My Year of Discovering How Weird the Mind Gets, Part VII [Lucid Dreaming]

Lucid dreaming is the act of becoming aware that one is in a dream while dreaming. It’s called “Dream Yoga” in some Eastern traditions (most notably, Tibetan [Vajrayana] Buddhism.) Many people pursue lucid dreaming because they find it just too cool to experience the world of dreams consciously, but — for those who don’t — the natural question is “why bother?”  Well, it gives one an unprecedentedly vivid insight into one’s subconscious mind. [For those who are still wondering “why?” This post is probably not for you.]

Since I was young, I’ve occasionally experienced lucid dreams. But it wasn’t until recent years that I began a dream yoga practice — which I had discontinued until resuming it for this month’s study. Those unfamiliar lucid dreaming might wonder how one “practices” becoming aware that one is in a dream in the midst of dreaming. If one didn’t come to the table with a talent for lucidity in dreams, one can’t exactly do anything about it in the middle of REM sleep (rapid eye movement, when the bulk of dreaming occurs.)  A dream yoga practice consists of actions one takes during the day to help facilitate becoming lucid during one’s dreams. These actions include:

  • Journaling one’s dreams (i.e. writing down whatever one remembers of one’s dreams as soon as possible so that one builds the capacity to remember dreams, which can be ephemeral.)
  • Doing reality checks in waking life whenever one notices anything that has an unreal quality about it. This is done in an attempt to train your brain’s BS detector — that’s obviously not how neuroscientists refer to it, but in waking consciousness we have a potent ability to notice and focus our attention on apparent incongruities. The parts of the brain that manage that responsiveness tend to be down for the count during sleep. Hence, in a dream one can walk out of one’s bedroom onto the Serengeti Plains without a second thought. So you are attempting to train your brain to become aware when the anomalous takes place. If it works right, you will begin to do the reality checks in your dreams as well. Of course, real life offers much more subtle seeming incongruities, hence the need to be on the look out for them. There are two approaches to reality check with which I’m familiar. The one I use is to count my fingers, and then flip my hand over and count them again. In a waking state, I always have five digits during counts. In dreams, my hand does some funky stuff. An alternate method is to look at a clock or watch, look away, and then look back at it. In real life, only a second or two will have passed, but in a dream the times will likely be entirely different.
  • Bedtime resolutions to remember one’s dreams and to become lucid during them. For yogis and yoginis, this is like a sankalpa, a resolution that one repeats during yoga nidra (“yogic sleep,” a yogic relaxation and mind development technique that — ironically — doesn’t involve sleep but rather a prolonged hypnogogic state [between waking and sleep.]) The resolution should be a short statement without negation that is repeated exactly the same way several times.
  • Meditative practices that recall dream settings. One practice that I stumbled onto is done in a meditative state. When my conscious mind quieted and I was experiencing subconscious imagery, I found that I could remember many more of the settings in which dreams take place. I have a lot of recurring settings for dreams. [Typical of dreams, these places don’t always look exactly the same, but they feel like they are meant to be the same place.]

Long story short, one is doing two basic things in the practice of dream yoga. First, you’re trying to remember your dreams better. As I suggested, you could be becoming lucid in dreams every night, but if you don’t remember them you’re not gaining any conscious insights from them. Second, you’re trying to recognize the dream state by way of the bizarre incongruities that take place in dreams.

I should point out that mine is a bare bones practice, there are other activities one can do as well. Really hardcore practitioners set alarms in an attempt to wake themselves up in the midst of a dream. This allows them to remember dreams better and to help them become aware they are in a dream when they return to the dream after going back to sleep. This isn’t so far fetched as it might sound. We tend to dream in cycles of around 90 minutes and proceed through the same sequence of mind states from waking consciousness through hypnogogic state through various stages of sleep into a hypnopompic state and the back to waking consciousness. So, there is a degree of predictability on which to base one’s alarm estimate. I’m not so keen on disrupting my sleep. [Part of the reason that I discontinued practice is that I found I really only remembered lucid dreams when my sleep was troubled. (Usually it is not so much “troubled” as I when I’m sleeping lightly because I’ve slept longer than usual — e.g. occasionally oversleeping on the weekend.)  If I sleep like a baby, I typically don’t remember lucid dreams — that doesn’t mean I’m not having them, but I wouldn’t know if I did.]

Even though a dream yoga practice has often seemed to have little influence on my having [or, perhaps more accurately, remembering] lucid dreams, this month I’ve had five that I remembered — a couple of which I only remembered the in-dream reality check (counting fingers.) [A warning to would-be lucid dreamers, its possible to wake yourself up with the excitement of becoming aware that you are in a dream.] I’ve been consistently journaling and have picked up doing more reality checks. [Bangalore is a great place for this because it’s in constant flux, so I’m forever having “was that there yesterday” moments and “has that looked like that for the past five years” moments as I move about the town.]

