Tag: Meditation

Interview with Benjamin Baird, Lucid Dream Researcher, Part 2

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Benjamin Baird is a postdoctoral researcher in neuroscience and cognitive science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. On November 21, 2015, while I was staying at the sleep center attempting to have a lucid dream under his care and supervision, he kindly agreed to record an interview with me about his interest and work in lucid dreaming.

Ben is looking for additional participants for the research study on lucid dreaming. If this interests you, if you have more than several lucid dreams per week, and you live close to Madison, Wisconsin or are willing to travel there, please contact Ben at bbaird@wisc.edu.

M: This is a good opportunity for me to throw out some of the “common knowledge” about lucid dreaming and meditation and what has been “scientifically proven” about them. I’m curious about the extent to which you’ve actually come across the findings that people seem to think exist.

The relationship between meditation practice and increases in lucid dreaming is a good one to start with. I’ve seen it in a few places, and have likely propagated that idea myself, that we know of a correlation between meditation and having more lucid dreams.

B: You’re asking what those studies are?

M: I’m curious if you, as a scientist working in this field, would be comfortable saying, “Yes, we have strong data suggesting this.”

B: I’d say no, we don’t right now, unfortunately. It’s kind of an obvious thing for people who are practitioners of meditation and lucid dreaming.

M: Sure. My personal experience suggests there’s a link.

B: Me too. There’s been a few studies that have shown links, but in general it’s far from proven. We need a lot more work investigating this. It’s still an open question in my mind. It seems obvious, but it would be nice to have more objective data to quantify the extent to which meditation has these influences.

Likewise, what types of meditation have these influences? It seems to be the case that there may be some traditions that really don’t have a strong dream practice, or people that meditate for a long time and don’t actually report having lucid dreams. It might be that certain types of meditation practice lend themselves more to lucid dreaming than others. This hasn’t been studied.

Likewise, what’s the amount of meditation that’s required to have an effect? All we really have from prior work is correlations; there’s never been a causal intervention. It’d be really nice to take a group of people that are naïve to meditation practice, train them in a specific set of practices, and then evaluate whether that has an influence on their awareness in sleep.

I also have the sense that major changes in awareness in sleep are something that may come from quite a bit of training in meditation, and that just an introductory course in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction isn’t going to have enough of an impact to generate a huge difference in sleep awareness. So, it may be that we see the largest effects for these kinds of things from looking at long-term practitioners, but that can sometimes be tricky to interpret causally.

M: I’ve also seen the claim made, and am probably guilty of making it myself, that we know lucid dreaming improves metacognitive awareness. It sounds to me, based on what you said before, that we can’t even really pin down that meditation improves metacognitive awareness.

B: You’ve seen the claim that lucid dreaming improves metacognitive awareness?

M: Yes.

B: Or at least that there’s a link between the two? I think you could probably read it a little bit softer.

M: Yeah, that’s probably fairer.

B: There’s a lot of tricky things in interpreting some of the current literature on lucid dreaming. One of which is being able to have a robust definition of what a “lucid dreamer” is [laughs]. Or a frequent lucid dreamer, however you want to define it. It seems clear that we need some better tools for being able to make rigorous definitions of individual differences in lucid dream frequency and, likewise, what constitutes a lucid dream in a sleep lab setting, for example.

Again, it’s sort of strange from one perspective. It’s kind of this obvious thing: of course lucid dreaming itself, by definition almost, is a kind of metacognitive skill, to be able to recognize the state of consciousness you’re in at a certain time. That is a metacognitive act, so from one perspective, almost definitionally, there has to be a relationship with metacognition somehow.

Whether that translates, and how, to other kinds of metacognition, such as reflecting accurately on your performance in tasks, which is the classic cognitive psychology definition of metacognition, is unclear. I actually did a few studies on that which I haven’t published, which failed to find a link. I was comparing people who reported having lucid dreams more frequently than once a month to people who never report having them. That’s a fairly loose definition. Once a month is not bad, but I’m not sure whether we should call them frequent lucid dreamers. These are some basic things we need to decide on going forward. It would be great if we could come to more of a consensus. At that level there doesn’t appear to be a direct correlation between those kinds of metacognitive skills and the metacognitive skill of becoming lucid.

