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 Unlimited Dream Company by J.G. Ballard

The Unlimited Dream CompanyThe Unlimited Dream Company by J.G. Ballard
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

The protagonist, Blake, crashes a stolen small aircraft into the Thames River beside the sleepy English town of Shepperton. In short order, Blake discovers that he cannot escape Shepperton and gradually he comes to realize that he can do anything else that he can imagine. This gradual discovery is like a dream becoming lucid. At first the world seems right even though there is plenty that is odd about it, as is the case when one is dreaming and oddities and anomalies don’t trigger a response as they do when one is conscious. Despite the fact that Ballard captures the surrealism of the dream state well, and even uses the word “dream” in the title, the reader is never sure what is going on exactly until the book’s conclusion. Is Blake dreaming everything? (including the plane theft?) Or, was he knocked unconscious in the crash? Or, is something supernatural going on that is dreamlike, but not a dream. There are a cast of townsfolk who sometimes behave oddly, but who seem like they have enough depth to be more than projections of Blake’s subconscious. The unfolding of the story involves the surreal nature of Shepperton becoming more obvious as the reader — little-by-little — gets a better idea of what is going on there.

Readers with a prudish streak should be aware that references to sex are ubiquitous. It’s not that there are a lot of graphic sex scenes, but – as in a dream state, the subconscious mind is at the fore and primal urges take center-stage. Blake imagines having sexual relations with everyone in the sleepy town. He doesn’t, but he speculates about it. There is also symbolic sexual reference – e.g. flowers growing from his seed. Frequent references are made to Blake being naked, but the townsfolk not realizing it. There’s generally not graphic description, this recurring device primarily serves as a means to show how the other people in the story aren’t lucid, because Blake’s nudity doesn’t set off their weird-o-meters as it would in waking consciousness.

I enjoyed this book, and, if you like surreal and trippy stories, you should give it a read.

View all my reviews

POEM: Dreams

dreams, my friend, are lost on you
you think them false when they are true
you think them true when they are truer
you think them from a subconscious sewer

you feed your monsters, but make them ride alone
then can’t tell the imposters when they’re full-grown
they say that nature outstrips nurture
and the seeker outwits the searcher

but who can know such things

POEM: Dream Time

Persistence of Memory by Salvador Dali




i saw a faceless clock tower

it lacked a mouth to shout the hours

and so it was that time stood still

precariously perched upon a hill

ready for some unsteadying force

to send it on a careening course


with the hapless village below

BOOK REVIEW: The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. LeGuin

The Lathe of HeavenThe Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. Le Guin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

This book’s lead character, George Orr, runs afoul of the law for borrowing the prescription cards of friends and acquaintances. But Orr isn’t a run-of-the-mill junky out to get prescription painkillers. Instead, he’s taking medications to keep from dreaming, because Orr’s dreams change reality—sometimes in subtle, and sometimes in drastic, ways. Of course, the world would be chaotic if the dreams only changed the present, but they also retroactively change the past to be consistent with the new present. Orr is the only one who remembers both the new and old timelines, but he’s not happy with these god-like powers–especially given the chaotic and unpredictable possibilities that arise from the subconscious mind. Not unexpectedly, Orr is reluctant to tell anyone this because they will think he’s mad.

Orr gets assigned to voluntary therapy with a psychologist who specializes in sleep disorders. Orr tells Dr. William Haber about his unique condition, but, once the doctor recognizes Orr is telling the truth, Haber draws the opposite conclusion from Orr. Haber thinks that Orr should be using his “power” to make the world a better place, rather than being scared of it and trying to avoid it. Haber presents the classic example of good intentions gone awry. While the doctor does use the hypnotically induced sessions to improve his own career situation, the worst outcomes result from the doctor’s attempts to help Orr (without Orr’s approval or prior knowledge) to improve the world. The law of unintended consequences is ever-present, and the dreams guided by Haber often result in “out of the frying pan and into the fire” situations.

This is an interesting premise in a highly readable book. The contrast between Orr and Haber reflects a broader societal tension between those who think they can engineer a utopian future and those who think that one’s attempts will always blow up in ways that one can’t anticipate. It should be noted that the title comes from “The Book of Chuang Tzu” and the virtue of “wu-wei” or “actionless action” in contrast to the corresponding vice of trying to manhandle the world into a desired state is central to the story.

I enjoyed this book. It’s a short novel with a clear theme that is thought-provoking. I’d recommend the book for fiction readers, and highly recommend it for readers of sci-fi and speculative fiction.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass by Lewis Carroll

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking-GlassAlice’s Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking-Glass by Lewis Carroll
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

These are two separate children’s books, but the edition I read is one of several in which they are bundled together. Besides the fact that each is only a little over 100 pages, they are conveniently bundled because they share the same lead character, Alice, and take place in similar (arguably the same) alternate realities: Wonderland and the Looking-Glass World. These are worlds in which strange events are common place and there’s little compulsion to behave logically– worlds in which imagination rules and reality only provides a subconscious shaping of events.

In the former book, Alice enters the alternate world by tumbling down the rabbit hole and in the later she does so by stepping through a mirror (i.e. a looking-glass.) Each of these books follows Alice from her entry into the alternate reality, through a series of adventures, and then back to the real world.

