The Basketball Dream Diaries #1: Preseason

The Basketball Dream Diaries #1: Preseason by Kelly BulkeleyEarlier this week I attended the preseason basketball game between the Portland Trailblazers and the Sacramento Kings. Although the Blazers played with lots of energy, the Kings beat them handily, 107-93. That night (it was a Monday), I had the following dream:

Fertilizing the Basketball Court

Lots of people are engaged in some activity, trying to set up a sports game, on a basketball court…. They are sweeping and spreading lots of soil onto the court…. To fertilize it?…. I am confused, but I go along with it, curious to see where it leads….

(October 11, 2021)

This is the first basketball dream of the 2021-2022 season, and it offers a simple and actually quite beautiful metaphor for the meaning of the preseason. Of course, it might seem at first glance like nothing more than typical dream nonsense, the random combination of two incidents from my previous day—watching the basketball game, and spreading compost in my yard, which I did in fact do earlier that morning. The dream puts these two bits of “day residue” together in a way that makes no logical sense. Spreading dirt on a basketball court in the way it was spread in my yard would prevent a game from going forward, not help it along. But this is a case where we need to put aside a literal reading of dreams and think of them in metaphorical terms. As a metaphor, the soil may express something else, a meaning related to its literal qualities but connecting those qualities to a non-literal situation.

That sounds abstract, I know, so here’s a practical way to bring out the metaphorical dimensions of a dream. I call it asking questions of specification. Why soil? Of all the things my dream could have portrayed as being spread across the basketball court, why this and not something else? It could have been sand, or pennies, or ping pong balls—but it wasn’t any of those, it was specifically soil. What are the qualities of soil, of composting earth, that might metaphorically relate to a preseason basketball game?

Just as my dream might seem trivial and insignificant, the game that night could be considered trivial and insignificant, too. Only one of the Blazers’ regular starters (Jusuf Nurkic) even played, while Damien Lillard, C.J. McCollum, Norman Powell, and Robert Covington, Jr., sat out the whole contest. The Kings pretty much dominated at both ends of the court, with the Blazers making 27 turnovers and shooting only 21% from 3-point land. Not a pretty game. But was it meaningless? Not to the bench guys who did play, and played hard, every one of them striving to use his minutes on the court to learn, grow, and demonstrate to the coaches how he can contribute to the team. They were playing as energetically as they could, flashing their best moves and testing their newest skills. Pre-season games are vital for these players’ developmental progress, and beneficial for the whole team’s long-term success.

This suggests one aspect of the dream’s metaphor: Pre-season games are like composting a garden. And, composting a garden is like getting a sports team ready for a new season. They’re both about nourishing, preparing, getting ready for big moves and expansive growth. Fertilizing the future, empowering the fullest expression of latent potentials, fueling the competitive fires that animate all forms of life.

The concept of a season is another metaphorical link. Both gardens and basketball teams follow a regular annual cycle of activity and rest, with transitional states between. With gardens and Nature in general, the coming of winter brings a lessening of external activity and an inward focus on survival through the dark and cold, and preparing for new growth when light and warmth return. Basketball runs on an opposite (complementary?) cycle, with activities turning indoors and revving up just as the days shorten and chill of winter approaches. To understand the rhythms of a season for a garden or a basketball team is to understand the distinct and essential value of each stage in the cycle, and how that specific stage adds to the ultimate health, strength, and dynamism of the overall process.

And, as a further metaphorical extension, compost doesn’t smell great. But the stinky smell is actually a good thing! The strong, earthy odors of a well-fertilized garden—and the turnovers and missed-3s in a hard-fought preseason game—are all part of a deeper, long-term growth process. In basketball, it’s part of the magical transformation of a disparate group of individual players into a cohesive, high-performing, championship-level team.

And how good it will smell when the garden blooms again and the regular season begins…

 

About the Basketball Dream Diaries: Dreams about sports have been a recurrent theme in my life since childhood. Since moving to Portland, Oregon in 2010, I have become a big fan of the city’s NBA basketball team, the Trailblazers, and my dreams have reflected that interest with several references to the team, the players, and their interactions with the rest of the NBA. I’ve attended several games at Moda Center, and had a lot of fun each time. I have also noticed how the intense stimulation of the games, starting at 7 pm in the evening and going till 9:30 or 10, has a direct impact on my sleep and dreaming later that night.