Similarly, I think the studies you’re talking about are showing a link between activation in the frontal brain regions and so forth during metacognitive-type tasks and the extent of that activation and the extent of lucidity. I think in reading those studies we have to be very careful about how lucid dreaming is being defined as well as its frequency, and I think that needs to be done much more rigorously moving forward, especially controlling for the potentially confounding influence of individual differences in dream recall.

M: The last one is the most nebulous: the idea that a frequent lucid dreaming practice (with this idea of frequent itself being pretty nebulous) will improve one’s waking life. I think research was done on the correlations between lucid dreaming and the big 5 personality traits: neuroticism, extraversion, openness to experience, agreeableness, and conscientiousness.

B: The only correlation that seemed to survive in the years since those studies that I know of was some association between lucid dreaming and openness to experience. It would be nice to see those results replicated, but who knows.

M: Personally, I want the scientific support for all these things. I’m more than happy to publish a conversation like this that hopefully encourages some in the lucid dreaming community, and me most of all, to slow down a bit [laughs] and choose words carefully when we talk about what’s “scientifically proven” and what we do and don’t have data for.

At the same time, the progression of my life since starting to have a regular lucid dreaming practice gives me the suspicion that I am more metacognitively aware as a result of the practice. I think I am becoming more agreeable and open to new experience, and my relationship to fear has improved over the course of all these lucid dreams.

What do you think is a good approach to balancing scientific rigor with one’s own intuitive sense of things?

B: Well, one might think about it as different domains in a way. You have your own personal life in which you have to find what works for you. In fact, the clock is ticking so we can’t wait 30 years to have scientific evidence for everything or it would be too late by that point. So you have to find what works for you, and that’s fine.

Science, as a body of knowledge, really has to adhere to more rigorous standards. For those of us who are interested in finding out what’s true about the world and reality, science is a good way of doing that because we can separate out the sense of whether something is working or not from whether it actually works or not. One person can say one thing works and think it does, but it could actually be something else.

M: What does a good balance between those domains look like for a scientist?

B: In a way, we all have a little bit of faith, if you want to call it that, going into a topic. You have to decide what you’re going to spend your time on, scientifically or otherwise. For me, it started out by having the experience of lucid dreaming. Many other pioneers of the scientific study of lucid dreaming, including Stephen LaBerge, came to it through similar lines. They had lucid dreams, they were fairly convinced from their own first-person experience it was a real phenomenon and then, from there, went and spent a decade doing a PhD trying to validate that it’s real. If you didn’t have those experiences, you might not want to do that.

I think there’s definitely a critical role for that kind of thing, especially in inspiring research, choosing a path, and exploring it further. Not just at the beginning, I think it’s ongoing, this interplay between the third-person and the first-person that can really help push the potential of a field like lucid dreaming forward. You can use the first-person side to push the boundary of what’s possible and explore it for yourself, and come back to the third-person and say, “How can we test this?” Whereas, if you were just fully in one perspective or the other, you may get a little bit stuck.

M: Thanks a lot Ben.

In true enthusiast fashion, Ben and I continued talking about lucid dreaming for another 35 minutes after I turned off the recorder.

Interview with Benjamin Baird, Lucid Dream Researcher, Part 1

Ben attaches electrodes to me before bed in the University of Wisconsin sleep lab.

Benjamin Baird is a postdoctoral researcher in neuroscience and cognitive science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. On November 21, 2015, while I was staying at the sleep center attempting to have a lucid dream under his care and supervision, he kindly agreed to record an interview with me about his interest and work in lucid dreaming.

Ben is looking for additional participants for the research study on lucid dreaming. If this interests you, if you have more than several lucid dreams per week, and you live close to Madison, Wisconsin or are willing to travel there, please contact Ben at bbaird@wisc.edu.

It may be helpful for understanding the interview to see a brief definition of metacognition that Ben gave me: “In general terms, [metacognition] just means reflecting on your own cognition or thinking about your own cognition.”

