Despite the marketed-down assumption that lucid dreaming is all about controlling the dream, the primary appeal and lure of lucid dreaming is usually to interact with the deep mind. Otherwise, we would just close our eyes and have a fantasy daydream. Done! But that’s not what we really want.
Rather it is the role of the lucid dream to elicit something dynamic, unknown, or potentially ecstatic that motivates most dreamers: to dance with the dream, to look into the bright eyes of mystery, and to walk with big steps in a mythic world.
Granted, lucid dreaming is culturally mediated, and there are certainly some cultural examples of total dream control—consider the tactics used in Dream Yoga to manipulate the size or objects in order to gain experience in the understanding that all perception is illusion.
However, in Dream Yoga, dream control is also undertaken with the understanding that the self is as illusionary as the dream itself… something that I don’t see seriously considered by most modern dreamers.
On the whole, controlled aspects of lucid dreaming are most valuable in calling the dream forth, when setting the stage. When viewed from the perspective of the anthropology of religion, these controlled processes in lucid dreaming induction can be seen as ritualized behavior used in order to stir up the unconscious mind and its autonomous visionary effects. I don’t mean the religious definition of ritual, but rather the underlying behavioral reality: ritual as an act or series of acts regularly repeated in a set precise manner.
Induction = Incubation
The ritual behaviors of lucid dreaming can be seen every step of the process, and I would argue they are inseparable from the culture of lucid dreaming. To begin with, lucid dreaming induction is a modern take on the ancient skill of dream incubation. The term comes from the Latin incubare, which means to lie down upon, or as we say today: just sleep on it.
Anthropologist Charles Laughlin has noted that, while dream incubation is largely a lost art, many people have participated in dream rituals without knowing it when attempting to have a lucid dream.
In fact, lucid dreaming can be thought of a specific form of dream incubation in which we are not looking for a dream message, but a specific form of dream cognition. In its weakest form, dream incubation can be represented by a wish for a certain kind of dream while lying down before sleep; this is autosuggestion.
Other Ritual Drivers for Lucidity
In stronger variations, common ritual drivers can include mnemonic affirmations said throughout the day, meditation, prayer, fasting, seclusion, drumming, and the ingestion of a tonic, pill or smoked herbs. All of these techniques have been used for millennia across the world and in many cultures to ignite altered states of consciousness.
In this way, lucid dream induction is shamanistic in character. That doesn’t make every lucid dreamer a shaman—heck no—but it sets up the horizon of lucid dreaming to be an vital entry into the visionary worlds that have been explored and used for the aims of shamanism (healing, information, personal insight) for a long, long time.
Anthropologist Michael Winkelman comments:
“shamanic traditions used ritual during the waking mode to modify the dream experiences and produce integrative consciousness. Dream incubation and other ritual activities prior to or during sleep enhance cross-modal transfer of dream cognition back into waking consciousness.”
Take note that the transfer of knowledge can go both ways: it’s not just about bringing self-awareness and waking life-levels of volition into the dream, but also bringing the dreaming imagination back into the world.
This is the true potential of lucid dreaming: not the ability to change the dream, but our allowance to be changed… perhaps transformed.
Evocations and Magical Thinking
When the lucid dream is successfully incubated, remembered intentions are brought to mind in the dream using pre-remembered affirmations—this is a ritual of evocation, in which a saying, prayer, or spell manifests changes in consciousness and the “exterior” environment, therefore exhibiting magical thinking.
Other magical and ritualized actions within the dream (behaviors which are repeatable, consistent, and involving magical thinking) are used to extend the length of the lucid dream, to clarify one’s vision, or to transform specific dream content to one’s liking.
Asking remembered questions is another ritual act: timely, repeatable, and done with a specific outcome in mind, in this case, to open a specific forum within the dream—linguistic communication.
I’m reminded of ancient travelers who visited the Temple of Apollo in Delphi, descending down into the cave to ask their deeply considered questions to the Oracle.
Costly Signals: A Connection to Nightmares?
Lastly, lucid dreams, like most remembered dreams, are communicated to others, and subjected to forms of ritual dream analysis and commentary. Even if this just means receiving high praise and increased status in an online community, for example, lucid dreaming communication is reserved for specific situations and individuals.
This sort of behavior is predicted by psychiatrist Patrick McNamara’s costly signaling theory—not for lucid dreams, but for nightmares. McNamara is unique for his discussion on how nightmare recall has been ritualized during group displays for a variety of social functions since prehistoric times.
According to this analysis, every lucid dream or nightmare I’ve ever published has functioned so that I appear vulnerable and authentic with hopes of gaining status in the process. Sounds sort of harsh when I put it like that, but the point is that lucid dream narratives are difficult to fake, especially when told to others who are very familiar with powerful dreams and how they work. This authenticity and the trust it creates in community is the gift result of ritualized communication.
Why bother reframing lucid dreaming as a ritual complex?
When we do, two things happen.
First, we take the calling of lucid dreaming more seriously. Rituals require focus, repetition and a setting of the stage. We can therefore reframe the prerequisites of lucid dreaming as stage setting, not chores. Getting enough sleep, remembering more dreams, and taking time to relax and focus before bed are essentials. So is waking up naturally, recording dreams as soon as possible, and reflecting on past dreams.
As I suggest in the Lucid Immersion Blueprint, add the lucid diet, some good boundaries for your incubation and a supportive community, and lucid success is much more likely.
Secondly, we take lucid dreaming more seriously in itself, as a gateway to extraordinary experience that has a long, storied history—far older than the invention of lucid dreaming marketing in the 20th century that ceaselessly hawks a foolproof way to scratch the itch of our most base cravings. As soon as you begin invoking the rituals of lucid dreams, all that baloney is swatted away.
And then the real transformation begins.