This year, I’m unbelievably fortunate to have season tickets to the Trailblazers home games. In anticipation of possible basketball dreams to come, I’m starting this chronicle to track the influence of the Blazers’ season on my dreams, and to see how my dreaming imagination evaluates and interprets the Blazers’ performance this year. It’s going to be color commentary from the unconscious. A surrealist angle on the NBA. A self-experiment in sports-mediated dream incubation. And an open door and welcome mat for the metaphor-generating wizard of my sleeping mind.

 

What Are the Ethics of Dreaming?

What Are the Ethics of Dreaming? by Kelly BulkeleyWhen people think about ethics, they usually focus on the evaluation of good or bad behaviors in the waking state. But what about the ethical status of the one-third of our lives that we spend in sleep? Do we have any ethical duties or obligations relating to sleep? Do dreamers have any basic rights or responsibilities?

Many people treat dreaming as a kind of ethical “free-fire zone,” where moral boundaries don’t apply and anything goes. The ancient Greek philosopher Plato said that when we sleep the “rational, gentle, and dominant” part of the mind retires, unleashing the “beastly and savage” parts, leading to the outrageous immorality of dreaming: “there is nothing it will not venture to undertake as being released from all sense of shame and all reason.” (The Republic, book IX) More recently, some enthusiasts of lucid dreaming have encouraged using conscious dream control as a tool to enjoy consequence-free fantasies of sex and power. Dreaming in this view is reduced to the ethical status of a video game, where nothing is “real” and the players can behave however they wish.

In both of these cases, dreaming is cast outside the sphere of normal ethics. Sleep and dreaming are treated as sub-human realms where ordinary moral rules do not apply.

Several problems follow from this view, to be explored in future posts. Here, we’ll consider one particularly urgent problem. Think of it like this: In regular waking life, if someone tricked you into do something you didn’t want to do, we would call that other person’s action unethical. But does that judgment change if it happens in your dreams? If the person tricks you into having a dream of something you otherwise would not dream about, can we still call their action unethical? It seems not, according to the prior view that nothing that happens in dreaming really matters. Where’s the harm? Where’s the negative impact? They might have forced you to have a dream, but all dreams are unreal, so what exactly did they force you to do? When we start with the assumption that dreaming is a moral wasteland and ontological void, it becomes more difficult to draw appropriate ethical lines around waking behaviors that have effects on people’s capacity for dreaming.

This is not a theoretical concern. Thanks to new technologies in data science and brain imaging, researchers are now able to identify meaningful patterns in dream content with unprecedented speed and accuracy. That’s not a problem—new knowledge is a good thing! The problem comes with the unethical use of that knowledge to manipulate other people’s dreams without their awareness or full understanding. The increasing availability of these technologies makes it easier to attempt such manipulations for political, commercial, or criminal purposes.

It may seem paradoxical, but support for a higher ethical status for dreaming comes from current scientific research on dreams. Findings in neuroscience and cognitive psychology show that the brain processes our experiences in dreams very much like it processes our experiences in waking life. The vivid realism of dreaming is deeply rooted in the regular workings of the neural networks of our brains, with potentially strong and long-lasting effects on the waking mind in the form of “big dreams,” which have been reported throughout history and across all cultures. Modern dream researchers are helping us understand more clearly than ever before that 1) the dreaming mind is closer to the waking mind than Plato’s “wild beast” model suggests, and 2) dream experiences are more neurologically real and personally impactful than the “video game” model suggests.

Of course, Buddhists have long taught that karmic traces can accumulate in sleep, so you shouldn’t think you can break the precepts while dreaming and get away with it. Christian theologians like Augustine and Aquinas have argued that if people consent to immoral behavior in their dreams, their souls are indeed responsible for those sins. Modern researchers are simply adding empirical evidence and a neuro-cognitive framework to confirm this perennial insight about the ethics of dreaming.

 

Note: this post first appeared in Psychology Today, February 3, 2021.