Part 2 can be found here.

Mike: You shared with me that, like myself, you didn’t grow up having spontaneous lucid dreams. How did lucid dreaming initially catch your interest?

Ben: I’ve been interested in consciousness since I was a little kid. Well, probably not a little kid, but about 13 or 14 years old, and I started exploring different things and came upon lucid dreaming a few years later within that context. It struck me as a potential method of exploring consciousness and the mind.

M: So something to be explored from that angle. It wasn’t so much about the different experiences you could have in lucid dreams?

B: I don’t know if I really had a logical, coherent set of reasons at that time for going into it. Looking back now, I can cast it in certain ways. For sure it’s true that it emerged for me from a broader framework of an interest in consciousness and the nature of the self, but my initial interest wasn’t in doing a particular thing in a lucid dream. I didn’t have any specific motivation along those lines.

I’ve heard funny stories about other people going into it for very specific reasons. One woman apparently went into it because she had dreams of Michael Jackson and she wanted to essentially continue having a relationship with Michael Jackson in her dreams.

M: I’ve met that woman [laughs].

B: Really? [laughs]

M: She was cool. She was self-aware about it, and there was a lot more to her and to her lucid dreaming practice than Michael Jackson, but yeah, that was also the most interesting motivation I’d ever heard. Although, like her, I had a very specific motivation for learning to lucid dream.

B: What was yours?

M: I had just gone through a breakup that was very sudden and unexpected, at least on my end, and it was keeping me up at night. You got a little taste of my struggles with insomnia last night [trying to fall asleep in the sleep lab]. I kept waking up from bad dreams related to the breakup at odd hours of the night. My idea was if I could become lucid in one of those dreams, I could use lucidity as a platform to achieve some closure.

I’ve never had one of the grand, cathartic dreams where the issue gets completely resolved in one night that you sometimes read about but, little by little, I worked at it and worked with it. None of this is much of an issue for me anymore. I’m pretty grateful and my interest level in the topic has remained sky high well past resolving that particular issue.

I’d heard of lucid dreaming a few years prior to this and thought it sounded cool, but it sounded like too much work. It took that low point to help me get serious about it.

B: I think I mentioned before, I never really had the sense that it was going to be a lot of work. Even though I never had them naturally growing up, I guess I had a bit of an innate knack for it. I’m one of these people that read about it for the first time and had my first lucid dream that night. Just with a little bit of practice I started having them fairly frequently.

When I first stumbled on to it, it was kind of like, wow! I did not even conceive of this as being a possibility. I was fortunate enough to stumble upon The Lucidity Institute website. I was just poking around online and found a good resource with good information.

When I actually had a lucid dream, it felt like a whole new continent of the mind; it’s a whole new way of experiencing this domain of experience, and a new way, potentially, of exploring the mind.

M: That’s incredible, having one that first night.

B: I’ve actually heard that a lot. It happens to a lot of people because it’s very salient. It’s something you never considered before, so it can be on your mind. I was also sleeping a lot at that time. I slept in super late and it happened after going back to bed in the morning.

M: Do you recall how old you were at the time?

B: Pretty old. This was a number of years after I first started getting interested in consciousness. I was probably about 18.

M: It was later in life for me, I didn’t start until I was 27. It seems like it’s never too late. I recall some of the other people at the Lucidity Institute workshops got discouraged and self-conscious about the fact that they were starting at 55, or whatever the case may be. I don’t see why that has to be a problem.

B: Yeah, totally. I mean an older friend of mine has definitely learned. He struggled to have regular lucid dreams, but he’s improved a lot and he does have them.

M: In some ways, for the reasons you mentioned about sleeping a lot and sleeping in late, it seems ideally suited for retired people, depending on their schedule.

B: Sure. Likewise with meditation.

M: Was your progress pretty rapid after your initial lucid dream? What were those early months like?

