Christmas Dreaming

Christmas Dreaming by Kelly BulkeleyDreams during the holidays bring happy memories, and recurrent anxieties.

The holiday season brings many anticipated pleasures, and many reasons for worry. Our dreams about Christmas express both happiness and anxiety, eagerly looking forward to the holiday but also expressing recurrent worries about every possible thing that could go wrong.

The Sleep and Dream Database (SDDb) includes 184 dream reports of 5+ words in length in which “Christmas” is mentioned at least once. Below are excerpts from a few of these dreams (identifying details have been removed). Without delving into the personal meanings of these dreams, we can still read them as fascinating commentaries from the unconscious on Christmas as a collective cultural experience.

Good times. The most positive Christmas dreams emphasize feelings of togetherness, play, and creativity.

“Dreamed about family Christmas time. Brought back happy memories of getting together with brother and sisters.”

“In my dream I was back home. It was Christmas break and my brother, his roommate and I were on a plane going home. When we got there, I went back to my high school and got to see all my friends again.”

“We were all in a hotel for Christmas. I don’t know why but it was a little sad. After a while, we walked outside and it began to snow. We all picked it up and had a snowball fight. It felt like a perfect day.”

“I dreamt that me and some other girl were singing in the living room to this Christmas music. We were trying to put “Away In a Manger” to a rap beat!”

“I was given a box with small parcels in it. I realized that this was a Christmas present. The dream became lucid and I thought, “This is a Christmas dream.” I was doing housework at the same time and noticed a bare Christmas tree in the house alongside a wall. I thought that it needed decorating before the party I would have that night.”

Misfortunes. Dreams also remind us of how very many things can go wrong during the holidays.

“My husband wants to plug in a string of Christmas lights that have a short circuit in them, or rather the switch in the wall does. The lights go on and off. I suggest he try another switch or plug.”

“I had a dream that it was Christmas Eve. My boyfriend and I arrived at my mother’s home in the afternoon and she wasn’t there, she didn’t show up till 5:30 because she was at the gym. This meant dinner wouldn’t be served till later than 8 which is when my boyfriend and I have to leave for a trip to his parents’ home. I was extremely irritated throughout the dream.”

“It was the night of my school’s Christmas pageant, and I was running late–very late. The pageant was supposed to start at 7:30, and I didn’t start dressing for it until 7:45. When I finally headed out the door, I was already a half hour late and I suddenly realized that I had no idea what I was supposed to do when I got there.”

“I was out Christmas shopping in a huge crowd and I got lost and couldn’t find my way out of the store.”

“I was buying trying a Christmas present for a family member but wherever I went it was out of stock or they didn’t have it.”

“I’m going to a Christmas party at my boss’s house, and I manage to spill my coffee, complete with generous amounts of soymilk, all over her couch.”

Nightmares. The holidays can bring out deeper fears, too.

“As a child, and a few times as an adult, I had a recurring dream at Christmas time, initially happy, involving spinning Christmas trees with colored lights. The multiple trees begin to spin faster, then unite into a single, large tree, and come closer. The dream turns darker, and the tree begins to be threatening, a whirl of pine needles and colored lights. Eventually I get sucked into the tree, and wake up in a sweat. To this day I use only white lights on my Christmas trees.”

“I was about 5 years old, and it was Christmas Eve. I was lying in bed, in the top bunk, and when I looked over at the bedroom door, there was a skeleton standing there, with a red Santa hat on, and a bag slung over its shoulder, as if full of gifts.”

Visitations. The most poignant Christmas dreams recall loved ones we have lost, and whose presence we miss most at this time of year.

 “Last week I dreamed that my brother and I were wrapping Christmas gifts. He ran out of wrapping paper and asked if I had any. I didn’t think I had any left but miraculously pulled out a roll and handed it to him. Just as I did this I woke up. My brother died many years ago. He lived in another state and would visit for a week every Christmas. Every time he came he would wrap all his gifts in my wrapping paper which irritated me.”

“I dreamed that my mom (who is deceased) and I were going out to the stores and shopping for Christmas. I didn’t want to wake up, because if I did then she would be gone again. The dream seemed really real.”

“My grandmother passed away recently. My dream was about us baking cookies. I believe the dream comes from the many memories I have of us doing that at Christmas.”

Conclusion

These dream reports were provided mostly from American adults, most of whom are Christians. Given the universality of dreaming, we can predict that people who are members of non-Christian religious traditions also have dreams about their most sacred holiday celebrations, and these dreams also range across the emotional spectrum from happy anticipations to anxious nightmares.