 

Jung, Flying Saucers, and the Anxieties of Our Time

Jung, Flying Saucers, and the Anxieties of Our Time by Kelly BulkeleyHow archetypal dreams, visions, and art respond to a collective crisis.

One of the last books he ever wrote, C.G. Jung’s Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Skies (1957) shows how psychology can shed new light on social anxieties and cultural conflicts. This slender text offers Jung’s perspective on the controversial phenomenon of “unidentified flying objects” (UFOs). Writing at a time when UFO sightings were a public craze, Jung saw an opportunity for psychology to make a valuable contribution to collective understanding and self-reflection.  The resulting book remains an excellent model for the psychological interpretation of culture, with potentially helpful implications for our troubled times today.

Jung examined several kinds of texts with the UFO theme: dreams, art from both old and new sources, waking visions, and science fiction, along with media stories and governmental reports. This itself is interesting, as it shows how Jung treated all these different kinds of texts as arenas in which symbols from the collective unconscious (“archetypes”) can emerge. When treating an individual patient, Jung looked for the emergence of special symbols or archetypes that respond directly to the patient’s waking life problems. With the UFO phenomenon, he expanded this approach to the whole of Western society. Why are so many people dreaming, thinking, and envisioning UFOs at this particular moment? What is happening in society right now that elicits this kind of collective visionary experience?

Here as in many of his later writings, Jung highlighted the psychological strains of living during the height of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. The division of the world into two hostile, nuclear-armed camps, separated by an “Iron Curtain,” suggested that global humanity was in a gravely unhealthy condition. Jung also emphasized here as elsewhere how the modern world can threaten individuality with mass movements, both politically (communism) and economically (consumer capitalism). People everywhere were in danger of being subsumed into mindless, undifferentiated groups where true psychological development was impossible.

The sudden surge of UFO sightings at this specific moment in history made sense, Jung said, as a response to these acute social anxieties. With the conscious mind in such an embattled condition, the collective unconscious provided what Jung called a compensatory or balancing archetypal symbol: the mandala, an image of wholeness and integration. Mandala symbols are best known from Buddhism, Hinduism, and other Asian religions, but in their archetypal essence they appear in all cultures, usually as round figures with a variety of geometric, chromatic, and symbolic complexities. Jung said that UFOs, whatever their reality as visitors from alien planets, have the psychological meaning of mandalas, projected into the sky above us, giving us a vision of transcendent union and wholeness. The integration we have failed to achieve in this world is reflected back to us as a living potential arriving from the greater realm of the cosmos (itself a symbol of the collective unconscious). Because people of our time are struggling in this essential psychological task of becoming an integrated, fully actualized individual (the process of “individuation”), the archetype of wholeness cannot be directly recognized in its traditional forms. Thus, it

“is forced to manifest itself indirectly in the form of spontaneous projections. The projected image then appears as an ostensibly physical fact independent of the individual psyche and its nature. In other words, the rounded wholeness of the mandala becomes a space ship controlled by an intelligent being.”

Thinking of Jung’s book and its methods as applied to our world today, we can ask the following questions: What is the great anxiety of our age? What is the greatest threat to collective health and well-being? What are the compensating dreams and visions pointing us beyond our current problems?

Since Jung’s time, the Cold War has ended, and Westerners have little to fear from global communism. The threat of civilization-ending nuclear war remains, but it no longer worries people the way it did some decades ago. Instead, a multitude of other apocalyptic scenarios haunt people’s waking hours. These include environmental catastrophe, civil war, economic collapse, pharmacological mind-control, robotic takeover, and political tyranny under an evil dictatorship (e.g. by fascists, socialists, racists, theocrats, and/or neoliberals), not to mention a global pandemic. We have reached Boschian extremes in our capacity to conjure vividly variegated scenarios of doom and ruin.

Following the logic of Jung’s method, and given our present context, perhaps we should be on the lookout for dreams, visions, and works of art that provide a creative response from the unconscious depths to these overwhelming apocalyptic horrors

For instance, we might expect the compensatory emergence of archetypal symbols of renewal and rebirth, of growth and revitalization, of a future collective renaissance.

