Kelly Bulkeley, Ph.D. is one of the leading
scholars in the field of dreams and dreaming. He is a past president of the
Association for the Study of Dreams, teaches at Santa Clara University and has
focused on the interplay of dreaming, religion, psychology, and culture. Some of
his books include _The Wilderness of Dreams, An Introduction to the Psychology
of Dreaming_, _Spiritual Dreaming: A Cross-Cultural and Historical Journey_ and
_Visions of the Night : Dreams, Religion, and Psychology_.
He is a former President of the Association for the Study of Dreams, and he
is Secretary-Treasurer of the Person, Culture and Religion Group of the American
Academy of Religion. He is on the editorial boards of the journals Dreaming and
Religious Studies Review. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago
Divinity School in 1992, his M.T.S. from Harvard Divinity School in 1986, and
his B.A. from Stanford University in 1984.
In his latest book, _Transforming Dreams Learning Spiritual Lessons from
the Dreams You Never Forget_ (John Wiley & Sons, 2000) , Kelly offers an
accessible journey for all dreamers into the world of big dreams, dreams so
powerful that they demand attention and refuse to be cast aside as "just a
dream". The book begins by taking the reader through the most commonly
experienced powerful dreams, such as sexual dreams, nightmares, dreams of death
and titanic dreams. Another part of the book offers techniques that are useful
for novice and expert dream workers, considerations of theories around these
techniques and an anthropological overview.
[RCW] : (Richard Wilkerson for Electric Dreams) Hi Kelly, thanks for joining
us here at Electric Dreams for an interview!
[KB]: (Kelly Bulkeley, Ph.D) My pleasure!
[RCW] : Kelly, I have found all your books written so that any intelligent
person can access them. But your current book, __Transforming Dreams_, seems to
be a departure from your usually scholarly style of writing with lots of
references and really is accessible to a larger public. Was this due to the
nature of the material or a desire on your part to reach more people?
[KB]: A little of both. I appreciate your saying my other, more academic
books are accessible to general readers--that's definitely been my goal. But
I've always wanted to write a book that offers new ideas and practical
suggestions to people (in or out of academics) who are fascinated, perplexed,
and inspired by their most powerful dream experiences.
[RCW] : I was particularly pleased with the Nightmare section. They are often
made out to be villains of the night, and it's a rare person that would wish to
have them, yet they provide us with such great opportunities. I especially liked
your observation about how the extreme emotions that come with nightmares offer
us a chance to widen our emotional spectrum. When did you begin seeing them as
something other than a symptom to get rid of?
[KB]: That's one of the many points in the book which is rooted in my own
personal experience. My own nightmares, particularly the ones I had in my teens
and early 20's, were tremendously important experiences for me in terms of
learning about myself and the world around me. I would be a much more limited
and close-minded person if it weren't for those nightmares.
[RCW] : It must be very hard as a parent to both calm a child that just had a
nightmare and validate the dream at the same time. Do you have some simple
suggestions for parents?
[KB]: It is hard to calm a child who's just woken up from a nightmare, and I
tend to focus on comforting first (with lots of hugs, etc.) and then, in the
morning, on reflecting on the nightmare's contents. Children seem to enjoy
drawing pictures, play-acting, and using dolls or action figures to express
their dreams, and with a particularly bad nightmare these methods can help a
child put the dream "out there," where it can be more safely
discussed, examined, and processed.
[RCW] : One of the unique concept themes in your book is about the
"realness" of dreams and how this is a key to understanding big
dreams. I want to come back to this on a more abstract level later, but for now
could you talk about how the realness of the nightmare experience can be an
important component in the nightmare being useful to the dreamer?
[KB]: What's real about a nightmare is the emotion of fear, and that emotion
usually has direct physical accompaniments (sweating, trembling, racing heart,
etc.). I tend to see that "realistic" quality of nightmares as a means
of emphasizing the importance of whatever the dream is expressing--it's as if
the dreaming self were saying, "Here, pay attention to THIS, it's really,
[RCW] : The idea of titanic dreams that go past the organic was quite
interesting and not often addressed. Could you describe this a bit to the
Electric Dreams readers?
[KB]: Well, I have to admit this is a realm of dreaming I do not at all
understand myself; all I try to do in the book is report my observation that a
rare few dreams seem to have a strangely abstract setting (space, a vast field,
pure night), few or no other characters, and a sensation of encountering massive
forces, often in the form of geometric shapes (e.g., spheres). It's very hard to
put into words, but my guess is that such dreams may (I emphasize may!) be
giving us a glimpse of life at a non-organic, atomic level. That's wildly
speculative, of course, but I'm very intrigued by these dreams, and I intend to
keep studying them and seeing if I can make any better sense of them.
[RCW] : I'd like to hear from dreamgroups around the country if they handle
these dreams differently than other dreams. I know in my dream groups when this
kind of dream comes up that its very hard to relate to and difficult to know
what to do with in a satisfying way. Do you have any suggestions for a group
approach with this kind of dream?
