Month: July 2015

The Transformative Power of “Irrelevant” Lucid Dreams

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This is a very positive addendum to my first post on trying to address an issue in your life through lucid dreaming without having much luck. Turns out, you may be addressing your issue even if your lucid dreams are brief and revolve entirely around unrelated events and activities.

Lucid Dreaming as a Mindfulness Practice

Time and again as my knowledge of lucid dreaming has deepened, I’ve been struck by the similarity of the changes that occur in lucid dreamers and the changes that occur in meditators.  This has come up in scientific research, academic theorizing, and the accumulated knowledge of spiritual traditions.

My working hypothesis is that lucid dreaming and meditation make use of the same cognitive capacities in similar, if not nearly identical, ways. I’ve had a lot of success exploring the application of any insights I have about meditation to my lucid dreaming practice.

With this in mind, I invite you to watch this video of American meditation teacher Shinzen Young (embedding the video has been disabled). To summarize, Shinzen makes the case that deep, positive transformation can occur through meditation without the surface-level (or ego-level) of the mind having any idea of what’s taking place. In spite of the mixed metaphors, this is a powerful quote from the video:

We shine the flashlight of mindfulness on the surface of sensory experience, and a certain number of photons go down to the very bottom of the lake and give the circuits down there what they need to rewire themselves with the surface either knowing very little or, often, knowing nothing of the rewiring process.

Shinzen gives an example from his own life of feeling slight discomfort in his lungs during a 10-day meditation retreat, but not thinking much of it. Upon returning home from the retreat, he found himself with no desire to smoke weed, despite having smoked up every day for the past 10 years. I’m assuming he’s not including the days he spent on meditation retreats, but who knows. Growing up in Scarborough, I learned that sneaking weed into places is as much an artform as calligraphy and watercolour painting.

In any case, that is a remarkable account of transformation and it immediately got me thinking about lucid dreaming and dream incubation.

“Irrelevant” Dreams

Dream incubation is the art of mental rehearsing the dreams you’d like to have while you’re still awake in an attempt to dream about something specific that night. Dreams that successfully incorporate the incubated material can be either lucid or non-lucid. Dream incubation is often encouraged in lucid dreaming communities since it can be easier to become lucid if a person has something specific they would like to do in their lucid dreams. 

In my first post I explored why sometimes we have the lucid dreams we incubate, while other times we don’t. I spoke from personal experience; I am considerably better at becoming lucid in a dream than I am at having the content I tried to incubate show up in my dreams. Even if we succeed in getting lucid and find ourselves in the desired set of circumstances, the dream doesn’t always go according to plan. For the longest time, I would wake up pleased at having become lucid, but somewhat disappointed that the dreams I had were “irrelevant” to my goals or concerns, assuming that I had made no progress with them. What a relief to find out that there’s a good chance this attitude is unwarranted.

For example, let’s say I want to use lucid dreaming to work through the hurt and embarrassment of losing my job. Every night for a week, as an incubation technique I write in my dream journal “tonight I will become lucid and have a conversation with my former co-workers.” That week I have two lucid dreams, each of them irrelevant to the goal I had. During the first dream I walk through walls knowing that they aren’t real. During the second dream, I take a bath and marvel at the feeling of dream water. In both cases I wake up pleased that I got lucid and did fun things, but also a little disappointed that I didn’t remember to talk to my former co-workers and directly address the primary source of pain in my waking life.

If we take Shinzen’s paradigm of deep unconscious transformation seriously and apply it to lucid dreaming, I may have actually been making progress on coming to grips with the loss of my job through those lucid dreams even though the subject matter seems irrelevant. Upon viewing Shinzen’s video, my friend Wil had a great analogy. Perhaps the time spent lucid in a dream itself has a positive impact on psycho-spiritual development that is not dependent on the content of the dream or the activities undertaken while lucid. Wil pointed out that runners train in high altitudes to expand their blood oxygen capacity so they are more effective running at normal altitudes. Lucid dreams can be understood as high awareness environments: a high degree of awareness is needed to become lucid, and a high degree of awareness is needed to stay lucid. Certainly, specific “training excercizes” performed in the lucid dream state can expand consciousness in direct and focused ways, but we shouldn’t discount the benefits of just becoming and staying lucid for a bit.

The two “irrelevant” lucid dreams may help me get through the loss of my job because they have increased my capacity to bring awareness to any situation.