Note: This post first appeared in Psychology Today, 12/14/20.

 

Do Dreams Have Paranormal Power? Maybe, if Cats Are Involved

Do Dreams Have Paranormal Power? Maybe, if Cats Are Involved by Kelly BulkeleyI recently had an odd dream about a cat that left me with more questions than answers.

It was, I can personally testify, a dark and stormy night. I had gone to bed in a state of extreme emotional distress. Earlier in the day one of our cats had disappeared, and I was sure that he—the aptly named Phantom—had slipped outside through an inadvertently open door. After searching the house several times, I began walking through our neighborhood, whistling and calling. It was foggy and raining, with a temperature in the low 30’s. There were dogs everywhere. Every single one of our neighbors, as I discovered during several hours of pacing the streets around us, has at least one dog, and they literally hounded me as I looked and called for Phantom, who in the very best of circumstances is unlikely to come when I whistle. The fall of darkness meant the local coyotes would soon be on the prowl, the main reason why our cats are mostly indoor dwellers. My anxiety soon shifted into profound guilt and despair. It was all my fault… If Phantom had gotten outside the hedge surrounding our yard, he could have shot off in any direction, spooked by cars, people, and barking dogs in every yard. Never having been beyond the hedge, he’d have no idea how to get back to the safety of our house. The more time passed, the further away he might be wandering. I was the cause, it was my negligence, I had let him get out, and now he was lost in the night somewhere, with dangers all around….

After hours of fruitless searching, I fell exhausted into bed around 10 pm. (I had just returned two days earlier from an overseas trip, so I was already quite bedraggled and sleep-deprived.)

Sometime after 1 am I awoke, with the sound of the rain falling on the skylight. I immediately decided to get up, go outside, and whistle some more for Phantom. This would be the quietest time of night in our neighborhood, when even the dogs would be asleep, and I’d have the best chance of hearing him if he meowed in response.

As I quietly got dressed, I thought about a dream I’d been having just before waking up. In the dream Phantom comes walking towards me, tail held high.

A sad, depressing wish-fulfillment dream, I thought to myself. No, it’s worse than that, it’s a cruel and desperate fantasy that taunts me with a vision of what I want to be true, not what sadly is true. Stupid dream, I angrily thought as I put on my rain gear and grabbed a flashlight. Stupid dream.

And when I walked downstairs to the front door, there he was. Sitting on the living room couch in the darkness, looking straight at me.

For a dizzying moment, I wasn’t sure if I was really awake or still dreaming.

No, it was really him. Phantom came running up to me with his tail held high.

I still don’t know where he had been. Apparently not outside, but nowhere inside that I could find after careful, intensive searching. If he had been inside, why the f*** didn’t he come out for almost twelve hours?

And…. What do I make of my dream now?

The fact that Phantom appeared almost immediately after I awoke does not necessarily diminish or detract from the dream’s wish-fulfilling function. It could be that in this case, my wish just happened to come true in waking life, as well as in the dream. Freud would be fine with that, I think.

Another possibility is that Phantom came out of hiding before I woke up, and I somehow heard him through the closed door of our bedroom, and then incorporated that auditory stimulus into my dream. Maybe.

Perhaps, in the extremities of my emotional distress and biorhythmic disorientation, I was unusually open to subtle perceptions I don’t normally notice, and I somehow “felt” his presence, safe and close by. Hmm.

A more speculative possibility is that Phantom, either awake or sleeping, reached out to me in my dream and let me know he was back.  True, there is rather little evidence at present for interspecies telepathic communication in dreams. Still, I wouldn’t rule it out completely.

A more naturalistic explanation would be that my unconscious mind simply calculated the odds of the various scenarios regarding Phantom’s fate, and concluded that the most likely result of the whole situation was his reappearance, naturally eliciting great happiness and relief on my part. Which is indeed what happened, and how I felt.

To quote the final words of Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass and what Alice Found There, “which do you think it was?”

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This post first appeared on December 14, 2018 in Psychology Today.

Dangerous Dreaming: The Spanish Inquisition’s Trial of a Prophetic Dreamer

Dangerous Dreaming: The Spanish Inquisition’s Trial of a Prophetic Dreamer by Kelly BulkeleyIt is in dreams that one can catch sight of the most fundamental and stable symbolisms of humanity passing from the ‘cosmic’ function to the ‘psychic’ function.” (Paul Ricoeur, 1967)

[The following is the text of a presentation I will make on Saturday, Nov. 17, at the American Academy of Religion annual meeting in Denver, Colorado.]

