Emotions are often put aside when we are looking for ways to increase lucidity in dreams. This is definitely a missed opportunity, because by design dreaming is built upon emotional logic.
Navigating the lucid dream successfully, whatever your intention, demands the skill of dancing with the powerful emotional traces that construct and inform the dreamscape. This is a form of metacognition that involves being aware of your emotional state in the dream and making choices in light of this powerful force.
How emotions affect lucid dreams
Thanks to activation of the amygdala gland during REM sleep, our fight and flight responses are in overdrive during the dreamstate. Negative emotions far outweigh the positive: dreaming is not exactly the CandyLand depicted in popular media.
The most common emotions include fear, anxiety, anger, and confusion.
Dreamworker Jeremy Taylor has written eloquently about how facing fears and giving up unhealthy psychological projections in waking life can stir up dream lucidity. Emotional know-how can also help with dream navigation: so you can stay lucid in the dream for longer than a few seconds when it gets weird. (And it always does).
As Robert Waggoner suggests in his excellent book, to maintain the lucid dreaming state, we must modulate our emotions. If we don’t learn this, we have a host of issues, from waking up too soon from excitement, to becoming enmeshed in the dream drama again.
Lucid nightmares, of course, are intense struggles against strong feelings that threaten to blow us out of the dream into a panicked awakening.
Remembering how to feel
Unfortunately, we are taught in our culture that emotions cannot be controlled and they are to be feared. Men especially are acculturated to always be strong and never cry. Meanwhile, women are taught that shopping, entertainment and distraction is the best way to calm down.
Essentially, we live in an emotionally undeveloped culture that rewards (and profits from) us not knowing how we are feeling. As a result, when we embark on a quest for more awareness and choice in our dreams, we can be blindsided by emotional surges that we never expected and don’t know how to handle.
With this in mind, working with your emotions takes some training.
Start with gratitude. It’s easy and… so refreshing.
Gratitude evaporates one of the greatest lucidity killers: negative expectation. Given the major role that expectation plays in lucid dreaming outcomes, gratitude as a practice protects the dreamer by grounding the lucid mind in a spirit of trust and confidence.
Gratitude in waking life spills into the dream when we need it the most: when we’re scared, facing dark truths and being challenged by terrifying dream figures.
(Don’t get me wrong: sometimes we need to face shadows. In fact, that’s another emotional skill set altogether.)
Interestingly, the effects of gratitude extend into sleep physiology. A 2009 study suggests that gratitude is correlated with good sleep quality above the effect of all the other personality traits.
It just feels good to pay respect. The world deserves a little more love. And so do you.
Rooting in forgiveness
Gratitude must be rooted in forgiveness. Especially self-forgiveness.
In Buddhism, this is known as maitri, or complete self acceptance. Pema Chödrön writes, “Only when we relate with ourselves without moralizing, without harshness, without deception, can we let go of harmful patterns.” (2002 p. 25).
Self-acceptance in the lucid dream is a powerful place to lean against; allowing flexibility and courage when the dreamworld shifts and moves with the visionary intensity of REM.
Recently, I tried a forgiveness affirmation while looking at myself in a mirror, in a lucid dream:
I watch my reflection morph and shimmer as I repeat the words. My visage changes from uncertainty to acceptance. Now I have a beard, as well, and look older than I am in my waking life. My heart opens as I forgive myself. As I say the words, the mirror becomes like a sheet of mercury. I tap it with my fingers and concentric rings dance across it. I slip inside it, dissolving into a dark and spacious space. Now I have no dream body, and I breathe fully, protected and safe in the dark void. (10/10/11)
What would happen if this affirmation was the way we started every day?
Or the standard greeting for meetings of the United Nations?
We would live in a more lucid world.
This essay is adapted from my mastermind program the Lucid Immersion Blueprint.
First Image: Forgiveness by Taston CC 2008