How Do You Know Any of This Is Happening?

I don’t. Shinzen came up with his paradigm of transformation through observation of “significant, permanent, positive changes in perception and behaviour” after his meditation retreats. It is a hypothesis, an informed guess at explaining noticeable shifts his life.

I would also add that just being open to the possibility can be of positive benefit to lucid dreamers struggling to address specific aspects of their lives. In my first post, I warned of possible stumbling blocks when trying to address a pressing issue through lucid dreaming: “Too much pressure when we’re in bed, and we’ll be lucky to fall asleep at all. If we do somehow manage to sleep and dream under that kind of pressure, a tidal wave of disappointment awaits in the morning if the dreams don’t go exactly as planned.” Knowing that even seemingly irrelevant lucid dreams may be providing fuel for transcending this issue in the form of greater awareness can really help take the pressure off and curb some of the potential disappointment.

The Dog and The Pool

The example I gave above about job loss was hypothetical, but I’ll share an interesting experience I actually had as well. The morning of February 3, 2015, after some non-lucid scenes, I dreamt the following:

As I walk to the traffic lights by the street I grew up on, there is a huge, almost horse-sized dog prowling the school yard across the street. It notices me and bolts across the street. I’m alert, but calm. The dog just sniffs me and walks beside me. The calmer I get, the smaller the dog becomes until it is the size of a rat. Wait, this is how fear behaves in a dream… I’m dreaming. I actually want the dog to get bigger again to fight a bear in the Westbound left-hand turn lane, but the bear just vanishes. There is no need for conflict.  

I have no fear of dogs (or bears for that matter) that I needed to get over. The dog incident is reminiscent of something that happened two or three years prior to the dream, but it was just a very minor irritation, nothing traumatic.

In the weeks following this dream I noticed a kind of daredevil energy welling up inside me. Heights, embarassment, danger… they all still scared me, but there was an attractiveness to them now as well. I recall confiding to my uncle that I’d better find a channel for this energy before I did something drastic like enlist for the marines in a fit of thrillseeking.

I eventually settled on confronting something that had been gnawing at me for almost 25 years: my childhood had to be abandoned for awhile for health reasons and could never bring myself to get back into it after that (I would have been a shitty marine). Not a huge deal, but I found my poor swimming skills deeply embarassing. In short order I signed up for adult lessons, thought I would die of embarassment the first night waiting for the little kids to finish up their lessons before mine, and it’s been great since. 

Would I have eventually done something like this anyway if I hadn’t had the dog dream? It’s hard to say. But I do feel comfortable saying that dream changed my relationship to fear in a positive way. Embarassment, like the dog, shrank to a managable size as I was able to face it and stand my ground.

How To Journal Your Dreams By Hand

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A dream journal can take a lot of shapes other than a book with lined paper. Some people record their dreams with voice recorders; some type or speak their dreams on to their phones; and some transcribe them on to websites that run analytics on recurring people, places, and things. Each person has his or her own goals, priorities, and time constraints and may find a certain method of recording dreams works best.

Personally, I‘ve been writing my dreams down by hand every morning for a year and a half. It can seem quaint, but legibility concerns force me to record my words slowly and deliberately, which helps me attend to the process a bit more mindfully. In some ways, it makes little difference how your dreams are recorded. In other ways, it most definitely does. I’ll be frank about some of the drawbacks and the features that I’m missing out on journaling my dreams by hand, and what I intend to do to address these shortcomings.

I like the slow and deliberate rhythm to recording my dreams by hand in the morning; I feel it gives me a slightly more mindful start to my day. It’s a great practice if it’s realistic for you, but I recognize what a luxury it is. Western society affords few people the opportunity to have slow and deliberate weekday mornings.

Furthermore, I would be cautious of claiming that journaling by hand has proven advantages over electronic methods. The closest thing to evidence of this that I’ve found is a study by Mueller and Oppenheimer that suggests college students who take notes by hand retain more lecture information than students who take notes on their laptops, even when the laptop users are focused and not distracted by websites or social media[1]. The connection between writing and memory consolidation is a field ripe for further study, but it’s still best not to jump to any conclusions about the superiority of journaling dreams by hand for the purposes of remembering them or getting lucid.

