Tag: Shinzen Young

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


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.