Moving Dreams

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

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

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

I’m going to need a bigger library.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Moving Dreams by Kelly Bulkeley

DreamRev: The Many Contributions of Jeremy Taylor

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

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

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

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

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

DreamRev: The Many Contributions of Jeremy Taylor by Kelly Bulkeley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DreamRev: The Many Contributions of Jeremy Taylor by Kelly Bulkeley

 

Memories of Jeremy Taylor

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

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

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

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

Memories of Jeremy Taylor by Kelly Bulkeley

The Dreams of a Religious Cult Member

The Dreams of a Religious Cult Member by Kelly Bulkeley

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

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

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

The Dreams of a Religious Cult Member by Kelly Bulkeley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Dreams of a Religious Cult Member by Kelly Bulkeley

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

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

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

The Dreams of a Religious Cult Member by Kelly Bulkeley

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

The Dreams of a Religious Cult Member by Kelly Bulkeley

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

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

Dreams and Healing in West Bengal

Dreams and Healing in West Bengal by Kelly BulkeleyThe close connection between dreaming and healing has a long and venerable history in Western civilization.  The ancient Greek healing god Asclepius was worshipped throughout the Mediterranean for many centuries, with people praying to the god for dreams to help cure their physical and psychological suffering.  The dream practices at the Asclepian temples became the deep spiritual basis for the Western medical tradition that many of us rely on today, although this fact is rarely acknowledged or appreciated.

Recently I had an opportunity to talk with Dr. June McDaniel, Professor of Religious Studies at the College of Charleston, about dreams and healing.  Dr. McDaniel has expertise in the study of Hinduism and mystical experience, and she has done extensive field work among Hindu worship communities in West Bengal.  We were both attending the recent conference of the American Academy of Religion, for a panel discussion of my Big Dreams book, and in her comments she offered a fascinating glimpse of her findings among contemporary West Bengali Hindus:

“One of the most famous dream incubation temples in India is in Tarakeshwar in West Bengal- it was even the subject of a Bollywood film.  Crowds of people visit this temple to have big dreams, and the major goal is the miraculous healing of disease or misfortune.  People fast and bring the Bengali equivalent of sleeping bags to sleep at the temple before the statue of the god Shiva Taraknath, who will appear in dreams to directly heal the person, or inform them of what to do (which is usually to find particular herbs or go on a pilgrimage).  I spoke with some people there who were coming to thank the god for appearing in their dreams and helping them.   Some people will go to ask the god for favors (such as having a son or getting a better job), and the god will appear in the dream to let them know his answer.  Some had a series of dreams in which the god appeared.”

Dr. McDaniel’s description has remarkable similarities to the dream practices performed at the temples of Asclepius.  This suggests a truly cross-cultural recognition of the potential value of dreaming in efforts to heal people of their ills.  In West Bengal these practices are still an active part of people’s lives, as Dr. McDaniel found in her interviews with numerous healers and religious leaders.  I will be talking with her in more detail about this over the coming year, because findings like hers highlight a vital point: the future of dreams and healing depends in large part on learning the lessons taught by religious and spiritual traditions for thousands of years.  We do not have to perform other people’s rituals or worship their gods to recognize in their engagements with dreaming a shared set of interests and a potential storehouse of accumulated wisdom.

 

Ben Carson’s Illuminating Dream

Ben Carson's Illuminating Dream by Kelly BulkeleyBen Carson, the retired neurosurgeon and leading Republican contender for the Presidency, says that his life was changed by a shadowy figure who appeared in a dream and gave him special advice at a time of crisis. Not since Barack Obama’s 2004 memoir Dreams From My Father has a presidential candidate shared such valuable insight into his personal dreaming experience.

Carson’s 2009 autobiography Gifted Hands describes a pivotal moment during college when he was threatened with paralyzing doubt about his ability to reach the ambitious goal he had set himself, to become a doctor. Having escaped a dysfunctional family and a poor, crime-ridden neighborhood, Carson was a freshman at Yale University in the pre-med program. He felt overwhelmed by the difficulty of his classes and the competitive pressures from all the other super-bright, hyper-achieving students. Chemistry became a serious problem, and as the end of first semester approached Carson realized he was very likely to fail the class. That would knock him out of the pre-med program and ruin his plans for the future. The day before the exam he wandered about campus in deep despair, consumed by guilt and anxiety. Finally, he says, he prayed:

“My mind reached toward God—a desperate yearning, begging, clinging to Him. ‘Either help me understand what kind of work I ought to do, or else perform some kind of miracle and help me to pass this exam.’” (72)

Once he placed the matter in God’s hands, Carson says he “felt at peace” (72). He commenced to study as hard as he could in the few hours remaining before the test—“I scribbled formulas on paper, forcing myself to memorize what had no meaning to me.” (73) When midnight came, Carson “flopped into my bed and whispered in the darkness, ‘God, I’m sorry. Please forgive me for failing You and for failing myself.’ Then I slept.” (73)

And then comes the dream that changed his life:

“While I slept I had a strange dream, and, when I awakened in the morning, it remained as vivid as if it had actually happened. In the dream I was sitting in the chemistry lecture hall, the only person there. The door opened, and a nebulous figure walked into the room, stopped at the board, and started working out chemistry problems. I took notes of everything he wrote.” (73)

When he woke up, Carson quickly wrote down all the problems he could remember, even though the final few faded away before he could record them. He looked up the problems in his textbook, figuring that his mind “was still trying to work out unresolved problems during my sleep.” (74)

But what happened next made him question the prosaic explanations of psychology. He went to the chemistry lecture hall, took his seat, and waited with 600 other students for the teacher to pass out the exam booklet.