The revelatory power of dreaming, illustrated in the sacred texts and practices of religious traditions all over the world, has naturally led people to actively seek more access to that power.    If spontaneous and unexpected dreams can have so much transformational impact, what would happen if one were to prepare for such a dream, and carefully arrange to amplify its impact?

The term “dream incubation” has been used by Western researchers to describe any set of ritual preparations aimed at eliciting a special kind of dream experience (Patton 2004).  As Kimberley Patton outlines it, dream incubation involves three elements: locality, intentionality, and epiphany.  Dream incubation practices usually involve sleeping in a special place or setting (locality), seeking guidance on a specific question, dilemma, or task (intentionality), and interpreting the resulting dream as a transpersonal response to the dreamer’s intention (epiphany).

Many of the world’s religious and spiritual traditions have ancient practices of dream incubation, defined in these terms.  These include the Greek and Roman temples to the healing god Asclepius, where people prayed and slept in hopes of a curative dream; the Vision Quest rituals of the Ojibwa, Iroquois, and other Native American groups, in which an adolescent slept alone in the wilderness for several nights until visited in a special dream by a personal spirit; the Muslim practice of istikhara, with pre-sleep prayers and purifications aimed at eliciting dream guidance on an urgent question; and the Dream Yoga of the Tibetan Buddhist sage Naropa, which teaches methods of preparation for dreaming with greater clarity and consciousness.

In each of these traditions, focused waking attention prior to sleep has the effect of influencing people’s subsequent dreams, which then influence their consciousness upon awakening via interpretation, which then colors their later dreams, on and on in a spiritually dynamic and virtuous cycle (Bulkeley 2008).

Another term widely used by Western scholars, “lucid dreaming,” highlights the powers of self-awareness and volitional control that can arise in dreaming. Such powers have long been recognized and actively cultivated by Hindus, Buddhists, and Daoists, so lucid dreaming is hardly a Western invention. The sages and mystics of those traditions talked about conscious awareness in sleep as a kind of meditative practice that extends beyond the waking state.  In indigenous cultures around the world, shamanic healers are trained to become conscious within sleep so they could seek out cures for people who were sick.  And many philosophers from classical Greece and Rome admired the potential in sleep for a pure form of mental clarity (although few of them actively explored these possibilities).

The human mind is capable of becoming conscious and active during the state of sleep—that’s the common thread in all these historical traditions.  Combining this with the findings of modern psychology and neuroscience—that the mind during sleep can activate the full range of cognitive abilities found in waking (Gackenbach and LaBerge 1988, Kahan and LaBerge 2011)—it becomes clear that lucid dreaming is a natural power of the human mind.  Everyone is capable of these revelations in their sleep.  Rituals of dream incubation tap into those deep reservoirs of lucid potentiality, and at their best these practices nurture a spiraling interplay of spiritual experience and growth.

With that cross-cultural material setting the stage, I will focus now on a little-known historical example of revelatory dreaming with unusual elements of incubation and lucidity.  In this case, the dreamer lived in a community that did not appreciate her visionary insights.  On the contrary, she was violently persecuted because of her dreams.  This example highlights the potential dangers of revelatory dreaming, dangers that revolve around two key questions:

  1. How can we tell if a dream is a true revelation, and not just a personal fantasy or total fabrication?
  2. What is the best/safest/most effective way of channeling the disruptive energies of a revelatory dream?

More than 400 years ago, a young woman with a gift for prophetic dreaming was arrested as a traitor and heretic.  Her dreams were judged by the religious authorities to be a danger to the king, the church, and the country as a whole.  She was imprisoned, interrogated, tortured, and punished because of her dreams.  All of this happened despite the fact that her dreams came true—they accurately predicted a national disaster that could have been avoided if her dreams had been heeded.  Instead, she was punished as an enemy of God.

Her name was Lucrecia de Leon.  She was born in Madrid in 1568 (making her a contemporary of Shakespeare’s, born in 1564).  Madrid was the new capital city of the vast Spanish Empire and its intensely Catholic ruler, King Philip II.  She grew up during a time of rapid urban expansion; Madrid had about 10,000 people when she was born and more than 80,000 by the time she was a teenager, with priests, diplomats, and government officials streaming in from all corners of the empire.