B: It’s hard to reconstruct accurately looking back. I definitely had a number of them in a short amount of time after that. I can’t give you a numerical answer, but there was a lot of increasing interest in the topic. I started reading a lot about it, learning about the techniques that Stephen LaBerge and other researchers had developed. I started implementing those and training up my dream recall. My dream recall rapidly improved over a short amount of time from doing those techniques of just waking up in the morning and writing down every single thing I could remember. That is a whole cool practice in itself of course.

It did progress from there. Over the next 5 years or so, my practice really continued to improve until I reached a pinnacle. Then, as I mentioned, about 5 years after that was when I was starting grad school is when everything came crashing down. I became overwhelmed with the intellectual commitments of doing a PhD, which is hugely unfortunate. It’s a big regret of mine that I wasn’t able to balance my commitments more. It’s possible in principle, I know researchers who have done that, but many of the people I talk to really struggle with this as well. I think it’s just a large number of things that we can talk about, I don’t know how interesting that is…

M: I’d be curious. It strikes me as unfortunate that some of the people most motivated to study lucid dreaming in an objective, third-person way tend to find their opportunities to continue having the first-person experience of lucid dreaming decreased. Even split between you and Anna, who is helping you with the study, the requirements of looking after me in the sleep lab certainly don’t leave a lot of time for your own sleep. What else contributes?

B: Yeah, totally. Now that I’m doing sleep science, it’s way worse; staying up nights and having an irregular sleep schedule. Also, when I sleep now, my body is basically in survival mode, trying to meet the physiological requirements to stay alive [laughs].

M: On a physical level?

B: That’s how it feels. Just blackout, slow-wave sleep. Doing sleep work is even more difficult for maintaining a practice for all those reasons. It is a shame, and many, many people I talk to within cognitive and brain sciences feel this way too. These are people who are very interested in meditation and have very strong practices coming into the programs.

Another reason is the conceptual nature of intellectual and academic work. You’re required to think all the time. They want you to constantly think and read and engage with conceptual material and write and design new studies. The constant thinking, thinking, thinking is, in a way, anathema to some of the things that likely promote lucidity, such as mindfulness and more observational types of awareness. You are so caught up in the intellectual churning of data and information.

It’s kind of a different level of mind that does seem to butt heads with the monitoring kind of awareness that many people have suggested, and this holds true in my experience, to be related to success with lucid dreaming in the long run.

M: I would suspect, and you can confirm or refute this, that even when you get breaks, it can be hard to turn that analytical processing off.

B: Yeah, it’s like turning the Titanic around. It takes some time to turn it around. For myself, I’m able to do it in not too long of a time. It’s more natural for me to be in those [contemplative] states rather than the intellectual zone. Maybe I’m not really an intellectual at heart and more of a contemplative.

That’s one point. Another point is just the sheer time commitment. It’s just so overwhelming and these days it’s getting completely crazy with the publishing requirements of academia. It’s too much, and I think everyone is overburdened in the sciences in particular.

M: You’ll have to remind me if it was in your time here at the University of Wisconsin or during your PhD at the University of California-Santa Barbara that you were involved in studies on meditation as well.

B: Both places actually. At UC-Santa Barbara, my advisor Jonathan Schooler’s work is most focused on the opposite of mindfulness: mind-wandering. That’s the major thrust of the research in that lab. They started looking at mindfulness and meditation as potential ways to curb distracted thought and increase attention skills. They’re doing a variety of interesting projects now, including studying the effects of mindfulness in schools. So they’re actually implementing mindfulness programs in elementary, middle and high schools in the Santa Barbara area and studying how that impacts reading comprehension and simultaneously impacts their attention.

We also did a few studies looking at the impact of meditation practice on metacognition. The relationship between meta-awareness and mind wandering, as well as metacognition in the traditional sense of being aware of your own faculties and cognition and so forth is a tricky topic. We did a first pass on that question.

My thesis work, by the way, was all on metacognition and the brain connectivity underlying individual differences in metacognitive skills. For all that work we focused on memory and perception as the two domains of interest. This was mostly because that’s where pretty much all the work over the history of psychology and the history of science has been in metacognition: the field of meta-memory and confidence judgments in perceptual decision making. We focused on those as a first target area to see whether meditation has any influence on metacognitive skills in general, and we found a small, but significant, improvement in metacognition for memory, but nothing for perception. Why that is, we still really don’t know.