We might expect to see more dreams of empathetic reconnection with others, stimulating greater awareness of multiple perspectives on the world, breaking free from the solipsism of the digitized self to reconnect with other people, with nature, and with one’s own body.

We might expect to see more expressions of the archetype of the trickster, the playful agent of chaos and disorder who disrupts established traditions and yet also inspires new creativity and cultural dynamism.

We might see more forceful and perhaps even threatening appearances of the anima archetype, challenging narrowly androcentric thinking and stubbornly enduring patriarchal biases in all aspects of personal and collective life.

It seems a near-certainty that the apocalyptic anxieties of the present age are already calling forth unconscious responses of archetypal energy and symbolism in all of our lives. The big question is whether our conscious minds can recognize these archetypal expressions when they do occur, and integrate them into a broader, more balanced sense of self—a stronger self that can act more effectively in the world, fueled by the energy of psychological wholeness.

Note: This post first appeared in Psychology Today, 12/7/20.

Dreams of Wildfire

Dreams of Wildfire by Kelly BulkeleyThe West Coast has a long history of wildfires, and dreaming about wildfires. A study from the 1991 Oakland Hills Firestorm has important lessons for those of us currently being threatened and harmed by the blazes in California, Oregon, Washington, and elsewhere.

On October 20, 1991, almost exactly two years after the Loma Prieta earthquake struck the Bay Area, a brush fire in the eastern hills of Oakland, California exploded into a racing wall of flame that consumed several residential neighborhoods with shocking speed. Twenty-five people died, hundreds were injured or suffered from smoke inhalation, and more than 3,000 homes and apartments were reduced to ashes.

Two weeks after the fire was finally extinguished, Dr. Alan Siegel, a clinical psychologist from Berkeley, and his colleagues Barbara Baer and Karen Muller initiated a very timely and illuminating study. They recruited three groups of people: 28 who lost their homes, the Fire Survivors; 14 who lived in burn zone but homes were not destroyed, the Fire Evacuees; and 18 people living outside the evacuation zone, the Control Group. All the participants provided an interview, responses to several questionnaires (e.g., the Beck Depression Inventory), and a two-week dream journal. Siegel and his colleagues carefully analyzed all this information, focusing special attention on patterns in their dreams. Their work appeared as a chapter in Deirdre Barrett’s excellent edited work Trauma and Dreams (1996).

Two of Siegel’s findings stand out as potentially helpful for people currently in the West Coast wildfire danger zone.

The first came as a surprise to the researchers:

“An unexpected finding of our study is the profound and largely unacknowledged reactions of the Fire Evacuees—people who lived in the burn zone but whose homes were spared. Their unremitting survivor guilt, depression, intrusive thoughts, and nightmares were more distressing than that of the Fire Survivors.” (161)

Siegel emphasizes the therapeutic significance of this finding. In addition to those who have been directly impacted by a disaster, the “lucky survivors” can suffer terribly, too, in ways they may try to hide or minimize as part of their survivor guilt.

The second important finding is that “post-fire dreams reawakened preoccupations with grief from earlier epochs” (167). The experience of a new trauma has the potential to reactivate memories, feelings, and physiological reactions from previous traumas. This is especially important to recognize when trying to help people find their path towards recovery and healing:

“Of all the factors shaping coping and recovery, one invisible dimension of the Survivors’ and Evacuees’ experience was dominant—the lingering emotional impact of earlier losses, traumas, and deprivations… Those with more profound backgrounds of trauma were more severely affected and slower to recover. Their dreams after the fire and around the anniversary of the fire frequently used the metaphor of their earlier traumas to depict reactions to the Firestorm and its aftermath.” (174)

Siegel’s work highlights a vital insight in caregiving work in the wake of a disaster: the people most vulnerable to psychological suffering from the present event are likely to be those who are carrying unhealed wounds from the past.

There is no getting around the long-term impact of such experiences on everyone involved, and Siegel’s observation about anniversaries is worth underlining. He says “firestorm survivors suffered profound reactions to the impending first anniversary of the fire” (173). This should be kept in mind when planning public memorials and commemorations of a disaster, which different people may experience in very different ways.