Her parents gave her the name Lucrecia, harkening back to the Roman legend of a supremely virtuous young woman of that name (Lucretia) who was raped by prince Tarquin; even though she was blameless, the young woman killed herself to prevent any taint of dishonor from infecting her family’s name.  Ever after in Roman and then in Catholic tradition, Lucretia became the ultimate symbol of female honor, chastity, and obedience.  We know that Lucrecia de Leon’s father, Alonso, was proud of being an “old Christian,” meaning a Spaniard of pure Christian blood, with no foreign elements tainting his lineage.  It seems likely he and his wife Ana chose this name for their firstborn child to emphasize the supreme importance of feminine purity and virtuous behavior.

Alas for Alonso and Ana, their daughter turned out to be a big dreamer.  From early in life she gained a reputation in her neighborhood as someone whose dreams frequently came true.  In the fall of 1587 a powerful nobleman, Don Alonso de Mendoza, who was interested in apocalyptic omens and symbols, heard about Lucrecia, and he became fascinated by her dreams.  Because she was illiterate, he arranged for a priest to come to her house every morning and, in the context of confession, record her dreams from the previous night.

Many of her dreams revolved around Spain’s holy war against England and the Protestant Queen Elizabeth.  For years King Philip had been working on a plan to invade England with an attack from the most powerful navy in the world, the Spanish Armada.  Philip claimed a holy mandate for the invasion, and the Catholic church helped him whip the Spanish people into a violent frenzy aimed against England.

In this heated, religiously militarized atmosphere, Lucrecia dreamed repeatedly that the Armada would fail.  From the fall of 1587 through the summer of 1588, her dreams as recorded by Don Alonso’s priests mentioned the Armada several times, always in negative terms.  When the Armada was defeated by the English in the fall of 1588, everyone in Spain was shocked—everyone but Lucrecia.

In the time following this, Lucrecia’s dreams became more widely known, as people looked for new guidance in the aftermath of the Armada’s defeat.  This aroused the ire of King Philip, who in the spring of 1590 ordered Lucrecia arrested by the Spanish Inquisition on charges of heresy and treason.  She was taken to the Inquisition’s secret prison in the ancient city of Toledo, the spiritual capital of Spain, and held there for five years before a final verdict was rendered in her case.

The main source of evidence against Lucrecia were her dreams, dutifully recorded by Don Alonso’s priests (all of whom were also arrested and imprisoned in Toledo) and then seized by the Inqusition.  These dreams are still available for study today in the national historical archive of Spain, in Madrid.

Here is the first one in the surviving manuscripts:

The first of December of this year [1587], the Ordinary Man came to me, and calling me said: “Stick your head out of the window,” which I did, and I heard a great noise and asked him: “What noise is this I hear?” He answered: “You will soon see.” And then I saw coming from the east a cart pulled by two bulls or buffalos (so they said they were called), in which I saw a tower, on the side of which there was a dead lion, and on the top of which was a dead eagle with its breast cut open. The wheels of this cart were stained with blood, and as it moved it killed many people; and many men and women, dressed as Spaniards, were tied to the cart. They were shouting that the world was ending.  Not having ever seen anything like this, I asked: “What vision is this?”  The Ordinary Man told me that he could not tell me (although he showed signs that he wanted to). In this instant, the Old Fisherman appeared, and I asked him: “Why have you left the seashore and come here?” He responded that it was necessary to come because this man wanted to tell me about this vision, and it should not be known until the third night. I saw that he was carrying a palm leaf, which it seemed he was creating right there.  I asked him: “Who is this palm leaf for?” He said: “For the new king who will be to God’s pleasing. I will give it to him, but for the moment I cannot say any more.” And then I woke up…

Lucrecia’s dreams often began in the normal setting of her home, looking out her bedroom window, and then something fantastic and otherworldly would happen—she would journey to a faraway land, or see an amazing sight in the street, or go the palace for an intimate conversation with the king.  El Hombre Ordinario (the “Ordinary Man”) was a nearly constant presence in her dreams, and so was El Viejo (the “Old Man”), also known as El Pescador (“the Old Fisherman”).  A third figure, known as the “Young Fisherman” or the “Lion Man,” also appeared frequently.  These three “companions” usually appeared in a coastal setting, on a beach or cliff overlooking the ocean, hence her surprise in this dream at seeing them in the city rather than at the seashore.

Many other dreams besides this one included strange animals, bloody violence, apocalyptic warnings, and a variety of allegorical symbols.  The emotional tone tended toward the negative: fear of the enemies besieging Spain from all directions, and despair at the inability of the king to safeguard his people.

