THOUGHTS | DREAMS | ACTION
THOUGHTS | DREAMS | ACTION
If we’re going to get through the next few years, we need a change of narrative so profound that our entire culture changes direction. We need not just new stories, but a whole new shape to what a story is. And it will start with our writing.
Lucid Dreaming: Ancient Skill or Modern Fad?
What is Lucid Dreaming?
I am teaching a group of students: I know them all by name: Hannah, Nic, Robyn, Jeremy, Bob… We are discussing dreaming, and in particular the difference between shamanic dreaming and lucid dreaming and whether there is an ancient lineage. I say that we ought to ask the gods, but first we need to make sure we’re not dreaming (cue laughter from my students: they’re pretty good at laughing at my weaker jokes). I say that being able to write and then read a coherent sentence – or even just our own name – is a pretty good indication that we’re not dreaming. In dreams, writing is often hazy and changes each time we look at it. I have a piece of paper and a pen and I write I AM NOT DREAMING and show it to the group. “Can you all read that?” They can. So we know we’re not dreaming. And we can invite in the gods and ask them whether dreaming in shamanic terms has a lineage and whether the capacity to know that we’re dreaming within the dream, and then to direct it – which is lucid dreaming – is a modern experience or an ancient one. The gods arrive, and we ask our question and just before the answer is offered, my dog leaps off the bed, barking at a fox in the yard. And I wake up.
So if you want a straightforward definition of lucid dreaming, it is ‘the ability to know that we are dreaming from within the dream.’ An obvious corollary to this is that once we know we’re dreaming, we can act on that knowledge and do all the things that are possible in dream worlds that are not possible in the solid, 3-dimensional, restricted-by-gravity-and-boring-things-like-walls version of reality that we choose to inhabit.
Lucid Dreaming: How is it done?
This, then, is lucid dreaming: the ability to know we’re dreaming and then to act on it. The routes to knowing are direct and straightforward – what it requires is a clear intent and a continuous discipline, which sounds a lot more onerous than it actually is. Building intent is a key part of shamanic practice – in fact, of any genuine spiritual practice (we’ll take it as read that religion and spirituality are not necessarily the same thing, and that spiritual practice, by definition, is an application of clear intent to the stilling of the mind in the pursuit of greater human/planetary flourishing. It goes beyond that, of course, but this is a good first step).
So we need clear intent. If we’re not sure we have clear intent, then we need to build a contemplative practice of some sort which helps to hone intent: any of the modern mindfulness practices will do it, as will yoga, tai chi, some martial arts, rock climbing: anything which requires consistent application of mind to a single act, and in which we can become self-reflexive. Only by knowing the pathways of our mind, can we bring our minds back to a single point of focus.
Because that’s what we want to do: in this case, we want to bring our minds back to the question: Am I dreaming at this precise moment? If we ask this through the day, we will, over time, begin to ask it in our dreams, to. There are physical cues we can use, too – I can stare at my right thumbnail, and ask ‘Am I dreaming now?’ (There’s nothing magical about the right thumbnail, any body part will do: just pick one and stick with it).
Lucid dreaming: stick with it
Stick with it. Read that again. Pick a body part and Stick. With. It. This is not an overnight phenomenon. It routinely takes six months or more before we begin to ask ourselves in our dreams if we are dreaming. It doesn’t happen every night – and actually, given the value of our dreams, I’m not sure it should – but it’ll start to happen on a regular basis.
Dream Diary: the key to lucid dreaming
In those six months you want to be doing the next thing that makes lucid dreaming – any dreaming – work best: start writing a dream diary. Every shamanic dreaming course I teach, someone says, ‘I don’t dream.’ Which is not the case, unless they are the one person known to medical science who doesn’t. Everyone dreams. My dog dreams. The cats dream. What we don’t all do is remember our dreams.
So here’s how to remember your dreams: Write them down.
Your dreams will honour you exactly to the extent that you honour them.
You can make notes on your phone if you don’t want to do it longhand, but makes notes. They don’t have to be essays. “Am in a hotel in Japan, learning Japanese – am astounded that I understand one sentence, and it’s a joke. I remember learning some Japanese in Aikido, and think it must be a hangover from that. I try to hold a conversation and can’t. Feelings: surprised, frustrated: mainly not sure why I’m here. Feels like someone else’s dream. Colours: lots of blue and yellow – I can see the sky. The language is a long, linear, golden thread.”
