Dreams and Their Interpretation

A Two-Year Panel Proposal Submitted to the AAR Comparative Studies in Religion Section

Purpose. The three major goals of this panel are to 1) present the latest research findings of religious studies scholars who have devoted sustained critical attention to the phenomenon of dreaming; 2) highlight and reflect upon the complex methodological and theoretical issues involved in the comparative study of dreams and their interpretation; and 3) stimulate new research projects in this increasingly lively area of scholarship.

Drawing upon an already considerable literature on the religious significance of dreaming (O’Flaherty 1984, Jedrej and Shaw 1991, Irwin 1994, Miller 1994, Bulkeley 1994, Hermansen 1997, Shulman and Stroumsa 1999, Young 1999), the panelists will work together to develop new approaches to dream research—critical, self-reflective approaches which do justice to the historical, cultural, and psychological singularity of particular dream experiences and to the cross-cultural patterns and structures that characterize the broader phenomenology of religious dreaming.

Outline of the Presentations. The first year’s panel will consist of six scholars, from quite different realms of the AAR, who will share the basic methods they have used to study dreams and their interpretation.  Particular attention will be given to the following issues: the various roles dreams have played in the world’s religions; the values, and dangers, of comparing dream beliefs, practices, and experiences across cultures and historical eras; the relevance of psychoanalysis, cognitive science, and neuropsychology for religious studies scholarship on dreams; epistemological questions about the distinction between dreaming and waking; ontological questions about the reality of dream experiences and the truth of what dreams reveal; hermeneutic questions about the practice of dream interpretation and its relationship to other modes of religious knowing and meaning-making; methodological questions related to J.Z. Smith’s call for “the integration of a complex notion of pattern and system with an equally complex notion of history” (Smith 1982); and self-critical questions regarding the interplay of the scholar’s own dreams with his or her research.

The six panelists for the first year’s session are:

Jon Alexander (Providence College), early American religious history.

Kelly Bulkeley (Santa Clara University), religion, psychology, and modernity.

Marcia Hermansen (Loyola University of Chicago), Islamic studies.

Lee Irwin (College of Charleston), Native American studies.

Jeffrey Kripal, (Westminster College), Hinduism and the study of mysticism.

Serinity Young (Southern Methodist University), Buddhist studies.

Fifteen-minute presentations will be given by Alexander, Bulkeley, Hermansen, Kripal, and Young, followed by a fifteen-minute response by Irwin.  The remaining hour of the session will be devoted to open discussion among the panelists and with the audience.

Implications. This panel’s collaborative exploration of dreaming will make an important and long-lasting contribution to comparative studies in religion by offering substantive data, analytic perspective, methodological guidance, and collegial support in future research on dreams and their interpretation. As the diversity of the first year’s panelists indicates, dreaming is a significant phenomenon in virtually every religious and cultural tradition in the world.  Dreaming is also, according to current sleep laboratory research, a phenomenon grounded in the core neuropsychological processes of the mind-brain system.  These twin facts make the study of dreaming a uniquely fruitful field of comparative interdisciplinary research.  To plumb the depths of dreaming is nothing less than to investigate the human soul, to explore that infinitely creative realm where body, mind, culture, and spirit come together in dynamic interaction.


Bulkeley, Kelly.  1994.  The Wilderness of Dreams: Exploring the Religious Meanings of

Dreams in Modern Western Culture (SUNY Press).

Hermansen, Marcia.  1997.  “Dreams and Visions in Islam,” special issue of Religion (vol. 27, no. 1, 1-64).

Irwin, Lee.  1994.  The Dream Seekers: Native American Visionary Traditions of the

Great Plains (University of Oklahoma Press).

Jedrej, M.C. and Rosalind Shaw (ed.s).  1993.  Dreams, Religion, and Society in Africa (E.J. Brill).

Miller, Patricia Cox.  1994.  Dreams in Late Antiquity: Studies in the Imagination of a

Culture (Princeton University Press.

O’Flaherty, Wendy Doniger.  1984.  Dreams, Illusion, and Other Realities (University of  Chicago Press).

Shulman, David and Guy Stroumsa (ed.s).  1999.  Dream Cultures: Explorations in the

Comparative History of Dreaming (Oxford University Press).

Smith, Jonathan Z.  1982.  Imagining Religion: From Babylon to Jonestown (University of Chicago Press).

Young, Serinity.  1999.  Dreaming in the Lotus: Buddhist Dream Narrative, Imagery, and

Practice (Wisdom Publications).

2 Replies to “Dreams and Their Interpretation”

  1. Interested to know if you can interpret this recurring dream throughout my life.

    Last night’s dream… I went into a public co-habitated open restroom with many, many toilets. Hard to find a vacant one and when I did find one or more, they were all filthy. The place was crowded and filthy. Up against one wall were nothing but fat, nude men and women sitting on the toilets which were next to each other. I saw a vacant toilet. It was so filthy and I tried to clean it but I just needed to walk out.

    This type of dream has recurred throughout my life. Mainly dirty, filthy toilets with unflushed, filthy water in the bowl with many people in the open room using the toilets.

    1. That’s a pretty common theme in terms of “disgusting bathrooms” appearing every now and then in many people’s dreams. But having this type of dream over and over again might indicate it has a more personally specific meaning for you.
      Bathrooms in dreams tend to be places where people expect privacy yet frequently experience violations of that privacy (e.g., people walking in on them, the disappearing, etc.).
      The disgusting mess in and around the toilets–the usual question is, does that remind you of how you feel about a place or situation in your waking life?
      Most cultures make clear distinctions between cleanliness and dirt, which more broadly can symbolize social norms about order and disorder. Your dream may be tapping into feelings about those norms.

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