[KB]: I'm not sure I do, because the dreams seem to lead off into realms of
existence and the cosmos far beyond our individual human lives. Maybe I would
ask why have I had such a dream NOW; is there any value or purpose to my gaining
a new view on my individual life in the broader context of the universe?
[RCW] : You identified the relief upon awakening from a nightmare as an
important piece of the dreamwork not to be neglected. I know when I awake from a
nightmare I struggle with wanting to just feel the relief and push the dream
away, and yet the desire to recall as many details as possible. Do you have any
suggestions for this difficult space? (It's hard to journal when my body is
[KB]: I have that feeling, too; I sometimes wake up from a bad dream and say
to myself, yuck! I don't want to deal with that! I guess it's just the
disciplined practice of dreamwork that zeroes in on that reaction and recognizes
it as a special opportunity for new growth and insight.
[RCW] : I liked the idea that superego visitation dreams, where old
authorities and critics come back to haunt us, can be used a value-barometers.
How do these dream barometers work?
[KB]: One of the many functions of dreams seems to be to check how well our
current lives are matching up to the ideals, goals, and values we consciously
hold. Sometimes the dreams give us the equivalent of a pat on the back--good
job, you're doing great! More often, though, our dreams push us to do better;
they prod us to recognize where we're falling short, where we're being
hypocritical, where we need to move in our growth and development. Teachers,
parents, famous people, even people we don't like in waking life can all serve
in our dreams as the voices of new growth.
[RCW] : On the section about death dreams you say that "The supreme
existential importance of death makes it a perfect symbol for the dreaming
imagination to use in conveying a variety of meanings." Can you elaborate a
little on this and the notion of "intense memorability"?
[KB]: In my research I've found that dreams dealing with death, dying, and
people who have died are among the most powerful and memorable types of dreams
people ever experience. That's an important fact, and one way of explaining it
is to recognize that the cycle of living and dying is fundamental to all human
existence; thus, dreaming about death becomes a perfect way of reflecting more
deeply on life.
[RCW] : I really like morbid topics but others might want to hear more about
dreams and sex. You propose a theory that the cyclic REM arousal is a
fine-tuning of the workings of the reproductive system. I'm trying to reconcile
this with the way that dreams provide us with the most bizarre and unexpected of
sexual partners. (at least mine do, hee hee). That is, if the REM arousal cycle
is trying to fine tune us, and dreams are trying to widen the spectrum, is there
a way to resolve this conflict?
[KB]: I see it as a matter of the general function of dreaming and the
particular function of dreams. In general, I think dreaming (and the REM arousal
cycle associated with it) helps keep our reproductive system is good working
order; the regular genital arousal that accompanies REM sleep is an indication
of this. Regarding particular dreams which rise to the level of conscious
awareness, I think their function is to prompt us to reflect on our waking lives
through the lens of our sexual desires. Because dreams are usually trying to
prompt us to grow in new directions, the appearance of unusual sexual partners,
positions, etc. helps in that process of stimulating new conscious
reflection--"Wait a minute, I was fooling around with HER, and we were
doing THAT?" Such dreams (which of course have very powerful and realistic
sensations attached to them!) are a marvelous way of prodding consciousness to
pay attention to something new.
[RCW] : Again the notion of intensely memorable experience comes up. Can you
talk a little about how this is important beyond the intrinsic pleasure of the
[KB]: The fact I focus on is that we forget the vast majority of our dreaming
experience. I believe this means that when a dream is so intensely vivid and
literally unforgettable, there must be a reason for that. If our dreaming
imaginations go to so much trouble to create something that truly burns itself
into our memories, we can be sure it's not a random or meaningless event.
[RCW] : I have often wondered if the Catholic Church is going to have to
change their catechism on confession around dreams. As I understand it, dreams
are not confessed because they are seen as non-volitional. The notion of lucid
sex re-introduces the will back into the equation. Ah, the problematics of
[KB]: That's a great point! The question of whether people are morally
responsible for their (immoral) sexual dreams goes way back in the
Judeo-Christian tradition. I think Thomas Aquinas, the 13th century Scholastic
theologian and a major authority in the Catholic Church, would probably consider
lucid dream sex to be immoral.
[RCW] : As dream sharing begins returning to culture as an everyday event,
how would you suggest we handle it when other people's children try to share
dreams with us with sexual content? Or is dream sharing for kids inappropriate
outside of the immediate family?
[KB]: I definitely do not think dreamsharing with kids should be restricted
to the immediate family, because schools, camps, churches, and peer groups can
be wonderful settings for dreamsharing. However, as is true with dreamsharing of
any kind, creating a safe, secure, and confidential space is crucial. With
children, I think discussions of sexual feelings have to be handled very, very
carefully, and that usually means it's best restricted to the immediate family.
[RCW] : Like death, sexual dreams are sort of intrusive and offer us a break
in the normal flow of life. But unlike death, which is rarely welcome, sexual
dreams might be incubated. Still, I think sex is a difficult force to work with
and I am usually drawn quickly into unconscious behavior, sort of like Jung's
anima possession. The natural aversion of death almost makes it easier to work
with. Do you feel that grassroots dream sharing groups should avoid actual
sexual encounters in the way therapists must?