These are part of my notes from last night. It’s hardly comprehensive, but it’s enough for me to connect later with the feelings of the dream – which are the third key to lucid (or shamanic, or any) dreaming. It’s the feelings that matter. This is why the old style books which purported to tell us what dreams meant, are a complete waste of time. Please don’t read them. In fact, please get rid of them soonest. Because a dream of flying means entirely different things to an airline pilot about to sit a final flying test, to a military pilot who has just strafed an entire road of fleeing civilians, to a grandmother who is on her first trip to visit family abroad, to the twenty-something executive who hates flying, to the aerophobe who lives in terror of the smell of aviation diesel.
And the takeaway from this? It’s the feelings that matter. Really. Trust me on this. The colours are interesting, The human interactions are rewarding. If you can regularly become lucid and decide that what you want to do with this is to have the most amazing sex you’ve ever imagined, (personally, I think that’s a terrible waste of an opportunity, but there you go) – it’s the feelings that matter. Write them down. If you write nothing else, write those.
If there is a narrative arc, write that (a storyline). Otherwise, write what you remember of the people, places, things you encountered. If there’s music, write it. Colours: write them. Get as much detail as you can – in the long run, if you want to start working with dreams, this is your raw material, and there’s a lot more you can do than simply waking in the dream.
Remembering dreams: wake while still dreaming
To write something, remember it and the best way to remember dreams is to wake up while still dreaming – at least at first. There are a number of ways to do this and the easiest is to drink industrial quantities of water before you go to bed. You will need to get up to urinate in the night and you will be dreaming just before you do. You’ll be dreaming that you need to pee… but it’s a start. Write it down.
You can set your alarm to wake you up, but I’d recommend you not do that. Allowing yourself to wake naturally, even for a call of nature, is far, far better for your overall energy. In fact, if you can create for yourself a world in which you can wake naturally rather than with an alarm clock (which may involve going to bed long before you think it’s bed time), then I’d heartily encourage you to do so.
There’s a theory that Vitamin B12 will help you dream more vividly, and its water soluble, so it probably doesn’t hurt to take it – or just spread your Marmite a little more thickly on your toast (!).
Lucid dreaming: how to check on the dream
As we said at the top, one of the keys to dreaming is that writing – numbers and letters – tend to get scrambled. It can be hard to dial a phone, or to read signs on the wall. So the simplest test is to write something down and see a) if you can read it and b) if it stays the same on the second and third reading. If you can write your own name and read it three times in a row, you’re either awake or you have a particularly clear sense of self in the dream. If you’re not sure, turn round on the spot three times. If the walls all stay in the same place (or the trees, or the fish if you’re under the ocean – if you are and you’re breathing, and not wearing an oxygen tank, it’s probably a dream – then you can always try to float to the ceiling. If you can do that, it’s a dream. Almost certainly.
Lucid dreaming: what to do once you’re there
This, for me, is the most interesting bit: what do you do once you’ve woken up in a dream? First thing is to make sure you only wake in the dream – that is, you become aware that you’re dreaming, but you don’t actually wake yourself up. And then you need to hold onto your awareness. The old way to do that was to turn round, staring at the ground. I tend to turn round slowly, taking in all of my environment. And then I try to recall the question I brought with me to bed: because part of shamanic dreaming is that I sleep with a question. For me, the value of lucid dreaming is that I get to ask that question in the dream, of things that I might meet in shamanic journeys, thus making my dreams much more like my journeys (and in the end, my journeys become more like my dreams). If you want to have the sex you can’t have in real life, go ahead. Me, I’d rather have help with healing, or plotting the next book, or a sense of life’s direction. None of these comes handed on a plate in one dream: they may build over months – over a lifetime, really – but they feel worthwhile.
Lucid dreaming: summary
So – to summarise – if you want to wake up in the dream, ask yourself frequently through the day if you’re dreaming. Use a physical cue if you can. And while you’re waiting for that to work, start a dream diary. Record the feeling of the dream fragments as well as the coherent narrative if there is one. If you need help to dream, drink water before you go to bed and when you get up to pee write down what you were dreaming before you woke. Be prepared for this to take some time: clear, strong intent is vital.
And when you are dreaming, do something useful with it. Please. Even if you rarely reach lucidity, our dreams are an astonishingly rich resource, source of help and healing, advice and warnings. We just need to learn to work with them. I’ll write more about that in another blog – possibly an entire book. In the meantime, if you’re reading this page and it’s been the same since you started, you’re almost certainly not dreaming.