Not much of a review is necessary because even though—given you are reading a review—you probably haven’t read the books yet, you will be familiar with many of the characters and references from widespread appearance in pop culture. I already mentioned the tumble down the rabbit hole, as does Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) in “The Matrix.” That movie also references chasing the white rabbit, as does a famous song by Grace Slick. You’ve also probably seen or heard references to the grin of the Cheshire Cat and the frenetic behavior of the Mad Hatter. “Through the Looking-Glass” features several well-known characters from English nursery rhymes (e.g. Tweedledee & Tweedledum as well as Humpty Dumpty.)

It’s also not so important to get into plot because the stories are purposefully chaotic and exist in a world of loose logic. The strings of causality are not so strong, but it’s on purpose. It’s supposed to be a strange and surreal world, and it achieves great success in this regard. Events don’t have to make sense; they just have to be imaginable. This doesn’t mean that there is no flow or transitions between the adventures in these books. There is. It’s more easily recognized in “Through the Looking-Glass” in which a game of chess provides an underlying structure for the unfolding of events.

I’d recommend everybody read these books. While I referred to them as “children’s books,” I also agree with Neil Gaiman’s point that that is a nonsense term. So one shouldn’t think one missed the boat and there is no going back.

View all my reviews

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

Amazon page

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.

View all my reviews

POEM: Dreams & Visions

Taken in Varanasi on the Ghats

Taken in Varanasi on the Ghats

Every night I go to sleep
From the dream-world not a peep
A timeless void a dreamless night
Waking before the morning’s light

 

I lie awake my mind is crawling
Through the flotsam gently trawling
Floating visions that sink below
When I turn on the mind that knows
Bashful visions fade from sight
When exposed to wakeful light

BOOK REVIEW: Sleep: A Very Short Introduction by Lockley & Forester

Sleep: A Very Short IntroductionSleep: A Very Short Introduction by Steven W. Lockley

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page

This is one book in a large series of books put out by the Oxford University Press. All of these “Very Short Introduction” books are brief summaries of the state of research on a given topic in the arts, sciences, or humanities. Based on this book, I’d say the series is geared toward a readership of educated non-specialists. I say “educated” because the book did get into some technical areas, and while it doesn’t presume any particular knowledge of the science of sleep, it does use a scientific vocabulary with occasional academic sentences (i.e. packed with precise detail and lacking concern about readability.) That said, I’d say the readability is higher than the journal articles from which the information for the book was drawn. I suspect I’ll read more from this series. They are cheap on Kindle, provide a concise injection of the basics for a wide range of topics, and are pleasantly readable if you’re used to reading academic literature.

This particular book is about sleep. While, on average, sleep takes up one-third of a person’s life, it’s a subject that is often taken for granted. Like water, one doesn’t really think about it until one isn’t getting enough. However, as the book discusses in detail, all sorts of problems are associated with sleep deprivation, insomnia, and parasomnias (i.e. sleep events like sleepwalking, night terrors, nightmares, bedwetting, sleep-eating, and groaning.)

The book is written in nine chapters covering: the history of sleep, sleep generation and regulation, a brain on sleep, reasons we sleep, variation in sleep throughout one’s life-cycle, the nature of poor sleep, the connection between sleep and health, and the effect of our shift to a round-the-clock society.

There are a number of fascinating questions addressed by this book including:
1.)What does sleep do for us?
2.)Have people always tended to sleep eight hours per night?
3.)Why are some people morning people and others night owls?
4.)Why does one feel drowsy after lunch, but not necessarily when it’s time to hit the sack?
5.)How long can one go without sleep?
6.)Do all animals sleep?
7.)How do sleep and hibernation differ?
8.)Why do teenagers and the elderly have such odd (but different) sleep habits?
9.)Why do people sleepwalk, sleep-eat, groan in their sleep, or have night terrors?
10.)What is the effect of long-term insomnia on health?
11.) What happens to sleep if one has no rising and setting sun cues?
12.)What is jetlag and how can one fight it?

I learned some interesting facts, such as:
1.) On average, women report more insomnia, but, paradoxically, tend to sleep better than men.
2.) Pre-industrial people slept for about 10 hours a night on average, it’s believed.
3.) Many parasomnias occur mostly during REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep.
4.)The government can deprive prisoners of sleep for 7.5 days without it being considered torture (then they have to allow a full 8 hours sleep before another 7.5 day period started.)
5.) Long-term insomnia has been linked to heart-disease.
6.)Shift workers have a 50% greater incidence of breast and prostate cancer than day-workers.
7.)Visiting teams win 46% of the time if they are in their home time zone, 44% if they are traveling ‘with their body clock,’ and only 37% if they are traveling against their body clock.

I found this book interesting and informative. However, there are many books on the subjects of sleep and dreams that are more catered to a popular audience. Such books delve into intriguing cases and don’t dig as deeply into the minutiae of the science of the subject. I’d recommend this book, but not for readers who get bogged down or bored with scientific and technical discussions. If you’re looking for a book that’s loaded with pithy facts and fascinating stories, you can find a book closer to the mark by journalists who focus on science writing and who’ve got more flare for creative writing.

View all my reviews