To sleep perchance to dream
Lucid Dreaming – step into your mind and explore!
As a child I always struggled to get to sleep and it would take ages before I was finally exhausted enough slowly to sink into sleep. As a result I was very aware of entering sleep and I could hear the dream scape as I started to rest into the first stage of sleep, known as the hypnagogic state. Whilst still aware of my room and that I was laying in my bed, I would also hear voices and sounds at a distance, as if a radio were playing at a distance – but it was inside my head! I loved this sound as it meant I knew sleep was near after hours of rolling this way and that in my bed unable to sleep. Then the images appeared, flickering into life like a magic lantern show at a fair as dusk falls. It wouldn’t be long before I was then fully immersed in a dream.
Frequently as I dreamt I would be aware that I was dreaming, and when this happened I used to sit down in the dream and cross my legs as if going into meditation. I knew that if I focused in a certain way I could then rise up into the sky and once there I would stretch out horizontal to the ground and fly. I loved these flying dreams, and the feeling of awareness in the dream. They stopped once I became a teenager, but I remembered them fondly.
There was one curious experience that accompanied these flying dreams throughout my childhood – probably from the age of around 8 to 10. After dreaming of flying and the feeling of awareness in the dream started to pass I would wake up, dress, have breakfast. The day would proceed as normal until at some point something happened that was not as it should be. Often I would go to turn on a light and it would not work, after flicking the switch a few times I would realise I was still dreaming – and so the morning would start again as I was once more in my bed waking up! Sometimes I got all the way to school before this waking would happen! It tended to happen about three times before I was finally properly awake.
The result of this was that I never knew if I were really awake! Or if in a moment something would happen to make me aware that I was still dreaming. Even now I sometimes wonder if this has all been one long dream and in a moment I may wake up as a child again in my bed at 108 Cambridge Road!
A few years ago I became interested in lucid dreaming and started going to an evening workshop where people would share thier experiences of lucid dreaming. If you have not experienced this, it is the state where you become conscious whilst dreaming that you are in a dream. Once conscious you can continue to dream, but are able to decide what will happen in the dream rather than just have it happen to you. One common theme in lucid dreams is for people to choose to fly.
As I listend to people talk and read more about lucid dreaming I realised my childhood experiences were all related to lucid dreaming. A common experience for people who have had a lucid dream is to have a series of what are called ‘false awakenings’, where they wake up and go through their day until something does not follow the laws of physics as we know them in the waking world and there is the realisation that one is still dreaming.
I felt very excited to realise that I had had so many lucid dreams as a child and it made it feel more possible to reconnect with it as an experience as an adult. It was also good to know that my confusion over regular multiple awakenings was simply a result of becoming lucid.
In a significant way these false awakening prepared me to embrace Buddhism. I had spent my childhood with the feeling that life was just one long dream that one might wake up from at any time….so when I then came across a teaching that basically says just that, then it fitted with this experience.
Lucid Dreaming and Awakening
Why should this be of any relevance in a mindfulness email? The dream group I attend is run by a Buddhist who practices in the Tibetan tradition, and for Tibetan Buddhism the dream world is as important as the waking world for practice. It is taught that if you can take mindful awareness into sleep and become lucid you can make great progress in learning the true nature of your mind and you have all night to meditate, so if you cannot find time in the day you can still meditate whilst you sleep! In fact meditating in your sleep is said to be a lot more powerful than whilst awake, as there are no distractions of aching body parts or time constraints. Unfortunately I cannot say if this is true as it is one thing I have not done in a lucid dream!
I’ve found that lucid dreaming offers a chance to explore the shadow side of one’s subconscious. I had a nightmare one night where an old man tried to kill me. The following night as I fell asleep I determined that I would become lucid and meet him again. As I slept that night I did become lucid and as I was flying through the air I remembered that I had had a nightmare the previous night and that I wanted to meet the man from it. In a moment I was no longer flying, but was in a visitors room in what I knew was a prison. I heard footsteps and a metal door opened. Two guards were holding the man and they looked at me as if to say “are you sure?”. I nodded and they released him. The man ran at me and grabbed me, his fingers had become metal talons ripping into my back. But I held him and thought “do what you like, this is a dream and you cannot hurt me, and I have you now…it’s you who are not going anywhere.” As I held him he eventually exhausted his rage and started to shrink. Eventually he was a small boy and he started to cry as I held him.
I do not know what this was related to, but on waking I felt so full of energy and alive. Talking with my dream teacher, Charlie Morley, he said that after resolving shadow issues in a dream there is often a feeling of energy, as all the effort of keeping something hidden and locked away could now be let go of.
The Buddhist approach to lucid dreaming is that it enables one to see that the nature of all phenomena is that they are mind made. In our waking state we feel as if we are looking out at an objective reality – although in fact it is a world created by our brain in response to the light waves entering our eyes. We are looking at a picture created by our brain to make sense of this information. But in a dream we see this directly – we look at an object and see it simply as something made by the mind. As such dream objects in a lucid dream can be fascinating as they seem to glow with light and be so real they look almost more real than anything seen in waking life.
