Dreaming Vol. 3, No. 1, 1993

Why Study Dreams? A Religious Studies Perspective

Wendy Doniger and Kelly Bulkley 1

KEY WORDS: dreams; religion; myths; spirituality.

Religion was the original field of dream study. The earliest writings we have on dreams are primarily texts on their religious and spiritual significance. Long before psychoanalysts, sleep laboratory researchers, and content analysts arrived on the scene, religious specialists were exploring dreams in a variety of ways: using dreams in initiation rituals, developing techniques to incubate revelatory dreams and ward off evil nightmares, expressing numerous dream images in different artistic forms, and elaborating sophisticated interpretive systems that related dreams to beliefs about the soul, death, morality, and fate.

Dreams are important religious phenomena in virtually all the world's religious traditions. There is little mystery, then, about why scholars of religion are interested in studying dreams: we study dreams to gain valuable insights into the religious concerns of humankind.

Let us therefore turn our attention to a more interesting, and more challenging question: why should other dream researchers take notice of religious studies and its findings about dreams?

The first contribution that religious studies makes to modern dream research is to enlarge our historical knowledge of dreams. Humans have been exploring their dreams for millenia, and these explorations have most often been conducted in religious terms and contexts. Thus, if modern dream researchers aspire to a truly comprehensive understanding of dreams and dreaming, they must draw upon the historical work of religious studies (See Eliade 1960 and 1964, Von Grunebaum and Callois 1965, Wayman 1967, Kelsey 1968, O'Flaherty 1984, Miller 1986, Bulkley forthcoming).

However, the field of religious studies provides much more than additional historical data. Its most valuable role in modern dream research lies in disproving a simplistic, evolutionary model of our knowledge about dreams. According to such an evolutionary model, people used to think that dreams were prophetic messages sent by gods, spirits, or demons; now, however, modern science has swept away those ignorant, superstitious delusions and has given us true, objective knowledge about dreams.

Religious studies offers many correctives to this unfortunately widespread model. The work of religious studies scholars can help us understand better how the "primitive" dream beliefs and practices of various religious traditions arise out of complex and highly-developed cultural systems. This enables us to see that many religious approaches to dreams are not the ignorant fancies of pre-scientific savages, but are in fact elaborate, insightful reflections on dream experience--reflections that may provide stimulating new idea to modern Westerners, if we stop assuming that "religion" is synonymous with "superstition".

For example, we find sophisticated discussions of dream interpretation in the Talmud, a collection of Jewish religious teachings compiled during the period from 200 b.c. to 300 a.d. (Lorand 1957); we discover intriguing phenomenological descriptions of dreaming experience in the Upanishads, the sacred Hindu texts that reach back to the seventh century b.c. (O'Flaherty 1984); we learn of intricate measures for diagnosing and curing illnesses (both physical and psychological) practiced by tribal shamans among the Diegueno, a Native American people from what is now Southern California (Toffelmeir and Luomala 1936); and we find careful, nuanced reflections on the prognostic potential of dream in the treatise On Dreams, written by Synesios, a Christian bishop of Ptolemais in the early fifth century a.d. (Lewis 1976).

When we study and discuss such materials, we should avoid the temptation to do nothing but argue over whether they are "right" or "wrong", "advanced" or "primitive", "proto-Freudian" or "proto-Jungian." We can learn the most if we take these materials as further evidence of the extremely diverse range of approaches humans have taken towards dreaming experience.

Still another value of religious studies for dream research involves our understanding of the spiritual dimensions of dreams now, in the secularized culture of the 20th century West. Many dream researchers are deeply puzzled by the widespread popular interest in the religious nature of dreams, and are particularly skeptical towards the spiritual yearnings of the "dreamworker movement". But religious studies can offer important insights on this interest of modern Westerners in dreams and spirituality. Religious studies can help us see what distinctive spiritual concerns have been generated by secular Western culture, and can show us how phenomena like the surging interest in dreams represent legitimate efforts to address those concerns.

This capacity of religious studies can be demonstrated by considering the work of certain sociologists of religion (e.g., Max Weber 1905, Peter Berger 1967, Peter Homans 1979). In their view, the advance of modern Western culture has left vast numbers of people in a state of spiritual and psychological alienation. The rapid pace of technological change, the dominance of huge, impersonal institutions, and the bewildering complexity of modern society has left many individuals feeling adrift, isolated, and lacking any sense of meaning or purpose to their lives. In other cultures (and in the pre-modern West) it was the primary function of religion and myth to provide such meaning and purpose; but in modern secular society, traditional religions and myths have for various reasons lost much of their persuasive power. In such circumstances, many people are turning to other, non-traditional sources for religious guidance.

From this perspective, then, it makes complete sense that interest in dreams, and specifically in the spiritual dimensions of dreams, has become so strong in our culture. Dreams are vivid, vital, meaning-rich; they provide a direct experience with highly numinous energies. Dream often speak to our most troubling, conflict-filled concerns, and offer us guidance, inspiration, and hope. In short, dreams are serving many of the same functions in our culture that formal religions have served in other cultures (although there are also some serious potential costs to this "privatization" of religion--see Bulkley (forthcoming) for an extended discussion of this).