“At last, heart pounding, I opened the booklet and read the first problem. In that instant, I could almost hear the discordant melody that played on TV with The Twilight Zone. In fact, I felt I had entered that never-never land. Hurriedly, I skimmed through the booklet, laughing silently, confirming what I suddenly knew. The exam problems were identical to those written by the shadowy dream figure in my sleep.” (74)

Without pausing to reflect on the strangeness of what was happening, he set to work on the exam, going as fast as he could so he would not forget the information he had received in his dream. “God, You pulled off a miracle,” he said as finished the test and left the lecture hall.

Once again he wandered the campus, this time in wonder and elation, urgently trying to make sense of things.

“I’d never had a dream like that before. Neither had anyone I’d ever known. And that experience contradicted everything I’d read about dreams in my psychological studies. The only explanation just blew me away. The one answer was humbling in its simplicity. For whatever reason, the God of the universe, the God who holds galaxies in His hands, had seen a reason to reach down to a campus room on Planet Earth and send a dream to a discouraged ghetto kid who wanted to become a doctor. I gasped at the sure knowledge of what had happened.” (75)

Carson passed the exam with a score of 97. The only problems he got wrong were the ones at the end, when his memory of the dream had begun to fade. From that point on his path toward a stellar medical career never faltered, and by the age of 33 he had become director of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions.

But the significance of Carson’s miraculous dream extended far beyond helping him become a doctor. After this experience he was confident that God “had special things for me to do… I had an inner certainty that I was on the right path in my life—the path God had chosen for me. Great things were going to happen in my life, and I had to do my part by preparing myself and being ready.” (76)

What should we make of this story? First of all, we have to ask if he made the whole thing up. Aspiring politicians embellish their biographies all the time. It’s a rather neat little vignette, perfectly suited for a mass-market book. Carson had plenty to gain, and nothing to lose, by fabricating this feel-good tale of a dream of salvation.

Of course there is no direct way to validate the details of his experience. However, there are many indirect reasons, based on current scientific dream research, to indicate that what Carson described was not impossible but actually has some degree of plausibility. Setting aside his theological interpretation for a moment, we can look at the basic contours of Carson’s dream and identify several features that reflect well-known aspects of cognitive functioning during sleep.

To start, dream recall increases for many people during times of personal crisis. As clinical psychologists have long known, intensified dreams tend to emerge when a person is struggling with turbulent emotions and a fragile sense of identity. Increased dreaming is especially likely for people who perform pre-sleep prayers like Carson did the night before his dream. “Dream incubation” is the general term for rituals aimed at stimulating a revelatory dream, and religions all over the world have developed special techniques for this purpose. Modern researchers have found that if people go to sleep with an urgent question or concern in mind, they are highly likely to dream about it that night.

Indeed, those are the conditions that can generate a “big dream,” meaning a dream with unusual vividness, realism, and memorability. Carson’s experience would certainly qualify as a big dream in that sense.

Dreaming about a test or exam is among the most common types of recurrent dream. It has a history reaching back to ancient China and the dreams people many centuries ago had about passing, or failing to pass, the all-important civil service exams. People today often have exam nightmares long after they have been out of school, more evidence of the deep emotional power of these kinds of dreams.

There should be nothing surprising, then, about a college student who is very anxious about a test having a dream that relates directly to his waking concerns.

Although he later dismissed it, Carson’s initial psychological analysis of the dream has some merit. It seems likely that, after all that intense studying, he went to sleep and his unconscious mind made various connections that his conscious waking mind had not yet processed. The exam questions seemed familiar because it turned out that he actually understood the material much better than he thought he did. It would have been a much more miraculous story if he had received this dream and done well on the test without doing any studying beforehand.

In light of all this, we can recognize a plausible naturalistic core to Carson’s experience. We still cannot say with certainty that he really had this exact dream, but everything he described has a realistic basis in current scientific knowledge about sleep and dreaming.

Carson felt, however, that a naturalistic explanation of his dream was not enough. He adopted a theological interpretation that cast himself as a quasi-biblical figure of divinely sanctioned destiny. Strangely, he never said anything more about the “nebulous figure” who revealed the chemistry problems, and in most Christian contexts this would be a huge red flag. Any number of demonic temptations can enter people’s minds through dreams, and a “shadowy” character like the one in Carson’s dream would automatically be a target of suspicion. But Carson never has a moment’s doubt about the reliability of his mysterious dream teacher, trusting in the ultimate goodness of his desire to become a doctor. If the dream helped him reach that goal, it must be a dream from God.

Carson’s miraculous exam dream stands in dramatic contrast to the two dreams described by Barack Obama in his first book, Dreams From My Father. Obama’s dreams revolved around struggles with his complicated family history and efforts to reconcile himself with the haunting influence of his father. Both dreams occurred during a time of major life transition (after the death of his father, and on a journey to Africa to visit his father’s village), and both dreams are suffused with dark emotions of fear, anger, and sadness. Obama’s dreams led him to a more humble self-awareness of the enduring power of his family lineage, for good and for ill. In 2008, before Obama was elected, I wrote that a close look at these dreams “suggests that Obama is perhaps more temperamentally conservative and respectful of paternal authority than most Americans assume.”

Whereas Obama’s dreams had the effect of anchoring him more deeply in the communal traditions of his ancestors, Carson’s dream, or at least his interpretation of it, had the effect of elevating himself to a position of singular cosmic importance. It would not be too strong to say that Carson feels he is on a mission from God, a mission first revealed to him in a heaven-sent dream.

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Note: This essay was first published in the Huffington Post on November 2, 2015. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/kelly-bulkeley-phd/ben-carsons-illuminating-_b_8443254.html