It’s been fun coming back to this practice. I’m one of those who doesn’t really need another reason for trying to dream lucidly other than the fact that I’m so in awe of being in a dream and knowing that anything my mind can conjure might come next. Still, the lucid dreams I’ve had this month have offered some interesting features to contemplate the meaning of, including: faceless people, being on some kind of backward moving speed-walk while I tried to go investigate a scene in front of me, and something akin to being in a video game.

I’m leaning toward doing a short stint of sleep deprivation for next month, if I can find two days or so to safely give it a try (i.e. no need to drive or do anything else requiring fresh faculties.) I’ve gone about 54 hours without sleep before (not for its own sake, but because of the situation at hand,) and know it can have some interesting effects.

BOOK REVIEW: The Tibetan Yogas of Dream and Sleep by Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche

The Tibetan Yogas Of Dream And SleepThe Tibetan Yogas Of Dream And Sleep by Tenzin Wangyal
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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I stumbled upon this book in a used bookstore, and didn’t know what to expect–but was intrigued. It’s a book on the Tibetan Bön approach to dream yoga and sleep yoga, written by a Bön lama (monk.) Dream yoga is a term used in Buddhism and other Eastern traditions to refer to what is called lucid dreaming in Western scientific circles. My review will focus on the more than 3/4ths of the book that deals in dream yoga (lucid dreaming.) The 40-ish pages that deal with sleep yoga are outside my wheelhouse. The author suggests that that part is for initiates who are familiar with certain background concepts. I’m not an initiate, and—in fact—I have no idea whether there is any merit to sleep yoga practice. Lucid dreaming is a well-studied and documented phenomena, but, as far as I know, what the author calls sleep yoga remains unstudied. All I can say is that the part on dream yoga is readily comprehensible, despite much of it being couched in spiritual terms, but a lot of the section on sleep yoga is arcane and ethereal.

As it happens, I was pleasantly surprised with the portion of the book about dream yoga. Having read a number of books dealing with the subject recently, I wasn’t sure whether I would learn anything that was both new and useful. But I was exposed to ideas that were new, useful, and mind-blowing. There were a few ideas for helping one to achieve lucid dreaming—mostly through practices carried out during the day—that I’d not seen in other works, at least not put in such clear terms. Also, while there is a lot of reference to the Bön and Buddhist spiritual traditions, this didn’t result in the explanations being needlessly complicated or arcane. There is a lot of information that one doesn’t need if one is a secular practitioner, but many readers will find it interesting, even if it’s not necessary to advance their practice.

The book is organized into six parts: 1.) The Nature of Dream, 2.) Kinds and Uses of Dreams, 3.) The Practice of Dream Yoga, 4.) Sleep, 5.) The Practice of Sleep Yoga, and 6.) Elaborations. The last part has information pertinent to both dream yoga and sleep yoga.

There are some graphics in the book including photos, line drawings, and tables. Most of these aren’t essential, but some make it easier to imagine what the author is describing (e.g. when he discusses sleeping positions.) The book has a glossary and bibliography. The former is useful, and the latter doesn’t hurt (but it’s only one page and offers only a handful of citations.) The glossary is mostly of foreign terms, but includes English terms specific to the religious traditions discussed. It offers both Tibetan and Sanskrit variants of the word if they exist, which is a nice feature. There is also an appendix which summarizes the crucial practices elaborated upon in the book.

I’d recommend this book for those interested in developing a lucid dreaming practice. I will say that it may not be the best first book to read on the subject, unless you are a practitioner of Bön or intend to be. (For that, I would recommend Charlie Morley’s “Lucid Dreaming: A Beginner’s Guide…” which I recently reviewed.) However, this book makes an excellent follow-up once one has read a book that is couched in simpler terms (i.e. not specific to a certain spiritual tradition) and which reports on the science. I found that the book gave me a number of new ideas, and—in fact—offered some insightful ideas.

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BOOK REVIEW: Lucid Dreaming by Charlie Morley

Lucid Dreaming: A Beginner's Guide to Becoming Conscious in Your DreamsLucid Dreaming: A Beginner’s Guide to Becoming Conscious in Your Dreams by Charlie Morley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Lucid dreams are those in which the dreamer is aware he or she is in the dream and can interact with the dreamscape. Most people experience lucid dreaming only as a happy accident. Some people dream lucidly in their youth, but never as an adult. Some people become aware they’re dreaming under specific conditions, e.g. on a certain medication. However, lucid dreaming has been practiced in some traditions for centuries, most notably by Tibetan Buddhists (though chapters 5 & 6 demonstrate that it’s much broader than just the Tibetans.) Furthermore, having confirmed lucidity in dreams in sleep laboratories, scientists have moved to advance our understanding of the phenomena using the scientific method and by taking advantage of the latest brain imaging technologies.