Still, there is reason to hope that with time and effective caregiving, recurrent post-traumatic nightmares can gradually change and transform in more positive directions, becoming less fixated on the specific triggering event, more varied and imaginative in form, and generally dreamier in mood and feel. This was a key finding of Ernest Hartmann in his 1984 work Nightmares, to which Siegel refers in his conclusion:

“A series of dreams often shows a progression toward mastery as a trauma is resolved. Nightmares that are like graphic memories of the trauma gradually fade, giving way to dreams less focused on the trauma and more mixed with other concerns.” (176)

This important study by Siegel and his colleagues adds further evidence in support of the idea that greater familiarity with dreaming can have subtle but significant public health benefits. Dreaming is a vital part of our innate crisis-response system, hard-wired into our brains over millions of years of evolution (and presumably many, many wildfires). Promoting more knowledge about dreaming and dream-sharing offers a simple and effective way of strengthening our collective resilience whenever disaster strikes.

 

Reference:

Alan Siegel, “Dreams of Firestorm Survivors,” in Trauma and Dreams, ed. Deirdre Barrett (Harvard University Press, 1996), pp. 159-176.

Note: this post first appeared in Psychology Today, September 13, 2020.

Scheduling Work and School with Sleep in Mind

Scheduling Work and School with Sleep in Mind by Kelly BulkeleyThe Covid-19 pandemic has caused, in addition to a health crisis, an unprecedented crisis of work and education. Many businesses and schools have closed, or soon will; those that survive will not look or function the same after the pandemic as they did before. The only certainty is that the old ways are gone, and new ways must be created.

As society develops new structures for the future of work and education, now is a perfect opportunity to adjust the scheduling of these activities so they are consistent with current scientific knowledge about sleep. This would mark a big change from past practices. The basic human need for sleep has rarely been a factor in such discussions. But a neglect of sleep science is no longer tenable. The field of chronobiology (the study of the body as a 24-hour system) has grown tremendously in recent years, showing how sleep is an indispensable part of healthy functioning and conscious clarity in waking. Poor sleep weakens the immune system and makes it harder to recover from illness. It diminishes the cognitive ability to learn new information and remember it later. Chronic insomnia is a major factor in several maladies including obesity, diabetes, heart disease, depression, and substance abuse.

Researchers have also found significant variations in the length, timing, and quality of people’s sleep. For instance, children and adolescents need much more sleep than do adults. Women tend to have more insomnia than men. Some people are “polyphasic” sleepers, meaning they sleep in several smaller amounts of time over the 24-hour cycle rather than all at once (monophasic sleepers). Some people do well with 6 hours of sleep a night, others need at least 8 or 9. Some people are most alert early in the morning, while others are slow to awaken and only feel truly conscious late at night.

All of this is to say, there is no right or normal way of sleeping. There is only what makes you and your body feel rested.

These two basic findings of sleep science—the necessity and variability of sleep—have important implications for how work and school activities are scheduled. For example, it’s not healthy for children, especially teenagers, to start their school days too early, or stay up too late doing homework. It’s not healthy for employees to work on shifts far out of sync with their natural sleep cycles, or to travel frequently to places in different time zones. It’s not healthy for schools or businesses to establish a single schedule governing the activities of a large group of people without building in flexibility for the significant number of people whose bodily rhythms will need a somewhat different schedule to stay optimally functional.

It often takes time for scientific research to overcome entrenched cultural attitudes. Such will hopefully be the case with sleep, despite the persistence of contrary beliefs. From Thomas Edison to Elon Musk and President Trump, a view of sleep as nothing but wasted time has prevailed among many Americans. Denying the need for sleep has become a symbol of heroic devotion to productivity, innovation, and success. Anyone who believes otherwise is simply weak or lazy, a slacker with no drive.

That attitude should be left behind as an artifact of the pre-pandemic world. The truth is that people who get adequate amounts of sleep far outperform their sleep-deprived peers—they are more alert, emotionally balanced, and capable of complex thought, and less likely to get sick or have accidents. Perhaps most importantly given the enormous challenges facing society today, people with sound sleep patterns are also more creative, better able to respond adaptively to unusual or unexpected circumstances as compared to sleep-deprived people.