Central to the Buddha’s teaching was that conditioned things are impermanent but in some of his teachings the Buddha also seems to suggest that this conditioned reality that we live in is itself an illusion. This is evident in the way he describes our psychophysical body, which is often referred to as the five skandhas or aggregates: form, feeling, perception, volition and consciousness:
“Form is like a lump of foam, feeling like a water bubble; perception is like a mirage; volitions like a plantain trunk, and consciousness like a magic trick, so explained the Kinsman of the Sun (a name used to refer to the Buddha)” ( S. iii. 142).
From the Diamond Sūtra or in Sanskrit, Vajracchedikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra, we find this verse:
Thus shall you think of this fleeting world:
A star at dawn, a bubble in a stream,
A flash of lightning in a summer cloud,
A flickering lamp, a phantom, and a dream.
In the Samādhirājasūtra we find the following:
Know all things to be like this:
A mirage, a cloud castle,
A dream, an apparition,
Without essence, but with qualities that can be seen.
Being able to observe the mind made nature of phenomena in the dream state is said to help one to then recognise the same process of the mind creating an appearance of reality in our waking state. Tibetan Buddhism also teaches that there is the unborn and uncreated nature of mind that is intrinsically clear, luminous and pure. This nature of mind is timeless and always here – we just forget to experience it. It is said that it is easier to awaken to this in a lucid dream, letting our usual sense of self dissolve away and instead resting in our true nature.
Or you might just like the idea of being able to go flying!
How to Lucid Dream
If you are intrested in lucid dreaming the flowing few tips may help:
1. If you notice anything unusual in the day look at your hand and turn it over quickly or flex your fingers, asking yourself “am I dreaming” If you do this regularly you may start to do it in a dream when something unusual happens, at which point your hand will change as the dream mind cannot recreate a hand making quick movements, so it will gain extra fingers, or the fingers will grow, at which point you will know you are dreaming.
2. Start keeping a note book by your bed. When you wake up jot down any dream fragments you remember. Over a few weeks you’ll start to remember full dreams.
3. As you become more familiar with your dreams you’ll recognise certain familiar themes that recur. For me it is looking at my mobile in the dream but it not working. As a general rule technology does not work in dreams – looking at a phone the numbers will not make sense, or a television will not turn on. Light switches do not work either, as it is too hard for the dreaming brain to create the effect of light suddenly flooding a space. So any time things do not work you can ask if you are dreaming – if it is a dream you may then have the realisation that it is a dream. I became lucid several times thorugh looking at my mobile and asking myself why it wasn’t working, I then had the thought “ah, of course this must be a dream!” and then became lucid.
4. Following on from this, as you fall asleep you can remind yourself that when you dream of a particular event that you have recognised as part of your regular dream world you will recognise that you are dreaming. I used to regularly have dreams of being on a train or going to the Palace to have tea with the Queen…well why not!!? 🙂 So as I fall asleep I can say to myself ” tonight as I dream if I am having tea with the Queen I am going to recognise that I am dreaming”….or whatever your familiar dream scape might be.
5. Another way is to practice staying in the hypnogogic state for as long as possible. Rest attention on your breath, slowly ease into sleep, keep awareness focused on the breath, and notice the sounds and images as they start to appear – if you do this with relaxed focus you’ll be able to then take this awareness into the dream state. I’ve not been able to this as an adult, but it’s what I did as a child.
6. As you fall asleep decide what you will do when you become lucid. The most common reason for loosing lucidity is that you have no clear intention once lucidity arises and it slips back into being an ordinary dream. Perhaps you would like to meet with the Dali Lama. Or fly with a flock of swans. Or visit an emerald city at the bottom of the ocean. You can create whatever you want in a lucid dream, so feel in to what would excite you. You can also invite the subconscious to meet you: speaking into the dream space something like: “what do I most need to know right now”. A character may then appear and you can have a conscious conversation with them – perhaps they will represent something you are working with right now….if you are not sure, ask them who they are or what they represent and have a conversation with your subconscious!
When you do become lucid you’ll feel such a buzz of adrenalin and excitement you may wake up after a few seconds. To counteract this as you recognise that you are dreaming and start to feel excited, focus your attention on your feet and feel the ground underneath you. At the same time take slow deep breaths. This will slow your heart beat down and stop you getting so excited, as breathing deep in your dream body also makes you breathe slowly in you actual body. As this happens you’ll find your dream body really comes alive and instead of being a slightly disembodied ‘seeing’ which is often the sense of oneself in a non lucid dream, your body will start to tingle and feel amazingly vibrant and alive as if it is made of energy and not flesh – which in the dream state it is!
I recommend Charlies monthly meeting for discussing dreams. I am going this Sunday. You can see details here
You can also buy his books here