For one thing, making notes on a lecture is a process of internalizing outside information and trying to commit it to memory. Journaling dreams, in contrast, is a process of transcribing information and experiences that originate from the dreamer’s own imagination.

What To Include

If you are in a position where writing your dreams down by hand is realistic, I have several suggestions on how to best journal your dreams. If you are using a device or program to journal instead, try and find one that will record all of the following information, or at least allows you to do so manually. First, prepare the page you will write your dreams on at night before you go to sleep. I usually date the page (using the date it will be when I wake up in the morning) and write down my intentions to become lucid, to stay lucid, to remember my dreams, and any other specific goals I may have for that night.

One important detail I have been neglecting until recently is my lights out time. It’s not possible to record the exact moment when you fall asleep, but it is useful to have this rough estimate so you can see approximately how much sleep you get each night, and if there is an ideal amount of sleep for remembering your dreams better and having more lucid dreams.

Underneath this I write anything I may have done during the day that may have a positive or negative impact on my chances of becoming lucid. I list how many times, and for how long, I meditated; if I did any yoga; if I played any music; and if I did any creative writing. I’ll also record factors that can have a negative impact on lucidity: if I went to bed much later than usual, if I got drunk and ate a lot of food before bed, or if I had a stressful argument with someone.

I make note of the time of any awakenings I have throughout the night and immediately record the dreams I had prior to those awakenings if they can be recalled. If it’s noteworthy (if I read something lucid dream related, took any Galantamine, or meditated for a few minutes) I’ll also record how I occupied my time before going back to sleep.

I’m a fan of Ryan Hurd’s recommendation to pick a symbol to represent lucidity and to draw it in the top corner of any page that contains a lucid dream, as well as drawing it at the point in the dream where it becomes lucid. Ryan uses an eye as his symbol and it’s worked well for me too. My own innovation has been the addition of a halo to the eye in the top corner of the page if the lucid dream was particularly powerful, meaningful, or stable. Roughly 20% of the lucid dreams I’ve had to this point have gotten the halo treatment.

This is a quick visual shortcut that I favour, but Dr. Stephen LaBerge made the salient point that powerful, meaningful, and stable can all be independent qualities of a lucid dream. Someone with a strong interest in tracking these qualities of their lucid dreams maybe be better off using separate scales for each. For example, last night’s lucid dream may get a 5 out of 5 for powerful, a 1 out of 5 for meaningful, and a 5 out of 5 for stable. This could represent an incredibly vivid and lengthy lucid dream with no dips in lucidity, but a dream that really did not speak to you about your current situation in life or inspire much introspection.

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Drawbacks

On the whole, what I’ve described is a rich, mindful, and connected practice that has given me a great deal of familiarity with my dreams and undoubtedly laid the foundation for the lucid dreams I’ve had. It does, however, come with a major drawback when compared to recording dreams in an electronic format: performing large-scale statistical analyses is incredibly time-consuming. If you record your dreams in programs like Lightened Dream or websites like lucidipedia.com, your dreams can be sorted by categories like genre, mood, and degree of lucidity. The frequency that specific people, places, and things show up in your dreams over a period of time can also be calculated quickly by these programs and sites. In contrast, this is painstaking work if your dreams have all been recorded by hand.

Last year I tried to re-transcribe my dream journals into Lightened Dream. This went on for two days before I gave up. Even for someone as dream-crazed as I am, the whole project was only marginally more appealing than refiling my taxes. It’s a shame, because I think there is a tremendous value in something like being able to quickly confirm the kind and frequency of dreams you had over the past two months of the person who just admitted they have a crush on you in waking life. Checking if you had any dreams about someone getting on your nerves in waking life can also be useful. If you do find any dreams about this person, you can see if those dreams had any creative ideas embedded in them that you could experiment with when interacting with the irritating person in the future.

Again, I’m sharing this to get you thinking about the methods of dream journaling that will work for you and not because I think I’ve found the right way to do it. Don’t let the fact that you have a limited amount of time most mornings (or that you don’t enjoy writing very much) stop you from finding a way to record your dreams that fits with your life. I promise that commitment to a dream journal will enrich your life even before the lucid dreams start flowing, and finding alternative ways to record your dreams is just a google search away.

[1] Mueller, P. A., & Oppenheimer D.M. (2014). The pen is mightier than the keyboard: advantages of longhand over laptop note taking. Psychological Science, 25, 1159-1168.