Jared Loughner is the man alledgedly responsible for the Tucson shooting last Sunday, which resulted in the death of six people and the injury of fourteen others. Since the shooting, and Loughner’s arrest, several details about his life have come out in the press. His favorite books include Marx’s Communist Manifesto and Hitler’s Mein Kampf. He has an active Youtube profile detailing his political and literary influences, and, according to various sources, has reportedly been fighting mental illness for years.
Jared Loughner is also a lucid dreamer.
Already, several news sources have commented on Loughner’s passion for “conscience dreaming,” as he called it, the ability to control your dreams. Today, CNN followed up with a balanced piece, interviewing several dream researchers. Unfortunately, some local TV networks have not dug so deep, suggesting that conscious dreaming–the actual term for dreaming with self-awareness– is a gateway to mental illness.
Let’s be clear: becoming self-aware in your dreams is not a cause of mental illness. Knowing when you are dreaming is not a slippery slope into self-delusion, nor a dangerous fantasy realm that leads to the inability to distinguish reality from dreams. Actually, lucid dreaming is a normal part of life for millions of healthy people.
However, I can’t blame those not familiar with lucid dreaming for making these associations. Remember that our Western model of mental illness has to do with confusing a shared reality with internal hallucinations, and behaving as if the two worlds are one.
Well, in popular lucid dreaming culture, you’re instructed to do “reality checks” during the day in order to “question whether or not you’re aware.” The purpose of this activity is to illicit a cognitive pattern that repeats in your dream, so that you ask the same question and then realize, “hey, this is a dream.” Lucid dreamers are also fond of saying that a conscious dream feels as real as waking life, and cannot be distinguished from reality.
But these mental gymnastics do not suggest that lucid dreamers can’t distinguish waking life from the dream while they are awake. Rather, the shock of this “virtual reality” usually bring about joy and awe about the power of imagination. And what people do with the insights from lucid dreaming defines them.
For instance, Tibetan Buddhists practice dream yoga, which is a series of lucid dreaming meditations that allows the meditator to manipulate the content of the dream in ways that poke holes in the self-generated dream architecture. The practice shows that the dream world is an illusion. This insight is further used as metaphor in daily life, to bring about a clarity that the waking senses are similarly an illusion that prevents us from seeing clearly. This is the central philosophical heart of Buddhism, whose adherents are some of the most peaceful people on the planet.
Let’s talk about another troubled young dreamer. He was a sickly writer, holed up in cabin for the winter. He was obsessed about the nature of reality. One night he had a series of dreams which showed him, as objects appeared and disappeared, that his senses could not be trusted. The last dream was lucid, and he interpreted the dream as it occurred. When this man woke up, he felt a sense of awe about the universe, an emotional breakthrough that mirrored the logic in the treatise he had written the day before. The treatise was Discourse on Method, and the young man was Rene Descartes, the father of modern philosophy.
And here’s my point: dreams, lucid or not, tend to mirror our concerns, beliefs and problems we are grappling with. This is called the continuity theory of dreaming, and it’s largely accepted by cognitive psychology. That’s why Buddhists have meditative lucid dreams and Descartes had philosophical lucid dreams.
Perhaps when alleged shooter Loughner began having lucid dreams, the dreams reflected his waking delusions that nothing is real and therefore nothing matters. It’s not my place to diagnose, but as dreamworker Robert Moss noted, it’s more than ironic that Loughner misspelled “conscious dreaming” as “conscience dreaming.” In the final analysis, nihilism does not need evidence, only a lack of compassion.
I’m deeply saddened and disturbed by the tragedy in Tucson. I’m also saddened that the media is grabbing for someone or something to blame, be it political rough-housing, lucid dreaming or mental illness. Let’s hold up the light of our own lucidity and compassion as the public spectacle of Loughner’s trial continues in the month to come.