Every couple of years, a major publication venue in the US does a fluff piece on the topic of lucid dreaming. As a dream researcher and an avid lucid dreamer myself, I am usually excited and simultaneously disappointed by these stories. Last week’s New York Times article continues the fine tradition of highlighting the topic of lucid dreaming by promoting every major stereotype about this unique state of consciousness.
I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, as the article is really promoting the movie The Good Night. Which, by the way, looks to be very entertaining, in a glam, narcissistic, I’m-in-love-with-my-own-unrealistic-projections-of-women kind of way. (Update: Here’s my review of the Good Night).
But it’s too easy to bash reporters for misrepresenting lucid dreaming — and it’s not really their fault. The entire topic is a culturally-entangled mess that is rooted in about 2000 years of Western philosophical bias. Rather than taking pot shots at another journalist’s sensationalist take on lucidity that doesn’t bother to mention any of the last 20 years of research into the topic, and instead gives ample space to smug, chuckling Freudians who have never experienced the phenomena for themselves, I want to point out the major assumptions that she brings to the table. As such, the NY Times article is a great opportunity to explore the Euro-American culture of lucid dreaming.
Three Myths about Lucid Dreaming that Hold Us Back
1) Lucidity equals controlling the dream. Yes, it is possible to direct your intentionality in lucid dreams. Manifesting settings, characters, and performing otherworldly tasks can be achieved with a little work. But controlling all aspects of the dream? Good luck, unless you believe, as lucid dream expert Robert Waggoner suggests, that the ability to move the rudder on a rowboat out in the middle of a hurricane is controlling the ocean. There’s too much going on to control a dream, but there are certainly opportunities to ride the waves consciously. Nonetheless, by focusing your intention, it is possible to manifest initial scenarios and make active decisions. After that, though, the going can get a little rough if you’re out to control the world. Just ask the Bush administration. The best bet is to control your own impulses, desires, and intentions and continue to make choices as each moment presents itself. This is true lucidity in my estimation.
2)Lucidity equals rationality. This is really the meat of an age-old Western assumption about consciousness. In this framework, being self-aware is a dualistic splitting of awareness, a parlor trick of knowing that we’re knowing that we’re knowing. Who even cares? LaBerge’s work alone amply shows that logic is not our strong suit in the dream. Does knowing your social security number equal logic? Does the ability to struggle through some multiplication tables in the dream prove that lucidity is reason? The mainstream scientific paradigm suggests so but I’m not convinced. There is another logic operating in the dream. It’s not irrational, like some some cheezy Dali-esque clock made out of margarine, but another way of thinking and being that far outstrips our ability to be rational in the dream. But if we’re too busy trying to control the world, the slippery, almost magical, way of dream-thinking is overpowered by our clumsy and fractured meta-knowing. Or, to say it another way, lucidity is rationality if that’s what we want to believe. And we do. ‘Cause it’s very important that we stay in control.
3) Lucid dreaming is a fanciful trick that can get you some hot dream sex, unless you’re showing off your bad-assed logical powers, but that’s about all there is to it. Thankfully the most popular lucid dreaming books are able to squeeze in that lucid dreaming can be a portal to creativity, overcoming nightmares, and self-knowledge. But, face it, this just isn’t very sexy. The healing potential of the lucid dream state is still largely unknown. But what is well known is the millenia-old traditions around the world that use lucid dreaming as a spiritual practice. From the Tibetan Buddhists to the Australian Aboriginals to the 15th century Sufis to the shamans of the Caucus mountains, lucid dreaming has been recognized as a pathway to deeper levels of participation in this world. In America, however, incubating dreams about Britney Spears circa 1999 is the real pathway to ecstasy. In real life we can only look, but in our dreams we can make her do our bidding. After all, it’s only a dream, right?
When I zoom out to look at the pattern of these three stereotypes of lucid dreaming, I am left with the uncomfortable conclusion that the culture of lucid dreaming is one of control, fractured thinking, and sexual domination.
Lucid dreaming, as expressed in the West and advertised by its commercial pushers, can be seen as one more reflection of the colonizing powers of the Empire that has been pillaging the world’s resources at ever greater levels for the last few thousand years. We terrorize our dream characters like the West enslaved the New World. We bust in with our superior logic like its our manifest destiny, our noble right to prima nocta, in which we rape, pillage, and then lay waste to the wilderness of our dreams.
Note that I’m not saying this is necessarily how we as individuals are always dreaming, but rather this is how lucid dreaming is marketed to us. It’s in every bookstore, in every terrible newspaper article, and on Fox news. However, this cultural lens does limit the possibilities of lucid dreaming. The attitude “Do anything you want” can actually be a very limited perspective. I’m a big believer in cognitive freedom, so I’m not trying to tell people how they should or should not dream.
There is no right way to lucid dream; rather I see the content of our lucid dreams to be reflective our waking life, our culture and beliefs, and our individual and collective souls.
Of course, the whole Conquest metaphor I present here is limited by the notion that we don’t belong in the wilderness in the first place. But there is a middle path, between the Conquistadors of Consciousness and, on the other side, the stale warnings that consciousness is irrelevant (Freudians) or damaging (Jungians). This middle path is the way of participation, of conscious stewardship of our inner landscapes. But to even glimpse these possible worlds, we have to lay down our rational arms and meet the dream with respect, courage, and the ability to not always be in control.
Most importantly, we have the opportunity to notice that perhaps this is not only a dream. This dream is our dream, and it is as real as the lives we live.