Lucid dreaming is best known as the experience of knowing you are dreaming while still within the confines of the dream. The spirit of lucid dreaming is best captured by philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who wrote:
“Perhaps many a one, like myself, recollect having sometimes called out and not without success amid the dangers and terrors of dream life: “It is a dream! I will dream on!””
Although lucid dreaming has been practiced for millennia, it had to come into the laboratory to be officially recognized by modern psychology, when two scientists independently verified it in the early 1980s using standard sleep lab equipment. Their careful work, on the heels of a renewal of interest in altered states of consciousness, jump-started the modern dream studies movement. While scholarly interest has cooled in the last decade, the lay public has continued to push the boundaries of possibility within lucid dreaming.
But what of its early history and uses? Lucid dreaming does not leave an impression in the soil, so we are left with historic writings as the earliest known cultural manifestations of the practice. As it turns out, some of the most ancient documents in the world contain explicit references to conscious dreaming as a spiritual practice. The history of lucid dreaming is nearly as old as the history of letters itself.
The Promise of Cognitive Archaeology
Still, I want to go deeper. Perhaps we are too hasty to say that lucid dreaming hasn’t left an impression in the soil. Cognitive archaeologists have made some startling finds in the last twenty years. In brief, cognitive archaeology suggests that the human mind is available for study because no inquiry can be made without considering symbolic and cognitive aspects of human behavior. In other words, our minds shape the world we live in, and must also shape the material record we leave behind. Archaeology can show how not only how we dump our garbage, but also how we structure our realities.
For example, the discipline of archaeo-astronomy has shown how some prehistoric sites reflect back an understanding of the movement of the heavenly bodies. Most famously, Stonehenge tracks the winter solstice with great accuracy. This map of the seasons reveals more than careful observation, however. It also reveals what these ancient people think is important, and points to underlying beliefs about the flow of time, the seasons, and the cycle of life/death/rebirth that undoubtedly determined the social movements of an agricultural people.
Similarly, cognitive archaeologists have applied this way of thinking to prehistoric rock art sites in Europe. When modern eyes look at these painted cave walls, they see geometric designs, sunbursts and spirals, lattices and grids, and half-human/half-animal figures that defy explanation. Most of the abstract designs have been ignored by art historians and other scholars, until cognitive archaeologists noticed that they occur in certain places in the caves: along thresholds into narrow recesses, and in other hard-to-get-to places within the cave. This is not “art” to be viewed, but private expressions of something truly bizarre, enacted in solitude.
Lucid Dreaming and Altered States
This is how the concept of altered states of consciousness re-entered the discussion of the oldest forms of human expression in the world. Cognitive archaeologists noted that the human brain is hardwired for visions that ethnographically are coupled with certain behaviors all over the world. The visions of abstract geometric imagery, therianthropic creatures, as well as engorged sexual organs and images of death and decay, are cross-culturally tied to what Mircea Eliade called rituals of ecstasy. Classically, these include the so-called shamanic states of consciousness: trance states, pain-induced visions, reverie from rhythmic auditory driving such as drumming or chanting, and don’t forget the great bug-a-boo of the west: hallucinogenic states from ingesting psychedelic cocktails made from plants or fungi.
Of course, what the academic West has missed but what every advanced lucid dreamer knows: that these same vision states spontaneously arise within lucid dreams, without drugs, hours of exhaustive dancing, or having to be buried in a anthill and left for dead.
As archaeologist David Lewis-Williams (2000) writes in Mind in the Cave, humans are incapable of refraining from dreaming. It’s not unreasonable to carry this assertion farther and suggest that Paleolithic humans were quite capable of promoting and incubating lucid dreams. Some of those fabulous drawings all around the world may be clues of ancient lucid dreaming practices.
When interviewed by Stanley Krippner (2004), contemporary Native American healer Rolling Thunder suggested that lucid dreaming is a more reliable source of visions than mind altering plants, provided the practitioner knows the intent and direction of the journey. This focus on intention is not comprehended by most Western dreamers, because we have been taught that dreams are directionless, and we are powerless in its chaotic meander through the “deficiencies” of dreaming cognition.
We also project back onto the past a belief that dreams are experiences of individuals, reflecting personal histories. Other cultures, especially hunter-gather cultures, think (and dream) otherwise, with a worldview that the universe is alive, responsive, and interconnected. This is important to note, because our techno-rational worldview colors everything, splintering the world into disjointed, unconnected moments of happenstance.
Although we may never know the exact means that our Paleolithic ancestors arrived at their fantastic visions, lucid dreaming practices are well within the spectrum of possibility. The tight spots where abstract geometric and archetypal imagery can be found in Paleolithic caves could just as well have been a great place for a numinous nap in addition to being a refuge for shamanic chanting at another time.
The intentions that Paleolithic people placed in their lucid dreaming incubations were no doubt very different than enacted by Westerners today. However, certain experiences of modern lucid dreamers parallel the vision states of classic ecstasy, suggesting there may be a neurobiological component to consider. These include visions of flight, spirit traveling (out-of-body-experience), traveling through a vortex, sexual arousal, meeting with otherworldly and sometimes terrifying creatures, explosive emotionality, and the visual light show of abstract geometrics, mandalas, and white light experiences.
One may say that lucid dreaming naturally triggers these ancient human cognition patterns commonly referred to as shamanic states of consciousness.
This does not mean that lucid dreamers are necessarily shamans, by any stretch. Traditionally, the altered states are utilized for healing and increasing power in the other realms, both paths that serve the human, animal and plant communities of the landscape within which they are dreaming. This is very different than the atomistic view of identity for Westerners, although sometimes the anomalies work their way through our splintered paradigm, in the form of mutual and precognitive dreams.
Lucid Nightmares and Initiation
The ancient roots of lucid dreaming also puts the lucid nightmares that Nietzsche alludes to in a new light, not as failures of dreamer but perhaps as a necessary part of the initiatory process of delving into the underworld. To cross that threshold, a lot is expected of the dreamer. Lucidity in the shamanic sense is sometimes paradoxically not about controlling the dream but being able to surrender, to delve into the darkness of human suffering with courage, and possibly face being annihilated by titanic forces.
The upshot of all this is rebirth, renewal, and an expanded understanding of human consciousness. Or as Nietzsche and Aerosmith say, “dream on!”
Lewis-Williams, David (2000). The Mind in the Cave: Consciousness and the Origins of Art
Ryan, Robert (1999). The Strong Eye of Shamanism: A Journey into the Caves of Consciousness
Krippner, Stanley (2004) The psychology of shamans and shamanism. Dreamtime, 21(1), p. 10-12, 38-40.