Welcome to part III of my series Lucid Nightmares.
Many of us were introduced to lucid dreaming spontaneously ” when we found ourselves in the middle of a disturbing dream. What a wake up call!
Surprisingly, even though lucid nightmares are quite natural, we still do not know much about them. That’s because we usually wield lucidity as a tool, not an exploratory attitude. So we change the nature of the dream through conscious choice, making after-the-fact analysis difficult. But this much is for sure: lucid dreaming can be an effective strategy for banishing repetitive nightmares.
The Sacred No
Banishing nightmares is an important skill because the practice develops our strength and courage in the dream. This is what Nietzsche called the “Sacred No.” The dream ego can stand up to a menacing force and refuse to go along with the narrative. We can choose to transform the monster into something less threatening. Or we can simply walk away, or wake up from the dream. This is how I first dealt with my lucid nightmares. I was emboldened, and those particular nightmares went away.
Clinical studies in the 1990s that explored lucidity as a nightmare treatment report positive results. According to psychiatrists Ernest Hartmann and Frank Galvin, the lucid dreamers “felt their encounters to be enriching and empowering experiences both during and after their dreams.” One of the assumptions that empowered the dreamers is the idea that “this is only a dream; I am safe here; nothing can hurt me.”
In my later development of lucid dreaming, I began to question this assumption, especially after a new round of lucid nightmares came back. And this time, they would not take “no” for an answer.
Taboos against the Dark Side
This is the dark side of lucidity, and it is not discussed much in public. Yet many dreamers I talk to in private admit that sometimes trying to “conquer” their dreams only leads to more trouble. They don’t share these experiences in lucid dreaming forums because of the fear of social ostracism, that they are not “good” lucid dreamers.
Take my word for it, these experiences are a normal part of the learning curve. This class of nightmares seems not to be merely reflections of fear, but to have an autonomous energy all its own. There is intelligence in the eyes of the dream figures, and they don’t like to be told that they are a symbol of some waking-life fear, or that they are not “real.” They have their own story to tell, but we often don’t know how to listen….yet.
Dark experiences in lucid dreams can be found in some of the classic literature. For instance, Frederick van Eeden, the 19th century philosopher who coined the term “lucid dream,” writes that his lucid-control dreams are often followed inexplicably by “demon dreams.” He does not elaborate anywhere in his writings, leaving us only with that haunting phrase.
More recently, psychologist Scott Sparrow writes that at the height of his experimentation with lucid dreams, “all kinds of angry people began showing up in my dreams, and turning rather demonic to boot.” So here we have two experts, separated by a century and a half, noticing a correlation between controlling their lucid dreams and the appearance of “demons” and angry dream figures. This may be why lucid dreams have been labeled as “Satanic” from various Christian sources, and why the label has stuck despite all the evidence that lucid dreams can delve into transpersonal “Godly” experiences too.
This taboo against frightening lucid dreams and the private initiations that follow is why these dreams are under-reported in the literature. In Western psycho-spirituality, having a negative experience is considered a moral failure. In other cultures, this is not the case. For instance, in Tibetan Buddhism, deities have both peaceful and wrathful natures. And in many shamanic cultures, facing painful and terrifying ordeals in dreams is part of the journey towards the other realm, where ancestors and knowledge await.
Christianity and the Dark Night of the Soul
Actually, some Christian mystics have some pretty terrifying visions that sound a lot like lucid nightmares too, especially Teresa of Avila and Hildegaard of Bingen. And of course Dark Night of the Soul is a classic 16th century work by St John of the Cross that illustrates how delving into the unknown is an important part of psychological development and spiritual growth. So the tradition can be found in Western culture, although it is not mainstream.
This is just to say that the usual Western way of dealing with frightening imagery is not to rever it, but to push it away, back into the shadows. However, the shadows thrive in the dreamworld, and beginner lucid dreamers often unwittingly enter this cognitive landscape ill-prepared because our culture has only laid down half of the rules.
Some of you may be turned off by my focus on the spiritual elements of lucid dreaming. I certainly don’t think you need to be religious to develop your lucid dreaming skills. I was raised as a humanist. However, part of the process of dealing with lucid nightmares involves taking a look at your belief system – whether you are a Christian, a Buddhist, a follower of Odin, or an existentialist. The more you understand what you truly believe about this world – and the dreamworld – the better you will be able to navigate these fascinating and disturbing opportunities.
My next post in this series compares lucid nightmares and frightening near death experiences. This comparison allows us to see how there may just be more to fear than fear itself. And finally, I will discuss how to deal with lucid nightmares including some tactics and resources for safely delving deeper into the dreamworld.