The Jumbotron Critique of Lucid Dreaming

The Jumbotron Critique of Lucid Dreaming by Kelly BulkeleyAs a dream researcher, I try to promote public interest in dreaming and its many exciting possibilities. And yet also as a dream researcher, I try to highlight potential problems and misleading claims that can do more public harm than good. This creates a dilemma with the topic of lucid dreaming, which is increasingly popular and yet has pitfalls and drawbacks that its advocates rarely mention or even seem to know exist.

The crux of the problem is this. Lucid dreaming as experienced by people in present-day Western society is not equivalent to the practices of consciousness in dreaming among non-Western cultural traditions through history. Anyone who suggests otherwise is very likely trying to add an appealing veneer of foreign exoticism to an essentially modern Western practice.

To explain what I mean by “an essentially modern Western practice,” here’s an analogy that came to mind while attending a recent NBA game: Lucid dreaming is like a basketball player who stops in the middle of the game, finds a television camera, and then spends all his time posing so he can see himself on the Jumbotron video screens hanging down in the center of the arena. It is self-centered, self-inflating behavior that disrupts the spontaneous creative flow of the game/dream and substitutes ego grandiosity for immersive play and openness to new experience.

This is not how other cultures have approached consciousness within dreaming. In Hindu and Buddhist traditions, for example, the goal of dream awareness is conceived as an extension of the spiritual discipline of meditation—a process of dissolving the ego, not pumping it up. In the shamanic traditions of Siberia, Australia, and the Americas, conscious awareness within dreaming is motivated by the desire to serve one’s community through healing, gaining knowledge, and communicating with the ancestors. Many of the “witches” persecuted by the Inquisition in medieval Europe were agrarian mystics whose plant-based methods aimed to stimulate consciousness in dreaming as a path towards deeper natural wisdom and spiritual maturity.

By contrast, people in the modern West often approach lucid dreaming with the goal of extending their individual feelings of ego gratification and control over reality. Hence the Jumbotron analogy: Look at me, look at me, I’m dreaming and I can see myself dreaming! In many other cultural traditions through history, this would be regarded as an entirely trivial insight that would be dismissed as a distraction from more important pursuits.

I can imagine friends and colleagues responding to this critique by saying they teach their students precisely what I’m suggesting as an alternative—a slower, more self-reflective approach, with less emphasis on ego control and more on opening one’s awareness to the dream world. Yet this misses the bigger point about the distinctive cultural environment of the modern West, an environment that prods, spurs, and stimulates in countless ways people’s desires for personal pleasure and fantasies of control. Whatever teachers of lucid dreaming are saying, many modern Westerners are hearing what they have been culturally prepared to hear, which is that “going lucid” in dreams is fun because it can give you a new experiential rush of control and power. To ignore the realities of this context is sociologically naïve and does no credit to the field of dream research.

If you happen to be someone who lives in the modern West and feels curious about lucid dreaming, what can you do that is true and authentic to your context? Here are three questions to ask yourself.

First, have you paid any attention to your non-lucid dreams? If not, I wonder if your interest has anything to do with actual dreams, rather than the various fantasies you’ve heard are possible in lucid dreaming. Instead of rushing into aggressive practices to induce lucidity, maybe you can use that energy first to follow your dreams over time and observe their natural, spontaneous patterns of content. Pay attention to what is happening, rather than pushing so hard to make something else happen.

Are you engaged in any serious meditation or prayer practices? If not, I wonder if you have done enough to prepare for the kinds of experiences and sensations that can arise in lucid dreams. In most non-Western traditions, people take years to train their minds for effective dreaming consciousness. Have you been doing any kind of preparatory practices like that?

Do you have a teacher, guru, or therapist who has been working with you for a long time? If not, what happens if you get in over your head? Who would tell you if you were? Again, most non-Western traditions provide specially trained guides who help newcomers navigate their personal paths into these expansive realms of dreaming. In almost all cases, the path requires shedding the individual ego and throwing oneself wholeheartedly into a larger dynamic interplay of unconscious power, intelligence, and intentionality.

In other words, you can’t move forward on the path of enlightened dreaming if you’re stuck at the beginning, staring at yourself on the Jumbotron.

 

Note: this post first appeared in Psychology Today on November 9, 2021.

Healthier Sleep: A Path to Lucid Dreaming

Healthier Sleep: A Path to Lucid Dreaming by Kelly BulkeleyMore awareness of sleep leads to more awareness in sleep.

Why is it so hard to motivate people to sleep better?  Sleep is vital to human health, yet many of us get much less of it than we truly need. Sleep deprivation causes devastating personal and social damage, including more frequent accidents, injuries, illnesses, and behavioral problems.  But people rarely make a serious, sustained effort to improve their sleep habits.  Why not?

One reason is the common assumption that sleep is just an empty void, a barren gap of nothingness between times of being awake.  Who wants to prioritize something that’s empty and blank?