It’s a preliminary study. We essentially assessed the effect of a mindfulness meditation intervention that lasted 2 weeks…

M: …on school-aged children?

B: No, this was university students. Pre-post, compared to an active control condition, which was a nutrition training course. We found this modest improvement in metacognition in the memory domain. It was totally preliminary, and clearly requires follow-up. I’d like to see it replicated and extended to other realms as well. It’s an interesting question though, to what extent meditation influences our meta-awareness or metacognitive skills. Of course, this is one of the classic traits that’s hypothesized to be influenced through meditation. It makes intuitive sense why it would be, since you’re not only training your ability to maintain focus, but also your ability to recognize that your mind has drifted to something else. It’s a sort of monitoring of the intentional relation between yourself and your intended object of focus. It makes intuitive sense, and we got some interesting preliminary results, but clearly much more work is needed there.

M: What about your work here at UW?

B: When I first came to the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I came under a large grant that was a collaboration between my current advisor, Dr. Giulio Tononi, and Dr. Richard Davidson, who has really been spearheading most of the mainstream work on meditation within the cognitive and neuro- sciences. That’s a huge grant funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to look at a large number of variables. It’s really an exploratory study to further evaluate the effects of mindfulness meditation and long-term meditation.

Our side of it here at the sleep center is to see what effects meditation has on brain activity in sleep and also consciousness in sleep, along with some of these other variables while awake like attention and decreased mind-wandering.

M: That’s still in process right? Are you able to share any findings there?

B: It’s still launching. We’re just beginning the first phases of data collection. In fact, no long-term meditators have been brought in yet. Only a few groups have been through the first mindfulness training. There aren’t any results yet, it will be in the data collection phase for a long time, probably a few years. It’s a monster project.

In part, it’s based on a previous grant and project along similar lines in which they found that long-term meditators had increased gamma activity in the parietal-occipital cortex during sleep. Now, they didn’t measure dreaming or consciousness in sleep, so the obvious questions are: first of all, does this difference in gamma activity replicate; and secondly, is it related to changes in conscious experience during dreams? An obvious candidate is, of course, changes in awareness such as lucid dreaming. It’ll be interesting to see if we find something there.

Unfortunately, we’re not looking at people who are really practitioners of meditation in sleep, such as the dream yoga tradition. This is more focused on what you might call serious hobbyist meditators: people who have an ongoing practice of an hour a day for an extended period of time. It’s not clear whether we’ll find differences in lucid dreaming in this group, but all of these are ripe areas for future work. There’s been a few studies on this, but I think much more work is needed to elucidate the relationship between meditation practice and increases in lucid dreaming and awareness in sleep.

Part 2 can be found here.

Reframing Insomnia

I just got back from the Awaken in Your Dreams program yesterday. It was a five day intensive lucid dreaming and dream yoga program held at the Shambhala Mountain Center in Red Feather Lakes, Colorado with Stephen LaBerge and Andrew Holecek. It was incredible in all the ways I could have hoped: met a lot of great people, learned a lot, and had 3 lucid dreams in 5 nights (including a pretty profound one).

It’s going to take me awhile to digest and metabolize the experience. One thing stands out immediately though:  people live in great fear of insomnia, even the minuscule subset of us interested in lucid dreaming and engaged with our sleeping patterns. My severe insomnia was actually the principal motivation for me to learn to lucid dreaming two years ago in the first place.

As someone who is naturally a bit wired and prone to waking up in the middle of the night anyway, maybe I’ve been blind to the concerns people have with the lucid dreaming induction techniques that require a period of wakefulness in the middle of the night. These concerns are absolutely valid. I’ve woken myself up to take Galantamine and get into the right frame of mind only to find myself unable to get back to sleep a few times. Further compounding the issue is that insomnia is one of those insidious things that becomes more likely and more severe the more we worry about it.

