too-public display of evildoing. In dark times, social and political violence is both overtly visible and yet oddly difficult to recognize… She noticed that human speech becomes divested of its power to represent and transmit the truth during these periods. A kind of perverse language emerges instead that tends to serve those who wish to prolong the distorted political situation… This kind of language is designed to obfuscate reality, thwarting the citizenry’s capacity for thought.” (xviii)

I cannot think of a more apt analysis of the current American political environment. But the frightening realization that we are indeed living through dark times is immediately tempered by Sliwinski’s inspiring appeal to the potency of dreaming:

“This book aims to show how dream-life can serve to reanimate a world that has been flattened by dark times. Dreams are a crucial resource for regaining a measure of freedom in our thought and speech, serving as a vital landscape to recover our fundamental human capacity to assign meaning to the world.” (xix)

I encourage not only dream researchers but anyone concerned about current politics to read this book and study it closely. I will have more to say about it at the upcoming online conference of the International Association for the Study of Dreams, September 25.

Here, I’d like to mention four other writers and journalists who are trying to make sense of today’s frightening political and cultural trends by using dreams and dream-related modes of thought and reflection. I want to give an admiring tip of the cap to those who are pushing back against the flattening and dehumanizing effects of dark times, and doing so in ways that emerge organically out of human dreaming experience.

1. Kathleen Parker’s op-ed column on August 1, 2017, begins with this:

“Insidious is the force that causes us to dream of things we wish (or don’t wish) were so. Thus, on the eve of this column’s creation, I dreamed of Donald J. Trump. We were seated at a dinner table for eight, but the other six chairs were empty. We spoke of many things, from education to globalization and the near-universal crisis of identity. The president was courtly, humble, erudite and wise. I awoke suddenly to the harsh sounds of braying asses (I had left the TV on), only to realize that I was actually dreaming of Adlai Stevenson, the twice-defeated presidential candidate who lost to Dwight D. Eisenhower in part because of his excess erudition. In today’s clever-ish jargon, he was too thinky. Mine was a dream of wishes, obviously, for we suffer no such excesses now.”

Parker goes on to contrast the brilliant, intellectually curious Stevenson with the humble, plain-spoken General Eisenhower, and she observes that Trump falls far short of both men. For years Parker has bemoaned the rise of Twitter as a means of political communication, so the new regime is truly the apocalypse for her. She worries that “civilization doesn’t seem as securely tethered as it once was,” a process of social unraveling that started decades ago (for conservatives this usually means the liberal reforms of the 1960’s), but has accelerated in recent years because of technology and the chaotic pace of modern life, with damaging effects on people’s cognitive capacities for sustained attention and clear thinking.

I don’t entirely agree with her account of how the 2016 election was won and lost, but that doesn’t matter because the heart of her column, and I suspect the concern left in her mind after her dream, came in the final paragraphs:

“But what now? In just over six months in office, Trump has managed to alienate our allies, shatter our international standing, demonstrate no leadership ability or essential knowledge, fire or replace people in key positions, and exacerbate global tensions with his lack of discipline, maturity and self-control. Who can save us from ourselves? There are still plenty of deep thinkers out there, but who is listening? Who is reading? Who among those who can contemplate the future — as opposed to retweeting this-just-happened — is even willing to lead? And what, finally, is leadership in an era when centuries-old institutions are failing and commonly shared beliefs are no longer common or shared? Well, somebody. Someone who has consulted history to understand present and future challenges, who understands the role and risks of technology — and who can help people understand the daily chaos with the erudition of Stevenson, the humanity of Eisenhower and the wisdom of one we’ve yet to know.”

If we take Parker at her published word, her strangely wishful dream of Donald Trump and Adlai Stevenson prompted her to write a searing cry of political conscience and a prophetic call for true leadership in a time of gathering darkness. For other conservatives who claim to care about preserving traditions and promoting moral character, her dream is a direct challenge to their continued support of someone who is clearly intent on tearing all of that down.

2. In “The Transformation of the ‘American Dream’” economist Robert Shiller examines a problematic shift over the past few decades in the cultural meanings attached to the hallowed phrase “the American Dream.” At the time of its earliest documented usage, the phrase evoked the ideals of “freedom, mutual respect, and equality of opportunity.” But in recent times the emphasis on freedom and equality has diminished, and in its place has arisen a singular material focus on purchasing real estate and owning a private home, a trend the Trump regime has strongly promoted. Given his long expertise as an academic analyst of the housing industry, Shiller’s stern warning against this approach is worth taking seriously: “One thing is clear: bringing back the fevered housing dream of a decade ago would not be in the public interest.” Instead, Shiller calls for economic policies guided by the original, dynamic sense of the American Dream as “a trajectory to a promising future.”

3. A review by Chris Richards of Lana Del Rey’s new album “Lust for Life” takes the phenomenology of dreaming as an interpretive key to understanding not only artistic creativity but also the political cross-currents of a radically destabilized world. Richards’ review, titled “Lana Del Rey Suddenly Sounds Like the Poet Laureate of Post-Truth,” initially takes Del Rey to task for the insular, detached dreaminess of her previous work (i.e., “the old stuff, which only ever made Del Rey sound like she was dream-journaling on Xanax”). But now, Richards suggests, the head-spinning surrealism of modern society has reached a point where Del Rey’s dreamy, free associational songs are surprisingly relevant. I don’t know her music very well, but I do appreciate Richards’ final words, which seem consistent with Del Rey’s aesthetic: “Parsing our dreams teaches us how to separate what’s real from what’s unknowable. As imaginative beings, exercising that literacy is one of life’s great pleasures. As citizens, it’s suddenly become one of our greatest responsibilities.”

4. An op-ed by Charles Blow, “America’s Whiniest ‘Victim’”, catalogs the various ways in which the new President has complained about unfair treatment by others. Blow is a relentless and passionate critic of the President, and the intensity of his language may seem extreme. But in the final third of the column Blow makes reference to the psychological process of projection, a process quite familiar to anyone who works closely with dreams. Suddenly, using this concept of projection, Blow’s insights come into sharp relief. He says Trump is “a projectionist: He is so consumed by his insecurities that he projects them onto others… The flaws he sees are the ones he possesses.” This isn’t a dream analysis per se, but it illustrates the power of using concepts and methods honed in the study of dreams to analyze political and cultural realities.

Note: this essay first appeared on HuffPost, August 24, 2017.

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.