But here’s the thing: that common assumption is false.  Sleep is not empty.  It includes a highly active mode of brain-mind functioning that has stimulated the creative works of artists, visionaries, and innovators throughout history. The better you sleep, the more fully your mind can enter into this natural mode of enhanced mental creativity.  Once you become more conscious of your mind’s activities in sleep, you can begin to develop its powers and focus its creative energies wherever you choose.

Psychologists call this “lucid dreaming,” a modern term for an experience that was well-known to ancient cultures.  Early teachings from Hinduism and Buddhism talked about conscious awareness in sleep as a kind of meditation that goes beyond the waking state.  Philosophers from classical Greece admired the potential in sleep for a pure form of mental clarity.  In many indigenous cultures, shamanic healers were trained to become conscious within sleep so they could seek out cures for people who were sick.

The human mind is capable of becoming conscious and active during the state of sleep—that’s the common thread in all these historical traditions.  Combining this with the findings of modern psychology, it becomes clear that lucid dreaming is a natural power of the human mind.  Everyone has this potential in their sleep.  You have this potential. It’s simply waiting for you to actualize it.

A good way to start that process is by observing and identifying the levels of awareness in your current sleep and dreams. You may be surprised to find there are already many elements of lucidity in your dreams right now; you just hadn’t noticed them before.

The practice is easy. When you go to sleep each night, repeat to yourself: “I’m going to be more aware tonight when I sleep and dream.” When you wake up each morning, write down whatever dreams you can remember. If nothing comes to you, that’s fine, don’t worry about it. If you do remember a dream, write it down and give it a score based on the following scale of awareness, which I’ve adapted from Purcell et al., 1993:

Levels of Lucidity

  1. You are not present in the dream, and the content is vague. (For example, “Something about chasing.”)
  2. You are present as an observer, and the content includes some details. (“I see someone being chased by a monster.”)
  3. You observe and think about the content, which includes more specific details. (“I see a dark-haired man being chased by a monster, and I wonder where the monster came from.”)
  4. You are a character in the dream, but with no power or agency. (“I am being chased by a monster, and I can’t get away and I start to panic.”)
  5. You are a character in the dream, with some awareness and agency. (“A monster chases me in my house, and I decide my best option is to hide in the basement.”)
  6. You gain more awareness and agency in the dream. (“While a monster looks for me upstairs, I realize my car is outside, and I grab my keys and run.”)
  7. You gain full control within the dream. (“I see a monster coming, so I lock all the doors to my house, and the monster has to leave me alone.”)
  8. You gain some control over the process of dreaming. (“A monster gets into my house, so I mentally pause the dream to give myself a chance to escape.”)
  9. You gain more awareness and control over the process of dreaming. (“A monster gets into my house, but I know that’s the start of a chasing dream, so I switch everything to a beach scene where I’m flying over the ocean.”)
  10. You consciously co-create the dream.(“I realize I am dreaming, and I decide to go back in time to my family home, where I can learn more about my hopes and fears during childhood….”)

Most dreams are in the 1 to 6 range. Many people have experienced dreams at the 7 and 8 levels, but rarely. Only a few people have experienced dreams at the 9 and 10 levels, although virtually anyone with the right training and practice has the potential to experience dreams reaching the highest levels of conscious awareness.

If you record your dreams using this scale, you will quickly discover which scenarios bring the most lucidity into your sleeping mind.  You will learn what kinds of dreams stimulate your consciousness, and what kinds of dreams block or diminish it.  Maybe you have dreams with less awareness during the week, and dreams with more awareness on the weekends. Maybe there are certain things you do during the day, or people you see, or places you go, that have a direct impact on the lucidity levels of your dreams.  Perhaps your awareness varies depending on what you eat, or when you exercise, or what you watch on tv….

This is valuable information to know about yourself, and you can use it to guide the development of a lucid dreaming practice that is focused directly on your needs and interests.

There are many different methods and techniques available for increasing the frequency of lucid dreaming, all of which have their pros and cons depending on the individual dreamer.  A method can be very effective for some people, but completely useless for others. You will have an easier time finding the approach that works best for you if you start by learning about your own natural patterns of awareness in sleep.

Once you establish a solid foundation of healthy sleep, you can train your mind to become an amazing source of creativity and innovation. I suggest you begin your journey of lucid dreaming by reviewing your sleep and making sure you are doing everything possible to settle your body, deepen your rest, and prepare your mind for new adventures in the growth of consciousness.

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Note: The “levels of lucidity scale” is adapted from: Purcell, S., Moffitt, A., & Hoffmann, R. (1993). “Waking, Dreaming, and Self-Regulation.” In A. Moffitt, M. Kramer, & R. Hoffmann (Eds.), The Functions of Dreaming (pp. 197-260). Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

This post was first published in Psychology Today on October 18, 2018.