I’d like to share recent breakthroughs I’ve had with insomnia, as I believe the less we see it as a Big Deal, the less it will pop up. This is not to trivialize the tremendous amount of suffering it can cause, but to point out that insomnia derives some of its power to cause this suffering from the fear and trepidation we approach it with.

A Good Night’s Rest

The first thing I’d recommend is unlearning the assumption that a good night’s rest necessarily requires a good night’s sleep. I’d highly recommend this video by meditation teacher Shinzen Young on the topic (the YouTube channel has unfortunately disabled embedding). Shinzen is talking specifically about meditators experiencing insomnia, but I think his recommendations are applicable to anyone awake when they’d prefer not to be.

Shinzen recommends we:

  • Keep the body still, make sure it gets rest.
  • Try to keep the mind relatively still and rested by engaging in a loose meditation technique (in my opinion, relaxed concentration on the breath works well).

It’s not always easy, and sustained attention on the breath (or whatever) for an extended amount of time can seem a bit intimidating at first, but it’s empowering. Just the idea that there are concrete things we can do in the absence of sleep that will keep us from being caffiene-addled zombies the next day can immediately take some of the sting out of insomnia.

And boy, did I ever have the chance to test this out my first night on retreat in Colorado…

A Bad Night’s Rest

A use has been found for everything but snoring.

-Mark Twain

When on a lucid dreaming trip, it’s probably best to avoid sleeping in 7 person dorm rooms. When sleeping in a 7 person dorm room on a lucid dreaming trip, it’s best not to have 4 of those 7 people on a completely different schedule that involves waking up and getting dressed at 6:00 AM. When sleeping in a 7 person dorm room on a lucid dreaming trip with 4 of those 7… you get the idea.

Suffice to say, one of those 7 people had the worst case of undiagnosed sleep apnea I have ever heard. It was like trying to sleep next to a locomotive full of defective buzzsaws that have had their off-switches soldered off. I figured (correctly, it turned out) that I’d be able to weasel my way into more appropriate accommodations the next day, but I had to survive that night with my sanity intact.

The torrent of counter-productive, self-pitying thoughts arrived on schedule. Here are some highlights:

  • Fuck.
  • $**** spent on this trip, and I’ll be lucky if I fall asleep, let alone dream.
  • Why would this guy, of all people, opt for shared accommodations? Does he hate his fellow man that much?
  • I’m going to be a disaster tomorrow. I will be brain dead, say the wrong thing, and everyone will hate me.
  • Fuck.

Such is the self-perpetuating nature of insomnia. The inability to fall asleep gives rise to fears about the consequences of not being able to fall asleep, and those fears makes it even harder to fall asleep. Thankfully, having taken Shinzen’s advise to heart a few months prior, I was able to see what my mind was doing and start taking my internal theatrics a lot less seriously.

Yes, it was loud in there and there were going to be interruptions outside my control. Yes, these were not the conditions under which profound lucid dreams typically flourish. That’s life sometimes. At least by staying still and keeping a loose meditative focus on my breath, I’d get some much needed rest. With this in mind and my anxieties about not being able to fall asleep largely subdued, I was able to relax and fall asleep for a bit.

Finding myself awake again and in the same situation at 4:00 AM in the morning wasn’t great, but I had a revelation. I’m not that great a meditator. Maybe if I use the snoring itself as the object of my meditation, my mind will do what it always does and lose focus on whatever I’m trying to focus on. It worked, I tricked myself into ignoring the snoring! Freedom from the noise came from diving into it completely.

Life After Insomnia

I have little doubt that I will wake up in the middle of the night again sometime soon. I don’t think there’s much any of us can do to prevent that. But now that I’ve changed the way I think about insomnia and have a few tools at my disposal to mitigate it’s impact, it just doesn’t seem like a very big deal anymore. The lucid dreaming techniques that rely on sleep interruption have become far more palatable and effective because I don’t feel like the stakes are as high if they backfire and I can’t fall back asleep.

It’s actually quite elegant. In some ways, insomnia is not unlike the dream figures in our nightmares: we have given it much of the power it has over us, and we can reclaim it.

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.

Tired in a Lucid Dream? It Happens.

