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.
Great analysis. Reminds me of David Kidner’s analysis of psychology’s “colonial” character in Nature & Psyche. “Participation” is a good summary of the “third way”: neither domineering nor ignorant. Active but respectful.
thanks Gyrus. i haven’t read Kidner so i’ll make sure to look him up. it took me a long time to find a way to be active but not domineering. and of course, i still am learning… it is clear to me that the way we treat our interior landscapes is mirrored by how we ourselves our treated as creatures in nature. we are not victims in this cycle… and i believe we always have the power to enter into respectful and mutually beneficial relationships with the “others.”
Robert W says
Here’s to “the way of participation” and a naturalistic approach to looking at the so-called subconscious and awareness (wearing the cloak of consciousness).
Reason seems one way of relating to the world, but when it becomes the only way or the only accepted way, then we become further divorced from the totality of our being.
Thanks for bringing some insight.
Robert, I appreciate seeing you in a cloak…. maybe you’ll keep that in mind during next year’s Dream Ball.
Excellent points, especially as related to the popular culture of lucid dreaming. Cultural assumptions such as you point out unfortunately drive and shape many of our experiences and thoughts. Fortunately, making ourselves aware of these marketing techniques can help us break free of them.
Thanks for stopping by my blog. I’ll be sure to discuss some of the climate issues from the conference, once I collect my thoughts. I’ve also added you to my blogroll.
Thanks Jacob! yeah, the marketing goes deep. it’s default programming and its good for sales. Jayne Gackenbach didn’t title her excellent book on lucid dream and buddhism “control your dreams” – her editors did.
there’s few allies for lucid dreamers who have made it through the newbie stage, tho, and realize there’s more to lucid dreaming than anything you want.
It seems to me that since Lucid Dreaming is new to our culture the attraction of it is that we can experience anything we want. At first our most base desires need to be satisfied. The dream world is the safest place to explore repressed desires. Eventually first as individuals then as a culture we will become bored with the mental masturbation and seek more uplifting inspiring adventures. After all it is the life unlived that binds us. All we can do as individuals is mature in our practice and wait patiently for the culture to catch up.
Dannon – I really appreciate your non-judgemental observations about the Western culture of lucid dreaming. Thanks for the breath of fresh air.
And you’re absolutely right – our culture will shift with the work we do as individuals. There’s nothing wrong in my book about seeing lucid dreaming as a means to explore sexuality, willpower, or manifestation of other pleasures.
These are all good ways to test ego-boundaries, which really need to be strong in order to then go about trying to dissolve them (such as through shamanic techniques or non-duality).
That is a strange paradox about the ego!
Ultimately, whatever one does in their dreams, it’ll go a lot smoother if compassion is ever-present.
Brilliant article! Have you written anything about the lucid dreaming practices of Tibetan Buddhists, Australian Aboriginals, the 15th century Sufis, or the shamans of the Caucus mountains? Where can I learn more about this?
The only other thing I’d add with different intonation is that lucid dreaming is a fanciful trick that can get you some hot dream sex. Not sure this has a whole lot to do with colonization, unless hot dream sex is your sole M.O., in which case, all lucid dreaming privileges should be revoked by the Great Dreamer. 🙂
Ryan Hurd says
I haven’t written much about these subjects, except a dash about the ancient Buddhist practices here
Have you read Olga “Entering the circle.”? a must-read for the Siberian shamanic angle of lucid dreaming. an incredible narrative in the spirit of Don Juan.
And – yeah the sexuality/colonization piece is def. aimed at lucid dream sex practices that are not “consensual.” troll the lucid dreaming forums and you’ll see that this is all too common.
Thanks for the recommendation. I will get on that. I am boarding the train late, and with ignorance! Catching up to do.
Great article! Too bad I missed it 5 years ago. By the way, why do you say “damaging Jungians”? Until then I am in agreement.
Ryan Hurd says
Thanks Carole. I was referring to the distaste many Jungians have towards lucid dreaming, who argue that greater awareness in dreams is damaging to the dream process. I’m happy to report that not all Jung-influenced therapists feel this way — for example, check out the work psychotherapist Mary Ziemer is doing integrating the concepts of alchemy with lucid dreaming: http://dreamstudies.org/2011/04/25/lucid-surrender-alchemy-and-receptivity-in-lucid-dreams/
Good piece of writing. Sounds a bit like me, without the anger.
FWIW (probably nothing), my three biggest lucid dreaming bugbears are:
1) “You can do anything you want”;
IMO, this sort-of remark is exclusively written by those with little or no empirical experience (usually male teenagers) – basic fantasising.
2) “You’re only limited by your own expectations”;
Plenty of times, although you fully expect them to work, things often don’t: lightswitches, computers, vehicles etc. I hear the retort “but you’re subconsciously expecting things not to work”, but I just don’t buy that at all.
3) “There are different levels of lucidity”;
No there aren’t: you’re either lucid, or you’re not. There is no in-between. It’s a straight on/off switch. Anything other than “full-on” is non-lucidity, in my book.
With this definition, lucidity is very rare and takes a lot of practice to maintain for more than a few seconds.