Charlie Morley has written a couple books on the subject as well as giving a well-received TEDx Talk on the subject. Morley studied under a Tibetan lama as well as studying up on the science of the phenomenon.

There are eight chapters in this book. The first three chapters constitute part one, the basics. This part introduces one to the subject of lucid dreaming, considers some of the reasons why people get into it, and explains how to recognize one is in a dream. The remaining five chapters form the second part, which is about going deeper with one’s practice. The second part explores what one may see in a dream, and how one can use the experience of being lucid for self-improvement. Lucid dreaming is one of the few access points to one’s subconscious mind. The second part also charts the development of lucid dreaming in both the West and the East, as well as offering suggestions about how nutrition may help in one’s practice.

The book is written as an instructional manual, and offers “toolboxes” of techniques to help advance one’s lucid dream practice by teaching one to remember one’s dreams, understand the phases of sleep, recognize one is in a dream, achieve lucidity, and know what to do once one is lucid in a dream. These are handy summaries of the lessons taught in greater detail in the text. All of the chapters but 5 and 8 have one of these toolbox summaries. There are also frequent text boxes of strange but true facts about lucid dreaming, tips from experienced lucid dreamers, case studies, and stories used to make relevant points about lucid dreaming. There are no graphics, but they aren’t missed.

I found this book to be useful and interesting. It’s readable and logically organized. I’d recommend it for anyone interested in developing a lucid dreaming practice—particularly if one is starting from scratch. There are a number of books on the subject, but many will be too ethereal to be of value to a new practitioner, but Morley writes in an approachable fashion and organizes the book to help one get into a practice as efficiently as possible.

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BOOK REVIEW: Dreaming: A Very Short Introduction by J. Allan Hobson

Dreaming: A Very Short IntroductionDreaming: A Very Short Introduction by J. Allan Hobson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Dreaming is one of the most interesting and ill-understood activities of human existence. Many of us don’t remember most of our dreams—to the extent that a number of people don’t think they even have dreams (while not completely conclusive, the scientific evidence suggests that all of us dream every night—except people who live on RedBull and 2 hours / night until they tragically die young.) However, when we do remember a dream, it’s often a vivid and profound experience. Some people dream lucidly (are aware they are inside a dream as it occurs), and a few people have lucid dreams on a regular basis. This has led people to draw all sorts of conclusions about dreams existing in a realm beyond the physical, and what not.

While there remains a lot that we still don’t know about dreams, a great deal of science has been advanced in recent decades—enough to take dreamland out of the realm of spiritual mumbo-jumbo and even away from the weak (and largely wrong) science of Freud, and into the realm of legitimate science. This book summarizes much of that science in a concise package. The “A Very Short Introduction” (VSI) series from Oxford University Press offers this type of guide for many subjects. They’re usually about 100 pages long, and give a quick and gritty rundown of the subject at hand.

This book is organized into eleven chapters covering: What is dreaming? Why the Freudian approach (and earlier dream interpretation schemes) failed? How the brain is activated during sleep? What is happening at the level of neurochemistry? Why we dream? What can go wrong with dreams? (i.e. sleepwalking, night-terrors, etc.), How dreaming relates to delirium and mental illness? (i.e. it is, after all, a state of hallucination in which we take often bizarre imagery for granted.) There’s a discussion of the new psychology of dreaming which is based in neuroscience and not on an Austrian with a pipe suggesting that it all comes down to penises and vaginas. (Hobson isn’t anti-Freud, though he does want to make clear that the psychology pioneer was quite wrong on this subject.) There’s a discussion of how learning and memory can (and can’t) be advanced through sleep. Hobson discusses the interaction of consciousness and dreams, e.g. lucid dreaming. And there’s a discussion of interpretation of dreams that is rooted in more modern thought.

An interesting feature of this guide is that the author uses his own dream diary entries as case studies to make points clear. That helps make this VSI guide a little less dry than they tend to be by their nature.

I do enjoy the VSI series. I’ve read quite a few of them, and find they are a good way to study up on a subject with a minimal of effort or pain. I also enjoyed this volume specifically. It’s certainly one of the most fascinating topics on which I’ve read a VSI, and the author doesn’t disappoint in bringing interesting facts and anecdotes to the table.

I’d recommend this book if you want to get up to speed on dreaming in a little over a hundred pages.

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