This first report highlights Lucrecia’s general capacity for lucidity and metacognition (that is, high-level mental functioning) during her dream experiences.  Almost every one of her dreams included sophisticated thought processes and features of conscious reflection and social intelligence.  When she said during her trial testimony, “I wake up the moment my eyes are closed,” she was not just speaking poetically; she was trying to describe the highly conscious quality of her dreaming.

As a result, many of her dreams had at least two levels of activity.  At one level she witnessed and/or engaged with elements of the dream world, and at another level she analyzed and interpreted the events occurring on the first level.  She often spoke at length with her three companions about the meanings of her ongoing dreams, although the mysterious men rarely gave her a straight answer and often argued among themselves.  During these digressive discussions the three companions would occasionally mention Don Alonso, Fray Lucas, and other people in Lucrecia’s waking life, either to correct their mistaken interpretations or comment on their behavior.  This added another level of awareness and cognitive complexity to her experiences.

As the dreams went on, night after night, they began to interweave with each other in unpredictable temporal loops, going back to images from previous dreams and looking forward to the appearance of new images in future dreaming.

A core concern here and throughout the series was the fate of the king and the question of who would replace him on the throne (having observed the crown prince up close, Lucrecia apparently had little confidence in the official succession plan).  The Old Fisherman’s magically appearing gift of a palm leaf, a common Christian symbol of spiritual victory, made it clear that Philip’s reign must end so a new king “to God’s pleasing” could lead Spain to a better future.

Lucrecia dreamed repeatedly about dangers to Spain, the death of the king, the scheming of Francis Drake and Queen Elizabeth in England, and threats to the Spanish fleet, which was led by the Marquis of Santa Cruz.  In a dream from December 14, 1587, Lucrecia saw a terrible vision of war on the sea and woe for the Spanish Armada:

I saw two strong fleets fighting a fierce battle. Because I had seen them fight before, I knew that one was the fleet of the Marquis of Santa Cruz, the other of Drake. This battle was the fiercest and loudest of all those I had seen in other dreams. Previously, I had seen them fighting in a port; this one was on the high seas and lasted all afternoon because before it began I heard a clock strike one; it lasted three hours, until sunset. Once the sun was down, I saw the defeated fleet of the Marquis of Santa Cruz fleeing toward the north, having lost many of its ships and men, and I saw Drake’s fleet returning to England to take on more troops. I saw Drake writing letters, asking for more men. He also wanted to forward a request for troops to the Great Turk, but one of his knights said, “Do not send it, the men we have are enough to secure victory.” And with this I woke up.

Lucrecia had several other ominous dreams in 1587 and 1588 about the Armada’s dire future, which were recorded by Don Alonso’s scribes and shared among various members of the court and nobility.  When the Armada was in fact defeated in August of 1588, no one could say they had not been warned.  Yet it seemed inconceivable to the religious and political leaders of Spain that the vehicle for this shockingly accurate prophecy was a poor, uneducated young woman.  Indeed, her very existence now posed an embarrassing affront to King Philip, who had put so much personal and theological emphasis on the holy cause of the Armada.  Finally, he had enough.  In May of 1590 he directed his religious police, the Inquisition, to put an end to her prophetic career.

So. What does this story tell us about the two questions I posed at the outset, questions that are relevant to almost every historical and contemporary instance of revelatory dreaming?

First, how can we tell if a dream is a true revelation, and not just a personal fantasy or total fabrication?

The answer is clearly not a trial by the Spanish Inquisition. That much comes through in Lucrecia’s story.

Ironically, the trial did highlight many of the criteria that can be used to reach a more satisfying answer. Indeed, in many ways Lucrecia, Don Alonso, and his colleagues conducted an admirably well-designed research study of precognitive dreaming. Her dreams were recorded as soon as they occurred, by someone other than the dreamer. The significant patterns emerged across many dreams, not just from a single dream. The dreams were recorded many months before the predicted event (the defeat of the Armada) occurred. The dreamer displayed no signs of mental illness or erratic behavior. She gained little personal benefit from sharing her dreams; indeed, she brought tremendous danger upon herself by doing so. And, when all was said and done, her dreams unmistakably came true—they accurately predicted a shocking national disaster.

By these pragmatic criteria, Lucrecia’s dreams can be judged true revelations.

Second, what is the best/safest/most effective way of channeling the disruptive energies of a revelatory dream?