It’s happened to me twice now. I know I’m dreaming and I go about my lucid dream business when a wave of lethargy hits. A few mornings ago I had just finished jumping, flying, and appreciating the feel of dream wood grain, when I encountered one of those tiny ramps that let you run up walls in Super Mario World. I wanted to use it, but I couldn’t. I couldn’t even manage to try. In fact, I felt like I needed to sit down and take it easy for a minute.

Wall run--article_image

On a physical level, this makes no sense. I was fast asleep and I knew I was fast asleep. If my physical body was taking it any easier, I’d be dead. Yet, a quick informal survey of my fellow lucid dreamers suggests tiredness in a lucid dream happens from time to time. In most cases, it’s not that hard to deal with. Wil suggests shouting “Clarity now!”, shaking, jumping in place, or even singing to get ourselves back on track. In my case, I recognized the absurdity of being tired while asleep immediately and felt fine after a few moments, though I lost lucidity shortly after and continued to dream unaware of the fact that I was still dreaming.

It’s All In My Head 

If your primary concern is controlling your dreams, or if you have a very specific goal you are trying to accomplish in your lucid dream, then getting tired in the dream state is an irritation and an obstacle to be overcome. It’s good to have techniques in mind to overcome it quickly when there is something pressing you would like to attend to while you are in a lucid dream.

In my case the other morning, I had already done what I wanted to do earlier in the dream and found the experience of tiredness fascinating. To feel lethargic in the mental realm of the lucid dream while the body is resting and recharging made rethink the experience of feeling tired in general. It reminds me a bit of our relationship to food: sometimes we crave food because our body needs the nutrients, while the craving just as often comes from habit, boredom, or an emotional drive.

Some advanced meditators believe that fatigue often has its causes in the mind, and have specific advice for dealing with drowsiness on the meditation cushion. The Venerable Bhante Henepola Gunaratana suggests the following in Mindfulness in Plain English:

When you find [yourself becoming drowsy], apply your mindfulness to the state of drowsiness itself. Drowsiness has certain definite characteristics. It does certain things to your thought process. Find out what. It has certain bodily feelings associated with it. Locate those.

This inquisitive awareness is the direct opposite of drowsiness , and will evaporate it. If it does not, then you should suspect a physical cause of your sleepiness.

While “a physical cause of your sleepiness” needs to be considered during meditation, I think it’s fair to rule out physical causes in a lucid dream.

So What? Who Cares? 

The idea of tiredness as a mental phenomenon is really nothing new or revolutionary. A friend at work pointed out that most of us have experienced slogging through a Friday in the office feeling half dead before driving home full of energy because of our exciting plans for that evening. The change that leads to re-energization in this example is one of mindset and expectation.

It’s not hard to grasp this concept intellectually, but experiencing it in a lucid dream with a bit of awareness is something else entirely. With no experience of my physical body in the lucid dream, I could be positive that the tiredness I was experiencing was a mental phenomenon and, perhaps more importantly, I knew it was no big deal. Having had that experience, I suspect I’ll never experience lethargy in the waking state in quite the same way as before. My hope is having seen through tiredness at it’s most illusory in the dream state, I will be better equipped in my waking life to judge when I am physically tired and legitimately need rest, versus when I am laying prone on the couch because I don’t want to do the dishes.

Bhante Gunaratana

Venerable Bhante Henepola Gunaratana

Your Thoughts

I’d appreciate hearing from you in the comments if you’ve had any experiences of fatigue or lethargy in a lucid dream. Did it totally derail your dream goals or were you able to overcome it? Are there specific techniques you find particularly effective for working through it?

I’d especially love to hear from anyone who noticed differences in their waking life they feel comfortable attributing working through tiredness in a lucid dream.