[KB]: That's an interesting idea that death dreams may paradoxically be
easier to deal with than sexual dreams. I share your experience with sex dreams
frequently leading into strange behavior--that's what makes them so disturbing,
and yet so potentially revealing. Regarding sexual encounters between members of
a dreamsharing group, I don't like to automatically apply the standards of
psychotherapy to dreamsharing, because therapy is premised on an unequal power
relationship and assumes that the client has a problem that needs to be healed;
dreamsharing, in my view, depends on an equality of power among the group
members and a non-utilitarian openness to whatever comes up in the dreams
(whether they relate to "problems" or not). So I wouldn't put the
question in terms of "professional ethics"; rather, I'd say it's just
common sense morality to use
good judgment in not fooling around with people you shouldn't fool around with.
To close on a possibly provocative note: if I were feeling a sexual attraction
toward a member of a dreamsharing group, I would interpret that symbolically as
an expression of something coming up in the dreamwork, rather than a literal
desire to have sex with that person.
[RCW] : In discussing the difficulties of dream interpretation, I liked the
notion of finding a path between babble and blowing the dream away. That is, we
can talk too much and we can be overwhelmed and ignore the dream. You seem to
define a playful scene of enactment and tolerance for absence of premature
closure. Have you named this space? Can you talk about it a little here?
[KB]: Well, I don't really have a name for it, beyond "playing"-
-that's what I was getting at in my earlier answer, that dreamsharing at its
best is playful, not driven by a goal, an aim, a purpose (e.g., "solving a
problem"). Playing isn't easy; just watch a group of kids at a park, and
you can see how hard it is to generate and then maintain a good, free-flowing
game. But once you've got it going, once everyone's creative juices are flowing,
then truly magical things happen. That's what happens (ideally!) in a
[RCW] : Do you feel that new dreamwork techniques will continue to come out,
or has the field pretty much gotten the basics already in the techniques that
are being used?
[KB]: I'm sure new techniques and methods will keep coming. Some of the basic
ideas are truly ancient--I still think the second century A.D. Roman dream
interpreter Artemidorus laid out the basic program we're all following today in
terms of carefully seeking connections between the details of the dream and the
details of the dreamer's personal life. But the creative power of dreaming is
truly infinite, and so I expect there's no end to the methods people can and
will devise to better understand their dreams.
[RCW] : I liked that you gave very good examples of how to open up the
imagery and push this process through to a new level. That is, not to say
"Oh, so that is what the dream is about!". This seems to emerge from
your alliance with a teleological perspective. Can you say a little about
getting a bearing on a dream's direction?
[KB]: I come back to the experience of especially powerful, memorable dreams.
My conviction is that such dreams are pushing us to grow and develop, and the
effort to interpret these dreams is an effort to discern the direction in which
they are pushing us. I'll use a horticultural metaphor: dreams have their roots
in our past, but they are flowering out into our future.
[RCW] : I have a few questions that Electric Dreams readers always want me to
ask about authors favorites: What's your favorite dream, what's your favorite
dream book and what advice do you have for people who what to devote there lives
to dream studies and dreamwork?
[KB]: My favorite dream? Hmmm, well, I love flying dreams, of course, and I
deeply value the dark wisdom of the nightmares I've suffered over the years. My
favorite dream book--that's a cruel, cruel question! I can tell you that the
first books I read that really got me into the whole world of dreaming were
Jung's Man and His Symbols and Ann Faraday's Dream Power. It's hard to give
general advice about "careers in dreamwork," but I'd suggest that
people 1) always stay true to their own dreams, 2) not become too discouraged at
the tepid interest many people in modern society have toward dreams, and 3) take
a long-term view of building up whatever dream-related activity or practice best
integrates their talents, opportunities, and ideals.
[RCW] : Then of course, there is the question all author's complain about
getting: what's next? What is your next book and project?
[KB]: I've got several projects in the works. I've written a science fiction
novel, Across a Bridge of Dreams, which I'm trying to get published; I'm working
on an anthology, The Interpretations of Dreaming: A Critical Reader in
Psychoanalysis, Comparative Religion, and Cognitive Science, and also a textbook
on Psychology and Religion which I'm thinking of titling, The Soul, The Psyche,
The Brain. I've got a screenplay in the works (that's the "play-time"
project!), and I'm continuing my research on spiritually meaningful dreams and
on the political dimensions of dreaming. (For readers who would like to help me
with the dreams and politics project, please visit my web site at http://www.kellybulkeley.com/idxresearch.htm).
[RCW] : I was happy to see that you recommended to people that they actually
come online and try out dream work on the Internet before passing judgment. I'm
hoping your publisher will allow us to put online your dreamer's utopia
statement, which speaks about a time when dreams finally become our companions.
[KB]: That sounds fine to me! I'll check with Wiley ASAP.
[RCW] : Kelly, thanks for your thoughts and time. I feel the dream field is
really quite lucky to have you!
[KB]: Thanks for giving my book such a thorough reading, and best wishes to
You can order Transforming Dreams online and find out more about
Kelly Bulkeley at: