Lucid dreamwork, as I practice it today, is not only about exploring dream images and symbols but also the choices we make in our dreams. Our choices are often hidden in waking life, but in lucid dreams the decision point behind what happens to us (and what we allow not to happen) is easier to spot, as well as the consequences to our thoughts, beliefs, and actions.
There’s no final, better, or ultimate goal here. Right action can only be felt in the particulars of the dream, and only the dreamer has the authority to know what that feels like.
But this much is true: lucidity emerges in maturity not as total dream control but as a conscious dance with the dream as it arrives.
This lucid dance shifts between active and receptive postures, which we embody by asking questions and making space for an answer. The lucid dance is also about shifting from abstract ways of knowing to more emotional involvement in the dream, and vice versa.
Ultimately, this dance, this flow, allows for a ever-deepening conversation between the dream ego and the self-rising currents of the moment.
When we falter in the dance, it seems that the dream can get the best of us. Fears bloom in a moment’s hesitation. But I’ve found that most bad dreams, and especially bad lucid dreams, have more to do with how we are responding to what presents itself rather than the actual dream content.
Still, some lucid dreams can be seen as private initiations, and they can be challenging to work with. These expressions may be truly archetypal, coming out of the body’s metaphoric drive to express its instincts, and also connecting us to a larger community of people who have dealt with these challenges before.
But even though the process of engaging in archetypal imagery may spring from a collective well, at the same time it can be deeply personal, drawing us back to wounds we have experienced, often when we were very young.
This is where it gets good.
The Sacred Pond
The poet Robert Bly writes that psychological maturity can be seen as a process of dipping our core wound into a sacred pond. He suggests:
Initiation, then, does not mean ascending above the wound, nor numbly remaining in it; but the process lies in knowing how or when, in the presence of the mentor, to dip it into the water. (Bly, R. 1990. Iron John: A Book about Men. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing, 41.)
The dream provides the healing waters, and sometimes, but not always, the mentor to go along with it. The nightmare, in this respect, can be seen as a cry for mentorship, for elders who have trod this ground before to support us on our personal journeys.
We have to know when to ask for help.
Competency in this realm is necessary for some lucid dreamers, based on individual motivations and personality. For me, this process has been about facing resistance, developing courage, and knowing when to surrender. In my early days as a lucid dreaming enthusiast, I jumped off cliffs in dreams dozens of times to stir up my psyche into producing new and creative dream scenery. “Death” in these dreams can usher in new creative potentials.
But I also had many spontaneous dreams that seemed to really hurt me. They affected my waking life choices, my self-confidence, and my trust in the unknown.
I had to learn how to ask for help—both in the dreams, and in waking life. For me, this was largely healed by my graduate school experience, where I worked alongside dream teachers for a period of years and had the time and space to work in-depth on my dreams.
My hunch is that “confrontational” lucid dreaming especially arises in people who are first attracted to lucid dreaming as a way to “control your dreams.” We may have a deep drive to face a challenge, but don’t really know what this challenge is all about.
This kind of call for initiation has been forgotten in today’s society, but the psychological need remains to be put to a test.
The Healing Kiss
In 2004, I had the following dream:
I’m running down a hallway, very lucid when moving, running. The hallway is colorful and dynamic, with ornate wall hangings and light fixtures. I see a water fountain and stop to get a drink. I have a flash of uncertainty—will the water fountain work? Something bad could happen. But it works and I take a drink—it is wet, cool and good. I feel refreshed. I keep moving and end up in a large room, like a gym, or warehouse space. Open, tall ceilings.
Two creatures attach to me suddenly—a bizarre, teethy little dog and another unspecified monster. I try to beat them off me, to no avail. I look up and see an older white man kneeling near me—he has a friendly face, sort of pudgy, with soft eyes. I’m now approaching a full blown lucid freakout and am apprehensive this man will hurt me, despite his friendly eyes. In a quick move, I kiss him on the lips, simultaneously testing him and thanking him. He accepts the kiss and I know I can trust him.