For the few months that it worked as planned, the system Don Alonso set up provided Lucrecia with an amazing opportunity to contribute her oneiric gifts to something bigger than herself. By sharing her dreams with Don Alonso’s scribes each morning, she felt she was actively helping to promote the welfare of her country and her faith. She evidently found this a very meaningful pursuit, and it was during these times that Lucrecia was healthiest, her dreams most vivid, and her relationship with Don Alonso most trusting and mutually respectful. Although the process took a horrific turn, there was a brief period in which a highly effective method emerged, with a group of dedicated people channeling a powerful source of revelatory dreaming towards an issue of immense public concern. The king and his religious police may have rejected the product of this method, but that does not take away from the fact that, had they been heeded, Lucrecia’s dreams could have staved off a catastrophe that cost thousands of Spanish lives.

Let me conclude with the idea that Lucrecia’s abilities as a prophetic dreamer were unusual, but not unique. Other people in various places and times, including people today, have experienced similar phenomena.  Perhaps everyone has the potential for such dreams, given the right circumstances.  Lucrecia’s dreams highlight latent abilities within the human psyche that are real, powerful, and potentially valuable, although they may appear threatening to traditional religious and political authorities.

This is true today as well.  The wild multiplicities of dreaming inevitably run into conflict with rigid, monolithic systems of thought and behavior.  At a time when waking-world boundaries are hardening and clashes between ideological tribes are worsening, the act of dreaming, and sharing dreams, becomes a meaningful political and spiritual gesture.  Dreams remind us of our existential freedom and capacity for future growth, and they help us see the world from various perspectives besides that of our waking ego.  They tap into our deepest sources of creative insight, and, in cases like Lucrecia’s, they envision threats to our communities that can be avoided if consciously recognized and humbly acknowledged.

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References:

Bulkeley, Kelly. 2018. Lucrecia the Dreamer: Prophecy, Cognitive Science, and the Spanish Inquisition. Stanford University Press.

________. 2008. Dreaming in the World’s Religions: A Comparative History. NYU Press.

Gackenbach, Jayne, and Stephen LaBerge, ed.s. 1988. Conscious Mind, Sleeping Brain: Perspectives on Lucid Dreaming. Plenum.

Kahan, Tracey and Stephen LaBerge.  2011. “Dreaming and Waking: Similarities and Differences Revisited.” Consciousness and Cognition 20: 494-515.

Patton, Kimberley. 2004. “‘A Great and Strange Correction’: Intentionality, Locality, and Epiphany in the Category of Dream Incubation.” History of Religions 43: 194-223.

Ricoeur, Paul. 1967. The Symbolism of Evil. Beacon Press.

 

 

Presentation information:

American Academy of Religion Annual Meeting

Denver, Colorado

A17-235

Western Esotericism Unit

“Esoteric Traditions of Revelatory Dreaming”

November 17, 2018, Saturday, 1-3 pm

Convention Center-505

 

Abstract

The revelatory power of dreaming, illustrated in the sacred texts and practices of religious traditions all over the world, has prompted people in many cultures to seek more access to that power via rituals of dream incubation, which can generate intensified dreams of conscious awareness and metacognition (lucid dreaming).  With that comparative material as context, this presentation will focus on the author’s original research on a little-known historical example of revelatory dreaming: Lucrecia de Leon, a young woman from 16th century Spain whose prophetic dreams threatened the king and brought down the wrath of the Inquisition. This example highlights some of the potential dangers of revelatory dreaming, dangers that revolve around two key questions: How can we tell if a dream is a true revelation, and not just a personal fantasy or total fabrication?  What is the best/safest/most effective way of channeling the disruptive energies of a revelatory dream?

Meditation and Dreaming

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

The Prophetic Dreamer

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

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

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

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

Because her dreams had come true.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Even though she lived more than four hundred years ago, Lucrecia’s story can teach us important lessons about the extraordinary powers and potentials of the dreaming imagination. Using research from religious studies, psychology, and cognitive science, I take a naturalistic approach to the prophetic features of Lucrecia’s dreams.  Her experiences reflect the sleeping mind’s ability to simulate highly realistic visions of future possibility.  Lucrecia evidently possessed an unusually intensified capacity for these kinds of dreams. Other people in various places and times, including people today, have experienced similar phenomena.  Perhaps everyone has the potential for such dreams, given the right circumstances.

 

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

 

Moving Dreams

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

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

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

I’m going to need a bigger library.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Moving Dreams by Kelly Bulkeley