Electric Dreams

Transforming Dreams: An Interview with Kelly Bulkeley, Ph.D.

interviewed by Richard Wilkerson

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  Wilkerson, Richard Catlett (2000 June). Transforming Dreams: An Interview with Kelly Bulkeley, Ph.D. Electric Dreams 7(6). Retrieved July 14, 2000 from Electric Dreams on the World Wide Web: http://www.dreamgate.com/electric-dreams

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, really important!"

[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 shaking!)

[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 moment?

[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 theologians!

[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 dreamsharing group.

[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 ED readers!


You can order Transforming Dreams online and find out more about
Kelly Bulkeley at:
E-mail: kellybulkeley@earthlink.net