Indeed, it is interesting in this regard to compare out culture's current interest in dreams with the special role dreams play in non-Western cultures that have recently encountered the forces of Western modernity. Many anthropological studies focus on such "contact situations", where indigenous cultures (for example, Native American clans, Australian Aborigines, African tribespeople) are losing their traditional religions in the face of Western scientific, economic, and political encroachment. A striking phenomenon found in many of these "contact situations" is an upsurge of religious dreaming: the native people, disoriented by the sudden changes in their traditional ways, turn to their dreams for religious guidance. What often results is the development of new symbols, myths, rituals, and movements that help the people respond to the massive and frequently painful disruptions of their lives (see Wallace 1956, Tonkinson 1970, Lanternari 1975). These anthropological studies suggest an intriguing possibility: some modern Westerners may themselves be experiencing a kind of "contact situation". The fact that many people feel deeply alienated by our culture, and that many of them have turned to dreams for religious guidance, certainly points in that direction (see Bulkley 1992b).

A final contribution of religious studies to dream research involves the appropriate methodological tools to use in studying dreams. Dreams are, and always have been, a powerful source of religious experience and insight. Phenomenologically speaking, it is a plain fact that dreams do at times speak directly and powerfully to people's basic spiritual concerns. Many modern dream researchers have, to their credit, recognized this fact. But these researchers, who generally come from fields like depth psychology, cognitive psychology, and neurology, have not always had the conceptual resources needed to examine adequately the spiritual dimensions of dreams. Here is where religious studies must be brought into the dialogue, for religious studies can provide the vocabularies, methods, and models we need to understand fully this important aspect of human experience.

In the rapprochement of religious studies and dreams, a key methodological issue is the distinction between "real" dreams and dreams recorded in myths, epics, and other sacred texts. We must begin by attempting to clarify the relationship between dreams and myths. Why do we think there is a connection between dreams and myths at all? There are several good reasons. First of all, Freud himself suggested the connection (Freud 1900, 386-389). Second, many traditional cultures have suggested the connection, in both directions: shamans and holy men claim to have had dreams which then become the substance of myths; people who wish to have significant dreams "incubate" them in temples and shrines where myths are told; and people incorporate into their dreams many of the cultural symbols that they have learned from myths. Third, we ourselves can see direct connections between certain "surreal" phenomena that occur in myths and in dream but not, usually, in other cultural expressions: distortions of time and space, people having magical powers, fantastic transformations (e.g., people turning into animals), and so forth.

On a continuum of narrative forms, myth mediates between the entirely personal and solipsistic, of which the dream is the quintessential example, and the entirely general and abstract, of which a logical syllogism is the quintessential example. Dreams are private; a myth is a dream that has gone public. People possess myths, but dreams possess people. In his response to Wendy Doniger O'Flaherty's Dreams, Illusion, and Other Realities, Indian psychoanalyst Sudhir Kakar pointed out the importance of this distinction:

These dreams [recorded in the Hindu classic The Yogavasistha] are not even the invented dreams one is familiar with from literature and which stand midway between real dreams and imaginative creations. Invented dreams in literature can indeed be interpreted by paying very close attention to their context, to the dreamer's feelings and thoughts at waking and to the associations of the audience or the analyst (in place of the missing associations of the dreamer, as in analytical practice). All these techniques which succeed in interpreting dreams in literature, at least to the analyst's satisfaction, simply do not succeed with the Indian dreams. From the psychological viewpoint, they are not dreams but imaginative creations, conceits in the service of the metaphysical narrative . . . in spite of their formal similarities to what we today call dreams. (O'Flaherty 1984, 363-364)

In the more technical psychoanalytical sense, the myth cannot have latent content on a personal level; only the people who respond to the myth have, each his or her own, latent meanings for the myth, in the strict sense of the term. But a myth has a latent cultural meaning which the culture as a whole may mask. Out of context, anything can symbolize anything; the context of a dream is provided by the personal associations of the individual dreamer, and the context of a myth by the culture. The hermeneutics of suspicion prevents us, however, from simply asking the culture what it thinks the symbol means. We must also find other, more indirect cultural contexts, such as the patterns formed by other myths, or the rituals associated with the myth, or other evidence of how the myth is used in society.

The myth is the secondary elaboration that attempts, always in vain, to recapture the dream. And since it can never succeed, it generates an infinite number of failures--iterations, with significant changes, rather than repetitions, literally the same (to use Lacan's terms). It is not entirely true, then, to say (as C. G. Jung, Joseph Campbell, and others have suggested) that myths are simply dreams writ large, that myths are nothing more than individual dream experiences projected onto a broader cultural screen. There are many continuities between dreams and myths, but there are important discontinuities, too, that must be reckoned with in any interpretive venture (on the relationship of dreams and myths, see Kluckhorn 1942, Eggan 1955, Eliade 1959, Ricoeur 1967, Kuper 1979, Tedlock 1987, Kracke 1987, and Bulkley 1992a).

Scholars of religion are interested in dreams because dreams are a nearly universal locus of religious experience, reflection, and ritual practice. Recent discoveries from other areas of dream research have added greatly to knowledge in the religious studies field. Our hope is that religious studies can return the favor, and enrich the discussion among dream researchers about the important relationship between dreams and human spirituality.




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[1 Correspondence should be directed to Kelly Bulkley, M. T. S., The University of Chicago, The Divinity School, Swift Hall, 1025 East 58th Street, Chicago, IL 60637.]

Note: This name has been changed by the author from Bulkley  to  Bulkeley

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