The science is clear, if we choose to heed it. The path to a healthier, more productive, and more resilient future for students and workers begins with simply letting them get the sleep they need.

Note: this post first appeared in Psychology Today on August 24, 2020.

Dreams about Recent Protests Against Racial Injustice

Dreams about Recent Protests Against Racial Injustice by Kelly BulkeleyIn recent weeks, many Americans have been dreaming about police, protestors, and frightening acts of violence and destruction. But the dreams differ dramatically in the focus of their anxiety and distress.

A new online survey from YouGov asked nearly 5,000 American adults about their dream recall, insomnia, attitudes toward the Black Lives Matter movement, and dreams of the recent protests against racial injustice. A detailed analysis of the survey is forthcoming, but the initial findings reveal a number of recurrent themes in people’s dreams about the ongoing protests across the country.

Police aggression. One of the most vivid themes involved people being hassled, assaulted, or shot by the police:

“Bad interaction with a cop”

“Bad dreams about being stopped by police. None of the dreams end well”

“I have a 25 year son I sometimes dream I get the call he was shot by the police.”

“I was in a peaceful protest and the police attacked us. I was shot in the leg.”

“I dreamt I was shot by the police”

“I was at a protest like the one i really attended but when the cops threw the gas i wasn’t prepared like i was in real life and it hurt so bad and i fell and they arrested me. i was crying and asking them what i did but they wouldn’t listen”

Images of George Floyd. His horrific death on May 25th echoes through many people’s dreams:

“I dream about how that poor man was killed it hurts me to have seen that video that poor father”

“I keep replaying the guy dying and saying ‘I can’t breathe, Momma.’”

“it could have just have as easily been me”

“I keep having the death of George Floyd.”

Threats to home. For several people, their greatest concern is an attack on their family residence by looters and rioters:

“protesters coming to burn our home down”

“I’ve had dreams my home is broken into and myself and my family were hurt by others. I woke up and was in a funk for the rest of the week. I refuse to watch the news now a days.”

“It involved me beating up rioters and looters to protect my family”

“I dreamed rioters were shooting at my home.”

“Defending my home and family”

Merging the protests and the pandemic. Some people had nightmares about the convergence of the public protests with the COVID-19 outbreak:

“I was missing a mask and terrified of being near people. But people kept getting close and everyone was marching and everyone was happy and I was trying to act happy too and not let on how scared I was.”

“Was attending a protest with friends in the dream and no one was wearing face masks, and it was a stressful dream because no one was listening to me about the importance of our face masks during the protest!”

If you, or anyone you know, have dreams like these, here are a couple of suggestions.

Be careful about your media consumption. It doesn’t help anyone if you become overwhelmed and paralyzed by mental distress.

Be careful, too, about hasty interpretations. Every dream has multiple meanings, some of which take time and reflection to recognize. It’s always worth considering the possibility of both literal and symbolic meanings. For instance, dreaming of an attack on your home might reflect an actual physical danger to your house, and/or it might reflect a different kind of challenge to the comfort and familiarity of your life, symbolized by your home. Dreams don’t solve our problems, but they do give us emotionally honest portraits of what those problems are and where we need to direct more conscious attention and effort towards change.

The reports above included no further comments or associations, so we cannot be sure what exactly the dreams mean to the dreamer. But we do know, thanks to Charlotte Beradt’s 1966 book The Third Reich of Dreams, along with the research of other historians and anthropologists, that whatever else they might mean for the individual, dreams can provide powerful, accurate, and critically insightful visions of social reality. Especially in times of community crisis, conflict, and trauma, dreams offer a valuable source of collective awareness.

 

Note: The responses and dream reports from this survey will be available soon in the Sleep and Dream Database, an open-access digital archive for empirical dream research.

All figures, unless otherwise stated, are from YouGov Plc.  Total sample size was 4,947 adults. Fieldwork was undertaken between 15th – 19th June 2020.  The survey was carried out online. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all US adults (aged 18+).

This post first appeared in Psychology Today on June 25, 2020.