Without speaking, I look to him in question of my present situation. He asks, without words, if I like it, not having any psychic space. That’s exactly the problem, I think, these creatures are crowding my space, my thinking. I have the urge to just put them down, to overpower them, and as I think this, the teethy dog becomes more ferocious, gnawing at my arm painfully. I look to the man and his reaction seems to say, “No, that’s not the way.” So I stop fighting, and let the dog and the other thing attack me, without resistance. The two creatures disappear. Resulting consciousness is much more clear, with strong lucidity still.
I stand up and ask what am I to do with this awareness? In my hand now I have an ordinary rock, some kind of ironstone, with a reddish hue. I look out the window then, seeing a small grassy courtyard, with a shovel jutting out of the ground, standing upright. (7/2/2004)
There’s much I could say about this dream, but for the purposes of this article I want to bring attention to the following elements: the refreshing water, the attack, the kiss, and my acceptance of the mentor who did not save me but who supported me as I figured out what to do. This is the precise recipe Robert Bly discusses as “waiting by the pond,” in which, “Each time we dip our wound into that water, we get nourishment, and the strength to go further in the process.” (Bly, p. 41)
Accepting the mentor and actively giving the healing kiss was key to this process. The kiss was a vulnerable move, but it has an ancient, initiatory logic to it. Recall that my lips were in need of healing even in the beginning of the dream, when I weirdly did not trust that the water fountain will work and something bad would happen if I were to drink. Yet when I dipped my lips in the cool water of the fountain, I was refreshed.
By kissing the mentor, I felt completely safe to undergo the trial with his assistance. As someone who in waking life has a hard time asking for help, I feel this dream was a timely reminder to stay open and accepting of true mentorship as I moved deeper into my dreamwork process in graduate school.
My way out of this nightmarish predicament was willing surrender. And the dream resulted with an invitation to dig deeper into the mystery—with a shovel, no less.
Reminders for your own Lucid Dreamwork
When it comes to lucid dreamwork, I’m always careful to not use lucid dreamwork to chide myself for not acting this way or that way in the dream—that’s key. It’s not about blame, but about noticing our patterns, and knowing there will be another opportunity to make a different choice the next time we lay down to sleep.
But how do we know we have made good choices? It’s always debatable, of course, but awakening from a dream with increased vitality or energy is a good first sign. Waking up with a feeling of dread, or a sick feeling in the stomach, on the other hand, is a sign that we have worked against ourselves in some way, or that we may have bitten off more than we can chew.
Over days and weeks, a transformative dream will continue to reverberate, and affect waking life attitudes and choices. The dance goes on!
First image: A Kiss to build a dream on by Danny Bruce CC 2008
This article is adapted from my ebook Big Dreams: Psi, Lucid Dreaming and Borderland of Consciousness, which is currently off the market as it is updated and expanded.
This was very good for me to read today. Thanks Ryan.
Ryan Hurd says
Chris Weber says
I’m glad you wrote this, it was a good read for me also Ryan. Sincere and profoundly, simply true – “We have to know when to ask for help”
Ryan Hurd says
thanks Chris. it is one of the toughest lessons in my life! Still learning….
Janet Wahl says
As a person who has a tendency to believe (perhaps erroneously) that lucid dreamers focus on controlling their dreams, I was so glad to learn you found meaning in lucid actions. That really is the key, isn’t it? Otherwise lucid dreaming is only an adventure. I wonder if the Ullman process would help uncover more about the choices and actions while lucid. Has anyone tried this? Is there a way to teach “uncovering” in lucid dreams? Your next book topic?
Looking forward to your next post.
Ryan Hurd says
Hi Janet, thanks. There are quite a few lucid dreaming teachers who do not espouse “dream control” — that is mostly marketing speak to sell books, often broadcasted against the messaging of author’s own books by their publishers! I don’t know how Ullman viewed lucid dreaming, but Jeremy Taylor has a wonderful take on the topic, which you can find buried in his various books. Taylor has a Jungian bent as well.
Traci Uchida says
Wonderful, thought-provoking article Ryan, thank you. I found the whole piece full of important pointers, and especially appreciated noting how you feel upon waking, as a way to help discern the choices we’ve made.
Ryan Hurd says
thanks Traci! Warmly appreciated.