07/01/2015 08:30 am ET Updated Jul 01, 2016

My Q and A With Dream Expert Kelly Bulkeley

Kelly Bulkeley is a dream researcher and visiting scholar at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California. His lifelong fascination with dreams began in his teenage years, when he experienced a string of nightmares that got him thinking about where dreams come from and what they mean. In answer to my questions, he shared his insights on the practice of dream incubation, the phrase "sleep on it," and connection between sleep and wakefulness.

What is dream incubation?

Dream incubation is the practice of creating optimum conditions for the experience of a meaningful dream that responds to a pre-sleep question or intention. The practice can include focused prayers or meditation before sleep, rites of purification, and sleeping in a special posture and location. The questions people can ask range from the sublime (spiritual guidance, concerns about deceased loved ones) to the worldly (business dealings, marriage proposals, health treatments).

What are the origins of dream incubation, and where was it commonly practiced?

The origins may go back to the origins of culture itself, in the magnificently painted caves of Paleolithic Europe, where shamans very likely slept and practiced dream incubation. It seems that every culture and religious tradition around the world -- from Tibetan Buddhists to Plains Native Americans, Australian Aborigines to Sufi Muslims -- has developed its own methods and techniques of dream incubation. Perhaps the most famous and influential approach to dream incubation was taught at the temples of the ancient Greek healing god Asclepius, whose worship spanned several centuries in beautifully designed sanctuaries all over the Mediterranean.

Is dream incubation still practiced in the modern world? Are there any modern practices that are outgrowths of dream incubation?

Yes, some Western therapists trained in Jungian, Humanist, and Transpersonal psychologies use dream incubation in their caregiving work, as a way of helping clients learn to interact more creatively with their unconscious depths. High-level religious officials usually disavow such practices, but dream incubation continues to flourish among ordinary people in most religious traditions. In present society, any time people say they are going to "sleep on it" when facing a problem or decision, they are practicing a simple but often effective form of dream incubation.

What fundamental aspects of dream incubation can be incorporated into how we live our lives today?

Dream incubation works because our minds are predisposed to continue pondering and reflecting on the same concerns, problems, and challenges that occupy our waking awareness. We can influence andchannel the flow of those dreaming energies by fairly simple practices of pre-sleep intentionality. Dream incubation does not mean controlling our dreams and treating them like a magic 8-ball; rather, it's a respectful invitation for our dreams to respond to an important, meaningful concern in our waking lives. If you ask nicely, and if you are patient, you will probably get a response.