True Dreaming

This post was written by Wil B, a good friend and a prolific lucid dreamer:

Last night I had a dream:

I am in the middle of the desert, sitting on a rock, pulling down on a cable.  It is a surreal variation of the lat pulldown exercise machine, except that it is connected to the sky.  In the middle of a pull, lucidity surfaces.  In a flash, I am totally free.  Instead of moving on, I continue to exercise, wondering.  “Will this have any effect on my physical body?  Am I building subtle muscle in my dream body?”  Still, the urge to fly appears.  I take off into the sky, flying over an empty desert.  Then, I land softly and begin to walk alone, pondering, like a pilgrim in a barren landscape.  “What am I meant to do with this state?  What is True Dreaming?” It isn’t the first time I ask these questions, but it is the first time I take them into the dream.

Your life is going along pretty well.  Or maybe it’s in shambles.  Perhaps it’s somewhere in between.  Still, the urge for something more is there.  You can’t seem to get to that place through the usual avenues.  You begin to explore pathways to alter your consciousness:  alcohol, drugs, sex, music, dance, extreme sports, etc.  Then you discover “lucid dreaming.”  The promise is enticing.  You read about it, attend lectures, and begin to practice in earnest. You learn about reality checks, dream signs, inductions, and technology.  Then, one day, it all pays off.  You’re in a dream, and, in a flash of recognition, everything opens up.  A surge of energy moves through your being.  The colors and textures come alive. A joy and ecstasy you’ve never known is suddenly and powerfully real.  The adventure has begun.  Over time, you get better at it.  You fly, meet the dead, make love, and even visit the moon.  You form friendships and defeat enemies.  There are no limits.  And then, one day, in waking life, a new path of inquiry opens:  “Maybe lucid dreaming is not an end in itself but a technique to get somewhere further.  Maybe lucid dreaming is a road to something even greater.  If this other aim were called “True Dreaming,” then what would it be?”

The lucid dream state is one of the highest levels of consciousness that the human being is capable of. Human history has been significantly shaped by the insights gained from people who have reached it either by accident or design.  Their accounts, and the stories and advice they brought back, have altered religion, art, and science.  Interpretations of what is actually happening, and where “there” is, have varied; but, for the most part, they have hovered around supernatural explanations.  Visions, visits to other worlds, nonhuman guidance — these are only some of the ways people have expounded on the mysteries they witnessed.  Now, through the work of amazing, modern-day explorers, we have all been granted the possibility of a precise and powerful methodology to get us to the same place.  We have a solid bridge to the other side.

It is said that states of meditative absorption, bliss states in which one’s consciousness is fully realized, represent an intensification of energy and then a stilling of that energy.  In our ordinary life, most of us are uncomfortable with the sensation of expanded energy in our bodyminds.  We immediately want to repress it or expend it.  We want to throw a blanket over it or burn it off.  The myriad of distractions available to us offer a variety of channels to dissipate it.  Spiritual practitioners, on the other hand, work to build and intensify that energy and then circulate it tighter and tighter until it is still and humming.  Everything is moving and still at the same time.  This kind of active containment is the key to higher states.

What is the first thing you notice when you become lucid? Do you feel like you’re plugged into a cosmic battery of immense capacity?

Is your bliss a product of the waves of energy that are suddenly streaming through you?  Most of the time, the first impulse is to start moving within the dream state.  You’ve got to expend that energy.  The same things that motivate you in life quickly take over in the dream:  the relentless search for pleasure and power.  Immediately, you’re off and running.  Stop.  Consider for a moment.  What if all that activity is really just a way to dissipate a level of energy with which you’re not yet comfortable?  What would happen if you played with holding and grounding that vitality? What if you focused on the idea of directly stabilizing your mind instead of the dream imagery?

Once upon a time “to meditate” did not mean to sit in silence and clear the mind.  It meant to think deeply and carefully about an idea.  What if, after the flying is over, you wander the luminous dreamscapes of those inner worlds, and, with the prodigious understanding of your innermost self fully engaged, you begin to meditate on the idea: “What is the true purpose of the lucid dream state?”  There’s an auspicious door that promises to open when we learn to contain the energy of the dream instead of reflexively discharging it.  “What is True Dreaming?” We’ll find out when we learn to apply focus and clarity to carry that question over and over into the depths of the dream.

Wil B has been lucid dreaming since 1988. He’s flown, met the dead, made love, and even visited the moon. If you have a question or comment for him, I can pass it along.